French Prime Minister change

Hollande Will Regret Calling in New Prime Minister Valls to Save French Government

Rarely do local elections anywhere have such profound national resonance. In municipal elections on 30 March, France’s governing Socialist Party (PS) lost more than 150 towns and cities. The centre-right UMP made huge gains, much more than expected.

Members of president François Hollande’s party thought they might limit the damage, given that local politics is often very different from national politics, and France has a long and deep tradition of a “municipal socialism” largely insulated from national concerns. Well, not any more.

Read the full article here.

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Both Sarkozy and Hollande are victims of the French culture of scandal, but the real loser is democracy

In late February 2014, it was discovered that Nicolas Sarkozy’s close aide during his presidency, Patrick Buisson, had secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with the then-president and others. Some of the recordings were posted online by the right-wing website Atlantico, which was duly ordered to remove them on 14 March. There was little incriminating evidence in the tapes that have been heard, but only a tiny fraction of what Buisson recorded has made it into the public domain (so far). Buisson’s tapes, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Sarkozy is also under investigation over a plethora of other matters; his phones have been tapped for a year on the order of examining judges, and the scandals keep piling up…

Read the full article here.

 

Passion for Europe

By Christoph Schnabel

Last month I took part in the International Youth Competition of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German political foundation. I handed in a speech about a vision for Europe in the year 2030 and won a trip to Rome and an interview with Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament and elected candidate for President of the European Commission of the PES.

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©Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Photographer Pietro Pesce

In the past four years the European Union (EU) has been rocked by a crisis that has challenged the financial, economic and political functioning of the union. The future of millions of young people across Europe has become uncertain. From the 22nd until the 25th of May 2014 the citizens of the EU will elect a new parliament. What vision of Europe do young citizens have? Where doe we see the EU in the year 2030? Will it have emerged from the crisis strengthened? Will the face of Europe have changed completely?

I tried to answer those questions from a very personal point of view with a fictive New Years speech of the President of the European Commission in the year 2030. Apart from me, more than 200 other young Europeans from all over the continent handed in their contributions.

In Rome I met the 19 winners of the competition. Those young Europeans from 9 different countries were all highly motivated and in favour of deeper European integration. They had prepared interesting and critical questions for Martin Schulz. They covered fields like monetary and financial issues, immigration and youth unemployment.

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©Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Photographer Pietro Pesce

In the interview with Martin Schulz I asked him about the conflict that comes along with the situation he is in, in which he is both, candidate for President of the Commission and President of the EP at the same time. I wanted to know how he could on the one hand be a good and neutral President of the parliament and on the other hand campaign for himself, because he wants to win an election. Martin Schulz responded we would see no problem in separating those two roles and he would still be able to do good work as President of the EP.

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©Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Photographer Pietro Pesce

(I have to mention that he already broke this promise partly, as he changed his former “President of the EP – twitter account” to his “election campaign – account”, whereby he profits now from more than 80.000 followers.)

It was a great experiences and I had a really positive impression of Martin Schulz who is a great speaker and seems really passionate for the European idea.

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I want to thank the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in London, Berlin and Rome who made this experience possible and Peter Rodford and Nat Copsey from the Aston Centre for Europe, who’s lectures enabled and inspired me to write my speech.

 

Dear fellow citizens of Europe,

I wish you, your families and friends a happy 2030. I hope it will be successful and satisfying for every European and for people all over the world. I hope you will find the time to sit back and figure out, what for you, very personally shall matter in the year to come.

Today I would like to speak to you not as the President of the European Commission, but as a European citizen. Standing at the beginning of a new decade it might be a good idea to look back rather than just proclaiming the political agenda for the year 2030. I would like to share with you my very personal experiences of the past decades, which some of you might have experienced as well. But I hope that in the end, I will be able to explain why I have been a supporter of the European idea since my youth and want to encourage you for more support for the Union.

I was born in 1990 in the just united Germany. In my youth I travelled to France, Spain, Austria and all over Europe. My best friends and me took an old bus to discover the world around us. We went out to see mountains and the sea and always followed the sun. Thereby we crossed boarders without recognizing them. We went over boarders to meet new friends in foreign countries, boarders at which our grandparent’s generation had died.

The first time I voted was in 2009 when the European Parliament was elected. I was really excited, as young voters often are. I wanted to be part of the history of European democracy and not let others decide about my life. Therefore I even began to study the European Union, with its institutions, laws and origins and slowly began to understand that it was the only logical consequence of European history. So I grew up in a united Europe and went to study in Great Britain whilst I experienced the benefit from being united in diversity. But this united Europe was nothing new or strange to me. It was just where I grew up, my home. What I was afraid of was the attitude of the previous generation before mine. They were threatened by the idea of losing their identities. What they had to understand was that the Union was our only chance to protect peace within Europe and our norms and values in a globalised world.

