May 07, 2007

The French Republic Has Been Saved

The French republic has been saved. No, literally, it's been saved: both of Sarkozy's opponents (Royal on the left and Bayrou in the center) were in favor of  tearing up the constitution of the fifth republic and starting over.

It was strange moment to claim that the system was completely broken, what with nearly 85% turnout in both rounds of the French election.  All the same, a little change can do you good: 12 years is too long for one person to be president, as Chirac was; and if age and rock bottom polls hadn't stopped him, he might have run again.  Sarkozy has proposed two American-style reforms: term limits (2); and confirmation  of ministerial posts by an appropriate tribunal of the legislature, similar to Senate confirmation hearings. (The terms were already reduced from 7 years to 5 years when the constitution was last amended in 2000).  That kind of tweaking sounds much more reasonable.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | Email this post

May 06, 2007

Au revoir Ségolène

The results are in… the champagne is flowing… au revoir Ségolène, félicitations Sarkozy!

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Turnout in French Election Highest Since 1981

Early estimates put the turnout in the French election near 85%, the highest level since 1981.  This is roughly the same level as the turnout in the first round of voting on April 22. (Source: TF1 TV news)

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May 05, 2007

Ségolène Royal Wants to Buy You a Refrigerated Fish Truck

Remember in 2000, when you looked at George Bush and could see that his knowledge of the world was thin, that his social programs were grounded in ideological purity but practically bankrupt, and that he would never be up to the stature of other leaders if thrust on the world stage?

Well, that kind of candidate is not always on the political right. Many French voters believe that socialist candidate Ségolène Royal is incarnating that role in the French presidential election, which should be decided in less than 12 hours.  She is up against the "right-wing" candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.  Following a raucous head-to-head debate May 2, polls continue to put Sarkozy in the lead, despite the declaration by the center-right candidate Francois Bayrou, who won 18% of the votes in the first round, that he would not vote for Sarkozy.

Let's hope that the notoriously unreliable polls are right this time.

Royal proposes lots of ideas (she has 100 proposals in her platform) that sound good from a theoretical perspective, but just don't add up.  Take the economy, the key issue in the French election.  Unemployment remains at 9%much higher among young people and immigrants. Given the importance of job creation, the candidates have spent a lot of time talking about the 35-hour work-week, a maximum that applies today to any worker that is not part of the management class (les cadres) or a professional (e.g., doctors).

Neither party dares to suggest abolishing the 35-hour work week. Indeed Jacques Chirac, who founded Sarkozy's political party the UMP, has done little to overturn the socialist law during his 12 year mandate.  But as Bayrou put it, Sarkozy sees the 35-hours as a minimum, whereas Royal sees it as a maximum.

Sarkozy sensibly proposes that workers could put in additional hours and earn overtime pay. Companies would not have to pay the normally heavy social charges on the overtime portion of the salaries, and workers would pay no additional taxes.

But Royal thinks the 35-hour maximum is super; she believes it has "created millions of jobs."   It's even believed that she would like to generalize the 35 hour work week to cover even more people than it does now, apparently in the belief that there is a fixed amount of work in the country that must be divvied up.

Her adherence to the socialist line doesn't stop there.  She also suggests that Europe adopt a minimum wage across its 27 countries, but she refuses to say how the wage would be set.  The centrist Bayrou pointed out during an earlier debate that it's impossible to choose a level that would work: either the wage would be set at the rate of the newer Eastern EU members (like Bulgaria or Slovenia), which would mean decimating the French minimum wage, or it would be set at the level of the more established members, which would not be possible in the East.

On issue after issue, Ségolène has some very sweet sounding ideas, but no idea how to implement them.  The following example from the debate is typical; the moderator Patrick Poivre D'Arvor was trying to get the candidates to talk about immigration, but Royal kept returning to the theme of Africa:

"I've been to Dakar. I've seen families in a village of fishermen where the young people leave in canoes and drown in the sea. I've seen the mothers who were there, who don't want their children to drown in the open sea in order to reach France. They want jobs, micro-credit, they need refrigerated trucks for their fish, food for their animals, development projects.  Africa could make could use of solar energy.  How can it be that these French-speaking countries have a development model that bankrupts them? How can it be that solar energy isn't getting used?  How can it be that France hasn't already redefined its aid policy?"

Solar energygood idea.  Micro-creditgood idea!  Refrigerated trucks for fish—yes, please!  But how does she plan to implement her vision of a fish truck in every African village? Where will she find the money?  It might be tricky, since she's also vowed not to downsize the French bureaucracy and to re-establish health care for undocumented immigrants, among dozens of other major new expenditures.

Ségolène does have plenty of good causesmore money against AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer's; more money for hospitals, a federal walking home service for female employees, etc.that individually sound appealing.  However, taken together they are simply impossible to fund, and would take France in the direction of an even more bloated federal bureaucracy with even higher taxes and fewer jobs.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | Email this post

April 22, 2007

Will Sarkozy be Monsieur le President?

