Democracy for Maldives

For many Westerners, the Maldives represents the peak of aspirational tourism but lurking behind the

This week saw the culmination of the Maldives’s first democratic elections. In a historic victory, Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, a former political prisoner and Amnesty ‘prisoner of conscience’, ousted dictator Maumun Abdul Gayoom in the presidential run-off.

Nasheed inherits a complex set of problems. Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years, has revolutionised the tiny nation’s economy based on luxury tourism. The last 20 years have seen a steady rise of 7 per cent per annum in gross domestic product. According to the Asian Development Bank, this makes the Maldives the richest nation in South Asia.

For many Westerners, the Maldives represents the peak of aspirational tourism, the 1190 tiny islands offering a level of privacy which even seven star hotels in Dubai cannot match.

Lurking behind this paradisiacal façade, though, is a gritty reality of exploitation and poverty. While a hotel room can cost up to £8,700 per night, 40 per cent of the population live on less than $1 per day, amidst rapidly rising living costs triggered by the global crisis. Certain areas lack electricity and running water.

“It is not paradise for anybody,” says Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern. “Living conditions for most Maldivians are akin to those in sub-Saharan Africa. There has been no trickle down of the extraordinary amount of money being generated."

The statistics do jar. A number of tiny, uninhabited islands are auctioned every year, fetching around £30m each. A survey conducted by the Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM) showed that basic workers’ pay was between $80–$120 per month, although even the very lowest end resorts had an annual income of $3-4million. Fishing stocks are hugely depleted and fresh fruit and vegetables bypass local residents, going directly to tourist islands. The UN recently found that over 30 per cent of Maldivian children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.

Barnett notes the lack of international awareness. “Gayoom’s regime was so repressive that it is very hard to get information out. Our campaign has been repeatedly undermined as people we were liaising with disappeared or were imprisoned. Compare this with the frequency of articles promoting the Maldives: they invest a huge amount in promotion."

Until recently, visitors to high-end resorts, largely situated on uninhabited islands, were banned from visiting the capital city, Malé. This is hardly surprising, as it is the world’s most congested city, and home to a growing drugs epidemic. UNICEF estimate that 10 per cent of the population use drugs, nearly half of these using heroin. The average age of first time users is just 12.

Many young people either lack the skills to work, or are unwilling to do so in shockingly poor conditions: a 2005 report found that 22 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women aged 15 – 24 were unemployed. Subsequently, an immigrant workforce of 40,000 imported from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh provides cheap labour.

TEAM, formed as an association to bypass anti-trade union laws, represents the rights of all tourism employees. Earlier this year, tourism workers were omitted from legislation designed to protect workers’ rights, despite the fact that tourism is the primary industry. After a protracted fight, the Labour Act was amended this month. The bill promises a maximum working week of 48 hours, paid overtime, and extra pay during Ramadan.

However, according to Ahmed Easa, president of TEAM, the law is being ignored. “We expected the resorts to give us all the rights and benefits as soon as the changes were approved, but we are getting nothing. These are international hotel companies and big chains, ignoring the new laws.”

Reform of the tourism industry will be an uphill struggle, as many politicians have close ties to it. “Conflict of interest laws passed earlier this year required cabinet ministers with business interests to resign,” explains Rachel Noble, Campaigns Manager at Tourism Concern, “But they kept their parliamentary seats, so they can still pull strings behind the scenes, compromising any positive legislation for tourism workers.”

Many Maldivians are jubilant at the end of an era characterised by repressive control of dissent. Nasheed, jailed repeatedly for pro-democracy activity and granted political asylum to the UK in 2004, promises to root out corruption when he takes over on the 11 November. The tone amongst campaigners is one of cautious optimism.

“I have met with him several times, and he keeps saying that labour rights are one of his main concerns,” says Easa. “I am hoping, but everyone in the Maldives knows that it’s not going to be easy. The influence of the rich on politics is very strong, and government ministers directly or indirectly own resorts. Even if Anni supports us, it is a long road.

“In the last year, the political parties have been mainly concerned with changing government. They have forgotten about labour rights and the workers, the people who are suffering. Let’s see what happens”.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.