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The president, his church and the crocodiles

Côte d'Ivoire's Félix Houphouët-Boigny ruled for 33 years, dying with a dream to turn his home villa

Jungle pressed against narrow road as we drove north. Trucks carrying thick hardwood logs hurtled towards us. The only suggestion of life beyond the thick green walls of vegetation was the occasional puff of smoke in the distance or a lone roadside vendor hawking her forest fruits: bananas, avocados, mangoes. We were heading north towards Yamoussoukro, which is about 240 kilometres from the former capital, Abidjan, on the southern coast, with its high-rise buildings, flashing neon signs and human mass.

Yamoussoukro is the birthplace of Côte d'Ivoire's founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, and in 1983, in an act of outlandish confidence, he decided to make his birthplace the new capital, replacing Abidjan. At the time, Yamoussoukro was little more than an agricultural village of 15,000 people, and the man the French called "the Sage of Africa" was, by family heritage, its chief.

Houphouët-Boigny was not one for small measures. As surely as he had filled the artificial lake in the grounds of his Yamoussoukro palace with crocodiles, he ordered the construction of monuments, mostly to himself. There was the six-lane highway and the five-star Hôtel Président, the eponymous grandes écoles and marble-floored hilltop convention centre. The 3,000-metre airport runway was one of only two in Africa long enough to land a Concorde. (The other was in Mobutu Sese Seko's ancestral home of Gbadolité, the "Versailles in the Jungle" in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo.) In a country where just a third of the people are Christian, Houphouët-Boigny ordered the construction of the world's largest church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, in Yamoussoukro. Bigger even than St Peter's Basilica in Rome, it stands 158 metres high and the nave can seat 7,000 people, with standing room for a further 11,000. Furnished with Italian-built, air-conditioned pews, it cost $300m (£175m) to build in the late 1980s.

Now I was on my way to discover what had become of the Catholic basilica in the African bush, as well as the rest of Houphouët-Boigny's legacy, reptiles included. In the early 1980s, V S Naipaul came here, a visit that produced his celebrated essay "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro", published in 1987. Naipaul was quite complimentary about Houphouët-Boigny's rule, and thought the crocs seemed to symbolise his mystique and power over his people.

There was another reason for my trip. Even by the time Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, Yamoussoukro remained a capital in name only. None of the government or judicial in stitutions had moved from Abidjan. In the following years, heightened ethnic tensions, a military coup and finally a civil war, which ended formally only in March 2007, appeared to have killed his dream of moving the capital for real.

“The money for the hospital has been in an account in the Vatican for 15 years,” said Inès. “We don’t know why it hasn’t been built”

Although peace has held, the process of remedying the main causes of the conflict, especially the denial of basic rights for descendants of immigrants from neighbouring countries, is proving slow. The economy is struggling to recover, and the country is still split in two, with a government-controlled south and an impoverished, rebel-run north. A potentially divisive presidential election, scheduled for 30 November - already more than three years late - looks certain to be postponed to 2009 because of logistical challenges. But I had heard reports that a multibillion-pound construction spree was under way in the town. Was Houphouët-Boigny's vision of the jungle capital going to be fulfilled after all?

After two and a half hours on the road, the giant dome of the basilica came into view. As we got nearer, the road widened. There were no other cars. The church appeared enormous, even from the distant main gate. Two converging crescents of towering columns, meant to signify a pair of arms, guarded its entrance.

Our guide's name was Inès. Slim and pretty, she was dressed in a grey trouser suit and spoke excellent English. She led us into the church, where, in the front row of pews, a small plaque indicated le vieux's favourite seat. In front of us were fat bronze and copper pillars; a 50-kilogram gold cross hung beneath a glittering chandelier. Huge, hand-blown stained-glass murals, covering an area of more than 7,000 square metres in all and made in 40 different workshops in Bordeaux, sucked in light from all sides of the church. Hidden inside several enormous columns were the lifts. We took one to the first floor.

