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Michelle and the media

As the press swoons over Michelle Obama, it demonstrates our almost comical confusion about both rac

Magazines have a tendency to overstate. When Anna Wintour wrote her editor’s letter for the latest edition of American Vogue, with Michelle Obama as its cover star, this is what she said: “Change was the clarion call of Barack Obama’s election campaign, though I don’t think any of us at

Vogue initially realised that would include the difference that was going to be made by First Lady Michelle Obama’s wardrobe. It’s inspiring to see our first lady so serene and secure in her personal style.”

How about that? We all knew change was coming: that we were going to have a president who would shut down Guantanamo Bay, whose election would mark the end of racial injustice that is as old as the nation itself, who could conceivably take environmental concerns seriously just in time to save the world . . . But who knew, folks, that his wife would be able to choose clothes and then wear them? Who knew?

I have a theory about Michelle Obama's relationship with the American style media, and thence the American media in general. So much is riding on her as the load-bearing wall for the weight of Barack's racial symbolism - she is regarded so seriously as the keeper of the message - that the style media are trying to reclaim territory they know they've already lost. She's so stylish, she ought to be theirs.

The response of the English press has been no less intense. That she's not our first lady has seemingly had no impact on her centrality to our news agenda, where she governs style pages and comment sections. She is everywhere. This past week, the story of her appearance in American Vogue featured in every serious and mid-market newspaper, the Telegraph leading the pack with a large front-page photograph and a half-page article on page three.

Our rhetoric is very different, however. All the conversations Americans have about race, we have about class. Here is an illustration. In the run-up to the presidential election, Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in New York magazine: "As much as any political campaign is an extended meditation on authenticity, the question of just how black the Obamas are has become particularly loaded."

In Britain, rather than carat-testing anybody's race, we filter it into language with which we are comfortable. Thus, Hannah Betts, in the Times, remarked: "Early attempts to out her as an 'angry black woman' merely succeeded in impressing upon many that despite being the descendant of slaves on both sides, Michelle is admirably anger-free. Meanwhile, the concerted efforts of this pump operator's daughter from Chicago's working-class South Side to pull herself up by her bootstraps make Cherie Booth's talk of being from the school of hard knocks look like so much whingeing."

The race element segues immediately into a question of class: the British baulk at thinking of black public figures in terms of the historical injustice they symbolise, and the issue of gender is no less vexed.

You rarely see feminism more confused than it is around a woman who's an intellectual but also hot. There is broad agreement that you can talk about Michelle Obama's "style impact" without undermining the sisterhood. Hell, the Guardian does it. But her fashion sense is often examined in terms of the impact it will have on smaller design houses, on high-street/haute mix'n'matching. Or else it is given a media spin: for instance, is she only the fourth black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue since its inception in 1892? (Yes, by the way, she is.)

For an organ that approaches Mrs O’s appearance less gingerly, refer to Elizabeth Grice in the Telegraph. Last August, she found her “statuesque, fond of big theatrical jewellery and bold colours; she does know, instinctively, how to use her innate power”. And at the inauguration ceremony? Well, Grice exclusively reports, Michelle hasn’t got any shorter: “She proved she is a natural in the spotlight – statuesque, fresh, bold, poised and unfailingly appropriate in her dress sense.” All these words are code for “not very feminine”. Even the idea that she knows “how to use her innate power” sounds less like the power of the vixen, more like she has a hand grenade tucked into her pants.

We do not know what to do with this model. We can't file Michelle Obama under WAG; she's no Carla Bruni but she's not frumpy, either. These style-appreciators seem to be lauding her for her sophisticated tastes, but are in fact saying "she's a bit like a bloke". The conservative press deals with its unease ("Is she a woman or a whole person? So hard to say!") by making her sound like a transvestite. And the liberal press covers its confusion ("Is she a feminist pioneer? Or just a woman?") by getting all sociological on her ass every time she wears a dress.

Of course, if we're talking about Michelle Obama, none of this matters at all. What does she care? She has the Rottweilers of the American press to worry about, if she's minded to worry about this kind of thing, which we have to hope she isn't. She does expose our concerns, though, showing us in comic denial about the extent of our evolution, our sophistication. She holds up a mirror to the culture; which, it turns out, has a paper bag over its head.

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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.