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Is Marine Le Pen finished?

Marine Le Pen has survived many political troubles before, but her struggle since the French election is unprecedented.

Marine Le Pen shares more with Theresa May than meets the eye. Not only are both politicians ferociously anti-immigration – although Le Pen never got enough decisionmaking power to print “Go home” on a fleet of buses and send them all over the country – they also both started 2017 with high hopes of success, before running terrible campaigns and, one day, waking up completely powerless.

On 3 May 2017, a few days before the second round of the French presidential election, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen headed to the TV debate in which she was facing centrist rival Emmanuel Macron. Both in her party National Front (FN) and in French politics, she was never so powerful again. 

Le Pen’s terrible debate performance was the turning point: after that, her ratings plummeted, criticism exploded in the FN ranks, and she lost the election. The debate is still referenced by French political commentators and when, on 19 October 2017, she appeared on TV in L’Emission Politique, it brought the show its worst-ever audience figures.

So, is Le Pen finished? If the French people had been given £1 every time this question had come up in her political career, they would all pay the tax on 1M+ incomes that Macron plans to cut down.

She lost, and yet she clings on, the only candidate to her re-election as FN president, which will be held during the party’s conference in March 2018. She lost, and yet she got herself a €2,000 raise in July (which she defended by saying “I just needed €2,000 more monthly”, which, really, sums up so much about her).

In between every French election – and there isn’t one in France before 2020 – Le Pen and her party go into quiet mode after a loss, debate a bit about whether they hate migrants or the euro more, and every time, they reorganise in time for the next one.

Internally, “Marine”, the FN’s leading figure, doesn’t rally everyone anymore. In October, her coming re-election was challenged by another candidate, the FN representative in Lille, Éric Dillies – but this is the FN after all, and he was quickly told to retreat. There are talks of replacing her for the next presidential election in 2022, and discussions to change the name “National Front” into something less tainted by the Le Pen family (Marine’s father Jean-Marie, the party’s founder, was excluded in 2015). And one of her closest ally, Florian Philippot, defected in September after a very public row, to create his own movement, “The Patriots”, bringing some of Le Pen’s supporters with him.

But this time feels different, because Le Pen’s troubles have extended far beyond FN politics. The party has struggled with the authorities before – in 2011, it sold its old HQ, a €10M building nicknamed “The Liner”, to pay off debts.

Now the troubles are personal. After losing her parliamentary immunity in the European Parliament earlier this year (for tweeting photos of IS victims in 2015), Marine Le Pen was elected MP in the French National Assembly for the first time, which meant she regained an immunity. That was until the National Assembly lifted it too, in August, in the same case. She is also being investigated, like other members of the FN, in a scandal around potential “fake” jobs in the party.

In the latest blow against the struggling FN leader, Marine Le Pen has seen her bank accounts closed, first the FN’s 30-year-old accounts at the French bank Société Générale on 21 November, and then a personal account she has had for 25 years at HSBC, on 22 November. She has called the move a “banking persecution” before threatening to sue both banks. (Société Générale has declared that the closures had nothing to do with politics and were purely banking-related).

Just like Emmanuel Macron’s movement-turned-party La République en Marche, the FN almost exclusively resolves around Marine Le Pen. That since 3 May, each of her trials to come back as the respected and rallying leader “Marine” have failed, show the extent of the deep crises within her party. But FN members know too well that no one else – at least for now – could replace her, and so she stays on, hoping for relevance as she hasn’t managed to impose herself as Macron’s main challenger.

As little an opposition the FN is offering at the moment, Macron’s ruling party has yet to find an answer for far-right voters. It’s unlikely its liberal reforms, said to hit the poor the hardest, will help.

On 7 May 2017, 33.9 per cent of French voters chose Le Pen. Whether or not she is, they will still be there in 2022.

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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How Japan is preparing for the great flood

Experts fear Tokyo’s flood defences are not enough to avoid calamity.

Just north of Tokyo, a network of gigantic subterranean cisterns, tunnels and industrial engines helps to protect the world’s largest metropolitan area from extreme flooding – the threat of which is rising because of climate change. The system’s five cylindrical shafts can each accommodate a space shuttle, and the main tank, known as “the temple”, is held up by rows of 500-tonne pillars. Built at a cost of $2bn in 2006, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel sucks in water from swollen rivers and pumps it
out towards the ocean using the type of engines used in jet airliners.

