Wednesday, April 25, 2012


The Rue de Solférino is on the left bank of the Seine in Paris. It takes its name from the Battle of Solférino fought by Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II on one side against Francis Joseph of Austria on the other back in 1859. Needless to say Napoleon’s team won.

The street has many political associations and today is the headquarters of France’s Parti Socialiste. The Rue de Solférino is now witnessing another historic battle as the PS’ Francois Hollande seeks to oust the Bling Bling president of France, Sarkozy, from power. That battle will be decided by French voters on Sunday May 6.

At the Parti Socialiste HQ is the office of Pierre Kanuty, the party’s political advisor for International and Europe affairs. He is also a prolific blogger and shared with me his views on the state of the election so far after Sunday’s first round.

Pierre considers the first round of the presidential election - The beginning of the end for Sarkozy. He continued: “One can learn a lot from Sunday’s vote. The turnout was finally better than expected. French citizens are crazy about politics and despite a very long sequence - the socialist open primaries and the campaign, many of them vote.

“François Hollande gathered 10 millions of voters, reaching one of the highest results for a socialist candidate. Sarkozy didn't succeed at all. The hyper president never had a real momentum.”

That was the good news: what of the bad?

Pierre shares the views expressed here by the PS’s UK candidate Axelle Lemaire said: “The bad news came from the Front National (extreme right) with its best result since one voter out of five gave his or her vote to Marine Le Pen.

“New look but old ideas; the FN will put a heavy pressure on the Conservatives. Some pundits predict that they want to destroy the Conservative UMP in order to reshape the right.”

On the far left candidate Pierre observe: “Melenchon didn’t reach his goal - to be the third man, but with 10 per cent, he give the Communist Party and the radical left a steady weight.

“The Green Party failed in an election that is not right for them. With the crisis, people care less about ecology than about keeping their jobs.”

So what of the coming days before the final presidential run-off and the period that follows in France and wider Europe?

Pierre is a realist and issues a stark warning: “The victory is close but we’re not there yet. The right wing parties may lose in the vote, but they have already won in the heads - such a reality exists all over Europe.

“The progressives will have to address theses issues: how can we tackle the crisis, reduce deficit, find growth and make solidarity between people a priority?”

That is the challenge not just facing Hollande and the Parti Socialiste but those on the left of politics throughout Europe: it is a battle that has to be won.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on April 26 and a version in the Morning Star on April 27 2012 as well as other online publications).


The French Open, one of tennis’ major grand slams, is coming up fast and hence to use the terminology of that sport the first round of that country’s presidential election sees the umpire call “Advantage Hollande”. However as in politics and in sport having the advantage does not guarantee victory.

In the first round of polling held on Sunday April 22 socialist Hollande took 28.6 per cent of the votes to put him ahead of the current president Sarkozy on 27.2 per cent. The big surprise of the day was the high vote for far right candidate Marine Le Pen with 17.9 per cent. In fourth place was the voice for the far left Jean-Luc Melenchon on 11.1 per cent whilst the centrist Francois Bayrou registered 9.1 per cent.

The second round on Sunday May 6 will be between Hollande and Sarkozy to determine who is the next president of France. Already Ifop has conducted and published a poll which on the basis of the soundings carried out after the polls closed on Sunday sees Hollande capturing 54.5 per cent of the vote with Sarkozy trailing on 45.5 per cent.

Just how the three main eliminated candidates’ votes are distributed in the second round is key to the outcome of the presidential election. The same Ifop polls said 83 per cent of the far left Jean-Luc Melenchon vote would go to Hollande whilst Sarkozy would collect 38 per cent of Bayrou’s voters and 48 per cent of Le Pen’s. Hollande would pick up 32 and 31 per cent respectively.

In the end event it may be down to the fact that the French voters have simply had enough of President Bling Bling and believe that socialist Hollande is more suited to these austere times.

Axelle Lemaire is the Parti Socialiste candidate for the UK and Northern Europe constituency for the French parliamentary elections that will be held in June. However she has also been working to get her supporters out to vote in the same constituency on April 22 and will again on May 6 for her party leader Francois Hollande.

On the first round vote Lemaire said: “We have good reasons to feel satisfied with the results. It is the first time in French modern political history that an outgoing president does not pass the first round in a leading position, and polls indicate that Mr Hollande enjoys a significant advance in the second round. But it leaves a sweet and sour taste, given the high score of the extreme right candidate Marine Le Pen, who actually attracted more voters than her father when he made it to the second round in 2002. In itself this is another sign that social democracy throughout Europe is facing a serious challenge from extremist and populist parties. Mr Hollande is the best candidate to address the real concerns of the people regarding their social and legal safety”.

