Sarko the Euro-populist

In what is no doubt part of his resurrection bid, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a  vague-sounding cap on VAT/TVA as applied to fuel.  He has a point.  VAT is an accelerator of underlying price increases, since the amount applies as a percentage of the net price and not is a fixed monetary amount (like fuel duty).  Thus any increase in the net fuel price gets 21% (in Ireland, for example) added on to it.    On the other hand, he’s also dragging in the EU, since the commission would have to approve a modification of VAT as applied to fuel.  So pending that, all he has is a proposal to “redistribute” the VAT windfall as selective subsidies or transfers.  One wonders to what extent such proposals will generate “me too” proposals in other countries — especially in the UK, where Gordon Brown will surely balk at yet another revenue drain as he deals with a summer of discontent. 

Swords Paperclips from the North

It looks like Nicolas Sarkozy’s pet foreign-policy idea has been sporked, good and proper; his idea of a “Mediterranean Union” is now officially an ex-parrot, after it failed to get German support. As we’ve been saying right back to 2005, the key fact of European politics at the moment is that Angela Merkel has achieved a degree of influence that no other chancellor since Willy Brandt could claim; whether it’s over the economy, the Middle East, Russia, the EU budget, or the EU’s internal organisation, all roads now pass through Berlin. Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer both operated in a triumvirate with a very strong and universally respected French president and a very strong (and pretty respected, but far from universally so) European Commission President; there’s certainly an argument that the Barroso commission is the best for some time, but nobody could seriously describe Nicolas Sarkozy as a leading force in European politics. The UK is absorbed by its own self-inflicted crisis; Italy is coming over all Italian; problems go either to Brussels or Berlin for solution.

So what was this Mediterranean Union thing all about? Well, Sarko’s adviser Henri Guaino had this idea, see; it would be a bit like the EU, but would encompass states along the southern shore of the Mediterranean as well as Spain, Italy, France, and Greece – but no other EU members. This would have done a number of things; for a start, it would have created an undemarcated frontier between the EU’s various existing policy initiatives there and whatever the new organisation did. It would also have been potentially in conflict with the EU accession process. Certainly, the new entity would have been politically dominated by France; which, it’s fair to say, was probably why France wanted it.

This could have worked in a couple of ways; perhaps the EU could subcontract its policy in the Mediterranean to the new organisation (or to the French Foreign Ministry), or else the two would work out a division of labour. Alternatively, the freies Spiel der Krafte, the “free interplay of forces”, would have seen them compete until some sort of de facto arrangement emerged. But what would it actually have been doing?

There are two answers to this; one is that it would have been doing the good work of spreading European integration onto the potentially unstable southern rim (whilst also tactfully getting around the special significance of, say, Moroccan membership in the EU). Another is that it would have been a substitute for accession; rather than the real thing with its guarantees, open borders, trading privileges and development funds, warm words (and the special benefits of Francafrique), and probably highly restrictive agreements on nasty things like immigration. (Via Randy McDonald, check out this view from the other side of the table.) Certainly, the British government reckoned it was a way to put Turkish membership off the table.

Yet another unexplained angle was the relationship between the new organisation and NATO; despite the new organisation’s Frenchness, it’s worth pointing out that all its proposed European members would have been NATO member states. In fact, either three out of four or four out of five, depending on the inclusion or otherwise of Portugal, are home to a major NATO multinational HQ; Portugal, Spain, and Greece all have a Joint Subregional Task Force HQ, Portugal is also home to a NATO SACLANT naval headquarters, Italy is home to NATO headquarters for Southern Europe, SACEUR’s southern naval headquarters, the southern air forces’ headquarters, and the US 6th Fleet. NATO has relationships with most of the other potential members under the Partnership for Peace; the interworking between these and the MU was left for the imagination.

So, plenty of problems. Then there was the touchy subject of whether the MU (with a net-recipient membership) would have EU funds; no wonder Merkel wasn’t keen. As always, for EU funds read “net-contributions from the Northern Alliance of Germany, the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Slovenia”. Yes, Slovenia – it’s northern, right? No? Well, it is, isn’t it – look at it, it’s parliamentary, it’s a net contributor, it’s got mountains (like Holland…), it’s sort of social-democratic, and vaguely German. Clearly. And so they kiboshed the MU.

