Catherine Ashton

Is it time for AFOE to declare victory on this post about Catherine Ashton’s appointment as EU foreign minister (but we don’t call it that)? Laura Rozen writes that the Iran nuclear talks are making progress for the first time in ages.

The Russians are being constructive. The head of the Israeli military thinks that there has been no decision to build the Bomb, and that the talks are going the right way. David Ignatius sketches some details of a possible agreement, which would combine a halt to uranium enrichment with a promise of regular supplies of 20% enriched uranium and explicit recognition of the right to own the fuel cycle. And it’s been suggested that the Iranian government is trying to prepare public opinion for a deal.

In this context, Laura Rozen profiles the three women at the core of the Western negotiating team, Catherine Ashton from the EU, Helga Schmid from the German Foreign Ministry, and Wendy Sherman of the US State Department. Quote of note:

“She is totally working class,” the European diplomat said. “The criticism from the British press if anything is that she is from northern England, and speaks with a northern accent…

Yeah, well, if you think international understanding is difficult…

Frelections: a round-up between the rounds

No need to guess what’s got the headlines. Mediapart published what purports to be a document demonstrating that (as has been repeatedly rumoured) Libya offered Nicolas Sarkozy a substantial sum of money (€50 million) for his 2007 campaign. The finances of Sarkozy and the broader French right are a deep dark subject, as the continuing Karachi affair makes clear – the treasurer of the 1995 Balladur campaign just described how they concealed large donations in used banknotes. Of course, the campaign manager was none other than Nicolas Sarkozy. Quite a few of the same personalities involved also turn up in the note. It’s not clear, even if the document is genuine, if the money was ever paid out, and its addressee denies ever receiving it. Meanwhile, the arms dealer Ziad Takieddine, who shows up in the whole range of scandals, says he was refused entry to France in the hope of preventing him from producing the document.

However, so far the response from the Sarkozy camp has just been to complain that it’s “undignified” and to point out that the legal maximum campaign spending is €22 million. Obviously you’d have to be naive to think that this somehow excludes finding something else to do with the spare money.

Obviously, the frantic last chance that the interval between the two rounds provides brings everyone with a grudge boiling up to the surface. Dominique Strauss-Kahn re-appeared, with what claims to be an interview with him appearing in the Guardian (rather-too-helpfully translated here) and causing Nicolas Sarkozy to start talking about him a lot. Weirdly, DSK then walked it back, denying that the piece was an interview. Perhaps it helped to move some books. The founder of Rue89 publishes an open letter calling on him to shut up.

Sarko, meanwhile, claims that he’s hoping for a unprecedented mobilisation of the electorate, although the 80% turnout in the first round didn’t seem to help his cause much. Both candidates finish their formal campaigns with a rally today, before the TV debate on Wednesday night.

In terms of actual content, the debate between the rounds has been marked by both candidates denying they were trying to suck up to the FN while also doing so. Rue89 takes a left-wing view of the FN electorate. Sarkozy announces he wants “a presumption of self defence” for the police, in a transparent sop to the FN, while also denying that he would ever form a coalition with them, although also basking in FN rhetoric. He also did a bit of culture war. There are limits to this: Sarko’s enemies in his own party, including two former prime ministers, are angry about the pandering.

Pandering is bipartisan, of course: Hollande has discovered a desire to have an annual parliamentary debate on an immigration quota, as well as doing a bit of security politics about policemen and cannabis. The PS has been measuring the dosage carefully, though – Ségoléne Royal was sent out to remind the public that the party wants foreigners to have the vote, at least in local elections, as a form of republican integration. However, this promise goes back as far as Mitterand’s 1981 campaign and has yet to be implemented.

Hollande is also trying to score off the European Union, or rather, off the ECB and Angela Merkel. In an interview this weekend, she suggested that she might be willing to support a “growth agenda”, perhaps making use of the EIB, but also said nobody was going to re-open the stability pact. Hollande took the credit and remarked that things had moved and were going to move further.

Le Pen and Mélénchon, meanwhile, are looking ahead to the parliamentary elections in June. Interestingly, the deal setting up the Front de Gauche gave the Communists the majority of parliamentary candidates in exchange for letting JLM run for president, but the man himself is bored with being an MEP and feels the need for a bigger megaphone in French politics. A big deal for both will be whether they can get an agreement with the bigger party on their side of politics to cooperate in three-way marginal seats. This is crucial for the smaller parties, as you need to get 12.5% of the vote in round one to be on the ballot in round two. The UMP and the PS are both playing hard to get.

