Marie's place is empty

Remembering Marie Colvin, 1956-2012.

I walk along Fatemi Avenue in Tehran amid the swirling dust of a gathering electrical storm, the tulip-shaped towers of the Hotel Laleh swimming in a heat haze over honking afternoon traffic. I muster a smile for the doormen in peaked caps and gold lanyard and stroll purposefully into the foyer, freezing after a few steps and looking around me. For ten days this visit has loomed over my annual trip to the Iranian capital like the black flower of the hotel itself; now that I’m here, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing.

The glamorous trappings of the lobby haven’t changed in seven years: an enormous art deco chandelier still forms an inverted pyramid of light over tables and chairs, the former dressed with red and white flowers, the latter upholstered with mock Gucci embroidery and occupied by a mix of bemused tourists and bored looking businessmen. There’s an unmanned grand piano, a bronze statue of Hafez’s tomb, a marble reception hung with mandatory portraits of the ayatollahs, eyes narrowed as though scanning the lobby for licentious behaviour.

I spot a receptionist studying me with interest, and in a split second convince myself that this is the same man who checked Marie in the night she arrived in 2005; who cracked a joke about Rupert Murdoch when she mentioned the Sunday Times, and who managed not to stare at her eye patch the way I had when I’d met her at the taxi rank ten minutes earlier. Suddenly self conscious, I turn and walk into the lobby, sit and order a pot of tea, aware only after the waiter has departed that I’m seated at our old table; that opposite me – to paraphrase a popular Iranian saying – Marie’s place is empty.

I’d been in Tehran for three months when Marie Colvin arrived to cover the presidential elections for the Sunday Times. I’d somehow wrangled work as home news editor of a national English-language newspaper despite my abysmal Farsi, a job that entailed rewriting largely unintelligible newswires on earthquakes and plane crashes (so many earthquakes and plane crashes), and righteous affirmations of Iran’s nuclear program. They were exciting and unsettling days: exciting because I was finally doing what everyone back home would see as "real journalism" after years of travel writing and reviewing; unsettling because I felt like a fraud, and not just because of my second-rate Farsi.

I’d realised on arrival that I didn’t have the character of a news journalist; that I lacked the cynical swagger and the deadline in the blood. I wrote the occasional whimsical piece for publications back home – a story on underground poetry clubs for the New Statesman, another on coffee shop youth culture for the BBC – but when I pitched similar human interest efforts to the Sunday Times (a paper whose foreign editor had called me at Heathrow to express his happiness at having someone "on the ground"), they were turned down, and I was encouraged instead to put together something on the forthcoming elections. I didn’t have a mobile, so the foreign desk kept calling my grandmother’s house, where I was staying, only to have her bark insensibly down the phone until either party hung up or I realised what was happening and jumped on the line.

Still, as the first round approached I managed to write something on the elections – a few hundred words towing the widely accepted wisdom that former president and remade liberal Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would sweep to victory (he had recently appeared on a Time magazine cover with the headline "Iran’s Next President"). I wrote it under the pseudonym Ali Bandari, something I told the Sunday Times would ensure against a conflict of interests with my own paper, though it was actually because I’d been refused a journalist’s visa, and would be arrested if my name was discovered in foreign publications.

Rafsanjani found himself vying for the second round against Tehran’s mayor, a hardliner called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose rare appearances in the international press had been as a caricature spouting semi-comical quotes about cutting off hands and strangling democracy. The story acquired an extra page and the Sunday Times sent in the cavalry – hence my meeting Marie Colvin at the Hotel Laleh that June evening, attempting to sound fluent as I bantered with her taxi driver and ordered a pot of tea at what would become our regular table.

She asked my opinion on what might happen at the ballots; I swallowed my pride over the first story ("Rafsanjani’s seemingly full-blooded independence looks set to propel him to victory," says Ali Bandari), and told her what people were now saying in the office: that Ahmadinejad had a real chance of winning. That while Rafsanjani had been measuring his head for the crown and receiving the international media at his palatial Tehran offices, Ahmadinejad had been touring the provinces in a beat up orange bus, speaking in mosques and emphasising to the common people that it wasn’t just their right to vote, it was their Islamic duty. It had also become clear that he was Ayatollah Khamenei’s choice for president; beyond that, little else seemed to matter.

We had three days before Marie needed to file the story, days I spent almost entirely in the office, sometimes empty save for the caretaker’s son who careered around the floor in a plastic pedal car, crashing into desks and upturning chairs. I blackened my fingers flipping through back issues of the paper in enormous bound folders, filled notebooks with background on the candidates – details of Rafsanjani’s two terms as president between 1989 and 1997, of Ahmadinejad’s possible role in the American hostage crisis of 1979. When I did leave the office, it was to visit disparate parts of the capital and conduct interviews with potential voters – from wizened merchants hunched over sacks of dates and dried limes in the downtown bazaar, to Gucci-draped Persian princesses drifting around uptown shopping malls, headscarves serving as little more than hammocks for their dyed and dreadlocked hair.

At the end of each day I’d hop in a battered cab to the Hotel Laleh, euphoric and exhausted, arms laden with bundles of printed and photocopied paper, feet wincing with blisters. Marie and I would face each other over our usual table, a pot of tea between us, and I’d fill the gaps in her story, providing political context and local colour that her schedule of rigorously enforced press conferences left her unable to pursue. Once done with business we’d settle into our chairs and exchange war stories – hers filled with snipers and hostages, mine with ski resorts and secluded city bars. If she found my situation comical then she didn’t let on; she seemed impressed by my diligence, and implied that I might have a promising career at the Sunday Times, news she dropped into the conversation without realising that it caused the entire lobby to begin tilting beneath my feet.

That Friday morning I took my Iranian passport to the Tajrish mosque and purpled my finger with a vote for Rafsanjani. The results began filtering in the following afternoon, a day I spent glued to my computer, newswires piling up beside me as I refreshed the online vote count and watched Ahmadinejad snake closer to victory. Every hour I called the Laleh to update Marie, her smoke-stained phone voice instilling in my mind a timeless picture of the journalist’s hotel room: curtains closed, ashtrays overflowing, papers strewn over an unmade bed.

By the time I arrived at the hotel that evening Ahmadinejad’s victory had been announced, Marie’s story filed and her taxi to the airport booked. We drank a celebratory pot of tea, the piano occupied for the first and only time by a young man fiddling Persian flourishes into schmaltzy 1980s ballads. Afterwards she walked me to reception, shook my hand and gave me her card, scribbling her personal email on the back and encouraging me to drop her a line when I got back to London. “If you get back to London,” she said, winking to imply that she knew only too well how hard it would be to tear myself away.

I decided to walk back to my grandmother’s house that night. The streets were quiet after days ringing with protests and street parties and the names of candidates screamed from passing cars. The city seemed to have admitted defeat, to have folded in on itself to regard this latest development from a fearful distance. Yet I found myself smiling as I walked, swinging my steps in time to a piano ballad and greedily dismantling a bar of chocolate given to me in parting by Marie – a woman who had helped me find in three days what had previously eluded me for three months. Who had stopped me from feeling like a fraud.

Behind me, the dusk sky was scattered with bats, and the funereal towers of the Hotel Laleh receded for the last time, or so I thought.

Marie Colvin (right) with the Duchess of Cornwall in November 2010 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”