Tag Archives: paris

It’s time for Flanders to put up or shut up… and leave

Citizens in Brussels took to downtown to write messages of love and peace in the wake of horrific terror attacks Tuesday. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)
Citizens in Brussels took to downtown to write messages of love and peace in the wake of horrific terror attacks Tuesday. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

At the heart of the tragic jihadist assault on Brussels this week lies what economics and political scientists know as a collective action problem.Belgium Flagflanders flag

Within the hollowed-out central state of Belgium, virtually no one wants to foot the bill for the kind of counter-terrorism, security and police investigation operations that Brussels needed to avert Tuesday’s horrific simultaneous airport and subway attacks. The European Commission, which calls Brussels home, has neither the power nor the inclination to provide a supranational layer of security to the city.

Brussels, a majority French-speaking city, is its own region, though it lies completely outside the borders of the left-leaning, French-speaking Wallonia. Meanwhile, the more economically vibrant Flemish-speaking Flanders has, as a condition for keeping the Belgian union together for the past half-century, increasingly demanded more regional powers from both Wallonia and Brussels.

No one — at the European level, at the national level or at either of the Walloon or Flemish regional level — has a proper incentive to fund what’s obviously become a disproportionate security cost for Brussels, in particular (and not, say, Antwerp or Ghent or Charleroi).

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RELATED: Is Belgium destined for breakup after
another inconclusive vote?

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While there are obviously many reasons for Tuesday’s terror attacks, it’s no surprise that Brussels recurs as the setting for jihadist attacks. Radical Islamists in the Molenbeek community, now an infamous byword for jihadist agitation in Europe, were central to planning the 2004 Madrid attacks, last November’s attacks in Paris and, now, the terrorist strike that Belgian authorities feared four months ago — and that forced Brussels itself into a four-day lockdown as police forces tried to stymie a terrorist plot last November.

Just four months after the Paris attacks, planned from Brussels, brought the Belgian capital to a standstill for 96 hours, and just four days after Belgian police, at long last, captured Salah Abdeslam, the remaining suspect in last year’s Paris attacks, Belgian authorities were already on high alert.

That didn’t matter. Tragedy still struck. Continue reading It’s time for Flanders to put up or shut up… and leave

‘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.

Why Beirut matters too

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the Saint George Maronite Cathedral stand side by side in Martyr's Square in downtown Beirut. (Kevin Lees)
The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the Saint George Maronite Cathedral stand side by side in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. (Kevin Lees)

I’ve seen plenty of commentary online since Friday night criticizing the American and European media (and their audiences) for ignoring Thursday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut while focusing their attention solely on Friday’s deadlier Paris attacks.Lebanon

But, as I write tomorrow for The National Interest, as the world mourns the victims of both attacks, there’s a risk that the lessons of the Beirut blasts (by far the worst since the beginning of the civil war in neighboring Syria) will go unheeded.

Just as the Paris attacks are changing the nature of the Western response to ISIS/Daesh, so should the Beirut attacks change the nature of Western engagement with Lebanon.

Recognizing the humanity of the victims in Lebanon is really just the first step, because the real courage among policymakers is to adjust to the post-attack Beirut with more support politically, economically and morally.

Do read the whole thing here.

I argue first that U.S. and European policymakers should care about Lebanon and its stability:  Continue reading Why Beirut matters too

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


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’

Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top


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

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

Can Alain Juppé really become France’s next president?


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?

Don’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback


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

Final Paris mayoral election results


Anne Hidalgo won a strong victory to become Paris’s first female mayor, extending the electoral hold of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) in the French capital.France Flag Iconparis

Hidalgo, who has served as France’s first deputy mayor under the administration of Bertrand Delanoë since 2001, won the election by  a larger-than-expected margin, besting   Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a moderate former environmental minister and a rising star of the French right, by a margin of around 54.5% to 45.5%. Kosciusko-Morizet narrowly won the first round of the election on March 23, but polls showed that Hidalgo always had a clearer path to victory in the runoff, thanks to a large reservoir of green and other leftist voters.

Despite the margin, Kosciusko-Morizet ran a strong race in a city that has veered further to the left over the past 15 years — a wild swing from the two decades that Jacques Chirac served as mayor (before winning the French presidency in 2005). Though Kosciusko-Morizet lost Sunday’s election, the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) made marginal gains on the Paris city council, and Kosciusko-Morizet  strengthened her profile by taking on the challenge of a campaign that was always going to be a stretch for the UMP.

If it was a sweet victory for the Socialists, it was one of the only bright spots of a very brutal round of municipal elections nationwide for the party and for its unpopular president François Hollande. The Socialists lost Toulouse, Angers, Quimper, Reims and Saint-Étienne — and the left lost power in Limoges for the first time since 1912.  Continue reading Final Paris mayoral election results

Runoff looms to select Paris’s first female mayor


The success of the far-right Front national (FN, National Front) dominated headlines from Sunday’s municipal elections in France.
France Flag Icon

In Paris, though, the mayoral race has shaped into a predictably traditional runoff between the French left and the French right, a personality-driven campaign to determine whether Anne Hidalgo or Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet will become the first woman to serve as the city of France’s capital.

Though president François Hollande and the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) may be faltering throughout the rest of France, and though Marine Le Pen’s Front national may be cutting into the traditional strongholds of both the Parti socialiste and the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement), Paris remains a stronghold for the Socialists. Outgoing mayor Bertrand Delanoë, one of the few members of Hollande’s party with robust approval ratings, is leaving office after 13 years as the city’s third directly elected mayor — former president Jacques Chirac held the office from 1977 to 1995.


