Yes, the far-right lost in Austria, but it was hardly a good result for political moderates.

Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (right) was defeated by Alexander Van der Bellen (left) in Austria's Presidential Election.
Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (right) was defeated by Alexander Van der Bellen (left) in Austria’s Presidential Election.

Yesterday was the conclusion of the re-running of the Austrian Presidential run-off between Independent candidate (and former Green Party leader) Alexander Van der Bellen, and Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party.

The run-off was originally held in May and the result was extremely close with Van der Bellen winning by just 0.7 percent. But then, in June, the result was annulled after allegations of voting irregularities. Yesterday was the re-run, with opinion polls prior to polling day suggesting that the result would be similarly close, with the far-right Hofer narrowly leading in much of the polling. This led to Nigel Farage boldly predicting that Hofer would be the next populist right-winger to win a major election.

However, ultimately this was wrong, with Van der Bellen winning, and by a considerably wider margin than his win in the original election in May. Although all of the votes are yet to be counted, projections suggest that Van der Bellen has won by roughly 53 percent to 46 percent, and Hofer has conceded defeat.

Many moderates were quick to rejoice, heralding the result as a ray of light in a year which has seen a vote for Brexit in the EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton, the defeat of Matteo Renzi in Italy, and the continued rise of Marine Le Pen in France. However, this analysis glosses over the results somewhat.

Hofer is a genuine far-right politician. He has stated that Islam has ‘no place in Austria’, and has regularly referred to Islam and immigration as being an existential threat to Austrian identity. Hofer has also been strongly criticised by some for wearing the blue cornflower, which is an old Nazi symbol, which is often used to represent ideas of pan-Germanism. In addition, Hofer has long been a gun enthusiast, and has described carrying a gun as a ‘natural consequence’ of immigration. Despite pitching himself as a moderate outside member of the Freedom Party, Hofer has in fact worked his way up through the party’s ranks for many years, and was a close advisor to previous leaders who were even more overtly extreme.

Although Hofer lost, he received 46 percent of the vote. In 2000, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) received 18 percent of the vote in the French Presidential Election, and this was considered to be as popular as the far-right could get in Europe. However, now a far-right candidate has managed 46% of the vote, with Hofer’s share much, much higher in the countryside and the smaller towns — in much the same way as Donald Trump’s was during the US Presidential Election, although Hofer makes Trump look like a moderate.

Hofer’s loss is certainly pleasing for moderates in some regard. A Hofer win would have embolden far-right candidates throughout over European countries. The likes of Geert Wilders and the Dutch Party of Freedom, Matteo Salvini and the Italian Northern League, Frauke Petry and the Alternative for Germany, and Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Hofer’s loss will hopefully have stunted the momentum of these parties.

However, the fact that a far-right party managed to poll 46 percent in a European Presidential election should not be ignored. It should serve to further highlight to deep disconnect that many voters in Europe (and around the world) feel with the political establishment, and the establishment should be working overtime in order to correct this, before it’s too late.

Can Emmanuel Macron win the French Presidency?

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Emmanuel Macron announces his candidacy for President of France on Wednesday. 

In French politics much of the news over the last few days has been of the centre-right party Les Republicains holding the first round of their presidential primary with former Prime Minister Francois Fillon emerging as the unexpected victor.

However, last Wednesday, a less well known politician announced his candidacy for the Presidency: Emmanuel Macron.

Until August, Macron was the Economy Minister in the Manuel Valls government under the Presidency of Francois Hollande. Macron was a member of the Socialist Party between 2006 and 2009 but since then he has been an independent, and has recently established a political movement called ‘En Marche!’ (the initials of which conveniently match his own).

It is under the banner of ‘En Marche!’ that he will run for the Presidency, although he is effectively running as an independent, given that he lacks the party machine which the candidates from the major parties will enjoy. Given the dire record of independent and third-party candidates in French Presidential Elections, one would be forgiven for thinking that Macron doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Presidency. However, although it will undoubtedly be difficult for Macron, he certainly has a fairly decent chance in the upcoming election.

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Macron in his previous role as Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs.

 

Currently leading in the polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, with polling overwhelmingly suggesting that she will finish top in the first round of voting scheduled to be held on 23 April 2017. However, commentators have typically predicted that Le Pen will be defeated in the second round of voting, due to be held on 7 May.