But was it a good idea? I think not. The single most effective – almost the only effective – method of EU foreign policy is the enlargement process. So I’m opposed to anything that diverts from it. Our international-society-theory with balls/prototype world government is about the only grand political vision of the last 100 or so years that remains valid; with all its inconsistencies and bizarreries……hold it. The inconsistencies and bizarreries are precisely why it works. A curious combination of bureaucracy, anarchy and diplomacy, it’s not a prototype world government, it’s a world un-government in permanent beta test; we just haven’t invented the right buzzword yet to name it. (Which may be a problem. Successful projects usually breed their own tribe, and hence their own language; we don’t seem to be so good at that. But you’re welcome to try in comments.)

The version of the MU that was actually signed off is considerably more like the EU; it includes all the EU member states, it’s intended to do concrete and practical things, and it actually offers the ‘tothersiders something, namely ERASMUS student exchanges, money, and a higher priority for the extension of the EU free-trade area. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zapatero manages to snap up the headquarters.

And you thought I was joking…

Ha. You thought this was an exercise in strategic trolling. Think again; the French Navy’s helicopter carrier Jeanne d’Arc pulled into New York on the 28th for a port call, and to deliver a consignment of books for schools in New Orleans. (French ones, naturally.) Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani’s primary campaign took a misstep when he badly misjudged his core constituency

«Un sondage montre que 67 % des Américains pensent que le pays est sur la mauvaise voie…», annonce Rudolph Giuliani à une centaine de supporteurs réunis dans un petit restaurant de Hampton, dans le New Hampshire. Costume noir rayé, cravate rouge, l’ex-maire de New York en campagne pour la Maison Blanche balaie d’un regard contrarié la foule trop éparse. «Connaissez-vous un autre pays qui soit plus mal en point que ça ?» «La France !» lance un militant arborant un macaron «Rudy for president», aussitôt approuvé par l’assistance. «Pas du tout !» bondit Giuliani. «Nicolas Sarkozy a écrit un livre excellent sur son programme, qu’il met en œuvre en ce moment», rétorque-t-il à son auditoire un peu confondu.

I’m not sure which is funnier – Giuliani trying to push France as an example to his war-crazed freedom fries base (this is the guy who hired Dan Senor and Norman Podhoretz, mark) or the notion that Sarko is still new, revolutionary or exciting.

I spent enough time on this blog trying to dispel the myth of “Sarkozy, France’s Margaret Thatcher” that iit’s wearying to repeat any of it; but essentially all the media beyond France, and much of it within France, got him completely, embarrassingly wrong. Rather than offering a dramatic ideological break, Sarko is much better understood as a Blair or Berlusconi figure; heavily reliant on a dominant media owner (his own media for Berlusconi; Murdoch’s for Blair; Lagardere and the wave of late-Chirac appointments at France Televisions for Sarkozy), wrapping a fundamentally conservative message in the cult of newness and business style. Security, property prices, and TV.

It’s like Chirac with more caffeine. This is unlikely to change much; the long-awaited ruck with the Left over special pension provisions has resulted in the issue being punted to tripartite negotiations with business and the unions, and the flagship economic policy (introducing mortgage tax relief) was derailed by the courts. Although it’s still theoretically on the agenda, nobody is now expecting a property boom any time soon.

What Sarko is probably worrying about is more that his fiscal boost came before the credit crisis; €15bn of tax cuts that fell precisely the wrong side of the cycle.

Chris Walker is Ignorant

If you want to lecture the French on “economic reform”, it pays to have some knowledge of French economic history. If you insist on doing so despite knowing nothing, “Big Mouth Strikes Again” is not a good headline. Of course, it could be some downtrodden sub-editor’s revenge.

