Brexit’s Biggest Fan: Trump weighs in ahead of Theresa May speech

I was on France24’s “The Debate“, talking about Brexit, Trump and Michael Gove, on Monday 16th of January 2017. You can find me here:

Part 1:

Part 2:

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Does honesty matter? The example of Nigel Farage

Also posted on Labour International Paris’s blog, here.

“Cheeky chappy”.

“You’d have a pint with him.”

“The others ones are such odd twats.”

Every single reasonably aware British voter has heard these phrases – or similar versions thereof – with regards to Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, that seemingly unstoppable political juggernaut currently on 20-30% in most national polls for the upcoming European election in May, closely behind Labour. This improbable party leader, this Eurosceptic husband of a German wife, this former commodities trader now seen as a “man of the people” figure by many Britons, is such a Teflon politician that he even experienced a bump in popularity when it was revealed that he may well have been conducting an affair with his longstanding spokeswoman Annabelle Fuller (an affair that was an open secret for many UKIP members).

This comes despite much talk of expenses scandals, a lack of commitment to parliamentary duties, and the regular nomination of what more than one Tory has called “swivel eyed loons” as candidates for office at a European, national and local level. One look at current and recent Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is enough to see that apart from Mr. Farage himself, UKIP’s elected representatives in Brussels have made sexist comments and been accused of sexual assault, been convicted and jailed for expenses fraud, and in the case of Ashley Mote held onto an MEP position despite actually serving prison time while still in office.

One might think any mainstream political movement would have long disappeared if it had UKIP’s record and elected officials. Yet even in polling for the upcoming general election in 2015 – national elections being notoriously bad for third, fourth and fifth parties – UKIP is polling at 10-15%, often ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and certainly high enough that it is now systematically counted as a “big” national party and not a fringe movement. How is this possible?

Well, let’s call it the “Berlusconi factor” – or perhaps the “Rob Ford factor”, after the crack cocaine-smoking drunkard who is currently mayor of Toronto. This factor is one that I remember all too well from my teenage years (in the early 2000s) in Dublin, when the obviously corrupt and incompetent Bertie Ahern (who once, as I remember, declared that drink driving rules shouldn’t apply to him as he ‘could drive just fine after ten pints’) was Prime Minister (or Taoiseach, as the Irish would say). The general populace had little to no trust in Ahern, yet he was elected in 1997 and re-elected twice thererafter. One might also call it the “George W Bush factor”, after that famous teetotaler who was voted into office as the candidate that the electorate would like to have a beer with.

That factor decreases with time, as voters actually see what such obvious populists can and will do once they actually get into power. However, it’s a slow process – Berlusconi is only now being gradually pushed to the sidelines – and the damage in terms of the destruction of public trust in their elected officials as obviously bonkers politicians exercise public office in the meantime is potentially awful. Little to nothing suggests that UKIP’s popularity is waning even as light is shed on the inner workings of the party. When and where their progression will be stopped is not clear.

Claude Guéant and France’s continuing slide to the far right under Nicolas Sarkozy

“All civilisations, all practices, all cultures, in light of our republican principles, are not equal.” – Claude Guéant, French Interior Minister, 4 January 2012

Coming from a fervent defender of tolerance, openness, women’s rights, gay rights and the like, there’s nothing wrong with the statement that certain cultural values found in Western society are superior to intolerant views held elsewhere. It’s something I’d certainly agree with – while I’m no Huntingtonite neocon, I’m certainly not a believer in cultural relativism, and do think that European society has it right on most of the key cultural issues that concern people’s daily lives.

Coming from Claude Guéant, however, such a statement is nothing but dogwhistle politics, designed to attract xenophobic support from the far right for the extremely shaky reelection bid of incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s not the first example of Guéant’s attempts to play on the hatred of foreigners – and especially Muslims – that festers in the hearts of so many French citizens. Guéant is an expert in such divisive politics – and Nicolas Sarkozy’s right hand man when it comes to law and order, immigration and a whole host of other topics, not to mention his main emissary to the far right electorate.

It was Guéant who said in May 2011 that “Contrary to popular myth, it is untrue that we need the talents and skills that immigrants possess.” It was he, also, who said that same year that France only wanted “nice” immigrants. But above all, he brought in strict new rules on work permits for young foreign graduates – the famous “Guéant circular” about which I’ve written a couple posts – that made it near impossible for non-European students to stay in France after graduation.

