Posts Tagged ‘Socialist Party’

Catalan government accused of playing ‘dangerous’ game after unrest

October 2, 2018

Catalonia’s separatist executive came under fire Tuesday, accused of playing a “dangerous” game after the regional leader encouraged radical independence activists to carry out disruptive acts on the anniversary of a banned referendum that culminated in clashes.

Hundreds of separatist protesters knocked down barriers at the regional parliament in Barcelona on Monday evening, clashing with police in stark contrast with the usually peaceful nature of Catalonia’s independence movement.

Analysts said this reflected the movement’s divisions and lack of direction, with some pushing for direct confrontation with Madrid and others calling for moderation, while at the same time trying to keep the spirit of last year’s secession bid alive.

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Elsa Artadi

Reacting to the clashes, Catalan government spokeswoman Elsa Artadi acknowledged it was “the first time that we are faced with this situation within the independence movement.”

She told Catalan television that a “minority” took part in the unrest.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez rapped regional leader Quim Torra, asking him to “not endanger political normalisation by encouraging radicals to lay siege to institutions which represent all Catalans.”

“Violence isn’t the way forward,” Sanchez, who is attempting to negotiate with Catalan leaders and also depends on separatist lawmakers to prop up his minority government, said in a tweet.

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez

– ‘Very dangerous’ –

Monday’s clashes forced the leader in Catalonia of anti-secession party Ciudadanos to leave the building under escort in unrest that topped a restive day in the northeastern region that remains sharply divided on independence.

Radical activists called by a group naming itself the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs), many of them hooded, cut roads and railway lines, encouraged by Torra — a staunch independence supporter himself.

“The (independence) movement is divided between radicals and an executive that isn’t sure where to go, and which is also divided,” said Oriol Bartomeus, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“I think Torra shares the CDRs’ ideas but he knows perfectly well that the independence movement will lose if it goes down that road.

“Torra is in the middle,” he said, describing the situation as ” very dangerous.”

In an editorial, Catalonia’s El Periodico daily wrote that “much has changed, it seems, in just one year,” accusing Torra and his regional ministers of playing a “double game” it described as “unsustainable.”

Catalonia’s banned independence referendum on October 1, 2017 was marred by a violent crackdown by police ordered to stop peaceful voters from casting their ballot, in footage that went around the world.

A year later, the tables appeared to have turned with images of radical independence supporters cutting roads and railway lines, muscling their way into a government building and clashing with police.

– Violence condemned –

Miquel Iceta, head of the Socialist party in Catalonia, told Spanish radio the unrest “highlighted that a regional president cannot encourage mobilisation if he is then unable to guarantee security.”

He said it also showed “that the Catalan government’s discourse, as it is far from reality, generates frustration and violence among its most radical followers.”

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Miquel Iceta, head of the Socialist party in Catalonia

Even former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who is in self-exile in Belgium after last October’s secession bid, condemned the violence.

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Carles Puigdemont

“If they are hooded they’re not from the 1-0,” he tweeted in reference to the referendum last year, which went ahead despite a court ban and eventually led to a short-lived unilateral declaration of independence on October 27.

That prompted then conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy to sack the regional government, dissolve the Catalan parliament and call snap local elections.

“If they use violence they’re not from the 1-0. We did it with our faces uncovered and in a peaceful way,” Puigdemont added.



Celebrating Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The Democratic Socialists of America

July 19, 2018

“Socialism has known increments of success, basic failure and massive betrayal. Yet it is more relevant to the humane construction of the twenty-first century than any other idea.”

With those words, Michael Harrington began his book “Socialism,” published in 1972. In his day, Harrington was often called “America’s leading socialist.” He was also one of the most decent voices in politics, a view shared not just by his friends but also by most of his critics.

Harrington founded Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which, in the often splintered politics of the left, was a breakaway group from the old Socialist Party. My hunch is that Harrington — whom I counted as a friend until his death in 1989 at the age of 61 — would be amazed, though not entirely surprised, by the extraordinary growth of DSA since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.

By E. J. Columnist — July 18 at 4:27 PM
The Washington Post

It would thrill him that the organization is now heavily populated by the young, although I also suspect he would have spirited tactical arguments with youthful rebels about what works in politics. Harrington was a visionary realist, and the dialectic between those two words defined his life. He preached vision to those worn down by a tired political system, and realism to those trying to change it.

Socialists have had quite a journalistic run since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old DSA member, defeated veteran Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a genial and rather liberal stalwart of the old Queens Democratic machine, in a primary last month.

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Opinion has been divided, roughly between those who see her as the wave of the future and those who warn of grave danger if Democrats move “too far to the left.” I use quotation marks because that phrase has been repeated so much, and because it’s imprecise and misleading.

The triumph of a young Latina who emphasized the interests of working people caught the imaginations of not only progressives but also many who do not fully agree with her politics. Even her posters were innovative, as Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen pointed out in The Post. But she also represented something very traditional: the transition of power from one ethnic group to another. As Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught us long ago in their classic book “Beyond the Melting Pot,” never underestimate the role of ethnicity in New York politics.

Yet to use her victory as a prelude to a radical takeover of the Democratic Party badly misreads what has been happening. In Democratic primaries this year, more moderate candidates have done well. There have been important progressive victories, Ocasio-Cortez’s being one of the most striking, but no lurch left.

Moreover, Jake Sullivan, who was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 senior policy adviser, is right to argue in the journal Democracy that “Democrats should not blush too much, or pay too much heed, when political commentators arch their eyebrows about the party moving left.” (Disclosure: I have long-standing ties to Democracy.)

Sullivan sees “the center of gravity” in our politics moving in a more progressive direction in response to “the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis” and “the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before.” Rescuing and rebuilding the American middle class require boldness, not timidity, he says, and an engagement with the persistent experimentation that Franklin D. Roosevelt championed.

The presence of an active democratic socialist voice encourages the conversation Sullivan describes. It serves as a corrective to a debate that had skewed so far right that middle-of-the-road progressives — Barack Obama, for one — found themselves (laughably) labeled as “socialists.” Having real socialists in the arena laying out more adventurous positions — among them, single-payer health care and free college — moves the boundaries of discussion and could, in the long run, improve the outcomes in legislative bargaining. Radical tax cuts from the right and measured austerity from the center represent a dreary choice for discontented voters and offer little hope for solving the problems that ignite their anger.

Our new left should attend to the realism Harrington preached. Social reform in our country has usually depended on alliances of the center and the left, and outright warfare between them only strengthens the right. The word “democratic” must always be given priority over the word “socialist,” and broad coalitions are the lifeblood of democracies.

But Ocasio-Cortez and, if I may use the word, her comrades are shaking up politics in constructive and promising ways. For this moderate social democrat, that’s a cause for cheer.


Downcast Venezuela opposition seeks blow to Maduro through ballot box

October 15, 2017


CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s political crisis shifts from barricades to the ballot box on Sunday with gubernatorial elections that could hand the demoralized opposition a major victory against President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

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A resident walks past a campaign graffiti of opposition candidate for the government of Miranda Carlos Ocariz ahead the governors elections in Caracas, Venezuela, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

The ruling Socialist Party currently controls 20 of 23 state governorships. But polls show the opposition Democratic Unity coalition poised to upend that, given voter anger at hunger and shortages stemming from an economic meltdown.

Having failed to remove Maduro in protests earlier this year that led to 125 deaths and thousands of arrests, the opposition hopes a strong showing can be parlayed into victory in next year’s presidential election.

The government, however, is confident of stemming losses.

It has been making liberal use of state resources in its candidates’ campaigns and is appealing to Venezuelans’ exhaustion with political turmoil to vote against the opposition’s “candidates of violence.”

The pro-government election board also has thrown up hurdles for the opposition that could impact final results.

Those include the relocation of 200 vote centers on security grounds – mostly away from pro-opposition areas – and a refusal to update the ballot to remove superfluous names of opposition politicians who lost in primaries.

Additionally, a plethora of opposition leaders and activists, including major figures Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez, are barred from office or detained on accusations of coup-plotting, corruption and other charges.

