The Front National’s power struggle

The Front National’s power struggle

Today might be the day the Front National got nearer than it’s ever been to controlling more than a town hall – but not enough.

The far-right party came top in six of France’s 13 regions, gaining 28 per cent of the vote overall, but latest polling shows that this second round vote for the FN in the north and south has become much tighter.

That’s not to deny the party its huge rise in popularity in the past few years. In last year’s European Parliament elections, it came first.

Today’s election will tell us that little bit more about the party’s chances in France’s presidential elections, under eighteen months away.

Another rise in the polls may be likely by then, but a Le Pen presidency is realistically off the cards. Instead it will be a race between the left and the right – both parties which have their own problems.

President François Hollande has pledged to stand only if unemployment goes down. For the moment, it’s a far from optimistic picture. October saw the highest monthly rise since 2013 – at 10.8 per cent.

In a continent where unemployment overall is in decline, France has been picking up. The figure was 1.2 per cent up on the month before, and 3.7 per cent greater compared with figures from the year before.

President Hollande’s popularity has been boosted by his leadership after the 13th November attacks – symbolically a month ago today. It’s always hard to say how much national politics sways opinion at a local level, but it’s an easy guess that France’s turbulent year will be playing on the minds of many voters.

And for former president Nicolas Sarkozy, he will need to battle a primary for leadership of the party into the elections, with rival Alain Juppé widely expected to beat him.

Sarkozy will also have to prove that his Republican Party isn’t just chasing the coat tails of the FN and swinging to the far right with populist policies.

Security issues have clearly been high on the list of voters’ worries, but with a government fighting so hard to reform France’s economy and with results so hard to see, economic recovery will be a tough sell for Hollande’s government going forward.

Europe has seen a sea change in its politics since the beginning of the financial crisis. Today will be proof – if more were needed – that France is a three party state, with Marine Le Pen rubbing shoulders with Sarkozy and Hollande a for a while longer yet.

While she may not claim seats and tangible power, the worries of Front National voters – French identity, France’s place in Europe, security issues and economic uncertainty – are problems that simply can’t go unnoticed if France’s politics wants to remain relevant – and not fearful of the all too real far right invasion.

Between now and spring 2017, there can be no more complacency as no party can really claim victory from these elections.

A tight race ahead in Spain’s historic election

A tight race ahead in Spain’s historic election

A glance at opinion polls in Spanish newspapers for the past few months would convince you that nobody really has any clue what will happen the day after Spaniards go to the polls to elect their new prime minister in just under three week’s time on 20th December.

It is without doubt the start of a new political era in Spain – a four-horse race ending the to-ing and fro-ing between the two traditional socialist and conservative parties, PSOE and PP. But anything more than a sketchy outline and you’re playing the fickle game of political predictions.

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Political deadlock in the polls between Spain’s ruling conservatives, the Socialist opposition and centre-right newcomer Ciudadanos

The new centre-right Ciudadanos and leftist Podemos parties have everything to gain in December’s vote as they fight for their first seats in parliament’s lower house after great successes in European and local elections. Are they really the new mainstream left and right of politics – or just a protest vote content with pointing the finger at previous governments?

Earlier tonight, the leaders of three of the parties battled it out in an online debate hosted by Spain’s leading newspaper El País.

That’s right – three leaders, not four. Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has made no secret of the fact he dislikes debates, especially against the two new political kids on the block.

He says to Spaniards that he doesn’t need to debate with his younger and far less experienced rivals. It’s a tactic to set himself out of the crowd that may just work out.

So, the debate empty chaired Rajoy. Instead, he appeared on Spanish news with a one-on-one political grilling. But the debate continued despite this elephant in the room.

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Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the absent leader in tonight’s debate

What Spaniards will be doing in the next few weeks is testing the credibility of their political leader hopefuls, as they do the rounds on television shows and appear at noisy campaign rallies.

How far will these untried and untested new parties stand up to scrutiny and be able to govern a nation of over 40 million, managing its economic recovery and the existential debate of Spain given the calls for independence in Catalonia?

