Sunday, February 04, 2007

Segolene Royal's new daring campaign tactic

The Militant Pine Marten's sources report that Segolene Royal's campaign team appear to be testing a new way of connecting with voters in a way that is truly relevant to them. It's certainly more appealing than Sarkozy's tubthumping.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Live from Old Billingsgate Fish Market: the London Sarkozy gig

Hubristically assuming that the Militant Pine Marten has any regular readers, they presumably know that it dislikes Nicolas Sarkozy because of his authoritarianism and disdain for civil liberties, his predilection for repressive means to tackle any problems that come under his remit as France's Interior Minister, his general outspoken Blunkettness. However in a spirit of open-mindedness, and indeed curiosity, the Pine Marten decided yesterday to attend Sarkozy's public meeting held at Old Billingsgate Market in the City, to hear from the man himself what he had to say, and also to obtain some sort of idea on the sort of man that he is from such ethereal sources as his tone of voice, body language, and any ad-lib statements. I intend to simply give an account of Sarkozy's performance and its' content, keeping it as objective and dispassionate as possible. This is a significant departure from the Pine Marten's usual opinionated approach, so please bear with me, I'm making an effort here. I’d be delighted to engage in discussion subsequently, in the unlikely event that anyone takes me up on the offer.

At half-past six yesterday evening, the queue in front of Old Billingsgate Market opposite the Monument stretched all the way from the doors to Customs House about 200-300 metres down Lower Thames Street. The first noticeable thing was that people in the queue were overwhelmingly young people, from 17 or 18 year olds about to vote in their first presidential election to those aged about thirty, who have moved to London for work purposes, via students studying in London. Chatter in the queue indicated that although many were fervent Sarkozy supporters, which is hardly surprising at a campaign meeting, many were also there simply to hear what he had to say, being still unsure who to give their vote to. Clearly for all main candidates, everything is still to play for because a lot of people are undecided, and although the "tribal" centre-right and Socialist electorates still exist, they're seriously shaken. Everyone is listening very carefully to what Sarkozy has to say, but they will be doing the same for Ségolène Royal.

Inside the building, giant screens, boards bearing Sarkozy's slogan "Ensemble tout est possible" (reminiscent of the SNCF's '90s "SNCF: tout est possible") and drawing of open fields with a seagull flying over them, lighting, cameras, and all the paraphernalia of the modern, media-savvy political campaign organisation. UMP and other dignitaries in the front rows, press and TV on the sides of the stage, and a few dozen 16-19 year olds in white "Nicolas, on y croit!" tee-shirts sitting behind a cordon on the right-hand side of the stage, some carrying French flags.

At about half-past seven, to raucous applause, Nicolas Sarkozy walks onto the stage, the crowd having been warmed up by a frankly hilariously sycophantic welcome speech by the London Delegate of the UMP. He began with praise for the host city, "the seventh French city" (a reference to the estimated 200,000 French nationals living in London), which had welcomed many French greats in the course of its history. First to be mentioned was Napoleon, who applied for asylum in England at one point. He was followed by General de Gaulle and the Free French, and Sarkozy thanked London for this, and for enabling the Resistance in WW2. This was met by a approving roar from outside the building where about a thousand people who hadn't been able to enter the hall ("As we know, the British don't mess with safety regulations" said the UMP delegate) were following the event on big screens. This prompted Nicolas to announce with a big grin that he "hopes to always have this problem". Carrying on with the customary homage to de Gaulle, he had incorporated some of the general's famous quotes into the speech, notably that he has "a certain idea of France", and he praised "France, the France of always", as de Gaulle did after the Liberation of Paris in 1944.

He then moved on to a section especially targeted at French expats, pointing out that viewed from abroad, France's shortcomings are more clearly apparent, that having left France, contrary to what many of those who have remained claim, didn't mean that expats were less French, or had forsaken France. And that indeed, because absence makes the heart grow fonder, they were even more dismayed, and didn't see why France would do less well than other countries, when it has everything it needs to succeed. He added that from the outside, people saw only results, not obstacles and problems as some within the country may primarily see. Sarkozy finally added that by being outside France, expats "serve France in her universal and international dimension".