At the beginning of this century we faced what some at that time called financial or debt crisis. Now we know that it in fact was a political crisis, due to the lack of trust in national and supranational institutions, their legitimacy and transnational solidarity. Politicians all over the continent were not able to explain their vision for the European Union, because most just had none. The Union was short from a failure. But this situation in our common history did not come out of nowhere. Sure we’ve made some huge mistakes, for example when we regulated the banking sector too little, and when we intervened in peoples’ daily life too much. At the same time people felt vulnerability and uncertainty and we couldn’t explain them why they had to pay this price.

Nearly none of those who had started the project of European integration were left to explain, why they founded the Union: Neither they, nor their forebears had experienced a longer period of peace in Europe. There was a continuous fight at the place, which we today consider our safe home. I don’t want to imagine, what would have happened if my generation would had let the few Euro sceptics with their populist arguments win the fight for Europe’s future.

Now we can say, that this crisis was probably the best thing that could have happened to our Europe. It made it necessary to rethink European integration and thereby push it forward. Since the 1950s, crises have made Europe always stronger. Every single one had deeper and further integration as its main outcome. And so it was the logical consequence that the biggest crisis of all made the European Union stronger than ever. The critique on the Union presented inside the parliament but also on the streets did not destroy the Union, but initiated a process of political development. Stagnation ended, association in solidarity began. The mistrust in the existing Union transformed into power and a will to build a political project based on a European public interest.

The crisis forced us to make some tough decisions that were necessary and should maybe have been made much earlier. All democratic groups in the EP had to work together and find compromises to get Europe finally ready for the 21st century before it would have been to late. Employers had to arrange with the fact, that we did not liberalize the labour market any further, because we wanted to guarantee stability and security in the citizen’s lives. Then again, employees had to understand that our demographic problems could only be solved with longer working times. And we as politicians had to understand that we can’t and mustn’t regulate every single piece of peoples’ lives and that transparency and openness were wanted more than ever.

Since that time our Union has changed. And it has grown. We are more than proud to welcome the people of Armenia to our midst in the next year. After the ratification of the Treaty of Istanbul the Commission is not anymore the only institution with the right of initiative but still the guardian of the treaties. The European Parliament has become what it should have been from the beginning on, the heart of our European democracy. But still in retro perspective it was the right way to let the commission promote the European integration in the early and difficult years.

Being so satisfied and happy with all our achievements of the past decades we must not forget about the work to come. In my opinion we are not yet in a position, in which we represent the values that are considered as indisputable for the European idea in a satisfying way in our foreign policy. But still, we’ve come a long way to get to where we are today. And now here we stand, closer than ever and still united in diversity. When people ask me today what my motivation was in the hard times of the past decades and why I found it worth to fight for further European integration it’s quiet simple to find an answer for me:

I have never needed a vision for Europe, because it has always been reality, always been my home.

May my best wishes for the New Year always be with you.

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Taking a more positive lead in favour of Europe raises the debate to where it should be and reflects well on Ed Miliband

No one in British politics, no one, at least, to the left of Nigel Farage – from Cameron through to Ed Miliband and beyond – wants to talk about Europe. Nick Clegg has at last decided to do so after several years of silence. On Wednesday, 12 March, Ed Miliband entered the fray, twice, in fact; first in an opinion piece in the FT and then in a speech at London Business School, both designed to ‘reassure’ the business community of Labour’s pro-European business credentials, by saying, essentially, that a Labour government would not have an in-out referendum on Europe (unless there was the threat of the transfer of more power to Brussels). These interventions reach way beyond the business community (a lot of which was not reassured) and show us a picture of the party, its language and its leadership as regards the thorny issue of Europe. Ed Miliband doesn’t like talking about Europe; in fact, he likes it no more than David Cameron.

Both of them know that leaving Europe would be folly yet might be pushed towards doing so by parts of the political class and even more threateningly by a growing national disaffection fuelled by the Eurozone crisis and the UK’s tabloid press. Miliband doesn’t like talking about Europe because he and his team think it as an ordeal. I have just done some content analysis of his speeches since 2010, and ‘Europe’ bumps along the bottom. But he has to with the European elections fast approaching.

