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France: Mr Normal Takes Charge

24 April 2012

France: Mr Normal Takes Charge

By Gwynne Dyer

“My true adversary does not have a name, a face or a party,” said Francois Hollande, France’s next president. “He never puts forth his candidacy, but nevertheless he governs. My true adversary is the world of finance.”

No other leader of a major power would dare say such a thing. If Hollande, who will be France’s first Socialist president in 17 years, simply defies “the markets”, they will certainly punish him and France severely. However, it remains to be seen how he plays his hand.

Hollande still has one hurdle to cross before he is officially president-elect, but he beat the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, even in the first round of voting last Sunday, when ten candidates were running. In the run-off vote on 6 May, the polls predict that he will trounce Sarkozy by a margin of 14-16 percent.

Hollande is a shoo-in because in the second round his centre-left party will collect almost all the votes of parties to the left of the Socialists, and also most of the votes of the centrist candidates. Sarkozy leads a centre-right party, but he has to pretend to be much harder right than he is for much the same reasons as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the United States.

If Sarkozy does not spout anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric, he will not even win over the 18 percent of French voters who backed the far-right National Front last Sunday. If he does talk like that, he will lose the swing voters in the centre – and he may still not get the endorsement of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who reckons that if Sarkozy loses the presidency his party will disintegrate, making her own party the dominant force on the right.

So it will be President Hollande, who recently said that “if the markets are worried (by my policies), I will tell them here and now that I will leave them with no space to act.” Tough words, but what does “no space to act” actually mean? Does it mean anything at all? The markets don’t think so, which is why they did not go into meltdown as soon as Hollande’s election became a certainty.

Hollande is certainly tougher and smarter than the “Mr Normal” who he claims to be. His calm, modest manner presents a striking contrast to the hyperactivity, bad temper and sheer bling of Nicolas Sarkozy, but he graduated from France’s most respected post-graduate school for high flyers, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, and he has been in politics for more than thirty years.

For over a decade he was the leader of the famously fractious Socialist Party, and was nicknamed “Meccano-builder” for his ability to bridge the endless personal and ideological disputes, a process he once likened to picking up dog turds. And he has not promised French voters the moon.

What Hollande has actually promised is slightly less austerity than Sarkozy. He will balance the French budget by 2017, rather than 2016. For symbolism’s sake he will introduce a new 75 percent income tax band for people who earn more than a million euros, but he understands that bringing the budget deficit under control must be accomplished mainly by cutting spending, not raising taxes.

The markets will not have it any other way, and they have France in a corner. In order to cover the interest on its existing debt plus this year’s budget deficit, France must borrow almost one-fifth of its entire Gross Domestic Product this year, and the same again next year. Most of that enormous sum must be borrowed from foreign lenders, so Hollande cannot afford to frighten them by radically changing the austerity policy he inherits from Sarkozy.

He says what he must to get elected, but in office Mr Normal is likely to conduct business as usual – or at least, that is what the markets think. It may be too simplistic a view. Hollande doesn’t agree with the current European orthodoxy, because it has put the eurozone (the 17 out of 27 European Union members that use the euro “single currency”) into an economic death-spiral.

Germany’s huge and healthy economy gives it the whip-hand in the eurozone. Berlin insists on savage austerity measures by EU member governments to bring their budgets back into balance, but if the austerity is so extreme that it kills economic growth, then the budgets will never balance. Hollande argues that growth, especially in the form of big infrastructure projects, must be stimulated by easier credit even while budgets are still in deficit.

Many European leaders agree, as do outside observers like Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who said recently that Europe would “commit suicide” if it did not add reflationary policies to strict budget discipline. Hollande will not start printing money right away, because the euro means he cannot, but he is certainly going to argue for “quantitative easing” (as we now call reflation).

