Tag Archives: cope

Can Alain Juppé really become France’s next president?

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Nicolas Sarkozy returned to the front line of French politics this weekend, easily winning the leadership of France’s leading center-right political party, the Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement).France Flag Icon

But Sarkozy’s breezy leadership resumption doesn’t mean that he should be packing his bags to return to the Élysée Palace anytime soon.

Winning just 64.5% of the vote against token opposition, Sarkozy’s internal UMP victory wasn’t the incredible triumph that he might have hoped. That insouciance underlines the greater ambivalence among the wider French electorate about a Sarkozy comeback. Sarkozy lost his reelection bid in May 2012 to François Hollande, the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party). Though Hollande is now the most unpopular French president of the Fifth Republic, many voters would be happy for Sarkozy to remain on the sidelines. He’s saddled with memories of his ‘bling-bling’ administration, the futility of his reform efforts (beyond raising France’s retirement age) and the growing list of legal troubles that will plague any 2017 presidential bid.

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RELATEDDon’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback

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Hollande is mired with some of the lowest approval ratings of any global leader as the French economy continues to stumble, even in comparison to the sluggish economy of neighboring Germany. Hollande’s high-profile breakup with partner Valérie Trierweiler dominated headlines earlier this year, despite his 2012 promise of a ‘normal’ presidency without the distractions of personal turmoil. His efforts to pass a tax on incomes over €1 million caused a wide backlash, as have his efforts to bring France’s fiscal deficit within EU targets. Hollande attempted a restart earlier this year by appointing a new cabinet, headed by popular interior minister Manuel Valls as France’s new prime minister, but that hasn’t, so far, revamped his reputation.

Even though Hollande (or any Socialist contender, including Valls) seems eminently defeatable, France’s conservatives aren’t even in agreement that Sarkozy is the right candidate for 2017.

Enter Alain Juppé, a senior statesman who hopes to lead the French center-right instead of Sarkozy. Though Juppé chose not to run for the UMP leadership, Sarkozy’s underwhelming victory is being reported as a back-door victory for Juppé, who has already indicated he will challenge Sarkozy for the UMP’s presidential nomination.

Juppé (pictured above) has gone through one of the most extraordinary comebacks in French politics himself.  Continue reading Can Alain Juppé really become France’s next president?

Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

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It was always a stretch to believe that there was enough room in France’s government for both Arnaud Montebourg and Manuel Valls.France Flag Icon

Montebourg, who represents the unapologetically socialist wing of France’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), received a promotion in April as economy minister when French president François Hollande reshuffled his cabinet and replaced former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault with Valls. At the time, it was hardly clear that Montebourg deserved it after picking fights with prominent foreign businessmen in both the United States and India and waging an avowedly protectionist ‘Made in France’ campaign while serving as minister for industrial renewal. Montebourg (pictured above), with a charming grin, trim figure and a wavy swath of dark hair, who last weekend shared a photo of Loire Valley red wine on his Facebook feed, fits neatly into the American stereotype of the preening, tiresome, French socialist.

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RELATED: Who is Manuel Valls? Meet France’s new prime minister

RELATEDSapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

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Valls, meanwhile, is leading Hollande’s government at a time when the Socialist administration is turning even more to the center, with a much-heraled (if hokey) ‘Responsibility Pact’ that aims to cajole French businesses into hiring a half-million new workers with the promise of a €40 billion payroll tax cut, financed by an even greater €50 billion in spending cuts. Though he’s regularly touted as a reformer, it’s more accurate to say that the Spanish-born Valls is a tough-minded ‘third way’ centrist who wants to rename the Socialist Party, which he considers too leftist. As interior minister, he showed he could be just as tough on immigration and crime as former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy. When he became as prime minister in late March, Valls had the highest approval rating by far of any cabinet member. Today, his approval is sinking fast — an IFOP poll last weekend gave Hollande a 17% approval rating and Valls just 36% approval.

But Valls always had the support of Hollande and allies like finance minister Michael Sapin, and it was clear even in the spring that  Montebourg was destined to become more isolated than ever in the Valls era.

