‘‘I’m not Nelson Mandela’’

Morgan Tsvangirai is on tour promoting the New Zimbabwe, but can he honestly bury the past and build

Just before Morgan Tsvangirai walks into the room, the woman sitting next to me says she thinks he is the bravest man in the world. We are sitting in a grand, pillared hall in a building off the Strand in central London. When Tsvangirai is introduced as the prime minister of Zimbabwe, there is long, resounding applause.

The reception for the prime minister is different from the one he received a few days ago in Southwark Cathedral. Tsvangirai, having urged Zimbabweans living in London to return home, was booed by the audience. As one member said simply after the event: “He has lost us.” For many people, the spectacle of Tsvangirai sharing power with Robert Mugabe, the man credited with destroying Zimbabwe, is unbearable, incomprehensible even. During the general election of March 2008, Mugabe’s supporters tortured and killed those of Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Tsvangirai himself has been subjected to beatings, armed assaults and an attempted assassination.

The two leaders weren’t always pitted against each other. When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Tsvangirai joined Mugabe’s party, Zanu-PF. But his relationship with the government began to deteriorate after he became secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988. Just over a decade later, in 1999, he founded the MDC.

He first stood against Mugabe in 2002, in an election that was widely condemned as unfair. In 2008, he won a higher percentage of the vote than Mugabe in the first round (47.8 per cent to Mugabe’s 43.2 per cent), but withdrew from the second round because of rising violence. Within months, however, Tsvangirai and Mugabe had begun talks, shaking hands for the first time on 21 July.

By September they had reached a deal – brokered by the then South African president, Thabo Mbeki – in which Tsvangirai became prime minister and Mugabe, while continuing as president, ceded day-to-day control of
the government.

Today, Tsvangirai is determined to look to the future. His language skips over what has gone before and plunges forward. It is a fresh start for Zimbabwe. The country is becoming a different place. Inflation is being reined in; hospitals and schools are reopening. Or, to put it another way: “What could possibly go wrong that hasn’t already gone wrong?”

Tsvangirai has to be upbeat. The purpose of his trip – whirling from Barack Obama in the Oval Office to Gordon Brown in Downing Street and covering most of western Europe in between – is to show the world that Zimbabwe is back up and running; that desperately needed aid would not be wasted; that the country is able and willing to re-engage with the outside world. Tsvangirai says he is looking to raise roughly $8bn over the next few years to pump into his country.

Yet the audience won’t let him skate over the past so easily. Will there be a truth and reconciliation commission, in the style of South Africa or Northern Ireland, somebody asks. “I think that is unavoidable given our history of trauma,” he says. He has already used the South African comparison, noting the time it takes for a country to turn itself around and rebuild. But he avoids the personal comparison with that country’s former leader. “I’m not Nelson Mandela,” he says. “Neither do I pretend to be.”

Tsvangirai certainly divides opinion. He is hero-worshipped one moment, then accused of being a power-hungry hypocrite the next. But the main object of fascination is his partnership with Mugabe – the “personal relationship”, as Tsvangirai puts it. “It’s an extraordinary experience.” The audience laughs, amazed at his ability to shrug off years of violence with a genial smile. He describes how Mugabe had been his hero in 1980, winning the general election and becoming Zimbabwe’s first black prime minister. But “over time he has transformed to be a villain”.

When they began to negotiate the power-sharing deal, Tsvangirai hadn’t seen Mugabe for ten years. They had become political opponents – although “not enemies”, he insists. “The first time we had dinner, the two of us, it was quite a dramatic experience.” As though talking about a troubled marriage, Tsvangirai describes how they “have been working through this”, in spite of acrimonious exchanges in the early days of talks. “Do I trust Robert Mugabe?” He pauses. “Obviously, it’s too early to say.” But when it comes down to it, Tsvangirai is “prepared to work with him for the good of the country”. The prime minister is impatient to tackle land reform, public services, economic development, and finally, what everyone is waiting for: a proper and fair election.

I ask him how he sees the future of his country beyond the challenges of transition. “We’ll call it the ‘New Zimbabwe’,” he says, where “democracy is consolidated and prosperity once again becomes a possibility”. He claims the idea isn’t difficult – Zimbabwe simply needs to be restored to its former status as the country with the second-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the best education systems on the continent. “But,” he continues sombrely, “for Zimbabweans to share this vision we must never again descend to a situation where we are isolated, marginalised, poor, unable to feed ourselves and in a situation where we have become refugees all over the world.”

That situation, he knows, is all too recent, too raw, and still a reality for many Zimbabweans. There are other obstacles, too – not least the sanctions against Zimbabwe that the British government has said will remain in place despite Tsvangirai’s presence in government. They won’t be lifted, says Mark Malloch Brown, minister for Africa, “until we are convinced that Zimbabwe’s transition to democracy has reached a point of no return”.

Tsvangirai’s vision for his country is bravely, defiantly optimistic. But as he leaves the room to more applause, there is a feeling that goodwill alone will not be enough to help him along the treacherous road ahead.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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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.