Hollande on track

Francois Hollande is taking a first-round lead into the May 6 run-off against Nicolas Sarkozy

Are the French Socialists headed for a victory lap around the Arc du Triomphe next month? Going by the first-round presidential election results, it may seem that way. Should Francois Hollande win the next battle – this time a simple one-on-one with the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy – then the mainstream leftish party would have a man back in the Republic’s hot-seat for the first time since 1988.

There were ten candidates standing in the preliminary showdown and Mr Hollande came out on top, landing 29% of the votes to the conservative president’s 27%. In a strong third place was the National Front (NF) belle, Marine Le Pen, who outscored her father’s placing in 2002 to gather 18% of the ballots cast. There was also a substantial turnout for the far-left candidate; Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the Left Front, polled 11%.

However, it is no surprise that Francois Hollande has recently being trying to reach out to those French who marked their sheets in favour of Le Pen because some simple maths shows that Nicolas Sarkozy is certainly far from dead and buried in the race for the Elysee Palace. If you were to add Hollande’s first-round score to that of his similar-minded friend way out on the left, you reach 40%. But Sarkozy slots back into the lead with 45% if you combine his and Marine Le Pen’s votes. Those deals are not assured and Sarkozy has ruled out an official accord with the NF. However, the president has also called for their unofficial support and pleaded with the electorate not ‘to demonise’ them.

There has been a very odd feel to this election.  There is anxiety over the economy – the eurozone crisis has hit France hard and its repercussions continue. There was uncertainty and scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s possible candidacy for the Socialist Party. In fact, Francois Hollande himself has been labelled ‘Mr Bland’ and ‘Mr Boring’ in the press. There has been great debate over each other’s policies, from the incumbent’s clampdown on immigrants to far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon’s proposal for 100% income tax on those people earning more than €300,000. Nicolas Sarkozy himself has been accused of being un-Gallic on a personal level with his teetotal and fitness-related rejection of vins et fromages.

Finally, there were the events in and around Toulouse last month. Mohamed Merah shot dead one soldier on 11 March, two more forces personnel four days later and finally three children and a rabbi at their school on 19 March. The country was stunned by the events. Campaigning was put on hold but it has been hard to see if the utter condemnation of the shootings by the nation and the controversial handling of the affair by the Interior Ministry has had any political effect.

In the account below, Richard Faul, a British translator working in Toulouse, describes the feeling after the initial shootings, before the gunman was identified and killed:

“I think everyone has been in total disbelief, saying it doesn’t happen in France, it’s far more common in USA or England. Toulouse is generally one of the most open and friendly cities in France where strangers talk to each other all the time and it’s easy to meet people. So it’s a shock. Everyone I know has gone about their daily stuff but they are all aware of it and have one eye on the news.

I was slightly annoyed that all the electoral candidates came riding in like the cavalry, obviously looking at how to turn it to their advantage, but then on the other hand if they don’t they would be seen to be absent in a time of crisis. The carnaval has been postponed, it’s not a time for partying just yet.”

It seems unlikely that Merah was trying to influence the outcome of the election with his murderous actions. But the deaths opened France up to questions from within about each other, about political process and policy, about foreign wars and domestic attitudes, about radicalisation, about ‘home-grown terror’, about global problems on a national level. It has been just one of the hurdles that this year’s candidates have had to deal with. Mr Hollande says he is “best-placed to become next president” and, according to the opinion polls, that may be so. But there is a lot playing on citizens’ minds at the moment and it cannot be denied that this time around, party politics are taking a back seat and it is a pure test of character that is on the cards.


Indian summer of uncertainty

How will India make use of its month in the presidency of the UN Security Council?

India has a lot of domestic and regional defence and security issues on its plate at the moment. Bearing in mind the added responsibility of chairing the UN Security Council, Delhi has a lot to shoulder. Looking at the international situation first there is one major issue: what to do with Syria. Since the Arab League gave its first official condemnation of the ongoing repression across Syria, the Gulf Nations have been queuing up to denounce the regime and their ambassadors have been jumping on aeroplanes home.

However, India’s caution on the issue has stood out. The excitable Europeans have been at the forefront of the clamour for a condemnatory resolution, with their grouping led by the UK, France and Italy (and also this time Germany, notably ambivalent about the NATO mission in Libya). Then there are Russia and China, two heavyweight permanent members flapping their vetoes in the air as a warning. India has so far aligned itself with the Russians and Chinese, who also count current non-permanent Council member South Africa, (part of the emboldening BRICS global power bloc), amongst their ranks. The Council has so far failed to agree on a resolution and only issued a weak statement. With Arab countries of regional importance both to Syria and to India starting to turn away from Damascus, India should have something a little bit more negative to say about the terrible repression in Syria.

