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John Pilger on Vietnam's last battle: the fight for wellbeing

Vietnam was punished for its victory when US troops left. Its welfare dream has faded, but the people endure.

As the rain sheeted down, time washed away.

I looked down from the rooftop in Saigon where, more than a generation ago, in the wake of the longest war of modern times, I had watched silent, sullen streets awash. The foreigners were gone, at last. Through the mist, like little phantoms, four children ran into view, their arms outstretched. They circled and weaved and dived; and one of them fell down, feigning death. They were bombers.

This was not unusual, because there is no place like Vietnam. Within my lifetime, Ho Chi Minh's nationalist forces had fought and expelled the French, whose tree-lined boulevards, pink-washed villas and scaled-down replica of the Paris Opéra were façades for plunder and cruelty; then the Japanese, with whom the French colons collaborated; then the British, who sought to reinstal the French; then the Americans, with whom Ho had repeatedly tried to forge an alliance against China; then Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, who attacked from the west; and finally the Chinese, who, with a vengeful nod from Washington, came down from the north. All of them were seen off at immeasurable cost.

I walked down into the rain and followed the children through a labyrinth to the Young Flower School, an orphanage. A teacher hurriedly assembled a small choir and I was greeted with a burst of singing. "What are the words of the song?" I asked Tran, whose father was a GI. He looked gravely at the floor, as nine-year-olds do, before reciting words that left my interpreter shaking her head. "Planes come no more," she repeated. "Do not weep for those just born . . . The human being is evergreen."

The year was 1978. Vietnam was being punished for seeing off the last US helicopter gunship, the war's creation; the last B-52 with its ladders of bombs silhouetted against the flash of their carnage; the last C-130s that had dumped, the US Senate was told, "a quantity of toxic chemical amounting to six pounds per head of population", causing a "foetal catastrophe"; the last of a psychosis that made village after village a murder scene.

On May Day 1975, when it was all over, Hollywood began its long celebration of the invaders as victims, the standard purgative, while revenge was policy. Vietnam was classified as "Category Z" in Washington, which imposed the draconian Trading With the Enemy Act from the First World War. This ensured that even Oxfam America was barred from sending humanitarian aid. Allies pitched in. One of Margaret Thatcher's first acts on coming to power in 1979 was to persuade the European Economic Community to halt its shipments of food and milk powder to Vietnamese children. According to the World Health Organisation, a third of all infants under five so deteriorated following the milk ban that most of them were stunted or likely to be. Almost none of this was news in the west.

Austerity, grief at the millions dead or missing and an incredulity that the war was no more became the rhythms of life in a forgotten country. The "democracy" the Americans had invented and life-supported in South Vietnam, which once accounted for half of Amnesty's worldwide toll of tortured political prisoners, had collapsed almost overnight. The roads out of Saigon became vistas of abandoned boots and uniforms. "When I heard that it was over," said Thieu Thi Tao Madeleine, "my heart flies."

Still wearing the black of the National Liberation Front (NLF), which the Americans called the Vietcong, she walked with a limp and winced as she smiled. The "Madeleine" was added by her French teachers at the lycée in Saigon that she and her sister Thieu Thi Tan Danielle had attended in the 1960s. Aged 16 and 13, "Mado" and "Dany" were recruited by the NLF to blow up the Saigon regime's national intelligence headquarters, where torture was conducted under tutelage of the CIA.

On the eve of their mission, they were betrayed and seized as they cycled home from school. When Mado refused to hand over NLF names, she was strung upside down and electrocuted, her head held in a bucket of water. They were then "disappeared" to Con Son Island, where they were shackled in "tiger cages" - cells so small they could not stand; quick lime and excreta were thrown on them from above. At the age of 16, Dany etched their defiance on the wall: "Notre bonjour à nos chers et chères camarades." The words are still there.

Last month, I returned to Vietnam, whose agony I reported for almost a decade. A poem was waiting in my room in the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. Typed in English, it was a "heartfelt prayer" for "the stones [of life] getting soft", and ended with, "I'm still living, struggling . . . please phone." It was Mado, though I prefer her Vietnamese name, Tao. We had lost touch; I knew of her work at the Institute of Ecology, her marriage to another NLF soldier and the birth of a son against all the odds after the damage done to her in the tiger cages.