Polls show that Parisians will likely replace him with Hidalgo (pictured above), an Andalusia-born official who’s served as Delanoë’s first deputy mayor since he took office in 2001. In a city where residents seem largely happy with the status quo and with Delanoë, Hidalgo is the narrow frontrunner to win in Sunday’s second-round runoff. Delanoë’s rise has coincided with the capital city’s leftward shift, as longtime working-class Socialist voters join educated professionals to give the Socialists an increasingly strong electoral coalition over the past decade.

As mayor, Delanoë has increased housing and social welfare spending, though he might be most well-known for two things.

First, he was one of the world’s first openly gay high-ranking officials — Delanoë’s longtime honesty about his sexuality helped paved the way for greater LGBT acceptance throughout Europe. Secondly, Delanoë’s Paris has been at the vanguard of the urban livability trend. He created the Paris-Plages project in 2002, which every summer recreates a beach, complete with sand and palm trees, on the banks of the Seine. In 2007, Paris became one of the first major global cities to institute a bike-sharing programs, Vélib’, which today is the largest program of its kind outside of China.


Gaffes from both women have dominated the campaign’s coverage. Kosciusko-Morizet (pictured above), who comes from a wealthy background, has had a difficult time shedding her often awkward aristocratic mien. Her comments romanticizing the Paris metro as a ‘charming place’ overshadowed an otherwise welcome plan to keep it open until 2 a.m. on weekdays. But her background as a rising star from the UMP’s moderate wing, her experience as France’s environmental minister, and her high-profile role as campaign spokesperson for Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2012 presidential campaign makes Kosciusko-Morizet a better fit for Paris than other prominent UMP figures. She’s given the French center-right a chance of becoming Paris’s next mayor — even if she loses in the second round to Hidalgo, she has raised her profile considerably.

Hidalgo, in the meanwhile, is campaigning largely on consolidating and extending the gains of the Delanoë administration — more green space, 10,000 new homes a year (65% of which would be public housing), and extending not only the Paris metro, but the Vélib’ system to scooters (Scooterlib’) and electric cars (Autolib’).

But the literal cloud hanging over the municipal elections is the recent smog that enveloped Paris. Continue reading Runoff looms to select Paris’s first female mayor

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


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

Weekend municipal elections from Japan to France


It’s another busy weekend for world politics — especially with regard to municipal elections in two G-8 countries.

Here’s a quick weekend update of the three world elections taking place today and tomorrow.

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First, the Maldives on Saturday elected all 77 members of the Majlis, the unicameral Maldivian parliament. The parliamentary elections follow the highly botched presidential election last autumn — the initial September vote was annulled and Maldivian election officials postponed the vote to the point of constitutional crisis. By the time the country held a new vote in November, it pushed through a runoff just five days later. Former president Mohammed Nasheed, who won the first round, lost the runoff to Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who previously governed the Maldives between 1978 and 2008. 

The polls are already closed there, and the voting has gone smoothly, according to initial reports. Results are expected on Sunday, and the contest pits Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party against Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives. 

Osaka municipal electionosakacity osakaprefectureJapan

In Japan, Osaka’s controversial mayor Tōru Hashimoto (橋下徹) is forcing a mayoral election after resigning in February in what amounts to a power play over his plan to unite the city of Osaka and Osaka prefecture into a larger ‘Osaka-to’ region.

Though no major party is running a candidate against Hashimoto (pictured above), the popularity of the former television personality has fallen rapidly both at the national and local level.

His bid to join forces with former Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara to form the right-wing Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai) made waves in December 2012 when it nearly became the second-largest force in the lower house of the Japanese Diet, but Hashimoto’s rising star has faded over the past 15 months, not least of all because of his insensitive comments that attempted to justify the use of ‘comfort women’ — Korean sexual slaves — by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Though Hashimoto will likely win reelection in the Osaka vote on Sunday, his critics have attacked the election as an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money.

Hashimoto, who served as the governor of Osaka prefecture between 2008 and 2011, has served as the city of Osaka’s mayor since 2011. In 2010, he founded the Osaka Restoration Association (大阪維新の会, Ōsaka Ishin no Kai) under the banner of ‘One Osaka,’ his longtime campaign to unite the prefecture and the city as one larger metropolis, like the structure of Tokyo’s combined metropolitan government. Osaka is Japan’s second-most populous metropolitan area, and Osaka prefecture, which encompasses the city of Osaka, is home to 8.9 million residents.

The plan faces opposition by the Osaka city council, where Hashimoto’s Osaka Restoration Association doesn’t hold a majority. Though there might be gains in merging the prefecture and city governments, critics fear that Hashimoto is more motivated by the possibility of creating a regional political empire. The central government also opposes the plan, because it might mean ceding power from the federal to the prefectural level.

Paris (and other French) municipal electionsFrance Flag Iconparis

French municipal elections are also taking place this weekend — the first round will take place Sunday, with second rounds to follow next Sunday, March 30.

The indisputable highlight of the French elections is the Paris mayoral race, with Bertrand Delanoë stepping down after 13 years in the office. The race will almost certainly result in a runoff next week between first deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo, the Andalusia-born candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a moderate who served as a former minister of ecology, sustainable development, transport and housing and as campaign spokesperson for Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.

The vote takes place amid one of the worst bouts of air pollution that Paris has seen in recent years, which caused the city government to impose emergency restrictions on automobiles last week.

Though polls forecast a tight race, Hidalgo has held a consistent, if narrow, lead over Kosciusko-Morizet for nearly a year — the most recent BVA poll from mid-March predicted that Hidalgo would win the second round by a margin of 53% to 47%.

Outside Paris, however, the elections are a test for the struggling administration of France’s socialist president François Hollande, and an opportnity for France’s far-right Front national (FN, National Front), with its leader Marine Le Pen hoping to win at least some mid-sized towns and villages in the FN’s traditional stronghold in the Mediterranean south and in the economically depressed post-industrial north.