Macron’s Presidency has been dealt a serious – and perhaps terminal – blow

21 Jun

Two months ago, in my rundown of Emmanuel Macron’s re-election, I predicted that the President of France would face “something of an uphill task” to retain his majority in the National Assembly, faced, as he was, with challenges from Jean-Luc Mélenchon to his left and Marine Le Pen to his right. Following last Sunday’s second round of the French legislative elections, my prediction has proved to have been on the money.

Macron’s Ensemble centrist alliance won 245 seats – down from 345 at the Assembly’s dissolution, and 44 seats short of the 289 needed for a majority. Meanwhile, Mélenchon’s coalition of left-wingers, communists, and greens soared from 17 seats to 131. And two months on from being bested by Macron in the second round of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National shot from 9 seats to 89.

That leaves Macron well short of the majority needed to get his legislative program through. Previously in the Fifth Republic, Presidents have lost their party majorities, or been forced into so-called ‘cohabitations’ with Assembly majorities of the opposing party. But never before, since De Gaulle brought the parliamentary Fourth Republic to a close in 1958 and replaced it with one dominated by the President, has an Assembly been this well-hung.

As such, the prospects for government look uncertain. Macron lost several allies and ministers, including Richard Ferrand, the president of the National Assembly, and Brigitte Bourguignon, minister of health and social solidarity. Élisabeth Borne, his prime minister and a technocrat, almost lost to an unknown in her seat, and may well, at only a month in the role, become the shortest-lived prime minister of the Fifth Republic so far.

Certainly, Macron’s legislative agenda looks weakened. Parliamentary horse-trading will be the order of the day. The centre-right Republicans could provide him with a majority for crucial plans for raising the retirement age and reforming pensions. But the party has already expressed its desire to remain in opposition, unwilling to taint itself with an association with Macron as it worries about Le Pen’s threat from its right.

Stalemate thus appears to be the order of the day. Macron could call fresh elections in a year or so. But it appears French voters are now stuck in three blocs of the right, left, and centre, and it is debatable how much another vote might change. Instead, the next five years seems likely to hold for France further economic stagnation, failed integration policies, rising crime, sclerotic unemployment, and crisis in Europe.

Of course, as President, Macron retains full control over his country’s foreign policy. He has displayed this facility clearly in recent months with his efforts to prevent Russia facing “humiliation” over Ukraine, and to press for further integration through France’s six months chairing the European Council. Yet Macron’s hopes of leading a united Europe are challenged by ongoing disagreements over how to handle Putin’s invasion – and by a potential Eurozone debt crisis.

De Gaulle was able to replace the Fourth Republic by the Fifth due to the crisis in Algeria and the inability of a dysfunctional parliamentary system to handle it. A central plank of Mélenchon’s platform is to begin consultations on tearing up the constitutional order and inaugurating a Sixth Republic. As Macron finds the political tide overwhelming him, don’t be surprised if the calls for reform grow louder – and produce, as Macron’s successor, either a Marxist or Marine Le Pen.

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AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific. A tilt to it, yes. A lunge, no.

20 Sep

In a chapter of their book on Britain’s defence capability, White Flag, our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott describe “Operation Tethered Goat”.  It sets how in the event of a Russian incursion a small NATO force would attempt to defend a 65-mile stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border “straddled ominously by Kaliningrad to the west and the Russian satrapy of Belarus on the east.”

“If Russia were to attempt to close the gap, NATO’s only option would be to punch north with the US-led brigade based here. Until then, it would be up to the Baltic states to hold their ground, supported by small detachments of NATO forces stationed inside their borders.

“One of those forces would be headed by a small but fierce battalion of UK troops stationed in Tapa, Estonia. Some 800 troops from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are here, supported by smaller deployments from other member states”.  The isolation and vulnerability of our troops gives rise to the operation’s grim nickname.

This is the background against which to see the Americo-British-Australian deal over nuclear-powered submarines, the wounded reaction of France, and the new security pact between the two countries: AUKUS.

Further war in eastern Europe is relatively unlikely, for all the recent tangle between Russia and Ukraine.  But were it to happen, it would directly affect Britain and the alliance on which our security has depended for the best part of three-quarters of a century: NATO.  It would be war in our back yard.

Conflict in the South China is perhaps more likely, but would affect the UK less directly.  We wouldn’t be bound by our NATO obligations to participate.  And whatever may be said of the South China Sea, it is not in our neighbourhood.

None of which is to say that either the new deal or the pact is a bad thing.  Their core for us is the transfer of material – including in “cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities”, as Boris Johnson put it last week – not that of troops, for all the recent journey of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea.