It took less than five months for the cabinet to rupture.  Montebourg publicly challenged Hollande over the weekend to rethink his economic policy in light of new data that show France’s economy remains stagnant — growing by just 0.1% in the last quarter, far below Hollande’s already-anemic target of 1%. Montebourg has also criticized Germany for encouraging austerity policies throughout the eurozone that he and other left-wing European politicians and economists blame for weakening the continent’s economic growth since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

In response, Valls orchestrating a dramatic resignation on Monday morning, though Hollande has given him a mandate to form a new government that won’t include Montebourg or allies like education minister Benoît Hamon and culture minister Aurelie Filippetti.

The drama surrounding this week’s reshuffle is hardly welcome so soon after Valls’s initial appointment, and Hollande risks a wider revolt on the French left that could endanger his agenda in the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly), where Socialist rebels could join legislators from the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) in opposition to his agenda. Valls will introduce the 2015 budget in the autumn, and if he fails to pass it later this year, his government could fall and Hollande might be forced to call snap elections that the Socialists would almost certainly lose. Continue reading Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

Don’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback

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At the rate that the French political elite is going, Dominique Strauss-Kahn might be the last palatable option standing to challenge nationalist Marine Le Pen in the 2017 election.France Flag Icon

The decision by French prosecutors to open a formal investigation into former president Nicolas Sarkozy today, following his detention on Tuesday for questioning, is certain to rupture Sarkozy’s comeback plans to lead the French center-right in the April 2017 presidential election, leaving both major parties sullied by unpopular, unimaginative and possibly corrupt leadership.

But even as French and global analysts begin writing Sarkozy’s obituary, the current investigation, which involves Sarkozy’s alleged attempts to trade a job in plush Monaco to a judge in exchange for illegal information relating to another investigation, may not necessarily torpedo Sarkozy, even as the former president faces additional legal troubles in related corruption cases.

That will be especially true if Sarkozy is ultimately exonerated, given the aggressiveness with which French investigators have pursued Sarkozy. If he’s not found guilty, the investigations could actually strengthen Sarkozy, allowing him to play victim against an aggressive, out-of-control French judicial system. That’s a well-worn path that’s worked for other European leaders in the past, including former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Sarkozy has already compared the phone-tapping to East German Stasi tactics, and he appeared on French television Wednesday night to blast the ‘political exploitation’ of the legal system.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy will find it difficult to proceed with plans to retake the presidency of his center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) later this year. Sarkozy is believed to be keen on returning to the UMP presidency in light of former UMP president Jean-François Copé’s resignation in late May, related to accusations of falsifying 2007 campaign invoices to evade spending limits. 

The current scandal revolves around phone taps that revealed conversations between Sarkozy and his attorney, Thierry Herzog. Those taps, however, were originally designed to gather information about whether Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign was illegally financed with up to €50 million from former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. 

The Herzog conversations, however, relate to yet another scandal, the  Bettencourt affair, in which L’Oréal heiress and socialite Liliane Bettencourt may have ferried illegal funding to Sarkozy’s reelection efforts. Though investigators ruled out charging Sarkozy in the Bettencourt matter, the case revolved around the admissibility of Sarkozy’s presidential diaries.

Sure, that’s a lot of scandal and a lot of circumstantial noise surrounding Sarkozy. But what happens if Sarkozy actually goes to jail?  Continue reading Don’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback

South Africa: early election results point to ANC landslide

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There wasn’t any doubt that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) would win the fifth post-apartheid election in South Africa’s history.south africa flag

But relatively poor showings by South Africa’s various opposition parties seem to have failed to hold the ANC under 60% of the national vote, with the party set to enter its third decade in power. Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela in 1994, the ANC rose to prominence after a decades-long struggle against white minority rule, and its political dominance hasn’t seriously been challenged at the national level in the past 20 years. That’s despite growing malaise over economic conditions, income inequality and mass unemployment. That’s also in addition to growing concerns about corruption under the leadership of president Jacob Zuma (pictured above), who will now be reelected to a second term once South Africa’s newly elected National Assembly convenes later this month.

Notably, the election was the first to include the votes of the ‘born-free’ generation, South Africans who were born after the end of the apartheid era. It was also the first election held after Mandela’s death last December at age 95.

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RELATED: South Africa votes in 5th post-apartheid election: what you need to know

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Voters in South Africa yesterday elected all 400 members of the National Assembly and the governments of all nine provinces.