So how did the French voters in the British Isles and other areas of Europe in this constituency vote? Lemaire says: “The results of the first round of the French presidential election in the North Europe constituency show that victory is possible for François Hollande here. Overall, the number of left-wing voters in the first round has increased compared with 2007, and seems to be higher than that of the right. There is clearly an opportunity to show that abroad too, French people want change for their country, and see addressed issues of justice, fairness and equality, as well as a clear strategy for Europe and for growth. This first result also indicates that the race will be tight, with every vote counting. Which path do we want France to take in the next five years and for the future generations? It is up to us to decide, in France, and abroad.”

On May 6 the people of France will speak: the chance of a historic socialist victory is within Hollande’s grasp if the voters have the courage of their convictions they have shown so far.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on April 26 and a version in the Morning Star on April 27 2012 as well as other online publications).

Emma Reynolds: Labour’s Shadow Europe Minister also writes on this subject at:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Spain has had a year of elections which saw the centre right Partido Popular first sweep the board in the town hall and some regional elections last May before winning an outright majority at the general election at the end of November. This left just two regional government elections to go and both were held on March 25 in Andalucía and Asturias. However all eyes were on Andalucía because it is the largest region in Spain and has also been a socialist stronghold for 30 years: if the government in Sevilla fell into the Partido Popular’s hands then their victory would be complete.

I made the observation after the November general election that although the PP now formed the new government without having to rely on any other party it was a victory built on sand. The country wanted changed and the vote of the ruling socialists, PSOE, collapsed. However the voters did not swing behind the centre right, the majority simply abstained. Hence Mariano Rajoy as prime minister has not enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon with the voters: indeed it was more of a one-night stand. Spain recently had a general strike over the labour reforms just days after the Andalucía general election and a day before “the toughest budget in Spain’s history”. Health and education reforms, or vicious cuts as the left opposition have dubbed them, are on their way: expect a year of anger and discontent.

The true anger and discontent right now though is in the leadership of the Partido Popular. The centre right party did emerge for the first time as the largest in MP terms in Andalucía after the regional election but it will not govern. The combined forces of PSOE and the far left Izquierda Unida easily outgun them but what is more Andalucía didn’t swing to the right it went firmly still further to the left.

The PP managed to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. Its election strategy and campaign were at fault; it lacked political humility, it was arrogant in its announcements and many of its messages simply lacked credibility.

The result was the centre right party lost the support of 410,000 people in Andalucía between the November general election and Andalucía polling day. Yes it increased its MPs from 47 to 50 but 55 is the absolute majority in the Andalucía parliament. PSOE took 47, the real winners in this election was Izquierda Unida who doubled its MPs to 12, taking the left alliance to 59: well over the victory line.

Here are some key statistics:

The socialists bounced back from their general election hammering in Andalucía were they lost 400,000 votes and 14 seats to be practically tying with the PP.

The PSOE and IU coalition won over 400,000 more votes than the right.

Andalucía has 771 municipalities: PSOE won 554 of them. The socialists won 72 per cent of the villages and towns and seven out of the eight provinces in Andalucía.

Add the PSOE and IU votes and they won in 640 out of the 771 municipalities and 83 per cent of the villages and towns. The left’s combined vote won in all eight provinces.

PSOE won almost three times more municipalities than the PP and when the vote is added to the IU’s the left were the victors in three out of every five.

The startling result is that the socialists have bounced back from defeat in record time and with the far left IU has gone on to triumph in Spain’s largest region. Indeed if you look at the electoral map of Andalucía it is clearly redder than ever before: socialism certainly isn’t dead in southern Spain.

(A version of the above article appeared in The Morning Star on Thursday April 12 2012)

Thursday, April 5, 2012


French residents in the UK find themselves as caught up in their home country’s presidential election battle as their counterparts across the channel. They can no longer look on from afar and just cast their overseas votes on polling day. They are now part of one of France’s constituencies and hence the candidates are coming knocking on their doors.

In 2008 the French Parliament passed legislation giving French citizens living abroad the right to elect their own politicians. One of the constituencies encompasses Northern Europe: included in this zone are the UK, Ireland and the Baltic States. They will elect an MP for the National Assembly elections in June. However with the presidential elections being held at the end of April, with a run-off on May 6, the candidates are also campaigning for their party leaders to be installed in the Elysee Palace.

We have already seen Nicolas Sarkozy use a press conference with British Premier David Cameron to boost his poll standings by arm-twisting his Tory counterpart in to saying nice things about him. Given their fracas at recent EU summits the words must have stuck in Cameron’s throat like a stale croissant. Sarkozy’s socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, who the opinion polls suggest will oust him from office, has also been to London in February. Officially it was a visit to see the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, and his team. He was shunned by Cameron but no doubt gave a Gallic shrug as his real target was the UK’s French voters.

