Tag Archives: UMP

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

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?

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

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

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We now have most of the results from across Europe in the 28-state elections to elect all 751 members of the European Parliament.European_Union

At the European level,  the center-right, Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP) emerged with about 25 more seats than the center-left, social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES).

That immediately gives former the EPP’s candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, former Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a boost in his efforts to actually become the Commission president. But it’s still far from automatic, despite Juncker’s aggressive posture at a press conference Sunday evening:

“I feel fully entitled to become the next president of the European Commission,” Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, told supporters late yesterday in Brussels after the release of preliminary results. Premier for 18 years until he was voted out of office in December, Juncker also gained recognition in his dual role as head of the group of euro-area finance ministers during the debt crisis.

Juncker (pictured above) still must to convince the European Council to propose him as Commission president, and he’ll still need to win over enough right-wing or center-left allies to win a majority vote in the European Parliament.

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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

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That process, which could feature a major battle between the European Council and the European Parliament, will unfold in the days, weeks and possibly months ahead.

But what do the results mean across Europe in each country? Here’s a look at how the European elections are reverberating across the continent.  Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Paris mayoral election results

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

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

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

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

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

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The big story from Sunday’s municipal elections in France is the success of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front national (FN, National Front), overshadowing the marquee Paris mayoral election.France Flag IconNetherlands Flag IconEuropean_Union

The far-right won the mayoral race in Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town in the north, in a rare first-round victory, the FN came in second in Marseille, France’s second-largest city, and it led in at least six other locations as France prepares for second-round runoffs on March 30.

The result should certainly boost Le Pen in her efforts to win  support in European parliamentary elections in May — and to unite the populist hard right across the continent.

According to preliminary results, the Front national won just 4.65% of the national vote. That’s a big deal because the party was running in just 597 of around 37,000 jurisdictions — it’s a massive increase from the 2008 municipal results, when the FN won around 1% and ran in just 119 constituencies. 

The other narrative from Sunday’s vote is the collapse of France’s center-left — president François Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) won 37.74% nationally, while the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) of former president Nicolas Sarkozy won 46.54% nationally. The bright spot for the Socialists remains Paris, where first deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo is the slight favorite to win a runoff against former Sarkozy campaign spokesperson and ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet — but don’t rule out an upset next Sunday there, either.

The success in the 2014 municipal elections is just the latest chapter for Le Pen’s rebranding of the Front national in France as a slightly more moderate alternative than the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led for decades. It’s harder today to target the Front national as a xenophobic, anti-Semitic fringe, because Le Pen has focused on an agenda much heavier on euroskepticism and economic nationalism. While the Front national isn’t exactly immigrant-friendly, its position has largely converged with the UMP’s position since the Sarkozy presidency, which embraced hard-right positions on immigration and law-and-order issues. By shifting rightward, Sarkozy may have sidelined Le Pen during his presidency and co-opted her supporters, but today, Sarkozy is almost as responsible as Le Pen for bringing the Front national within the political mainstream.

With the line blurring between the UMP and the Front national, Le Pen could become the chief voice of the French right in 2017, especially if the UMP succumbs to more infighting between its right-wing leader Jean-François Copé and the more moderate former prime minister François Fillon. The next presidential election is still a long way off, but if Sarkozy doesn’t run for the presidency in 2017, Le Pen stands just as much chance as Copé, Fillon or any other UMP figure of representing the French right in the second round.

More immediately troubling for France’s political elite are the European parliamentary elections in May. Despite its breakthrough performance on Sunday, the Front national isn’t about to overrun the city halls of France. Its victory is more symbolic than substantive. But if it’s one thing to turn over your local government to Marine Le Pen, it’s a far different thing to support the Front national as a protest vote with respect to European Union policy.

Polls show that the Front national and the UMP are competing for first place in the European elections within France — the most recent Opinion Way poll from early March shows the UMP winning  22%, the FN winning 21% and the Socialists just 17%. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a wave of undecided voters support the Front national at the last moment, nor would it be a surprise to learn that polling surveys currently underestimate FN support.

