Monday, May 14, 2007

Sarkozy, le président élu...

Immediate reactions to the result of the second-round vote: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on French TV, calls for a renewal of the Parti Socialiste along Social Democratic lines; Pierre Moscovici, says that it shows the need to select a candidate at a much earlier stage - Sarkozy had been, at least in his own mind, the Right's candidate since 22 April 2002.

Denis MacShane, on BBC Radio 4's election special, takes a softer line on Ségolène Royal - the French Socialists need to redefine themselves, like New Labour. On the World Service, the following morning, he says, "As I'm on Left, I wanted to see Ségolène Royal as President" (that's not what he was saying in The Observer the week before) and also expresses concerns about Sarkozy's position on Turkey.

The WS also had somebody from Poland on the same programme. Poland is keen to at least keep open the possibility of Ukraine joining the EU. Poland, of course, has strong historical links with parts of Ukraine (the pro-western parts). But Ukraine is seen as being behind Turkey in the 'queue' to join the EU.

In his speech after the vote, Sarkozy spoke against the competition of commemoration, "repentance, which is a form of self-hatred (haine de soi-même)". Commentators later suggested that this was a sop to Le Pen's voters.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Protest at Amir Kabir

This doesn't seem to have received the attention it deserves:
TEHRAN, May 7 — Students at Amir Kabir University fended off club-wielding university security guards on Monday and went ahead with elections for a pro-democracy association.

Despite the successful election at Amir Kabir, it is not clear that balloting for student associations will be allowed at other universities. The associations, a powerful center of support and communication among student democracy advocates, are a constant irritant to the government, which seeks to maintain strict control over politics and cultural norms.
Amir Kabir University has long been a center of student political activity. Students there chanted against Mr. Ahmadinejad when he visited the university late last year and set fire to posters bearing his likeness.

[..T]he student democracy advocates said they scored a victory on Monday when they managed to hold their annual elections.

“The students reached the conclusion that the only way was to resist,” said Ehsan Mansouri, a student leader who has been banned from attending classes. “The students guarded the ballot boxes as they were attacked and clubbed severely by the university security guards.”

Protests erupted last week after four student publications appeared with articles that offended religious sensibilities. Student advocates denounced the articles, saying the publications had been forged in an effort to frame the students. Under Iran’s Islamic law, punishment for the offense, technically “insulting religious sanctities,” can be death.
Conservatives protested last week inside and outside the university, calling for a second cultural revolution. Under the first, which followed the 1979 Islamic revolution, universities around the country were closed, and liberal students and professors were purged.
The police also started seizing satellite dishes last week. Because the dishes provide access to opposition television channels they are officially banned, but that does not stop large numbers of people from using them.

Reformist politicians [..] became alarmed last week when a former nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Hussein Moussavian, was arrested on espionage charges. To many here, the arrest seemed to signal a new crackdown on social freedoms.

“No one should be surprised if they stage another cultural revolution and shut down the universities,” said Saeed Leylaz, an economist and political commentator in Tehran. “The Islamic Republic has reached a stage that wants to suppress any kind of dissent, even if that means creating a police state.”
Nazila Fathi in The New York Times, 'Beating by Guards Fails to Stop Voting, Iranian Students Say', May 8, 2007. Comment is superfluous. Read the whole thing while it's still accessible.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Ségolène vs Sarkozy, week 2

The Times has been unremittingly hostile to Ségolène Royal (this, of course, is part of the Murdoch press, that I mentioned in a previous post). For example, 'Ségolène Royal [..] has proved an erratic lightweight, an incoherent debater and an old-fashioned leftwinger with little understanding of how clichéd and dogmatic socialism has failed the country in the past.' ('Chance for France', 16 April)

Criticism has been made of  Ségolène's foreign policy "gaffes". The most notable of these was concerning Iran.  The criticism was first made by her opponents for the Socialist Party candidacy, then enthusiastically taken up by the British Press, not only in The Times,  but also by Denis MacShane in The Observer (29 April).
Ségolène Royal,  in her call the Monday after the first vote for discussions with François Bayrou,  said she was looking to create a broad-based coalition,  from far-left to centre,  to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy,  similar to the one in Italy Romano Prodi assembled to defeat Berlusconi.  The discussions,  which both sides insisted be open and televised,  eventually took place on the Saturday (28 Apr).  Bayrou,  like the Socialists,  has warned of the dangers of electing Sarkozy,  comparing him to Berlusconi.  I don't quite see it myself.  It is one thing to say that Sarkozy has the support of Berlusconi;  it does not follow that he is like him in controlling,  or wanting to control,  large parts of the media.

