Brexit Street in France is literally the road to nowhere
PUBLISHED: 11:13 05 May 2017 | UPDATED: 17:09 05 May 2017
Not only is Rue du Brexit ugly, but it returns to its starting point and leads nowhere – except to Europe. A perfect metaphor for Brexitshambles.
The rendezvous was fixed for Rue du Brexit, Beaucaire.
The idea absolutely delighted me. The Provence town’s young, National Front mayor Julien Sanchez had had the courtesy of accepting my sarcastic offer to meet him at the street which he himself had named a few months earlier.
One day in March, then, I took the TGV south from Paris with a keen sense of exoticism. The incongruity of the situation outweighed the deep despondency I have been feeling about the actual story of Brexit, this symbol of a new world where, for the first time since 1945, nations have withdrawn in on themselves, and old demons have returned to political rhetoric.
It was in the week before Christmas that Beaucaire council, which has had a National Front majority since 2014, adopted the mayor’s proposal to name the street, by 23 votes to nine. The right-wing councillors wanted to pay tribute to the event which, six months earlier, had made Europe tremble, but delighted them so much: the British decision to leave the EU. Le Brexit, Marine Le Pen has made it her model. The French equivalent, Frexit, is at the heart of her program: Go! Allez! Leave! Brexit, Frexit! Not complicated, let’s break everything we have built together for 70 years; we can return to a divided Europe and the fundamental illusion that everyone for himself can be effective in a globalised planet. Fini, the common market, globalisation, immigration; fini, the horrible EU, which asphyxiates, exploits and enslaves; fini, the decisions taken together in Brussels. Alone at last! Released! Delivered! Small is beautiful! Nirvana at your fingertips!
In Beaucaire, Sanchez wished to salute the British, those venerable ‘patriots’ from across the Channel. Even though their exemplary passion for freedom, global trade and parliamentary democracy is not at all shared by the National Front; even though they come in large numbers to populate southern France to escape their rotten weather; these ancestral enemies who have not allowed us to win a since war since the fifteenth century – suddenly they are adorned with this honour, for being the first to sabotage the European Union which they themselves had asked to join in 1974 and which had made their prosperity. So Beaucaire, equidistant between Nimes and Avignon, organises an historic Franco-British reconciliation through the common detestation of the EU, in that Provence which the English much enjoy, and in which the National Front prospers.
Rue du Brexit was born of this unpredictable love at first sight on Monday, December 26. That day, the mayor, moved by his creation, announced the council’s decision and, being a modern young man, tweeted it:
“Europe: the municipal council creates the Rue du Brexit to pay tribute to the choice of the British sovereign people,” announced @jsanchez_fn.
The funniest is still to come. The council had failed to take into account a detail that cannot be beaten for symbolism: the Rue du Brexit goes nowhere! Even better than a dead end, it is a U-shaped road that runs in circles, like Thomson and Thompson who drive round in rings in their jeep when lost in the Tintin book, Land of the Black Gold.
That’s not all. In his December tweet, @jsanchez_fn included the council press release describing its famous, newly-named street. It is not located in the beautiful town centre, but in a soulless industrial estate housing a few warehouses and offices, including those of the local authority. “Rue du Brexit,” the document states, “is a 325-meter circular track located between metric point No. 400 and No. 465 of Robert Schuman Street.” This is not a joke: Rue du Brexit begins and ends in the same street, named after Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the European project, the same man who gave his name to the Brussels quarter where many EU’s institutions sit. The map indicates that it is also not far from Jean Monnet Street, named after another founding father. A real European neighbourhood, this Beaucaire industrial estate. In summary, not only is Rue du Brexit ugly, but it returns to its starting point and leads nowhere – except to Europe. A perfect metaphor for Brexitshambles.
It’s impossible to resist. On Twitter, I send an invitation to Sanchez. “Monsieur le Maire, I dream of having a coffee with you in Beaucaire, Rue du Brexit, next to Rue Robert Schuman. How about it?” The next day, @jsanchez_fr replies: “To realise the dream of a journalist of Vanity Fair, formerly of Le Monde, would be a very dear pleasure for me. I’ll have tea (green).” It’s a date. A colleague from the daily newspaper L’Opinion, @behache3, joins the conversation: “How hot and unexpected your story is!” It was going to be very romantic, in the Rue du Brexit.
Beaucaire is beautiful and its 17th century Town Hall, magnificent. As in all the civic halls won by the National Front, something is missing: the European flag has been taken away to leave room just for the French tricolour. Sanchez waits for me at the top of the stone staircase. Courteous, charming. Despite his 33 years, he has already had a long career with the Front, having worked at its headquarters in its communications and website department. He spent his childhood in the Val d’Oise, in the Paris suburbs, before his parents moved to Provence. His father was a plumber, his mother a care assistant. Both were fervent Communists and trade unionists at the CGT, the vast French union. At 16, their son joined the National Front, seduced, he says, by the way the party “dared to describe what I saw” in the Paris suburbs. His parents disliked it, though adapted to it. “On many subjects including Europe, we share the same ideas,” Sanchez admits.
En route to the Rue du Brexit, from the Town Hall, we drive through the deindustrialised town, one of the poorest in the region. It has 16,000 inhabitants, a high concentration of North African immigrants and an unemployment rate of 18 to 20%. In the 2014 municipal elections, the National Front won just under 40% of the votes in the second round and 60% in the first round of regional elections in the following year. On the agenda for Sanchez is security, increased surveillance cameras, the promotion of national identity, local art tradition.
