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Nature’s vital circles

Work dominates our lives, yet its places and processes are ignored by artists. Now, more than ever,

If a Martian came to earth and tried to understand what human beings do from just reading most literature published today, he would come away with the extraordinary impression that what we mostly spend our time doing is falling in love and, occasionally, murdering one another. But what we really do is go to work – and yet this work is unseen, it is literally invisible and it is so in part because it is not represented in art. If it does appear in consciousness, it does so through the business pages of newspapers, as an economic, rather than a broader human, phenomenon.

Two centuries ago, our forebears would have known the precise history and source of almost every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned. They would have been familiar with the pig, the carpenter, the weaver, the loom and the dairymaid. The range of items available for purchase may have grown exponentially since then, but our understanding of their genesis has grown ever more obscure. We are now as disconnected imaginatively from the pro­duction and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation that has stripped us of opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.

The world is covered in factories and warehouses, but it is impossible for the layperson to go into them or even approach them. Despite their importance, they have no desire to advertise themselves to the public. In business parks, they are spread out across sites of determined blandness marked by gentle gradients, ornamental trees and expanses of preternaturally green grass.

When we think of tourist destinations, we don’t think of the places of work. Why, endowed as they are with both practical importance and emotional resonance, do cargo ships, port facilities, airport warehouses, storage tanks, refineries and assembly plants go unnoticed, except by those immediately involved in their operations?

It is not just because they are hard to locate and forbiddingly signposted. Some of Venice’s churches are similarly secreted away but none­theless prodigally visited. What renders them invisible is an unwarranted prejudice that deems it peculiar to express overly powerful feelings of admiration towards a gas tanker or a paper mill – or, indeed, towards almost any aspect of the labouring world.

As a result, a sympathetic response to, say, an electricity pylon is, for most of us, a haphazard and unsupported impulse, an epiphany which might last for a minute on a drive along a motorway or on a walk along a moor, but to which no prestige could be attached and from which little of merit could emerge.

In an essay entitled “The Poet”, published in 1844, the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented the narrow definition of beauty subscribed to by his peers, who tended to reserve the term exclusively for the bucolic landscapes and unspoilt pastoral scenes celebrated in the works of well-known artists and poets of the past. Emerson himself, however, writing as he was at the dawn of the industrial age, observing with interest the proliferation of railways, warehouses, canals and factories, wished to make room for the possibility of alternative forms of beauty.

He contrasted the nostalgic devotees of old-fashioned poetry with those whom he judged to be true contemporary poetic spirits, deserving of the title less by virtue of anything they had actually written than for their willingness to approach the world without prejudice or partiality. The former camp, he averred, “see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these, for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading. But the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the beehive or the spider’s geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own.”

It was Emerson’s strategy to lead his readers by example, to encourage their evolving sense of what might be attractive by demonstrating that he himself, a trustworthy guardian of high culture, was capable of recognising the appeal of a signal box and a chimney stack, and that a range of hitherto unlikely objects could therefore be safe for all to love.

There is, of course, one particular kind of person who breaks the normal rules: I am thinking of spotters, of ships, lorries, planes and trains, the kind who give up weekends to admire the giant moving parts of our mechanised world. Whatever their inarticulacies, the spotters are appropriately alive to some of the most astonishing aspects of our time. They know what it is about our world that would detain a Martian or a child. They take pleasure in sensing their smallness and ignorance next to the expansive intelligence of the modern collective mind.

Standing beside a docked ship, their heads thrown back to gaze at its steel turrets disappearing into the sky, they enter into a state of silent, satisfied wonder, like pilgrims before the towers of Chartres. Their concentration recalls that of a small child who comes to a halt in the centre of a crowded shopping street and, while passers-by swerve to avoid her, bends down to examine, with the care of a biblical scholar poring over the pages of a vellum-bound book, a piece of chewing gum impressed on the pavement, or the closing mechanism of her coat pocket.

They are like children, too, in their upending of conventional ideas of what might constitute a good job, always valuing a profession’s intrinsic interest over its relative material benefit, judging with particular favour the post of crane operator at a container terminal because of the vantage point it offers over ships and quaysides, just as a child might aspire to drive a train because of the seductive hiss of the carriage’s hydraulic doors, or to run a post office based on the satisfaction of adhering airmail labels on to puffy envelopes.

The spotter’s pastime harks back to the habits of premodern travellers who, upon arriving in a new country, were apt to express particular curiosity about its granaries, aqueducts, harbours and workshops, feeling that the observation of work could be as stimulating as anything on a stage or chapel wall – a relief from a contemporary view that tightly associates tourism with play and, therefore, steers us away from an interest in aluminium foundries and sewage treatment plants in favour of the trumpeted pleasures of musicals and waxwork museums.

How ignorant most of us are by contrast, surrounded by machines and processes of which we have only the loosest grasp; we who know nothing about gantry cranes and iron-ore bulk carriers, who register the economy only as a set of numbers, who think – even now – that it is only about money, who have avoided close study of switch gears and wheat storage and spare ourselves closer acquaintance with the manufacturing protocols for tensile steel cable. How much we might learn from the spotters at the ends of piers and runways.

At a time when recession is reminding us how badly we need work, it should be artists who teach us to discern the virtues of the furniture of contemporary technology. One can hope for a day when photographs of electricity conductors might hang over dining tables and when someone might write a libretto for an opera set in the sales office of a packaging firm.

We need art that could function for our times a little like those 18th-century cityscapes that show us people at work from the quayside to the temple, the parliament to the counting house, panoramas like those of Canaletto in which, within a single giant frame, one can witness dockers unloading crates, merchants bargaining in the main square, bakers before their ovens, women sewing at their windows and councils of ministers assembled in a palace – inclusive scenes which serve to remind us of the place that work accords each of us within the human hive.

We need an art that can proclaim the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, despite the current economic mayhem, with the principal source of life’s meaning.

Alain de Botton’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) is published on 2 April

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power

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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.