Category Archives: Economic crisis

Why is support for France’s Front National rising?

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As I write French voters are casting their ballots in the first round of regional elections, although turnout will be much lower than in presidential or legislative elections, so a sense of proportion is needed when analysing the results. Nevertheless it looks almost certain that the Front National (FN) will do well, possibly even taking control of one or more regions after the second round next week. Why is the FN’s vote rising and what does it actually represent these days?

  • The main difference between the FN and the mainstream right is not racism or Islamophobia but hostility to the EU. A short quiz. Who said the following?

“There is no Islamophobia in France. There aren’t any anti-Muslim acts — or no more than acts against women . . . or short people. But there is a rise in anti-Semitism.”

”Someone who comes to us must assimilate, adopt our lifestyle, our culture …. Do you keep your shoes on when you visit a mosque when you’re abroad?”

The first is FN leader Marine Le Pen, the second is Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the ex-UMP now rebaptised the Republicans. But it could have been the other way around, couldn’t it?

True, some members of the Republicans – Sarkozy’s rival for the party’s presidential nomination Alain Juppé, for example – are alarmed by Sarkozy’s appeals to Islamophobia, which this year have included the proposal to drop alternative meals for religious minorities in school canteens and to extend the ban on the hijab already enforced in schools to universities. It’s also true that Sarkozy can hardly be accused of consistency, sometimes trying to create a state-sponsored Islam or cultivate Muslims who will toe his line, and that the party from time to time reins in individuals like the slightly deranged Nadine Morano. But the appeal to prejudice in the name of a selective laïcité is now as likely to be heard at a Republicans rally as in one of Le Pen’s almost incessant radio and TV interventions.

What makes further rapprochement between the two parties impossible is not racism, Islamophobia or any other prejudice but the FN’s hostility to the EU, stance that is unacceptable to the French establishment, the Republicans, the Socialist Party, François Bayrou’s Modem and all the other mainstream politicians.

  • The FN is no longer a fascist party. The FN plays on prejudice, is authoritarian in office and, like the fascist movements of the ’30s, has stolen aspects of the left’s social policy to consolidate a popular base. But, although it was in its origin a far-right coalition dominated by fascists, it is not really fascist now, unless you are one of those people for whom “fascist” just means “nasty”. In fact, the mainstream right – sometimes risibly called the “centre right” – now shares many of the attributes listed above. The FN has no militia, does not physically attack or murder trade unionists or left-wing activists, does not appear to have a plan to create a corporate state. No reasonably sized party in Europe has these characteristics today because it is no longer necessary to atomise the working class, as Trotsky, in my view correctly, described the task of fascism, because that has already been accomplished democratically, thanks to globalisation, the decline of heavy industry in western Europe and the US, the weakening of trade unionism and the labour movement, consumerism and the brand in individualism that goes with it, the ideological offensive against collectivism and the rise of neoliberalism, and the confusion on the left that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The FN would certainly be authoritarian and whip up intolerance if it ever formed a government. How authoritarian I don’t know and I don’t think it does, either.
  • Support for the FN is a perverse revolt against the establishment. Obviously, the 13 November Paris attacks have boosted the FN, part of the polarisation that Isis wants to take place in Europe. But the FN’s steady growth in areas that were once strongholds of the left are a sign that an atomised working class believes that the mainstream parties have failed to defend their interests and, in fact, despise them. The Nord, which could fall to the FN, has seen its heavy industries destroyed over decades. Mining, steelmaking and other heavy industries have been destroyed, sometimes deliberately thanks to EU policies based on economic projections that failed to foresee a rise in world demand for steel that led to the Chinese buying, dismantling and importing entire abandoned steel plants. The main parties leaders live comfortable lives, insulated from the daily problems that assail most of the voters, they are frequently caught with their hands in the till or breaking the very laws they or their predecessors have passed and they and much of the media lecture the petit peuple on morality and “republican values”. FN voters are certainly conscious of the party’s racism and mean-mindedness but many, especially the new ones, see their ballot as a poke in the establishment’s collective eye.
  • The Socialist government has betrayed its voters. If any French party is centre-right, it is the Socialist Party, even if its voters and some of its members are left-wing. The first-ever public declaration of ministers’ wealth revealed that eight cabinet members were millionaires. And their policies have protected their and their fellow Croesuses’ interests. The government has stuck to the austerity line, combined with massive tax cuts for businesses, despite their manifest failure to reduce unemployment or revive the economy. The only time it has faced down the right has been over same-sex marriage, a measure that proved perfectly acceptable to Britain’s Conservative Party.  One of the main reasons for the FN’s increased share of the vote is that left-wing voters are completely demoralised and have stayed at home.

