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The NS Interview: Robert Harris

“Like Rome, governments need that five-year sacrifice and sweeping away”

Were you ever tempted by a career in politics?

When I was in my teens, I was very interested in politics - the mid-1970s were an exciting time in that respect. Back then, I was thinking of becoming a Labour politician. (And of course my time would have coincided exactly with New Labour, so I have some sort of feeling about the whole experiment, in a way.) But then I went to university and became aware that one was either one thing or another. One was either a writer, with all the things that went with that, or one was prepared to make the compromises - not only in terms of lifestyle but also in terms of what you could say - and be a politician.

In the end, I am unhesitatingly a writer. I would not want to be a politician.

Yet it is clear from your novels that you regard the profession of politics as an essentially noble one.

It may not be the case today, but certainly up until the past 30 or 40 years, anyone with any talent often tended to gravitate towards politics. Although to survive and prosper in politics you have to make compromises and do deals that, sooner or later, will catch up with you, nevertheless there is something noble about it.

Do you agree with Enoch Powell's line about all political careers ending in failure?

I think that's indisputably true, because there is a false assumption built into the whole rhetoric of politics, which is to think that somehow things could ever be solved. Every politician and political party connives in this falsehood. The National Health Service is not a problem that can ever be solved, because people are always going to get sick and die. I have sympathy with the view of François Mitterrand that politics is not a crusade, it is a profession.

That is what attracts me about Cicero: he was a practitioner of the humane art of governance. There were few politicians more skilled, yet he was crushed by the forces around him.

One career that hasn't ended yet is that of your old friend Peter Mandelson. What do you make of his return to government?

It has been an absolutely remarkable resurgence. Peter is a professional - a supreme professional. He can run things and see things quickly in
politics, and so he has been brought back - clearly because he is very good at what he does.I don't think that he has burnt out as a poli­tician, and that is very unusual. I think that's partly because he doesn't have a wife and family, so he's perennially fresh.

Your new novel, Lustrum, is set in ancient Rome, as was Imperium. What is it about the period that interests you?

I think there is a wonderful parallel with our own world. I'm trying in these two novels to show some of the universal rules and laws, the dramas and excitements, treacheries and intrigues of politics, in order to suggest that nothing has really changed. The Roman Republic was an incredibly sophisticated operation in terms of its political structure. Indeed, if you were to overlook the slight flaw that you had to own property and not be a woman, you could argue that the Roman Republic had a much more effective democracy than we do ourselves.

The elections were annual. Judges were elected. Whereas we currently live in a country in which we have an unelected head of state, an unelected revising chamber, an unelected prime minister and a whipped House of Commons - which means that the ordinary backbencher has no opportunity to influence the course of events.

It sometimes feels like one doesn't really live in a functioning democracy, which is why I find ancient Rome rather appealing.

You take the title of the novel from a ritual purification that occurred in Rome every five years. Do we need something similar?

I think so. In Rome, it was seen that this ritual purging, with the census coming in and clearing out the senate every five years, was needed. And yes, we're definitely about to have one.

Although I'm no Conservative, I do think in a way a change of government is to be welcomed, because this lot do seem to have run out of ideas. We need that sort of five-year sacrifice and sweeping away to see whether we can find something new, some fresh way forward. I feel we have now run into a dead end, and I think that there is generally a strong feeling of that
in the country.

Is there a plan?

None whatsoever. I've just gone on from day to day and have done what seemed interesting to me at the time. I remember when I was about eight or nine years old having a very powerful conviction that I would be a writer, and I don't think that's ever varied. But no plan.

Are we doomed?

Obviously, in one sense we are; but on the whole I am an optimist.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
“Lustrum" is published by Hutchinson (£18.99)

Defining Moments

1957 Born in Nottingham
1975-78 Studies English at Cambridge
1978 Joins the BBC as a TV correspondent
1982 Co-authors A Higher Form of Killing, the first of several works of non-fiction
1987 Becomes Observer political editor
1992 Fatherland, the first of several novels
2001 Enigma is adapted for the cinema, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard
2003 Wins Columnist of the Year at the British Press Awards
2007 The Ghost, a novel allegedly based on Tony Blair, is published

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

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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.