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How Le Pen might win a runoff against Macron

Marine Le Pen (right) has worked to detoxify the brand of the Front national, but will it be enough to form a majoritarian coalition in France? (Facebook)

Emmanuel Macron should not be such a difficult candidate to defeat in the French presidential election.

Set aside the weird personality cult that gushes over Macron’s youthful good looks, or the popular movement, En Marche! that shares the candidate’s initials (E.M.) and that translates to ‘Forward!’ — a schlocky political trick for an electorate that prides itself on sophistication.

Set aside that the 39-year-old rising star has never technically won an election to anything in his life.

Set aside the gaffes — going to Algeria and calling French colonization a ‘crime against humanity’ or criticizing the same-sex marriage law that he said ‘humiliated’ traditional Catholic voters.

Set aside the nasty rumors about his personal life or the wife 24 years his senior (and yes, they are out there).

Why Macron is far weaker than polls currently show

Though Macron is in a commanding position with a month to go until voters first go to the polls, he is the product of two of the most elite educational institutions, Sciences Po and the École nationale d’administration, and before entering politics, he was an investment banker at Rothschild. He represents a strain of neoliberal economic policy that commands lower support today than ever — the Atlantic right is moving toward economic nationalism and the Atlantic left is moving to more aggressive taxation and deeper social welfare programs.

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RELATED: After presidency, Macron would face
uphill battle for National Assembly

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Macron, for all intents and purposes, is the avatar of the French political elite, amid a global climate where voters are rejecting elites. That’s even compared to a former prime minister, François Fillon, the center-right candidate of Les Républicains, or to a former education minister Benoît Hamon, the social democratic candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).

To steal a phrase from Tyler Cowen, Macron is the ‘complacent class‘ candidate of France’s 2017 election. Continue reading How Le Pen might win a runoff against Macron

Eight lessons from the 2017 Dutch election results

Twenty-eight parties were vying for 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

Orange may be the new black.

But as it turns out, orange is also the new bulwark for liberal democracy.

Mark Rutte’s governing center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) performed better than polls predicted in The Netherlands, and Rutte will now return as Dutch prime minister — perhaps through the end of the decade — as head of a multi-party governing coalition.

Conversely, Wednesday’s election amounted to a disappointing result for Geert Wilders and the sharply anti-Europe, anti-Islam and anti-immigration Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom), which blew a longtime polling lead that it had held from the middle of 2015 up to just a couple of weeks ago.

As Dutch voters took a harder look at the campaign, however, they turned away from Wilders’s populism and to the balmier vision of Rutte’s VVD. But they also turned to three other parties that ranged from conservative to liberal to progressive. Indeed, over 65% of the Dutch electorate supported parties that are, essentially, in favor of moderate policymaking, European integration and basic decency to immigrants.

Given that the Dutch election is the first of a half-dozen key European national elections in 2017, all of which are taking place in the dual shadows of last year’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, everyone was watching this vote in particular as a harbinger for European elections this year.

So what does today’s result mean? Here are the top eight takeaways from election night.
Continue reading Eight lessons from the 2017 Dutch election results

Rutte’s liberals eclipses Dutch populists as voters go to the polls

Mark Rutte, if polls are correct, will lead his VVD to victory on March 15 — and another term as prime minister. (ANP)

Everything’s coming up Rutte.

Mark Rutte, that is — the prime minister of The Netherlands who will almost certainly find his way to a third term as prime minister after tomorrow’s election.

Even earlier this year, when Geert Wilders’s hard-right Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) held a substantial lead, it was always virtually assured that Rutte would return as prime minister. Consistently, even as the PVV topped polls, Rutte’s center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) continued to follow behind in second place, leading the race among the PVV’s mainstream opponents. All along, Wilders’s goal was never forming a government, but the hollow victory of placing first among a half-dozen parties bunched together between 10% and 20% in the polls.

Over the last two weeks, even that has changed to Wilders’s detriment.

The VVD eclipsed the PVV in polls at the end of February, and one shock poll from Ipsos on the eve of the election showed the PVV sliding to fifth place. At a time when Rutte is embroiled in a high-profile diplomatic spat with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (over whether Turkish ministers should be holding campaign rallies in The Netherlands for next month’s Turkish constitutional referendum), Wilders still seems to be losing steam.

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RELATED: Trump effect — Europe turning toward integration,
away from populists

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Both inside Europe and beyond, the Wilders threat was always smaller than the amount of coverage he’s received. Even when the PVV was leading, no other major party was willing to work with Wilders and the PVV’s toxic brand. Even with the highest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives), the PVV would fall far short of the majority it would need to form a government. Mostly, that’s due to the PVV’s hardline views on immigration, Islam and the European Union. But it’s also because Wilders proved an unreliable ally to Rutte when he withdrew the PVV’s support for Rutte’s minority government in 2012 over spending, forcing snap elections — a gambit that backfired when the PVV lost nine seats.

What’s very much true — and always has been true — is that support across all parties in tomorrow’s election in The Netherlands could be so dispersed that no party wins more than even 17% of the vote. It could usher in the most fragmented parliament in postwar history, and it will force Rutte to navigate coalition negotiations that include four or even five parties. Don’t hold your breath for the kind of quick deal that followed the 2012 election, the ‘purple’ coalition between Rutte’s liberals and the social democratic Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA, Labour Party).

Labour’s support has collapsed in the ensuing five years. Junior coalition parties are rarely rewarded by voters, but many Labour supporters believe the party far too willing to compromise with Rutte on spending after Labour waged a popular campaign against budget austerity. (It is still projected to win between nine and 14 seats in the election under a new leader, Lodewijk Asscher.)

If the VVD and the PVV finish first and second, respectively, as most polls still forecast, the race for third place is murkier. The conservative Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal), the center-left/liberal Democraten 66 (Democrats 66) and the leftist GroenLinks (Green Left) are all surging, and the CDA and D66 are widely tipped to enter government after coalition negotiations. GroenLinks is likely to make the strongest gains of any party (more even than Wilders) after the successful campaign of its fresh-faced 30-year-old leader, Jesse Klaver.

If there’s any consensus among the Dutch electorate, voters are choosing from a group of five or six parties, each dedicated to European integration, liberal democracy and moderate policy prescriptions — not fear-mongering xenophobia. No matter what happens tomorrow, Wilders will have a smaller role in shaping Dutch policy than, say, the more circumspect D66 leader Alexander Pechtold, who could become Rutte’s deputy prime minister in a new coalition. Pechtold may not have the international profile that Wilders has acquired with his ‘Make The Netherlands Ours Again’ histrionics, but he could be in a position to push the next government to a more pro-immigrant and pro-European orientation.

None of this, most especially the PVV’s apparent collapse, should be shocking.

Continue reading Rutte’s liberals eclipses Dutch populists as voters go to the polls

After presidency, Macron would face uphill battle for National Assembly

Emmanuel Macron might win the presidency, but he’ll face a steeper battle winning a parliamentary majority. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

Step back from the obsession over Marine Le Pen’s economic nationalism or from the day-to-day headlines over François Fillon’s scandals and imploding campaign. 

With about six weeks to go in the French election, we know that the two established parties of the French political elite — Fillon’s center-right Les Républicains and the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) of president François Hollande and its presidential nominee Benoît Hamon– are doing historically poorly.

It’s entirely possible that the Republican and Socialist candidates place third and fourth, if current polls are predictive, giving the French public for the first time a runoff without either major party. In aggregate, the two candidates poll around 33%, a massive drop from the combined first-round percentage of Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 (55.81%), and even lower than in 2002, when incumbent Jacques Chirac and Socialist Lionel Jospin still managed a combined total of 36.06%. (You’ll remember 2002 as the year Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the runoff by edging out Jospin to second place).

If the election were held today, both of the runoff candidates would be ‘outsiders’ — the Front national leader, Marine Le Pen, and the independent Emmanuel Macron, the head of the En marche movement and a former Hollande aide and economy minister running as a centrist. Polls show that Macron holds a roughly 60%-40% edge over Le Pen in the May 7 runoff.

But that also creates a far higher level of uncertainty about the outcome of the elections that follow on June 11 and 18, when voters — fresh after selecting a new president — will also select the 577 members of the lower house of the French parliament, the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly). There’s surprisingly little coverage of those elections, though they will be just as important (maybe more) than the presidential race.

A return to cohabitation or a shift to coalition-style politics?

Prime minister Ségolène Royal? It fits Macron’s bill for an experienced leader. (Facebook)

Neither Le Pen’s Front national nor Macron’s En marche today seems to have the kind of national party infrastructure to follow a presidential victory with a parliamentary victory, though the president-elect has for the last three election cycles roared into June parliamentary elections with massive momentum. Macron has vowed that En marche will field 577 candidates for the parliamentary elections, and while he has indicated he wants to accept political refugees from mainstream parties, he also wants at least half of the movement’s candidates to have no previous political experience or affiliation.

Since 2002, each French presidential term (now five years, reduced from seven years) has lined up with the term of the National Assembly, such that the parliamentary elections follow a month after the presidential runoff. Generally speaking, since 2002, the prime minister has served as the chief parliamentary official carrying out the president’s legislative program.  Even in 2012, when Hollande narrowly edged Sarkozy in the May presidential runoff, the Socialists and their allies still wound up with nearly 58% of the seats in the National Assembly after elections a month later.

When presidential terms and parliamentary terms weren’t harmonized, it was far likelier that the presidency and the National Assembly could be controlled by different parties. In cases of divided government — cohabitation — the president’s power crumbles and the opposing prime minister sets the domestic agenda and much of the foreign policy agenda. In the Fifth Republic, France has seen only three periods of cohabitation: the Chirac premiership under the Mitterand presidency (1986-88), the Balladur premiership under the Mitterand presidency (1993-95) and the Jospin premiership under the Chirac presidency (1997-2002).

But with the Front national as strong as it’s ever been (Le Pen still leads Macron, narrowly, in the first-round polls) and with a Macron victory becoming more likely, the Republicans and Socialists will not simply give up.  To make things trickier, the Front de gauche (Left Front) will also be running candidates in the parliamentary race — presumably including its presidential contender, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, as he did in 2012.

That makes it more likely that no single party or movement will win the June parliamentary elections. Even if Macron wins the presidency in a massive landslide, he might still have to face  cohabitation or, for the first time in French political history, cobble together the kind of multi-party coalition government so much more common in the Nordics and Germany.

In the past, voters have had a good idea about who will form the government because, presumably, the prime minister and other key officials will come from the same party as the president. But Macron doesn’t have a party. So if, indeed, ‘personnel is policy,’ French voters are somewhat in the dark about what to expect under Macron. Rather unhelpfully, Macron hasn’t specified exactly who would be prime minister, or what he’s looking for in a prime minister, other than someone with experience who can command a parliamentary majority. (Well, of course…).

It may be that Macron doesn’t want to tip his hand, or it may be that Macron knows just how unsettled the June parliamentary elections will be. Per Macron, the next prime minister will not be François Bayrou, a center-right moderate and three-time presidential contender who announced he would not run this year and, instead, endorsed Macron. Earlier today, Macron mused that it would be great to appoint a female prime minister and, indeed, former Socialist presidential nominee, ecology minister Ségolène Royal, has praised Macron throughout the election (though not quite formally endorsed him). She would fit the bill.

Traditionally, France’s unique two-round system has helped the two major parties maintain their lock on power. Smaller parties and contenders are often weeded out after the first round, often setting up a direct second-round contest between the center-right and the center-left. Unlike for presidential runoffs, however, it is possible to have a three-way runoff (triangulaire) or even a four-way runoff (quadrangulaire) if the additional candidate(s) wins at least 12.5% of the vote in a given constituency.

So far, they have been surprisingly rare. Among 577 constituencies, only 44 resulted in triangulaires in 2012 (despite Marine Le Pen’s robust third-place showing in the 2012 race) and the high-water mark is 1997 with 79 triangulaires. France hasn’t seen a parliamentary quadrangulaire since 1978.

This system, in the past, has massively disadvantaged third parties. Despite Marine Le Pen’s third-place showing in the April 2012 presidential election and despite the Front national‘s 13.6% support nationwide in the first round of the June 2012 parliamentary election, the party ended up with just two seats in the National Assembly (0.35% of all seats).

In a world where the Socialists and the Republicans are struggling to win 15% or 20% of the national vote, however, you can expect a rise in the number of triangulaires or even the return of a handful of quadrangulaires. 

Buckle up for a bumpy five-way contest for the National Assembly

With the traditional French parties faltering, there’s no clarity about who will win June’s elections for 577 deputies to the National Assembly.

But that calculus changes when the Front national is winning more supporters than the Republicans, and when Macron’s En marche movement appears stronger than the Socialists and the Front de gauche. Moreover, the unprecedented nature of the election and the shifting political sands leave much of the parliamentary election in doubt (with surprisingly few polls available to guide analysis).

No one ever gave Hollande or anyone else in the Socialist camp much chance at winning in May. Barring a major upset over the next six weeks, the Socialists will also lose seats in June, in light of Hollande’s unpopularity and Hamon’s weakness. Hamon is running harder to the left than either Hollande or one-time presidential frontrunner Manuel Valls, the former prime minister. In a sense, the real winner of the Socialist primary contest was Macron, who is closer to the center-left than the center-right. To that end, leading Socialist officials are already breaking ranks by abandoning Hamon for Macron — most recently, the former Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, though Royal and finance minister Michel Sapin are very sympathetic to Macron’s candidacy. Hollande (who remains close to Macron, his former deputy chief of staff) and Valls have yet to campaign for Hamon.

As it becomes more likely that Macron will win the presidency, it’s possible that the Socialist Party will split into factions, with a core leftist wing supporting Hamon and a more centrist wing migrating to En marche. While that could benefit Macron in June by adding some experience hands to the En marche movement, it also tarnishes Macron’s avatar as an independent agent of change.

Before his campaign cratered due to the ‘fake jobs’ scandal and impending indictment for corruption and abuse of public funds, former prime minister and Republican nominee François Fillon was favored to edge out Macron and then win the runoff against Le Pen. (In hypothetical scenarios, Fillon still leads Le Pen by a margin only slightly smaller than Macron does). But as Fillon falls further into third place behind Macron (police indicate that Fillon will be notified of a formal investigation — essentially indicted — on March 15), and as leading Republicans, including his former rival Alain Juppé, abandon his campaign, the Republicans risk depressing their own turnout in June as well as in April. 

There’s still time for the Republicans to replace Fillon if the embattled prime minister drops out of the race. But Juppé on Monday, even as he slammed Fillon’s campaign as ‘at a dead end,’ ruled himself out as a Plan B. Other top Fillon surrogates, including Bruno Le Maire and many of Fillon’s campaign staff, have already abandoned him. On Monday, senior Republicans met and reaffirmed their support for Fillon, though it’s still possible for Fillon to drop out — François Baroin, a 51-year-old rising star, Troyes mayor and former finance and budget minister, who is close to Sarkozy and Fillon, now seems the most likely ‘plan B’ candidate, if it comes to that. If Fillon’s numbers drop further, however, it could lead to catastrophic losses in the parliamentary elections that, only two months ago, would have been an easy follow-up after a resounding Fillon victory. 

A new re-branding of the French left and the French right — or a new re-ordering of French politics into liberal and illiberal camps

As Fillon falters, Marine Le Pen is becoming the dominant figure of the French right — or of a new French illiberalism that mixes nationalism with economic protectionism and social conservatism. (Facebook)

It’s true that parties have been historically weak in France compared to the United Kingdom or the United States. The ‘Republican’ veneer is a 2015 rebranding of what was, during the Chirac and Sarkozy eras, the ‘Union for a Popular Movement,’ which was a successor the old Gaullist ‘Rally for the Republic,’ itself three makeovers removed from Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Rally of the French People’ that dates to the WWII Free French resistance.

The Socialist Party has had more etymological consistency, if not policy consistency. It existed as the French Section of the Workers’ International from its foundation in 1905 in the middle of France’s Third Republic through 1969, when it was just one of a handful of leftist French parties and movements that ultimately (but not completely) consolidated behind François Mitterand in the 1970s and 1980s. France’s communists remained separate, and form the nucleus of the Front de gauche today.

It’s also true that, in a narrow sense, a Macron-Le Pen runoff looks a lot like ‘left-right’ runoffs of the past — this is just another realignment of a new left and a new right as in the past. But Macron’s call for reform is closer to Sarkozy’s economic vision than that of many French Socialists today, and Le Pen’s economic protection is far out-of-sync with the business-friendly conservatism of Fillon and the Republicans.

Instead, the Macron-Le Pen runoff looks more like a contest between liberalism and illiberalism, which increasingly, more than traditional left-right differences, the central fight in developed democracies.

For now, the French political scene looks like a free-for-all — especially if Macron and Le Pen emerge as the runoff contenders. How that translates into a two-round parliamentary election in just three months’ time, however, is anyone’s guess.

Meet Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old Dutch leader of the surging Green-Left Party

Jesse Klaver, the youthful leader of GroenLinks, hopes to make his party a player for the first time in the Dutch House of Representatives. (Facebook)

The first thing you notice about Jesse Klaver is just how much he looks like Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

The second thing you notice is that he’s so young — at 30 years old, he’s a full decade and a half younger than Trudeau and between 12 and 24 years younger than the other major Dutch party leaders.

But the more important point about Klaver, who has also been likened to John F. Kennedy, is that he’s making his leftist GroenLinks (Green-Left) a genuine player in Dutch politics for the first time since it came into existence in 1989. If polls are correct, GroenLinks will surge from just four seats to as many as 20 seats after the Dutch electorate votes in two weeks.

Klaver is the freshest face among the half-dozen or so party leaders who will be forced to work together after the March 15 election to forge a new government. Unlike in past elections, GroenLinks could be a key player in what will likely be a four- or five-party coalition that forms the next Dutch government. It’s very unlikely that Klaver would agree to bring his party into any coalition headed by current prime minister Mark Rutte. Nevertheless, Klaver’s party, which is as firmly pro-European as Rutte and likely the next Rutte-led government, could offer in opposition an alternative anti-austerity voice than the populist Geert Wilders.

Klaver’s party is locked in a tight contest among potentially five different parties for third place, behind Rutte’s center-right liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) and Wilders’s the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom).

Wilders has dominated news coverage of the campaign both in The Netherlands and abroad, with his party surging to a formidable polling lead two years ago. Wilders, who pledges to ‘Make The Netherlands Great Again,’ promises a Trump-style rupture to halt the flow of refugees into The Netherlands and the flow of sovereignty from Amsterdam to Brussels. Wilders, like Trump and other far-right nationalists across Europe, is giving voice to a growing cadre of displaced and dispirited working-class voters who might have voted for left-wing parties a decade or two ago.

Though many polls forecast that the PVV will win the largest number of seats in the 150-member Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives), recent surveys show that the VVD’s support is plateauing or even, within the last week, falling. Even if Wilders and the populists do win the largest bloc of seats in the House, none of the other major Dutch parties are willing to entertain joining a Wilders-led coalition.

All of which means that the threat of an illiberal and xenophobic Dutch government, in 2017 at least, are far-fetched.

Indeed, if the election were held today, it would be Klaver’s GroenLinks (and not Wilders’s PVV) that could make the largest net gains in the election, contrary to conventional wisdom. Continue reading Meet Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old Dutch leader of the surging Green-Left Party

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

‘Penelopegate’ and socialism shake up French presidential election yet again

François Fillon, once the surprise frontrunner for the French presidency, may be forced to quite the race by the end of the week. (Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images)

Last week was supposed to belong to Benoît Hamon.

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.

Benoît Hamon’s rise as Socialist standard-bearer could forever break French left

Benoît Hamon has emerged from third place to lead the race to carry the Socialists in the French presidential election. (Facebook)

As it turns out, a center-right figure known for his tough talk on ‘law and order’ and immigration who has served for years as prime minister to the most deeply unpopular president in modern French history was probably never the best bet to lead the French left into the 2017 presidential election.

Furthermore, with few signs that they are likely to prevail in the presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, party members in France’s (barely) governing center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) seem to want to use this month’s presidential primary as an opportunity to draw a line for the party’s future — not to choose the most credible future president.

That explains how Benoît Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist firebrand, came from third place to edge both former prime minister Manuel Valls and former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg in the first round of the Socialist presidential primaries on January 22. Party voters this weekend will choose between Hamon and the 54-year-old Valls in a final runoff to decide the official Socialist standard-bearer in the spring’s presidential election.

During the primary campaign, Hamon, an avowed fan of US senator Bernie Sanders, openly called for a universal basic income of €750, making him one of the first major European politicians to do so. At a time when many French reformists argue that the country must abandon the 35-hour workweek it adopted in the year 2000, Hamon wants to lower it to 32 hours (and for his efforts, has won the support of the author of the 35-hour week, Martin Aubry). Hamon would scrap the current French constitution and inaugurate a ‘sixth republic’ that would transfer power away from the president and to the parliament, the Assemblée nationale. To pay for all of this, moreover, Hamon would introduce higher wealth taxes and a novel tax on robotics that approximates an ‘income’ attributable to the work done by such robots.

His slogan?

Faire battre le coeur de la France. Make France’s heart beat.

Though Hamon has often been reluctant to discuss the role of France’s growing Muslim population, he has nevertheless pushed back stridently against Valls for stigmatizing French Muslims (including the ill-fated ‘burkini’ ban introduced after the Nice attacks). Valls, for example, was one of the few members of his party to support the burqa ban in 2010, and as prime minister he attempted (and failed) to strip dual-national terrorists of French citizenship.

While Hamon’s ideas are creative and imaginative, representing the cutting edge among left-leaning economists, for now they seem unlikely to win a majority of the French electorate. Nevertheless, Hamon’s victory signals that the Socialists — much like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn — will be veering far to the left in the future. Depending on the circumstances, Hamon’s rise could soon formalize an increasingly severe rupture between France’s hard left and France’s center-left.

Emmanuel Macron left his party behind to run as an independent candidate in 2017. (Facebook)

No matter who wins the Socialist primary runoff on January 29, however, the Socialist candidate will be competing against two other figures of the broad left. The first is Emmanuel Macron, a charismatic figure who served as economy and industry minister from 2014 to 2016, when he left the government to form an independent progressive and reform movement, En marche (Forward). In bypassing the Socialist primaries altogether, it’s Macron who may have ‘won’ the most last weekend. The second is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of France’s communist coalition, the Front de gauche (Left Front).

Polls consistently show that Macron is in third place and rising, floating just behind the center-right candidate of Les Républicains, former prime minister François Fillon and the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen. Both Hamon and Valls languish in fifth place in those same polls, often in single digits, behind Mélenchon. Leading figures in within the Socialist Party (including 2007 presidential candidate and environmental and energy minister Ségolène Royal) have already all but announced their support for Macron.

If Valls wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ leftists supporters to Mélenchon.

If Hamon wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ centrists supporters to Macron and, indeed, it’s even possible that Macron’s supporters voted in the primary for Hamon to engineer this precise outcome.

Still other long-time Socialist voters, frustrated by income stagnation and joblessness, like what they hear in Le Pen’s economic nationalism and antipathy to both the European Union and immigrants from further afield.

How did it come to this?

Blame François Hollande.  Continue reading Benoît Hamon’s rise as Socialist standard-bearer could forever break French left

Sarko’s defeat is great news for French (and global) moderates

Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes for a comeback crashed to a halt Sunday evening with a third-place finish in France's conservative presidential primary. (Facebook)
Nicolas Sarkozy’s hopes for a comeback crashed to a halt Sunday evening with a third-place finish in France’s conservative presidential primary. (Facebook)

The sound that you heard Sunday evening?France Flag Icon

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.

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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 socialist(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.

The last, best hope for global economic liberalism? Look to France.

Alain Juppé could be the last man (or woman) standing on the UN Security Council in defense of liberalism. (Facebook)
Alain Juppé could be the last man (or woman) standing on the UN Security Council in defense of liberalism. (Facebook)

Imagine the following lineup of the leaders of the UN Security Council: France Flag Icon

Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Chinese president Xi Jinping.
American president Donald Trump.
British prime minister Theresa May.
French president Marine Le Pen.

In a matter of months, we may wind up in a world where every leader of the Security Council is illiberal and nationalist.

That was unthinkable four months ago — and it should shock all of us who believe in free markets, mutually beneficial trade and sensible reforms to safeguard those displaced by trade. Continue reading The last, best hope for global economic liberalism? Look to France.

Vučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia with 3rd consecutive win

Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vučić hopes to renew a four-year mandate in Sunday's snap elections. (Facebook)
Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić hopes to renew a four-year mandate in Sunday’s snap elections. (Facebook)

On Sunday, Serbians will go to the polls nearly two years before the current government’s term ends.Serbia_Flag_Icon

The results are hardly in doubt.

Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić is basically guaranteed to return to power by a wide margin, according to nearly every poll taken since the last election. His party, the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), already leads a coalition that enjoys a firm majority in Serbia’s unicameral National Assembly (Народна скупштина).

Originally due by March 2018, Vučić called snap elections in March in a bid to build an even more powerful majority. Vučić argues that a fresh mandate will give his government the space to push Serbia ever closer toward European integration; critics argue that’s a fig leaf to disguise a Vučić power grab, an attempt to squeeze the Serbian political opposition into powerlessness.

Despite problems with self-censorship in the press, Reporters without Borders ranks Serbia 59th in its 2016 press freedom rankings — that’s better than EU members Croatia, Hungary and Italy. Neighboring countries fare far worse — Kosovo ranks 90th, Montenegro ranks 106 and Macedonia ranks 118, just higher than Afghanistan.

With increasingly illiberal figures like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán thumbing their nose at European Union leaders, Vučić’s rise isn’t without its anxieties.

That’s especially true for the United States and Europe, both of whom have an interest in a country of 7 million that remains, economically and culturally, the anchor of the Balkans region, though Serbia itself shares an alphabet, similar language and a religion with Russia. Serbia is dependent upon Russia for natural gas, as well as a market for exports. In recent years, Vučić has shown that he’s willing to turn to Moscow and other surprising allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, for help when European leaders proved too slow.

That means that the European Union, despite its existential troubles, can’t afford to keep Serbians waiting indefinitely for membership.

Regardless, if polls are correct, Vučić will complete a four-year, three-election cycle that brings the SNS the most powerful domestic government in Serbia’s history following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Regionally, the Serbian vote takes place in the context of a year of explosive potential as Macedonia and Montenegro are also set to go to the polls amid tense political climates.

A pathway to Serbian political dominance

In July 2012, the SNS narrowly defeated the center-left, liberal Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) by a margin of 24.1% to 22.1%, following eight years of Democratic Party dominance in Serbia that smoothed the country’s transition from war-torn pariah to EU aspirant.

At the same time, Serbia’s two-term president Boris Tadić also lost his office to SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić. Once more sympathetic to Russia than to the rest of Europe, Nikolić and his acolyte, Vučić, quickly embraced the cause of EU accession. They made a deal with the nationalist, center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS) to take power, even though that meant making the SPS’s leader, Ivica Dačić, once a protégé of strongman Slobodan Milošević (who founded the SPS), Serbia’s new prime minister.

What is past is always present in politics. But that’s especially acute in the case of Serbia, because Nikolić, Vučić and Dačić all began their political lives on the ultranationalist right. Today, however, the three Serbian leaders have (so far, at least) transcended the bitter wars of the 1990s, using the reward of EU accession as a rationale not only to implement IMF-style economic reforms but to make genuine efforts to extradite suspected war criminals from the 1990s and to pacify relations with neighbors, most especially Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not recognize.

The government performed adequately, however. Neither Nikolić nor Vučić made a harsh turn away from the strong EU relations that the Democratic Party nurtured, nor did Dačić suddenly revert to 1990s era ultranationalism. Dačić led the push to open formal negotiations with the European Union for Serbian accession. However begrudgingly, the Dačić government engaged Kosovo over talks about the breakaway region’s international status.

In early 2014, Vučić, then minister of defense, saw an opportunity for the SNS to take power in its own right, and he essentially forced Dačić to call early elections.

It wasn’t a difficult decision, politically, because it instantly made Vučić the most powerful figure in Serbia.

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The SNS won easily with 48.4% of the vote and 158 of the 250 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. The second-placed SPS, which would continue in coalition as a junior member, with Dačić serving as Vučić’s new minister of foreign affairs, won 13.5%. The Democratic Party, suffering from a divide between its new leader, former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas and Tadić, the future president, who ultimately left to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDS, Социјалдемократска странка). The divide was fatal to Serbia’s democratic center-left, however, because the Democratic Party won just 6.0% and the Tadić-led SDS won just 5.7%.

Bracing for an even larger mandate?

Former prime minister Ivica Dačić, who has been happy to serve since 2014 as foreign minister, is shown here meeting US secretary of state John Kerry in Belgrade last year. (Facebook)
Former prime minister Ivica Dačić, who has been happy to serve since 2014 as foreign minister, is shown here meeting US secretary of state John Kerry in Belgrade last year. (Facebook)

Again, for the next two years, the government performed adequately. Low GDP growth was still strong enough for the unemployment rate to continue declining (though it’s still precariously close to 20%), and Vučić nuzzled ever closer to EU advisors with the hope of advancing negotiations one step closer to EU membership. For now, Vučić hasn’t particularly weakened Serbian democracy on his own, with the kind of anti-liberal steps that Hungary or Poland have taken, though the internal troubles of the opposition may make it seem otherwise. Indeed, Serbia has welcomed refugees in the face of a deluge of Syrians and others on European shores, the largest wave of migrants to Europe since World War II.

