Chagos and the Law Lords

Witnessing the evidence as the Lord Laws hear the case of the Chagos Islanders - forcibly removed fr

I meet Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugee Group in Mauritius, in the lobby of the House of Lords ahead of the hearing to determine whether the Chagossians will be allowed home.

"A big day," I say by way of a greeting. "Yes, a big day and a good day. Today is my mother's 80th birthday," he replies with a smile. His mother, Rita Issou, sits on a bench along with three other Chagossians a few yards away from where we are standing. She is smartly dressed but looks very frail. It’s understandable - and not just because of her age; she has experienced many sorrows in her long life including the loss of her husband and two sons (one to alcohol and the other to heroin) since the family was exiled to Mauritius from their island home of Peros Banhos in 1968.

Olivier tells me that in all 28 islanders have made the trip from Port Louis to London to witness how their fate will be decided in the highest court of the land. "I am very optimistic - justice will be done. We will return to Chagos very soon," he says confidently.

It has become obvious that there will not be enough space to accommodate all the visitors. A male clerk takes charge and announces that only the people at the front of the queue will be allowed in. This means that a lot of the UK-based Chagossians who have been holding a legal protest on the pavement opposite the House of Lords won't get a seat.

The Law Lords have arrived on time and at 11 o'clock around 70 of us file into the room. Before they enter the male clerk says that if anyone is going to leave the room to let him know whether they are coming back. If not the seat can be allocated to those who are waiting patiently outside in the corridor.

It's a highly ritualised setting. The five Law Lords -- Bingham, Hoffman, Roger, Carswell and Mance -- enter and we all stand up and bow. They sit in a semicircle at the front of the room. Facing them are the respective barristers -- Jonathan Crow QC and Kieron Beal acting for the appellant, British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, Anthony Bradley and Maya Lester acting for the respondent, Olivier Bancoult.

Behind them sit other members of the respective legal teams including Richard Gifford of London-based solicitors, Clifford Chance, who has worked tirelessly on this case since the late 1990s.

Jonathan Crow stands up and makes the case for the government invoking the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865. He chooses not to defend what was done to the Chagos islanders by previous governments -- "the awfulness of what happened in the 60s and 70s" -- but instead focuses on the role and scope of orders in council issued under the royal prerogative -- "the highest level of political judgement" -- as they relate to the defence interests of the UK and US. He extends the argument and says that there would be an "unacceptable risk" to both countries if the islanders returned to the Chagos Archipelago and points out that in any case they have received generous compensation from the British government which amount to "substantial sums at today's prices".

After about 40 minutes some of the journalists from the news agencies have got enough of what they want for a story and leave the room. Their places are taken by some Chagossian women. Some of the Law Lords then start to make interventions. They ask questions or elaborate points of law. When one of the Law Lords says something Crow likes he nods his head a lot.

When Crow gets a difficult question he moves from side to side before giving his reply. And when he gets a really difficult question or one that he doesn't know the answer to as, for example, when he was asked when Mauritius became a republic he raises his left shoulder and goes into a bit of a crouch. But interestingly his voice remains clear at all times even when he is evidently flapping his wings to stay up in the legal air.

Crow’s courteousness even extends to his adversary, South African-born, Sir Sydney Kentridge, who was once a member of Nelson Mandela's defence team. From time to time, Sir Sydney makes an intervention to correct or challenge a point although it is difficult for those in the audience to hear what he says. "My learned friend is not one to jump up and intervene all the time and I thank him for that," says Crow as he turns and bows in the direction of Sir Sydney who is seated next to him. Jonathan Crow QC is a smooth operator.

At one o'clock the case is adjourned and it's time for lunch. I would have liked to have seen Sir Sydney in action but I think it's more important that some of the Chagossians gets a chance to see what's going on. After all, it's their lives that are the subject of legal debate and not mine. I inform the clerk that I won't be returning.

Over lunch in the House of Lords cafeteria I learn that Olivier Bancoult was meant to meet the one-time leader of the Conservative Party and now Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, but he sent his deputy, Keith Simpson, instead. And it wasn't that Hague didn't have time as he was spotted casually chatting to someone in the lobby of the House of Commons. No, this was a deliberate and tactical avoidance. Why? Not too difficult to figure out. Even members of Her Majesty's official opposition find the issue of the right of return of the Chagos islanders a difficult one to handle. No senior member of the Conservative party wants to jeopardise "the special relationship" and antagonise our American friends, after all.

Meanwhile the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, Ed Davey, puts out a statement. It reads: "The government must cease this endless waste of taxpayers’ money and do what is right by the Chagossians. This is what Robin Cook promised when he was foreign secretary.

"The spectacle of David Miliband’s lawyers invoking 19th century colonial laws to defend the indefensible is frankly sickening.

"This is not a legal matter; it is a matter of principle. The Chaggosians must be allowed to go home.
"Together with the scandal of secret US renditions from Diego Garcia, the abuse of these islands is a shameful stain on Britain’s global reputation."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University

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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.