Rock, Paper, Scissors – Witnessing the Dynamics of a Three-Party Election in France

Decisions regarding the primary elections in the US are upon us. Whether orientated towards the Democratic or Republican party we are in a position to seriously influence the direction of our government.

One of the nice things regarding voter choice this year is the availability of a broad variety of candidates. It’s a year for outsiders. The left can claim Bernie Sanders, a man who broke Barack’s previous record for individual campaign contributions and a candidate often branded as leaning distinctly socialist.

Bernie also has his rightist equivalent. Donald Trump is in many regards the mirror image of Bernie Sanders. He’s a political outsider, privately funded, and thus not beholden to conventional party doctrine. In this regard, both Bernie and the Donald bear a similar advantage: they can function independent of party groupthink and are in a position to offer different strategies outside of prevailing wisdom, an appealing options for voters frustrated with the traditional bi-partisan entrenchments. The fundamental difference is branding; the appeal to very different constituencies.

Americans on both sides of the aisle are lucky for the choices thrust upon them. We, in effect, are enjoying a “multi-party” system.” But the phenomena is not unique. What if “outsiders” were always available?

Rock, Paper, Scissors

The race for National Presidency in France is coming in 2017. Just recently, at the end of 2015 were elections for regional presidencies in France, a position somewhat similar to a US governor, albeit with limited powers.

The “regions” of France do not hold nearly the same influence as States in the US. A regional president, cannot, for example, write laws for the region. A regional executive can, however, levy taxes, and check a local budget against the national government. This influence includes the conduction of local infrastructure, transportation, education up to the university level, and even the aiding of local businesses.

This budgetary control is of particular interest in light of a recent redistricting in the country. Aside from governments in Corsica and executive powers overseas that regulate the remnants of the French Empire, continental France has traditionally been cut up into 23 regions, which as of this recent election, have condensed into just 12 areas. Furthermore, the Parti Socialiste has been the incumbent party, not just in regional presidencies, but also on the national level under President François Hollande. During the previous regional terms only one continental region has been claimed by the Republicans; an area recently joined with two of its neighbors following redistricting. In light of these developments, the Socialists have a lot to lose should they fail to hold on to the incumbency. A win in any of the redistricted regions is a broader victory for the party who can claim the local positions.

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In 2010 the Socialist Party won the overwhelming majority of Regional Presidencies. As of the 2015 elections regions have been combined creating a greater prize for the party who can take them.

The Climate Leading into the Elections

Current international issues for French voters could be grouped into two broad categories. The relationship with supranational organizations, particularly the EU, and the question of unregulated large-scale migration from the Middle East and Africa.

Although specific strategies adopted by the PS in regards to French austerity seem to flip-flop, the consistent goal has been a reduction of public services to the ends of financing a €40 billion tax cut on businesses designed to create jobs by 2017. The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, continues to periodically push through unpopular austerity measures independent of parliament approval.

The sloppy maneuvering of peripheral Eurozone countries after the adoption of the common currency are the root cause of many of the problems affecting France’s traditionally robust economy today. Although there is a strong case to be made for prudently warding off continued recession in the Eurozone under the mandates dictated by Germnay, average citizens are gradually coming to resent footing the bill for the folly of their lower performing neighbors, and frustrated with policy that seems to regard the impositions of trans-national entities such as the EU and IMF instead of prioritizing the interests of the French citizenry. In a somewhat similar vein, many French oppose playing the assumed role as NATO ally, seemingly fruitless EU sanctions against Russia, and the refugee issues exacerbated by prolonged conflict in Syria.

In America, much of the conversation regarding the accommodation of refugees revolves around the plausibility of extremist elements among the migrant populations. The jihadist attacks on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and the more recent attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of over 130 people certainly provoke the conversation in Europe as well. However, it is worth considering the unpopularity of migrant communities often exists independent of any suspicions of terrorist activity.

