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Benin’s version of Donald Trump wins presidential vote

Patrice Talon, a wealthy businessman and Benin's "king of cotton," won a March 20 presidential runoff. (Facebook)
Patrice Talon, a wealthy businessman and Benin’s “king of cotton,” won a March 20 presidential runoff. (Facebook)

Earlier this month, voters in five countries across Africa went to the polls in what some global news outlets called ‘Super Sunday’ across the continent. benin

In three of those countries, the results were foregone conclusions in what no one would describe as truly free and fair elections:

  • In the Republic of the Congo, known as ‘Congo-Brazzaville,’ because it lies to the west of the far larger Democratic Republic of the Congo to its east, Denis Sassou Nguesso easily won reelection — he’s held power since 1979, barring a short-lived hiatus from 1992 to 1997, after his ousting in a presidential election.
  • In Niger, a country of over 17 million in west Africa, Mahamadou Issoufou easily won reelection after first taking power in 2011. The opposition had boycotted the vote.
  • Ali Mohamed Shein easily won reelection as the president of Zanzibar (an autonomous region of Tanzania) after the opposition boycotted a re-run of a flawed election last October.

But in Benin, a sliver of a country nudged between Togo and Nigeria on the west African coast, voters selected someone who might be considered ‘Trumpian’ in his own right — a business tycoon who dominates the country’s most important industry, cotton production, who drives around in imported Jaguars and Porsches and wears designer clothes, a tycoon whose wealth comes in ample part from connections to the right people, a ‘bad boy’ who swept to power with no real government experience.

Patrice Talon, that Beninese businessman, easily won the presidency in a March 20 runoff with 65.37% of the vote to just 34.63% for former prime minister Lionel Zinsou. In the first round on March 8, Zinsou led with 28.44% to just 24.80% for Talon.

But no emerging democracy is perfect.  Continue reading Benin’s version of Donald Trump wins presidential vote

Why Hollande’s determination could be a game-changer for Syria

French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)
French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

With 20 airstrikes on Sunday in the de facto Islamic State/Saesh capital of Raqqa, French president François Hollande made it very clear that he would stay true to his word and launch a ‘merciless war’ against the terrorist camps in Syria controlled by IS/Daesh. Mali Flag IconFrance Flag Iconcentrafrique flagSyria Flag Icon

That may seem like a tall order, especially given the geopolitical conundrums of Syria’s civil war. Russia is also bombing Raqqa and other rebel strongholds, with the explicit goal of boosting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. France, meanwhile, opposes Assad, and Hollande nearly launched airstrikes in 2013 against Assad. The United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, have generally argued that Assad must leave power, and the United States once looked to boost anti-Assad Sunni rebels, some of whom are now allied with IS/Daesh. Now, however, US special forces are on the ground in Syria working with Kurdish peshmerga forces to pressure Raqqa as well. For what it’s worth, Turkey is also boosting the US effort with airstrikes on IS/Daesh, but Turkish forces have also been attacking Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey.

And so on and so on. Last Friday’s attacks on Paris may have simplified the French objective in the region, but it doesn’t make it strategically less messier. Hollande has now made it clear that his goal is to destroy IS/Daesh, not simply to contain it. That makes him, for now, far more hawkish on Syria than either US president Barack Obama or UK prime minister David Cameron. It’s worth remembering that Hollande played a crucial role in bringing Berlin and Athens together for a last-minute bailout deal at the nadir of Greece’s eurozone crisis in July.

The Syrian calculus may also be changing for Obama and Cameron, though. Obama spent nearly a half-hour conferring with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the weekend at the G-20 summit in Turkey, and Hollande is set to meet Obama in person in Washington on November 24, followed by a visit with Putin in Moscow two days later.

An increasingly hawkish France in the Sarkozy-Hollande era

If there’s anyone in world politics today, however, whose record of eliminating jihadist threats and restoring peace in the developing world is decent, it’s Hollande — after at least partially successful operations in Mali and in the Central African Republic.

Throughout most of the world (including France), Hollande is an unpopular and ineffective figure who has neither stood up to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘austerity,’ nor enacted reforms to make the French economy more effective nor lowered France’s persistent unemployment rate. That’s, at least, when his personal love life isn’t making headlines.

