After the stunning Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's election in the United States, all eyes shifted to the land of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" to see what modern democracy held in store, as French voters cast their ballots in the April 23 first round of the presidential election. And it did not disappoint, with France's two main political parties falling short, while centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron came in first with 23.7% of the vote followed by far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front party with 21.5% of ballots.
We thought it was worth asking what will happen when President Trump comes marching into Paris to meet the new French head of state. Last week, it was Macron who'd won the spring 2017 election. Here we imagine a near future where voters in the May 7 runoff have chosen Le Pen, who is set to shake things up right away by welcoming Trump for a flash summit in southern France.
May 20, 2017*
He had been the first head of state to congratulate her. The shock outcome had taken longer than usual to take shape, but as soon as the final results, just before midnight, showed Marine Le Pen ahead of Emmanuel Macron with just 50,02% of the vote, Donald Trump had called her to organize his first official visit to France. It was Trump's controversial strategist Stephen Bannon, a secret advisor to Le Pen during her campaign, who insisted that the meeting take place right away. The symbolism would be clear for all to see.
The date was set for one week after her inauguration, which was notable less for her speech than for the moment when outgoing President François Hollande tripped on the red carpet as he left the Elysée palace for the last time.
Trump's victory in the U.S. had been the boost that Le Pen needed to win.
Like those of Trump, the French nationalist leader's first days in office were extremely busy. Sure, she'd won the presidency, but to really be able to govern, she would have to secure a majority at the parliamentary elections set for the following month. For that, she could only count on herself, her party, and a small fraction of the former center-right party Les Républicains — which had broken apart after its crushing defeat — against a coalition of all opposition forces, put together to "save the values of the Republic."
There was little doubt that Trump's victory in the U.S. had been the boost that Le Pen needed to win, as she campaigned on being a "woman of my word," vowing to remake France from the bottom up: bringing down the eurozone, pulling out of the European Union, banning immigrants from North Africa. But Le Pen also knew that her success once in office would depend on external factors, and she had to move fast to establish herself as a leading figure of a new world order. The hope was that Trump, and a surprise guest, would help her do just that.
As many had feared, the far right-wing victory ignited a violent protest movement that spread to virtually all major French cities, with anti-fascist groups smashing windows and setting cars and trash cans on fire in response to what one described as "the second coming of Hitler, but with blonde hair, no mustache, no penis." In the banlieues, on the rugged city outskirts, the situation remained surprisingly calm, a fact largely due to the local drug lords' specific orders to small-time delinquents not to give the police any excuse to come and interfere with their business, aware as they were that any leniency they might have benefited from under the last presidency was now sure to be over.
The ongoing protests and the movement's visible radicalization in Paris quickly forced Le Pen to reconsider the location of their meeting. Instead of the Elysée palace, she opted for the remote Fort de Brégançon, which used to be the French president's official retreat, on the Mediterranean coast. The whole Le Pen family was there when the Trumps arrived at the fort for their two-day stay, from the patriarch, Jean-Marie — back in his daughter's good graces after having helped her finance a costly campaign — to her young, ambitious niece and likely successor Marion.
The protagonists were all smiles in public as well as in private, despite a perceived mistrust between Marion and Ivanka. The local newspaper reported on the American first lady's "European grace," but also noted the president's second-born son, Eric Trump, had turned "even paler" at the sight of the calf's head served for dinner. Still, little could dampen the mood. Clearly, this was an evening to celebrate and relax before what they all knew would turn out to be a historic day in modern politics.
Today is the day when we, together, begin to make the world great again
From very early the next morning, a rumor started circulating in Parisian newsrooms that Vladimir Putin was on his way to the Fort de Brégançon. The rumor was confirmed shortly after 9 a.m. when the Russian president and his delegation reached the heavily guarded site. Speculation was rife for most of the day, with experts making the talk-show rounds with their prophecies about what would come out of this secretive and most momentous of summits.
Live TV footage of helicopters above the castle quickly cut to the meeting room inside where Le Pen emerged at precisely 4 p.m. for the news conference. She was flanked on her left by Trump, on her right by Putin. "Today is the day when we, together, begin to make the world great again," Le Pen said in heavily accented English. With her American and Russian counterparts stone-faced but beaming, the new French president returned to her native language to give an address meant to alter global relations for decades to come.
"We have two simple messages to share. First, today hereby marks the death of the European Union. Second, for those in the Muslim world who wish us harm, we are coming for you next."
But this new populist triumvirate had made a grave miscalculation: the real threat to their nations' security was farther to the East. What would come to be known as the "Cyber Pearl Harbor" was launched just eight days later by a computer programmer on a cruiser in the South China Sea, though the effects would take three years to come to light. Putin, for his part, found out far earlier than his new French and American allies — and he had good reason not to share the news with either one.
*True Fiction: A narrative experiment for an era of fake news and hard-to-believe reality. (This piece was published on Feb. 8, 2017)
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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