Ukraine, Europe: le 25 mai, stoppons Poutine dans les urnes

Egalement publié dans EurActiv ici. Co-rédigé avec Anna Garmash et Anna Jaillard Chesanovska.

La tactique de Vladimir Poutine qui vise à démontrer son absence de contrôle sur les insurgés pro-russes semble bien fonctionner. Il appartient maintenant aux citoyens Ukrainiens et européens de stopper l’Europe de Poutine et des populistes lors des élections du 25 mai.

Le lendemain du pseudo-référendum organisé par les séparatistes pro-russes et entaché de fraudes massives, la Russie, sans grande surprise, appelle à « respecter la volonté des Ukrainiens de l’Est qui se sont exprimés ».

La semaine dernière Vladimir Poutine a surpris l’Occident en demandant aux séparatistes de reporter le référendum et en promettant de retirer ses troupes des frontières ukrainiennes, tout en approuvant à demi mot les élections présidentielles du 25 mai.

La tactique de Vladimir Poutine qui vise à démontrer son absence de contrôle sur les insurgés pro-russes semble bien fonctionner. Le monde s’interroge : le Président russe maîtrise-il vraiment la situation dans l’est de l’Ukraine ?

Une semaine après sa déclaration qui avait donné un semblant d’espoir pour une sortie de crise, le constat est amer : les troupes russes sont toujours massées aux frontières et le référendum – que la Russie demande désormais de respecter – a bien eu lieu le 11 mai dernier. Pire encore, les services ukrainiens ont intercepté le virement d’une importante somme d’argent provenant de Moscou pour le compte des séparatistes en plein préparatifs du « référendum » dans l’est de l’Ukraine.

Mais quel est le but de Vladimir Poutine ? Le Président russe est l’une des plus grosses fortunes du monde, il s’accroche frénétiquement au pouvoir  et voit d’un très mauvais œil la création d’un Etat libre et démocratique  à ses frontières. Une Ukraine unie et débarrassée de la corruption qui la ronge depuis tant d’années est une menace directe non seulement pour son pouvoir, mais aussi pour son projet aux ambitions impérialistes, celui de la construction d’un nouvel empire russe et pour lequel une Europe forte serait un obstacle.

Dans ce contexte tendu, la date du 25 mai est décisive pour l’avenir de l’Europe entière. Ce jour des élections présidentielles en Ukraine et des élections européennes aura deux issues possibles : ou bien il posera les nouvelles bases d’une Europe forte, ou  bien l’exposera à tous les dangers économiques et  géopolitiques qui l’affaibliront encore plus.

Il est par conséquent de notre devoir, à nous tous citoyens ukrainiens et européens, de dire “non” à l’Europe conservatrice, autoritaire et influencée par les idées du Kremlin que défendent Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Heinz-Christian Strache, Nigel Farage et bien d’autres populistes. Soutenons une Europe forte, unie et démocratique. Soutenons l’Ukraine.

Does honesty matter? The example of Nigel Farage

Also posted on Labour International Paris’s blog, here.

“Cheeky chappy”.

“You’d have a pint with him.”

“The others ones are such odd twats.”

Every single reasonably aware British voter has heard these phrases – or similar versions thereof – with regards to Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, that seemingly unstoppable political juggernaut currently on 20-30% in most national polls for the upcoming European election in May, closely behind Labour. This improbable party leader, this Eurosceptic husband of a German wife, this former commodities trader now seen as a “man of the people” figure by many Britons, is such a Teflon politician that he even experienced a bump in popularity when it was revealed that he may well have been conducting an affair with his longstanding spokeswoman Annabelle Fuller (an affair that was an open secret for many UKIP members).

This comes despite much talk of expenses scandals, a lack of commitment to parliamentary duties, and the regular nomination of what more than one Tory has called “swivel eyed loons” as candidates for office at a European, national and local level. One look at current and recent Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is enough to see that apart from Mr. Farage himself, UKIP’s elected representatives in Brussels have made sexist comments and been accused of sexual assault, been convicted and jailed for expenses fraud, and in the case of Ashley Mote held onto an MEP position despite actually serving prison time while still in office.

One might think any mainstream political movement would have long disappeared if it had UKIP’s record and elected officials. Yet even in polling for the upcoming general election in 2015 – national elections being notoriously bad for third, fourth and fifth parties – UKIP is polling at 10-15%, often ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and certainly high enough that it is now systematically counted as a “big” national party and not a fringe movement. How is this possible?

Well, let’s call it the “Berlusconi factor” – or perhaps the “Rob Ford factor”, after the crack cocaine-smoking drunkard who is currently mayor of Toronto. This factor is one that I remember all too well from my teenage years (in the early 2000s) in Dublin, when the obviously corrupt and incompetent Bertie Ahern (who once, as I remember, declared that drink driving rules shouldn’t apply to him as he ‘could drive just fine after ten pints’) was Prime Minister (or Taoiseach, as the Irish would say). The general populace had little to no trust in Ahern, yet he was elected in 1997 and re-elected twice thererafter. One might also call it the “George W Bush factor”, after that famous teetotaler who was voted into office as the candidate that the electorate would like to have a beer with.

That factor decreases with time, as voters actually see what such obvious populists can and will do once they actually get into power. However, it’s a slow process – Berlusconi is only now being gradually pushed to the sidelines – and the damage in terms of the destruction of public trust in their elected officials as obviously bonkers politicians exercise public office in the meantime is potentially awful. Little to nothing suggests that UKIP’s popularity is waning even as light is shed on the inner workings of the party. When and where their progression will be stopped is not clear.

Putin’s ploy in Ukraine should be resisted at the ballot box

Also posted in EurActiv here. Co-written with Anna Garmash and Anna Jaillard Chesanovska.

Vladimir Putin’s ploy to show that he is not in control of the pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine is working well. The world now wonders if the Russian president is truly in control of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, write authors from the EuroMaidan France Collective, calling for Ukrainians to vote massively at the 25 May Presidential election.

The day after the pseudo-referendum organised by the pro-Russian separatists and characterised by massive fraud, Russia unsurprisingly called on all parties to “respect the will of the people of Eastern Ukraine”.

Last week, Vladimir Putin surprised the West by asking the separatists to push back the referendum and promised to withdraw his troops from the Ukrainian border, as well as expressing cautious approval of the 25 May presidential vote.

Vladimir Putin’s ploy to show that he is not in control of the pro-Russian insurgents is working well. The world now wonders if the Russian president is truly in control of the situation in Eastern Ukraine.

A week after his declaration that gave us some hope of an end to the crisis, we are now just as bitterly disappointed as ever: the Russian troops are still amassed at the border and the referendum – that Russia now demands be respected – did indeed take place on 11 May. Moreover, Ukrainian security services recently intercepted a significant money transfer from Moscow destined for the separatists who were preparing their “referendum” in Eastern Ukraine.

What motivates Vladimir Putin? The Russian president is one of the richest individuals in the world, has an unhealthily tight grasp on power and strongly disapproves of the creation of a free and democratic state on the other side of the Russian border. A united Ukraine free of the corruption that has kept it from developing for so many years is a direct threat not only for his power, but also his imperialistic ambitions – building a new Russian empire for which a strong Europe would be an obstacle.

In this worrying context, the 25 May is a decisive date for all of Europe. Presidential elections in Ukraine and European Parliament elections across the EU have only two possible outcomes: either contributing to building a stronger Europe or exposing us all to economic and geopolitical threats that will weaken Europe still further.

