Petition power cannot be brushed aside

The road pricing crisis should be seen as the first challenge of the Gordon Brown era. It will be Br

As I write, more than 1.3 million people have signed the online petition on the Downing Street website to "scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy". After Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, went on the radio to denounce the petition's organisers for peddling "myths", an extra 200,000 people signed up. By the time you read this article, the figure will be much higher still, and cabinet ministers will be even more infuriated with the British public than they are already. The petition deadline is 20 February, by which point it is possible that the numbers will have reached the level of those who marched against the war in Iraq.

It is not that two million people cannot be wrong, but the government cannot afford to be entirely dismissive of this level of public feeling. Alexander may be right in saying that, as a country, we have no choice but to deal with congestion, but being right is not enough.

This is the first time Alexander's mettle has been tested as a minister. As one of the Chancellor's trusted allies, he will play a prominent role in any post-Blair government. The road pricing crisis should therefore be seen as the first challenge of the Brown era. It will be Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair, who will have to deal with the consequences of this decision, whether or not ministers decide to cave in to pressure. This may not be "Labour's poll tax", as the Daily Telegraph would like it to be, but it will give an indication of how a Brown government will approach mass opposition to its policies.

Alexander is one of a group of young politicians around Brown who are defined by the power of their intellect and convinced of the wisdom of their views. The Transport Secretary's frustration at the apparent stupidity of his opponents has been evident in recent days as he has struggled to put across an argument that, to him, must appear blindingly obvious: if we are to reduce congestion on our roads we must persuade people to leave their cars at home. A series of pilot schemes for road pricing must seem to Alexander an utterly reasonable way of going about this. But people are rarely convinced by an argument which begins with the assumption that the person making it is cleverer than they are.

Old right-wing causes

It can't have gone unnoticed in government circles that the most popular petitions on the No 10 website are either the old right-wing causes or Tory party policy. This may explain why one minister is said to have described the Downing Street adviser who came up with the idea for putting petitions on the website as a "prat".

None has attracted anything like the number of signatures on the road pricing petition, but the next three in order of popularity urge the government to scrap inheritance tax in the next Budget, to repeal the Hunting Act 2004 and to scrap the proposed introduction of ID cards. In all, 60,000 have signed the inheritance tax petition, set up by Macer Hall of the Daily Express as part of his newspaper's campaign on that issue. Roughly 25,000 have signed the hunting petition and around the same number have signed up to oppose ID cards.

But this is not the whole story. Other petitions that have received more than 3,000 signatures espouse liberal and left-wing causes. The opposition to ID cards is not a Tory monopoly. There are also popular petitions to oppose the renewal of Trident, ban faith schools and scrap tuition fees. Admittedly, there are also petitions to replace the national anthem with "Gold" by Spandau Ballet and to make the Prime Minister "stand on his head and juggle ice cream" which have more than 3,000 signatures, but for the most part the suggestions are serious.

Those around Brown will be sorely tempted to scrap the online petitions as a crazy Blairite innovation, but they would be unwise to do so. They may be an expression of public frustration at conventional politics, but they also point the way forward if politicians can avoid the temptation to sneer. The e-petition system was set up by Tom Steinberg, though he is not being blamed for the idea itself. Steinberg is a web evangelist and political activist, whose projects such as NotApathetic.com and TheyWorkForYou.com have been designed to re-engage people with politics. His thinking is close to Our Say - set up by Saira Khan of the TV series The Apprentice - which campaigns for increased use of referendums on issues of public interest.

It is too easy to dismiss this "citizen politics". Governments know too well that the problem with giving people too much say is that sometimes they come to the wrong decision, as would almost certainly be the case if local referendums were held on individual road pricing schemes. But if ministers take the approach that petitioners are just wrong-headed or "spreading myths", people may choose to make the ultimate bad decision and vote them out of office.

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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.