Vicky Pryce in a police van after being sentenced. Photograph: Getty Images
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Talking yourself into jail, the “sidebar of shame” and the lonely Falklands Three

Also: how many journalists does it take to watch some smoke change colour?

It’s no wonder the trial of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce has received such extensive coverage. Its characters are irresistible, its twists are labyrinthine and, like all great tragedies, the “inciting incident” (three penalty points) was so petty that you can’t believe it caused everything that followed.

Hours before he was sentenced to eight months in jail, Huhne, a former journalist, emerged from hiding to apologise, finally, for years of deception. Meanwhile, Pryce has kept silent. In the emails she exchanged with the Sunday Times’s Isabel Oakeshott, she wrote repeatedly about “nailing” her ex-husband and ending his career. What she apparently could not see – and what neither Oake shott nor the Mail on Sunday, to which she subsequently took the story, drummed into her – was that bringing Huhne down would inevitably implicate her. Given this omission, and that News International later handed the emails to the Crown Prosecution Service, she might now be wishing she had shut up sooner.

Let’s hope that some good will come out of the case. First, the realisation that handing out prison sentences for motoring and other non-violent offences is absurdly punitive and a ludicrous waste of resources. Second, that the defence of “marital coercion”, which can only be used by wives pressured by their husbands, is an anachronistic relic that should be scrapped immediately.

Holy smoke

There’s been a lot of chatter about the Atlantic’s request to the writer Nate Thayer that he let the magazine reprint an extract from a long article about North Korea in return for “exposure” (ie, for no money).

The incident led to a full week of dire, hand-wringing prognostications about the future of the media which left me feeling downcast – until I saw that 5,600 hacks had descended on Vatican City to cover the conclave to elect the new pope.

It made me think there should be a new joke: how many journalists does it take to watch some smoke change colour?

Up for the crack

My favourite moment at the Press Awards, newspapers’ annual beano, was the speech by Martin “Jurassic” Clarke, the Mail Online supremo, after his website won the Digital Award. First he told the host, the BBC’s Susanna Reid, that she always looked lovely when she appeared on the “sidebar of shame” (cue sharp intake of breath from the audience) and then he tried to rouse the assembled well-oiled hacks to revolution by insisting that Lord Justice Leveson wanted to legislate them out of existence.

The speech received what the theatre world euphemistically calls “mixed reviews” – but Clarke need not care. Mail Online now has 50 million unique monthly visitors and is expanding aggressively in the US. “People are addicted to it,” Clarke told the Financial Times. “It’s like journalism crack.”

Shock doctrine

I headed to Bafta on 11 March to hear Ken Levine, the creative director of Irrational Games, speak about BioShock Infinite, the game I’m most looking forward to playing this year. It’s an indirect sequel of BioShock (2007), which was set in an underwater city built as a Randian objectivist utopia (yes, really).

This time, the city is in the sky and the themes explored include racism and American exceptionalism. Levine firmly believes that games can address difficult and sensitive topics: in other words, they’re growing up.

Game changer

Just as video games are getting better, so is the writing about them. For the past six months, I’ve been a judge on the Games Journalism Prize, winnowing down 1,300 entries to a shortlist of 20. That list includes an article by a serving US soldier writing about first-person shooters and a memoir by Jenn Frank that interweaves recollections of a 1990s game called Creatures with reflections on her adoption and her fears of having children of her own. Before the Levine event, I ran into a veteran journalist who told me that his five favourite games writers were all women. Truly, the times they are a-changin’.

Back and forth

The New Statesman’s centenary is fast approaching and, as well as looking back by reprinting great pieces from the archive (which you can see more of on our new blog, the Old Statesman), we’re looking forward.

The NS website is going from strength to strength, with well over a million readers a month. One of my proudest boasts is that half of our bloggers are women. (I hear rumours that they’re also half of the population. Surely not?) On 4 April, you can see eight of us discuss the future of feminism at an NS centenary event at Conway Hall in London for the princely sum of £5.

All together now

Who will dare own up to being one of the Falklands Three? In the islands’ referendum, 99.8 per cent of the population voted to stay British, with just 0.2 per cent – three people – dissenting. North Korea’s Kim Jong-il and Soviet leaders regularly used to get 100 per cent and certain US districts voted entirely for Obama or Romney last year but our Returning Officer, Stephen Brasher, believes the Falklands might have had the most unanimous genuine election result ever recorded.

 

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.