The first round of the French presidential election began today with 12 political parties and ended with two. The establishment right- and left-wing parties won, putting an end to the candidacy of the late-surging centrist, François Bayrou, and shutting out the right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who to France's shame made it to the final round in 2002. Now, the winner will be determined in a run-off on May 6, and sworn in just 10 days later.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative candidate, heads the political party founded by Jacques Chirac, the UMP (originally, the Union for a Presidential Majority, now called the Union for a Popular Movement.) Sarkozy is a hyper-ambitious politician who gets results (for example, during his first term as Interior Minister, he significantly reduced drunk driving rates), but who also scares many people with his harsh rhetoric (he called North-African rioters living in housing projects "scum.")

Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, is the first female presidential candidate to reach the second round. She is more compassionate than Sarkozy, but has made several widely ridiculed gaffes on foreign policy, including backing the succession of Quebec from Canada and praising the Chinese justice system.  She also has not explained how she will pay for the generous social programs in her platform.

At this point, Sarkozy looks well placed to win. He is ahead in polls, and he is also likely to pick up the majority of Bayrou's voters (18% of the first round total), because Bayrou's UDF party, while centrist, leans to the right.  Le Pen supporters are more likely to back Sarkozy, too.

Of course, a lot can happen between now and May 6.   Either candidate could make a serious gaffe, or disenfranchised immigrants could riot against Sarkozy, or Bayrou could get strongly behind Royal, etc., etc.

In the meantime, the candidates of some fairly marginal parties are still withholding their endorsements from the mainstream candidates in order to make the most of their "leverage."  Our favorite is Frédéric Nihous of the Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Traditions party, who is advising the 1.3% who voted for him to wait and see who adopts his positions on rural life, which include a moratorium on the application of EU Hygiene laws.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs | Permalink | Comments (3) | Email this post

October 16, 2006

Why We Know

In her pre-war New York Times column “Why We Know Iraq is Lying” Condoleezza Rice wrote that she knew Saddam had not “disarmed” because as an expert on the former Soviet Union, she knew what disarming looked like, and Iraq wasn’t doing it.  (Of course, we now know why Saddam wasn’t disarming.)

This week, the administration is trying some real diplomacy with North Korea, albeit with limited success. This effort gives us a chance, finally, to see what “exhausting diplomatic alternatives” looks like in the Bush Administration. The coordinated efforts of government officials at all levels demonstrate that Bush really wants diplomacy to work with North Korea. Plus, our country doesn’t seem to have a choice.

Yet just this past week, Bush said at a press conference,

I thought you were going to ask the question… 'how come you don't use military action now [against North Korea]...' And my answer is, is that I believe the commander in chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military. And I believe that diplomacy is—you know, we're making progress when we've got others at the table.

I will ask myself a follow-up. If that's the case, why did you use military action in Iraq? [Chuckles.] And the reason why is because we tried the diplomacy. Matter of fact, we tried resolution after resolution after resolution.

Let’s put aside for a moment that many of those resolutions called on Saddam to “disarm.” The diplomacy on North Korea is very different from the half-hearted, diluted version we saw leading up to the Iraq invasion. That contrast is yet another reason why we know Bush is lying on Iraq when he continues to claim his administration exhausted diplomatic alternatives.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | Email this post

May 29, 2005

In Referendum, French Reject Constitution

PARIS – The French rejected the European Constitution by 55% to 45% in a referendum in which more than 70% of the electorate turned out to vote.

Unfortunately for supporters of the constitution, the referendum was not decided on its merits alone. According to Sofres, the largest French polling organization, voters said no for the following reasons:

  • 46% -- feared that unemployment would worsen under the constitution
  • 40% -- were fed up with the current situation in France
  • 35% -- believed a no would permit the constitution to be renegotiated
  • 34% -- found the constitution too economically liberal and difficult to understand
  • 19% -- thought the constitution threatened the identity of France
  • 18% -- wanted to prevent the entry of Turkey to the EU
  • 12% -- followed certain politcal leaders who asked them to vote no

Both major parties, the UMP and the Socialists, had asked their members to support the constitution. In the event, a majority of Socialists defied the leadership and voted no. (Thus Laurent Fabius is, at least for now, a big political winner). President Chirac also badly mishandled the campaign for the Oui.

France is the first country to reject the constitution: nine other countries have already ratified it. The Netherlands will vote on June 1, and are expected to similarly vote no to express disfavor with their current government. If that happens, the constitution is probably doomed in its current form.

In any case France will wake up tomorrow morning with a post-election hangover: the future of a more united Europe is now completely uncertain. The “what do we do now” debate is likely to last for years to come.

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May 26, 2005

The Talking Cure

PARIS -  If the May 29 referendum on the European constitution fails, the next president of France could be Laurent Fabius. Except for the students at the University of Chicago who have attended his occasional lectures, most Americans haven’t heard of him. But at age 37 he was the youngest Prime Minister of France, and was twice elected President of the National Assembly, the main French legislative body.

