Tag Archives: socialist party

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.
Continue reading Why no one actually won Portugal’s parliamentary elections

Portugal holds first post-bailout elections

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António Costa, the popular former mayor of Lisbon, campaigns earlier this week. (Facebook)

Portugal might be the only place in crisis-plagued Europe where politics still feel like they’re stuck in the year 2000.portugal flag

There’s no virulent anti-austerity party like Podemos (the far-left movement of indignados in neighboring Spain) or the plucky SYRIZA of Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras.

There’s no citizen’s movement of the kind that powers Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement in Italy or Czech finance minister and businessman Andrej Babiš’s ANO.

There’s no anti-EU group like Nigel Farage’s UKIP or the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany.

There’s not even an anti-immigrant force like the far-right parties of Scandinavia or Marine Le Pen’s Front national in France.

It’s still a country that only last year returned to GDP growth after four years of recession in the past half-decade, a country with a 13% unemployment rate, a country that has hemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of educated graduates to jobs elsewhere in Europe and the Lusophone world. Portugal concluded its €78 billion bailout in May 2014 ahead of schedule (and without needing a second bailout) after a program of income tax and VAT increases and cuts to social spending, wages, benefits, unemployment benefits and public-sector jobs.

Still, no one seems incredibly angry in Portugal about any of this.

Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his deputy and foreign minister, Paulo Portas, campaign for reelection for their center-right government. (Facebook)
Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his deputy and foreign minister, Paulo Portas, campaign for reelection for their center-right government. (Facebook)

That’s perhaps one reason why the current center-right government, headed by prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho, has such a good chance of at winning reelection on October 4, when voters will elect the 230 members of Portugal’s unicameral Assembleia da República (Assembly of the Republic).  Polls show that his center-right electoral coalition, anchored by the Partido Social Democrata (PSD, Social Democratic Party), will win the largest share of the vote. That’s probably only because Passos Coelho was smart enough to join forces with his junior governing partner, the more socially conservative Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular (CDS-PP, Democratic and Social Center — People’s Party).

Together, the coalition now holds a narrow lead over the opposition center-left Partido Socialista (PS, Socialist Party), led by the charismatic former mayor of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, António Costa, who has served as a minister in several administrations, most recently as interior minister in the cabinet of now-disgraced former prime minister José Sócrates.

Although the forces of the united Portuguese right will likely fall far short of their 2011 electoral victory, the Socialists will likewise not achieve the same clear victory of the 2009 election. While that means the newly united Portuguese right is favored to win a narrow victory, it also means that no single party will have a majority in the National Assembly.

Another explanation for the election’s conundrums?

No one really cares.  Continue reading Portugal holds first post-bailout elections

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

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Sometimes, the cruelest cuts in international politics come not only from within your own party, but from within your very own family.France Flag Icon

Just ask David Miliband.

After months of increasingly strained relations, however, Marine Le Pen has now engineered the first break yet with her controversial father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he was formally ousted last week from the party that he founded, the far-right Front National (National Front). The legal move followed a political move earlier in the summer, when 84% of the party’s 30,000 followers also voted to expel Jean-Marie from the party that he founded in 1972.

In one sense, the Le Pen family spat has been a distraction from Marine Le Pen’s long-term goals of projecting her party as the true heir to French conservatism and building a majoritarian coalition that can woo not only traditional right-wing voters but left-wing voters disenchanted with French president François Hollande and the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and the neoliberal economic prescriptions that now dominate policymaking within the eurozone.

Since her party easily outpaced the ruling Socialists and Sarkozy’s center-right party in the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen has spent much of 2015 feuding with her own father.

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

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What’s worse, the spat showcases just how problematic it can be when a political party becomes tied up too strongly in family dynasty — it’s as true for the French right as for Indian secularism or Canada’s center-left. As Marine tries to consolidate the Front’s rank-and-file under her leadership, with regional elections approaching in the autumn, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 25-year old MP from southern France, could still make her life difficult.

