502: French conservatives temporarily unavailable

So, France’s conservative party just blew up. This is surely a major story, as the French Right is one of the most successful political organisations in the democratic world even though it’s not particularly organised most of the time.

It’s common for a party that loses an election to have a bout of feuding. Out of the beating at the polls, two major candidates emerged. Jean-Francois Cope, the party’s secretary general, argued for “getting rid of the Right’s complexes” and moving closer to the FN. Francois Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister, argued for moving to the centre and emphasising the Gaullist heritage. This is close to the historic dividing line between the “classical right” and Gaullism, but the division doesn’t map precisely, as it’s complicated by the UMP/FN divide, and the generally loose and personality-driven nature of French rightwing politics. It might be better to think of Fillon’s supporters as conservatives, being pro-business, pro-Euro, mildly authoritarian, and varying between mildly Atlanticist and traditionally Gaullist on foreign policy, and Cope’s as identity rightists*, being much more authoritarian, less pro-Euro, but economically more rightwing, and keen on asserting national identity (e.g. by being nastier to immigrants).

As it happened, they appealed to almost precisely equal numbers of party members. That was when the trouble started.

Cope claimed victory. The chairman of the party’s election committee said he couldn’t say who’d won. Cope claimed victory again, by a bigger margin. Fillon claimed victory. Then, it turned out that the election committee had forgotten to count the votes from three French overseas territories. Counting them put Fillon ahead. He appealed to the party’s appeals committee, which is controlled by Cope’s supporters and refuses to hear him.

France watches, fascinated, as half the political spectrum rips itself apart on live TV.

Alain Juppe, elder statesman, former finance minister, current senator and mayor of Bordeaux, still a possible presidential candidate, and convicted criminal, is called in to mediate between the pair. Juppe asks them if they can agree on who is the party leader. No. He suggests they hold a new election. Cope suggests that he should just declare victory again. Fillon insists the votes from Wallis & Futuna be counted. Cope says that he wants to protest the ballots from the Riviera, where former industry minister Christian Estrosi’s influence network delivered the election for Fillon, and suggests just striking out all the “contentious” ballots. Obviously there are more people in Nice and Marseille than Wallis & Futuna. Juppe concludes that there is literally nothing the two men can agree on, and steps aside.

Nicolas Sarkozy, for it is he, returns from making money in Shanghai and gives them a deadline to agree, or he’ll denounce them as unfit to lead. Everyone assumes he’s hoping they’ll both quit and he’ll be party leader.

Fillon sends a bailiff to the UMP HQ to seize ballots. Cope’s supporters physically prevent him from removing the ballots.

Fillon accuses Cope of misappropriating a huge quantity of party funds for his campaign. His supporters join another party, the Rassemblement UMP or RUMP, which turns out to exist in New Caledonia. This is handy because the party immediately achieves the status of a parliamentary group and becomes entitled to state funding. In all, 70 senators and 77 deputies follow Fillon. Cope is left with the rump of the UMP rather than the RUMP and, importantly, all its debts.

Fillon threatens to sue. Cope suggests voting again, but not until after the local elections next year. The Socialist parliamentary group, meanwhile, get on with passing their legislative agenda, because the UMP delegation has stopped turning up to debates. And both men’s poll ratings plummet, although Fillon remains far more popular support than Cope.

What does it all mean? Well, you wouldn’t want to bet on them not finding some way to settle their differences. French conservative politics is dominated by personalities rather than organisation, and they did manage to rule for most of the 20th century. But there is certainly no effective UMP for the time being. That creates political space for Hollande and also Le Pen.

It’s very hard to predict how the crisis will affect the competition between Le Pen and the UMP; it weakens the UMP, but it also discredits the identity-rightist current around Cope and intensifies the distinction between the rightists and the Gaullists. The project of a UMP-FN alliance is only worth having if lots of UMP deputies change sides – if it just scrapes off a few, while solidifying the rest as a centre-right block, it doesn’t change very much.

*Only re-reading this did I notice that I had alluded to the extreme-right student movement, Bloc identitaire, without knowing it. In fact, some of the same people are involved.

When opposites agree

A surprising moment of consensus: Der Spiegel and the Taz both rip into Peer Steinbruck, former German finance minister and leading the race for the SPD’s candidacy as chancellor. Not only that, they do so for substantially the same reasons.

