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→
The former education minister, and more recently, rebel backbencher, clinched the nomination of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) over one-time favorite, former prime minister Manuel Valls. He did so with a hearty serving of left-wing economic policies designed to drive the party’s base and recapture leftists voters who, according to polls, had abandoned the Socialists for the communist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Instead of a Hamon party coronation, French voters instead watches the wheels fall off the campaign of former prime minister François Fillon, previously the frontrunner to win the second-round runoff in May.
Not surprisingly, Fillon’s undoing is a corruption scandal, and it has left an already topsy-turvy presidential election even more uncertain. Fillon came from behind to defeat a former president (Nicolas Sarkozy) and a trusted and moderate former prime minister and former foreign minister (Alain Juppé) to win a surprise victory in the presidential primary for the center-right Les Républicains last November.
The mostly satirical and sometimes investigative Canard enchaîné last week reported that Fillon’s wife, Penelope, received over €500,000 from public funds for a job that she allegedly never performed when Fillon was a member of the French parliament and prime minister under Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. Since that story broke, it’s been alleged that the amount totals something more like €900,000, and that Fillon paid additional amounts of around €84,000 to his children for equally cozy sinecures.
Penelope Fillon was born in Wales, and unlike some of the previous leading ladies of the Élysée, is quite averse to publicity, claiming as recently as last year that she preferred to stay at home at the Fillon country estate, decrying, as recently as last year, said she wasn’t involved at all in her husband’s professional or political life. After Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidency and whirlwind romance of singer Carla Bruni, and the odd dynamics among incumbent president François Hollande’s former consort Valérie Trierweiler, his former partner (and presidential candidate) Ségolène Royal and his various other romantic interests, Fillon’s reticence was just fine with French voters.
That is, until they found out that Penelope Fillon earned nearly a million euros in public funds for, apparently, very little work. It’s not great, as a candidate for the presidency, to defend nepotism, let alone the notion that your wife actually performed the work in question that merited such a cushy and reliable salary.
Fillon’s Thatcherite platform calls for eliminating a half-million public-sector jobs to cut wasteful spending. Moreover, he won the Republican nomination by contrasting his previously squeaky-clean record with that of the ethically challenged Sarkozy and with Juppé, whose most recent prominence came after a long period in the wilderness induced his own corruption conviction. So the charges against Fillon are just about fatal. It’s hard to imagine that he can survive the hypocrisy of his current position.
While Fillon has said that he will not drop out of the race unless French police formally open an investigation (presumably well after the election this spring), he may be forced out of the race from sheer embarrassment and collapse in support. As the scandal continues to unfold, the latest Kantar Sofres poll shows him at 22%, now falling behind the anti-immigration, anti-EU leader of the Front national (FN) Marine Le Pen (25%) and nearly tied with the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande minister (21%). Hamon, buoyed by his surprise Socialist nomination, drew 15% and Mélenchon drew 10%.
The fear for Republicans is that Fillon will be so damaged that he fails to make it to the May runoff (or falters against Le Pen in the runoff), but not so damaged that he must quit the race. A defiant Fillon in recent days has tried to hide behind his wife and railed against shadowy figures that he claims are trying to bring down his candidacy, and that he can provide proof that his wife’s work was legal and valid.
No one believes him.
French police raided parliamentary offices earlier this week, and investigators are closing in on the one-time frontrunner, whose odds of winning the election are plummeting.
Even if Fillon does drop out of the race, there’s no consensus Plan B among French conservatives. Juppé, the runner-up in the November nomination contest, would be the natural replacement. In fact, Juppé might even prove the more formidable candidate because he can bring more centrist voters to the Republicans than the socially and economically conservative Fillon. But he has ruled out stepping in as Fillon’s replacement. Though Juppé could change his mind, there are any number of potential candidates who could step in: Sarkozy himself, former ecology minister and Paris mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet or former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire. No one knows.
So where does this leave the rest of the field?
It’s great news for Le Pen, who has struggled to win more than 25% of first-round voters, who can now rail against the hypocrisy and corruption of the political elite. Even if Fillon drops out and Republicans find a replacement, ‘Penelopegate’ is a gift to the hard right, and more conservative voters will now be giving the Front national a second look. Le Pen herself is under a cloud because of her refusal to reimburse the European Parliament for €300,000 in misused funds.
Most immediately, Fillon’s collapse will help Macron, another vaguely centrist independent, though none of Macron’s message of neoliberal reform, avowed defense of the European Union and immigration, his background as an investment banker nor his recent record as a top aide to Hollande and former industry minister in Hollande’s government seem to fit the current moment of populism and nationalism. Fillon also hopes to win over centrist voters who feel Hamon veers too far from the Socialist Party’s social democracy and too close to hard-left bona fide socialism.
Fillon’s collapse might also give another center-right figure, François Bayrou, an opening. Bayrou, who has run for president three times in the past and is something of a gadfly in French politics, still managed to win 18.5% of the vote in the 2007 election (against Sarkozy and Royal). Without a strong conservative in the race, Bayrou could still emerge as the sole moderate untainted by Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist government. Though he has downplayed the likelihood of a fourth run, Bayrou hasn’t completely shut the door, and Fillon’s collapse could give him the platform to reconsider.
A sign of relief across the liberal democratic world that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy sank to third place in the presidential primary of the center-right Les Républicains (the Republicans), the successor to the party that Sarkozy once led and that he helped to rechristen and remake over the last two years.
Instead, his former prime minister, François Fillon, a social conservative who promises Thatcher-style reforms to the French economy, and his former foreign minister (and long-ago Chirac prime minister) Alain Juppé, who has promised a far more moderate approach to governance than either Sarkozy or Fillon, will head to a runoff next Sunday, November 27.
But with Fillon’s dramatic first-place finish, following a week-long reversal in the polls for both Sarkozy and one-time frontrunner Juppé, and with Sarkozy’s quick endorsement of Fillon’s candidacy, Juppé appears to have a limited path to victory next week.
Fillon may or may not prove a stronger candidate than Juppé. But he most certainly will be stronger than Sarkozy.
No matter what you thought of his presidency, Sarkozy’s defeat is good news for everyone on the right, middle and left who hopes to prevent Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Front national (National Front) from winning the presidency in May 2017. France chooses a president in two rounds — the two individuals with the most votes in a first-round April vote advance to a May runoff. Polls show today that Le Pen would almost certainly win one of those two runoff spots.
Sarkozy, more than Juppé or Fillon, was willing to run in 2017 (much as he did in 2007) by co-opting the language, if not the outright policies, of the far right. On immigration and crime, in particular, Sarkozy telescoped that he would compete with Le Pen primarily on her own turf. For many French voters who find Le Pen’s views on immigration, Islam, and the European Union repugnant, Sarkozy would have reinforced and normalized those views, pulling Le Pen closer to the heart of France’s political debate.
In 2007, Sarkozy effectively sidelined Le Pen by co-opting her rhetoric. That, in retrospect, only empowered Le Pen and her movement. In 2017, Le Pen will prove a far greater threat. French voters have now rejected Sarkozy (in 2012), and his leftist rival François Hollande, featuring approval ratings as low as 4%, faces a quixotic hope for reelection. With the French electorate so unhappy with the status quo, and after the shocking victories for Brexit in the United Kingdom and for Donald Trump in the United States, Le Pen must now be taken seriously as a threat to win the Élysée Palace next spring.
Even as Sarkozy’s nomination would have emboldened Le Pen and the illiberal, populist right, he would have simultaneously embodied everything that many French voters despise — the ostentatious ‘bling-bling’ nature of his presidency, the drama of his whirlwind romance with Carla Bruni, the attempts at neoliberal reform that voters have come to blame for inequality and stagnation. Even worse, Sarkozy would have gone into the 2017 elections under a legal and ethical cloud that aggregates several lawsuits and scandals, not least of which the notion that he received political funding from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in his 2007 election.
With the French left in tatters after Hollande’s disastrous and ineffective presidency, and with several figures on the left likely to compete for votes in the first round, Sarkozy might well have ended up as Le Pen’s challenger in the runoff, where he would have been an easy foil for Le Pen as the compromised avatar of a failed French political establishment — just as Trump so effectively demolished the scions of the American political establishment in Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
It’s true that Juppé and Fillon both carry baggage as figures associated with the French political establishment. So, too, will Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande economy minister who announced earlier this month that he will stand as an independent in the presidential election (and who might eventually outpace Fillon to the runoff). So, too, will Hollande or the eventual nominee of Hollande’s leftist Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).
But Sarkozy would have personified the worst of the French political establishment while also giving political cover to the National Front’s far-right views on politics and policy. Fillon, Juppé, Macron and the eventual Socialist nominee (likelier than not the brash, Spanish-born centrist prime minister Manuel Valls) will all certainly talk tougher about immigration and security in 2017, given the traumatic Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and Nice terrorist attacks. None of them, however, seem poised to parrot the Le Pen line on immigration or on France’s Muslims to the extent Sarkozy was willing.
The Le Pen threat, now much more tangible than it was before Trump’s election two weeks ago, is still a serious one. But classic economic liberals and social liberals, on both the right and the left, should be relieved that they will not have to rally around such a clearly flawed candidate as Sarkozy at a time when Le Pen’s support is cresting.
Forget Scotland or Catalonia. Forget Wallonia and Flanders. Forget the Basque Country or Republika Srpska.
The hot separatist movement in 2016 might be in Corsica, the French-controlled island where Napoleon Bonaparte was born and which sits roughly 100 miles off France’s southeastern coast.
Corsica’s rising nationalist tide might this year outshine Catalonia, where a new regional government with a mandate to seek independence was sworn in last week, and Scotland, where the Scottish Nationalist Party hopes that local elections in May will boost its hold on the regional parliament and advance a fresh independence referendum.
For the first time, an explicitly nationalist coalition now controls Corsica’s regional government after it unexpectedly triumphed in December’s regional elections. That’s exactly one more region than the far-right Front national controls, despite the hype that Marine Le Pen and her allies could take power in up to six of France’s 13 newly consolidated ‘super-regions.’ A movement that has long been fragmented into myriad camps and ideologies, often violent, is now more united than ever and committed to political engagement.
Once rooted in political terrorism, Corsican nationalism has now turned to a more peaceful approach that appears to be attracting larger numbers of voters. Though the origins of Corsica’s unique regional flag, featuring a Moor’s head wearing a white bandanna, may be lost to the puzzles of history, it is nonetheless as much a symbol of the Corsican nation as the Scottish saltire.
Shortly after regional elections, when a wave of violence against immigrants (including an attack on a Muslim prayer room) threatened to mar the new nationalist government, its leaders united to decry the violence, blaming it on the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Front national. Though the incident raised tensions between Corsican nationalists and prime minister Manuel Valls, who clumsily reiterated state’s control over Corsica and sent France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve to the Corsican capital of Ajaccio, the unrest subsided soon after the new year.
Corsica’s new regional government will have two years to demonstrate that it can maintain its united nationalist front, provide capable governance and credibly advocate for greater Corsican autonomy. For the first time in years, Corsica’s status might even become an important issue in the upcoming 2017 presidential election.
Most importantly, if 2016 does become a breakout year for Corsican sovereignty, it will reinforce separatist trends not only in Scotland and Catalonia, but across Europe, catalyzing autonomy movements both familiar (e.g., Transnistria, Flanders and Kurdistan) and novel (Bavaria, Sardinia and Russian-majority parts of the Baltic States).
Corsica — a small island with a long history
Corsican sovereignty might not top the list of pressing European policy matters. But it’s an island with a long history, controlled by the Greeks, the Romans and many others from antiquity through the present day. For nearly 400 years from 1284, it was ruled by Genoa, the Italian city-state, until Corsican nationalists won independence in 1755.
Pasquale Paoli, who drove the Genoese from the island, established an Enlightenment-influenced government, with a written constitution, universal suffrage for men and women and parliamentary rule, and Paoli remains a Corsican hero despite the republic’s fall to France in 1769. France has controlled the island ever since, bringing it under the thumb of one of Europe’s most consistently centralized national governments. Compared to the United Kingdom, Germany or even Italy or Spain, the central government in Paris has long been reluctant to cede power to France’s regions, including one as idiosyncratic and sometimes turbulent as Corsica.
For Paoli’s descendants, the dream of an independent Corsica isn’t necessarily so farfetched. Poland, for example, lost its sovereignty for centuries — the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth collapsed in 1795, a short-lived Polish republic from 1918 to 1939 was soon overrun by Nazi Germany and a postwar Polish republic remained a Soviet satellite until 1989.
Corsica’s population of around 325,000 is about the same as Iceland and just a bit less than Malta. The island has its own indigenous language, Corsu, which is more closely related to the Tuscan dialect of Italian than to French and, indeed, Corsica lies far closer to the Italian mainland and the Italian island of Sardinia than to the French mainland. Only around two-thirds of Corsica’s population can speak Corsu, however, and the French language, universally spoken by all Corsicans, has long dominated official matters, education and public life. Continue reading Corsican nationalists could achieve breakthrough status in 2016→
With both the mainstream left and right teaming up to defeat the far-right Front national‘s two most outspoken leaders in Sunday’s second (and final) round of regional elections, party president Marine Le Pen, in France’s far northern region, and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, in France’s southeast, it was never likely that anyone from the Le Pen family tree would have won control of any of France’s regional councils.
Indeed, after the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) universally withdrew from the two (of six) regions where the Front national (FN, National Front) led after the December 6 first-round results, it made a second-round victory of either Le Pen very unlikely.
Socialist unity fell short in three northeastern regions, where the Front national came far closer to winning:
In Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, the Socialists maintained their hold on the region, but only narrowly — with 34.7% to 32.9% for the center-right Républicains (Republicans) to 32.4% for the Front national.
In Centre-Val de Loire, again, the Socialists won 35.4% to 34.6% for the Republicans and 30.0% for the Front national.
But it was Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine where the Front national‘s chances of picking up a region were deemed strongest. The new region cobbles together three very different smaller regions, much to the disdain of the wealthier Alsatians, lumped into a ‘super region’ with the poorer, industrial Lorraine. (And indeed, the Front national did most poorly within the districts of the former region of Alsace, picking up larger margins in Lorraine).
Florian Philippot, one of the FN’s brightest rising stars, won the first round with 36.1% to the center-right’s 25.8%. In the second round, however, Philippot still won just 36.1% while the center-right consolidated its support (and a wide swath of the center-left and those in the electorate who didn’t bother to vote in the first round) to a whopping 48.4%, easily taking the region.
The surge in turnout among moderate voters in opposition to the Front national‘s first-round success stopped Philippot — as it did the party’s other candidates on Sunday. Still, without that shift, and a generous shift of left-wing voters to the Républicains, Philippot today might be the only Front national figure leading one of France’s 13 councils.
In contrast to the party’s self-cultivated status as an outside force with disdain for the French political elite, the 34-year-old Philippot is a graduate of the École nationale d’administration, as elite an institution as exists in France today. Since July 2012, he has been the Front national’s vice president, in charge of strategy and communication. But he’s really been the chief strategist to Marine Le Pen as she’s worked for the detoxification — or dédiabolisation — of her party, so much so that one of Le Pen’s former foreign policy advisers, Aymeric Chauprade, an MEP, left the party arguing that Philippot had created a ‘Stalinist’ environment among the party’s top guard.
In France’s previous two regional elections, in 2004 and 2010, the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) easily won nearly all of the country’s 22 regions.
That was typical for France’s regional elections, which typically tilt against the party in power nationally, and the Socialists were very much out of power in both years. In the most recent March 2010 elections, the Socialists (together with its allies) won fully 21 of the 22 regions in metropolitan France. Alsace, on France’s border with Germany, supporting then-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right instead.
What a difference five years can make.
Today, the Socialists are in power, though president François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls have some of the lowest approval ratings in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. Despite a solidarity bump in support following last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, that did not carry over into support for the Socialists in Sunday’s regional elections. Instead, the far-right, anti-immigration Front national (FN, National Front) of Marine Le Pen emerged with the largest share of the vote, leading in six of France’s 13 metropolitan regions after the first round on December 6.
When minor parties are eliminated for the second round on December 13, however, it’s entirely possible that the Socialists and Sarkozy’s rechristened Gaullist center-right Les Républicains will split so much of the vote that the Front national wins control of one or more regions in the country. The far-right’s success is historically significant, because it’s by far the most support that either Le Pen (or her father, the former Front leader) has won in a national French election.
Marine Le Pen has gradually tried to detoxify her party’s anti-Semitic roots (in part by banishing Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder and her own father from the party earlier this year). With doubts about the European Union’s economic and security leadership and a French populace that’s lived through two jihadist attacks since January, Le Pen’s ‘fortress France’ approach to politics has brought it into the French political mainstream. In additional to the Front‘s traditional supporters, Marine Le Pen has made some inroads with young voters, who are suffering from massive unemployment as a group, and from disillusioned leftists in France’s industrial northeast, who are angry with Hollande’s failure to improve the French economy.
While last Sunday marked a very impressive performance for France’s far right, it’s hardly a sign that Le Pen’s Front is necessarily in position to win the 2017 presidential election — or even that the Front is now a permanent third force in French politics. For at least three reasons, it’s worth taking a deep breath before drawing any broader conclusions from the result of the first-round results. The Front may lead in six regions for now, but it certainly will not wind up controlling six regional councils, and there’s a chance that it may fail to win power in even a single region after next Sunday’s second-round voting. Continue reading Why French regional elections don’t really matter→
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→
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.
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.
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.
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.
After months of increasingly strained relations, however, Marine Le Pen has now engineered the first break yet with her controversial father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he was formally ousted last week from the party that he founded, the far-right Front National (National Front). The legal move followed a political move earlier in the summer, when 84% of the party’s 30,000 followers also voted to expel Jean-Marie from the party that he founded in 1972.
In one sense, the Le Pen family spat has been a distraction from Marine Le Pen’s long-term goals of projecting her party as the true heir to French conservatism and building a majoritarian coalition that can woo not only traditional right-wing voters but left-wing voters disenchanted with French president François Hollande and the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and the neoliberal economic prescriptions that now dominate policymaking within the eurozone.
What’s worse, the spat showcases just how problematic it can be when a political party becomes tied up too strongly in family dynasty — it’s as true for the French right as for Indian secularism or Canada’s center-left. As Marine tries to consolidate the Front’s rank-and-file under her leadership, with regional elections approaching in the autumn, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 25-year old MP from southern France, could still make her life difficult.
Maréchal-Le Pen (pictured above) has been more sympathetic to her grandfather and, unlike Marine’s journey toward economic nationalism, popular in northern France, Marion is far more of a traditional economic liberal and, with her southern base, far more focused on immigration. In December, Maréchal-Le Pen will be running for the presidency of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region; Marion Le Pen, for her part, will be contesting the presidency of the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. The party will be watching keenly to see which variety of the Front‘s politics will be more successful.
But in another sense, tossing the 87-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen to the side in 2015 could help Marine in 2017 as she continues to remake the party’s image — and brand it further away from the often anti-Semitic tones of her father’s leadership, which was also rooted in his experience as a soldier fighting to defend France’s colonial holdings in Algeria. Remarks about Nazi gas chambers being just a ‘detail of history,’ as it turns out, do not go down well for Marine’s push for a Front sanitaire.
Instead, Marine Le Pen is forging an identity that blends welfare-heavy statism, social conservatism and a nationalism that rejects both immigration and European integration. There’s a reason it’s called populism. Rallying support for ‘a strong France’ and opposition to a feckless European superstate that now essentially dictate France’s monetary, justice and border control policy, championing the comfort of an unreconstructed cradle-to-grave social welfare and attacking the ‘other’ of eastern European, African and Middle Eastern immigrants has an undeniably popular allure to many voters whose economic futures are far less certain than they were two generations ago. It’s attracted some odd supporters, including a puzzlingly high number of urban LGBT voters — Marine’s chief adviser, Florian Philippot, and the architect of Marine’s anti-eurozone policy, is openly gay. While Marine discreetly avoided the most intense battles of the same-sex marriage fight in 2013, Maréchal-Le Pen embraced the opposition to marriage equality.
That means that Le Pen has found common cause in recent years with a strange number of odd political bedfellows. That includes Nigel Farage, the anti-immigrant head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who encourages a British exit from the European Union in the 2017 referendum, and Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant crusader of Dutch politics. But she also encouraged Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in his standoff with European finance ministers over Greek debt relief (though Le Pen rejected him in stark terms when he agreed in July to enter negotiations for a third bailout for his country). She has also voiced sympathy for Russian president Vladimir Putin in his two-year quasi-standoff with Ukraine.
