Hollande triumphs in France

Sarkozy concedes defeat as a Socialist wins the presidency for the first time since 1988.

After 17 years of conservative rule in France, a Socialist is finally heading for the Elysée. The official exit poll for the final round of the presidential election gave François Hollande 52 per cent of the vote, with Nicolas Sarkozy trailing on 48 per cent, the first time a Socialist has won since François Mitterrand in 1988. Much to Sarkozy's dismay (he absurdly accused the pollsters of "lying"), he has become the first French President not to win re-election since Giscard d'Estaing 31 years ago.

In a valedictory address to his supporters, minutes after the polls closed, Sarkozy conceded defeat, declaring that "François Hollande is the President of France and must be respected." It was a rare show of dignity from the UMP candidate, who ran a shamelessly populist and demagogic campaign, pandering to anti-Muslim prejudice at every opportunity.

The implications for British politics are significant. Hollande's call for a more balanced approach to deficit reduction (he has pledged to renegotiate the EU's fiscal compact) and his support for fiscal stimulus finally gives Labour an ally in Europe. In his appearance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, George Osborne attempted to spin Hollande's victory in the Tories' favour by claiming that he is not "anti-austerity". There is some truth to this. Hollande has pledged to eliminate France's 5.2 per cent deficit by 2017, just a year later than Sarkozy did. The high vote for Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round (11 per cent) showed the desire among some voters for a more radical alternative to austerity.  But the irony is that were Hollande a British politician, his support for higher spending would see him branded a "deficit denier" by Osborne.

We'll hear much talk of how Cameron miscalculated by snubbing Hollande (unlike Ed Miliband) when he visted Britain earlier this year. But the truth is that Hollande was never troubled by Cameron's behaviour. His camp openly said that it was not in their candidate's interests to be seen with a British Conservative and that they understood his support for Sarkozy, the leader of the Tories' French sister party.

Both Labour and the Tories will now anxiously watch the effect of Hollande's policies on the French economy, in search of vindication for their respective strategies.

France's new Socialist President François Hollande waves as he arrives on stage to give a speech in Tulle, southwestern France. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.