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New Statesman: Where has the French Left gone?

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You can read the full article on the NS site here

Can a Socialist government committed to austerity measures still be called Socialist? This is one of the questions facing the French Left following President Francois Hollande’s recent decision to disband the government to expel voices critical of his new economic direction. The dissolution – the second in six months – has been described as a purge of dissident voices, with the replacement of, among others, the now former economic minister Arnaud Montebourg, an avowedly anti-austerity figure who takes a Krugman-esque line, by business-friendly former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who controversially questioned France’s sacrosanct 35 hour working week. Montebourg recently publicly blamed Hollande for choking the economy with spending cuts and has become the symbol for a movement of Leftist rebels, “les Frondeurs”, who argue that France should not be “aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right“.

Montebourg’s replacement is a confirmation that the government’s direction on economic matters would not be open to question. The dissolution comes after two previous reshuffles, the previous of which saw the appointment of Manuel Valls as Prime Minister in March, a move which was widely seen as an attempt to resituate the PS in the political centre, given Valls’ commitment to cutting public spending and reaching out to the business sector. The new cabinet reflects Hollande’s commitment to Valls’ vision and willingness to sacrifice the left of his party, for whom a central sticking point has been diverging visions on how to revive France’s flailing economy, with Hollande’s camp advocating cutting, against those who favour more borrowing.

The dissolution reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook. Despite two years in power, the government has failed to reverse growing unemployment and growth this year has been downgraded to 0.5 per cent. Hollande’s shifting strategy now involves integrating voices more conciliatory towards his centrist line, best exemplified by his new chief of staff, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a former minister under center-right former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

President Hollande began his presidency with the strongest mandate for any left-wing government for 30 years, including a Socialist majority in the National Assembly. But his political wavering combined with personal scandals and his decision to dissolve the government three times, have left the public sceptical as to his abilities at a time where public confidence is at an all-time low. Polls indicate public approval ratings of just 17 per cent, and Hollande is now the bearer of the unenviable title of most unpopular president since polling records began. Whereas his Socialist predecessors all left their mark in the form of a significant social reforms (income support under Mitterrand, the 35 hour working week under Jospin, etc), it remains unclear what social contribution will mark Hollande’s legacy.

The same president who rode the anti-austerity wave to power and terrified the City with comments like “the finance sector is my enemy“ has been seen to be increasingly toeing the German line. Despite his promise to get tough with the finance sector, the appointment of a former Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist as new economic adviser says otherwise and the recent reshuffle has been seen as the replacement of Left-wing socialists with finance sector aficionados. For many within the party, this represents a betrayal of the very mandate Hollande had been elected to carry out.

Over the last week at the Socialist summer convention in La Rochelle, Prime Minister Valls has sought to portray himself as the purveyor of “Leftist realism” in the face of those accusing him and the government of kowtowing to austerity measures, repeating that the government “doesn’t practise austerity“ despite plans for further public spending cuts and tax breaks for businesses. But the balancing act which sees Hollande simultaneously try to appease the EU call for budget restraint while maintaining the support of the left wing of his party, has inevitably left him looking weak and ineffective. Even among Socialists, only 58 per cent have confidence in the government’s plan.

And despite a strong mandate, the Socialists have been unable to truly implement policies which reflect Leftist principles, instead, they’ve been restricted in that implementation by EU directives and arguably forced to rethink the very nature of Leftist economic policy. If Leftist politics is about rhetoric and not substance, given that the substance is decided elsewhere, the result can only ultimately be disillusionment with mainstream politics. This leaves “Flanby”, as President Hollande has been nicknamed, looking very wobbly, but it also plays into the nationalistic rhetoric of the FN, which rails against EU intrusions. Ultimately, a divided and incoherent Left leaves the way open for Marine Le Pen to target those workers traditionally more likely to lean Left. This is all the more worrying when one considers that a recent poll put her at the top of the next presidential race, and in light of the erosion of support for the radical Left party, where the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon has recently stepped down.

The dilemma was succinctly summarised by Montebourg in an interview with Le Monde, in which he stated: “If we align ourselves with the most extreme orthodoxy of the German right, this will mean French people’s votes have no legitimacy and alternatives do not count.” The danger of further disillusionment with the main parties is the inevitable outcome.

For the French Left, there seems to be two competing visions. Either support a re-vamping of the Socialist party to fit the limitations of the EU framework and in so doing, ultimately alienate a core, ideologically motivated grassroots or call, as some of the radical Left have, for the setting of national objectives in defiance of the limitations imposed by Brussels (possibly as part of a movement for a Sixth Republic, as advocated by Radical Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon). The third – and possibly more likely – option involves infighting within the Socialist party, which will likely paralyse the government. Could the narrow room for manoeuvre for political parties as imposed by the EU ultimately undermine national politics to the extent of buttressing radical parties? The rise of the Front National could be one indication of this. It remains to be seen whether the Left will succeed in offering a competing vision to Le Pen’s increasing monopoly of that protest vote. What is more certain is that the infighting within the main parties on both Left and Right could mean politics will increasingly be played out on the margins.

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Written by Myriam Francois

September 22, 2014 at 10:55

Sky news: discussing Francois Hollande’s inauguration ceremony

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An extract from my commentary of the inauguration ceremony of Francois Hollande at the Elysee, Sky news, 15 May 2012.

Written by Myriam Francois

May 15, 2012 at 19:49

Sky News: Live commentary on the French elections

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A snippet of my commentary on the first round of the French Presidential elections on Sunday, on Sky News.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 25, 2012 at 09:50

France is Turning ‘Bleu Marine’: the Existential Crisis of the French Right

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This piece is published over at the Huffington post, here

France is turning “bleu-Marine”, a play on words which refers to the National Front (FN)’s strong ‎showing in the first round of the French Presidential elections. 18% of the vote is the strongest ‎polling yet for Marine Le Pen’s party, out-doing even her father’s 16.9% in the 2002 elections, ‎where he made it to the second round. The success of the National Front was in stark contrast to ‎the poor showing of France’s Right. Sarkozy has the dubious privilege of being the Fifth Republic’s ‎most unpopular president, with a 64% disapproval rating, and the first incumbent not to take the ‎lead in the first round. But these sobering findings clearly hadn’t dented the President’s self-belief on sunday as he delivered a “victory” speech, in which he claimed his supporters had ‘proven the ‎polls wrong’ – despite the rather accurate predictions that he’d lose out to Holland in the first ‎round, with around 26% of the vote. Which he did. ‎

His hope now will be to galvanise the Far-right and Centrist votes to compete with the Leftist block, ‎totalling 41%, which gives the socialist candidate, Francois Hollande a solid basis on which to achieve the winning 54%, predicted by ‎an IPSOS poll in the second round.‎

As Sarkozy seeks to salvage the situation in the run up to May 6th, his Sunday speech offered a ‎glimpse of things to come as he focused on key National Front issues of immigration, border ‎controls and national identity. In recent years, the UMP has been split by its veer to the right under ‎the direction of Sarkozy’s adviser, Patrick Buisson, considered the architect of the UMP’s “LePen-‎isation”. Many blame the strategy for alienating traditional right-wing voters and changing the very ‎nature of the neo-Gaulliste party. Others see Le Pen’s success as a vindication and evidence of the ‎need to move further on this terrain. The fact Sarkozy can count on 60% of Le Pen’s votes in the ‎second round, poses some existential questions about the very nature of the Right in France.‎

A regional breakdown of the vote showed Le Pen achieved high scores in the industrial North Est, ‎where she often came second, behind the Left for whom the North is not traditional terrain and ‎where Sarkozy had scored highly in 2007. The North Est and France’s industrial regions were those ‎worst hit by the economic crisis in 2008-2009, with a significant increase in unemployment. Today ‎jobless claims are at a twelve year high across France. In addition, France has lost competitiveness. ‎Its exports have lagged behind those of its major trading partners in the past decade, labour costs ‎have grown and whilst the economy is sluggish, workers are faced with reduced purchasing power. ‎This squeeze on the working class under the UMP’s rule means many are looking elsewhere. The ‎breakdown of votes shows Sarkozy lost many seats in central France, the 6th largest industrial ‎region, where the Far Left made significant advances and 29% of Blue-collar workers now vote Le ‎Pen.‎

But the Far-Right has also benefited from Sarkozy’s tactical inclusion of Far-right themes into the ‎mainstream political discourse. Many of Sarkozy’s election pledges seemingly acknowledged the ‎problematisation of issues raised by the FN, including the halal meat saga and the proposed rethink ‎of the passport-free Schengen zone. This strategy assumed the incorporation of such issues into ‎the UMP’s agenda, could garner more votes away from the NF, but appears instead to have ‎legitimised Le Pen’s discourse and ensured the perennity of her party on the French political ‎scene. What’s more, Sarkozy’s perceived failure to address these issues, alongside his ‎acknowledgement of their importance, has bolstered the FN’s agenda.‎

Marine Len Pen’s speech on Sunday suggests she now views her party as the ‘true’ Right, in the ‎face of a weak and discredited UMP. What is certain is that her historic success in this first round ‎has shifted the political terrain in France and conveyed a degree of respectability she has worked ‎hard to foster. Since taking over from her father, Marine has morphed the party’s image, seeking ‎to distance it from its racist reputation and consolidating its platform through a solidly anti-EU ‎focus, broadening its appeal. The message of curbing immigration and combating a European elite ‎by taking France out of the Eurozone, is designed to protect an allegedly threatened French ‎identity. ‎

Alongside proposals to protect small businesses and ban supermarkets in towns of under 30 000 ‎people, she speaks to a France suspicious of globalisation and of the EU’s austerity plans, in a ‎country where only 31% of people agree that a free market economy is the best system. It is ‎amongst the squeezed working and middle classes, who feel that Europe is failing to protect them ‎against global competition, that her message of protectionism, both social and economic, has ‎found an audience. ‎

Last year, academics warned of the “France of the invisibles” where almost 40% of the electorate ‎in rural and suburban areas, as well as in towns hit by deindustrialisation, feel abandoned by the ‎democratic process and unrepresented in their concerns. The consequence is the emergence of a ‎more radical political vote, towards the Far-Left but more so towards the Far Right whose ‎combination of a focus on social and identity issues has broad appeal. Worryingly, this is no longer ‎perceived to be a protest vote, but a vote of adherence to the FN’s agenda. 64% of FN voters state ‎their support for Marine le Pen as a candidate, and only 36% describe theirs as a “protest vote”. ‎Amongst FN voters, immigration polls as the highest concern (62 %), followed by insecurity (44 %) ‎and purchasing power (43 %) and Le Pen has successfully taped into this combination of social and ‎economic conservativism.

While Hollande may be elected France’s first Socialist president in 17 ‎years, it was under another socialist, Francois Mitterand that the National Front first made ‎headways in response to austerity measures in the 1980s. In 2012, their presence is far more ‎entrenched and they’ll be facing a candidate whom only 25 % of voters believe can improve the ‎situations in France. If he fails, an emboldened Far-right is waiting in the wings.‎

Sky News interview, Mohamed Merah Shooting, March 2012

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An interview with Adam Boulton on Sky News on the political fall-out of the Mohamed Merah shooting and its implications for diversity in France.

Written by Myriam Francois

March 22, 2012 at 21:12

Myriam Francois Cerrah – France shootings, BBC World, News, March 2012

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An interview I did on BBC World about the Toulouse and Montauban shootings in March 2012

Written by Myriam Francois

March 20, 2012 at 16:32

Europe: Tucking Away the Real Deal

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Current tumult over bans and restrictions on religious symbols are largely a smokescreen for the real issues which plague our society and the rest of Europe. As the economy shows little sign of recovery, the rise of the far-right in Europe poses a fundamental challenge to longstanding European values. Standing against a ban on religious symbols is the current frontline for combating a corrosive and exclusionary ideology which is chipping away at the ideals of a free and fair society. People of religion may be on the frontline, but it is the fundamental and guiding principles of our nations which are truly at stake.

Undeniably, Europe has in recent years become a progressively worse place to be a person of faith. According to a recent Pew Poll (2010), Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. In an earlier poll, the Pew Survey of Global Attitudes found that hostile attitudes to Jews were rising all across continental Europe and that suspicion of Muslims in Europe was considerably higher than hostility to Jews, though the increase in anti-Semitism had taken place much more rapidly. Whilst Americans and Britons displayed the lowest levels of anti-Semitism, one in four in both countries were hostile to Muslims

This increased hostility aimed at religious communities is largely linked to the rise of divisive, xenophobic and racist ideas and groups across Europe, whose growth has been fuelled by the economic depression. It is an all too familiar and recent pattern in European history, that when the chips are down, the usual suspects – public services and migrants, become prime targets for hate and government policies (sometimes indistinguishable). After the economic devastation of WWI, German cartoons of the time depicted people with wheelbarrows full of money who could not buy a loaf of bread. It was in this climate, that Hitler’s vitriolic discourse found an eager audience as he blamed Jews for the country’s woes. And the pattern is not limited to Europe. In America, illegal immigrants from Mexico are often used as scapegoats during periods of economic hardships.

The real issue, namely addressing a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector driven by speculation rather than productive investment, is not so easily or willingly addressed. Nor is the growing gap between rich and poor, our spiralling living costs, or the deterioration of our public services.

Life has become increasingly hard for Britons and is set to get much harder as inflation is predicted to hit a three year high. FareShare, a food supply organisation for the vulnerable and needy, have seen a drastic increase in the number of people unable to feed themselves at a most basic level. After bailing out the banks, nine out of ten Brits are now poorer than this time last year, NHS waiting time is up drastically and the cost of living has gone through the roof. Meanwhile our politicians have proposed a bill which will end the NHS as a comprehensive service equally available to all, while spending £750million on nuclear weapons. People are understandably angry and in such times of desperation, populist discourse finds an avid audience.

The economic squeeze has led many to support nationalist parties who promise to favour the ‘native’ population and largely expel immigrants (or those who look like immigrants) to relieve the economic strain. In 2010 Sweden became the third EU member state to find itself without a governing majority after elections marked by the rise of far-right and anti-immigration parties. The Netherlands and Belgium are in the same position. Far-right parties are currently in government in Italy and also sit in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia, as well as in the European Parliament.

