Tag Archives: marine le pen

‘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

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

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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

Is Donald Trump the American version of Le Pen?

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Over the weekend, Le Figaro pondered whether Donald Trump, the tart-tongued real estate mogul, might be the U.S. version of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French far-right founder of the Front national (National Front) who’s also become notorious for controversial statements and for trampling ‘political correctness.’USflag

Le Pen, after all, edged out the leftist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the 2002 presidential election, establishing the Fifth Republic’s most lopsided runoff between the noxious Le Pen and the incumbent, center-right Jacques Chirac. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, who is working to broader the FN’s appeal, is polling high in the 2017 presidential contest and may win one of the two final runoff spots.

There are significant differences between the Le Pen family and Trump. Le Pen pere frequently expressed his doubts about the Holocaust with a heavy dose of anti-Semitic populism — so far, Trump hasn’t started questioning the Holocaust or attacking Jewish Americans. But both Le Pen and his daughter developed a significant constituency of French voters by expressing outrage against the influx of immigrants into the country, a concern much closer to Trump’s heart (he announced his candidacy by attacking Mexicans, promising to build a wall along the southern US border and billing it to the Mexican government).

More recently, Marine Le Pen has broadened her attacks to include European institutions, including the eurozone, as an attack on the sovereignty of France. In her exclamations of “Oui, la France!” there’s more than an echo of Trump’s “Let’s make American great again” shtick.

But the support that Trump has amassed in the summer of 2015 isn’t so unlike the wave of populism that’s enveloped Europe (on both the right and the left). Though the US economic recovery has chiefly outpaced that of Europe’s, it’s not been an easy expansion. Sustained unemployment, tepid GDP growth and stagnant wages have left working-class and middle-class American voters less secure — just like working-class and middle-class European voters.

It’s no surprise that since 2010, several new voices of the populist right and the populist left have demonstrated their electoral muscle:

  • In Italy, comic and blogger Beppe Grillo obtained nearly a quarter of the vote in the 2013 elections, and polls show that he still commands upwards of 25% of the vote. Frank Bruni wrote in May in The New York Times that Trump shares much in common with Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who dominated Italian politics from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s and, like Trump, reveled in controversial pronouncements. But Berlusconi was primed for politics by Bettino Craxi, the Socialist prime minister in the 1980s who was ultimately forced into exile in Tunisia; it’s not like George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich developed Trump as a protégé.
  • In the United Kingdom, anti-establishment candidates running for the Scottish National Party (SNP) wiped out longstanding Labour and Liberal Democratic strongholds in Scotland and, in the current Labour Party leadership contest, the far-left Jeremy Corbyn, a firm anti-austerian who wants to renationalize British railways, leads many surveys against more moderate opponents.
  • In Greece, the far-left Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left) took power in January’s elections, and the equally far-left Podemos hopes to pull off a similar victory in Spain’s general election in December.

It’s not surprising that economic pain, angst about sovereignty, identity and migration and other doubts about ruling political elites are fueling the same kind of anti-establishment reaction in the United States, too, and it’s the same instinct that powered the ‘tea party’ movement of the early 2010s.

It’s too soon to tell what Trump’s lasting legacy will be on the 2016 presidential race. His poll numbers might soon collapse (or not). He could wipe out before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. He might win a few early contests before Republican elites step in (and they will) to deny him the presidential nomination. He’s still holding the door open to an independent third-party run in the general election.

But the real template for Trump isn’t necessarily Le Pen or Tsipras or Corbyn or Grillo or even Berlusconi, though they all draw support from the same anti-establishment, populist reservoir.

Instead, it’s a duo of neophyte businessmen who have taken on powerful (and experienced) political leaders over the past two years to upend the status quo. Though Andrej Kiska and Andrej Babiš aren’t necessarily household names, even in Europe, they represent more closely the kind of appeal that Trump — at his best, perhaps — could replicate to upend the Republican establishment.

If I were Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, I would be furiously studying each case to extrapolate lessons for Trump.

