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The chocolate king of São Tomé

Xan Rice visits a man who has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the wo

On a small Atlantic island on the equator, in a lemon-coloured bungalow with a clear view over a tinfoil bay, lives the Italian honorary consul. In his drive-way are two ancient Fiat Pandas. In his back garden is a chocolate factory. The consul’s name is Claudio Corallo. He is 57 and lean, with neat grey hair, a matching moustache and an inventor’s lively eyes. He speaks five languages fluently, and English sparingly and excitedly.

"Paradise!" and "Magic!" are a few of his stock English words, and could describe the allure of the rainforest, or the transformation of the humble cocoa bean into fine chocolate. "Shameless!" and "Shit!" are other favourites, and might refer to the marketing gimmicks of some of his competitors, or the state of western society.

For the past decade, Corallo has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the world. His bars, which range in cocoa content from 60 per cent to 100 per cent, and may contain ginger, arabica coffee beans, orange rind or plump raisins soaked for months in his home-made cocoa-pulp alcohol, sell for between seveb and nine euros (£6.20 and £8) for 100g in Europe, the United States and Japan.

That puts Corallo in the same market as the world's leading gourmet chocolate-makers, such as Valrhona and Pralus in France and Italy's Amedei and Domori. Yet he has little in common with any of them.

For one, Corallo makes his chocolate at, or at least very near, source - on São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, population 160,000 (including ten Italians), where the electricity is intermittent and flights to Europe depart once a week. Equally unusually, he controls the entire process, from the tree to the bar.

Most fine chocolate-makers buy their cocoa from farmers thousands of miles away. Corallo grows his own cocoa on a 120-hectare plantation on Príncipe, the twin island of São Tomé, 90 miles to the north-east, where he spends part of each month living in a tumbledown colonial-era house, with no power, no hot water and a system of air-conditioning that involves leaving all the windows open.

And then there is his attitude to life and to business. Corallo describes himself as "a free man, an anarchist" and counts among his closest friends a Basque man exiled to São Tomé two decades ago because of his alleged links to the terrorist organisation ETA. Though he wants people to eat his chocolate, Corallo abhors having to persuade customers to buy it. He lost a contract with Fortnum & Mason a few years ago principally because he refused to make fancy wrappers for his product.

"I hate compromise," he says. "And marketing is compromise."

Even today, the simple packaging on his bars contains only his name, and his chocolate's place of origin. There is little hint of his story.

As a boy growing up in Florence, Corallo dreamed of forests. He studied tropical agronomy after school. When he was 23, he gave up his job as a diver for a dredging company in Trieste to move to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was 1974. Muhammad Ali had just fought George Foreman in the epic Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa. Mobutu Sese Seko's government, which had staged the fight, hired Corallo as an agricultural researcher. The job did not inspire him, but the jungle did.

Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing

Five years on, he bought a run-down, 1,250-hectare coffee farm in Lomela, right in the centre of the country. The safest way to get there from the capital was a thousand-mile boat trip up the Congo River, taking up to two weeks. His wife, Bettina, the daughter of the Portuguese ambassador to Congo, was the first white woman local people had ever seen arriving on a pirogue.

"It was a paradise. Shorts, shirt, no shoes, machete. All you needed to live," says Corallo.

He ignored the textbooks on coffee cultivation, relying instead on trial and error. His methods ranged from the strange - talking to his pack cows rather than using whips - to the improvisational - using lianas from the forest rather than nails to join fence poles. He sent his export-quality robusta beans to Kinshasa using a modified barge originally owned by Belgian missionaries.

By 1989, shortly before the world coffee price plunged by more than half in a few months, he was making good money and employed more than 1,000 workers. He had a daughter, Ricci arda, and Bettina was in Argentina, where her father was now the ambassador, about to give birth to a son.

Facing financial ruin, Corallo left the plantation and headed into the forest. He took a single book with him: Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. "I felt like Colonel Aureliano Buendía, with the world crashing around me," he says.

When he emerged six months later (he would not see his son and current right-hand man, Niccoló, until he was nearly a year old), he had an idea to boost sales by working with nearby coffee farmers. The plan worked and his farm was saved, but other dangers were looming.

Congo was growing unstable, with rebel forces becoming active in the area. By late 1996, when Laurent Kabila's militias began marching towards Kinshasa from the east, signalling the end of the Mobutu era, Corallo knew that his time in Congo was coming to an end. Returning to Europe was not an option. "If I had been forced to go, there were two possibilities: either I would have been put in prison within two months, or I would have been forced to take heroin - with an industrial pump."

He wanted to stay in central Africa. And he wanted to farm.

Cocoa is believed to have originated in the forests between the Amazon River in Brazil and the Orinoco River in Venezuela. It thrives in the tropics. Around 1822, sailors brought seedlings from Brazil to São Tomé and Príncipe, also a Portuguese colony.

The trees took quickly to the rich volcanic soil. By the turn of the 20th century, São Tomé was the biggest producer of cocoa in the world. Customers included the leading British chocolate manufacturers Cadbury and Fry, both Quaker-rooted companies that prided themselves on their principles.

There was, however, a terrible secret to their supply chain - slavery. In 1904, the American magazine Harper's sent the British war correspondent Henry W Nevinson to West Africa to investigate reports of forced labour along the coast. "The islands possess exactly the kind of climate that kills men and makes the cocoa tree flourish," he wrote of São Tomé in his final despatch, titled The Islands of Doom. The 20,000-plus slaves on the plantations - more than half the country's population - were doing most of the dying. On Príncipe, the annual death rate was 21 per cent - giving a slave a life expectancy of under five years.

Shamed into action, the British companies soon shifted their supply source to the then Gold Coast (now Ghana), signalling the start of São Tomé's steady decline among the international cocoa producers. By the time Corallo arrived in São Tomé in 1997, many of the old plantations had long been abandoned. After much searching, he stumbled across the Terreiro Velho farm on Príncipe's humid coast, and purchased it from the state. The colonial house had gone to ruin; a resurgent jungle had hidden many of the 20,000 cocoa trees.

On the beach Corallo built a wooden bungalow for his young family, and they began to clear the plantation. He was confident that he could farm cocoa successfully. But could he also turn it into fine chocolate?

Although the plantation had old cocoa trees of a quality superior to that of the more recently introduced hybrids found on mainland Africa, they were still forasteros - the most common of the three varieties of cocoa, and the blandest in taste. Almost all fine dark chocolate is made from trinitario and, very rarely, criollo beans.

Corallo was undaunted. He believed he could make up for the beans' inherent limitations by applying the same commitment that winemakers and olive growers show their crops - the sort of attention rarely seen in the world of chocolate.

"Good chocolate is not necessarily a problem of variety," he says. "It is a problem of work."

One morning at 6am, Corallo picked me up at my guest house in São Tomé, the islands’ capital city. He wore his usual uniform: old polo shirt, a cheap Casio digital watch, well-worn moccasins and faded Bermuda shorts. Hanging from a green string on his belt was a tiny Swiss army knife.

He was driving his dark green Panda, which he bought for ?500 in Italy and shipped to São Tomé. Even on an island of constant surprises - the previous evening I had seen a man driving down the main seafront road with a monkey bouncing on his shoulder - the car marked Corallo as different. Most expatriates here drive expensive 4x4s.

"Even if I was offered a Mercedes I would keep the Panda," he says. "Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing."

We headed away from the Atlantic Ocean, towards the smoky mountains that loom over the town. Banana plants and breadfruit trees formed part of a luxuriant green wall pushing against the narrow, twisting road. After half an hour we had travelled 11 miles and ascended nearly 1,000 metres to reach Corallo's Nova Moca farm on São Tomé, which doubles as a coffee plantation and an extension of his chocolate factory. On terraced fields either side of an old abandoned farmhouse grew seven different varieties of arabica, robusta and liberica coffee.

The trees give him a small yet high-quality crop - his yield is little more than one-hundredth of that on a commercial coffee farm - and it is sold only in Portugal. Cocoa is what makes the money.

On the plantation on neighbouring Príncipe, Corallo's workers cut the ripe, melon-shaped cocoa pods from the trees using machetes, and crack them open with sticks to extract the beans. Nearby small-scale farmers who share his farming philosophy harvest at similar times and sell him their cocoa, as he pays much more than brokers in São Tomé.

Convention suggests forastero beans should be fermented - a process that gives them their chocolate taste - for about six days. But Corallo insisted on doing his own experiments to find the optimum period.

"I always start from zero [scratch]. Even if people say I start one way, I start with zero."

His trials suggested six days was not enough; instead, he ferments his beans for well over two weeks on his own bespoke racks. (He asked me not to reveal the exact number of fermentation days. It's a trade secret.)

The traditional way to dry the beans after fermentation is to lay them in the sun. But Corallo has his own methods that he believes to be superior: either spreading the beans over a platform of heated clay tiles, or placing them in a huge aerated cylinder that a friend built for him in Italy.

Once dried, the beans are packed aboard an old fishing trawler for the six-hour journey to São Tomé. They are then transported to Nova Moca for careful cleaning and sorting, roasted in Corallo's factory at his beachfront house, and returned to the coffee plantation.

Under a covered platform, with the ocean shimmering in the distance, stood several long wooden tables. Thirty men and women, each wearing a white overcoat, a hairnet and a face mask, sat with a pile of cocoa beans in front of them.

Carefully they stripped each bean of its outer shell and discarded the tiny, acrid germ, leaving just the cocoa nibs. This process, winnowing, is usually done by machine, but Corallo believes that the quality of the chocolate suffers as a result. By doing things manually he is also creating employment; at peak times there are 60 people on shelling duty, each earning what is, by local standards, a decent wage.

From Nova Moca, the nibs are returned to Corallo's four-room factory in his backyard, which he built using two shipping containers as the skeleton, lined with African teak. In the narrow entranceway, workers use a system of fans to blow away any residual particles of dust clinging to the nibs. The nibs are then ground by machine into cocoa liquor. After a few other refinements - some secret - the cocoa is ready to be turned into chocolate.