With just over 85.5% of the votes counted, the ANC led with 63.04% of the vote. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was winning 21.84%, its highest vote total to date. In third place was the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with 5.46%. Its leader, Julius Malema a former ANC Youth League head and a one-time Zuma enthusiast, was kicked out of the ANC two years ago, and he’s campaigned on a neo-Marxist platform of widespread land redistribution to black South Africans and nationalization of key South African industries, including mining.

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RELATEDWho is Julius Malema?

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Here’s the national breakdown — and the anticipated seat count, on the basis of the current results:

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So for all the hand-wringing over the corruption, a deadly confrontation with striking mineworkers, the tension within the ‘tripartite’ alliance among the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the ANC will hold almost exactly the same number of seats in the National Assembly that it held prior to the elections.

What does this mean for South African policy? Continue reading South Africa: early election results point to ANC landslide

South Africa votes in 5th post-apartheid election: what you need to know

World Bank, South Africa 2007.

South Africans go to the polls for the fifth time in the post-apartheid era today in a race that the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the liberation movement that forced the end of minority white rule in 1994, is nearly guaranteed to win.south africa flag

South Africans will elect all 400 members of the National Assembly, by proportional representation on a closed-list basis (which may explain, in part, the hierarchical party strength of ANC governance). They will also elect governments in South Africa’s nine provinces.

Here’s the current breakdown:

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Notably, it’s the first election that will feature the ‘born-frees,’ the generation of South Africans who were born after the end of apartheid rule. Though they’re only 2.5% of the electorate today, they’ll become an increasingly vital demographic, and they might well change the face of South African politics over the next decade.

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RELATED: Even with victory assured, is the ANC’s future at risk? 

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Jacob Zuma, the president since 2009, is leading the ANC campaign, despite his relative unpopularity as South Africans face dwindling economic growth, rising unemployment and the sense that the ANC is more interested in maintaining — and abusing — power than attending to the pressing policy concerns of most South Africans. Zuma’s spending on ‘security improvements’ to his home at Nkandla has captured the widespread disgust of much of the electorate. His government’s handling of a mining strike at Marikana two years ago ended with a clash with police that killed 44 people in the worst state-sponsored violence since the apartheid era. The fallout has severely strained the so-called tripartite alliance among the ANC, the Communist Party of South Africa and the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU).

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RELATED: Zuma is strongest president on HIV/AIDS in South African history

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Notwithstanding those concerns, the ANC is almost assured of victory, thanks to its role as the liberation movement that ended apartheid under the mythic leadership of former president Nelson Mandela, who died late last December. The biggest question is whether the ANC will achieve the support of at least two-thirds of the electorate — it could win just 60% (or even less) of the vote.

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RELATED: How Nelson Mandela’s death provides South Africa a challenge and an opportunity

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The chief opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), seems set to increase its support to a historically high level, possibly more than 20% or even 25%. Continue reading South Africa votes in 5th post-apartheid election: what you need to know

Who is Julius Malema?

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He’s the enfant terrible of South African politics, and he’s garnered international headlines for his retro brand of leftist redistributive populism that hearkens back to the 1960s-era Marxism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). south africa flag

Banished from the ANC two years ago and now leading his own party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Malema hopes to ride a wave of youth discontent over economic stagnation, unemployment and land reform to success on May 7. But it’s more likely than not that his following will be less impressive than the attention he’s already attracted.

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RELATED: Even with victory assured, is the ANC’s future at risk?

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Malema rose to prominence as a youth leader within the ANC in 2002, and he became the head of the ANC Youth League in 2008, initially with the full support of South African president Jacob Zuma. As the leader of the ANC’s Youth League (a position that the late Nelson Mandela once held), Malema powered the ANC’s strong 2009 election victory that elevated Zuma to the presidency.

But as Malema’s profile increased, however, so did his antics — and charges of corruption amid Malema’s clearly rising wealth and status. Yet Malema went far beyond the garden-variety graft that’s now commonly associated with ANC rule. He went to Zimbabwe in 2010 and delivered a full-throated endorsement of its longtime president Robert Mugabe, complicating Zuma’s efforts to steer a middle course between Mugabe and the Zimbabwean opposition, then part of a power-sharing government after the controversial 2008 elections. He openly flouted ANC policy by encouraging opposition groups in Botswana to overthrow what he considered a puppet regime.