The car stops on Rue Robert Schuman. From there starts a road which leads to a gloomy-looking deserted spot that it circumvents off to the left before returning, almost to the same place. A brand new, neatly-painted sign stands there, incongruously – “Rue du Brexit”. The mayor and I take a selfie. The Mistral blows, the sun dazzles, and we both look silly and tousled in front of this empty place and this street that serves no purpose. Sanchez explains: “The idea for the name came to me when I looked at those of the streets around here. I wanted to stay on the European theme, to thumb my nose at it and make a gesture of friendship to the British people who knew how to impose their will on the government. We had the Schuman moment. The historic event of 2016 was Brexit.” The 17.4 million Britons who voted for the Brexit against the 16.1 million who voted against, out of a total population of 65.3 million, is that really “the people”? Mathematically, yes. In reality, no. I feel a wave of depression. The Mistral sends a few blasts.
The whole world has been talking about Beaucaire’s Rue du Brexit. The Twittersphere has gone wild, in France and Great Britain, but also in the United States, Russia, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands. The europhiles laughed. “But how can one be such a stupid jerk?” tweeted one. “What has be smoked, the mayor who named a street after Brexit?” asked another. The europhobes did not hide their joy. “Bravo”, “Good news”, “Well played”. The British felt flattered. “Thanks for Brexit Street, from your British friends”, said one message, accompanied by big red hearts. The Russian site RT, which is linked to the Kremlin - itself very favourable to Brexit - covered the story widely.
Marine Le Pen likes that Rue du Brexit very much. “A very good idea!” she told me before the first round of the presidential elections, at the Paris office of her campaign headquarters - based on the same street as the Elysee Palace - which she presumptuously named ‘l’escale’, “the stopover”. Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump’s triumph in the United States, she sees as her own victories, a sign that “the whole world is turning its back on free trade and wild globalisation”. Exit from the EU and the eurozone are the basis of her program. “Without the restoration of our independence in all areas,” she says, “I cannot implement it.” If she does not get them through negotiation, she will go for a referendum on Frexit. What if she loses the referendum? “I will resign,” she promises. Before adding: “But I do not think for a second that this will be the case.” In recent days, she has made a U-turn on that, leaving it difficult to follow the logic of her programme.
“Look how well Britain is doing since Brexit!” Le Pen says, with a triumphant smile, spreading her arms and swinging back in her chair. Except that the Brexit has not yet taken place. The British economy remains perched on a cliff: negotiations are not yet underway and the real exit from Europe will take years. The Frexit promised by the National Front is based on the model of a fantasised Brexit, whose victory was achieved through a series of false promises and lies.
To review the disaster so far: Britain’s exit from the single market was neither promised not planned, and Brexit has turned out to be a deception for voters, with polls indicating they are changing their minds. Great Britain is about to leave the world’s largest single market, of which it will find no equivalent. It will lose influence in the world. Wales, which – with England – voted for Brexit, is discovering a little late just how much of a beneficiary it was of EU structural funds. Scotland and Northern Ireland could leave the UK. Three million Europeans who live in Britain and one and a half million Britons who live in Europe face uncertain futures.
The financial burden is heavy, not just the 60 billion euro bill that Britain is facing. The pound was devalued by 20% against the dollar, increasing the price of imported products and decreasing purchasing power. Companies are suspending their investments. The City, facing the end of “passporting” rights, considers itself in danger. The prospects for the next decade are bad. What comes next is the redefining of not only the commercial, but also cultural, scientific, diplomatic and military relations of two totally intertwined entities. “A nightmare,” confess the negotiators.
For now, Brexit is about staying warm for as long as possible in the European Union, with its single market and its advantages. Brussels, then, is a dictatorship so unbearable that Great Britain is not at all eager to leave. During the first round of negotiations, which will take two years (then probably five to ten years or more), the British will continue to pay their share of the European budget - much as some say they will not. It will be necessary to negotiate, sector by sector, conditions of access to the European market. It will doubtless be noted that it was simpler and more advantageous to belong to it than to laboriously renegotiate thousands of deals. What if this exit from Europe was only a fantasy? An electoral stunt, which will prove to be politically unfeasible? “Do you want my opinion? Brexit will never take place. The British will change their minds and policies will follow,” says Jonathan Powell, who served as Tony Blair’s chief of staff.
The recent hallucinatory meeting over dinner at Downing Street, between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, suggests he might be right. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported, May appeared glum as she discovered that she wouldn’t be able to obtain from the EU any of the deal that she hoped for, and that she had promised to her Brexiters. “The European Union is not a golf club,” Juncker explained to her, visibly stunned by her naivety.
As for Beaucaire’s mayor, he should perhaps be planning a Rue Beckett, for the author of Waiting for Godot. I suggest the idea to Marine Le Pen: “If you came to power, you would not even have time to get France out of the European Union!” “We shall see, Madame!” She retorted, smiling.
Marion Van Renterghem is reporter-at-large for Vanity Fair France and this article is adapted from a piece in the current issue of the French edition of the magazine
© Marion Van Renterghem / Vanity Fair France