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Kiska (pictured above) is a 52-year old businessman who spent much of his life as a entrepreneur in Slovakia, making his fortune in the installment payments and the credit business. Despite his failures to break into the US market, Kiska shifted to charitable works in 2006, founding Dobrý anjel (Good Angel), a charitable organization that provides funds for the seriously ill.

Running as an independent in the Slovakian presidential election in March 2014, Kiska defeated Slovakia’s sitting center-left prime minister Robert Fico. The Slovak presidency is effectively ceremonial, but Fico’s victory would have consolidated power between the ruling party and the presidency. Fico’s defeat dealt an otherwise popular figure a significant blow — and Kiska’s victory preserved a sense of constitutional balance between the executive and the parliamentary.

Going into the election, Fico was a well-liked prime minister and Slovakia’s economic record outpaced its closest neighbors; Kiska was a political newcomer. Fico’s party, Smer–sociálna demokracia, (Smer-SD, Direction-Social Democracy), still widely leads polls for next year’s general election, for example.

Unlike Trump, Kiska didn’t campaign on the macho, alpha-male persona of a successful businessman. But Kiska succeeded by planting doubts about Fico’s campaign and the fact that Kiska was personally untainted by political corruption and ties to Soviet-era politics. By all counts, he’s thrived in the presidential role since taking office last year. The lesson to Trump is that he can dial down the antics and still present a capable challenge to the GOP establishment. Though Trump may embellish the influence that his past donations might have procured, there’s no doubt he is right when he showcases the corrosive influence of money on politics in the post-Citizens United world.

babis

Babiš (pictured above) is also a Slovak-born businessman, but the 60-year old made his fortune in the Czech Republic. Like Kiska, he left business to form a political party, Akce nespokojených občanů (ANO, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) in 2011.

In the 2013 Czech elections, ANO won nearly 20% of the vote, finishing a strong second to the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) in a highly fragmented result. Babiš, who developed Agrofert, an agricultural and food processing company, into one of the most successful companies in the country, later purchased a series of media companies before he turned to politics as one of the wealthiest men in the Czech Republic. Not surprisingly, Babiš argued that he would govern the Czech Republic like a business.

More caustic than Kiska, and more sympathetic to neoliberal policies, Babiš attacked both Czech social democrats and conservatives as corrupt and dishonest, arguing for an end to immunity for political figures. In 2012 and 2013, despite his inexperience, he expertly filled a void for an electorate that had lost trust in the central European country’s ruling elite. In that regard, Trump’s rhetoric much more strongly resembles that of the pugilistic Babiš.

In the past four years alone, a center-right prime minister resigned after his chief of staff (with whom he had become romantically involved) was caught spying on the former prime minister’s wife. It’s also a country where a former Social Democratic prime minister won the presidency in early 2013 and immediately tried to outmuscle the Czech parliament in a constitutional power struggle. That gave Babiš the opportunity to present himself as the truth-telling man of action, despite fears that ‘Babišconi’ would become just another oligarchic leader and despite troubling accusations that he cooperated with the Czech internal police during the Soviet era as well as with the Soviet KGB.

Nevertheless, after the 2013 election, Babiš  set aside his differences with elites and brought ANO into the current government — he now serves as the country’s finance minister. Though the next Czech elections do not have to be held until 2017, ANO leads polls and there’s a good chance that Babiš could become the next prime minister.

The lesson here from Trump is that the righteous ‘pox-on-both-your houses’ anger of the outsider can be effective so long as it’s targeted on the tangible excesses and failures of the ruling class. But it’s not enough, as Trump has done, just to call yourself ‘smart’ and politicians ‘stupid.’ What made Babiš successful was presenting the devastating case for why Czech politics had become so broken.

 

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

Why does the Cruz 2016 logo look so much like the Front National logo?