“The more obstacles they put up, the stronger we become,” said coalition election coordinator Liliana Hernandez, urging supporters to turn out despite disillusionment.

The government says Sunday’s votes, from remote Amazon and Andean communities to heavily populated Caribbean coastal areas, are proof Venezuela is no dictatorship contrary to increased foreign criticism this year.

“When you vote, you will be sending a message to the imperialists,” the Socialist Party’s powerful No. 2 Diosdado Cabello said at a campaign rally this week, blasting the United States which has imposed some sanctions on Venezuela.

“We must vote for the legacy of Hugo Chavez,” Cabello added, referring to the populist firebrand and Maduro predecessor who ruled between 1999-2013 before dying from cancer.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro smiles during a meeting with representatives of the health sector at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela October 13, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS


In contrast to the constant evoking of Chavez, the unpopular Maduro has been largely absent from his candidates’ rallies.

Even if the government loses a majority of governorships, Maduro has repeatedly said none of the newly-elected officials will be allowed to take office unless they pledge allegiance to a new legislative superbody elected controversially in July.

The opposition boycotted that vote and refused to recognize the entirely pro-government Constituent Assembly, which supersedes all institutions including the opposition-controlled congress.

“If they don’t swear, they don’t take office, full stop,” Maduro said in a speech this week.

“Then they can go and cry to Washington!”

Some opposition supporters, particularly youths in a self-styled ‘Resistance’ movement at the front of pitched street battles earlier this year, have accused their leaders of selling out and legitimizing a dictator by taking part in Sunday’s vote.

But most appear to have swallowed their qualms.

“Too many people were dying, with few results,” said student Manuel Melo, 20, who lost a kidney from the impact of a water cannon during one protest. “I agree with the elections.”

Should the government suffer big reverses, it can mitigate the practical effect by reducing funding and responsibilities for governors, as it has in the past when local posts have gone to the opposition.

After the election, the opposition will seek to throw the focus straight back to its main demands: guarantees of free and fair conditions for the 2018 presidential vote, freedom for jailed activists, foreign humanitarian aid, and authority for congress.

The government has said it hopes Sunday’s vote will help revive a stalled mediation bid with the opposition in the Dominican Republic. Any perceived dirty tricks by the government could risk more U.S. sanctions or new European ones.

Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Tom Brown

Venezuela: Citizens fear Sunday vote means end of democracy — Maduro tightens grip on power

July 30, 2017

The President’s radical plan will create a political body with the power to rewrite the country’s constitution and dismantle any brand of government seen as disloyal

By Nicholas Casey

The Independent 

One by one, the markers of Venezuela’s democracy have been pushed aside.

First, the Supreme Court was packed with loyalists of the President, and several opposition politicians were blocked from taking their seats. Then, judges overturned laws that the President opposed, and elections for governors around the country were suddenly suspended.

Next, the court ruled in favour of dissolving the legislature entirely, a move that provoked such an outcry in Venezuela and abroad that the decision was soon reversed.

Now, President Nicolas Maduro is pushing a radical plan to consolidate his leftist movement’s grip over the nation: he is creating a political body with the power to rewrite the country’s constitution and reshuffle – or dismantle – any branch of government seen as disloyal.

The new body, called a constituent assembly, is expected to grant virtually unlimited authority to the country’s leftists.

Venezuelans are going to the polls tomorrow to weigh in on the plan. But they will not have the option of rejecting it, even though some polls show that large majorities oppose the assembly’s creation. Instead, voters will be asked only to pick the assembly’s delegates, choosing from a list of stalwarts of Mr Maduro’s political movement.

The new assembly will rule above all other governmental powers – technically even the President – with the kind of unchecked authority not seen since the juntas that haunted Latin American countries in decades past.

“This is an existential threat to Venezuelan democracy,” said David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group.

The list of delegates includes powerful members of the President’s political movement, including Diosdado Cabello, a top politician in the ruling Socialist Party who was involved in a failed coup attempt in the 1990s, and Cilia Flores, the President’s wife.

But the push to consolidate power also puts the country at a crossroads, one laden with risk.

As Maduro effectively steers his country toward one-party rule, he sets it on a collision course with the United States, which buys nearly half of Venezuela’s oil. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s administration froze the assets of, and forbade Americans to do business with, 13 Venezuelans close to Maduro, including his interior minister and heads of the army, police and national guard.

The administration is warning that harsher measures could follow, with “strong and swift economic actions” if the vote happens tomorrow, according to Trump. In a statement, he called Maduro a “bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator”.

There is also the potential powder keg on Venezuela’s streets. Infuriated by Mr Maduro’s government, the opposition has mobilised more than three months of street protests that have crippled cities with general strikes, rallies and looting. More than 110 people have been killed, many in clashes between the state and armed protesters. Few know how protesters will react to newly imposed leaders.

Even the members of the new assembly themselves are a wild card. Their power will be so vast that they could possibly remove Mr Maduro from office, some analysts note, ending a presidency that has been deeply unpopular, even among many leftists.

“It’s a crapshoot, a Pandora’s box,” said Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian at New York University who studies the country’s leftist movements. “You do this and you have so little control over how it plays out.”

Mr Maduro contends that the government restructuring is necessary to prevent more bloodshed on the streets and save Venezuela’s failing economy, which is dogged by shortages of food and medicine.

The President has refused to negotiate with street protesters, calling some of them terrorists and asserting that they are financed by outside governments trying to overthrow him. A new governing charter would give him wide-ranging tools to “construct peace”, he and leftists have said.

“We need order, justice,” Mr Maduro said during an interview with state television this month. “We have only one option, a national constituent assembly.”

The turmoil gripping Venezuela illustrates the sweeping declines in popularity for the Venezuelan left since the death of its standard-bearer, former president Hugo Chavez, in 2013.

It was Chavez who oversaw the last rewrite of the constitution, in 1999, which was widely backed by the voters who had propelled him to office in the belief that the country’s rule book favoured the rich.

That new constitution – and rising oil prices – fuelled a socialist-inspired transformation in Venezuela. It helped enable Chavez to redistribute state wealth to the poor, nationalise foreign assets and make him popular with his supporters. The constitution also left open the possibility of another constituent assembly in the future.

Now Mr Maduro has taken that option at a time when the leftists are dogged by their deepest crisis in decades. This time, Venezuelans are seeing it less as a stab at reform than as an attempt by a struggling ruling class to maintain power.

“It’s a last-ditch effort to secure his base,” Mr Velasco said. “He’s doing it at a moment of weakness.”

Under the rules of the vote, the constituent assembly would take the reins of the country within 72 hours of being officially certified, though it is unclear to most people what would happen after that.

Some politicians have suggested that governorships and mayors be replaced with “communal councils”. Top members of Mr Maduro’s party have identified Luisa Ortega, the attorney general, who has criticised Mr Maduro’s crackdown on protesters, as someone to be immediately dismissed.

But many fear that a likely first step will be the abolition of the country’s legislature, a tactic first used by Chavez when rewriting the constitution in 1999.

Leftists did not control the legislature then, and the same is true today. For more than a year, courts close to Mr Maduro have chipped away at the powers of opposition lawmakers there, overturning laws – like a measure to release political prisoners – and stripping them of budgetary oversight.

Organisers of a symbolic vote against the measure this month said more than 7 million ballots had been cast, with 98 percent backing the opposition.

Juan Guaido, an opposition politician, fears that the constituent assembly will dismantle his chamber, effectively liquidating any political power held by Mr Maduro’s rivals.

“If there was anything left of Venezuela’s battered democracy, it was the powers that were legitimately elected by the people, like the National Assembly,” he said. The vote would create a “totalitarian and repressive dictatorship”.

Still, some say the opposition has failed to offer clear alternatives to Mr Maduro. Eva Golinger, an American lawyer who was a confidante of Chavez’s, said rivals of the leftists had focused too heavily on wresting power from the President, something that could risk a wider civil conflict.

“They only rally around regime change,” said Ms Golinger, who opposes how Mr Maduro has gone about the constitutional rewrite.