It is, therefore, our duty as Ukrainian and European citizens alike to go out, vote, and say no to the conservative, authoritarian Europe influenced by the Kremlin’s ideas and defended by Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Heinz-Christian Strache, Nigel Farage and so many other populists. We must support a strong, united and democratic Europe. We must support Ukraine.

Climate change and food security: The world is watching

Also posted in EurActiv here.

The European Union and its member states must act to provide its scientists with the tools they need to ensure and enhance food security at a time of massive global changes. This needs to happen today – not tomorrow – as the world is watching.

“The whole world is watching”. That was the cry of anti-war demonstrators in Chicago in 1968, imploring their leaders to act. Today, Europe’s leaders are at the same crossroads when it comes to climate change and food security. The Commission, national governments and policy-makers across the continent know all too well that they must act – and that their failure to do so could be fatal. Yet too many EU Member States still do not support vital research infrastructures like AnaEE (Analysis and Experimentation on Ecosystems) that provide the experimental tools, data, predictive models and mitigation and management strategies that will help us respond to climate change in a sustainable way, with a proper understanding of the impact of our actions on food production, health and biodiversity.

Climate change has already had a sizeable impact on crop growth and yields, as well as natural ecosystems. Coupled with continued population growth that will bring the world’s population to 9.6 billion people by 2050, as well as improvements in living standards in many emerging countries, this means that we must do far more to ensure we find and maintain that delicate balance between feeding the planet and reducing our environmental impact thereupon. The future is uncertain – and we do not currently have all the tools and models we need to anticipate what these changes will mean for food production and supply, as well as biodiversity and natural ecosystems.

Many believed until recently, despite climate change and increasing global population, that we had several decades of surplus ahead of us. However, it is clear that pressures on the food supply are growing. The sustainability of agricultural, forested and freshwater ecosystems is under threat due to climate change, loss of biodiversity, land use changes, and disturbance of biogeochemical cycles.

The problem is so acute that it is estimated that a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming. (1) This particularly impacts the poorest regions of the world. Regions such as Southern Europe are particularly at risk of water shortages. (2) More extreme variations in temperature and precipitation are playing havoc with agricultural production and growth trends of yields of major crops – especially wheat – have declined over the past two decades. (3)

But the answer is not merely intensification. Land use change resulting from expansion of agricultural land is one of the main contributors to the growth of CO2 emissions (4) while also putting an ever greater strain on the water supply. Add to that the impact of the increasing frequency of extreme climatic events, like the summer heat wave of 2003 which led to €36 billion of economic losses for the agriculture sector in the EU and to large carbon losses from ecosystems, and it is clear that we need to find smarter and more sustainable ways to produce more food with fewer resources. This includes a complete understanding of the impact of the inputs used in farming and the impact of the outputs of human activity, such as pesticides, herbicides, NPK fertilisers, run-off and the like.

Our understanding of how precisely climatic changes and the impact of human activity affect ecosystems is still incomplete, however. That is why we must do more to support research initiatives in the area of agriculture, food and climate that will allow us to test and validate models showing how fluctuations in temperature, CO2, soil acidity, nutrients and other factors affect food production, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

International research programmes like the CGIAR research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) have been initiated to address such questions for the developing world. Within Europe, 21 EU Member States came together in 2010 to launch the Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE-JPI), which aims to foster collaboration among national agencies and ministries to work toward alignment of research programming at the intersection of the areas of agriculture, food security and climate change.

However, while Europe’s research community knows that at a time of financial uncertainty it must try to do more with less, the sophisticated research infrastructures that will provide answers to these burning questions must be adequately funded and supported. One key example of this is AnaEE (Analysis and Experimentation on Ecosystems) – currently bringing together 13 research bodies from 10 countries.

Launched in November 2012, AnaEE aims to provide Europe’s researchers in agriculture and environmental science with a distributed, integrated network of platforms and central hubs that will help them find experimental solutions to key global challenges.

Aiming both to bring Europe’s scientists together under one roof and foster cooperation with other parts of the world, AnaEE has already built cooperation with similar networks in the USA (NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network) and Australia (TERN, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network), with a Memorandum of Understanding in process. As AnaEE realises that it cannot respond to climate change alone, it is also building links with existing European research infrastructures such as ICOS (carbon observation) and LifeWatch (e-infrastructure for biodiversity), including common sites and tools.

Yet while AnaEE has received initial funding for its preparatory phase, as well as funding from a handful of national governments, much more needs to be done: while support from governments like France, Italy, Belgium and the UK is strong, most others have yet to invest in this vital research infrastructure that will allow Europe’s scientists to conduct high-tech experiments that will provide real solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

We also believe that private sector companies big and small, from sectors including food and drink, mining, paper and steel, as well as the pesticide and fertiliser industries who have a vested interest in understanding the impact of their products, have a role to play in helping scientists develop the kind of environmental management and mitigation strategies – as well as impact assessment – that will help them be more sustainable in future.

Europe must act to provide its scientists with the tools they need to ensure and enhance food security at a time of massive global changes. This needs to happen today – not tomorrow. We cannot afford to wait. The whole world is watching.

(1) Nkonya E, Gerber N, Baumgartner P et al. (2011) The Economics of Land Degradation Toward an Integrated Global Assessment. Development Economics and Policy. Volume 66, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien.

(2) Fereres E, Orgaz F, Gonzalez-Dugo V (2011) Reflections on food security under water scarcity. Journal of Experimental Botany, 62, 4079–4086.

(3) Olesen JE, Trnka M, Kersebaum KC et al. (2011) Impacts and adaptation of European crop production systems to climate change. European Journal of Agronomym, 34, 96–112.

(4) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007) Climate change: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. In: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, van der Linden PJ, Hanson CE), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York.

Europe, Labour and the next general election: Labour International Paris debates

Cross-posted from LIP’s website (original blog post here)

Our latest general meeting (5 February 2014) saw our first ever formal debate, which will take place bi-monthly. The purpose of the debates is to explore key issues to the movement while encouraging members to explore alternative perspectives and ideas. Two volunteers spoke on alternative sides, tasked not necessarily to express their own opinion but rather to present a coherent argument for or against the motion. This then facilitated the debate amongst the group so that all members (including the original speakers) could discuss their own perspectives and as a group we could decide how this would guide our future policy.   Writing for the first time for Labour International Paris, Evan O’Connell sums up the debate and gives his thoughts on the conclusions drawn.

The ability to live, work and travel without constraints anywhere in Europe is a freedom that most Britons are only technically aware of, but that ex-pats live with every day. It is not a surprise, therefore, that being mostly ex-pats or friends and colleagues of ex-pats, most members of Labour International Paris (LIP) are reasonably pro-European.

Yet Parisian Labourites are but a small fraction of the Party and the movement as a whole – and not necessarily representative of where the country is on European integration. With that in mind, LIP recently organised its latest debate on how Labour should position itself on the EU in the upcoming European elections in 2014 and the subsequent general election in 2015.

Arguing for the motion “The Labour Party should promote greater engagement with Europe”, Ben Rickey focused on changing the narrative around Europe. He described a successful experiment that brought a peace and prosperity continent once divided by war and that continues to provide benefits to its citizens even today, whether in terms of environmental legislation, harmonised rules on telecoms or workers’ rights.

At the same time, in acknowledging that Europe faces significant challenges today, Rickey pleaded for a strong Britain in a strong Europe, underlining that “Europe needs reform, and reform can only be achieved by effective engagement.” Economic reforms that would bring growth and dynamism back to the EU’s economy could only come to pass if the UK fully participated in the decisions that would shape Europe’s future.

