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The Joe and Hillary show

Obama has taken a colossal risk in choosing the gaffe-prone Biden and may come to regret not opting

We have now reached the end of day two of the eight days of the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions as I write - the Democrats reserved the Pepsi Centre in Denver for the first four and the Republicans the Xcel Energy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota, for the remaining four that begin on 1 September - and so far the roof has not fallen in over either party. Hillary Clinton was all kissy-kissy and exuding pro-Obama fire and brimstone when she spoke on Tuesday night, as I knew she would be: she has no intention of jeopardising her career as US senator for New York, or the good chance she believes she still has, should Barack Obama lose in November, of securing the Democratic presidential nomination in 2012.

It could be that, by the time you read this, her husband will have launched a kamikaze attack on Obama in his speech on Wednesday night - or Republican prayers might have been answered and a tornado will have struck the huge open-air football stadium that he immodestly chose to deliver his acceptance address the following evening (just as JFK did when he gave his acceptance speech from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum rather than the convention venue next door - geddit?).

But I doubt it very much. American political conventions become interesting only if things go wrong and fights break out; the Democrats' first two days were hardly organised like clockwork and sometimes deteriorated into a shambles, but that was merely business as usual. To sit through a day of one of these conventions is stupefyingly boring: although television coverage gives the reverse impression, almost none of the thousands on the convention floors listen to a word spoken by perhaps 95 per cent of the speakers, who nonetheless plough through their big moment as though the world were on tenterhooks.

For the remaining 5 per cent or so of speakers, it is the precise opposite. Each night at least one over-rehearsed, overprepared, over-coiffed and over-choreographed man or woman will dominate the proceedings with an autocued speech to which everyone (including a coast-to-coast television audience of 20 million) listens intently. Michelle Obama played that role competently on the Democrats' first night - but her performance suffered from the artificiality engendered by overpreparation (I wish the Obamas would stop using their daughters as props who supposedly spontaneously shout cute things to their mum and dad - fully miked and right on cue).

Meanwhile, the newly appointed Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden, "choked up" when he spoke to delegates from his home state of Delaware - choking up being obligatory for all American politicians when the appropriate chance arises. Even what should have been a truly moving moment - surely the last appearance on a convention stage by Ted Kennedy - seemed choreographed and mawkish, alas.

The divisive issue never far from the surface in Denver, though, was Obama's choice for the vice-presidential slot of Biden rather than Hillary Clinton. Nobody should underestimate the depth of the fissures that started to divide the Democrats as soon as the 2008 primaries turned nasty and it became apparent that the Obama campaign was masterful in disguising its dirty tricks, and it will take a lot more than a gracious speech or two to heal the underlying wounds.

Rudy Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York, dropped by in Denver and said it was a "no-brainer" that Obama should have chosen Clinton, given that their primary season tussle ended in a virtual dead heat and that, in the end, more Democrats probably voted in the primaries for Clinton than for Obama himself. Clinton, too, always had stronger credentials for the general election in November: she was a consistently better performer in the crucial battleground states, and had cornered the votes of the poor working class and women.

An Obama-Clinton ticket would have meant overcoming deep personal animosities, but there is a tradition of presidential candidates and their running mates loathing each other: JFK and LBJ hardly spoke, and there was no love lost even between Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush. Biden can bring some of the pluses to the ticket that Clinton would have brought - getting out the working-class vote, perhaps - and may even be able to deliver the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where he grew up, to the Democrats.

But Obama is taking a colossal risk by passing over Clinton in favour of Biden, who is perhaps the most notorious and gaffe-prone windbag in the Senate; the Republicans are already rubbing their hands with gleeful anticipation. John McCain will have tried to steal some of Obama's thunder on Friday by naming his own running mate (possibly the former governor Mitt Romney, a McCain apparatchik tells me) and then the whole circus moves north to Minnesota.

The Republicans, I predict, will put on an al together slicker show than the Democrats - providing another timely reminder that they and McCain are still very much contenders in this most engrossing of presidential races.

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 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food

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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 Nicolas Sarkozy 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 hopep 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.