The constituent assembly would also be able to take on one piece of work left unfinished by Chavez: creating a more socialist constitution.

Chavez later tried to amend his 1999 document with changes that he argued would speed the course of his populist revolution. But the additional measures were narrowly defeated when they were taken to voters in 2007.

Mr Maduro has indicated that he intends to pick up where Chavez left off. He has suggested a nine-point outline that includes increasing public spending for education and health care, giving socialist organisations increased governing abilities and taking unspecified measures to prevent foreign meddling in Venezuela.

Analysts also expect that the new constitution could dig deeper into the economic policy favoured by the President, which many economists blame for exacerbating the country’s economic crisis.

With much of the opposition expected to boycott the vote, it was mainly Venezuelans loyal to Maduro’s party who were eager to head to the polls tomorrow.

Maria Elena Perez, 54, a leftist activist in Caracas, the capital, said it was time for a new rule book.

“The current constitution is weak, and there’s a lot that needs to be fixed,” she said.

In the week before the vote, potential delegates were making their pitches on Venezuelan airwaves.

In one video, Ysmael Modoy, a candidate from the western state of Portuguesa, urged voters to defend Chavez’s legacy and promised a new constitution that better battled corruption.

Some sought a lighthearted tone. Antonio Leon, a candidate who goes by the nickname the Mask, entered his commercial dancing and singing while crossing an empty street. He didn’t address any changes to the constitution, but promised voters that he would make it easier to get government rations.

“Remember: you are love, you are life,” he said before returning to his dance.

Venezuela: Massive turnout Sunday expected in protest rejection of President Nicolas Maduro and his policies — “Democracy and freedom are in play.”

July 16, 2017

Venezuelan opposition hopes for big turnout in protest vote

File photo: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro holds a copy of the country’s constitution as he talks to the media during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s opposition called for a massive turnout Sunday in a symbolic rejection of President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution, a proposal that’s escalating tensions in a nation stricken by widespread shortages and more than 100 days of anti-government protests.

Maduro has called a July 30 vote to elect members of a special assembly to retool Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. The opposition says the vote is structured to pack the constitutional assembly with government supporters and allow Maduro to eliminate the few remaining checks on his power, creating a Cuba-style system dominated by his socialist party.

Maduro and the military dominate most state institutions but the opposition controls the congress and holds three of 23 governorships. The country’s chief prosecutor has recently broken with the ruling party.

“This fraudulent constitutional assembly will create a majority that will shut congress, throw democracy out the window, wipe out state governors and fire the chief prosecutor,” said former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga, who flew to Caracas Saturday with a group of former Latin American presidents to support the opposition vote. “Tomorrow, democracy and freedom are in play.”

The opposition is boycotting the constitutional assembly. Instead, it has asked Venezuelans to oppose Maduro’s plans by showing up at 2,000 sites across the country to fill out ballots featuring three yes-or-no questions. Do they reject the constitutional assembly? Do they want the armed forces to back congress? Do they support the formation of a government comprised of Maduro backers and opponents?

The symbolic referendum has no legal impact; it will serve as a show of support whose success or failure will be measured in how many millions of people participate. Democratic Unity, a coalition of some 20 opposition parties, has printed 14 million ballots for voters inside and outside the country of 31 million people. Few expect turnout that high but analysts say participation by more than eight million people would significantly hike pressure on the government two weeks before the constitutional assembly.

The government calls the opposition vote a manipulation aimed at destabilizing the country, and has been urging its supporters to participate in the constitutional assembly, which it calls a way of restoring peace to Venezuela.

“Some comrades and brothers may be worn out by the right’s great media campaign. Now they’ve invented this July 16 thing to put the burden on their own people and evade their responsibility,” socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said Saturday. “That’s how the right is, manipulative, fooling their own people.”

Polls show that barely 20 percent of Venezuelans favor rewriting the late Hugo Chavez’s 1999 constitution — about the same level of support they have for Maduro.

The government has nonetheless called for its own nationwide exercise Sunday, a rehearsal for the July 30 assembly that will pull backers into the streets.

Opponents of Venezuela’s government blame it for turning one of the region’s most prosperous countries into an economic basket case with a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and widespread shortages. The government blames the crisis on an economic war waged by its opponents and outside backers. The petroleum-rich nation has been hit hard by falling world oil prices.

Clashes between protesters and police have left at least 93 people dead, 1,500 wounded and more than 500 behind bars.

Edinson Ferrer, head of the Justice First opposition party, said he didn’t expect violence between government backers and opponents Sunday because the polling sites for the two voting exercises were far enough apart to avoid clashes. He said some 50,000 poll workers would help organize the opposition event.


Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter:



Venezuela opposition holds unofficial plebiscite to defy Maduro

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Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks, during a meeting with supporters at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 19, 2017. Reuters Photo

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition holds an unofficial referendum on Sunday to increase pressure on President Nicolas Maduro as he seeks to create a legislative superbody that his adversaries call the consolidation of a dictatorship.

The symbolic poll, which will also ask voters if they want early elections, is intended to further dent Maduro’s legitimacy amid a crippling economic crisis and three months of anti-government protests that have led to nearly 100 deaths.

The opposition has cast the vote, which begins at 7 a.m. local time at some 2,000 centers around the country, as an act of civil disobedience to be followed by “zero hour,” a possible reference to a national strike or other escalated actions against Maduro.

But the vote does not appear to augur a short-term change of government or a solution to the country’s political stalemate.

Maduro, 54, says Sunday’s plebiscite is illegal and meaningless. Instead, the leftist leader is campaigning for an official July 30 vote for the new assembly, which will be able to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.

“(Even with) rain, thunder or lightning, Sunday’s poll will go ahead!” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles in a Friday evening broadcast. “We Venezuelans are going out to vote for the future, the fatherland and the freedom of Venezuela.”

Voters will be asked three questions: if they reject the constitutional assembly, if they want the armed forces to defend the existing constitution and if they want elections before Maduro’s term in office ends in 2018.

Some public employees, under government pressure not to participate in opposition events, are seeking creative ways to vote in the plebiscite without being noticed. [L1N1K41VV]

The vote will also include participation of the swelling ranks of Venezuelans who have moved abroad to escape the OPEC nation’s increasingly dire economic panorama.

The opposition is hoping millions will turn out and promises the results will be available on Sunday evening.

But the opposition faces some major obstacles.

It will not have access to traditional electoral infrastructure for the hastily convened plebiscite, and the elections council – which the opposition calls a pawn of Maduro – is simultaneously holding a test-run for the July 30 vote.

Also, state telecommunications regulator Conatel has ordered radio and TV stations not to use the word “plebiscite” on air and has told them to pull opposition ads for the vote, according to Venezuela’s main organization of media workers.

Street Violence

A high turnout would reflect widespread national dissatisfaction with Maduro and boost the opposition campaign to remove him, while low attendance would give the ruling Socialist Party a boost for the constitutional assembly.

Government officials say the plebiscite violates laws requiring elections to be organized by the elections council.

“We are not going to let the Venezuelan right wing impose themselves and harm the people,” said Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello during a Saturday rally for the constitutional assembly.

The vote comes against the backdrop of near daily opposition protests, in many of which masked youths with stones, Molotov cocktails and homemade mortars have battled riot forces using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

The unrest has caused fatalities among both demonstrators and security forces, mostly from gunshots, as well as hundreds of arrests and thousands of injuries since April.

Last week, seven National Guard troops were injured by an explosion along an avenue in Caracas, which the government blamed on the opposition.

And on Friday, a video circulating on social media showed a man being punched, kicked, stomped and hit in the head with weapons and riot shields after being thrown on the ground by a half-dozen security officials. He was then loaded onto a motorcycle and driven away with blood on his face.

A second video shows men in uniform smashing the windows of a car after what appears to be a scuffle with a woman on the sidewalk. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the veracity of the videos.

Maduro has repeatedly refused to recognize the authority of the National Assembly since the opposition won it in a 2015 landslide election, which his critics call evidence he is eroding democratic institutions in order to retain power.

