French Presidential Debate Notes

Style is clearly more important than substance in Presidential debates. Unfortunately, after 45 minutes of speaking time for each candidate, I was, quite frankly, very disappointed on both accounts. Neither Ségolène Royal nor Nicolas Sarkozy were able to present coherent arguments of their respective programmes. Instead, they kept constantly interrupting each other, Royal more so than Sarkozy, kept losing discourse threads (sometimes even without being interrupted) in pointless debates about specific figures or jumped from one point to another. Sarkozy may have been a little more concise on the economic parts (taxes, pensions, labour market regulation, welfare) of the debate, but he certainly did not “win” that debate by any stretch of imagination.
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Early Elections in Turkey

So Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said he’ll call for early elections, either on June 24 or July 1.

This would be early, but not greatly so. Turkey’s Parliament runs on a five-year term, and the last one was elected in November 2002, so he’d have to call elections within a few months anyway.

What’s interesting here is the precipitating incident. Turkey’s Presidency comes open in a few weeks. The President is elected for a single seven-year term, and the current President entered office in May 2000. So it’s time to appoint a new one. The President is appointed by Parliament, but Parliament needs a two-thirds majority to elect. The Prime Minister’s ruling party is just a few votes short of the needed majority, and the opposition parties — in a rare show of unity — boycotted the vote, denying them even a quorum. (There are some constitutional and legal wrangles here, which can be elided.)

What’s the problem? Well, Erdogan’s chosen President is his current Finance Minister, Abdulah Gul. Both Erdogan and Gul are members of the Justice and Development Party, which is an “Islamist” party. The meaning of “Islamist” is fiercely debated. Erdogan and Gul say it’s just like being a Christian Democrat party in Europe. Their critics (and some party members) say there’s more to it than that, and that the party’s Islamism extends to imposing religious values on Turkish society. This is a huge deal in Turkey, which is an Islamic country but which is also fiercely proud of its secular political tradition. Much of this is about symbolism — Gul’s wife wears a headscarf! — but symbolism matters.

So Erdogan is going for a snap vote, presumably hoping to pick up a few more seats. Could happen. On the other hand, if he loses seats, there’d be pressure to appoint a different, less overtly Islamic candidate. Continue reading

This is what 86% looks like

At the French Consulate-General in London, the election is held in the classrooms of the Lycée Charles de Gaulle next door. There are plenty of lycées named after the general, but this one has a greater connection to him than most – the Free French air force had its headquarters in one of the buildings that now forms part of the school, and it was here in 1940 that suspected collaborators among the French community were dragged in by Andre “Passy” Dewavrin, de Gaulle’s intelligence chief.

Today, the French of London were queueing around the block, in the sense that each side of a double city block was taken up by queues, even though there were a total of three entrances. Such was the crowd that an ice-cream van was attracted to it, far from a bad idea given the number of children present. The people? Probably a population younger and more middle-class than the French averages, although hardly lacking in diversity.
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Economic nonsense about France

Yet again. Here’s what the BBC has to say in its updated-for-the-upcoming-elections online background article about France:

But France’s economy has grown more slowly than any other developed country in the world. In 2006, its 2% growth was the worst in Europe.

Well, sorry to beat a late parrot, but one year does not a trend make: if we look at, say, the 5-years period between 2002 and 2006, the average annual rate of growth of France was a meagre 1.6%*, but that is equal to the euro area average and higher than what the Netherlands (1,4%) and Germany (0,9%) and Italy (0,7%) and Portugal (0,6%) managed over the same period. I’ll spare you the 10-years period (1997-2006) which is even more favorable to France.

But even if we grant the Beeb’s dubious premise that 2006 growth is the ultimate yardstick to measure the strength of an economy (and in that case I have an old “US has grown more slowly than nearly every other developed country in the world” headline from 2001 to sell you), their claim isn’t even true. Or, if it is, we can safely conclude that Italy (1,9% growth in 2006 according to Eurostat) and Portugal (1,3%) are neither European nor developed countries.
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Written on the subway walls

My comments on the French election posters, which appeared in bulk last weekend with the formal beginning of the campaign, after which strict equal-access rules apply…

The ruling principle is the difference between those who want to be elected, and those for which the style of candidacy is most important.