The structure of his FT piece and LBS speech are similar: an initial lauding of how Europe has ended world wars and extended democracy from the Atlantic to (almost) the Urals. This is followed by severe criticism of the EU today and then by what we – the UK – are going to do about it. The structure of Miliband’s arguments mirrors exactly all David Cameron’s speeches from 23 January 2013 onwards. In fact, Miliband’s speech could have been made by David Cameron, for it shows the same fear of the European question and uses similar false signals about immigration, for example, as if trying to appease the Daily Mail monster (where is the evidence that, say, the Polish immigration of the 2000s was anything other than beneficial to us overall, or, indeed, that EU migrants take our benefits?).

Over and above these issues which create a climate of apprehension that the left should dispel, is a much more politically dramatic consequence of being indistinguishable in tone on the European question from the Conservatives and intimidated by the Brussels-wants-to-straighten-our-bananas tabloids. When Nigel Farage talks about Europe, he doesn’t really tell us much about Europe but, rather, a great deal about Nigel Farage. All the major speeches by the party leaders now tell us a great deal about the character of the leader themselves as they move with their parties towards the elections.

Miliband has partly fashioned a public persona of a man who dares to stand up to the bad guys – to Murdoch, the big banks, the energy companies, the hawks on Syria. He could well do the same with the tabloids over Europe, for it is too important to shy away from, and it would embolden Miliband’s persona. Besides, as Nat Copsey shows in his new book (Rethinking the European Union, Palgrave, forthcoming), public attitudes in the UK to Europe are far more nuanced and reflective than the tabloids pretend. For Miliband to take a more positive lead in favour of Europe would raise the debate to where it should be, and would reflect well upon him precisely because it is a difficult issue.

The debate over Europe, the powers we already have to sort out its problems, the ways in which we should make the EU work for everyone, in particular its minorities, and the fact that leaving the EU is the road to ruin, are all aspects of an engaging discourse and rhetoric that would lend vigour to the Labour Party and new kudos to its leader.

This article was originally published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

Ed Miliband: Behind the Party Reform, a Quiet Populism

On Saturday 1 March at a special conference in Canning Town, London, the Labour Party voted for fundamental historic reform in its relationship to the trade unions, and the way it elects its leader. It is being compared in importance to Tony Blair’s abolition of Clause IV in 1995 which pulled the party into the twentieth century as it prepared for the twenty-first, abandoning the party’s long-held, deep-seated, and utterly ignored commitment to the full-scale nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Blair’s reform had a massive effect upon the party, helping to catapult it back into power in 1997 after 18 years in divided opposition. And ever since, it has been a leitmotif for modernisation, through John Smith’s efforts to create one-member-one-vote (OMOV), and now to Miliband’s conference of March 1 2014, voting for the Collin’s Review reformsby an 86% landslide vote of the unions and affiliated organisations and constituency parties. What started out as a bust-up between Miliband and Unite over Falkirk, and Unite’s alleged packing the local constituency with union members for the selection of the party’s candidate, has turned into a personal triumph for Miliband, casting him into the Blair mould of the visionary leader, insightful, right before his time, and carrying his party with him, and completing the historic task begun by Blair in 1995. In many ways, the two moments are indeed comparable, but in some ways not. In fact, their dissimilarities are clues to their real function.

Blair’s Clause IV reform was significant and consequential, but completely symbolic. Not even the Attlee government of 1945 nationalised on the Soviet scale of the spirit of Clause IV. By 1995, Margaret Thatcher had privatised much of companies that Attlee has privatised; telecommunications, energy, the railways, and so on. The real significance of the abolition of Clause IV was not what it told us about the commanding heights, but what it told us about the commander, Tony Blair. The risk he took in taking on the redundant but near-sacred text of Clause IV gave him, as leader, an exalted status in relation to his party; but also in relation to the public, and, with hindsight, to Labour history and Labour’s future.

Miliband’s achievement on Saturday 1 March was not only symbolic, but also practical, and because practical more risky, and because more risky, the victory was even more symbolic. The practical consequences could be immediate. Delegates speaking against the motion warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences to Labour’s finances, if it were in future only to receive the dues from trade unionists who opt in to the party. Longer term consequences could be, again, as the minority delegates argued, a gradual but dramatic loosening if not severing of the relationship with the unions, and – through a kind of atomisation of the party ‘will’ in the name of democracy – the loss of the truly collective identity and endeavour of the party, diluted even further by the party’s intention to reach out to a new category of party supporters and sympathisers beyond the current membership. These things may come to pass, although the overwhelming backing of the trade unions for the reform suggests that they won’t; in fact, union clout may even be strengthened as the party will have to rely upon the unions’ generosity even more. As regards party democracy OMOV will – for now – remain within the control of the party machine as the parliamentary party will nominate the candidates. One day that too will be contested.