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has played a clever game in campaigning on Spain’s unity and his government’s work in steadying the ship of the economy.

He’s hoping that will stand up to his political rivals who talk of proposals and solutions without ever having been in power.

At the same time, the spectre of corruption scandals and a poor record in solving Spain’s massive unemployment problem – at 22 per cent – will be unavoidable.

What was apparent from tonight’s debate was the unanimity in building a “new politics”. What was also clear is that there are many different proposals.

French ballot box

It went right down to Spain’s response to ISIS. Both PSOE and Ciudadanos insisted Spain couldn’t be left out of the Western alliance to bomb Islamic State. Podemos’ policy, meanwhile, stuck out like a sore thumb. Iglesias asked – what did bombs solve in Iraq or Libya? He insisted the group’s arms and finances had to be hit instead.

What is certain is that Spain is likely to be in political deadlock come the end of the year. No one party at the moment has a majority and a coalition agreement of some kind will probably need to be found.

But any pact has already been ruled out by Ciudadanos, whose leader Albert Rivera says he won’t prop up any party, instead holding them account in an opposition role.

Rivera is campaigning on a break with what the “traditional” parties have done to Spain.

They want to create a “new era”, a “new project” for the country. It’s a move which has caused their share of the vote to rocket, as the hopes of Podemos have dipped, peaking far too soon.

The climate of uncertainty about the future of Spain on a map- read the independence movement in Catalonia – raises the debate around Spain’s constitution, drawn up in 1978 and which has been left untouched since the transition to democracy following the death of Franco.

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Spain’s 1978 Constitution, written three years after the death of Franco

Parties agreed about reforming it, but differences lie in where to draw the line on independence. The leaders talked of reform, dialogue, political regeneration, a new Spain. It makes for so many soundbites.

A poll published on Sunday showed a three-way tie between the ruling PP party, the Socialist opposition and newcomer Ciudadanos, the squiggly lines converging to a single point – 22 per cent – redrawing the political map.

It’s just another clue that many in Spain still don’t know who to turn to, but what we do know is that they have turned away from the traditional parties – in their droves.

Will 20th December 2015 be remembered for the end of “old” politics and the start of a new page for Spain, or more of the same – for good or for bad?

A country with many economic, social and political challenges, it is a moment of history in the making.

More: A look at the demographics behind Spanish opinion polls – El Español (in Spanish)

 

 

What next for Paris?

What next for Paris?

A nation still in mourning after Friday’s attacks, with many in Paris unsure what will happen next – this the second attack on the city this year, targeting those who were simply enjoying daily life at a concert or restaurant.

So what does the future hold for the capital and the rest of France?

Using clips from BBC radio, I’ve made a 3-minute package asking how Paris and France can get back to normal.

 

The Catalan independence cataclysm

The Catalan independence cataclysm

Forget for a moment the huge hype and expectation surrounding today. Hearing the calls from the Catalan parliament for a declaration of independence, the first steps towards a new European state and then a constitutional block from Madrid, you’d think it nothing out of the ordinary for a secessionist movement with more momentum than ever before.

The language was just as uncompromising and provocative, talking of the “democratic disconnection” of Catalonia from the rest of Spain.

The Catalan parliament’s approval of a move towards independence within 18 months was met with the waving of Catalan senyera flags, some deputies on their feet in applause, a minority sober in defeat instead waving the national Spanish flag. Yet proceedings were noticeably much more muted than in the past.

Today’s constitutional earthquake will send tremors all the way to Madrid as Barcelona hastily embarks on setting up state institutions such as an independent social security system and tax authority within just thirty days.

But have things really changed in Catalonia as to the likelihood of independence?

What will follow is the next episode in the strained relationship between this region and the Madrid government, who will slap down the rules of the Constitution, with the courts preparing a case against leaders in Barcelona.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appeared in front of cameras minutes after the vote repeating that “the government will not allow this to continue” and saying he will use all legal and political means at his disposal to put a stop to the process.