Later the same day, I visited the factory, following the aroma of dark chocolate from the driveway. Workers were scurrying around with trays of chocolate ready for cutting and packaging. Corallo, meanwhile, was eating - and drinking - into his profits. He had already guzzled "about 30" samples of his newest creation: chocolate balls featuring a core of 2 grams of ginger inside a layer of 100 per cent cocoa.

He had also taken several sips of his prized alcohol, 74 per cent proof and chest-warming, with a rich, fruity aftertaste. It is made from the sticky white pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans inside the pod and which is discarded by most farmers.

As with his coffee, the yield is tiny - one litre for every tonne of beans - making commercial production impossible. Instead, he soaks raisins in the alcohol before hiding them inside fat, 50g chunks of dark chocolate. It is easily his bestselling product.

But the chocolate he puts in front of all visitors, many of whom arrive at his gate unannounced and are welcomed into the factory, is his 100 per cent pure cocoa bar. Sugar gives chocolate its sweetness - tasting a bar without any "is like examining the cocoa beans under the microscope", Corallo says.

He cut a small piece and laid it on a tray. Then he took out several bars made by his competitors and cut a morsel off each. Finally, he poured a glass of water.

A few of the samples were so bitter as to be inedible. Others, marginally less bitter, tasted fatty and clung to the palate. It was hardly a scientific test, but there was no doubt that Corallo's bar tasted sharper and was by far the least bitter.

"You see?" he said. "The type of bean does not matter. If it tastes good, it's good."

After a decade on the island, Corallo is well known, and respected. One afternoon I was interviewing Rafael Branco, a former foreign minister, when Corallo's name came up. "You see the car he drives, the simple way he lives, the things he does for this country? Don't give us aid - give us ten clones of Corallo," said Branco.

In the gourmet chocolate industry, however, Corallo remains the quirky outsider and has yet to gain the recognition he feels his chocolate merits. (He claims never to have tasted any bar that can match his own.)

Martin Christy, editor of Seventypercent.com, a UK-based website for chocolate aficionados, describes Corallo's bars as "earthy, rough and ready, and interesting to try". But he says they have yet to equal the best chocolate made with non-forastero cocoa from South America, south-east Asia or Madagascar.

"The problem is the beans' genetics. Even with the best processing you might get a very good, cheeky chocolate, but not a great one."

Even so, Corallo's sales are growing, and reached about ?360,000 last year despite minimal marketing. Although he is designing a new website, and attends the occasional trade fair - usually the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris - it is always done grudgingly.

"The Salon is shit," he says. "But sometimes we have to make prostitutes out of ourselves."

Often, he is introduced to new markets through people approaching him after tasting his chocolate. He has recently opened up a market in Japan, after a woman from Tokyo tasted his chocolate on a visit to France.

When she contacted Corallo by email, he offered to send her some samples. Instead, she insisted on visiting him, flying from Japan to Lisbon to São Tomé, and finally taking the notoriously unreliable flight to Príncipe to see his plantation.

As she lay down to sleep in his plantation house the first night, she saw bats sweeping through the open windows. "The air makes circulation, the bats make circulation," says Corallo. "Very acrobatic."

The following night she booked herself into a hotel.

The culture shock was reversed when Corallo visited Tokyo last year. On his first day he lifted the toilet seat only to find instructions on how to warm the seat. "The energy to do that. Crazy!"

Chloé Doutre-Roussel, a fine chocolate expert, first introduced Corallo's bars to Britain when she was at Fortnum & Mason. She has visited São Tomé several times. She agrees with Christy's view that the chocolate is good, although not the finest. However, she admires his tenacity - and his honesty. Some chocolate-makers concoct less-than-truthful stories about the origins of their beans and the degree of care taken in production. Corallo, on the other hand, refuses to use positive labels he might easily adopt, such as "organic" and "slow food".

"He is the complete opposite of the sharks that use marketing to fool customers into buying their chocolate," says Doutre-Roussel. "He is in his own world, conducting this experiment with a wonderful obsession."

But an obsession can be draining. One evening, Corallo told me that for the first time in years he was feeling exhausted. Last year he and Bettina were divorced. She still handles the distribution side of the business from Lisbon, where she now lives with Ricciarda, but her absence is keenly felt.

After Bettina left, Corallo asked Niccoló, now a tall, mild-mannered 19-year-old, to postpone his final year of schooling to help him manage the business. It is not something he is proud of.

"I am now the number one for child labour - my own son," he says. "But without Niccoló I could not do this."

Later that night, when he took Niccoló and his younger son, Amedeo, 14, out to dinner at a seafront restaurant, Corallo perked up, excitedly picking out the Big Dipper in the sequinned sky.

He talked about the future. He aims to source more of his ingredients locally, which should help the other farmers on Príncipe. Already he has got some of them growing ginger, and he hopes to get cane sugar from them, too.

If that happens, he might try to make rum. Exporting smoked fish is another option. In a few years, if things improve in Congo, he might even be able to spend part of his time on his old coffee farm in Lomela, close to the jungle of his childhood dreams.

As he says, "My heart belongs in the middle of the forest."

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. His "Letter from Côte d'Ivoire" was published in our issue of 27 October 2008

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...