By Prabasi Nepali
The first round of the most consequential French presidential election took place last Sunday. There was heightened security after an Islamist terrorist gunned down a policeman and injured several others in the posh Paris area of Champs Elysees, sending locals and tourists rushing for cover. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility. This attack thrust questions of security to the forefront on the last days of the campaigning after nine months of relative calm.
Centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right leader Ms. Marine Le Pen made it through to the second round on May 7. Macron stands on 23.9 percent with Le Pen on 21.4 percent. It is the first time in six decades that neither of France’s main left-wing or right-wing parties has had a candidate in the second round. There were eleven candidates from the far right to the extreme left, but only four were of any consequence and also the forerunners in several polls. First, there was Madame Marine Le Pen (one of two female candidates) from the far-right National Front and bête noire of the French establishment, who was expected to make it comfortably to the second round. One respected commentator even speculated that she had an outside chance of winning even outright in the first round with 50 percent of the votes cast. Second, scandal-plagued Francois Fillon was a candidate of “The Republicans”, a centre-right conservative party. He is also a former prime minister. Third, Jean-Luc Melenchon was a candidate of the far left and enjoyed an upsurge in the latest polls, but was generally thought to have a slender chance to make it to the second round. Fourth, Emmanuel Macron with his new movement “On the Move”, and running neck and neck with Le Pen, was expected to comfortably advance to the second round. In fact, Macron and Le Pen were the ‘favourite horses’ to progress to the second and crucial round of the election. The ruling “Socialist Party” of deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande was nowhere in the reckoning.
Days before the significant election – not only for France, but for Europe as a whole, nearly a quarter of the electorate were still undecided, and surveys showed until then the French to be more concerned about jobs and the economy than terrorism.However, analysts warned last Thursday’s shooting could change that equation. Authorities in Paris had already deputed additional guards for hundreds of polling stations in the capital, which is in addition to an already major security plan across the country. On Sunday, around 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers were deployed to protect voters around France. In addition, in spite of the open borders in the European Union (EU), it can be certain that the security forces and intelligence agencies in the neighbouring countries – Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy – were on high alert. Still, the attack in Paris made the French election even more unpredictable.
The far-right leader Marine Le Pen moved quickly to take advantage of the tense situation to present her as the strongest defender against Islamist radicals in a country under a state of emergency since a spate of terror attacks which have already killed more than 230 people. The 48-year-old radical leader of the anti-immigration “Front Nationale” (FN) called for France to “immediately” take back control of its borders from the EU and deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist (the gunman in the latest incident was a Muslim, but a French national). She added: “This war against us is ceaseless and merciless”, accusing the Socialist government of a “cowardly” response to the threat. Both the centrist Macron and conservative Fallon were also quick to react and convened televised briefings in which they pledged to protect the country. “Some haven’t taken the full measure of the evil”, 63-year-old Fillon said, promising an “iron-fisted” approach. Macron, a 39-year-old moderate whom Fillon has portrayed as too inexperienced for the top job, said the Champs Elysees shooting was an attack on democracy, and urged voters: “Do not give in to fear.” Participation in the polls was very high – at 80 percent.
That both Macron and Le Pen made it to the next election round makes it difficult to predict the outcome.
North-East Asia Very Tense
As Trump nears the 100-day mark of his administration, he will go down as the least popular chief executive in modern times. His voters remain largely satisfied with his performance, but he has been unable to expand his base of support since he took the oath of office. His balance sheet tilts towards the negative. This is also reflected in his performance as commander-in-chief – faltering and aggressive. His character deficiencies and personal sense of debility could prompt him to attempt a foreign adventure as counterbalance to his domestic woes, and to prove his ‘strongman’ quality. One can only hope that the generals in his administration – much more experienced and astute – can control his baser instincts!
US Vice President Mike Pence has taken a military posture that can only be interpreted as threatening by North Korea. He declared last Saturday the US super aircraft-carrier Carl Vinson would arrive in north-eastern Asian waters in days. This followed days of mixed messages from Washington over the flotilla’s (the aircraft-carrier and accompanying warships) actual location. The strike group was supposedly navigating swiftly towards North Korea last week amid soaring tensions over the rogue state’s apparent immanent sixth nuclear test, with Pyongyang threatening to counter any provocation.
The US Navy, which had earlier said the carrier group would sail north from waters off Singapore as a “prudent measure” to deter the North Korean regime, admitted later the ships were actually sent south to conduct drills with the Australian navy! Previously, Trump had vaingloriously tweeted: “We are sending an armada. Very powerful”, while Secretary of Defence Gen.(retd.) Jim Mattis had said the Vinson group was “on her way up”. The complete mix-up in information and communication was a feast for the North Korean government.
The North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said in a disparaging and taunting manner: “The authorities of the Trump administrationare spouting a load of rubbish.” America is “seeking to bring nuclear aircraft carrier strike groups one after anotherto the waters off the Korean Peninsula. Such intimidation and blackmail can never frighten the DPRK” (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). On the other hand, US officials have repeatedly warned that “all options are on the table” including military strikes to curb the North’s nuclear ambitions which it defends as a necessity for self-preservation. North Korea remained defiant. “Our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carrier [the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group] with a single strike,” the “Rodong Sinmun”, the newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, wrote in a commentary.
North Korea marked the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday. It has in the past marked important anniversaries with tests of its weapons. It has already conducted five nuclear tests, two of them last year, and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the continental United States – according to its own propaganda boasts. It has also carried out a series of ballistic missile tests in defiance of United Nations sanctions. As former President Barack Obama anticipated, North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat is perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting the inexperienced and blustering Trump.
North Korea has now also threatened to lay waste to South Korea and Japan. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said last Friday North Korea’s recent statements were provocative but had proven to be hollow in the past and should not be trusted. However, in a show of naval force, two Japanese destroyers joined the US strike group Sunday in waters east of the Philippines. The joint flotilla would proceed north into the East China Sea. South Korea, on its part, has put its forces on heightened alert. There were reports suggesting that Russia was moving military hardware and troops to its very narrow border with North Korea in anticipation of a US attack. However, Russian officials said the movement was part of “scheduled maneuvers” [!] The role of China – either to rein in the North, or as a facilitator for negotiations – is crucial. Pence also renewed US calls for Beijing to use its “unique” position to bring Pyongyang under control. He said: “The steps we’re seeing China take, in many ways unprecedented steps, bringing economic to bear on North Korea are very welcome.” He added: “We do believe China can do more.” In the latest call with Trump, his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping as urged restraint and “avoid doing things that exacerbate tensions on the peninsula.” This reflects Chinese fears that the current tensions in north-east Asia could spiral into outright military conflict.
French Presidential Election: Most Consequential
By Prabasi Nepali