Extremists on both the far left and the far right are gaining strength throughout the entire European Union. That’s perhaps understandable, given the harsh economic conditions that have plagued Europe since the last EU-wide elections in 2009. But the euroskeptic right, in particular, seems poised for a breakthrough. Nigel Farage hopes to lead the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party to a breakthrough performance in May, and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) is tied for first place in polls in Austria.

But just as Le Pen hits her stride, another standard-bearer of the hard right, Geert Wilders, found himself in free fall last week after pledging to allow fewer Moroccans into the Netherlands, remarks that have launched a cascade of criticism and a handful of defections from his party: Continue reading Le Pen v. Wilders: a tale of two far-right European movements

Latest Bettencourt turn removes obstacle for Sarkozy presidential bid in 2017

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You thought you were tired of all of the talk in the United States about the inevitability of a presidential run by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in November 2016.France Flag Icon

But imagine if your next presidential election isn’t until May 2017 and everyone is already speculating.

That’s the case in France, where former president Nicolas Sarkozy is now even more likely to become the frontrunner for the 2017 race for the Élysée Palace after French officials dropped a criminal case against Sarkozy in the so-called Bettencourt affair.

Sarkozy was accused of soliciting L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for secret campaign funds.  The fundamentals of the scandal are similar to those for which former US senator and presidential candidate John Edwards stood criminal trial for soliciting secret campaign cash from banking heiress Rachel ‘Bunny’ Mellon, who was 96 years old at the time.

French judges are still pursuing an investigation over whether party officials in Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement) took advantage of Bettencourt’s mental frailty and advanced age in taking campaign donations for Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign — in particular, former UMP treasurer Eric Woerth still faces criminal liability.  But after Monday’s decision not to include Sarkozy’s name in the list of those who face liability, the former president has escaped the worst of his potential legal and political troubles for the foreseeable future.

That means that the single-most difficult obstacle between Sarkozy and a 2017 presidential bid is gone.  Though he’s no longer mis en examen (placed under investigation) Sarkozy’s legal troubles haven’t totally evaporated, and he remains under a cloud of suspicion for a handful of other shenanigans, including allegations that Libya’s regime paid €50 million to Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign.  But the Bettencourt affair was always the most serious case against Sarkozy.

As with the Clinton 2016 speculation in the United States, it’s folly to think that we can forecast with accuracy the dynamics of an election that’s years away.  But it’s stunning in some ways that Sarkozy, who lost the May 2012 presidential runoff to François Hollande, the candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), remains such a strong challenger for 2017 just 17 months after leaving office.

Moreover, the specter of a Sarkozy return is affect French politics today (and not just 2017) by shaping the way that other top UMP officials posture and by placing pressure on the current, vastly unpopular Hollande regime — the possibility of a Sarkozy comeback also exerts a gravitational pull on the far right of French politics, too.

Only 23% of the French electorate has confidence in Hollande, according to an October TRS-SOFRES poll — Hollande has watched his popularity erode in record time to become the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic:

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France’s GDP growth dropped from 2% in 2011 to exactly 0% in 2012, unemployment has risen to 10.9%, and the economy’s doing not much better in 2013.  Hollande was damaged almost from the beginning of his presidency over a nasty spat between his former partner, 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal and his current partner Valérie Trierweiler.  His bold effort to introduce a top income tax rate of 75% (of incomes over €1 million) invited capital flight and global ridicule — and a rejection by France’s top constitutional court.

His woes are so great that I wondered back in May whether the French left (and France, generally) might have been better off if Dominique Strauss-Kahn had survived his sex scandal to run for president.

