A shaky start: more prudence required

Within two weeks the new cabinet has managed to antagonise both Washington and Moscow

The Brown cabinet is feeling its way towards a foreign policy. Gordon Brown's first move was the pointed decision to appoint Mark Malloch Brown as a minister at the Foreign Office. A loyal servant of the United Nations and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, the newly ennobled Malloch Brown is loathed by the Cheneyites.

As if that wasn't enough, Douglas Alexander then confirmed to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that Britain wants to discard the Bush-Blair axis in favour of a multi national approach to all major foreign policy challenges, including security and terrorism. Brown was predictably swift to deny that he wanted any changes in the transatlantic relationship. But nobody in the US is fooled, and nobody should underestimate the symbolic power of the Prime Minister's early statement of intent: he is smoothing the way for close ties with the incoming Democrat administration that most anticipate will take office in January 2009.

Just in case President Bush thought he was being singled out for special punishment by Gordon, David Miliband stepped up to the despatch box with the dramatic announcement that four Russian diplomats (aka intelligence officers) were being expelled in response to Moscow's refusal to hand over the main suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko murder case.

Miliband was clearly pleased with the cross-party support he got for his actions. But it may be worth pausing for thought. Britain does not have an extradition treaty with Moscow, and Russia is under no compulsion to deliver Andrei Lugovoi to the Crown Prosecution Service. And Britain remains unwilling to deliver Boris Berezovsky either to Moscow or to Brazil, despite Brasilia issuing an Interpol warrant for his arrest on 12 July. The CPS and Miliband may well argue that legally there is a watertight case for Lugovoi's extradition. Politically, it is much more shaky.

So, within two weeks, the new cabinet has managed to antagonise both Washington and Moscow. Sergei Lavrov - who I can't help suspecting may be the secret love child of the late, grumpy Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, known as Mr Nyet - has indicated that Russia does not want this matter to escalate. None theless, the Brown government may encounter obstacles to co-operation with Moscow and Washington in the coming months.

The list of major foreign policy issues where Britain needs good relations with the two powers is long and troubling. Iraq and Afghanistan are the two most obvious. On Iran, there is a real danger that as the end of the Bush administration nears, Washington might concoct ever more nutty adventures such as an invasion, in order to present an incoming Democrat president with foreign policy chaos. Britain and the EU could be in the unusual position of wooing Russia as an ally as they try to head off the apocalypse.

But the immediate headache is Kosovo, which was high on the agenda at Miliband's EU talks in Brussels on 23 July. The US and Russia are on a collision course over the UN-administered territory's final status. Washington insists that it will recognise a uni lateral declaration of independence by the Kosovar Albanians in the event of the UN Security Council failing to adopt a resolution sanctioning independence. The Russians have said they will veto anything Belgrade doesn't like.

Playing chicken over the Balkans is unwise at best. But neither Moscow nor Washington will be picking up the pieces - whatever the outcome, the EU will be clearing up the mess, financially, politically, socially and even militarily.

And this, counter-intuitively, is where David Miliband has a real opportunity to develop an innovative foreign policy with concrete results. Until now, Britain's Kosovo strategy has in effect been an adjunct to the state department's policy in Washington. This is both tired and unable to deliver results. But the replacement of Blair, Chirac and Schröder, a stultifying combination, with the invigorated trio of Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel offers a genuine opportunity for Europe to fashion coherent policies, on a case-by-case basis, that will advance the interests of the collective and the EU's individual members.

Kosovo is the obvious place to start - it is in Europe's backyard, and if the EU can prevent the Russians and Americans from wrecking stability in the region by persuading the Serbs and Albanians to reach a negotiated settlement over the territory, then Britain may be able to develop a foreign policy capable of compensating for the disasters of the past five years.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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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.