Through the throng of tourists and businessmen in the Caravelle lobby navigated diminutive Dany, now 57. Tao was waiting in a taxi outside. Five years ago, she suffered a stroke and lost the use of her voice and much of her body, but these have now returned and although she needs to take your arm, she is really no different from when she told me her heart "flies". We drove past the sentinels of the new Vietnam, the hotels and apartment blocks under construction, then turned into a lane where woodsmoke rose and children peered and frogs leapt in the beam of our headlights.

The walls of Tao's home are a proud montage of struggle and painful gain: she and Dany at the Lycée Marie Curie; the collected exhortations of Ho; the letters of comrades long gone. It all seemed, at first, like flowers preserved between the pages of a forgotten book. But no: here were the very icons of and inspirations for resistance that new generations must re-create all over again, for while battlegrounds change, the enemy does not. "Each time we are invaded," Tao said, "we fight them off. At the same time we fight to keep our soul. Isn't that the lesson of Vietnam and of history?"

I was once told a poignant story by a Frenchman who was in Hanoi during the Christmas 1972 bombing. "I took shelter in the Museum of History," he said, "and there, working by candlelight, with the B-52s overhead, were young men and women earnestly trying to copy as many bronzes and sculptures as they could. They told me, 'Even if the originals are destroyed, something will remain and our roots will be protected.'"

History, not ideology, is a living presence in Vietnam. Here, the experience of history forged a communal ingenuity and patience to the extreme human limits. In the South, the NLF leadership was an alliance of Catholics, liberals, Buddhists and communists, and most of those who fought in the northern army were peasant nationalists. With its structures and disciplines, communism was the means by which Vietnam's protracted wars of independence were fought and won. This is appreciated by Vietnamese today who idly refer to "the communist period" as if the party were no longer in power. What matters here is Vietnam. Visit the museums in Hanoi and it is clear that the word Ho Chi Minh never stopped using was "independence": "the right you never surrender". In retirement, President Dwight Eisenhower wrote that, had his administration not delayed (sabotaged) the national elections agreed at the United Nations conference in Geneva in 1954, "possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for Ho".

I thought about this on the journey back from Tao's. More than 20 years of war would not have happened. Three million people would have lived. No babies would have been deformed by Agent Orange. No feet would have been blown off by the cluster bombs that were tested here. On the overnight train to Danang, I could tell the bomb craters that joined together, leaving not even Pompeiis of war, except perhaps on a distant rise the gravestones of the anti-aircraft militia. They were often young women like Mado and Dany. In Hanoi, I took a taxi to Kham Thien Street, which I first saw in 1975, laid waste by B-52s that had struck every third house. A block of flats where 283 people died is now a monument of a mother and child. There are fresh flowers; the traffic thunders by.

Sitting in a café with these unnecessary ghosts, I read that Britain's military chief, General Sir David Richards, had called for Nato "to plan for a 30- or 40-year role" in Afghan­istan. Nato is said to spend $50m for every Taliban guerrilla it kills, and cluster bombs are still a favourite. The general expressed his care for the Afghan people. The French and Americans also said they cared for the "gooks" they killed in industrial quantities.
When I was last in Vietnam 15 years ago, making a film, my only brush with officialdom was the ministry of culture's concern that the footage I had shot at My Lai, where hundreds of people, mostly women and children, were slaughtered in 1968, might offend the Americans. In Saigon, the War Crimes Museum has been renamed the War Remnants Museum. Outside, tourists are offered pirated copies of the Lonely Planet guide, with its tendentious devotion to an American sense of "Nam".