However, as with Clause IV, this whole affair is less about the party than about Ed Miliband and his leadership. The ‘Clause IV moment’ as it came to be called after 1995, was about the creation of Blair’s prime ministerial ‘character’: a man who courageously brought the crazier elements of the party to heel, and prepared it for government through public approval and his own leadership. Only time (14 months) will tell if Ed’s 1 March performance was indeed a Clause IV moment, for, beyond the practical issues, these reforms are about Miliband’s own leadership status.

The vote itself, a thumping 86%, is a major endorsement of a reform instigated by his own reflections (on Falkirk) in July 2013. On Saturday, entered the hall with accompanying music, clips of the party’s history (and union origins), and clips of himself speaking in Brighton. After an introduction by the conference chair, Anna Eagle, he opened with a speech – no notes, reminiscent of his Manchester and Brighton speeches (2013, 2013) – replete with all the humour, seriousness, and emotionalism of his memorable conference speeches, the whole shown on two large screens. He remained on the stage throughout the two hours of ‘debates’ i.e. 3-minute interventions of delegates for and against. The overwhelming majority of delegates were in favour, not only of the proposed reforms but of the reformer, naming, congratulating, giving allegiance to, recognising the insightfulness of the man sitting on the stage listening; he, turned to listen to each speaker, his profile to the audience. His status was enhanced by his listening respectfully to his few critics; the one or two admonitions (three, in fact, from the leaders of Unite, Unison, and the GMB) who came close to ‘personal’ warnings; but these were few, and brief, and, one could argue, being ticked off by Len McLuskey simply proved Miliband’s point. Both rhetorically and visually, therefore, this was the leader’s reform, and the conference, therefore, a demonstration of the leader’s leadership.

Finally, the rhetoric itself – in his opening speech and closing remarks – were populist, the classic rhetoric of the rally leader. Populism can be as restrained and calm as Ed Miliband. It is no less populist for that. His desired rather than actual audience/constituency on 1 March was not the squeezed middle, the teachers and social workers, the chattering classes, but the legions of the disenfranchised or self-disenfranchised of low paid workers, ambulance drivers, women, care workers, the disabled, families in poverty, the unemployed and underemployed, and, as Miliband told his audience, a non-votong Mum called Tracy. The populist tone also informed his depiction of his adversaries; the Tories were hearltless, sexist, Eton and Harrow bullies, the Lib Dems pathetic. The speech teemed with references to himself, his envisioned future, whose guiding virtue was justice. Miliband’s speech was personalised too in its pedagogical telling of some home truths to the party: that if it did not change, both it and politics itself would become ‘an empty stadium’. There was also, as we have said, all the humour and emotion of his best speeches (including yet another reference to his father, an artful display of intimacy with the audience). He also reminded his audience too that his decision last summer was the origin of the reforms and therefore, implicitly, the conference itself was the realisation of that personal choice. And, in a classic populist rhetorical device he urged his party to become or become again a ‘movement’ rather than a party. Such, and his relationship to it were captured in: ‘If I am elected Prime Minister, I want to change this country, but I can only do it with a movement behind me’.

If Labour win in 2015, the special conference at ExCel in Canning Town on 1 March will be seen retrospectively as the moment Ed Miliband became the hero of the party, the leader who unleashed the popular voices of disillusioned and excluded Britain, transformed through the party/leader’s action into the forces of progress leading to the the left’s conquest of power. In just over a year we shall find out if it worked.

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MA students trip to Brussels 20-23 January 2014

By Laura Lobato

Day 1:

At 5pm, after the long journey to Brussels, playing cards in the hotel seemed like the most reasonable option to start our European experience. We were surprised to hear “the Germans” laughing. We opened the door to realize we were neighbours! (not so surprising on the other hand). Since most of us had not seen each other for several weeks, we decided to have dinner all together.

Close to the Grand Place, we chose a restaurant with a set menu. I would say opinions about the meal were quite varied at the end of the evening, but there is one clear thing: we are still waiting for our second free drink, which of course, never arrived. As a remedy, some students directly headed to the Delirium pub. A beer with a pink elephant can’t be bad!

Day 2:

6.30am, the alarm clock announces the start of our first day at the European institutions. Luckily, a nice breakfast was waiting for us, which ensured we were ready for our visit of NATO headquarters! This international organisation was founded with the objective to safeguard the security of its member countries by using military and political instruments. The security check every visitor has to go through is impressive – we even had to leave our mobiles in the bus for security reasons – but should not be a real surprise given the nature of NATO! Another student group from Birmingham University joined us for the visit. We were given two talks, first about NATO current political agenda and second about NATO Partnerships. These presentations gave us a clearer idea of the organisation’s objectives in the medium- to long-term. In particular, we discussed the war in Libya, comparing it to the situation in Afghanistan. We also talked about NATO partnership with Russia as well as about the concept of “smart defence”. A group picture taken at the main entrance marked the end of the visit.

The bus drove us back to Brussels and left us in the centre of the European quarter, by the “Rond Point Schuman”, where the next visit was scheduled. Some of us decided to have lunch in the street, sat on the banks of a square where we would eat a few more time in the following days! Until the meeting hour, we visited the Europe InfoPoint, discovering a wonderful place, providing loads of information and free documentation on a wide range of issues, from the functioning of the EU, to specific European projects in matters of aid or renewable energy for instance. Visit recommended!

The last visit of the day was to the European External Action Service (EEAS). Here, the security was also strict, and we could only enter in groups of eight. We had two presentations about this relatively new body, placed under the High Representation-Vice President of the Commission Catherine Ashton. The EEAS is the diplomatic corps of the EU which was established in 2010. Although it is an “autonomous body” of the EU, it works closely with the other EU institutions, conducting the common foreign and security policy. We first talked about the role and functioning of the external action service, how its approach differs from national foreign policies and how it can work on more horizontal and global issues such as climate change or the promotion of democracy. The second speaker, the Deputy Head of the Human Rights Unit, focused on EU human rights policy, presenting the different instruments used by the EU to promote human rights in third countries, discussing human rights standards within the EU itself and in candidate countries, and emphasising the role played by EU delegations in the field.

Day 3:

We were welcomed in the morning at the Charlemagne building, one of the most symbolic buildings of the European Commission. We enjoyed very much the visit to this institution, which has the power of initiative and “represents the interests of the whole EU”. We first listened to an introduction to the Erasmus+ programme, then to a presentation about the role of the European Commission. The second lecturer was excellent, explaining in detail how the Commission and the EU work and most importantly, answering the students’ questions, showing a critical and constructive point of view about many European issues. The third lecture was about the EU enlargement. We talked a lot about the EU negotiations with Turkey and had a good time listening to the lecturer which was eager to discuss with us. It’s a pity we could not visit one of the DG of the European Commission, but definitely, this visit was well worth it!

After lunch, we visited the Council of the EU (or Council of Ministers), which is co-legislator with the European Parliament. We entered the Justius Lipsius building and we were surprised to be asked to wait under the impressive crystal roof until the Turkish delegation crossed the hall, heading towards a press conference. We could even take some pictures of the Turkish Prime Minister and of the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy!

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The lecturer was very communicative and explained to us the functioning of the institution: the two different kinds of decision-making (unanimity vs. qualified majority voting) and the three levels of decision: the ministers, ambassadors, and officials. During the talk, we enjoyed very much using the microphones and putting vertical our country cards to ask for the floor as if we were Member States’ representatives.

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The last visit of the day was to the UK Permanent Representation in Brussels, which is located in the same building than the British Embassy. The main objective of the Perm Rep is to represent and communicate the British interests on European dossiers to EU institutions and to other member states. And this was exactly what the lecturer did. To the question “Can you imagine a situation where you did not agree with your Government?”, he just answered “NO”. Maybe he really meant he could not disagree. Good to know it anyway!

To conclude the day, the University had organized an “Alumni evening” at the bar of the hotel. Over a drink, we shared our doubts as to our professional careers with the Professors, post-docs and two alumni of Aston University currently working in Brussels. We really appreciated being given the opportunity to discuss our opinions and feelings in a relaxed and nice environment. From here, we would like to thank the two former students who attended the event and also the professors and post-docs. Thank you for the nice evening!

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Day 4:

The day started with another visit to the European Commission. This time, we had a talk about “EuropeAid” and its contribution to the “Millenium Development Goals”. Together with the UN, eight specific objectives have been agreed on in order to ensure basic living standards for everyone, the promotion of sustainable growth and the good use of natural resources. It was nice knowing that, even in times of crisis, EU citizens are willing to support those who are the most in need.

