Meeting Ataturk

On 10 November 1938 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died and as Turks mark the anniversary Simon Hooper looks

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was smaller than I had imagined him. Dressed in an immaculate dinner jacket, set off stylishly by a wing collared dress shirt and a perfectly knotted bow tie, his glassy blue eyes seemed to narrow as he stared through my inquisitive gaze, as if I had just interrupted an agreeable dinner party with urgent matters of state.

Security had been tight, even to secure an audience with Ataturk's waxwork, with airport-style x-ray machines and a guard of soldiers blocking the road up to Anitkabir - the vast mausoleum and museum built in honour of the founder of modern Turkey on an Ankara hillside where thousands will gather on Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of his death in 1938.

And not without good reason; as a soldier rifled through my rucksack, a moustachioed man behind me lazily pulled a large handgun from somewhere between his belly and the top of his jeans and placed it on the desk for inspection. Without comment, a soldier quickly placed the weapon in a locker and casually handed the man a cloakroom ticket.

As a monument to the father of Turkish secularism, a visit to Anitkabir is strangely akin to a religious experience. The museum contains a bizarre range of Ataturk memorabilia – his rowing machine, a pair of nail clippers and even some leftovers on a plate from which he once dined – all presented with the reverence usually afforded to the relics of a holy saint.

Dramatic dioramas recall his greatest battles while a cinema tells the story of Ataturk's life in the sweeping, grandiose style of a Cecil B.
DeMille epic:

"He was born as a genius, grew up as an idealist, and lived as a heroic leader... He devoted his life to his people... from the ruins of an empire he managed to build a victorious nation .. He did not get tired or weak... his success was enough to make him happy..."

The mausoleum itself, meanwhile, is a vast neo-paganistic temple approached down a wide boulevard flanked by statues of lions and Hittite goddesses. The travel writer Robert Kaplan memorably described it as the kind of tomb Adolf Hitler would have had if he'd died a natural death.

With a statue in every town square, not to mention portraits and busts in every public building and school, to the visitor it can sometimes feel as if Turkey is trapped under the influence of a particularly virulent personality cult.

In a fiercely nationalistic country, Ataturk's greatness is a statement of fact, enshrined in law, rather than opinion. Many of those now demanding military action against the PKK in northern Iraq see the struggle against Kurdish separatism as a continuation of the same battle waged by Ataturk in the 1920s against those who would threaten Turkey's territorial integrity.

As his country's outstanding soldier-statesman, who had saved Turkey from extinction by resisting Allied attempts to partition the country at the end of the First World War and then rebuilt a new nation from the shattered remnants of the Ottoman state, Ataturk was Turkey's Monty, Churchill and Attlee all rolled into one.

Through willpower and force of personality, he created a new written Turkish alphabet, introduced surnames and outlawed traditional Arabic-style dress such as the fez in favour of European-style fashions – all measures he considered necessary in transforming Turkey into a "modern" western country. Most importantly, he laid the secular foundations that remain at the heart of Turkey's "Kemalist" state ideology to this day.

And yet, perhaps more than at any time since his death, there are signs that growing numbers of Turks feel Ataturk should be consigned to the past.

This year's parliamentary elections were seen as a litmus test by many of the enduring strength of Kemalism after secularists massed in their hundreds of thousands in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir to protest against the supposed Islamist leanings of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan's nomination of his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, to the Turkish presidency – an office traditionally dominated by the Kemalist establishment - had prompted particular angst owing to the fact that his wife wore a headscarf.

Yet on voting day, it was the AKP who triumphed across the country, confirming their status as the dominant force in modern Turkish politics and providing Gul with the political leverage to install himself – and his wife – in Ataturk's former palace.

While visiting an AKP official during the campaign, I had been surprised to see a portrait of Ataturk behind his desk. "It is compulsory," he told me. "But governments are for the people and rules can change if people want them to change. The Kemalists will try to stop it but the people won't let them."

Suat Kiniklioglu, a newly-elected MP and now a government spokesman on foreign affairs, told me that the AKP was not opposed to secularism but favoured a "user-friendly secularism" that would not force a woman to choose between a university education and her right to wear a headscarf, and which embraced Turkey's unique position as a bridge between eastern and western culture over a narrow nationalism.

"I'm one of those people who does not believe that the divide in Turkey is between secularist and Islamist but between those who want the old order to continue and those who want the old order to change,"
he said.

Oddly, the forward-thinking Ataturk would perhaps not have disapproved of such sentiments. A profoundly pragmatic politician and diplomat, as comfortable cutting deals with Circassian warlords as playing the European gentleman, his secularism and pro-western sentiments were practical tools, forged from his recognition that Turkey had to act and think like a modern nation if it was to avoid the fate of the former Ottoman lands and other territories to the east and south that had suffered the indignities of partition and colonisation.

In a more democratic age, he would surely also have recognised the need for the Turkish people to decide their own future for themselves – without the interference of history. Perhaps the final word can be left to Ataturk himself. As you climb the steps towards his mausoleum, the words of one of his most famous quotations inscribed into the stonework read: "Sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the nation."

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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.