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European Elections 2019

The best way of describing what just happened in the European Union elections is to say that the choices are getting clearer – and a lot of people are realising which side they are on.

The elections to the EU Parliament held last week in 28 European countries – including the United Kingdom, since three years after the Brexit referendum it still hasn’t managed to leave– was the second-biggest democratic exercise in the world. Only India’s elections are bigger. 400 million Europeans were eligible to vote, and half of them actually did.

The choice before them, in most member countries, was ‘less EU’ or ‘more EU’. Should the European Union become the semi-detached ‘Europe of the Fatherlands’ that the nationalists and the populists demand, or continue to work on creating joint institutions (like the euro common currency) that bring the members closer together?

There will never be a single answer to that question, but the two sides are sorting themselves out and you can now get a feel for the way things are going.

The hard-line nationalists took 30% of the vote in Italy (the Lega), 32% in the UK (the Brexit Party), 45% in Poland (the Law and Justice Party), and 52% of the votes in Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary. Yet, apart from the Brexit Party, they are no longer trying to leave the EU.

Populist demagogues in other EU countries – who five years ago were advocating a ‘Frexit’ in France, a ‘Nexit’ in the Netherlands, and so on – have watched the tragicomic mega-shambles of Britain’s attempted Brexit and decided that the wiser course is to stay in the EU and try to dominate it from within.

They made some headway in this election, but they still control only 112 of the European Parliament’s 750 seats. It’s not even certain that they can all come together as a single bloc: France’s National Rally, for example, is seen by some other far-right parties in the EU as too pro-Russian and encumbered by a history of anti-Semitism. If this is a tidal wave, it’s a fairly small one.

There was another, slightly bigger tsunami on the ‘more EU’ side of the argument, mainly because the Greens did so well, coming second in Germany and third in France. Strongly pro-EU liberal parties did well too – notably the Liberal Democrats in the UK, who came second there – and together they have added more seats on that side of the argument than the nationalists did on the other extreme.

The real value of this election is that it offers a reality check on the burning question of the day: is Trumpism really going to sweep Europe like it swept America? The answer is no – or at least, not so much.
Nationalist parties that strike authoritarian postures and flirt with racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes did well in some eastern European countries (although they have few immigrants and almost no Muslims). But in western Europe only one populist party, Italy’s Lega, improved on its last showing.

In France the National Rally got only 24% of the vote, whereas its predecessor, the National Front, won 34 % in the 2017 presidential election.

The Brexit Party in the United Kingdom got 32% of the vote, which sounds impressive, since its predecessor, the United Kingdom Independence Party, got only 26 % in the last EU election in 2014. But if you add the Conservative vote (which is mostly pro-Brexit) to the Brexit Party vote in this election and compare it with the UKIP+Conservative votes last time, the pro-Brexit share of the vote is down from 49% in 2014 to 41% now.

This suggests that the Trump virus is less virulent in Europe, and raises the further question: will the UK really crash out of the EU by October 31 (the current deadline), or will there be a second referendum that calls off the whole quixotic enterprise? It’s starting to feel like Brexit never happening is around a 50-50 proposition.

One symptom of the fear the Brexiters now feel is their increasingly shrill insistence that there must be no new referendum. Never mind that Nigel Farage, founder of both UKIP and the Brexit Party, talked about a second referendum when it looked like ‘Remain’ was going to score a narrow win early on the evening of the first referendum in 2016. (It ended up 52% Leave, 48% Remain.)

Never mind, either, that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has just announced that she will publish draft legislation on a second referendum on Scottish independence from the UK later this week. (The first one, in 2014, rejected independence by 55%-45%.) Nobody complained about that.

The Brexit referendum is sacred, Brexiters say, and nobody is allowed to change their mind about it. However, the EU election was treated by almost all British voters as an informal referendum on Brexit, and it’s now pretty clear what would happen in a real one. It’s going to be a very hectic five months in British politics.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“One…that”)

Crooked Timber

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784. It is still true.

On Sunday the 24th ‘Conference of the Parties’ – the 180 countries that signed the climate change treaty in Paris in 2015 – opened in the Polish city of Katowice. The Polish government chose the venue, and it presumably selected Katowice because it is home to Europe’s biggest coal company. It was a thinly disguised show of defiance.

It’s not just Donald Trump who loves coal. It’s by far the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but Poland gets 75% of its electricity by burning coal and it has no intention of changing its ways. In fact, shortly before COP24 opened in Katowice, the Polish government announced that it is planning to invest in a large new coal-mine in the region of Silesia.

1,500 km to the west on the same day, in Paris, municipal workers were picking up the debris after the third and most violent weekend of protests against President Emmanuel Macron. The demos are not as big as those of the great revolt of 1968, but they are certainly the biggest for decades even in this cradle of revolutions.

And what were the protesters (known as the ‘gilets jaunes’ after the fluorescent yellow vests that French drivers must keep in their vehicles) protesting about? In Paris and in other cities, they were building barricades, torching cars, and setting banks and houses on fire because Macron’s government has raised the tax on diesel fuel by 6.5 cents per litre.

