Palestine’s comeback kid

The first Fatah congress for 20 years featured new faces, sore losers – and a very complicated elect

Fatah's sixth congress, the first to be held in Palestine, was also the party's first conference for 20 years. But as the programme was extended from three days to four and then to seven, it often seemed that the congress itself would last 20 years. The reason for the endless extensions lay in Gaza, where the Hamas authorities denied Fatah delegates permission to travel to the West Bank, throwing party elections into disarray. Missing delegates phoned threatening to resign if their voices were not heard; but as Bethlehem's hotels and restaurants filled with smoke and raised voices, it became clear that Hamas's attempt to weaken Fatah was producing a more chaotic but also a more vital gathering.

Before the conference began, a struggle was expected, between Fatah's old guard and a younger generation raised in Palestine, for places on the executive central committee and the larger, governing board, the Revolutionary Council. In reality, the leadership was relaxed about losing a few old faces. "We need to bring in new blood," said Rafiq Husseini, the urbane chief of staff to President Mahmoud Abbas. "A lot of people think they are God's gift, so there will be many sore and surprised losers." But could the elections go ahead without the Gazan delegates? "It's not the first time delegates have been unable to attend," he said. "In previous conferences, there were none from the occupied territories. Today, there are 150 delegates in prison. We have to send out the message that we are not to be held to ransom."

The extra days of debate were welcome, but elements of the conference eventually began to grate, such as the decision to hold much of it in closed session. One delegate was so frustrated at the secrecy that he waited for a general session, held under TV cameras, before rising to lambast the outgoing executive for their failure to provide any account of their activities or finances over the previous two decades.

There were other grievances. Jamal Hweil - at 38, the youngest candidate - complained that officials were inventing hurdles. "The law says you can be president at 35, but to be a member of the central committee, you have to be a Fatah member for 20 years." The youngest delegate was Kifah Radaydeh, 26, from Jerusalem. What about youth committees, I asked: had they no younger delegates? She told me they were all men, ranging up to the age of 35.

These annoyances were offset by the heat of debate. Muhammad Dahlan, the controversial former security commander of Gaza, was twice forced to explain how Hamas had mounted a coup on his watch. He vigorously argued that any failures were the collective responsibility of the party. Although many delegates were unmoved, even they agreed that Dahlan had come prepared to face the charges head-on. It began to seem possible he could win a seat on the executive. His hardline stance especially appealed to delegates who believed Gaza could be "liberated" only by force.
Hweil, who had fought in the Battle of Jenin of 2002, spoke out against a military solution. He agreed that Hamas would resist talks as long as it had the backing of Syria and Iran, but warned the delegates: "We cannot fight Hamas and we have nothing to threaten them with. There is no alternative to negotiations."

There was solid backing for another set of negotiations - those proposed by the president to achieve a two-state solution. Everyone also agreed that there must be a timeframe. It was 16 years since Oslo, eight years since the Taba summit, and negotiations had only hardened the occupation rather than offered a route to statehood. But there was also consensus on the need for a "Plan B". What happens the day after negotiations with Israel fail? The answer to that remained stubbornly vague.

There were almost 100 candidates for the 18 central committee places, and 600-plus for the Revolutionary Council's 80. Although lists of preferred candidates were forbidden, slates were chalked up everywhere. Votes were traded, yet no one withdrew. Years of flattery, graft and poor communication had left small-town leaders with an inflated sense of their own importance. "God's gift", indeed.

The ballot papers were so long that the president took more than half an hour to complete his, and the results for the central committee were announced a week late. The newly elected members were all familiar faces: Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Rajoub, Tawfiq Tirawi, Nabil Shaath, as well as Palestine's comeback kid, Muhammad Dahlan. The big surprise was that the former prime minister, Ahmad Qureia, had been nudged out by just two votes. Husseini's prediction of sore losers came true. Qureia announced that the electoral fraud in Iran was "smaller than we have seen in Palestine", declaring that successful candidates were in the pay of Israel. He wasn't alone.

All the Gaza delegates resigned after none was elected. Then the results of the Revolutionary Council election came in: 70 new faces, the majority aged below 40, including 11 women, four Christians and Uri Davis, universally described as a Jew (though he prefers the term Palestinian Hebrew). Still, the congress did not solve the problem of what happens if talks fail. Delegates produced elegant formulations to justify legal forms of armed resistance, such as: "If international law allows for such solutions, why should we deny them to the Palestinians?" But no one argued that military action could be a route to liberation: such justifications were merely offered to avoid disavowing Fatah's heritage of fedayeen and martyrs. Delegates spoke warmly of the joint Palestinian-Israeli protests at the villages of Bil'in and Ni'ilin, but all failed to notice that the Israeli demonstrators were anarchists who might take a bullet for a villager but would never accept the leadership of a conventional political party. Similarly, I heard talk of boycotts, but no details about who would partner Fatah abroad. Fatah remains convinced that it is the natural leader of the Palestinian movement, but few deny that the party lost this role in the international community long ago.

The conference in Bethlehem had the unmistakeable energy of a party in transition, committed to democracy and to formulating policy in the open. The party's only serious competitor, Hamas, selects its leaders in opaque backrooms and formulates policy in Syria. Grassroots politics in Palestine will lead to Fatah, if only because one in ten of the population is a paid-up member. But as conference delegates recognised, any post-negotiations strategy will need international friends. Until Fatah can find some, Plan B will remain as elusive as ever.

Nicholas Blincoe's latest novel is "Burning Paris" (Sceptre), set in Paris and Bethlehem

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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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.