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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Do what again now?

I’ve been hoping Emmanuel or someone would step forward and explain what happened yesterday in the French Parliament.

Here’s the New York Times version:

When François Hollande, the Socialist Party leader, berated the French government for its handling of the crisis at Europe’s leading aerospace company, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin lost control.

In an outburst that was both highly personal and filled with rage, Mr. de Villepin shouted: “I denounce, Mr. Hollande, the superficiality, and I would even say, looking at you, cowardice! Cowardice! There is in your attitude, I say it again, cowardice!”

Socialist members of the Assembly tried to drown out Mr. de Villepin with cries of “Resign! Resign!” Some deputies moved forward, toward the prime minister, before storming out of the chamber.

Henri Emmanuelli, a Socialist deputy and a former president of the National Assembly, shouted, “He’s mad!”

The session — the regularly scheduled Tuesday hearing with Mr. de Villepin and other ministers — came to an abrupt end.

Do what?
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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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Villepin denies allegations

Reuters report.

Villepin, crippled by a bruising defeat over a youth job law last month, issued the latest of his almost daily denials of guilt as the murky scandal rekindled speculation about his ability to stay in office.

The so-called Clearstream affair has derailed Villepin’s efforts to press on with reforms and fuelled a resurgence of the far-right ahead of 2007 presidential elections.

Le Monde on Wednesday published extracts from a leaked document the daily said proved Villepin knew more than he had acknowledged about an alleged dirty tricks campaign to smear Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, his rival for the presidency.

Le Monde’s article

Via Jerome, who says they ” blows open Villepin’s defense”.

French protests : it’s the politics, stupid!

There are some offers you can’t refuse. An invitation to join the permanent roster of Afoe is one of them. Let me first say, then, that I was initially happy and thrilled and grateful to be part of this wonderful blog. All the more so since it means that I’ll be ineligible for the Afoe Awards next year, and thus spared the humiliation of a third crushing defeat in a row. (For those of you who are scratching their head and wondering “who the hell is this guy?”, check this post)

If is say “initially”, it’s because, as the French guy of the team, I now have the daunting task of trying to explain clearly our current social row over the Contrat première embauche (First job contract) to a mainly non-native readership. As it happens, the BBC has already done a quite decent Q&A on the topic. So go read it to get the basics. And then come back here if you want my long and -I hope- not too muddled thoughts on what it all means.
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