On Blair's support for Sarkozy,  Denis MacShane,  former Europe Minister in the Blair government,  provides a further indication:  'She spoilt Merkel's plans on Europe by insisting on impossible demands to rewrite the defunct constitution to placate protectionists in the isolationist left in France. [..]  Royal was invited to London to meet Blair and Brown but refused to come.'  See also Martin Kettle  in The Guardian (29 April).  Kettle says that it is clear Blair favours Sarkozy, but he continues: "I made a point of asking several MPs the Ségo-Sarko question. [..] Only the Conservatives have no mixed feelings; they are all for Sarkozy. Among Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs the reaction is far more conflicted. In many cases they answered that the heart said Ségo but the head said Sarko. A Labour cabinet minister was one of the few unambiguous Royal backers. ... Gordon Brown is ambiguous on this question too. [..] Brown is comfortable with Sarkozy's deregulatory economic instincts and with his openness to America. And yet Brown hesitates. When Sarkozy launched his election campaign in London, Blair met him while Brown made his excuses. Brown has put out feelers towards the Royal camp too, which Blair has not."

On Wednesday (2 May) the two candidates engaged in 2 hours 39 minutes of televised debate (Extracts in Le Monde;   in English from the BBC;  others are my own transcription).

On Turkey, Ségolène said that she was in favour of a pause, but that France has given its word (donner sa parole) and must keep it. Sarkozy said flatly that Turkey cannot be part of the European Union because it is not part of Europe:  it is in Asia Minor.  But,  Ségolène said,  we should not slam the door in its face. ...  (23h06)

Ségolène was happy enough with her so-called "gaffe" on Iran that she repeated it in the televised debate.  'I would go beyond [Sarkozy's position]",  she said.  "We must be very firm with them." (23h10)

In her closing remarks,  Ségolène chose to evoke the example of another female leader:  'I know that for some of you, it will not be obvious to say that a woman can hold the highest responsibilities.  Others are doing it on this planet.  There's Angela Merkel [in Germany].' (23h40)

In a highly revealing passage,  Sarkozy set out his vision on the economy:  'If employment is taxed too highly,  employment will go.  If capital is taxed too highly,  capital will go.  If there is no more capital, no more work, there is no growth. [..] We cannot impose higher taxes than those that are paid in other countries.' (22h17)

Sarkozy wants to get rid of inheritance tax (droits de succession). Again,  I find it almost incredible that this has not received more attention (outside France, that is).  He also wants to maintain the cap on the maximum amount of tax an individual has to pay (22h17, 22h30).

Bernard Sananès commented:  "Elle est quand même très loin d'un discours socialiste traditionnel qui serait anti-entreprise."  (21h58) I noted myself a couple of phrases: 'Je suis pour l'entreprise ... je suis d'accord [avec Sarkozy] sur les droits et les devoirs.'

In an article in Le Monde the following morning, Sananès summed up,  'Elle a montré que même si elle ne gagne pas dimanche elle peut être le chef de l'opposition...' ('Ségolène Royal a créé la surprise')

On Thursday morning (3 May),  Ségolène Royal was on France Inter.  Asked a question about Sarkozy being a fascist,  she replied along the lines of,  'Well,  he is supported by Berlusconi and Aznar,  who both supported the war in Iraq.  I am supported by Prodi and Zapatero.'

She sought to make as broad an appeal as possible:  'I believe the presidential election is a direct contact between a personality and the French people.  I am now above the political parties.  I want to address myself to each person (chacun et chacune)...' Later:  'I am no longer the candidate of the Socialist Party.  I am above and beyond the parties,  in direct connection with the country:  that is the very meaning of the presidential election (...en liaison direct avec le pays: c'est le sens meme de l'election presidentielle).'

