A Left Electoral Strategy? France and the United States

Commentary No. 418, February 1, 2016

When Bernie Sanders announced that he would seek the presidential nomination of the U.S. Democratic Party, few people took him very seriously. Hillary Clinton seemed to have so much support that her nomination seemed assured without difficulty.

Sanders however persisted in his seemingly utopian quest. To the surprise of most observers, the size of his audiences at meetings throughout the country began to grow steadily. His essential tactic was to attack the large corporations. He said that they used their money to control political decisions and to quash debate about the growing gap between the very top earners and the vast majority of the American people who were losing real income and jobs. To emphasize his position, Sanders refused to take money from large donors at the top and raised his money only from individuals donating small amounts.

In doing this, Sanders touched a deep vein of popular discontent, not only among those at the very bottom of the income ladder but from the so-called middle class who feared they were being thrust down into the bottom stratum. Today, polls show that Sanders has gained sufficient support that he seems to represent a serious opponent to Clinton.

Sanders has his limitations, especially the fact that his appeal to racial and ethnic minorities seems to be limited. But he has succeeded in forcing public discussion of the income gap. He has pushed Clinton’s rhetoric to the left in her attempt to recuperate potential Sanders voters. Whatever the final outcome of the Democratic Party’s convention, Sanders has achieved far more than almost everyone predicted at the outset of his campaign. He has, at the very least, forced a serious debate about program within the Democratic Party.

In January of 2016, there seems to have begun a parallel campaign in France. It is similar in many ways to that of Sanders but yet it is also quite different because of the structures of the electoral institutions of the two countries.

Three left intellectuals decided to launch a public appeal for a left primary (primaire à gauche). They are Yannick Jadot, a long-time political activist in environmentalist groups; Daniel Cohn-Bendit, of 1968 fame but for a long time a political activist seeking to unite environmentalists, left socialists, and pro-European forces; and Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist who had been an advisor to left figures in the Socialist Party.

They wrote a public appeal denouncing passivity before the rightward trend of politics in France, including of course the growing electoral strength of the Front National. They called for a serious public debate about how to unite the left and left-of-center forces to affect the presidential elections expected in 2017. Before making public the appeal, the originators sought endorsements from well-known public intellectuals of multiple political stripes, including Thomas Piketty and Pierre Rosanvallon. And they persuaded Libération, France’s largest left-of-center newspaper, to devote an entire issue on January 11, 2016 to both the appeal and the multiple endorsements.

Two weeks later, on January 26, Libération devoted another issue to this appeal. By this time, 70,000 persons had signed the appeal. This issue contained articles by multiple public figures on what they saw as the primary issues to pursue and how best to pursue them. A lot of the debate centers on what is the function of a primary. The whole concept of a primary is an import from U.S. elections and is itself a response to the very unexpected results of the French presidential elections of 2002.

In the rules currently governing French presidential elections, unless one candidate receives a majority of the votes, there is a second round in which only the top two first-round candidates are on the ballot. The assumption had been that the first round was a sort of primary in which every political tendency would show its strength. It was assumed that in the second round the two main parties (center-right and center-left) would be the choice for the voters.

In 2002, however, the candidate of the far-right Front National edged out the Socialist Party. The choice for voters was now between the Front National and that of the mainstream right-of-center party. Faced with this choice, the Socialist Party then endorsed the center-right candidate for the second round, allowing him to win overwhelmingly. What had happened was simple. The left and center-left candidates were too many in the first round and this kept the Socialist Party from gaining enough votes to make it into the second round.

The impact of the 2002 elections was traumatic for the French left. The old system was designed for a situation in which there are two main parties. It doesn’t work for a tripartite situation. To keep from repeating this defeat, the Socialist Party decided in 2011 to hold a party primary that was “open” to anyone. This primary was successful in that it kept most, albeit not all, candidates on the left from presenting themselves directly in the first round since they now could present themselves in the Socialist Party’s primary. The openness of the primary led to many centrist voters entering this primary. This made it possible for François Hollande to be victorious over a more left candidate in the Socialist primary. Hollande went on in the second round to defeat the right candidate, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now however that Hollande is president, the last thing he wants is a primary that he might lose. On the other hand, he has been losing support within the Socialist Party from segment after segment of more left figures who have been resigning or have been ousted from their positions in the cabinet. He risks the entry of more names on the first round, which might lead to a repetition of what happened in 2002. At the same time, Sarkozy is also faced with a strong demand for a primary within his party, a primary that he is by no means assured of winning.

The problem in both main parties is that they are each divided internally on multiple real issues. For the Socialists and left forces, there is the division between neoliberal versus “welfare state” programs. There is the cleavage on how one defines laïcité – in absolute terms or allowing for cultural identity. And there is the cleavage on whether to strengthen or weaken European institutions. Finally, there is the now hot issue of so-called déchéance de nationalité in which it is proposed that persons who are French citizens by birth may be stripped of their French nationality if convicted of anything defined as aiding terrorism. This was a proposition previously of the right and had been strongly opposed by the Socialist Party. There is much unrest in the party about this reversal of position, which was a response to the vicious attack by the Islamic State on November 13 that transformed public sentiment considerably.

