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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Hollande is…right”)
9 February 2010
Banning the Burqa
By Gwynne Dyer
Eight months ago (and ten months before regional elections were due to be held all over the country), French president Nicolas Sarkozy raised a vital issue before the French parliament. Not the financial meltdown that was undermining the world’s economies, or the threat of climate change, or even the rash of bike thefts in Paris. He wanted to ban the burqa.
“The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem,” he told French legislators in June of last year. “This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience….I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France.” The next day parliament created a 32-member cross-party committee to investigate whether wearing the burqa violates the principles of the French constitution.
The burqa is a shroud-like full-body covering worn in public by some Muslim women who take (or whose husbands or fathers take) an extremely conservative view on the need for female “modesty.” The wearer sees the world only through a narrow grill of cotton threads sewn into the front of the garment, or, in the case of the variant called the niqab, through an open slit that reveals only the eyes.
The parliamentary committee discussed the issue of the burqa for six months, and delivered its conclusions two weeks ago. It did not propose to ban the burqa entirely, but recommended that women wearing burqas be forbidden to enter schools, hospitals, and government offices or to use public transportation. Thus a bus-driver, for example, could refuse to let a burqa-clad woman board the bus to collect her children from school.
What useful purpose could such a law serve? Some of the women wearing burqas presumably do so of their own free will, while others are forced to do so by their male relatives. An anti-burqa law would violate the rights of the first group, and increase the likelihood that the second group will be entirely confined to their homes.
But the proposed law is not really designed to liberate some Muslim women from their burqas. It is meant to appeal to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim voters, who are mainly on the right in France, by demonstrating the government’s determination to force the country’s Muslim minority to integrate with the rest of the population.
The French parliament cannot move fast enough to pass such a law before the regional elections are held in March, but the committee’s report ensures that an ugly debate about immigrants will be raging during the election campaign. It is part of the same disturbing trend in Europe that saw Swiss voters ban minarets in a referendum last year, and Dutch legislators vote in favour of banning the burqa in 2005. (The Dutch government lost an election before a law was passed.)
It is estimated that between 3 and 6 million (5 to 10 percent) of France’s 64 million people are Muslims. It is also estimated that only 1,900 women in France wear burqas, mostly in the immigrant suburbs around Paris and other big French cities. That is less than one Muslim woman in a thousand.
This is not really about burqas (which almost half of the French population say that they never see). It is about mobilising right-wing voters – and to energise them even more, Sarkozy declared a “great debate” on French identity last November. His motives are cynical and his methods are manipulative – but since he has raised the issue, what about it? Is wearing a burqa compatible with being the citizen of a modern democracy?
The “republican” tradition of revolutionary France says no. Citizenship is defined not so much by individual rights, as in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, as by public participation in the political process. Since the burqa is specifically designed to cut the wearer off from the public sphere of life, it violates the republican tradition. But this isn’t really about political theory.
If you have not been accustomed to it since childhood, there is unquestionably something disturbing about encountering masked people (for that is what the burqa and niqab produce) in a public space. The wearers’ gender and your own common sense will tell you that they are not dangerous people, but they are and will remain apart, almost alien, rejecting the common society that everyone else shares.
That is not ideal, but it must be tolerated in societies that accept and embrace every other kind of diversity. Fadela Amara, a Muslim-born women’s rights campaigner and a minister in Sarkozy’s government, has called the burqa “a kind of tomb for women,” but she has no right to impose her view on those who freely choose to wear it.
That does not take account of the other women (probably a majority) who wear it only in obedience to their men, but this is not a matter on which legislation can be effective. Ban the burqa, and those women will simply become full-time prisoners in their own houses. Besides, Sarkozy is not really trying to free those women. He is just trying to win the regional elections by stirring up anti-Muslim feeling.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“But…population”; and “The republican…theory”)