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by Binoy Kampmark in Melbourne, Australia

The establishment got another burning in the French elections on Sunday, revealing again that there is no level of voter disgust that will not find some voice in the current range of elections.  The terror for pollsters and the establishment now is whether Marine Le Pen will realize her anti-Euro project and drag the French nation kicking and moaning into a new, even more fractious order. In her way will be the pro-European Union figure of Emmanuel Macron.

The French example is similar to others of recent times: parties with presumed tenure were confined to a punitive dustbin, rubbished for stale, estranged obsolescence.  The Gaullists got what was a fair drubbing – 19.9 percent for François Fillon of the Republicans, a figure crusted and potted with corruption. 

It did not, however, mean that both candidates in the first and second positions were political virgins.  In that sense, the U.S. election remains an exemplar, a true shock.  France retains a traditional appearance to it, albeit a violently ruffled one.

Macron, with his 23.9 percent, supposedly deemed outside the establishment, still held office as minister for economy, finance and industry but flew the Socialist coop in opportunistic fancy.  Blooded in traditional harness, he has managed to give the impression that he has shed enough of the old for the new, notably with his movement En Marche.  He is blowing hard from what commentators have termed a “centrist” position.  (To be at the centre is to be in the middle, which is not necessarily a good thing in current times.)

Just to weaken the sense of Macron as outsider, both establishment parties – the Socialist, led by Benoît Hamon, and the Republican – urged voters to go for the centrist option.  This all had the appearance of a gentleman’s seedy agreement, plotted in a traditional smoking room to undermine an unlikable contender.  The losers wanted to be vicarious winners.  The tarnished Fillon urged voters to “reflect on your conscience.” In effect, Macron as a quantity is being sanitised for stability, the firebreak against the Le Pen revolution.

Le Pen herself speaks to a particular French and nationalist sensibility, tutored to a large extent by her father, who also ran in the 2002 Presidential elections and lost to Jacques Chirac.  She is hardly one to be unfamiliar with the political argot, which has retained a reactionary punch in more measured guise.

Le Pen kept her approach punchily traditional, milking the killing last Thursday of a policeman on the Champs-Elysees with old apple and oranges comparisons on security and immigration.  Having her in the Presidential office would see the stop of “mass immigration and the free movement of terrorists.” 

For Le Pen, the May 7 runoff election would enable a choice to be made between “savage globalisation that threatens our civilisation” and “borders that protect our jobs, our security and our national identity.” 

Macron provides an attractive target for the Front National: having worked for Rothschild, he supplies the front for corporate interests, and is “Hollande’s baby” uninterested in French patriotism.  He certainly promises to be friendlier to companies in France, with a policy envisaging a cut of the corporate tax rate from 33 percent to 25 percent, while also permitting them to re-negotiate the sacred 35-hour week.  His vision of the European Union, in short, is business as usual.

Under Le Pen’s particular tent lie appeals to critics of globalisation, a force that has rented and sunk various industries while also seeking to reform the French labour market.  But this nostalgic throw back entails barriers and bridges, building fortifications, holding firm and wishing for the best.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon proved to be another dark horse, the spicy left-wing option to Le Pen, and a candidate who experienced a surge of popularity prior to the poll.  His result is a story that has invigorated the left while gutting the socialists, providing us a reminder of the time of a greater radicalism. 

“Len Pen,” claims Roger Martelli, “was counting on turning this election into a fight with the Socialist party government, but she had to compete with a radicalized right-wing opposition and socialist opponents who had moved more sharply to the left than she had expected.”

Nor were things pretty for Hamon, with a devastating result to compare to Gaston Defferre’s 5 per cent showing in 1969.  The socialists reformed by the 1971 Épinay Congress in the wake of that electoral catastrophe, have been well and truly buried.

What Mélenchon’s popularity suggests is that the European system, at least the model as it stands, needs reform and a degree of disentangling vis-à-vis the state.  Nor has he told his supporters to vote for Macron, a paternalistic ploy that can irritate voters. 

“None of us will vote for the far-right,” went the consultation to 450,000 registered supporters of the France Untamed movement.  “But does it mean we need to give voting advice?” As Der Spiegel opined with characteristic gloominess, “The presidential election in France is becoming yet another end game over Europe’s political future.”

Much will depend on voter turnout come May, and the seasoned opportunism of Le Pen.  Her latest play is to place herself above partisan considerations by stepping down from the leadership of the National Front.  “So, this evening, I am no longer the president of the National Front.  I am the candidate for the French presidency.” 