The former union organizer says the country is victim of an “economic war” and that opposition protests are an effort to overthrow him with U.S. connivance.

Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia Osterman

French election 2017: Marine Le Pen leading the race as polls open but victory far from assured

April 23, 2017

Fox News

As voting starts in the French Presidential Election,  Marine Le Pen — who has built her campaign on the populist anger that helped President Trump get elected — is seeing a similar boost in support.

Marine Le Pen goes into today's first round of the French election in the lead

Marine Le Pen goes into today’s first round of the French election in the lead

An opinion poll released Friday by Odoxa shows her nearly neck-and-neck with centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a jump in the past week. Analysts point out that the latest attack in Paris, which killed a police officer and left three other people wounded Thursday, may have contributed to her surge in support.


Still, the race is far from decided. As many as one-third of voters had not settled on a candidate this week, Newsweek reported. President Trump said he believed the Champs-Elysees attack would help Le Pen, while former President Barack Obama offered Macron his best wishes in a phone call Thursday. Both Trump and Obama stopped short of full endorsements.

Election stations opened Saturday in French overseas territories voting first — one day earlier than on the mainland.

Newsweek found many voters across France saying they were leaning toward Le Pen — which would parallel the surge for Trump last year among undecided voters and supporters who chose to lay low.


André Robert, 56, said her tough stance on terror convinced him. “I’m voting for the candidate who’ll keep us safe.”

“Marine gets me shaking,” 65-year-old Monique Zaouchkevitch said, adding that she’d stayed out of politics until she heard Le Pen speak. “Marine, she’s close to the people.”

In another parallel to the U.S., some voters seemed to suffer from election fatigue and weren’t blown away by any of the candidates. Gabriel Roberoir, a 61-year-old former public servant, called the election a “circus,” adding, “I don’t even know why any of them are running.”

Sunday’s vote is the first round in the French elections, with the top two candidates advancing to a winner-take-all runoff on May 7. The high-stakes contest is viewed as something of a vote on the future of the European Union, with Le Pen calling for a referendum on France’s membership in the bloc.

In a sign of how tense the country has become, a man holding a knife caused widespread panic Saturday at Paris’ Gare du Nord train station. He was arrested and no one was hurt.

Conservative former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose campaign was initially derailed by corruption allegations that his wife was paid as his parliamentary aide, also appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-leftist, Jean-Luc Melenchon. Campaigning by the 11 presidential candidates got off to a slow start, bogged down by corruption charges around once-top candidate Fillon before belatedly switching focus to France’s biggest fear: a new attack.

Le Pen has also echoed some of Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration, calling for hardening French borders to stanch what she describes as an out-of-control flow of immigrants.

She has spoken of radical Muslims trying to supplant France’s Judeo-Christian heritage and, among other measures, has called for foreigners suspected of extremism to be expelled from the country.

Le Pen, a 48-year-old mother of three, has distanced herself from her father, National Front party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted of crimes related to anti-Semitism and mocked the Holocaust as a “detail” of history.

Nevertheless, earlier this month she denied the French state was responsible for the roundup of Jews during World War II, drawing condemnation from other presidential candidates and Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

A victory for Macron would be a vote of confidence in France staying in the EU. Obama, when he was in office, encouraged Britain not to leave, though it ultimately voted to do so anyway.

Trump backed Britain’s decision to exit from the EU and has also predicted that other countries would make similar decisions. Yet during a White House news conference Thursday, the president said he believed in a strong Europe.

“A strong Europe is very, very important to me as president of the United States,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

See also from The Telegraph:

French election 2017: Marine Le Pen leading the race as polls open


France: Polls open in Presidential Election that could have a dramatic effect on the shape of the European Union

April 23, 2017

Amid heightened security fears following a terror attack in Paris, the French will elect a new president in two rounds of voting on April 23 and May 7—the result could reshape the European Union. WSJ’s Niki Blasina explains who the top candidates are, how they could win, and what might happen next. Photo: Getty Images.

PARIS—French voters headed to the polls Sunday for the first round of a closely contested presidential election that has turned into a referendum on the future of France’s generous entitlement system and on the nation’s place in the European Union, amid heightened security days after a terror attack in the capital.

Uncertainty is running high as polls show the four candidates leading the race are within striking distance of one another. The quartet comprises two mainstream contenders and two antiestablishment candidates seeking to pull apart the political and economic order that has governed France and Europe for the past 60 years.

The top two finishers from a field of 11 will proceed to a runoff on May 7, unless any one candidate garners more than 50% of the vote Sunday.

Adding further tension, voters are casting their ballots amid heightened security following a spate of terror attacks. An additional 50,000 police and gendarmes will be deployed to secure polling stations around the country, where some 10,000 soldiers are already patrolling the streets as part of an antiterror mission.

Photos: Voting Begins in France

French voters cast their ballots in the first round of that country’s election Sunday

Expatriate French voters line up at a polling station in Hong Kong.
Expatriate French voters line up at a polling station in Hong Kong. ALEX HOFFORD/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
A voter casts his ballot at a Paris polling station in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday.
A voter casts his ballot at a Paris polling station in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday. CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS

French people were reminded of the threat Thursday when a police officer was gunned down on Paris’s Champs-Élysées. Two days earlier, police detained two men in the southern city of Marseille suspected of planning an imminent terror attack.

Polling firms say many voters planning to cast a ballot still hadn’t picked a first-round candidate at the end of the week. According to a poll by BVA Thursday and Friday, 23% of people intending to vote say they could still change their mind.

Leading among the anti-EU candidates is Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader who has pledged to halt immigration, and wants France to pull out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and ditch the euro. Left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon is also threatening to pull out of NATO and the EU, unless the bloc bends to his demands to scrap treaties that rein in excessive spending.

Coming to the defense of Europe are Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker who has never run for office, and François Fillon, a social and fiscal conservative who has publicly apologized after news reports showed he had put his family on the public payroll.

Also at stake in Sunday’s vote is the fate of France’s big-hearted state. Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Mélenchon are promising to reinforce pension and holiday entitlements. Messrs. Fillon and Macron say the time has come to bring benefits in line with France’s debt-laden public finances.

Second-Round Matchups

The six most realistic scenarios for the May 7 presidential runoff and their predicted outcomes.

Emmanuel Macron | François Fillon

A contest between two pro-Europeans that shifts the debate to taxation, spending and how to fix the French economy.

Emmanuel Macron | Marine Le Pen

A staunch EU defender takes on one of the economic bloc’s most committed adversaries.

Emmanuel Macron | Jean-Luc Mélenchon

A referendum on the role of France in the EU and NATO, laying bare divisions on the French left.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon | François Fillon

A soak-the-rich crusader of the far-left squares off with a conservative proponent of austerity.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon | Marine Le Pen

The second round investors fear most, because it guarantees France will have a deeply euroskeptic president.

François Fillon | Marine Le Pen

This matchup with the scandal-plagued Mr. Fillon, polls say, is Ms. Le Pen’s best shot at the presidency.

Sources: Staff reports; CEVIPOF poll conducted between Apr. 16–17 by Ipsos-Sopra Steria of 11,601 people registered on the electoral rolls (polling)

The BVA poll showed Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron each on track to garner 23% of the vote, with Mr. Mélenchon on 19.5% and Mr. Fillon half a point behind the left-wing candidate. The projections, the poll says, have a 2.5-percentage-point margin of error.

Those razor-thin margins are testing the longstanding practice in France of casting ballots for those candidates voters consider to be lesser evils—what is known locally as a “vote utile,” or “useful vote.”

“It was already complicated before,” said Florence Pilon, 43 years old, who is now leaning toward voting for Mr. Macron. “We haven’t had a very reassuring campaign.”

At the start of the year, Mr. Fillon and Ms. Le Pen held a comfortable lead in polls, which projected him beating her in the second round as voters rallied against the National Front leader.

