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Pakistan is at war with itself, with blackouts, corruption and terror attacks. Now there are calls f

Pakistan has become a very unusual place. In Lahore, the heart of Pakistani cricket, the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in broad daylight by masked gunmen carrying guns and rocket launchers, because you never know when a rocket launcher will come in handy during an urban attack. The government had been warned of a potential terror threat but, true to form, ignored it. After killing eight people, mostly policemen, and wounding several others including the foreign cricketers, the gunmen ambled leisurely away. They were caught on CCTV camera calmly mounting their motorcycles and surveying the scene before deciding they had other places to be.

Immediately the cacophony of ludicrous claims hit the media. “The attack is to ruin our [the ruling party’s] image,” bellowed Raja Riaz, a Pakistan People’s Party hack. Er, no. “The motive was to damage the state of Pakistan and end cricket here,” said Imran Khan, head of the Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Er, no. The Pakistan cricket team are perfectly capable of ruining the state of cricket in the country on their own; masked gunmen are not required, thank you very much. Incidentally, on Monday night local police attacked the offices of Khan’s party brandishing Kalashnikovs and pistols. It’s probably not a coincidence that Khan has been openly critical of the Zardari government.

It’s fear. That’s what it is. It’s the state of a nation at war with itself. When vigilantes armed with sophisticated weaponry can attack a team of cricket guests (and there are no guests more esteemed in south Asia) in the middle of the afternoon, what they’re telling you is that no one is above the reach of the terror that has taken over Pakistan. It’s startling how adept this government has been at losing control of law and order, leasing out Pakistan’s stability for an increased role in the war on terror in preparation for the troop surge in Afghanistan, and generally running the country to rot.

“Droned” is a verb we use now in Pakistan. It turns out, interestingly enough, that those US predator drones that have been killing Pakistani citizens almost weekly have been taking off from and landing within our own country. Secret airbases in Balochistan – what did we ever do before Google Earth?

The PPP-led government, hailed as being “democratic”, capitulated to the Pakistan Taliban’s demands for sharia law in the Swat Valley in February. There was no vote, no referendum, nothing. The government, tired of fighting those pesky militants who’ve been burning down Sufi shrines and local girls’ schools, just declared that a part of the country would be ruled no longer by federal law, but by a myopically interpreted and Taliban-approved “Islamic” code. And verily it shall be.

We’ve just had senate “elections”. Of course, there are no actual elections involved: the ruling party puts forward winners and they end up in parliament. On Monday, in a shock move, President Asif Ali Zardari’s former attorney, who defended the erstwhile criminal on corruption and murder charges, was made chairman of the senate. What a gas!

Meanwhile, with Delhi still beating war drums over the November Mumbai attacks, our former dictator/president Pervez Musharraf travelled to India recently, and there he warned our neighbours of an all-out war should they strike Pakistan. He also let us know that he is ready to return to the call of political duty. Outsiders might be confused at this change in the situation – what’s he doing there? Didn’t he resign in August? Here’s the beauty of it all: Musharraf’s re-emergence has many middle-class Pakistanis excited and hopeful. Is he back?! A series of op-eds in a local English newspaper (not highly censored because no one reads them) was titled “Why I miss Musharraf”. When a dictator tickles your fancy, you know something has gone very, very wrong.

So, the mood in Pakistan is one of confusion. How did we come to this? How do we get out?

On the eve of spring, it is the same problems that blight the country’s poor – there is no electricity, there is no potable water, and food inflation continues to rise. The newspapers warned us this week that “load shedding” in the summer will be some 15 hours long, which is not that bad considering the fact that we’re sitting in darkness for 12 hours a day now. Pakistan has long missed its millennium target goals of eradicating polio, largely because we can’t keep the electricity going long enough for the vaccines to be properly refrigerated, so they keep going bad. And we’re a nuclear country, a grossly corrupt one at that.

The press censorship continues unabated with future threats of an absolute blackout on any criticisms of the government safely enclosed within the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act that the parliament is currently sitting on. The bill, which imposes jail sentences from three months (for having an email account not registered in your real name) to the death penalty, and criminalises the acts of “spoofing”, “spamming” and “character assassinating”, will apply to the width and breadth of the country and to any person, regardless of nationality or citizenship. It will crack down on all objectionable – the definition of what is objectionable is typically vague – messages sent via, but not limited to, “electrical, digital, analogue, magnetic, optical, biochemical, electrochemical, electromechanical, electromagnetic, radio electric, and wireless technology”. So any subversive content found on cell phones, computers, or toasters will soon be illegal. Your head should be spinning by now.

Pakistan is in a dire situation. Religious extremism, violence and a faltering economy have made the state of affairs here decidedly grim. Joe Biden and John Kerry see American dollars as the only way of helping Pakistan stave off extremism; but Yankee aid donations and senatorial money will not help us now. It is estimated that President Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, stole between $2bn and $3bn from the country’s treasury during their two previous stints in power. Now Zardari has claimed his personal wealth to be somewhere in the ballpark of $1.8bn. Nawaz Sharif, leading coalition partner and head of the Pakistan Muslim League, declared his fortune to be not as grand, at only $1.4bn. You do the maths.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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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.