Furthermore, Rickey argued that Labour’s often timid line on Europe has allowed eurosceptics to define the terms of the debate and allow misconceptions and falsehoods to become commonly accepted by the British population. It was Labour’s duty to counter these lies and mistruths. In so doing, and in turning the tables on Europe, Labour could usher in a new era of pro-European politics in the UK.

Dave Parry, meanwhile, shifted the focus of the question from what was right for Britain in the long term to what Labour should do in 2015. Citing Gaitskell and Callaghan, Parry underlined that there was a long-standing Labour Eurosceptic movement and that expressing doubts about the benefits of European integration was certainly not new territory for Labour.

Underlining that “the debate this evening is not about the merits of the EU: it’s about how Labour wins the next election”, Parry pointed out that the Conservatives would undoubtedly focus on Europe and the referendum pledge: “If Ed wants to show how he is different by promoting his own judgment, he should not promote greater engagement with Europe. He needs to stand up to the perceived view that a Labour leader is a ‘blind follower of the EU gravy train’.”

Reminding attendees of Tony Blair’s ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ speech, Parry pleaded for a ‘tough love’ discourse acknowledging the criticisms by many that “[T]he EU is too expensive, bureaucratic, and not fit for purpose in its present state” and arguing that Britain needs to have greater control on access to its labour market. Suggesting openness to a referendum on EU membership, he argued, would help win support with non-Labour voters and help Ed into no. 10.

While attendees generally agreed more with the sentiments expressed by Ben Rickey in favour of a pro-EU line, there was sympathy for Dave Parry’s argument that an EU-critical position might be more electorally sound. While some suggested that Labour would in any case be perceived as pro-EU and should be proud of its position, others felt that there was little upside in being perceived as out of touch with the views of a majority of Britons who seem to support loosening ties with the continent.

A hope for a change in UK political discourse in the long term was generally shared by most, however – and as suggested by both Ben Rickey and Flora Bolter, LIP activists and sympathisers committed themselves to knocking on doors as part of the PES grassroots “#KnockTheVote” initiative. All agreed that LIP should continue building ties with the PES Paris CityGroup (FacebookTwitter) and with the local Paris “Fédération” of the French Socialist Party.

Evan O’Connell

The EU should lead by example on interns’ rights

This open letter to EU officials – drafted by myself and Philippe Perchoc (postdoctoral researcher, Université catholique de Louvain) – was published in EurActiv on 17 September 2013. It was signed by 240 students, graduates, young professionals and sympathisers from in and around Europe. You can find the original link here.

A far-flung delegation of the EU’s External Action Service that will remain unnamed recently published an advertisement for an internship. It called for:

“a dynamic and highly motivated trainee […] for a period of four to six months” with “university studies in political science, international relations, economics or law at master level […] very good Russian (with the ability to follow news, conferences and seminars held in Russian) [… and] previous experience/knowledge of Central Asia and the CIS region”.

For such specific qualifications, halfway across the world, one would surely expect some kind of remuneration, or at least free room and board. Yet the delegation head helpfully specified that “the internship is unpaid and there is no allowance for transport and living costs”. Shocking, from an EU body? Yes – but it’s also unfortunately frightfully common in the realm of EU affairs, both in the public and the private sector.

A recent resolution from the European Parliament drafted by Polish centre-right MEP Joanna Katarzyna Skrzydlewska, approved on Wednesday, called for quality standards for pay, working conditions and health and safety in traineeships. Nevertheless, even the EU’s institutions often offer unpaid or underpaid internships. Employers in the private sector – lobbying firms, trade associations and the like – are even worse offenders. This is unacceptable, and the European institutions should lead by example and end this practice.

We are professors, lecturers, communicators, parliamentary assistants, young professionals, recent graduates and students. We are from all four corners of Europe. We are all university graduates, from schools ranging from the College of Europe, SciencesPo Paris, LSE and many others. Many of us have already done one or more unpaid internships. We are talented, multi-lingual and committed to making the world a better place.

We understand that Europe’s failure to handle the crisis means jobs are hard to go by. But young people also need to pay their rents. Europe is full of young adults who have dreams – and in some cases, families – and who would love to work for the European Union and other noble institutions and further the cause of European integration. But not for free. They should not have to pay for the crisis by allowing unscrupulous employers to exploit Europe’s youth – often illegally.

Unpaid internships increase social inequalities by excluding many Europeans who cannot afford to live in Brussels or other cities without a salary: only the offspring of the wealthy can enjoy the benefits that such traineeships provide on a CV. That, combined with the societal impact of millions of Europeans in their late 20s without stable incomes, is surely a strong enough argument to support a fair wage for interns.

We call for employment law to be applied across the board, and for internships to cover a reasonable (if often small!) portion of living costs in line with national and European legislation. This is already the case in many European countries – notably in France, where all internships must now be paid – but it is not generally the case in Brussels, where thousands of young graduates compete for unpaid traineeships in EU affairs.

We do not believe that it is unreasonable to expect that employers should provide a basic minimum remuneration for what young people bring to the table. We welcome the Parliament’s resolution and hope that this is just the beginning – and that this can be a wake-up call to public and private employers across Europe to treat their interns with respect.

Signed,

Young professionals of Europe

RIP Richard Descoings (1958-2012)

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“Descoings was a great public servant who dedicated his entire life to the cause he’d chosen: education.. He was a pioneer in opening up internationally and in seeking new financing, a tireless and passionate worker.” — Nicolas Sarkozy

Enough has perhaps already been said about the death of Richard Descoings, but as a recent (2010) Sciences Po graduate, I wanted to weigh in on the passing of a man who profoundly transformed my alma mater and contributed so much to changing how education and social mobility is seen in France.

Descoings was, as Le Monde so aptly put it, a “revolutionary in a frozen educational world”. A graduate of both Sciences Po and France’s National School of Administration (ENA), Descoings – “Ritchie” to his students and friends – was a career civil servant and former adviser to then-Education Minister Jack Lang before taking over as Director of Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies, France’s most prestigious school of social studies and the alma mater of countless government ministers and several presidents) in 1996.

Seen as a safe choice, a product of France’s political and civil service elite, Descoings did not take long to profoundly shake things up at what was once a rather staid establishment. Labelled an “iconoclast” by Le Point, he grew the school from 4000 to 10000, increased the percentage of foreign students from near nothing to 40%, opened satellite undergraduate campuses in provincial French cities, and, most importantly, reformed the admissions system to open up a new track for poor youths from disadvantaged backgrounds – a move that attracted much criticism at the time as “American-style affirmative action” but which has produced impressive results.

In addition, he also grew the stature of the university abroad. Signing countless partnership agreements with foreign universities and setting up a vast range of double degree programmes, he turned what was once an extremely inward-facing “Franco-French” establishment into one of the few French universities to be consistently ranked among the world’s best.

He also made somewhat more questionable choices – notably increasing fees dramatically (though also substantially growing scholarship programmes for poorer families), and increasing bonuses for senior management. Yet despite this, he was loved by his students – a father figure, a friend, constantly interacting with the Sciences Po community in the halls of the institution and online. He was also a close advisor to countless ministers and government officials on the left and the right, moving the national discussion on education from one stuck in old dogmas to a gradual realisation that more needs to be done for youths from poor and immigrant backgrounds, and that results at school are not the only measurement of intelligence and ability. Indeed, one only needs to look at the tributes pouring in from politicians and public figures from across the political spectrum – from Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé on the right to François Hollande on the left, as well as figures like Ban Ki-Moon abroad – to see just how much of an impact he has had on education and beyond both in France and overseas.

He remains an inspiration even after his passing, and he will be sorely, sorely missed within the Sciences Po community and beyond. RIP.

Claude Guéant and France’s continuing slide to the far right under Nicolas Sarkozy

“All civilisations, all practices, all cultures, in light of our republican principles, are not equal.” – Claude Guéant, French Interior Minister, 4 January 2012

Coming from a fervent defender of tolerance, openness, women’s rights, gay rights and the like, there’s nothing wrong with the statement that certain cultural values found in Western society are superior to intolerant views held elsewhere. It’s something I’d certainly agree with – while I’m no Huntingtonite neocon, I’m certainly not a believer in cultural relativism, and do think that European society has it right on most of the key cultural issues that concern people’s daily lives.

Coming from Claude Guéant, however, such a statement is nothing but dogwhistle politics, designed to attract xenophobic support from the far right for the extremely shaky reelection bid of incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s not the first example of Guéant’s attempts to play on the hatred of foreigners – and especially Muslims – that festers in the hearts of so many French citizens. Guéant is an expert in such divisive politics – and Nicolas Sarkozy’s right hand man when it comes to law and order, immigration and a whole host of other topics, not to mention his main emissary to the far right electorate.

It was Guéant who said in May 2011 that “Contrary to popular myth, it is untrue that we need the talents and skills that immigrants possess.” It was he, also, who said that same year that France only wanted “nice” immigrants. But above all, he brought in strict new rules on work permits for young foreign graduates – the famous “Guéant circular” about which I’ve written a couple posts – that made it near impossible for non-European students to stay in France after graduation.

As Françoise Fressoz of Le Monde pointed out on her blog today, a new IFOP-Journal du Dimanche poll showed incumbent right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and left-wing challenger François Hollande neck-and-neck at 33% in a hypothetical election where far right candidate Marine Le Pen fails to qualify for the presidential ballot (not at all impossible). What this has reaffirmed for the French right is that the solution to its problems is to continue to appeal to the xenophobes on the right in the hopes of mobilising and galvanising its electorate and beating extremely low expectations in the April/May presidential election.

This is why, says Fressoz:

Guéant has attacked the left for ‘not participating in the vote on banning the wearing of full veils’ and in recounting a left-wing politician’s ‘assurances that ‘street prayers do not bother anyone’…

The offensive is clearly directed against Islam. It has a dual objective: flirting with Le Pen’s electorate while Marine Le Pen is weakened by her uncertain quest to qualify for the ballot [in France, 500 signatures from local elected officials are required to qualify for the presidential election] and destabilising the Socialist Party whose leader, François Hollande, took up the theme of the “Republic” at his 22 January speech at Le Bourget… in Claude Guéant’s eyes, socialists do not know how to defend secularism.

And, says Fressoz, it will only worsen in the coming weeks and months as the presidential race identifies. But more than mere electoral politics, the French centre right has been eclipsed by a more strident, less politically correct ‘new right’ – echoing both Thatcher and Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP no longer cares about political niceties and consensus politics. It’s learnt from its European neighbours that appeals to people’s worst instincts generally pay in politics. That’s why it’d be so nice to see Sarkozy, Guéant and all those around them suffer defeat in May of this year. Cowardly politics that fuels hatred and resentment is the last thing that France needs right now.

Romney in the driving seat going into Florida, with Gingrich playing the rabid dog in the back seat

Oh, how far we’ve come. It’s not quite e pluribus unum, but in the three nominating contests that have taken place so far (the Iowa Caucus, the New Hampshire Primary and the South Carolina Primary), a field which numbered seven serious candidates just one month ago has now been whittled down to just four: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. In that month, we’ve lost three beloved contenders – Rick Perry, who couldn’t remember how many departments he wanted to abolish and who spent millions only to drop out before South Carolina having only won four delegates; Jon Huntsman, a decent guy but whose political sense was so poor that he thought serving under the incumbent democratic president would be a plus in the GOP primary; and Michele Bachmann, who believed that vaccination was a communist plot to steal our freedom.

Mitt Romney was supposed to win this one easily. Against a host of candidates with far less money, little institutional support and no presidential aura, the perfectly coiffed Bain executive and former Massachusetts governor expected to walk it.

That nearly happened. Romney narrowly won Iowa against ultraconservative Rick Santorum, and then grabbed a resounding victory in New Hampshire. And then Gingrich’s superior debating skills and pitch-perfect populist rhetoric turned things around – and South Carolina swung massively to Gingrich, who won the contest there by over ten points.

But Gingrich’s lead was not to last. Going into the crucial winner-takes-all Florida republican primary, Mitt Romney knew that despite damaging revelations that he paid less that 14% in taxes, Gingrich was an extremely weak and flawed candidate. Between serious ethics charges that forced him to resign as Speaker of the House, charges of ‘erratic’ behaviour and rather eccentric ideas like building a base on the moon, Gingrich’s weaknesses were put on full display by Romney and countless establishment surrogates – with the inevitable resulting drop in the polls. Romney now looks certain to win the Florida GOP primary:

Yet despite the almost inevitable loss in tonight’s primary, it would be foolish to think that this contest is anywhere near over. Gingrich may be wounded. He may have far less money, far less moderate appeal, and a far more negative image nationwide. But not only is he a fighter – he also knows that the republican base continues to have serious doubts about Romney’s conservative bona fides and general trustworthiness. Consider this:

Despite an opposition that any half-way decent candidate would dream of, Romney has only recently broken into the 30s in nationwide polling among republicans. Meanwhile, unless Rick Santorum can make a serious comeback, Gingrich is the only anti-Romney candidate left whose name isn’t Ron Paul – and Ron Paul’s opposition to militarism and support of legalising marijuana mean that he’s in the wrong party and will never get the nomination. Gingrich knows that if he can remain viable up until Super Tuesday – 6 March, when 10 states go to vote – and if he can crystallise anti-Romney support around him, he can make this a very long and bloody race.

I  don’t honestly think that Gingrich will ultimately prevail. I think that he’s too flawed a candidate to beat someone with as much money and as perfect a campaign organisation as Romney. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Gingrich were to keep this fight going for months. And despite what my friend Thibault Muzergues would say – that long primary contests like the Hillary-Obama slugfest actually help organise and galvanise a party – I think this’ll be a nasty one that won’t make anyone look good. And from my personal ideological point of view, that’s a wonderful thing – plus, it’ll make for great TV.

 Oh, and yes, I realise that I’m contradicting what I said a month ago about this being a short contest and Romney pulverising his opposition. I’m wrong sometimes. But I don’t think I fully understood then the resilience of Newt Gingrich. He resurrected his campaign once already. He can do it again, and again, and again…

2012 is just around the corner

When it comes to razzle dazzle, showmanship, excitement and insanity, US presidential races rarely disappoint. And perhaps the most amusing political spectacle of all is the kind of free-for-all that we’ve seen in the republican nomination contest thus far.

As RCP’s nationwide polling average shows us, since March 2010, there have been at least four national frontrunners: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, businessman and pizza executive Herman Cain (who has since pulled out of the race following allegations of an illicit affair) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Other candidates, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have made it over the 10% mark in polling at one point or another, while somewhat more marginal candidates like former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum have polled strongly in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Another way of looking at the race so far is the search by republican voters for a “Not Romney” candidate – a viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, who has held positions in the past that are in direct contradiction with core GOP principles: support for universal healthcare (‘Romneycare‘ in Massachusetts was a direct inspiration for President Obama’s healthcare plan), past support for abortion rights, support for greater gun control, past support for a wide range of LGBT issues, past support for a stimulus plan in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis, and a wide range of other issues that have bred mistrust in the conservative community and claims that Romney is a ‘flip flopper’ of the same breed as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004. In addition, Romney’s Mormon faith is said by many to be a factor in his lack of strong conservative support, especially among evangelicals.