The small city of Calais, for example, in the north of France, hosts a community of several thousand migrants housed in tent cities, and recently shipping containers-turned-rough apartments. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but a conservative estimate put’s this population about 3,000. Calais is the closest place in the country to the UK. As a result, many migrants make nightly attempts to cross the English Chanel by smuggling themselves aboard container trucks or traversing the underground highway that connects the two countries. Citizens of the city have reported an increase in physical assault and theft, and choked highways have become the scenes of riots and skirmishes between police and migrants. It is worth noting, that these communities are not attempting to integrate into the French economy, but are instead hedging bets on illegally entering the UK, a factor not lost on the French citizenry. The mayor of Calias blames the phenomena on impressions of the UK’s broad system of economic entitlements; an irony considering that the UK does not expend appreciable more resources on integrating refugees than does France.

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In the port city of Calais migrants risk their lives in attempts to stow away on container trucks bound for the UK.

The Main Parties & Election Results

Enter Front National (FN), a far-right party known for its anti-immigrant, anti-EU stance. In response to a question regarding the key demands of her government, FN president Marine Le Pen said, “The people are the only legitimate sovereigns. Today they have sold our sovereign liberty little by little to the European Union..” This sentiment is gaining traction among voters. Although the party has never held a regional presidency, they have contributed roughly a third of France’s 74 European Parliament Members, and the National Front was leading in 6 of the 13 regions where they had placed candidates after the first round of voting. These leads were not enough to secure any seats, as a majority of support is required for first round victory, and the vote was split relatively evenly along the three main parties.

The FN was created by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. However the party has recently been making conspicuous attempts to distance itself from its founder. Marine even went as far to eject her father from the party in August 2015 shortly following an interview he had with Rivarol, a publication that hosts far-right anti-Semitic thinking. In the interview he doubled-down on earlier statements, expressing things to the effect that Pétainists have a place in the FN; referring to the politics of Philippe Pétain, chief of state in France from 1940-44, whose government was characterized by its anti-Semetic statues and alliance with Nazi Germany.

This expulsion follows a recent effort to rebrand the party away from its anti-Semitic image, a damning reputation in a country that is host to Europe’s largest Jewish community. To quote FN vice president Louis Aliot:

“the only glass ceiling I saw, it wasn’t immigration or Islam. It’s antisemitism that stops people voting for us. There’s only that. From the moment you get rid of this ideological barrier you free up the rest. Ever since I’ve known her, Marine Le Pen agrees with that.”

The incumbent Parti Socialiste (PS) may have been spooked by the rising popularity of the National Front, as revealed by their tactics following the first round of elections. In three regions where the FN held significant leads, the Socialists ordered their candidates to withdraw from the race. One candidate refused, presuming to risk a possible FN victory in favor of a certain yielding of PS control in the region for the next six-year term. Socialist voters in key regions were also instructed to vote for the center-right Les Républicains (LR), galvanizing support against the National Front. These tactics did function to their stated purpose, the FN did not manage to claim a single presidential seat. However, the PS lost serious ground to the Republicans, the later winning 7 of the 12 continental seats.

“A veteran like Sarkozy likely understood that his center-right organization held the high ground among a citizenry slowly gravitating right, and held the course despite the increasing support of a fringe party.”

 

Tactical voting may have, however, been the only valid choice for the PS. Aside from the recent expulsions of top party members by president Hollande in an effort to unify party direction, the Socialists are a known quantity. A rebranding effort is questionable and dwindling support was something to expect. Perhaps yielding to the center-right was preferable to the possibility of a fringe party such as the FN gaining any posts, and thus legitimizing themselves administratively prior to the 2017 bid for the national presidency.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech after the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy may be in a position to put the Republicans at the head of the government. 

Nicolas Sarkozy, head of LR and former national president, may have sensed the Socialists blench. In contrast to the methods of the PS, Sarkozy went as far to oust from his party former Transport Minister and Vice-Persident, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet after she refused to support his call to reject tactical voting in the regional elections. A veteran like Sarkozy likely understood that his center-right organization held the high ground among a citizenry slowly gravitating right, and held the course despite the increasing support of a fringe party.