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Maréchal-Le Pen (pictured above) has been more sympathetic to her grandfather and, unlike Marine’s journey toward economic nationalism, popular in northern France, Marion is far more of a traditional economic liberal and, with her southern base, far more focused on immigration. In December, Maréchal-Le Pen will be running for the presidency of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region; Marion Le Pen, for her part, will be contesting the presidency of the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. The party will be watching keenly to see which variety of the Front‘s politics will be more successful.

But in another sense, tossing the 87-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen to the side in 2015 could help Marine in 2017 as she continues to remake the party’s image — and brand it further away from the often anti-Semitic tones of her father’s leadership, which was also rooted in his experience as a soldier fighting to defend France’s colonial holdings in Algeria. Remarks about Nazi gas chambers being just a ‘detail of history,’ as it turns out, do not go down well for Marine’s push for a Front sanitaire.

Marine’s mission

Instead, Marine Le Pen is forging an identity that blends welfare-heavy statism, social conservatism and a nationalism that rejects both immigration and European integration. There’s a reason it’s called populism. Rallying support for ‘a strong France’ and opposition to a feckless European superstate that now essentially dictate France’s monetary, justice and border control policy, championing the comfort of an unreconstructed cradle-to-grave social welfare and attacking the ‘other’ of eastern European, African and Middle Eastern immigrants has an undeniably popular allure to many voters whose economic futures are far less certain than they were two generations ago. It’s attracted some odd supporters, including a puzzlingly high number of urban LGBT voters — Marine’s chief adviser, Florian Philippot, and the architect of Marine’s anti-eurozone policy, is openly gay. While Marine discreetly avoided the most intense battles of the same-sex marriage fight in 2013, Maréchal-Le Pen embraced the opposition to marriage equality.

That means that Le Pen has found common cause in recent years with a strange number of odd political bedfellows. That includes Nigel Farage, the anti-immigrant head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who encourages a British exit from the European Union in the 2017 referendum, and Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant crusader of Dutch politics. But she also encouraged Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in his standoff with European finance ministers over Greek debt relief (though Le Pen rejected him in stark terms when he agreed in July to enter negotiations for a third bailout for his country). She has also voiced sympathy for Russian president Vladimir Putin in his two-year quasi-standoff with Ukraine.

Marine’s bet seems to be working as French voters begin to focus on the contours of what could be an unpredictable presidential election in May 2017. In IFOP’s latest August 2015 poll, Le Pen leads all contenders for the first-round vote, garnering 26% in a race against Hollande (20%) and former president Nicolas Sarkozy (24%), guaranteeing her a spot in a runoff against Sarkozy. Though her father made the runoff in the 2002 presidential election against then-president Jacques Chirac, Jean-Marie Le Pen only narrowly managed a second-place victory over the Socialist candidate, prime minister Lionel Jospin. Continue reading How the Le Pen family feud influences France’s 2017 election

Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top

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Part of the undeniable appeal of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign is her push to become the first woman to lead the United States, enhanced by the fact that she aims to succeed the first African-American president.USflag

But, if elected, Clinton will be far from the only powerful woman on the world stage.

If she wins the November 2016 presidential race, she’ll join a list of world leaders that includes German president Angela Merkel, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.

What’s more, there’s never been a better moment for women leading their countries. Assuming that Clinton wins the presidency in 2016 and serves two terms, it’s not inconceivable that she’d lead the United States at a time of ‘peak’ female leadership. But nowhere is that more true than in Europe. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that each of the six largest member-states of the European Union could have women in charge during a potential Clinton administration.

Here’s who they are — and how they might rise to power. Continue reading Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top

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

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As predicted, everyone’s getting even more carried away today wringing their hands over the notion that the horrific Charlie Hebdo killings will play right into the hands of the far-right in France, elevating Marine Le Pen into the presidency in May 2017.France Flag Icon

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

There’s a simple reason why a Le Pen presidential victory, though not impossible, remains incredibly implausible — and that’s as true today as it was last week or last month. It’s because France, like many countries around the world, has a runoff presidential system. While Le Pen stands a good chance of leading the first round of the next presidential vote, that only means that she end up in a runoff against either a center-left or a center-right figure that will command virtually the entire spectrum of political support from the center-right leftward.

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RELATED: In Charlie Hebdo massacre,
French values find a rallying point

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We know this because it happened just over a decade ago.

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, narrowly edged out the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), prime minister Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, with just 16.86% of the vote. That set up a runoff against the center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac. Despite a widespread lack of excitement about Chirac’s reelection, virtually the entire political mainstream lined up behind Chirac, who walloped Le Pen by a margin of 82.21% to 17.79%.

Continue reading Marine Le Pen is still a longshot to win France’s presidency in 2017

In Charlie Hebdo massacre, French values find a rallying point

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Even before the gruesome murder of 12 civilians today in the name of Islam, France wasn’t exactly having the best run. France Flag Icon

Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 amid promises of rupture and reform, signaling youthful, nervous energy that would transform France’s public sector after the somnolent 12-year reign of the genteely corrupt Jacques Chirac. While he did manage to raise the retirement age and make some tweaks, the full-throated rupture never quite arrived, and his administration amounted to an embarrassing series of bling bling moments, capped off by his whirlwhind romance and marriage to singer Carla Bruni. It’s still hard not to cringe at the photos of Sarkozy and Bruni at Disneyland Paris just months after his inauguration or the thought of Sarkozy lapping up the excesses of wealth on one of Silvio Berlusconi’s yachts.

François Hollande easily defeated his reelection bid in May 2012 with a promise to boost growth and employment in policy matters and to be a ‘normal’ president in, ahem, more personal matters. France got neither from its new president, whose popularity rating today is stuck in the high 10s or low 20s, depending on the poll. Even before the 2012 election campaign ended, his then-consort Valérie Trierweiler had already gotten into a spat on Twitter attacking Hollande’s former partner of three decades, Ségolène Royal, herself a former presidential candidate and a top figure within the Socialist Party. That presaged the ridiculous split between the two earlier this year, catalyzed by the impotent image of Hollande sneaking out of the Elysée Palace on a scooter for a tryst with French actress Julie Gayet.  Charlie Hebdo, it should be noted, ruthlessly mocked Hollande for his shortcomings as well as organized religion of all faiths:

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If the United Kingdom held the ‘sick man of Europe’ crown in the 1970s and Germany held it in the 1990s before its labor market reforms and amid the tectonic growing pains of reunification, France would hold clear title to that position today, if not for so many other pretenders across Europe, each struggling under the strains of joblessness, economic malaise, depopulation and precarious public debt. After starting to fall in 2013, France’s unemployment rate leapt back to record levels (10.4%) at the end of 2014. Short of a contentious battle to legalize same-sex marriage and his soon-forgotten success from decisive military action to liberate northern Mali from jihadists, Hollande has precious few policy victories to show for his administration.

It might be more accurate to call France the ‘invisible man’ of Europe.

While Germany has emerged, for now, as the sole engine of Europe, its chancellor Angela Merkel dictating fiscal policy to the rest of the European Union and its central bankers vetoing the kind of aggressive eurozone-wide quantitative easing that could reverse deflationary trends, you don’t hear much talk about the vaunted Franco-German axis anymore. British prime minister David Cameron, who’s courting disaster in his promise to hold a referendum on his country’s EU membership, has more influence on the German chancellor than Hollande or even his relatively right-leaning prime minister Manuel Valls, who leads Hollande’s second government in three years. Whether it’s banking unions or Russian aggression in eastern Europe or eurobonds or the risk of a far-left Greek government in elections later this month, no one gives a hoot about what Hollande has to say on EU matters — or anything else for that matter.