The inconstitutional snub was echoed by Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, who will meet Rajoy on Tuesday to discuss their counter-attack.

Sánchez said: “The majority of Catalans don’t want secession. Breaking the law is denying democracy.”

Regardless, the document says it will ignore any such threats from instutitions of the Spanish state, including the constitutional court.

The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas
The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas

The extraordinary events in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona also addressed the elephant in the room – the future of president Artur Mas, whose political future looks to be hanging in the balance.

The CUP, the coalition partner of Junts Pel Sí, the pro-independence coalition who won a majority in September’s elections oppose Mr Mas serving a third term as President.

Negotiations with the leftist,  anti-establishment, anti-EU party haven’t got very far since the elections, but Mas is trying his best to win them over with policy sweeteners in what critics call a vanity project.

They are calling for another leader to be appointed, perhaps Junts Pel Sí leader Raul Romeva. But if an agreement isn’t found, yet more elections will have to be called for March next year.

Mas has embodied the defiant push for Catalan independence, buoyed by a pro-independence win in the September elections on a seat basis, but falling short of a majority he would have needed in a proper referendum – pro-independence parties won 47.8 per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, beginning his address to the Parlament, he said the ballot boxes had spoken, legitimising the majority vote that was to come.

Critics of Mas say he has isolated himself from Catalan public opinion, which evidently remains deeply divided on the issue of secession. Business leaders too say that with his majority only assured by the CUP party, he has handed the independence movement to leftist radicals.

Anti-independence party Ciudadanos, the second-largest party in the Catalan parliament that looks set to rock the boat in Spain’s general election on 20th December, ironically said that ongoing cases of corruption – of which Mr Mas is part – have nothing to do with the process.

They warned today’s events were the greatest threat to Spain’s democracy for the past thirty years.

The last election is only as important as the next. With the make-up of Spain’s next government unclear and with coalition agreements expected to extend well into January, parties of all colours are exploiting the Catalan situation to gain votes.

Aside from Spain’s economic recovery, the unity of Spain is a key election trump card, especially for Rajoy. He wants to be seen as the leader who stands for stability and managing the breakaway Catalan region.

The constitutional fallout from the defiance on show could mean tough financial sanctions – even on individual leaders, which could potentially mean prison sentences.

It could also sour any potential negotiations between leaders in Catalonia and the next Spanish government.

Pro-independence politicians remain more defiant and determined than ever. For Madrid, it’s another case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

This struggle of democracy against democracy is a long way from ending.

Best sites for European news

2015 has been a watershed year for Europe, battling economic ruin in Greece to the migrant and refugee crises. It has divided Europe along north and south and east and west lines.

Here are the best European news sites to get behind the headlines and understand the often complex workings of the continent.

Politico Europe – a site originally catering for American politics, this Brussels-based site is excellent for analysis and stories you wouldn’t ever usually see elsewhere

Bloomberg Europe – an easy to understand snapshot of European finances and what it means for the continent

Euronews – Based in Lyon, this site provides excellent video and pictures to cover a wide range of stories from Europe

The Guardian – balanced, well-written stories and features from correspondents around the continent

Others:

El País English – Spanish news in English

Financial Times – paywall (£)

France 24

Some thoughts on the Catalan question

Some thoughts on the Catalan question

Ten days remain before Catalonia decides fundamentally the direction of travel for the region – unity with the rest of Spain, or more probably, a path leading towards further confrontation with the Madrid government and the creation of a new state.