 

It is worth considering that the numbers over the years for the second round of voting in the reginal elections typically are significantly greater than turnout in the first round. In 2015, there was 31% increase in voter turnout from the first round to the second round. This is less than the turnout in 2010, which saw a 35% increase. 2010 neither saw a plausible third party threat, that being a rather lean year for FN support, less than 10% of the total vote during the second round, compared to a record breaking 27.1% these elections. These statistics suggest that first round support is no reliable indicator of eventual success, but also counter the line of thinking that a cross-coalition of voters hit the polls in greater numbers in the second round of 2015 specifically to counter the threat of the FN.

Fallout

While leftists saw the checking of the FN in the second round as a victory, the Republicans are more ideologically akin to the Front than they are to the Socialists. Like the Front, Sarkozy expresses many anti-immigrant and anti-EU positions, and this rhetoric has recently been ratcheted up. Unlike the Front, however, LR enjoys support and popularity among France’s large Jewish community.

Sarkozy reiterated his support with comments as a guest on a Jan 10th dinner in London hosted by the Conference of European Rabbis. His words at the event reveal that the right-leaning Sarkozy leverages the refugee issue to gain the support of an integrated minority whose cultural being might be considered antithetical to the Islamification of France. In the past year there has been a rise in anti-Semetic crime and French Jews are emigrating to Israel in record numbers; 7,000 in the past year, according to the Israeli Immigration Ministry

Regardless of one’s position on immigration, or the concept of national participation in supranational organizations such as NATO or the EU, there is something to be learned in observing the three-party dynamic in France. It seems that entrenched parties may be forced to compromise, or at least address positions outside of their rhetoric, or run the risk of losing serious influence. Such was the Socialists’ yielding to the Republicans as a preventative measure against the very real threat of FN administrative influence, and hence a track record as a serious organization with leadership experience. This jostling for power among several rival parties might prove expedient in realizing popular changes in government structure and activity, as opposed to the inevitable back and forth ping-pong match that is the continual exchange between American Democrats and Republicans. A party should not be comfortable in a democratic society, and ought never be secure in its power when at odds with a mobilized voting population.

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The Assad Regime is no House of Cards

general-president-bashar-al-assadI remember being in the car with my father on September 29th of the past year. We were listening to a radio piece on NPR regarding American interests in Syria, specifically the threat of ISIS having gained some foothold in the Syrian Civil War. ISIS was arguably a more colorful and ideologically-rooted foe and their momentum of power certainly eclipsed any outsider interest in seeing Assad’s regime preserved.

One of the radio personalities posed a rhetorical question, pondering how much time would elapse before Russia would eventually divest its attention from propping up the failing regime and join the United States in efforts against the radical jihadists. The tone of the thing was clear, Putin was essentially being a stubborn child and would, of strategic and moral necessity, eventually come around to the Western plan of action. The very next day Russian air forces began a strike of northern Syria under the commitment of combating the “terrorist” elements there. The strikes did not focus on ISIS positions, but instead managed to hit the Free Syrian Army, a US backed rebel group. Far from joining ranks with the US, Russia began to dig her heels in even more. Why would Putin be committed to this suicidal course of action? Was the Assad regime a better dog to bet on than we in the West had given credit?

The Russian Navy and the Russian Base in Syria

The reality is that Russia is a state with broad ambitions and has very little reason to yield in this situation. Moscow has a long-running relationship with Syria and one of fruits of that relationship is the Russian naval base in Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Tartus has been in Russian use since 1971 when the USSR was Syria’s primary arms dealer, and Russian use of the port continued after the fall of the USSR, partly due to a deal that excused Syria of debts it had incurred under the Soviet Union.

Part of achieving her global aspirations, and something that Russia has appeared to be focusing on more recently, is the projection of naval power. It could also be argued quite easily that the recent annexation of Crimea, following a pro-Western revolution, was an effort to secure the continued use of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol; home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Likewise, Tartus, being the only Russian controlled port on the Mediterranean, is of immense military and commercial value. Russian naval doctrine as of 2001 specifically emphasizes a need to counter NATO influence in the Mediterranean. In June 2012, just a month before rebels attacked Syria’s largest city of Aleppo, Vice-Admiral Viktor Chirkov, was quoted by Russian news agency RIA-Novosti as saying: “This base is essential to us; it has been operating and will continue to operate.