Traditionally, French voters have a strong record of coming together to defeat extremist candidates for the Presidency. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) was the candidate for the National Front and advanced to the second round along with Jacques Chirac, the candidate for the UMP (the precursor of Les Republicains). In the second round of voting, the anti-Le Pen vote came together to give Chirac 82.2 percent of the votes and with it a huge victory. Many observers expect a similar situation to arise this time, although opinion is almost unanimous that the margin of victory for the consensus candidate will be far lower than in 2002, and that given the worldwide trend toward right-wing populist political candidates that it would be extremely unwise to completely rule out the possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the Presidency. However, the high likelihood of Le Pen’s opponent in the second round winning the Presidency means that, in theory, all Macron needs to do is win enough votes in the first round to advance into the second round.

One thing that could potentially make this easier is the fact that Francois Fillon has emerged as the likely winner of the presidential nomination for the Republicans. Previously, the overwhelming favourite to win was current Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppe who is considered a centrist. Given that Macron is also marketing himself as a centrist candidate in the election, Juppe as the Republican candidate could have made it very difficult for Macron to make any headway. The polls reflect this. So far in the Presidential race, and including the polls conducted before he announced his candidacy, Macron has been polling between 12 and 25 percent. Typically, his lower numbers have come when the pollsters have listed Alain Juppe as the Republican nominee. However, in polling which has listed Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Fillon as the Republican nominee, Macron has tended to score considerably higher. Therefore, the emergence of Fillon as the likely Republican nominee could be of huge benefit to Macron. If Macron is able to hoover up some of the voters who would have backed Juppe in the first round of voting, then he would stand a pretty strong chance of getting enough support to advance to the second round. As I explained previously, this would give him a very good chance of winning the Presidency.

The other variable to consider is whether incumbent President Francois Hollande will run for a second term. It has been reported that many of the President’s confidantes have advised him against seeking a second term given that his exceedingly high unpopularity would likely render the result a foregone conclusion — Hollande’s approval rating recently dropped to an historic low of just four percent. Macron was a key advisor on the Hollande Presidential campaign in 2012, and although he has been accused by Alain Juppe, among others, of ‘stabbing Hollande in the back’, he remains somewhat associated with the Hollande Presidency. This relationship is reflected in the polling with Macron scoring higher ratings when current Prime Minister Manuel Valls is listed as the Socialist Party nominee rather than Hollande — suggesting that Macron would be able to bring Hollande backers into his camp as well as Juppe backers. This coalition of centre-left, centrist, and centre-right supporters would stand him in good stead, and it is currently looking as though Macron’s insistence that his movement ‘En Marche!’ should not outwardly subscribe to any particular political ideology is looking like a rather shrewd decision. Macron’s own experience allows him to successfully straddle these ideologies. His previous membership of the Socialist Party has won him the backing of some centre-left voters plus the endorsement of Socialist Party members such as the Mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb. In addition, his experience as a banker with Rothschild, and as Economy Minister means that he also has strong connections in various highly influential business networks, although this has led to him being dismissed by Marine Le Pen as ‘the candidate of the bankers’.

What it does mean is that he has the ability to court voters who would usually go with the establishment candidate, whilst his independence from any political party and the fact that he has never before held elected office before means that he can also attempt to gain some of the voters who are keen for an anti-establishment candidate, which his speech announcing his run for the Presidency reflected.

During his speech announcing his candidacy Macron described France as being ‘blocked by corporatism of all kinds’ and unequivocally stated, ‘I reject this system!’ Although Macron is an avowedly centrist candidate, this imagery of a political system which faces gridlock as a result of corporate interests is also one which was readily used by the Leave side during the EU Referendum, and by Donald Trump’s campaign for the Presidency, and although Macron is clearly not a populist in the mould of these campaign’s, he has certainly seen what works around the world and is attempting to use it to his advantage. Macron was also keen to stress that rather than advocating positions on the right or left, his En Marche! movement advocated ‘new ideas’, and therefore he has immediately looked to mark himself out as the ‘change’ candidate, something which has also proved extremely successful in recent elections worldwide. Indeed, exit polling following the US Presidential Election suggested that although many of Donald Trump’s actual policies didn’t find favour with the electorate, many voters backed him because they felt that he could bring about change in Washington D.C. that no other candidate, principally Hillary Clinton, could. By casting himself as the ‘change’ candidate, Macron clearly hopes to tap into the desire of voters to shake up the political system, and whilst similar to the Trump campaign for change, there are also uncanny similarities to Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997 when he was Leader of the Opposition and then became Prime Minister. It is no surprise that some have described Macron as being ‘more Blair than Blair’, with the likeness perhaps coming more from a seeming willingness to do whatever it takes to win as opposed to his centrism.