Marine’s bet seems to be working as French voters begin to focus on the contours of what could be an unpredictable presidential election in May 2017. In IFOP’s latest August 2015 poll, Le Pen leads all contenders for the first-round vote, garnering 26% in a race against Hollande (20%) and former president Nicolas Sarkozy (24%), guaranteeing her a spot in a runoff against Sarkozy. Though her father made the runoff in the 2002 presidential election against then-president Jacques Chirac, Jean-Marie Le Pen only narrowly managed a second-place victory over the Socialist candidate, prime minister Lionel Jospin. Continue reading How the Le Pen family feud influences France’s 2017 election→
As predicted, everyone’s getting even more carried away today wringing their hands over the notion that the horrific Charlie Hebdo killings will play right into the hands of the far-right in France, elevating Marine Le Pen into the presidency in May 2017.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
There’s a simple reason why a Le Pen presidential victory, though not impossible, remains incredibly implausible — and that’s as true today as it was last week or last month. It’s because France, like many countries around the world, has a runoff presidential system. While Le Pen stands a good chance of leading the first round of the next presidential vote, that only means that she end up in a runoff against either a center-left or a center-right figure that will command virtually the entire spectrum of political support from the center-right leftward.
We know this because it happened just over a decade ago.
Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, narrowly edged out the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), prime minister Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, with just 16.86% of the vote. That set up a runoff against the center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac. Despite a widespread lack of excitement about Chirac’s reelection, virtually the entire political mainstream lined up behind Chirac, who walloped Le Pen by a margin of 82.21% to 17.79%.
Even before the gruesome murder of 12 civilians today in the name of Islam, France wasn’t exactly having the best run.
Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 amid promises of rupture and reform, signaling youthful, nervous energy that would transform France’s public sector after the somnolent 12-year reign of the genteely corrupt Jacques Chirac. While he did manage to raise the retirement age and make some tweaks, the full-throated rupture never quite arrived, and his administration amounted to an embarrassing series of bling bling moments, capped off by his whirlwhind romance and marriage to singer Carla Bruni. It’s still hard not to cringe at the photos of Sarkozy and Bruni at Disneyland Paris just months after his inauguration or the thought of Sarkozy lapping up the excesses of wealth on one of Silvio Berlusconi’s yachts.
François Hollande easily defeated his reelection bid in May 2012 with a promise to boost growth and employment in policy matters and to be a ‘normal’ president in, ahem, more personal matters. France got neither from its new president, whose popularity rating today is stuck in the high 10s or low 20s, depending on the poll. Even before the 2012 election campaign ended, his then-consort Valérie Trierweiler had already gotten into a spat on Twitter attacking Hollande’s former partner of three decades, Ségolène Royal, herself a former presidential candidate and a top figure within the Socialist Party. That presaged the ridiculous split between the two earlier this year, catalyzed by the impotent image of Hollande sneaking out of the Elysée Palace on a scooter for a tryst with French actress Julie Gayet. Charlie Hebdo, it should be noted, ruthlessly mocked Hollande for his shortcomings as well as organized religion of all faiths:
If the United Kingdom held the ‘sick man of Europe’ crown in the 1970s and Germany held it in the 1990s before its labor market reforms and amid the tectonic growing pains of reunification, France would hold clear title to that position today, if not for so many other pretenders across Europe, each struggling under the strains of joblessness, economic malaise, depopulation and precarious public debt. After starting to fall in 2013, France’s unemployment rate leapt back to record levels (10.4%) at the end of 2014. Short of a contentious battle to legalize same-sex marriage and his soon-forgotten success from decisive military action to liberate northern Mali from jihadists, Hollande has precious few policy victories to show for his administration.
It might be more accurate to call France the ‘invisible man’ of Europe.
While Germany has emerged, for now, as the sole engine of Europe, its chancellor Angela Merkel dictating fiscal policy to the rest of the European Union and its central bankers vetoing the kind of aggressive eurozone-wide quantitative easing that could reverse deflationary trends, you don’t hear much talk about the vaunted Franco-German axis anymore. British prime minister David Cameron, who’s courting disaster in his promise to hold a referendum on his country’s EU membership, has more influence on the German chancellor than Hollande or even his relatively right-leaning prime minister Manuel Valls, who leads Hollande’s second government in three years. Whether it’s banking unions or Russian aggression in eastern Europe or eurobonds or the risk of a far-left Greek government in elections later this month, no one gives a hoot about what Hollande has to say on EU matters — or anything else for that matter.
