Fixing Bush's legacy

Whoever wins the White House they have a huge task to try to rebuild the US reputation abroad. Here

Having recently returned to planet earth from a ten day stop-over in Washington, it would appear as though Barack Obama is on the cusp of being a shoo-in not just for the Democratic nomination but for the presidency as well.

That's unless Hillary does something dramatic, Senator McCain manages to make a party that couldn’t beat a paper bag electable, as someone said. Or some act of god should befall us all.

Major caveats admittedly, but none have stifled a new game in Washington, which is to treat President Obama as a given, and to start to plan for life under him.

This game is most entertainingly played in foreign policy discussions – where the consensus would broadly seem to be that while Presidents Hillary Clinton or McCain would both provide a much needed change of set dressing from the reviled George W, Obama could offer the breath of fresh air that could revitalize America’s image of itself as the “shining beacon on the hill” and further persuade the rest of us to believe this to be the case as well. Naturally, this is a consensus that is seen more from the Democratic perspective than on the Republican side, but even they privately admit that it will be tough to overcome the Obama zeitgeist.

Republicans have not of course given up, and one Republican friend harangued me about the personality cult developing around the senator from Illinois, citing the recent Frank Shepard Fairey - he of the Obey Giant fame) - poster campaign that openly evokes totalitarian propaganda. On the more controversial end of the scale, prominent academic Edward Luttwak attracted a storm with an article about the candidate’s Muslim heritage in the New York Times that ran under the title “President Apostate?”

From a foreign policy perspective, however, it seems to hard to deny the potential that, if elected, Obama will offer the opportunity for the US to reach out across the world and to actually find partners willing to work with them. (This FT story shows the impact he is able to have without any apparent effort in the world’s most populous Muslim country).

This is not to say that the world will suddenly be inverted, but more that such a clean break with the aggressive Manichean rhetoric of the Bush administration can only offer positive potential.

Some may query the sagacity of openly agreeing to meet with dictators without preconditions, but one cannot deny that offering some potential forum for discussion seems preferable to the many foreign quagmires that the Bush administration has let the United States sink in to. And the potential face-lift that President Barack Hussein Obama will offer his country in the Muslim world is hard to calculate.

However, young and excessively optimistic presidents have had a tendency to be pushed around by their tougher national security types in-house, but also by opportunistic foreign leaders. The most prominent historical example is John F Kennedy who was pushed by domestic actors into the ill-judged Bay of Pigs debacle, and who was then tested by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recognising this comparison and his oft cited weak national security credentials, Senator Obama has taken some pretty hard lines on the stump, most prominently stating that “if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistan's] President Musharraf won’t act, we will”. His opponents leapt on this, immediately accusing him an even deeper naiveté in being willing to bomb an ally and sovereign state (amusingly, in private conversation, most in Washington would agree that this would of course be the American reaction to such a situation).

One Democrat academic put it to me in a most mischievous manner when he stated that what Obama would need early on is a “small war.” A short, sharp and constrained conflict with high popularity ratings at home could immediately strengthen an Obama administration both at home and abroad – think Ronald Reagan and the American invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, or the revitalising impact the Falklands had upon Margaret Thatcher’s fortunes.

None of this, however, detracts from another key element which might let down the potential that Obama offers – and that is a hand to reach back. While the senator would undoubtedly offer an outstretched hand, he will need the world, and particularly Europe, to reach back. Nowhere is Obamamania more pronounced than in Europe, but at the same time, there is scant evidence that Europeans have begun to think through what exactly they are going to do if the rhetoric in the White House changes sharply.

America’s prestige and power have undoubtedly been tarnished, and it will take some work to bring their lustre back, but in the meantime, very real problems exist in the world that it will take both sides to fix. Afghanistan cannot simply limp on – if we really think it is a just war, then resources must match intentions.

And while it is easy to avoid dealing with Iraq at all at the moment it's not a situation that will simply resolve itself.

As German academic Guido Steinberg has put it in Der Spiegel , “the next US government will demand greater support from Germany on the international stage” – a statement which is equally applicable across Europe.

There is a crucial need for leaders and citizens the world to start to think through what they are willing to contribute to fix Bush's terrible legacy. If Obama is elected, high expectations will only be met if he gets tangible international support.

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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.