Serbia is stable and associated! (Bosnia, not so much)

So Serbia will get a Stability and Association Pact with the EU (SAA). The pact was initialed last week; barring a catastrophe, it will be formally signed in January.

An SAA is the step before formal EU candidacy, so this is good news for Serbia. It looks like Brussels is trying to strengthen the “liberal and Western” strain of Serbia’s politics before December, when problems are likely to arise with Kosovo. (The current round of Kosovo negotiations is likely to expire on December 10.)

The big loser here, of course, is Carla del Ponte. The SAA was supposed to wait until Serbia had “cooperated fully” with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). Serbia’s cooperation has been slow, reluctant, half-hearted, and in no sense “full”; Ratko Mladic is going to die comfortably in bed, and the current leadership of Serbia is good with that.

Back in March, I noted that the Belgians (backed by the Dutch) had put a freeze on candidacy negotiations because they wanted to see real cooperation with the ICTY. Well, eight months is a long time in politics. Apparently the Belgians and Dutch were argued around. The current paralysis of the Belgian government may have had something to do with this.

Albania got its SAA last year, and newly-independent Montenegro a few months ago. Bosnia thus becomes the only country in the region without one. Bosnia’s goverment just formally collapsed this week, and they may well be going back to the polls in January or February. So, it looks like they won’t get their SAA initialed until next year at the earliest. Continue reading

Chirac has a transient dishonesty malfunction

Everyone’s now blogged about Jacques Chirac’s unexpected remarks about Iranian nuclear weapons.

But I think there may still be some angular momentum to be had. Chirac stated that, should a hypothetically nuclear Iran launch a nuclear weapon, Tehran would be destroyed before it had gone 200 metres. This is a pretty basic statement of nuclear deterrence, with the further point that in a sense, having one or two nuclear bombs makes you weaker than having zero nuclear bombs but the capacity to make them. Once you fire the one bomb, you have no further deterrent, and you’re definitely going to be nuked.

Quite a range of powers have credible deterrence against Iran – there’s the US, obviously, Israel, obviously, but less obviously France, Britain, Russia, India, China, and Pakistan. So, Chirac argued, the real danger wasn’t so much from a North Korean-style couple of bombs, but that this would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt also rushing to obtain nukes as a counterdeterrent. (In yesterday’s Libération, Francois Heisbourg, the director of the IISS, restates this point adding Jordan to the list of presumed possible proliferators.)

He was of course right. Saudi Arabia has been quietly and consistently making noises about nuclear bombs for years, and it has close military-to-military ties with Pakistan. Some say Saudi money financed the Pakistani bomb project, and alone among nations they are in a position to actually buy the bomb. Egypt would probably see a Saudi bomb as unacceptable, and start using its own considerable scientific-technical establishment to work on going nuclear. (Chirac saw this differently – he suggested rather that the Saudis would finance Egyptian efforts – but I doubt this due to the historic competition for Arab leadership between the two states, and the Pakistani option.) Gah.
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An alternative exit strategy for Jacques Chirac

Who knew Chirac was so personally popular in the Lebanon? More popular than he is in France?

Marc Lynch carries the results of a poll of Lebanese public opinion with some fascinating results. Apparently, a majority of Lebanese admire El Presidente, although not a majority of Shia. They rather like Hugo Chavez! In fact, they admire Chavez more than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, although they would rather have Ahmedinejad in charge than him.

Nobody has confidence in the United States. Neither does anyone believe in “spreading democracy”. The biggest level of support for an Islamic state, among the Sunnis, didn’t break 5 per cent. (Is that the famous Jihad Chill?) Everyone said they were Lebanese first. Only the Christians put their religion second. (Everyone else put Arabness second.) 71 per cent overall said an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 green line would improve their opinion of the US. Over 50 per cent of Shia (i.e. Hezbollah’s base) supported a two state solution.

When asked which nation should be a superpower for preference, France came out marginally ahead overall, with Russia in second place, then China, then the US. Germany drew 10 per cent of the Shia vote but no votes from anyone else. Britain wasn’t an option. Interestingly, the Shia were the only group not to pick France, with Russia no.1, then China, then Germany. Everyone except the Druze picked France as a candidate for emigration by a large majority. The Druze were the only group to go for the US, but only by a bare plurality. Asked where they would rather send a family member to study, France was the first choice of all groups but the Druze, who plumped for Germany. (Curiously, no two groups agreed whether Germany or Britain was more democratic, but everyone thought France was more democratic than the US, Germany, or Britain.)
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Sarko’s In, But Where are the Votes?