As Françoise Fressoz of Le Monde pointed out on her blog today, a new IFOP-Journal du Dimanche poll showed incumbent right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and left-wing challenger François Hollande neck-and-neck at 33% in a hypothetical election where far right candidate Marine Le Pen fails to qualify for the presidential ballot (not at all impossible). What this has reaffirmed for the French right is that the solution to its problems is to continue to appeal to the xenophobes on the right in the hopes of mobilising and galvanising its electorate and beating extremely low expectations in the April/May presidential election.

This is why, says Fressoz:

Guéant has attacked the left for ‘not participating in the vote on banning the wearing of full veils’ and in recounting a left-wing politician’s ‘assurances that ‘street prayers do not bother anyone’…

The offensive is clearly directed against Islam. It has a dual objective: flirting with Le Pen’s electorate while Marine Le Pen is weakened by her uncertain quest to qualify for the ballot [in France, 500 signatures from local elected officials are required to qualify for the presidential election] and destabilising the Socialist Party whose leader, François Hollande, took up the theme of the “Republic” at his 22 January speech at Le Bourget… in Claude Guéant’s eyes, socialists do not know how to defend secularism.

And, says Fressoz, it will only worsen in the coming weeks and months as the presidential race identifies. But more than mere electoral politics, the French centre right has been eclipsed by a more strident, less politically correct ‘new right’ – echoing both Thatcher and Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP no longer cares about political niceties and consensus politics. It’s learnt from its European neighbours that appeals to people’s worst instincts generally pay in politics. That’s why it’d be so nice to see Sarkozy, Guéant and all those around them suffer defeat in May of this year. Cowardly politics that fuels hatred and resentment is the last thing that France needs right now.

2012 is just around the corner

When it comes to razzle dazzle, showmanship, excitement and insanity, US presidential races rarely disappoint. And perhaps the most amusing political spectacle of all is the kind of free-for-all that we’ve seen in the republican nomination contest thus far.

As RCP’s nationwide polling average shows us, since March 2010, there have been at least four national frontrunners: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, businessman and pizza executive Herman Cain (who has since pulled out of the race following allegations of an illicit affair) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Other candidates, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have made it over the 10% mark in polling at one point or another, while somewhat more marginal candidates like former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum have polled strongly in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Another way of looking at the race so far is the search by republican voters for a “Not Romney” candidate – a viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, who has held positions in the past that are in direct contradiction with core GOP principles: support for universal healthcare (‘Romneycare‘ in Massachusetts was a direct inspiration for President Obama’s healthcare plan), past support for abortion rights, support for greater gun control, past support for a wide range of LGBT issues, past support for a stimulus plan in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis, and a wide range of other issues that have bred mistrust in the conservative community and claims that Romney is a ‘flip flopper’ of the same breed as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004. In addition, Romney’s Mormon faith is said by many to be a factor in his lack of strong conservative support, especially among evangelicals.

Yet one by one, Romney’s challengers have fallen by the wayside. Michele Bachmann, after winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August of 2011, embarrassed herself by seeming to criticise the principle of vaccination itself. Rick Perry, seen as a rock-solid conservative with extensive governing experience in a large state, embarrassed himself in a series of abysmal debate performances, including his famous ‘oops’ moment. Herman Cain, on top of not being particularly bright or intellectually curious, turned out to be a major philanderer who had trouble keeping it in his pants. And Newt Gingrich, while still polling strongly, has fallen in recent polls, especially in early states, amid accusations of making millions of dollars from lobbying and general doubts about his ability to govern.

But here we are, less than one week from the first nominating contest of the presidential season – the January 3 Iowa Caucus,  followed a week later by the New Hampshire primary and then a panoply of subsequent primaries and caucuses leading up to the August 2012 republican convention in Tampa, Florida, that will pick President Obama’s main adversary in November.

And amidst all of the to-ing and fro-ing, no clear, credible alternative to Mitt Romney remains. Newt Gingrich is still doing very well in nationwide polling, but has slumped in Iowa and New Hampshire. In those same two states, libertarian republican congressman Ron Paul is now polling a strong second behind Mitt Romney – but he has a series of nutty positions that include abolishing half of the federal government and returning to the gold standard which make him unelectable. He’s also 76 and has a pretty serious racist past. Rick Perry is dead in the water. Michele Bachmann’s campaign also seems in serious trouble.