Furthermore,  she said,  she had taken up François Bayrou's proposal,  that any growth above 2.5% should be used to repay debt.  (That might seem a fairly theoretical possibility.  Cf. the debate, at 21h32)

Bernard Guetta,  the station's commentator on international affairs,  asks a question about the difficulty of trying to renegotiate on the European constitution,  especially on the basis of incorporating social protections  ('Ne serait-il pas hasardeux de vouloir renegocier un traite constitutionnel europeen,  d'obtenir l'accord de nos partenaires  europeens,  en particulier sur ce protocole social additionnel que vous souhaitez ajouter au projet constitutionnel?')  Ségolène says that she thinks the "social protocol" is a good thing,  but will involve discussions and negotiations with each country... Guetta interjects at this point,  'Even with Great Britain?' Ségolène: 'I think we will start with the Euro zone,  perhaps.  Then we will pull the others along  (entraîner les autres),  I hope.'

Judt on the French election

Just a few more points I didn't manage to pull into my last post, being a response to an article by Tony Judt in The New York Times (*). Thanks to Jeff Weintraub for drawing my attention to this, in a e-mail following his post.

On Ségolène Royal favouring Turkey's entry to the EU, it's certainly an unpopular position, as Tony Judt confirms. If Ségolène is uncommitted, which I don't accept, that is much better than outright opposition, since the EU will not have to make its final decision on Europe for 10 or 15 years, if ever.

As for the remark about "a leftist mirror of the agenda of neoconservative strategists in Washington", I don't really understand this, unless it's a reflection of the argument you sometimes hear that something (Turkey in the EU) that Paul Wolfowitz favours is not a good thing after all, that extending the EU is really a way of weakening it. So, Judt appears to criticize Sarkozy for breaking with Chirac on this, while not giving Royal credit for maintaining the same line.
Many of Ms. Royal’s socialist supporters manage to be both anti-American and anti-European...
This reminds me of something Tony Blair said in a recent interview: 'Some parts of the [right-wing] media, he adds, are now both Eurosceptic and anti-American: "Well, work that one out ..." ' In fact, in the case of the French Left, I can understand it, that it's all part of the anti-globalisation argument. Many on the Left - in the Socialist Party and among the sort of people who write editorials in Le Monde - have traditionally stressed the importance of a strong Europe, as a counterweight to the hyperpuissance. But they were outflanked during the referendum on the constitution by those who argue that the EU itself is the problem, that it is too "liberal". Again, the importance of 29 May 2005 can scarcely be overstated.

One or two other points:
But the comparison to American rates is misleading: our figures are artificially lowered because so many dark-skinned men aged 18 to 30 are in prison and thus off the unemployment rolls.
It would be nice if all this could be properly tabulated, taking what statisticians call a "cohort" of 19-year-olds, say, and showing so many in employment, so many unemployed, so many in prison... From what I've seen, Le Monde Économie does that sort of thing better than the British press. The only snag is that the French do not allow the recording of ethnicity in such figures (**). Something to do with the values of the Republic, apparently. Many in France think the advances supposed to have been made under the Blair government are an illusion. One book that came out last year was called Le Royaume enchanté de Tony Blair.

In 1995 [Chirac] became the first president to acknowledge openly France’s role in the Holocaust: “The occupier was assisted by the French, by the French state,”
Here, at least, Chirac appears in a better light than Sarkozy - cf. the remarks I made before, regarding the report in Le Monde, 19 Apr.

* 'France Looks Ahead, and It Doesn’t Look Good', 22 April 2006 ( link requires payment).

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Ségolène vs Sarkozy, week 1

The campaign in France has told us much about how divided the Left is in Europe. In Britain, are we so hypnotized by Blair (and Brown) and their pact with the devil, otherwise known as the Murdoch press, that we fail to see what is happening?

So, that's the attention-grabbing first paragraph out of the way. As I feared, this is now part of the post-mortem. Ségolène did quite well in the debate Wednesday night, but I still thought she had less than a 20% chance of winning on Sunday (curious, after writing that, I checked on the odds and found that Ladbrokes were offering 5 to 1).

On Sunday (22 Apr), as the results of the first round were announced, BBC Parliament carried live coverage from one of the French  TV channels (TF1, I think). Olivier Besancenot called for a vote for Ségolène Royal in the second round, even before she made her speech about an hour and a half after the announcement of the results (21:30 CET). It was quite a long speech: she committed to a new referendum on the EU constitution, positioning herself against Sarkozy's proposal for a mini-treaty and promising that the French people would not have the decision taken behind its back (à son insu).

The BBC's Mark Mardell says that, privately, Britain's Labour government is hoping for a Sarkozy victory, since the last thing they want is another referendum (election special on Radio 4).       

