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The French Election

Here’s how the French presidential election is going to work. This Sunday’s vote will pick the leading two candidates, who will then have another two weeks to campaign for the run-off vote. But the leading four candidates are now bunched together so closely in the polls that any two of them could make it through to the second round. Including a couple of quite worrisome people.

The permutations and combinations are mind-bendingly complex. One reporter interpreted the pollsters’ latest attempt to predict the second-round outcome as follows: “Macron would win the run-off against any opponent, while Le Pen would lose. Melencthon would defeat everyone except Macron and Fillon would lose to all except Le Pen.”

The point, however, is that nobody knows which two will actually be in the second round. The four main candidates are all predicted to win beween 19 and 22 percent of the votes this Sunday, a spread that is no greater than the polls’ margin of error. And as of last weekend, one-third of the voters were still undecided.

So there are six possible outcomes to this Sunday’s vote – and one of them, just as plausible as the others, would see the fascist and the crypt-communist fighting it out for the presidency in the second round.

Two of the candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Francois Fillon, are worthy centrist figures in the traditional mould of French presidents. Macron, a former investment banker, has a younger, more modern vibe, something like a French Justin Trudeau, but neither man poses any serious threat to the status quo. Whereas the other two….

Marine Le Pen inherited the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded it in 1972 as an anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist movement. He gloried in outraging mainstream opinion, even indulging in Holocaust denial, but fifteen years ago he made it into the presidential run-off.

And that’s as far as he got. Every other party’s voters united in support of the rival candidate, Jacques Chirac (some holding their noses – one slogan was “vote for the crook, not the fascist”), and the senior Le Pen was resoundingly defeated, getting only 18 percent of the run-off votes. Which taught his daughter that anti-Semitism doesn’t win votes any more. But anti-Muslim rhetoric still does, and extreme nationalism still works too.

“My first measure as president will be to reinstate France’s borders,” she said this week. Out-Trumping Trump, she promised to stop all immigration to France right away, and to allow only 10,000 a year to come in when the total ban is relaxed. She also promises to pull France out of the euro common currency, and to hold a Brexit-style referendum on leaving the European Union altogether.

If France followed Britain out of the EU, the organisation would probably not survive. With the EU’s second- and third-largest economies gone, Germany would utterly dominate the remaining 25 smaller economies, which would prove an unsustainable relationship in the end. And without the discipline of EU membership, it’s likely that former Eastern European members would drift into internal repression and external conflicts.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the other rogue candidate, also dislikes the European Union. He says he would rather change the EU radically than leave it, but in practice he is just as nationalist as Le Pen, and a good deal more radical socially. As a student, he was a Trotskyist activist.

Today Melenchon is just hard left, but very hard. He wants to quit the NATO alliance, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, all of which are “instruments of a failing global capitalism”. He wants to limit pay for CEOs to 20 times the salary of their worst-paid employee, and impose an absolute income ceiling of 400,000 euros ($425,000), above which the tax rate rises to 100 percent.

He’s as enthusiastic about Vladimir Putin as Trump was until a few months ago. He’s also a fan of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (whom Trump does not openly admire, but whose political style he closely emulates). Melenchon is sharp and innovative: on some days he appears in half a dozen cities as once, speaking as a live-action hologram.

He’s funny, too. “Once again, they are announcing that my election win will set off a nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and a landing of Venezuelans,” he wrote in a recent blog post. That’s not true, of course, but it certainly would make Europe a very different place politically.

So how likely is this apocalyptic Le Pen-Melenchon run-off in May? Maybe one chance in six, because the voters can only choose one candidate, not which two they want to see in the run-off. And who would win a Le Pen-Melenchon contest? Probably Melenchon, because he could persuade more people to hold their noses and vote for an ex-Trotskyist than Le Pen could convince to vote for the unshriven daughter of a fascist.

The Trotskyists, you see, never invaded France.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“If France…conflicts”; and “He’s funny…politically”)

Peak Putin?

The crowds of protesters in Moscow and other Russian cities were far bigger the last time, in 2011-2012. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was so intoxicated by the forty or fifty thousand citizens who demonstrated in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s rule that he boasted: “I see enough people here to take the Kremlin…right now, but we are peaceful people and won’t do that just yet.”

It was a delusional thing to say even then. Five years later, the crowds joining the protests against official corruption on Sunday were in the hundreds or the low thousands in most Russian cities. Even in Moscow’s Pushkin Square they probably did not number more than ten thousand – and Navalny himself was arrested on his way to the square. At home, Putin reigns supreme, with approval ratings around the 80 percent level.

He’s not doing too badly abroad, either. On Friday he met with Marine Le Pen, the leading candidate in France’s presidential election next month and Putin’s favourite Western leader after Donald Trump. She supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from the start, and promises to work for an end of European Union sanctions against Russia if she becomes president of France this spring.