But Hollande has developed an impressive record when it comes to engaging and defeating radical jihadists in former French colonies– and in prolonging a new trend of aggressive foreign policy.

His predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, took office in 2007 with the explicit goal of closer security ties with the United States and the United Kingdom, embracing the once toxic mantle of ‘Atlanticist.’ In 2009, he ended France’s four-decade-long rift with NATO, fully integrating France into NATO’s security regime, and he embraced a muscular, hawkish foreign policy — on Libya and elsewhere.

Perhaps to the surprise of some of the more dovish members of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), he has embraced the new French assertiveness on the global stage. Even more surprisingly, it’s Laurent Fabius, a long-time Socialist official, who has carried out Hollande’s muscular foreign policy as France’s foreign minister.

Fabius, who served as France’s youngest prime minister in the 1980s under François Mitterrand, bucked his party in 2005 in advocating a non vote against a European constitution. Nevertheless, he comes from the left wing of the party, and he’s run (unsuccessfully) for the party’s presidential nomination.

Mali — restoring a government in the Sahel

In 2012, in northern Mali, the Tuaregs, nomadic Muslims long resentful of the southern elite, were on the verge of breaking away to form their own northern state. The pressure on Mali’s government culminated in a military coup, deposing Mali’s democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Touré and thereby plunging Mali into even greater chaos. By the end of the year, a relatively stable democratic country had become a magnet for international jihadists, including newly-armed Libyan rebels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Together, the radicals had overtaken both the Malian army and the local Tuareg forces to create a radical Islamist pocket across northern Mali, introducing harsh sharia law and increasingly threatening the southern capital, Bamako.

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RELATED: Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now

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Invited by the new government, Hollande sent a 4,000-person force to Mali in January 2013. Within days, French troops controlled the northern city of Timbuktu and, By April, the international jihadist threat in Mali was significantly reduced, and French troops began withdrawing from Mali, as a regional African force took control over regional security. By August 2013, the country held its delayed presidential election, voting Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta into power and restoring Mali back onto a democratic path, tasked with tough negotiations with Tuareg rebels.

A more wide-ranging force, together with national African troops, remained behind to ensure that the international fighters in Mali didn’t stick around to cause mayhem in other countries in the Sahel.

While IBK, as he’s known in Mali, has not been incredibly successful in pacifying the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who continue to clash with Malian forces and are pushing forward to create their own sovereign state of Azawad. That’s not the best potential outcome for Mali, necessarily, but it did prevent Mali — or the wide Sahel — from becoming the kind of powerless vacuum where international jihadist rule can thrive, like in eastern Syria, western Iraq and present-day Libya. Moreover, even as Mali struggles to consolidate a united country, it can do so without having to wage a war against an IS-style caliphate within its own borders.  Pushing aside hand-wringing about the perception of françafrique, the notion that France continues to play a role in its former colonies to perpetuate its own self-interested political and economic control, Hollande’s targeted and narrowly defined mission made Europe and the Sahel safer as a result.

CAR — giving peace a fresh start

A year later, the Central African Republic, another former French colony, was devolving into chaos.

François Bozizé, the CAR’s president since taking power in a 2003 coup, was himself ousted by the Séléka alliance that first took control of the country’s north in November 2012, then took the capital, Bangui, in March 2013, bringing Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia to power.

Yet Djotodia, even after dissolving his militia, failed to control the increasingly intense fighting between Christians-dominated ‘anti-balaka’ militia and the Muslim dominated Séléka. With the country descending back into civil war, the UN Security Council introduced a peacekeeping force, and Hollande sent 1,600 French troops to help disarm militias, after refusing an initial request from Bozizé earlier in 2013 to stabilize his regime.

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RELATED: Does Djotodia’s resignation matter in
Central African Republic?

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Isolated from the elites of the Bozizé regime and increasingly from other rebel leaders in his own Séléka alliance, Djotodia stepped down in early 2014, and the country eventually appointed an interim leader, Catherine Samba-Panza.