Election présidentielle : les résultats du premier tour. One of the far-left candidates, Olivier Besancenot, took 4.1 % of the vote. The 5% threshold is significant, since if a candidate gets more than that he gets funding of 5 million, otherwise 800,000 Euros. This was mentioned by Philippe Gelie, of Le Figaro on C-Span (22 Apr). Details are available on Wikipedia (though I couldn't get their figures to add up): Élections présidentielles sous la Cinquième.

Sarkozy caused some waves in Europe by speaking out against "unrestricted free trade", but according to the Financial Times (31 Mar), one of his advisers has said that he is protectionist in areas where he would be constrained by the EU and "liberal" in areas he could change - in domestic policy. This has not gone unnoticed by the French. J-M Colombani in his editorial in Le Monde:  "Nous eûmes donc les allers-retours de Nicolas Sarkozy, se proclamant libéral avant de redevenir classiquement colbertiste. A moins que, comme le disent les Britanniques, il ne soit libéral quand les affaires marchent, protectionniste quand l'Etat est impuissant."

Both candidates have taken positions that move beyond the French consensus on the US and Iraq, Sarkozy in his Press conference on foreign policy in March, Ms Royal longer ago. However, at her rally the Thursday before the first round vote, she is reported to have got her biggest cheer by speaking about France not going down on its knees to the United States. There is more fairly predictable stuff on her website. But if Sarkozy can be allowed to say one thing and mean another on the economy, then maybe Ségolène can be allowed her meaningless posturing on this.

On Turkey, Ségolène has been fairly courageous in taking the unpopular position of favouring their entry to the EU. (*)  (Here we might compare the position in Germany, where many of Angela Merkel's foreign policy positions are more attractive than Gerhard Schröder's, but she is far more opposed to Turkey's entry than he is.) Sarkozy has always been opposed to Turkish entry, but, in an interesting sidelight, Michel Barnier, former FM and now adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, interviewed on Thursday, said he used to support Turkey joining the EU, but changed his mind after the French rejection of the EU constitution in the May 2005 referendum.

But Turkey is, literally, peripheral to the discussion about Europe. You may have heard that the Socialists have been accused of conducting the campaign on the basis of Tous Sauf Sarkozy (anything but Sarkozy). In fact, when it comes to Europe, it's more like anything but Britain, i.e. anything but the anglo-saxon, ultra-liberal, model. This view is shared by some quite surprising figures, such as Bernard Kouchner. Even after ten years of Blair government, this is still what Britain means in France.

So, the French look to restart the Franco-German "motor". Here the Socialists may have some advantage, since Sarkozy has made some remarks which, apart from not being strictly true about France having nothing to be ashamed of in its history, are rather insensitive towards Germany:
Le discours musclé sur l'identité nationale, les petites phrases répétées dans lesquelles le candidat Sarkozy a renvoyé à l'Allemagne son passé nazi - "la France n'a pas rougir de son histoire, elle n'a pas commis de génocide, elle n'a pas inventé la solution finale", a-t-il dit à Nice le 30 mars - ne sont pas passés inaperçues. Même si les commentaires sont restés limités. Le Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung s'est contenté de relever les critiques de l'ancienne ministre socialiste Elisabeth Guigou, qui a reproché à M. Sarkozy d'attaquer l'Allemagne. ('La campagne porte en germe des conflits profonds entre Paris et Berlin', Le Monde, 19 Apr)
But the Socialists' call for "reform" of the European Central Bank may well be seen by the Germans as a demand for a more lax monetary policy. Furthermore, Sarkozy's proposal for a mini-treaty to take forward reform of the EU, is more in line with Ms Merkel's position (not to mention Mr Blair's).

One problem for Ségolène Royal is that, unlike Blair, she has not had three years to establish a new image and policies for her party. So, although she may come across as fairly Blairist when interviewed, much of the time,  in the long discussions on radio (which I mainly hear) and on TV (I presume), it is others who speak for her. Many of these put forward fairly unreconstucted views on the economy, which it is easy for Sarkozy and his people to demolish as presaging continued stagnation for France.

Ségolène may be the party's candidate for president, but she is not its leader. This is different from the way we do things in Britain, but, bizarrely enough, more similar to the way things are done in the US.

