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The six possible runoffs that could result from France’s Sunday election

A welcome ceremony at the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the French president. (radututa / 123rf)

On Sunday, voters in France — soon to be the second-most populous member-state of the European Union — will decide the two finalists, out of a field of 11, who will battle for the French presidency next month.

Since February, polls have consistently shown centrist independent Emmanuel Macron and hard-right Marine Le Pen, the leader of the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Front national, most likely to advance to the May 7 runoff. Macron, a former economy minister in outgoing president François Hollande’s administration, has waged an unorthodox and personalized campaign, pulling supporters from both the center-right and the center-left under the banner of a new political movement, En marche (Forward).

Le Pen, who has somewhat toned down the rhetoric of the party that her father founded in 1972, remains a hard-right warrior championing economic nationalism, with plenty of attacks on the European Union, the scourge of Islam and the woes of immigration. It’s a stand that may yet boost her in the wake of a terrorist strike that killed two policemen on the Champs-Élysées Thursday night in the heart of Paris, as even US president Donald Trump noted early Friday morning.

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RELATED: If Mélenchon surges into unlikely runoff, it won’t come from last-minute leftist unity

RELATED: How Le Pen might win a runoff against Macron

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uphill battle for National Assembly

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One-time front runner François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, leaped into a strong lead last November after defeating former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé for the Republican nomination. Since February, however, Fillon has dropped to third place after police opened a formal investigation into whether Fillon used over €800,000 in public funds to pay his wife (Penelope) and his children for essentially ‘fake’ jobs — popularly known as ‘Penelopegate.’ Refusing to drop out, however, Fillon — a social conservative and Thatcherite liberal who served as Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years — has waged an energetic and defiant campaign, even under the cloud of corruption charges.

Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged in the polls after strong performances in two debates in March/April sent left-wing voters swooning. The far-left candidate of La France insoumise (Unsubmissive France) and a coalition of communists and other far-left groups, Mélenchon has gained support at the expense of the official candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), Benoît Hamon. A former education minister and left-wing rebel who ultimately resigned in opposition to Hollande’s centrist push for labor reform, has campaigned on a deeply leftist platform of his own, with calls for a universal basic income, a 32-hour work week, a tax on robots and a higher minimum wage. After the deeply unpopular Hollande ruled out a reelection bid, Hamon won the Socialist nomination in January, defeating Hollande’s more centrist former prime minister Manuel Valls. Hamon now languishes in the single digits in most polls, while Mélenchon’s more radical campaign — he wants to introduce a 100% tax on incomes over €33,000 a month, reinvent or leave the European Union and leave NATO — has captured more of the electorate’s imagination.

Those polls now show the top four candidates — Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon — all gathered together within the margin of error, with between 19% and 25% support as voters prepare to cast ballots in the April 23 first-round vote. With Macron and Le Pen unable in the final weeks of the campaign to expand into larger coalitions, with Fillon holding steady with his core of Republican voters and with Mélenchon consolidating France’s leftist voters, no one can predict which of the four candidates will advance.

We’ll know soon enough. In the meanwhile, here is what you should expect from each of the potential six runoffs that could follow Sunday’s result. Continue reading The six possible runoffs that could result from France’s Sunday election

If Mélenchon surges into unlikely runoff, it won’t come from last-minute leftist unity

The hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is rising in the polls, but it may still prove difficult to make it to a runoff in May. (Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters)

With less than two weeks to go until the first round of the French presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is surging in the polls.

From a distant fifth place a month ago, Mélenchon’s strong debate performances and his appeal from outside the traditional political mainstream have catapulted him well beyond former education minister Benoît Hamon, the social democratic candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) — and in some polls, even leading former prime minister François Fillon, the center-right and scandal-dogged candidate of Les Républicains.

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RELATED: How Le Pen might win a runoff against Macron

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The latest IFOP poll gives Mélenchon 17%, just behind Fillon (19%), though still some trailing poll leaders Marine Le Pen (24.5%) and Emmanuel Macron (23.5%) — Hamon, who once led Mélenchon, now claims just 9.5%. Earlier this year, before Hamon’s nomination, I wrote about the nightmare scenario (for centrists and liberals) of a Le Pen-Mélenchon runoff.

But you should be skeptical about the Mélenchon surge, which might not be as large as polls currently show. Even so, Mélenchon will struggle to grow his support sufficiently to win the presidency.

Rise of the anti-elite left

Jean-Luc Mélenchon ran for the presidency in 2012 and, despite a last-minute poll surge, won just 11%.

Mélenchon is the candidate of the far-left Front de gauche (Left Front), an alliance of communists and other hard-left figures. Though Hamon won the Socialist Party nomination in January on a radically leftist agenda (e.g., a business tax on robots, a 32-hour workweek, a higher minimum wage and new spending on social welfare), Mélenchon would go farther. Charismatic and acerbic in equal measure, Mélenchon also favors the 32-hour workweek, greater social spending (in the form of a €100 billion stimulus) and a higher minimum wage (€1,300 per month). But he would also levy a 100% tax rate on anyone making over €33,000 a month. He would also dismantle France’s nuclear power program, which supplies over 76% of France’s power needs (more than for any other country worldwide). While Le Pen wants to leave the eurozone and hold a referendum on ‘Frexit,’ Mélenchon wants to leave the European Union and NATO entirely, slams German chancellor Angela Merkel on the campaign trail and vows that he’s the only candidate ‘for peace.’

Mélenchon may sound like the ‘French Bernie Sanders,’ but his policy positions makes Sanders seem like a centrist in comparison.

French politics has seen this show before. Mélenchon, who ran for president in 2012, also saw a mid-April polling surge in the last election. One mid-April 2012 IFOP poll gave him 14.5% in that race, but he ultimately finished far behind in fourth place with 11%, under-performing every significant French poll in the days leading to the vote.

Five years later, anti-establishment sentiment is certainly much higher. There’s no doubt that Mélenchon is as anti-elite as it comes, even more so than the hard-right, anti-immigrant Le Pen, who at least finds common cause in the Catholic Church and other institutions that she believes support her view of traditional French values. Though Macron remains the frontunner to win a runoff against Le Pen on May 7, Le Pen still leads most polls to win the first round of the election on April 23. It’s been taken for granted for so long that Le Pen would win the first-round vote, but it’s still a landmark achievement for her and the Front national. The two candidates of the traditional parties are now polling less than one-third of the vote in an election season that eliminated both former president François Sarkozy and Bordeaux mayor and former prime minister and foreign minister Alain Juppé in the center-right presidential primaries, as well as once-popular prime minister Manuel Valls in the center-left primaries. It also forced an unpopular incumbent François Hollande to skip a reelection bid altogether.

Mélenchon continues to splinter the left, not unite it

Socialist nominee Benoît Hamon has dropped in the polls to a distant fifth place. (Facebook)

Over the weekend, Hamon indicated that if Mélenchon does make the May runoff, his supporters should support Mélenchon. That’s the closest sign of any unity between the two campaigns. Just a few weeks ago, prominent Hamon supporters — including leftist economist Thomas Piketty — were hoping Mélenchon might drop out of the race in favor of a united candidacy around Hamon. Yannick Jadot, who had planned to run as the candidate of the Europe Écologie Les Verts (Europe Economy / Greens), dropped out in late February in deference to Hamon.

Now, many leftists are hoping Hamon will drop out. They add up the total support for Hamon and Mélenchon in polls, and believe that together, they would be a shoe-in for the runoff. But the reality is far more complicated.

That’s unlikely.

Hamon, ironically, is more maverick than the ‘independent’ Macron (a Hollande protégé), and his nomination made the chances of a coalition with Mélenchon far more likely than had Valls won the Socialist nomination.

But Hamon was always swimming upstream as the official nominee of the Socialist Party. After five years of Hollande, the Socialist brand is toxic; after the perceived decades-long failures of Hollande, Sarkozy and their predecessors (on everything from employment to wage growth to immigration), the establishment brand is even more toxic. Moreover, many centrists within the Socialist Party responded to Hamon’s nomination by distancing themselves from a nominee who (1) seemed like a sure loser and (2) is far too leftist for their tastes, and many of those Socialist centrists now support Macron, formally or informally. Hamon has been poorly served by the Socialist Party since January, and there is a chance — however slim — that he might drop out of the race in favor of Mélenchon. (It would be too far late, legally, for the Socialists to nominate a new candidate).

The Hamon-Mélenchon talks failed not only because the two candidates are so far apart on policy (such as EU and NATO positions), but from the fact that they come from very, very different traditions. Think about the difference between, say, longtime French communist leader Robert Hue and former Socialist president François Mitterrand. Even if Hamon dropped out (very unlikely) and endorsed Mélenchon, the Socialist Party would never endorse him — in part, because Macron is already the unofficial Socialist candidate. Moreover, the Socialists also have a tough parliamentary election in June to worry about.

Mélenchon would hardly welcome formal Socialist backing. Just as Macron perceived (and as Hamon is learning), the party’s imprint is akin to a poisoned chalice. Nothing Mélenchon could do or say would more taint him as a ‘sellout’ to his supporters than to accept Socialist endorsement.

Indeed, the best gift Hamon might be able to provide Mélenchon is to drop out and force the Socialists to endorse Macron instead, who already has his share of ‘Socialist’ problems. Though he’s leading a new movement called ‘En marche,’ Macron’s experience in French politics comes from a Socialist background. A graduate of the elite École nationale d’administration and a former investment banker, Macron owes his political career to Hollande. He served as a presidential deputy chief of staff before serving as Hollande’s economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Like it or not, Macron is the status quo candidate in the race, for all his populist bluster about change. Former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë now backs Macron, as does Valls. Unofficially, so does Ségolène Royal and many others, including perhaps Hollande himself.

The rupture of the French left into a centrist Macron faction, a progressive Hamon faction and a hard-left Mélenchon faction isn’t likely to change after April 23. Even if the personalities leading those factions change, the divides might widen as the focus shifts to parliamentary elections. If Macron loses the presidency to Le Pen, moreover, the left’s fragmentation could magnify Le Pen’s ability to co-opt economic nationalism and reframe French politics on a nationalist/globalist line instead of a traditional left/right line. Unfortunately for the Socialist Party, the stakes transcend just one election cycle, and the party’s hegemony, at least throughout much of the Fifth Republic, may be finished.

The problem for Mélenchon’s growth prospects

In order to gain support, Mélenchon might turn to Marine Le Pen, who emphasizes the same anti-elite, anti-EU and economic nationalism message as the far left. (Facebook)

Even while Mélenchon is shaking up the race, there’s a big difference between ‘shaking up’ and winning.

The question is where Mélenchon can go from here. A once-possible April 20 debate looks like it will no longer take place, denying Mélenchon one last chance to shine (ironically because he refused to join a debate just three days before the first-round vote). He led a well-attended rally in Marseilles over the weekend, but rallies are one thing — converting rallies to votes is another. Unlike Fillon, Hamon and even Le Pen, who have traditional party structures to help turn out the vote, and unlike Le Pen and even Macron, who has cultivated a large organization since last summer, Mélenchon is at a ground-game disadvantage. That’s perhaps one reason his 2012 showing was such a disappointment.

On the left, it’s hard to see where Mélenchon will pick up more voters. Hamon’s supporters must realize he’s a lost cause. But while Mélenchon’s polls began to rise after the first presidential debate on March 20, those Hamon voters are still not switching to Mélenchon, even though he has surged to a 2-to-1 advantage against Hamon in some polls. Maybe he could pick up voters from Macron, but it’s doubtful that the most pro-European centrist in the race would hemorrhage too many votes to an ardent eurosceptic communist. Even as the traditional parties weaken, a dwindling PS base still exists to support the Socialist nominee. Note the baseline support (at least 16% to 20%) that Fillon is still winning from center-right voters, even though police have essentially indicted him for paying public funds to his wife and children for fake jobs.

More fertile ground for Mélenchon might come from Le Pen’s supporters (one reason why he may have held his weekend rally in Marseilles, where Le Pen support runs strong). Like Mélenchon, Le Pen calls for radical change, is skeptical of Brussels and EU officials, and embraces the same economic protectionism as Mélenchon’s old-school leftism. So if he makes a breakthrough later this month, it could be at Le Pen’s expense, reclaiming votes in places like France’s de-industrialized northeast, where Le Pen won over disenchanted — and formerly Socialist — voters.

But another lesson from 2012 should cast doubt on that thesis. After the last presidential race, both Le Pen and Mélenchon ran for a legislative assembly seat in northeastern Hénin-Beaumont, an old coal-mining region. In the first round of that election, Le Pen won 42.4%, far ahead of second-placed Socialist Philippe Kemel (23.5%). Again, Mélenchon disappointed with just 21.5% of the vote. In the runoff (Mélenchon withdrew and endorsed Kemel), Le Pen only narrowly lost by a margin of 50.1% to 49.9%. Nevertheless, the lesson from that parliamentary race, at least five years ago, is Le Pen’s brand of hard-right protectionism was far more compelling than Mélenchon’s 21st century communism.

 

Le Pen’s support in the 2017 election, however, has universally been stronger than in 2012. So while there’s definitely a path for Mélenchon into the May runoff, it will be an incredibly difficult task.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater scrutiny is taking its toll on Macron

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

What Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection means

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

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

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

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

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)

Sapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

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Though French president François Hollande on Monday promised a gouvernement de combat in his cabinet reshuffle, it looks like the government he’s chosen might wind up spending more time combatting one another that the myriad economic challenges that France faces.
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Just 48 hours after naming interior minister Manuel Valls, the hard-charging, Roma-busting strongman of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) as France’s new prime minister, Hollande announced the rest of his cabinet reshuffle today.

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

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

But it’s hardly Lincolnesque.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve spent much of the past week traveling through Bretagne (or ‘Breizh’ in the local Breton language) — the peninsula that juts out from northwestern France into the Atlantic Ocean, and I’ve spent some time thinking about regionalism in France and why Bretagne, with its  Celtic roots, geographic isolation, historical independence and distinct language, isn’t more like Scotland or Catalonia politically. brittany_breton_region_flag-1France Flag Icon

With just over 3 million residents, the region of Bretagne is home to about 5% of France’s population, though the administrative region of Bretagne doesn’t include all of what was considered Bretagne historically — another 1 million people live in Loire-Atlantique, which is technically part of the Loire region despite its historical inclusion within wider Bretagne.  Regardless of the current regional borders, Bretagne is a unique part of France, and its cultural heritage sets it apart as at least as unique as any other region of France, given that it was settled by Celtic migrants from the north who successfully rebuffed Vikings, Normans, Gauls and Franks for centuries in what, during the Middle Ages, was known as Armorica.  Despite its independence, Bretagne increasingly became the subject of both English and French designs in the early half of the millennium, and the region was one of the chief prizes of the Hundred Years War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries, which finally settled France’s hold on Bretagne.

Moreover, Breton — and not French — was the dominant language spoken in the region through much of the 19th century.  Despite the universal use of French today and a declining number of Breton speakers, around 200,000 native speakers remain, and Breton features prominently on many public signs in the region, especially as you go further west in Bretagne.  (Another second language, Gallo, is used by around another 30,000 Breton residents).

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Bretons, such as Jacques Cartier, dominated the earliest French efforts to explore and colonize the New World and, even in the 19th century, the region’s role in transatlantic shipping and trade meant that its ties with far-flung places like Newfoundland and Labrador were just as influential as the region’s ties to Paris.  Cultural ties with other Celtic regions such as Wales, Scotland and Ireland have long overshadowed French cultural influences as well — Breton music has a distinct character and often features bagpipes not dissimilar to those found in other Celtic folk music traditions.

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Furthermore, there’s been a resurgence in interest in Breton heritage and cultivation of Breton language in the past 30 years, even as the number of Breton speakers is set to decline over the next decade to just over 50,000.  Its distinctive black-and-white flag, the Gwenn-ha-du, developed in the 1920s during a prior wave of Breton nationalism, flies throughout Bretagne much more prolifically than do other regional flags elsewhere in France.

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But Bretagne is not a hotbed of separatist agitation like Catalonia or Basque Euskadi in Spain or like Québec in Canada.  Nor does it especially have a history of autonomist politics similar to those throughout western Europe — Flanders in Belgium, Galicia in Spain, or northeastern Italy.

Celtic nations, in particular, have long agitated for greater political autonomy throughout western Europe.  Scotland will hold a referendum on independence in September 2014, and both Scotland and Wales have routinely supported devolution of power within the United Kingdom.  The move for  independence in Ireland, another of Bretagne’s Celtic cousins, was perhaps the most successful European nationalist movement in the first half of the 20th century.

The region does have a regionalist party, the Union Démocratique Bretonne (the Breton Democratic Union, or the Unvaniezh Demokratel Breizh in Breton), but the party holds no seats in the Breton regional assembly, and in the most recent 2010 regional elections, it won just 4.29% of the vote.  In the June 2012 parliamentary elections to the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly), the UDB’s Paul Molac won election, though technically as a member of France’s Green Party, which contested the elections in alliance with the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) of French president François Hollande.

If there’s any trend worth marking in Bretagne, it’s that the left has done increasingly well in Bretagne in recent years, to the point that Bretagne could even be considered a Socialist stronghold within France.  Hollande defeated former president Nicolas Sarkozy in the region by a margin of 56% to 44% in the second round of the May 2012 presidential election and in 2007, though Ségolène Royal lost the presidency to Sarkozy nationwide, she won Bretagne in the second round by a margin of 53% to 47%.  Traditionally, the nationalist, far-right Front national of Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen have not succeeded to same degree in Bretagne as they have in other parts of France.

But Bretagne simply hasn’t boasted an incredibly strong politics of regionalism, despite several waves of Breton nationalism throughout the 20th century and the current revival of Breton linguistic and cultural heritage.

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Why exactly is that the case?

As you might expect, there’s not a single magic answer, but four factors in particular go a long way in explaining why Bretagne hasn’t developed the same level of regionalist politics as, say, Scotland or Catalonia: the five-century duration of French control over Bretagne, the highly centralized nature of the French government, historical reasons rooted in the 20th century and, above all, the lack of an economic basis for asserting Breton independence.

Continue reading Why isn’t separatism or regionalism more dominant in the politics of Bretagne?

As Hollande marks one year in office, would Dominique Strauss-Kahn have been better for France?

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Today is the one-year anniversary of François Hollande’s inauguration as the new president of France, having swept to the Elysée Palace with a mandate for a more subdued presidential administration and a leftward turn after the ‘bling bling’ administration of center-right president Nicolas Sarkozy.France Flag Icon

Hollande won’t face voters again for four more years, and by 2017, Hollande’s reputation may well have recovered, but at the one-year mark, he’s had a horrific presidency so far:

  • France slipped back, as a formal matter, into recession today, with a GDP growth rate of -0.2% for the first quarter of 2013 with an unemployment rate of over 10% and eclipsing the previous high in 1997. 
  • Barely a month into his administration, Monsieur Normal appeared to be unable to stop a fight between his current partner, Valerie Trierweiler, and his former partner, Segolène Royal, when Trierweiler tweeted her support for Royal’s opponent, thereby ending Royal’s chances to become the president of France’s parliament, the Assemblée nationale, and making Hollande look as if he couldn’t even control matters within his own relationship.
  • The traditional Franco-German axis that’s powered European integration for decades remains at a frigid impasse, despite the widespread belief that German chancellor Angela Merkel has outfoxed Hollande and is winning the policy war on how to address the ongoing eurozone economic crisis.
  • He worked to implement a 75% income tax rate on income above €1 million per year, though France’s constitutional court has ruled it unconstitutional on technical grounds, all the while keeping in place strict targets to reduce France’s budget deficit and retaining a rise in the retirement age from 60 to 62 implemented by the Sarkozy administration.
  • Budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac stepped down in April 2013 after it was revealed he had a Swiss bank account and had potentially committed tax fraud.
  • Altogether, Hollande’s approval ratings are the lowest of any president after one year in office, and fully 73% of French voters are dissatisfied with Hollande and 68% are dissatisfied with his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.

It’s been, from a political perspective — and even from a policy perspective — a bit of a disaster.  Hollande’s chief accomplishment, enactment of same-sex marriage in France, has been accompanied by vigorous opposition from Sarkozy’s party and from the far right, inspiring massive anti-marriage rallies and even an uptick anti-gay violence.

It’s enough to make you wonder — what would have happened if Dominique Strauss-Kahn had never been alleged to have sexually assaulted a maid in a New York hotel, had stepped down with his head held high as managing director of the International Monetary Fund to run for an almost certain nomination as the presidential candidate of France’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and proceeded to challenge Sarkozy?  Strauss-Kahn today, as a matter of coincidence, re-emerged to open a bank in South Sudan, one of his rare appearances since the debacle that led to his arrest in May 2011.  Although U.S. prosecutors dropped charges of attempted rape and other sexual abuse charges in August 2011, Strauss-Kahn’s political career was finished.

Though it’s subject to a ‘grass is always greener’ caveat, there’s good reason to believe that a Strauss-Kahn presidency would have been a smoother affair than the embattled Hollande administration.

Despite whether it would have been better or worse, a Strauss-Kahn presidency would have been an incredibly different beast from the outset.

It seems unlikely that Strauss-Kahn would have ever campaigned on a pledge to raise the top rate of tax to 75%, let alone attempted to enact it, when it’s such an outlier among peer tax regimes.  It seems more likely that Strauss-Kahn, as a relative moderate within the Socialist Party, would have been more receptive to implementing labor market reforms designed to make France more competitive — perhaps a gentler variant of the Hartz IV / Agenda 2010 reforms that Germany enacted under social democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s.

But as a former IMF chief and a former finance minister under the government of prime minister Lionel Jospin from 1997 to 1999 who worked to reduce the budget deficit to prepare for French entry into the eurozone, Strauss-Kahn would have come into office with an unrivaled economic credibility that would have allowed him to challenge Merkel on the direction of economic policy in the eurozone with vigor — and then some.  It’s not hard to imagine Strauss-Kahn pursuing a relatively ambitious reform program domestically while simultaneously calling for less punishing austerity measures in the more devastated southern European economies.

Certainly, Strauss-Kahn’s candidacy and his presidency would have been plagued with the same sort of scandalous affairs that brought his career to such a  screeching halt in 2011.  It’s difficult to imagine Strauss-Kahn being emasculated in his first month in office (fairly or not), unable to stop a very public spat between a current and former lover, one of whom happens to have been his party’s 2007 presidential candidate and a leading political figure in her own right.  Strauss-Kahn would have come to the French presidency after a career in the public eye, unlike Hollande, who had chiefly served a behind-the-scenes role — when he was half of France’s power couple, it was Royal, not Hollande, who was the public star.  Hollande, from 1997 to 2008, was the first secretary of the Socialist Party and, unlike Strauss-Kahn, he was never a minister in the Jospin government and he was certainly not among the presidential contenders in 2007.

Four years are a long time in politics, French or otherwise, and Hollande can at least point to a military intervention earlier this year in Mali that went relatively smoothly by accomplishing a narrowly defined goal, and the Mali operation represents the Hollande administration at its best.  Hollande could engineer his own comeback, especially if the economy improves this year or next — it’s hard to believe he can sink much lower in public opinion.  For now, Strauss-Kahn will still have some ways to go until he, if ever, reaches political redemption in France.  But he’s a formidable economic and political talent, and comebacks aren’t altogether unheard of in France.  Just look at the return of former prime minister Alain Juppé as foreign minister in the final 15 months of the Sarkozy administration, despite his 2004 conviction for mishandling public funds.

With such an uninspiring administration, Hollande could well turn to a cabinet shakeup in the future to replace Ayrault or other top minister, including finance minister Pierre Moscovici — and he might do well to bring Strauss-Kahn or Royal, whose political talents remain unutilized, back into the top tier of government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four reasons why Cope’s narrow Sunday win of France’s UMP leadership could be ruinous

After a tense Monday during which both candidates declared victory and accused the other of fraud, it appears that Jean-François Copé (pictured above) has emerged as the presumptive leader of the French right.

With just a 98-vote margin, Copé won the election for general secretary of the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, after an election held among UMP members on November 18.  Copé defeated former prime minister François Fillon by about 50.03% to 49.97%.

Although Copé has served as general secretary since 2010, this election has taken on significant importance as a proxy fight not only for the upper hand to win the UMP’s 2017 presidential nomination, but as a proxy fight for the future of the French right.  Fillon, a cosmopolitan and relatively moderate figure, was viewed by the French public as more serious about government than Sarkozy, and it was Fillon who pushed through many of Sarkozy’s reforms as the head of his government.  Fillon, generally speaking, is more popular among the French electorate than Copé.

So there’s good cause for the French right to be worried about Copé’s victory.  Here are four reasons why. Continue reading Four reasons why Cope’s narrow Sunday win of France’s UMP leadership could be ruinous

The French right prepares to choose Sarkozy’s successor (maybe)

France’s center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) will vote on Sunday, November 18 to choose its next general secretary in what’s widely seen as a fight to get the upper hand on the UMP’s presidential nomination in 2017. 

