2007 and all that

Was this year a good thing? Ben Yarde-Buller casts his sideways glance over the past 12 months

Happy New EU

As is traditional the new year* began just after midnight with a wave of parties, treaties and new E.U. member states such as Bulgaria and even Romania. As the Bulgarians and Romanians had very few Gross Domestic Products* they were unable to drink any champagne to celebrate being the new poor men of Europe. However they managed to cheer themselves up by gathering in public places and attending free concerts, often simultaneously.

* 2007
* except some raw materials e.g. cabbage

Cash for Honours

Tony Blah did not have much time to govern in 2007 as he kept popping round to his local police station to swear that he had never made an Honours Penny in his life. He did not enjoy this at all, as the police refused to treat him as a suspect or indeed with any caution whatsoever, even though he was a Prime Minister and thus by definition a V.I.P.

Shaat Al-Arab

Shaat Al Arab is not a racist slur. On the contrary it is the name of a disputed waterway running between Iraq and Iran* where fifteen British sailors were humiliatingly captured by Irani terrorists in March. This was quite outrageous as at the time of their capture the sailors were very much minding their own business by boarding and searching Irani ships for smuggled goods.

Eventually Blah made a diplomatic effort and persuaded the Iranis to give the sailors right back. However he soon regretted his actions as on their return they all sold their stories to the tabloids, thus damaging Britain’s reputation (as the stories were rather boring and not even particularly well-written).

* or vice-versa depending on one’s viewpoint

The End of the Blah Era

In geological terms the Blah Era was a mere blip but to most of the people involved it didn’t seem that way at all.

Towards the end of his Era, Tony Blah started trying to work out what his Legacy should be. At first his main ideas were:

  • Africa
  • The Middle East
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Northern Ireland
  • Afghanistan
  • Bosnia
  • A.N. Other Country
  • Good Friday

However in the end it turned out that Blah’s Legacy was none of the above but Gordon Brown* instead.

* no relation of Bennett

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown hotly denied that he was Blah’s Legacy, arguing that if anything it was the other way round (or vice-versa). He tried to prove this by having some very firm policies of his very own, fizz:

  • almost calling several elections
  • almost pulling several troops out of Iraq
  • almost gaining the confidence of several middle class voters

This is almost known as Leadership.

Smoking Ban

Smoking harms your unborn child (especially in public spaces) and was thus banned by the government on July 1st. This is known as a smoking ban and is a highly complex and controversial issue, as will now be proved beyond reasonable doubt:

Main Arguments (for the Smoking Ban)

  • I do not smoke
  • I do not like the smell of smoke on my clothes
  • Smoking harms my unborn child

Main Counter-Arguments (against the Smoking Ban)

  • I do smoke.
  • I do like the smell of smoke on my clothes.
  • Why should I believe you? Are you a scientist?

Sub Prime Lending Crisis

This unmemorable crisis was something to do with the American economy and is thus excessively relevant though not at all interesting except to:

  • people who have a lot of money and/or free time (and/or both)
  • people who are into northern rock
  • economists, doom-mongers, sub-prime-ministers* etc

Sub-Prime Lending might (but shouldn’t) be confused with the Cash for Honours Scandal, The Abrahams Affair or Political Donations in general.

* e.g. Gordon Brown

Afghanistan, Iraq and all that

Afghanistan and Iraq should on no account be mixed up even though they are both fundamentally somewhat Muslim and thus contain millions of disaffected young men with a negative attitude (and bombs). Also they are both Asian and larger than Europe and thus ideal venues for a war on terror.

In Afghanistan the War on Terror continued steadily towards Peace by means of skirmishes, massacres, roadside explosions, the Caliban and Class A drugs.

In Iraq the War on Terror brought so much Peace, security, schools, policemen, chaos and mayhem that British troops chose to withdraw in an orderly yet shambolic fashion before they were all killed. They tried their very best to hand over power to genuine Iraqis, but by mistake gave it to some Shia* Militias instead. This was A Bad Thing but can on no account be viewed as an abject failure (least of all by the politicians in charge).

* Irani

2008

It was thus finally time for everyone* to put their feet up and take a well-earned rest before 2008 (and all that…).

* especially politicians and other important types

END OF YEAR EXAM

1. Arrange in order of preference, starting with your absolute favourite: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Northern Ireland, Congo. Give four glib reasons for your answer.

2. In your personal opinion, what is a Mullah?

3. Which European country has the Grossest Domestic Product? (Hint: The answer is Germany.)

4. Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Whatever next? Turkey?

5. Is this a libellous statement: “Tony Blah solicited cash for the Labour Party in return for dispensing honours.”? How about this: “Tony Blah sexed up the September Dossier in order to bolster his case for going to war against Iraq.”?

6. On a scale of 1 to 10 (via 5) how humiliating was the capture of British sailors by Irani terrorists?

7. Mind your own business (while straying into another country’s territorial waters and searching their ships for smuggled goods).

8. How cool is Britannia? (N.B. This is not a rhetorical question.)

9. Imagine for a brief moment that you trust Gordon Brown. How was it?

10. Pay lip-service to the crucial importance of the American economy then turn your mind to something more interesting (e.g. football or The X Factor).

11. Confuse and contrast Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban and (if you still have time) North Korea.

12. Write an email to your local M.P., expressing yourself in no uncertain terms.

13. “A Scot, a Presbyterian and an Economist.” How accurate do you find this assessment of Sub-Prime-Minister Brown?

14. Using only unavailable evidence, assess the situation in Basra.

15. Was 2007 A Good Thing? Your answer should take account of all of the following: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Taliban, North Korea, the England Football Team, Floods, Sub-Prime Mortgages, Sub-Prime Ministers, Russian Democracy, Anglo-Russian Relations, the Housing Market, Madeleine McCann, the Dafur Region, Chlorine Bombs, Global Warming and Paul Potts.

2066 AND ALL THAT - a memorable
Memorable Modern History from the Suffragettes to Saddam and Beyond (via the Coronation Chicken) by Ben Yarde-Buller & Sophie Duncan
ISBN: 978-1-90584-729-7
Price: £ 9.99
Publisher: Old Street Publishing
December 2007

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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.