The French peacekeeping effort hasn’t pacified the CAR enough to allow for elections that have now been delayed numerous times. But it may helped prevent wider violence, or even mass genocide, in central Africa. Again, French forces have kept the CAR from becoming a fully failed state and a vacuum for jihadist forces that might delight at forming a base in central Africa.

Syria — a chance for a genuine political settlement

Neither Mali nor the Central African Republic today are what you might call model countries today, not even by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. Mali’s democratic restoration remains fragile and the country is still divided on tenuous north-south lines. The Central African Republic still hasn’t held postwar elections, and it could crumble back into violence at any moment.

But by the standards of Western intervention over the last 15 years, it’s hard to think of any greater successes. Certainly not Iraq or Afghanistan after the end of US-led intervention there, and certainly not Libya, which is barely functioning today after Sarkozy and Cameron led a US-backed charge to dislodge Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. US drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen have done little, either, to make those countries safer. Hollande’s record may not be perfect, but there’s at least some cause for hope.

It’s also true that Syria is different and, in many ways, from sub-Saharan Africa, and will be a much more difficult challenge for Hollande or any international coalition to pacify. For a country that’s suffered four years of civil war and brutality on all sides, Syrians may not welcome yet another international player to the mix. Intervention from the United States, Russia, Turkey and others only seems to make things worse for everyday Syrians, bringing just fleeting gains to the pro-Assad or anti-Assad forces of the day.

Hollande, like Obama and Putin, must realize that any military victory in pushing back IS/Daesh will ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory without the kind of political settlement that brings an end to Syria’s hostilities, even if that means pushing Assad from power.

Macron, France’s new economy minister, angers French left

Emmanuel Macron

One day after French prime minister Manuel Valls resigned, forcing French president François Hollande to invite Valls to form a new government, it’s not clear that the new cabinet is going to quell a growing revolt on Hollande’s left flank.France Flag Icon

Valls, less than five months into his tenure, took the dramatic step Monday after weekend comments from former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg criticizing his own government’s austerity measures that have aimed to reduced French debt and cut payroll taxes, in part, through spending cuts.

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RELATEDWho is Manuel Valls? Meet France’s new prime minister

RELATED: Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

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Montebourg, along with allies like education minister Benôit Hamon, a rising star of the French left, and culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, were banished from the second Valls government, replaced by relatively minor figures deemed more loyal to Valls and Hollande.

Though everyone else in the government remained in government, from foreign minister Laurent Fabius to finance minister Michael Sapin to ecology and energy minister Ségolène Royal, Montebourg was replaced by the Hollande loyalist Emmanuel Macron, a 36-year-old ex-banker and graduate of France’s elite-producing school, the École nationale d’administration.

Macron’s appointment sends a message about the orthodox program of the next government, and it wasn’t particularly subtle. Le Monde called him the ‘liberal sauce’ of the government, and Le Figaro called him the ‘anti-Montebourg.’

After his graduation from ENA, Macron (pictured above) worked as a finance official in the French government for four years, then worked for four years for Rothschild in the private sector. When Hollande was elected, he became one of the new president’s top Elysée aides as deputy secretary general of the presidency, where he once exclaimed that Hollande’s push to institute a 75% income tax rate for millionaires made France equivalent to ‘Cuba, but without the sun.’

The Valls-Sapin-Macron axis in the new French government will assure the French business and investor class that Hollande is serious about a proposed €40 billion payroll tax cut and continued devotion to budget discipline, to the growing outrage of the French left.  

The best thing the left wing of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) can say about the new cabinet is that Valls, at least, retained Christiane Taubira, a legislator from French Guiana who has served as minister of justice from the outset of the Hollande presidency, who pushed through perhaps the Hollande administration’s crowning social policy achievement in legalizing same-sex marriage last year, and who has often clashed brutally, if privately, with Valls, both as prime minister and when he previously served as interior minister, on economic policy as well as on her proposed prison reforms that would relax criminal penalties and eliminate mandatory sentencing for convicts.

There were other choices. Hollande and Valls might have convinced Martine Aubry, the runner-up to Hollande in the 2011 presidential contest and the author, as minister of social affairs in 2000, of the 35-hour workweek. After Montebourg, who routinely lambasted German chancellor Angela Merkel’s fiscal policy, told Indian steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal he wasn’t welcome to invest in France and who picked a fight with American tire producer Morry Taylor, Aubry’s presence in the cabinet might have been a win-win situation — replacing the mercurial Montebourg with a pillar of the French left.

