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Gilets Jaunes Protests: The Roots of French Discontent

My analysis of the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) crisis, just published on Impakter. It is far more complex than just another political crisis caused by Facebook. Here is the start of the article:

“He deserves to have his head chopped off, symbolically,” said Claudio, a 47 year-old mason and father of four (last name withheld), referring to French President Macron who has been often accused of draping himself in the symbols of pre-revolutionary France. Claudio lives in the northern town of Le Mans famous for car racing. Like many “Gilets Jaunes”, he likened their protests to the 1789 French Revolution. That, of course, is wishful thinking.

But wearing “Gilets Jaunes” (the yellow roadside safety vests required by law) is a stroke of genius. It made protesters highly visible both on the road and in the media. Ever since they began three weeks ago, Saturday 17 November, that is all one sees on our screens: yellow vests.

It turns out that Macron’s tax hikes on diesel fuel was the straw that broke the camel’s back and fueled the Gilets Jaunes’ anger. For them, what is at issue is fiscal justice. They can’t stomach his decision to raise taxes on pensioners at the same time that he scrapped wealth taxes. No matter he meant them as a tax break for investors to encourage them to invest in French business (notoriously under-invested) and create jobs.

The decision was perceived as unfair by the working classes, bogged down by taxes while the rich evades them, escaping to fiscal paradises. Macron is seen as “the president of the rich”. Out to impoverish the middle class.

“The guy thinks he’s God!” exclaimed Claudio, exasperated, as he dug in at a blockade outside a fuel depot of Le Mans, fortifying barricades. Along with some 50 companions, he is preparing for a long winter of discontent.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here. Find out what Facebook’s role in this crisis really was. Let me know what you think!

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Populism in Europe: Can the New Left Defeat it?

Just published on Impakter:

Trump is the face of populism in America and the midterms have shown that a Democratic “blue wave” could stop and even defeat it. How about populism in Europe? After the traditional parties on the left collapsed and the center right à la Emmanuel Macron is stalling, political winds are turning. A New Left is rising, as recent elections in Germany have shown. Can this New Left defeat populism? 

The next elections for the European Parliament in May 2019 will be the first big test for the New Left, with Europe as the prize. If populists win, the European Union and the dream of a United Europe will be badly broken as a retrograde “Europe of Nations” is installed. If the New Left wins, Europe will come out strengthened but it will have to undergo deep structural reform to bring its institutions closer to the people – and away from the private corporate interests that hold it hostage now.

The full extent of the growth of populism in Europe was  revealed this week in groundbreaking research conducted by the UK Guardian with inputs from leading political scientists and covering national elections in 31 European countries over two decades.

The findings are striking and show that populist votes have tripled since 1998, with one in four Europeans voting populist:

Credit: U.K. Guardian (screenshot)

Twenty years ago, populists were rarely in government: Only 12.5 million Europeans lived in countries where at least one cabinet member was a populist. Today the figure has jumped to 172 million. Note, as shown in the graph above, the research counts equally populist parties on the right, left and middle, but the “irresistible rise of the far right and populism”, as many UK Guardian readers have commented, is the crux of the matter. Far right populists have nearly tripled their votes, from less than 5 percent in 1998 to some 14 percent in 2018.

The rise of extreme right populism has been accompanied by a deep crisis in center-left parties that have suffered a sharp drop in support in several countries across Europe, notably in Germany when the German Social Democrats retreated in the 2017 German federal elections; in France when the Socialist Party collapsed in the French presidential and legislative elections in 2017; likewise in Italy with the Democratic Party (PD) going to a historic minimum in Italy in 2018.

Center-left parties are currently part of only six EU governments out of the 28 member states, notably in Spain with Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE) who came to power in May 2018. However the PSOE is not the “New Left”. Founded in 1879, it is the oldest party in Spain and, historically, the one most often in power (most recently from 2004 to 2011 under Zapatero). Moreover Sanchez has a very thin margin (only 84 seats over 350) that constrains his ability to steer policies. Most analysts don’t expect him to finish his mandate (it ends in July 2020). As of now his government is “blocked” on the budget issue and new elections are probable.