The only other rivals to Mitt Romney with any life in them are Rick Santorum, the ultraconservative former senator from Pennsylvania who once compared gay sex to “man on dog” relations – he’s now polling a strong third in Iowa – and moderate former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who was formerly President Obama’s Ambassador to China, who’s doing fairly well in New Hampshire. But neither has wide enough support from the republican base to win the nomination.

Barring some kind of Newt Gingrich resurgency, or something truly unpredictable – like a Huntsman or Santorum surge, or a new breath of life into the Perry campaign – Mitt Romney has the nomination. And if he can somehow win both Iowa and New Hampshire, he can wrap up the nomination fight quickly and pivot to the general, where he’s polling quite well against a very, very weak President Obama.

I never thought I’d say this six months ago, but it looks like 2012 will be a lot more like 2008 than we thought – a moderate establishment candidate (McCain in 08, Romney this time around) with little trust from conservatives, running a solid campaign that pulverises all opponents soon after the primaries actually begin. That’s not good for President Obama, but it’s great for the republicans, because they can stop beating each other up and start campaigning against the incumbent.

The Guéant Circular Part II: the Power of Media Scrutiny

In my last blog post, I mentioned Anna Garmash, a Ukrainian graduate of Sciences Po, a top French university, who despite living in France for the past ten years, and despite receiving a job offer from a leading consulting firm, saw the French authorities turn down her work permit application recently under the strict new Guéant Circular (or circulaire Guéant in the original French). She feared that she might have to leave the country and leave behind her friends, her mother and all of the ties that she had formed in her decade spent in France.

And then something happened. Anna was scheduled to appear on the Grand Journal, a popular current affairs programme on Canal+, facing off against Arno Klarsfeld, the well-known French lawyer now in charge of the French Office of Immigration and Integration. And in the green room before the show, Klarsfeld, obviously well-prepared, announced to Anna that knowing she was going to be on the programme, he looked into her case and unblocked her application, meaning that she would be able to stay, live and work in France. This, just moments before going on.

Obviously, I’m very happy about her particular case, not least because (confession here) Anna is my girlfriend and perhaps my closest friend. However, one thing is clear – this was a media coup, and Klarsfeld admitted it himself. Rather than actually facing up to criticism of his government’s awful reform and its consequences on thousands of foreign graduates, he did what any cynical politician would, and looked for an easy way out.

Two thoughts:

  1. Media scrutiny, media pressure and media attention is crucial. Protesters in the Collectif du 31 Mai, the student group set up to fight the circular, cannot let up. They need to put as many young graduates in similar situations to those of Anna in front of journalists – as soon as possible. The Sarkozy-Fillon government is frightened to death of actually defending its measures on their merits, because there are no merits.
  2. Talking to members of the Collectif, the belief seems to be that the leaders of the student protest movement are set to see their applications be resolved in the coming days. But that doesn’t mean that this will all stop. It just means that the most vocal opponents of Guéant’s circular will be mollified, while hundreds, possibly thousands, of ordinary graduates of less prestigious schools will continue to suffer.

What I would say to anyone in Anna’s situation – and talking to Anna this evening, she’d certainly agree – is that just because your application was resolved and that your own personal  nightmare is over, there’s no reason for you to forget what others like you are going through. It’s too easy to be complacent. Yet the reality is that until this circular is substantially amended – or, better still, withdrawn altogether – thousands of young graduates of French universities, who have spent years learning the language and soaking up the culture, and who wish to give back to France a measure of all that France has given them, will continue to suffer. That’s unacceptable.

In short: I’m overjoyed about Anna, but I’m not going to be any less vocal about this monstrosity. And neither should you. Oh, and while you’re at it, get your face in front of every journalist, write to every newspaper and email every news website you can think of. It can’t hurt.