To read my article on Marine Le Pen’s efforts to clean up the Front National’s image on the RFI English website, click here.

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Corbynmania and the Sanders surge are a rejection of consumer politics

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Everyone’s surprised by the support garnered by Jeremy Corbin and Bernie Sanders, not least their most ardent supporters. The British Labour Party may soon have a leader who can be described as left-wing without inverted commas. Americans may be invited to vote for someone who says he’s a socialist and could even win. Can this possible be true? And, as importantly, what does it mean?

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“Keep voting, I’ll do the rest” De Gaulle tells France in this poster from May 68

The unpredictable is the only safe prediction in today’s political world, as parties that were solid melt into air and others that scarcely registered on the pollsters’ radar no so long ago win control of towns, cities, a country even.

Clearly, the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and the mainstream parties’ responses – generosity to the banks and billionaires, austerity for those without their clout – have discredited capitalism, or at least its most brutal manifestations, in the eyes of many.

As Bernard Porter points out, to the generation that has grown up since the Cold War and is experiencing the Thatcher/Reagan legacy, Corbyn is not a dinosaur but a revelation.

Austerity has discredited its enforcers, including the careerist leaders of Europe’s formerly social-democratic parties, leading to an unexpected revival of the left in Greece, Scotland and Spain.

Of course, it’s also given a boost to the Trumps, Le Pens and Farages but that, too, is a symptom of the collapse in the authority of established parties and ideologies.

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“I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, they profit” Atelier populaire, May 68

But I think there is another, connected reason for the explosion of support for these two men and other political outsiders.

Isn’t it also a symptom of the rejection of the market approach to politics? Of spin doctors telling parties not to present policies they believe in to voters but pitch offers to that part of the electorate that is not inclined to vote for them – the “Them’s me principles but, if you don’t like ‘em, I’ll change ‘em” approach to democracy.

The efforts of Corbyn’s opponents to explain how unelectable he is, as he packs in huge crowds, races ahead of them in the leadership election stakes and then proves to be the most popular candidate among many non-Labour voters, have been an invaluable contribution to the great British comic tradition, as have their efforts to get rid of thousands of the wrong kind of voter.  If we don’t like the voters, we can change them, as well.

Corbyn’s and Sanders’s support is evidence of a widespread desire for personal integrity in politics, a quality that is notable by its absence in most parliaments these days.

But, judging by reports of party meetings and public rallies, there’s also a demand for political honesty.

The strategic masterminds told party activists and bedrock supporters that they must keep their political libidos under control for fear of frightening the floating voter. In Britain that got them the Iraq War, economic crisis and two electoral defeats, not to mention the personal enrichment of prime ministers and their Svengalis.

So, many people want to vote for what they’d really like to see happen this time round. And it looks as if that could be a more realistic strategy in attracting many voters – including some of those tempted by Ukip or even Trump – than trying to sell a party as if it were something that gets rid of unpleasant stains.

Hannah Arendt apparently argued that electoral politics transforms the political relationship into that of seller to buyer, a point taken up by the PKK and the PYD in their turn to alternative forms of participation and organisation.  Voters become consumers, passive individuals in an increasingly atomised society, delegating decision-making to a political caste that can claim their consent because they have participated in the electoral process.

We are thus coopted into our own political and economic exploitation, all the more so today when the politicians then declare themselves powerless in the face of the market on the most important questions that affect our lives. Russell Brand may not be as superficial as Jeremy Paxman would have us believe.