This was on top of an increase of 7.9 cents per litre earlier this year, and most French vehicles run on diesel, but the public’s reaction does look a bit excessive. The fact that Macron justified it as a ‘green’ tax intended to reduce fuel use only seemed to make the protesters angrier, and at least until the extreme violence of last Saturday the majority of French people supported them.

Poles clinging to coal despite the fact that the fog of coal smoke that envelops Polish cities in winter kills thousands every year, and ordinary people in France rioting for the right to go on burning cheap diesel in their cars despite a comparable death toll from atmospheric pollution there, suggest that the quest to cut greenhouse gas emissions before global warming goes runaway faces even greater resistance than the experts feared.

Bear in mind that Poland and France are relatively well-educated countries that belong to the European Union, the region that has led the world in terms of its commitment to emission cuts. Neither country has the kind of climate-change denial industry, lavishly funded by fossil-fuel producers, that muddies the waters and spreads doubt about the scientific evidence in the United States. Neither the Poles nor the French are in denial. And yet….

Now, it’s true that Poles have a large collective chip on their shoulder for historical reasons (their entire country was erased from the map for more than a century), so they often respond badly to being lectured by well-meaning foreigners. It’s also true that President Macron is arrogant and has a tin ear for public opinion. But neither nationalist resentment nor clumsy political leadership are in short supply worldwide.

Bear in mind also that the emission cuts promised in the 2015 agreement will not actually come into effect until 2020: we have a mountain to climb and we are not even in the foothills yet. Much bigger sacrifices than a few cents extra on the price of diesel or an end to burning coal will be required before we reach the end of this process, if we ever do.

The question therefore arises: can we really expect that the relatively large (although still inadequate) cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases promised in Paris at the 2015 summit will ever gain the public support necessary to make them happen? If not, then our current global civilisation is doomed.

For the EU, the biggest distraction from the task at hand is the very high rate of unemployment in many Western European countries: officially just under 10% in France and Italy and 15% in Spain, but the true figures are at least a couple of points higher in every case. In fairness to the French protestors, many of them have lost sight of the bigger issue because they just can’t make ends meet.

This unemployment is ‘structural’, and it will not go away. Its primary cause is automation, a process that will only spread and deepen with the passage of time. We are entering this critical period for dealing with climate change – the next five years are make-or-break – just as the world’s economy is undergoing a hugely disruptive transformation that will leave many people permanently jobless.

If you were designing a species capable of making this difficult transition, you would certainly prefer to start with one that was wiser, more cooperative, and less excitable than ourselves, the near relatives of chimpanzees. Something a little less crooked, at least. But this is the timber we have to work with. Good luck.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“For…jobless”)

The Khashoggi Tapes

How odd! Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sends an audio recording of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to the governments of all Turkey’s major NATO allies, and the only one that gets it is Canada.

What happened to the copies that President Erdogan sent to the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Germany? Lost in the mail-room, no doubt, or maybe just lying unopened on somebody’s desk. Or perhaps the Turks just didn’t put enough stamps on the packages.

“We gave them the tapes,” said Erdogan on Saturday. “They’ve also listened to the conversation, they know it.” But still not a word out of Washington or London acknowledging that they have heard the recordings, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denied that France has received a copy.

When asked if that meant Erdogan was lying, Le Drian replied: “It means that he has a political game to play in these circumstances.” Like most Western politicians and diplomats, he is desperate to avoid calling out Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a murderer.

The French have a highly profitable commercial relationship with the oil-rich kingdom, mostly selling it arms, and they don’t want to acknowledge the evidence on the recording (which may directly implicate the Crown Prince) because it could jeopardise that trade.

Erdogan was furious when the French foreign minister issued his denial, and his communications director insisted that a representative of French intelligence had listened to the recording as long ago as 24 October. But it was all just ‘he said/she said’ stuff until Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blew the game wide open on Monday.

Yes, Trudeau said, Canadian intelligence has the recording, and he is well aware of what is on it. In fact, Canadian intelligence agencies have been working very closely with Turkey on the murder investigation, and Canada is “in discussions with our like-minded allies as to the next steps with regard Saudi Arabia.”

Why did Trudeau come clean? One popular theory is the nothing-left -to-lose hypothesis. Last August the tempestuous Crown Prince killed all future trade deals with Canada, pulled thousands of Saudi Arabian foreign students out of Canadian universities, and generally showered curses on the country after Canadian officials called for the release of detained Saudi campaigners for civil rights and women’s rights.

Canada’s bridges to Saudi Arabia have already been burned, according to this theory, so Trudeau felt free to say the truth. But he’s not really free: Canada still has a $13 billion contract to build armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia that the Saudis might cancel, and this is a real contract, not one of Trump’s fantasy arms sales.

Maybe Trudeau is just braver than the others, but his purpose is clear. He waited more than three weeks after getting the recording for the “like-minded allies” to agree to a joint policy towards the murderous prince – nobody believes Khashoggi could have been killed without Mohammed bin Salman’s consent – and then he spilled the beans.