On the face of it, the two candidates' policies on the 35-hour week are not too different: Sarkozy is not actually promising to scrap it, while Ségolène has promised to be flexible in its application, extending it to smaller companies only after negotiation with the "social partners". But the rhetoric on each side is very different. Sarkozy claims to favour for those who get up early (de bonne heure) to go to work. "Work more to earn more"... The Socialists are criticised for having a vision where work is a fixed quantity, a cake to be divided up. On the Socialists' side, the argument is that they are all in favour of people working more, but not of a society where some have the opportunity to work overtime, while others are spectators, in unemployment. Unemployment is the major problem for France, especially among the young, especially among the immigrant communities. Yet it is doubtful that the 35-hour week helps to reduce this, since the restrictions it imposes are detrimental to the performance of the economy. Also, the 35-hour week may not be too popular, especially among the lower-paid.

Ségolène Royal may have had the Spanish PM Zapatero at her rally the Thursday before the first round, but Sarkozy made a tellingly point in an interview several weeks ago, when he described how he asked Zapatero whether he was planning to introduce a 35-hour week in Spain: "he laughed in my face."

All the same, what Sarkozy proposed to mitigate the effects of the 35-hour week, exempting overtime worked from tax, seemed so bizarre that I thought I had misunderstood it, but I later heard it confirmed on the BBC.

I commented about the Contrat Premier Embauche previously. Here Ségolène could do well to take a leaf out of Tony Blair's book. As I noted at the time, Emmanuel of Ceteris Paribus pointed out last year, showing more knowledge of the subject than most people in Britain, how the Blair government modified the employment laws from the Thatcher era.

If we could get beyond the vague rhetoric - about "ultra-liberalism", globalisation and so on, we might see some concrete issues and some proposals that many would find attractive, even in Britain.

Let's have another look at some of the ideas put forward by the minor candidates in the first round. Some of them, admittedly, are not too impressive. Olivier Besancenot, on 19 Apr, had the slogan "pas de subventions aux licencieurs", which might be literally translated as "no subsidies to job-cutters", but probably means rather "no job-cuts by people who receive subsidies". Bernard Kouchner later described Besancenot as being "d'un talent formidable".

José Bové, on 17 Apr, said that the European constitution had been rejected in France was not because people were against Europe as such, but because they were against the Europe that had been presented to them, against an expansion that had left new entrants able to use tax competition to attract jobs. Marie-George Buffet (PCF), on 18 Apr, also spoke about harmonisation fiscale.

Nobody can defend the idea that workers in the "old" countries of the EU have a god-given right for their jobs to be defended against competition from eastern Europe. But the erosion of the tax base by countries aggressively competing against each other to attract companies by cutting the tax rates on them is something around which people could find common cause.

A campaign against tax avoidance might not seem very exciting, but somebody has to pay taxes, and if the rich do not, the poor have to (or see their services cut).

Yet in Britain, we end up with a Labour government that is secretly hoping for Ségolène Royal to lose. Why? Because then they do not want to face having to have another referendum on the European constitution. Why? Because the Press would be largely hostile to the new constitution. Why? Because of  the very "social" elements that Ségolène would seek to include.

Aside from the issue of corporate taxes,  London and South-East England has become a very attractive place to live for billionaires from Russia and elsewhere, in large part because of a tax regime that lead many to describe the UK as being virtually a tax haven.

On the other side, even internationalists like Bernard Kouchner insist on seeing issues in national terms - France and Germany versus Britain (**).

* Eventually, I found this on her website:
"La lettre" n°22 - Vendredi 13 octobre [2006]
A propos de l’adhésion de la Turquie à l’Union Européenne, Ségolène Royal a rappelé que le processus "se terminera par un référendum. Un certain nombre de conditions doivent être remplies, par rapport à l’inquiétude des opinions sur la stabilité des frontières de l’Europe. Cette question sera débattue. Il faudra pour que le peuple français se prononce, avoir entre-temps apporté un certain nombre de garanties. Le référendum ne sera pas facile. Il va falloir beaucoup de travail, d’évolution, pour que le peuple français se prononce positivement. Ce travail est entre les mains de tous",
(my emphasis)
As I understand it, Chirac had a law passed requiring a referendum before France approves any further enlargement, beyond the two countries that are already close to joining.

- Envoys hope for a ‘friendlier’ France -

** 'Le Franc Parler', France Inter, 23 Apr.