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Without weighing in on the merits or dismerits of Texas senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, it’s striking that his logo seems to mimic the logo of the far-right Front national in France, the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Eurosceptic party led by Marine Le Pen that opposes the growth of Islam in France.USflag

It certainly doesn’t seem intentional, but the similarity is uncanny to my eyes. I also wonder whether Cruz might see eye-to-eye with Le Pen on a great number of matters.

Cruz announced his presidential campaign earlier today at Virginia’s Liberty University, and he is the first formal candidate to do so in the race for either the Republican or Democratic Party nomination campaigns. A favorite of the ‘tea party’ movement, Cruz hopes to bridge the economic populism of ‘tea partiers’ with the enthusiasm of the evangelical Christian supporters in the Republican coalition.

Interestingly, the National Front isn’t the only far-right party to deploy a torch as its logo — it’s a common symbol for the parties of the far right in Italy, as well, including the Fratelli d’Italia, a nationalist conservative party formed in 2012 out of the remnants of the old National Alliance:

fratelli logo

While the British Conservative Party adopted a torch logo for a time, David Cameron changed it to a green tree in 2006 when won he won the party leadership (a logo that’s changed in the intervening nine years). In any event, the Tory torch was a much different kind of logo — more like the Olympic torch and in no way resembling the Italian or French far-right logos:

torch

It’s not clear why, exactly, the Cruz campaign would choose a logo with questionable far-right baggage (at least in Europe), nor is it clear that US political commentators would even make a link between the two. But it’s a reminder that at the presidential level in the United States, every little thing, no matter how minor, will receive much more scrutiny than Cruz has received in the past.

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

Can Alain Juppé really become France’s next president?

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

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

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

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RELATEDDon’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback

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

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

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

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

Juncker’s first ‘scandal’ shouldn’t merit resignation calls

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I spoke with RIA Novosti earlier today about the revelations that Luxembourg’s government has been much more intimately involved in granting tax concessions to international companies.European_UnionluxembourgThose revelations come less than a week after former Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker officially took office as president of the European Commission.Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, eurosceptic Front national (National Front) has already called on him to resign.
My full remarks follow below:

It’s a very embarrassing position for Juncker, because he only took office as the president of the European Commission a few days ago, and he’ll take some perhaps well-deserved political heat for the matter, and it probably reduces his credibility on tax reform matters.

Everyone has, in the back of their minds, the example of the Santer Commission, which resigned en masse in 1999 over corruption. For now, the revelations do not appear to implicate Juncker in anything more than the kind of aggressive steps that state leaders sometimes take to attract foreign development and investment. If, for example, Juncker was found to have taken personal kickbacks in exchange for favorable treatment, it would be a much more serious allegation for himself, for the Commission, and for confidence in Luxembourg’s institutions. But there’s no evidence of that.

Meanwhile, the Commission is a professional regulatory body, and any investigations into Amazon or other companies that received state aid in potential violation of European law will be conducted by Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, the EU commissioner for competition, who is a former minister of economic affairs and deputy prime minister. It’s helpful, from an ideological perspective, that Vestager comes from the Danish Social Liberal Party, which should give some comfort to the European Parliament’s leftists. Ultimately, this is less a ‘scandal’ than a valid policy issue, insofar as Luxembourg and other countries have long pushed the envelope in making their jurisdictions extremely favorable to international companies. Note the Irish government’s decision last month to revise the ‘double Irish’ structure so common in the taxation of intellectual property assets. So as the Commission and other EU (and even international) institutions look into these decisions, it will help clarify the line between permissible and impermissible in the future.

Marine Le Pen is hardly the best critic on the matter, because her party has long been in favor of lowering taxes and promoting the kind of economic nationalist steps that Luxembourg’s officials may have taken with many international companies. Her call for Juncker’s resignation isn’t credible, but it’s very important for her to maximize support among the eurosceptic French right if she’s going to have any credible shot at winning the French presidency in 2017, a task made much more difficult by the return of former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

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

The US perspective on the European parliamentary elections

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I sat down with Brian Beary from Europolitics late Sunday night to discuss the results of the European parliamentary elections, with a particular focus on the US perspective. USflagEuropean_Union

The link is here (unfortunately, subscription only), but here’s one excerpt:

Is there a US equivalent to the Eurosceptics that did so well in the European elections?