Here are some thoughts on how the campaign and debate are developing:

  • Madrid is ramping up the rhetoric on an international scale to demonstrate how isolated an independent Catalonia could be. Comments from the leaders of Germany, Britain, and latterly US President Barack Obama that have unanimously called for unity in Spain, and to obey the rule of law, have been used endlessly to ring alarm bells. Do these ‘voices’ have any currency in a campaign which has been dominated by a vibrant debate from within Spain?
  • Investor concern is rising in Spain with the constant war of words between Madrid and Barcelona. Important to note it is as much to do with the December national elections, which has the ruling PP party and Socialist PSOE opposition on a knife-edge in polls. A majority for any party is not on the cards for the moment, hence the uncertainty.
  • The momentum seems to be gathering with pro-independence Junts Pel Sí nearing a majority  – maybe even without the help of other parties to get over the line. Polls in the coming days will judge further this consolidation.
  • Junts Pel Sí assured anti-independence candidates of the economic viability of an independent Catalonia. However on Friday, some of Spain’s biggest banks, including Caixabank, Santander, BBVA and Sabadell, questioned their presence in Catalonia in the event of independence. They warned of financial risks in the event of victory for Junts Pel Sí. The economic influence is undoubtedly significant, but hardly new.
  • Television debates prove to be very different affairs to their British or American equivalents. A more measured discussion which overtly avoids sound bites or grand gestures, one in which candidates themselves dictate the direction of the debate. It is comparatively less superficial and lacking in hype, though with so many candidates, hours of discussion can be difficult to get into. One commentator called last night’s televised debate “impossible”. I highly doubt for the most part that they sway any voting intention.
  • Sometimes accused of being unintentionally pro-independence, Catalan state broadcaster TV3 has been ordered by a Spanish election board to give coverage to anti-independence parties on Sunday, given the extensive coverage of the region’s national day which was dominated by pro-independence demonstrations organised at the grassroots. Social media has rallied against this ruling with a television boycott.
The divide in coverage for pro- and anti-independence parties
The divide in coverage for pro- and anti-independence parties
  • With the Catalan language dominant in the region’s media, is this in any way preventing a wider debate with non-Catalan speakers, even if the language is intelligible for most? President Mas pledged to protect the rights of Spanish speakers, as his coalition bloc has lately been fielding for more support among non-Catalan speakers. An interesting thought.
  • One year on since the Scottish independence vote produced a ‘no’ decision with 55% against the break-up of the UK, there have been reports that the Scottish National Party are considering a second referendum on independence in its 2016 election manifesto. This in light of the party’s massive mandate delivered in May’s general election, which virtually wiped out Labour in Scotland. A risky move on either side of the debate, as one study shows a 51:49 split, the slim majority against independence. Events in Scotland were keenly followed in Catalonia. Will the Catalan election reignite the debate with their Scottish counterparts?
  • The debate balances on the real – the current – and the hypothetical – the future. The anti-independence Ciudadanos candidate said that realistic solutions are needed, not science fiction. It is the inevitable difficulty for the pro-independence that they are arguing about an as-yet non-existent state, which brings either hope or disaster. It is the voter’s decision to judge possibility and probability where answers are often rhetorics or conjecture.
  • The question over the status of an independent Catalonia in or out of the European Union is one which will not go away. You could accuse Junts Pel Sí of complacency in as much as you could accuse their opponents of scaremongering. An important thing in all this – there is no precedent in the European Union history books,  and thus far no voices from the European Union that have yet said that Catalonia would remain in the EU. The fact that the issue is so widely debated points to no one clear conclusion.
  • The European Commission affirmed it wouldn’t influence the Catalan elections and would be prepared to negotiate with democratically-elected parties.
  • Ciudadanos is campaigning on the unity of local issues – health, education, corruption, unemployment – that affect all Catalans. They are lone voices in a debate dominated by the existential in/out question. What role will everyday issues play in people’s minds?

More than a quarter of voters remain undecided. How long this significant chunk of the electorate has left to make such an historically significant decision is running out, as the intensity and brutality of the campaign increases.

When predictions go wrong: the real threat to Europe in 2015

When predictions go wrong: the real threat to Europe in 2015

I entered 2015 with the prediction that one of the biggest European stories would be the flow of migrants from war-torn areas of the world, mainly in the Middle East, to European shores. This was most pronounced just before the turn of the New Year. Blue Sky M was a Moldovan vessel carrying nearly a thousand migrants, mainly from Syria, which had been abandoned by its crew. Italian coast guards brought the ship to Gallipolli safely. Then, two days later, a ‘ghost ship’ named Ezadeen containing some 450 migrants turned up in the Adriatic, later brought ashore by the Italian coast guard. The boat had again been abandoned by its crew. It seemed this would be, as it has been already, a recurring story with an ever greater threat to life and a burden to European states with already lots to worry about.