Without openly defying Berlin, he is likely to become a rallying point for Europeans (and there are a great many of them) who believe that the eurozone will never solve its crisis without economic growth in other countries besides Germany. “Change in France will allow Europe to shift direction,” he says. He may be right.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Hollande is…right”)

 

Sarkozy’s Last Stand

13 March 2012

Sarkozy’s Last Stand

By Gwynne Dyer

Faced with renewed allegations that Muammar Gaddafi had poured up to fifty million euros into his presidential campaign in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy finally lost it. “If he did (finance my election), I wasn’t very grateful,” he snapped on prime-time television.

Sarkozy, after all, was the prime mover of the bombing campaign that brought Gaddafi down, while the man who made the original accusation during that war was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the late Libyan dictator’s son and hardly an impartial witness. It was mainly a measure of how much Sarkozy is disliked in France that he had to go on major French television channels once again last week to deny the eight-month-old story.

Plausible or not, many people want to believe the story because it provides a rational basis for their loathing of the man. And Sarkozy’s own behaviour, as he flails around with growing desperation for some new policy that will bring the voters back to his side, is equally unattractive.

His latest proposal, made last Tuesday, was to cancel the Schengen Agreement, the treaty that provides for freedom of movement within the European Union. Unless the EU as a whole agrees within a year to cut drastically the number of foreigners allowed to settle within its boundaries, he said, France will leave the treaty and reimpose its own border controls.

Sarkozy, whose own ancestors were Hungarian and Greek immigrants, was aiming this policy directly at France’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim voters, but it is unlikely to woo them away from the real neo-fascist party in the country. Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, immediately replied by promising to cut immigration by 95 percent, and for good measure added a promise to quit the common European currency, the euro.

Meanwhile Francois Hollande, the Socialist leader, cruises towards what seems like an inevitable victory in next month’s presidential election despite the fact that he has never held any high government office. Everybody agrees that he is a very nice man, but he would never have got the Socialist nomination if Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the World Bank, had not ruined his chances by getting caught up in several sex scandals.

It’s odd that the polls should be predicting that Hollande will win the election, given that he is an old-fashioned tax-and-spend socialist in a time of financial crisis when most French voters, rightly or wrongly, think the solution is spending cuts and balanced budgets. Being a lifelong party apparatchik doesn’t win him many points either. The only rational explanation is that he is benefiting from the anybody-but-Sarkozy mood of the electorate.

Sarkozy can be cruel about Hollande, comparing him to a sugar cube: it looks solid, but put it in water and it will dissolve to nothing. But that’s no more cruel than the French public’s assessment of Sarkozy himself. He is generally seen as a flashy, fast-talking salesman who lacks the gravity to be president, and whose promises to make France a more competitive, more prosperous society have all come to naught.

A fair person might argue that Sarkozy’s inability to transform France is not really his fault, since he entered office just before the financial collapse of 2008 wrecked everybody’s big plans, including his. But politics is not about fairness, and in the popular view his administration has been a failure.

Then there’s Francois Bayrou, a perennial presidential candidate whose main attraction is that he is none of the above. Every party he ever led – and he has led quite a few in his career – eventually collapsed because he couldn’t get along with the members. He’s pro-European, orthodox in economics, but with a social conscience – the ideal centrist. But he has never won more than 18 percent of the popular vote, and this time he’s sitting at 13 percent.

Marine Le Pen, for all her success in softening the image of the National Front, is only predicted to win 16 percent of the vote in the latest poll, so it comes down to a two-horse race: Hollande vs. Sarkozy. They will be the top two candidates who go through to the all-important second round on 6 May – and then Sarkozy will almost certainly lose.

In the first round of voting, a four-way race, neither Sarkozy nor Hollande is likely to get more than 30 percent of the vote. (Currently, each man is predicted to win 28 percent.) But when every other candidate’s votes must go to one of the two leading candidates in the second round, Francois Hollande wins hands down. No opinion poll this year has given Hollande less than 54 percent of the vote in the run-off, and some have given him as much as 60 percent.

