Bush's war on women

To further its anti-abortion crusade, the US denies aid to any NGO that offers safe terminations to

When you start researching unsafe abortion, the photographs and stories are so visceral that they carve themselves into your mind like a scalpel. You find yourself able to quote details of the internal damage caused by drinking a litre of bleach. You dream at night about the news story describing the effects of a uterus being stabbed, repeatedly, with a bamboo stick.

A report published by the US non-profit agency the Centre for Reproductive Rights includes a typical tale. In Breaking the Silence, an anonymous Kenyan health worker recalls the story of a pregnant 17-year-old he encountered, "a house-help with no money . . . [who] went to somebody to try to remove the pregnancy. And the person she went to did not know the anus from the vagina. He destroyed her anus, rectum, uterus and some of the small intestine. The girl now has a permanent colostomy."

There's a reason that the health worker chose to remain anonymous, a reason which rests, bizarrely, on the political interests and religious beliefs of a man on another continent.

In January 2001, on his first day in office, President George W Bush issued an executive order that had lain dormant throughout most of the Clinton administration. The Mexico City Policy, more commonly and descriptively dubbed "the global gag rule", had been instituted by Ronald Reagan in 1984, and represented a tightening of the Helms Amendment 1973, which had made it unlawful for non-governmental organisations to use any funds granted by the US Agency for International Development (Usaid) either to provide safe abortion (in countries where it is legal) or to lobby for it (in countries where it is not).

The global gag rule allowed the US to use its huge financial clout (it currently provides 40 per cent of the global aid budget for population programmes) to take its anti-abortion stance much further. From the moment it was signed, NGOs receiving any help at all from Usaid - accepting supplies of condoms, for example - were explicitly prohibited from using any of their other funding to provide safe abortion or lobby for it.

The prohibition goes so far that NGOs which want to keep their Usaid funding aren't permitted to cite statistics on unsafe abortion. Even telling the stories of women who have been maimed by unsafe procedures could be interpreted as lobbying - hence the shyness of that Kenyan health worker.

As such, in areas where organisations accept the gag, the abortion debate is skewed, entirely dominated by anti-abortion voices - just as Bush intended. (In areas where organisations have refused the gag, the effect is often exactly the same, since loss of funds can force them to close.)

The rule is thus fundamentally undemocratic, and also imperialist - after all, in countries where abortion is legal, it overrules national sovereignty. As Laura Katzive of the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights notes: "This is a policy that would be unconstitutional if applied to US citizens, because it's a condition on free speech. In the United States, you can't say 'you can express an idea, but, if you do, we'll withhold funding', so it's applying a double standard to NGOs overseas. That's shocking, particularly in the context of a foreign policy which is meant to promote democracy."

According to estimates, between 19 and 20 million unsafe abortions are performed worldwide each year, 97 per cent of them in developing countries. Annually, this kills roughly 68,000 women. That's eight women an hour, or a planeload per day - before you start weighing the toll of maiming and mutilation, infections and lost fertility, that affect many millions more each year.

As Beth Fredrick of the International Wom en's Health Coalition points out, when it comes to those 68,000 deaths, the US government "has blood on its hands". But the destructiveness of the gag rule spreads much further. Those organisations that fall foul of it also run family-planning programmes that provide a huge range of services - from distributing contraceptives to giving sexual health advice to providing information on maternal nutrition and breastfeeding. Organisations that refuse to accept the rule's restrictions, and subsequently lose their funding, can be left with no option but to close clinics that serve some of the world's most vulnerable people. (It is estimated, for instance, that only 10 per cent of the African population has ready access to contraceptives.)

The rule wreaks havoc

To give a few examples of the havoc this has wreaked, in 2003 Planned Parenthood of Ghana was forced to close down a programme that had been distributing contraceptives and providing advice on HIV/Aids to an estimated 2.2 million Ghanaians. The Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia was forced to close a huge range of outreach programmes after losing more than 30 per cent of its external funds, cutting staff and reducing volunteer numbers from 1,000 to 90.

Sixteen developing countries have lost their whole Usaid supply of birth control, because the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the leading NGO in this field, refused to accept a gag. Obviously, it is impossible to calculate the precise effect of the rule on the spread of HIV/Aids, but it is safe to surmise that it has been devastating - there seems a good chance that the resulting death toll will far exceed that caused by unsafe abortion.

And once these clinics close, they can't easily be rebuilt, even if an NGO secures new funding from another source. As Fredrick notes: "The expertise and infrastructure usually take so long to put together, and many health systems are so fragile, that when you lose a clinic it's hard to regain that strength, or even that capacity."

Ironically, it is likely that the policy may have increased rates of abortion. When clinics close, "women don't get other sexual health information or contraception", points out Louise Hutch ins of the UK group Abortion Rights, "so they're more likely to become pregnant again and suffer from sexually transmitted diseases".

The more you read about "the global gag rule", the more hideous it seems. This is a law of poli tical convenience, which sacrifices some of the world's poorest women (and, indeed, men) to appease the anti-abortion fervour of the religious right in the US. It seems no coincidence that the Helms Amendment was enacted in 1973. That was the very year when abortion became legal in the US, and the American right appears to have been determined to redress the balance by using the country's financial advantage to undermine safe abortion abroad.

As the global gag rule stands, it is clearly at odds with US law and the views of the majority of Americans, who support safe abortion. As Marcel Vekemans, senior medical adviser to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, says: "It's a case of, 'do what I say, not what I do'." Knowing how difficult it would be to overturn Roe v Wade in his own country, Bush has instead exported his personal convictions, and those of his closest supporters, worldwide.

As Laura Katzive notes: "If Americans were more aware of the policy, there would probably be more objections to it, but, because it doesn't affect our interests directly, it has been allowed to stay in place." Beth Fredrick concurs. "They were very calculated in putting forward the global gag rule . . . after all, no woman in a Kenyan slum is ever going to be called on to vote for President Bush or any of his cronies, are they?"

Since last November's US midterm elections - with that significant swing towards the Democrats - there has been speculation that it may now be possible to overturn the rule. This was last attempted back in 2005, when Senator Barbara Boxer sponsored an amendment to an appropriations bill that was swiftly passed in the Senate. At that stage, however, Bush threatened a veto, and the attempt faltered.

Despite the new distribution of power, Bush still holds that veto, so it is probably too soon for optimism: the activists I spoke to are holding out instead for a Democratic president in 2008. Last year, the UK made a small dent in the situation by pledging £3m to organisations that had been denied US funding as a result of the gag rule. In financial terms, of course, that's minimal, but it showed the UK boldly - and unusually - opposing US foreign policy and making a strong, clear case for the need for safe abortion services worldwide.

As Fredrick says, the rule denies women in developing countries "their humanity. It's dis respectful and undignified and it's based on an idea that women are something other than full human beings." While the gag rule stands, Bush's hands just get bloodier.

To find out more, visit http://www.globalgagrule.org

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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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.