Italy was and will be seen as the most vulnerable target in what is now a lucrative business for smugglers, but dramatic scenes have also been witnessed in the Spanish enclave of Melilla in Morocco, where migrants have been seen jumping fences and overwhelming border postings. As numbers of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing conflict in places like Syria continue to swell, we are brought back to the bloodiness of the conflict there which is now entering its fourth year, with no sign of an end.

For the events in Paris and the deaths of 17 people, they serve as a reminder of the greatest scourge emanating from the Middle East: ISIS. The killers were influenced by ideology coming from the so-called state, including one, Amedy Coulibaly, swearing allegiance to the organisation in an online video. Coulibaly is believed to have travelled to Madrid days before the attack, during which he was shot dead. His widow, Hayat Boumedienne, travelled to Madrid on the 2nd January, before travelling to Syria via Turkey six days later. An intelligence failing, many will be thinking.

The number of Europeans fighting for ISIS, according to an estimate from September 2014, totals over 3,000. That figure rose rapidly throughout last year, and EU’s counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove said at the time: “”The flow has not been dried up and therefore possibly the proclamation of the caliphate has had some impact.”

The majority of fighters, he said, were from from France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark but a few are coming from Spain, Italy, Ireland and now Austria.

“Even a country like Austria I think has now foreign fighters, which I was not aware of before,” he said.

As major European capitals such as London, Madrid and Berlin seek to protect public buildings, public transport and similar high-profile targets, who would ever think that the next threat to peace in Europe after the horrific attacks in Paris would be the small Belgian town of Verviers?

Reports suggest that Belgian police had been tracking the two suspected jihadists who were killed yesterday and stopped them before it was too late. Their plan was to kill police “on public roads or at police stations,” according to the federal prosecutor at a press conference this morning.

And in Berlin, two men have been arrested on suspicion of recruiting fighters and procuring equipment and funding for Islamic State in Syria. German police were keen to point out this was part of a months-long investigation into a small group of extremists in Berlin. Though the threat is in itself worrying, some peace of mind is gained from the fact that authorities were already aware of these two potential incidents. Lessons might be learnt in Paris from the two Kouachi brothers having been on UK and US no-fly lists, in addition to their previous convictions, but the arguments over mass surveillance and the extent to which states can anticipate attacks is far from over.

Back to France, where in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, police in Paris have been pursuing a number of suspects who allegedly supported the Islamist gunmen behind the attacks in Paris. They are currently being questioned about “possible logistical support”, such as weapons or vehicles, that they could have given the gunmen. Again, this shows a renewed effort by Europe to confront what seems to have been a simmering problem for many nation states.

Away from the headlines of economic insecurity and poor growth for the continent, the topic of conflict in a globalised, connected world is what will undoubtedly mark this year. The potential for attacks, even the likelihood, has been raised across Europe. It will be the feared unknown at the forefront of our minds.

One final prediction

It seems already that there is another threat not just to Europe but to the world. Cyber attacks to French websites since the Paris shootings number around 19,000, more than a week following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. The head of France’s cyberdefense for the French military said some of these had been carried out by well-known Islamic hacker groups. Arnaud Coustilliere pointed to “structured groups” that used tactics like posting symbols of jihadist groups on companies’ websites. Websites for small businesses, like pizza delivery or gardening. Hardly ones which could affect national security. With this in mind, It seems that the threat is all but overstated for now, though as I write this, there is breaking news that the sites of French public radio station France Inter, as well as newspapers Le Parisien, Marianne and L’Express have all been taken down. For now, it could be a suspected attack, but it could equally be an inocuous server fault. Could cyberterrorism bring a great threat of danger to countries around the world? The momentum for such attacks is already underway, though governments, already aware of the problem, seem to be gathering preventative measures.