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Tracey Thorn: How my parents met

They’d been introduced as pen pals through an uncle – my mum and her friend had written to this lonely young man, who was training in Jordan, and had each sent a photo. 

Just before Christmas I booked this short holiday in Tenerife with my sister and her husband, our only worry being whether or not Dad would be OK while we were away. Then, just a few weeks ago, and not entirely unexpectedly, he died. And now, with the shock and the funeral safely out of the way, we’ve come on holiday anyway, and it is infused not with worry, but with a strange mix of relief and regret, not least because the last time we were here, Dad was with us, too.

It was about five years ago. He was in good form, having rallied better than any of us expected after Mum’s death, and he had rented a mobility scooter, on which he’d bomb up and down the prom, stopping at cafés along the way to have a Spanish brandy. He enjoyed doing nothing much at all on holiday; eating, drinking, “watching the world go by”, as he used to say. Like in most seaside places, there’s lots of world-going-by to watch here.

The narrow, flat stretch between the barren hills and the sea, into which the hotels and apartments are crammed, has nothing picturesque or classy about it, but a resolute cheerfulness pervades – the simple enjoyment of the sun, of daytime booze, of no work to go to. The holidaymakers are either professional sunbathers with skin like a tan leather sofa, or those whose legs have never seen the light of day and are, as my youngest used to say, “as white as a sheep”.

There are lots of walkers, like me and my sister, and lots of users of mobility scooters and wheelchairs who have found, like Dad, that the flat surface is ideal, and they’re interspersed with local hippies – a bunch of dreadlocked white boys with acoustic guitars, one singing a supper-club version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, another sprawled in a shopping trolley with his fully plastered broken leg resting on the handles.

It’s touristy, and the sandwich boards outside the cafés advertise paella, fajitas and mojitos, and “lasagne of the house”, but then you round a headland and hit upon a stretch of black, rocky beach and a sea full of surfers, and the scent of salty air replaces the smell of salty chips. I remember that when we were here with Dad he decided he wanted to buy a pair of shoes, the same as the ones he was wearing, which he’d bought here a few years before. And so we set off into the streets back from the beach, the only thing approaching an “old town”, and searched for the exact lightweight, beige or grey leather shoes he liked to wear. Which apparently could only be found in Tenerife.

This single-mindedness was pretty typical. The other memory that now comes to me is that during that same trip I had a full-scale, teenage, blazing row with him one night over after-dinner drinks, which resulted in me storming up to my bedroom, shouting “Good NIGHT” over my shoulder as I went. I was almost 50 years old at the time yet he could still make me feel 16 and infuriate me like no one else.

But on the front page of his funeral order of service we had printed a photo of him in his RAF uniform, aged 19, the way he looked the day my mum met him. They’d been introduced as pen pals through an uncle – my mum and her friend had written to this lonely young man, who was training in Jordan, and had each sent a photo. He chose Mum, and kept that very photo in his wallet for the rest of his life. They had exchanged letters and, when he was back in the UK, arranged to meet. He arrived in his RAF blues, gliding up the escalator at Holborn Tube, where she was waiting at the top. And I think of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. David Niven in that uniform, and the staircase to heaven. Wartime romance. Does anything tug at the heart more strongly?

Back at home after the funeral, I put that photo of him up on Twitter. It’s the most popular thing I’ve ever tweeted, getting over a thousand likes. He’d have been proud.

Well, he’d have said, “What the hell’s Twitter?” and rolled his eyes, and we’d have had a row about it. But still.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Marine Le Pen’s new disguise: a bid to rebrand her far-right party as the “National Rally”

Le Pen hopes to present her renamed party as the working-class alternative to Macron’s bourgeois elitism.

Marine Le Pen had just declared: “When foreigners are in France, they must respect the law and the people” when chants of “On est chez nous!” (“We are at home!”) broke out in the audience. French flags were waved in the air.

On 11 March, Le Pen, 49, was re-elected leader of her far-right party, Front National (FN), and announced it was to be renamed Rassemblement National (“National Rally”). “It must be a rallying cry, a call for those who have France and the French at their heart to join us,” she declared at the party’s conference in Lille, northern France.

It’s a pivotal moment for the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded in 1972 and led until 2011. After going from a “jackass” far-right outfit known for its xenophobia, to the nationalist, anti-immigration party defeated in the final round of the 2017 French presidential election by the liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron, its goal is now to move “from opposition and into government”, Le Pen said.

For the FN leader, this is also a decisive moment. Le Pen’s credibility was damaged by her weak performance in the run-off debate and polls show her campaign eroded the political gains made during the party’s decade-long “de-demonisation”. “Her image is clearly tarnished,” Valérie Igounet, an expert on the French far right, told me. “But she is still supported by the party.” The FN claims its membership is around 80,000; Igounet says it is likely to have fallen to 50,000.

The proposed name will be put to a membership vote – as Le Pen’s re-election was, though she was the only candidate – but the move has already prompted concern.

Asked if they were happy with the rebrand, only 52 per cent of FN members answered yes. “It is a name that has negative connotations in French history,” Igounet said. Rassemblement National was a collaborationist party in the 1940s. It was also used in 1965 by defeated far-right presidential candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, whose campaign was run by Jean-Marie Le Pen. “For a party that wants to free itself from Le Pen’s father, it’s a surprising choice,” Igounet said. Another political organisation, Rassemblement pour la France, claims the FN has no right to the name.

Not all of the FN’s fundamentals have been abandoned. The logo, a red, white and blue flame inspired by an Italian neo-fascist party, remains. Membership surveys show 98 per cent still approve of the anti-immigration rhetoric, Igounet said.

Le Pen hopes the rebrand will enable new political alliances. Thierry Mariani, a former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy and member of the right-wing Républicains, has called for an alliance with the FN (which, he said, “has evolved”). But the Républicains’ leader, Laurent Wauquiez, is firmly opposed: “As long as I am leader, there will be no alliance with the FN,” he vowed. “The FN want to make alliances, but they have nowhere to go,” said Antoine de Cabanes, a researcher on the far right for the think tank Transform! Europe.

Can Le Pen’s party really be “de-demonised”? The former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon, who is currently touring Europe, was invited to speak at the Lille conference. “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour,” he told activists, to rapturous applause.

Bannon has also praised Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s more conservative 28-year-old niece, as the party’s “rising star”. The younger Le Pen is on a “break” from French politics but addressed the US Republicans in Washington in February, where she declared her ambition to “make France great again”. Marion is tipped as a possible future leader. “She has the right name,” noted De Cabanes.

Marine Le Pen insisted she didn’t want to “make an ally” of Bannon, but rather to “listen to someone who defied expectation to win against all odds”. Yet even her father, a Holocaust denier whose politics are closer to Bannon’s than his daughter’s, described the choice of speaker as “not exactly de-demonising the party”.

It was not an isolated incident. On 10 March, Davy Rodríguez, a parliamentary assistant to Le Pen, was forced to resign after he was filmed using a racial slur in Lille.

The FN defended Bannon’s invitation on the grounds that “he embodies the rejection of the establishment, of the European Union and the system of politics and the media”. Le Pen called President Macron’s politics a “great downgrading of the middle and working class” and declared her party “the defender of the workers, the employees, the sorrowful farmers”.

The road to the 2022 presidential contest includes four elections – municipal, departmental, regional and European –  in which Le Pen hopes to present her renamed party as the working-class alternative to Macron’s bourgeois elitism. But in Lille, activists cheered wildly not when Le Pen spoke about the road ahead, but when she declared: “Legal and illegal immigration are not bearable any more!” Plus ça change… 

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game