But Mr. Fillon’s campaign suffered a blow after a newspaper reported he had hired his wife and two children as parliamentary assistants, paying them hundreds of thousands of euros in state funds. In March, an investigative magistrate notified Mr. Fillon he was suspected of embezzlement for providing his family with fake jobs. Mr. Fillon has apologized for hiring relatives but denied allegations the jobs were fake.

Mr. Fillon’s ensuing collapse in opinion polls thrust Mr. Macron, a pro-business former economy minister, into pole position.

In recent weeks, however, Mr. Macron’s left flank has come under attack from Mr. Mélenchon, a fiery, Mao jacket-wearing leftist who has cast himself as the champion of the working class.

Mr. Mélenchon’s surge scrambled the voting math once again, as polls showed many on the left were tempted to abandon Mr. Macron.

The Interior Ministry will publish the first turnout figures at noon local time and again at 5 p.m.

The first estimations based on a partial count the vote will be calculated by polling companies for the main TV channels and broadcast at 8 p.m.

Polling companies expect to have firmer projections by 10 p.m., though there is an outside chance the race could still be too close to call. If that is the case, the first round may not be called until the government completes the vote count on Monday morning.

Write to William Horobin at and Joshua Robinson at


France votes amid political turmoil — “This is a deep institutional crisis.”

April 23, 2017

Today’s first round of voting in France’s presidential elections is the culmination of the country’s very surprising campaign. Lisa Louis reports from Paris.

Frankreich Wahlen (Reuters/P.Rossignol)

France has seen its most extraordinary presidential election campaign in recent history. Beyond politics as usual, it points to a deep institutional crisis.

The French are going to the polls today to vote in the first round of the presidential elections. About a third of them still don’t know who to vote for according to polls. And can you really blame them?

French presidential election campaigns normally produce two clear front runners – often from the main center-right and center-left parties. In 2012, the center-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was facing current Socialist President Francois Hollande. Admittedly, far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of voting in 2002. But that had been undetected by the polls.

This time around though, four candidates could potentially reach the decisive run-off vote on May 7. The gaps between their projected tallies are so small that they lie within the margin of error. That’s unheard of and hasn’t occurred since the beginning of France’s Fifth Republic in 1958.

“This is the first time that the media’s projections published at [1800 UTC] on the first day of voting will probably not give us the names of the two candidates that’ll get into the second round – the vote will just be too close,” said Nicolas Lebourg, political historian at Montpellier University.

“It’s extraordinary – never has a presidential election been so chaotic,” he added.

Full of surprises

Thursday night’s terror attack just added to the confusion focusing the campaign on terrorism in its last stretch. Unemployment had been the main talking point up until then. During the attack, one policeman was killed and three other people wounded after a 39-year old French man opened fire on a police van on Paris’ iconic Champs-Elysées boulevard. However, it doesn’t seem to have given any of the candidates a huge edge according to the latest polls.

But the whole campaign has been full of surprises. To start off with, none of the winners of the Republican and Socialist parties’ primaries were expected to come first.

Frankreich Francois Fillon (Getty Images/AFP/P. Kovarik)Francois Fillon, once the frontrunner, has seen his candidacy hurt amid allegations he gave family members fake jobs

Then came scandal for the conservatives. The Republican candidate, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, had for months been the favorite to become France’s next President. He’s a social conservative and intends to get the country back on track with Thatcher-like radical economic reforms. He is also planning on repositioning the country internationally – by seeking closer ties with Russia and Syria.

But in January, scandals around alleged fake jobs for his family saw his poll numbers drop from 28 to about 18 percent. He is now competing with far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon for third position.

Melenchon recently – and surprisingly so – zoomed upwards from ten percent, with Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon plummeting to single-figure numbers.

The left-extremist Melenchon still thinks in terms of class warfare. A gifted orator, he wants to strengthen the French welfare state by increasing the minimum wage and bringing down weekly working hours – currently at 35. He also intends to renegotiate EU treaties or, if that fails, push for France to leave the EU all together.

Another extremist is among the two front runners – again a first in French history. Marine Le Pen from the far-right National Front has a very good chance of getting through to the decisive run-off vote – and this is reflected in the polls. She’s proven popular with a recipe of anti-immigrant, economic protectionism and nationalistic rhetoric. But she has managed to smoothen out the party’s image by no longer making controversial statements like her father Jean-Marie. He was tarnished by charges of xenophobia and anti-semitism.

Kombobild Melenchon Le PenLeftist Jean-Luc Melenchon has risen in the polls ahead of the vote, while far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is hoping her anti-EU, anti-migration rhetoric will galvanize her populist base

Traditional parties in crisis

Le Pen’s closest rival is independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. The former Economics Minister is pro-European and pro-business but also intends to maintain and strengthen France’s welfare state. His movement “En Marche!” (On The Move!), founded only a year ago, skyrocketed in the polls. He’s now in first place.

“The fact that a lightning party like ‘En Marche!’ can attract members from the Communists and the Republicans just shows to what extent the traditional parties are in a crisis,” said Florence Faucher, Professor for Political Science at Paris University Sciences Po.

But historian Lebourg says it’s not just the Socialist and the Republican Parties that are in a dire state – but the whole Fifth Republic: “This is a deep institutional crisis.”

“Our Republican Monarchy was made for the agrarian France of 1958, when less then ten percent of the people under 50 had a degree – now that figure is at 38 percent.”

“People want to be included in political decisions – and no longer be dictated to. Our institutions and very authoritarian and centralized political system are just not suitable any more.”

Perhaps for this reason, many in this election campaign were trying to depict themselves as anti-system candidates – including Melenchon, Le Pen, and Macron.

No clear favorite

Lebourg says the current political system, based on two rounds of voting, only works with two frontrunners and two strong political poles. But with four strong candidates, none of them is likely to get enough votes to appear legitimate. “The two run-off candidates will not have been able to gather much more than 20 percent in the first round,” he stated.

And more problems could lie ahead. Parliamentary elections will take place in June and the resulting majority will form the new government.

But only a President Francois Fillon would have a chance of getting such a majority. He could fall back on a large base of traditional voters of his party.

The other candidates, if elected, would not have that base and would hardly be able to get the necessary number of MPs. Those who are voting for the winner in the Presidential elections would not necessarily support his or her candidates in parliamentary elections, Lebourg explained.

The result would then be a coalition – a so-called “cohabitation.”

But coalitions have never worked very well in French history. “It would be total chaos – the French are just not good at making compromises,” Lebourg said adding that it wasn’t for nothing that the French had come up with the term “Franco-French war”.

“In any case, the system is at breaking point – it’s almost impossible not to reform it as things stand.”

Lebourg thinks the electoral rules need to be changed towards a proportional system and that more space needs to be given to citizen initiatives.

Political scientist Faucher says it’s no wonder people are confused given all the ups and downs of the election campaign. “The French are just not happy with the status quo. This campaign is the expression of a resentment against the established system, just like the Brexit vote and the outcome of the US presidential elections.”

“Many just don’t know who to vote for now – especially as they are more worried than ever to get things right.”


France ready for Sunday’s presidential vote — “This could be ‘the end’ of the EU.”

April 22, 2017

After 238 deaths at the hands of jihadi terrorists in just two years, France was coming to terms with yet another one yesterday. But might Thursday night’s Paris slaughter of a French policeman by a previously convicted Islamist gunman also go down as an historic turning point?

Coming just hours before the official cessation of all campaigning ahead of tomorrow’s presidential vote, it is certainly possible. Because a polarised nation increasingly drawn towards two political extremes now stands on the cusp of the most uncertain and unhappy election in modern French history.

It is one which not only has all the EU grandees in Brussels in a blind panic but could even dictate what happens in Britain. For France could be about to deliver a result even more seismic than last year’s British referendum vote for Brexit. The country which has given the world the phrase déjà vu has never seen anything remotely like this.

National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. A polarised nation increasingly drawn towards two political extremes now stands on the cusp of the most uncertain and unhappy election in modern French history

National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. A polarised nation increasingly drawn towards two political extremes now stands on the cusp of the most uncertain and unhappy election in modern French history

Marine Le Pen calls for border controls after French attack
 Image may contain: 1 person, standing and night

A headline in the normally highbrow French daily, L’Opinion, the other day summed up the national mood ahead of the vote: ‘The Crazydential Election.’