It is not difficult to see why. Ten countries are incorporated in the Northern Europe constituency but 80 per cent of its voters are in the UK and 80 per cent again of them live in London. Hence the 102,470 voters in the UK can expect a lot of French kisses over the election period. Also the number of French people living in London is steadily increasing so this constituency is going to gather rather than decrease in importance – indeed the overall constituency has the third highest number of French residents abroad.

The Parti Socialiste’s candidate in the UK constituency is Axelle Lemaire who previously worked as a researcher for British Labour MP Denis MacShane at the House of Commons. She has been campaigning for Hollande and the PS throughout the length and breathed of her constituency and believes the anti-Sarkozy feeling in France has crossed the border.

Lemaire was born in Canada to a French mother and a Quebec father. She moved to France as an adolescent and studied law at l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris and King’s College in London. Aged 37 she has resided in the UK for ten years and considers London to be her home. Lemaire says: “The sense of outrage I feel about injustice and social inequality has always motivated my involvement in community life and political activism.” She adds : “The desire to make a difference, to serve others and help change society, with dynamism and integrity, is the driving force of my life” a driving force that has led her to being the PS candidate for the Northern Europe constituency.

So why should the French citizens in the UK and indeed back home vote for Hollande. Lemaire is in no doubt arguing: “Vote for François Hollande if you believe in social fairness, if you think that austerity is not the solution, if you believe that France’s human and cultural values should be defended and held dear, not insulted for political calculations. Vote for Francois Hollande if you believe in change and in the healthy renewal of French politics, after more than ten years when conservatives have been in power. Vote for Francois Hollande if you care about education and growth, his two priorities.”

Emma Reynolds is the Labour Party Shadow Minister for Europe. Like many politicians she talks the Euro talk but also can walk the walk. Indeed as she may have walked the walk first as before becoming an MP in 2010 she worked in Brussels for the Party of European Socialists as an advisor to Robin Cook. She is in no doubt over the importance a Hollande victory holds not just for France but Europe. She stated: “The victory of Francois Hollande is crucial to both the future of the European Union and the future of the left in Europe. I am hopeful this his victory will spark a revival of social democracy in Europe and that he can focus the mind of European leaders on growth rather than austerity alone.”

Who becomes France’s next president will be decided on May 6 but it may well be French voters in London who hand the keys to the Elysee to the final victor.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on April 5 2012).

(Photograph courtesy of Axelle Lemaire)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


On March 29 Spain held a general strike in protest against the new labour laws being introduced by the centre right Partido Popular government. The major protests throughout the country went off peacefully but this has not stopped the CEOE, Spain’s equivalent to the CBI, questioning whether because of the serious risk of violence such “political strikes” should not be made illegal. Whilst in Barcelona, where there was street violence, the two police unions are demanding those arrested and convicted should face the same anti-terrorism laws as are in force in the Basque country.

It was the president of the CEOE, Joan Rosell, who proposed that after M-29 the right to strike should be regulated. If it is a political strike, which the business organisation and the Partido Popular insist it was, then it should be illegal. Probably not wanting to inflame further the current situation, the minister of employment, Fátima Báñez, said she discounted such a move – for the moment. However it is quite clear that the centre right has been rattled by the shows of public anger and opposition so there is a keen desire to stamp down on dissent. This could soon come to a head as the CC.OO and UGT unions have stated they will make further announcements on action if no meaningful talks with the government have been held by May Day.

The Spanish Government is already proposing changes to the penal code that will see “crimes” of disobedience and resistance to authority carry prison terms of between six months and a year. If it does decide to make political strikes “illegal” then it will be only the second European government to do so. The other is the ultra right government in Hungary- but an extreme right wing Francoist response is in the PP’s DNA.

In the current economic and jobs crisis hitting Europe there have been a total of 36 general strikes. Greece has seen 17, France nine, Italy four, Portugal three, Belgium two and Spain just the one previously on September 29 2010 in protest over the high levels of unemployment. The latter was during the socialist mandate so the strike on March 29 was the first both for 18 months and under the new Mariano Rajoy regime.

The protests in Greece have been marked with street violence and that is what happened in Barcelona on March 29. This has led to the SPC police union demanding the application of anti-terrorist laws to those who provoke such disturbances.

The spokesperson for the union, David Miquel, said the law needed to be changed so these violent demonstrators could be treated in the same way as the ‘kale borroka’ – the street gangs that support the ETA movement in the Basque region.

Miquel stated: “If there is an existing organisation and if they cause this chaotic situation in a city, this is the same as urban terrorism of low intensity that it has produced in the Basque region.”

The Catalan region has its own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra and it is represented by the SME-CCOO union. It slammed the region’s government for being able to cut everything but street violence. In a press release the SME-CCOO said the demonstrators in the centre of Barcelona has used Molotov cocktails and thrown metal ball bearings against the Mossos adding the level of violence was equal to that of the ‘kale borroka’ or the anarchist groups in Greece.