First, they agree that Steinbruck denied in the autumn of 2008 that the financial crisis was a problem, claiming that it was the Americans’ fault and nothing to do with Germany, and even said that there was no need to bail out the banks. Secondly, they agree that he argued vehemently that a response to the crisis would be national-but-coordinated, rather than European, thus leaving Ireland and Spain to cope on their own, and he refused to lead an IMF working group on the issue. These days, he supports euro-bonds. Thirdly, despite all his bluster, he then reversed course and bailed out the banks, setting a precedent.

It’s fascinating that the green-left Taz and Der Spiegel, which might as well be the Bundesbank’s house journal, manage to agree on so much. Taz is predictably more radical, pointing out that WestLB swelled up with dodgy asset-backed securities and eventually burst while Steinbruck was its regulator and that he even got a light-touch regulatory policy for derivatives written into the 2005 coalition agreement, and that he also denied that there was any need for stimulus in the autumn of 2008 before changing his mind. (Who now remembers crass Keynesianism?)

Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt and Danny Cohn-Bendit have a manifesto. What can those two possibly agree on? Inevitably, it’s more federalism. As with everyone who uses the phrase “more Europe”, what they want to do with it isn’t clear.

Leveson tangent

Politics drifts back into the frame. It was always suggestive that Andy Coulson was appointed head of communications for the Tories two years after he ran an effective spoiler on the George Osborne cocaine use allegations, despite losing his job in the interim period because of the original Royal hacking affair back in 2006.

Now we have the issue revisited in the light of Bob Quick's revelations this week, and the news that Muclaire, at Coulson's request, was regularly hacking the phones of senior editors at Mirror Group, to whom Natalie Rowe originally took her story. 

How much did they know about how their Mr Fixit (Coulson) fixed things? If the Leveson inquiry is supposed to clean up the press and its relation to politicians, then our two most senior ministers should answer these questions under oath.

Sounds good to me.

annals of deviationism

Obviously, Daily Mail stories online are designed as clickbait. But this one is a dead straight exposition of contemporary government psychosis. Spineless capitalists are giving in to tightly knit groups of sinister leftists. The BBC is actually asking government ministers if they can’t see why people might object to mandatory labour for no money. Mimsy old mumsnet has been driven along in the radical frenzy. The police are being ordered to stop demonstrations before they actually happen.

Yes, indeed. Wreckers and saboteurs are at work. False consciousness stalks the land. The relevant economic organs are resistant to co-ordination. Media is failing to follow the line set by the Centre. The plan is in danger of being underfulfilled. The people’s security forces must act without delay. Maybe this is why the government is so fixated on the SWP. If you’re doing parody Stalinism, everybody looks like a comedy Trotskyist. 

Playing Chicken And Rooster With Hungary

Tension surrounding the application of a series of so-called “unorthodox policies” by Hungary’s Fidesz government has certainly been rising in recent days. While Washington has been reasonably quiet as govenment emissary Tamas Fellegi meets with top IMF officials, Brussels has seen a veritable avalance of official statements and policy initiatives. Despite constant rumours that an agreement with the IMF is near, I find it pretty implausible that any deal can be reached without some kind of EU assent.  At the present time this assent is unlikely to be forthcoming, and indeed the ”ante” has been pushed up and up. The latest example here is the fact that Brussels has given the Hungarian administration till next Tuesday to do something about altering the country’s new constitution or face the prospect of legal action, and possible suspension from the EU under article 7 of the EU Treaty. Budapest on the other hand has been full of conciliating words, but the key point is we have yet to see anything meaningful in terms of action. Continue reading

International Talk Like a Berlin Parliamentarian Day

With further proof that a five-party system is much more fun for analysts than for candidates or for governance, city-state elections in Berlin put out the previous coalition, returned the personally well-liked mayor, decimated a party that was a long-time kingmaker in West Germany, and put members of the Pirate Party into a German state legislature for the first time. Just in time for pirates’ international holiday.

Klaus “und das ist auch gut soWowereit (Social Democrat, SPD) will continue to serve as Mayor of Berlin, a post he has held since June 2001. The Free Democrats, who played a crucial role in the three-party system of West Germany, appear to have polled less than 2% in this election. In 2006 they won more than 7% of the vote and gained 12 seats; they will have none in the coming parliament.