Out with the PS in La Courneuve, where the local secretary reminds us that Barack Obama didn’t invent canvassing.

Apparently, Nigel Farage has been suggesting that Marine Le Pen dump the FN and create something like UKIP. All I can say to that is that perhaps he could give advice when he gets one in five Britons to vote for him as prime minister.

Irish Central Bank highlights costs of delayed adjustment

Central Bank of Ireland governor Patrick Honohan delivered a short speech at the annual meeting of the Irish Economic Association a few hours ago. In Ireland’s strange political dynamic, what initially made news was that he endorsed the fiscal compact, because the Irish judicial class has prescribed a narrow role for the government of the day in advocating for constitutional questions that it puts to the people. Anyway, a few paragraphs after telling people that they are too focused on the costs of Ireland’s infamous blanket bank liability guarantee (on the grounds that our “partners” would have insisted on all senior unsecured bank debt being serviced anyway), he drops in this bit of historical interpretation:

Restructuring of the banks as long as the guarantee was in effect was inhibited by the fact that any significant restructuring was likely to trigger an immediate entitlement for immediate payment in cash of all bondholders under the terms of the guarantee. This reason alone can explain why steps to deal definitively with even the two weakest banks were deferred to the end of the guarantee period.

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Frelections: a little more

Wondering what I meant about Mélénchon performing Frenchness? L’Humanité does an in-depth interview, in which he says as much. If you read French, well worth reading the whole thing. Anyway, his take-home message is that the mission is now just to beat (even to eliminate) the Right.

Elsewhere, IFOP reckons 31% of FN voters are reverse-switchers, but then they were off by 2.5 on both MLP and JLM, and not too good on Sarko or Hollande either.

So far, Le Pen has won one département, the Gard, a mountainous, wild, Protestant former Communist fief down south, where she got 25.5% of the vote, with Sarkozy and Hollande on 24% each and Mélénchon on 13%.

Looking at the first few results from Paris, I get the impression Mélénchon’s campaign did poorly in the capital. This may just be because some districts haven’t reported yet, but he got scores around 13% in quite a few départements and he’s struggled to break 10% in Paris so far. Hollande got 43% in the 18th, for example.

Frelections: first post-election perspectives

The first post-election poll is in, and it has Hollande winning 54% to 46%. The inner workings are interesting; they reckon that 33% of the Bayrou votes go to the PS, 32% to Sarko, and the rest nowhere, 86% of the Mélénchon votes go PS, 60% of the FN go Sarkozy, 18% go PS, the rest nowhere. You can see why Sarko is still trying to get more FN voters.

IPSOS was within 0.2 percentage points of the current estimated result for Hollande, which is excellent, and 0.6 for Sarko, which is OK, but they were out by 3 for Mélénchon and 2.5 for Le Pen, so set your Bayesian estimator accordingly.

Also, here’s a chart of the FN vote over time:

Frelections: divers

Rundown of the statements. Hollande, perhaps taking the accusation of being dull to heart: “Plusieurs faits majeurs sortent de ce scrutin. Le premier est que je suis en tête du premier tour.” Le Pen says the vote lets her supporters join the table of the elite, an odd statement from someone who certainly won’t be in round two. Mélénchon reminds everyone to be anti-Sarkozy, i.e. passing his support to Hollande without saying so. Bayrou’s saying nothing much until he’s met the two leading candidates. Sarko wants extra TV debates, gambling on survival.

Results are being revised down a tad, with the gap between the leaders a little less. For what it’s worth, IPSOS’s exit poll crossbreak for working-class voters is as follows: Le Pen 30 %, Hollande 27 %, Sarkozy 18 %, Mélenchon 12 %, Bayrou 8 %. IPSOS also reckons the 2nd round will go 54-46 Hollande.

Here’s an interview with some FN activists, quite a few of whom won’t behave as expected in round two. Some estimates put the percentage of reverse switchers (FN->PS) at up to 27%.

And here’s a table summarising the polling data. Everyone seems to have over-estimated Mélénchon and Bayrou and under-estimated Le Pen, but the estimate on Hollande seems to be improving a bit as the results tighten up.