Yet one by one, Romney’s challengers have fallen by the wayside. Michele Bachmann, after winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August of 2011, embarrassed herself by seeming to criticise the principle of vaccination itself. Rick Perry, seen as a rock-solid conservative with extensive governing experience in a large state, embarrassed himself in a series of abysmal debate performances, including his famous ‘oops’ moment. Herman Cain, on top of not being particularly bright or intellectually curious, turned out to be a major philanderer who had trouble keeping it in his pants. And Newt Gingrich, while still polling strongly, has fallen in recent polls, especially in early states, amid accusations of making millions of dollars from lobbying and general doubts about his ability to govern.

But here we are, less than one week from the first nominating contest of the presidential season – the January 3 Iowa Caucus,  followed a week later by the New Hampshire primary and then a panoply of subsequent primaries and caucuses leading up to the August 2012 republican convention in Tampa, Florida, that will pick President Obama’s main adversary in November.

And amidst all of the to-ing and fro-ing, no clear, credible alternative to Mitt Romney remains. Newt Gingrich is still doing very well in nationwide polling, but has slumped in Iowa and New Hampshire. In those same two states, libertarian republican congressman Ron Paul is now polling a strong second behind Mitt Romney – but he has a series of nutty positions that include abolishing half of the federal government and returning to the gold standard which make him unelectable. He’s also 76 and has a pretty serious racist past. Rick Perry is dead in the water. Michele Bachmann’s campaign also seems in serious trouble.

The only other rivals to Mitt Romney with any life in them are Rick Santorum, the ultraconservative former senator from Pennsylvania who once compared gay sex to “man on dog” relations – he’s now polling a strong third in Iowa – and moderate former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who was formerly President Obama’s Ambassador to China, who’s doing fairly well in New Hampshire. But neither has wide enough support from the republican base to win the nomination.

Barring some kind of Newt Gingrich resurgency, or something truly unpredictable – like a Huntsman or Santorum surge, or a new breath of life into the Perry campaign – Mitt Romney has the nomination. And if he can somehow win both Iowa and New Hampshire, he can wrap up the nomination fight quickly and pivot to the general, where he’s polling quite well against a very, very weak President Obama.

I never thought I’d say this six months ago, but it looks like 2012 will be a lot more like 2008 than we thought – a moderate establishment candidate (McCain in 08, Romney this time around) with little trust from conservatives, running a solid campaign that pulverises all opponents soon after the primaries actually begin. That’s not good for President Obama, but it’s great for the republicans, because they can stop beating each other up and start campaigning against the incumbent.

The Guéant Circular Part II: the Power of Media Scrutiny

In my last blog post, I mentioned Anna Garmash, a Ukrainian graduate of Sciences Po, a top French university, who despite living in France for the past ten years, and despite receiving a job offer from a leading consulting firm, saw the French authorities turn down her work permit application recently under the strict new Guéant Circular (or circulaire Guéant in the original French). She feared that she might have to leave the country and leave behind her friends, her mother and all of the ties that she had formed in her decade spent in France.

And then something happened. Anna was scheduled to appear on the Grand Journal, a popular current affairs programme on Canal+, facing off against Arno Klarsfeld, the well-known French lawyer now in charge of the French Office of Immigration and Integration. And in the green room before the show, Klarsfeld, obviously well-prepared, announced to Anna that knowing she was going to be on the programme, he looked into her case and unblocked her application, meaning that she would be able to stay, live and work in France. This, just moments before going on.

Obviously, I’m very happy about her particular case, not least because (confession here) Anna is my girlfriend and perhaps my closest friend. However, one thing is clear – this was a media coup, and Klarsfeld admitted it himself. Rather than actually facing up to criticism of his government’s awful reform and its consequences on thousands of foreign graduates, he did what any cynical politician would, and looked for an easy way out.

Two thoughts:

  1. Media scrutiny, media pressure and media attention is crucial. Protesters in the Collectif du 31 Mai, the student group set up to fight the circular, cannot let up. They need to put as many young graduates in similar situations to those of Anna in front of journalists – as soon as possible. The Sarkozy-Fillon government is frightened to death of actually defending its measures on their merits, because there are no merits.
  2. Talking to members of the Collectif, the belief seems to be that the leaders of the student protest movement are set to see their applications be resolved in the coming days. But that doesn’t mean that this will all stop. It just means that the most vocal opponents of Guéant’s circular will be mollified, while hundreds, possibly thousands, of ordinary graduates of less prestigious schools will continue to suffer.

What I would say to anyone in Anna’s situation – and talking to Anna this evening, she’d certainly agree – is that just because your application was resolved and that your own personal  nightmare is over, there’s no reason for you to forget what others like you are going through. It’s too easy to be complacent. Yet the reality is that until this circular is substantially amended – or, better still, withdrawn altogether – thousands of young graduates of French universities, who have spent years learning the language and soaking up the culture, and who wish to give back to France a measure of all that France has given them, will continue to suffer. That’s unacceptable.

In short: I’m overjoyed about Anna, but I’m not going to be any less vocal about this monstrosity. And neither should you. Oh, and while you’re at it, get your face in front of every journalist, write to every newspaper and email every news website you can think of. It can’t hurt.

Claude Guéant’s monstrosity, or why foreign graduates are no longer welcome in France

“Contrary to popular myth, it is untrue that we need the talents and skills that immigrants possess.” — Claude Guéant, French Minister of the Interior, May 2011

Imagine you’re a kid from a small town in Western Ukraine, who arrived in France at the age of 15 with your mother, a scientist with a job offer at a lab in Grenoble. You didn’t speak a word of French when you set foot in the alpine city, but a little over two years later, your French is perfect and unaccented, and you pass your baccalauréat with flying colours. You go on to study at Sciences Po Paris, one of the country’s top universities, from which you graduate with a Master’s in Finance. After an internship at a management consultancy in Paris, you get a job offer from one of France’s leading consulting firms. Almost ten years after your arrival, you’re not only perfectly integrated into French society – you’re also about to embark on a brilliant career.

Your work permit application should be a formality, you say to yourself. But under the radar, France’s tough-talking interior minister, Claude Guéant, has published a ministerial circular (we’ll get to that later) that gives immigration officials the goal of reducing work permits by 50%, and essentially shuts the door to non-European job applicants in a wide range of sectors. Your application begins to drag on. One month passes, followed by another, and another, and soon it’s four months and you’re reading article after article about qualified non-EU applicants getting turned down by the authorities and having to leave the country. You begin to panic, but keep telling yourself that it won’t happen to you. Then the letter arrives: “Your application for a work permit has been rejected, and you are forbidden from working in France.”

Meet Anna Garmash. Soon to turn 25, Anna is a bubbly, witty girl with piercing blue eyes and chestnut hair, hailing from Novovolynsk, a small mining town just 10 kilometres from the Polish border – not that you’d know it from her perfect, unaccented French peppered with Gallic cultural references. Smart, highly qualified and multilingual (aside from her native Ukrainian and Russian, she also speaks perfect French, German and English), Anna is a poster child for how immigration can and should work in the best of circumstances. Yet following recent restrictions on economic migration to France, she may soon have to leave, perhaps never to return, after being told that she is no longer needed or wanted.

In a recent interview with i>TELE, Anna explained her astonishment and dismay. “When I learnt I’d been turned down, I was really devastated. I don’t come from a particularly well-off family – France has spent a considerable amount of money on my education, and I’ve been waiting for the day when I could repay her by paying taxes. But instead, I’ve been reminded that I’m a foreigner and don’t have the right to stay.”