On the home front, a relationship that unnerves Delhi is the Sino-Pakistani one. However, it has soured somewhat with Beijing’s published fears that Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province have been popping over the border to Pakistan to terrorist training camps. India, the host country of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, is eyeing China with suspicion. Indo-Pakistani relations recently came under the spotlight after many attributed responsibility for the Mumbai bombings in July to a Pakistani group. However, Islamabad strongly condemned the attacks and many instead looked to India’s homegrown Mujahideen as the possible bombers.

A new ‘Great Game’ seems to be building slowly in India, Pakistan and China. All three have nuclear weapons and very strong armed forces. India has two eyes but must not train them in the same direction. Syria is clearly important but Delhi must deliver calm diplomacy and strong leadership in the sub-continent as well. It has the chance to be a mediator in Indo-Chinese disputes at home and international disputes via the Security Council and must use these opportunities calmly and wisely.

Where there’s muck there’s brass

Culture seems to be flourishing in Serbia whilst its politics still stumbles

The arrest last week of the former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was rightly welcomed by Europeans from across the continent. Overall, European foreign ministers have quietly agreed that Serbia has ticked one of the boxes required to join the EU. Other boxes do still need to be ticked though, including ‘capture Goran Hadzic’, another man wanted in the Netherlands on charges of war crimes. But generally the news was well received.

Serbia’s strides to present a cleaner and fairer face of itself on the international cultural stage have also been applauded. Its sports sides have enjoyed recent success: the national football side made last year’s World Cup Finals and the men’s tennis team won the 2010 Davis Cup. Tourists are starting to look past the beaches of Croatia to Serbia.

And Serbian gypsy bands such as the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra are at the heart of the ‘Balkan Brass’ music that is gaining popularity across Europe, with Romanian band Fanfare Ciocarlia a big rival to Markovic. ‘Balkan Brass’ calls on gypsy rhythms, Latin beats, acid jazz and big-band brass. It typifies co-ordination between different movements and feelings as bands regularly gather a dozen or more musicians on stage playing many different instruments at once. This harmony would be welcome in Serbia’s political world.

The arrest of Mr Mladic stirred large protests by right-wing Serb nationalists, a worrying sight for moderate and expansionist European politicians, and not exactly what president Boris Tadic would like to see, bearing in mind his desire to achieve full EU membership by 2018. But the rise of the right has been under way for a while now in Europe, with the success of the True Finns in the recent Finnish general election and the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France the two main examples of this pan-continent electoral shift.

So how worried should EU expansion officials be by the reaction of Serb nationalists? The whole Balkan issue is of changing concern. Certainly, the Bin Laden-esque nature of Mladic’s capture (quiet village in remote countryside; politicians’ complicity and secrecy surrounding his location) is cause for concern. The open politics of Tadic seem friendly to outsiders but to other Balkaners, (for example Kosovars, whose independence Serbia, amongst others doesn’t recognise), it is nationalist and intimidating.

Ethnicity, language and religion have divided the Balkans for centuries but perhaps Serbia can now lead a Balkan turn to a new future post-Mladic and post-genocide. It must not be forgotten; but nor should Serbia’s history automatically preclude it from European modernisation. The government in Belgrade could do worse than calling to mind its rising cultural power and the harmony and respect inherent in ‘Balkan Brass’ to sort out political disputes. The music is gaining Serbia lots of friends on YouTube at the moment and it seems that now a few more are starting to shake hands with Belgrade on the diplomatic as well as on the musical stage.

Getting rough in the South China Sea

Tensions are rising across the region and politicians must keep their heads

On Saturday 30 April seven Thai soldiers were killed in a double bombing by suspected rebels. A day later insurgents shot dead two Buddhists in a drive-by in the southern region of Yala. In total, more than 4,500 people have died in the last seven years in the south of Thailand, as suspected Malay Muslim militants fight for greater autonomy. It is a number that has gone unnoticed across much of the world, in a region quietly infamous for violent but sporadic insurgency and politico-religious strains. Also calling for more devolution are Vietnam’s Hmong ethnic minority, from a mostly Christian area up in the far north-west of the country and very close to the border with Laos. A recent protest was fiercely quashed by soldiers.