As he went on to say, “this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands,” including perhaps the Red Wall-ish areas of Barrow and Derby.

The deal also shows how fast time moves and frail attention spans can be.  Only a month ago, Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan raised the prospect of an isolationist America withdrawing into itself.  Any prudent British government should be alert to the possibility and what it could mean for the future of Europe.

AUKUS is a sign that, whatever else might happen elsewhere, the United States is commited to the Indo-Pacific and that, as in Afghanistan, there is continuity between what Donald Trump did and what Biden is doing.

There has been a startling shift there in attitudes to America within the last five years or so – just as there has been one here since David Cameron declared a new “golden age” in Anglo-Sino relations.  That was before Brexit.  Of which there is a point to be made about the pact and the deal.

In the wake of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, Remain obsessives raised our exit from the EU, suggesting that it was responsible for Johnson failing to persuade Biden to delay the withdrawal, because Washington no longer listens to us.

Never mind that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel took much the same position.  The boot is now on the other foot.  Some of our fellow Leavers argue that were it not for Brexit, Britain would never have abandoned France for America and Australia – just as, were it not for our exit from the EU, the Government wouldn’t have summoned up the nerve to get on with our own Covid vaccine programme.

Like other counter-factuals, this one is unprovable.  And the lure of new jobs, plus the tug of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian relations, might have been enough to lure some other Prime Minister in an EU member Britain to make the same decision.

What can safely be said is that our relationship with America carries on as before, regardless of Brexit, and that Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO, the Commonwealth, and is one of Europe’s two armed powers, a top five aid donor, and in the top ten influential nations list on any reckoning.  All of which Leavers spelt out during the referendum campaign.

The Global Britain slogan has been ridiculed but, whatever one’s view of leaving the EU, it touches on a fundamental reality which AUKUS, that G7 membership, that Security Council presence and all the rest of it helps to illustrate.

Liz Truss is straight out the traps banging that drum, but it is worth pondering Global Britain, as suits that spherical image, in the round.  Europe is part of the globe.  It is a lot closer to us than Australia, if not in kinship than at least in distance.  And, as we have seen, a conflict in our continental hinterland would disturb us more immediately than one in an Asian sea.

Which takes us to France, and an entente that at present isn’t all that cordiale.  It’s scarcely unknown for Macron to withdraw its ambassadors when piqued: in recent years, they were brought home from Italy and Turkey.

But he will be very bruised, not least because the deal and the pact seem to have been firmed up in private between the three powers during the recent G7, while he was talking up France’s relationship with America (plus its interests in the Indo-Pacific), and taking potshots at Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The real-life cast of The Bureau – i.e: the French intelligence services – may have been asleep on the job, and there is certain to be an inquest.  British crowing at the Gallic cockerel’s embarrassment is inevitable.

But while your own neighbour next door may eventually move out, France won’t be going anywhere, and it isn’t in our interest for this complex relationship to cool further.  France is our only major military partner in Europe (and elsewhere: see Mali), a top five trading one, home to up to 400,000 Brits, the source of most of those channel boats, and tortously intertwined with our culture and history.

Nord 2 has brought Germany closer to Putin’s orbit.  The former’s election takes place soon.  Whatever the result, France will feel the tug from Germany, as will the whole EU.  We don’t want to see the latter plump itself up as a potential rival to NATO.  But it would help us, America, and Europe itself for our neighbours – bearing that Russian presence in mind – to spend more on defence.

Their unwillingness to do so (Mark Francois recently set out the figures on this site), Germany’s passivity and a certain strain in French thinking suggests a drift into the Russian orbit.

De Gaulle’s ambivalence about the old Soviet Union, on which he blew cool post-war and warmer later on, had its roots in a French cultural antagonism to America and periods of alliance with Russia.  The ghost of the General will believe that AUKUS proves him right: that when push comes to shove, Britain will always throw its lot in with its American cousins.

We should turn a new page with France, or at least try to  – and remember that while a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a one thing, a lunge there would be quite another.  Putin hasn’t “gone away, you know”. And Islamist extremism hasn’t, either.

Simon Richards: Almost 15 years ago, I helped to set up Better Off Out. This deal isn’t perfect – but it delivers what we campaigned for.

28 Dec

Simon Richards was CEO of The Freedom Association until June 2020, and a co-founder of the Better Off Out campaign in 2006. He is now working on plans to help promote the record and reputation of Margaret Thatcher.

