We ain't seen nothin' yet'

The battle between Clinton and Obama has been peculiarly unpleasant. Just wait, says our US editor,

You can't even take your dog for a walk in Georgetown without seeing them. The signs for Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that sprout from immaculately manicured lawns are strikingly simple: the legend "Obama '08" stands out from a dark-blue background, topped by a symbolic sun rising from patriotic red-and-white rays. It's the same in similarly all-white, wealthy DC neighbourhoods such as Cleveland Park or Chevy Chase. But drive a few minutes into almost entirely black or Latino areas of the city, and there is nary an Obama sign to be seen.

Yes, this is a truly complicated election. We will come to the convoluted role race is playing in it in a moment. But it is positively surreal, meantime, to be told by normally rational and informed friends in Britain that America is in the midst of a glorious democratic uprising that is being led by this phenomenally messianic figure called Barack Obama.

Even Jack Straw seemed to have caught this fever when he breezed in to town a few days ago and gushed to a DC audience about "your enviable notion of civic duty". When I pressed him about what he meant by this admirable American trait, he replied: "For example, an obligation to take part in the democratic system." It would not have seemed kind (and I was shut up by the chairman, in any case) to bring Straw back down to earth by telling him that only 70-75 per cent of Americans even bother to register to vote, or that voter turnout averages 76 per cent in Britain and 54 per cent in the US.

Perhaps it will be higher this year. But you know Brits do not fully understand what is going on here when William Rees-Mogg thunders in the Times that it is now "hard to see" who can stop Obama from becoming the next president because, "like Kennedy, he is young and speaks for the new generation of American politics". Eh? Never mind that JFK had won four Second World War medals, served six years in the House of Representatives, eight in the Senate, almost three years as US president, and was dead and buried before he had even reached Obama's present age.

Before we go any further, however, a reality check. National polls indicate that the next president will be . . . John McCain, Obama, or Clinton (in that order, but none separated by more than 2.4 percentage points, and all thus within statistical margins of error). At the time of writing, while the outcome of the Democratic primaries in Hawaii and Wisconsin is not yet clear, the latest amalgamated national polls for the Democrats have Obama at 45.2 per cent and Clinton at 43.2 per cent. The winning candidate must land the crucial figure of 2,025 delegates; last Monday evening, Obama had 1,302 delegates and Clinton 1,235. But it is all wildly volatile.

Clinton's team has been beset by internal squabbling, departures and money problems, sure signs that a campaign is in trouble. But polls (and, yes, they may change) suggest that Clinton is ahead of Obama in the next two critical primaries, in Texas and Ohio on 4 March (which have 389 delegates between them); yet even if she wins both, the Clinton campaign expects her still to be trailing Obama.

Deadlock

But then there will be 12 more primaries or caucuses still to come, the last in Puerto Rico on 7 June. If deadlock remains, the Obama and Clinton campaigns will fight a furious battle over whether Democrats in Michigan and Florida (with 366 delegates between them) should go to the polls again - or whether the votes in those states on 15 and 29 January respectively, which Clinton won by 15.5 and 16.7 points, should stand (but which party rules forbid).

Finally, the decision could be delayed until the party convention in Denver in August and lie in the hands of the 795 "super-delegates" whom both sides are now frantically wooing.

Not least, alas, by financial inducements. The non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics says that Obama has doled out $698,200 to the campaign funds of super-delegates (via his political action or campaign committees) since 2005; 43 per cent of those pledged to support him have been recipients of Obama funds. Clinton's team has handed over $205,500 to super-delegates, meanwhile, and received only 13 per cent of pledges from recipients.

Yet, ironically, the US media is waking up to some of the realities about Obama just as British enthusiasm is peaking. Jake Tapper of ABC likens Obama's supporters to Hare Krishna chanters. Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times says that at first he was mesmerised by Obama's nonsensical lines ("We are the ones we've been waiting for"), but now talks about the "Cult of Obama" and "Obamaphilia". The reality of Obama, Stein concludes, is that he is a politician who is "not a brave one taking risky positions like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, but a mainstream one".

