Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal issues

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Tea Party in the USA and its parallel in French politics

In the Boston Tea Party (Dec. 1773) local patriots dressed as Mohawk Indians and dumped the containers of tea into the harbor. The British parliament had passed the Tea Act to establish officials in major American cities to collect the new tax on tea (Americans had been buying tea from Dutch merchants outside of customs). The English East India Company had gained control of Bengal, and in taxing it caused a famine which destroyed the income of the company and depressed the stock value in which many members of parliament had invested.

The response from London was abolition of the charter of Massachusetts and the military occupation of Boston. The First Continental Congress in September 1774 led to the formation of the American military force outside of Boston, headed by George Washington, and the battles of Lexington and Concord in April, 1775. The current Tea Party movement is based on that formative history of the American Revolution. There have been a variety of responses to the Tea Parties. The people participating seem not to have previously participated in politics. They seem to not have identified with a political party despite how they may have voted. Their political awakening is associated with the Democratic control of the White House and the houses of Congress. In the 1990s William Clinton’s presidency was balanced for six years by Republican control of the Congress. Recall that Clinton was a minority president due to the third party campaign of businessman Ross Perot who received almost 20 percent of the presidential vote in 1992 and less in 1996. Perot made possible Clinton’s election. The voters for Ross Perot provide some insight into the Tea Party persons. They were drawn by Perot’s call for tax and budget limitations in the face of fiscal expansion under President George H. W. Bush. Some had been Reagan Democrats or Reagan Republicans; some had been non-voters previously. They were not Clinton supporters, but voting for Perot and defeating President Bush elected Clinton. Tea Party persons tend to be non-political, rather not interested in politics. But they are interested in stability and long term continuity of the society they have built and enjoy. They are roused by the more blatant threat to the stability of society which the current Democratic leadership presents. The disenchantment of the Blue-Dog (conservative, often rural) Democrats in the House of Representatives demonstrates the extremism of the current Democratic leadership. The Tea Party persons are not utopian; they recognize the imperfection of mankind and, in the tradition of St. Augustine, that politicians are the most imperfect of all mankind. They accept reality, rather than reaching for utopia, whether advanced by the Wilsonians of the Democratic leadership or the Neo-conservatives. What will the Tea Parties amount too? They are not enamored by the recent Republican administration. They may, as in 1992 and 1996, vote for a third party which will benefit the Democrats. It is not clear that the Tea Parties have a strategic mentality. It is equally unclear that the Republicans have any sense of how despised they had become, and the need for new faces committed to original Republican principles rather than the betrayals of the past decade.

Several commentators have made reference to the parallels with the French movement of Pierre Poujade of the mid-1950s. Pierre Poujade owned a stationery shop in Saint-Cere, near Toulouse and organized a nation-wide taxpayers’ movement, especially small shopkeepers, artisans and farmers. The Union for the Defense of Shopkeepers and Artisans had received coverage in the Washington Post while I was a student at Georgetown College. Poujade organized a huge rally of “France Profound” against the France of bureaucrats, regulations and tax collectors in January, 1955.

After graduation and before studying at Columbia University Law School, I traveled in Europe in June, 1955 and while in Paris visited the headquarters of the National Center of Independents and Peasants. One of the staff took me on a tour of the National Assembly and provided me with the address of the pension at which Poujade stayed in Paris. I visited it to get information about the movement. In early 1956 Poujade’s party received about fifty-five seats in the National Assembly. Official France had moved to the left and the socialists led the new ministry. Francois Mitterand became justice minister, and re-interpreted the election laws to expel a number of deputies elected by the shopkeepers and artisans. This opened the way for the return to power of Charles De Gaulle and the Fifth Republic. Mitterand had been the grave-digger of the Fourth Republic, as noted by Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour.

Poujade’s movement emerged in the midst of the political strength of the Left. The French Right had not stopped the Socialist-Communist Popular Front of the 1930s. The Right politicians were moderate provincials rather startled by ideas streaming from Paris. They did not produce intellectuals, like the Extremists: “Charles Maurras, Maurice Barres, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, or Robert Brasillach” (William D.Irvine, French Conservatism in Crisis: The Republican Federation of France in the 1930s (Baton Rouge, LA, Louisiana State University Press, 1979) After World War I, the Bloc National was led by former President of the Republic Raymond Poincare and the “Cartel des gauches” was led by sometime premier Edouard Herriot. In 1945, Joseph Laniel (1889-1975) founded the Parti Republicain de la Liberté which emerged as the Center National of Independents and Peasants. Laniel was a solid businessman whose family firm in Normandy bleached fabrics by sunlight. Laniel was premier (June, 1953-June, 1954) with ministers who had served as premiers: Henri Queuille and Paul Reynaud as vice-premiers, Georges Bidault, foreign affairs, Rene Pleven, defense, Edgar Faure, finance. The cabinet fell due to the loss of Dien Bien Phu in French Indo-China. The hero of the Independents was Antoine Pinay (1889-1994), a tannery manufacturer from near Lyons, who brought monetary and fiscal stability when he was premier (March, 1952-January, 1953). Pinay was finance minister in 1958, and his policies quieted the Poujade movement.

Standard works on this period include: René Rémond, La Droite en France de 1815 à nos jours (2 vols., Paris, Aubier, 1968) and Eugen Weber, Action Francaise: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth Century France (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1962).

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