Back in South Africa, Malema advocated the kind of nationalist land reforms that Mugabe implemented in Zimbabwe that largely caused white residents to flee and that plunged Zimbabwe’s economy into turmoil. Like Mugabe before him, Malema accuses white South Africans of having stolen land from the indigenous population and argues that black South Africans should confiscate land from white Africans without compensation. What’s more, Malema consistently broke with ANC policy to advocate not only for land redistribution, but for the nationalization of South African mines and other industries, causing further headaches for an ANC leadership that’s spent two decades allaying international investors that South Africa will never implement Mugabe-style policies.

Malema was convicted of hate speech in March 2010 for singing an apartheid-era anthem with the lyrics, ‘shoot the Boer,’ and again in September 2011, drawing condemnation from Zuma and other top ANC leaders. After several rounds with the ANC’s internal disciplinary committee, Malema was ultimately booted from the party in 2012. He quickly formed the EFF, a platform to continue waging his fight for land redistribution and nationalization.

It’s not difficult to understand why some South Africans would find Malema’s message appealing.  Continue reading Who is Julius Malema?

Even with victory assured, is the ANC’s future at risk?

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No one doubts that the African National Congress (ANC) will win South Africa’s parliamentary elections on May 7, extending its political hold on the country since the end of apartheid in 1994 and the election of the ANC’s Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first non-white president.south africa flag

Twenty years later, South Africans are going to the polls for the first time following Mandela’s death late last year, and the chief opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) will be satisfied if it can make further gains, consolidating its hold on Western Cape province, where the DA’s leader Helen Zille serves as premier, appealing to voters in Northern Cape and Eastern Cape, and growing its presence in Gauteng under the leadership of rising star Mmusi Maimane, currently a member of the Johannesburg city council.

But even if the ANC wins with over 60% of the vote, the same level of support as it has generally attracted in the past three elections, South Africa’s ruling structure will enter its third consecutive decade in power exceedingly unpopular, increasingly divided and with no clear path of transition to a compelling successor to the 71-year-old Zuma (pictured above, right, with deputy ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa).

As Zuma is term-limited as South Africa’s president (the president is elected shortly after parliamentary elections, so the ANC’s dominance will all but assuredly result in Zuma’s reelection later in May or June), he’ll enter his second term as a lame duck with nagging controversies over mismanagement and corruption.

What’s more, the ANC will elect a new leader in 2017 — meaning that, unless Zuma tries to hold onto the party leadership, the ANC will determine the individual who could lead South Africa from 2019 to 2029 within the next three-year window. Though posturing for the 2017 contest is well under way, if quietly, too few ANC leaders are talking about how to revitalize the ANC for a new generation of issues and policy challenges.

Policy and governance woes

Over the past five years, South Africa’s once-booming economy has slowed. Continue reading Even with victory assured, is the ANC’s future at risk?

Le Pen v. Wilders: a tale of two far-right European movements

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The big story from Sunday’s municipal elections in France is the success of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front national (FN, National Front), overshadowing the marquee Paris mayoral election.France Flag IconNetherlands Flag IconEuropean_Union

The far-right won the mayoral race in Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town in the north, in a rare first-round victory, the FN came in second in Marseille, France’s second-largest city, and it led in at least six other locations as France prepares for second-round runoffs on March 30.

The result should certainly boost Le Pen in her efforts to win  support in European parliamentary elections in May — and to unite the populist hard right across the continent.

According to preliminary results, the Front national won just 4.65% of the national vote. That’s a big deal because the party was running in just 597 of around 37,000 jurisdictions — it’s a massive increase from the 2008 municipal results, when the FN won around 1% and ran in just 119 constituencies. 

The other narrative from Sunday’s vote is the collapse of France’s center-left — president François Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) won 37.74% nationally, while the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) of former president Nicolas Sarkozy won 46.54% nationally. The bright spot for the Socialists remains Paris, where first deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo is the slight favorite to win a runoff against former Sarkozy campaign spokesperson and ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet — but don’t rule out an upset next Sunday there, either.

The success in the 2014 municipal elections is just the latest chapter for Le Pen’s rebranding of the Front national in France as a slightly more moderate alternative than the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led for decades. It’s harder today to target the Front national as a xenophobic, anti-Semitic fringe, because Le Pen has focused on an agenda much heavier on euroskepticism and economic nationalism. While the Front national isn’t exactly immigrant-friendly, its position has largely converged with the UMP’s position since the Sarkozy presidency, which embraced hard-right positions on immigration and law-and-order issues. By shifting rightward, Sarkozy may have sidelined Le Pen during his presidency and co-opted her supporters, but today, Sarkozy is almost as responsible as Le Pen for bringing the Front national within the political mainstream.