Nicolas Sarkozy has been “elected” as the UMP’s presidential candidate. Why the scarequotes? Well, “elected” usually implies a contest between more than one candidate. And Sarkozy was faced with only one contestant-the Apathy ticket.

Over Christmas, he successfully neutralised most of the possible internecine threats, bringing essentially all the serious rightwing politicians on board. The key to this was his recruitment of former Prime Minister (and convicted criminal) Alain Juppé, who was parachuted into a parliamentary seat back into Bordeaux town hall in the autumn, possibly in the hope he would run against Sarkozy.

But Juppé has signed up with Sarko, almost certainly in exchange for a promise that he will return to the prime minister’s office if the Right wins the election. Defence Minister Michéle Alliot-Marie, meanwhile, saw her campaign fail to get off the ground in a meaningful fashion. That left only Sarko to face an uncontested election. You might have expected a North Korean majority of 90+ per cent, but it didn’t happen. Only 69 per cent of those eligible to vote picked Sarkozy over the apathy ticket.

Before that, though, there had already been some other interesting developments..
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The Right and the Extremists

Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, French conservatives are no more united than the Left. In fact, they are much less so, as they are a long way from even choosing a leader yet. Candidates are proliferating: as well as Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé is back, Dominique de Villepin refuses to give in, Michéle Alliot-Marie just entered the fray, and Jacques Chirac is still leaving the option of a third campaign open at the age of 71. The key insight is that the party structure is tenuous, two right-wing traditions exist, and the leading personalities despise each other. It’s like the Borgas with spin-doctors. On the Right, it won’t be anything as simple as an election that decides the issue, because the main party (the UMP, a King’s party set up in 2002 to support Chirac) is really a coalition wrapped around the Gaullist RPR, which has its own leader.

De Villepin, Juppé and the old fella all represent the same thing – the hunt by Jacques Chirac for an alternative to Sarkozy who can be trusted to maintain the social peace and carry on the Gaullist tradition. The problem being, of course, that De Villepin is damaged goods, Juppé is a rush-job and a crook, having just returned from trouble with the law, and Chirac is old, unpopular and has scandals like a dog has fleas. Sarkozy, for his part, represents the heritage of the non-Gaullist “droite classique” and, more importantly, appeals to the cult of America. His argument (everything is terrible and only I, the new young US-style leader, know what to do) and his prescription (free markets and mass surveillance) bear a far closer resemblance to Tony Blair than anything found on Ségolene Royal.

But the Chirac side fears that he will either win, and strike down with great vengeance on them, or scare the public to the Left. Hence the snark hunt for a stop-Ségo-and-Sarko candidate, which is another way of saying Jacques Chirac.
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1..2..3..And They’re Off!!

Well, with the summer party universités d’été done and everyone going back to work, the run-in begins in earnest to the French presidential election. This shows every sign of being very interesting indeed. After all, it’s the biggest direct mandate for any politician in Europe and the second-biggest in the whole democratic world (I exclude Russia because whatever it is, it ain’t democracy), so it ought to be worth watching anyway. This one is especially interesting, though, as everyone has a lot to prove.

The Socialists are desperate to recover from the disaster of 2002 and regain some power. Whether they can do this, and how they do it, is going to be a bellwether for the Left throughout the world. Inside the party, there is a whole world of bitter conflict to work out. The extreme-left is desperately trying to unite, in the hope of capitalising on the victory against the CPE and eventually getting some tangible results from their combined 12-15 per cent of the first round vote. After all, whatever they hoped to achieve, you can be sure that a Chirac-Le Pen runoff wasn’t it.