The union says there are very organised groups who use the techniques from the manual of urban warfare and their presence had been detected by plain clothes police.

Of course Barcelona is not new to such violence. On June 23 of last year I wrote in The Morning Star about the 15-M protest movement – Los Indignados. The PP was still in opposition but had swept to power in regions, provinces and town halls making unprecedented gains. It was then that the party's mood changed.

I wrote: “It wanted the plazas cleared. The protesters became a nuisance, an eye-sore, a blight on business. The PP demanded the government take action. But the Indignant held their position and in Barcelona this resulted in bloody confrontations with the Catalan police - the Mossos d'Esquadra - who were accused of infiltrating the 15-M movement and acting as agent provocateurs.” Indeed the actions of the plain clothes police in causing the violence is well documented in photographs, print and on film.

Hence we have the Spanish business confederation, the CEOE, calling for all “political” strikes to be made illegal and the police in Barcelona, who are not shy in provoking violence, demanding the introduction of anti-terrorism laws to deal with street protests. This in a country were labour relations have traditionally been far more peaceful than elsewhere in Europe as can be seen by the strike statistics. At the end of the day it is the Partido Popular government that will have to choose how to respond – but the PP is the child of Spain’s notorious right: expect the worst.

(The above article was published in The Morning Star on Wednesday April 4 2012)

Monday, April 2, 2012


Some years ago when Britain was undergoing another of its sexual scandals involving a leading politician I was told this tale. The French president was running for re-election and his team discovered his opponent had fathered a child outside of wedlock in his 60s – should they leak the news? A panic stricken president said “no, no, suppress it. If the voters find out they’ll all vote for him!”

The president and opponent were never named and I know not if the story is true or apocryphal. However it sums up the Anglo Saxon view of Gallic politics where a rampant sex life is as much a badge of honour as ‘mom and apple pie’ are for US politicos.

That being so I was surprised to read that the Socialist candidate in the French presidential elections, Francois Hollande, is said to have been embarrassed by a book revelling the feuding women in his life.

Hollande’s former lover and mother of his four children – oh how very French – was Segolene Royal who was the failed Socialist candidate for the presidency in 2007. The book tells us that the new woman in Hollande’s life, Valerie Trierweiler, resented her royal rival and refused to support her in those elections. Hollande is said not to have been very supportive of Royal’s presidential bid either and the question is will Segolene seek revenge this time out?

The much hyped scandal, if that is what it truly is, is unlikely to help Sarkozy cling on to the presidency. French voters seem happy enough to be in bed with Hollande who has appealed to the traditional French dislike of the rich by saying he’ll tax earnings above one million euros by 75 per cent. Given those who earn over one million euros were unlikely to support the Parti Socialiste anyway Hollande seems to have hit on a safe seduction technique.

The French right is depicting Hollande as a man without ministerial experience when what the country needs at this time of European crisis is an experienced leader such as Sarkozy. Of course neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron had ministerial experience when they came to office and unless you are a two term US president all candidates come to that post untested as world leaders or commanders in chief. Opinion polls suggest that French voters are willing to gamble on Hollande: after all handling a complicated love life can be no more difficult that ruling from the Elysee.

The Labour MP Dennis McShane, who knows Hollande well, has described him as more Atlee and Truman than Blair or Obama. Yet I wonder how useful British or US comparisons are when used on French politicians.

Hollande has been described as the laid back man of French politics not difficult when your male opponent is noted for his “bling bling” and high heels. None-the less the quiet man produced an impressive speech in Le Bourget earlier this year before 25,000 people which captivated the nation with its messages of equality and financial regulation. He has also outdebated his opponents on TV. Hollande has built up a firm lead in the opinion polls over Sarkozy but there are weeks to go before polling day and it has to be seen how the Toulouse shooting spree by the Al Qaeda linked gunman pans out with voters. It should favour Sarkozy as he is seen as strong on security yet the election will be held on the economy so Hollande is still expected to triumph. Then there are potentially two president election days to win with Sarkozy favourite to be slightly ahead in the first but to be trounced by Hollande in the second on May 6. Yet rest assured the sitting president will pull out all the stops to stay in office.

Hollande is pro-Europe and socialists throughout the continent are pinning their hopes of a revival for them on his shoulders. However whether a Hollande victory will impact on the fortunes of the centre left in Britain, Germany, Italy or Spain remains to be seen.

The EU with Hollande as one of the key players will be a very different place to that in which Sarkozy holds centre right stage. The socialist president will want big money put in its place and kept under firm control. He wants a socially just world where workers share in the wealth they created. It is a French ideal which the voters seem to be falling in love with.
(The above article was publish in the London Progressive Journal on Sunday April 1 2012 - photograph courtesy of Axelle Lemaire).