At this stage, he began to talk about his bid for the presidency, with a rhythmic succession of seven or eight sentences following the following format: "I want to be the president of a France that isn't timorous, that isn't scared of others of the future!" (This is proper tugging at the red, white and blue heartstrings stuff by the way). He then gave the reasons for which people left France such as the fact that work wasn't paid sufficiently, that risk-taking was frowned upon, backed up by examples of illustrious Frenchmen who had left to continue their work elsewhere such as the chap who discovered AIDS, who couldn't continue his research in France as he had reached the mandatory retirement age so left for the USA. Groups singled out as being particularly likely to leave were scientific researchers, entrepreneurs, those without degrees that no-one will give a chance to in France. He ended this section by saying that "there was no doom to decline" and that "decline and fatalism were not part of [his] vocabulary."

Beginning his home run, Sarkozy launched a full-scale attack on the Left, the ideals of May 1968 and the presumed negative attitude to work as a virtue. This last section is probably best transcribed as a series of sound-bites, as this essentially what it was:

  • "The catastrophic ideal of May '68"
  • "Everything is not due to Youth"
  • "The Left accepts poverty as long as everyone is poor"
  • "The Left tolerates injustice as long as everyone is equally a victim of it"
  • "The students of May '68 were spoilt children"
  • "The Republic is now a word emptied of its meaning, brandished as an excuse to do nothing"
  • "The Republic is Merit"
  • "I want to return its' moral value to work"
  • "Work emancipates and liberates" (yes, really, he said that)
  • "I don't want France to be welcoming only so those with no degrees, no jobs, no homes, no papers"
  • "At lunchtime, Tony Blair confirmed to me that the 35 hour week wasn't England's thing."
  • "The only good thing about the 35 hour week is that it's the only idea that you don't have to patent, as no-one will ever want to use it."

He mentioned some actual specific policies:

  • Free crèches so that mothers could work if they so wanted
  • Free education for all (including expats)
  • Freedom for students to work during their studies
  • Single employment contract with three progressive stages of employee status, as yet unspecified
  • Law forcing public sector workers to resolve disputes at the ballot box within 8 days of the problem arising rather than striking ("I want to finish off the strikers").
  • Compulsory civic service of 6 months for youths (very lukewarm and hesitant applause there from the teens down the right-hand side)

Finally, a few choice words on egalitarianism and state assistance:

  • "Egalitarianism and state assistantship are deleterious to human dignity"
  • "No assistance without work in the public interest"
  • "The State doesn't want to help he who doesn't wish to help himself"
  • "We can create a synthesis between quality of life and efficiency" (He actually said "douceur de vivre" which has additional connotations, but it's close enough)

The event ended with a stage invasion by the Jeunesses Sarkozistes, a rousing chorus of the Marseillaise with waving flags on the stage that everyone joined in, because it is after all a bloody good song, then the Sarko Youth sang Happy Birthday to the UMP delegate, and Sarko went for a crowd bath.

As attendees waited for twenty minutes at the doors as the Fuzz refused to let us out for some reason, opinion seemed to be mixed. Certainly there didn't seem to be any of the Sarkozy fervour that the Pine Marten eavesdropped on earlier. People weren't impressed by the anaemic rip-off of the theme from The Big Country that would seem to be Sarkozy's campaign anthem. To be fair, it's quite aggravating, and rather alien to a French election campaign. I suspect that his attack on what he called "Youthism" may have dampened the ardour of the predominantly youthful crowd. As a courtesy, I'll let Sarkozy have the last word: "One is never disappointed when one strives to make of one's life something greater than it is". He said that in the context of asking people to work for his campaign, but feel free to take it out of context and make of it what you will.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

An important milestone on the road to losing any vestigial moral high ground

Upon hearing yesterday morning that Saddam Hussein had been executed, I was surprised at my main emotional response to the news. I was partly surprised, as I had not expected that the sentence would be carried out so promptly. After all, I had expected that he would actually be present at the ongoing trial surrounding events at Al-Anfal. Not that there’s much doubt that he was indeed responsible for the death of 180,000 Kurds in 1987-88, it’s just that surely the point of such a trial is to make the guilty party face up to his crimes, and to send out the message that such behaviour will not be tolerated or go unpunished. There’s nothing much the court can do to redress the situation, and in my mind and that of many others, it’s not the business of the courts to facilitate revenge. Obviously, not everyone shares that view.