Of course all the major NATO governments have the recordings. They have had them for at least three weeks. They were just dithering over what to do about them, and Trudeau decided it was time to give them a push. Good for him, but what exactly can they do about Mohammed bin Salman’s crime?

It almost certainly was MbS (as they call him) who ordered the killing. Since his elderly father, King Salman, gave him free rein to run the country less than three years ago, he has become a one-man regime. Nothing happens without his approval, least of all the murder of a high-profile critic in a foreign country by a 15-strong Saudi hit squad including several members of his personal security team.

No Western leader (except perhaps Donald Trump) will be seen in public with MbS any more, foreign investment in Saudi Arabia this year is the lowest in several decades, and the price of oil is falling again. So he has to go, if it’s still possible for anybody in Saudi Arabia to remove him from power. But that’s the big question.

The Saudi royal family is no longer a tight, united body that can just decide MbS has to go and make it stick. It’s a sprawling array of people many of whom scarcely know each other, and without the agreement of King Salman any smaller group within the family that organised a coup against the Crown Prince would almost certainly fail.

So he may go on for while despite the disaster of his military intervention in Yemen, his pointless, fruitless blockade of Qatar and even this ugly murder. He wouldn’t be the only killer in power. But the bloom is definitely off this particular rose.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Why…sales”)

Half a Billion Tanzanians?

I was one of five children, so I am in an invidious position when I write about population growth. That was quite normal at the time where I grew up, but I and my brothers and sisters have had a total of only ten children, so we’re down to replacement level in this generation. This is not happening in Tanzania.

“Women can now throw away their contraceptives,” said Tanzania’s President John Magufuli last Sunday. Secondary education is now free in the East African country, he pointed out, so children are no longer such a major expense. Tanzania needs more people, and women who don’t have more babies are just lazy.

“They do not want to work hard to feed a large family, and that is why they opt for birth control and end up with one or two children only,” Magufuli continued. “I have travelled in Europe and elsewhere and have seen the harmful effects of birth control.”

This is not really a problem in Tanzania, where the average woman has more than five children. The population has grown at a steady 3% for decades, and since independence in 1961 it has increased sixfold, from 10 million to 60 million. There is no sign of the birth-rate dropping, and the country is on course for 100 million in less than 20 years.

Yet President Magufuli thinks women should throw away their contraceptives because the country needs more people. He is not alone in this conviction. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (which has about the same birth-rate as Tanzania) once told me that his country could easily feed 100 million people. He called the country’s population explosion “a great resource”.

Uganda’s population at independence in 1962 was just 7 million people. It’s now 45 million, and will reach that 100 million target in about 30 years – and there is no reason to believe that it will stop there. Uganda’s birth-rate has not dropped in decades either.

The end-of century predictions for these countries if birth rates gradually drop towards replacement level, as they did in Asia and Latin America in the past 50 years, is around 300 million each. But if the birth rates don’t drop in future decades (as they have not dropped in past decades), then these two countries alone will have a billion people in 2100. That’s a very bad idea.

Tanzania and Uganda together have about twice the area of France, which has only 65 million people. They would, with a billion people, be about eight times more densely populated than France – and unlike France, the great majority of their people would still be poor. The long-term economic growth rate in both countries is about 3% and their population growth rate is exactly the same, so most people stay poor.

And still John Magufuli wants to get the birth rate up. He presumably believes that a bigger population makes a country stronger, but if that were true Tanzania would already be as powerful as France. Five or ten times its current population will make it weaker, not stronger. It will also ruin the environment and leave a lot of people hungry

Magufuli has won popularity throughout East Africa with his flamboyant campaign against corruption. He is also a thin-skinned authoritarian who had banned street protests, closed down two radio stations for “sedition”, and brought charges against at least ten people for “insulting” him on social media platforms, but a recent opinion poll in Tanzania gave him 96% support.

Hardly anybody in Tanzania sees curbing population growth as a priority, and it’s certainly not a vote-winner. Indeed, this is true for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and those who point out that it really is a problem that could ruin the continent’s future are frequently accused of neo-colonial or racist attitudes. But there are a few bright spots, and one of them is on the other side of Africa, in Ghana.

Ghana’s population was 5 million at independence in 1957; now it’s 30 million. But with great effort it has now got its ‘total fertility’ down to four children per woman, and if the birth rate continues to fall the prediction is for ‘only’ 73 million people at the end of the century. Dr Leticia Adelaide Appiah thinks this is still too many.

Dr Appiah is the Executive Director of Ghana’s National Population Council, and a very brave woman. She has proposed that women should be restricted to having three children, and denied access to free government services if they exceed that number. It’s a long way short of China’s one-child-per-family policy (now abandoned), but at least it addresses the problem.

She has faced a storm of criticism for her proposal (almost all of it from men), but she has stood her ground. There is little prospect that Ghana will actually adopt such a policy in the immediate future, but Africa needs more women like her. Urgently.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Tanzania…poor”; and “Magufuli…support”)