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Don't play it again, Stan

The US base is crucial to operations in Afghanistan, so threats to close it are usually a ploy for m

A little-known Stan in central Asia has the US hanging by a thread. On Tuesday 3 February, Kyrgyzstan threatened to evict all 1,200 US troops stationed there, apparently at Russia’s request, and by Friday the government’s decision was “final”. Washington has used Manas airbase outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, as a launch pad for crucial operations in Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. It is the gateway for US and coalition troops into Afghanistan and the sole refuelling point for in-flight aircraft. If its closes, Nato will have to rethink plans to send more troops into the country later this year.

The US-Kyrgyz agreement on Manas has always been troubled. Governance in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has been blighted by corruption, and the parliament routinely threatens to kick America out when it is strapped for cash in order to extract millions more in rent. But recent calls by politicians from the ruling Ak Zhol party for the base to go were louder than usual. Richard Hipkin, a British pub manager in Bishkek whose biggest-paying customers work at the base, says: "This is as far down the line as it has ever got."

The furore began when Dmitry Medvedev offered to write off Kyrgyzstan's debts and lend the impoverished nation $2bn if it agreed to close the base. Russia's deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, has denied that this is the case and the Kyrgyz prime minister, Igor Chudinov, is adamant that parliament's decision to vote on the base's future this month has nothing to do with money. Very few believe them. A foreign ministry official says: "The government is just holding out to see if the US will match that offer, but I don't think they can."

Russia can easily buy Kyrgyz acquiesence. The global food crisis, high wheat prices and the credit crunch have hit the republic hard. A national power shortage has also disrupted production and fuelled political tensions, springing the usually disorganised opposition Social Democratic Party into action.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan's coal mines were seized by regional clan leaders and fell into disrepair. The bulk of electricity now comes from one hydroelectric power station, which for the past year has been working at very low capacity due to -30° temperatures in winter which have kept water frozen in the mountains, and low rainfall in summer. As the power station almost ground to a halt, most of the country had to survive on six hours of electricity a day at the height of the crisis, in the autumn.

Over shashlik, I unwittingly made my friend Dinara cry by talking about the power cuts and rising poverty. Up the road, huddled around candles at the Metro American bar, private military contractors were downing shots of Russian Parliament vodka, talking about whether it was better to take girls they fancied to Istanbul or the Maldives over Christmas.

The lights in the city are back on for the time being, and the conversation in Metro has changed from holiday plans to career moves. They don't have much to go on. The government issued frequent statements to the local press this past week, saying that the base has to go at some point and Kyrgyzstan wants it to go now, but neither the US embassy and state department nor contractors have yet received an official eviction notice. In previous years, when the government announced it was reviewing the Manas agreement, a handful of protesters gathered in the capital's main Ala-Too Square wearing silk bandanas and yelling "Yankee go home", but not this time.

Public opinion has warmed to the base. Tensions were high in December 2006, when a US serviceman shot dead a Kyrgyz worker suspected of carrying a knife, but around 10,000 locals work there as interpreters, shop staff, truck drivers and builders. The threat of unemployment is of greater concern.

Under the current agreement, Kyrgyzstan must give the US 180 days' notice to get out. If parliament votes to issue that notice, Washington really has nowhere else to go. It has already been thrown out of one Stan. In 2005, neighbouring Uzbekistan ejected the US from a critical airbase at Karshi-Khanabad after its diplomats criticised the Uzbek government for ordering armed forces to open fire on protesters in the eastern city of Andijan, killing hundreds.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan both border Afghanistan, but Tajikistan's landslide-prone, shoddy roads are a liability, and Turkmenistan is opening up only very slowly after the death in 2006 of Saparmurat Niyazov, the crackpot dictator who banned beards and renamed the days of the week after his family. Iran is out of the question, and Nato has no bargaining chips in the region.

Kyrgyzstan's government is "so damn dumb", bawls Mike Haughland, a barrel-chested Nebraskan who works for Task Force Innovations International, a private company that constructs lavatory blocks and other buildings at the base. Local politicians have not seen the benefit of working with the US military, and the Kremlin's continuing dominance over the region doesn't give them much cause to do so.

The prime minister insists the decision has nothing to do with money.

Very few believe him

An apparent thaw in relations between Russia and the US at the two-day Munich Security Conference, which began on 6 February, did little to resolve the Manas question. Russia has its own base just 60km west of the base, and rumours are that its aircraft might relocate there in a last two fingers up to America.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression

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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.