Although there is evidence that Macron is winning voters who backed Hollande in 2012, there has also been anger in the Socialist Party at his candidacy, with some senior members suggesting that all he would do would be to split the left and allow the far-right to take hold. Jean-Christophe Cambedelis, who as First Secretary of the Socialist Party is effectively the party leader, described Macron’s decision to run as “very annoying”, before lamenting that his candidacy would split the Socialist Party’s vote and make it almost impossible for a centre-left candidate to reach the run-off. However, with the Socialist Party so unpopular on the back of Francois Hollande’s stint as President, surely the likelihood of a Socialist Party candidate reaching the final two was slim at best even before Macron announced his decision to run? Indeed, it seems fair to say that Macron’s candidacy makes it more likely that we will see a centre-left candidate in the final two, given that he has the ability to draw the support of centrists and some on the centre-right. Back in August Macron was polled as being the second most popular politician in all of France, after only Alain Juppe. With Juppe unlikely to play much more of a part in this Presidential Race, out of the remaining candidates it will likely be Macron who is the most popular in the eyes of the voting public. Surely, on these grounds, he is a far better person to be carrying the standard for the centre and centre-left than someone like Hollande or Valls? The fact that Le Pen and Juppe went on the attack almost immediately after Macron’s announcement suggests that they too recognise his eminent electability.

Whilst it is undeniable that Macron’s road to the Presidency will be an extremely difficult one, it is a journey which is by no means impossible. All Macron needs to do is finish second in the first round of the voting and with it progress to the run-off vote where he would have a good chance of defeating Le Pen. Although it is hard to dispute that Francois Fillon remains the favourite for now, with more than six months still to go it would be foolish to rule Macron out just yet. Stranger things have certainly happened.

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Macron’s road to the Presidency will be a tough one, but one which is far from impossible. 

So much for ‘Take Back Control’.

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On 23 June, the UK voted to leave the European Union on the back of a successful campaign from Vote Leave which emphasised taking back control and regaining sovereignty from the European Union. Indeed Vote Leave’s slogan was ‘Take Back Control’, and the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove repeated this phrase endlessly throughout the campaign, it seemed to be the answer to every question posed of them.

Alas, when the UK judiciary did take back control last week, those on the Leave side of the debate were not best pleased.

Last week, High Court judges ruled that Parliament had to have a vote on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the article which starts the process of withdrawing from the EU and which has to be triggered before any formal discussions can begin between the UK Government and the EU on a trade deal amongst other things. Theresa May and her Government felt that they should be able to choose when to trigger Article 50 themselves, and has such they have suggested that they will be appealing the High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court in due course.

The result of this court case led to huge anger from Leave campaigners like Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan-Smith, Suzanne Evans, and of couse The Daily Mail, all of whom cried (as they always seem to) that the ruling amounted to some sort of establishment stitch up.

However, wasn’t this exactly what they wanted?!

Their whole campaign to Leave the EU (which in economic terms was nonsensical) rested on the idea that the UK’s sovereignty was being impeded by the European Union. So you would think that there would be some pleasure in seeing UK Courts taking control of the situation.

But no, all we got was anger and even a suggestion from UKIP Leadership candidate Suzanne Evans that we should end the independence of the judiciary, with judges being elected to their positions — what a disaster that would likely turn out to be.

I suppose ‘Take Back Control So Long As The Decisions Made Are In Our Interest” wasn’t catchy enough for the big red battle bus.