This goes some way to explain the enthusiasm for direct election of presidents, mayors etc that has spread outwards from the US, the Afghans having it imposed on them as an indispensable element of democracy by a coalition of countries many of whom didn’t practise it themselves (the UK’s Jack Straw congratulated them on at last electing their head of state – was he being subtly subversive or just not thinking what he was saying?).

The more representatives are elected, and the more personalised those elections are, the more consumer choice has been exercised and the more passive the electors should be once their ballots have been cast.

Hence the primaries – invented in the US, of course, and now exported to Europe (the mainstream French parties now have primaries, too, but, so far, they’ve delivered the required results, so no hooha about who’s voted in them).

Hilariously, in Britain a procedure that was designed to dilute the power of party activists in a mass of passive voters has become mobilised thousands to express disgust with austerity, careerism and top-down politics.

With added irony, the rise of social media, which in a sense add to the atomisation of society – the individual sits isolated in front of the screen and is bombarded with what algorithms decide is good for him or her – have fuelled the process, creating networks that establish a new form of the collective.

If Corbyn or Sanders wins, what happens next?

In Britain the establishment in its various manifestations has already shown its intention to override the democratic process by any means necessary.

I suspect that is when the weakness of social media-driven enthusiasm will become apparent. Will the thousands who have voted have the stamina or power to resist a long-term campaign of sabotage and vilification by professionals whose careers are intimately linked to the status quo?

In this respect, the Greek experience is not encouraging, so far at least.

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The Greek debacle and the education of Yanis Varoufakis

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Yanis Varoufakis Photo: Public domain/Yanis Varoufakis Subversive interview 2013 cropped.jpg

I don’t want to sound patronising here, Yanis Varoufakis certainly has more academic qualifications than me and could undoubtedly teach me a thing or two about economics, but it does seem that his time as a minister has been an education for him in politics, the nature and art of negotiation and the ruthlessness of the establishment.

Understandably, Varoufakis seems to be in a sour mood after his experience of negotiating with the EU, the IMF and Wolfgang Schäuble. He voted against the austerity package accepted by Alexis Tsipras and is now merrily spilling the beans about an alleged Syriza Plan B for handling being squeezed out of the eurozone, the unpleasant odours that haunt the corridors of power and Schäuble’s apparent intention to make Grexit a reality.

His efforts to explain to EU leaders that their own policies are damaging the EU and capitalism itself appear not to have been appreciated, as he told the New Statesman:

“ … there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.”

But why did he imagine it would be any other way?

Forgive me for saying so, Professor, but you were naïve. These people already know the arguments and have decided that they are of no use to them.

Some – Schäuble, Tusk – appear to be ideologically committed to austerity, perhaps due to a sentimental attachment to the idea of the lower orders suffering or perhaps because of their political, personal or family histories.

Others have built careers in the service of an establishment that is becoming increasingly addicted to short-term financial returns, big dividends, not paying taxes and slashing waste, ie what’s left of the welfare state.

They don’t want to listen to the opposing case and explaining that case was not relevant to negotiation over Greece’s debt.

In the long run, austerity means that the EU, and eventually capitalism, will eat itself.

But – and for anyone who’s read previous relevant posts on my blog may find I sound a bit Johnny One Note here – the restraints on their short-termism have gone. These were essentially a powerful labour movement and, even more importantly in my view, a competing social system in the form of the Soviet bloc. They no longer exist, so the capitalist class no longer accepts that the state disciplines its need for higher and higher returns in the briefest delays possible.

Negotiation is not about persuading your opponents of the correctness of your case, it’s about convincing them that they have something to lose by not accepting your demands or at least reaching compromise.

That’s why I was amazed when the Syriza leaders declared that they would not leave the eurozone or accept loans from Russia.

Whether you intend to do it or not, why rule out a course of action that could frighten some of the people on the opposite side of the table (although not Schäuble in the first case, apparently)?

Equally puzzling was the Syriza leadership’s acceptance of France’s “help” in drawing up its final proposals (after Varoufakis’s resignation).

The French government and the civil servants it deployed to look over the Greeks’ shoulders may not want a Grexit but they have enthusiastically applied austerity policies and seem to have had a major role in drafting a swingeing package for Greece.

