The 50 people who matter today: 31-40

31-40 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and ill.

31.Sonia Gandhi

The kingmaker

Italian-born and a Catholic, Sonia Gandhi is the unexpected matriarch of India's ruling dynasty. In the 18 years since the assassination of her husband, the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, she has become a formidable force in the world's biggest democracy. Leading the Congress Party to victory in 2004, she declined the prime ministership, instead nominating the economist Manmohan Singh for it, yet she is widely accepted to be the real power behind the throne - particularly given that in 2007 she also selected the president, Pratibha Patil. Gandhi's influence looks sure to continue into the next generation, as both of her children, Rahul and Priyanka, have been manoeuvred into public life.

32: David MacKay

Power ranger

The Cambridge physicist David J C MacKay used £10,000 of his own money to publish Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, which, thanks largely to a word-of-mouth campaign that had it circulating like ecological samizdat, very quickly entered Amazon's top 60 bestsellers. (It is also available as a free download from MacKay's website.)

Much of MacKay's research has been in the field of information theory, neural networks and software development. Among the many achievements that earned him a professorship in 2003 and election to the Royal Society this year is Dasher, a data-entry interface that enables disabled people to use computers. But Sustainable Energy is the reason MacKay really matters, and the reason he has just been appointed chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

For too long, he argues, the climate change debate has been disastrously polarised: between those who think the point of "peak oil" is imminent and those who insist we are not heading for an energy crisis any time soon, and between proponents of renewable energy and supporters of nuclear power. He cuts through all the noisy polemicising by settling on a simple unit of measurement that allows us to calculate a country's power consumption. If we know how much power is consumed by land area, then, because most kinds of renewable energy are harvested on land, we will be able to "quantify the potential power production from renewables".

MacKay does the maths and makes an empirically watertight case for the use of energy crops, windfarms and solar power. He calculates that if Britain adopted a mixture of wind, solar and nuclear power, 10 per cent of the country would have to be covered by wind turbines; the area occupied by solar power stations would be five times the size of London; and the 50 nuclear power stations needed would occupy some 50km². "The effort required for a plan like that is very large," he says. "But [it is] imaginable." The argument over energy will never be the same again.
Jonathan Derbyshire

33. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Political trailblazer

If one good thing emerged from the civil war in Liberia, it was the leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. When she took office in January 2006, she became the world's first black female head of state. In her three years as president, she has led the charge against corruption in her country and worked tirelessly to attract investment to Africa, particularly by building relations with the US. In 2007 George W Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour. In return, two years later, Johnson-Sirleaf made the US television host Jon Stewart a chief.

34.Simon Cowell

The X man

He could be on the list for The X Factor alone. The queues across Britain, the thousands lusting for stardom, are an annual fixture. Millions tune in every week to watch the judges weed out the mad or the painful of voice. All the while, Cowell pockets a fortune by signing the winners to his label, Syco. His influence extends beyond the music industry, however: the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent TV formats are now copied around the world. He might not be loved (he came in at number 33 on Channel 4's list of the all-time 100 Worst Britons), but he shapes much of the world's entertainment.

35. Oprah Winfrey

Chatelaine of chat

Some - Vanity Fair, Time, CNN - have said that Oprah is one of the most influential women in the world. Oprah isn't just a name, a TV show, or a brand - it's a culture with millions of followers. Her approval can turn a book into a bestseller, or even elect a president (one academic study suggested that she delivered roughly a million votes for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, essentially winning him the nomination). And now, there is talk of her entering the Senate. But Oprah also represents the ultimate American story: the self-made woman from the humblest of beginnings who became, at one point, the world's only black billionaire. Now she's giving back - her extensive philanthropy includes setting up a girls' school in South Africa.

36. Muhammad Yunus

Loan star

As a young economist in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus became interested in microcredit, the idea that small loans could make a disproportionate difference to the lives of those too poor for banks to lend to. In 1976, he raised the funds to set up the Grameen Bank on these principles, advancing nearly all its credit to women, whom he thought were more likely to use the funds responsibly. He was proved right. The concept was so successful in helping lift customers out of poverty that it has been copied around the world, and Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

37.Carolyn Porco

Star gazer

Carolyn Porco, a Nasa adviser with an asteroid named in her honour, holds the future of space travel in her hands. Renowned for her work in exploration and imaging of the outer solar system, she was part of a mission to Saturn's moons that, in her own words, "possibly stumbled upon the holy grail of modern-day planetary exploration" by finding an environment in which there could be living organisms. Porco bridges the gap between scientific discovery and popular culture, acting as consultant for the 2009 Star Trek film. There is even an online petition to get her a cameo appearance in the sequel. How many scientists can say that?

38.Yukio Hatoyama

Prime mover
Japan's new prime minister is spearheading the most progressive political shift in his country's postwar history, which includes plans for a 25 per cent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, not to mention high-profile talk of a modern international "fraternity" (cemented, perhaps, by an Asian single currency), both of which would have been unthinkable in Japan just two months ago. Unlike Barack Obama, Hatoyama has a huge parliamentary majority to support his ideas.

39. Rex Tillerson

Oil swell

As chief executive of ExxonMobil, the largest non-state energy company on the planet, Rex Tillerson is the quintessential villain of the
environmental camp. Since taking over the company in 2006, he has abandoned his pre­decessors' hardline approach, openly acknowledging the possibility of global warming - this year, he sanctioned a $600m investment in ­algae fuel research - but even this is a drop in the ocean of Exxon's oil reserves. He stands firm on saying that energy demand will increase in the next 20 years, and that Exxon will supply the oil and gas to satisfy that need.

40. Usain Bolt

Mr Lightning

Usain Bolt is the fastest man on earth. His tauntingly casual stride across the finishing line has become one of the resonant images of the 21st century: his yellow Jamaica vest alone at the front of the pack. He is now recognised as the most extraordinary athlete in the world, ever. His success, combined with his humour and popularity, has reignited the world of athletics and the Olympic Games, tainted in recent years by drug scandals. Bolt's performance signals the end of US dominance in track and field sports. But most of all, he has shown the peak of physical ability - a human being at the limit of his bodily powers.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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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.