Why Populism is Successful

There are four reasons:

  1. Populist politicians are able to convince their audiences that they do not belong to the hated traditional political system, that they are not part of the establishment, of the “corrupt elite”; Trump famously succeeded in convincing his fan base that he could bring his businessman’s savvy to government (“the art of the deal”) even though, as a real estate tycoon,  he is clearly an oligarch, part of the “corrupt elite”;
  2. They focus on simple issues that people feel are close to them, threatening their personal well-being, like migrants taking their jobs and splurging on public services or China flooding the market with cheap goods; both are presented as sources of “unfair” competition and the cause of destruction of employment in manufacture;
  3. They are masters at stirring up emotions, a winning technique to drive voters to the polls as Trump amply demonstrated in the US midterms, cynically causing fear and anger with fake news about a supposed migrant invasion, a “caravan” threatening the southern border;
  4. They have been helped by the rise in social media over the past two decades; as noted by Claudia Alvares, professor at Lusofonia University Lisbon, “social media are very permeable to the easy spread of emotion”; they are also very permeable to cyber war techniques by the Russians and voter manipulations; the Cambridge Analytica scandal that affected millions of Americans on Facebook is proof.

Populism is on the march everywhere in Europe, notably in Eastern Europe where democracies are new. What is more surprising is to see populists leaders win power in West European countries where nobody expected them to be that successful:

  1. In Italy, right-wing and left-wing populism came to power together, in May 2018, a historical first and an unlikely alliance, built on the 17 percent won by Matteo Salvini’s extreme right League and the 33 percent won by Luigi Di Maio’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement;
  2. In Sweden, this summer when the Sweden Democrats,  a populist far-right anti-immigration party founded in 1988, with Nazi roots, had its best-ever results:
Read the rest on Impakter, click here.
Let me know what you think, I love to hear from you!
 
Featured image: A tramp in Paris (Palais Royal) Creditjeangui111

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Trump’s Midterms Strategy: Fear and Anger

Just published on Impakter, here’s the opening:

Previous articles about why populism is dangerous have addressed the issue of austerity (here), the public health crisis (here),  the false “migrant crisis” (here), and the propensity for war (here). This article explores Trump’s midterms strategy to drive voters to the ballot on November 6: stoking up fear and anger with fabricated crises and false solutions.

The 6 November midterm elections are seen by many as a referendum on how American citizens are ranking Trump’s performance as President. Democrats are favored to win the House and Republicans the Senate.

Surprisingly, even though the economic news are favorable, with 55% of Americans rating current economic conditions as excellent or good, the political climate is not correspondingly as good for Republicans and Trump, the latest Gallup poll shows.

Congress’ 21% job approval rating is 10 points below the average since 1974 and similar to approval ratings in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Trump’s approval rating at 40% is well below the 52% average at midterms since 1974 and is one of the lowest ever for a president prior to a midterm election.

With such results, it is not surprising that Trump has pulled all the populist stops at his disposal:  fake news, fabricated crises, false solutions. All designed to fuel emotions, stoking fear and anger to push voters to the polls. Even famous memes are used, like the Stark family motto of HBO’s Game of Thrones “Winter is coming”, to announce the reimposition of sanctions on Iran. They will take effect on Monday 5 November, the day before the elections. To make sure everyone would notice, Trump exceptionally took the trouble of pinning the tweet at the top of his thread:

This caused a storm on Twitter and HBO did not appreciate the use of its intellectual property for political purposes.

No matter that this stokes divisions. That the country is increasingly polarized. That people die while praying in a synagogue. That the public postal system is used to send pipe bombs. For Trump, it’s collateral damage of little import. The point is to win.

This is the populist strategy for maximum voter turnout: as a populist, you may hold a minority of the voters but your hold on them is stronger because they are emotionally pumped up. It’s not a question of pushing the “undecided vote” as analysts have traditionally called it; it’s a question of pushing those who already support you to actually go to the voting booths. You don’t need to convince them (that’s done). What you need to do is fire them up so that they will make the effort to vote.

Trump’s Fear and Anger Strategy

Trump is in campaign combat mode. The language on race and gender is strident, the  anti-immigrant message oppressive.

The rest on Impakter, click here to read. Let me know what you think, I love to hear from you! 

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Europe’s Migration Problem: Why it is hard to solve

At the recent European Council meeting, the highest level venue in the European Union with all 28 leaders in attendance (including the UK), it looked like the EU was about to break down over its migration problem.

No doubt to Trump’s delight. He’s been actively fighting the European Union which he has always seen as a threat to MAGA. On Twitter, he has regularly attacked Germany, most recently with fake data, claiming that migrants are the source for a rise in crime (that hasn’t happened – crime rates are at the lowest level ever as Der Spiegel was quick to note). Also, according to a recent Washington Post reconstruction of events, Trump even tried to convince Macron to take France out of the EU for a “substantial bilateral trade deal”.

It is in this context of America’s abrupt withdrawal of support to Europe and its institutions that the Europe’s migration problem must be placed. Fueled by European populist parties aligned on Trumpian anti-immigration and euro-skeptic policies, there is violent disagreement within the EU on how to address the problem.