As Sarkozy, plagued by legal challenges, plots a center-right comeback and Hollande’s center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) loses more credibility by the day, the xenophobic, far-right Marine Le Pen and the Front national (FN, National Front) are basking in the victory of emerging as the top-placed party in last May’s European elections. Polls for the first round of the 2017 presidential election routinely place Le Pen leading or tied with all the major contenders, including Sarkozy and former foreign minister Alain Juppé, on the right, and Hollande and Valls, on the left. But you could see the rumblings a decade ago, when the French single-handedly ended the push (led by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, no less!) to draft a constitution for the European Union, when voters rejected the constitutional treaty in a May 2005 referendum.

We’ve all read too many stories in the past decade or so about the tristesse or the ennui afflicting modern 21st century France.  

So it’s understandable that so many commentators looked at the horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo office on Tuesday and worried that it would unleash a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, fueling the insular nationalism that drives Le Pen and the French far right, which has responded to France’s collective economic slump by lashing out at the political elite, at immigration and at the European Union.   Continue reading In Charlie Hebdo massacre, French values find a rallying point

One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

moldovaPhoto credit to adrianhancu / 123RF.

By just about any measure, Moldova’s first quarter-century as an independent state has been inauspicious long before last weekend’s parliamentary elections.moldova

Emerging from the Soviet Union as a new state engaged in a war with separatists in Transnistria, Moldova is today the poorest country on continental Europe, and successive governments have left the country with antiquated and corrupt institutions that culminated in widespread protests (pictured above) and a political crisis in 2009. In 2014, no country in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, is perhaps more at risk from Russian aggression.

Though a coalition of three relatively pro-European parties appear to be moving forward to form a governing coalition, the winner in last Sunday’s vote was the Partidul Socialiştilor din Republica Moldova (PSRM, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova), formed in 1997 and a fringe party until it received an endorsement from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Socialists will enter Moldova’s 101-member Parlamentul (parliament), with 25 seats, the largest of five parties in the chamber.

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The Socialists benefitted chiefly from a decision on November 29 by Moldova’s supreme court of justice to uphold a lower court’s decision two days earlier to disqualify the pro-Russia ‘Homeland’ Party after it was found to have accepted foreign resources. Continue reading One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

Can Alain Juppé really become France’s next president?

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

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

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

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RELATEDDon’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback

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

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

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

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

Macron, France’s new economy minister, angers French left

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One day after French prime minister Manuel Valls resigned, forcing French president François Hollande to invite Valls to form a new government, it’s not clear that the new cabinet is going to quell a growing revolt on Hollande’s left flank.France Flag Icon

Valls, less than five months into his tenure, took the dramatic step Monday after weekend comments from former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg criticizing his own government’s austerity measures that have aimed to reduced French debt and cut payroll taxes, in part, through spending cuts.

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

RELATED: Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

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Montebourg, along with allies like education minister Benôit Hamon, a rising star of the French left, and culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, were banished from the second Valls government, replaced by relatively minor figures deemed more loyal to Valls and Hollande.

Though everyone else in the government remained in government, from foreign minister Laurent Fabius to finance minister Michael Sapin to ecology and energy minister Ségolène Royal, Montebourg was replaced by the Hollande loyalist Emmanuel Macron, a 36-year-old ex-banker and graduate of France’s elite-producing school, the École nationale d’administration.

Macron’s appointment sends a message about the orthodox program of the next government, and it wasn’t particularly subtle. Le Monde called him the ‘liberal sauce’ of the government, and Le Figaro called him the ‘anti-Montebourg.’

After his graduation from ENA, Macron (pictured above) worked as a finance official in the French government for four years, then worked for four years for Rothschild in the private sector. When Hollande was elected, he became one of the new president’s top Elysée aides as deputy secretary general of the presidency, where he once exclaimed that Hollande’s push to institute a 75% income tax rate for millionaires made France equivalent to ‘Cuba, but without the sun.’

The Valls-Sapin-Macron axis in the new French government will assure the French business and investor class that Hollande is serious about a proposed €40 billion payroll tax cut and continued devotion to budget discipline, to the growing outrage of the French left.  

