Francois Hollande, the French president. Photo: Getty Images
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Trouble for Hollande from the Right and the Left

On yesterday's French legislative elections.

 

Yesterday saw a record low level of participation (48.31 per cent) in France's legislative elections as 6,500 candidates campaigned for 577 seats. People headed to the booths to choose between an average of ten candidates, including a number of smaller fringe parties such as the Pirate party and the Blank vote party, which reflect the broader European tendency towards a balkanisation of politics.

Despite tepid public interest in the elections, their outcome could have a significant impact on the government and its ability to undertake its agenda, which includes raising taxes on the wealthiest, tougher measures to regulate the finance sector, the creation of 60,000 new jobs in education over the next five years, reducing the deficit to 3 per cent by 2017 and outlining a new Franco-German treaty. The high level of abstention increased the number of "three ways" in the second round on 17 June, whereby three candidates reach the second round and which traditionally sees the formation of alliances to achieve a majority, a situation in which smaller parties can become King-markers. Such an outcome is likely to favour Hollande's Socialist party (PS) which already has a national alliance with the Ecology party and a less formal agreement with the Far-Left. 

The party which wins the presidential elections traditionally achieves a majority in the national assembly, a result which could see the Left dominate all the major government institutions and consolidate Hollande's power. Whether the PS will have to be drawn into a coalition with the anti-capitalist Far-Left in order to achieve that majority will determine its ability to manoeuvre subsequently and could further complicate negotiations with European partners on the already thorny issue of austerity, just as Spain has conceded a bailout. Leader of the Leftist Front, Melenchon, who wants a "citizen revolution", has previously expressed his desire to weaken the Right in France in order to create a precedent for Leftist policies in Europe, starting with Greece, which will vote straight after France and Germany, set to vote in October. Such a prospect has Layla and Florian, a young Parisian couple and Melenchon supporters, enthused. They claim the Leftist Front offers a way out of this "corrupt and unjust capitalist system" and reflects the only real alternative: "We don't need three cars or big houses - the current system means the middle class and the elite get richer whilst the poor get left behind - we need a revolution." But their conviction the Far-Left can resolve France or even Europe's problems, is far from unanimous. An elderly couple queuing at the polling office tell me they're concerned there could be a "return" of the communists, as occurred under the government of Leon Blum in 1936, which they recall was marked by "near constant strikes". After casting a vote for the UMP, they praise Le Pen's views on immigration, but say their memory of the war and "the fratricide which occurred" means they would not contemplate voting for an anti-EU party. 

The elections have highlighted tensions with the UMP, which suffered significant losses, over its ideological outlook and strategy . The traditional UMP alliance with Centre right parties has been negatively affected by the poor showing of Francois Bayrou's ModDem party, as well as by the rise of the Far-Right, which has drained some of its electorate. Since the departure of Sarkozy, the party has been embroiled in a power struggle between Party leader hopefuls and the public squabbling has served the interests of the National Front, which seeks to position itself as the "New Right". Despite some pressure from its base to form UMP-FN alliances to keep the PS at bay, the UMP has so far resisted such a move, with Alain Juppé warning of the dangers of an alliance with a party which seeks to weaken the Right, in order to subsume it. But MP for the Gironde and representative of the UMP's right wing, Jean-Paul Garraud, has called on the party to move beyond an "ideological blockage" for pragmatic reasons and unite with the FN, a strategy which though officially denounced, may end up being reflected on the ground. The pressure to concede it even more accute in light of the thirty two "three ways" in which the FN remains present for the second round.

A UMP-FN alliance, though grounded in electoral concerns, also reflects Marine Le Pen's success in transforming the image of her father's party, distancing herself from his racist and anti-semitic rants through a focus on anti-EU rhetoric and economic protectionism, coated in xenophobia. The FN, which achieved almost 18 per cent in the Presidential elections, has traditionally failed to gain seats in the National Assembly - a fact that reflects both an element of protest vote in its score at the Presidential election and the higher levels of abstention in local elections, which disproportionately affects smaller parties. Yesterday, it achieved 13.77 per cent of the votes; a three fold increase on its 2007 showing in the legislatives elections then, through considerably lower than its score in May's election. In the second round the FN may achieve between 0-5 MPs, under the banner of the "Marine blue gathering", a symbolic gain which reflects the growth of the Far-right in Europe and which would undoubtedly negatively impact France's Muslim citizens.

While it looks likely Hollande will get his socialist majority parliament, the chorus of anti-austerity voices from both the Far-Left and the Far-right, which may be rewarded with a parliamentary presence, will complicate his ability to act against the significant challenges faced, including 10 per cent unemployment, sluggish growth, a lack of competitiveness and a massive deficit. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for them, these elections will have a decisive impact on France's policies and given its place in Europe, on the very nature of European policy.

 

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution