Old wealth is always with us

The British aristocracy, judging by what happened in India, may be far from finished, thinks Giles M

Half a century ago a newly independent India made its first assault on its powerful ruling families and their feudal nobles. In 1947 the princely states represented about a third of the land mass. In theory, the maharajas (great kings) and rajas (kings) collected their tributes and ran their affairs guided by a resident British political agent. In practice pax Britannica lightened them of many of their duties and allowed them the leisure to spend their money on palaces, baubles, mistresses and expensive foreign travel. Not for nothing were many of the most sumptuous princely residences in India constructed at the very end of the last century, or the first half of this.

There were fewer than 600 of them in what is now India and Pakistan, a number slightly smaller than that of the hereditary peers now facing abolition in the House of Lords. As cries for independence proliferated after the first world war, the princes had helped to apply the brakes, aware that their bread was better buttered under the British than it would be under the Hindu lawyers who were likely to gain control. They hoped to gain a separate deal, allowing them to opt out of the new Congress-ruled India. Earl Mountbatten, however, showed them no sympathy: he preferred the Hindu pandits and washed his hands of the princes, leaving them to their fate.

There was a small-scale "mutiny", as we might call it now, and the army was brought in, notably to oust the incredibly rich Nizam of Hyderabad at the cost of a few hundred lives. There was a move by at least one Hindu ruler to opt for Pakistan; the rest were "mediatised". In exchange for their lands they were granted annual payments from the privy purse, and they were allowed the use of their high-flown titles.

Compensation continued until the beginning of the 1970s when Indira Gandhi banned the use of royal and noble titles and scrapped the annual payments. She was challenged by the Supreme Court, which found her action to be unconstitutional. She went to the country and Congress was returned with the two-thirds majority required to alter the constitution. All that the princes and nobles had left were their palaces and their dignity.

They were down, but not out. The state of Rajasthan is a case in point. Before independence, Rajasthan had the biggest concentration of princelings in India. Maharajas and rajas ran a classically feudal system: the ruler granted lands to the nobles (rawats and thakurs) and the right to levy taxes and administer justice. In return, the nobles paid an annual tribute and raised troops for the princes in time of war. The rulers lived in sumptuous complexes of palaces like those still to be seen in Jodhpur or Udaipur. The noblemen inhabited castles or "forts" at the centre of what was, in many instances, virtually a small kingdom in its own right.

After 1947 and even more in 1971, the choice of careers for India's noblemen was limited. Some joined the army; others went into the tea trade. Many cobbled together estates from different family parcels and farmed; still others went into local politics, where they earned votes because of the kudos they still enjoyed among the people.

Another solution was hotel management. The man who started this ball rolling was the late Maharana of Udaipur in the kingdom of Mewar. The famous Lake Palace Hotel was opened in the 1960s. Its success led the Maharana to turn more and more of his properties into luxury hotels, while he moved into smaller and smaller corners of his palace compound. It took time before Mewar's nobility followed the lead established by their former ruler, but a sympathetic new law promulgated in Delhi has now offered grants towards converting forts and palaces into "heritage" hotels. In the past few years these have been sprouting up all over Rajasthan.

One of the best of these is the Mahal in Deogargh, run by Veerbhadra ("VB") Singh Chundawat and his brother Shatrunjai. A few years ago their father, Rawat Nahar Singh, a retired history master from Mayo College in Ajmer, which continues to educate most of the Rajput princes, noticed that the fort was beginning to fall apart. He quickly made a present of it to his eldest son, who was away planting tea and coffee in the south. Nahar Singh has seen many changes. He is old enough to remember the days before 1947, when the ryots (peasants) brought in sacks of corn loaded on bullock carts. A good lord, he points out, also had a responsibility towards his ryots. The local nobility stored wheat, barley and hay in case of famine.

The absence of a substantial middle class in rural Mewar means that the old families are as prominent as they have always been. They live up at the big house, and they provide the magnet that attracts the white "sahibs" to the village. As their cars proceed through the narrow streets of the bazaar, almost all the older inhabitants shower them with blessings.

I toured some of the tribal villages in the south-west of Rajasthan with Thakur Bhano Pratap Singh Ranawat, who farms and runs a fine hotel at Fort Dhariyawad. In the past, his family protected the people who occupied some of the 180 villages that lay under his control, and now he carries on the tradition by looking after their interests with the regional authorities. As he walked through the alleys between their mud huts, men and women prostrated themselves at his feet.

In another castle-turned-hotel near the former Mewar capital of Chittor, the local rawat told me that his family had exercised their feudal rights over 90 villages. Many things had not changed: he was still headman in 23 villages, and in nearly 250 he supervised primary education. I walked through his home village on my own. It was one of the poorest I had seen, for the most part without electricity or plumbing, the lanes teeming with oxen and filthy, half-naked children. When I got back to the castle, the rawat was drinking whisky with his friends and laughing at the antics of the local peasants. He reminded me of a hobereau of the ancien regime - a member of the uncouth local nobility who got their comeuppance in the French revolution. Except that, here, the revolution had come and gone, and he was still powerful.

It might be tempting to draw the conclusion that the fate of Rajasthan's nobility provides an indication of where ours will be 50 years on, but direct comparison is hampered by arranged marriages and the caste system, which prevents any real social mobility in India. In what is still very much a poor, agricultural region, the nobility enjoys power and prestige among the locals. The father of Dushiant Singh, who runs a country hotel at Bijainiwas, exchanged the headship of the ruling house of Masuda for the job of chief minister of Rajasthan. His successor today is also a member of one of the old families.

Nahar Singh's brother was in politics, and the schoolmaster told me he would probably be elected by the local people because they respected his family. That was Rajasthan and a special case, but on a national level it is not inconceivable that old families should slip into positions of power. The man who would be Maharaja of Gwalior, for instance, is the rival to Sonia Gandhi for the leadership of the same party that robbed him of his kingdom.

Watch your back, Tony Blair. Stranger things have happened.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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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.