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Sarkozy’s Iron Lady

November 23, 2010 Leave a comment

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Meet Michèle Alliot-Marie, France’s right-wing, rugby-loving new foreign minister.

BY ERIC PAPE | NOVEMBER 22, 2010

International diplomacy can be a rough-and-tumble world, ripe with jujitsu fake-outs, illegal tackles, and plenty of grappling in the scrum. In the end, it all proved too much for the left-wing humanitarian Bernard Kouchner, whose appointment as President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s foreign minister started out with so much promise, but ended up with him watching from the sidelines. So perhaps it makes sense that Kouchner’s newly-appointed replacement, Michèle Alliot-Marie, is a devout student of rugby.

The 64-year-old Gaullist is more than just another passive fan of the game. The normally austere MAM, as she is known in France, revealed in a rare informal television appearance in the mid-1980s that she had nearly been kicked out of school when she was young for converting the female handball squad into a rugby team. “I think that I’d still be able to make a pass,” she noted. Given her steely demeanor — she often comes across as downright unbreakable — it isn’t impossible to imagine MAM taking a few hits on the rugby pitch. But perhaps it’s her innate sense of the game’s rules (her father was an international rugby referee) that has served her so well in the subtler but often much dirtier game of politics.

Alliot-Marie has embraced another pastime traditionally seen as the exclusive domain of men. She was France’s first woman to head a major political party — the conservative Rally for the Republic that oversaw the reelection of President Jacques Chirac in 2002 and was later folded into the Union for a Popular Movement that drove Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential candidacy.

She has also shattered a number of other glass ceilings. With her new appointment, plus other stints as head of the defense, justice and interior ministries, she has scored the first ever ministerial “grand slam,” overseeing all four of the big-power ministries. In 2007, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 11th most powerful woman on Earth. With France now assuming the rotating presidency of the G-20 and Sarkozy looking to the international arena to restore his much-tarnished brand at home, Alliot-Marie’s profile is likely to rise to even greater heights.

On Nov. 17, Sarkozy’s third and most explicitly conservative government held its inaugural Council of Ministers, the first productive gathering of his new government. Chosen with an eye focused on presidential elections less than 18 months from now, Sarkozy has sought to project a new vitality, but the French are skeptical of his latest reshuffle. Approximately two-thirds of the electorate lacks confidence in the new government out of the gate, and nearly nine in 10 believe that Sarkozy’s policies will continue unchanged. Yet a majority — 53 percent — continues to have a positive view of Alliot-Marie, who has notably avoided implication in an array of scandals and court investigations that dogged Chirac and Sarkozy.

Alliot-Marie has never shied away from controversy and has made a notable impact at each of her previous appointments. As minister of youth and sports in the 1990s, she pushed through a law that permits the banning of violent sports fans from stadiums, a move that didn’t endear her to some feisty soccer-loving far-right supporters. As defense minister, she proved popular in her numerous on-the-ground visits to French troops in hot spots from West Africa to Lebanon to Afghanistan. More concretely, she further professionalized the French military via reforms (and ended the draft) and she diplomatically fended off pressure from Bush-era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to take part in the early military stabilization of Iraq (in accordance with France’s policy) while retaining good personal relations with Rumsfeld and overseeing French military involvement in Afghanistan. More recently, at the Interior Ministry, she consolidated intelligence bodies to create a sort of French FBI, though with France facing repeated terrorist threats in recent months, the jury is still out on the impact. At the Justice Ministry, she introduced legislation that effectively banned the Muslim veil and other forms of facial covering in public settings.

Core conservatives, who are uncomfortable with the president’s frenetic — many say erratic — political methods, find Alliot-Marie to be refreshingly reliable and satisfyingly unsurprising, and rock-solid on the values that they care about. (It hasn’t hurt that she can be a strongly partisan female political voice. Of mercurial 2007 Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, she said, “We don’t need someone who changes ideas as often as she changes her skirt.”)

And yet, as a prominent minister, she has tended to serve the beliefs of her presidential or prime ministerial bosses, rather than administering any broad political vision of her own. In fact, most French people would be hard-pressed to discern her personal political views on key issues like Europe, Islam, and the cultural integration of immigrants. Even on the issue of the trans-Atlantic relationship, on which she is more closely associated with former Chirac’s multipolar vision than Sarkozy’s more U.S.-friendly one, she has avoided any public scrapes with her current boss. It is unlikely that she will bend French foreign policy to fit her beliefs. As is her habit, she is more likely to implement the key foreign-policy positions that Sarkozy has already been promoting, but with greater reliability and discipline than her predecessor.

This doesn’t mean that Alliot-Marie doesn’t have opinions on policy; she just doesn’t express them in public or in the media, unlike many of her colleagues. This might have to do with her discreet vision of her role, as well as her relationship with the president. “We have known each other for a very long time, we have shared a part of our political journey,” she said of Sarkozy in Paris Match magazine a year ago while serving as his minister of justice. “He has never lied to me, never dissimulated anything at all. Me neither. I am a loyal woman. When we have things to say to each other, we say them. That concerns us and no one else.”

It’s no surprise then that MAM has been compared to her U.S. counterpart, Hillary Clinton. The comparison is in some ways apt, though she bears a greater resemblance to Clinton as the loyal, tough-talking, get-things-done secretary of state than the combative, opinionated presidential candidate.

If Alliot-Marie’s ascendancy is a victory of technique and discretion over policy vision, it will likely come as a welcome relief for a broad swath of the French electorate. The hope is that e’s sturdy presence in the government will act as a stabilizing force, especially for a Foreign Ministry that has seen much of its influence and power usurped by other parts of the government in recent years. Her predecessor, Kouchner, who was cherry-picked from the Socialist Party to give the government the appearance of political inclusion, never had the president’s trust.