I had rather expected that my first thought would be “Well done, it couldn’t have happened to a nastier chap”, or something along those lines. Only it wasn’t. The emotions that the news of Saddam’s demise stirred up were anger mixed with shame. The two often go hand in hand. The anger comes from the fact that the entire process leading to Saddam Hussein’s arrest, trial and execution has been a complete travesty. I don’t want to once again bring up a topic that never fails to lead to an intractable argument, so let’s say that the circumstances leading to his arrest were at the very least of dubious legality. What is beyond doubt is that the arrest warrant, if you will, was for being under suspicion of possessing weapons of mass destruction, which has proved to be a trumped-up charge on the part of the UK government. Alternately, as far as the US government is concerned, it was for being an accomplice to Al-Qaeda and associates, which was also utter tripe. It isn’t as if there weren’t any other charges that they could have made stick.

Of course, because of the uncertainty over the legal standing of the circumstances leading to Hussein’s arrest, he had to be tried in a “special Iraqi court”, not by an international one as are other suspected war criminals and their illustrious brethren such as Slobodan Milosevic. No matter how nasty a man Saddam was, he deserved a fair trial as much as anyone else, and there was no chance at all of such a thing happening in Iraq. Of course, that was his own fault for having given just about everyone in Iraq a reason to want to see him dangling, but the desire for revenge is different from justice, even if the practical end result is arguably the same. To be fair, the Iraqi court did a remarkable job given the almost impossible circumstances in which the trial took place: several of Saddam’s lawyers were assassinated for example.

But the fact remains that the outcome of it all was that Saddam was sentenced to death and executed with the complicity of the US and UK governments. All the talk of letting the Iraqi people judge Saddam as they see fit without outside intervention is transparent nonsense. It’s just George Bush and Tony Blair washing their hands of the situation unconvincingly. Of course, George Bush doesn’t have to care quite so much about this. He governs the only real democracy in the world to regularly execute so many of its’ citizens. Capital punishment isn’t so much of a political hot potato in the US as it is in Europe. But here, it’s anathema, at least it’s meant to be. The EU makes it a requirement for membership that capital punishment should be abolished. It’s just a fundamental human right. But it would seem that it’s only a human right for people like us, a group of which membership is subject to fluctuating criteria. Margaret Beckett, on behalf of the British government, said that “the British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. ‘We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation.’”

This is quite obviously a cop-out. You have to be singularly naïve to believe that the Iraqi government can’t be influenced by the US or the UK.

The main problem with the outcome of this miserable mini-epic is not that Saddam’s dead, or that he didn’t deserve it. No one much regrets his passing. This will have no discernible impact on what people still amusingly refer to as “the security situation” in Iraq. Saddam Hussein hasn’t mattered in this conflict since he went into hiding in April 2003. The problem is that this is the schematic version of events leading up to this: The US and the UK invade Iraq and arrest Saddam on trumped-up charges. He is then tried by a kangaroo rat court with the collusion of the US and the UK who unconvincingly claim that it’s nothing to do with them. He is then sentenced to death and executed with the complicity of at least on government that opposes the death penalty. Where’s the moral high ground that it supposed to provide us with the justification for using violence against countries when we oppose it when used by anyone else? Why on earth would anyone listen to a word we say any more? Why would they pay lip service to all our admonestations on human rights and democracy?

George Bush says of Saddam’s death that “it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy”. Well I suppose that’s one interpretation of what democracy is supposed to be. It’s not one that the Militant Pine Marten shares though.