The field is now wide open between an old school fascist, a conservative mired in criminal investigations, a shiny Blairite banker who has never been elected to anything and a charismatic Maoist who wants a ‘citizens’ revolution’.

To the horror of the EU establishment, it is no longer impossible — or even improbable — that the fascist and the Maoist could triumph on Sunday and go through to next month’s best-of-two final.

This week’s jihadi attack certainly adds fresh momentum to the campaign of Marine Le Pen from the overtly xenophobic Far Right Front National (FN). The more she pushes ahead in one direction, the more the Far Left gains ground in the other.

If both of them triumph tomorrow, that would cause pandemonium. Both have pledged a French referendum on leaving the EU and both want ‘Frexit’. Regardless of who won a fortnight later, it would spell the end of the EU as we know it.

Because, in the event of a ‘Frexit’, the whole European project — of which France is a founder member and integral pillar — would collapse.

Even France’s own EU commissioner — former finance minister Pierre Moscovici — admitted the election of Le Pen in France would be ‘the end’ of the EU.

And in the pan-European mayhem and crashing markets that would follow on Monday morning, Theresa May would be the last rock of sanity in a continental sea of madness.

Jean-Luc MÈlenchon leader of 'les insoumis' political movement

Jean-Luc MÈlenchon leader of ‘les insoumis’ political movement

Game over.

The truth is that, frankly, anything could happen in tomorrow’s first round vote. After all, this is a presidential campaign which includes a candidate (there are 11 in total) who claims that the Queen is a drug smuggler and that homosexuality was invented by the KGB.

Having criss-crossed France in pursuit of the main players, I am not surprised the old European order is terrified.

After blaming last year’s unexpected wins for Brexit and Donald Trump on ‘populism’, the liberal commentariat had been fixating on Marine Le Pen as the next ‘populist’ threat.

In doing so, they had completely overlooked another candidate who is now enjoying unexpected success. And Jean-Luc Melenchon doesn’t fit their Right-wing ‘populist’ narrative at all.

Here is an ultra-Leftie who makes Jeremy Corbyn look like a Tory wet. He wants a wealth tax of 100 per cent, closer ties with Vladimir Putin, the abolition of nuclear power and, above all, a French departure from Nato and the EU. And he is on a late surge for second place in the opinion polls.

Since World War II, most French presidential races have boiled down to a U.S.-style binary choice between Left and Right.

But that model has fallen apart. The dismal record of outgoing president Francois Hollande has seen his Socialist Party collapse and the French Left fragment in two directions.

His successor as official Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, trails far behind the fiery Melenchon’s ‘France Unbowed’ movement.

But Hamon has also been eclipsed by the new hero of the moderate Left. Emmanuel Macron, a youthful ex-banker, claims to be a fresh, pro-European voice for those fed up with ‘old politics’.

Over on the French Right, the landscape should be dominated by Francois Fillon, a former prime minister and managerial smoothie often described as a ‘French Thatcher’. After beating several powerful candidates including former President Nicolas Sarkozy to win the nomination of the Republican opposition party, he seemed destined to go all the way.

Suddenly, in January, the French Press unearthed details of public money being paid to his family for nebulous jobs.

It was alleged that Fillon’s Welsh-born wife, Penelope, had pocketed hundreds of thousands of pounds as his ‘parliamentary assistant’, without lifting a finger. And the accusations kept piling up. It means he now lags some way behind the one name familiar to the British public — Marine Le Pen.

She hopes that the FN’s blend of immigrant-bashing and old-style protectionism will pull in angry voters from both Left and Right.

She has trotted out fresh pie-in-the-sky policies ranging from a ban on new supermarkets (to help small retailers) to a new retirement age — of 60. But her big election theme is that multiculturalism is endangering French society.

That is the message she keeps hammering home, as I witness ahead of Thursday’s killing.

Here is an ultra-Leftie who makes Jeremy Corbyn look like a Tory wet. He wants a wealth tax of 100 per cent, closer ties with Vladimir Putin, the abolition of nuclear power, says Robert Hardman

Here is an ultra-Leftie who makes Jeremy Corbyn look like a Tory wet. He wants a wealth tax of 100 per cent, closer ties with Vladimir Putin, the abolition of nuclear power, says Robert Hardman

My first stop is an invitation-only rally for Le Pen loyalists in Paris. Her campaign team clearly want to present a statesmanlike image, hiring a former ballroom near the Arc de Triomphe.

Heavies with wires in their ears try to look the part, but everyone is on edge. There is no warm-up act, and there will be no questions afterwards.

The party leader rattles through her speech as if she just wants to get it out of the way. There is precious little joie de vivre, though some British observers are struck by the way that, at a certain angle, the FN leader is — with exquisite irony — a dead ringer for the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee.

‘A multicultural society is a multiconflict society,’ Mme Le Pen declares. ‘Multiculturalism is the weapon of Islamic fundamentalists, permitted by useful idiots in the name of tolerance.’

She then tells the crowd a whopper about Britain being in the grip of Sharia law and says that, if elected, she will compel Muslim imams to deliver their sermons in French.

At the end, her loyalists are on their feet. Interestingly, they are not all white.

Maurice Puisard, 46, a nurse and FN council candidate whose parents are from French Guyana, says all the family vote FN: ‘This country has a big problem with security and authority. Marine Le Pen is the only one strong enough to deal with it.’

Mme Le Pen leaves, and the cameras engulf her again as journalists seek clarity on her latest toxic claim that France should feel no shame about deporting thousands of French Jews to Nazi death camps in 1942 — on the grounds that the officials involved were not working for ‘France’ but for the puppet Vichy regime.

‘This argument has been manipulated to discredit me,’ she says above the melee. ‘Of course I condemn the Vichy government, but Vichy was not France.’

Mme Le Pen has worked hard in recent years to distance both herself and her party from the racist rantings of her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Last year, he was fined £25,000 by a French court for dismissing the Nazi gas chambers as a ‘detail’ of history. On other occasions, he has attacked France’s football team for having ‘too many black players’.

Now at a stroke, on the eve of the election, Mme Le Pen turns out to be her father’s daughter after all.

Her genocidal buck-passing has caused outrage far beyond France’s Jewish community, as has a new biography alleging disturbing neo-Nazi sympathies among some of her closest friends (many of whom apparently refer to Adolf Hitler as ‘Uncle’).

Yet opinion polls were already suggesting she could expect 24 per cent of the vote tomorrow. The latest Islamist attack is only going to bolster her support. A recent poll suggested that most French police officers are going to vote for her.

Mme Le Pen has worked hard in recent years to distance both herself and her party from the racist rantings of her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen

Mme Le Pen has worked hard in recent years to distance both herself and her party from the racist rantings of her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen

The other front-runner, Emmanuel Macron, is also scoring around 24 per cent with his pitch for disillusioned moderates from either side.

At a packed rally, I ask dozens of people the same question: why Macron? All answer: ‘Jeunesse’ (Youth). Here in Britain, the allure of the cool young politician is over. We prefer grey-haired wisdom these days. But in France, politics has long been dominated by old men running old party machines.

All of which makes Macron, 39, a dizzyingly fresh proposition.

A slightly nasal financier, married to his former school-teacher, 24 years his senior, he is not pin-up material (and has had to bat off slurs about his sexuality). But compared to some dinosaurs in French politics, he is Peter Pan.

The crowd at this concert hall in the Pyrenean town of Pau is too big for the venue. Some 5,000 have squeezed in with another 1,500 locked out. Pumped up by dance anthems, mixed with audio clips of Martin Luther King, the audience is almost hysterical when he finally arrives, an hour late.

The local mayor does the warm-up, joking that while Macron may be young, Napoleon had already been emperor for six years by the time he was his age.

And then it goes a bit flat. Macron is no Napoleon. He seems twitchy, even nervous, as he begins with a prolonged homage to this corner of France, home to his late grandmother. At one point, I fear he may be about to blub.

