Danger to the nation?

Two years ago, the FBI added a religious eccentric to its list of America's top criminals. The hypoc

Back in 1950, J Edgar Hoover began the FBI's legendary practice of issuing a "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list. Posters of dangerous criminals such as serial murderers, rapists and drug warlords were distributed to post offices, and television shows such as America's Most Wanted shot to the top of the ratings. Americans loved playing detective, but only 150 of the most wanted have ever been arrested as a result of assistance from the public. By far the biggest name on the current list is Osama Bin Laden, who has a $25m ransom on his head and (the FBI helpfully tells us) "should be considered armed and dangerous".

What, then, was 50-year-old Warren Steed Jeffs doing on the list two years ago? Like Bin Laden, he was also considered "armed and dangerous" and, we were told, "may travel with a number of loyal and armed bodyguards". Such dramatic warnings were worthy of Hoover himself, but in the event, the former private schoolteacher and accountant was led away with the minimum of fuss in 2006 after cops stopped his Cadillac Escalade on Interstate 15, north of Las Vegas, because its number plates were not visible. They found they had landed a supposedly very big fish indeed.

Let us now fast forward two years, however. Last month, Jeffs was flown to hospital by helicopter suffering convulsions because he had repeatedly banged his head against the walls of his prison cell. He had also tried to hang himself, and developed festering sores on his knees after days of praying non-stop in solitary confinement in Utah's Purgatory Correctional Facility.

Yet, almost certainly uniquely in Hoover's 58-year-old Most Wanted programme, Jeffs was never accused of killing or hurting anyone himself, of stealing, drug-running or arms-running, or of personally committing any violent crime. He became one of America's top ten most wanted fugitives for one overriding reason: he sought the freedom to practise his religion the way he wanted, but discovered instead that there was a catastrophic irreconcilability between the traditions of his church and the law.

Before we go any further, I should say that from everything I have learned about Jeffs, he is neither a pleasant man nor a religious martyr. He is an avowed racist, for example. He was leader until last year of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), one of the three main sects that broke away from the Mormon church when it publicly disavowed polygamy in 1890. He and the three groups' estimated 37,000 followers believe "plural marriages" are essential prerequisites for entry to the "Celestial Kingdom", heaven's holiest enclave. He succeeded his father, who died in 2002 and had 19 or 20 wives, with whom he sired at least 60 children.

Hypocrisy

Four years ago, the younger Jeffs acquired 1,700 acres of scrubland 170 miles north of San Antonio, Texas, to house 700 of his followers who were fleeing increasing scrutiny from the media, police, and anti-polygamy groups in Utah and Arizona. He named the ranch "Yearning for Zion". As well as a gleaming 80ft white temple, the ranch had log cabins, a medical centre, a cheese factory, a rock quarry and a water-treatment plant. The reference to Zion indicated the sect's profound fundamentalism: they said they were following the Old Testament examples of Abraham and his three wives, Jacob with his four and David with his seven (at least).

Here we come to the rub. Only Jeffs, as "President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator" of the FLDS, could sanction marriage among members. In 2002, he arranged the marriage in Utah of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin - and it was this that landed him on the Most Wanted list. By facilitating a sexual liaison involving an underage girl, he was charged with "accomplice rape" and, for good measure, incest.

Last November he was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to prison for two consecutive terms of five years to life. The state of Arizona then moved in, charging him with eight more sexual offences against minors and incest - again, as "an accomplice". He reportedly had a nervous breakdown in jail before resigning as spiritual leader of the church last November. In decades, when Utah and Arizona have finished with him, Jeffs will face yet more charges in Texas.

The notoriety the FBI had needlessly afforded this rather inconsequential oddball, however, has already had further tragic consequences. Last spring, a disturbed 33-year-old woman, who had no connection with the Mormon church or any of its breakaway branches - and who, like many people who lived in the area, disliked and mistrusted the "weirdos" who lived at the Yearning for Zion ranch - made a series of anonymous phone calls in which she claimed to be a 16-year-old girl inside the ranch who was being physically abused by her 50-year-old husband.

