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“Economics is for donkeys”

While oil prices remain high, Iran can afford its contempt for economic orthodoxy

Whatever else he is remembered for, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is unlikely to go down in history as an economic wizard. Indeed, the Iranian president has worn his contempt for economic orthodoxy as a badge of honour. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution, was famously quoted as saying, "Economics is for donkeys." It is a maxim Ahmadinejad has mirrored assiduously, saying once that he prayed to the Almighty that he would never know anything about a subject he views as a tool of western domination.

His disregard has its roots in political populism. The president sees the prescriptions of seasoned economists as little more than recipes for social injustice. Ahmadinejad's election victory in June 2005 was based on a pledge to sweep away such inequality. It would be achieved, he said, by putting the proceeds of Iran's vast oil wealth "on people's tables". The time for fancy economic theories was past; henceforth the preference would be for old-fashioned redistribution.

Ahmadinejad's government set about its task oblivious to precedent or expert advice. The Management and Planning Organisation, a state body charged with mapping out long-term economic and budget strategy, was broken up and experienced managers sacked; oil revenues were ploughed into state projects in run-down regions; the minimum wage was raised; interest rates were slashed by presidential decree to below the inflation rate; ownership of state enterprises was offered to the public in the form of "justice shares", the government's response to a constitutional amendment requiring it to introduce privatisation.

The results have been a swelling budget deficit, sluggish growth, rising unemployment and soaring inflation caused, economists say, by Ahmadinejad's policy of injecting excess liquidity into the economy. Even the government's own statistics put inflation at more than 27 per cent, and one government official recently said the true jobless rate could be three times the official rate of roughly 10 per cent. The banks have responded to interest rate cuts by refusing to lend money while, for all the talk of privatisation, the economy remains overwhelmingly in state hands.

These consequences have been compounded by a rising chorus of complaints over soaring food prices and housing costs. Further disenchantment has been caused by a previously unthinkable decision to ration petrol, forced on the government by the increased cost of importing petroleum, made necessary by Iran's lack of refinement capacity. Despite possessing the world's second-largest reserves of natural gas, the country has also suffered energy shortages, leading last winter to heating cuts, and to power blackouts this summer.

It seems like a tale of woe, but Ahmadinejad has remained remarkably upbeat, if not always familiar with the facts. In January 2007, he responded to MPs' alarm about a rise in tomato prices to £1.50 a kilo by urging them to visit his local grocer, where he claimed they were cheaper. When I went there a few days later, the shopkeeper said he had stopped stocking tomatoes because customers would not buy them at current prices.

Yet there may be good reason for the president's relaxed demeanour. Thanks to continuously high oil prices, Iran's economy is not facing imminent collapse. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - who could be expected to jettison his protégé if the economic problems became a source of instability - has told Ahmadinejad to prepare for a second term when his first ends next year.

Such support is available because not everyone is unhappy, as I witnessed last autumn in the eastern province of South Khorasan during the saffron harvest. Ahmadinejad's decision to more than double saffron's wholesale price had delighted farmers and their impoverished pickers, whose wages had risen in proportion. Cheap government loans and grants had allowed many to renovate their homes and instal indoor bathrooms. To such people, the president was a saviour.

Their view is a far cry from that of many economists, as characterised in a recent report by the International Monetary Fund which warned that Iran's "poor economic policies" would be unsustainable once oil prices dropped. But, with the support of Iran's rural poor and the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad is unlikely to lose sleep over such judgements from a sector whose expertise he does not recognise.

Robert Tait is the Guardian's Istanbul correspondent. He was previously the paper's correspondent in Tehran from March 2005 until December 2007, when he was forced to leave after the authorities declined to renew his residence permit

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran

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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.