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Tom Hollander: "Famous people don't hear the word 'no' enough"

The Rev actor talks about playing a vicar, believing in God and attending university with Nick Clegg

Had you had much experience of the Church of England before working on Rev?
Only as a child. My parents were good friends with our parish priest in Old Marston, Oxford. I think there's an archbishop of York in the 19th century on my mother's side - who were moderately churchy. My father was ethnically Jewish but his family converted to Catholicism.

How did the idea for the show form?
I'm afraid it started as an acting challenge - I played a vicar before [Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice] and that worked, and then I heard about church schools and wondered what it was like to be a vicar, surrounded by people who were clearly lying. I'd also recently hit 40 - and a lot of people hit 40 and realise the way they've been living in their twenties and thirties isn't sustainable. All the stars were in alignment and the more we talked to vicars, the more interesting it became. There's not many things you can't look at through the viewfinder of the Anglican Church.

Were you surprised by what you found?
The fact that many vicars have periods of agno­sticism was a big surprise. In the periods of my life when I've had least contact with the Church, I've always assumed a belief in God is a solid thing, but clearly it's a relationship; it has good days and bad days. For me, faith is more about aspiration than complacency - the smug satisfaction that other people find distasteful.

And that charge of smug certainty is now levelled at atheists.
There's an egotism at work in atheism: putting yourself at the centre of things. Intellectually, it's so easy to disprove the existence of God - a five-year-old could do it - so it's far more compelling, for me, to think there might be one. And far more beautiful to think that the known universe is an act of love. There is a machismo to strident atheism that I find irritating in adults. They sound like teenagers who've just worked out their parents aren't perfect.

Do you feel a responsibility to the Church?
For Rev, I applied acting principles to the subject matter; that it should be truthful to life and compassionate. That's a very highfalutin way of putting it; acting is also just showing off for money and wearing funny clothes.

Do you feel that vicars are in an impossible position? No one wants a "trendy vicar".
That's definitely a stereotype that makes people feel uncomfortable - someone who's put on a baseball cap to mask his essential unworldliness. But you do want your vicar to be sufficiently "in the world" to understand what everyone's preoccupations are; it's hurting the Catholic Church that they are not.

Does religion affect your political feelings?
I was sufficiently Christian by the time of 9/11 that when I saw George Bush and that face of incomprehension and stupidity broadcast all over the world, I thought: there's a moment here when a huge decision is going to be taken, and is anyone saying "turn the other cheek"? Yes, 3,000 people were killed in those towers and it was appalling, but how many more people were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan who don't have a cinematic epitaph - they just died at the side of the road, covered in dust, like a dog. Killed by someone who was operating, essentially, a PlayStation from the Pentagon.

Do you consider yourself a political person?
Not really. It's just that it's a New Statesman interview, so I'm giving it my best.

Do you vote?
Yes. I exercise my democratic right and feel grateful I'm not in a dictatorship but I don't really feel [politicians] are in charge any more, or that they particularly know what they're doing.

You were at Cambridge with Nick Clegg. Would you have gone if tuition fees were £9,000?
I was a complete chancer, academically. The fact I was there was wonderful, and the fact it was paid for by the state was extraordinary. Now it seems unfair. Sometimes I go, "Crikey! My contemporary is Deputy Prime Minister, and what should I have achieved? My bedroom is still messy and I haven't had any children."

What is it like, being recognised in the street?
People behave differently to TV stars and film stars; it's to do with the scale of the medium. Film stars get hushed awe, TV stars get slapped on the back. Neither is good for you. Famous people don't hear the word "no" enough.

What's your local church like?
They've stopped having music, presumably because there's no one to play it; they've got no heating. There's a sign on the door that says: "In the winter months, services will take place in the library." They're having a hard time.Even as an atheist, I find that sad. If you're in the mood for the melancholy of the decline of Old England, the Church is as good an index as any, I suppose.

Are we all doomed?
My answer to that depends on whether I've had enough sugar, or enough sleep.

Defining Moments

1967 Born in Bristol and raised in Oxford. Went to the Dragon School, then Abingdon
1981 Is awarded the lead role in the BBC dramatisation of John Diamond aged 14
1985 Enters Cambridge to read English. Appears in Cyrano de Bergerac with Nick Clegg, directed by Sam Mendes, in 1988
2009 Takes the lead in the film In the Loop
2010 First series of Rev, which he co-creates with James Wood, is shown on BBC2
2011 Rev is recommissioned

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.