A false start for France’s presidential election

A false start for France’s presidential election

The battle lines are drawn in a hotly contested presidential election – that’s a year and a half away.

How far France swings to the centre-right or the extreme right will be the big headline when the country goes to the polls in spring 2017.

The second – how big the defeat for France’s most unpopular president, François Hollande. He can do little more than survive the political storm to come, as the economy stutters along. However, there are encouraging signs from business and confidence as the effects of controversial reforms start to bear fruit.

That’s not to forget important elections this December in France’s regions which are the last test for parties before the country elects a new President. Campaigning is already in full force.

President Hollande addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Front National leader Marine Le Pen stood up in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in front of Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, armed with a double blow.

Hollande and Merkel in turn addressed a room full of Euro MPs, calling for more Europe at a time when the continent is more divided than ever over the influx of migrants and refugees. It was a speech that many deemed lacklustre. For Ms Le Pen, it provided her a platform to deliver some memorable, hardhitting soundbites. She was on a roll in her three-minute address.

Le Pen called Hollande Germany’s “vice-chancellor” who had sold out to a Berlin-dominated Europe. And to Mrs Merkel, she said: “I don’t recognise you, Madam.”

Hollande mustered some steel, saying the EU was a bastion against the “return of nationalism, populism [and] extremism”.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls characterised the situation with the FN as “worrying”. From the opinion polls to the division in the party and the left of politics, Valls recognises the more-than-credible threat from the rise of Le Pen – he is not alone.

Sarkozy's ally, Nadine Morano, who called France
Sarkozy’s ally, Nadine Morano, who called France “a country of the white race”

Nicolas Sarkozy has himself been embroiled in an internal affair this week which threatens the Republican party’s image just a few months since its rebrand. One deputy, Nadine Morano, has been pulled as a candidate from December’s regional elections after calling France “a country of the white race”. Only a few days later did Mr Sarkozy see the comments of one of his most loyal allies unacceptable. It is a huge deal for the party seized upon by their opponents.

Sarkozy is all too aware of the battle with the Front National. It is a tricky balancing act to appeal to FN voters and at the same time not lose moderate support in the important centre ground. One pollster said: “People prefer the original to the copy.” Sarkozy runs the risk of overstepping the line by putting FN sentiment into the political mainstream by simply legitimising them. No such threat from Mr Hollande, whose days, Sarkozy said, were numbered.

There’s no topic more divisive than that of immigration, despite the country’s insecure economic footing as Europe’s second-largest. The FN’s anti-immigration stance is one which is likely to see them win in the north of the country as well as its traditional stronghold in the south-east at the least.

Air France executive rescued by security
Air France executive rescued by security in a violent protest in Paris

It is also a week which saw scenes of violent protests at Air France in Paris over 3,000 jobs lost plastered across international newspapers and TV screens. An shameful reminder of the French stereotype of going out on strike which turned ugly. Hollande said such images had “serious consequences” for the image of France. For critics, it served as an opportunity to point to France’s footdragging on reforms. A large section of French business has long grown inefficient and uncompetitive. They’re only starting to realise that they have some way to go to regain lost ground in the global economy.

This electoral rollercoaster ride shows the damage of untimely blunders in the unforgiving political arena. In the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, it is a fight to the death.

More: Air France turbulence may end in crash, The Independent

An historic vote on independence in Catalan regional elections

An historic vote on independence in Catalan regional elections

Many hundreds of thousands of Catalans will crowd the streets of Barcelona today, marking the region’s annual national day, La Diada. A moment of pride for Catalans, showcasing their difference and cultural richness.

A sea of mosaic colours running for more than five kilometres in the Catalan capital will tell the world that, for many in this region, Catalonia should become a new, better country – that independence is the only option and a once-of-a-lifetime opportunity.

Crucially, today marks the start of campaigning for regional parliament elections on the 27th September, which has become a de facto referendum on independence. 135 seats are up for grabs, with the latest polling confirming the trend of a very narrow victory for pro-independence parties.

The Free Way to the Catalan Republic, a mosaic symbolising the start of building a new country
The Free Way to the Catalan Republic, a mosaic symbolising the start of building a new country

Parties from left and right, in support of independence are campaigning under a single umbrella called Junts Pel Sí, Together for Yes, formed in July. It groups together the ruling conservative CDC party, the left-wing ERC and several civil society organisations, responsible for the large-scale, pro-independence demonstrations that have made international news in recent years. Projections show that the coalition would win between 60 and 62 seats, but an absolute majority could only be achieved with the help of pro-independence and anti-capitalist party, CUP.

14415896163036The outcome of one poll shows the narrow political divisions in Catalonia in a hard-fought election campaign

The campaign is as much economic as political. Despite party differences, pro-independence campaigners say they are fed up with an unfair budget settlement from Madrid, which has meant harsh cuts to health and education that the Catalan government says it has been forced to make. Although levels of unemployment in the region are better than the rest of Spain, it remains a key worry for Catalans. In an independent Catalonia, President Artur Mas said he wouldn’t have to make a single euro in cuts.

Pro-independence campaign group Junts Pel Sí's election slogan, el vot de la teva vida - the vote of your life.
Pro-independence campaign group Junts Pel Sí’s election slogan, el vot de la teva vida – the vote of your life.

Judging the mood in Catalonia without referencing the elections directly, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Tuesday that political uncertainty is the biggest problem for the Spanish economy. Indeed, in the past few days, risk in the Spanish economy has risen with the favourable fortunes of pro-independence politics in the polls.

Economic credibility in such a politically charged campaign is a key bargain chip amid a lot of bluster and scaremongering. Mas argued for the economic viability of an independent Catalonia, even if it were outside the EU – a significant sticking point.

At the same time, the Catalan President said Spain would survive without Catalonia, deeming it a “win-win” result. Spain would remain Catalonia’s largest trading partner in the event of indepedence.

Dialogue between Barcelona and Madrid broke down before it even started, as Rajoy cannot countenance any debate surrounding the break-up of Spain. His key pledge ahead of national elections in December is one of stability, amid a marked upturn in growth for the Spanish economy.

A majority of Catalans agree that, even if they aren’t in support of independence, a vote should nonetheless take place. It is a matter of democracy, pro-independence supporters say, which is being undermined by Madrid. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel García-Margallo told the BBC: “This so-called independent Catalonia will have no chance at recognition.”

Junts pel Sí, Together for Yes, bringing a unified pro-indepdence campaign to regional elections.

Estimates from Junts pel Sí suggest that Catalonia would be the 12th largest European economy, and the creation of a new state would cost just over 39 billion euros. A key part of their electoral program is the structural plan for an independent Catalonia, including new bodies such as a tax authority, and a central bank, which have yet to be costed. It’s also unknown for the moment whether the state would have its own armed forces. On defence, Mas has no doubt that Catalonia must remain part of NATO.

In addition, debt settlement with Madrid would mean a new state initially burdened with large debts, offset by a new fiscal arrangement which would bring in 11 billion euros.

Speaking last week on a trip to Madrid, British Prime Minister David Cameron very much hoped Spain would remain united, and warned in no uncertain terms that Catalonia would have to apply for EU membership if it seceded from Spain.

The spectre of a Catalan EU exit was also raised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said last week: “We share the view that there are EU treaties by which we are all bound and these EU treaties guarantee the national integrity and sovereignty of every country.”

An unprecedented move such as this in European Union history means any outcome is all the more unpredictable.

Standing in the way of pro-independence parties are the new political forces on the block. Ciutadans, which opposes Catalan nationalism, is expected to be the second biggest party after the pro-independence coalition, with around 21 seats.

Its leader, Albert Rivera, has called the 27th September “the most important day in the history of Catalonia”. Ciutadans is making huge efforts to mobilise Catalans to reject this election as being a proxy independence vote. Rivera is worried about one likely scenario which could mean victory for pro-independence Junts Pel Sí, with just 40% of the share of the vote. Mas says it is the number of seats, not the numbers game, which matters more, given 28.7% of those in a poll released yesterday still haven’t decided.

Podemos, the far-left, anti-austerity party which has already shaken up the dominance of traditional left and right parties in Spain, is campaigning with other leftist forces in a coalition called “Catalonia Yes We Can”. They are desperately mobilising those who wouldn’t usually vote, as well as criticising Mas and his party over allegations of corruption. It was a strategy which paid off in local elections in May, allowing Ada Colau to be installed as mayor of Barcelona. The coalition would be the third largest party with 15 seats, according to poll estimates.

Mas hopes a solid win for pro-independence parties will pave the way for an 18-month roadmap to secession. Polls on secession are as close as it gets – 44% support independence, 46% reject it, with the usual caveat that, after all, this is just one poll.

The region held an informal consultation last November, asking voters whether they wanted Catalonia to be a state and whether they wanted that state to be independent. 80% of voters voted ‘yes’ to both. Another sign of the potent disaffection with Spain, it was held in fierce opposition to politicians in Madrid, who called it a sham.

Just a few months away from general elections, likely to be held on the 20th December, all parties are on the political warpath to present their case on an issue that threatens the shape of Spain.

The socialist party PSC, the regional offshoot of the opposition party, PSOE, has said that the current system of autonomy within Spain is outdated, and reforms would be needed to keep Catalonia in Spain, specifically the tearing up of the country’s Constitution, which presently forbids questioning the unity of Spain, to create a new deal through dialogue and negotiation.

Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez has said that in as much as Mariano Rajoy has confronted Catalans with the rest of Spain, Artur Mas is equally as divisive in pitting Catalans against other Catalans. The problem for both Spain and Catalonia, for him, is one of leadership. He wishes to see both men out of office in his idea for a new, federal Spain.

Today, Catalans will have their own say on the political future of the region on the streets, democratically, colourfully and enthusiastically. On the 27th September, Catalonia and Spain alike face an uncertain future.

Whatever the result – in a vote which will attract an incredibly high turnout – it is without doubt that the status quo will be no longer. Anti-independence parties say Catalonia would head for disaster in the event of a ‘yes’ win, with no possibility of dialogue. In that eventuality, pro-independence parties will use their mandate to lay the first stones in building a Catalan state, and at the same time, preside over the break-up of Spain.

It is a point of no return.

MORE. January 2015: All or nothing: An early Catalan vote which brings secession expectations