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The NS Interview: Josie Long

“I love voting! I’d vote three times if I could”

You started doing stand-up when you were 14. At 29, do you feel like a grizzled veteran?
Sometimes I do. It is odd to think I've been doing this half my life, and I've never thought of my adult life without it until the last couple of years, when I had a bit of a wobble.

In the sense you didn't want to do it any more?
More that I felt guilty I wasn't doing something that "good people" did - that it was too much fun. Also I wondered whether I could cope with it - it's a lonely thing and there's a lot of pressure, and it inspires such a range of critical responses from people. Everyone in the audience has a different opinion: I started thinking about that multiplying over every gig I've ever done, and it made me nauseous.

Through Twitter, I suppose performers are unwilling eavesdroppers on their critics.
That's just bad etiquette: I ignore it. It's a hard thing to get to grips with, abuse from strangers and internet trolls. You go: "I'm hurt, but I'll move on." I don't look for my name on the internet, ever - and if I heard people talking about me at a gig, I would run away.

Is it fair to say your comedy has become more political in the past few years?
I think so. I was always quite sure of my opinions, but under a Labour government I could pretend everything was fine, even when there were lots of things I should have been campaigning about. Now, I think it's psychotic to pretend everything's fine and it's reprehensible not to do anything about it.

How do you describe your politics?
Oh, I'm just an idiot. I wish there was a party that was more stridently on the left. I like Kurt Vonnegut, and his hero was the American socialist Eugene Debs. He said if there's a lower class, behave as though you're part of it.

What about specific policies?
I'm really pro-tax. I want there to be a "brain drain", I want all the people who disagree with [higher top tax rates] to leave, even if that means we're completely impoverished. We'll start again. Sometimes I think my beliefs are really unrealistic and sometimes I think they're incredibly moderate.

How about the right-wing argument that the state is inefficient at spending money?
People who work in the public sector - doctors, teachers - aren't lazy and they don't get paid very much. But I get so paranoid talking about things like this. There's a voice in my head going: "You're stupid."

Do you feel as though you have to censor yourself?
If you say things that are even moderately left-wing, people look at you like you're an infant.
If you said, "I think people should be kinder and fairer," they'd agree. But when you add, "And I think that should affect how we behave and how the system functions," they tell you you're an idiot.

How did you get involved with the tax avoidance campaigners at UK Uncut?
I went to the Vodafone protests in Oxford Street and they changed my life - action makes you feel better. It's such a popular cause and it's so moderate, just saying: "We'd like people to pay tax according to the law, thanks."

Were you part of the protests on 26 March at the March for the Alternative?
Yes. I went to Fortnum & Mason, but I got there late and there were riot police going in and the protesters were lied to and arrested. The week after that was such a low point - they were in prison, being smeared. They were just young people who set this up because they cared. I feel they were really stamped on.

Was there a backlash?
It became, "Do you condemn the violence?" - but there wasn't violence, only property damage, and that wasn't done by UK Uncut. But people thought there was no smoke without fire, so I had people on Twitter telling me UK Uncut was a violent organisation. People were calling us anarchists - and I'm into big government.

Is the energy still there in the movement?
I think so; but that was the first big knock for it. It's made me realise what we're up against, but I don't care. The only way to lose is to give up. It's the same with being a feminist: I want equality in society, and I won't get it by being quiet. And I don't give a f*** how many people are going to call me fat or a c***, or say they don't want to have sex with me or I should be killed.

Do you vote?
Yes. I love voting! I'd vote three times if I could.

Are you a member of a political party?
No. I get close and then I feel I'd rather just be a loosely affiliated member of UK Uncut.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
No - even awful things give you character.

Are we all doomed?
That's a bit strong. I'm an incurable optimist.

Defining Moments

1982 Born in Orpington. Starts doing stand-up at the age of 14
1999 Wins BBC New Comedy Award
2000 Puts stand-up career on hold to study English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
2005 Supports Stewart Lee on tour
2006 Wins if.comedy Best Newcomer Award at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
2009 Her series All of the Planet's Wonders is first broadcast on Radio 4
2010 Becomes involved with UK Uncut

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.