With the line blurring between the UMP and the Front national, Le Pen could become the chief voice of the French right in 2017, especially if the UMP succumbs to more infighting between its right-wing leader Jean-François Copé and the more moderate former prime minister François Fillon. The next presidential election is still a long way off, but if Sarkozy doesn’t run for the presidency in 2017, Le Pen stands just as much chance as Copé, Fillon or any other UMP figure of representing the French right in the second round.

More immediately troubling for France’s political elite are the European parliamentary elections in May. Despite its breakthrough performance on Sunday, the Front national isn’t about to overrun the city halls of France. Its victory is more symbolic than substantive. But if it’s one thing to turn over your local government to Marine Le Pen, it’s a far different thing to support the Front national as a protest vote with respect to European Union policy.

Polls show that the Front national and the UMP are competing for first place in the European elections within France — the most recent Opinion Way poll from early March shows the UMP winning  22%, the FN winning 21% and the Socialists just 17%. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a wave of undecided voters support the Front national at the last moment, nor would it be a surprise to learn that polling surveys currently underestimate FN support.

Extremists on both the far left and the far right are gaining strength throughout the entire European Union. That’s perhaps understandable, given the harsh economic conditions that have plagued Europe since the last EU-wide elections in 2009. But the euroskeptic right, in particular, seems poised for a breakthrough. Nigel Farage hopes to lead the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party to a breakthrough performance in May, and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) is tied for first place in polls in Austria.

But just as Le Pen hits her stride, another standard-bearer of the hard right, Geert Wilders, found himself in free fall last week after pledging to allow fewer Moroccans into the Netherlands, remarks that have launched a cascade of criticism and a handful of defections from his party: Continue reading Le Pen v. Wilders: a tale of two far-right European movements

Ramphele debacle leaves South African opposition reeling

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Less than a week after anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele became the presidential candidate of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the second-largest political party in South Africa, Ramphele on Sunday backed out of her decision to lead the South African opposition into expected spring parliamentary elections.south africa flag

Though the deal would have merged the DA with Ramphele’s smaller party, AgangSA, founded just over a year ago, the merger collapsed over whether AgangSA would remain a separate entity or would be collapsed entirely within the Democratic Alliance.

It’s a short-sighted decision that leaves neither Ramphele nor Helen Zille (pictured above), the leader of the Democratic Alliance and premier of Western Cape province, looking very skilful.  The collapse of the Ramphele-led alliance must surely rank among the worst self-inflicted disasters of recent world politics.

Zille, in particular, released a harshly worded statement late Sunday savaging Ramphele:

“This about-turn will come as a disappointment to the many South Africans who were inspired by what could have been a historic partnership,” Zille said.  “By going back on the deal, again… Dr Ramphele has demonstrated – once and for all – she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion. This is a great pity.”

Insisting that the DA had negotiated with Ramphele in good faith, Zille added: “Since Tuesday’s announcement, Dr Ramphele has been playing a game of cat and mouse – telling the media one thing, Agang supporters another thing, and the DA another.  “It is not clear what her objective is, but whatever it is, it is not in the interests of the South African people.”

Without Ramphele, the Democratic Alliance seemed set for its most successful election since its foundation in 2000.  Zille won 16.7% of the vote in the previous April 2009 elections, 23.9% of the national vote in May 2011 municipal elections, and the party seemed headed to win one-quarter or even one-third of the vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections.  Though Zille has a hold on Western Cape province, party leaders hope to make breakthroughs in Eastern Cape and Northern Cape provinces, as well as in Gauteng province, where former Johannesburg mayoral candidate and city council member Mmusi Maimane has helped transform the party’s local (and national) image. 