What Leave voters need to understand (and very few of them seem to) is that the court case is not about stopping Brexit, indeed the vast majority of those who voted to Remain accept the result of the referendum. Full disclosure: I voted Remain myself, and was strongly in favour of remaining. Although I am still of the opinion that the referendum should never have been called it ultimately was, and I am willing to accept the result. However, just because the Leave campaign won, doesn’t mean that the views of the 48 percent who voted Remain should be completely ignored, we should be seeking some sort of consensus in order to unite the country. Equally, amongst the 52 percent who voted Leave, many voted for completely different things. Some voted to completely withdraw from Europe and all its institutions, some voted purely to retake Parliamentary sovereignty in terms of legislation, some voted purely to reduce immigration, many voted to leave the EU but still harboured a desire to remain inside the Single Market — including former Conservative MP Stephen Phillips who resigned on Friday.

Yes, the public have voted to Leave the European Union, but that does not mean we should just Leave straight away without the Government even thinking about it first. In my mind, there is surely no better way to do this than to put the issue to Parliament, to individuals who deal with complex legislation every day.

In addition, it is important for the electorate to now where the government stands on negotiating a deal with the European Union — where the government’s ‘red line’ is, so to speak. Given that Theresa May hasn’t been elected as Prime Minister, this is even more important. Yes, I know that technically we have a Parliamentary system where we don’t elect the Prime Minister, however I personally think that the vast majority of people cast their vote based in large part upon the party leaders who are the prospective Prime Ministers.

On this basis, it seems right that the government should call an early election in order to gauge public opinion about what sort of Brexit the electorate wants. For the government to go into negotiations in effect blind, means that there will definitely be a vast majority of UK citizens who feel disappointed with the results — likely including many who voted Leave on June 23.

As for those Leave campaigners who are still criticising the judges who made last week’s decision, they are playing a very dangerous game. As one of the more sensible Leave campaigners, journalist Iain Martin wrote in The Observer on Sunday: “we could try electing judges, or ordering judges to disregard and ignore the rule of law on the order of politicians, but the international historical precedents do not suggest it ever ends well.” Those Leave campaigners should stop to discredit and promote the illegitimacy of these judges. For them to continue to do so could be hugely harmful to the rule of law in this country.

They should remember that the decision is not a stitch up which aims to stop Brexit, but it is simply the court ensuring that Parliament plays its rightful role in the process, by providing a check to the government’s power.

Is the field for the 2017 French Presidential Election shaping up to be the lowest calibre ever?

If you think that choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, then spare a thought for French voters, given the choice of candidates in their upcoming Presidential election.

Although ten parties have already announced that they will be fielding candidates in the election, there are really only three parties who stand any chance of winning the presidency. These are: The Republicans, the Socialist Party, and the National Front. Currently, only the National Front have selected their candidate for the Presidency, with The Republicans and the Socialist Party set to hold open primaries in due course to decide upon their candidates.

The National Front’s candidate for the Presidency is party leader Marine Le Pen, and the policy positions that she has advocated throughout her career reflect the worst of populist politics. In the past, Le Pen has advocated a complete moratorium on legal immigration, ostensibly as a solution to unemployment, as well as a crackdown on illegal immigration. She has pledged to restore French relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whilst cutting off relations with Turkey who she has accused of supporting terrorism. In addition, similarly to Donald Trump, Le Pen has advocated improved relations with Russia, and has suggested that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were misunderstood. Naturally (for populist politicians at least), Le Pen also wants to leave the Eurozone, leave the European Union, and have a referendum on the reinstatement of capital punishment. Perhaps most well-known of Le Pen’s policy pronouncements, is her pledge for a crackdown on Islam. Le Pen’s repeated pronouncements of the links between Immigration, Islam, and Terrorism, have rapidly gained support in a country where many are terrified after recent terror attacks, and are looking for someone to blame. Le Pen has dangerously used these attacks for political point scoring with the result that she now leads Presidential election opinion polls. However, with the French electoral system, which includes a run-off between the top performing candidates from the first round of voting (assuming no candidate gains 50 percent of the vote in the first round) it looks as though Le Pen could be defeated by whoever she faces in the run-off. Nonetheless, Le Pen’s recent success and popularity showcases the dangerous forward march of the populist right in Europe and around the world.