Another worrying situation that has been brewing for decades between Thailand and Cambodia had its most recent twist in the story at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday 8 May. The area up for debate was the Preah Vihear temple which stands in the Dangrek mountain range that straddles the Thai-Cambodia border. In 1954, Thai troops stormed the temple but withdrew eight years later. The ancient Hindu complex then fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. And this year forces from both sides have exchanged fire, with reports suggesting that two Thai soldiers died in the incidents.

An unhelpful sideshow to the event is the fact that Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who is wanted back in Bangkok on corruption charges, has been appointed as an economic adviser to the Cambodian government. Because of their reluctance to tell member-states how to run domestic affairs, the ASEAN leaders failed to come to an agreement on what to do about the temple issue. This is not surprising, however, seeing as the matter has been simmering away since France left as colonial power at the turn of the last century.

There are some positives. The ASEAN hopes to form a single economic community by 2015 and already has lots of free trade agreements in place. Indonesia is growing in stature and is taking up the role of the region’s mover and shaker on the world stage. Late last year Burma held its first national elections for 20 years.

But the Philippines is wobbling: corruption is rife and political assassinations continue. Malaysia has to take the lead on the other Indo-China nations’ religious shoot-outs. A regional stand-off would heavily affect the commercial arrangements the ASEAN has fought hard to secure. India and China stand quietly in the background and the region must be careful not to split along superpower allegiance lines. But for now, the tourists still have faith in the Thai beaches and the Indonesian surf and they must not be dissuaded from visiting the temples in the mountains as well.

Living on a prayer

Trying to balance religion and politics in West Africa can be a hard game to play

France has been accused of stoking up religious tensions with its recent decision to ban full-face covering garments, such as the Muslim niqab and burka. However, in its former African colonial heartland, religion and the state are managing to carve a delicate balancing act.

The Francophone countries of West Africa tend to have huge Muslim populations. But in Mali, for example, Barcelona FC shirt-wearing men and bare-ankled women abound. Beer is brewed and drunk. Secularism dominates the constitutions of countries such as Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Far from the Maghreb and the Middle East, it seems that the customs and animism of the area has infused with Islam to breed a slightly different take on the faith. However, the people still faithfully queue outside the vast, mud Mosques on Fridays. There are millions of Christians also living in the area, although they are more numerous in Anglophone states such as Ghana and Nigeria.

There are exceptions, of course. The civil conflict in Ivory Coast, although primarily based on politics, had strong religious undercurrents. Laurent Gbagbo, the deposed former president, is a Catholic and his internationally-endorsed successor, Alassane Ouattara, is a Muslim.

Nigeria held the first-round of a presidential election on Saturday 16 April. According to exit polls, it seems that incumbent (Christian southerner) Goodluck Jonathan will head to a run-off against his main rival Muhammadu Buhari (Muslim northerner).

It is a country with a bloody record when it comes to religious and political balance. Recent years have seen regular fighting and hundreds of deaths in the central prefectures where the Muslim and Christian populations meet. There is a growing Islamist insurgency calling for sharia law to be imposed in the north. The radical group Boko Haram shot dead two people on Friday 15, the day before the presidential polls opened.

Nigeria has a rough agreement to rotate the presidency between the largely Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, although when Mr Jonathan assumed the presidential office last year on the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua that cycle was broken.

The balance of the stability of the region depends on similar domestic accords. Yet if such agreements can be broken without provoking resultant religious fury then the region will have be able to look forward again.

The region’s capability to forge nations out of the bubbling and potentially venomous cauldron of post-colonialism, animism, Christianity, Islam, strongmen and dictators, developing democracies, oil and cocoa, deserts and droughts, rivers and floods and linguistic differences must be lauded and the nations must strive towards growing co-operation and confidence in one of the main areas they have had some success and are trying to improve at the moment: balancing religion and politics.

Policing the protests

As this blog noted at the start of October, (see ‘Europeans having to swallow some tough medicine – 09/10/10’) an autumn of strikes and public protests was just beginning in Europe. Italy, the UK and Greece have borne the full force of mass demonstrations and France and Spain have suffered large-scale strikes.

On Wednesday 22 December, more protests went ahead in Rome with demonstrators campaigning against cuts to the education budget. There have been nationwide demonstrations across Italy since November in response to the new education bill.

Students are up in arms, as they have been in Britain.The recent student demonstrations across the Channel were a reaction to the coalition government’s decision to raise the upper-limit of tuition fees which universities can charge from £3,000 to £9,000. Greece has also seen widespread protests; reactions to the economic austerity measures announced by Athens.