The Left Party, post-communists and often prominent in Berlin, lost four seats and can no longer serve as a junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats. The Greens thought they might win the mayoralty, after gaining their first state premiership earlier this year in Baden-Württemburg. Though they gained 4.5% and six seats, they will at best be a junior coalition partner. The SPD may also choose to govern with the Christian Democrats (CDU). In the past, this would have been called a grand coalition, but with the second-place CDU polling just 5% more than the third-place Greens (and indeed none of the parties pulling in more than 30% of the vote), it’s hardly a sweeping coalition. Look for a Red-Green government, but with the SPD clearly in the driver’s seat because it has other options.

And then there are the Pirates. Their success in this election is, first, a reminder of electoral volatility at the state level. Anyone remember the Schill Party? Second, it’s a sign that the Greens have a generational problem. Post-materialist voters have tended to be Green voters, but the issues that drew people to the Greens 25 and 30 years ago aren’t as salient now. I’d like to see some polling on how many Pirate voters are first-time voters; I’m willing to bet it’s a high percentage. Third, it may be a signal that the FDP is well and truly toast in Berlin. The kind of discourse about freedom that the Pirates have embraced is something that the FDP could have taken up, but has proven too hidebound to do. Fourth, the Berlin tech-computer scene is engaged, experienced and has both a long history and a deep bench. The city is the home of the Chaos Computer Club and the first location for Blinkenlights, among many other highlights. There’s a big natural constituency for the Pirates, and they turned out. Fifth, digital issues and a diffuse sense of protest can motivate nearly 10% of an urban electorate. That’s enough to tip some more elections. Arrrr.

Collapsing Case Against Strauss-Kahn?

The New York Times talks to its sources in the NY Police Department and prosecutor’s office and reports:

The sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is on the verge of collapse as investigators have uncovered major holes in the credibility of the housekeeper who charged that he attacked her in his Manhattan hotel suite in May, according to two well-placed law enforcement officials.

Although forensic tests found unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter between Mr. Strauss-Kahn, a French politician, and the woman, prosecutors now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself.

More key phrases include “repeatedly lied” to investigators, “issues involving the asylum application,” and “possible links to people involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing and money laundering.”
Continue reading

Desert dialectic

Rowan Williams:

[we have seen a] quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor”.

Iain Duncan Smith:

With respect to the Archbishop of Canterbury I have never ever spoken about the deserving or undeserving poor. I don’t believe in that concept. All I say is that the system itself has created an undeserving group, that’s what it has created.”

I’m struggling to understand what IDS is saying here. One way we might read him is this: nothing intrinsic to a population group makes that group undeserving; welfare allocation on its own – and nothing else – determines desert. But this takes away desert as a justification for policy: people are going to be getting pie – or not – just because IDS says so. Imagine if this were the stance with respect to taxes: George Osborne says the top rate is going to go up to 60%, well … because, that’s why. And when it does, you’ll deserve it. Or how about this: low Conservative tax rates have created a deserving group: the low taxed. You wonderful people, you.

In response, IDS might say: yes, of course our policies need to be justified, but that justification needn’t have anything to do with who gets what. When I say that welfare recipients are ‘undeserving’, I’m only saying that people oughtn’t to receive welfare because welfare has bad consequences. It has bad consequences if fifty people receive it or if fifty million people receive it. But what are the bad consequences of welfare? Here, IDS might say that when people choose welfare instead of work, they become apathetic and unhappy: welfare erodes self-esteem just as cigarettes erode your lungs. But someone making this sort of argument has to face the possibility that all kinds of unearned wealth have similar bad effects. Inherited wealth, for instance, or windfall profit. And that’s not a place any respectable Tory wants to go. But perhaps IDS can steer the discussion away from such difficult topics by arguing that welfare is bad because it, uniquely, has bad consequences for everyone. Our over-generous handouts are making the public debt unmanageable, and we won’t be caring about who gets what if the entire country goes under. However, if welfare is rejected for a reason like that, then it’s open for people to argue that welfare should be increased as and when things change for the better. Who knows what the future will bring. Take Alaska’s Permanent Fund, for instance. The Alaskans never saw that coming. Yet somehow I seriously doubt that IDS envisages a future of share and share alike, should the nation be so lucky as to run into big patch of oil, or something.

So what else could IDS say when it comes to explaining his position on welfare? All that’s left – it seems – is an argument that appeals to justice. That is, it’s simply unjust that some people get benefit when they’ve never had any intention of working: the responsible people lose out; they’ve lived carefully, they’ve never been slackers, they’ve carried the load. But then Rowan Williams’s accusation sticks.