Anyway, Chris Walker writes in today’s Independent that Nicolas Sarkozy is “committed to privatisation, and many of the Mitterand legacy stakes are to be addressed, such as Renault, Safran, EDF, and Air France”. Renault was nationalised by Charles de Gaulle in 1945, as punishment for allegedly collaborating with the German occupier. This is not a legacy of François Mitterand, at least not one he’d admit to. EDF is also a creation of De Gaulle, or more importantly the technocrats who ran it and the Communist minister Marcel Paul. It is hard to find an argument that cheap power is a net loss for French industry. Air France has been semi-nationalised as long as it has existed.

Walker also repeats the content-free mantra that “a Thatcherite-style purge and return to free markets has not happened in France in the 25 years since” Mitterand – well, something. Mitterand came to power in 1981, 26 years ago, swung around to the franc fort in 1983, 24 years ago, went into cohabitation in 1986 with the Right, who forced him to privatise many of his nationalisations, won the Presidency again in 1988, won back the National Assembly…but on the way, French heavy industry went through a pretty grinding restructuring process, with tens of thousands of jobs lost. The whole coal industry was shut down. The French also invested heavily in the remaining big industries, which is why they can build trains and space rockets and mobile phone networks and we can’t.

Walker demonstrably knows nothing about France. However, he is an expert.

French presidential election: brief comments

8:40: Sarko and Ségo in the second round then. Which means two important things. Firstly, someone at work owes me a coffee (I really should have bet for something more pricey). Secondly, the election that had been billed by some pundits as one of the most inpredictible ever has delivered very predictible results indeed: the two candidates that were ahead in the polls since the beginning get through to the runoff; the Bayrou insurgency receded in the late campaign, just like the polls were showing; and all the minor candidates were crushed, with the Communist and Green parties looking DOA now. The only half-surprise is the (relative) crash of the extreme right: but it is a surprise only because many thought Le Pen would get a big result, against what most of the polls were predicting. I sense the always-reviled pollsters will have a field day tonight.

Update by Alex: Libé carried time-series graphs for all the pollsters on Friday, and one of the striking things was that Le Pen had gained no more than 1 per cent or so over the campaign, whichever poll you looked at.

8:50 (Emmanuel) : there’s no denying that Sarkozy is looking good now. Not only is he ahead by a significant margin, but Royal does not have significant reserves of votes to tap into for the second round (the total of all left-wing candidates is around 36%). Much will depend on François Bayrou’s attitude in the next days but even if (a really big “if”) he calls his voters to support Royal, it remains doubtful that they’ll follow him.

9:10 (Emmanuel) : The much-awaited Bayrou is speaking. Begins with that worn-out platitude: “French politics will never be the same”. Big score despite negative media, polls and pundits. Strongly criticizes the two main parties. Hints that “decisions” will be taken in the next days.

9:20 (Emmanuel) : Official CW about Bayrou is that he won’t support Sarkozy and that he can’t support Royal (because UDF MPs clearly need the support of the UMP to be reelected in June). Hence his pox-in-both-your-houses attitude. One striking thing nonetheless: all the left-wing candidates have been falling over themselves to give their support to Royal (even the famously intransigent Laguiller); so far, no candidate has called to vote for Sarkozy.

9:47 (Alex) : Royal making incredibly long, incredibly lacklustre speech. Bayrou was bad enough but this is dire. You wouldn’t think this was one of the highest scores for a Socialist in the first round ever.

9:50 (Emmanuel) : Damn. Alex just wrote exactly what I was thinking. When you hear Segolène speaking, you always wonder how she managed to go that far. Really unispiring stuff.

10:00 (Alex) : Le Pen is gradually sinking with each update of the polls. He’s now below the lowest estimate of his score at the beginning of the campaign. And the Communists have done very badly in places like Ariége..

10:05 (Alex) : Thierry Maillet says it’s 1981 over again. Giscard got 28.3 per cent, Mitterand 25.9, Chirac 18, and Georges Marchais of the PCF 15. 2007==(Giscard:Sarkozy, Mitterand:Royal, Chirac:Bayrou, Marchais:Le Pen)? Perhaps. Maillet points out that many of the voters who left the PCF moved to the FN.

10:14 (Alex)
: It’s worth pointing out that so far, the départements that are reporting are very few, and most are overseas territories. As Libé’s front-page Flash map points out, the masses are yet to engage. Meanwhile, gurks! Eric Besson, the PS national secretary who walked out of Ségoléne Royal’s economic team, has announced that he’s supporting Sarkozy.

