. . . and finally

The last word on Blair

Britain is changing before our eyes. From 1 July, people will no longer be allowed to smoke in public places, as the ban is extended to England. Hunting has already been outlawed. For beagles, this represents a double whammy: the poor creatures now have few pleasures left. But there is a further development in the air: from 27 June, the date of his resignation, it will no longer be permitted to discuss Tony Blair in public. No longer will innocent people be subjected to others' views on the theme, or inhale their stale opinions. Pubs, clubs and offices will be transformed, as the air clears and the fog is lifted. Those sad addicts who cannot kick the habit will be forced to huddle under patio heaters on the pavement to indulge their craving. Already, in the Westminster village, helplines have been set up and special areas designated where lifelong Blair devotees can gather and discuss his legacy without fear of harassment.

For me it will be something of a relief, albeit a mixed one. In common with many Labour MPs, I disagreed with most of what he said, but was grateful that he kept me in work. When he became Prime Minister, I remember thinking "What do I do now?". I later realised he must have been thinking the same thing. As it was, through the twists and turns of his career, from the Bambi years - all smiles and seeking to please everybody - through the Alastair Campbell era to the grotesque error of Iraq and the surreal spectacle of his final weeks, where Britain has had a dual-fuel premiership, he has provided more material than one could ever imagine.

I wonder, as he looks back, what Blair makes of it all? What Dorian Gray picture there is in his attic to remind him of the difference between the fresh-faced idealist of 1997 and today's careworn practitioner of realpolitik. His speeches as opposition leader are certainly in marked contrast to the direction he later took. I think it's because, as Neil Kinnock has said, he was always impressed by money, by power and by uniforms. He sought to deal with the rich and powerful and ended up doing so on their terms. Likewise, in seeking to harness the power of the media, he ended up in hock to it, seeking "eye-catching initiatives" and becoming preoccupied with spin.

It will be hard for him to leave the big stage behind: I imagine that in the privacy of his bedroom, Blair is probably very good at playing "air prime minister". He must have loved shooting the breeze with Clinton and Mandela - even felt that when Bush came to power, he could be Bill Clinton to Bush's Blair - the wise, guiding influence of a more experienced, liberal world statesman. We know what happened to that dream. At least Blair can walk away from it all. I bet there are a few troops in Iraq who'd also like to get out just by handing over to their next-door neighbour.

He spoke only two words to me as Prime Minister. When I told him he was making our job too easy, he simply stammered "My kids!", which I took to be a reference to his kids doing impressions of me doing impressions of him. As it was, there was so much about new Labour that was beyond parody. Having in John Prescott a deputy PM who looked more like a National Express coach driver; Reid and Clarke, the home secretaries who moonlighted as night-club bouncers; Blunkett, the unlikely Casanova. The purring Mandelson, incapable of keeping his fingers out of the pie. Whatever else, they provided rich pickings as characters. Blair's departure continues a fire-damage sale at Westminster: a bonfire of the vanities, as all the colourful characters head for the doors. ("This deputy PM MUST GO! This shop-soiled home secretary, no longer fit for purpose! These former Tory and Lib Dem leaders, free to good homes!"). I look at the six candidates for deputy PM and despair. Perhaps they should have taken a leaf from Simon Cowell's book and run the deputy leadership contest as a week-long TV spectacular: "Labour's Got Talent!" Except there's one obvious problem with that. The title.

As I write, we really don't know that much about what Gordon Brown will be like. Will any members of his cabinet be recognisable? Is there a factory somewhere, even now turning out Miliband after Miliband on an assembly line, each indistinguishable from the other? Blair once said, "We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose." Will Brown go a step further? "We campaign in prose but we govern in morse code?" Such is our uncertain future. But at least it will be different. It is the end of an era. The Americans pronounce that as "error". Time will tell.

And what of the legacy? Northern Ireland and devolution are plus points, certainly, but all pales into insignificance beside Iraq. For the rest, will this PM be remembered for any great achievements? Or will he be like the fallen hero of antiquity in Shelley's poem:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Rory Bremner writes for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

Getty
Show Hide image

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.