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Game, set . . . and Scottish flag

Andy Murray may be wishing he’d never raised his nationality – but the worlds of tennis and politics

1 In 2008, the Williams sisters declared their enthusiasm for Barack Obama but surprisingly declined to vote for him. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they insisted, they were barred from voting in any election. Serena explained: “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, so I don’t get involved in politics. We stay neutral. We don’t vote. So I’m not going to necessarily go out and vote for him. I would if it wasn’t for my religion.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have consistently cited John 17:16, in which Jesus says of his followers: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” as a call to refrain from such lowly matters as the governance of world superpowers.

2 If the British player Buster Mottram had had his way, Wimbledon would have been all-white in more than just dress code. A member of the National Front from 1975 onwards, he once remarked:“I hope Enoch Powell will never die, just as his namesake in the Bible never died.” Mottram subsequently attempted to redeem himself by performing with the black singer Kenny Lynch. But he was shamed again when he was expelled from the UK Independence Party (which David Cameron once described as a “bunch of . . . fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”) for attempting to form an electoral alliance with the British National Party.

3 The German player Gottfried von Cramm had much to be nervous about ahead of his 1937 Davis Cup match against the American Don Budge, so it hardly seemed worth taking a phone call from Berlin minutes before he strolled out on to the Centre Court at Wimbledon. But as he swatted the phone away, von Cramm feared the unknown identity of the caller would distract him yet further. He turned back, to find Adolf Hitler on the line. Von Cramm was a noted anti-fascist, but after Hitler revealed his fantasies of a victory parade, he was forced to reply through gritted teeth: “Ja, mein Führer.” A pallid, trembling von Cramm emerged on court and lost the match by six sets to eight.

4 Alan Johnson soon came to regret applying tennis analogies to Gordon Brown halfway through last year’s Wimbledon. Speaking shortly after Brown’s first anniversary as Prime Minister, the then health secretary declared that Brown was not “interested in playing on the Centre Court of politics”. Johnson insisted that he’d meant the Prime Minister was “just interested in getting on with the job” – but couldn’t resist adding that Brown would “achieve the results and serve more aces than Andy Murray, whether it’s on the outer courts or whether it’s on the Centre Court”. Given Brown’s recent woes, one doubts that Murray has lost much sleep over the challenge posed by his fellow Scot.

5 Fred Perry, the last British player to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, is also the only one to have had a Labour MP for a father. A cotton spinner radicalised by the co-operative movement, Samuel Perry was elected the Co-operative Party’s first national secretary. In 1923 he became the Labour MP for Kettering. Perry fils was himself anti-establishment; Greg Rosen’s book Serving the People: a Co-operative Party History from Fred Perry to Gordon Brown unravels the red thread that links the two men.

6 Burdened by debts of £17.8m last year, Labour was forced to investigate novel means of fundraising, including auctioning off a game of tennis with Tony Blair. The offer helped the cash-strapped party secure at least £10,000 in new funding. Lord Levy, Blair’s usual tennis partner, expressed polite bemusement at the auction, declaring that “desperate times require desperate measures”.

7 Last year, the nine times Wimbledon women’s champion Martina Navratilova announced that she had regained Czech nationality more than 30 years after she fled a communist regime she compared favourably to that of her adopted country, the United States, under President George W Bush. Navratilova was born in Prague; she fled in 1975 after being denied the right to compete in professional tennis in the US, the scene of most serious tennis tournaments. She subsequently became a US citizen. The star, who supports charities devoted to children, animals and gay rights, told the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny: “The thing is that we elected Bush. That is worse. Against that, nobody chose a communist government in Czechoslovakia.”

8 In February, the United Arab Emirates caused controversy when it denied the female Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer a visa for the Dubai Tennis Championships. The world number 48 had been drawn to play the 15th seed, Anna Chakvetadze of Russia, in the first round of the event, which includes the world’s top ten women players. A month before the ban, Peer was the focal point of protests in New Zealand after Israel’s offensive in Gaza. The tournament organisers claimed that they feared public fury over Gaza would threaten Peer’s safety.

9 Tony Blair may have left office with the pay gap between men and women standing at 17.1 per cent, but when it came to Wimbledon he was a consummate redistributionist. Until 2007, the men’s champion was awarded £30,000 more in prize money than the women’s. The All England Club attempted to justify this disparity with reference to men’s best-of-five-set matches compared to women’s best-of-three, but the club finally caved in after Blair “fully endorsed” players’ demands for equal pay.

10 Is he a British champion? Or a Scottish loser? The question of Andy Murray’s national identity may be the source of innumerable jokes, but it is perhaps also a microcosm of the fraught relations between the two members of the Union. As the young star prepares to compete for Wimbledon glory, the bookmakers Paddy Power are holding a survey on whether the public – and especially the English – think Murray is British or Scottish. Speaking for Paddy Power, Darren Haines said: “Middle England has taken a while to warm to Andy but if he serves up a Wimbledon win, they’ll consider him as British as the Union Jack. An early exit, and they’ll consider him Scottish again. And who’s to say Scottish fans won’t vote to keep him for their own?” Here’s one sportsman carrying the weight of a 202-year-old political union on his 22-year-old shoulders.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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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.