Can Shilpa Shetty become the UK's curry queen?

Will the Bollywood star be able to make inroads into the UK's Indian food industry - dominated by So

Shilpa Shetty, Bollywood superstar and Celebrity Big Brother winner, is turning her attention to the UK Indian food market. She and fiancé Raj Kundra have taken a 33 per cent stake - worth £6 million - in the V8 Gourmet Group which owns fast-food chain Tiffinbites, home-delivery specialist Bombay Bicycle Club and the upmarket Vama restaurant in London's King's Road.

The company have high hopes for the power of the Shetty brand to bring glamour to the UK Indian food sector and achieve market dominance. This could mean displacing traditional local curry houses with fast-food chain Tiffinbites and delivery. A new range of low-fat supermarket ready meals will be introduced, under the brand Shilpa's Gourmet Creations.

But will the power of the Shetty name be enough to infiltrate the huge British market for Indian food and change the way we eat curry?

The Indian food sector in the UK is worth £4.3 billion annually, employing some 70,000 people. But with around 9,500 Indian restaurant and takeaways already established in Britain, the marketplace is crowded.

In cities such as Bradford, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow the trade is dominated by Pakistanis, Kashmiris and some Indians; and London suburbs like Wembley and Tooting both have large Gujarati Hindu populations with their own distinctive, often vegetarian, restaurants.

A massive 95 per cent of the remaining Indian outlets are run by Bangladeshis who mostly hail from the Sylhet area in the north-east of the country (the pattern is a legacy from the time that Sylheti seamen became galley hands and cooks on British merchant ships and established cafes and tea-houses in waterfront areas when they settled in the UK).

It is a simple fact, then, that any newcomer to the Indian food scene in the UK, including Shilpa Shetty, will find the Bangladeshis and other South Asian groups very well entrenched and difficult to displace. In any case, consumers seem to be pretty content - a friend of mine in London probably speaks for many when he says "I think most people are happy with their local curry house."

The thriving supermarket trade in Indian food will be no easier to break into. Indian-born "Curry King" Sir Gulam Noon bestrides the land like a colossus. His Southall-based company, Noon Products, which employs 1300 staff, not only provides own label products but also supplies major supermarket chains like Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Budgens. His company even produces a high-end supermarket product with the Taj Hotel group's Kensington-based Bombay Brasserie's logo stamped on some very nice packaging.

Furthermore, Shetty should also be aware that some experts have recently warned of a significant threat to the dominance of the Indian restaurant sector in the UK.

A report presented to the Royal Geographical Society described a significant change affecting the famous Curry Mile in Manchester, as 20 Middle Eastern restaurants now nestle alongside 45 Indian and Pakistani ones. Professor David McEvoy, involved in the study, said: "At this rate, some time in the next 20 years, we might see a majority of Middle Eastern restaurants on Curry Mile."

This comment caused one Guardian journalist to speculate that the ultimate redoubt of the British curry trade, London's Brick Lane, might also fall to an oncoming wave of falafel houses. Having conducted extensive research in the area over many years I think that the threat is much exaggerated.

Most Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane, home to 46 cafes and restaurants (up from 10 in 1997), have survived the economic downturn and are busy gearing up for the annual curry festival which this year runs from 27 September to 10 October. They are more concerned with promoting Brick Lane during the Olympics in 2012 than with the threat of Middle Eastern restaurants.

So, in this vibrant corner of east London, the Indian and Bangladeshi food sector continues to thrive. News spreads quickly on Brick Lane, and everyone knows about Shetty's plans for the UK's Indian restaurant sector. They are unconvinced about her ability to make major inroads. "Shilpa Shetty is a very good dancer," one owner told me as he scanned the street for customers from the doorway of his restaurant. "But what does she know about Indian food?"

Dr Sean Carey is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University and a Fellow of the Young Foundation.

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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 Nicolas Sarkozy 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 hopep 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.