In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party – whose name means “movement for a better Hungary” – has its own uniformed street militia, the Hungarian Guard, who target the country’s Roma population. Critics say the militia bears a disturbing resemblance to the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s Second World War fascist militiamen, who collaborated with the Nazis in killing tens of thousands of Hungary’s other prominent minority, the Jews. In a speech which could be attributed to a number of mainstream European parties today, the Jobbik party spoke about stopping Roma, the country’s biggest ethnic minority, from ‘sponging off the state’ – forcing anyone claiming benefits to perform public service in return and promising to “give back Hungary’s national pride and identity”. The party achieved 17 per cent of the vote in general elections.

Even in traditionally liberal countries, the far-right have made significant gains. In Sweden, the stridently anti-immigration platform of the Sweden Democrats secured the party 5.7 per cent of the vote and 20 parliamentary seats in the 2010 general election, enough to deny the governing centre-right coalition a majority.

In the Netherlands, the far-right Freedom Party came third in June elections after its poster boy, Geert Wilders described Islam as a “fascist ideology”, comparing the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Here in the UK, UKIP has sought to unite conservatives and fascists on areas of apparently overlapping concern by proposing a burka ban. Not to be outdone, Conservative MP Philip Hollobone proposed such a bill in parliament this summer. And in 2008, two British National Party MEPs were elected, followed in 2009 by the creation of the English Defence League, which according to Dr Matthew Feldman, who runs the UK’s only research unit on new media and domestic extremism, has links to the Aryan Strike Force (ASF).

But the most worrying developments have to be in former fascist states. In France, the National Front, performed strongly in March’s regional elections with 15% of the vote, with its talk of expulsing illegal Roma immigrants and comparing the presence of French Arabs to the Nazi invasion. Two polls published in March this year suggest that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, would beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of a presidential election.

In Vienna, the Mayor’s Freedom party almost doubled its vote in recent elections, running strongly on banning minarets (as in neighbouring Switzerland), despite there being only one minaret in the Austrian capital, and advocating the ban of Islamic headgear, as was pledged in the Netherlands, in its efforts to “to keep the city’s blood Viennese”.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, to note that the Austrian government recorded a 28% increase in xenophobic, far-right, racist, islamophobic and anti-semitic crimes since last year.

In Germany, referring to its Turkish population, which lest we remind ourselves was invited to Germany after WWII to help do the hard labour of reconstructing the country, Interior Minister Hans Peter-Friedrich, said Islam “does not belong in Germany”. Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin’s book, Germany is doing away with itself, is currently in its 14th edition and is Germany’s best-selling book since WWII. It claims that Turks, who make up around 5% of the population, are “dumbing down” the country with their inferior gene pool. A poll published in October showed 31% of respondents agreeing that Germany is “becoming dumber” because of immigrants and 62% said Sarrazin’s comments were “justified”.

Banking on the political capital to be gained from sourcing Sarrazin’s popularity, Merkel stated that the nation’s “multi-kulti” project had been a complete failure.

This slippage of far-right discourse into the mainstream is not singular to Germany. In fact, the debates during France’s recent regional elections were largely dictated by the National Front and the banning of the Burka united the political spectrum with virtually no dissent. In Italy, proposals to ban the burka even had the support of human-rights groups. And here in the UK, British TV personality and member of a conservative think tank, Douglas Murray argued in a speech to the Dutch Parliament that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board.”

It is precisely this growing acceptability of far-right themes and ideas in the mainstream, which is so deeply concerning. It is worth recalling that in 1928, the Nazis achieved less than 3% of the national vote in Germany. Today, many fascist parties have ten times that number. Their influence is therefore commensurate and cannot be ignored.

In different countries, the Far-right takes different forms and has differing focuses but common themes are evident: Anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, islampohobic and promoting long standing myths of national purity and exclusionism. These groups offer convenient scapegoat solutions to less tangible or accessible problems.

During the Burka debate in France, UMP politician Frederic Lefebvre summed up the current climate when he stated that women who wear the face veil should be “deprived of their rights”. It is precisely the type of climate in which an elected representative can speak of depriving a fellow citizen of her rights that must absolutely be challenged. As regressive policies become increasingly common, from Theresa May suggesting the UK’s Human Rights Act be scrapped, to being urged to spy on and denounce one’s neighbours, it is essential we stand against this nihilistic tide, for an affirmation of our core values as Europeans. These are values fought for by our forefathers and often enshrined in founding documents. The themes are universal and universalist. Human rights. Equality. Justice. Pluralism. Solidarity. Human rights. Freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear and persecution. Real and meaningful freedom, with no caveats or exceptions.

(This article can also be found here)

Written by Myriam Francois

October 21, 2011 at 19:18