Italy has always been, along with Greece and Spain, on the forefront of the migrant invasion, and for decades it has addressed the migrant challenge alone, with no help from Europe. With the new government in place, this has changed.

The vice-premier and interior minister, populist strongman Matteo Salvini, has made it clear to all EU members, declaring that Italy would “no longer be Europe’s refugee camp”. Migrant rescue ships run by NGOs are no longer allowed to dock in Italian ports:

This led to a spat with France two weeks ago, but eventually France and Germany (after a conciliatory call from Angela Merkel) agreed with Italy that there was a need to share the burden.

Salvini’s populist friends in Eastern Europe have also made it very clear that they won’t play the game. Austria and the Visegrad group of countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) led by Orban, Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister – have steadfastly refused to cooperate with EU members and will not accept any migrants sent their way.

That was the situation before the European Council meeting: gridlock.

Angela Merkel was panic-stricken: Her own interior minister, Horst Seehofer of the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU), a major ally in the government coalition, sounded like his Italian friend Salvini, determined to turn away migrants at the border. This is understandable: the CSU faces elections in October and is aligning itself on anti-immigration lines in an attempt to draw votes away from the anti-migrants, rightist-populist Alternative for Germany, a rising rival, currently the third party in Germany.

Either Merkel would find a solution at the European Council, or Seehofer would dissolve the coalition and she would probably have to resign as Chancellor.

In the end, after two days of harrowing discussions (27-28 June), the breakdown didn’t happen, there was a “minimal” agreement that probably saved Merkel’s political career.

No doubt Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, played a role in the relatively positive result. But, as he says, this is “not a success yet”, much will depend on what happens next…

Read the rest on Impakter, click here. And let me know what you think! Are slamming doors shut really the only way to solve the migration problem?

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Trump’s Anti-immigration Policies Taken to a New Level

Trump is treading dangerous waters with his anti-immigration policies. No doubt Melania Trump’s visit to migrant children shelters was an unequaled media coup. To make sure nobody would misunderstand (especially Trump’s fans), she wore on her trip out to Texas and back (but not when she was visiting the shelters) a very special coat. Everyone took note including the foreign press:

The message on the back of her jacket is clear: ““I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” But it’s not what you think, she is not rebelling against her husband, she just really likes children and she really believes in him, sharing in his worldview.

Trump’s tweet made this absolutely clear:

And of course, the policy of separating children from their parents wasn’t something Trump invented, it’s been “the Dems” all along – everything that’s wrong with US legislation on immigration is the Dems’ fault:

And if you don’t believe that, Trump has the winning video artfully edited to show what “needs” to be shown (and only that) – a very useful propaganda tool when tweets stop working:

So what is the real situation?

Read the rest on Impakter: click here. The end of the article was updated on 23 June. See you there!

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Trade War with China: Who Wins?

We are now facing an escalating trade war between the US and China – started by the US. The question is: can the US win? And what will it cost the world?

It is worth listening to Carlos Gutierrez, co-chairman at Albright Stonebridge Group, a major global corporation and former U.S. Commerce Secretary who spoke on 18 June on “Bloomberg Daybreak: Americas”:

He reminds us that the free-trade agreements that have been brokered since the 1980s are not as bad as Trump would have it: they have consistently given the US a surplus. The point is: There never was a similar agreement with China. And he doesn’t mince words in describing the dangers for the whole world. He urges restraint.

Clearly Trump is not listening. A few hours after Gutierrez talked to Bloomberg, Trump had threatened an additional 10% tariffs on another $200 billions worth of goods:

Trying to answer the question of “who wins a trade war”, Bloomberg has rounded some major experts asking them what they thought. While the answers are interesting, they all focus on the short term and unfortunately don’t go beyond are the framework of classical economic analysis which overlooks geo-political factors:

  • China has limited room to retaliate in a trade war escalation: It only buys $130 billion worth of American goods while the US deficit with China runs to $375 billion; this is a “high stakes game of poker” and “China will run out of U.S. imports that it can hit with tariff countermeasures long before the U.S. does” (Rajiv Biswas, IHS Markit Singapore);
  • China needs to open up to global innovation and investment: “both China and the U.S. and other countries can really benefit from this Made-in-China 2025 strategy” (William Zarit, chairman of American Chamber of Commerce in China);
  • This is creating a “perfect storm” for China’s export Industry: it’s not just Trump’s tariff war but also the probable US Senate ban on ZTE, the Chinese electronic producer that Trump wanted to save; such a ban would  stop it from importing the American chips it needs for its phones and other products, hitting at the very heart of Made-in-China 2025 strategy;
  • There will be winners and losers, for example, China will need to buy agricultural goods from other sources than the US and that will benefit countries like Australia and Brazil; many Asian countries that are part of the China value chain will be hit.