Most immediately, of course, all of the ‘Sarko 2017’ talk serves to prevent the emergence of a truly post-Sarkozy center-right standard-bearer.  Recall last November’s internal UMP primary to determine a new general secretary — right-wing candidate Jean-François Copé’s 50.03% was so narrow (and so challenged) by his opponent, the more moderate former prime minister François Fillon that the result threatened a UMP civil war.

Though the tensions subsided into more of a cold war than a civil war, there was always a sense that Copé was a stalking horse for a potential Sarkozy comeback — by defeating Fillon, Copé’s narrow win prevented Fillon from becoming the undisputed leader of the French right.

What was a Copé-Fillon showdown in 2012 has now transformed into a more open Sarkozy-Fillon showdown, with Fillon billing himself as the clean-break candidate for 2017, though Sarkozy himself has yet to decide whether to make a comeback bid for the presidency and is unlikely to join the political fray against either Fillon or Hollande anytime soon.  An IFOP poll earlier this year showed that six out of 10 French voters preferred that neither Sarkozy nor Fillon run in 2017, though Fillon generally held higher approval ratings as prime minister than Sarkozy did as president, and there’s reason to believe he would have made a better candidate for the UMP in 2012 than Sarkozy.

Meanwhile, no consideration of the UMP’s machinations would be complete without considering the far-right Front national (FN, National Front) that, if anything, is gaining more strength than either the UMP or the Socialists.  The far right notched a huge victory in a by-election in the southern canton of Brignoles on October 7, when the Front national candidate Laurent Lopez won 40.4% of the vote and will face a runoff against the UMP’s candidate Catherine Delzers, who won 20.8% (another far-right party, the Parti de France, won just over 9%.)

Despite Sarkozy’s lurch to the right on immigration and crime throughout his career, it didn’t stop Front national leader Marine Le Pen from winning 17.9% of the vote in the first round of the April 2012 presidential election.  Among the factors that could push the UMP away from Fillon and toward a leader like Sarkozy or Copé in 2017 is the fear that a relatively moderate standard-bearer like Fillon would allow Le Pen to siphon even more support from the center-right.

French debate on Syria intervention highlights Sarkozy legacy on world affairs

Jean Marc Ayrault

What a difference a decade makes.

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Ten years after French president Jacques Chirac and France’s UN ambassador Dominique de Villepin made an impassioned stand in the United Nations against the US-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq over the issue of weapons of mass destruction, France finds itself as the chief European ally in US president Barack Obama’s push to punish the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus late last month.

In a parliamentary debate in Paris yesterday, French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (pictured above) made a strong case for intervention for the purpose of demonstrating the international community’s credibility in deterring the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the future.  Center-right legislators in the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement), including the UMP’s parliamentary leader Christian Jacob, argued just as forcefully that French participation in a US-led strike against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad — without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council — over the use of chemical weapons would isolate France’s role in the international community.

Although Chirac and the UMP also opposed unilateral intervention in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, it’s ironic that the UMP has suddenly found itself as the voice of opposition to Hollande because no one is more responsible for the transformation of France’s newfound assertiveness in world affairs than former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who succeeded Chirac in 2007, who struck a consistently muscular posture on foreign affairs.  Sarkozy, always keen to rejuvenate Franco-American relations, took a starring role alongside Cameron in the UN-backed NATO campaign to enforce a no-fly zone against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and support anti-Gaddafi rebels in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Had he won reelection in May 2012, Sarkozy would likely be just as enthusiastic as Hollande to support Syrian intervention — probably more so given the opportunity to supplant the United Kingdom as Obama’s chief partner.  Some former Sarkozy officials, notably former foreign minister Alain Juppé, support France’s forward role in Syria.

But Sarkozy, who may run again for president in 2017, has been uncharacteristically quiet on France’s role in any military action against Syria.

Silence or not, it’s the UMP’s Sarkozy who put France on the path to a more aggressive foreign policy, in part by returning France to NATO’s military command after a 40-year absence.  Since the start of Syria’s civil war two years ago, both Sarkozy and Hollande have called for Assad’s removal, and Sarkozy helped lifted the EU arms embargo on Syria to allow weapons to the anti-Assad opposition.

