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Bayrou, heir to liberal-right UDF tradition, joins forces with center-left Macron

François Bayrou, giving up plans to run in what would have been his fourth attempt at the French presidency, has endorsed Emmanuel Macron. (Facebook)

In French politics, François Bayrou is always the bridesmaid — never the bride.

That was true in the 1990s, it was true in the 2000s and it now seems true in the 2010s as the longtime centrist ended his own presidential hopes for 2017 and endorsed the center-left independent candidate, Emmanuel Macron.

The 65-year-old Bayrou, who got his start in politics in the 1980s, and who has waged three earlier presidential campaigns, is forming an alliance with Macron as France turns to the first round of its presidential election on April 23, a presidential runoff on May 7 and parliamentary elections on June 11 and 18.

In stark language, Bayrou warned that his country was at ‘extreme risk’ after an election campaign that had so far ‘made a mockery of France,’ a risk that necessitates an ‘exceptional response’ — in the form of elevating the relatively inexperienced 39-year-old Macron to the presidency.

Bayrou came closest to winning the presidency himself in 2007, when he appealed to voters with doubts about both the center-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), Ségolène Royal, winning nearly a fifth of the French electorate in that year. But his appeal faltered in recent years, and polls show that Bayrou would win merely 5% or 6% of the vote among an extraordinarily fluid and crowded 2017 field.

Once a rising moderate star of the French right, Bayrou served as education minister under former prime minister Édouard Balladur from 1993 to 1995 and then under Alain Juppé from 1995 to 1997. Bayrou also serves as the mayor of Pau, the capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of southwest France. Yet Bayrou never incredibly warmed to Sarkozy, and he has excoriated François Fillon, the former Sarkozy prime minister who came from behind to win the Républicain nomination (eclipsing both Sarkozy and one-time frontrunner Juppé). Fillon has been stung by accusations in recent weeks that, while in office, he funneled public funds to his wife, Penelope, and children for jobs they never actually performed.

Greater scrutiny is taking its toll on Macron

Though Macron’s popularity soared in December and January, his campaign has stalled with voters at around 20% support. With the far-right candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen, leading the first-round vote with around 26%, Fillon and Macron are essentially tied for second place and the all-important ticket to the May presidential runoff against Le Pen. Polls show that either Fillon or Macron today would trounce Le Pen by a nearly 60%-to-40% margin.  Continue reading Bayrou, heir to liberal-right UDF tradition, joins forces with center-left Macron

‘Penelopegate’ and socialism shake up French presidential election yet again

François Fillon, once the surprise frontrunner for the French presidency, may be forced to quite the race by the end of the week. (Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images)

Last week was supposed to belong to Benoît Hamon.

The former education minister, and more recently, rebel backbencher, clinched the nomination of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) over one-time favorite, former prime minister Manuel Valls. He did so with a hearty serving of left-wing economic policies designed to drive the party’s base and recapture leftists voters who, according to polls, had abandoned the Socialists for the communist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Instead of a Hamon party coronation, French voters instead watches the wheels fall off the campaign of former prime minister François Fillon, previously the frontrunner to win the second-round runoff in May.

Not surprisingly, Fillon’s undoing is a corruption scandal, and it has left an already topsy-turvy presidential election even more uncertain. Fillon came from behind to defeat a former president (Nicolas Sarkozy) and a trusted and moderate former prime minister and former foreign minister (Alain Juppé) to win a surprise victory in the presidential primary for the center-right Les Républicains last November.

The mostly satirical and sometimes investigative Canard enchaîné last week reported that Fillon’s wife, Penelope, received over ‎€500,000 from public funds for a job that she allegedly never performed when Fillon was a member of the French parliament and prime minister under Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. Since that story broke, it’s been alleged that the amount totals something more like €900,000, and that Fillon paid additional amounts of around €84,000 to his children for equally cozy sinecures.

Penelope Fillon was born in Wales, and unlike some of the previous leading ladies of the Élysée, is quite averse to publicity, claiming as recently as last year that she preferred to stay at home at the Fillon country estate, decrying, as recently as last year, said she wasn’t involved at all in her husband’s professional or political life. After Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidency and whirlwind romance of singer Carla Bruni, and the odd dynamics among incumbent president François Hollande’s former consort Valérie Trierweiler, his former partner (and presidential candidate) Ségolène Royal and his various other romantic interests, Fillon’s reticence was just fine with French voters.

That is, until they found out that Penelope Fillon earned nearly a million euros in public funds for, apparently, very little work. It’s not great, as a candidate for the presidency, to defend nepotism, let alone the notion that your wife actually performed the work in question that merited such a cushy and reliable salary.

Fillon’s Thatcherite platform calls for eliminating a half-million public-sector jobs to cut wasteful spending. Moreover, he won the Republican nomination by contrasting his previously squeaky-clean record with that of the ethically challenged Sarkozy and with Juppé, whose most recent prominence came after a long period in the wilderness induced his own corruption conviction. So the charges against Fillon are just about fatal. It’s hard to imagine that he can survive the hypocrisy of his current position.

While Fillon has said that he will not drop out of the race unless French police formally open an investigation (presumably well after the election this spring), he may be forced out of the race from sheer embarrassment and collapse in support. As the scandal continues to unfold, the latest Kantar Sofres poll shows him at 22%, now falling behind the anti-immigration, anti-EU leader of the Front national (FN) Marine Le Pen (25%) and nearly tied with the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande minister (21%). Hamon, buoyed by his surprise Socialist nomination, drew 15% and Mélenchon drew 10%.

The fear for Republicans is that Fillon will be so damaged that he fails to make it to the May runoff (or falters against Le Pen in the runoff), but not so damaged that he must quit the race. A defiant Fillon in recent days has tried to hide behind his wife and railed against shadowy figures that he claims are trying to bring down his candidacy, and that he can provide proof that his wife’s work was legal and valid.

No one believes him.

French police raided parliamentary offices earlier this week, and investigators are closing in on the one-time frontrunner, whose odds of winning the election are plummeting.

Even if Fillon does drop out of the race, there’s no consensus Plan B among French conservatives. Juppé, the runner-up in the November nomination contest, would be the natural replacement. In fact, Juppé might even prove the more formidable candidate because he can bring more centrist voters to the Republicans than the socially and economically conservative Fillon. But he has ruled out stepping in as Fillon’s replacement. Though Juppé could change his mind, there are any number of potential candidates who could step in: Sarkozy himself, former ecology minister and Paris mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet or former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire. No one knows.

So where does this leave the rest of the field?

It’s great news for Le Pen, who has struggled to win more than 25% of first-round voters, who can now rail against the hypocrisy and corruption of the political elite. Even if Fillon drops out and Republicans find a replacement, ‘Penelopegate’ is a gift to the hard right, and more conservative voters will now be giving the Front national a second look. Le Pen herself is under a cloud because of her refusal to reimburse the European Parliament for €300,000 in misused funds.

Most immediately, Fillon’s collapse will help Macron, another vaguely centrist independent, though none of Macron’s message of neoliberal reform, avowed defense of the European Union and immigration, his background as an investment banker nor his recent record as a top aide to Hollande and former industry minister in Hollande’s government seem to fit the current moment of populism and nationalism. Fillon also hopes to win over centrist voters who feel Hamon veers too far from the Socialist Party’s social democracy and too close to hard-left bona fide socialism.

Fillon’s collapse might also give another center-right figure, François Bayrou, an opening. Bayrou, who has run for president three times in the past and is something of a gadfly in French politics, still managed to win 18.5% of the vote in the 2007 election (against Sarkozy and Royal). Without a strong conservative in the race, Bayrou could still emerge as the sole moderate untainted by Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist government. Though he has downplayed the likelihood of a fourth run, Bayrou hasn’t completely shut the door, and Fillon’s collapse could give him the platform to reconsider.

Benoît Hamon’s rise as Socialist standard-bearer could forever break French left

Benoît Hamon has emerged from third place to lead the race to carry the Socialists in the French presidential election. (Facebook)

As it turns out, a center-right figure known for his tough talk on ‘law and order’ and immigration who has served for years as prime minister to the most deeply unpopular president in modern French history was probably never the best bet to lead the French left into the 2017 presidential election.

Furthermore, with few signs that they are likely to prevail in the presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, party members in France’s (barely) governing center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) seem to want to use this month’s presidential primary as an opportunity to draw a line for the party’s future — not to choose the most credible future president.

That explains how Benoît Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist firebrand, came from third place to edge both former prime minister Manuel Valls and former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg in the first round of the Socialist presidential primaries on January 22. Party voters this weekend will choose between Hamon and the 54-year-old Valls in a final runoff to decide the official Socialist standard-bearer in the spring’s presidential election.

During the primary campaign, Hamon, an avowed fan of US senator Bernie Sanders, openly called for a universal basic income of €750, making him one of the first major European politicians to do so. At a time when many French reformists argue that the country must abandon the 35-hour workweek it adopted in the year 2000, Hamon wants to lower it to 32 hours (and for his efforts, has won the support of the author of the 35-hour week, Martin Aubry). Hamon would scrap the current French constitution and inaugurate a ‘sixth republic’ that would transfer power away from the president and to the parliament, the Assemblée nationale. To pay for all of this, moreover, Hamon would introduce higher wealth taxes and a novel tax on robotics that approximates an ‘income’ attributable to the work done by such robots.

His slogan?

Faire battre le coeur de la France. Make France’s heart beat.

Though Hamon has often been reluctant to discuss the role of France’s growing Muslim population, he has nevertheless pushed back stridently against Valls for stigmatizing French Muslims (including the ill-fated ‘burkini’ ban introduced after the Nice attacks). Valls, for example, was one of the few members of his party to support the burqa ban in 2010, and as prime minister he attempted (and failed) to strip dual-national terrorists of French citizenship.

While Hamon’s ideas are creative and imaginative, representing the cutting edge among left-leaning economists, for now they seem unlikely to win a majority of the French electorate. Nevertheless, Hamon’s victory signals that the Socialists — much like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn — will be veering far to the left in the future. Depending on the circumstances, Hamon’s rise could soon formalize an increasingly severe rupture between France’s hard left and France’s center-left.

Emmanuel Macron left his party behind to run as an independent candidate in 2017. (Facebook)

No matter who wins the Socialist primary runoff on January 29, however, the Socialist candidate will be competing against two other figures of the broad left. The first is Emmanuel Macron, a charismatic figure who served as economy and industry minister from 2014 to 2016, when he left the government to form an independent progressive and reform movement, En marche (Forward). In bypassing the Socialist primaries altogether, it’s Macron who may have ‘won’ the most last weekend. The second is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of France’s communist coalition, the Front de gauche (Left Front).

Polls consistently show that Macron is in third place and rising, floating just behind the center-right candidate of Les Républicains, former prime minister François Fillon and the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen. Both Hamon and Valls languish in fifth place in those same polls, often in single digits, behind Mélenchon. Leading figures in within the Socialist Party (including 2007 presidential candidate and environmental and energy minister Ségolène Royal) have already all but announced their support for Macron.

If Valls wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ leftists supporters to Mélenchon.

If Hamon wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ centrists supporters to Macron and, indeed, it’s even possible that Macron’s supporters voted in the primary for Hamon to engineer this precise outcome.

Still other long-time Socialist voters, frustrated by income stagnation and joblessness, like what they hear in Le Pen’s economic nationalism and antipathy to both the European Union and immigrants from further afield.

How did it come to this?

Blame François Hollande.  Continue reading Benoît Hamon’s rise as Socialist standard-bearer could forever break French left

What Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection means

French President François Hollande will not stand for election, he announced earlier today.
French President François Hollande will not stand for election, he announced earlier today.

François Hollande’s decision not to seek reelection should have been a no-brainer. He’s obviously a drag on his party, the Parti socialiste, and he should have cleared the path for potential successors months ago, given his massive unpopularity. France Flag Icon

Before taking a look at what this means for the 2017 presidential contest, it’s worth noting how spectacular the last two weeks of French politics have been — two of the seven presidents of the Fifth Republic have now been vanquished altogether, their careers ended. Au revoir, Hollande. Au revoir, Nicolas Sarkozy.

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RELATED: The nightmare French election scenario
no one is talking about

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Looking to the future, Hollande’s decision now clears the way for his prime minister, the once very popular (now less so) Manuel Valls, a 54-year old, Spanish-born official who previously served as interior minister with a reputation as a tough-guy reformer on the center-right of the Socialists. Hollande’s decision gives Valls the green light to proceed without adding to the considerable bad blood between France’s president and prime minister. Continue reading What Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection means

Sarko’s defeat is great news for French (and global) moderates

Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes for a comeback crashed to a halt Sunday evening with a third-place finish in France's conservative presidential primary. (Facebook)
Nicolas Sarkozy’s hopes for a comeback crashed to a halt Sunday evening with a third-place finish in France’s conservative presidential primary. (Facebook)

The sound that you heard Sunday evening?France Flag Icon

A sign of relief across the liberal democratic world that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy sank to third place in the presidential primary of the center-right Les Républicains (the Republicans), the successor to the party that Sarkozy once led and that he helped to rechristen and remake over the last two years.

Instead, his former prime minister, François Fillon, a social conservative who promises Thatcher-style reforms to the French economy, and his former foreign minister (and long-ago Chirac prime minister) Alain Juppé, who has promised a far more moderate approach to governance than either Sarkozy or Fillon, will head to a runoff next Sunday, November 27.

But with Fillon’s dramatic first-place finish, following a week-long reversal in the polls for both Sarkozy and one-time frontrunner Juppé, and with Sarkozy’s quick endorsement of Fillon’s candidacy, Juppé appears to have a limited path to victory next week.

Fillon may or may not prove a stronger candidate than Juppé. But he most certainly will be stronger than Sarkozy.

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No matter what you thought of his presidency, Sarkozy’s defeat is good news for everyone on the right, middle and left who hopes to prevent Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Front national (National Front) from winning the presidency in May 2017. France chooses a president in two rounds — the two individuals with the most votes in a first-round April vote advance to a May runoff. Polls show today that Le Pen would almost certainly win one of those two runoff spots.

Sarkozy, more than Juppé or Fillon, was willing to run in 2017 (much as he did in 2007) by co-opting the language, if not the outright policies, of the far right. On immigration and crime, in particular, Sarkozy telescoped that he would compete with Le Pen primarily on her own turf. For many French voters who find Le Pen’s views on immigration, Islam, and the European Union repugnant, Sarkozy would have reinforced and normalized those views, pulling Le Pen closer to the heart of France’s political debate.

In 2007, Sarkozy effectively sidelined Le Pen by co-opting her rhetoric. That, in retrospect, only empowered Le Pen and her movement. In 2017, Le Pen will prove a far greater threat. French voters have now rejected Sarkozy (in 2012), and his leftist rival François Hollande, featuring approval ratings as low as 4%, faces a quixotic hope for reelection. With the French electorate so unhappy with the status quo, and after the shocking victories for Brexit in the United Kingdom and for Donald Trump in the United States, Le Pen must now be taken seriously as a threat to win the Élysée Palace next spring.

Even as Sarkozy’s nomination would have emboldened Le Pen and the illiberal, populist right, he would have simultaneously embodied everything that many French voters despise — the ostentatious ‘bling-bling’ nature of his presidency, the drama of his whirlwind romance with Carla Bruni, the attempts at neoliberal reform that voters have come to blame for inequality and stagnation. Even worse, Sarkozy would have gone into the 2017 elections under a legal and ethical cloud that aggregates several lawsuits and scandals, not least of which the notion that he received political funding from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in his 2007 election.

With the French left in tatters after Hollande’s disastrous and ineffective presidency, and with several figures on the left likely to compete for votes in the first round, Sarkozy might well have ended up as Le Pen’s challenger in the runoff, where he would have been an easy foil for Le Pen as the compromised avatar of a failed French political establishment — just as Trump so effectively demolished the scions of the American political establishment in Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

It’s true that Juppé and Fillon both carry baggage as figures associated with the French political establishment. So, too, will Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande economy minister who announced earlier this month that he will stand as an independent in the presidential election (and who might eventually outpace Fillon to the runoff). So, too, will Hollande or the eventual nominee of Hollande’s leftist Parti socialist(PS, Socialist Party).

But Sarkozy would have personified the worst of the French political establishment while also giving political cover to the National Front’s far-right views on politics and policy. Fillon, Juppé, Macron and the eventual Socialist nominee (likelier than not the brash, Spanish-born centrist prime minister Manuel Valls) will all certainly talk tougher about immigration and security in 2017, given the traumatic Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and Nice terrorist attacks. None of them, however, seem poised to parrot the Le Pen line on immigration or on France’s Muslims to the extent Sarkozy was willing.

The Le Pen threat, now much more tangible than it was before Trump’s election two weeks ago, is still a serious one. But classic economic liberals and social liberals, on both the right and the left, should be relieved that they will not have to rally around such a clearly flawed candidate as Sarkozy at a time when Le Pen’s support is cresting.

The last, best hope for global economic liberalism? Look to France.

Alain Juppé could be the last man (or woman) standing on the UN Security Council in defense of liberalism. (Facebook)
Alain Juppé could be the last man (or woman) standing on the UN Security Council in defense of liberalism. (Facebook)

Imagine the following lineup of the leaders of the UN Security Council: France Flag Icon

Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Chinese president Xi Jinping.
American president Donald Trump.
British prime minister Theresa May.
French president Marine Le Pen.

In a matter of months, we may wind up in a world where every leader of the Security Council is illiberal and nationalist.

That was unthinkable four months ago — and it should shock all of us who believe in free markets, mutually beneficial trade and sensible reforms to safeguard those displaced by trade. Continue reading The last, best hope for global economic liberalism? Look to France.

How the Le Pen family feud influences France’s 2017 election

lepenfamily

Sometimes, the cruelest cuts in international politics come not only from within your own party, but from within your very own family.France Flag Icon

Just ask David Miliband.

After months of increasingly strained relations, however, Marine Le Pen has now engineered the first break yet with her controversial father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he was formally ousted last week from the party that he founded, the far-right Front National (National Front). The legal move followed a political move earlier in the summer, when 84% of the party’s 30,000 followers also voted to expel Jean-Marie from the party that he founded in 1972.

In one sense, the Le Pen family spat has been a distraction from Marine Le Pen’s long-term goals of projecting her party as the true heir to French conservatism and building a majoritarian coalition that can woo not only traditional right-wing voters but left-wing voters disenchanted with French president François Hollande and the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and the neoliberal economic prescriptions that now dominate policymaking within the eurozone.

Since her party easily outpaced the ruling Socialists and Sarkozy’s center-right party in the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen has spent much of 2015 feuding with her own father.

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RELATED: Marine Le Pen is still a longshot
to win France’s presidency in 2017

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What’s worse, the spat showcases just how problematic it can be when a political party becomes tied up too strongly in family dynasty — it’s as true for the French right as for Indian secularism or Canada’s center-left. As Marine tries to consolidate the Front’s rank-and-file under her leadership, with regional elections approaching in the autumn, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 25-year old MP from southern France, could still make her life difficult.

marion marechal

Maréchal-Le Pen (pictured above) has been more sympathetic to her grandfather and, unlike Marine’s journey toward economic nationalism, popular in northern France, Marion is far more of a traditional economic liberal and, with her southern base, far more focused on immigration. In December, Maréchal-Le Pen will be running for the presidency of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region; Marion Le Pen, for her part, will be contesting the presidency of the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. The party will be watching keenly to see which variety of the Front‘s politics will be more successful.

But in another sense, tossing the 87-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen to the side in 2015 could help Marine in 2017 as she continues to remake the party’s image — and brand it further away from the often anti-Semitic tones of her father’s leadership, which was also rooted in his experience as a soldier fighting to defend France’s colonial holdings in Algeria. Remarks about Nazi gas chambers being just a ‘detail of history,’ as it turns out, do not go down well for Marine’s push for a Front sanitaire.

Marine’s mission

Instead, Marine Le Pen is forging an identity that blends welfare-heavy statism, social conservatism and a nationalism that rejects both immigration and European integration. There’s a reason it’s called populism. Rallying support for ‘a strong France’ and opposition to a feckless European superstate that now essentially dictate France’s monetary, justice and border control policy, championing the comfort of an unreconstructed cradle-to-grave social welfare and attacking the ‘other’ of eastern European, African and Middle Eastern immigrants has an undeniably popular allure to many voters whose economic futures are far less certain than they were two generations ago. It’s attracted some odd supporters, including a puzzlingly high number of urban LGBT voters — Marine’s chief adviser, Florian Philippot, and the architect of Marine’s anti-eurozone policy, is openly gay. While Marine discreetly avoided the most intense battles of the same-sex marriage fight in 2013, Maréchal-Le Pen embraced the opposition to marriage equality.

That means that Le Pen has found common cause in recent years with a strange number of odd political bedfellows. That includes Nigel Farage, the anti-immigrant head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who encourages a British exit from the European Union in the 2017 referendum, and Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant crusader of Dutch politics. But she also encouraged Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in his standoff with European finance ministers over Greek debt relief (though Le Pen rejected him in stark terms when he agreed in July to enter negotiations for a third bailout for his country). She has also voiced sympathy for Russian president Vladimir Putin in his two-year quasi-standoff with Ukraine.

Marine’s bet seems to be working as French voters begin to focus on the contours of what could be an unpredictable presidential election in May 2017. In IFOP’s latest August 2015 poll, Le Pen leads all contenders for the first-round vote, garnering 26% in a race against Hollande (20%) and former president Nicolas Sarkozy (24%), guaranteeing her a spot in a runoff against Sarkozy. Though her father made the runoff in the 2002 presidential election against then-president Jacques Chirac, Jean-Marie Le Pen only narrowly managed a second-place victory over the Socialist candidate, prime minister Lionel Jospin. Continue reading How the Le Pen family feud influences France’s 2017 election

Can Alain Juppé really become France’s next president?

juppe

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

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

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We now have most of the results from across Europe in the 28-state elections to elect all 751 members of the European Parliament.European_Union

At the European level,  the center-right, Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP) emerged with about 25 more seats than the center-left, social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES).

That immediately gives former the EPP’s candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, former Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a boost in his efforts to actually become the Commission president. But it’s still far from automatic, despite Juncker’s aggressive posture at a press conference Sunday evening:

“I feel fully entitled to become the next president of the European Commission,” Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, told supporters late yesterday in Brussels after the release of preliminary results. Premier for 18 years until he was voted out of office in December, Juncker also gained recognition in his dual role as head of the group of euro-area finance ministers during the debt crisis.

Juncker (pictured above) still must to convince the European Council to propose him as Commission president, and he’ll still need to win over enough right-wing or center-left allies to win a majority vote in the European Parliament.

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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

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That process, which could feature a major battle between the European Council and the European Parliament, will unfold in the days, weeks and possibly months ahead.

But what do the results mean across Europe in each country? Here’s a look at how the European elections are reverberating across the continent.  Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

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

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)