A corridor led out on to a balcony overlooking gardens and two stately villas. One of the villas was used by the Polish clergymen who administer the basilica. The deacon and resident monk are from the Pallottine congregation of the Catholic Church, and were sent out by Pope John Paul II, who consecrated the church amid much controversy in 1990. An ambassador in Abidjan had told me that the second villa was reserved for the sole use of the pope, and that the air-conditioning had been kept on ever since his first and only visit.

Sadly, this was not true. Only one room inside the villa was set aside for the pope, and the air-conditioning was switched off. But another story I had heard was indeed true. One of the pope's conditions for coming to Yamoussoukro to bless what many here and abroad considered to be a vulgar vanity project was that Houphouët-Boigny construct a hospital next to the church. During the papal visit, a foundation stone for the hospital was laid. The stone is still there. "The money for the hospital has been in an account in the Vatican for 15 years," Inès said. "We don't know why it has not been built."

On the way out of the church, she pointed at a stained-glass mural, next to the door, depicting Jesus riding a blue donkey. Kneeling at his feet was a man with a brown face: it was Houphouët-Boigny.

I asked Inès how many people attended a typical Sunday service. "About 350," she said. It was explained to me that, under Houphouët-Boigny's 33-year-rule, most Ivorians lived at a "good level". The cocoa- and coffee-based economy prospered, until the 1980s at least, and immigrants from less fortunate neighbouring countries were welcomed in to seek work. There was no war during Houphouët-Boigny's time, and although he may have exploited his position and power to amass a personal fortune of many billions, my driver Adama, and others like him, did not seem to be concerned. "We can never forget him," Adama said.

The Félix Houphouët-Boigny Foundation is located in a cavernous convention centre perched on a hill overlooking Yamoussoukro. It was built to remind people that the president was, above all, a "tireless advocate of peace". At the main gate, a long way from the building itself, a guard signed us in and then set off on his bicycle, beckoning us to follow.

Konan told me what he had seen the day of Houphouët-Boigny’s funeral. “The man dived into the lake. The crocodiles took him"

In the entrance hall, dozens of photos had been laid out on a table. Most featured Houphouët-Boigny. A single photograph stood out. It showed two beautiful women, one black, one white. The first was Marie-Thérèse, Houphouët-Boigny's second wife, who was included in a 1962 Time magazine feature entitled "Reigning beauties". Next to her was Jackie Onassis.

A sign on a nearby booth advertised telex services. A bored-looking guide took us on a tour of one dreary conference room after another. Finally, we arrived at the picture gallery.

On the walls of a narrow room hung Houphouët-Boigny's wedding photo, as well as pictures of him with Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela, and several group portraits taken at various francophone summits. They featured a smiling Houphouët-Boigny together with his great friend François Mitterrand and other African Big Men of the era, such as Omar Bongo of Gabon, today the world's longest-serving leader, and Mobutu, wearing his leopard-skin hat.

The last exhibit was a bright, New Age-style painting titled Peace Fighters. Gandhi, Mandela, Anwar al-Sadat and Martin Luther King each occupied a corner position. Houphouët-Boigny was in the middle.

Houphouët-Boigny wanted to create a modern, hi-tech capital, yet we drove across Yamoussoukro on potholed roads lined with informal markets and crisscrossed by cows and goats. Two life-sized, gold-plated rams stood outside the presidential palace, in front of which was a murky dam. The Yamoussoukro crocodiles are legendary in Côte d’Ivoire; most people I met had a story about them. Venance Konan, one of the Côte d’Ivoire’s best-known journalists and authors, told me that, as a child, he had been told that the president fed albinos to his crocodiles. Another popular tale was that, on the day of his death, a large crocodile with a cowrie shell atop its head had died, too, as if in sympathy. What is certain is that over the years the crocodiles have consumed many of his subjects. Konan said he was among a large crowd which had seen a man eaten alive on the day of the president’s funeral. “He came running, shouting: ‘Houphouët is dead, why should I live?’ He climbed the fence and dived into the lake. The crocodiles took him.”

