For those of us who love all things French, one of the most beguiling aspects about French-ness is what the French themselves call “French exceptionalism”. This is the notion that France is an exception.
The French eat lots but are skinny, they smoke heavily but have the same level of cancer as others, they drink but don’t get hammered and when they play sport, they are flamboyant and daring. France’s literature, arts, cinema and philosophy is unique. The French work only 35 hours a week yet produce more per head than the work-obsessed British. French trade unions strike at a moment’s notice and, of course, its presidents should have at least two lovers to be taken seriously.
Yes, the French are different.
France also likes to see itself as the centre of revolutionary enlightenment. According to most accepted versions of history, the French revolution set off an entire domino effect of cascading monarchies in Europe, replacing aristocratic rule with democratic rule.
In terms of republicanism, the links between the two late 18th-century revolutions, the American in 1776 and the French in 1789, are self-evident and unambiguous. Indeed, any student of the Irish 1798 Rebellion can tell us that the intellectual roots of the United Irishmen were very much nourished by the American and French revolutionaries such as Maximilien Robespierre, with enlightenment, democracy, liberty and vicious terror being the common gelling agents.
The notion that ideas and methods jump between countries is not new.
But this revolutionary cross-pollination between the USA and France is taking on a different form in 2017. We know that the National Front’s ideologues have had meetings with similar thinkers in America and we know that each insurgency against the status quo emboldens the next one.
In terms of ideas, America’s new Robespierre, Steve Bannon, is an admirer of the reactionary French philosopher Charles Maurras.
Maurras, like Mr Bannon, was a Catholic nationalist and Maurras was an unambiguous anti-Semite.
To Maurras, the French Revolution’s ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” were a liberal cosmopolitan corruption of France’s authentic identity — which was white, Catholic and French. He made the distinction between the “legal country”, led by bureaucrats and officials, and the “real country” of ordinary people. This distinction is the way Mr Bannon frames his arguments when he talks about the clash between the people and the elites.
Marine Le Pen obviously approves of this thinking.
The National Front, Mr Trump’s people and the Brexiteers all share some core similarities — local over global, nationalist over internationalist, native over foreign and Christian over Muslim. But the different movements do diverge.
One thing makes France’s right-wing different to the movements elsewhere and it is crucial: French youth are right-wing. Everywhere else the nativist movements are older people. In the UK, the average Brexiteer was 50-plus, a golf club revolutionary railing against foreigners. In the US, too, Mr Trump’s core support in the Rust Belt was an overweight, grey head who roared “build the wall”. As such, demography is not on the side of these movements. But yet again France is different.
The National Front is by far the most popular in France with those in the 18-24 age bracket. The latest polls show it just shy of 40pc among the youth. This is twice the support for Emmanuel Macron and four times more than for the establishment centre-right rival François Fillon.
This is extremely interesting and is quite similar to the Scottish Independence movement, where the youth are much more pro-independence, while older voters in Scotland are unionists. In England it is the opposite: the young want to stay in the EU and the old want to leave. In France, the youth are overwhelmingly nationalist, nativist, anti-EU and anti-foreign. If Ms Le Pen (pictured inset) can get the youth vote out, she will dramatically increase her chances of winning.
There is good reason why the French youth want dramatic change. The system is not working for them. French youth unemployment is 26pc. This is ridiculous. Eight out of 10 of the few jobs that have been created in France in the past two years have been flimsy-contract, low-paying, zero-security jobs.
There is a generation war going on in France where the middle-aged, who are by and large well off, are in protected jobs, mainly in the public service. They want to preserve the status quo. This status quo is pro-EU, pro-euro, pro-big government. It’s an “I’m alright, Jack” vote reflecting the demographic reality of a generationally divided republic.
For the National Front, this youth support is a game changer. Think about it: five years ago the Front was only at 18pc in the polls and now it’s 40pc. The implication of this is that the National Front is the coming party, even if it falls short this time out.
For Ireland, this is crucial because the National Front’s key economic policy is withdrawal from the euro. Ms Le Pen — rightly — identifies the euro being a significant anvil around the neck of the French economy. Since joining the euro, the French economy has faltered while across the border Germany has prospered. The French budget deficit and debt ratios have worsened, while unemployment has risen for the youth.
And as Ms Le Pen has toned down the explicitly racist tones of the old National Front, this has made the Front much more acceptable to the young French voters.
If French young people do sweep Ms Le Pen into power and she takes France out of the euro, a financial whirlwind will be visited on us. If the French leave, everyone will ask who is next. And this will prompt capital flight from eurozone countries to Germany, which would obviously be a safe haven in this storm.
So while we worry about who will be the next leader of Fine Gael, maybe the real action is playing out on the streets of Marseilles, Lyon and Rouen. An upset in France would have a bigger impact here than Brexit, Trump or indeed our own election. Now that truly is a bizarre situation.