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If the world was run by doctors

Politicians work together to tackle political crises, so why not medical emergencies? Malaria can an

It's a strange thing to be asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to write an article. Particularly strange for me, as I'm one of the few people who would have been confused by his original letter. It asked me to write something for the New Statesman and was signed simply "Rowan". I assumed that it was from my old friend Rowan Atkinson and, although slightly puzzled by his new, fancy headed notepaper, I ignored it, as you're allowed to do with old friends. My office then received a prompting call. I reread the letter and realised that it was from a real, clever clergyman, rather than some­one who has just acted as stupid clergymen throughout his career.

But what to write about? I've been fairly scared of archbishops, ever since my first encounter with one on a train when I was nine. He sat down opposite me - we were travelling from Ascot to London - and I looked at him a lot. When I was finally convinced that he was Michael Ramsey, the archbishop of Canterbury (the purple dress was something of a giveaway), I asked him a question about God. He couldn't have looked at me in a more bored manner. He said it was a "very interesting question", then went straight back to reading his book without giving me an answer. So I was nervous of trying to get in touch with Rowan Not Atkinson and asking him a question, in case I got a similar reply.

I hope it's OK if I just write very quickly about malaria. I know I've got quirks but, now that I'm 54, I guess I have to accept who I am. I'll never understand classical music. I'll never get a glimmer of emotion from any painting by Picasso. I'll never like fish in any kind of white sauce. And I'll never understand why malaria is still killing over three-quarters of a million people, most of them young, every year, in this modern world of ours.

My sense of confusion was brought into focus by the letter that our Prime Minister, David Cameron, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and President Barack Obama of the US sent to the major newspapers of the world in April. It was about something very urgent: the situation in Libya. They had to get together urgently because of the gruesome and dangerous situation that had arisen there. They had to take urgent action and they did. Urgent and expensive action - billions of pounds' worth of action.

What I don't understand is this: why are the lives at risk in Libya more valuable than the lives we are losing to malaria? I don't know how many are at risk in Libya, but I doubt there are 800,000. The total population of Libya is only six and a half million - roughly the same as the number of people who die of malaria around the world every eight years. Of course, oil may have something to do with it, but all of the rhetoric has been about human suffering. So it continues to puzzle me why these three powerful and important men don't write a letter to those same papers and say, "There's this terrible situation that is killing nearly a million people a year - 600,000 innocent children; more than 2,000 people yesterday - even though we know how to prevent these deaths. We must do something about it urgently."

Opening the box

One thing is for sure: they could be much more confident of the outcome of their initiative. Winston Churchill once said that as soon as you open the box marked "War", you have no idea what will happen:

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

This seems true in Libya and the other Arab spring nations. As I write, it is a fluid and dangerous situation. And the history of western support for revolution is littered with strange and unpredictable outcomes - see Osama Bin Laden.

But open the box marked "Malaria" and you will find a complicated plan for its elimination that nobody opposes. There's a long document called the Global Malaria Action Plan, which is a pretty good blueprint for success. There are a lot of brilliant people working on it. There has been a 20 per cent decline in deaths from malaria since 2000. During that time, 11 African countries have cut their malaria deaths by 50 per cent. The world did, in fact, almost get rid of malaria in the 1960s, but a bit stayed in Africa and now it's killing all over again.

This time we could win the full victory. So why doesn't it happen? Why do politicians seem to find lives at risk because of politics so fascinating but bide their time when it comes to lives at risk because of health? One answer, I suspect, is that it seems somehow more horrific for a life to be taken by a ruthless tyrant than to be taken by a ruthless disease.

I would argue that it's not. Spend a day at a hospital in Mozambique, Uganda, Nigeria or Burundi, where malaria is bad, and there's enough panic and horror and violence against children there for anyone's taste. See the looks on the faces of the mums and dads as their children sweat, vomit and slip into comas - they are no less full of horror than if a tyrant's bullet had caused the damage.

Another reason why there is so little sense of urgency in the face of the spectacular number of deaths from disease is that politicians are very, very interested in politics. We'd have a different world if it were run by doctors. You notice it with newspapers and the media, too - newspapers and the media love stories about the media and newspapers. There is no way that the public is as interested in the phone-hacking issue and the superinjunction furore as the newspaper column inches they've been given would imply. Editors love these stories because they're about their job. It is for the same reason that most politicians are interested in politics. They're obsessed by the Middle East - the ultimate political mystery - but they're not viscerally interested in medical questions. And they are not lobbied on medical questions with such vigour. In a world run by doctors, malaria would have been wiped out years ago.

Yet the truth is, if you want huge wins with predictable outcomes, they lie in the area not of politics, but health. And perhaps universal education (see Gordon Brown, overleaf). I would plead with David Cameron to think about making one of these issues his great foreign-policy cause. I'm particularly passionate about malaria but universal vaccination would also save millions of lives - rotavirus, which kills 500,000 children a year, could be wiped out. And universal education would transform the lives of 70 million working children. In a world run by teachers, every child would go to school.

Optimist that I am, I think perhaps things are indeed changing. I strongly applaud the Tories for recommitting to the last government's impressive promise that international aid should account for 0.7 per cent of gross national income by 2013. I've heard George Osborne talk passionately about the fight against malaria and I was thrilled. And the UK is co-hosting the crucial Gavi forum this month to find extra money for immunisation.

But I strongly encourage them to go a step further, to ask: "How can British leadership leave a mighty legacy in the world, change things permanently, quickly?" And then I think Cameron should ring up Nicolas and Barack in the middle of the night and say, "Let's write a letter to the papers again. I think we can do this. By the time we're out of power, we could save a million - no, if we really focus on it, five million lives a year, for ever."

Writing on the wall

I know I've got a simple view on it. I know I'm still just the boy in shorts asking the archbishop an obvious question. Nonetheless, I'm interested to know why this is such a foolish notion. Particularly if we have a dominant Obama winning a second term and doing some­thing serious about Africa while in power, unlike some Democrats before him.

One final statistic. At a rough count, the total number of lives - such precious lives - lost in the Middle East conflict since the Six Day War in 1967, added to the number of lives lost in the Troubles in Northern Ireland since 1969, added to the number of US soldiers lost in the Korean and Vietnam wars, added to the number of civilian and military casualties in our recent engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, still has to be multiplied by two to get the number of lives that will be lost to malaria in the next 12 months. Precious lives, also. The combined cost of those wars is almostincalculable. But recent calculations say it would cost $6bn a year to get rid of malaria once and for all. That's 12 countries putting aside just half a billion each. But someone's got to lead it. Could it be our lot?

One final quotation. I went to a Roger Waters concert performance of The Wall the other day and up on the wall at one point came a quote I assumed was from the mouth of some noisy, bearded radical. It read: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." I was surprised when its attribution came up: Dwight D Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during the Second World War and Republican president of the United States. So, maybe it's me and Ike now asking the new generation of politicians: is there another way?

Richard Curtis is the writer of "Blackadder", "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and, most recently, "The Boat That Rocked"

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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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 Nicolas Sarkozy 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 hopep 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.