Those who want to be elected are keen on getting votes, by the silliest means. Those who don’t expect – or seriously want – to be elected are keen to be seen to be doing politics how they wish it was done. Hence Sarko, Bayrou, Royal, and Le Pen’s posters are all centred on the candidate’s face, which is meant to convey their virtues but also their context.

For example, Sarkozy’s face appears, well-lit, from a darkened landscape, above his name and nothing else. Subtext – I am a leader without party, come to relieve our darkness. Join! Francois Bayrou’s is not that dissimilar, which should not really be surprising given that he thinks he really is without party, and that his party used to be more rightwing than Sarko’s as recently as 1994.

Ségoléne Royal’s face is inevitably the centre of hers, but what is this? Grainy, monochrome photography, with a block red masthead and italic, bold white Helvetica type. It looks like a 1970s leftwing paper’s front page from some demonstration, presumably intended to lend some revolutionary romance to her image (and herald a last-minute tack to the base?). More importantly, it’s easily the best-designed and most recognisable of the lot, rivalled only by…

Le Pen’s, which shows the man himself on stage, looking astonishingly like Ian Paisley. Like the Man Standing in the Gap Left By God, Le Pen’s political career is founded on his stage performance. Makes sense, and is at least legible. His far-right rival, Philippe de Villiers of the MPF, is a borderline case. No-one thinks he will get a significant vote, but he probably thinks he will. Notable is the odd look in his eyes – his party is very much the UKIP to Le Pen’s BNP, appealing to Catholic farmers rather than secular townies, and like them, he could well be described as a swivel-eyed loon.

The others know they won’t be elected, and have their explanations ready – the election system is against them, the media is controlled by the armaments industry, France needs a more deliberative system. So they are free to design as if everyone in the country would stop to read every word. Olivier Besancenot, Arlette Laguillier, and the risible Schivardi stuff theirs with reams of text, illegible without making a point of visiting every poster – which is what they wish you would do, and they choose to imagine a society where everyone would. Voynet’s just look like they were left over from last time out.

The Suburb as Frontier

Just back from a trip to France, where this quote in a book on the history of Libé struck me:

Le Tiers-Monde commence en banlieue!

The Third World begins in the suburbs, in other words. This was 1972 or thereabouts, and it was a slogan of the very far Left.

Curiously, the same notion is still with us, but with the opposite end of the political spectrum…or perhaps this metaphor is unhelpful. Spectrum implies variance around a central value, along a single axis. It’s now the far-Right outside France, and its pals in the traditional French Right, who see the third world at the gates of Paris. The French extreme-left doesn’t seem to care very much any more, and the French extreme Right’s position is even stranger.

Back in the day, the growing concrete world of HLMs and sweeping flyovers across the Ile de France was the new frontier for the Communist Party. As the workers moved from the stinking slums of Paris’s railway districts out to enjoy their acquis social, so the Party would go with them. (Hence the towns where you can stage a demo between the rue Stalingrad and the hall Youri-Gagarine.) Moving out to the suburbs was moving towards the future, and if it should be a multicultural one united by class consciousness, so much the better.

Later, of course, it turned out more than a little tougher. As in most other places, just being a good trade unionist didn’t stop you being a racist. There were the betrayals of 1956 and 1968 and the internal crises that followed. Eventually, the roaring full-employment years came to an end too. But before then, the New Left had already found a new frontier in the suburbs – addressing the new proletariat, and the new concerns, whilst also getting around the Stalinist old farts at PCF headquarters and the ugly sense that a lot of proletarians didn’t agree with you. If you were a Maoist, the idea of surrounding the city from the countryside had an obvious attraction, not to mention the advantages of going to the revolution on the RER rather than the next flight to the Congo.