That promise might be hard to keep, since she would also be busy organising a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU, but Putin replied “I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.” It certainly is: the Brexiteers in Britain have already won their referendum on leaving, and the EU would probably not survive the departure of two of its three biggest members.

Without the EU, there would be no powerful counterpoise to Russia in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump has already put an admirer of Putin in the White House. Moreover, Russia is now the dominant outside power in the Middle East for the first time since the 1960s, and it has achieved that position at a far lower cost in blood and treasure than the United States paid in 2001-2015.

Putin is undeniably a master manipulator both at home and abroad, and he has good reason to be pleased with his accomplishments. And yet….

Putin has played a weak hand internationally with great skill, but Russia really is weak. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and apart from defence industry the country is largely de-industrialised. (Have you ever bought anything made in Russia?)

Only oil and gas exports give Moscow the cash to play the great power game at all, and the collapse of oil prices has put Moscow on a starvation diet. The relatively low-cost intervention in Syria has brought Moscow high diplomatic returns in the short term, but Putin lacks the resources to play a major role in rebuilding post-war Syria, so Russia’s influence in the region is bound to fade as time passes.

Even in Europe, Russia’s posture is essentially defensive, if only because it could not afford to hold up its end of a new Cold War. Putin has effectively neutralised the pro-Western government of Ukraine by seizing Crimea and sponsoring a separatist war in two eastern provinces, but he won’t go any farther even with Trump in the White House.

Putin’s real vulnerability is at home. His popular support has held up well despite three years of economic decline because of falling oil income, and it may even carry him safely through next year’s presidential election. But there is no reason to believe that oil revenues are going to recover in the near future.

Even Russia’s cooperation with the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries in cutting oil production to get the price back up caused only a modest and brief upward tick in world oil prices. Now they are back down where they were three months ago.

There is great over-capacity in the world’s oil industry, and it’s entirely possible that Russians face two or three more years of declining incomes (from a base that was never all that high). Many Russians are still grateful to Putin for ending the decade of chaos and acute poverty after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but for half the population that is ancient history.

It is the young whom Putin must fear, because they are less impressed by hollow foreign triumphs in places they don’t care about, and more unhappy about an economic future that leaves most of them bumping along the bottom. He has had a long run in power – seventeen years and counting – but his future is probably a lot shorter than his past.

In fact, Russia may be at peak Putin right now, with only mounting troubles in his future. The crowds were smaller this time than last, but they were not just in the big cities. When there are protests in places like Chita and Barnaul, you know that a lot of people are running out of patience.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Even…House”; and “Even…ago”)

Netanyahu, Obama and the UN

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is very, very cross about last Friday’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the creation of illegal Jewish settlements all over the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

He called in the ambassadors of all the Western countries that voted for the resolution to tell them off: Britain, France, Spain, even New Zealand. He also had the US ambassador on the carpet, although Washington merely abstained in the Security Council vote. But, Netanyahu said, Donald Trump’s incoming administration has promised to fight “an all-out war” against the resolution.

The resolution is only words, of course, but they are words that have not found their way into any UN Security Council resolution since 1979, because the United States always used its veto to kill any resolution that contained them. Words that describe the settlements as having “no legal validity” and constituting a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.”

This is a restatement of a truth that was once almost universally accepted even in Israel. When Israel’s astonishing victory in the 1967 war put the entire remaining area that had been granted to the Palestinians by the UN partition agreement of 1948 under Israeli control, most Israelis initially saw it as an opportunity for peace.

Israel now had a powerful bargaining card. If the Arabs wanted their lost territories back, they would have to sign peace treaties with Israel – and probably agree to demilitarise those territories into the bargain.

To a generation of Israelis who had lived in permanent, existential fear of losing a war, that looked like a good bargain. But even then a minority of Israelis wanted to keep the conquered territories forever and repopulate them with Jewish settlers.

Some of these expansionists were motivated by religion, others by security concerns, but they all understood that the way to thwart any give-away of these territories was to fill them with Jewish settlers.

The settler movement began slowly: 15 years after the conquest there were still only 100,000 Jews living in the occupied territories, but the number had doubled to 200,000 by 1990, and doubled again to 400,000 by 2002. It is now at least 600,000, and may be as high as 750,000.

If the settler population continues to grow at the current rate, there could be as many as a million Jews in the occupied territories by 2030. At that point, the long-term prospect of a Jewish majority heaves above the horizon. And that is what the current confrontation between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is really about.

Netanyahu avoids any actual peace talks with the Palestinians because a peace deal (if it could be achieved) would mean the end of the settlement project. He can’t say that out loud, of course, but it is the openly expressed view of the settler leaders whose support has been essential to Netanyahu’s various coalition governments.

This is why Netanyahu has to lie all the time, and it drives Obama crazy. In a conversation caught on an open mike in 2011, France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy told Obama: “I can’t stand him (Netanyahu). He’s a liar.” And Obama replied, “You’re tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

But Obama’s decision to abstain on the Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlement policy in the Palestinian occupied territories was not just a childish last slap at Netanyahu. Obama has a fundamentally different view of what constitutes long-term security for Israel – one that he shares with most other outside observers, but a shrinking proportion of Israelis.