A high-flying graduate of France’s ultra-elitist ‘rulers’ academy’, Ecole Nationale d’Administration, he went on to be a Rothschild’s banker. In 2014, he was parachuted into the Socialist government for a couple of years as Finance Minister before leaving to work on his own presidential bid.

Macron talks so softly that his audience have to keep completely quiet to hear his soliloquies about uniting Left and Right.

‘Our democracy is ill. I want to restore confidence in it,’ he says. ‘For me, this job is about presiding, not governing,’ he continues slowly as if unveiling a big new idea (isn’t that why the job title is ‘President’?) The crowd clap.

It is the only French rally I see all week with EU flags everywhere. Macron is the only overtly pro-EU candidate. Jean-Claude Juncker and the Brussels establishment will be praying for a Macron win.

But it is only in his very last sentence that Macron raises his voice as he declares: ‘Vive La France! Vive La Republique.’

His is one of two campaigns with a sense of gathering momentum. The other is in action at the other end of the country where 25,000 people have gathered in Lille to hear Jean–Luc Melenchon. Like Macron, the ex-teacher and ex-journalist has also founded his own movement. As well as demanding Frexit and punitive taxation of the rich, ‘France Unbowed’ sees Russia as a better ally than the USA.

Melenchon wants to raise the minimum wage by 15 per cent and splurge cash like sweeties. It may be the economics of the madhouse but it’s going down a storm, especially with France’s youth.

The similarities with Italy’s anarchic but phenomenally successful populist Five Star Movement — led by the anti-establishment comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo — grow more obvious by the day. Hence the alarm bells in Brussels.

A woman looks at a poster with the Disney character Uncle Scrooge fixed over the official poster of French presidential election candidate for the far-left coalition "La France insoumise" Jean-Luc Melenchon

A woman looks at a poster with the Disney character Uncle Scrooge fixed over the official poster of French presidential election candidate for the far-left coalition “La France insoumise” Jean-Luc Melenchon

Melenchon, 65, is widely regarded to have the slickest social media presence. He encourages his supporters to play a video game called ‘fiscal kombat’ in which a mini-Melenchon beats up his main rivals to score points.

‘We are the only force uniting the country today,’ Melenchon tells his listeners.

National unity is also the battle-cry of Francois Fillon, the mainstream conservative who currently jostles with Melenchon for third place at around 18 to 20 per cent.

Fillon’s supporters insist that the financial scandal over payments to his family — or ‘les affaires’ as they call it — is just ‘media conspiracy’.

But the ambiance at the Fillon rally I attend in a Marseilles exhibition hall says it all. In terms of age, dress sense and manners, it is much like a Tory party conference. Supportive and enthusiastic they may be. Triumphal, they are not. His latest electoral slogan — ‘You don’t have to like me, just let me get on with the job’ — has an air of desperation.

‘Fillon! President!’ they chant with modest fervour. He looks proud but forlorn; not quite broken, not exactly defiant. He is a forceful orator, making a speech on everything from France’s nuclear independence to kicking drug-dealers out of social housing. He refers constantly to ‘le projet’.

Saluting France’s Nobel prize-winners, he insists that France must give the economy ‘the fuel of freedom’ by cutting regulation.

Afterwards, his supporters are super-loyal if not bursting with optimism. ‘He is the only man who understands our history, our character, our culture — and who can turn this country around,’ says Marie, 35, an architect who would rather not give me her full name as she doesn’t want work colleagues to know she supports Fillon.

Until this week, conventional thinking decreed that Mme Le Pen and Macron would go through to the second round and that the latter would romp home on a tide of centrist national unity — followed by inevitable celebrations of the death of ‘populism’.

And history shows us that France, in its elections, has an unerring habit of reverting to the status quo, leaving its bloated state behemoth untouched.

This, after all, is the country which invented the word for bossy state control of everything — dirigiste.

Yet, Thursday’s outrage may, finally, be about to change all that.

Bruno Cautres, political analyst at the widely-respected Cevipof/Sciences Po think-tank, points to a startling gap in the polls: ‘Remember that up to 40 per cent of people are undecided. So anything is still possible.’

That includes a Le Pen v Melenchon run-off — which would send the EU and the euro into free-fall.

For now, in this fearful, unhappy country, it’s all about as clear as my bowl of steaming bouillabaisse.

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France’s Choice: Le Divorce?

April 22, 2017

French voters will begin to pick a new president this weekend, and their decision may well determine whether the European Union lives or die


April 21, 2017 1:55 p.m. ET

France didn’t schedule a referendum on its membership in the European Union or globalization writ large, but it is about to get one. The first round of the country’s presidential elections, which will be held this Sunday, has become impossible to handicap. France’s party system is in its death throes, according to Patrick Buisson, a onetime top adviser to former President Nicolas Sarkozy. “Like all death throes,” Mr. Buisson said recently over a brasserie lunch in Paris, “it is convulsive.”

Sunday’s top two vote-getters will advance to a second round on May 7. Polls now show four candidates locked in a dead heat. Put bluntly, the contenders are a capitalist, a Catholic, a nationalist and a leftist. The 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and economics minister, bolted the Socialist Party last year to run at the head of a new movement called En Marche (“on the march”). He wants to strengthen the 28-country European Union, which lays down rules for the continent. In an ordinary year, he might be preparing to run head-to-head against the conservative François Fillon, whose mostly Catholic political base has rallied against Islamist terrorism and gay marriage. But Mr. Fillon has spent the entire campaign mired in featherbedding scandals.

One or both of these mainstream candidates could be toppled by an insurgency. If that happens, much else will fall. Marine Le Pen, the daughter and political heiress of the demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen, has sought to purge his National Front of its reputation for bigotry. She wants to pull France out of the EU entirely. The eloquent Jean-Luc Mélenchon is almost as skeptical about the EU, even if his own sympathies are more with South American radicals such as Evo Morales and the late Hugo Chávez.

In France and elsewhere, citizens complain that the EU has eroded their culture, sapped their defenses against mass migration and left them less free; meanwhile, business leaders and the politicians they back call it indispensable.

Far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Paris Monday.
Far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Paris Monday. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Globalization has left mixed results in France. Its major cities, starting with Paris, are as rich as ever, but they have been hit hard by terrorism. In just the past two years, the staff of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were massacred for belittling Islam, dozens of music fans were executed at a concert hall in Paris, tourists were mowed down by a truck on the beachfront of Nice, and an 84-year-old priest had his throat slit after celebrating Mass near Rouen. On Thursday, a gunman killed one police officer and wounded two others on the Champs-Élysées, in an act claimed by Islamic State.

In the wake of deindustrialization, the centers of France’s smaller cities—including such charming ancient places as Albi and Béziers—now look as if they had been evacuated in wartime. The writer Daoud Boughezala recently went to Vierzon, a manufacturing center near the Loire Valley that is proud of its medieval belfry, and found two-thirds of the businesses shuttered. Writing in the monthly Causeur, he described a clothing store stoned by gangs after its owner complained about drug dealers in the tourist district. It is now closed.

That kind of decay doesn’t leave much of a record to run on. Socialist President François Hollande bowed out of the race. Polls give him the lowest approval ratings of any Western leader since the end of World War II. Like former President Barack Obama, he lost his party’s majorities in the Senate, the lower house and local government.

Unlike Mr. Obama, he gave his base nothing to show for it. In 2012, Mr. Hollande ran as the enemy of big money and promised a 75% tax rate for top earners. But he ended up serving big money by deregulating banks and the retail sector, making it easier to lay off workers, and cutting severance and overtime pay.

As Mr. Hollande’s protégé and economics minister, Mr. Macron spearheaded some of these reforms. By the time rank-and-file Socialists took their party back in January’s primary elections, Mr. Macron was gone, and so was the party’s historic program. (The official Socialist presidential candidate, lawmaker Benoît Hamon, is polling around 7%.) The Socialist Party can still pile up money and media coverage for legislative elections, but it no longer has a vision to inspire people for the presidency.

