Pakistan at a glance

Things you need to know about this fascinating country

The people

Pakistan is riven by internal conflict. Its 160 million people are divided into numerous ethnic groups, with violent feuds occurring between many of them, and some parts of the country remaining beyond government control.

Map commentary by Shabeeh Abbas

North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)

Smallest province in size but second-largest in population. Pashto speakers (Pashtuns) form a rough majority. Other groups speak Hindko and Seraiki. Pakistani Pashtuns have close ties with Pashtuns

in neighbouring Afghanistan. Many sympathise with the Taliban, though secular Pashtun nationalism also exists. There are tensions between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.

Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata)

Nominally government-controlled, but tribal leaders hold the real power. Bordering Afghanistan, this area is the centre of Taliban activity, smuggling and drug production. The town of Darra Adam Khel is one of the biggest illegal arms markets in the world. Reputed hideout of Osama bin Laden.

Baluchistan

Largest but least populated province. Rich in natural resources, it is Pakistan’s main source of natural gas. Baluchis are the main ethnic group. Exploitation of natural resources by a punjabi-dominated elite has brought them few benefits. Construction of Gwadar port and the influx of workers have led to fears that the Baluchis will become a minority in their own land. Baluch nationalist insurgency is ongoing. The province shares a border with Iran, so it is used by Jundullah, a militant Sunni group, to carry out attacks inside Iranian territory.

Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir

Azad Kashmir is the Pakistani-administered part of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. Most people speak Hindko. The Northern Areas were also part of Jammu and Kashmir prior to independence. They rebelled successfully and chose integration with Pakistan in 1947. Not officially a province, they have no representation in parliament. Pakistan’s only Shia-majority region. There is strong resentment against the central government.

Punjab

Most populous province. Punjabi speakers form the main group. They dominate the military and are accused of exploiting other groups. Concentrated in the south, Seraiki speakers are the second-largest group. Most feel politically and economically neglected.

Sindh

Major site of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation. Sindhi speakers are the main group. Most follow

a Sufic version of Islam. “Honour killings” regularly occur in rural areas. Concentrated in urban areas, Urdu speakers are the second-largest group. Communal violence between the two sides killed thousands in the 1980s.

The economy

Pakistan's economy boomed in 2005, growing faster than it had for 20 years. It has now settled to a GDP growth of 6.6 per cent - average for Asian economies. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has risen from $322m in 2002 to $3.5bn in 2006. Most of the money is going into the telecommunications and petroleum industries.

In 2003, the country had fewer than three million mobile-phone users; today there are almost 50 million.

Car ownership has been increasing at roughly 40 per cent a year since 2001. Rolls-Royce and Porsche opened their first showrooms in Pakistan last year.

According to the World Bank, Pakistan is the second best country in south Asia for doing business. That said, it takes on average 560 hours per year to comply with all Pakistani tax regulations.

Sales of leather garments rose sharply in 2006: 48 per cent more than in the previous year.

More science and engineering doctoral students are expected to graduate annually - 1,500 a year by 2010, a hundredfold increase on the 1990s figure.

Real-estate prices in Lahore have risen more than 1,000 per cent since 2001.

Twenty-four per cent of the population lives in poverty, down only 1 per cent since 1990. Infant mortality is higher than average for south Asia.

Sarah O'Connor

The culture

Pakistan has six Unesco World Heritage Sites. These are the archaeological ruins at Mohenjodaro; Taxila; the Buddhist ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and nearby city remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol; the historical monument of Thatta; Shahi Fort and Shalimar Gardens in Lahore; and Rohtas Fort.

Basant is the famous kite-flying festival, centred in Lahore, that marks the coming of spring. It attracts crowds from all over the country.

Roughly a thousand new cybercafés are opening each year; more Google searches for "sex" emanate from Pakistan than from any other country.

Television has boomed since deregulation in 2002. More than 40 stations now include one hosting south Asia's first cross-dressing television star.

Abrar-ul-Haq is the pioneer of modern bhangra in Pakistan and one of the country's most influential figures in music.

Pakistan's "truck art" is world-famous: trucks are painted with calligraphy and popular images, such as film stars (far left).

Bapsi Sidhwa is the best-known Pakistani novelist. Her works include The Crow Eaters and Cracking India.

Lollywood refers to the Pakistan film industry, which is based in Lahore (left). Joint projects with Indian film-makers have been planned since 2004, but these have not yet materialised.

Junoon, meaning "passion" in Urdu, is Pakistan's most popular rock band, blending western and folk styles.

Shabeeh Abbas

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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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.