The port at Tartus is in turn connected to a good infrastructure of highways and railways situated in the regime controlled west. So not only is the base relevant to long-term Russian interests in the Mediterranean region, the port and connecting transport routes are of great logistical relevance in the continued support of Assad. The broad utility of the port and the backing of the regime by Russia are in essence a Mobius strip. One situation feeds the other.

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Syria and the “Axis of Resistance”

Aside from the Mediterranean base, an alliance with Assad taps into a network popularly referred to as the “Axis of Resistance.” The “Axis,” a term coined first in Middle Eastern newspapers as something of a parody of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” but later adopted in diplomatic language, refers to the alliance between Syria, Iran, and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The major ideological glue of this assortment is a stance against what is seen as American imperialism, and also against Israel, who is considered a proxy in the region. It is also worth noting that the bulk of Sunni-dominated states in the Middle East are NATO allies. If the sectarian frictions between the Shia-orientated “Axis” and the Sunni states was not enough, we can see that fuel is added to the fire in the overlap of NATO vs non-NATO allegiances to the existing religious strife.

Iran, whether through government funding or private donors, provides financial backing to Hezbollah, the two being akin in their variant of Shia-influenced theological outlook. The Assad regime, although mostly Alawite, a sect of Shia, is decidedly secularist even bordering on socialist and does not necessarily share the theocratic opinions of its allies. Nevertheless, Syria provides the material logistics to Hezbollah, sharing a border with Lebanon, and in turn enjoys something of a buffer state between itself and Israel.

This relationship is beneficial to all parties involved. As the war in Syria drags on, it is Hezbollah and Iranian Shia forces that are replacing the fatigued and casualty-worn Syrian Arab Army. Because of this network of cooperation allied in specific against American/Israeli/Sunni influence in the region, this “Axis” serves as the obvious counterpoint to the Western-allied Sunni states that Russia, with the goal of expanding her influence in the Middle East, is throwing support behind.

Assad’s Military

A perusal of many Western media outlets will gain one the impression of a depleted and dysfunctional Syrian Arab Army. In the same manner that we are compelled to believe that Russia will eventually come around to Western designs upon a common enemy, we are routinely reminded that the regime is also on the ropes. However, in addition to Assad’s network of foreign support, both in the Middle East and Asia, the domestic situation for the Assad regime presents some continuing advantages in spite of losses at the hands of its various competitors.

It is well known that the ranks of rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army are constituted in large part by defectors of regime military forces. Stories of large scale defections, including even extended members of the Assad family, paint a picture of crumbling unity which will not long stand against a tide of democratic reform. But who are these defectors, and what are they doing after abandoning the regime? Consistent statistics about defections are difficult to come by, but a tentative estimate stands around 100, 000 units, roughly half the original ranks of the regime’s Syrian Arab Army. Among these defections are reported officers of various rank, the presence of which could be of great leverage to the opposition.

In the case of higher-tiered officers, the defection of such individual have the potential of valuable intel regarding the organization or resources of the regime. In the case of junior officer defection, if whole groups had defected along with their lower-tiered officers having direct management of the units, those defections would represent an appropriation by the opposition of entire, pre-trained squads made cohesive by shared battle experience. The inherent value in individually functioning, well-coordinated squads under trusted junior officers cannot be overstated, and any number of these would be a boon to the FSA. These are simply speculations, but worth considering when divining a future course of the events.

In addition, the ethnic constitution of the FSA is estimated to be about 90% Sunni. By contrast, in an effort to consolidate authority, Assad made sure that the majority of the SAA officers were drawn from the Alawite minority. Tension of a sectarian and political nature have visibly arisen in Camp Apaydin, a community of former SAA members just over the border in Turkey, and these tensions may be a barometer for feelings on the ground among the active FSA.