How did this all begin? To understand how France turned its back on foreign graduates, we need to go back to 2007, and the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France. A former interior minister under Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy was elected in no small part on his promises to get tough on crime and immigration – indeed, he was the first heads of state to create a separate ministry devoted to managing migration, headed up by political ally Brice Hortefeux and subsequently former socialist member of parliament Eric Besson. While this project was eventually abandoned, Sarkozy decided in a minor February 2011 government reshuffle to hand the portfolio to his tough-talking chief of staff Guéant, formerly director of the National Police who was named interior minister and almost immediately set out a goal to reduce the number of residency and work permits given out every year.

In a May 2011 interview with Europe 1, Guéant told journalists that he believed France had little need for economic migration, and that only around 2000 non-European immigrants every year had the necessary skills to merit work permits. This set the tone on the issue for the last year of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first presidential term. With elections set for May 2012 and Sarkozy polling far behind his socialist rival François Hollande, many on the political right believed that the only way to shore up support for the incumbent was to mobilise the hard right base by appealing to voters who might otherwise vote for the National Front‘s Marine Le Pen.

Just a few days after Guéant’s interview with Europe1, the man often referred to as “the unofficial vice-president” and “the cardinal” seized an opportunity to sow the seeds for the most drastic anti-immigration measures that France had seen for decades. The now-infamous “circulaire Guéant” (a “circulaire” or “circular” being a ministerial recommendation on rules of application) called for prefectures to reduce the number of work visas offered to non-EU graduates of French schools and universities. Concretely, it stated explicitly that foreign students’ primary goal was to “return to their country of origin after graduation” and set out a wide range of ways that civil servants could achieve their goal of rejecting 50% of all work permit applications. This circular was shortly followed by another related text that limited to 14 the number of professions open to foreign graduates – including accounting, woodworking and telemarketing, but not management consulting, banking, marketing, public relations or any number of other qualified posts.

The circular was designed to have the maximum impact with the minimum visibility: signed in May, several months before the end of the academic year, young graduates with job offers only began noticing delays and surprising numbers of rejections in August and September. But from then on, the results were swift and alarming. Graduates of France’s top engineering, business and social science schools with solid job offers from leading French and international firms were increasingly being told that they no longer had the right to stay in France after graduation.

Nabil Sebti is a prime example. A 25-year-old Moroccan graduate of France’s top business school, HEC, Nabil created two companies as a student, and after graduation assumed that as a job creator and young entrepreneur and a highly qualified product of the French educational system, his application for a work visa would be quick and easy. He was wrong. Turned down by the French authorities, he decided to liquidate his two companies and leave the country.

And it isn’t just North African graduates who are paying the price. An October piece in Le Point shows just how ubiquitous and indiscriminate the new restrictions on immigration are – Anna, an American graduate of EDHEC (another élite French business school), was offered a top job in marketing at Swarovski, using her fluent Russian and English to help the company develop new markets in Eastern Europe. Her work permit application was turned down, and she was given 30 days to leave the country.

According to i>TELE, eight to ten thousand foreign graduates are in a similar situation. And despite ongoing protests by foreign students – and, indeed, criticism from within the government, including former higher education minister and now budget chief Valérie Pécresse, who pointed out that the new restrictions hurt the standing of French universities abroad – Claude Guéant looks unlikely to amend or soften his circular between now and the election. And as Nicolas Sarkozy’s most trusted advisor, it looks unlikely that he will be ordered to do so.

Yet business leaders and university heads all agree with student protesters that the circular is a monumental folly. As a recent editorial in Le Monde pointed out, the text has been decried by Pierre Tapie, head of the association of France’s élite graduate schools, the Conférence des grandes écoles, who expressed worry at the impact on the attractiveness of France and its universities. It has been criticised by the French association of private companies, which expressed its incomprehension at France’s decision to deprive itself of the talented youths it has educated, and who could be precious assets in a tough economic climate. And socialist senators have introduced a resolution calling on the government to abolish the circular.

But in a tough electoral climate, few believe that the government will go back on its decision. France is, of course, not alone in this. Britain’s much-praised Post Study Work Visa, which gives graduates of British universities the right to live and work in the UK for two years, is to be abolished in April 2012. The USA is certainly not known for its friendly treatment of foreign graduates. And across Europe, the economic downturn has fuelled electoral successes for countless anti-immigration parties, from the Netherlands to Finland.

Still, for a country that prides itself on a history of tolerance and openness, France’s new restrictions on immigration are scandalous and shameful. There’s the obvious economic argument that France is investing in the education of the best and brightest and should be overjoyed that so many want to stay instead of heading to the City of London where they can earn astronomical salaries. There’s the fact that France’s élite graduate schools and universities will be extremely hard hit by Guéant’s circular – since who would come to study at a French university with no possibility of being able to stay on and work after graduation? But above all, France is telling brilliant young foreign graduates – who could be such fine ambassadors for the country in the years to come – that their kind is no longer welcome. That lesson is not one that they will easily forget. And for a nation which has benefited so greatly from its immigrants – from Marie Curie to Edouard Balladur – the damage to France’s moral leadership and standing in the world, not to mention its competitiveness in a global economy, could be irreparable.

President Obama releases long form birth certificate, hoping to put an end to ‘birther’ rumours

Since the presidential primary season in 2008, rumours have been swimming around the internet that President Obama’s real birthplace was Kenya and not Hawaii, that he is a Muslim, and all manner of other wonderful conspiracy theories that have since been picked up by the nuttiest of America’s citizens. Many state legislatures have even passed laws and resolutions expressing doubt about the president’s citizenship. Most recently, Donald Trump, real estate mogul and potential 2012 contender, has been seriously questioning the ‘real’ birthplace of the Commander-in-Chief.

Despite the fact that Barack Obama released his certificate of live birth in June 2008, that both the former (republican) and current (democratic) governors of Hawaii have confirmed that they have seen the birth certificate, and that there has been no proof of the president being born outside the United States, this myth refused to die, with a recent poll suggesting that 45% of republicans think he was born overseas. That’s why I hope that today’s release of President Obama’s full, long-form birth certificate (the original copy) will satisfy doubters. TPM has more:

Hoping to end a long-running “controversy” over whether he was born in the United States, the White House released President Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate on Wednesday. “The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country,” the White House’s Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a blog post. “Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate,” wrote Pfeiffer. “They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting.”

You can see it here. I’m sure, however, that the most paranoid of the paranoid will still not be satisfied – assuming whatever bizarre news sources they follow cover the news. There are some people that are just too insane to believe the truth.

Direct corporate contributions to candidates to be legalised in Tennessee: another win for corporatocracy!

Money
It’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash

So said Pink Floyd in their 1973 hit, Money, off the Dark Side of the Moon album. Politicians in Tennessee agree wholeheartedly, it would seem. In the wake of the 2010 Citizens United v Federal Election Commission decision by the US Supreme Court, which ruled that corporations have the same right to free speech as citizens and should be able to directly fund independent political broadcasts, the Tennessee legislature has gone one step further and decided that companies should be able to give money directly to candidates – and that includes foreign companies! The Knoxville News Sentinel has the scoop:

Direct corporate donations to political candidates will be legalized in Tennessee and the amount that can be given by all contributors will be raised by about 40 percent under legislation approved by House and Senate committees Tuesday. For political action committees, for example, the maximum donation will increase from $7,500 to $10,700 and adjusted upward for inflation in future years. Corporations will be treated as if they were PACs [Political Action Committees - independent spending groups that can receive donations both from individuals and companies] under the bill, SB1915.

With Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, as sponsor, the bill was approved on a party-line vote by the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday morning. The House State and Local Government Committee approved it about three hours later on voice vote. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner noted that foreign-based corporations also would be allowed to contribute under the bill, though House sponsor Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, said they will have to have a Tennessee presence to do so.

Companies have been able to participate in political life for years through PACs, but their involvement in elections has been limited mainly to independent advertising not directly linked to candidates. More and more, PACs have been able to donate money to candidates – both republican and democratic, by the way – and this new step both increases their ability to fund political campaigns and gives companies new tools to give more money to their preferred candidates. While grassroots fundraising will still make a difference, it seems clear that republicans are doing more and more to erode the ability of ordinary voters to have an impact on American political life – with candidates bought and sold by big business.

It’s extremely sad, because so much progress had been made in prior decades to try to take big money out of politics – while the sums raised by candidates never stopped growing, donation limits put in place by legislation like McCain-Feingold at least attempted to curb the power of individual donors. Now, we seem to be going in completely the opposite direction, with a complete deregulation of campaign financing. Stephen Colbert joked about getting Doritos to finance his 2008 presidential run – but how long until we actually see Mitt Romney, brought to you by Coca-Cola?

Gabrielle Giffords on the mend; still a long way to go…

Many of you may remember the horrific shooting that took place in Tucson, Arizona, in January of this year, in which Jared Lee Loughner, a clearly disturbed 22-year-old man, opened fire outside a supermarket and shot 19 people, killing six and seriously wounding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who received a bullet in the head and was pronounced dead by several media sources. News updates on her recovery have been overwhelmingly positive – perhaps too much so, for someone with such a serious injury – suggesting that she has made astonishing progress, to the point where some are pushing for her to run for the Senate in 2012.

The Arizona Republic has a more realistic, if still encouraging, account of her progress, which suggests that Giffords has come leaps and bounds since the shooting, but is still in a fragile condition. It’s worth reading the whole article, but here are some key snippets:

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is left-handed now… Her handwriting looks different in the letter she recently wrote to her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, than it did the last time he went into space. Giffords’ mother helped her pen the traditional NASA sendoff note two weeks ago. She wrote to her “sweetie pie,” and that part – those words – were the same.

Many other things are different since Giffords’ brain was pierced by a bullet during the shootings near Tucson on Jan. 8. Her hair is short, maybe 2 inches long, says Pia Carusone, her chief of staff, so there are scars on her scalp that show through. Eventually, her hair will cover them. A thin scar across the top of her forehead is healing well and fading, and her face, though sometimes swollen, is otherwise the same as before, Carusone says.

Giffords speaks most often in a single word or declarative phrase: “love you,” “awesome,” even “get out” to doctors in her room at the end of a taxing day. She longs to leave the rehab center, repeating “I miss Tucson” and wheeling herself to the doors at the end of the hall to peer out. When that day comes, Giffords told her nurse, she plans to “walk a mountain.”

Longer sentences frustrate Giffords. She must search her brain for the words she wants, which feels like trying to pull out the name of a familiar face you can’t quite place, her doctors say. Once she builds the sentence in her mind, she speaks clearly and at a normal rate, and can offer as many words as she has the patience to string together. The doctor overseeing her rehabilitation places her in the top 5 percent of patients recovering from this injury.

At the end of week 15, she can stand on her own and walk a little but is working to improve her gait, says Dr. Gerard Francisco, the physiatrist and chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann who works with Giffords five days a week.

Use of her right arm and leg is limited but improving, he says – a common effect of a bullet wound on the left side of the brain. She pushes a grocery cart up and down the hospital halls as therapy, focusing on using the correct muscles, says nurse Kristy Poteet, who has worked with Giffords since she arrived in Houston on Jan. 21. More therapy comes from games of bowling and indoor golf, Poteet says. Giffords used to be right-handed. Maybe she will be again. That answer, like so many others, will come long after week 15.

It’s an at times heart-warming, at times tragic, account of the determination of doctors, family and friends, and the inner strength of a woman who is fighting serious brain trauma to regain a semblance of normality in her life. What’s clear is that Giffords is making enormous progress, but that she’ll never truly be the same – and people should be realistic about further advances in her condition. The woman was shot in the head, for Christ’s sake. It’s remarkable that she’s regained such an astonishing command of her intellect and bodily functions, and that her personality has changed so little (one of the most common consequences of brain trauma is an often substantial change in personality). If she is able to walk, talk and interact with her family normally again, that in itself will be more than 95% of people in her position. We shouldn’t be expecting that she’ll somehow make a miraculous recovery and run for the Senate. It’s comfort enough that she’s got that far – and without being too corny, it’s the perfect Easter story of rebirth, renewal and the tenacity of life in the face of adversity.

Oh, that reminds me – Happy Easter, everyone!

Belgium celebrates one year without a government

Various newspapers, magazines and news sites have picked up on what would normally be an anniversary to be ashamed of: Belgium has spent the past year effectively without a government. Yes, Yves Leterme’s cabinet resigned exactly one year ago today, bringing about early elections that led to a political stalemate and an inability to form a new government, meaning that Leterme’s caretaker team has stayed on to fill the gap.

Yet Belgians seem unbothered, if a little weary of the whole situation. As the Telegraph’s Bruno Waterfield points out:

With the help of decrees from King Albert II, Belgium’s monarch, the experiment in undemocratic government is widely regarded as a success.

The unelected rulers even succeeded in sending Belgium’s F15 fighter planes to take part in military strikes alongside the RAF in Libya.

The Belgian press have reported that the trains are running better than ever and Belgium’s football team, a rare symbol of national unity, is on track for the European championships.

Now, obviously, Waterfield is being more than a little facetious. Yet Belgium is, effectively, being run by a gouvernement démissionnaire – a government that has resigned and that should merely be filling the short gap between elections and the formation of a new coalition. And no-one expects the situation to end soon – indeed, as the Telegraph rightly states, it isn’t out of the question that Belgium could go an entire four-year parliamentary term without forming a new coalition. According to political scientist Kris Deschouwer points out, that’s not a big deal:

The absence of a government is not particularly serious. Life goes on, the communities and regions [Belgium is a federal state divided into three linguistic communities and three economic and geographical regions] still do their job, the European Union still works. What has ceased to function is a mechanism for reforming the state, which is the current precondition for forming a new government. It’s a very long crisis, but not a very serious or deep one. The Belgian federal model makes it possible for the system to work for a long period of time, even with one of the three levels of government lacking a fully-fledged government.

Indeed, Deschouwer goes on to coin a phrase that I particularly like: “Forming a government seems easier to me than terminating Belgium”. And he’s right – because Belgium’s governmental system is so complicated and byzantine that it simply breeds inertia, which means that there has to be a strong state apparatus at all levels to keep the whole thing going in case there’s a blockage somewhere.

Those who have lived in Belgium may already be aware of this, but it’s worth pointing out nevertheless: Belgium has six parliaments and six governments (seven, if you count the European Parliament and the other European institutions) for a population of 10-11 million people. Starting with the basics: Belgium is a Kingdom, with a monarch (King Albert II) and a bicameral parliamentary system with proportional representation. That means coalition governments from the get-go, since almost no country with a proportional system (Hungary being the notable exception) currently has a single-party majority government. But it gets more complicated than that. Belgium is divided in two (or, arguably, three) language groups. Almost 60% of Belgians speak Flemish, which is a dialect of Dutch (or, to be more precise, they learn Dutch at school, but speak various local variations of the language amongst themselves, which together can be called Flemish). These people are called the Flemings, and they live in Flanders. 40% of the population speaks French, and lives in Wallonia (the inhabitants of which are called Walloons) and Brussels, the officially bilingual but mainly French-speaking capital of Belgium. Less than one per cent of the population, living mainly in a few towns along the border of Germany, speaks German (these people are known, imaginatively enough, as German-speaking Belgians).

In a linguistically divided country, with two strong, distinct groups, forming a government becomes even harder. Without getting into the long history of linguistic politics in Belgium (that’s for another post – in the meantime, look it up), the country’s political system gradually split over the past half-century or so, in two main ways:

  • First of all, Belgium’s traditionally unitary party system, with three main factions (Christian democrats, liberals and socialists) split along linguistic lines, and fragmented as new parties emerged. That means that what was once a fairly simple three-party system became one with twelve parties represented in the federal parliament (five French-speaking and seven Flemish). For a government to gain legitimacy, it has become commonly accepted that it must command a majority of members of parliament on each side of the linguistic divide. Yves Leterme’s government, for example, brought together five parties (Christian democrats and liberals on the Flemish side; liberals, centrists and socialists on the French-speaking side); following the 2010 elections, it seems likely that any government formed will contain at least seven parties. That makes forming a working coalition that will last a full four-year term extremely difficult.
  • The political system has also split insofar as it moved from a strong unitary state to a fairly complicated federal construction. Without, once again, getting into the history of how it came to pass, Belgium is now a country divided into three regions and three communities, each of which has its own government. The three communities are the majority Dutch-speaking community, the minority French-speaking community, and the tiny German-speaking community. Each of these entities has its own parliament and its own government, handling issues such as education, culture and (to a certain extent) healthcare. But linguistic communities are geographically amorphous identities (the French-speaking community includes Wallonia and Brussels, the latter being a majority-French-speaking enclave in Flanders). As a result, Belgium also created three regions with their own parliaments and governments – Flanders*, Brussels (which belongs to both communities, and is officially bilingual) and Wallonia (which includes the German-speaking community). These regions have wide powers over economic development, infrastructure, housing, agriculture and other similar matters. Confused? I’m not surprised. On top of this, the federal government still has substantial powers in terms of justice, defence, foreign affairs, social welfare, nuclear energy and various state-owned companies (like the railways).

So it’s complicated and somewhat kafkaesque. What it all means, though, is that with so many veto points, so many divisions and levels of government, the role of the civil service and administration is essential – and top-level Belgian civil servants are some of the most capable in the world (on top of having to speak a multitude of languages, they must navigate the tough political and cultural landscape on a daily basis). What is more, even as governments change, nothing fundamentally changes in Belgium. The coalition-based political system means that only one or two parties move in and out of any given national or regional government after any given election – and even if a party is in opposition on the federal level, there is a good chance that it will be in government on a regional level, or vice-versa. What that means is that even as Belgium seems unstable on the surface, and slowly drifting apart, with Flemings and French-speakers having less and less in common, it is actually much stronger and more durable than most people think. Which is why, honestly, no-one really cares all that much that the political parties are all acting like petulant children and incapable of forming any kind of coalition a year after the last one collapsed – everyone knows that nothing will really change all that much, and they quite like it that way.

*The Flemish region and Flemish community have merged their insitutions – a meaningless piece of trivia, but an explanation of why Belgium has six parliaments instead of seven.

Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon sing ‘Friday’ with the Roots

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who hasn’t heard Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ by now (and if you haven’t, here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD2LRROpph0). It’s become a worldwide phenomenon, written about in countless newspapers, parodied a thousand times over on YouTube and on network TV, and now boasting over 80 million views (as of Monday, April 4, 2011). Well, recently Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon teamed up with Taylor Hicks, the Roots and the Knicks City Dancers to perform their own rendition on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:

Epic. Let me know if the link goes down, by the way, and I’ll post a new one.

“La Conquête” – new film about the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy set to come out in May

Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s hyper-président, is a rather unique political figure. Like former US President George W. Bush, he’s impossible to be indifferent about – one either loves him or hates him. And, like Bush, he is set to join the rather exclusive club of heads of state about whom films are made even before he leaves office. La Conquête (Conquest), written by Patrick Rotman and directed by Xavier Durringer, will star Denis Podalydès as Sarkozy, Bernard Lecoq as former President Jacques Chirac, Samuel Labarthe as former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Florence Pernel as Cécilia Sarkozy. Here’s the trailer:

I don’t think that many people will be surprised to learn that I’m not the current French president’s biggest fan. I find him to be an obnoxious, populist demagogue with a worrying tendency to pander to voters on the xenophobic far right of France’s political spectrum. At the same time, I don’t like political caricatures, even if they’re of people I personally dislike. I found ‘W’ to be a facile piece of cinema that spent too much time brainlessly mocking the then-president, when there was so much of substance that could have been said that would have been just as damning. Durringer’s film looks like a fine piece of cinema, but I’ll reserve judgement until I actually see it. I’m really quite excited about it’s imminent release, though (set for May 4th, FYI).

P.S.: I will, honestly, write something more substantial and political soon. I just thought that the best way to start blogging again was to ease myself in with some gentle pop culture. American and European political analysis will resume shortly.

Burger King CEO insults British food and women, gets in trouble

The Telegraph brings us this fun little anecdote from the head honcho at Burger King, Bernardo Hees:

Bernardo Hees, 40, told a group of students in Chicago that “here the food is good and you are known for your good-looking women”. Comparing the city to his student days at the University of Warwick, where he studied for an MBA, he recalled of his time in England: “The food is terrible and the women are not very attractive.”

I have no idea if Chicago’s women are particularly attractive – I haven’t met a large enough sample of the city’s womenfolk to tell – but Chi-town grub certainly is awesome. In any case, without trying to piss off people for no reason, Hees is largely right. Even if Britain now has many great eateries, people’s experience of London’s often-fantastic gastronomy wildly skews things – there are plenty of chip butties and deep fried Mars bars to be found outside the M25. And, more generally, British people generally eat more ready-made microwaveable garbage than anyone else on the continent – just look at your average M&S or Tesco and compare it to its French, Belgian or German equivalent. Almost inevitably, Britain’s population is the fattest in Europe, with 24.5% of the population classified as obese, followed by neighbours Ireland at 23%. America shouldn’t be lecturing anyone on healthy eating, of course, but at least American junk food is tasty.

As for British women, I may be a jerk for pointing this out, and I’m certainly no masterpiece myself, but I don’t think I’m alone in finding the UK’s womenfolk perhaps the least attractive and least stylish in Europe, though I’d probably put the Irish in there for good measure. That being said, there’s not a lot of good to be said about Britain’s man-folk either…

P.S. Obviously, amidst all of this mean and petty stereotyping, it should be pointed out that the situation in Japan is just as grave as it was a couple of days ago, especially when it comes to the nuclear reactors in Fukushima – you can follow what’s going on, as always, on the BBC’s wonderful news site. The same can be said of Libya, which seems to have been largely forgotten, even as people are dying left and right for control of the country.

Japan’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake

Japan was hit today by its most powerful earthquake since records began, and one of the most potent on record anywhere in the world. While the country has survived remarkably well – thanks, no doubt, to its astonishing investment in seismic retrofitting – many have died, countless more are missing, and the country has suffered substantial material damage on top of all that. I don’t have much to add, except to tell you all that, no matter where you are in the world, the BBC has the best live on-line coverage of what’s going on – here’s the link.

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