France’s turn to the right

By Tariq Fatemi

ENSCONCED in a motel outside Marrakech where I am participating in the Maghreb and Mediterranean Energy Conference, I feared that I would miss out on all the excitement of the French presidential elections. But Morocco is intellectually and culturally very close to France and this was reflected in the wide coverage granted to this event.

France has elected a new president. In one of the most hotly contested elections ever in France, where an estimated 85 per cent of the electorate cast their votes, Nicolas Sarkozy received nearly 53 per cent against his Socialist Party opponent Segolene Royal’s approximate 47 per cent.

This election represented a generational gap between the current incumbent Jacques Chirac, who is now 74 years, and Sarkozy, who is 52. Sarkozy will be the first French president of Jewish origin, whose parents emigrated from Hungary, while his erstwhile challenger is the first woman to obtain the Socialist Party ticket. Thus, the election marked a shift to a younger generation of leaders born after the Second World War and who face the task of tackling a huge national debt, high unemployment and simmering suburban tensions.

Sarkozy promised to pursue policies required to bring France out of its downward spiral. Royal promised to safeguard France’s generous social protection system, create jobs and carry out institutional reforms to bring the government closer to the people.

As elections drew near, Royal warned that her opponent’s victory could re-ignite violence in the poor immigrant suburbs where riots in 2006 resulted in a total breakdown of law and order for weeks. Royal also said that her opponent was a “dangerous” leader, and would divide, rather than unite, the French people. Sarkozy responded that Royal’s allegations were outrageous.

Royal’s warnings were not off the mark. The poor in the ghettoes have not forgotten or forgiven either Sarkozy’s brutal policies or his contemptuous attitude towards them during the riots last year. He not only insisted on measures that he referred to as necessary to restore “law and order”, he also accused the rioters of being “criminals” and “rabble”. As an expression of outrage over his electoral triumph, the youth engaged in fresh violence.

Sarkozy has, however, tried to placate those who fear that his presidency will be divisive and confrontational, promising to be the “president of all French”.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy’s defeat will be a terrible blow to the Socialists who were genuinely excited at Royal’s candidature. This smart and glamorous woman was expected to reverse the trend of repeated losses suffered by the party in presidential polls. She had promised the people a new “participatory democracy”, building a political platform that would free itself from both the usual socialist rhetoric and restrictive doctrine, and, instead, address the concerns of those millions who were being left out of state programmes.

But she had her drawbacks as the media soon discovered. On trips to the Middle East and China, she made serious mistakes which exposed her lack of experience and understanding of complex foreign policy issues.

What is a Sarkozy presidency likely to be? First, there is the expectation that the French economy will pick up under his strong support for the private sector, tougher anti-union laws and fiercer protection of foreign investment. He is determined to break out of the current cycle of low growth and high-cost public assistance programmes.

Sarkozy’s campaign motto to “rehabilitate work, authority, nation, respect, meritocracy” means that he plans to loosen labour regulations. Cutting the size of the tax burden and fixing the pension scheme are his other pressing tasks.

More pro-American and pro-Israel than other mainstream French politicians, Sarkozy has never tried to hide his admiration for US President George Bush’s assertive policies. During the poll campaign, he avoided references to foreign policy issues, but in his first appearance after the polls, he pledged friendship with the US while asking it to do more to fight climate change. The Bush administration will be relieved to see an end to the Chirac presidency which was accused of promoting anti-US positions in the European Union and Nato.

Though Sarkozy had referred to the invasion of Iraq as “a historical mistake”, he had also been critical of outgoing President Jacques Chirac’s opposition to it, calling it an evidence of “arrogance”. A Washington insider was reported as saying that Sarkozy will “change our attitudes because we will become more receptive to thinking differently about France and its role.”