Hollande, who marked a rupture from Sarkozy in presidential style, social policy and economic policy, has largely followed Sarkozy’s path on foreign affairs.  Hollande ordered French troops into northern Mali earlier this year (like Libya, an action also approved by the Security Council) to reclaim territory that had been occupied by radical Islamists.  Though it was a limited intervention, taken with a light touch by a country long accused of pursuing a neo-colonial Françafrique policy since the 1960s, Hollande’s action looks for now to have been very successful in stabilizing Mali — Mali’s newly elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was sworn in yesterday.   Continue reading French debate on Syria intervention highlights Sarkozy legacy on world affairs

Why is the opposition to same-sex marriage so strong in France?

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To the rest of the world, France is a virtual billboard for sexual freedom and sophistication.France Flag Icon

Sex, of course, made an entire generation or two of French and European cinema — from Les enfants terribles to Jules et Jim to Last Tango in Paris.  Paris, for nearly a century, has been the world’s premier city of romance, and its popular mayor since 2001, Bertrand Delanoë, is openly gay.

As recently as a few years ago, the amorous French were rated, alongside the Spanish, the Italians and the Brazilians, as the world’s best lovers.  The international vocabulary of sex encompasses everything from French kissing to the ménage à trois.  French voters have long accepted a certain liberté among their leaders — French president François Hollande and Ségolène Royal shared lives and children together for decades without formally marrying, former president Nicolas Sarkozy famously divorced and courted singer Carla Bruni in the first months of his presidency and former François Mitterand had a daughter with his mistress.

So it’s somewhat incongruent to see such strident opposition to same-sex marriage — on the day that France’s Assemblée nationale passed same-sex marriage into law, anti-marriage forces appear to have rioted in Paris, the city of love.

Since at least 1789, the French have never shied away from a riot — in recent years, France has seen civil unrest over everything from the plight of young Muslims in 2005 to the raising of the retirement age in 2010.  But that hardly explains why same-sex marriage has become such a heated issue.

More troubling is that the vote follows at least two incidents of anti-gay violence perpetrated in France in recent days.  Opponents vow to continue their fight — they’ve scheduled another large protest for May 26, notwithstanding the celebration of proponents of same-sex marriage, in France and beyond, and same-sex opponents have attacked Hollande’s government with increasing vitriol:

“They’re opening a Pandora’s box,” says Alain Escada, the head of the fundamentalist Christian group Civitas. “The next thing they will want three-way or four-way marriages,” blasted the archbishop of Lyon, Philippe Barbarin. “And then the ban on incest will be dropped.”

“Who would then, in the name of the sacrosanctness of love, still be able to convey that sex with animals or polyandry are wrongful,” asked the umbrella organization of Muslims in France. Finally, Frigide Barjot, the acid-tongued self-appointed icon of the anti-gay marriage movement, declared, “If Hollande wants blood, then he will get it.” The activist later retracted her statement.

Although the United Kingdom’s push for same-sex marriage hasn’t been without obstacles, it’s nonetheless moving forward and likely to be enacted by the end of the summer, largely without the passionate public opposition that we’ve seen in France.

Hollande has indicated he will sign the law, though the opposition has filed a challenge with France’s top constitutional court, so same-sex marriage, despite Tuesday’s vote, is not entirely a fait accompli.

There’s no mistaking the anti-marriage movement for the anti-marriage protesters in the United States, which is steeped in a more evangelical Protestant tradition.  The name of most active anti-gay group ‘Manif pour tous‘ (‘Demonstration for all’) sounds at first like it could be a pro-gay group.  It’s also a bit weird that the anti-marriage movement has adopted pink as its color, which makes the anti-gay protests in France look like, well, pretty much a gay pride parade in any other country:

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So why, given the famously laid-back approach of the French to l’amour, are so many of the French so actively opposed to gay marriage?

The push for same-sex marriage remains a very partisan issue.  Unlike in the United Kingdom, where a Conservative prime minister has made its enactment a priority, largely with the support of the even more socially liberal Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, same-sex marriage remains an entirely leftist project in France, pushed by Hollande and his allies in the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) who control the French national assembly.

Yesterday’s vote was largely split on partisan lines, with 331 in support and 225 opposed — the opposition largely coming from Sarkozy’s Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement).  It’s odd to see the French right doubling down on opposition to gay marriage, even as conservatives in the United Kingdom and even in the United States are coming to embrace same-sex marriage.  But it largely has to do with internal politics — Jean-François Copé, the UMP president, and other top center-right leaders remain terrified of losing support to the more socially conservative Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front national (FN, National Front).  The same dynamic pulled Sarkozy increasingly to the right during his own presidential career on issues like immigration and crime.

Continue reading Why is the opposition to same-sex marriage so strong in France?

How would Italian politics function under a ‘French’ electoral system?

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Former center-right foreign minister Franco Frattini is far from the fray of Italian politics these days — he didn’t run in last week’s Italian elections and he’s currently a candidate to replace Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.France Flag IconItaly Flag Icon

Nonetheless, Frattini (pictured above) spoke in Washington yesterday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as well as to a small audience at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and amid a set of thoughtful remarks about Italy’s election and its post-vote gridlock, one remark stood out in particular — that Italy should revise its electoral law by adopting the system currently in use by France, a two-round system whereby deputies are elected in single-member constituencies.

When election results came in last Monday, despite pre-election polls showing that the broad centrosinistra (center-left) coalition headed by Pier Luigi Bersani would win, returns showed Bersani’s coalition doing poorer than expected.  The broad centrodestra (center-right) coalition headed by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the anti-establishment, anti-austerity Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) founded by blogger and activist Beppe Grillo, both polled much better than expected — so much so that Italy now has a hung parliament. A centrist coalition headed by outgoing technocratic prime minister Mario Monti placed far behind in fourth place.

A ‘winner bonus’ for Bersani in Italy’s lower house, Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), based on the fact that his coalition (just barely) won a greater number of votes than any other coalition or party, means that the center-left will command a 340-seat absolute majority in the Camera.

But because seats are awarded on a regional basis to Italy’s upper house, the Senato (Senate), no one emerged with anything close to a majority — and it became clear that even a widely mooted Bersani-Monti coalition would fall far short of a majority.

So election law reform has become a top-shelf issue in the wake of last week’s elections, not only because of the inconclusive result last week, but because it’s one of a handful of items that both Grillo and Bersani, the leader of the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), agree upon, so reform could be a key element of any agenda that a short-term Bersani-Grillo alliance might enact before a new election.

Even members of Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) want to reform the election law, and even Roberto Calderoli, who pushed the law through the Italian parliament, has called it a ‘porcata,’ a pig’s dinner.

But agreeing that the election law is a mess and agreeing on a new law are two different things.

So what have Italy’s three most recent voting systems — the postwar open-list proportional representation system, the mixed, mostly first-past-the post system adopted in 1993, and the closed-list proportional representation system (with a ‘winner bonus’) adopted in 2005 — historically meant for stability or chaos in Italy’s parliament?

How does the French system vary from Italy’s current system?

And how would a French system work in Italy?

Continue reading How would Italian politics function under a ‘French’ electoral system?

British, French governments poised to pass gay marriage into law

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Amid a flurry of parliamentary action in the United Kingdom and France, two of the largest countries in Europe and, indeed, two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, are set to legalize gay marriage in the coming months.United Kingdom Flag IconFrance Flag Icon

The joint result gives an incredibly burst of global momentum for the idea of gay marriage and LGBT equality.

Even more striking, the gay marriage push has been pursued by two governments that couldn’t be much more different, ideologically — a right-wing, budget-cutting Conservative Party government in the United Kingdom and a leftist Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) government in France.