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Although the West likes to point at defections and disunion in the SAA, there is less attention payed to the various regime-loyal militias. These militias collectively amount to about 100, 000 units, essentially replacing units lost due to defections. The militias were known in the English language as “Popular Committees” until the middle of 2012 when the regime began to fund and organize the various groups into the National Defense Forces. These forces draw largely from various minority groups in Syria, Alawi, Armenians, Christians, and Druze among them. The initial motivations of the individual militias is assumed to be defense of their particular communities, whether against the regime, ISIS, or the Sunni dominated resistance. However as the conflict progresses these minority communities are largely throwing in with the regime, opting for the secular, albeit brutally authoritarian Assad, instead of leaving fate to the sectarian FSA or a potential foreign Western occupation. Now that these localized militias are under the financing and banner of Assad, and receiving further training from Hezbollah and Iranian forces, there is no reason for them not to dig their heels in and defend the rump state.

However, aside from speculations about sectarian frictions among the militias, a further complication to the unity of the NDF is the inclusion of smuggling gangs known as the “Shibaha;” that word meaning roughly “ghost” in Arabic. These gangs have their origin in the 80’s and have long acted as enforcers, quelling uprisings under the elder Assad. In the 90’s the recklessness of the gangs ended up becoming a problem for the regime, and Basil Assad, the brother of Bashar, was ordered to clamp down on them, which he did successfully. These gangs were only re-legitimized recently in the context of the recent conflict, and it is likely that they are responsible for the accusations of theft and raiding among the populous and even a skirmish between NDF and SAA forces. At any rate, the situation on the ground for regime forces is not entirely without leverage.

The American Position

So far, the United States has taken a behind-the-scenes role in the Civil War. We have adopted a humanitarian stance in the situation, continuing our vow to topple dictators in the world wherever they might be found. As a Westerner myself, whose philosophical foundations are descendant of the European Enlightenment, I certainly do not see Assad as a ruler who embodies humanitarian principles. However, while ordering the army to fire upon unarmed protesters is not the mark of a leader who embraces the gestalt of a republic based on human dignity, it is ISIS, not Assad, who represent a greater threat to the stability of the region as well as an ideological threat within the Islamic and global world.

The US has taken the position that the fall of the regime is necessary for combating terrorism. Other parties, including Iran and Russia, have taken the position that the regime is a necessary bulwark against ISIS, and that stripping Assad of his executive powers would create a power vacuum which would further accommodate the activities of extremists. Regardless of which of these opposing views bears greater frame on reality, there are clear additional motivations for Russia to hold her position, namely the Tartus port and an allegiance with the Axis of Resistance to offset NATO influence. In the same way, the US would be motivated to see Syria under the control of a NATO ally, and our pretensions to structuring democratic societies around the world overlap nicely with our strategic interests in this particular case.

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I would estimate that most Americans do not chose to view their country in the role of “empire,” and those who do, do it begrudgingly. Regardless, our country is the hegemon, although it’s arguable that we have been slipping in that role. Most Americans will continue to elect leaders who actively promote our role as superpower. Establishment politicians on both left and right will criticize each other over the severity and the finesse of our militaristic adventures overseas as managed by the opposing party, but the endgame is the same. As America approaches the presidential primaries and narrows down her choices for a new Commander in Chief, it’s interesting to consider that outsiders not beholden to party platforms, candidates like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, are in the position to offer differing solutions on the international platform, although these differences are more a departure from current strategy and not from our general imperial spirit.

Whether the average citizen reasons American involvement abroad as necessary for not upsetting the current balance of power, or because we see some moral defect in the non-Western world for which a forcible intervention to the ends of structuring democratic government is the only solution, our civic identity as American individuals necessarily entails a vague understanding of our country’s foreign policy, the players involved, and the stakes for which we fight. For our mission to promote human rights abroad and for our pride in our history of democratic institutions at home we owe it to ourselves, and to those overseas who our activity affects, a greater understanding and concern for the nation’s role in the world.