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The NS Interview: Alex James

“Keeping a pig is great but Monster Munch are nice as well”

You've written that everyone can afford good food. Is that really true?
It's the cheapest form of luxury you'll ever get. The thing that stops people eating well is lack of knowledge, not money.

Have we forgotten how to cook?
Yeah, I think rationing had a lot to do with it. In the early pictures of the Beatles, George Harrison looks malnourished. My dad tells me stories of going out to look for birds' eggs. Now­adays, food is so cheap. Even if you're on the dole, you can eat like a king - but you need the knowledge. After doing music for so long and thinking that it's a universal language, I found getting involved with food made me realise that music is a tribal language. It excludes as many people as it invites.

Who does your music appeal to?
I suppose it has broad appeal, but if I were to take a Blur record to a mud hut in Burkina Faso, it probably wouldn't have quite the same impact as a piece of my cheese would. Food truly is a universal, shared experience. In France, bishops and postmen are likely to eat the same thing for dinner. Here, food is a class thing and it shouldn't be. It's a fucking shame. Eighty per cent of the population is probably still eating bumper-pack Turkey Twizzlers.

Do you shop at supermarkets?
I've got five children. I shop at the cash and carry. It all comes on pallets. Living on a farm and having a pig is great, but Monster Munch is nice as well.

Will you send your kids to private school?
As soon as you become a father, you get the phone book out and say: "Get me Eton." You want your kids to have the best education.

You make "technologically advanced" cheese. What does that mean?
People distrust technology when it's applied to food because it's used routinely to make food cheaper - cheaper and shit. But technology is something that food needs to embrace. There's no reason why you couldn't have a shed in a field where cows walk in one end and the best cheese in the world pops out of the other. All you need is a bit of investment, and every process - the milking of the cows, the stirring, the turning of the cheese - can be done by machines better than a human being can do it.

You're involved with the Ambition AXA Awards for talented 11-to-18-year-olds. Are you, or were you, very ambitious?
Playing bass - that's a kind of passenger seat. But you get a lovely view.

Why did you get involved with the awards?
Basically, boredom. It's selfish. W H Auden once said that there were four basic human needs: to love, to be loved, to be a teacher and to be a pupil. There's a worrying statistic that only 40 per cent of kids think that they can do what they want. You can do whatever you fucking want. I have no musical training, but I wanted to be in a band. I shudder to think what would happen to me if I were 19 now.When Blur got signed, four grand was our advance. None of us had any money at all; we had nothing. Graham [Coxon]'s mum used to send him £20 a week and he lived off that. We were living in a burned-out, condemned squat. It was horrible. Music wasn't a career choice. It was a sort of denial. It was a rebellion.

You seem to have enjoyed being in a band.
Yeah, it was my job. I think there probably aren't as many jobs going for rock stars. Are there any rock stars these days? I think the world has changed a lot since then. Those were the last days of rock stars having aeroplanes and riding bicycles down the stairs of the Groucho. Famous people today don't have as much fun. It's much more scrutinised. Then, the world was drunker, more genteel, more ridiculous.

What was it like to work on the Beagle 2 mission to Mars with the scientist Colin Pillinger?
Colin was trying to do something incredible. He was a very driven, motivated person. As Damien Hirst said many years ago, picking what you want to do is the hardest thing you ever have to do. Once you know what you want, getting it is just administration.

Are the sciences taught well in schools?
They're always trying to spice it up and do it with a grin and a cool haircut, but I quite like my science served cold.

Do you vote?
I went to have a look, yeah.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
There's lots of things I'd like to remember.

Is there a plan for your career?
More, as I get older. Empire-building isn't the only sort of success. I suppose that's part of mentoring - trying to encourage people to see that even rebellion can be managed more effectively.

Are we all doomed?
No, I think we're gonna be just fine.

Defining Moments

1968 Born in Boscombe, Bournemouth
1988 Meets Graham Coxon, Damon Albarn and the artist Damien Hirst at Goldsmiths College, London, while studying French
1995 Blur's "Country House" battles "Roll With It" by Oasis in the charts. Blur wins
2003 Marries Claire Neate and moves to a farm in the Cotswolds
2004 His first child, Geronimo, is born. Galileo, Artemis, Beatrix and Sable follow
2011 Backs the Ambition AXA Awards

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.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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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.