The best thing the left wing of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) can say about the new cabinet is that Valls, at least, retained Christiane Taubira, a legislator from French Guiana who has served as minister of justice from the outset of the Hollande presidency, who pushed through perhaps the Hollande administration’s crowning social policy achievement in legalizing same-sex marriage last year, and who has often clashed brutally, if privately, with Valls, both as prime minister and when he previously served as interior minister, on economic policy as well as on her proposed prison reforms that would relax criminal penalties and eliminate mandatory sentencing for convicts.

There were other choices. Hollande and Valls might have convinced Martine Aubry, the runner-up to Hollande in the 2011 presidential contest and the author, as minister of social affairs in 2000, of the 35-hour workweek. After Montebourg, who routinely lambasted German chancellor Angela Merkel’s fiscal policy, told Indian steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal he wasn’t welcome to invest in France and who picked a fight with American tire producer Morry Taylor, Aubry’s presence in the cabinet might have been a win-win situation — replacing the mercurial Montebourg with a pillar of the French left.

Instead, Macron’s elevation is sure to accentuate the growing rift between the centrist and leftist wings of the Socialist Party, which could cause the government to fall later this year over the 2015 budget. That, in turn, could cause snap elections that the Socialists might lose altogether, ushering in another era of cohabitation, or divided government, with Hollande’s approval rating hovering between 17% and 20%. 

At the very least, the events of the last 48 hours potentially places Hollande in a difficult position — if Montebourg and the leftist rebels are strong enough, they can force Hollande and Valls either to accept their demands for a more growth-oriented budget this autumn or face a no-confidence vote. 

Amid high unemployment and a growth rate of just 0.1% in the last quarter, Hollande has struggled to implement policies to jumpstart GDP growth and economic activity. That’s left him open to criticism on the right and the left, including Montebourg, who on Saturday castigated Hollande’s administration for being held captive to Berlin — the last straw among the increasingly strident critiques from within his own government. 

Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

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It was always a stretch to believe that there was enough room in France’s government for both Arnaud Montebourg and Manuel Valls.France Flag Icon

Montebourg, who represents the unapologetically socialist wing of France’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), received a promotion in April as economy minister when French president François Hollande reshuffled his cabinet and replaced former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault with Valls. At the time, it was hardly clear that Montebourg deserved it after picking fights with prominent foreign businessmen in both the United States and India and waging an avowedly protectionist ‘Made in France’ campaign while serving as minister for industrial renewal. Montebourg (pictured above), with a charming grin, trim figure and a wavy swath of dark hair, who last weekend shared a photo of Loire Valley red wine on his Facebook feed, fits neatly into the American stereotype of the preening, tiresome, French socialist.

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

RELATEDSapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

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Valls, meanwhile, is leading Hollande’s government at a time when the Socialist administration is turning even more to the center, with a much-heraled (if hokey) ‘Responsibility Pact’ that aims to cajole French businesses into hiring a half-million new workers with the promise of a €40 billion payroll tax cut, financed by an even greater €50 billion in spending cuts. Though he’s regularly touted as a reformer, it’s more accurate to say that the Spanish-born Valls is a tough-minded ‘third way’ centrist who wants to rename the Socialist Party, which he considers too leftist. As interior minister, he showed he could be just as tough on immigration and crime as former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy. When he became as prime minister in late March, Valls had the highest approval rating by far of any cabinet member. Today, his approval is sinking fast — an IFOP poll last weekend gave Hollande a 17% approval rating and Valls just 36% approval.

But Valls always had the support of Hollande and allies like finance minister Michael Sapin, and it was clear even in the spring that  Montebourg was destined to become more isolated than ever in the Valls era.