In the afternoon, we visited the European Parliament. We first had a one-hour talk about the functioning of this institution. It was interesting to learn more about its functioning and the different committees. What we most enjoyed was going to the main building and attending a committee meeting (IMCO, Internal Market and Consumer Protection) chaired by Mr. Harbour. It was impressive to see how the speakers’ interventions were instantaneously translated into the EU’s official languages by translators working in offices placed around the hemicycle. The Chair also introduced us to the Greek Minister for Competitiveness who had come to present the objectives of the Greek Presidency of the EU to the IMCO Committee. Attending a committee meeting was a nice experience!

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On Wednesday, we finished our day in the best possible way: having dinner together at “Chez Leon”. Although we had some initial problems to put together the tables, we succeeded and we could finally enjoy a very nice meal. Some of us took the famous “Moules et frites”, and once we were filled with energy, the bravest ones headed to the Delirium bar. I’m sure they spent a good time because in dreams, I could hear them approaching through the hotel corridor!

Day 5:

On Thursday, we woke up very sad knowing this was our last day in Brussels. But there was no time to lose, since we had a meeting at Burson-Marsteller, a consultancy. We went there walking, which was nice since we could discover another part of the city. Burson-Marsteller is one of the most well-known lobbying groups which works for important companies and also for international organisations and NGOs. We all enjoyed very much the presentation given by David Earnshaw, who very frankly answered our long list of questions. “Can you reject a client whose project you do not believe in?” This is not an easy question which he very honestly answered. For sure, the visit to Burson-Marsteller was well worth it.

The moment of leaving arrived. Some colleagues left right after the end of the visit. The rest could still enjoy the gastronomy of Brussels and have a “gauffre” or “speculoos”! It was sad saying goodbye to everyone; maybe even more for those who were leaving to Rennes for the second term. But we left happy of having had the opportunity to gain a new insight of the EU. I think we all agree it was very good. Thanks to the Aston Centre for Europe team who made possible this nice trip. Thank you!!

Miliband banking speech

Ed Miliband’s leadership rests on personality politics

The Labour Party has started bringing forward policies for 2015, and not a moment too soon. The time for policy reviews, which really were more like a synopsis of contemporary social theory than reviews of current policy, is all but over. Now we are talking real bread-and-butter stuff, the “cost of living crisis”: a price freeze on energy bills, a levy on the payday loans industry to pay for local credit unions, Rachel Reeves being tough on benefits, tough on the causes of benefits, and most recently a fairer deal for banks’ retail customers, announced in another no-notes speech at the University of London last Friday.

Read the full article here.

Sex and the King’s Two Bodies: the French Presidency and the Hollande-Gayet Affair

What does a titillating story in a gossip magazine tell us about the nature of politics in France? On Friday 10 January Closer magazine revealed, with several pages of photographs, that French President François Hollande was having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet (with his trusted bodyguard bringing up the rear with early morning croissants). One of the striking things about French reaction – probably unique among Western democracies – was that first the political class, from Marine le Pen on the far-right, right across the political spectrum, with only one or two dissenting voices, claimed that this was about Hollande’s private life and was not a political issue; and second, this was reflected in public opinion – the overwhelming majority of respondents on television, radio, and in public opinion polls (e.g. the Journal du Dimanche, 12 January) agreed that this was a private affair and Hollande had the same well-protected rights to privacy as any other French citizen. This is all framed, moreover, in a considerably more liberal-minded attitude to extra-marital affairs (although ironically Hollande is not married to France’s First Lady, Valérie Trierweiler – nor was he to his long-time partner, Ségolène Royal). Hollande, however, is not ‘any other’ French citizen, and the affair may further undermine the authority of the President, and even the legitimacy of the Republic.

The indulgence accorded by the political class and public opinion to private life contrasts with the fact that France is the country where politicians and everybody else’s private lives are the constant stuff of conversation, rumour, hearsay, and now, with the web’s relentless 24-hour scrutiny and discussion, minute, detailed attention. One only needs to look at the 1000s of ‘reactions’ to the newspaper and blog reports on Mme Trierweiler’s admission to hospital on Friday 10th to see how ‘uninterested’ the French are. In fact, a lot of people, particularly in showbiz and the media, already knew about Holland and Gayet, hence, in fact, the Closer paparazzi’s all-night diligence and patience over the road from Ms Gayet’s flat – lent to her by a friend – just round the corner from the Elysée Palace.