Instead, to evaluate the dangers from a trade war, we need to look at the longer term and more broadly to geo-political factors. And here, the picture is not so reassuring.

The trade war with the US is but a battle in a much larger war. A battle that surely hurts in the short run, but will leave China victorious in the long run. Because China has acquired the “soft power” weapons to win.

Forget the Trade War: China’s Soft Power is Poised to Conquer the World

What has been happening since Trump took over the White House is this: A political void has been created, a void in world leadership that China is eager to fill, and most likely will.

Consider the facts.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump Watch: Trade Wars to “Make America Great Again”

June 15 was a special day for Trump – good old television unexpectedly displaced his tweets. Two televised events gave him ample room to rant about fake news and push for his favorite justification for trade wars: resentment at “unfair treatment” of America by the rest of the world, allies included.

One was a surprise half-hour long  interview with Fox & Friends. A short video released by The Washington Post focuses on the main points he made:

The other was an 18 minute Q&A session with reporters outside the White House:

Significantly, Trump did not discuss trade at any point in either televised sessions, although on that same day he had just slapped steep (25%) new tariffs covering $50 billion in trade with China. Watching Trump make all his pet points, one is struck by the fact that he covered the same old topics. Those he’s been constantly and obsessively tweeting about.

First, Hillary Clinton and the possibility that his winning the presidency was never a clear-cut victory. He pretended to misunderstand the just released report from the FBI Inspector General – enabling him to claim the report “exonerates” him. The report does nothing of the sort, it reviews the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. It finds some faults with the then FBI Director James B. Comey for not adhering closely to protocol, along with others in his team, notably Peter Strzok and Lisa Page who were having an affair and exchanged over-the-top bragging emails.

Yet Trump calls the report a “horror show”, not because of what’s in it, he says, but because of the conclusion that there was no political bias in the FBI investigation.  Trump cannot accept that. For him, there was “total bias”; the FBI was a “den of thieves”; Comey is a “criminal”; the top FBI management is “scum”; if you “polled the FBI, the real FBI”, you’d find they all “love” him.

In short, there never was any collusion between his campaign and Russia. We’ve all heard that before, over and over.

Second point, on national security. America’s military, built up to the tune of $700 billion a year, will be bigger than ever. The wall is needed, borders must be secured, a “compromise immigration bill” cannot be supported. The separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border is regrettable but it’s the Dem’s fault.

Third point, the whole world and America’s closest allies especially, Europe, Japan and Canada, took “horrible”, “unfair” advantage of America both on trade and military aid. The only ally that got a nod of approval was Giuseppe Conte, the new Prime Minister of Italy, because they shared a common anti-immigration stand. This conveniently overlooks the massive differences in their stand: Italy, in spite of the recent spat with France over immigration – now resolved – is still receiving immigrants and does not separate children from parents.

For Trump, all will change now. We need to realize, he tells us, that President Obama “lost” Crimea, he “gave it away”. And that happened because Putin “had no respect for Obama”. With him at the helm, disrespect like that can never happen again. He is making friends with the right people, he can call up North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un anytime. And Putin, he feels, should be back in the G7.

What next: A Series of Trade Wars?

The mass of falsehoods was bewildering. Some American journalists wondered whether the Republican party would finally react, for example, Chuck Todd, NBC News political director tweeted:

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump Watch: A “Historic” Summit with North Korea?

Just published on Impakter – I try to dissect what really happened in Singapore and what it means:

Predictably, Trump gushed over his “historic summit” with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, making a string of optimistic declarations to reporters in Singapore. “I think both sides are going to be impressed with the result,” he said. “We’re going to take care of a very big and very dangerous problem for the world.” He claimed Kim’s commitment to denuclearization was “unwavering” and he added he would “absolutely” invite Kim to the White House to continue the talks.

No tweets yet, but plenty of videos of the event, here is the signing of the agreement – without releasing in advance the text to  journalists:

At the follow-up news conference, it became apparent that, with the signing of the so-called “Singapore agreement”,  the only thing of substance Trump obtained was that “working level talks” would now take place.

The point is this: They would have to take place within the framework of the agreement Trump and Kim Jong-un signed, just four points:

  1. to establish new U.S.-North Korean relations “in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity;”
  2. to join “efforts to build a lasting and stable peace” on the peninsula;”
  3. to reaffirm the declaration Kim signed at his summit with South Korea’s president on 27 April 2018; and
  4. to recover the remains of Americans lost or killed during the Korean War.