Instead, Macron’s elevation is sure to accentuate the growing rift between the centrist and leftist wings of the Socialist Party, which could cause the government to fall later this year over the 2015 budget. That, in turn, could cause snap elections that the Socialists might lose altogether, ushering in another era of cohabitation, or divided government, with Hollande’s approval rating hovering between 17% and 20%. 

At the very least, the events of the last 48 hours potentially places Hollande in a difficult position — if Montebourg and the leftist rebels are strong enough, they can force Hollande and Valls either to accept their demands for a more growth-oriented budget this autumn or face a no-confidence vote. 

Amid high unemployment and a growth rate of just 0.1% in the last quarter, Hollande has struggled to implement policies to jumpstart GDP growth and economic activity. That’s left him open to criticism on the right and the left, including Montebourg, who on Saturday castigated Hollande’s administration for being held captive to Berlin — the last straw among the increasingly strident critiques from within his own government. 

Sapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

Michel Sapin

Though French president François Hollande on Monday promised a gouvernement de combat in his cabinet reshuffle, it looks like the government he’s chosen might wind up spending more time combatting one another that the myriad economic challenges that France faces.
France Flag Icon

Just 48 hours after naming interior minister Manuel Valls, the hard-charging, Roma-busting strongman of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) as France’s new prime minister, Hollande announced the rest of his cabinet reshuffle today.

Though the return of Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s partner of three decades and the 2007 Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, is sure to top most headlines, the heart of the cabinet reshuffle are Hollande’s schizophrenic choices for finance minister, Michel Sapin (pictured above), and economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg.

At first glance, Hollande’s new slimmed-down cabinet (16 ministers instead of 20) seems like a kind of ‘team of rivals,’ given that Valls, Montebourg and Royal all campaigned for the Socialist Party’s 2012 presidential nomination — the only major rival not to hold a post in the new government is Martine Aubry, a longtime champion of the party’s left wing and the former minister who introduced France’s 35-hour workweek (a policy that Valls stridently opposes).

But it’s hardly Lincolnesque.

Sapin and Royal are assuming roles they first held 22 years ago, while Montebourg is a leftist whose views are at extreme odds with the economic policy that Hollande and Valls are expected to pursue over the next three years.  Continue reading Sapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

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

valls

In choosing Manuel Valls, the popular interior minister, as France’s new prime minister, French president François Hollande is taking a risk that elevating the most popular minister in his government will attract support from among the wider French electorate without alienating the leftist core of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).France Flag Icon

Pivoting off the poor Socialist showing in last weekend’s nationwide municipal elections, Hollande’s cabinet reshuffle is a sign that he understands he has largely lost the trust of the French electorate in less than two years. Other ministers, including finance minister Pierre Moscovici, could also lose their jobs in a reshuffle to be announced later this week.

Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault resigned today after just 22 months on the job. LIke Hollande, Ayrault has become increasingly unpopular as the government has pursued aggressive measures to stabilize France’s budget, including tax increases and adjustments and cuts to France’s pension system — all in the face of a sluggish economy, a 10.8% unemployment rate and a greater crisis in confidence over France’s role within the European Union and the world. 

In a short statement announcing Valls, Hollande pledged to continue pursing a payroll tax cut and additional pension and labor law reforms as part of a recent attempt to win support from the French business community, a series of reforms that Valls has enthusiastically promoted throughout his career. He also promised that Valls would lead a ‘combative government,’ which sounds like somewhat of an understatement in translation from a gouvernement de combat.

In light of Ayrault’s highly collaborative style, and Valls’s much more aggressive style, even the original French seems like an understatement.

But while the latest IFOP poll from mid-March gave Hollande a 23% approval rating (his highest, in fact, since last October) and Ayrault a 26% approval rating, Valls has an approval rating of 63%. That goes a long way in explaining why Hollande is replacing Ayrault with Valls today.

It’s not a choice without risks. Valls, a centrist with controversial views about the Roma and immigration, could divide the French left. If Hollande’s unpopularity continues, he could taint one of the few remaining popular figures within the Socialist Party. If Valls succeeds, he could supplant Hollande as the more attractive presidential candidate in 2017.

Continue reading Who is Manuel Valls? Meet France’s new prime minister

Hollande’s economic restart falls flat amid domestic drama

scooter

Nothing screams ‘sexy’ more than… a payroll tax cut.France Flag Icon

With the French press salivating over French president François Hollande’s surprisingly sordid love life, Hollande tried to refocus his administration’s agenda last week at a press conference to announce a planned cut in France’s payroll taxes and other measures to boost France’s competitiveness.  It’s a bid to win back some control over his unravelling public image.  Hollande suffers from massively low approval ratings —  just 22% of French voters support Hollande (somewhat of an improvement over polls in November that gave him just 15% approval).  There’s even talk that his administration could augur the collapse of France’s Fifth Republic.

But Hollande’s policy revamp has been lost in the furor over Hollande’s alleged dalliance with actress Julie Gayet.  Tabloids showed photos of the French president sneaking off to meet Gayet on his scooter (pictured above), and the news seems to have sent his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, to a Paris hospital for over a week.  Elected on the premise that he would bring decorum and normalité to the Élysée after the ‘bling-bling’ presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s love life began overshadowing his presidency within days of his inauguration.

Trierweiler tweeted in support of Olivier Falroni, a dissident parliamentary candidate in June 2012, who was running against Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner and the 2007 presidential candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).  Royal lost that race, despite Hollande’s support.  A reporter for Paris Match, Trierweiler fulfills the role of France’s first lady, complete with budget and staff, notwithstanding that she and Hollande never married.  Hollande and Royal also never officially married during their nearly 30-year relationship, which produced four children.

Trierweiler left the hospital after more than a week on Saturday afternoon, but the discord between France’s first couple continues to dominate headlines, with Le Journal de Dimanche reporting that presidential advisers are calling the relationship ‘finished.’  So much for Mr. Normality.  Though Sarkozy and his two predecessors, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterand, were both known for active love lives, the nature of media has changed since the French press kept Mitterand’s longtime mistress a secret from the public in the 1980s.

At a policy level, none of Hollande’s domestic troubles should matter.  But they come at exactly the wrong time, overshadowing Hollande’s push to make France’s economy more competitive.  At the center of Hollande’s proposal is a €30 billion payroll tax cut for French businesses, continue pushing forward with plans for €15 billion in budget cuts this year, with €50 billion more to follow over the next three years.  Though Hollande hopes that will make France’s businesses more willing to hire French workers, it seems unlikely to erase the mistrust Hollande has engendered by pushing a top income tax rate of 75% on incomes over €1 million, a troubled policy that seems set to take effect after facing legal problems in France’s top constitutional court.  Hollande and his leftist parliamentary majority pushed through a labor market reform in January 2013, but it was a relatively minor first step that merely streamlined the process for conducting layoffs.

Hollande would have engendered much more goodwill if he’d announced a retreat from the iconic 75% rate or announced a much bolder labor market legislation.  But that carries with it the risk of a full-scale revolt on the French left.  Continue reading Hollande’s economic restart falls flat amid domestic drama

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

sebastiankurz

While most of Europe was watching the birth of Germany’s latest grand coalition government last week, Austria’s grand coalition also finalized its government platform.austria flag

Austria, which has an even stronger tradition of cozy coalition politics between the center-left and the center right, will continue to a coalition that’s comprised of its main center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and its main center-right party, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

There was very little unexpected news about the coalition deal, which will continue the broadly centrist course of center-left chancellor Werner Faymann’s government.

But the decision to elevate the hunky 27-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s new foreign minister was something of a shock.  Michael Spindelegger, the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor, who previously served as foreign minister between 2008 and 2013, will become the government’s new finance minister.

The decision leaves Kurz (pictured above) as one of the world’s youngest political leaders in such a high policymaking role.

So who is this whiz kid?  Kurz became involved in politics at age 10, and by 2009, he was the leader of the youth wing of the Austrian People’s Party.  In 2010, he was elected to the city council of his native Vienna, running under the slogan, ‘Schwarz macht neil‘ (‘Black is cool,’ referring to the color most associated with the People’s Party) in a campaign Hummer that quickly gained the nickname as the ‘Geilomobil‘ (which translates roughly to ‘Horny-mobile’), befitting Kurz’s growing reputation as somewhat of a party animal.  Before you judge him too harshly, however, remember that it was part of a wider push to make the ÖVP more attractive to young voters. And just four months ago, two competing leaders of the Austrian far right both posed shirtless in public.

But by 2011 he was already serving as state secretary for integration, where he impressed skeptics by working to ease the path for the growing number of immigrants to Austria, including through the institution of an extra year of pre-school for immigrant children to learn German.  He helped spearhead a new immigration law in May of this year that clears a path to citizenship for some immigrants within six years.

It was a controversial move on Spindelegger’s part, but it paid off, and Kurz was elected to the Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament, in the September 29 parliamentary elections with a higher number of votes than any other candidate. 

His approach contrasts with that of the more xenophobic approach to immigration of Austria’s far right.  In  September, the Social Democrats won 27.1% and the Austrian People’s Party won 23.8%, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won 21.4%, a strong third-place finish.  But a Dec. 12 Hajek poll showed that if the elections were held over today, the Freedom Party would emerge as the leading party with 26%, followed by the Social Democrats with 23% and the Austrian People’s Party at 20%.  A new free-market libertarian partyDas Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), which entered the National Council for the first time in September’s elections, would win 11%.

The Freedom Party’s relatively young and charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, wasted no time in criticizing Kurz for his inexperience:

“When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria’s farewell to foreign policy,” right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz… took the blows.  “It’s true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something,” he told Reuters.

But Kurz emphasized the international nature of his previous role with respect to integration, and he argued that his relative youth and high media profile would allow him to make an immediate impact.  Though Austria, with just 8.5 million people, has a less dominant voice on European matters than Germany, it plays a key role in the Balkans, where Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries are hoping to begin accession talks to the European Union early next year. (If your German skills are up for it, here’s an interview with Kurz in Der Standard earlier this week).

Kurz’s appointment also means that he will likely take a key role in the upcoming European Parliament elections by convincing Austrian voters not to turn to euroskeptic parties like the Freedom Party or Team Stronach, the conservative movement of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach.  Spindelegger was criticized during his tenure at the ministry for being a ‘half-time foreign minister’ in light of his duties as the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor. Continue reading Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

M. Hollande’s little war — and what it means for French-African politics

malifabius Over the weekend, France found itself engaged in a new, if limited, war — and a new theater of Western intervention against radical Islam.Mali Flag IconFrance Flag Icon

French president François Hollande confirmed that French troops had assisted Mali’s army in liberating the city of Konna — in recent weeks, Islamist-backed rebels that control the northern two-thirds of the country had pushed forward toward the southern part of the country, threatening even Mali’s capital, Bamako.

On Tuesday, Hollande said the number of French troops would increase to 2,500, as he listed three key goals for the growing French forces:

“Our objectives are as follows,” Hollande said. “One, to stop terrorists seeking to control the country, including the capital Bamako. Two, we want to ensure that Bamako is secure, noting that several thousand French nationals live there. Three, enable Mali to retake its territory, a mission that has been entrusted to an African force that France will support.”

Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius (pictured above with Malian foreign minister Tyeman Coulibaly), now face the first major foreign policy intervention of their administration, extending a trend that began under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who spearheaded NATO intervention in support of rebels in Libya against longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi and for the apprehension of strongman Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011.

Foreign Policy‘s Joshua Keating has already called the Malian operation the return of Françafrique. Françafrique refers to the post-colonial strategy pioneered largely by French African adviser Jacques Foccart in the 1960s whereby France’s Fifth Republic would look to building ties with its former African colonies to secure preferential deals with French companies and access to natural resources in sub-Saharan Africa, to secure continued French dominance in trade and banking in former colonies, to secure support in the United Nations for French priorities, to suppress the spread of communism throughout formerly French Africa and, all too often, source illegal funds for French national politics.  In exchange, French leaders would support often brutal and corrupt dictatorships that emerged in post-independence Africa.

But to slap the Françafrique label so blithely on the latest Malian action is, I believe, inaccurate — French policy on Africa has changed since the days of Charles de Gaulle and, really, even since the presidency of Jacques Chirac in the late 1990s.

After all, the British intervened just over a decade ago in Sierra Leone to end the decade-long civil war and restore peace for the purpose of stabilizing the entire West African region, and no one thought that then-prime minister Tony Blair was incredibly motivated by contracts for UK multinationals. Given the nature of the Malian effort, it’s quite logical that France — and Europe and the United States — has a keen security interest in ensuring that Bamako doesn’t fall and that Mali doesn’t become the world’s newest radical Islamic terrorist state in the heart of what used to be French West Africa.

Fabius, a longtime player in French politics, and currently a member of the leftist wing of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), served as prime minister from 1984 to 1986 and as finance minister from 2000 to 2002, though his opposition — in contrast to most top PS leaders — to the European Union constitution in 2005 has left him with few friends in Europe.

Nonetheless, Fabius argued yesterday that it was not France’s intention for the action to remain unilateral — African forces from Nigeria and elsewhere are expected to join French and Malian troops shortly, UK foreign minister William Hague has backed France’s move, as has the administration of U.S. president Barack Obama — and today, the United Nations Security Council has also indicated its support for France’s efforts as well.

For now, Hollande has the support of over 75% of the French public as well as much of the political spectrum — and it’s hard not to see that the effort will help Hollande, who’s tumbled to lopsided disapproval ratings since his election in June 2012 amid France’s continued economic malaise, appear as a decisive leader. That doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be trouble ahead for Hollande and Fabius. Continue reading M. Hollande’s little war — and what it means for French-African politics

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

Hollande fills out his cabinet: Moscovici, Fabius, Valls and Taubira take top jobs

 

After announcing Jean-Marc Ayrault as his prime minister yesterday, newly inaugurated president François Hollande announced the rest of his cabinet today.

Laurent Fabius’s appointment as foreign minister was expected, even though he campaigned against the European Union constitution in 2005.  Fabius (above, center) is a grandee of the Parti socialiste, having served as prime minister from 1984 to 1986 during the Mitterand administration, and later as finance minister from 2000 to 2002 under former prime minister Lionel Jospin.

Martine Aubry, a leftist firebrand who had been seen as a contender for prime minister and the runner-up to Hollande in the presidential nomination race, will not take part at all in the cabinet, which is mildly surprising.  She had been allegedly offered and rejected a “super ministry” role from Hollande.

Nor will Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s one-time partner of four decades and former presidential candidate, which is not surprising, as it is rumored that she will be appointed president of the Assemblée nationale if the Parti socialiste wins June parliamentary elections.

The biggest surprise, perhaps, is the appointment of Pierre Moscovici as finance minister.  Hollande’s campaign manager and former minister for European Affairs from 1997 to 2002, Moscovici (above, top) was close to former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  His European experience will guide him well, as the ongoing eurozone sovereign debt crisis stands to be the French economy’s largest immediate challenge for Hollande’s government.

Michel Sapin, another chief economic adviser to Hollande, had been tipped for finance minister, but will instead serve as labor minister.  The fiscally conservative Sapin served as finance minister from 1992 to 1993 during the Mitterand administration and as the minister of Civil Servants and Sate Reforms from 2000 to 2002.

As expected, Manuel Valls, an up-and-coming MP, who served as the Hollande campaign’s communications chief and who comes from the more pro-market wing of the PS, was named interior minister.  Nicolas Sarkozy used the interior ministry as a stepping stone in the mid 2000s to launch his successful 2007 campaign.

Former 2002 presidential candidate and the South America-born Christiane Taubira (above, bottom), who is currently an MP for French Guiana, will serve as minister of justice as the highest-ranking woman in a cabinet that will achieve gender parity.  Taubira is not a member of the PS, but rather the founder of the French Guiana-based Walwari party and a bit of a “free electron” in French politics.

Nicole Bricq, a member of France’s Senate and another ally of Strauss-Kahn, will serve as minister of the environment.

