Friday, April 20, 2007

Le vote utile

Unlike André Glucksmann,  I will not be calling for a vote for Nicolas Sarkozy.  For many reasons,  I think it would be better to vote for Ségolène Royal in the first round of the election in France on Sunday.  Firstly,  because she is a woman,  when many are still saying that a woman cannot be President of the Republic  ("who would look after the children?"). Then,  because I think she would make a good president.

An expression that has been frequently heard over the last few weeks is "le vote utile".  This has been mentioned even by people interviewed on the BBC as "the useful vote" or even "the vote useful".  The normal way of referring to it in English is,  of course,  "the tactical vote".

As Francois Hollande,  first secretary of the PS and Ségolène Royal's "partner",  pointed out a few weeks ago,  there are 3 Trotskyist's among the candidates for the first round.  In total,  there are 7 candidates on what the French call the "gauche de la gauche",  who employ the anti-globalization,  anti-(economic) liberalism,  rhetoric in one form or another.  There was some coverage given,  even in the UK,  to Jean-Marie Le Pen's struggle to obtain the 500 signatures from elected officials necessary to become a candidate.  Quite how the 3 Trotskyist's etc managed to obtain their sponsorship  (parrainage) with apparent ease remains a mystery to me.  (Only José Bové suffered a "cliff-hanger".)  None of these,  of course,  stand any chance.  The most-supported is Olivier Besancenot with around 3 or 4%.  One I heard just after Easter,  Gérard Schivardi,  I thought was a caricature.  But they all receive considerable publicity and the vote for the candidates of these grouplets adds up to about 13%.  (All of the candidates,  who have been given their 20 minutes on the radio,  can be heard again at:  La présidentielle 2007 sur France Inter.)

Given this,  Ms Royal first faces a constant struggle to prove that her socialism is "pure" enough.  Then,  she must convince the broader French public in order to actually become president.  As I think the FT's correspondent pointed out,  many thought that Lionel Jospin in 2002 timed his "swing to the centre" too early.

For example,  when Ségolène Royal made some proposals to address France's appallingly high youth unemployment,  Marie-George Buffet, the Communists' candidate,  replied,  "No to a CPE of the left".  This referred to Dominique de Villepin's ill-fated Contrat Premier Embauche proposal (Financial Times, 7 Apr). Also,  the Parti Socialiste has backed itself into something of a corner with its defence of the 35-hour week.  Sarkozy looks likely to win votes with his simple slogan of  "Travailler plus pour gagner plus" ("Work more to earn more").

The man who eliminated Jospin,  Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National,  is thought to have his support mostly under-stated by the opinion polls.  When the last of the candidates had given their interviews Friday morning,  the airwaves were given over to the pundits and pollsters.  One of them (Jean-Marc Lech) pointed out that the support for Sarkozy plus Le Pen had remained constant at around 42,  43% (mp3 download). 

The notion of the vote utile also comes into play with regard to the centrist candidate,  François Bayrou.  Since he is regarded as having a better chance of beating Sarkozy,  many will be tempted to vote for him.  Bayrou is seen as a man of the Right - he opposes the 35-hour week, for example - but without Sarkozy's racist overtones.  Jean-Marie Colombani caused something of a stir with his signed editorial in Le Monde on Thursday  (as I've said before, these are a rarity): 
Le 22 avril 2007 ne peut pas,  ne doit pas ressembler au 21 avril 2002.  [.. L'aspiration à la diversité] doit s'effacer devant un impératif démocratique :  éviter la désillusion et la colère qui naîtraient à nouveau d'un débat faussé, amputé.  Il est important que notre "cher et vieux pays" puisse,  au second tour,  dire clairement où il veut aller [..]
[L]e seul projet qui s'oppose à celui de Nicolas Sarkozy et qui s'appuie sur une force politique capable de gouverner est celui de Ségolène Royal.
  (Impératif démocratique )
Bayrou expressed his fury at this implicit call not to vote for him.  That such a reaction should be produced seems very strange to British ears - a newspaper telling its readers how to vote!

Campaigning ends tonight at midnight.  Results should be available from around 20:00 (CET) Sunday.  There is some concern regarding the web.  The embargo on publishing the outcome applies to bloggers also,  though how this will be enforced outside the country,  especially in francophone countries like Belgium and Switzerland,  is open to doubt.

Ségolène Royal has established a lead of a few points over François Bayrou,  but much still remains to play for.  And,  as I've said,  Le Pen should never be under-estimated.

Donc,  je vous appelle,  mes chers camarades français (et françaises),  à VOTER SÉGOLÈNE!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Untruth and Iraq - 2

Further to Robert Malley's remark which I quoted previously,  a few days after the interview the International Crisis Group had this:  "contrary to the Baker-Hamilton report’s suggestion,  the Iraqi government and security forces cannot be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered;  they are simply one among many parties to the conflict.  The report characterises the government as a “government of national unity” that is “broadly representative of the Iraqi people”:  it is nothing of the sort."  ('After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq', 19 December 2006)

The bit from the ICG report that the FT quoted (23 Dec) was the call for the US to "avoid steps to engineer a cabinet reshuffle aimed at side-lining Muqtada al-Sadr,  which would further inflame the situation."  This is number 21 (to the Government of Iraq) of their recommendations.

What caught my eye,  though,  from an initial skim-through,  was this:
The argument,  advanced by Peter Galbraith that the reality on the ground is already one of de facto partition,  is self-serving – a Kurdo-centric justification for the establishment of an ethnically-defined Kurdish state.  It is also patently false.  The reality is one of widespread chaos in which families are forced to move from relatively heterogeneous pockets to areas in which their “kind” predominates,  often finding themselves in nothing better than a bigger pocket.  Rather than solving the problem,  this only re-orders dividing lines,  which remain contested in a constantly-changing pattern of  horrendous and endemic violence.  Any plan to divide the country up into a Kurdish proto-state and two entirely artificial and highly unstable “Sunni” and “Shiite” regions would therefore exacerbate sectarian violence,  drive the country apart,  further damage the state,  and encourage regional intervention and interference.  [P10;  in note 12,  against the argument that in the December 2005 elections Iraqis “rejected the idea of a unified Iraq”,  the ICG says,  "While these were sectarian in nature,  they in no way suggested that Iraqis were expressing a desire for the country to break up."  Galbraith's argument is in “The Case for Dividing Iraq”,  Time, 5 November 2006;  Galbraith has also written a book which,  as the IGC puts it,  he tellingly titled The End of Iraq]
This is a tentative effort to get back into commenting about Iraq - something I am not alone in being hesitant to do.  The ICG report needs a lot more analysis than this.  It's a long time after the event,  of course,  but the issues have not really changed.

Some background on the issue of Kirkuk can be found here. More recently, the BBC World Service's Analysis took a look at it:  "Iraq's constitution says by the end of this year a referendum should be held in the northern,  oil rich,  city of Kirkuk to decide its future status.  The Kurds want to incorporate it into their own largely autonomous,  predominantly Kurdish region.  Pam O'Toole explains why the Kirkuk referendum could ignite a crisis in the relatively peaceful part of Iraq."  (9 Apr, 8:50 & 22:20) Again,  Peter Galbraith and the man from the ICG put the opposing points of view.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tax competition

Listening to the BBC World Service's World Business Review on Sunday morning might not seem too relevant for us Left-leaning types. In fact, the way corporate taxes have been forced down in recent years is a major engine is a major engine for distributing wealth and income towards the rich and away from the poor, especially those in the developing world. You still have until Saturday to listen to the discussion. This is what could be found on the BBC website.
Only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. Unlike death, taxes can change. More and more countries are using tax as a way of attracting foreign investment and making themselves more appealing to businesses from abroad.
As a result, corporate or company tax rates in the developed world have fallen by about twenty percent over the last twenty years. The trouble is, someone else has to make up the difference...the ordinary tax payer... and usually through bigger taxes on the things he or she buys.
Critics say this adjustment towards direct taxation can hit the poorest in society the hardest...others say lower corporation tax is compensated for in other important ways.
Join Rodney Smith and guests: the Director of the Tax Justice Network, John Christiansen, Krysztof Bobinski, head of the Unia and Polska thinktank in Warsaw, and Professor Michael Devereux from the University of World Business Review.
Some additional notes I made: Ireland built itself up as a "tiger celtic economy" attracting companies like Microsoft to book profits there. Ironically, it is now itself facing tax competition from Eastern Europe... Quite why governments are in favour of tax competition is not at all clear... You end up with a "race to the bottom".
Most of this came from John Christiansen, I think. For further information, see the Tax Justice Network website.

The spark in the tinder

There was not much attention paid outside France to the incident at the Gare du Nord, where a dispute over a ticket inspection led to serious disturbances which began on the afternoon of 27 Mar and went on until around 1:00am the next morning. One of the columnists in the FT commented the following Saturday. I wrote them the following letter:
Christopher Caldwell (‘Harsh policing goes transatlantic’, March 31/April1) is right to point to the importance of the disturbances at the Gare du Nord and to say, “It was not the style of the police that upset the mob, but the act of enforcing the law at all,’ before he drifts off into despair about irreconcilable differences between the races in Europe as a whole.

