NICOLA STURGEON, THE QUEEN OF SCOTLAND, RESIGNS
. So read the headline in France's main conservative broadsheet, Le Figaro
. We should note the likelihood that such a shocking case of lèse majesté
would earn short shrift from Ms Sturgeon herself, who has always been at pains to treat the institution and inmates of the British monarchy with a deference that may not be universally shared in her party. But it is indicative of the regard in which she is held in France.
The report beneath the headline commanded two whole columns (around 1,000 words) of Figaro's
lead international news page, plus there was a front page teaser. The evening news channels stripped the story across the bottom of the screen on a repeat loop. Radio France Internationale called Sturgeon '… a progressive and charismatic lawyer… a prodigy of Scottish politics… as feared in London as she was admired in Edinburgh for her ease and outspokenness'.
left-of-centre rival, Le Monde
, was likewise captivated, pumping out live news alerts from Sturgeon's resignation press conference. Its coverage next morning was not short on reverence: 'The first woman to lead Scotland… the British leader with unprecedented longevity… a convinced independentist'. The second phrase may not be strictly true, and the last is more elegant in French, but you get the gist. She remains, the paper said: '… the undisputed leader of politics, the most popular, ahead of all her rivals and opponents'. Parallels were drawn, there and elsewhere, with New Zealand's beatified (and lately departed) Jacinda Ardern.
Why? You might well ask. For sure, charismatic politicians are often more revered overseas than they are by a surly public back home – think Gorbachev, think Obama – but why Nicola Sturgeon? After all, like it or not, 'the country' (as the France24 TV channel blithely called Scotland) is only a 'region' in European Union terms, and not even in the EU any more. It is hard to imagine any leader from, say, the German Länder, enjoying such recognition, interest, insight or respect in France.
Neither do the French have exactly an easy relationship, historical or current, with self-government movements in their own bailiwick. The warm sentiments that one so often encounters here towards independence for Scotland or (a near neighbour) Catalonia are not conspicuously replicated in respect of, say, Corsica or Brittany. Nor does history remember that former French colonies like Tunisia or Algeria were sent on their way to independence with a kindly imperial pat on the head and a bag of bonbons. The brutality was sometimes grotesque, at least as bad as any atrocities carried out while Britain's empire was dismembering. The oppressed colonies in North Africa or East Asia were 'integral to metropolitan France': such was the phrase then, and so it is today – albeit, much more gently and generously enforced – for those fragments of empire that remain.
But Scotland, and Scottish aspirations for independence, are somehow different. Now inevitably, any attempt to identify the reasons must involve a fair amount of subjectivity. Still here, for what it's worth, is my own take on it.
I have written before of how unexpectedly knowledgeable about Scotland and its constitutional convolutions the people are that I've met during my half-decade living in France. It is not just that Montpellier is a rugby-daft town (though the recent Calcutta Cup match was joyfully picked over in the city's trams and cafes). The media outlets quoted above are not from these parts. The fact is, French people do retain a surprising awareness and empathy about Scotland: they know about the Auld Alliance, the Scottish warriors who defended Joan of Arc, the Scots company of bodyguards that minded successive French monarchs, and the merchant trade across the North Sea; all the way up to the referenda of 2014 and 2016: both of which bewilder them mightily.
Nor, I think, is Nicola Sturgeon primarily admirable to them as a thorn in the flesh of England. In my experience, the mutual loathing in which the French and the English are supposed to hold one another is rarely much evident in France (I suspect it's also less virulent in England than you would believe from lazy TV comedians and tabloid columnists, but that's for another day). True, when I'm asked if I'm English and I reply no, Scottish, there is invariably a bright smile of acknowledgement. They appreciate, and approve of, the distinction, and enjoy talking about it. But not disparagingly.
What they do understand is the progressive political divergence between Scotland and its southern neighbour. The profiles this week of Nicola Sturgeon have dwelt on her social and fiscal reforms, as well as on the stalled campaign for independence. To French eyes, she has come to represent the idea of Scotland as increasingly different from England: an enclave of the European social democratic model of society, as against the Anglo-American winner-takes-all capitalism that has held sway south of the Tweed since Margaret Thatcher.
This economic divergence is assumed to be the rationale for Scotland's near 2-1 rejection of Brexit. Once they get past the perception of Brexit as simply a huge foolishness on the part of a country they had previously rather admired, they tend to regard it as an attempt to turbo-boost unfettered free marketism. This is the scenario, they assume, that the Scots knew better than to entertain. Personally, I tend to the view that the Brexit vote was not really about economics at all but about immigration, an issue that never greatly bothers Scotland, but that is neither here nor there. In any event, the French identify Nicola Sturgeon as the personification of Scotland's other way, and find it hard to fathom why Brexit has not given the demand for independence a bigger boost than it has.
Indeed, they readily confess to mystification as to how Scotland could have declined the opportunity of independence when it was on offer at the 2014 referendum, and they want to know how it will map out next time (they assume there will be a next time). I might add that you don't get to hear the same puzzlement about the vote against independence a year ago in the South Pacific colony of New Caledonia… but then Scotland wasn't offered the privilege of being part of France, which no-one with any sense would pass up. QED.
For all that, they know Scottish independence to be a long way off. The media profiles this week have not ducked the truth that Nicola Sturgeon failed to bring it appreciably closer. Yet, this seems to have done little to tarnish her reputation. Ask Europeans about Scottish politics, and one name comes back, which is one more than has usually been the case.
She has enjoyed wider recognition than Alex Salmond did, as I recall; though it was he who drove the transformation of the SNP from a picturesque gaggle of accordion fans into a disciplined, modern, electable centre-left party. His achievement gave his successor the basis for a government capable, up to a point, of defending Scotland's preferred way of doing politics. Over nine years in Bute House, Nicola Sturgeon has come to symbolise Scottish difference, in the eyes of international observers. She is what allows Europeans to look at Jacob Rees-Mogg and know that Scotland isn't like that. You don't have to be a paid-up Nat to feel a measure of gratitude for this.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster