Tag Archives: France

Corsican nationalists could achieve breakthrough status in 2016

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Jean-Guy Talamoni, the leader of the pro-independence Corsica Libera, joined forces with less radical autonomists in France’s December regional elections. (Facebook)

Forget Scotland or Catalonia. Forget Wallonia and Flanders. Forget the Basque Country or Republika Srpska.corsicaFrance Flag Icon

The hot separatist movement in 2016 might be in Corsica, the French-controlled island where Napoleon Bonaparte was born and which sits roughly 100 miles off France’s southeastern coast.

Corsica’s rising nationalist tide might this year outshine Catalonia, where a new regional government with a mandate to seek independence was sworn in last week, and Scotland, where the Scottish Nationalist Party hopes that local elections in May will boost its hold on the regional parliament and advance a fresh independence referendum.

For the first time, an explicitly nationalist coalition now controls Corsica’s regional government after it unexpectedly triumphed in December’s regional elections. That’s exactly one more region than the far-right Front national controls, despite the hype that Marine Le Pen and her allies could take power in up to six of France’s 13 newly consolidated ‘super-regions.’ A movement that has long been fragmented into myriad camps and ideologies, often violent, is now more united than ever and committed to political engagement.

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RELATED: Why isn’t separatism or regionalism more dominant in the politics of Bretagne?

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Once rooted in political terrorism, Corsican nationalism has now turned to a more peaceful approach that appears to be attracting larger numbers of voters. Though the origins of Corsica’s unique regional flag, featuring a Moor’s head wearing a white bandanna, may be lost to the puzzles of history, it is nonetheless as much a symbol of the Corsican nation as the Scottish saltire.

Shortly after regional elections, when a wave of violence against immigrants (including an attack on a Muslim prayer room) threatened to mar the new nationalist government, its leaders united to decry the violence, blaming it on the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Front national. Though the incident raised tensions between Corsican nationalists and prime minister Manuel Valls, who clumsily reiterated state’s control over Corsica and sent France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve to the Corsican capital of Ajaccio, the unrest subsided soon after the new year.

corsica15 corsica assembly

Corsica’s new regional government will have two years to demonstrate that it can maintain its united nationalist front, provide capable governance and credibly advocate for greater Corsican autonomy. For the first time in years, Corsica’s status might even become an important issue in the upcoming 2017 presidential election.

Most importantly, if 2016 does become a breakout year for Corsican sovereignty, it will reinforce separatist trends not only in Scotland and Catalonia, but across Europe, catalyzing autonomy movements both familiar (e.g., Transnistria, Flanders and Kurdistan) and novel (Bavaria, Sardinia and Russian-majority parts of the Baltic States).

Corsica — a small island with a long history

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Corsica lies closest to the Italian-controlled island of Sardinia and, in fact, is closer to the Italian mainland than to France. (BBC)

Corsican sovereignty might not top the list of pressing European policy matters. But it’s an island with a long history, controlled by the Greeks, the Romans and many others from antiquity through the present day. For nearly 400 years from 1284, it was ruled by Genoa, the Italian city-state, until Corsican nationalists won independence in 1755.

Pasquale Paoli, who drove the Genoese from the island, established an Enlightenment-influenced government, with a written constitution, universal suffrage for men and women and parliamentary rule, and Paoli remains a Corsican hero despite the republic’s fall to France in 1769. France has controlled the island ever since, bringing it under the thumb of one of Europe’s most consistently centralized national governments. Compared to the United Kingdom, Germany or even Italy or Spain, the central government in Paris has long been reluctant to cede power to France’s regions, including one as idiosyncratic and sometimes turbulent as Corsica.

For Paoli’s descendants, the dream of an independent Corsica isn’t necessarily so farfetched. Poland, for example, lost its sovereignty for centuries — the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth collapsed in 1795, a short-lived Polish republic from 1918 to 1939 was soon overrun by Nazi Germany and a postwar Polish republic remained a Soviet satellite until 1989.

Corsica’s population of around 325,000 is about the same as Iceland and just a bit less than Malta. The island has its own indigenous language, Corsu, which is more closely related to the Tuscan dialect of Italian than to French and, indeed, Corsica lies far closer to the Italian mainland and the Italian island of Sardinia than to the French mainland. Only around two-thirds of Corsica’s population can speak Corsu, however, and the French language, universally spoken by all Corsicans, has long dominated official matters, education and public life.  Continue reading Corsican nationalists could achieve breakthrough status in 2016

16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

(123rf.com)
(123rf.com)

Of the most important elections in 2015, it’s a safe bet to argue that three of them took place in Greece: the January parliamentary elections, one insane roller-coaster of a referendum in July and another snap parliamentary vote again in September.

So what is the world to do in 2016, when no one expects Greeks to return to the polls? (Though, Athens being Athens, it’s impossible to rule the possibility out.)

Fear not. The new year will bring with it a fresh schedule of exciting elections on all seven continents, including in the United States, which after a marathon pair of primary campaigns, will finally choose the country’s 45th president in November 2016.

But following American politics only begins to scratch the surface.

At least two world leaders in 2016 will put ballot questions to voters  that could make or break their careers (and legacies).

New governments could emerge from elections in Taiwan, the Philippines, Morocco, Georgia, Peru, Jamaica, Ghana, Zambia and Australia.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy will either advance or flame out in his bid for a French political comeback in 2016.

Semi-autocratic leaders in Russia, Uganda, Congo and Vietnam will seek endorsements from their voters while hoping that the veneer of elections doesn’t unleash popular protest.

An opaque series of votes in Iran could determine the country’s future Supreme Leader.

A mayoral election in London (and regional elections outside England) could reshuffle British politics with an even more important vote on the horizon in 2017.

One very special election could change the international agenda of world peace and global security altogether.

Without further ado, here is Suffragio‘s guide to the top 16 elections to watch in 2016. After a short break in the new year, your attention should turn to the South China Sea… Continue reading 16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

The French far-right’s star is a not-quite-openly gay man

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The Front national’s vice president, Florian Philippot, is a not-quite-openly gay man at the heart of a socially conservative, anti-immigrant far-right party that previously had little use for France’s LGBT community.

With both the mainstream left and right teaming up to defeat the far-right Front national‘s two most outspoken leaders in Sunday’s second (and final) round of regional elections, party president Marine Le Pen, in France’s far northern region, and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, in France’s southeast, it was never likely that anyone from the Le Pen family tree would have won control of any of France’s regional councils. France Flag Icon

Indeed, after the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) universally withdrew from the two (of six) regions where the Front national (FN, National Front) led after the December 6 first-round results, it made a second-round victory of either Le Pen very unlikely.

Socialist unity fell short in three northeastern regions, where the Front national came far closer to winning:

  • In Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, the Socialists maintained their hold on the region, but only narrowly — with 34.7% to 32.9% for the center-right Républicains (Republicans) to 32.4% for the Front national. 
  • In Centre-Val de Loire, again, the Socialists won 35.4% to 34.6% for the Republicans and 30.0% for the Front national.

But it was Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine where the Front national‘s chances of picking up a region were deemed strongest. The new region cobbles together three very different smaller regions,  much to the disdain of the wealthier Alsatians, lumped into a ‘super region’ with the poorer, industrial Lorraine. (And indeed, the Front national did most poorly within the districts of the former region of Alsace, picking up larger margins in Lorraine).

Florian Philippot, one of the FN’s brightest rising stars, won the first round with 36.1% to the center-right’s 25.8%. In the second round, however, Philippot still won just 36.1% while the center-right consolidated its support (and a wide swath of the center-left and those in the electorate who didn’t bother to vote in the first round) to a whopping 48.4%, easily taking the region.

The surge in turnout among moderate voters in opposition to the Front national‘s first-round success stopped Philippot — as it did the party’s other candidates on Sunday. Still, without that shift, and a generous shift of left-wing voters to the Républicains, Philippot today might be the only Front national figure leading one of France’s 13 councils.

In contrast to the party’s self-cultivated status as an outside force with disdain for the French political elite, the 34-year-old Philippot is a graduate of the École nationale d’administration, as elite an institution as exists in France today. Since July 2012, he has been the Front national’s vice president, in charge of strategy and communication. But he’s really been the chief strategist to Marine Le Pen as she’s worked for the detoxification — or dédiabolisation — of her party, so much so that one of Le Pen’s former foreign policy advisers, Aymeric Chauprade, an MEP, left the party arguing that Philippot had created a ‘Stalinist’ environment among the party’s top guard.

There’s just one problem. For a party with a historical ambivalence to France’s gays and lesbians, Philippot is a not-quite-openly gay man.  Continue reading The French far-right’s star is a not-quite-openly gay man

Why French regional elections don’t really matter

Front national leader Marine Le Pen (left) and niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (right) hope to win in both France's north and south on Dec. 13.
Front national leader Marine Le Pen (left) and niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (right) hope to win in both France’s north and south on Dec. 13.

In France’s previous two regional elections, in 2004 and 2010, the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) easily won nearly all of the country’s 22 regions.France Flag Icon

That was typical for France’s regional elections, which typically tilt against the party in power nationally, and the Socialists were very much out of power in both years. In the most recent March 2010 elections, the Socialists (together with its allies) won fully 21 of the 22 regions in metropolitan France. Alsace, on France’s border with Germany, supporting then-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right instead.

What a difference five years can make.

Today, the Socialists are in power, though president François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls have some of the lowest approval ratings in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. Despite a solidarity bump in support following last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, that did not carry over into support for the Socialists in Sunday’s regional elections. Instead, the far-right, anti-immigration Front national (FN, National Front) of Marine Le Pen emerged with the largest share of the vote, leading in six of France’s 13 metropolitan regions after the first round on December 6.

The far-right Front National leads in six regions after last Sunday's first-round voting. (AFP)
The far-right Front National leads in six regions after last Sunday’s first-round voting. (AFP)

When minor parties are eliminated for the second round on December 13, however, it’s entirely possible that the Socialists and  Sarkozy’s rechristened Gaullist center-right Les Républicains will split so much of the vote that the Front national wins control of one or more regions in the country. The far-right’s success is historically significant, because it’s by far the most support that either Le Pen (or her father, the former Front leader) has won in a national French election.

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

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Marine Le Pen has gradually tried to detoxify her party’s anti-Semitic roots (in part by banishing Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder and her own father from the party earlier this year). With doubts about the European Union’s economic and security leadership and a French populace that’s lived through two jihadist attacks since January, Le Pen’s ‘fortress France’ approach to politics has brought it into the French political mainstream. In additional to the Front‘s traditional supporters, Marine Le Pen has made some inroads with young voters, who are suffering from massive unemployment as a group, and from disillusioned leftists in France’s industrial northeast, who are angry with Hollande’s failure to improve the French economy.

While last Sunday marked a very impressive performance for France’s far right, it’s hardly a sign that Le Pen’s Front is necessarily in position to win the 2017 presidential election — or even that the Front is now a permanent third force in French politics. For at least three reasons, it’s worth taking a deep breath before drawing any broader conclusions from the result of the first-round results. The Front may lead in six regions for now, but it certainly will not wind up controlling six regional councils, and there’s a chance that it may fail to win power in even a single region after next Sunday’s second-round voting. Continue reading Why French regional elections don’t really matter

‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

The aftermath of an American strike in Syria's Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)
The aftermath of an American strike in Syria’s Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)

Call it the ‘coalition of the frenemies.’Syria Flag Icon

With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.

Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.

In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.

Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.

Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.

The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I.  It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater. Continue reading ‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

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.

A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’

raqqa

Now that the Islamic State/Daesh has taken credit for three major attacks — the downing of a Russian flight over the Sinai peninsula, a double suicide bombing in southern Beirut and the concerted Friday night onslaught in Paris — there’s a growing consensus that the international community is doubling down on concerted efforts to confront the radical Sunni jihadists at their core in Syria.Syria Flag Icon

That began on Sunday afternoon, when French forces hit Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria that IS/Daesh has claimed as its de facto capital, with more than 20 airstrikes. In the aftermath of Friday night’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, French president François Hollande declared that the attacks amounted to an ‘act of war,’ pledging to lead a response that ‘will be pitiless,’ and the French military reaction came even while police still search for one of the alleged perpetrators of Friday’s attacks.

Well before Paris, US officials have been increasingly focused on Raqqa

As the world’s attention now turns from Paris and Beirut to Raqqa, those terrorist attacks seem likely to accelerate what’s been a gradual effort to place pressure on ISIS in Raqqa. US airstrikes last Thursday killed militant Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as ‘Jihadi John’ in the US media. A Kuwait native who grew up in London before traveling to Syria to fight for IS/Daesh, he appeared in several videotaped beheadings of westerners, proclaiming jihadist slogans in perfect English as he and his allies murdered their victims.

In early July, a series of 16 US airstrikes also targeted Raqqa, with the goal of destroying ISIS strongholds and disrupting transit routes — an attack that killed at least six civilians. News reports suggest that the United States and its allies are gradually preparing a campaign to liberate Raqqa in tandem with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a new coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other Syrian minorities in the country’s northeast, though its strength may be more aspirational than anything else.Formed just last month, it Forces are still a somewhat nebulous group, anchored by the YPG (the Kurdish acronym for the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish armed peshmerga fighting IS/Daesh), but which also includes Sunni Arabs and, most incredulously, some longtime pro-Assad forces.

US special forces that entered Syria in the last month, in particular, are thought to be spearheading the Raqqa effort. As Vox‘s Zach Beauchamp wrote earlier in October, a successful US-led siege on Raqqa would be difficult but would also call into doubt the Islamic State’s ability to hold, control and govern territory in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter).

Raqqa, in Syria's northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate. (BBC)
Raqqa, in Syria’s northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. (BBC)

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, there have already been calls in the US media to ‘erase’ Raqqa:

Alain Bauer, a leading French criminologist and adviser to officials in Paris, New York, and elsewhere about counter-terror strategies, is among those who believes that ISIS is lashing out precisely because it is under pressure on the ground….

“If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa,” [criminologist Alain] Bauer told The Daily Beast. What keeps this from happening? In Bauer’s opinion, the United States. “Every bombing is a nightmare to negotiate,” he said. “Here’s a target. ‘Oops, there’s a garden there. Oops, there’s a family there. Oops, you cannot destroy this, you cannot destroy that.’”

But ISIS is embedded among the civilian population. Bauer thinks there’s an important distinction. “They are representing the civilian population,” he says, at least those who have remained and sometimes profited from the group’s presence. “They are not enslaving them. And a war is a war.”

But the facts suggest otherwise, and the limited reporting from Raqqa over the past year indicates an urban population terrorized by the Islamic State’s fundamentalist grip. Gruesome public executions are now a routine occurrence, foreign-born militants from Africa and Europe alike (often unable to speak Arabic) mix awkwardly with the local population and jihadists routinely police their moral vision, for example, forcing women to wear niqabs. Though Islamic State certainly has its supporters among the Sunni population, many of Raqqa’s civilians are, like the victims of the Beirut and Paris bombings, victims of Daesh-led terrorism.

How once-secure Raqqa became so notorious

A Vanity Fair report from last October describes a shellshocked city where bakeries no longer produce enough bread, religious police forbid smoking tobacco,photos of models and even swearing, while young children are forced to trawl through garbage in search of valuables that they can sell for money.  Continue reading A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’

Refugee crisis brings EU back to ‘familiar’ level of dysfunction

munichPhoto credit to Corbis.

A quick take on what’s going on as Europe deals with a growing crisis of refugees and migrants.

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.

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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

Photo of the day: Hollande meets the Castros

hollande-castroPhoto credit to Alex Castro / AFP.

Since US president Barack Obama announced on December 17 of last year that the United States will seek to normalize relations with Cuba (for the first time since 1961), there’s hardly been a day without some little nugget of news about the world opening a little more to Havana.cuba

In some cases, it’s been US-based companies, from Netflix to iTunes to AirBNB, announcing that they will take steps to do business in Cuba.

In other cases, it’s news that airlines will establish new routes between American cities and Havana — or, potentially, a ferry from south Florida.

But there’s also been a steady stream of world leaders making the trip to Cuba — the European Union’s high representative for foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, visited Havana in March, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo led a delegation in April. Pope Francis, who facilitated normalization talks between the United States and Cuba, is set to pay the island a visit in September, and US secretary of state John Kerry is tentatively planning a trip as well.

Today, however, on the same day that Cuban diplomats said that the country would exchange ambassadors with the United States by the end of the month, it was French president François Hollande’s turn. Hollande met with both president Raúl Castro and his brother, former president Fidel Castro. In remarks at the University of Havana, Hollande called on the United States to end its decades-long embargo of the island country, adding that the embargo has slowed the pace of Cuban development.

Despite the recent increase in official visits from international figures, Hollande is the first French president in more than a century to visit Cuba, and he’s the first Western leader to visit the Castro-led regime in Cuba since former Spanish prime minister Felipe González in 1986.

Hollande’s visit — and the endearing tone with which he embraced the Castro brothers — wasn’t universally popular with everyone.

Prominent writer Yoani Sánchez gently chided Hollande in a post at her Generation Y website (via the English version) for failing to meet with any dissidents or activists during his visit:

On this visit we needed reaffirmation that the France of the Rights of Man still believes in the unshakeable values that recognize the rights of individuals to disagree, to express their differences without fear and to organize around them. We demanded some words of support, words that would confirm for us that the government of the European country is willing to support, in Cuba, the desires for freedom that have so marked and modeled its own national history.

A man who has declared that French and Cubans have “shared the same movement of ideas, the same aspirations, the same philosophical inspiration, cannot believe that he has visited a country where citizens have chosen by their own free will to subordinate themselves to a totalitarian power. Does Hollande think that we have tacitly chosen the cage? Does he suppose, perhaps, that we are comfortable in our chains?

Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top

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Part of the undeniable appeal of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign is her push to become the first woman to lead the United States, enhanced by the fact that she aims to succeed the first African-American president.USflag

But, if elected, Clinton will be far from the only powerful woman on the world stage.

If she wins the November 2016 presidential race, she’ll join a list of world leaders that includes German president Angela Merkel, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.

What’s more, there’s never been a better moment for women leading their countries. Assuming that Clinton wins the presidency in 2016 and serves two terms, it’s not inconceivable that she’d lead the United States at a time of ‘peak’ female leadership. But nowhere is that more true than in Europe. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that each of the six largest member-states of the European Union could have women in charge during a potential Clinton administration.

Here’s who they are — and how they might rise to power. Continue reading Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top

The Duke Chapel brouhaha and US ‘soft’ foreign policy

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Photo credit to Bill Majoros.

U.S. foreign policy isn’t just the stuff of policy papers, talks at Washington think tanks, strategy positions in Foggy Bottom and the work of establishing economic ties, trade links and military alliances drawn up in the bowels of the Pentagon.USflag

To borrow a concept from Joseph Nye, that’s all ‘hard’ foreign policy.

But there’s also a ‘soft’ foreign policy, and it’s the kind of thing that can equally affect foreign relations, often in explosive and unpredictable ways. Officials in tiny Denmark never anticipated their country would alienate the entire Muslim world when the Jyllands-Posten newspaper printed several disparaging images of the prophet Mohammed in 2005. Nor did French officials have a role in the publication, week after week for decades, of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, but last week’s horrific murders in Paris could become the focal point of French domestic and foreign policy discussion for weeks, months or even years to come.

So, too, the latest manufactured scandal on the American political scene, a decision by Duke University, a private university in Durham, North Carolina, to allow its chapel to be used for a weekly call to prayer for Muslim students. Under pressure from Christian groups, conservative activists and preachers like Franklin Graham, and in the face of several threats, according to Duke officials, the administration backed off todayInstead of using Duke Chapel, Muslim students will sound the prayer call from the quadrangle in front of the chapel, instead of from the chapel’s bell tower. 

It just so happens that I have some interest in this story because I am, myself, a graduate of Duke University. For whatever reason, Duke has found itself at the center of several controversies in recent years, from a 2001 incendiary advertisement regarding slavery reparations that we ran in our days in charge of the student newspaper, The Chronicle, to more serious issues, including prosecutorial abuse in the now-famous 2006 lacrosse rape case. The school’s most recent headlines involved a certain porn star amid its undergraduate student body. But I’m proud to say that Duke is at the center of this latest controversy, in particular, because universities should be precisely the place where students and free thinkers smash against the conventional boundaries of society, ideology and every other sacred cow.

As David Graham (another Dukie and Chronicle alum) writes for The Atlantic, the chapel issue is really less about religion than about the type of society that the United States wants to be in the 21st century, and he quotes Omid Safi, the director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, who really nails this concept:

“At the end of the day, this is not an Islam conversation,” Safi told me. “It’s an America conversation. It’s a ‘who do we want to be and how do we want to arrange and accommodate diversity?’ conversation. Are we a zero-sum society? Are you less of who you are if I am who I am?”

But we can’t really have a grand debate about freedom of religion or freedom of expression in the context of a private university. Government played no role in either enabling or restricting anyone’s religious rights on Duke’s campus. But that doesn’t mean the discussion won’t inform future US attitudes and the world’s impression of US attitudes toward the freedom of religious expression.

Just as in Denmark in 2006 and in France today, the catalyst of the debate comes not over laws and regulations so much as the cultural values, assumptions and norms that often, ultimately, inform laws, be it increasingly tougher Danish restrictions on immigration or the 2010 French law that prohibits public face coverings, such as the burqa that many Muslim women wear. Continue reading The Duke Chapel brouhaha and US ‘soft’ foreign policy

Photo(s) of the day, 2015 terrorism edition

parisjanuaryPhoto credit to Philippe Wojazer/Reuters.

sanaajanuaryPhoto credit to Hani Mohammed/AP.

What do these two photos have in common?yemen flagFrance Flag Icon

More than you might think.

The former is, of course, a near-instantly famous photo of French president François Hollande marching on the streets of Paris earlier today arm in arm with dozens on European and other world leaders, demonstrating the solidarity and unity of the French people (and their allies) in the wake of last Tuesday’s attack on satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people, and another attack on a kosher supermarket that killed four more people.

From left to right, you can see Federica Mogherini, the European foreign policy chief; Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president; Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; former French president Nicolas Sarkozy; Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta; Hollande; German chancellor Angela Merkel; European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk; Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas; and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. Not pictured are other luminaries, including British prime minister David Cameron, Jordanian King Abdullah, Greek prime minister and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and others, not all of whom are necessarily known for their staunch defense of freedom of expression, speech and the press at home.

The march was widely covered in world and US media today.

But the second photo was taken just hours earlier in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, where protests have erupted in the wake of another attack, also last Tuesday, that killed 37 people when a suicide bomber targeted a police academy, one of several instances of increasing violence in Yemen. Though they didn’t have the benefit of a phalanx of world leaders, the civilian marches in Yemen are no less important than those in Paris today. Continue reading Photo(s) of the day, 2015 terrorism edition

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

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As predicted, everyone’s getting even more carried away today wringing their hands over the notion that the horrific Charlie Hebdo killings will play right into the hands of the far-right in France, elevating Marine Le Pen into the presidency in May 2017.France Flag Icon

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

There’s a simple reason why a Le Pen presidential victory, though not impossible, remains incredibly implausible — and that’s as true today as it was last week or last month. It’s because France, like many countries around the world, has a runoff presidential system. While Le Pen stands a good chance of leading the first round of the next presidential vote, that only means that she end up in a runoff against either a center-left or a center-right figure that will command virtually the entire spectrum of political support from the center-right leftward.

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RELATED: In Charlie Hebdo massacre,
French values find a rallying point

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We know this because it happened just over a decade ago.

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, narrowly edged out the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), prime minister Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, with just 16.86% of the vote. That set up a runoff against the center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac. Despite a widespread lack of excitement about Chirac’s reelection, virtually the entire political mainstream lined up behind Chirac, who walloped Le Pen by a margin of 82.21% to 17.79%.

Continue reading Marine Le Pen is still a longshot to win France’s presidency in 2017

In Charlie Hebdo massacre, French values find a rallying point

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Even before the gruesome murder of 12 civilians today in the name of Islam, France wasn’t exactly having the best run. France Flag Icon

Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 amid promises of rupture and reform, signaling youthful, nervous energy that would transform France’s public sector after the somnolent 12-year reign of the genteely corrupt Jacques Chirac. While he did manage to raise the retirement age and make some tweaks, the full-throated rupture never quite arrived, and his administration amounted to an embarrassing series of bling bling moments, capped off by his whirlwhind romance and marriage to singer Carla Bruni. It’s still hard not to cringe at the photos of Sarkozy and Bruni at Disneyland Paris just months after his inauguration or the thought of Sarkozy lapping up the excesses of wealth on one of Silvio Berlusconi’s yachts.

François Hollande easily defeated his reelection bid in May 2012 with a promise to boost growth and employment in policy matters and to be a ‘normal’ president in, ahem, more personal matters. France got neither from its new president, whose popularity rating today is stuck in the high 10s or low 20s, depending on the poll. Even before the 2012 election campaign ended, his then-consort Valérie Trierweiler had already gotten into a spat on Twitter attacking Hollande’s former partner of three decades, Ségolène Royal, herself a former presidential candidate and a top figure within the Socialist Party. That presaged the ridiculous split between the two earlier this year, catalyzed by the impotent image of Hollande sneaking out of the Elysée Palace on a scooter for a tryst with French actress Julie Gayet.  Charlie Hebdo, it should be noted, ruthlessly mocked Hollande for his shortcomings as well as organized religion of all faiths:

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If the United Kingdom held the ‘sick man of Europe’ crown in the 1970s and Germany held it in the 1990s before its labor market reforms and amid the tectonic growing pains of reunification, France would hold clear title to that position today, if not for so many other pretenders across Europe, each struggling under the strains of joblessness, economic malaise, depopulation and precarious public debt. After starting to fall in 2013, France’s unemployment rate leapt back to record levels (10.4%) at the end of 2014. Short of a contentious battle to legalize same-sex marriage and his soon-forgotten success from decisive military action to liberate northern Mali from jihadists, Hollande has precious few policy victories to show for his administration.

It might be more accurate to call France the ‘invisible man’ of Europe.

While Germany has emerged, for now, as the sole engine of Europe, its chancellor Angela Merkel dictating fiscal policy to the rest of the European Union and its central bankers vetoing the kind of aggressive eurozone-wide quantitative easing that could reverse deflationary trends, you don’t hear much talk about the vaunted Franco-German axis anymore. British prime minister David Cameron, who’s courting disaster in his promise to hold a referendum on his country’s EU membership, has more influence on the German chancellor than Hollande or even his relatively right-leaning prime minister Manuel Valls, who leads Hollande’s second government in three years. Whether it’s banking unions or Russian aggression in eastern Europe or eurobonds or the risk of a far-left Greek government in elections later this month, no one gives a hoot about what Hollande has to say on EU matters — or anything else for that matter.

As Sarkozy, plagued by legal challenges, plots a center-right comeback and Hollande’s center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) loses more credibility by the day, the xenophobic, far-right Marine Le Pen and the Front national (FN, National Front) are basking in the victory of emerging as the top-placed party in last May’s European elections. Polls for the first round of the 2017 presidential election routinely place Le Pen leading or tied with all the major contenders, including Sarkozy and former foreign minister Alain Juppé, on the right, and Hollande and Valls, on the left. But you could see the rumblings a decade ago, when the French single-handedly ended the push (led by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, no less!) to draft a constitution for the European Union, when voters rejected the constitutional treaty in a May 2005 referendum.

We’ve all read too many stories in the past decade or so about the tristesse or the ennui afflicting modern 21st century France.  

So it’s understandable that so many commentators looked at the horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo office on Tuesday and worried that it would unleash a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, fueling the insular nationalism that drives Le Pen and the French far right, which has responded to France’s collective economic slump by lashing out at the political elite, at immigration and at the European Union.   Continue reading In Charlie Hebdo massacre, French values find a rallying point