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This time it’s personal

The Lib Dem candidate had a moat, Ukip’s was called Mr Tingle and the Tory was Pears soap-clean.Tara

David Cameron knew the by-election in Norwich North on Thursday 23 July was important. Winning there would back up the Conservatives' double-digit poll leads and confirm that his leadership had made an impact outside London and the Home Counties and in a Labour-held seat. A three-line whip was issued to Tory MPs that they should visit the constituency three times. Cameron himself was scheduled to have made six visits to Norwich, including polling day itself.

For all the support from Cameron, the Conservative candidate, Chloe Smith, had a hard job. Ian Gibson, the Labour MP who stepped down after 12 years, after being implicated in the expenses scandal, was well liked in the city, and on the doorstep the constituents were angry about the abuse of the allowance system by all MPs.

Smith looks like she was drawn by the illustrator Eileen Soper, straight out of an Enid Blyton book. She has short, no-nonsense, glossy hair. She's pretty, Pears soap-clean, and if all fails she could present Blue Peter without a whiff of a drugs scandal. She plays badminton and likes E M Forster.

Although this contest lacked the buzz of previous by-elections, there were a couple of comedy basics: the first being that the
Lib Dem candidate April Pond has a moat, and the second that the Ukip candidate was called Mr Tingle.

Theresa May and Eric Pickles were in charge of the Norwich campaign for the Tories. Pickles was also the on-the-ground general of the triumphant Crewe by-election on 22 May. Everyone loves Pickles. "When is Pickles turning up?" say irritable sandwich-makers. "Ten minutes until Pickles arrives," says someone on a mobile. The biscuit plates are made to look busier by the addition of some Bourbons and half a packet of Jaffa Cakes in his honour.

In the war room, the upstairs space of a church that has a comforting smell of carbolic soap and Victoria sponge sandwich, Pickles has a slice of cake and sips black tea. He is pleased that, unlike in Crewe, where Labour went down the fated class-war route, they have not veered there yet. Just as he says this, a small nine-year-old boy walks in holding the latest Labour flyer above his head. It has a picture of a fox cub and the accompanying line, "Vote Labour or the fox gets it" - a nod to the Tories and fox-hunting. "Ahhh, a late entry for the class war," bellows Pickles. "These folks are one-trick ponies. How desperate."

From this campaign, a new Tory take on mail-drops has emerged that has created interest and envy from other candidates. Imagine the glossy lifestyle pamphlet you might be given for a new riverside development or the opening of a gym or the pictures in the Lakeland catalogue. It is called People Talk and features interviews with Smith and Cameron, and other, more specific details such as Smith's star sign (Taurus: stable, loyal, though unspontaneous).

For all the photo-packed literature, Pickles is adamant that his campaigning style "is the old-fashioned, elegant way to get the vote out". Many of those canvassing have been phoned personally by Pickles and asked to get involved. Not one to miss a trick, he has gently requested some footwork from those hopeful for one of the growing number of seats that will inevitably come up before the election.

Pickles's conversation is peppered with popular cultural references. Referring to the Labour Party activists playing dirty tricks with the Green Party, he says: "It's like that film . . . what is it? . . . Die Hard, you know the line, 'This time it's personal.'" I think he may have meant Jaws, but that's not important right now. "This time it's personal," he mumbles to himself again, banking it for further use.

A few minutes pass and he's moved on to James Blunt. "You know that James Blunt song: 'In a club with you back in 1973'. Listen to the chorus. With Brown it would be, 'In a committee room back in 1992 . . .'"

Addressing a room full of adoring helpers, Pickles says, "Does anyone know the Harry Enfield show?"

Everyone nods.

“Well, watching Brown this week, refusing to listen to anyone, I was reminded of Kevin the Teenager."

The weekend before the by-election, more than 400 Conservative activists, candidates and MPs swarmed this patch of East Anglia. Some came from Cornwall, Manchester and Glasgow; I'm told there were two over from Holland. I ask Pickles what he said to seduce a couple of Dutchmen to travel 450 miles to Norwich. "They just wanted to help," he says, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

It has been an exhausting few weeks. To keep the interest up, Chloe Smith found herself wandering around Asda with William Hague and, on another occasion, in the Mecca Bingo hall with Cameron. She held "Politics in the Pub" sessions perched on a bar stool and wrote a slightly twee blog.

She even had her very own fat lefty stalker, paramount for any girl on the cusp of fame, as she surely is.

Tara Hamilton-Miller has been a consultant to the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right

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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.