Until now M. Fabius has been in favor of increased European integration. He supported the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union, and served as a deputy in the European Parliament. Despite that past, he is the only mainstream French politician who is against the proposed constitution, which he considers too “liberal.” If the Oui wins, his political future is at risk, but if the Non carries he will probably take over a rejuvenated opposition party and be well positioned for the next presidential election.

So he is an important political leader in France. Despite his full schedule, he spent last Wednesday evening with 40 thirty-somethings who are part of a political discussion group called Vouloir La République. (I was invited as a guest along with two other foreigners.) Given the relegation of dissenters in our own country to “free speech zones,” I was relieved, and a little bit surprised that he was clearly ready for an open debate over the referendum even though some of us disagreed with his position. To put it another way, no one checked our bumper stickers before letting us in.

The evening was organized as a débat; like a “town meeting,” only smaller and unscripted. Due respect was shown to the former Prime Minister, but people asked real, challenging questions which were not filtered in advance. My question was roughly, “Henry Kissinger once asked ‘If I want to know Europe’s opinion, who should I call?’ The proposed constitution provides for a foreign minister, yet you are against it. So who will speak for Europe if the constitution is not adopted?”

His answers were often so discursive they could “drown a fish,” as the French say. But hey, he’s a politician. What impressed me was that during the three hour debate, the discussion focused almost solely on the merits of the constitution.

In fact, in the newspapers, in televised debates, and in personal discussions people here seem to actually be sticking to the topic. There are no unrelated divisive religious issues, few gross caricatures of the opposition, and no Vétérans Bateaux Swift.  There are no third-party interest groups buying TV ads or conducting targeted mailings. And while it’s not a presidential election, the stakes are just as high– probably higher – and the outcome will certainly have an impact on the nation’s politics for years to come. Even so, politicians have not resorted to the kind of unrestrained political warfare that has become commonplace in the US.

People here sometimes say that whatever is successful in America eventually comes to France. Sometimes what we export reflects our worst tendencies; McDonald’s being the classic example.  While there are plenty of things wrong with the French system, I hope for the sake of our oldest ally that the massively divisive political tactics that have worked so well for the Republican Party are not exported too. It can be refreshing to actually debate an issue.

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May 10, 2005

Cowboy In a Glass House Throwing Stones

This guest post is by first time blogger Epictetus.

I write this shortly after our duly selected president had the chutzpah to lecture Vladimir "the Chekist" Putin about the Soviet Union's actions in Eastern Europe following the Yalta Conference in February, 1945.  The Cowboy emphasized that he would not repeat FDR's mistake in giving the Commies a free hand in Poland, et al., by abandoning today's Middle East to tyranny.

Like so many others, the neofacist chickenhawk staffer who gave the Cowboy his fifteen minute situation report on Roosevelt's sellout got it wrong.

FDR's fatal mistake at Yalta was not selling out to Uncle Joe.  FDR knew before the conference that with the Red Army occupying Eastern Europe, it would be futile to try to ensure free postwar elections in those areas controlled by the Soviets.  Churchill was also well aware of this—it was simply contemporary Realpolitik.  Rather, FDR went wrong in giving the world the impression that Stalin had agreed to hold free elections, especially in Poland, when Stalin had agreed to nothing of the kind.

After Roosevelt's death in April, 1945, he was succeeded by Harry Truman, for whom Yalta was terra incognita, along with everything else FDR had done.  Harry the Unready was ill-served by his advisers who were equally unaware of what had taken place at Yalta.  When, instead of withdrawing his minions and holding free election, Stalin clamped down, Truman concluded that this blood-drinking troll had violated the agreement he made with FDR.  Cue the Cold War.

Roosevelt's failure to be straight with the American people re what did and did not transpire at Yalta opened the door for 60 years of Republican sniping, second-guessing and accusations that the Democrats were soft on Communism.  The Cowboy's recent remarks are the latest manifestation of a charge that will not die.


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May 04, 2005

Now that's Cheeky!

Tomorrow the British people will choose their next prime minister.  Despite the fact that most voters believe he lied about Iraq, Tony Blair is likely to win a third term. The main opposition party, the conservative Tories, have run a visionless campaign based on tacit appeals to xenophobia. Their slogan is “Are you thinking what we’re thinking,” and many supporters understand that the rest of the phrase goes “about all these damn (mostly legal) immigrants?” It is practically the same as the slogan used by Nazi-apologist Jean Marie LePen’s National Front: “vous pensez ce que nous pensons.”

But who says all British politics is dreary? The racy lingerie store Agent Provocateur has brightened their shop windows with a bit of pre-election advertising. One fishnet clad mannequin holds a sign asking “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Her twin’s reads, “Vote Agent Provocateur to get your member in!” Member of Parliament, I presume.

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack | Email this post