As Sarkozy, plagued by legal challenges, plots a center-right comeback and Hollande’s center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) loses more credibility by the day, the xenophobic, far-right Marine Le Pen and the Front national (FN, National Front) are basking in the victory of emerging as the top-placed party in last May’s European elections. Polls for the first round of the 2017 presidential election routinely place Le Pen leading or tied with all the major contenders, including Sarkozy and former foreign minister Alain Juppé, on the right, and Hollande and Valls, on the left. But you could see the rumblings a decade ago, when the French single-handedly ended the push (led by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, no less!) to draft a constitution for the European Union, when voters rejected the constitutional treaty in a May 2005 referendum.
We’ve all read too many stories in the past decade or so about the tristesse or the ennui afflicting modern 21st century France.
So it’s understandable that so many commentators looked at the horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo office on Tuesday and worried that it would unleash a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, fueling the insular nationalism that drives Le Pen and the French far right, which has responded to France’s collective economic slump by lashing out at the political elite, at immigration and at the European Union. Continue reading In Charlie Hebdo massacre, French values find a rallying point→
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).
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.
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.
It was always a stretch to believe that there was enough room in France’s government for both Arnaud Montebourg and Manuel Valls.
Montebourg, who represents the unapologetically socialist wing of France’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), received a promotion in April as economy minister when French president François Hollande reshuffled his cabinet and replaced former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault with Valls. At the time, it was hardly clear that Montebourg deserved it after picking fights with prominent foreign businessmen in both the United States and India and waging an avowedly protectionist ‘Made in France’ campaign while serving as minister for industrial renewal. Montebourg (pictured above), with a charming grin, trim figure and a wavy swath of dark hair, who last weekend shared a photo of Loire Valley red wine on his Facebook feed, fits neatly into the American stereotype of the preening, tiresome, French socialist.
Valls, meanwhile, is leading Hollande’s government at a time when the Socialist administration is turning even more to the center, with a much-heraled (if hokey) ‘Responsibility Pact’ that aims to cajole French businesses into hiring a half-million new workers with the promise of a €40 billion payroll tax cut, financed by an even greater €50 billion in spending cuts. Though he’s regularly touted as a reformer, it’s more accurate to say that the Spanish-born Valls is a tough-minded ‘third way’ centrist who wants to rename the Socialist Party, which he considers too leftist. As interior minister, he showed he could be just as tough on immigration and crime as former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy. When he became as prime minister in late March, Valls had the highest approval rating by far of any cabinet member. Today, his approval is sinking fast — an IFOP poll last weekend gave Hollande a 17% approval rating and Valls just 36% approval.
But Valls always had the support of Hollande and allies like finance minister Michael Sapin, and it was clear even in the spring that Montebourg was destined to become more isolated than ever in the Valls era.
It took less than five months for the cabinet to rupture. Montebourg publicly challenged Hollande over the weekend to rethink his economic policy in light of new data that show France’s economy remains stagnant — growing by just 0.1% in the last quarter, far below Hollande’s already-anemic target of 1%. Montebourg has also criticized Germany for encouraging austerity policies throughout the eurozone that he and other left-wing European politicians and economists blame for weakening the continent’s economic growth since the 2008-09 financial crisis.
In response, Valls orchestrating a dramatic resignation on Monday morning, though Hollande has given him a mandate to form a new government that won’t include Montebourg or allies like education minister Benoît Hamon and culture minister Aurelie Filippetti.
The drama surrounding this week’s reshuffle is hardly welcome so soon after Valls’s initial appointment, and Hollande risks a wider revolt on the French left that could endanger his agenda in the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly), where Socialist rebels could join legislators from the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) in opposition to his agenda. Valls will introduce the 2015 budget in the autumn, and if he fails to pass it later this year, his government could fall and Hollande might be forced to call snap elections that the Socialists would almost certainly lose.Continue reading Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections→
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.
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 financedwith 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.