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Published in Politics

Commentary by Binoy Kampmark in Melbourne, Australia

While the shattering Brexit vote of June had a deservedly chilling impact in Brussels and other European capitals, the grey suits have been busy pushing various lines on the consequences Britain faces for leaving the European Union. The technocrats in Europe will be making sure they make things as difficult as possible. 

Back in London, rhetoric and deflection is in heavy supply. Canada may offer a model, especially in the area of immigration. 

Various multinational companies find the notion of uncertainty certain economic death.  Japanese and U.S. firms, for instance, have sought clarity on what passporting arrangements will exist in a post-Brexit order.  So far, they have gotten little other than poorly minted assurances. 

The defect of those assurances lies in the inability on the part of officials in London to know exactly what the EU will do. The EU, in turn, is also wondering what that position will manifest.  To make war, it is always wise to know the strategy of your opponent.

As the Economist reports, the view in Europe on Britain’s logistical quandary has become “the sexiest file in town”. It is daring, it is challenging, and it seems to some, near hopeless.  The hopeless element is not incurred because of pessimism; it merely seems that all sides are having each other on, mixing the bag of seduction with that of indecency.

Everyone is accusing the other of feeding uncertainty.  EU officials have been accused of creating it for not clarifying the position of British expats in Europe; Donald Tusk of the European Council has said in kind that the British decision to leave the EU was the cause of all the headaches, in turn causing EU expats in Britain troubling concern.

“Would you not agree,” he claimed supremely in a note released on Twitter, “that the only source of anxiety and uncertainty is rather the decision on Brexit?”  When officials need a worthy scapegoat, the unruly outcome of the democratic will always be there.

Theresa May’s government has been telling the British public that there will be no “soft” or “hard” Brexit, but a “red, white, and blue Brexit.”  That particularly statement, made during a visit to attend the Gulf Co-operation Council, was a weak retort to the mooted idea that a “grey Brexit” was circulating as an idea. 

The idea of a more ambiguous greying Brexit has its roots in the offices of the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and Brexit secretary, David Davis.  (The May cabinet these days is an uncertain one.)  In what started looking like projections from a set of colour crayons, variants of Brexit were being thrown around from the lightest form (“white Brexit”) which would supposedly not defeat the referendum’s aim while keeping Britain in the EU market system, to that of the darkest (“black Brexit”), which would terrify those providing financial services.

The greyer variant would entail an analogous arrangement with that of Canada:  limits on immigration favouring skilled migrants would take place alongside access to various parts of the free zone.

May’s response to the crayon version of Brexit was to steer the cause back to the bromides of false patriotism, and perhaps false hope.  “I’m interested in all these terms that have been identified – hard Brexit, soft Brexit, black Brexit, white Brexit, grey Brexit – and actually what we should be looking for is a red, white, and blue Brexit.”

Such flag-driven terms are meaningless, vacuous, even silly.  The consistency of what May’s version of Brexit is vague, and again suggests a different message for a different audience.  There is no need to define the strategy, merely the outcome.  “That is the right deal for the United Kingdom, what is going to be the right relationship for the UK with the European Union once we’ve left.”

On that score, the Labour opposition did, at the very least, secure a promise from May that her government publish the Brexit plan before the formalities of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty are triggered.  That plan is bound to spawn a new industry, creating specialists on how to evacuate from a tightly bound, financial and social compact.

The plan, for the moment, remains shrouded.  As Italy’s Europe minister, Sandro Gozi, explained, the case in London seemed “far from clear”.  As was the starting basis for negotiations.  “It seems there are disagreements and divisions within the cabinet. There are many uncertainties.”

May’s message to Michel Barnier, charged with the task of Brexit from the EU side, will be a different one from that directed to British audiences. There are few choices on the table, with Barnier insisting that “time will be very short” for the negotiation period.  “It’s clear that the period of actual negotiations will be shorter than two years.  All in all, there will be less than 18 months to negotiate.”

Barnier’s promises have verged on threatening, though they have been delivered with tepid calm.  For one, he is busying himself identifying a common position with all of the 27 remaining members in the EU towards Britain. This should be completed by the end of January.  

The unmistakable emphasis here is that of inferiority: the British decision to leave, Barnier promises, will be saddled with consequences, placing the country in a position worse than it would be if it remains.  “Being in the EU comes with rights and benefits.  The single market and its four freedoms are indivisible.  Cherry picking is not an option.”

Barnier might have also reflected on the other side of the European problem: the populist challenge to grey, bureaucratic technocracy; the need for institutional reform that does more than utter financial messages and praise the God Market or Civil Servant King.  The May government may well be struggling with its strategy on exit, but the mandarins on the continent should be equally troubled by a strategy that is failing to curb a far deeper, inner rage. 

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Published in Commentary

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