While the negotiations were going on, someone suggested to me that Schäuble was playing hard cop to allow Angela Merkel to look like the soft cop. Not a good comparison. Angela was quite hard enough. Wolfgang was more like the cop applies electrodes to your genitals.

The French Socialist leaders were the soft cops, with President François Hollande apparently on the phone to the Greeks and the Germans continuously in the run-up to the last deal and, in the end, they managed to thrust their package down the Greeks’ throats.

Oh well! At least the Syriza leaders showed that politicians don’t have to wear ties.

Ties are the sartorial descendants of a scrap of material that knights used to wear to stop their breastplates rubbing against their necks. Whether the big swinging dicks in the boardrooms and ministries like it or not, we don’t wear armour any more, so ties are pointless.

That’s a tiny victory, I suppose.

I’m off to Greece this week. So more on the blog later.

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Beware Greeks bearing ballot boxes

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Laocoon Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Public domain

Whether you agree with the result or not, the massive No vote in Sunday’s Greek referendum was a courageous choice. Nobody knows what will happen now – not the Greeks, not the troika … not even Angela Merkel. The majority of Greeks chose to risk more economic hardship rather than willingly undergo further humiliation at the Eurobullies’ hands. A few observations:

  • The Greeks said no to do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do:  Jean-Claude Juncker and Christine Lagarde told them they were naughty not to have paid their taxes. He was finance minister and then prime minister of a tax haven from 1989 to 2013. Being employed by the IMF, she doesn’t pay taxes anywhere (as was, of course, also the case for her predecessor, the delightful DSK). I don’t think that any of us could swear, hand on heart, that we would insist on our contract being rewritten if offered tax exemption but why exactly do international pontificators on fiscal rigour have this status?
  • European unity is good … but at what price? I have to admit to a sentimental attachment to the European Union and the euro. Being able to travel across most of a continent without showing my passport or changing my money is a pleasing taste of a world without national borders. But how many Greeks should be made unemployed, have their pensions slashed or otherwise reduced to penury to afford me that pleasure?
  • Europe would look pretty stupid without Greece: Juncker and friends said that the Greeks were voting on whether to stay in the euro and maybe the EU. Grexit would be a big blow to the euro project but they may be ready to accept it for the sake of an example to the other southern European slackers. But what will become of all those speeches about Europe’s heritage and values if the country that gave us the words “democracy”, “philosophy” – not to mention “poliics”, “comedy” and “drama” – is no longer part of our Europe? What has Luxembourg’s contribution to our common culture been, remind me?
  • Opinion polls are crap: Thank God I resisted the temptation to write a headline about Yes and No being neck and neck on RFI’s website on Saturday following the last poll, which showed the Yes winning with 41.5% against 40.2% for the No.  This is not the first time the pollsters have been spectacularly wrong or that partisan media and interested parties have tried to influence the result by seizing on the prediction that serves their purpose. What happened? Were those canny Greeks also plotting their revenge on pollsters, journalists and EU chiefs by lying about their real intentions? Of course, even if the pollsters are genuinely trying to get it right, they can’t avoid the fact that being polled is passive and going to vote is active. They include in their calculations the responses of people who won’t be arsed to go and vote, whose opinion, quite rightly, isn’t taken into account in a real democratic process. But still we write articles based on one poll as if it was a factual account of the public’s mood and politicians allow their results to influence policy. I think we do have enough evidence to say that François Hollande is not very popular in France at the moment but can we really be sure that 51% of French people don’t think very highly of Alexis Tsipras on the basis of one poll?
  • This is the beginning of an era of austerity, not the end: Austerity doesn’t deliver what’s promised and depresses demand, thus further damaging the economy. But the IMF, the EU and the German leadership have turned down Yanis Varoufakis’s kind offer to save capitalism from itself. Electoral considerations come into this for Merkel, although, as George Papandreou showed when he resigned as Greek PM, an establishment politician is prepared to fall on his sword for the greater bourgeois good if bullied enough. Please read my previous post Austerity the new  normal on why I believe that the changes in the structure of the working class and the collapse of the Soviet bloc have lifted the restraints on unbridled capitalist accumulation and are likely to lead to all the social reforms of the 20th century being “reformed” away.
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Pursuing tax-dodgers , even half-heartedly, nets France 20bn euros for France

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Toads of property, George Grosz

As I’ve just reported in a much-tweeted story on RFI’s website, the French government collected a record 19.3bn euros from tax dodgers in 2014, up from 18bn in 2013, and it expects to collect even more in 2015.

