Jacqui Smith: a question of courage?

Why do Labour Home Office ministers stumble so badly when they attempt to deal with immigration? Bec

The serialisation of Gordon Brown's latest book, Wartime Courage, has gone largely unnoticed. But in the week running up to Remembrance Sunday, the Daily Telegraph ran extracts of the Prime Minister's latest tribute to individual heroism, which followed two previous volumes on celebrated men and women of courage and everyday heroes. The extracts suggest that the new book, due for publication in April of next year, is a surprisingly good read. Brown is plainly moved by the Second World War bomb disposal experts, secret service operatives and ordinary soldiers whose exploits he describes.

It is said that Gordon Brown became so obsessed with these stories of personal courage that senior members of the defence staff and the intelligence services would bring him new snippets of information, or be asked by Brown to open files to confirm facts on the people concerned. As the extracts show, the stories in Wartime Courage are peppered with references to these military and intelligence documents.

But where lie the roots of this obsession? I am told that Brown became fascinated by how people perform under fire and, in particular, how they kept their head when entering enemy territory.

I kept thinking of the book extracts when I watched Jacqui Smith under persistent Tory fire after her parliamentary statement this week on how much she knew about people working illegally in this country as security guards, and when she knew it. It made me wonder why Labour Home Office ministers fare so badly when entering the enemy territory represented by the immigration debate in this country.

One by one they have been shot down by David Davis, who simply waits for them to move into his sights on the immigration battlefield before picking them off. The first was Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister who resigned in April 2004 after she claimed not to have known about a visa scam involving fraudulent claims from eastern Europe. It later turned out that she had been warned a year previously. Her demise was followed, in December of the same year, by that of her mentor, David Blunkett, after he was linked to the speeding up of a visa for his lover's nanny. The episode also revealed systematic failings at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at the Home Office.

Blunkett's successor, Charles Clarke, fared no better when, in May 2004, he was forced out after it was revealed that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released without being deported. The final straw came when the New Statesman revealed that one of the offenders concerned went on to become a suspect in a high-profile terrorist case.

We are talking here about new Labour's crack troops, not fresh-faced new recruits, and yet in three-and-a-half long years they have been shown to be woefully ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with a firmly entrenched enemy, sure of its ground. So why is it that Labour politicians stumble so haplessly when they attempt to deal with this issue?

I believe there are three main reasons. The first is that the department responsible for dealing with immigration at the Home Office remains one of the most dysfunctional in the whole of Whitehall. John Reid knew this when he split the Home Office in two, but the restructuring, while it may have highlighted the problem, has not yet brought the reform necessary to solve it. A second and connected issue is the disloyalty of immigration officials to the government. David Blunkett's troubles began when an ideologically-driven mole began leaking information. Ministers believe a similar process was at work in the recent leaks to the Daily Mail of emails showing how early Jacqui Smith was made aware of the problem over security guards. They are convinced that they went to the Tory party first, and I have certainly heard senior Tories boast that they have had Home Office officials falling over themselves to provide them with information.

Distasteful work

But third and most importantly, Labour ministers still feel deeply uncomfortable with the immigration issue and, in many cases, quite rightly so. No Labour politician goes into parliament because of a burning desire to deport asylum-seekers or kick illegal workers out of their jobs. This is distasteful work, and despite ten years of tough-talking rhetoric I don't believe even David Blunkett, Labour's most authoritarian home secretary, was happy dealing with immigration policy. For this reason alone, Labour will always be outflanked by a party which feels passionately about it.

Jacqui Smith, therefore, has good reason to be concerned. There is a growing frustration within the Labour government that no real progress has been made at the Home Office since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Although new initiatives have been launched by Ed Balls at the Department for Children, Schools and Welfare, for example, and by Peter Hain at the Department for Work and Pensions, Smith has been hamstrung by a department that still seems, in the words of her predecessor, "not fit for purpose". At the time of writing, Smith herself is not being held responsible and her stock remains high because of her handling of the failed terrorist attacks in June. Her offence at this point is unclear. She certainly held back information from the public, but it isn't clear whether she did so to stop illegal immigrants going on the run, or to bury bad news. Either way, one more leak of a misjudged email and she could yet find herself in no-man's-land, just another victim of David Davis's sniper fire.

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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.