There are aspects specific to France in this. And the Left has more to say than stating the obvious.

The police de proximité, which in British political discourse we might describe as ‘Bobbies on the beat’, was introduced by a Socialist government (‘co-habiting’ with the centre-right President), before being done away with by Mr Sarkozy. As an independent expert put it recently, that the policy was not very well implemented then does mean it is wrong in principle. Sarkozy preferred to rely on ‘high-tech’ methods, which meant that when the police did venture into the banlieues, they were viewed as an invading army.

And this is not to mention that the immigrant communities face ‘exclusion’, a proven lack of equal access to jobs.

Update: as those who have travelled there in the last year or two will know, the Gare du Nord is now actually called Paris Nord.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Lebanon, 2006

The BBC has been looking back on last year's war (*). On the initial attack on 12 July, they say that Hezbollah fired diversionary rockets into Israel, units crossed the border and captured 2 soldiers. A Hezbollah minister assured his cabinet colleagues that this was "business as usual" and not to worry too much about retaliation from Israel.

I start to think I imagined this, but weren't six Israeli soldiers killed during that initial raid? As for it being "business as usual", Hezbollah's rockets were launched against the western part of northern Israel, far from the so-called disputed area of Shebaa Farms, where they normally carried out attacks.

Despite this somewhat shaky start, the programme had some fascinating details - such as that many Arab governments privately had sympathy for the actions Israel took.

In another programme, Philippe Douste-Blazy had some warm words for the role Condoleeza Rice played in eventually ending the war (**).

* The Summer War in Lebanon: Part 1 - Broadcast on Radio 4 - Tue 03 Apr - 20:00 listen.
The programme was also broadcast in the Assignment slot on the World Service on Thursday, for example at 19:00 GMT (edited down from about 37 minutes to 23) -  Listen. Of course, this information is too late now, but there's still part 2 to come.
** France Versus the World: Part 1 is about foreign policy. This is available as an mp3 download, which is handy.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The 600,000...

... killed  in Iraq, of course. You may have heard a brief mention on the 6 PM news on BBC Radio 4 (26 Mar), along the following lines: while the British government poured scorn on the figure at the time, it was being privately advised that the report in the Lancet "was right." From the website: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to 'best practice'."

Norman Geras posted in October 2006: "[..] had I been able to foresee, in January and February 2003, that the war would have the results it has actually had in the numbers of Iraqis killed [..] I would have withheld my support. [..] nothing on earth could have induced me to [..] campaign for a course of action that would have saved the Baathist regime. But I would have stood aside." Unlike Norman, I did comment on the detail of  the first Lancet report ("the 100,000") and expressed my doubts about it.

To return to the recent revelations from the BBC, the full story was on the World Service's Newshour at 21:00, which I happened to catch. From this it emerged that British officials believed the methodology to be soundly based, but they still thought the figures too high. Further balance was provided by Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, who thought that the figure probably overstates by 2 or 3 times. That still leaves an appallingly high figure, of course. 

One factor, as a BBC correspondent pointed out, is that the headline figure reported at the time of a bombing atrocity is one thing. But of those wounded a high number die needlessly due to the incompetence (that's not quite a strong enough word) of the Health Ministry, run by Muqtada al-Sadr's people.

We should also bear in mind the numbers killed due to the wars inititiated by Saddam Hussein against Iran and Kuwait: 750,000 for 1980-8 and 100,000 for 1990-1 (the so-called "First" Gulf War) seem not unreasonable.

Still on the subject of numbers, according to the program shown on BBC4 (Racism: a history, Part 2, 28 Mar), around 30 million died in famines in British-ruled India in the late 19th century, due to neglicence and conscious racism (*). 

This puts into some sort of context the numbers who died as a result of the “Great Leap Forward” in China in the 1950's - figures vary between 20 million and 30 million people - which make some people wonder why Mao is never quite regarded as a criminal on the same scale as Hitler and Stalin (**). 

The BBC programme, which was utterly shattering, suggested that, horrific as the holocaust carried out by the Nazis was, it should be seen as part of a continuum of European races regarding others as inferior.

*   For those in the UK with Freeview digital, the series is repeated starting next Tuesday (10-12 April).
** Mao and forever By Richard McGregor Published: August 13 2004