That won’t necessarily change because of the tumultuous courtship with Ramphele and AgangSA, but it doesn’t make Zille look like an incredibly strong leader to hand her party’s presidential nomination to someone who flaked out within hours of receiving it.  South Africa’s election must be held before July 2014, and if it takes place closer to July than, say, to April or May, the Ramphele breakup stands a good chance of receding into the background.  But it also means that, barring a major turn of events, Zille will have to recalibrate expectations from ‘historic breakthrough’ back down to incremental gains.  Continue reading Ramphele debacle leaves South African opposition reeling

DA announces Ramphele to lead South African campaign

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In a move designed to maximize the opposition to South African president Jacob Zuma, Mamphela Ramphele will join the Democratic Alliance (DA) to contest the spring elections as its presidential candidatesouth africa flag

That will pit Ramphele (pictured above), the widow of one of South Africa’s most well-known anti-apartheid fighters in the 1980s, directly against Zuma, who leads the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Ramphele founded AgangSA, (‘Agang’ means ‘to build’ in the Northern Sotho language) in February 2013 as a center-left alternative to the ruling ANC.  Little did she know at the time that she would ultimately lead South Africa’s main opposition party into this spring’s parliamentary elections.  Voters, sometime in April or May, will elect the 400 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of the South African parliament, which will indirectly elect South Africa’s president.  Zuma’s ANC currently holds 264 seats, and it’s still expected to win the next elections, which means that Zuma — for now — remains an almost certainty for reelection.

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Ramphele’s decision to join forces with the Democratic Alliance is a strategic gain for the party, whose leader is Helen Zille (pictured above, yesterday, with Ramphele), the premier of Western Cape province and former mayor of Cape Town.  Under Zille’s leadership, the Democratic Alliance has made steady, if slow gains.  It won 16.66% and 67 seats in the April 2009 elections, its best-ever national result.  In the May 2011 municipal elections, it won 23.9% of the national vote and started to gain more notice in South Africa’s top urban areas.

Though Zille, a former anti-apartheid activist and journalist, already seemed set to improve on her 2009 and 2011 performances, her union with Ramphele gives South Africa’s opposition hope that it really might find a way to break open the ANC’s two-decade lock on power. Continue reading DA announces Ramphele to lead South African campaign

Latest Bettencourt turn removes obstacle for Sarkozy presidential bid in 2017

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You thought you were tired of all of the talk in the United States about the inevitability of a presidential run by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in November 2016.France Flag Icon

But imagine if your next presidential election isn’t until May 2017 and everyone is already speculating.

That’s the case in France, where former president Nicolas Sarkozy is now even more likely to become the frontrunner for the 2017 race for the Élysée Palace after French officials dropped a criminal case against Sarkozy in the so-called Bettencourt affair.

Sarkozy was accused of soliciting L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for secret campaign funds.  The fundamentals of the scandal are similar to those for which former US senator and presidential candidate John Edwards stood criminal trial for soliciting secret campaign cash from banking heiress Rachel ‘Bunny’ Mellon, who was 96 years old at the time.

French judges are still pursuing an investigation over whether party officials in Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement) took advantage of Bettencourt’s mental frailty and advanced age in taking campaign donations for Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign — in particular, former UMP treasurer Eric Woerth still faces criminal liability.  But after Monday’s decision not to include Sarkozy’s name in the list of those who face liability, the former president has escaped the worst of his potential legal and political troubles for the foreseeable future.

That means that the single-most difficult obstacle between Sarkozy and a 2017 presidential bid is gone.  Though he’s no longer mis en examen (placed under investigation) Sarkozy’s legal troubles haven’t totally evaporated, and he remains under a cloud of suspicion for a handful of other shenanigans, including allegations that Libya’s regime paid €50 million to Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign.  But the Bettencourt affair was always the most serious case against Sarkozy.

As with the Clinton 2016 speculation in the United States, it’s folly to think that we can forecast with accuracy the dynamics of an election that’s years away.  But it’s stunning in some ways that Sarkozy, who lost the May 2012 presidential runoff to François Hollande, the candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), remains such a strong challenger for 2017 just 17 months after leaving office.

Moreover, the specter of a Sarkozy return is affect French politics today (and not just 2017) by shaping the way that other top UMP officials posture and by placing pressure on the current, vastly unpopular Hollande regime — the possibility of a Sarkozy comeback also exerts a gravitational pull on the far right of French politics, too.