Claude Guéant’s monstrosity, or why foreign graduates are no longer welcome in France

“Contrary to popular myth, it is untrue that we need the talents and skills that immigrants possess.” — Claude Guéant, French Minister of the Interior, May 2011

Imagine you’re a kid from a small town in Western Ukraine, who arrived in France at the age of 15 with your mother, a scientist with a job offer at a lab in Grenoble. You didn’t speak a word of French when you set foot in the alpine city, but a little over two years later, your French is perfect and unaccented, and you pass your baccalauréat with flying colours. You go on to study at Sciences Po Paris, one of the country’s top universities, from which you graduate with a Master’s in Finance. After an internship at a management consultancy in Paris, you get a job offer from one of France’s leading consulting firms. Almost ten years after your arrival, you’re not only perfectly integrated into French society – you’re also about to embark on a brilliant career.

Your work permit application should be a formality, you say to yourself. But under the radar, France’s tough-talking interior minister, Claude Guéant, has published a ministerial circular (we’ll get to that later) that gives immigration officials the goal of reducing work permits by 50%, and essentially shuts the door to non-European job applicants in a wide range of sectors. Your application begins to drag on. One month passes, followed by another, and another, and soon it’s four months and you’re reading article after article about qualified non-EU applicants getting turned down by the authorities and having to leave the country. You begin to panic, but keep telling yourself that it won’t happen to you. Then the letter arrives: “Your application for a work permit has been rejected, and you are forbidden from working in France.”

Meet Anna Garmash. Soon to turn 25, Anna is a bubbly, witty girl with piercing blue eyes and chestnut hair, hailing from Novovolynsk, a small mining town just 10 kilometres from the Polish border – not that you’d know it from her perfect, unaccented French peppered with Gallic cultural references. Smart, highly qualified and multilingual (aside from her native Ukrainian and Russian, she also speaks perfect French, German and English), Anna is a poster child for how immigration can and should work in the best of circumstances. Yet following recent restrictions on economic migration to France, she may soon have to leave, perhaps never to return, after being told that she is no longer needed or wanted.

In a recent interview with i>TELE, Anna explained her astonishment and dismay. “When I learnt I’d been turned down, I was really devastated. I don’t come from a particularly well-off family – France has spent a considerable amount of money on my education, and I’ve been waiting for the day when I could repay her by paying taxes. But instead, I’ve been reminded that I’m a foreigner and don’t have the right to stay.”

How did this all begin? To understand how France turned its back on foreign graduates, we need to go back to 2007, and the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France. A former interior minister under Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy was elected in no small part on his promises to get tough on crime and immigration – indeed, he was the first heads of state to create a separate ministry devoted to managing migration, headed up by political ally Brice Hortefeux and subsequently former socialist member of parliament Eric Besson. While this project was eventually abandoned, Sarkozy decided in a minor February 2011 government reshuffle to hand the portfolio to his tough-talking chief of staff Guéant, formerly director of the National Police who was named interior minister and almost immediately set out a goal to reduce the number of residency and work permits given out every year.

In a May 2011 interview with Europe 1, Guéant told journalists that he believed France had little need for economic migration, and that only around 2000 non-European immigrants every year had the necessary skills to merit work permits. This set the tone on the issue for the last year of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first presidential term. With elections set for May 2012 and Sarkozy polling far behind his socialist rival François Hollande, many on the political right believed that the only way to shore up support for the incumbent was to mobilise the hard right base by appealing to voters who might otherwise vote for the National Front‘s Marine Le Pen.

Just a few days after Guéant’s interview with Europe1, the man often referred to as “the unofficial vice-president” and “the cardinal” seized an opportunity to sow the seeds for the most drastic anti-immigration measures that France had seen for decades. The now-infamous “circulaire Guéant” (a “circulaire” or “circular” being a ministerial recommendation on rules of application) called for prefectures to reduce the number of work visas offered to non-EU graduates of French schools and universities. Concretely, it stated explicitly that foreign students’ primary goal was to “return to their country of origin after graduation” and set out a wide range of ways that civil servants could achieve their goal of rejecting 50% of all work permit applications. This circular was shortly followed by another related text that limited to 14 the number of professions open to foreign graduates – including accounting, woodworking and telemarketing, but not management consulting, banking, marketing, public relations or any number of other qualified posts.

The circular was designed to have the maximum impact with the minimum visibility: signed in May, several months before the end of the academic year, young graduates with job offers only began noticing delays and surprising numbers of rejections in August and September. But from then on, the results were swift and alarming. Graduates of France’s top engineering, business and social science schools with solid job offers from leading French and international firms were increasingly being told that they no longer had the right to stay in France after graduation.