The government is claiming the credit for its anti-tax-dodging drive but there were earlier reports of people in that department complaining that they were understaffed, particularly given the number of tax avoiders who have come forward following the Swissleaks and Luxleaks revelations, and could collect far more.

Panic seems to have seized certain members of the accumulating classes, inspiring an unprecedented outbreak of honesty.

Unless I’m mistaken, the Greek government’s proposal to chase up tax dodgers has been pretty much pooh-poohed by the EU, IMF and other negotiators, for whom making the poor suffer seems to be a matter of principle – see my post Austerity the new normal, which also goes into the French experience and ventures an explanation as to why this is going to carry on indefinitely.

The French government is by no means evangelical about pursuing tax avoidance. Many of its “Socialist” members are millionaires and one was found to have a secret Swiss bank account (and to have consorted with fascists at various points in his career).

Anyone tempted to soap the rope for benefits scroungers might like to know that pursuing social security fraud, including employers’ unpaid contributions, only netted the French government 852.6 million euros.

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Street-kids, poverty, pollution … Jakarta after the 1997 financial crisis

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Jakarta is one of the world’s most heavily populated cities, its kampongs swelled by migrants from the overcrowded Javanese countryside and from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. The city took a hit in 1997 and its people had to find ways to survive … not all of them pleasant or, for that matter, legal. I wrote this when I visited in 1999.

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Jakarta, not in 1990. Public domain

A lot of Jakarta’s buildings are having a bad hair day. Their sexy steel-and-glass bodies soar up to a mess of girders and concrete pillars. Others haven’t even got the glass and cladding. As in the rest of south-east Asia, building stopped when the crisis hit.

Jakarta is hot and humid. Millions of lorries, buses, cars, motorbikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks fart into the atmosphere  and what doesn’t go straight into your lungs rises to hang in a greyish pall above the city,  for consumption at a later date.

For all the business boulevards, Jakarta’s people ensure that it remains an Asian city at street level: street-stalls crowd virtually all available pavement space, selling  fried rice, boiled rice, fried noodles, boiled noodles, fried chicken, chicken soup,  meatball soup,  fried catfish, fried tofu, smoked tofu, fried bananas, fried tapioca, sate, tripes in sauce, cow’s stomach in sauce, cow’s skin, won ton,  durian,  papaya, pineapple, coca-cola, tea, coffee, fanta, a strange luminous green liquid served with another brown liquid and white noodles that look like worms… and more, if you dare to try.

The crisis means an increase in the number of beggars and street-hawkers. Some literally grovel in the gutter as traffic rushes past them; being as wretched as possible is their professional qualification. Boys play guitars at the crossroads. Others appoint themselves unoffical traffic-police at the many points where motorists make U-turns, occasionally picking up a tip for their pains. A sign that they are aware of the years that they’re knocking off their lives is the fact that some wear bandanas across their mouths in an ineffectual attempt to keep out the fumes from a thousand exhausts.

A city official says that the number of street-children has swollen from 12,636 in August 1998 to 68,688 in June 1999. Parents who’ve been laid off from building sites and factories apparently send their children out on the streeets to beg.

Meanwhile, we foreigners lock the taxi doors and tell each other the story of the woman who was stabbed in the leg by a man who jumped in her cab demanding money.

Some people find Jakarta peaceful at night. I find it sinister. Perhaps it’s just the bad street-lighting and the looming trees. Drive around town after dark and you whisk by the skeleton of unbuilt or burnt buildings,  a crossroads peopled by about a hundred hookers,  turned to caricature by make-up and headlights, gangs of men or boys loitering, people who sleep under overhead roads and railways, and the flames of the last of the street-vendors frying the last of the street-food.

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