Good intents and vague words. But that’s OK, it allows for total flexibility. The game will now be played at the diplomatic “working level” – and that means it’s in the hands of Mike Pompeo. And Trump was quick to reaffirm in a news conference following the meeting that sanctions on North Korea would continue.

Not a bad result. Trump looks like he’s achieve some kind of victory, and Kim Jong-un likewise. But it’s a meagre win for Trump – not much more than face-saving.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump Watch: G7, the Gig is Up!

The G7 fiasco was not entirely a surprise, but the extent of the damage done is stunning. Here’s my assessment of the future of the G7 (it’s coming up against China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization that met at the same time as the G7!). The article is on Impakter, here is the opening:

This G7 was like no G7 ever since it was founded in 1997.  Even before leaving for Canada, Trump rocked the boat, suggesting the G7 should be a G8, with Russia back in – conveniently forgetting why Russia was kicked out in 2014 (for invading Crimea and abetting rebels in Eastern Ukraine).

Then he turned up late. A bilateral meeting with Macron had to be postponed. He missed most of a working breakfast on the issue of women, he skipped the climate change meeting. He left nearly a whole day early to fly to Singapore for his “historic nuclear summit” with North Korea’s dictator – even though this meeting is still two days off.

In the end, Trump blew it up, refusing to sign onto a joint communiqué he had agreed to before leaving. Expect the G7 never to be the same again – at least not until America produces another President.

In his news conference before leaving, Trump was his usual aggressive self, grousing about unfair tariffs slapped on the United States by its closest allies – a claim roundly rejected by economists. Far from being huge as Trump claims, average trade-weighed tariffs are marginal: the latest WTO data (2015) shows that for the EU they stood at 3 percent, Canada at 3.1 percent and the US was slightly lower, at 2.4 percent.

The problem is that they vary by product and in the US, states slam on additional barriers. Not to mention Buy American laws that keeps foreigners out of US government procurement. Moreover, it appears that Trump confuses the European VAT for a tariff. In short, the US trade deficit is not caused by tariffs but by Americans’ purchasing preferences.

Once on the plane, he tweeted his withdrawal, threatening future tariffs on automobiles and accusing Trudeau of “false statements”:

Then he doubled down with insults, calling Trudeau “very dishonest and weak”:

Something like this has never happened before, and the fact that the American President did it makes it a watershed event. It’s not just a matter of being astonishingly rude to democratically elected colleagues. It’s a matter of starting a trade war with allies that jeopardizes America’s leadership and threatens global prosperity. World politics won’t ever be the same again.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump Watch: It’s “Crooked Hillary”!

This week-end, as usual, my latest Trump Watch article was published on Impakter ( just updated this morning, 5 June 2018):

Among Western political leaders, Trump stands out. Normally, when the campaign is over, politicians forget the opponents they beat or at best, include them as allies in coalition governments. You never hear Macron mention Marine Le Pen and both Angela Merkel and Luigi Di Maio have formed governments with their opponents. Not so Trump. He is obsessed with Hillary Clinton and still treats her with insults, in campaign mode: “Crooked Hillary”! She is behind everything that’s wrong with this country!

The right words to describe Trump? Obsessed and delusional. His “Crooked Hillary” obsession is demonstrably  foundational. He tweets more about “Crooked Hillary” and everything he can attribute to her than about anything else. Even the policies he has launched and that could change the world come second, like climate change, North Korea, China or the trade war he has recklessly unleashed on America’s closest allies (Europe, Canada, Mexico).

Deep down, a doubt is eating him up: his electoral win was neither fair or indisputable. Hillary Clinton got over 2 million votes more than he did and that haunts him. We all know it was due to a quirk in the American electoral system: The votes she won in the cities weighted less than those he got in the GOP-controlled rural areas.

Trump can’t stand the idea that his win was not clear-cut, it drives him crazy. He denies the evidence, he takes refuge in delusions. His inaugural crowd was the largest, larger than Obama’s. Russia never helped him, neither did the Cambridge Analytica team (he is careful to never tweet about that particular scandal).

It was “Crooked Hillary” all along, a Dem conspiracy, they spied on him, they spied even before he got into the White House! The Justice Department and the FBI are infiltrated by Hillary Clinton people conspiring against him. The fake news press – CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post etc – is systematically misrepresenting his presidency.

Predictably, this is the kind of Fox news he loves to retweet (and he broke with protocol to tout the jobs data before it was released):

He’ll never retweet the New York Times…And he probably did not read that NYT article. If he had, he wouldn’t be so happy. …

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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