It took less than five months for the cabinet to rupture.  Montebourg publicly challenged Hollande over the weekend to rethink his economic policy in light of new data that show France’s economy remains stagnant — growing by just 0.1% in the last quarter, far below Hollande’s already-anemic target of 1%. Montebourg has also criticized Germany for encouraging austerity policies throughout the eurozone that he and other left-wing European politicians and economists blame for weakening the continent’s economic growth since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

In response, Valls orchestrating a dramatic resignation on Monday morning, though Hollande has given him a mandate to form a new government that won’t include Montebourg or allies like education minister Benoît Hamon and culture minister Aurelie Filippetti.

The drama surrounding this week’s reshuffle is hardly welcome so soon after Valls’s initial appointment, and Hollande risks a wider revolt on the French left that could endanger his agenda in the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly), where Socialist rebels could join legislators from the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) in opposition to his agenda. Valls will introduce the 2015 budget in the autumn, and if he fails to pass it later this year, his government could fall and Hollande might be forced to call snap elections that the Socialists would almost certainly lose. Continue reading Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

Don’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback

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At the rate that the French political elite is going, Dominique Strauss-Kahn might be the last palatable option standing to challenge nationalist Marine Le Pen in the 2017 election.France Flag Icon

The decision by French prosecutors to open a formal investigation into former president Nicolas Sarkozy today, following his detention on Tuesday for questioning, is certain to rupture Sarkozy’s comeback plans to lead the French center-right in the April 2017 presidential election, leaving both major parties sullied by unpopular, unimaginative and possibly corrupt leadership.

But even as French and global analysts begin writing Sarkozy’s obituary, the current investigation, which involves Sarkozy’s alleged attempts to trade a job in plush Monaco to a judge in exchange for illegal information relating to another investigation, may not necessarily torpedo Sarkozy, even as the former president faces additional legal troubles in related corruption cases.

That will be especially true if Sarkozy is ultimately exonerated, given the aggressiveness with which French investigators have pursued Sarkozy. If he’s not found guilty, the investigations could actually strengthen Sarkozy, allowing him to play victim against an aggressive, out-of-control French judicial system. That’s a well-worn path that’s worked for other European leaders in the past, including former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Sarkozy has already compared the phone-tapping to East German Stasi tactics, and he appeared on French television Wednesday night to blast the ‘political exploitation’ of the legal system.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy will find it difficult to proceed with plans to retake the presidency of his center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) later this year. Sarkozy is believed to be keen on returning to the UMP presidency in light of former UMP president Jean-François Copé’s resignation in late May, related to accusations of falsifying 2007 campaign invoices to evade spending limits. 

The current scandal revolves around phone taps that revealed conversations between Sarkozy and his attorney, Thierry Herzog. Those taps, however, were originally designed to gather information about whether Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign was illegally financed with up to €50 million from former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. 

The Herzog conversations, however, relate to yet another scandal, the  Bettencourt affair, in which L’Oréal heiress and socialite Liliane Bettencourt may have ferried illegal funding to Sarkozy’s reelection efforts. Though investigators ruled out charging Sarkozy in the Bettencourt matter, the case revolved around the admissibility of Sarkozy’s presidential diaries.

Sure, that’s a lot of scandal and a lot of circumstantial noise surrounding Sarkozy. But what happens if Sarkozy actually goes to jail?  Continue reading Don’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback

EU rewards Rama, Albania with candidate status

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Maybe the decision to hire former British prime minister Tony Blair as an advisor to Albania’s new government was an astute move after all.albania

The European Council will formally name Albania as a candidate for eventual EU membership at its summit this weekend, following a decision by British prime minister David Cameron to allow Albania’s candidacy to move forward on its fourth attempt to win candidate status since 2009. As the EU membership negotiations unfold for Albania, as well as for other Balkan countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, Cameron is expected to seek carve-outs that make it more difficult for laborers from new EU member-states to enjoy free movement throughout the EU single market.