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a pro-business progressive from the centrist En Marche political party, on the stump at a rally in Paris Monday.
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a pro-business progressive from the centrist En Marche political party, on the stump at a rally in Paris Monday. PHOTO: YOAN VALAT/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Two-thirds of the French public disapprove of Mr. Hollande’s market reforms. Young people marched against them. Mr. Macron’s ability to advance after championing them is evidence of his political gifts. His first love was acting. He is intelligent, eloquent and seductive. He woos crowds. In an arena in Lyon recently, he quoted the poet René Char before concluding, “I love you madly, my friends.”

People hear what they want to hear. In recent days, the onetime Le Monde editor Luc Rosenzweig announced that he would vote for Mr. Macron because the candidate believes in nuclear power and thus in the future. Meanwhile, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who represents the Green Party in the European Parliament, said that he is backing Mr. Macron in part because of his promise to cut nuclear power.

The most unusual thing about Mr. Macron is his marriage. He is not yet 40, while his wife is in her 60s. (He met her at age 15, when she was running the drama club at his high school.) In ordinary times, this might strike voters as weird; in today’s troubled climate, it seems to strike them as bracingly transgressive.

Strategists for the Socialist Party consciously patterned Mr. Hollande’s coalition on Mr. Obama’s. It is now Mr. Macron’s. It brings together the winners of the new economy and minority groups in a “coalition of the ascendant.” Mr. Macron is the candidate of money, of power, of the EU. The economist Jean-Luc Gréau goes so far as to call him the candidate of “a Third World France subordinated to Germany.”

But Mr. Macron is politically correct too. He has called France’s colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity,” an expression usually reserved for genocides. He said on a trip to London that there is no such thing as “a” French culture. He uses bi-gendered pronouns (celles et ceux instead of the more usual ceux). And he neatly ties together cultural and economic issues, praising the Uber economy to the skies as a means of upward mobility for those (mostly North African) youths whom he calls victims of prejudice. Uber is unpopular in France. Mr. Macron has attacked it too.

If you like him, you would say that he transcends France’s past. If you don’t, you would say he’s indifferent to it. That has opened up opportunities for the Republicans, the traditional conservative party. Mr. Hollande’s introduction of gay marriage in 2013 provoked some of the largest demonstrations since World War II, creating the nucleus of a more or less Catholic conservative social movement called Common Sense.

In the wake of that mobilization, the explicitly Catholic free-marketer François Fillon seemed to be a dream candidate around whom to build a presidential bloc. He joined conservative businesspeople to Christian community activists in Reagan-esque fashion and struck at Ms. Le Pen’s base.

But last winter, Mr. Fillon was swallowed up in scandal. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné alleged that Mr. Fillon had used taxpayer funds meant for running his office to employ his Welsh wife Penelope and their children and that Mrs. Fillon had briefly received monthly payments from a literary magazine. Almost immediately, an anticorruption arm of the government newly established by Mr. Hollande opened an investigation.

Conservative presidential candidate François Fillon at a campaign rally Tuesday in Lille, France.
Conservative presidential candidate François Fillon at a campaign rally Tuesday in Lille, France. PHOTO: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Mr. Fillon’s actions may not have been illegal, but the scandal has handicapped his campaign. The press exulted. Mr. Fillon couldn’t attend campaign rallies without being greeted with calls of “Escroc!” (“Crook!”). His poll numbers plummeted. But Mr. Fillon claimed that he had been set up by a cabinet noir (what we might call the “deep state”) in Mr. Hollande’s government and refused to step aside.

Mr. Fillon has another problem: He is a conventional candidate. His conservative cultural values are tied to a business-friendly agenda not so different from Mr. Macron’s. He supports the EU. Against Marine Le Pen and her National Front, he will never appear as the candidate of real change.

My opponents claim they can control the border, revoke birthright citizenship, slow immigration, fight unfair trade…They are lying to you.

—Marine Le Pen

Ms. Le Pen promises a referendum within six months on taking back sovereignty from the EU. “Our battle for sovereignty is primary,” she said in Lyon in February. “Essential. Cardinal…Without sovereignty, all projects are broken promises. My opponents claim they can control the border, revoke birthright citizenship, slow immigration, fight unfair trade…They are lying to you. As long as they do not break the shackles of the European Union, which holds the authority on these matters, they are ruling out any change, even minor.”

She is right, which makes her the more robust alternative to Mr. Macron. Her resistance to Mr. Hollande’s competitiveness agenda has won her the allegiance, polls say, of 44% of those who call themselves working-class. Ms. Le Pen has made an effort to rid her party of official bigotry, going so far as to expel her now-estranged father.

But she is still the radical in the race. In Marseille on Wednesday, she promised a moratorium on immigration and a fight against the application of Islamic religious law in France. She urged a “national insurrection”—a democratic one—to recover the country’s lost “grandeur,” while crowds chanted, “France for the French.”

In this campaign, critics have accused Ms. Le Pen less often of bigotry than of hostility to the EU. Yet on that question, the French are largely in harmony with her. Even intellectuals who consider themselves her arch-foes often take her side. The demographer Emmanuel Todd, for instance, recently complained to Le Journal du Dimanche, “France is in the Eurozone, we don’t control our currency, we’ve lost control of our budget and our deficit, and…our president no longer has any power.”

Large parts of the French electorate are ready to follow her fundamental line. But some are scared, fearing riots by Muslim immigrants in the poor banlieues around Paris, and others are too embarrassed to back a party with fascistic antecedents.

By insisting that Ms. Le Pen is the second coming of Hitler, mainstream media outlets have made it seem “irresponsible” to vote for any small party, because it would only dilute the vote against her. They suggest that it is nothing less than a civic duty to vote for Mr. Macron, the candidate of the banks.

This causes no end of frustration among many of those who would never dream of voting for Ms. Le Pen. What if France had a plausible candidate who shared Ms. Le Pen’s popular skepticism of capitalism and the EU but wasn’t so liable to being cast as a brownshirt?

In the campaign’s last weeks, one has emerged. The 65-year-old EU deputy Jean-Luc Mélenchon offers a version of Ms. Le Pen’s position that is more eloquent, if less logical. He is backed by the best-selling economist Thomas Piketty, and he has a new-media adviser who worked for Bernie Sanders.

Far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Parti de Gauche at a political rally Tuesday in Dijon, France.
Far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Parti de Gauche at a political rally Tuesday in Dijon, France. PHOTO: ROBERT PRATTA/REUTERS

Mr. Mélenchon argues that France can drive a harder bargain with the EU since its departure would doom the project altogether. (This is true of a half-dozen other countries too.) Though he hasn’t called for a referendum on EU membership, he might break up the EU more indirectly: His plans for €270 billion in stimulus spending by the government and for a 100% income tax on those earning more than €400,000 a year would rupture the voluntary fiscal and legal synchrony on which the EU rests.

Mr. Fillon calls Mr. Mélenchon’s program “communist.” But should the two advance to the second round, Mr. Mélenchon would probably win handily. He would also easily beat Ms. Le Pen, polls suggest.

And that changes the whole dynamic of the election. Mr. Macron was presented to old-guard Socialists as a bulwark against Ms. Le Pen. If even Mr. Mélenchon would triumph over Ms. Le Pen, why does France need such a bulwark? This invocation of republican “values” appears self-interested: Vote for our banker, or we’ll call you a fascist.

Of course, the polls could be wrong. They were wrong in this campaign’s primaries. They have been spectacularly wrong in other elections throughout the West. Voters who cheerily prattled about their values when times were good have clammed up now that their material needs are no longer being met. They are hard to read, and the stakes are high.

A Frexit would be far more seismic than Brexit. Great Britain, which voted to leave the EU last summer, never adopted the euro as its currency and was always half-in, half-out. But France is a core EU member and has always provided much of the project’s brains and vision. Without France, the EU would likely collapse. We will find out this weekend whether that is France’s fear or its hope.

Mr. Caldwell, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, is at work on a book about the rise and fall of the post-1960s political order.

Appeared in the Apr. 22, 2017, print edition as ‘Le Div orce?.’