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Organic panic

The organic lobby has hampered any chance of a sensible debate over food production. That's why Zoe

Right. I am never going to buy an organic vegetable again. I say that partly because the organic "movement" is never more huffy, more swelled with orthodoxy, more self-important than it is at Christmas; and partly because, taking into account the dried and tinned organic goods I have in the house, I will have hopefully rid myself of this fad in perpetuity by the end of the month, and be able to start the new year with a meaningful resolution - no more simply-the-best, no more preciousness, no more all-natural anything. I am a sturdy, adult woman who likes Wotsits. I am not the Princess and the sodding Pea. It will take more than a pesticide to do me damage.

I interviewed Keith Abel, the more voluble half of the organic delivery giant Abel & Cole, not so long ago, and we were talking, as sane people must, about whether or not you could really taste the difference. Go on . . . a blind test. Your Soil Association carrot against this aubergine I injected with antibiotics and grew under a sunlamp. He replied: "Can you tell the difference between a person who's high on drugs and a person who isn't? Well, mostly you can and maybe you can't, but I'd rather they weren't." It was very convincing at the time, and remains a droll and apropos remark, but actually, I do not agree. I don't care if people are on drugs. Probably half the people I know have been or are on Prozac, or ibuprofen, or a nebuliser. I am up to the eyeballs right now on Lemsip Max. And frankly, that's the kind of drug we're talking about, if we're in the business of likening a pesticide to a human agent. These vegetables are not on soil-cocaine; they're not on farmer-crack. Pesticides are subtle pharmaceutical corrections to the problems thrown up by mass production. Bring them on! I am not against ingenuity, any more than I am against mass production; if humans are to be mass-produced, as we have been, then we need to find a way of feeding ourselves.

I am a sturdy, adult woman who likes Wotsits. It will take more than a pesticide to do me damage

There are some things I do agree with: I am against cruelty to animals, and agree that if meat has to be expensive to ensure its humane treatment in life, then so be it. I agree that we should eat with the seasons; at no time in history, least of all now, has it been a pleasing or defensible use of energy to grow asparagus in midwinter, when there are plenty of onions. I agree that supermarkets shouldn't be able to set all the terms. I agree that there are specialist products - I'm thinking of artisan cheeses - that are too delicate in their constitutions to withstand the rufty-tufty world of giant agribusiness. But I do not understand how these aims came to be hijacked and appropriated by the organic lobby, so that now, they are entirely the property of that voice, whose other claims are often just daft. Considerations of animal welfare have become indivisible from the "organic" stamp (nonsensically - I do not think being a happy pig, and having been treated with antibiotics, are necessarily mutually exclusive).

We're told that non-organic vegetables take in fewer nutrients from the soil, which has been leached of virtue by the chemical onslaught, so deliver fewer nutrients to our bodies. And that's why they don't taste as good. Well, first, they usually do taste as good. Second, the salient difference lies in whether you're eating a carrot or a cream bun. The nutritional difference between one carrot and another is niggardly compared to the fundamentals of balanced eating.

Most of all, I object to the tenet of organic living that says children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides, that attributes "modern" allergies to the use of chemicals in food (well, they must have come from somewhere!), that considers infants to be chambers of purity, liable to be corrupted by any taint of bog-standard fruit and veg. I don't like the hocus-pocus of it. I hate what it says about the state of child-rearing: that we are so susceptible to superstition in our desperation to ringfence the state of immaturity to keep it separate from the rest of society (even if one possibly could, to what purpose?). And I can't stand the elitism of it. The organic credo - small, local producers, no chemicals, farmers' markets, blah - is not a solution for the eating habits of the whole country. Even if we all went vegan tomorrow, we're still years off that level of self-sufficiency. Workable solutions for tasty, low-carbon-footprint food production that everybody can enjoy will by necessity involve some pesticides, some food miles, some agri-giants, some local producers, some artisanal foods, and some courgettes that are maybe a little larger than they used to be in the old days.

This quest for purity is just another way of opting out of a national solution - it's the food answer to private hospitals and schools, a triple whammy: Bupa, Eton and Abel & Cole. It's just one more example of the middle classes looking at a complicated structure, a mixture of the brilliant, the imperfect and the awful, and thinking: wow, that looks like a mess; can't I just buy my way out?

I'm buying my way back in. It's the right thing to do, and also the cheapest. How often does that happen?

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

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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.