Then, at the height of his power, Vučić called fresh elections. Continue reading Vučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia with 3rd consecutive win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why French regional elections don’t really matter

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

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

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

What a difference five years can make.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Hollande’s determination could be a game-changer for Syria

French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)
French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have a strong record on successful and targeted foreign intervention. (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

With 20 airstrikes on Sunday in the de facto Islamic State/Saesh capital of Raqqa, French president François Hollande made it very clear that he would stay true to his word and launch a ‘merciless war’ against the terrorist camps in Syria controlled by IS/Daesh. Mali Flag IconFrance Flag Iconcentrafrique flagSyria Flag Icon

That may seem like a tall order, especially given the geopolitical conundrums of Syria’s civil war. Russia is also bombing Raqqa and other rebel strongholds, with the explicit goal of boosting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. France, meanwhile, opposes Assad, and Hollande nearly launched airstrikes in 2013 against Assad. The United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, have generally argued that Assad must leave power, and the United States once looked to boost anti-Assad Sunni rebels, some of whom are now allied with IS/Daesh. Now, however, US special forces are on the ground in Syria working with Kurdish peshmerga forces to pressure Raqqa as well. For what it’s worth, Turkey is also boosting the US effort with airstrikes on IS/Daesh, but Turkish forces have also been attacking Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey.

And so on and so on. Last Friday’s attacks on Paris may have simplified the French objective in the region, but it doesn’t make it strategically less messier. Hollande has now made it clear that his goal is to destroy IS/Daesh, not simply to contain it. That makes him, for now, far more hawkish on Syria than either US president Barack Obama or UK prime minister David Cameron. It’s worth remembering that Hollande played a crucial role in bringing Berlin and Athens together for a last-minute bailout deal at the nadir of Greece’s eurozone crisis in July.

The Syrian calculus may also be changing for Obama and Cameron, though. Obama spent nearly a half-hour conferring with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the weekend at the G-20 summit in Turkey, and Hollande is set to meet Obama in person in Washington on November 24, followed by a visit with Putin in Moscow two days later.

An increasingly hawkish France in the Sarkozy-Hollande era

If there’s anyone in world politics today, however, whose record of eliminating jihadist threats and restoring peace in the developing world is decent, it’s Hollande — after at least partially successful operations in Mali and in the Central African Republic.

Throughout most of the world (including France), Hollande is an unpopular and ineffective figure who has neither stood up to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘austerity,’ nor enacted reforms to make the French economy more effective nor lowered France’s persistent unemployment rate. That’s, at least, when his personal love life isn’t making headlines.

But Hollande has developed an impressive record when it comes to engaging and defeating radical jihadists in former French colonies– and in prolonging a new trend of aggressive foreign policy.

His predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, took office in 2007 with the explicit goal of closer security ties with the United States and the United Kingdom, embracing the once toxic mantle of ‘Atlanticist.’ In 2009, he ended France’s four-decade-long rift with NATO, fully integrating France into NATO’s security regime, and he embraced a muscular, hawkish foreign policy — on Libya and elsewhere.

Perhaps to the surprise of some of the more dovish members of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), he has embraced the new French assertiveness on the global stage. Even more surprisingly, it’s Laurent Fabius, a long-time Socialist official, who has carried out Hollande’s muscular foreign policy as France’s foreign minister.

Fabius, who served as France’s youngest prime minister in the 1980s under François Mitterrand, bucked his party in 2005 in advocating a non vote against a European constitution. Nevertheless, he comes from the left wing of the party, and he’s run (unsuccessfully) for the party’s presidential nomination.

Mali — restoring a government in the Sahel

In 2012, in northern Mali, the Tuaregs, nomadic Muslims long resentful of the southern elite, were on the verge of breaking away to form their own northern state. The pressure on Mali’s government culminated in a military coup, deposing Mali’s democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Touré and thereby plunging Mali into even greater chaos. By the end of the year, a relatively stable democratic country had become a magnet for international jihadists, including newly-armed Libyan rebels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Together, the radicals had overtaken both the Malian army and the local Tuareg forces to create a radical Islamist pocket across northern Mali, introducing harsh sharia law and increasingly threatening the southern capital, Bamako.

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RELATED: Despite fears, Mali’s rushed presidential election seems like a success — for now

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Invited by the new government, Hollande sent a 4,000-person force to Mali in January 2013. Within days, French troops controlled the northern city of Timbuktu and, By April, the international jihadist threat in Mali was significantly reduced, and French troops began withdrawing from Mali, as a regional African force took control over regional security. By August 2013, the country held its delayed presidential election, voting Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta into power and restoring Mali back onto a democratic path, tasked with tough negotiations with Tuareg rebels.

A more wide-ranging force, together with national African troops, remained behind to ensure that the international fighters in Mali didn’t stick around to cause mayhem in other countries in the Sahel.