10:15 (Tobias) – coverage of international online coverage – the BBC duly notes the high turnout and realizses that “France opts for a left-right battle.” The BBC’s political correspondent Jonathan Marcus also states that

“Whoever finally wins the presidency, … it will mark a change of political generation and perhaps a shift in French international priorities, making this election matter even to those outside France.”

Quite right. The NY Times enlists the help of the AP and also notes the generational change, as well as the gender dynamics in play –

“If the results confirm that, France will get its first president born after World War II after the May 6 final round. If she wins, Royal will become France’s first woman president.”

Wondering about Bayrou’s weak results, the newspaper reminds that one principal motivation for many voters was not to allow the participation of Le Pen in the second round. Germany’s conservative “Die Welt” mentions that Sarkozy’s move to the right paid off in the first round but questions whether it might not have the opposite effect in two weeks, mentioning the importance of the Bayrou vote, the majority of which seems willing to rally behind Royal to avoid Sarkozy – possibly without any official recommendation from the former candidate. Sarkozy will now have to move back to the center, but Die Welt doubts his efforts will be convincing following months of rather divisive campaigning.

For the liberal weekly Die Zeit’s “Blog Tricolore” (in German) Alain-Xavier Wurst” files a report from Royal’s headquarters and notes that the mood is getting better by the minute after they realised that this election will not be a repetition of the last one. He also explains that one winner of the current election wasn’t even on the polls – the telecommunications industry apparently expects as many text messages as after last year’s world cup final, that, for the first time in decades, Jaques Chirac must has voted for someone else – probably Ségolène Royal, and that there are about three million new voters, mostly young people, many of whom live in the Banlieues offended by Monsieur Sarkozy.

It will be very interesting to dissect today’s result in a little more detail. A regional breakdown will be available at the French interior ministry’s site – but at the moment, all results are still empty. Don’t forget it’s a Sunday…

10:15 (Emmanuel): first second-round poll. Sarko 54% РS̩go 46%. As anticipated, it really will be an uphill battle for the left-wing candidate.

10:25 (Alex): Or maybe not. More results are coming in, and the gap is closing – 29.6 vs 27.4, with Le Pen tanking under the 10 per cent mark. PS, Liberation has a regional results map on their front page.

10:50 (Emmanuel): A lot of interesting tidbits in the Ipsos exit poll (pdf). Like, for all the talk about the underwhelming result of Le Pen, the fact that he’s still first in the blue-collar demographic slice (“ouvriers“).

10:59 (Tobias): Nadine Morano explains on arte.tv that Sarkozy wants to convince pro-European voters by explaining that he was the only one who wants to go forward with a “mini-treaty” and avoid a second referendum on the constitution.

11:05 (Emmanuel): France Info radio reporting Sarkozy first in Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis (aka the place where all those cars were burnt in 2005) départements.

11:12 (Tobias): Daniel Cohn-Bendit believes that Bayrou was in the end beaten by the problem that the UDF feels the need/needs to cooperate with Sarkozy’s UMP in the parliamentary elections. That, according to Cohn-Bendit, essentially made Bayrou’s “third way” proposal a lot less credible. Interestingly, he also praises Sarkozy for his ability to pull Le Pen voters into the “normal” parliamentary spectrum.

11:15 (Emmanuel): Another second-round poll, this time from CSA. And another expected result: Sarkozy 53,5% – Royal 46,5%. Among the people who voted for Bayrou it’s: 16% unsure, 45% Royal, 39% Sarkozy.

11:35 (Emmanuel): And the WTF award of the day goes to unknown candidate Gérard Schivardi (dead-last with 0,4% of the vote) who declares: “I’m a happy man. This electoral base will allow me to create a new political party“.

11:55 (Emmanuel): Droite caviar? Sarko gets 73% in his own (posh) town of Neuilly, and 58% in the (posh) 8th arrondissement of Paris. Meanwhile, Royal barely comes out ahead in Bordeaux, a bit of a surprise since this is the town of ex-Prime minister and Sarkozy ally Alain Juppé.