Nicolas Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner, but this is a gap that is almost impossible to close in the time that remains. France is going to have a Socialist president for only the second time in the history of the Fifth Republic.

 

Malaysia: Sodomy and Democracy

12 January 2012

Malaysia: Sodomy and Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Anwar Ibrahim is an unusual man in two respects. One is that the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia is probably the only senior politician in the world to have been charged with sodomy (which is a crime in Malaysia). Not only that: he was charged with sodomy twice, in trials ten years apart – and the charges were dismissed both times. The last time was just last weekend (9 January).

The other unusual thing about Anwar is that he has managed to build a real opposition alliance in Malaysia, which may well end the ruling party’s half-century grip on power in the forthcoming elections. As you might expect, these two facts are not entirely unrelated.

The reason that the National Front coalition has ruled Malaysia ever since independence in 1957, even though Malaysia is a democracy where you would expect an occasional change of government, is fear. Many Malaysians of all ethnic groups fear that the National Front is the only thing that keeps the lid on the bubbling pot of ethnic resentments.

For many centuries the dominant ethnic group in the country was the Malays, but under British rule a huge wave of immigration from China and the Indian sub-continent reduced the Malays to only 60 percent of the population. Almost all of the Malays were Muslim; few of the others were. But the bigger problem was that the Malays ended up much poorer than the newcomers.

In 1969 there were bloody riots in Kuala Lumpur that killed at least hundreds of people, and perhaps as many as 2,000.

The country was already growing fast economically (it has averaged 6.5 percent annually for the past fifty years), and all the ethnic elites were terrified that more violence would kill the goose that was laying the golden eggs. So they made new rules that would placate the angry Malay majority by giving them priority in employment, education, business, and access to cheap housing and assisted savings.

Those rules are still in effect, and the National Front, Malay-dominated but embodying leading members of all communities, won eight successive elections because its “New Economic Policy” (which was really about race) was seen as the only formula for domestic peace. However, time passes and circumstances change.

Malaysia is now a middle-income country where differences in income and education between the various ethnic groups have narrowed considerably. The National Front, after so long in power, has spawned a multitude of corruption scandals. And then along comes a Muslim, part-Malay politician who threatens the status quo.

Anwar Ibrahim began as a student leader demanding an even more privileged place for Malays and Muslims in Malaysia, but he has travelled a long way since then. Mahathir Mohamad, the autocratic prime minister who ruled from 1981 to 2003, picked him as a potential successor and rapidly promoted him to deputy prime minister, but then in the late 1990s they fell out.

Their quarrels were over issues like Mahathir’s toleration of corruption, but the basic problem was that Mahathir did not tolerate dissent. Anwar was dismissed as deputy prime minister in 1998, and immediately afterwards he was charged with corruption and sodomy. The aim was not only to jail him but to discredit him in the eyes of pious voters.

Anwar was jailed in 1999, but his sodomy conviction (based on highly implausible evidence) was overturned by Malaysia’s Federal Court in 2004. Having served five years on the corruption charge, he returned to politics, but now as the leader of the People’s Alliance, an improbable coalition of Islamic, Malay nationalist and ethnic Chinese parties. And in the 2008 election, the People’s Alliance won one-third of the seats in parliament.

So Anwar was immediately charged with sodomy again. Even fewer people believed it this time, and a week ago, quite contrary to expectations, a court threw the charges out. “To be honest I was a little surprised,” Anwar said afterwards. And now that he has emerged from that shadow, he stands a good chance of winning the election that must be held this year or next.

Thirty percent of the voters are undecided, and at least half the seats in the country are up for grabs. If the People’s Alliance wins, it will be because Malaysians of all ethnic groups believe that the “New Economic Policy” (which could be called the “New Ethnic Policy”) is an outdated relic that facilitates corruption, and prefer a government that treats all Malaysians the same regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Then Anwar and everybody else will find out whether the country has really outgrown its ethnic obsessions.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8 (“Malaysia…quo”).