Frelections: Polling blowout

The first estimated results are in. 28.4% Hollande, 25.5% Sarkozy, 20% Le Pen, 11.7% Mélénchon, 8.7% Bayrou.

The final polls for Sarko were pretty much right, in the context of a margin of error of 1% either way. That makes him the only sitting president to lose the first round, ever. Hollande beat the spread by half a percentage point beyond the margin of error – which makes him the best scorer ever for the Left in a first round, and makes the polls look poor. The margin or error for the second-tier candidates is wider, more like 2 points either way. But with Le Pen coming in 4 percentage points over the last polls, 2 points out of the spread, and Mélénchon almost as far below the polls, it’s been a bad night for the pollsters. In fact, Le Pen beat her father’s record from 2002, and nobody predicted that.

French radio has already made the interesting point that Sarkozy had pursued a strategy of turning to the hard right in the final stages of the campaign, with a view to moving to the centre for the second round. This is a classic recipe for winning the two-round election, but it hasn’t been missed that it was Sarko’s adviser Patrick Buisson who suggested it, and he’s the former editor of the extreme right’s favourite magazine, Minute, one of many old extreme-rightists on Sarkozy’s staff. The problem is that he still needs to get the centre on board, but with 20% of the electorate to his right, he needs to cover that flank as well, which may well be impossible.

So, the Socialists and the FN won; Mélénchon, Sarkozy, and the pollsters lost.

Looking like the president

A longstanding attack line on Hollande was that he was a sort of vague fat guy. This was silly, in part – his biggest job in politics was running the PS organising machine, and that’s not the sort of thing you do if you’re flaky on details or unwilling to put in the hours. This NYT profile isn’t much cop but does contain something interesting.

He described how no one thought François Mitterrand, France’s first and only Socialist president, had a chance of winning. “Often people told me, ‘Oh, la, la, François Mitterrand, what charisma, what a president!’ But before he became president, they used to call him badly dressed, old, archaic, he knows nothing about the economy.” But the day he was elected, Hollande said, Mitterrand was transformed.

This is true. Back at the end of December, I took issue with the whole notion of being “presidential” on my own blog. I found that the last two occasions there was a change of prime minister in the UK both saw a strongly statistically significant uplift in polling data for the guy who got the job. In 2005, when Tony Blair remained prime minister, there was no such change.

If you want to look like the president, become the president. The qualities we think of as being those of the president are an artefact of the halo effect; we know he or she has them, because we associate them with the office.

Frelections: Mélénchon

Mélénchon. What’s that about? My answer is, basically, “performing Frenchness”, but we’ll come to that. Le Monde has a really good article on the degree to which the Front de Gauche and the Socialists are in violent agreement. Some of Mélénchon’s key social policy proposals, after all, appeared in Ségoléne Royal’s manifesto back in 2007, and they called her a weak-sauce Blairite. The PS is keen to play up the convergence, partly in order to compete for votes with the FDG and partly to signal that co-operation in government is a possibility. (In 1981 and again in 1997, the PS operated in coalition with the Communists, so there is a historical precedent for the extreme Left to be in government.)

The man himself vigorously denies that he’s trying to influence the broader Left. But he would say that. In getting concessions out of the PS, he needs to play hard to get. Further, in trying to drag the Overton window leftwards, it makes sense to increase the perception of extremism around his policies. But on quite a few issues, there is a sort of synergy emerging. Hollande wants to renegotiate the new stability pact, Mélénchon wants to put it to a referendum. The high probability that it would be rejected by a referendum would strengthen the French hand in renegotiating.

On the other hand, they disagree strongly about budget policy, and the price for joining a coalition currently includes signing up to support the PS’s budget.

Here’s a discussion of Mélénchon in the context of French leftwing history. This is rather what I mean by performing Frenchness. French political speech is marked by the politics of the orator – rather than a big tent, one rallies the people, implicitly at some vast mass gathering at the cross-roads of history. That’ll be history with a capital H, of course. (The horse is optional.) And so you get grey centre-right IT-director figures like François Fillon speaking texts that read like nothing but blood and thunder.