While IBK, as he’s known in Mali, has not been incredibly successful in pacifying the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who continue to clash with Malian forces and are pushing forward to create their own sovereign state of Azawad. That’s not the best potential outcome for Mali, necessarily, but it did prevent Mali — or the wide Sahel — from becoming the kind of powerless vacuum where international jihadist rule can thrive, like in eastern Syria, western Iraq and present-day Libya. Moreover, even as Mali struggles to consolidate a united country, it can do so without having to wage a war against an IS-style caliphate within its own borders.  Pushing aside hand-wringing about the perception of françafrique, the notion that France continues to play a role in its former colonies to perpetuate its own self-interested political and economic control, Hollande’s targeted and narrowly defined mission made Europe and the Sahel safer as a result.

CAR — giving peace a fresh start

A year later, the Central African Republic, another former French colony, was devolving into chaos.

François Bozizé, the CAR’s president since taking power in a 2003 coup, was himself ousted by the Séléka alliance that first took control of the country’s north in November 2012, then took the capital, Bangui, in March 2013, bringing Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia to power.

Yet Djotodia, even after dissolving his militia, failed to control the increasingly intense fighting between Christians-dominated ‘anti-balaka’ militia and the Muslim dominated Séléka. With the country descending back into civil war, the UN Security Council introduced a peacekeeping force, and Hollande sent 1,600 French troops to help disarm militias, after refusing an initial request from Bozizé earlier in 2013 to stabilize his regime.

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RELATED: Does Djotodia’s resignation matter in
Central African Republic?

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Isolated from the elites of the Bozizé regime and increasingly from other rebel leaders in his own Séléka alliance, Djotodia stepped down in early 2014, and the country eventually appointed an interim leader, Catherine Samba-Panza.

The French peacekeeping effort hasn’t pacified the CAR enough to allow for elections that have now been delayed numerous times. But it may helped prevent wider violence, or even mass genocide, in central Africa. Again, French forces have kept the CAR from becoming a fully failed state and a vacuum for jihadist forces that might delight at forming a base in central Africa.

Syria — a chance for a genuine political settlement

Neither Mali nor the Central African Republic today are what you might call model countries today, not even by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. Mali’s democratic restoration remains fragile and the country is still divided on tenuous north-south lines. The Central African Republic still hasn’t held postwar elections, and it could crumble back into violence at any moment.

But by the standards of Western intervention over the last 15 years, it’s hard to think of any greater successes. Certainly not Iraq or Afghanistan after the end of US-led intervention there, and certainly not Libya, which is barely functioning today after Sarkozy and Cameron led a US-backed charge to dislodge Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. US drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen have done little, either, to make those countries safer. Hollande’s record may not be perfect, but there’s at least some cause for hope.

It’s also true that Syria is different and, in many ways, from sub-Saharan Africa, and will be a much more difficult challenge for Hollande or any international coalition to pacify. For a country that’s suffered four years of civil war and brutality on all sides, Syrians may not welcome yet another international player to the mix. Intervention from the United States, Russia, Turkey and others only seems to make things worse for everyday Syrians, bringing just fleeting gains to the pro-Assad or anti-Assad forces of the day.

Hollande, like Obama and Putin, must realize that any military victory in pushing back IS/Daesh will ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory without the kind of political settlement that brings an end to Syria’s hostilities, even if that means pushing Assad from power.

Why no one actually won Portugal’s parliamentary elections

Portugal's prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho celebrates Sunday's victory, even though it may turn out to be bittersweet. (Facebook)
Portugal’s prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho celebrates Sunday’s victory, even though it may turn out to be bittersweet. (Facebook)

The headline from Sunday’s Portuguese parliamentary election results highlighted the fact that the country’s center-right government won despite the fact that it implemented an unpopular bailout program that entailed difficult spending cuts and tax increases.portugal flag

That’s true, of course, and the electoral coalition of prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho did emerge with the largest share of the vote. Later this week, it’s expected that he will receive a mandate to form a new government from Portugal’s president Aníbal Cavaco Silva.

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RELATED: Portugal holds first post-bailout elections

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With neither of Portugal’s mainstream parties able to win a majority of seats in the country’s 230-member, unicameral Assembleia da República (Assembly of the Republic), early elections seem certain to follow in due course. Though it’s likely that Passos Coelho’s center-right coalition, Portugal à Frente (Portugal Ahead) will indeed form a minority government, it will need the support of its chief opponent, the center-left Partido Socialista (PS, Socialist Party) to pass next year’s budget and other key measures. With the country no longer subject to the term of its prior bailout program, and with the economy set to grow for the second consecutive year in 2015, the Socialists will almost certainly demand a high price in exchange for support, including some relief from the austerity measures of the past half-decade.

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A disagreement, however, could lead the country to a snap vote, perhaps as soon as next summer. While no new elections can follow for six months, no minority government since the end of the Salazar-era military dictatorship in 1974 has been able to hold onto power for a full four-year term.

In truth, no one won Portugal’s elections, and turnout dropped from 5.59 million (around 58%) in 2011, then a record low since the return of democracy, to just 5.38 million on Sunday (around 57%). The center-right’s ‘victory’ is as Pyrrhic as they come, the center-left’s modest gains belie doubts about past performance, and radical leftists haven’t received the same welcome as in crisis-struck Spain or Greece.
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