A US National Security Council spokesperson was quoted as saying that “Bush looks forward to working with President-elect Sarkozy as we continue our strong alliance.” Washington will be happy to see Paris come closer to it on issues such as Iran. Sarkozy will be far less indulgent of Tehran than was Chirac. On Russia too, Sarkozy can be expected to be more critical of President Vladimir Putin’s recent moves towards authoritarianism than was Chirac.

Tony Blair, the British prime minster, though scheduled to step down next month, was apparently excited by Sarkozy’s victory. The latter has been a public admirer of Blair.

An outspoken Anglophile, he holds Blair’s Britain as a shining example of a dynamic economy, with a flexible work force. Earlier, as France’s interior minister, he established close working relations with David Blunkett, the then former home secretary and also with Gordon Brown, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer and Blair’s designated successor. On the other hand, he has had major disagreements with David Cameron, the Tory leader.

Blair’s people are convinced that with Sarkozy in power, London’s hand in key EU negotiations will be strengthened. Others feel that the demands of office will make it inevitable that the Franco-German axis will remain intact, though Paris-London relations will certainly become more cordial. This is evident from the fact that Sarkozy plans to make his first official visit to Berlin once he assumes the presidency.

Sarkozy is also likely to oppose plans to reintroduce the federalist EU constitution which voters had rejected in 2005. Sarkozy favours a “mini-treaty” that could permit non-fundamental changes as this could be done without going through another referendum, a measure that enjoys London’s support as well.

Described by even his friends as arrogant, brutal and a demagogue, Sarkozy will ensure that Paris becomes a far more visible, vibrant, and forceful interlocutor on European issues. But he will have to handle relations with EU with special care. It is in a state of considerable confusion and uncertainty, especially since first the French and then the Dutch vetoed the adoption of the EU constitution.

The shock of this action from one of the Union’s founders was widely interpreted as a protest at EU measures that threatened to open up France to global competition, including that posed by immigrant workers. Since then, France has blocked negotiations for a new EU budget, insisting that farm subsidies — which account for more than 40 per cent of the budget — should not be cut at least till 2013. This has become a major stumbling block in efforts to rescue the stalled Doha global trade talks.

Sarkozy promised to hold urgent consultations with London and Berlin and to travel to Brussels, to push for a simplified EU treaty as a substitute for the blocked constitution. He also favours an elected president and foreign minister for the EU and will push to abandon the rule of unanimity on some policies, such as taxes and transport. This will not be easy, but if successful, will bring France back into the heart of Europe.

It is, however, Turkey’s candidature in the EU that will feel most negatively the impact of the Sarkozy presidency. Chirac was never enthusiastic about Turkey’s presence in the Union, but Sarkozy has made it clear that he is firmly opposed to Ankara’s candidature, on the ground that Turkey is too big and too different not to have an adverse impact on the EU.

Sarkozy has claimed that Turkey is too far removed from continental European roots and that it is not in Europe but in Asia Minor and that its entry into the Union will reduce the EU to a mere trading bloc, robbing it of its political clout. His objection to Turkey’s membership has been reinforced by apparent concern for France’s religious and cultural identity. In fact, Sarkozy turned hedge funds, immigrants and Turkey into campaign issues.

It is unfortunate that the French election took place at a time when Turkey has been going through a constitutional crisis. Sarkozy’s virulent opposition to Turkey’s membership is likely to add new intensity to the debate within the country as to how far it should go in its efforts to meet the EU’s stiff standards.

The EU’s rejection will not only have an adverse impact on Turkish domestic and foreign policy, it will also have a bearing on Turkey’s neighbours including Iraq and Syria.

This explains Sarkozy’s strong support for the EU-Mediterranean process, for he knows that one of the ways to keep North Africans and others from coming in droves to France is to provide these countries with economic assistance and employment-generating projects.

Chinese commentators say that Sarkozy is likely to be more sympathetic to their country than to Japan. But Sarkozy is not likely to make fundamental changes to France’s ties to either China or Japan, recognising the importance of both and being influenced by the Bush administration’s views.

The Indian media claims that given Sarkozy’s admiration for the US and Israel and his deep suspicion of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular, he is likely to seek closer relations with India. But given the role that the Musharraf regime has been playing in the global war on terror, Sarkozy may not want to introduce any changes to French policy on Pakistan, especially as long as the current military regime continues to enjoy Bush’s support.

France is a divided country and it will take all Sarkozy’s skills and so far unseen compassion to unite the country. His problems will multiply if his party fails to gain a majority in the parliamentary elections next month. Fortunately for France, Sarkozy is not likely to spend too much time on foreign relations, which was his predecessor’s primary interest.

Sarkozy is likely to concentrate on domestic issues but he has to move cautiously, given his reputation as anti-poor and anti-immigrant. Social peace will depend on his ability to overhaul the welfare state without feeding frustration and generating anger among the poor, especially the Muslims and the blacks.

Even his admirers fear that his arrival will add to the social unrest. Former French Prime Minster Jean-Pierre Raffarin has warned him: “You will inherit a France made of crystal, you need to handle it with care.”

The writer is a former ambassador.

Singh evading Lok Sabha poll

By Kuldip Nayar

I DO not know why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is once again seeking entry into parliament through the back door, the Rajya Sabha. This is the Upper House. A country’s prime minister has to face the voters directly to assess his popularity. The Lok Sabha, the House of the people, is the appropriate place.

Manmohan Singh can select a safe seat if he fears that after having been the prime minister for three years, his government’s performance is not good enough to allow him to win him in a tough election. But he cannot use the Rajya Sabha as a stalking-horse to hide his identity.

By evading the Lok Sabha election, Manmohan Singh is devaluing the office of the prime minister. No prime minister since independence has tried to escape the Lok Sabha poll. Mrs Indira Gandhi, when made prime minister, was also a member of the Rajya Sabha. She resigned and contested the first available by-election to the Lok Sabha. So did H.K. Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral, her successors.

Both were members of the Rajya Sabha. Yet, after they came to occupy the office of prime minister, they resigned their respective seats and sought election to the Lok Sabha. In contrast, Manmohan Singh has filed his nomination papers for the Rajya Sabha for the fourth time from Assam. He is as good as elected because the Congress party has the requisite strength. The formal announcement will come in the next few days when the poll takes place. But this is not fair.Whether Manmohan Singh comes from Assam or Punjab, which is his home state, is not relevant. My point is that the Rajya Sabha does not legitimise his position. It is a House which comprises members who have been elected indirectly. State assembly members are the ones who face the electorate directly in their respective constituencies. A prime minister, who represents the whole country, is too important to ride on their backs as Manmohan Singh would be doing in the Assam assembly.

The question is a larger one: whether the prime minister should be a member of the Lok Sabha, the directly elected House, or of the Rajya Sabha, the indirectly elected House. The choice is obvious. The prime minister has to win the polls at a popular level. That means the Lok Sabha.

While contesting for the Lower House, Manmohan Singh would have come into contact with people at the grassroots. The dust and din of electioneering might have given him an insight into politics which may be dirty, but is nevertheless real. Sitting in the ivory tower that the Rajya Sabha is, the prime minister has missed the information he would have gathered from the ground on how India’s heart ticks. It is rather odd that the prime minister has no vote in the House which decides on the motion of confidence in the government he leads.

Our constitution-makers may not have spelt out that the prime minister should be from the Lower House. But, in their scheme of things, the Lok Sabha had the pre-eminent position. The Lok Sabha is the real House around which parliamentary activities revolve. This is the House which decides the fate of political parties and their allies. Even one vote less than the majority is too short to sustain a government in power. This happened in the case of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government a few years ago. It lost by a solitary vote.

True, our constitution has no provision which enjoins upon the prime minister to be a member of the Lower House. But Pakistan has it. Even where there is no constitutional hitch, they follow the practice of the parliamentary system all over the world. Great Britain, which in a way is the mother of all parliaments, has not had a prime minister from their Upper House, the House of Lords, for generations and it would be ridiculous to imagine that Lord so and so could ever be a future prime minister of that country.

I am afraid that if the importance of direct elections is not underlined, even members of the legislative council, the second House, would like to make it to the office of the chief minister. At present, not all the states have legislative councils. More than that, there is a precedent for the legislative assembly member to be the chief minister.

Once, before the constitution was introduced, Congress leader C. Rajagoplachari became chief minister in the then state of Madras. But, rightly, he quit after a few months. Since then the chief minister has been from the legislative assembly.

I can understand Manmohan Singh’s diffidence over contesting for the Lok Sabha because some Congress bosses were responsible for his defeat when he did so from South Delhi, a Lok Sabha constituency of highly-educated voters, a few years ago. Maybe, he is afraid to fight lest he should meet the same fate again, especially when some Congress leaders would want to see the prime minister out. Yet it is far better to face them through the election than to live under the illusion that he is their real choice.

Many states will be willing to offer him the Lok Sabha seat if he so decides. I am sure Punjab would want him from the state because he is a brilliant son of the soil.

He has only to indicate his desire. One sitting MP from Punjab has told me that he is willing to vacate his seat for Manmohan Singh. This member does not belong to the Congress party.

I concede that after the perverse judgment by the former Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal’s bench, Manmohan Singh does not have to bother whether he is “ordinarily resident” of Assam. The Supreme Court did away with the domicile qualification for a Rajya Sabha member.

However, Manmohan Singh has won the point in an earlier petition where he was declared qualified to contest from Assam on the basis of his ration card, the electricity bill and the rent receipts of the house he had occupied at Guwahati. The judgment says that a Rajya Sabha member does not have to be a resident of the state whose assembly returns him or her.

I do not want to open the case of eligibility, nor do I propose to discuss Chief Justice Sabhawal’s judgment. I have no doubt that some day a larger bench will quash it because the judgment defeats the very purpose of the Rajya Sabha, the council of states. My point is a limited one. The prime minister has to be a member of the Lok Sabha because this is the House of the people and this is where the sovereignty rests.

The writer is a leading columnist based in New Delhi.

Legal conundrums

TAKING a millionaire's yacht for a quick spin around the Mediterranean will not go down as one of the better ideas a president-elect has had. Especially one who has promised to tighten belts and end privilege.

A Catholic seminary might have proved a better location for the next occupant of the Élysée. But this is Nicolas Sarkozy, to whose high-octane antics France is well used. The sobering thought is that almost as soon as he disembarks and becomes president, Mr Sarkozy will have to take hard decisions over EU’s future.

The imminent arrival of Mr Sarkozy is exercising Germany, who is determined to use its presidency to end the quagmire created two years ago by the French and Dutch rejection of the constitution. The clock is ticking. Chancellor Angela Merkel wants a deal on the way forward at the European summit in June. According to the German road map, a revised treaty would be hammered out by an inter-governmental conference this autumn, ratified by the parliaments of all 27 member states next year, and the whole deal done and dusted by the European elections in mid-2009.

It sounds straightforward, although it is anything but. Germany wants to salvage as much as it can from the dead constitution. France wants a mini-treaty. Britain wants an amended treaty, and Poland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands want to give national parliaments the power to block EU legislation.

Eighteen of the 27 members have already ratified the constitution and will have to start all over again. Persuading a growing constituency of eurosceptics across France and northern Europe that a deal done behind closed doors and ratified by parliaments, is a more democratic method of enacting major institutional change than putting the deal to another round of referendums, and risking failure again, is going to be uncomfortable - particularly as the source of their complaint is that Europe's institutions have become detached from its citizens.

Referendums are an imperfect form of consultation, particularly in parliamentary democracies, but having promised one over the constitution, governments might struggle to argue now that the best way forward is a parliamentary vote.

––The Guardian, London

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007


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