12:05 (Alex): Droite ouvriére. Sarko just sneaks it in the Pas de Calais. Even there, where the biggest city is still Communist-run, the PCF gets only 3.4 per cent.

01:05 (Emmanuel): well, the bottle of wine is empty now and the official results are still not coming, so just a last comment to say that I fully agree with Pascal Riché’s analysis: based on the first round results, Ségolène Royal really has an impossible equation to solve, considering that the total of left-wing votes and one half of Bayrou’s total still left her at something like 45%. Adding to that the fact that Sarkozy is a much better debater than she is, and it’s hard to be very optimistic right now if you’re a left-wing voter (which, I hasten to add, I am). But, as they say, one week is a long time in politics. And she has two. But she better get started now.

Oh, and a warm welcome to our soon-to-be-there 1,000,000th Afoe visitor.

French Elections: Ticker

A few minutes to go to the official first results in the first round…

Unofficially, Ipsos puts Ségoléne Royal on 26.5 per cent, Nicolas Sarkozy 27.5 per cent, Jean-Marie Le Pen 17 per cent, and François Bayrou on 16 per cent, with OIivier Besancenot doing best out of the broom wagon candidates. CSA, which has been consistently more favourable to the Socialists, puts Ségo and Sarko level pegging on 26 per cent, and the same results for the others.

However, these figures are being constantly updated at the moment (see Le Temps de Généve). They currently put it this way:

  1. Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP): 29,4 %
  2. Ségolène Royal (PS): 26,2 %
  3. François Bayrou (UDF): 18,6 %
  4. Jean-Marie Le Pen (FN) : 10,8 %

There are also going to be exit polls soon enough. Everyone is clear on one thing, that turnout has been enormous: according to Radio France-Inter, the official figure is 85 per cent, although the unofficial data is going even higher.

Update

First official results (updated at 40% count)

  1. Sarkozy – 30.5 per cent
  2. Royal – 25.2
  3. Bayrou – 18.3
  4. Le Pen – 11.3
  5. Besancenot – 4.6
  6. De Villiers – 2.4
  7. Buffet – 2
  8. Laguillier – 1.5
  9. Voynet – 1.5
  10. Nihous – 1.2
  11. Bov̩ Р1
  12. Schivardi – 0.3

Crash for the far right…and not great for the Communists.

Update by Tobias – Sarkozy gave a conciliatory – or “presidential” – speech at his campaign headquarters, complimenting Mme Royal, thanking the French voters for a result that would allow the choice between, as he put it, two alternative sets of policies. He called for a dignified second leg of the campaign and hoped that it would amount to a true competition of ideas.

Update by Alex – Marie-Georges Buffet says all good communists must come to the aid of the party..the Socialist party. Pity there’s only 2 per cent of them.

Update by Alex – Arlette Laguillier says – for the first time since 1981 and the last time in her career – that her supporters should vote Socialist. De Villiers now ranting about “Européeisme(sic)” being a dead ideology responsible for abortion and euthanasia. Vote Sarko, he finally gets around to saying. Voynet goes Socialist, too, with the mighty weight of her 1.5 per cent. But what will Bayrou do?

Update by Alex – Olivier Besancenot calls on supporters to support the Socialists “at the ballot box and in the streets”. That should be enough to fill the gap… Also, DSK has been out calling for people who didn’t get their preferred candidate but want “renewal” to vote PS. Dominique de Villepin, meanwhile, congratulates Sarko through gritted teeth.

Update by Alex – Bayrou about to speak..whingeing about the pollsters..still blathering..and eventually says nothing..

Update by Alex – Le Pen says his supporters should abstain “for the moment” (eh?) but he will give further advice on the 1st of May. “Le Front National n’est pas a vendre!” But who would buy it?

RFI reports that 20 départements have completed counting, but the Ile-de-France (the populous metropolitan area around Paris) is still counting, with the large suburban départements like Seine-Saint Denis and Val-de-Marne still to come.

Update by Alex – Corréze, Chirac’s home turf, goes socialist by a distance, while the Communists crash badly in their old stronghold of Ariége.

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.