A deep frost in the winter of 1821–22 killed the orange trees in Nice. The Anglican minister to the English colony, the Reverend Lewis Way, appealed to his congregation for relief funds to provide work for redundant orange-pickers. The money raised was spent on the construction of six miles of coast road, the redundant orange-pickers were employed as navvies, and the completed road became known as the Promenade des Anglais. On 14 July 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian bisexual gym bunny, drove a 19-tonne truck into a crowd assembled on the Promenade des Anglais to watch the Bastille Day fireworks, killing 86 and injuring 450. On 13 February 2017, Front National leader and presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen visited the Promenade des Anglais to pay her respects to the dead and say a few campaign-defining words. I toddled down to the seafront after breakfast to see her.
She was due to arrive at 10.15. At 10.45 there was still no sign of her. Waiting for her on le Prom was a French press pack bristling with audiovisual technology and bourgeois French good looks. Also waiting were some big units with receivers stuck in their cauliflower ears who looked anything but bourgeois. Bouncing, poker-faced joggers threaded paths through the assembled journalists. A stiff onshore breeze was driving aquamarine breakers far up the stony beach. The driver of an approaching cartoon tourist train clanged his warning bell and the journalists reluctantly gave way before it, narrowly avoiding a comedy repeat of last year’s massacre. Dodging the train’s passing wheels, shaven-headed former FN regional councillor Philippe Vardon, sentenced last year to six months in jail for his part in a brawl (bagarre — feminine) in a car park with three ‘Maghrebian’ males, took a hasty step backwards and landed on my foot. It was nothing, I told him.
I waited companionably with a local pensioner and his elderly dog. The dog was a small, hairy, brain-dead thing. The pensioner was dressed for warmth above all other considerations. He had asked me who we were all waiting for, I had told him it was Marine Le Pen, and he had decided to stick around to welcome her. ‘I’ve been a Nationalist all my life,’ he explained. ‘And your dog?’ I said. ‘Is he a Nationalist too?’ ‘Bien sur!’ he said. You could have counted the number of local FN supporters present on the fingers of a redundant orange-picker’s right hand. I had expected hundreds, if not thousands. Maybe her visit wasn’t widely advertised. Perhaps her supporters were conserving dwindling political energy for the walk to the polling booth on 23 April.
At last she came. Bottle-blonde barnet, black cashmere cloak, blue jeans, five-inch heels, her pleasant face solemn. She was walking towards us from the direction of the Negresco Hotel at the centre of a line of ten black-suited, black-tied FN officials. I try occasionally not to think in stereotypes, but it was impossible not to draw an affectionate comparison with the Reservoir Dogs film poster. The press pack concentrated itself into a jostling scrum, presented arms and massacred the entire FN executive from 50 yards with its flashbulbs. About a minute later, Marine Le Pen breasted the front line of the media phalanx, which promptly broke ranks and swarmed all over her like a pack of foxhounds at the kill. There was a lot of unseemly pushing and shoving and some voices raised in French anger. A female FN supporter on the outskirts of the scrum clapped her hands and chanted, ‘Vive Le Pen! Vive la France!’ Nobody took up the deplorable chant, which fizzled out before I could join in.
A semblance of order was restored. Now Marine Le Pen was speaking calmly to the microphones on poles being thrust in her face, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I read later that she was responding to the Nice deputy mayor’s accusation that she is a populist. Her reply was that she was a woman of the people and if that meant she was a populist then she accepted the compliment. Then she attempted to continue her walk of mindful remembrance and the media scrum suddenly shot violently sideways, knocking my friend the lifelong Nationalist off his feet, and his Nationalist dog was trampled half to death by, among others, Marine Le Pen’s attentive boyfriend, FN deputy president Louis Aliot. I braced my arms against a security guard’s back, which was the size of Wales, to make enough room for the old guy’s dog to be plucked to safety. And as I straightened up I found myself looking into Marine Le Pen’s face, which was serene and faintly humorous amid the hullabaloo. But before I could lean forward and softly plant my lips on her downy cheek, a French TV news network video camera was roughly imposed between us and the opportunity was gone.