What's driving the BNP?

The rapid growth in support at the ballot box for a nationalist party of the right has gone hand in

On a sunny day in Stanmore, north London, a motley crew of people gathers at the Tube station. An elderly man leans on a walking stick, a faded blue, white and red tattoo saying "Proud to be British" just about visible on his forearm. The tattoo might be older than I am. Bert, a sixty-something retired heavy-machine worker, is inappropriately dressed in a woollen jumper and beige overcoat. He lets out a yelp of approval when a truck with a Union Jack on its side - carrying "British Meat" - hurtles by.

Housewives in jeans and short-sleeved tops talk animatedly about the beautiful weather. Charlotte Lewis, a 35-year-old unemployed woman from Croydon, is wearing a loud gold lamé jacket and black jeans. She speaks with a south London twang: "Sometimes I get on a bus and I'm the only white person on there," she complains. "It's a bit distressing."

A white van swerves into view, beeping at the group of 15 men and women to move out of the way. Out steps Richard Barnbrook, dressed in a khaki suit and with a roll-up between his fingers. He has the look and swagger of an old colonialist. I can picture him leaping out of a jeep in white-ruled Rhodesia in the same manner he leaps out of his white van in multi-ethnic Stanmore. His two helpers, big men in T-shirts, unload boxes of leaflets headlined "The Changing Face of London". They show a group of smiling white women at a street party in the 1940s (the good old days) next to a picture of three women wearing burqas, one of whom is giving a two-fingered salute to the camera (the bad new days).

This is the London wing of the British National Party. Five days before the local and London mayoral elections, it has come to Stanmore and Edgware in north London - which have large Indian and Jewish communities - for some last-minute electioneering. Its members are confident, even cocky, about their chances of a seat on the London Assembly. "We'll definitely get one, maybe two," says Barnbrook, who is the BNP's mayoral candidate.

Barnbrook is a graduate of the Royal College of Art, who worked with the gay film-maker Derek Jarman in the 1980s ("Me and Derek and Tilda [Swinton] hung out together, and there was never a problem," he says). His fiancée is Simone Clarke, former prima ballerina of the English National Ballet and a fellow BNP member, who has a mixed-race child. "How can I be racist when I adore that child?" he says, when I ask if the BNP is anything more than a Johnny Foreigner-baiting party. Barnbrook, who leads the BNP's 12 councillors in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, insists the BNP is "concerned about lots of things".

"If I had to put our concerns in order of importance, I would say: housing, transport, health, education, the environment and law and order." So immigration isn't a concern at all? "Well, immigration impacts on all of those things," he says. "It causes overcrowding in housing, strain on the transport system, more pollution in the environment and it disrupts law and order."

I see. Behind Barnbrook's "respectable issues" there lurks the odious far-right idea that immigrants are the root cause of every social ill.

Cocky leafleteers

Barnbrook and his eager leafleteers have reason to be cocky. At the time of writing, many predict that the BNP will make important gains in the local and London mayoral elections. In London, parties must win 5 per cent of the vote in order to get a seat on the 25-member Assembly. That threshold was introduced by the government to allow minor parties such as the Greens to be represented, while keeping out the far right. In the last London elections in 2004, the BNP won 4.7 per cent of the vote - only 6,000 votes short of the threshold for gaining a seat. This time it is expected to win bigger, especially since the UK Independence Party (which won 8 per cent in 2004) is in disarray.

Around the country, the BNP has grown in local electoral strength over the past ten years. Under its founder, John Tyndall, the party was a racist menace but electorally insignificant, only ever winning handfuls of votes. That began to change with the election of the slick Nick Griffin as party chairman in 1999. He set about trying to improve the BNP's image. The party had won its first-ever council seat in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets in 1993. After the local elections of May 2006, it had over 50 council seats: 12 in Barking and Dagenham, and a smattering of seats in the north of England: mainly in Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and West Yorkshire.

"The BNP has tended to prosper in segregated poor, white communities in the north, and in parts of the south-east where there have been unexpected infusions of new immigrants," says Tony Travers, an expert in local government at the London School of Economics. The party's vote has grown exponentially at general elections, too. In 1992, it won 7,005 votes; in 1997 it won 35,832; in 2001 it won 47,129; in 2005 it won 192,746. What is behind the growth of the BNP? How has it managed to gain a toehold in local politics?

Many would argue that the party's recent success represents the re-emergence of flick-knife racism, even that "neo-fascism" is on the march. In fact, the expansion of the BNP can be seen as a product of mainstream political failure. The party - a ragbag of ageing skinheads, slick wannabe politicians and ditzy women with chips on their shoulders - thrives on disillusionment with the three main parties.

"There is research evidence that a lot of people who vote for the BNP are not aggressive neo-fascists, but rather are cheesed off with mainstream politics," says Travers. "The rise of the BNP can be seen as a grim indicator of the failure of the Labour and Conservative parties. If the parties functioned properly, then probably the BNP could be contained. Its supporters would be tempted away by old-fashioned Labour values or by the legitimate, centre-right nationalism of the Tories."

But today, Travers says, there is a "clustering in the centre" in mainstream politics, and a "collapse of the ability of the mainstream parties to win new members and supporters". The effect has been to allow the BNP to proliferate.

"If the other parties were doing their job properly, we wouldn't be here having this conversation right now," says Barnbrook. "I know we win votes because people are angry with the other parties."

Far from being a clear-headed neo-fascist party, the BNP comes across as a mess of contradictions opportunistically trying to pick up the votes of the disillusioned. For example, Barnbrook tells me the BNP has "no problem with black people". Someone clearly forgot to brief Bert, an older member of the BNP, who says "mixed marriages are just wrong because both races become denigrated". Bert has "no comment" on the question of whether six million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, yet Charlotte from Croydon tells me she was "really, really moved" when she visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam a few years ago. Barnbrook says the BNP has "nothing in common with the thugs of the NF"; Bert tells me the NF "are decent blokes". Most strikingly, where Barnbrook tried to convince me that "millions of Britons empathise and support our message", Charlotte reveals that a party stalwart advised her to walk to the top of a cul-de-sac and leaflet outwards. "It's safer that way," she says. "You can run away if people get angry."

With them for a day, I noticed two things about the BNP: its reliance on mainstream fear about immigration and its opportunistic exploitation of people's disdain for Labour, Tories and Lib Dems. BNP doorsteppers talk about Britain being "overcrowded" and claim immigrants are polluting our environment; they argue that Poles lower British wages. These are thoroughly mainstream ideas. They tell voters, in the words of Bert: "If you're pissed off with the rest, vote for the best!"

All parties should be concerned that the growth of the BNP over the past 15 years - from 7,005 votes in the 1992 general election to 192,746 in 2005 - has coincided with political malaise and cynicism across the UK.

Perhaps the best way to smash the BNP is to challenge the mainstream fear of immigration that it feasts upon and give voters something inspiring to vote for in its place.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

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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.