But eyebrows have been raised over the way that the police have managed the protests. Tear gas has been used in Greece to disperse the protestors and the UK has employed water cannon before in Northern Ireland. The tactic of ‘kettling’ was controversial. The police have a hard enough job to do already, but over-zealous baton-wielding has sparked a number of inquiries. In Italy there has been fierce parliamentary debate over the idea of preventative arrests of possible trouble-makers.

With Spain and Portugal not entirely economically secure yet, and after a year of intense pressure for the eurozone, internal departments in governments across the continent will have to investigate their chosen methods of dealing with protestors. As education budget cuts, austerity measures, pension reforms and the effects of weak currencies bite, strikes and widespread demonstrations will continue. Many of the campaigners have declared war on their respective governments; the police must be ready and prepared to uphold the peace.

Europeans having to swallow some tough medicine

On Tuesday 12 October, huge strikes are scheduled to take place across France. On the same day, a right-wing party in Spain called España 2000 is planning a demonstration of Spanish-ness in the face of what it sees as reprehensible attacks on the nation by the present government. And in the UK, there has been widespread condemnation of the Government’s ‘austerity’ measures, such as the recent announcement to cut child benefit for those earning in the top tax bracket.

It seems that the peoples of Europe are muscling up and finding their voice to respond en masse to governments’ differing plans to address budget deficits and economic shortfalls. On Friday 8 October, the French Senate approved a preliminary section of more wide-ranging pension reforms. But rather than being a trivial amendment buried deep within some unimportant preamble – the Upper House has given the thumbs-up to raising the retirement age by two years, from 60 to 62. This has not gone down well in France and unions look set to go ahead with an unlimited walk-out in protest at the changes from this Tuesday. There were well-attended strikes when this bill was first floated but the politicians in Paris have continued with their reforms in the face of popular denouncements. But these changes are needed.

Across the Channel, the Government is four years further on with its retirement age reform plans (from 65 to 66 from 2016) and it has also met with militant unions and a vocal general public. Yet people are living longer and funding their pensions costs more. Providing for them is made even more difficult when, as outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne wrote simply – ‘There’s no money left!’ But alterations to the age from when Europeans can begin withdrawing a state pension are not new – in 2007, Germany passed a law raising the age to 67. Looking further afield, the Australian government plumped for 67 when its proposal got through parliament there last year. There has been criticism that the right-wing government in Paris and the Conservative-led coalition in London are, on one hand, enjoying swinging the axe and concocting a painful dosage for the public (particularly the Roma in France), whilst on the other hand steering clear of having to taste their remedies themselves. David Cameron, the British prime minister, is a fan of saying that ‘we are all in this together’ but critics highlight the personal fortunes that he and his Chancellor, George Osborne, enjoy.

But it is not only conservatism which is cutting public services and tightening the belt. In Spain, the socialist government is having to cut spending as well. It provoked large-scale protests when it announced the proposal to cut public sector salaries by 5% across the board from next year. In addition, like the Conservative plan in the UK, it has approved a drop in MPs’ pay, although the Spanish figure of 15% is more impressive than Cameron’s 5%. There are other similarities. Zapatero has committed to scrapping the ‘Baby Cheque’ policy, which saw mothers able to apply for a €2,500 grant (rising to €3,500 for the ‘numerous families’) and the Coalition has planned to reform the child benefit system in the UK. Although unpopular, both the Conservative-dominated government in the UK and the Socialist leadership in Madrid have realised the unsustainability of such benefit policies.

And just as Labour will want to step into the leftist opposition breech in debating the cuts in the UK, so the right-wing political classes have been venting the fury at what they see as a deliberate debilitation of the power and role of the central Spanish state by Zapatero’s government. Right-wing party España 2000 have complained about the number of immigrants in a Spain where jobs are scarce and they have organised a protest for the coming Tuesday – Columbus Day, or Day of Hispanicity. The members of the party will be celebrating their three key principles: the unity of the country, the Spanish language and the values engendered in the national flag. This will be a thinly-veiled attack on devolution, a key policy of the present government and one which the centrist party believes has contributed to the economic problems of the day, along with an open-door immigration policy.

Protests will be coming from all angles and all sides of the political spectrum to the different governments of Europe this autumn and it will be a measure of their reformist ability as to how well they allay the fears of the masses. The unions in the UK have managed to install Ed Miliband as their preferred successor to Gordon Brown at the head of the Labour Party with an aim to rally the rebellious troops against the necessary cuts being outlined by the Coalition. Their partners in France and Spain are also standing up to the deficit-reduction packages being offered by their respective governments. Over the next few months we will see who blinks first.