Long-term does mean long-term. It cannot be assumed that Arab states will always be relatively poor and incompetently led, and that Israel will always be the unchallengeable military superpower of the region. So, in the view of Obama and other outsiders, Israel’s long-term security still depends on making a fair and lasting peace with its Arab neighbours – including the Palestinians.

The settlements fatally undermine the prospects for such a deal. For a growing number of Israelis, that is irrelevant, because they have a fundamentally demonic view of the Arabs and do not believe that a lasting peace with them is possible. In which case, of course, Israel might as well grab all of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Jewish settlements are indeed illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and there is not a single government outside Israel that believes they are legitimate. But the recent Security Council resolution will have no effect on Israeli policy, nor will the state of Israel suffer grave consequences as a result.

President-elect Donald Trump will stop any further such resolutions with the US veto, although he is unlikely to be able to undo this one. And we will all have to wait a long time to know whether it is the perspective of Netanyahu and Trump, or that of Obama and almost all other world leaders, that ultimately defines Israel’s future.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 15. (“Some…750,000”; and “The Jewish…result”)

Terrorism in Europe: “Our Country is at War”

“Our country is at war,” said French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, after a priest was murdered near Rouen in front of his congregation by two attackers who claimed to be serving Islamic State. It’s the sort of thing leaders feel compelled to say at times like this, but it does send the wrong message.

French aircraft are already bombing IS forces in Syria, so you could call that a sort of war (though nobody on the French side is getting killed). But that was not what Hollande was talking about. He was saying that France is somehow at war AT HOME, and went on to say “Our democracy is the target, and it will be our shield. Let us stand together. We will win this war.”

Stirring stuff, and the French certainly need some encouragement, because they are still in shock after the recent slaughter of 84 people by an truck-driving Islamist terrrorist in Nice. But the words are wrong, because if the French are at war at home, then who are they at war with? The obvious answer, almost the only plausible answer, is French Muslims. Which is, of course, precisely the conclusion that Islamic State wants the French people to reach.

I’m not saying that the two deluded Muslim teenagers who carried out the attack – both born in France – were aware of the grand strategy behind IS’s terrorist campaign in Europe. The foot-soldiers in any campaign are unlikely to know or care much about such things.

But the men who set IS policy and control the Islamist websites that urge young European Muslims to commit these terrible acts know exactly what they want to achieve. In France, they want to stimulate anti-Muslim hatred, turn the majority against this under-privileged minority, and ensure the victory of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the neo-fascist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant National Front, in next year’s presidential election.

She is already practically guaranteed a place as one of the two contenders in the second, run-off phase of the French election. If the terrorist attacks radicalise many Christian and post-Christian French people and lead to widespread anti-Muslim violence, Le Pen might even win it and become France’s next president.

Islamic State’s strategy in Germany is just the same, although the country is less fertile ground for Islamist extremism: relatively few of Germany’s Muslims are Arabs, and IS is an overwhelmingly Arab organisation. The far-right parties in Germany are also much weaker than the National Front in France. But IS has just claimed credit for two terrorist attacks in Germany in a single week.

Two IS attacks in Germany, NOT four. The axe-wielding Afghan youth on a train near Wuerzburg who wounded five people on 18 July, and the failed Syrian asylum seeker who blew himself up outside a music festival and injured fifteen other people in Ansbach on Sunday, both proclaimed their loyalty to Islamic State.

But the 18-year-old German youth of Iranian extraction who murdered nine people in Munich last Friday, all but one in their teens, was a psychologically troubled youth obsessed with school shootings and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. The Syrian asylum-seeker who murdered a Polish woman in Reuthlingen on Sunday with a machete knew the victim, and the police said it was probably a “crime of passion”.

However, both of those men were also Muslims, so in the mind of many Germans there has just been a wave of murderous Islamist terrorism. The two IS-linked attacks actually didn’t even kill anybody, but there is now a political panic that has strong anti-Muslim undertones. The IS strategy is working in Germany too.

Why does Islamic State want an anti-Muslim backlash in European countries? Because it will radicalise many more European Muslims, and also maybe bring to power populist leaders who really do want to “wage war on Islam”.

Islamic State’s ideology claims that the whole Muslim world is under attack by the evil West, and that only IS can defend it successfully. Only if its real target audience in the Arab world believes that lie can IS hope to gain popular support, and perhaps ultimately political power, in the Arab countries, so it NEEDS the West to behave badly.

That’s why Francois Hollande was wrong to say that France is at war at home. Words matter, and he’s playing into the terrorists’ hands.

It’s also why the United States can expect to see a rash of Islamist attacks next October. They wouldn’t even have to be very big to drive millions of American voters into the arms of Donald Trump, and nothing could please Islamic State more than Trump as president.
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Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.