Only 23% of the French electorate has confidence in Hollande, according to an October TRS-SOFRES poll — Hollande has watched his popularity erode in record time to become the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic:

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France’s GDP growth dropped from 2% in 2011 to exactly 0% in 2012, unemployment has risen to 10.9%, and the economy’s doing not much better in 2013.  Hollande was damaged almost from the beginning of his presidency over a nasty spat between his former partner, 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal and his current partner Valérie Trierweiler.  His bold effort to introduce a top income tax rate of 75% (of incomes over €1 million) invited capital flight and global ridicule — and a rejection by France’s top constitutional court.

His woes are so great that I wondered back in May whether the French left (and France, generally) might have been better off if Dominique Strauss-Kahn had survived his sex scandal to run for president.

Most immediately, of course, all of the ‘Sarko 2017’ talk serves to prevent the emergence of a truly post-Sarkozy center-right standard-bearer.  Recall last November’s internal UMP primary to determine a new general secretary — right-wing candidate Jean-François Copé’s 50.03% was so narrow (and so challenged) by his opponent, the more moderate former prime minister François Fillon that the result threatened a UMP civil war.

Though the tensions subsided into more of a cold war than a civil war, there was always a sense that Copé was a stalking horse for a potential Sarkozy comeback — by defeating Fillon, Copé’s narrow win prevented Fillon from becoming the undisputed leader of the French right.

What was a Copé-Fillon showdown in 2012 has now transformed into a more open Sarkozy-Fillon showdown, with Fillon billing himself as the clean-break candidate for 2017, though Sarkozy himself has yet to decide whether to make a comeback bid for the presidency and is unlikely to join the political fray against either Fillon or Hollande anytime soon.  An IFOP poll earlier this year showed that six out of 10 French voters preferred that neither Sarkozy nor Fillon run in 2017, though Fillon generally held higher approval ratings as prime minister than Sarkozy did as president, and there’s reason to believe he would have made a better candidate for the UMP in 2012 than Sarkozy.

Meanwhile, no consideration of the UMP’s machinations would be complete without considering the far-right Front national (FN, National Front) that, if anything, is gaining more strength than either the UMP or the Socialists.  The far right notched a huge victory in a by-election in the southern canton of Brignoles on October 7, when the Front national candidate Laurent Lopez won 40.4% of the vote and will face a runoff against the UMP’s candidate Catherine Delzers, who won 20.8% (another far-right party, the Parti de France, won just over 9%.)

Despite Sarkozy’s lurch to the right on immigration and crime throughout his career, it didn’t stop Front national leader Marine Le Pen from winning 17.9% of the vote in the first round of the April 2012 presidential election.  Among the factors that could push the UMP away from Fillon and toward a leader like Sarkozy or Copé in 2017 is the fear that a relatively moderate standard-bearer like Fillon would allow Le Pen to siphon even more support from the center-right.

Four reasons why Cope’s narrow Sunday win of France’s UMP leadership could be ruinous

After a tense Monday during which both candidates declared victory and accused the other of fraud, it appears that Jean-François Copé (pictured above) has emerged as the presumptive leader of the French right.

With just a 98-vote margin, Copé won the election for general secretary of the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, after an election held among UMP members on November 18.  Copé defeated former prime minister François Fillon by about 50.03% to 49.97%.

Although Copé has served as general secretary since 2010, this election has taken on significant importance as a proxy fight not only for the upper hand to win the UMP’s 2017 presidential nomination, but as a proxy fight for the future of the French right.  Fillon, a cosmopolitan and relatively moderate figure, was viewed by the French public as more serious about government than Sarkozy, and it was Fillon who pushed through many of Sarkozy’s reforms as the head of his government.  Fillon, generally speaking, is more popular among the French electorate than Copé.

So there’s good cause for the French right to be worried about Copé’s victory.  Here are four reasons why. Continue reading Four reasons why Cope’s narrow Sunday win of France’s UMP leadership could be ruinous

The French right prepares to choose Sarkozy’s successor (maybe)

France’s center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) will vote on Sunday, November 18 to choose its next general secretary in what’s widely seen as a fight to get the upper hand on the UMP’s presidential nomination in 2017. 

The UMP will choose between two key figures — former prime minister François Fillon (pictured above, top) and Jean-François Copé (pictured above, bottom), who has been general secretary since 2010.  As the contest approaches, both candidates have accused the other of fraud, marking an ugly end to what has been a dogfight within the French right.

