Loyalty card

Even the most-travelled, open-minded Russians are singing Putin's tune, writes Artemy Troitsky, the

Until recently, the Russian population could be divided into two political mindsets: the oppo sitionists, both communist and liberal, and the silent majority. These are the tens of millions of conformists who vote obediently for the party they are supposed to vote for, but who ultimately don't give a damn.

Now, from its inner depths, the silent majority has vomited forth a new generation of noisy "ultra-conformists", fanatical Putinoids. It's a new phenomenon, yet to be studied, but at first glance they look like a mixture of teenybopper "Putin Youth" (those kids who belong to groups such as the T-shirt-wearing, rigid-right-arm-stretching Nashi) with disciplined army/police/ security guys, small-time apparatchiks and middle-aged women of unknown origin (presumably with a sexual crush on the president). The core of this movement may come from the state, but it is hard to deny that there's a substantial grass-roots-level element to it as well.

Putin's sustained popularity in Russia is still a mystery to me. It certainly has nothing to do with his achievements. Leave aside his shameful performance during national emergencies (the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, the shoot-out at the Nord-Ost theatre in 2002 and, of course, the Beslan school massacre in 2004). Putin has also delivered almost none of his long-term promises. Crime, poverty and inflation remain as high as ever. Corruption has reached unprecedented heights. Terrorist attacks continue, while the economy is entirely and dangerously dependent on the export of natural resources. To this, one can add the catastrophically declining image of Russia in the rest of the world - something our president can be especially proud of, as he seems to follow religiously one of the most rotten pearls of Russian wisdom, a proverb that says: "If they fear you, they respect you."

Guus and George

So there must be a voodoo element to the way Putin survives and thrives. I would put him in the same league as the notoriously lucky Guus Hiddink, the Dutchman who is coach to the Russian national football squad. Thanks to incredible twists of fate, notably England's ignominious defeat by Croatia on 21 November, Hiddink has managed to squeeze his lousy team into the Euro 2008 finals. Putin's Steve McClaren is, undoubtedly, one George W Bush, who puts the Russian leader's mediocracy into the shade with his own flamboyant cretinism. One need only look at the war in Iraq, which triggered the past few years' huge rises in global oil and gas prices. The rest you know.

These oil zillions pour into Russian hands in such quantities that even the tiny orgy of kleptocrats running the country can make it feel relatively prosperous. Putin's luck also lies in there being no strong opposition movement. There are no convincing figures able to project an alternative vision. There is no moral authority challenging the status quo. All the leading cultural/humanitarian figures and opinion-formers either praise the boss or keep their mouths shut. His administration has done a good job of sorting the mass media.

Let me give one small example, so that you can understand better what kind of country we now live in. Recently on a TV talk show there was a gentle discussion between Viktor Yerofeyev, a well-known novelist and liberal columnist, and Nikita Mikhalkov, a well-known film-maker and professional brown-noser. Mikhalkov expressed his love and passion for Putin and the urge to glorify him in his works, in a manner probably not seen since Stalin's day. Yerofeyev tried, in a mild-mannered way, to calm the ultra-loyal film director down, suggesting that idolising the president might be a little over the top, and even tasteless. Putin might be a good guy, but he too has got problems, and we live in a modern democratic country, etc.

Yerofeyev sounded somewhat more convincing than Mikhalkov. Then, a week later, the same Yerofeyev was invited to another talk show - this time on the all-powerful Channel 1. Suddenly he was saying something completely different. He confessed his admiration for Putin, his loyalty to his political line and his general happiness about living in Putin's Russia. It wasn't formally staged as an act of repentance for the incorrect things he had said, but it didn't need to be. Knowing Yerofeyev - an ever-independent, western-orientated, ex-samizdat writer - as I do, I must admit I was impressed.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

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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.