Another Journal du Dimanche poll of 12 January also claimed that 84% of the French had not changed their opinion of Hollande after the Closer revelations. This begs many questions, and probably tells us more about public attitudes to him than to dalliance. The President and his team have taken heart from these two polls. They are very foolish to do so. Hollande was already so unpopular (down to a legitimacy-threatening 15% in some polls), an 84% no change response suggests a President who fills popular sentiment with utter indifference rather than approval or indulgence. And as for the poll about his life being his private affair, it really depends upon what we mean by private life. The French presidency is already a very public, private life. Given the personalised nature of French politics, and especially of the French presidency, this incident will have a series of incremental, related, and over time, profound effects upon all those concerned, and even perhaps upon the French Republic itself.

If Hollande is not to die by 1000 cuts, he needs to be aware that there will immediately be a series of questions taken forward by journalists and politicians: was any public money involved in any of this? Whose flat exactly was it? And if he, in fact, has had no relationship with Trierveiler, possibly since the beginning of his mandate, why does she have an office in the Elysée, and three assistants, and accompanies him on his official visits etc. It is probable that investigative journalists (of all moral hues) are already digging away like mad in a score of little corners. What about Hollande’s judgement and honesty – is it really acceptable for the occupant of the country’s highest office to be caught zipping round the streets in disguise and cheating on his partner? What was he doing during those dangerous moments when he was about to fire Exocet missiles or whatever at Bashar-Al-Assad in September 2013? (We can imagine the cartoons: by comparison, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK as a beacon of chastity). What was he doing getting the world to accept that although not married, Valérie Trierweiler should have the status of a Michelle Obama; and what does Michelle Obama think of having to meet as an equal on the world stage just the latest of Hollande’s girlfriends, and, as it turns out, not even the latest? What does the Catholic community in France and elsewhere think of Valérie and François  being presented in February 2014 to the excessively admired other François, the Pope, who had agreed to make an exception to Vatican protocol in the French President’s case (stop the press: President Hollande will no doubt now be presented alone). And the Obamas are scheduled to meet the French President – and his partner – next month too… What about the security implications? If the Closer team had been an Al-Qaeda hit squad, he would be dead. This is the man leading operations in Mali and now the Central African Republic. And then there is the question of his real motivations. From a psychoanalytic point of view, this affair is a classic case of an unconscious desire to be found out, for reasons only a shrink and her patient would know, but which we can all now wonder about, as well as wonder what might be the implications of such unconscious desire for Hollande’s relationship to his own presidency.

And then there is the sense of Vaudeville created by the whole affair. This is not Leslie Howard and Celia Johnson, nor Anna Karenin and Count Vronsky. Hollande unfortunately looks more like your friendly local family butcher – albeit surrounded by a plethora of frankly attractive women, which paradoxically lends the whole issue the quality of a Feydeau farce. And the Closer pictures of Hollande arriving for his trysts on the back of a scooter disguised by his crash helmet (croissants at the ready) lends an inspector Clouseau quality to the affair, French accent included.

But the real issue, and the real interest here, is what ‘Gayet-gate’ tells us about the French Fifth Republic and its dysfunctional mixing of the practical and the symbolic at the summit of power. Hollande is constitutionally the Head of State, but practically the Head of Government. And one of the ways this strange office functions – unknown elsewhere in democracies, including the United States – is through the deployment of the ‘character’ of François Hollande, a character, incidentally, who came to power as a straightforward, discreet, Mr Normal who would put an end to the narcissistic, look-at-me! look-at-me! attention-seeking, Nicolas Sarkozy. Well, we’ve gone, in fact, from Paris Match down to Closer magazine, and Hollande has brought no more dignity to this highly-charged personalised and symbolic office than he accused Sarkozy of having squandered. The French presidency is like a malfunctioning version of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’, one transcendent, one mortal. The general evolution of the French presidency – ironically, an institution beloved of and revered by the French – has, in the recent past, begun to drag the sacred towards the profane. This will have major effects over the coming period upon Hollande’s already dwindling authority, and the legitimacy of the Republic.

This article was originally published at The Huffington Post.

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Hollande and the French kiss goodbye to era of private presidential affairs

When things are going well, the “private life” is deliberately on display for all to see. That is how the French presidency thrives.

François Hollande joins a long tradition of French Fifth republic Presidents who have had affairs. Widespread attachment to France’s privacy laws, and a press corps that generally agrees with them, combined with a generalised reverence for the office of the presidency have meant that rumours always remained largely rumours – until now.

In the past, gossip did no harm because there was always and still is a generally more indulgent attitude to affairs of the heart and tolerance of “liaisons” by both men and women (especially men). There has also been the conviction throughout French history that power is the strongest aphrodisiac both for those who exercise it and those fascinated by it.

