The NS Interview: Boris Johnson

“This recession wasn’t caused by unions, it was bankers”

What's your favourite place in London?
I might mention Greenwich, where we used to go for picnics, or Highbury Fields, where I go and smoke cigars and stare at the sky. But you know what? I am increasingly taken by the view from the office in City Hall.

What's your priority for the capital as mayor?
There is not a day that passes when I don't curse this recession, and curse the government for the role it played in screwing up the economy. So my top priority is to get our capital through the downturn - giving cut-price travel to those in search of work and the over-sixties, and doing everything we can to keep the housing industry moving.

How can London make it past the downturn?
There are some parts of the economy that have proved astonishingly resilient, and I am completely confident that things will pick up strongly by the back end of this year. We are one of the only European cities to have a young and growing population. We are going through a neo-Victorian age of transport investment - the Tube upgrades, the Thames Tideway tunnel - and my job as mayor is to keep blapping ministers between the eyes until they understand that it would be utter madness to cut infrastructure projects that will increase com­petitiveness. So the plan is simple: lengthen London's lead as the best big city on earth.

What will be your biggest achievement as mayor?
Asking that is like peering into a crib full of octuplets and asking the proud mother which baby will be the brightest. It's just too early to say, and I don't want to jinx things by boasting.

I am pleased with our success in fighting crime - down 9 per cent in the first 21 months of my mayoralty - and especially in tackling knife crime and aggro on public transport, both issues on which I campaigned.

We already have more electric cars than any other city in Europe, and you should not ­underestimate my militant determination to increase cycling. I am a proud former motoring correspondent for GQ magazine, but we are crazy to be making so many short journeys by car. Cycling went up 10 per cent in my first year, and we are hoping to have further success this year. I know how unpopular bikes can be, but we are going ahead full tilt in the serene confidence that it is the right thing for London.

Who is your hero?
Pericles. At the age of about 12, I read that bit where he defines a democracy and an open society - equality under the law, advancement based on merit, freedom to do what you want provided you don't harm others - and I remember thinking that this was what I believed in.

I remember passionately identifying this way of life with America; this was during the cold war. I identified Sparta - nasty, closed, militaristic, authoritarian - with socialist Russia.

Are bankers much maligned?
Let's face it, this recession was not caused by union militancy or oil prices. It was caused by bankers taking too many risks. That is why I said it was outrageous that they continue to pay themselves stonking bonuses, as though nothing had happened. Where I differ from some commentators is on whether it would be a good idea to attack the financial services industry, to hack it back and sack them all in the demented belief that manufacturing would somehow plug the gap.

What place should banking hold in Britain's economy?
London happens to be a world leader in a business that is indispensable to a market economy. That business generates stupendous tax revenues. It attracts people of talent and spending power to our city. I certainly believe these people need to make a much bigger contribution to the lives of people around them. But it is one thing to insist that bankers show a greater sense of duty to society, and another to launch a wholesale attack on a sector that is of huge ­economic importance.

Do you support the 50p tax on high earners?
We can't expect to muddle along for ever with a top rate of tax considerably higher than most of our serious competitors, including Germany, France, Italy, China, Switzerland, Australia and America. So the answer is no.

Should Britain leave the EU?
No. But it was a scandal that Labour got re-elected by promising a referendum on Lisbon, and then failed to deliver.

What do you like about David Cameron?
He's a nice guy but he's also tough as old boots. And I very much like the fact that he's about to be Prime Minister.

Does class matter any more?
Ask Harriet Harman - an Old Paulina whose uncle Lord Longford was a very sound Bullingdon man.

Are we all doomed?
Of course not.

Defining moments

1964 Born in New York
1986 Graduates from Oxford and joins the Times. Later fired for falsifying a quote
1994 Assistant editor, Daily Telegraph
1999 Appointed editor of the Spectator
2001 Elected as MP for Henley
2003 Vice-chairman of the Conservatives, then shadow minister for the arts
2004 Removed from both party posts following an affair with Petronella Wyatt
2008 Elected Mayor of London

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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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.