Unlike most French prime ministers, Fillon actually remained in Matignon — the residence of the French prime minister — for all five years of the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.  Throughout the Sarkozy presidency, he maintained or even gained approval from French voters as a competent and moderate head of government who seemed at times more grounded and focused on Sarkozy’s reforms than even Sarkozy.  Indeed, there’s reason to believe that if Fillon had contested the presidential election against the Parti socialiste‘s François Hollande, he might have won.

Fillon, age 58, both urbane and technocratic, seems to hold a clear lead over Copé, age 48 — a recent Harris poll shows Fillon with a 67% to 22% lead among UMP voters, and a wide edge among French voters generally.

Copé, mayor of Meaux, a non-practicing Jew whose mother is Algerian, previously served as budget minister under prime minister Dominique du Villepin and president from 2005 to 2007, and he’s seen as belonging to the more strident right wing of the UMP.  In some ways, that makes him more like Sarkozy, who was no stranger to pulling hard to the right on issues like immigration or crime in order to win votes.  Copé is, in fact, styling himself as the same sort of hyperactive, gritty leader as Sarkozy.  During the campaign for the UMP leadership, Copé has spoken out against ‘anti-white’ racism in France, a naked bid for voters sympathetic to the hard right, and he mocked Muslims for taking away children’s pain au chocolat during Ramadan.

As such, Sunday’s vote is a bit of a proxy contest for the UMP’s direction in the years ahead — Fillon represents the moderate center-right and Copé represents a more full-throated hard-right approach.  But the next French election is over four years away — in April 2017.  In contrast, consider: five years before 2008, no one in the United States had even heard of Barack Obama.

After all, there’s nothing stopping Sarkozy himself for running for a second term in 2017 — many French voters still prefer Sarkozy to either Fillon or Copé for the time being, and Sarkozy has indicated he may be interested.

The winner of Sunday’s contest will have a delicate task in balancing an appeal to the broad center of French voters, while not allowing other political movements steal support on the UMP’s right.  Marine Le Pen, who won nearly 18% of the first-round vote of the presidential election in April 2012 will almost certainly try to make a bid to expand her appeal beyond the narrow confines of the far-right Front national and become the strongest candidate of the French right in 2017. Continue reading The French right prepares to choose Sarkozy’s successor (maybe)

Final thoughts on French parliamentary runoff results

As noted in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s parliament elections, the French left looked likely to take a narrow absolute majority of seats in the Assemblée nationale.

As it turns out, the Parti socialistof François Hollande did even better — it and its allies took 314 seats, not including the 17 seats that its electoral partner, France’s Green Party (Europe Écologie – Les Verts) won: significantly higher than the projection of between 270 and 300 and nearly equivalent to the parliamentary wave after Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election.  In this sense, Hollande’s party actually outperformed Hollande in the presidential race.

But the left’s victory was expected — the pattern of French voters handing a solid presidential majority in June parliamentary elections (following the May presidential runoff) therefore continues.

It will mark the first time that the French left have won control of the government since the 1997 legislative elections; the left lost power in 2002, following Jospin’s surprise third-place finish in the presidential election of that year.

With the final results now counted, here’s a look at each party and its road ahead:

Continue reading Final thoughts on French parliamentary runoff results

Final French parliamentary election results for first round

France has now had a full day since learning the results of Sunday’s first round of the French parliamentary elections (France votes again in the second round this coming Sunday), and there’s really not much surprise in the aggregate result.

Much as predicted: the Parti socialiste of newly inaugurated François Hollande narrowly led the first round with 29% to just 27% for the somewhat demoralized and rudderless Union pour un mouvement populaire.

It seems likely that Hollande and his allies will control a parliamentary majority following Sunday’s second round (although it’s not certain) — the Parti socialiste is projected to win 270 to 300 seats to just 210 to 240 seats for the UMP.  In the best case scenario, the Parti socialiste and its allies would like to win 289 seats outright this Sunday.  If they wins less than 289 seats, however, they will be able to rely first on France’s Green Party, Europe Écologie – Les Verts, with which the Parti socialiste has an electoral alliance (projected to win 8 to 14 seats, largely because of the alliance) and then, if necessary, with the support of the Front de gauche (projected to win 14 to 20 seats), a group of communists and other radical leftists under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.  Hollande would prefer to avoid the latter, as many potential Front de guache deputies are members of France’s communist party who would attempt to pull Hollande’s agenda further leftward. Continue reading Final French parliamentary election results for first round