That was enough for Texas's finest, who also resented the polygamists' presence in their midst. In scenes chillingly reminiscent of the fiery massacre exactly 15 years before of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas - in which 54 adults and 21 children were killed - Texan police duly assembled automatic weapons, Swat teams, snipers, helicopters, and even a tank to launch an assault on the ranch and rescue the non-existent 16-year-old girl. "Law enforcement is preparing for the worst," a spokeswoman grimly told a local newspaper. Last April state troopers finally moved in.

Luckily, FLDS members did not put up a fight in the way the Branch Davidians had done. Police, with the (on this occasion) inaptly named Texas Child Protective Services, were easily able to break into the temple - considered highly sacred to church members, and into which outsiders were not allowed - where the fictitious 16-year-old girl had supposedly sought refuge. Not surprisingly, they did not find her.

Meanwhile, though, hundreds of children on the ranch were being wrenched forcibly from their parents. Busload after busload of mothers and suddenly parentless, crying, traumatised children - 250 girls and 213 boys by the most authoritative count - were driven away under armed escort to Fort Concho, a military facility with inadequate food, lavatories or bathing facilities, and little privacy for people to whom modesty was a basic dignity. Mothers in the group were forbidden even from waving to each other across halls.

Then the entire group of detainees was bussed to a new home, a small sports stadium called the San Angelo Coliseum, where there was an outbreak of chicken pox among the children. Others were subjected to medical tests against their will, including the taking of DNA samples. The authorities announced triumphantly that 31 of 53 girls aged between 14 and 17 were either pregnant or already mothers. In this febrile atmosphere, 400 lawyers descended voluntarily on the court to offer to represent the children. The local newspaper in Eldorado, the tiny town nearest the ranch, put up a sign saying simply, "No interviews. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be prosecuted."

It took six weeks for an appeals court in Texas to halt all this nonsense and bring everybody to their senses. In a blistering rebuke of Judge Barbara Walther, it said that the court which first heard the case "abused its discretion in failing to return the children" because the Texas authorities had failed to produce evidence to justify what they did. They "did not present any evidence of danger to the physical health and safety of any male children or any female children who had not reached puberty". A week later, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that all the children must be returned to the Yearning for Zion ranch.

The tragedy of the whole terrible episode is that the deeply unappealing Jeffs and his philosophies actually mirror the mores of his society far more than all the frothing indignation suggests. In the states of South Carolina, North Carolina and Kansas, for example, it was legal for older males to marry 12-year-old girls as recently as the past decade.

David Henkel, a pro-polygamy campaigner who estimates that there are 100,000 polygamists in the US - Jews, Christians, and many Muslims among them, besides rebel Mor mons - senses profound hypocrisy: "Someone like a Hugh Hefner will have a television show with three live-in girlfriends and that's all OK," he says. "But if that man was to marry them, then suddenly he's a criminal. That's insane."

Part of the indignation has been fostered by politicians such as 68-year-old Senator Harry Reid, current Democratic leader of the senate, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the 2008 Republican presidential aspirant and still a strong contender to be John McCain's vice-presidential running mate. Reid, backing calls for the creation of a department of justice task force to combat polygamy, told the senate judiciary committee three weeks ago that polygamist sects are "a form of organised crime". What I did not see reported is that Reid himself is one of America's 5.8 million conventional Mormons who are bitterly opposed to the breakaway groups, as is Romney.

The upshot of this whole terrible mess is that the pitiful Jeffs, wanted man number 482 in Hoover's lists, will now rot in jail. Studies have shown that arranged marriages tend to have much the same success rate as conventional ones - although the 14-year-old girl whose marriage Jeffs originally sanctioned is now married to another man.

Heaven knows what lasting psychological traumas were inflicted on the 463 innocent children who were kidnapped from the ranch, or on their parents. Religious zeal had collided irrevocably with the law; few of us, after all, are anything but vehemently opposed to underage girls being forced into marriage or incest. But was it really necessary to make Warren Steed Jeffs one of America's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives? Or did it just seem like a good attention-seeking gimmick at the time, perhaps? Eerily, somehow, the ghost of J Edgar Hoover and all the harm he inflicted on America lives on in 2008.

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 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire

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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.