In a formal sense, it is a peculiarly European thing. There are no parties in the US that are saying ‘we need to pull out of the United States’. The one thing they do share is that politicians in the US, for at least two generations now, in every election run against Washington. And in Europe, whether it is the hard Euroscepticism of groups like UKIP or Front National, or the soft Euroscepticism of certain members of the British Labour Party, or Silvio Berlusconi, there is an anti-Brussels-ness that reminds me of the way US politicians campaign against Washington.

Though many commentators and academics like to refer to the European Union today as a kind of ‘United States of Europe,’ especially during the EU’s ill-fated constitutional debate in 2004 and 2005, I argued that the European Union today more closely resembles the confederation of US states that existed under the 1781 Articles of Confederation.

Most US headlines in the lead-up to the European elections have concerned Ukraine and the ongoing security crisis and showdown with Russia that’s caused a regeneration of interest in transatlantic security, NATO’s role and additional follow-on issues,  such as the potential US export of liquified natural gas to Europe. In the aftermath of the European elections, US headlines are focusing on the rise of eurosceptic parties like Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and Marine Le Pen’s Front national in France.

In both cases, that’s understandable — and both topics are incredibly important. The real issues where the European Parliament will have the most impact in the next fiver years, however, are somewhat less sexy, but they should be on the radar of US policymakers and investors in the years ahead: Continue reading The US perspective on the European parliamentary elections

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)

A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

skepticismAs voters in 28 European countries prepare to head to the polls, beginning on May 22 and running through May 25, no one knows whether Europe’s center-left or center-right will win more seats, and no one knows who will ultimately become the next president of the European Commission.European_Union

But the one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that Europe’s various eurosceptic parties are set for a huge victory — not enough seats to determine the outcomes of EU legislation and policymaker, perhaps, but enough to form a strong, if disunited, bloc of relatively anti-federalist voices. Voters, chiefly in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, are set to cast strong protest votes that could elect more than 100 eurosceptic MEPs.

In some countries, such as Spain, euroscepticism is still a limited force the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) is tied for the lead with the governing center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. But Spain is quickly becoming an outlier as eurosceptic parties are springing up in places where unionist sentiment once ran strong.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections
RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

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Of course, not all eurosceptics are created equally. Some anti-Europe parties have been around for decades, while others weren’t even in existence at the time of the last elections in 2009. Some are virulently xenophobic, far-right or even neo-Nazi in their outlooks, while others are cognizably on the more mainstream conservative / leftist ideological spectrum. Some seek nothing short of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union altogether, while others seek greater controls on immigration. Some are even pro-Europe in the abstract, but oppose eurozone membership. That’s one of the reasons why eurosceptics have had so much trouble uniting across national lines — the mildest eurosceptic parties abhor the xenophobes, for example.

If everyone acknowledges that eurosceptic parties will do well when the votes are all counted on Sunday, no one knows whether that represents a peak of anti-Europe support, given the still tepid economy and high unemployment across the eurozone, or whether it’s part of a trend that will continue to grow in 2019 and 2024.

With 100 seats or so in the European Parliament, eurosceptics can’t cause very many problems. They can make noise, and they stage protests, but they won’t hold up the EU parliamentary agenda. With 200 or even 250 seats, though, they could cause real damage. There’s no rule that says that eurosceptics can’t one day win the largest block of EP seats, especially so long as most European voters ignore Europe-wide elections or treat them as an opportunity to protest unpopular national government.

For now, though, they’re all bound to cause plenty of trouble for their more mainstream rivals at the national level, and in at least five countries, they could wind up with the largest share of the vote. So it’s still worth paying attention to them.

Without further ado, here are the top 13 eurosceptic parties to keep an eye on as the results are announced on Sunday:

Continue reading A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

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