Most immediately, in London yesterday, the British House of Commons voted overwhelmingly 400 to 175 to approve equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian partnerships in England and Wales.  Enacting same-sax marriage rights has been at the heart of UK prime minister David Cameron’s ‘modernising’ mission for the Conservative Party — i.e., pulling it to the forefront of supporting socially liberal causes, while the government continues pursuing a very conservative economic agenda.

Nonetheless, Cameron’s efforts, historic as they may be, have not been without a cost — despite the overwhelming support of his coalition partners, the socially progressive Liberal Democratic Party and of the opposition Labour Party, only 127 of Cameron’s 303 Tory MPs supported Tuesday’s bill.

That’s frankly somewhat of an embarrassment for the prime minister, who’s facing increasing pressure from backbenchers who are worried about the government’s unpopularity nearly halfway through its five-year term — young Tory MP Adam Afriyie is already reported to be considering an upstart leadership campaign against Cameron.  More worryingly than Afriyie, however, is the fact that Owen Paterson, the environmental secretary, led the Tory effort in the House of Commons against the gay marriage bill, and even Cameron’s attorney general, Dominic Grieve, abstained from the final vote.

For a party already perilously split on issues like the UK’s role in Europe, the vote has now opened a new rift over social progress as well, writes Polly Toynbee in The Guardian:

[Gay marriage], warn the old Tory chairmen of the shires, is “shaking the very foundations of the party”. If so, they really are done for. Cameron wrongly thought this a clause IV moment to parade a modernised party. Instead, he has revealed them as a nest of bigots. Disunity is electoral poison, and so is a leader losing control of his party. Rebel MPs, like runaway horses, lose their fear of whips. Gay marriage has become a proxy for other undisciplined craziness running through their veins, from hunting to Europe, privatising the NHS to breaking up the BBC, loathing windmills, loving fracking.

Notwithstanding the perils for Cameron, the bill will now proceed to the House of Lords, where it should pass relatively easily, and Cameron hopes to mark the law’s enactment later this summer.  Scotland, meanwhile, is considering its own gay marriage bill later this year — first minister Alex Salmond’s majority government, dominated by the Scottish National Party, is set to advance the issue after consultation on the bill ends in March 2013.

But France will be racing to beat Great Britain to the marriage chapel.

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Over the weekend, the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly) of France approved a change in the definition of marriage from an agreement between a man and a woman to simply an agreement between two people, paving the way for the adoption of a comprehensive same-sex marriage and adoption bill later this year.

Gay marriage has also proven divisive in France, where a strong Catholic opposition to gay marriage has polarized political views on the issue.  Although France’s government won its most recent vote, it did so only with the support of the ruling Socialists — lawmakers from the conservative Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement) of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the more far-right Front national (FN, National Front) of Marine Le Pen opposed the measure.

The conservative opposition has used amendment and other delaying tactics to stall the bill, despite a massive pro-LGBT rally in Paris late in January.

A recent poll shows that 63% of French voters support gay marriage.  A Guardian poll in December 2012 showed nearly the same level of support (62%) among British voters.

Europe has long been at the vanguard of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. Continue reading British, French governments poised to pass gay marriage into law

Five reasons Berlusconi returned to run in the upcoming Italian election

After leading a symbolic ‘walk-out’ among his center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) from the Italian senate on Thursday in opposition to the austerity measures and other reforms of caretaker prime minister Mario Monti, Il Cavaliere himself, Silvio Berlusconi (pictured above), today announced that he will lead the PdL as its candidate for prime minister in the upcoming Italian general election against a broad center-left alliance anchored by the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

So much for a ‘third republic’ in Italian politics — with the selection of the Italian left’s old-guard’s candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani, in the center-left’s broad primary earlier this month against Florence mayor Matteo Renzi (the latter remains Italy’s most popular politician), Italy remains, for now, stuck in the same-old politics as before.

