Blowing up a storm — Frank McNally on winds of change in Strasbourg

Pressure from farmers has prompted a series of tactical retreats by the EU in recent days

It is little remembered today that before he became a full-time existentialist, French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre also spent a period working as a weatherman. The job was part of his military service at the outbreak of the second World War, when poor eyesight excused him from anything more dangerous.

And although he was stationed just north of Strasbourg, near the German border, it was “extremely peaceful”, he recalled in his War Diaries.

Exceeding his duties in quietness, he imagined, were those of only one other branch of the army service: “the pigeon breeders”, if they still existed.

“My work here consists of sending up balloons and then watching them through a pair of field-glasses,” Sartre wrote. “This is called ‘making a meteorological observation’. Afterwards I phone the battery artillery officers and tell them the wind direction ...”


Whether his surveillance contributed anything to the military effort, he severely doubted. But it was still a phony war then. Hence his complacent cynicism: “The [young officers] make use of the intelligence reports; the old school just shove them straight in the wastepaper basket. Since there isn’t any shooting, either course is equally effective.”


Eighty years since that conflict ended, there is not much need for military meteorology in modern Strasbourg. With this year’s elections to the European Parliament imminent, however, many here are taking intense renewed interest in wind directions.

According to opinion polls, it’s blowing mostly from the extreme right so far. But either way, balloons are going up all over Europe. And in the Ulster slang sense of the term (loud and idiotic persons), at least some of them seem sure to be elected.

Alarmism about political wind patterns in European election years is not new. It has often proved unjustified when the votes come in. But as always, this time may be different.

According to Simon Hix, a professor of comparative politics at the European University Institute, as quoted by the magazine Politico, the June elections will mark “a really significant shift to the right”. Hix foresees the parliament’s far-right Identity & Democracy (ID) grouping, currently second-smallest of seven, winning 40 more seats in June, moving it up to third.

That and gains for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), currently on 67 seats, along with their potential recruits from the currently groupless Hungarians of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, could give the ECR and ID a whole quarter of the seats in the next parliament.

As Politico sums up, even if the centre right – expected to be the biggest group – refuses to form a coalition with the “firebrand fringe parties”, the latter conglomerate may still be able to influence EU policy for the first time: “That will enable it to threaten the EU’s sacred values on rule of law and human rights, and block or even overturn major green and climate laws.”


This partly explains a series of tactical retreats by the EU in recent days, including Tuesday’s climb-down on pesticides, described by another commentator as the union’s “latest act of political self-retribution”.

The Common Agricultural Policy had envisaged cutting pesticide use in half by 2030. But commission president Ursula von der Leyen officially dropped the proposal after weeks of tractor protests across Europe, including one that converged in Strasbourg for the February parliamentary session, cheered on by the right.

One of the more dramatic recent anti-CAP protests was the dumping and distribution of a large bale of silage in a McDonald’s restaurant in Vesoul, south of Strasbourg, last month.

This was also cheered on, via social media, in Ireland. But Irish farmers should think twice before rejoicing in the discomfort of a French McDonald’s. One in every five burgers sold by the chain in Europe comes from a meat plant in Waterford.


Anti-CAP protests are nothing new in Strasbourg. And yet, as I was reminded on Wednesday, caps have sometimes also been a solution to political strife here. On one memorable occasion, they helped save Strasbourg Cathedral.

Back during the French Revolution, when the cathedral’s north tower was still the world’s tallest building, it offended the sensibilities of the then ascendant political grouping: the hard left.

The most militant of these were known as the “Enragés” (“angry ones”) and had already taken hammers to religious statues. Now, declaring that it offended against the principle of equality, they planned to tear the spire down.

But it so happened that the enragés were in the habit then of wearing red “Phrygian Caps”: a soft conical head coverings borrowed from antiquity.

In this, ingenious locals saw the basis for a compromise on the tower’s offensive haughtiness. Yes – they made a giant Phrygian cap and put that on top of the spire.

The tower itself was thereby declared a revolutionary, and so saved from the guillotine.