The UMP will choose between two key figures — former prime minister François Fillon (pictured above, top) and Jean-François Copé (pictured above, bottom), who has been general secretary since 2010.  As the contest approaches, both candidates have accused the other of fraud, marking an ugly end to what has been a dogfight within the French right.

Unlike most French prime ministers, Fillon actually remained in Matignon — the residence of the French prime minister — for all five years of the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.  Throughout the Sarkozy presidency, he maintained or even gained approval from French voters as a competent and moderate head of government who seemed at times more grounded and focused on Sarkozy’s reforms than even Sarkozy.  Indeed, there’s reason to believe that if Fillon had contested the presidential election against the Parti socialiste‘s François Hollande, he might have won.

Fillon, age 58, both urbane and technocratic, seems to hold a clear lead over Copé, age 48 — a recent Harris poll shows Fillon with a 67% to 22% lead among UMP voters, and a wide edge among French voters generally.

Copé, mayor of Meaux, a non-practicing Jew whose mother is Algerian, previously served as budget minister under prime minister Dominique du Villepin and president from 2005 to 2007, and he’s seen as belonging to the more strident right wing of the UMP.  In some ways, that makes him more like Sarkozy, who was no stranger to pulling hard to the right on issues like immigration or crime in order to win votes.  Copé is, in fact, styling himself as the same sort of hyperactive, gritty leader as Sarkozy.  During the campaign for the UMP leadership, Copé has spoken out against ‘anti-white’ racism in France, a naked bid for voters sympathetic to the hard right, and he mocked Muslims for taking away children’s pain au chocolat during Ramadan.

As such, Sunday’s vote is a bit of a proxy contest for the UMP’s direction in the years ahead — Fillon represents the moderate center-right and Copé represents a more full-throated hard-right approach.  But the next French election is over four years away — in April 2017.  In contrast, consider: five years before 2008, no one in the United States had even heard of Barack Obama.

After all, there’s nothing stopping Sarkozy himself for running for a second term in 2017 — many French voters still prefer Sarkozy to either Fillon or Copé for the time being, and Sarkozy has indicated he may be interested.

The winner of Sunday’s contest will have a delicate task in balancing an appeal to the broad center of French voters, while not allowing other political movements steal support on the UMP’s right.  Marine Le Pen, who won nearly 18% of the first-round vote of the presidential election in April 2012 will almost certainly try to make a bid to expand her appeal beyond the narrow confines of the far-right Front national and become the strongest candidate of the French right in 2017. Continue reading The French right prepares to choose Sarkozy’s successor (maybe)

France’s election — three weeks to go

It’s been a while since I’ve posted much about France’s upcoming presidential election, and in large part that’s because the past week has been somewhat subdued in the wake of the Toulouse shooting.

But there are three weeks left until the first round and almost five weeks left until the runoff, with a parliamentary election to follow a month thereafter.

So where is the race headed?

Nicolas Sarkozy has shown he is leagues ahead of his competitors in terms of raw political talent.  He can move from European statesman to right-wing demagogue and back to statesman with dexterity.  One moment, he’s the sober-minded man of the hour to stabilize Europe, the next he’s arguing to halve immigration, the next he’s assuming the mantle of counter-terroist-in-chief (never mind that he presided over an administration that knew about, and failed to apprehend, the Toulouse killer prior to his deadly shooting sprees).

The past month of the campaign has not been flawless for Sarkozy, but there’s a sense that the momentum has switched from frontrunner François Hollande to Sarkozy — if not necessarily in support, then certainly in setting the campaign’s narrative.

Hollande’s strategy — to show up as the most credible ‘non-Sarkozy’ and riding his polling lead into the Elysée — is looking ever more precarious.  His cautious approach has left a space for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose fiery rhetoric has galvanized France’s left.

As such, a once formidable first-round lead has been reduced to a dead heat (at best).  Certainly, Hollande still leads polls for the second round, but if you add together the share of the vote currently going to Sarkozy, François Bayrou and Marine Le Pen, it’s not difficult to foresee Hollande losing his second-round lead as well. Continue reading France’s election — three weeks to go