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Whose victory in Venezuela?

Both opposition parties and Hugo Chávez claim victory in regional elections in Venezuela. Vincent Be

The political grip enjoyed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has loosened a little after opposition parties made some significant gains in regional elections.

Five of the twenty two governorships up for grabs went to opposition candidates. Gains were especially strong in economically powerful and well-populated areas such as Carabobo, Zulia and Miranda.

The newly created United Socialist Party lost four of the five municipalities in the capital of Caracas, holding on to only the poorest section.

The results are being seen as an electoral step forward for the opposition, especially when compared to their performance in the previous regional poll. However, Chávez’s United Socialists maintain a strong majority, and will govern states made up of about two-thirds of the South American country’s population.

The National Assembly, which is on a different voting cycle, meanwhile remains overwhelming in the hands of government supporters.

Chávez himself did not participate in Sunday's contest, he won a six-year term in 2006.

Inevitably, though, he was a dominant figure in the lengthy campaigns which were widely seen as a test-run for the United Socialists created to unify a number of organisations that support the self-styled Bolivarian revolutionary.

They faced an opposition much better organised than that of the last regional elections in 2004, which, fractured in the wake of a coup attempt.

In an increasingly political country where nightly discussions of socialism and capitalism are perhaps only outnumbered by those of baseball, passion for and against El Presidente triggered a record 65 per cent turnout.

Both sides claimed victory on Monday. The opposition celebrated their advances and the prospect that the socialist may have “lost the heart of the country,” in the words of pollster Luis Vicente Leon.

But Chávez saw his ability to maintain supporters in large majorities ten years into his rule as a mandate for his continued revolutionary project.

He said the outcome “ratifies the path for the construction of socialism”. And in a manner reminiscent of the night he lost the December 2007 vote on a proposed constitutional overhaul that would have abolished presidential term limits and introduced a radical participatory socialist democracy, he congratulated his opponents on their victory and praised his country's democracy.

“Who can say there is a dictatorship in Venezuela? Well, maybe some will continue to say so,” he said.

Earlier this month, a poll of Latin American countries found Venezuelans most likely to say that voting is the best way to change things. But it also found them to be continually worried about crime.

Personal insecurity - routinely cited by citizens as the largest shortcoming of the government - has risen in the last ten years and made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Despite high levels of support for the Chavez government’s policies, which have redistributed oil incomes to fund health, education and food-subsidy programs, many Venezuelans remain unsatisfied with some issues of day-to-day governance, such as crime, corruption, trash collection and emergency services.

The people up for election in regional contests were those that largely deal with these problems, and the opposition was able to make political capital scoring victories in key urban areas.

“The candidates in the metropolitan cities haven’t been able to provide for every need the people have. And there’s a lot of corruption, and things like that are always punished,” said Coromoto Jaraba Pineda, a supporter of the government who works at AvilaTV, a state-run and left-wing youth station in Caracas.

She said she can’t be sure of where the funding for her channel will now be coming from, since the mayor’s office of greater Caracas, its former patron, fell to the opposition on Sunday.

Overall, 2008 has seen key victories for the left in South America. In Bolivia, president Evo Morales handily won a recall referendum vote, the new constitutional referendum supported by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa passed, and Paraguay inaugurated a new leftist president, former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo.

Chávez is an ally of all of these leaders, as he is of most of the left-of-centre governments which now run most of South America.

And he looms large on the continent because of his power, popularity, outspoken style, and access to oil dollars.

Though current low oil prices are certainly a difficulty for Venezuela, there haven’t been signs of any immediate need to dip into the country’s sizable reserves. Barring another referendum, Chávez will leave office in 2012. But the blows to his movement of his exit and the moderate losses of this election may be balanced by the success of institutionalising his ideas into a party and by the democratic advances of sympathetic governments in South America.

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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.