The move follows a largely successful parliamentary election in June 2013 and aggressive steps by Albania’s new, energetic prime minister Edi Rama (pictured above, left, with Blair, right) to stamp out corruption and organized crime. Albanian police moved last week, for example, to subdue Lazarat, a village in southern Albania that’s known as a chief source of marijuana throughout Europe, with an estimated annual production of €4.5 billion. Continue reading EU rewards Rama, Albania with candidate status

De Wever gets first shot at forming Belgium’s next government

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In Belgium, where national and regional elections were largely overshadowed by the simultaneous European parliamentary and Ukrainian presidential elections, Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever is working to assemble a broad center-right government from parties of both of Belgium’s linguistic regions.Belgium Flag

Realistically, however, though Belgium’s king Philippe, has given De Wever through tomorrow, June 10, to report back on possible coalitions, there’s a chance that Belgium’s coalition-building process could take months, if not the 541-day ordeal that followed the previous May 2010 national elections.

De Wever’s Flemish nationalist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish Alliance) emerged as the clear winner of the May 25 Belgian federal elections. It won, by far, the largest share of the vote — 20.26% of the national vote, even though nearly all of it came from Flanders, where it outpolled the center-right CD&V by a margin of 32.22% to 18.47%. De Wever (pictured above), having lost an astonishing amount of weight through diet and exercise since the last election, has given the N-VA a new look, too. While it remains officially in favor of Flemish independence, it’s toned down its support for separation and increased its calls for greater regional autonomy. The N-VA has also enhanced its calls for tax cuts and a trimmer federal and regional budget.

That was enough to put the N-VA in the driver’s seat for the first round of post-election negotiations. Belgium’s king Philippe appointed De Wever as informateur, whose role is to report back to the Belgian king as to potential coalition possibilities. If De Wever can point to a credible governing majority, it’s possible Philippe will appoint him as formateur, officially charging him to form a government.

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Outgoing prime minister Elio Di Rupo, the head of the French-speaking, Wallonia-based Parti Socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), is not expected to lead a second government, even though his party emerged as the second-largest in the 150-member Chamber of Representatives (Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers/Chambre des Représentants), and the largest vote-winner in French-speaking Wallonia.

Therein lies the awkwardness of the federal negotiations. The largest share of Flemish voters overwhelmingly supported an autonomist, center-right party, while the largest share of Walloon voters supported a federalist, center-left party.

De Wever is working to form a government of both Flemish and Walloon center-right, Christian democratic and liberal parties. But that would require a historic effort, given that Francophone parties have refused to work at the federal level alongside the N-VA in the past. Moreover, any Walloon parties willing to join forces with De Wever could face the wrath of Walloon voters at the next election.

Since the May 25 elections, the shape of Belgium’s regional governments have come increasingly into view, which will in turn influence the national government formation process.

Last week, Di Rupo’s Socialists announced that they would open coalition negotiations with the centrist, Christian democratic Centre démocrate humaniste (cdH, the Humanist Democratic Centre) to form a government in the 75-member regional parliament of Wallonia: 

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The Walloon deal comes at the expense of the center-right, liberal Mouvement Réformateur (MR, Reform Movement), which made the greatest gains at the regional level, picking up six additional seats and which nearly outpolled the Socialists. The MR’s leaders are already decrying the deal between the Socialists and the cdH, arguing that they instead have the momentum to form a new Walloon government. 

The MR’s disappointment is amplified by the apparent coalition deal to lead the Brussels regional government, where the Socialists and the cdH intend to form a government with the Fédéralistes Démocrates Francophones (FDF, Francophone Democratic Federalists), until 2011 part of the MR coalition.

For now, the N-VA will likely become the senior partner in the Flemish government, continuing a partnership with the center-right Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V, Christian Democratic and Flemish).

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But because of the N-VA’s gains, largely at the expense of the CD&V, it’s unlikely that the CD&V’s Kris Peeters will remain as the minister-president of the Flanders region. Peeters and the N-VA’s Geert Bourgeois, who has served as vice-minister-president under Peeters since 2009, are leading the current negotiations for the Flemish government.

So what does all of this mean for the federal negotiations? Continue reading De Wever gets first shot at forming Belgium’s next government