That is the point which so many commentators, both here and in the UK, have been missing. You have to have lived here for a decade or two before you fully understand why the evil legacy of slavery will be extant for generations to come. You just have to read the 1848 "Black Code" of Georgetown to begin to comprehend the sheer wickedness of what was happening in my own neighbourhood 150 years ago.

Crucially, however, Obama is not a descendant of slaves. He is a biracial, prep-schooled Ivy Leaguer whose upbringing in Hawaii was in effect white; his entire political career has been choreographed by David Axelrod, a political tactician described by the New York Times as "post-ideological", from the day they first met when Obama was just 30 (and four years before the publication of his first memoirs).

Fast-forward to the 2008 election. David Greenberg, of Rutgers University, who is at present writing a book about political spin, says of Obama that "no one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton's", but that supporting Obama makes whites "feel good about themselves" and their country. "He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever," he says.

In contrast, Greenberg adds, the media barely noticed when Hillary Clinton became the first woman in US history to win a major-party primary. Exit-poll data bears out exactly the bias Greenberg detects. In Virginia - Virginia! - white men voted more for Obama than Clinton, as they also did in nine other states. Yet in racial melting-pot states such as Nevada, California, Massachusetts and New York, it was Clinton who won; it is the whitest states that are the wildest about Obama (such as Idaho, which the latest census figures show to be 96.8 per cent white, where he beat Clinton 79-17 per cent).

Those earning less than $50,000 a year are consistently voting for Clinton, while Obama is scoring resoundingly with the so-called "millennium generation" earning over $150,000; the journalists who have been so starry-eyed about Obama fit neatly into the latter demographic bracket themselves, and seem to have avoided scrutinising Obama's record lest they be accused of racism. Michelle Obama, too, is still being afforded constant favourable exposure. In contrast, it is open season on both Clintons, the most scrutinised couple in history; for Hillary's candidature, Bill and the prospect of his being back in the White House have become her biggest liabilities.

Perversely, therefore, the brilliance of the Axelrod strategy has meant that Obama has become the beneficiary of America's racist history, while Clinton has been the victim of its sexism. The Obama team's deft use of race has also worked magic. Hillary Clinton said on 7 January that Martin Luther King's dream needed to be realised in concert with Lyndon B Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964, and on the same day her husband dismissed Obama's claims of consistent opposition to the Iraq War as "a fairy tale"; an Obama press aide seized the moment and put out a four-page memo that somehow accused the couple of using racist tactics against Obama.

A thorough swiftboating

That label has stuck ever since (although, char acteristically, Obama and Axelrod subsequently disowned the memo); and the African-American vote, which was once solidly Clinton's, swung dramatically to Obama. In what may have been a sign that he has lost his old touch, Bill Clinton later made the fatal mistake of likening Obama's victory in South Carolina to that of Jesse Jackson in 1988 - a comparison Jackson himself nonetheless thought perfectly reasonable - and the "racist" smear by Obama's camp had stuck for posterity.

Whether McCain's opponent is Obama or Clinton, however, either can expect a thorough swiftboating by the Republicans in the run-up to the 4 November election, just as the characters of Al Gore and John Kerry were torn to shreds in 2000 and 2004. Obama will be slain for his inexperience and for making things up in his memoirs; Clinton for being a "strident" woman (a sexist code word if ever there was one) who stayed inexplicably married to the biggest monster of all time, Bill.

The Republicans held their first 2008 electoral war conference at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel over the 16-18 February holiday weekend, and Axelrod's nemesis, Karl Rove, was in attendance. This year's battle between the Democrats is already peculiarly unpleasant. But, in the words of the legendary Old Gipper, whose name will be endlessly evoked by every Republican for the next nine months, we ain't seen nothing yet.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

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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.