Three o’clock in the afternoon still has a resonance for the millions who follow football more than I do – not least on a Boxing Day Bank Holiday. For me, it is a sacred time on just two days of the year: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

So I was incandescent when, following a ridiculously lengthy delay even by his own standards, Boris Johnson’s press conference clashed with that immovable highlight of Christmas Eve, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

It could have been even worse: had he held it at the same time the following day, he might have found himself even lower down the Queen’s Christmas card list than Tony Blair. To add insult to injury, the Prime Minister apologised, not for clashing with the world’s best-loved carol service, but for ‘disturbing Cars Three’, an American computer-animated film which, it transpired, he had not actually interrupted at all.

A far more substantial objection to Johnson’s deal is that its timing allows Parliament just a single day to debate it. How convenient for the Government! So the truth is that, whatever you or I might think of it, this deal is, if you will pardon my French, a fait accompli – an accomplished fact; a done deal.

Call it what you will, nothing is going to stop it now. Even were there adequate time to discuss this massive document, Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, true to form, would provide no opposition at all. That, as usual, is left to those Conservative Party backbenchers who, from the fight over the Maastricht Treaty onwards, have served as an awkward squad, carrying out, without official recognition or pay, the work that the Labour Party has long neglected even to attempt to do.

Are important aspects of this deal unsatisfactory for the United Kingdom? Of course they are! There is no doubt that the UK made considerable concessions on fishing, but the key issue, of sovereignty over British waters, was upheld. Given the immense damage that the EU and its Common Fisheries Policy have done to the British fishing industry, it will be years before our fishermen are in a position to take full advantage of regaining control over our waters, so it was a sensible move by Lord Frost and the Government to give ground (or should that be water?) in that area.

After all, in any negotiation there have to be areas where concessions must be made. The important question is “will our fishing industry be in a better position than before?” and the answer to that can only be “yes” – granted that it would be difficult to worsen its current state.

If the Labour Party’s ‘thin deal’ criticisms of the deal are feeble, then the SNP’s attack on the fishing deal elevates political dishonesty to a new level even by its own standards. It has never stood up for Scotland’s fishing industry and its policy of independence, accompanied by an application to join the EU, could only be achieved by sacrificing that industry once again.

The truth is that the Prime Minister’s deal has shot Sturgeon’s fox, or, as one ought perhaps to say around Boxing Day, clubbed it to death. Nothing that Johnson came back with from Brussels was ever going to meet with the approval of Ian Blackford, Scotland’s very own Mr Potato Head himself. His cry of, ‘the potato-seed industry, the potato-seed industry, my kingdom for the potato-seed industry’ is hardly likely to match William Wallace as a call to battle.

There isn’t room here to go into all the arrangements covered in this vast set of agreements. Others such as Bill Cash, Martin Howe and Lee Rotherham are better able to do that than I am – and I trust their judgement. Not only can no deal be perfect, but we should not seek such perfection. For a deal of this nature to be successful – and to stick – it needs broadly to satisfy both sides. If it only satisfies one, it will be unacceptable to the other.

Bismarck was wise enough to realise that he had been wrong to agree to Prussia grabbing Alsace and Lorraine from France in the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871. It ensured that France was consumed by a desire for revenge, which led inexorably to two world wars. A deafening cacophony of claims from the EU side that it had got the better of the Brits was only to be expected, but, save for the inevitable French Government minister or two with an eye to bolstering Emmanuel Macron’s popularity, such claims have been conspicuous by their absence.

Similarly, on this side of the Channel, screams of betrayal from Brexiteers have been more like squeaks. Back in 2006, along with Mark Wallace of this parish and others, I helped set up the Better Off Out campaign, to promote the case that the UK would indeed be Better Off Out of the EU.

Had you asked me then whether I would have regarded the terms of this Christmas Eve Agreement as acceptable, I would have replied, in the style of the last British Prime Minister successfully to defend British interests in Europe, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ It was good to hear the Prime Minister cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech as an inspiration and a turning point. She set out an updated version of De Gaulle’s ‘Europe of Nations’. The EU would have been well advised to have taken heed of her advice, but chose to plough on regardless with its project of a United States of Europe.

Later, forcing through the Maastricht Treaty, John Major, who has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent days, took to the mantra that Britain was ‘at the heart of Europe’. Only somebody ignorant of both geography and history could have insisted on such an obvious falsehood.

The agreement that Johnson has obtained rights the wrongs inflicted by Major and a succession of Europhile Prime Ministers. It restores to the United Kingdom the freedom and independence that made it great, retaining its close and friendly links with its friends and neighbours on the continent whilst re-establishing its worldwide vision. I started by mentioning football.

To conclude, were this a football match it would have been 3-0 to the EU at half-time, with three own goals scored by Theresa May and her hapless team. David Frost has been Britain’s champion, achieving a great result for his country against all the odds, with a good deal of British pluck. Now it only remains for one injustice to be put to right: Boris, please give Nigel Farage the knighthood that he deserves.