Later yet, with 80s structural unemployment, hand-wringing liberals and social democrats found it the moment to write a ton of reports on how to save the suburbs. It will be noted that, so far, the people who lived there are invisible. Very true. It ‘s in the nature of the frontier that there is never anyone there but the pioneer and the bad guys (Stalinists, pieds-noirs, cops, etc).

The latest take on this was the rise-without-trace of Nicolas Sarkozy, who made the suburbs briefly the new frontier for the Right. Having noticed them, he offered to hose the lot down, and here encountered another feature of the frontier – if you turn up waving your guns around, you’ll usually find a fight. Gunfighters were a vanishingly tiny feature of the U.S. West, compared to farmers, ranchers, sheep herders, railroaders, cavalrymen, cops, and Indians, or to put it another way, “people who did something useful”. More recent scholarship has tended to show many of the most famous bloodbaths as unnecessary, plain evil, or most often, the result of mutual stupidity.

In the general scapegoat hunt post-Iraq, though, plenty of right-wing people all over the world were willing to buy in – just as plenty of young idiots were willing to join the posse and run that city slicker out of town. This suited Sarko. Like all Ministers of the Interior, his core product is control, and the best marketing strategy for that stuff is fear. Unfortunately, he tends to evoke that in a lot of people, and a lot of people tend to evoke it in him.

Hence, last week, the mighty Kärcher called off a visit to La Croix-Rousse, in the heart of Lyon, for fear of left-wing demonstrators summoned by an instant messaging and SMS network. Itself a manifestation of another wave of suburban pioneers, the post-2005 volley of .orgs broadly supporting the Left and their voter registration campaigns. He did, however, manage to speak near the Pont Alexandre III in Paris – hardly the towers of La Courneuve – under guard by over a hundred cops of various kinds. A similar force as John McCain took for a stroll in Baghdad.

Which brings me to my final point. The latest pioneers on the suburban frontier are the Front National, of all people. While Sarko was struggling to manoeuvre around his own security, Jean-Marie Le Pen staged a string of appearances around the northwestern expressways, including one on the access deck at Argenteuil, where once Sarko wielded his metaphorical hose. Le Pen, despite his history, his ravings about making a “pure-blooded Frenchman” president, and essentially everything he has ever stood for, coped with a couple of cops and a squadron of journalists.

This points up the absurdity of Sarko’s monster guard force. But it also points up the weird way Le Pen is trying to win votes on the suburban frontier. Said the Black Panthers, “We want access to the American Dream.” And strangely, this is the substance of his address to the ‘burbs. He speaks of the equality of all citizens in the Republic, state secularism, and the need to create jobs by kicking foreigners out of them. Ironically, it’s just the stuff that was churned out about laicité, Theo van Gogh, and the rest in such great quantity back in 2004 – but this time, it’s directed at angry young blacks as well as angry old whites.

It’s surely a strange election. The PCF is nonpresent, its leader not even using the word “communist”. The far-left is almost exclusively a bourgeois taste. The Gaullist right has vanished. The “droite classique” has swung across behind it, from its right to a position overlapping the Socialists. The Greens have split three ways along the lines Charlie Stross predicted, between Luddites and techno-ecologists, but that’s not all. The Viridian Greens are well catered for by Dominique Strauss-Kahn within the PS, the fundamentalists by José Bové, but there is still a rump for the ex-minister Dominique Voynet.

And there’s the world’s most useless candidate, one of three Trotskyists, Gérard Schivardi. Polling around 0.5%, he has refused to suggest who his voters should support in the second round, and improved on that by promising to spoil his own ballot. Fortunately for democracy, he’s been so ineffectual that even France Decides 2007 got his name wrong, with a week to go…

Serbia: the betting pool

By pure coincidence, next month brings not one but two major turning points for Serbia.

First, there’s the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo. As we all know, the plan would give Kosovo de facto independence. On one hand, that’s just recognizing reality on the ground; 90% of Kosovo’s population wants nothing to do with Serbia, and they’ve been running their own house for almost a decade now. On the other hand, it would involve UN approval of the involuntary dismemberment of an unwilling member state. That’s never happened before, and it would be a big step into the unknown.

