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The rise of Dilma Rousseff

The support of the outgoing Brazilian president, Lula, for his former chief of staff transformed her

A groan rippled through a bus station in Rio de Janeiro. It was 11pm and the results of the day's election were dribbling in. Tiririca, a blond clown and D-list television personality, had just been elected as the federal deputy for São Paulo. His campaign message? "What does a congressman do? I don't know. But vote for me and I will find out."

Tiririca's victory raised a small laugh in an election season that has been dominated by economics and the rapid growth that Brazil has enjoyed in recent years. Each candidate focused on a message of continuity, and the face of the popular two-term president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has featured on posters of candidates from across the political spectrum. Who would not want to bask in the glow of Lula's popularity? After eight years in office, he enjoys an 80 per cent approval rating and was recently described by President Barack Obama as the world's most popular politician.

Lula's presence was felt most strongly in the campaign of the Workers' Party (PT) nominee, Dilma Rousseff, a little-known member of the Lula administration until she became the centre of the presidential race. Once known as the president's candidate, Rousseff saw her standing in the opinion polls skyrocket and her victory seemed certain.

But, in a surprising twist, the Amazon-born Marina Silva, leader of Brazil's Green Party (PV), won 19 per cent of the vote in the first round
on 3 October. This has pushed Rousseff into a second-round run-off (to take place on 31 October) against José Serra of the conservative Brazil Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Silva's credentials attracted an eclectic range of supporters: she was the country's first African-Brazilian female presidential candidate, an evangelical Christian and the only environmentalist, creating a dissonance with Lula's agro-industrial policies.

Silva's strong performance in the first round was a surprise even to her, says Paulo Henrique Amorim, who runs the political blog Conversa Afiada ("sharp conversation"), Brazil's answer to the Huffington Post. "It really has nothing to do with Marina," Amorim says. "It's about the local religious leadership." A post on Conversa Afiada describes the typical PV supporter as "a species unique to the Brazilian Amazon, rarely encountered in western civilisation. It is an orchid - expensive, aristocratic and chic."

Amorim says that roughly a quarter of Silva's supporters are university-educated, middle-class high-earners. They enjoy a "European eco-sensibility" but are ideologically connected with the political right wing. Their vote will now go to Serra, he says. The rest are mostly evangelical Christians on low incomes. They are beholden to religious leaders, not party politics, and it is their vote that has been thrust centre stage.

The day after the first round of the election, the front page of the Folha newspaper featured the faces of Rousseff and Serra with Silva's green handprint smeared on their cheeks. Neither can ignore the stain. Yet Silva's popularity is merely a bump in the road on Rousseff's journey to power. Allyne Andrade, a young, black, Rio-based lawyer, voted for Silva in the first round but always intended to throw her weight behind Rousseff in the second. "I wanted to vote for Marina to remind Brazil that there's a third party - an alternative to the PT and PSDB," says Andrade. "Rousseff will get my vote because we need a continuation of Lula's policies."

To be continued

Although Rousseff has sought to cast herself in the mould of her mentor, Lula, her past couldn't be more different from his rags-to-riches tale of ascent from shoeshine boy to the presidency. The child of a Bulgarian immigrant entrepreneur and a Brazilian teacher, Rousseff had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. In her late teens, after the military seized power in 1964, she became involved in the political scene at university and joined the left-wing urban guerrilla movement. In 1970, she was arrested in São Paulo carrying a gun and false documents and was sent to a notorious secret police jail where she was tortured and sentenced to three years in prison.

Since Rousseff went on the campaign trail in April this year, she has allowed her image to soften. A facelift, contact lenses and make-up have made her resemble something closer to the "mother to the poor" character that Lula created for her. Yet it is not her guerrilla past that has resonated with the average Brazilian voter, but her economic policies.

Speaking to voters in Rocinha, a favela on the steep slopes above Rio, I find public opinion almost unanimous. "Dilma will get my vote," says Patricia Corria Capistrano, 28, who works at a local hair salon, "because she will continue Lula's policies."

Antonio Favlão agrees. He has run a bar in Rocinha since the early 1980s and says it is only in recent years that the government's influence has started to reach the favela. "If Lula is able to continue his work through Dilma, I think things will eventually improve."

But Rousseff's credentials are so wrapped up with Lula's that she will have to tread carefully as she emerges from under his wing to govern for herself. Lula has been coy about whether he will seek a third term in 2014 but, for the next four years, he must retreat. The only thing that will taint his legacy is if he allows his popularity to undermine Brazil's strong, though relatively young, democratic heritage.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?

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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.