Hollande is now running as the candidate with the conservative position on all these issues. He hopes to win by being the candidate who is fighting terrorism, and therefore deserves the support of centrist individuals. It is this Hollande that the appeal to left forces is trying to force into a public debate.

The parallel with Sanders is that the French group may be tapping into the same popular discontent that Sanders has used to make his bid. The difference is that they are fighting an incumbent president who is ready to use every conceivable pressure to force discipline on party members. We shall know perhaps six months from now whether the French group can be as successful as Sanders.

Saudi-Iranian Collaboration: A Forgotten Story

Commentary No. 417, January 15, 2016

On January 2, 2016, the Sunni government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) executed the leading imam of the Shia community in KSA. The Shiite government of Iran denounced this execution, as did governments throughout the world, and avowed there would be consequences. Since that time, the rhetoric has continued to escalate, and the world politicians and media have talked of a possible direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Almost everyone tends to pose this tension as one that is based on the religious cleavage between Sunni and Shia that is said to have very long roots into the past, and defines the present situation based on the religious cleavage between Sunni and Shia.

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The BRICS – A Fable for Our Time

Commentary No. 416, January 1, 2016

The story of the BRICS is a strange one. It starts in 2001 when Jim O’Neill, at that time the chairman of the Assets Management division of Goldman Sachs, the giant investment house, wrote a widely-commented article about what we have come to call “emerging economies.” O’Neill singled out four countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – all of whom were large enough in size and territory to have noticeable weight in the world market. He labeled them the BRICs.

O’Neill argued that their assets were growing at such a pace that they were going to overtake collectively the asset values held by the G-7 countries, which had long been the list of the wealthiest countries in the world-system. O’Neill did not say exactly when this would occur – by 2050 at the latest. But he saw the rise of the BRICs as more or less inevitable. Given his position at Goldman Sachs, he was essentially telling the clients of Goldman Sachs to shift significant parts of their investments to these four countries while their assets were still selling cheaply.

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Electoral Losers

Commentary No. 415, December 15, 2015

This has been a bad year for parties in power faced with elections. They have been losing them, if not absolutely then relatively. Attention has been focusing on a series of elections where so-called rightwing parties have been performing better, sometimes much better, than parties in power considered to be leftwing. Notable examples are Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, and Denmark. And one might add the United States.

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Argentina’s Election: Who Won What?

Commentary No. 414, December 1, 2015

On Nov. 22, 2015, Mauricio Macri defeated Daniel Scioli in Argentina’s presidential election somewhat narrowly by just under three percentage points. Most analysts called this the triumph of the right over the left. This is not false but it is far too simple. Actually, the election reflected the very complex developments occurring throughout Latin America at the present time. Misreading what is going on can lead to major political errors in the decade to come.

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The Many Brazils

Commentary No. 413, November 15, 2015

Brazil is a major world power – in terms of size, population, and influence. Yet in many ways it is a combination of so many different and contradictory faces that it is hard for anyone, including Brazilians themselves, to know how to define Brazil’s characteristics as a nation and as a force in the world-system.

The currently most important face of Brazil is the Brazil of Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) and his party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). After three previous unsuccessful runs for president, Lula finally won in 2002. The election as president of a trade-union leader of very humble background represented if nothing else a social breakthrough of a person and a party defying the social hierarchies entrenched in the political system.

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The Important Canadian Elections

To almost everyone’s surprise, Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, won the Canadian elections with a stunning absolute majority of seats in the federal parliament. The surprise was both the winner and his margin. As late as several weeks before the election on October 19, polls showed a three-way virtual tie between the three main candidates: Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the rightwing Conservative Party, Thomas Mulcair of the leftwing New Democratic Party (NDP), and Trudeau whose party was considered centrist. In the predicted votes, Mulcair was leading narrowly and Trudeau was said to be in third place.

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Obama’s Impossible Options in the Middle East

Commentary No. 411, Oct. 15, 2015

President Barack Obama is being criticized on all sides for whatever he does these days in the Middle East. And well he might, since there is probably nothing he can do to become the deciding and decisive actor in the whirling geopolitics of the Middle East he would like to be. It isn’t that all his decisions are bad ones. Many are, but there are some that seem sensible. The fact is that virtually no state in the region or having interests in the region is really on his side. They all have their grievances and priorities and are willing to pursue them even if the United States presses them not to do so.

There are four arenas that might be called the hot spots of the region, or perhaps one should say the hottest spots: Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine. Obama’s critics say that he does not have a “coherent” policy in any of these regions. And this criticism is not without merit.

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