The nearest Charles de Gaulle got to sexual scandal was his wife Yvonne being asked by an English reporter what was the most important thing in her life, to which she replied “A penis” (say “happiness” slowly with a French accent). But stories of sexual intrigue – probably secret service smears – surrounded the Pompidous.

But Valery Giscard d’Estaing set the tone, and he encouraged it, seeing himself as a true Don Juan. Rumours still abound of many liaisons – did he and the softcore star Sylvia Kristel have an affair in the Elysée? Who was the woman in the Ferrari he was with when, driving though Paris in the early hours, he hit a milk van? He even happily encouraged rumours about himself, for example, that a president just like him had an affair with a princess just like Diana.

Mitterrand was also linked to many women, including the editor of Elle, Françoise Giroud, the singer Dalida, and many more. Rumour became fact when he revealed he had raised a second secret family, and a secret daughter Mazarine, at the state’s expense. Ah les beaux jours!

The tone changed from the stylish and Romanesque to testosterone-fuelled vulgarity with Jacques Chirac, known by his chauffeur (and then the world) as “Mr 15 minutes, shower included”. His highly popular and respected wife, Bernadette Chirac, started a sea-change in attitudes when, in her best-selling autobiography, she wrote touchingly and honestly about how painful that aspect of her marriage had been.

Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly had affairs with journalists, including, allegedly Chirac’s daughter Claude, but his dalliances and his very public life with second wife Cécilia Sarkozy and later Carla Bruni were seen more as the uncontrollable passions of a (short) man with uncontrollable ambition, an uncontrollable temper, and an uncontrollable desire for attention and affection.

Sadly comical

Even with that history behind thim there are five things which make Hollande’s alleged affair with the actress, Julie Gayet, sadly comical and politically dangerous. First is the sea-change mentioned earlier. Attitudes have shifted, not so much about sexual mores and the weaknesses of the flesh – in fact, with the decline in religious observance, things are even more liberal. But cheating on your wife or partner, with such intensity and frequency is seen – even in France – as sexist and the sign of a patriarchal society of inequality and disrespect. And sending your partner, Valérie Trierweiler, into hospital in a state of nervous collapse is not seen as the act of a man of integrity.

Second, Hollande came in to stop all this stuff. He was “Mr Normal” who was going to bring exemplary conduct to political life, and stop all the tabloid press gossip lowering the status of the presidency. He said so himself. In fact, his somewhat tortured relationships with former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, Trierweiler, and now Gayet have never been out of the headlines.

Third, there is something comical and diminishing of the presidency in his slipping out not in a Ferrari but on the back of a scooter (driven by his chauffeur who also buys the croissants – you could not make this up), the easy victim of Closer paparazzi, Sébastien Valiela, waiting, camera at the ready, across the street.

Fourth, there is the question of security. Why does he need bodyguards all around him in public when he takes such risks in private? It was fortunate it was not an al-Qaeda hit squad on the other side of the street.

Finally, even before this incident, he was the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic to date. If he had had any success with the unemployment figures or the stagnating economy since he had been elected, perhaps the French might think he deserved a night off; the French presidency is now like the post of a CEO whose full-time job it is to sort out France Inc, and the efficiency and health of its political and social institutions. Affairs at the office are no longer part of the job description.

Slow to catch up

French commentators in the political class and the media seem to be catching up with the significance of all these things very slowly. There seems to be a severe case of cognitive dissonance on their part regarding what is at stake here because, of course, the president does not have a private life like everyone else. He’s the president.

Besides, when things are going well, the “private life” is deliberately on display for all to see. That is how the French presidency thrives. Before his first press conference after the scandal broke which, for once, everybody watched, he had three choices regarding his very public affair: say something before, say something during, or say nothing. Each would be consequential in its effects.

He chose the last, almost, saying he would not answer questions on issues of his private life, but would respond in the coming days (before he – and Valérie – are scheduled to visit the Obamas in mid-February).

It is clear that he, and all the commentators, and the political class are now thinking about redefining the status of the French first lady. It is as if virtually the whole country is in in denial. Politics would be far better served if, rather than redefine the role and status of the first lady, France were to redefine the role and status of the presidency itself.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

MA students quiz Malcolm Harbour MEP on the dynamics of EU decision-making

Students at ACE were delighted to welcome Malcolm Harbour, MEP (ECR) to Aston last Friday, for a debate on the power and role of the European Parliament in EU decision-making. The MA students were able to hear first hand about how the dynamics of committee decision-making work in practice, and quizzed Malcolm Harbour on issues of power politics ahead of the EP elections in 2014.