Indeed, a Berlusconi-Bersani face-off would not have raised eyebrows a decade ago.

This time around, though, Berlusconi will face none of the political luck or goodwill that’s marked most of his career — he left office in November 2011 with Italian 10-year bond rates at an unsustainable 7% amid a growing financial crisis that threatened not only Italy, but the entire eurozone.  In addition, Berlusconi has little to show for his stint in office in the way of policy accomplishments, was convicted (subject to appeal) for tax evasion earlier this autumn, and he’s been shamed by accusations of sex with underage women at the now-famous and much derided ‘bunga bunga’ parties and using his influence for the benefit of at least one of those women, a Moroccan immigrant.

So his return to office in many ways would be met with not just disdain, but outright hostility, from outside investors and much of the European political establishment, including the leaders of the European Union, French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Berlusconi’s return has been met with chilly responses across the Italian political spectrum.  Monti, who is not contesting the election but has indicated he would be available to lead a second government in the event of a hung parliament, cautioned against populism and warned that Italy must avoid returning to a position whereby Italy’s finances threatened trigger the eurozone’s wider implosion.  Beppe Grillo, a blogger and social critic, as well as the leader of the populist and anti-austerity Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), savaged what he called Berlusconi’s ‘exhumation.’

Berlusconi’s one-time ally, Gianfranco Fini, who served as deputy prime minister, foreign minister and a former president of Italy’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Camera die Deputati), and who is running under the newly-formed Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (FLI, Future and Freedom), also sounded alarm, noting that the PdL decision exposes Italy to additional risks.

Given the long odds — the PdL stands far behind the center-left coalition in every poll conducted for next year’s election (and sometimes behind the Five Star Movement, too) — why would the 76-year-old Berlusconi make a bid for a fourth term as Italy’s prime minister?

Here are five reasons why he could be making the race.

Continue reading Five reasons Berlusconi returned to run in the upcoming Italian election

Bersani routs Renzi in ‘centrosinistra’ primary to lead Italian left next spring

Florence’s brash, young mayor Matteo Renzi and his campaign to lead the Italian left threatened to remake Italian politics at a time of upheaval and uncertainty greater than at any point in the past two decades.

But the rank-and-file of the Italian left chose the more familiar path on Sunday, elevating instead the familiar, older and more staid, even boring, president of Italy’s largest center-left party, the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Pier Luigi Bersani (pictured above, enjoying a post-election beer).

The 61-year-old Bersani easily defeated the 37-year-old Renzi with around 61.1% of the vote (with just 38.8% for Renzi) — a victory so complete for Bersani that Renzi was winning only in Tuscany, the central Italian region that’s home to Florence, and even there, only with about 55% of the vote.

For many reasons, I argued last week that Bersani’s victory was very likely: his control of the PD party machinery, Italian cultural values that respect longevity (i.e. can you think of anyone in the past 50 years that could be described as ‘Italy’s JFK’?), close ties to Italy’s largest union, the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL, General Confederation of Labour) and support from the candidate who placed third in the first round of the primary election, Nichi Vendola.  Vendola is the openly-gay, two-term regional president of Puglia, a more leftist candidate who is the leader and founder of the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), which will join with a handful of other small leftist parties in supporting Bersani as a candidate for prime minister in Italy’s general election, scheduled to be held on or before April 2013.  Vendola memorably said, on the same day as his endorsement, that Bersani’s words were ‘profumare di sinistra‘ — perfumed with leftism.

Current technocratic prime minister Mario Monti is not running in the upcoming election.  Monti has shepherded labor reforms, budget cuts and tax increases through the Italian parliament since the PD joined with the main center-right party, the center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) in November 2011 to appoint Monti in the midst of a public finance crisis that resulted in Berlusconi’s resignation.

So what happens next?

Continue reading Bersani routs Renzi in ‘centrosinistra’ primary to lead Italian left next spring