In northern Iraq, Kurds warn: “Beware the Arabs”

Sunni Arab Muslim politicians are using elections to push for renewed control over Kurdish-majority,

Just off the Mosul road that runs through the vivid green plains of Iraq's Nineveh Province, a Kurdish security officer - a peshmerga - checks our documents, though we are several miles outside Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) borders. "Careful," he says, gesturing at the road ahead. "There are Arabs."

The checkpoint, manned by Kurdish forces, is on the country's "trigger line", a 300-mile unofficial boundary between the areas run by the KRG and the Iraqi central government - a border that some fear will be the setting for the country's next civil war. The KRG claims that areas of northern Iraq with a large Kurdish population ought to be part of its jurisdiction, and says its peshmergas were invited across the official green line by US forces to help protect the local people. Arab nationalist parties accuse the KRG of occupying disputed land.

The governance of these areas, particularly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, is a focal point for post-election bargaining over the make-up of the ruling coalition. US forces have begun to play an important role in managing Arab-Kurd tensions, but they are scheduled to withdraw by the end of the year, leaving little time to cut a deal.

In Talkeef, an ethnically mixed town just beyond the checkpoint, trigger-line tensions run high. Bashar al-Kiki, the Kurdish head of the district council, recalls a recent clash between Arab forces, peshmergas and US troops. "I was so scared," he says.

When al-Kiki learned that Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh, was coming to Talkeef, his heart sank. Under Saddam Hussein, the region's Kurdish minority was excluded from power, but it came to dominate the provincial government after Iraq's 2005 elections, which many Sunni Arabs boycotted. In power, Kurdish parties showed scant regard for bridge-building; in the 2009 provincial elections, Sunnis returned to the polls and al-Hadba, the Arab nationalist party to which al-Nujaifi is affiliated, refused to offer senior posts to anyone from the main Kurdish parties. A boycott movement sprang up, urging officials from Kurdish areas, such as al-Kiki, to cut their links with the provincial government.

So, on the morning that al-Nujaifi appeared in Talkeef, a crowd of demonstrators started to gather. When al-Kiki went to the town gate to explain the sensitivities of the situation, he was faced with five American trucks approaching the checkpoint, plus tanks and helicopters.

“The head of the peshmergas was talking to the Americans, and he received a call from above telling him to let al-Nujaifi go," al-Kiki told me. The armoured vehicles eventually passed through the gate, but were pelted with stones and tomatoes. Later, the governor travelled to another part of the region where a demonstration ended in gunfire and arrests. "I expec­ted bigger consequences," al-Kiki says. "If one peshmerga had decided to stop al-Nujaifi, there would have been a big fight."

Talkeef is surrounded by checkpoints, but the various groups seem to mingle freely within the town. The population consists of Kurds, Christians, Arab Muslims and Yezidis, followers of a pre-Islamic religion whose unusual grooved shrines look like giant lemon-squeezers in the Nineveh landscape. From behind his desk, al-Kiki tackles the problems of a range of constituents, switching between Kurdish and Arabic. In spite of Talkeef's location, security within the town is good, locals say.

Scores of Christian families fleeing a recent campaign of violence in Mosul have sought refuge in Talkeef. "We feel very safe here, protected by the KRG forces and the [Iraqi] police," a Christian leader sitting in the office tells me, adding: "Mainly the KRG." The peshmergas, who patrol the streets, are seen as more effective than the Iraqi security forces.

A political game

An elderly man in a dishdasha and headdress enters the office and is introduced as "the sheikh". Saeed Mohammed Saeed is one of Talkeef's Arab community leaders. "Relations between Kurds and Arabs have always been good, because we have marriage relations," he says. "The situation is not the people, it's the political parties." He is contemptuous of al-Nujaifi's decision to visit Talkeef ("just a political game"), and his take on whether the town should be part of the KRG is diplomatic. "There is a saying that Mosul is the father of poor people. Here there are lots of farmers. The majority feel comfortable if we live with Mosul."

The community members in al-Kiki's office chat and joke with each other, but there are reminders of the wider tensions. Even al-Kiki, who has many Arab relatives, is not always tactful. "In the 1960s there were just Kurds and Yezidis here," he says. "Now there are more Arabs than Christians, unfortunately."

At three o'clock, the visitors have left, and al-Kiki invites us to lunch at the local kebab shop. The streets are calm and almost empty, but an armed soldier accompanies us, and security guards at the office gates spring up nervously to inspect trucks that pass. The strange mix of security and uncertainty that characterises life here lends itself to a pervasive strain of black humour. Having insisted that Talkeef is a stable place, al-Kiki teases me about the town's proximity to Mosul, one of al-Qaeda's last refuges in Iraq. "It is very dangerous," he says in English. He chuckles. "Very dangerous."

 

This article appeared in this week's New Statesman under the headline "Hair-trigger town"

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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.