Le Monde has a full infographic of the new cabinet here and full bios here.

Who is Jean-Marc Ayrault?

On a day that François Hollande was inaugurated and held his first meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, his appointment of a new prime minister in Jean-Marc Ayrault may be the third-most important news of day in French politics.

Nonetheless, Ayrault’s appointment to lead Hollande’s government is the first clear sign we have of how Hollande might govern over the next five years, long after the bloom of his (short) inaugural honeymoon is over and with many, many more meetings between the two leaders of the Franco-German axis that has traditionally moulded the European Union’s direction.  It’s not quite a surprise, given that Hollande seemed to hint at the appointment last week when he said his prime minister “must know the Socialist Party well, its left-wing members of parliament and be on the best of terms with me.”

Ayrault, also the mayor of Nantes, has served as the president of the Parti socialiste parliamentary group in the Assemblée national since 1997, when Hollande was chairman of the Parti socialiste. The two worked hand-in-hand during the ‘cohabitation‘ government of prime minister Lionel Jospin, who served simultaneously with President Jacques Chirac from 1997 until the 2002 election when Jospin, in a shock result, was edged into third place by the Front national‘s Jean-Marie Le Pen.

As Le Monde put it:

Ce sont deux sociaux démocrates, deux adeptes du compromis, deux européens convaincus qui se sont donnés pour mission d’apaiser la France et de la redresser. (“The pair are both Social Democrats, both supporters of compromise, both Europeans who believe their task will be to soothe France and also to reform it.”)

Known as a quiet pragmatist, a “normal” prime minister for a “normal” president (in a presidency that may come to be more reminiscent of Pompidou rather than Mitterand), Ayrault is notably moderate, notably uncharismatic and notably Germanophile — he is a former German teacher.

So what does Ayrault’s appointment indicate about Hollande’s thinking?  Continue reading Who is Jean-Marc Ayrault?

From Aubry to Ayrault: who will Hollande choose as France’s next prime minister?

With François Hollande’s election on Sunday as the next president of France, the next big decision point will be the president-elect’s appointment of a candidate for prime minister.

The designee will take a primary role in the upcoming June 10 and June 17 parliamentary elections and if, as is traditional, the winning presidential candidate’s party wins those elections with a majority in the Assemblée nationale, Hollande’s designee will become the head of government.

Outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right Gaullist Union pour un mouvement populaire, together with affiliated groups, together hold 345 seats in the current legislature, to just 227 for the left, including just 186 seats for Hollande’s Parti socialiste.  While it is typical in France for the winning presidential candidate’s party to win the election, which comes less than a month after Hollande’s decisive victory in the presidential election, Marine Le Pen’s Front national — which won almost 19% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election — will be running very hard to win seats as well, especially given the aimless state of the now-decapitated UMP, which will be somewhat driftless without Sarkozy’s leadership.

Under France’s two-round parliamentary election system, a candidate wins over 50% of the vote in the first round (and at least 25% support of all registered voters in a precinct), he or she is elected.  If not, each candidate with over 12.5% support of all registered voters (or, alternatively, the top two vote-winners if no two candidates have received 12.5%) advances to the second round, where the candidate with the most votes is elected to parliament.

As such, Hollande’s choice will be the first important signal that he provides to France, to Germany, to the rest of Europe and to the debt market as to the direction he hopes to take the French government over the next five years.

With 2002 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal — Hollande’s former partner and the mother of his children — tipped to become the president of the Assemblée nationale if the PS wins the June election, and with one-time presidential frontrunner and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn battling legal accusations on both sides of the Atlantic, two main candidates have emerged in the media since Hollande’s election — Martine Aubry, Hollande’s rival for the PS presidential nomination and first secretary of the PS, and Jean-Marc Ayrault, president of the PS parliamentary group in the Assemblée nationale.  In addition, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, Hollande campaign manager Pierre Moscovici, former Civil Service minister Michel Sapin and campaign communications chief Manuel Valls have also been mentioned as potential prime ministers.

So who are these potential prime ministers, how would they be received and how likely are their appointments? Continue reading From Aubry to Ayrault: who will Hollande choose as France’s next prime minister?