A security guard who gave his name as Sergeant Kibré showed us to the far side of the "sacred water". Several crocodiles lurked in the shallows. One had lost part of its nose.

A man named Keïta approached, holding a scraggly chicken by its wing. Waving it over the fence, he shouted "chef du cabinet" several times, then "captaine" and "commandant". These were, apparently, the names of the biggest crocodiles in the lake. Soon afterwards, several fat yellow-bellied beasts emerged from the water and came to lie on a stone bank beneath us, slowly opening and closing their jaws.

For CFA3,000 (£3.60), Keïta said that he would drop the chicken. I paid him CFA2,000 not to.

Houphouët-Boigny's grand ambitions gave Alphonse Noufe his first job. A recently qualified civil engineer, he was sent to Yamoussoukro to work on the basilica in 1985, and spent the next four years on the project. Now he is back in town working on behalf of another Ivorian leader, President Laurent Gbagbo. Noufe is the on-site manager of the Special Programme for the Transfer of the Capital to Yamoussoukro, which seeks to complete Houphouët-Boigny's vision. He listed the structures to be built between now and 2013: the National Assembly, 40 government ministry buildings, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, another presidential palace, the national television and radio headquarters. There would also be a senate - even though the present Ivorian constitution does not allow for senators - an international hospital and an "Olympic Centre", in the style of the Stade de France in Paris. The overall budget for the project is CFA3,000bn (£3.6bn) - an astounding and potentially ruinous figure for a country that only recently emerged from civil war. Two small villages within Yamoussoukro will have to be relocated to accommodate the 6,000-hectare construction site. "It is like we are building a new town," Noufe told me.

Gbagbo's desire for a defining civil works project is no surprise. After all, Henri Konan Bédié, who ruled from 1993-99 (and who is challenging Gbagbo in the forthcoming elections), also followed Houphouët-Boigny's example. In his home department of Daoukro, about 200 kilometres east of Yamoussoukro, with a population of 14,000, Bédié built a mosque, a multimillion-pound conference hall, smooth roads, a hotel and a nightclub. Then he was toppled in a coup.

But what people are asking of Gbagbo is this: why is he spending so much money in Yamoussoukro, far from his own home town and support base? Noufe said that that was a "political question", but to his mind the transfer of the capital made sense. Abidjan was "going down, day by day". There were problems with traffic, security and overcrowding.

In Abidjan, however, the prevailing opinion is that Gbagbo, renowned as a canny politician, is using the project to try to score points with the Baoulés, the largest ethnic group in Côte d'Ivoire, who make up nearly a quarter of the population and mainly inhabit the central region, which includes Yamous soukro. With enough of their votes, he will stay in power.

Following Noufe’s directions, we drove across town to the site of the new project. The beginnings of a processional avenue, the Triumphal Way, had been carved out of the earth and smoothed. Signboards indicated the route to the National Assembly, the presidential palace and the

Hôtel des Parlementaires. Two yellow cranes hovered above the Assembly, which, when completed, will be the biggest – and probably the grandest – parliament building in Africa. Like the presidential palace, it is being constructed by Pierre Fakhoury, the architect who also designed the basilica.

The 300-room, six-storey hotel, commissioned to accommodate MPs when parliament is in session, has been officially open for nearly a year. Perhaps this was due to the efficiency of the Chinese workers (whose government also financed most of the £26.7m cost), but the timing of its completion seemed odd: it is likely to be several years before the Assembly opens and MPs get to spend any length of time here.

The lobby had marble floors; there was a well-equipped business centre and coffee shop, though both were closed. A receptionist kindly offered to give us a tour. On the ground floor were two restaurants and several well-furnished offices for the most senior parliamentarians. There was a swimming pool and a nightclub. The rooms were smart and comfortable; the larger ones had flat-screen televisions. I asked if the hotel was accepting paying customers. Yes, the receptionist said, but only if the guests arrived as part of a large group. And was there anyone booked in at the moment? No.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman and East Africa correspondent of the Guardian

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism

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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.