Perhaps the Vietnamese can afford to be generous, but the reason, I think, runs deeper. Since Dai Thang, "the great victory", the policy has been to end a seemingly endless state of siege. Colour and energy have arrived like breaking waves; Hanoi, with its mist-covered lakes and boulevards once pocked with air-raid shelters, is now a gracious, confident, youthful city. There is the kind of freedom that ignores, navigates and circumvents the old Stalinist strictures. The papers take officials to task and damn corruption, but then, occasionally, there is the bleakest of headlines: "Alleged agitator to face trial". Cu Huy Ha Vu, 53, has been charged with "illegal actions against the state". Such is an ill-defined line you dare not cross.

Bill Clinton came to lunch at my hotel in Hanoi. He runs an Aids charity that does work in Vietnam. In 1995, he "normalised relations" between Washington and Hanoi. That meant Vietnam was allowed to join the World Trade Organisation and qualify for World Bank loans provided it embraced the "free market", destroyed its free public services and paid off the bad debts of the defunct Saigon regime: money that had helped bankroll the American war. The reparations agreed by President Richard Nixon in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were ignored. Normalisation also meant that foreign investors were offered tax-free "economic processing zones" with "competitively priced" (cheap) labour.

The Vietnamese were finally being granted membership of the "international community", as long as they created a society based on inequity and exploited labour, and abandoned the health service that was the envy of the developing world, with its pioneering work in paediatrics and primary care, along with a free education system that produced one of the world's highest literacy rates. Today, ordinary people pay for health care and schools; the elite send their children to expensive schools in Hanoi's "international city" and poach scholarships at American universities.

Whereas farmers in difficulty could once depend on rural credit from the state (interest was unknown), they must now go to private lenders, the usurers who once plagued the peasantry. And the government welcomed back Monsanto with its genetically modified seeds. Monsanto was one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange, which gave Vietnam its own, chemical Hiroshima. Last year, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal by lawyers acting for more than three million Vietnamese deformed by Agent Orange. One of the judges, Clarence Thomas, once worked as a corporate lawyer for Monsanto.

In his seminal study Anatomy of a War, the historian Gabriel Kolko argues that the party of Ho Chi Minh enjoyed "success as a social movement based largely on its response to peasant desires" and that its surrender to the "free market" is a betrayal. His disillusion is understandable, but the need to internationalise a war-ruined country was desperate, as was building a counterweight to China, the ancient foe. Unlike China, and despite the new Gucci emporiums in the centre of Hanoi and Saigon, the Vietnamese have not yet gone all the way with the brutalities of "tiger" or crony capitalism. Since 1985, the rate of malnutrition among children has almost halved. And tens of thousands of those who fled in boats have quietly returned without "a single case of victimisation", according to the EU official who led the assistance programme in 1995. In many parts of the country, forests are rising again and the sound of birds and the rustle of wildlife are heard again, thanks to a regreening programme initiated during the war by Professor Vo Quy of Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

For me, keeping at bay the forces that pour trillions into corrupt banks and wars while destroying the means of civilised life is Vietnam's last great battle. That the party elite respect, or fear, a people who, through the generations, have devoted themselves to throwing off oppressors is evident in the state's often ambivalent responses to unauthorised strikes against ruthless foreign employers. "Are we in a Gorbachev phase?" said a journalist. "Or maybe the party and the people are watching each other for now. Remember always, Vietnam is different."

On my last day in Saigon, I walked along Dong Hoi, no longer a street of hustlers and beggars, bar girls and shambling GIs looking for something in the cause of nothing. Back then, I would stroll past the Hotel Royale and look up at the corner balcony on the first floor and see a stocky Welshman, his camera resting on his arm. A greeting in Welsh might drift down, or his take-off of an insane colonel we both knew. Today, the balcony and the Royale are gone, and Philip Jones Griffiths died two years ago. He was perhaps the most gifted and humane photographer of any war. Single-handed, he tried to stop a "search and destroy" operation that killed a huddled group of women and children, eliciting from an American artillery officer the memorable response: "What civilians?" One of his finest photographs is a Goya-like picture of a captured NLF soldier, terribly wounded and surrounded by the large boots of his captors, yet undefeated in his humanity. Such is Vietnam.

“The War You Don't See", John Pilger's new film, opens in cinemas on 12 December and is broadcast on ITV1 on 14 December

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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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.