As for The Republicans, fourteen candidates have thrown their hats into the ring thus far, and more are set to follow (making the French Republican primary much like the American Republican primary). These declared candidates include: former Prime Ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Fillon was Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and has spent recent years being one of the strongest critics of President Hollande’s economic policy, as well as his policy of intervention in Syria. In 2015, Fillon accused Hollande of presiding over the ‘pauperisation’ of France, whilst during his time as Minister for Education he was strongly in favour of restricting the wearing of ‘religious signs’ in public. However, with Fillon polling only around 10–12% it seems unlikely that he can challenge Juppé and Sarkozy who are the clear frontrunners. Juppé was Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997, and is the current Mayor of Bordeaux. He could comfortably be described as a moderate centre-right politician, perhaps one of the few voices of reason in the Republican primary. However, he is well-known as a poor public speaker, without the ability to fire up rallies in the way that the populist right have done so successfully, which could hurt him as the race goes on. Despite this, Juppé is currently ahead in the polls by around ten percent.

However, standing between Juppé and the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party is former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since losing the Presidency to François Hollande in 2012, Sarkozy has looked to rebuild his career. When he hasn’t been pretending to be brilliant at cycling up mountains, he has reinvented himself in the style of Donald Trump, as a populist right-winger hoping that the rising tide of anger in France can propel him to the Presidency. Sarkozy has described France as being on the ‘edge of an abyss’, which is very similar language to that used by Donald Trump in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in June. Sarkozy has pledged to follow a hardline stance on immigration, and has been one of the most vocal supporters of banning the Burkini throughout France. In addition, he plans to re-establish the authority of the State, and introduce compulsory military service for those who are not employed or in full-time education at the age of eighteen. It has been clear throughout the campaign that Sarkozy and his advisers feel that the National Front is the main competition in the upcoming election, and that a campaign filled with populist rhetoric is the way forward.

He is probably right. Given the unpopularity of the current President François Hollande, it doesn’t look like the Socialist Party have any chance of retaining the presidency. In 2012, Sarkozy became the first French President since 1981 not to win a second term in office. But it is looking increasingly likely that Hollande will follow suit. Hollande is now the most unpopular President in recent French history, and recent polls have suggested that around ninety percent of the French electorate disapprove of his performance as President. Many French voters feel that Hollande’s handling of the recent terror attacks on French soil has left a lot to be desired, whilst rising unemployment has also heavily contributed to Hollande’s unpopularity. Polling suggests that were Hollande to run for a second term as President, he would be defeated in the first round of the election. Hollande’s potential run for a second term is further complicated by deep divisions within his own party. Several ministers have resigned from the Hollande Government in order to run against him in the upcoming Presidential primary. These ministers include Arnaud Montebourg who was Minister for Industrial Renewal from 2012–14. Montebourg has accused Hollande of a betrayal of the ‘ideals of the left’ following Hollande’s adoption of a more pro-business stance in recent months, with Montebourg running as a firebrand left-wing candidate and promising to bring an end to austerity in France. Another individual who could complicate things for Hollande is Emmanuel Macron, who recently resigned as Economy Minister in order to begin a centrist bid for the Presidency. Macron has never held elected office but has been gaining popularity in recent months. Given the unpopularity of the Socialist Party (which stems from Hollande’s personal unpopularity), Macron is perhaps the only chance the left have of retaining the Presidency. Throughout his time in politics he has successfully distanced himself from the Socialist Party, painting himself as an independent centrist. Ironically, he may now be their only hope.

Therefore, with Hollande looking like he stands no chance of retaining the Presidency, and with it looking like the Socialist Party stand no chance of making the Presidential run-off, it looks as though the French Presidential Election is set to degenerate into a slugging match between members of the populist right. Don’t be surprised if the the two candidates who end up fighting it out for the Presidency are Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy, who will compete throughout the election with scary pronouncements for France’s future and strongly worded rhetoric regarding immigration and Islam.

Ultimately, with the current leader in the opinion polls (Marine Le Pen) someone who has previously been on trial charged with anti-Muslim hate speech, and the two most unpopular Presidents in recent French history (Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande) leading the way in the upcoming election, the 2017 French Presidential Election does look set to be one of the lowest calibre elections of modern times, not just in France but in the world.