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What I learned from the French presidential campaign

A last-minute attack, as many feared, can change everything.

A familiar feeling of tedium was settling in on Thursday night, as my friends and I watched the last TV event before the first round of the French election, held this Sunday. Instead of a never-ending debate with the 11 candidates, this time each candidate had ten minutes to defend their policies. All the same, the event was expected to run to four hours and 32 minutes. After the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon showed the alarm clock he had brought (because it is “time to wake up”), we were, quite ironically, falling asleep.

But around 9pm, something woke us up. Scanning through tweets, I spotted a news alert: “Shooting on the Champs-Elysées.” A policeman had died. My French friend and I looked at each other. It had started again – the dread, the speculation on social media, the comments from politicians, the inevitable recovery from yet another (possibly terrorist) attack. That feeling, too, is now a familiar one.

Last night’s events have shaken what was left of a hectic, infuriating campaign marked by scandals, extraordinary uncertainty and growing resentment towards the French political system. The Champs-Élysées shooting happened on the eve of the last day of campaigning. The conservative François Fillon and the hard-right Marine Le Pen both decided to cancel their events on Friday to hold press briefings instead. However, this meant they were effectively using the events on the Champs-Élysées as a last means of getting their message across. We need more security – vote for me.

By contrast, when news about the shooting filtered into the live TV debate, the centrist Emmanual Macron seemed to try too hard to look presidential, especially compared to Fillon, who channelled his real-life prime ministerial experience.

As my colleague Stephen made clear this morning, it’s Marine Le Pen who benefits from such security scares. But the changed mood could mean it's Fillon, rather than the great liberal hope Macron, who will face her in the run-off. It would be only logical to see the big crowds of undecided voters warm to an experienced conservative with a strong stance on security.

If it’s Fillon-Le Pen indeed, then my first lesson learned on the campaign trail in 2017 will be to never underestimate the voters’ fear – and the candidates’ capacity to play with it. As for lesson number two?

Accusations of rampant corruption will not bury a candidate. Apparently.

Only in March, I was charting Fillon's descent into scandal over multiple accusations of fraud and misuse of public money. It looked like his decision to cling on to his hopes of the presidency was an ego trip that could ruin his centre-right party. He is polling at 21 per cent, with Mélenchon on 18 and Macron on 23, all within the 2-3 point margin of error acknowledged by pollsters.

Fillon is is now on 21 per cent, with Mélenchon on 18 per cent and Macron on 23 per cent, again all within the 2-3 point margin of error used by most pollsters. Against Le Pen, all polls suggest Fillon would be victorious – a scenario now ridiculously plausible.

“So it’ll be Fillon-Le Pen, and Fillon will win,” was our conclusion last night. What a humiliation if France elects the candidate being investigated over allegations of misusing half a million euros of public money. He is even said to be ready to “pay the money back” if elected – an offer that sounds uncannily like a confession. (“Rends l’argent”, meaning “Pay the money back”, has become a meme used against Fillon on social media and on his campaign trail.)

Old French political parties are dying and must come to terms with rapidly changing times.

Fillon may win, but his party, and the centre-left party of the Socialist Benoît Hamon, have lost. The campaign has been fought by independents, from the loud “anti-elite” Le Pen and Macron’s personality-cult movement En Marche! to Mélenchon’s late but powerful Corbyn-like grass-roots movement. Big historical divides of left and right have been rejected by Macron and Le Pen, who both claim to be “neither left nor right”. Even if Fillon, the embodiment of the old politics, wins, he’ll be the last one from the country’s main parties.

Marine will rule France. In the meantime, her agenda will rule everything else.

Le Pen is not playing a short-term game. When her father reached the second round in 2002, I was eight years old. I remember an Italian friend at school saying goodbye to everyone – her parents had planned to move if he won. I grew up seeing his jackass party turning into her nationalist machine. It is hard to see an end to her rule, if only on the ideological front. Le Pen cannot really lose: each campaign she fights is a step closer to the goal and I am now certain nothing can stop her but herself. It will take a Front National presidency to defeat the Front National, for it to go full circle and replace the elite political entities it is now denouncing as out of tune.

There's one last feeling I know I'll come to regard as very familiar – and that's the feeling of grief I'll get seeing Marine Le Pen reach the second round.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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