The auroville dome, which Suzanne Moore visited, under construction. Photo: Serge Duchemin
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In India, the next stage of evolution involves special socks and a substantial donation

There is no “money” in Auroville, yet the Indian boys at the café were soon bringing me patisserie for bribes. In the form of money.

Arriving in Chennai at 4am was grim. All I wanted was a cold beer. “Not possible. It’s the elections, madam. You may riot.”

I was at a hotel, waiting to be met by an inhabitant of a town I had become fascinated with. It exists to connect to a higher consciousness, and is described as “a site of material and spiritual search for a living embodiment of achieving Actual Human Unity”. Who would not want to go there?

Auroville was founded in 1968 by Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual companion Mirra Alfassa, “The Mother”. Aurobindo was remarkable. The first nationalist to insist on full independence for India, he was jailed for treason and kept in solitary confinement, where he had a number of spiritual experiences. He decided he must help develop transitional beings to become a Supermind. So the Mother created, first, an ashram and then, by 1969, Auroville, a township attempting to live a new form of collective life.

This is how I found myself in what basically looked like a bit of Charles de Gaulle Airport in the middle of a jungle in south India, trying to get a coffee.

There is no “money” in Auroville, yet the Indian boys at the café were soon bringing me patisserie – everything is pretty French – for bribes. In the form of money. I was shown to my room in a Zen house and told, “This is where the Dalai Lama stays.” They then served horrible porridge for breakfast, though I never managed to work out how to pay for it without money. So they seemed very annoyed.

It’s a huge place. One day I trekked miles to meet an old Aurovilian, with wild dogs running around me in the jungle. It was to talk about the philosophy of the place. He had a long, grey ponytail and spoke about repairing the hard drives of laptops for two hours, and then said he was too busy to say more, as he was having a dinner party. It was like something out of Lost. There were, everyone told me, “no drink or drugs” in Auroville. This was not the truth.

Some people there live in the most fantastic designer homes, others in shacks, but all the real work I saw was being done by Tamils. And no one else speaks Tamil, not even the people who have been there 40 years. Everything depends on complex rules, as all “communal” living must.

I was told off for talking near a banyan tree.

Eventually we were allowed into the Matrimandir, a giant golden globe that looks like a James Bond villain’s palace. We had to wear special socks to go in one of the “petal rooms”. It was purple and Star Trekky. We suppressed giggles and pretended to meditate.

A very annoyed Frenchwoman then explained to me that although everything was “shared” in Auroville, “You need to make a donation. How you say? A substantial amount.” The next stage of evolution costs. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”