On the Right, there is an even more savage internal struggle in progress. The blue-eyed boy, Nicolas Sarkozy, is lining up for the final straight with his bid to bring something eerily like Tony Blair to France – free markets and mass surveillance – whilst Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin still hopes to seize the succession to Jacques Chirac. This overlays the old distinction between the Gaullists and the “classical right”. But what’s this?
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Taxi! For Nöel Forgeard

Well, it looks like one of the questions from this post may have been answered indirectly. It now matters little whether or not the Clearstream affair is ever cleared up, as some of the people most responsible for it have anyway been disgraced. Since the last post, the only real news on the Clearstream story is that the allegations by General Rondot (that the government wanted him to investigate Nicolas Sarkozy for partisan reasons) were confirmed, by the top EADS executive Jean-Louis Gergorin, although he continues to deny being the corbeau.

However, the Clearstream story has largely been overtaken by events. One explanation for it was that it began as part of a scheme by a faction at the huge Franco-German aircraft and armaments company in order to prevent the head of Thales (another French defence contractor, specialising in electronics and shipbuilding) from becoming the boss. Their alternative candidate was almost certainly the choice of the French government, being a personal friend and political compadre of Jacques Chirac, one Nöel Forgeard. This chap had a good claim to the job anyway, having run the EADS division that builds the Airbus civilian airliners and culminated his time there by overtaking Boeing in sales for the first time and seeing the A-380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, to its first flight. He also promised to maintain French primacy of influence, which is important as EADS’s structure gives it two co-chiefs, in practice one French and one German.

Forgeard today resigned in disgrace as chief executive. Like Clearstream, it was an overdetermined event. For a start, there was the lingering scandal-Gergorin being an old pal of his. But there was also trouble at the mill. The A380’s delivery timetable has slipped after problems were discovered with the electrical systems of several airframes, beginning with serial no. 013, and requiring a temporary halt to work at station 40 on the assembly line. This has caused trouble with some of the buyers, who have threatened to invoke penalty clauses.

But that wasn’t the real problem. It flies, after all, and has passed its safety certification (something which escapes those journalists who have been claiming Boeing’s Dreamliner project has overtaken it – the 787 has, I think, yet to fly let alone be type-approved). The real problem was that Forgeard exercised his stock options immediately before the public heard about the cock-up on station 40. He denied vigorously that he knew of the problem, without credibility – the director of production for the A380, Jean-Claude Schoepf, had informed union representatives of the problem as early as the 24th of February. This perceived dishonesty, stacked atop the Clearstream muck, left him shaky, and Jacques Chirac’s response didn’t help. Chirac (and presumably the government) wanted to replace him with the current head of the French railways as a new single chief.

Enter Angela Merkel. The German government wanted, rather than more centralisation, to see more EADS stock in free float. Putting the SNCF in charge, possibly sensible given their reputation, was not going to grip them. But – without a major change in EADS’s charter – sacking Forgeard would require the German co-chief to step down too. It now seems that the Germans are willing to accept the railroad tycoon, Louis Gallois, instead of Forgeard, even at the price of dropping Gustav Humbert – the new head of the Airbus division – in favour of an exec from Saint-Gobain. This means, of course, that there is a need for new German appointments.

The Germans have therefore thrown out the bums, got rid of responsibility for the trouble at Airbus, replaced the French co-CEO with someone apparently competent, and kept their own rights of appointment. Advice: don’t get into an argument with Angie Merkel. It’s like the EU budget all over again, when she essentially pushed Tony Blair out of the presidency chair to close the deal.

Meanwhile, a French government commission on official secrecy is said (by the Canard Enchainé) to have advised the Ministry of National Defence to open the files seized from Rondot on the rest of Clearstream, including the infamous investigation by Gilbert Flam into Chirac’s alleged bank accounts in Japan. It doesn’t end for the General, either. He’s being sued by Carlos “The Jackal” from his prison cell, over his arrest in the Sudan back in 1994. Rondot traced him to a clinic there where he was undergoing medical treatment, had him arrested and flown to Paris in a sack, where he went on trial for various terrorist acts. Now, after Rondot spoke about the – well – very extraordinary rendition in an interview with Le Figaro on his retirement, he’s suing. Cheeky old bugger.

Forget It Jacques, It’s Clearstream

It never stops when your blog has to cover an entire continent. Hardly had the Italian left taken AFOE’s advice to get Giorgio Napolitano elected as president than the Clearstream scandal in France was getting out of hand, and nothing at all on the blog! Fortunately, at the moment the news from that quarter is coming so thick and at such a howling rate of speed that it wasn’t going to be hard to catch up. The latest despatches suggest that, firstly, it was De Villepin and Chirac, and secondly, that the victim-Nicolas Sarkozy-probably has something to hide too, as in any good film noir.