 

 

The Fall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn

17 May 2011

The Fall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn

By Gwynne Dyer

You couldn’t fall farther or faster than Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He was not only the head of the International Monetary Fund. Until last weekend, he was almost certainly within a year of being elected president of France. Now he sits in a small cell in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island prison, denied bail and waiting to learn if a grand jury will indict him for attempted rape, a criminal sexual act, and unlawful imprisonment. It probably will.

It is not possible to know for sure what happened in his $3,000-a-day luxury suite in the Sofitel hotel in Manhattan at lunch-time on 14 May, but the New York police took a chambermaid’s allegations of forced oral sex and attempted rape seriously enough to pull Strauss-Kahn off an Air France plane just before it took off for Paris later that afternoon. Now the IMF is headless, and the French presidential race is transformed.

DSK, as he is known to the French media, is finished politically no matter what happens next. The events in New York have finally made the French media break their silence about his private behaviour, and what has come out has been damning.

The French media routinely ignore the kind of sexual liaisons that would ruin a politician’s career if they became known in a more puritanical country like the United States. But DSK, it has become clear, was not just your average libertine.

In a recent interview Strauss-Kahn himself said that he faced three difficulties if he were to run for president: “Money, women and the fact I am Jewish.” But the money, which comes from his heiress wife, didn’t really put many people off, and although everybody knew he was Jewish he was still the most popular presidential candidate by far. (France’s first Jewish leader was Leon Blum, 75 years ago.)

It is Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour towards women that has done him in. Even if he is found innocent in the New York incident, he now also faces the claim that he tried to rape Tristane Banon, a novelist and journalist, in 2002.

Banon was persuaded not to pursue the issue at that time by her mother, Anne Mansouret, a senior figure in the Socialist Party who saw DSK as a rising star in the party. he was also a family friend. But Mansouret supports her daughter’s claim that Strauss-Kahn attacked her sexually, acting, as Banon puts it, “like a chimpanzee in rut.”

None of this would be getting much publicity if Dominique Strauss-Kahn were just another French businessman arrested abroad. Even if he were just the head of the IMF, it would be a one-day wonder. But DSK was the favourite to win the Socialist nomination for the presidency of France, and then to trounce the unpopular right-wing incumbent, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in the elections next spring.

His departure from the race means that Sarkozy, despite having the lowest approval rating for any French president ever, could yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Here’s how it could happen.

The French left, with no single strong candidate like DSK to unite behind, splits and puts up several rival candidates for the presidency. (Something similar happened in 2002.) With the left-wing vote hopelessly split, the leading two parties in the first round of voting next April are Sarkozy’s right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the ultra-right-wing National Front. (That happened in 2002, too.)

Neither the UMP nor the National Front has won even 20 percent of the vote, but as the two leading parties they go through to the second round of voting in May. And since the great majority of French people loathe the National Front and think it unworthy of office, they hold their noses and vote for Sarkozy, who wins 80 percent of the vote despite being the least popular French president in history.

That’s almost exactly what happened in 2002, when another right-wing president, Jacques Chirac, who was widely believed to be corrupt, won a second term in a run-off against the National Front’s founder and then leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. (One of the posters in the second round of voting that time simply read: “Vote for the Crook, Not the Fascist!”)

Similarly, Sarkozy may end up in a run-off against Le Pen’s daughter Marine, who now leads the National Front. All the polls indicate that she could not possibly win such a contest. DSK’s fall may mean Sarkozy’s survival – which is why more than half of the French, and 70 percent of French socialists, believe that Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a plot.

That would not necessarily mean that he is innocent. Given his track record with women – three wives, dozens of affairs, and a chronic inability to keep his hands to himself – just presenting him with the opportunity to behave badly could have been enough. In our present state of knowledge, it’s simply not possible to say with confidence what happened or why. But it’s pretty safe to say that Sarkozy will be the biggest beneficiary.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“DSK…damning”; and “In a…ago”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.