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Voices from an unwinnable war

Until now, young Israelis have been able to ignore the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. The invasion

Within an hour of Israel's ground invasion of Gaza on Saturday 3 January, word had spread around downtown Jerusalem. Young people who would normally be out socialising returned home or remained there to watch the TV news. Everyone you meet in Jerusalem and beyond is obsessively following the events in Gaza: what the daily newspaper Haaretz is calling "the First Gaza War".

For nearly all Jews in Israel, the connection is very personal. Because of conscription, with the exception of those in the tiny, ultra-Orthodox religious minority, almost everyone will themselves have served or be serving, or expect to serve in the army, or have children or relatives who do. Yael Aviv, a 26-year-old part-time waitress at Mona's, a fashionable nightspot, shudders as she describes learning of the deployment from a colleague.

"It gives me the shivers," she says. "I know someone down there [at the border, where thousands of troops are amassed] and I have many friends who are soldiers. Tomorrow I'll go to college and we will all be talking about those we know who are serving."

Picking at an eggplant salad, Ouria Tadmor, a 31-year-old photographer, expresses his fears for his family in the south. His mother and brother - who has three children - live in Yavne, close to Ashdod, which the Hamas rockets have targeted for the first time. He himself grew up in Beer Sheva, also hit (also for the first time) just before the ground invasion.

"There is nothing they can do - they each have a bomb shelter in their home; the kids don't go to school and don't leave the house," he says. "My mother is deaf in one ear and doesn't hear the alarms." And why are there so few people out in what is Jerusalem's rough equivalent of Leicester Square? "As long as it's only the air force attacking [Gaza], people don't really care. But as soon as the kids go in, everybody watches." Yael agrees. "I prefer not to see the news all day, but I am following this," she says.

It is hard to find Israelis who - for now, at least - do not support the confrontation with Hamas. People want an end to the rocket fire that has killed 24 in Israel since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 (though many would acknowledge that this is a modest number compared with the hundreds, some claim thousands, of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza over the same period). And there is national pride, too, assuaging the failure of the outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert's prolonged war against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006.

Both Ouria, who describes himself as a "liberal centrist", and Yael, who craves a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians, support the troop invasion of Gaza. "If you do something, you've got to do it right," says Ouria. This view is backed by polls, which - at the time of writing - show a little more than half of all Israelis supporting the Gaza operation. Figures published in Haaretz put support at 53 per cent, even though only 19 per cent had said they wanted a ground invasion before it took place.

This relative unanimity among Israelis has palpably increased the tension with Palestinians in neighbouring occupied East Jerusalem. As protests began to spill over into the Old City early this month, armed soldiers hurried towards al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims were gathering for Friday prayers.

In secular Tel Aviv, however, the war feels a long way away. Hamas militants in Gaza may chant "Bomb Tel Aviv" but it is an oasis of indifference. I visit a former soldier who describes the general mood in the city as "denial". "You could live in this seaside, modern city without thinking about the conflict for a minute," he says. "We live in a bubble."

Bubbles occasionally burst. His girlfriend was late for our meeting because, just down the coast in the ancient Arab town of Jaffa, the bus in front of hers was rocked back and forth by angry protesters. And as the troops went in on Saturday night, several thousands held a ceasefire rally in the square where the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

As Israel risks another military quagmire amid growing condemnation from abroad - with more dead soldiers and apparent defeat because the rockets from Hamas have not stopped landing in southern Israel - it is a stand-off that is too much to bear.

In the near-empty bar of Mona's, Ouria says he's had enough of living in a divided city and within an hour of the destruction in Gaza.

For the first time, he has "no one to vote for" in next month's elections, elections that cynics believe explain the timing of this war. "I'm actually looking for a European wife and to get the hell out of here," he says with a sardonic smile. "You should write that down, because quite a lot of my generation feel as I do but they won't say it."

Photo by Quique Kirszenbaum

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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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.