And that’s before you get on to the 300 million francs in the president’s secret Japanese bank account. Allegedly.

So what is a Clearstream and why is it a scandal? Clearstream is a bank clearing house in Luxembourg that permits banks to carry out international payments on a net basis, paying just the balance of their transactions in cash every business day. It has a bad reputation in France because of one Denis Robert, who has written three books alleging that it’s responsible for money laundering on a vast scale. But more relevantly, it’s also the supposed cause of a major political crisis.
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Sarkozy to the rescue?

The prospect of Sarkozy replacing Villepin as French Prime Minister has apparently been given a significant boost today, with a close aide of Sarkozy saying his boss could accept such an offer, provided he is allowed to carry out his (and not Chirac’s) political agenda.

Now, maybe this won’t come to pass (and I’ll argue below that it probably won’t). But it is worth recalling some recent history to show how extraordinary such a move would be.

It is not just that Chirac had considered Sarkozy a traitor since he chose to support the presidential bid of (then Prime minister) Edouard Balladur in the presidential elections of 1995. It is also that Chirac has done everything in his power to impede Sarkozy’s rise to power since 2002. In 2004, Chirac battled behind the scenes to try to foil the takeover of his own UMP party by Sarkozy, then the popular Minister of the Interior. When that didn’t work, he ordered him to leave the government, on the theory that having the head of the main party of the parliamentary majority in the cabinet would sap the authority of the Prime Minister (conveniently forgetting that Alain Juppé, a long-time Chirac protégé, was at the same time president of the RPR and Foreign Minister from November 1994 to May 1995).

That theory did last less than a year, since Sarko was back in the government after the failed referendum on the EU constitution in late May 2005. But Chirac ignored the calls of his parliamentary majority to name Sarko Prime Minister and went for Villepin instead, with the hope of making the latter a rival to the former for the next presidential elections. Asking now Sarko to replace Villepin would then be tantamount to a declaration of surrender on Chirac’s part.
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Chirac goes nuclear: addendum

This post serves as a small addendum to Edward’s post Not Amused about Chirac’s threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary. This addendum will hopefully broaden and continue the discussion his statements generated. I won’t be talking about the possibility of nuking Iran or other rogue states here, that element has been covered extensively by Edward’s post, especially in the comments section.

As to Chirac’s nuclear threat, yesterday’s Ouest France suggested Chirac made the statement to reaffirm France’s position as a serious player after having lost credibility with the EU constitution referendum. After the non-vote several commentators suggested that France had been demoted to a second-degree country. From Ouest France:

Jacques Chirac entend ainsi montrer qu’il dispose encore d’un atout européen, alors que la France est l’un des deux pays membres responsables de la panne actuelle de l’Union. Au demeurant, plus que par des nécessités stratégiques, le discours de l’île Longue est dicté par la volonté d’un président affaibli d’exercer son autorité jusqu’au terme du quinquennat. En réaffirmant le seul pouvoir que personne ne peut lui ravir : la maîtrise du feu nucléaire.

Short summary/interpretation: Politically weakened Chirac is reminding himself and the French that they still have balls. He is also repositioning France as a first rate power in Europe.

Furthermore, he also used the threat to justify the costly maintenance of France’s nuclear arsenal. By stressing the overhaul of the arsenal, focussing on smaller weapons, he did away with the WMD threat as its sole raison d’être. Smaller nukes on submarines can target terrorists instead of complete nations, hence: ”We still need nukes, but different ones. We are adapting to new circumstances.” Or, if you will: “We can turn Tora Bora into a nuclear wasteland if we want to.”

Another possibly very important thing about Chirac’s speech:

Par ailleurs, le chef de l’Etat élargit la notion d’intérêts vitaux aux « approvisionnements stratégiques » et à la défense des pays alliés. La dépendance énergétique de l’Europe, révélée par la crise gazière entre la Russie et l’Ukraine, explique, pour une part, cette évolution.

France’s vital interests are being extended to include « strategic reserves » and the defence of allied countries. Europe’s energy dependency, as exemplified by the gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine can explain, at least partly, this development. Dear commenters, fire away!