Shattered lives

Last year, 26 people, mostly young men, were killed in gang-related shootings in London. Each death

On 15 November last year I received a phone call from my eldest son, saying that his best friend's bro ther, Etem Celebi, had been shot dead in Stoke Newington at 9.50pm the previous evening. We both felt disbelief, grief and a sense of hopelessness. Within hours, the killing had been named the 23rd gun crime of the year in London. A statistic.

Underneath was a devastated family, a shattered community, and broken friends. Etem's brother Firat had gone on holiday with us and both were regular visitors at my home, watching their beloved Arsenal.

Etem was 17. His parents, Kemal and Hayriye, were from northern Cyprus. Etem had attended local schools and was a student at Brooke House Sixth-Form College studying sports science. He played football for Leyton and, in recent months, for the under-18s at Dagenham and Redbridge FC. He had been Player of the Year and Players' Player of the Year, winning trophies since the age of 11. His many aunts and uncles, nieces and ne phews, lived around Famagusta.

Friends said of him: "He constantly made people laugh. He was bright and intelligent." His father said: "People loved me because I was his dad and loved him because he was my son."

I went with my son to visit the scene of the shooting on the Friday following the killing. We arrived at 8.30pm. Already the community had made a makeshift shrine, with scores of bunches of flowers, football shirts and mementoes. The scene was extraordinary, a gathering of more than forty 17- to 20-year-olds, their faces showing utter disbelief and shock. I had known many of them since they were at primary school.

The next day, I visited the family. Etem's father was unable to speak, his mother was under sedation, the extended family was in bits. During the next few days, relatives flew in from Cyprus, all unable to comprehend the enormity of what they were seeing. Over the following weekend, the family asked me to act as family spokesperson and to liaise with the police. I agreed and helped prepare statements.

The circumstances of the killing began to emerge. A small group of friends had been returning from the Angel in Islington and were hanging around a street corner talking to a friend who was leaning out of a window. Later, according to local youths, two young men approached the group. They asked them if they lived round the estate and the boys said they did. The two newcomers then pulled out guns and fired indiscriminately. The group fled, running to houses, heard screams, and within seconds realised Etem had been shot.

His parents ran to where he had fallen and held him in their arms for the few remaining minutes of his life. Within seconds, scores of neighbours were out in the streets, phoning the police, phoning for ambulances, trying to keep Etem conscious. The police arrived within minutes, the ambulance moments later. The emergency services did what they could, but the wound was too serious and Etem died.

In the days after the killing, Etem's friends and neighbours were struggling to cope with grief, but wanted to get organised. I suggested holding a ceremony and tribute exactly one week after the murder. The young friends printed T-shirts with a picture of Etem, made badges and dog-tags. I prepared a short speech and suggested a two-minute silence. As the day approached, there was significant interest from the Turkish and Cypriot - but not the British - press. I held an impromptu press conference at the scene on the afternoon of 21 November.

Mapping the problem

Later, hundreds of members of the community, mainly youths, gathered at the shrine. By 9.15pm it was pouring with rain. Despite the downpour, Etem's neighbours and friends stood in silence. I read out the statement and four or five of Etem's friends attempted to make contributions. All broke down in tears. Etem's teacher spoke, as well as a clergyman from the local church. Etem's grandfather spoke through an interpreter. Etem's mother arrived and thanked the crowd through a welter of grief and tears; and a local woman, who had lived on the estate for years, made an impassioned plea for an end to gun crime. She received moving applause.

Throughout these terrible days, the murder squad, through a family liaison officer, kept the family informed and gave full support. Arrests were made and charges followed. But the family's grief was made worse when the coroner was unable to release the body. Eventually, and thankfully, he was able to do so. A service, attended by hundreds, was held at the local mosque and Etem's body was flown to Famagusta for burial. About 20 of his friends, including my son, went to Cyprus to show solidarity with the family and support Etem's brother Firat.

I struggle to think of anything that has affected me personally more than this killing. It was unnecessary, senseless and an appalling waste of life. The incident tore the heart out of the estate. Families have moved, and immediate relatives do not want to visit the area ever again. Since Etem's killing, two more young people have been slain by knives and guns in London. As a consequence, there are more armed police on the city's streets than before. The police can still use prevention measures such as acceptable be haviour contracts and con ditional cautions with most troublesome young men but, chillingly, the number for whom enforcement (tags, curfews, incarceration) is the only response is growing. Placing further strain on overstretched police resources is the fact that increasing numbers of witnesses require protection placements.

As I write, tension between gangs in north London is described by community workers as being at the highest level anyone can remember. Some youths even wear body armour. Half a dozen gangs operate in the Borough of Hackney and scores more in the surrounding areas. The tension seems territorial, the influence of the gangs linked to postcodes. There is evidence of intimidation and involvement with drugs.

Essentially, these gangs do not care about the damage they do to others. The macho culture dictates that gang members be "badder" than their opponents. Consequently, the crimes increase in seriousness, their behaviour becomes more threatening, and punishments such as tagging, antisocial behaviour orders or unacceptable behaviour contracts start to look meaningless. The levels of alienation and exclusion are extraordinary. Many feel coerced into joining gangs in order to feel protected from rival teams and from fear of victimisation if they do not.

Efforts are being made to find a lasting way of marking Etem's memory. Police, local clergy and the constituency MP have held meetings. The community is planting trees and painting murals. It is possible that the youth club will open again, with structured activities that the community wants and needs. Attempts will be made to bring together all the bereaved families of gun and knife crime in Hackney.

But a political response is needed, too, not just in London, but in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, where there is evidence of out-of-control weapon crime. We need to map the extent of the problem, consider the facilities available to bring young people into mainstream society rather than exclude them, and look at the relevance of education, standards of parenting and the quality of life of those involved. If macho behaviour and guns are the only ways young men feel they can gain status, the problem is certain to careen out of control.

More armed police may lead to more armed gangs and more deaths. Increasingly, we will suffer the economic consequences of violent crime. Certain areas will become unviable as places to live or do business in. If, or when, this happens, perhaps the necessary investment in excluded youths will happen. If not, we face the Americanisation of our estates and communities.

The government must act now, and visibly.

Harry Fletcher is an assistant general secretary of Napo, the trade union and professional association for family court and probation staff

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

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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.