Nabil Sebti is a prime example. A 25-year-old Moroccan graduate of France’s top business school, HEC, Nabil created two companies as a student, and after graduation assumed that as a job creator and young entrepreneur and a highly qualified product of the French educational system, his application for a work visa would be quick and easy. He was wrong. Turned down by the French authorities, he decided to liquidate his two companies and leave the country.

And it isn’t just North African graduates who are paying the price. An October piece in Le Point shows just how ubiquitous and indiscriminate the new restrictions on immigration are – Anna, an American graduate of EDHEC (another élite French business school), was offered a top job in marketing at Swarovski, using her fluent Russian and English to help the company develop new markets in Eastern Europe. Her work permit application was turned down, and she was given 30 days to leave the country.

According to i>TELE, eight to ten thousand foreign graduates are in a similar situation. And despite ongoing protests by foreign students – and, indeed, criticism from within the government, including former higher education minister and now budget chief Valérie Pécresse, who pointed out that the new restrictions hurt the standing of French universities abroad – Claude Guéant looks unlikely to amend or soften his circular between now and the election. And as Nicolas Sarkozy’s most trusted advisor, it looks unlikely that he will be ordered to do so.

Yet business leaders and university heads all agree with student protesters that the circular is a monumental folly. As a recent editorial in Le Monde pointed out, the text has been decried by Pierre Tapie, head of the association of France’s élite graduate schools, the Conférence des grandes écoles, who expressed worry at the impact on the attractiveness of France and its universities. It has been criticised by the French association of private companies, which expressed its incomprehension at France’s decision to deprive itself of the talented youths it has educated, and who could be precious assets in a tough economic climate. And socialist senators have introduced a resolution calling on the government to abolish the circular.

But in a tough electoral climate, few believe that the government will go back on its decision. France is, of course, not alone in this. Britain’s much-praised Post Study Work Visa, which gives graduates of British universities the right to live and work in the UK for two years, is to be abolished in April 2012. The USA is certainly not known for its friendly treatment of foreign graduates. And across Europe, the economic downturn has fuelled electoral successes for countless anti-immigration parties, from the Netherlands to Finland.

Still, for a country that prides itself on a history of tolerance and openness, France’s new restrictions on immigration are scandalous and shameful. There’s the obvious economic argument that France is investing in the education of the best and brightest and should be overjoyed that so many want to stay instead of heading to the City of London where they can earn astronomical salaries. There’s the fact that France’s élite graduate schools and universities will be extremely hard hit by Guéant’s circular – since who would come to study at a French university with no possibility of being able to stay on and work after graduation? But above all, France is telling brilliant young foreign graduates – who could be such fine ambassadors for the country in the years to come – that their kind is no longer welcome. That lesson is not one that they will easily forget. And for a nation which has benefited so greatly from its immigrants – from Marie Curie to Edouard Balladur – the damage to France’s moral leadership and standing in the world, not to mention its competitiveness in a global economy, could be irreparable.

President Obama releases long form birth certificate, hoping to put an end to ‘birther’ rumours

Since the presidential primary season in 2008, rumours have been swimming around the internet that President Obama’s real birthplace was Kenya and not Hawaii, that he is a Muslim, and all manner of other wonderful conspiracy theories that have since been picked up by the nuttiest of America’s citizens. Many state legislatures have even passed laws and resolutions expressing doubt about the president’s citizenship. Most recently, Donald Trump, real estate mogul and potential 2012 contender, has been seriously questioning the ‘real’ birthplace of the Commander-in-Chief.

Despite the fact that Barack Obama released his certificate of live birth in June 2008, that both the former (republican) and current (democratic) governors of Hawaii have confirmed that they have seen the birth certificate, and that there has been no proof of the president being born outside the United States, this myth refused to die, with a recent poll suggesting that 45% of republicans think he was born overseas. That’s why I hope that today’s release of President Obama’s full, long-form birth certificate (the original copy) will satisfy doubters. TPM has more:

Hoping to end a long-running “controversy” over whether he was born in the United States, the White House released President Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate on Wednesday. “The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country,” the White House’s Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a blog post. “Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate,” wrote Pfeiffer. “They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting.”

You can see it here. I’m sure, however, that the most paranoid of the paranoid will still not be satisfied – assuming whatever bizarre news sources they follow cover the news. There are some people that are just too insane to believe the truth.