The plan goes before the UN Security Council next week, and it’s really not clear what will happen. Either Russia or China might veto it — Russia because of its traditional support of Serbia, China because of concerns about Taiwan. On the other hand, neither one may want to be responsible for vetoing a plan that has broad support in both the Security Council and the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, Serbia’s quarrelsome parties are still trying to form a government. They’ve been at it since the elections on January 21, so as of today they’ve gone 67 days without success. That would be amusing, except that if a government isn’t formed within 90 days, Serbia’s Constitution requires new elections. That would throw Serbia into a major political crisis.

Here’s the thing: I could see either of these going either way. The UNSC might approve the Ahtisaari plan, or reject it; Serbia’s parties might reach agreement, or not.

So how about a betting pool? Continue reading

Another Trip to 50-50 Land

It’s getting terribly close…

The last two opinion polls in the French elections put Royal and Sarkozy level pegging in the first round, with one of them showing nils apiece in the second round too. With numbers, the first poll, carried out by CSA on the 21st, shows Royal on 26 per cent, Sarko on 26 per cent, and Bayrou on 20. The second, by LH2 for 20 Minutes, puts the top two on 27 per cent each.

The really interesting thing is that both polls also measured voting intentions for the second round. CSA showed Sarko and Sego breaking 50-50. LH2 put Sarko up 51-49. But that’s not the really interesting thing. To both come in at 49-50 per cent, the top candidates will have to gain about 48 percentage points between them. Obviously, if you voted in the first round, you’re likely to vote in the second. Which poses a question: how’s it going to happen?

Francois Bayrou’s support is around 20 per cent. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s is 13 per cent. Olivier Besancenot is at 3, Arlette Laguiller at 2.5 (up 1.5 per cent!), Marie-George Buffet 2, Frederic Nihous 2, de Villiers 1, Voynet 1, Schivarni 0.5. A total, then, of 44 per cent up for grabs. Out of which, say, 9 per cent can be attributed firmly to the Left and 15 per cent to the Right, before the difficult question of how to attribute Bayrou’s voters. Assuming the Le Pen/de Villiers vote goes to Sarko, that would put the balance at 35/42 of the original vote..but how do the Bayrou Boys and Girls break? At a minimum, the Left would need to hold its ground, then persuade 7 percentage points of Bayrou voters – not far off a third – plus a majority of the remainder to switch.

Not that this is reflected by Royal’s rhetoric..

Finnish Parliamentary Election 2007 – Lessons Learnt

Well, as it happens I know even less about Finnish politics than I do about the Italian version, so I thought I’d put up this piece that Aapo Markkanen of Aapotsikko sent me on the recent elections in Finland – Edward Hugh

Finland has chosen its new parliament, and the result was a historic triumph for the centre-right National Coalition Party. The last time the two non-socialist parties had as many seats as they do now was in the early 1930s, and they came near to it in 1960s when the Social Democrats had a disastrous election result. Manuel Alvarez-Rivera has written a thorough background article on Finnish politics for Global Economy Matters, and the blog is also hosting my own piece on the Finnish economy (available here). For further analysis of the election and the ongoing cabinet talks you can visit my personal blog – but right now I’d like to focus on two issues that, in my opinion, were the most important ones in this year’s contest.
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Nothing is obvious and nothing is clear

Ségolene Royal’s campaign is doomed. The total vote for the Left is polling (32 to 36 per cent) almost as low as it was in 1969, when the second round vote was between a Gaullist, Georges Pompidou, and a centrist/classical rightist, Alain Poher, with everyone to the left crashing at the first turn on a total of 31 per cent.

Ségolene Royal is on course to win. Her polls, ranging between 24 and 27 per cent, are as good as François Mitterand’s in 1981, when he got 25.8 per cent, not a mountain more than the Communist candidate, Georges Marchais, who had 15.3 per cent . And, since 1958, the left has always been in second place after the first round, even when Mitterand won the run-off. The French elections remain fascinating, even though many of the delightful possibilities have boiled off.
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