Pakistan's dreamer

Imran Khan's aspiration to build Oxbridge in Pakistan is seen by his detractors as mere idealism in

An Oxford University in Pakistan? In a country described as potentially the “most dangerous place on Earth” by Newsweek? You'd have to be kidding, right? Well apparently not according to Pakistan cricket legend turned maverick politician, Imran Khan.

"I want a proper university like Oxford and Cambridge," says the determined Khan, himself an Oxford graduate. "So I have this beautiful place, miles and miles of land on a lake and mountains behind." He is talking about his dream project, Namal College, located in Pakistan ’s Mianwali district.

The newly inaugurated institute has already been granted the status of an Associate College by the University of Bradford, of which Khan is, incidentally, the chancellor. “With Bradford University we are setting up a Technical College to begin with,” he says. “And then a full blown university.”

But these days Pakistan seems to have best captured the world media's imagination as the land of the Taleban and Osama bin Laden’s last hiding place. However, it could be argued that it is education - or rather the lack of it - which is the real problem Pakistanis face. Remember this is the sixth most populous country in the world and, remarkably, the literacy rate for its 160 million people still hovers at around 50 per cent.

Arguably a very strong link exists between education and the poor electoral choices that haunt the Pakistani people. For this is one corner of the globe where the centuries old curse of feudalism is still alive and kicking, and the continuation of the Bhutto dynasty in the absence of any credible leadership is living testimony to this.

“The only private sector university in the rural areas,” says the enthusiastic Khan about his ultra-ambitious Namal project. “And the main thing is that majority [of students] will be from scholarships. We will attract bright students. Our agents will go and find them and bring them to the university.”

In today's Pakistan it is an established, well-honed practise for parents to send their children abroad for higher education, almost a rite of passage if you will. But this applies only if one hails from that tiny minority that can afford such luxury.

As Khan explains it: "Pakistan is an elitist economy. Everything is catered for a tiny elite.” Urdu is the national language, but in private “elitist” schools it is English that is given preference. Urdu medium schools are reserved for the poor and the struggling middle classes. Indeed the late Benazir had been the object of much derision in the local press for the state of her Urdu.

“You can’t have just English medium for the elite and for the majority... the whole school structure is collapsed,” says Khan. Ghost school are another phenomenon. These are supposedly state-run schools but which in reality exist only on paper.

So how does one tackle such dire inequalities of wealth and education? “The solution is direct taxation,” claims Khan. “Also subsidising the small farmer of Pakistan when 70 per cent of the people live in the rural areas.”

For a politician who is seen on Pakistani television stations debating so vociferously for democracy and the restoration of the judiciary, Imran was a quiet, albeit, determined child. “I was shy,” he recalls. “But I knew exactly what I wanted. I was undetered by setbacks and failures. I used to learn from my mistakes and keep going. When I went out collecting money and when I started in politics I had to change myself [by becoming less shy].”

The money collection Khan does for the cancer hospital he built in 1994 is said to provide over 70 per cent of its patients with free treatment facilities. He dedicated the hospital to the memory of his mother, Shaukat Khanum, who died from cancer and after whom the hospital is named. "We are working on a second cancer hospital in Karachi," he says.

What Khan is doing, through his Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital and Namal College, should actually be the job of the government. But this is a country where the idea of state hand-outs are very much an alien concept.

With the new administration in place - a shaky coalition of parties that appears to be in a constant battle to survive - it seems to be left up to Khan and others like him to run mini welfare-states within Pakistan.

“I think people like us who have been given so much by our country have a responsibility,” he says. “The only way to fight for a change is through politics, there is no other way.”

So how has Khan been rewarded for his efforts? Back in the 90s he was accused of being party to a Jewish conspiracy by his critics for marrying Jemima Goldsmith. In more recent times Musharraf is said to have branded him a terrorist without a beard. And last year Khan was temporarily arrested following the infamous imposition of emergency rule as the country's judiciary got the sack.

Asked on who he counts among his supporters he is silent for a moment. "The youth, women" he says finally.

Khan is a frequent visitor to the UK, home to his now ex-wife Jemima and their two sons.

And judging from the attendance at the talks he delivers in London, he enjoys considerable support, or at least sympathy, from many British Pakistanis. As one woman last year confided during a demonstration outside Downing Street to protest Musharraf's emergency rule: "If we do not support Khan he is going to be finished."

Suggestions that Imran Khan's popularity is on the rise are, however, untested. He boycotted elections earlier in the year in what some would say was a missed opportunity to prove he does hold electoral clout.

But Khan insisted he would not take part in a vote until the restoration of the country's judiciary - part of tendency to take a moralistic stance which has been both to his detriment and his unique selling point.

Opponents assert Khan is a impractical man. And perhaps building Oxford University in Pakistan will prove his mettle. On the other hand perhaps it's just a step too far in a country struggling with growing militancy and the threat from Al Qaeda.

But for his young supporters it is Khan's professed principles and idealism that remain a draw. "I am an idealist - the rest, it doesn't matter if we create a utopia."

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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.