Obama stops thinking positive

A year on from his inauguration, the president stands accused of reneging on inspiring campaign prom

Once, no one wanted to talk about Aids. Now the global pandemic commands $14bn a year, roughly half of all spending on health worldwide. The single most important contributor to Aids funding is the US President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, or Pepfar for short.

Launched by George W Bush in 2003, Pepfar is the largest financial commitment ever made by any nation to combat a single disease. It wields a budget of $6.7bn for 2010 alone, and claims to have succeeded in putting more than 2.4 million people on antiretroviral therapy, particularly in its "focus" countries (primarily in sub-Saharan Africa). This includes some double-counting with the other major provider of antiretrovirals, the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but the scope is impressive nonetheless.

The tentative optimism needs to be put in context. There are still 33.4 million people with HIV, and, as access to antiretrovirals improves, the number living with the virus continues to climb. Moreover, Aids-related illnesses remain a major cause of death globally, claiming two million lives a year. Initiatives such as Pepfar may have provided life-saving drugs to many, but some global health advocates feel that such organisations are at times more accountable to themselves than to the people enrolled on their programmes. And their sheer scale can disrupt the local health systems of small African countries.

Under Bush, Pepfar faced more criticism than most. Its initial refusal to purchase and disperse cheaper, generic antiretrovirals, in preference for only drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, delayed the roll-out of life-saving medicines and demonstrated an unseemly interest in extending the market for overpriced (and usually US-manufactured) drugs. Equally controversial was the Bush-era insistence that a third of the money slated for reducing HIV infection be spent on promoting social values, including abstinence, delay of sexual debut and partner reduction. Such policies are straight out of the Republican book of morals. A focus on monogamy has little value as a preventive tool in countries such as Thailand, where the main mode of transmission is now between married partners.

Self-selective choice

With the election of Barack Obama a year ago, hopes were high that much of this would change for the better and that Pepfar might become a more positive standard-bearer in the global fight against HIV and Aids.

The new president was quick to repeal the most controversial of Bush's global health policies: the "global gag rule" - an outright refusal to fund any organisation that offered (or even provided information about) abortion. And with the appointment of the new US global Aids co-ordinator, Eric Goosby, the emphasis at Pepfar soon began to fall less on the "emergency" response and more on sustaining existing programmes. Sustainability is important to avoid the emergence of drug resistance, which can render antiretrovirals ineffective.

However, some activists argue that such talk merely disguises the harsh reality of funding cuts. As early as May last year (when his budget plans for 2010 exposed a $1.5bn shortfall in Pepfar funding), they were arguing that the new president had reneged on his campaign promises on Aids.
Since then, Obama has not responded convincingly to their concerns. His new five-year Aids plan, released at the end of 2009, is silent on the extent to which Pepfar intends to address concerns about the ongoing lack of transparency in its funding. This worries global health advocates, who wonder if the strategic interests of the US, rather than the health needs of people in its programmes, may be determining Pepfar's choice of which Aids programmes to fund and where. Addressing these problems will be difficult, but it is essential that Obama should do so sooner rather than later. For all the importance of treatment, it remains the case that, for every two people being put on antiretrovirals, a further five are being infected.

There are, however, systemic as well as political problems to overcome. Pepfar allocates a great deal of funding on the basis of evidence it receives from Aids programmes already in operation. But according to Vinh-Kim Nguyen, a doctor and social scientist with the University of Montreal's department of social and preventive medicine, such evidence of the efficacy of particular interventions can be self-selecting. Organisations promoting treatment interventions (rather than, say, simple prevention or safe sex) find it much easier to get hold of supporting data, because much of the data is taken from individuals already enrolled on programmes being evaluated. Anyone else is excluded, so there is little countervailing evidence (it's hard to provide data on a person not yet infected). But that also makes it difficult to know whether treatment-only approaches to HIV and Aids are always the most effective.

This should not be taken as an argument for scaling back antiretroviral provision, but it makes it much trickier to gauge how, when and where treatment would be more effective than a less costly alternative.

Social complications

The underlying problem with Obama's Pepfar is that - for all the lip-service Goosby has paid in recent months - it is not fully engaging with the constellation of problems associated with HIV and Aids: vulnerability to infection, impoverishment, disempowerment of women, stigmatisation and a persistent Aids denialism, to name a few. These are social issues that are not always easily quantified, and are often the consequence of relative inequality as much as outright poverty.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women aged between 15 and 24 are more than three times as likely as their male counterparts to be HIV-positive; in the United States, the prevalence of HIV among African-American males in the District of Columbia ranks alongside that of some of the worst-affected countries. The only consistent feature linking sub-epidemics among injecting drug users in the former Soviet republics, men who have sex with men in Asia and heterosexual women in sub-Saharan Africa is the way that HIV can be seen, in each case, to cut along and reinforce pre-existing socio-economic divides.

With funding for many global health initiatives likely to decline in the current economic climate, there is concern that these underlying causes of vulnerability will be pushed further to the margins in a drive for greater statistical accountability and savings in initiatives such as Pepfar. Pledges to the Global Fund are down. The lives of those who have already been enrolled on antiretroviral programmes in settings where there continues to be a lack of development in local health systems will be put at risk. So, too, will the lives of many more people as yet uninfected.

Simon Reid-Henry is director of the Centre for Global Security and Development at Queen Mary, University of London

DC doubles up as infection capital

A report published in March 2009 revealed that more than 3 per cent of the population of the District of Columbia - Washington, DC - is infected with Aids or HIV. This makes the area the most severely affected in the United States. According to Shannon Hader, director of the district's HIV/Aids administration, such rates are "on a par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya . . . higher than in West Africa".

Following another report - issued in 2007 - that aimed to emphasise the unsettling reality of what was called a modern epidemic, the 2009 document showed a 22 per cent increase in the number of cases of the illness (currently estimated at roughly 15,120).

Worse still, health professionals observed, the latest figures are based on those who agreed to be tested; as such, the actual number is likely to be far higher than the report suggests. And the rate is "on the rise", claims Hader, due to the widening scope of the condition. Once mainly affecting men who have sex with men, HIV/Aids is now a health risk for people of every age, race and sex.

The US government has been criticised for failing to confront the crisis effectively. Critics note how policies that prevent the use of public funds for social programmes such as needle exchanges have led to an increase in the rate at which drug users are being infected by the virus.

Others suggest that the key to tackling the crisis is open discussion, to break down the taboos surrounding HIV and Aids.

Harriet O'Brien

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven

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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 Nicolas Sarkozy 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 hopep 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.