Mélénchon’s campaign has been all about oratory and mass meetings, the public theatre of the republic, implicitly opposed to the dubious politics of parliaments and bureaucracies. The big question about it is whether the emergence of a (reasonably) united left-of-the-left movement will tend to split the Left’s vote, or whether it will tend to mobilise it and legitimise more radical ideas. See also, the notion of resistance.

This ambiguity ran through 20th century French politics. Sometimes the Socialists and Communists reinforced each other, as in the Popular Front and the 1981 campaign. Sometimes, as in 1978 and 2002, they fought the real war against each other and the Right profited by their disunity. Of course, Mélénchon’s movement isn’t emerging, it’s re-emerging – the point is well made that it consists of the surviving Communist Party organisation plus the newer ones set up by successive stars of the far Left.

Mélénchon’s own discourse does tell us something about what he plans to do with the crowds he rallies in the public squares, the visible synthesis of the Republic and the Left. He regularly compares Hollande to George Papandreou, and refers to the concept of the Zapatero trap. This idea, which originates in the PS, basically says that to succeed, a left-wing government in France must take the European Union with it, rather than being stuck in an EU dominated by the neoliberalism of the 90s. My take here is that he wants to hold Hollande’s feet to the fire, and also to haul the European Overton window towards the sunshine.

Frelections: a tour of the manifestos

A few days ago, this half-French household got its official mailshot with the full set of candidates’ manifestos, from Sarkozy through to Jean-Pierre Cheminade, plus the kit of polling cards. You might be surprised by the consensus across them. Basically, the political nation has spoken, and what it said was “Piss off, bankers.” Now, the manner in which this sentiment was expressed varied a lot, and the concrete policy proposals to give it effect even more.

Two of the extreme-left candidates who didn’t join Mélénchon’s united front wish to default immediately on the national debt, for example, and they also want to seize the entire banking system by force majeure.

Mélénchon wants to amend the European treaties to explicitly permit central bank financing of the government, and is in general very keen on an inflationary exit from the crisis (is he perhaps a bit of a Modern Monetary Theorist?). He’s also quite keen on narrow banking, as are the extremists. But so are the Greens. And the Front National.

Hollande is strategically vague (as is Sarkozy), but does want to re-open the ECB charter, to regulate the banks more stringently, and to reorganise the various state-owned financial institutions into a national “pole”. The idea of a big public-sector bank is one that basically everybody seems to more or less support, in more or less centralised forms. Mélénchon of course wants a great national institution, presumably with a vast headquarters building somewhere in Paris, either suitably chic on the right bank or else in glass and steel out on the périf. The Greens see it as a network of local mutuals.

Similarly, a flavour of high Keynesianism prevails throughout. Everyone expect Sarko wants a big public works programme, and even he nods in the direction of stimulus. The exact content varies, of course. This threatens to run counter to EU doctrine, and pretty much everyone would like to redesign European institutions, although this is always framed as a demand for more European integration even when (like Mélénchon) it involves getting rid not just of the free movement of capital but even of goods within the EU. He’s actually more protectionist than the FN.

Being anti-nuclear power has been fashionable lately in France, and the manifestos are surprisingly far down that track. Obviously the Greens hate it, but hardly anyone wants to defend it. Hollande, for example, promises to reduce the share of nuclear in the energy mix over time, which seems to mean keeping the nukes and building wind turbines. But that’s as far as anyone will go defending it, with the exception of Cheminade. That one’s a bit of a phenomenon – his manifesto is basically the sort of thing you get on science-fiction blogs on a slow day, all about the vital necessity of developing the world with nuclear power, putting more effort into fusion research, and colonising space. And setting up a new national public sector bank, of course.

On the other hand, even the Greens only offer to suspend work on the development of future nuclear weapons, keeping the existing ones. Everyone seems to be in agreement on keeping the Bomb. Mélénchon wants to decommission the air-launched component and rely (like the UK) exclusively on the submarines, but that’s it. Despite that, the rest of the Green manifesto is very much an 80s classic – apparently all cancers have environmental causes concealed by the pharma lobby, and it’s an urgent priority to serve organic food in all school meals.

And the incumbent? Not much to say, really, except for appeals to authority in these difficult times, and micro-initiatives. But then, that’s the story of Sarkozy’s presidency – it might have worked had he not just managed to be elected in time for Depression 2.0, and the big question since late 2007 has been whether the Socialists would manage to pick a candidate this time out. That story was more exciting than we expected. And it is now at an end.