The project has so far done its job in protecting the Tokyo area’s 38 million residents. But many experts fear the capital’s flood defences – which also include extensive underground reservoirs – are not enough to avoid calamity. Japan is being afflicted by ever stronger typhoons, and rainfall levels rise every year. In one river breach scenario, the government projects more than 6,000 deaths. “To be frank, these measures are not enough,” says Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, the former chief civil engineer of Tokyo’s flood-prone Edogawa ward.

Mayumi Ootani, who sells pots and pans and cigarettes from her shop, puts things more bluntly: “We’re living side-by-side with death.”

Calamitous flooding wrought by extreme weather is becoming an international menace, as shown last year in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In Tokyo, the threat is even greater because the city is already so vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami.

Swiss Re, a reinsurer, described Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama as the world’s riskiest metropolitan area in a 2014 study, citing extreme flooding as one of the perils. The Japan Meteorological Agency blames climate change for a 30 per cent rise in rainfall measuring more than two inches per hour – in what is already one of the world’s wettest cities. In recent times, Tokyoites have also been beset by man-made perils, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and North Korea’s recent threats to bring “nuclear clouds ” to Japan.

Such a confluence of worries might seem a recipe for mass-neurosis, or a flight to areas that do not lie on seismic or geopolitical fault lines. But  while Japan’s overall population declines due to low birth rates, Tokyo’s is still growing, with young people migrating from stagnant rural areas. Meanwhile, the city continues to build more and more skyscrapers – testament to Japan’s superlative earthquake-resistance technologies.

Even in the districts of Tokyo most at risk from floods and earthquakes, people tend to go about life with an optimism partly born of resignation. “I don’t go around worrying about it – if disaster comes, it comes,” says Toshio Miyata, who runs a tempura restaurant in a wood-framed home. “We Tokyoites don’t give a damn, whether it’s earthquake, fire or flooding. You can’t expect to fight with nature and win.”

Miyata runs his business in the Edogawa  ward – bordered and bisected by flood-prone rivers. It’s one of the areas that form what is known as the city’s shitamachi, or downtown, traditionally considered the authentic heart of Tokyo, where people are gruff, plain-spoken and on the hustle. It’s also the centre of so-called zero-metre zones that lie below sea level – and are doubly vulnerable because of the risk of inundation and buckling during quakes, a result of poor land quality. (One Edogawa resident described the ground beneath her home as “soft as tofu”.)

Yet it is precisely a centuries-old history of coping with disaster that explains how people here deal with the prospect, even likelihood, of natural calamity. “The consciousness that you may die in a natural disaster is something deeply-rooted among the Japanese,” says Kansai University disaster psychologist Tadahiro Motoyoshi. “There is a strong sense of the threat and the blessings of nature.”

Tsuchiya, the former Edogawa chief civil engineer, says these low-lying areas have been flooded at least 250 times in the past four centuries – causing countless deaths – but each time the survivors started over in the same place. Innovation came with the commitment to stay. Residents developed elevated structures called mizuya – literally “water houses” – where they could store necessities and escape to during flooding, as well as a sophisticated system of emergency boats that converted the submerged city into a floating one.

Engineering marvels such as the metropolitan discharge channel and a planned network of super-levees, more than 300 meters wide, are an extension of these early innovations.

Japan’s earthquake-resistance technologies also draw inspiration from the past. The Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, completed in 2011, borrows from Japan’s traditional five-storey pagodas – which since medieval times have been resistant to the most powerful earthquakes. Skytree engineers adapted the pagoda’s central pole – called a shinbashira – that redistributes seismic vibrations to prevent collapse.

There is also a stock of resilience and community spirit that has managed to survive waves of rampant development and inward migration. Masanobu Namatame makes painted paper lanterns for traditional festivals. He squats on straw mats in his Edogawa workshop, carrying on a craft that has been handed down through generations. “The locals depend on me during festival time,” he says. “So I’m not thinking about running away.”

But the family business was not always in this location. During Namatame’s grandfather’s time it was in the more affluent Kojimachi district. Wartime air-raids that burned down the house forced the family to flee here with a few belongings on their backs.

“The bottom line is if some calamity happens you have to run,” says Namatame. “But until then you just stay put and get on with things.” 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist