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A traumatic visit to the family dentist reveals that my teeth are furred up like a kettle

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Welcome to my world of pain. I woke up with what I imagine is a trapped nerve in my left leg, making any movement at all that involves it really rather painful. The Beloved told me the story of an Australian nurse who told a friend of hers suffering from Man Flu, “what you need is a six-pack of toughen the fuck up” (it works really well if you do the accent), but really she was sympathetic, particularly as I had to go in this morning to have the various shards of my splintered rear molar pulled out.

It is nice, if “nice” is really the word I’m groping for, to have a dentist within walking distance. But if you’re going “ow” every time you move your left leg, what would have been an otherwise jaunty and insouciant stroll towards a thoroughly enjoyable extraction, as these things so often are, turned out to be like something from Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. “Cold enough for you?” asked my local Big Issue seller, the nice guy whose pitch is outside Waitrose. I assured him it was and was glad he wasn’t carrying any magazines, as I had only a tenner in my pocket and indeed the world, and needed to buy tea, bread, butter and orange juice on the way back.

As I sat in the waiting room, I took out my TLS and read a very interesting article on the British secret service’s use of torture from the Second World War on. That the reviewer didn’t go into any precise details about the techniques employed was, I suppose, some kind of relief. Then again, the imagination was left free to roam.

On reflection, I think it is safe to say that if you are an arm of the intelligence services of this power or any other, it would be unwise of you to entrust me with any particularly sensitive information that you’d prefer me to keep to myself. Do you know that brief but memorable sequence when Homer Simpson goes to the dentist? You can find it on YouTube but it goes roughly like this: in a dentist’s waiting room, we hear Homer screaming and calling the dentist “you butcher!” A mother reassures her spooked child: “I’m sure that man has a special tooth problem.” We then hear Homer screaming: “I don’t even have a special tooth problem! This is just a routine check-up!”, and the child dives out of the window.

That’s what I’m like when I have a scrape and a polish. I suppose it would help if I didn’t leave an average of two and a half years between check-ups, for the plaque build-up apparently leaves my teeth in the condition of a kettle that has been in constant service, in a hard water area, since the Coronation – but then that’s the way I roll. Take it or leave it. It is also a noble family tradition, inherited down the male line. My dentist, of whom I am actually rather fond, is also the family dentist, and my mother once asked him how good a patient my father was. “It’s all I can do to get him in the chair,” was his reply. I am, perversely, proud; for my father has always been very grown-up and stoic about this, and it is comforting to know that he, after all, has his weaknesses.

Anyway, even with three injections, there was a lot of my saying things like “no, stop”, and “can’t we just leave that bit in?” and, to be honest, the nurse holding my hand. I was interested to note that you really do break into a cold sweat in situations like this. I also only thought much later of saying something funny like, “You know, if you want my bank account details and PIN number, we really don’t have to go through this unseemly rigmarole.”

After a lot of yanking and fossicking about, he finally got the bastard out. And the tooth, ho ho. I looked at it – or rather, its shards – in the little tray next to me. They looked ancient, degraded, like something an archaeologist could plausibly claim dated from the Cretaceous period. Jesus, I thought, are all the others like that? I also wondered why the pink water they give you to swill your mouth out – so coloured, I always thought, to disguise any blood – was in this instance replaced by clear water; for now the blood was plain to see. And the coup de grâce? I’m allowed no more than one glass of wine this evening, for alcohol is a vasodilator, and it would start the hole bleeding all over again. “Don’t they know who you are?” asked my friend Tig. “It’s an outrage!” I wonder whether a little bleeding is such a bad thing.

Oh, and I forgot the bread and the butter at Waitrose. Can’t wait for the mile-and-a-half limp there and back.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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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.