In France, as elsewhere in Europe, the far right kills

The murder of the young anti-fascist activist Clément Méric in France is the tip of a rise in far right violence at the European level.

Astonishment but no surprise at all: the far-right has killed in France as it kills elsewhere in Europe. The young anti-fascist activist Clément Méric died under the blows of skinheads in the center of Paris. Yet who can maintain that such a violent act was not predictable, even predicted?

The murder of Clement is the tip of a rise in far right violence at the European level. The five people arrested for his murder are said to be members of a small extremist group known as Troisième Voie, but from skinhead groups to the "manif pour tous", through to the Front National, the whole French far right has gone along with, legitimised and even generated this violence. 

We know well that Alexandre Gabriac, the leader of the Jeunesses Nationalistes, went to Greece last December to get inspiration from the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn. Virulently anti-Semitic and racist, with a heavy nostalgia for the Third Reich, they combine legal and illegal action, running for elections while at the same time violently assaulting migrants, on a daily basis, especially in the streets of Athens.

As soon as Golden Dawn entered the parliament last May, we have been developing a European solidarity with democrats in Greece, but the neo-Nazis have gone on gaining ground, especially among youth. In France, after his so-called exclusion from the Front National, Alexandre Gabriac has been maintaining close relationships with the FN group at the Regional Council of Rhône-Alpes.

We also know that, in Hungary, the Hungarian Guard, which is a paramilitary militia of the Jobbik party, terrorizes Roma people, often forces them to flee the country, and even regularly murders some of them. The French far right is an ally of Jobbik, which is the cornerstone of the European expansion strategy of the Front National. Together, they founded, in 2009 in Budapest, the "Alliance of European National Movements", of which the BNP is also a part.

We all remember the massacre of the young social-democrats at Utoya, in Norway, during the summer 2011. Already then, youth was the target and the murders were political. Repeating the racist delirium on a European civil war which White Christians should fight against muslims and migrants, the killer has been celebrated as a hero by the fascist blogosphere. The former leader of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen then declared that migration, not the killer, was to blame for the massacre,.

In France, the mobilisation against the extension of civil marriage to homosexual couples has provided an opportunity to express all forms of hatred. The echoes of hate speech inside the Assemblée Nationale; the rallies where leaders of democratic and antidemocratic parties walked side by side; the all-too weak condemnations of violent acts which took place at the end of the demonstrations; the welcoming into the protests of all the enemies of democracy, all the racists, all the far right thugs in these rallies, have paved the way to, made possible, allowed, the murder of Clément.

Now, just over a year since the killings by Mohamed Merah, Europe is again turning its attention to France and expecting a worthy response. It is vital that public authorities resume their support for the fight against racism and for democracy, in France as well as at the European level. It is high time to give life to two of the main themes of François Hollande's election campaign: youth, who are hurting the most today, and equality, which has been assaulted by months of a gruesome reactionary mobilisation. Lastly, it is a democratic necessity to ban far right groups responsible for the murder of Clément.

It is also time for a renewed effort by civil society, which has been too passive when opposing the rise in far right in France like elsewhere on our continent. We must tolerate no hate speech, no illegal act, since none of them is innocent. We must not let ourselves impressed by the feeling of might and permissiveness which the enemies of democracy feel because we, the democrats, are the many, in France as elsewhere in Europe.

What is at stake is clear: liberty, democracy and life. Let us ensure that Clément is the last one to fall under the blows of the far right.

Benjamin Abtan is president of the European Grassroots Movement Against Racism

Protesters hold a banner reading "Clement M. assassinated by fascists / No forgetting, no forgiving" at a demonstration in Toulouse. Photograph: Getty Images

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.