In reality, many if not most key foreign-policy issues were run out of an informal political cell in the Élysée presidential palace, leaving Kouchner as little more than a symbol of political inclusiveness, sometimes even robbing him of his role as foreign-policy mouthpiece. (Sensitive missions involving the Middle East and Africa were handled by the secretary-general of the Elysée, Claude Guéant; Sarkozy’s diplomatic advisor, Jean-David Levitte, focused on the United States and China.) It is likely that MAM’s reputation for protecting her policy turf will soon be put to the test.

While MAM has never played up her remarkable rise, Sarkozy has proudly trumpeted the impressive inclusion of women in his various governments, whether they were well-suited to their positions or not. He has since let go of prominent ones, like his flashy and less-than-diplomatic former justice minister Rachida Dati, and the very popular but insolent young secretary of state for sports, Rama Yade. Alliot-Marie, in her unsentimental way, set herself apart from such appointees when she commented: “There is nothing worse than having a woman in a position that she doesn’t succeed in; it is prejudicial for all women.”

Still, whether she wants to admit it or not, Alliot-Marie does check a number of political boxes for the ever-tactical Sarkozy, who needs to bolster his support with doubting Gaullist traditionalists and others who now fondly recall Chirac. (France is in the grip of a serious round of Chirac-nostalgia with polls regularly showing him as the most popular living politician in the country.) MAM too feels this fondness: indeed she only got into national politics when “family friend,” Chirac, suggested the idea. For three decades he has been a key political mentor. She was so closely associated with the former president, who long had fraught relations with Sarkozy, that she mulled running as his Gaullist heir in the 2007 presidential campaign. Her decision not to run — in addition to her professionalism and conservative bona fides — has helped to keep her in the Council of Ministers without pause under two presidents. Sarkozy’s decision to was doubly tactical; he has kept a potentially potent conservative competitor in the fold and simultaneously comforted members of his party who had expressed unease with the execution of his foreign-policy agenda under Kouchner.

The real question is whether MAM’s clout will allow her to maneuver more freely than Kouchner, who never fully filled his ministerial shoes. There are signs that she will. Sarkozy’s new government has restored some of the symbolic strength of the Foreign Ministry and appointed no fewer than three ministers to the Quai d’Orsay as part of the government reshuffle (Alliot-Marie at the top; the youthful former government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez responsible for European affairs; and Henri de Raincourt, who will oversee international cooperation).

But whether Alliot-Marie will be permitted to truly oversee policy is still an open question. It could be a smart move: She brings to the job a rare practical depth and breadth of field from decades of experience with security, legal, and military issues. But the challenges that face her over the next 18 months — assuming that she lasts that long — are formidable. Urgent issues include navigating through challenging geopolitical and economic relations with Russia, bolstering the struggling European project, supporting French business interests in the former colonies, and managing a constructive collaboration with the United States on great global challenges, from the Middle East to Central Asia.

If that last challenge wasn’t eminently clear, newly-appointed Defense Minister Alain Juppé’s Nov. 17 announcement that France is looking to hand over control of areas of Afghanistan to local authorities put the Washington-Paris relationship front and center. A former prime minister, Juppé called Afghanistan a “trap” for international powers, and he announced that France is looking to pull some or all of its nearly 4,000 troops out of the country (likely before France’s 2012 presidential elections).

But the no-drama MAM gives the impression that such challenges are what she lives for, not the public sniping and attention-grabbing one-upmanship of personal politics. “I settle things in person, not in the public square, nor behind people’s backs through scurrilous insinuations,” she explained in an interview with the conservative daily, Le Figaro, in October. “That might be a part of my rough character from my rugby-esque culture.”

Rugby players aren’t known for verbosity; they just put their head down and do what they can to move the ball forward. And, once again, MAM heads into the scrum.

BACk to margotbworldnews.com

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French pension reform becomes law after failed legal challenge

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

DW-WORLD.DE

10.11.2010

Figure of old woman on stack of coins

The controversial and unpopular pension reform plan has become official law in France, as President Nicolas Sarkozy claims victory and the opposition Socialists vow to repeal it.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the national minimum retirement age officially became law on Wednesday after the country’s constitutional court rejected a challenge to it.

Sarkozy wasted no time in signing the bill on Wednesday, just hours after the court ruling. He said in a statement that while he heard the concerns expressed by opponents during the debate, it was his “duty” to ensure the pension fund’s integrity.

“With this law, our redistributive pension system has been saved,” he said. “French citizens can now be assured that they can count on their retirement and that pension payments will be maintained.”

Sarkozy’s right-of-center government insisted the reform, which raises the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full retirement age from 65 to 67, was necessary to fill a major budget gap as France’s population ages and few workers are paying into the system. The law will gradually come into effect in July 2011 and will be fully enacted by 2018.

Man stands with union flagsBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift:  Massive strikes and protests against the reform disrupted society

Socialists vow a repeal

Opposition Socialists and other parties asked the country’s highest court to examine the constitutionality of the law on November 2, saying it contradicted France’s principles of equality. The court rejected the challenge, but the Socialists have vowed to repeal the law if they win the next presidential election in 2012.

“The president is confusing appearance with reality, he thinks that by putting his head down and charging forward without listening, he’s showing courage,” said Socialist leader Martine Aubry. “It would have been courage to put in place a reform that really solves the problem of retirement.”

As the reform was in debate in the legislature, massive protests and nationwide strikes crippled the country’s transportation system and all but shut down the oil industry, leaving many gas stations without fuel for cars.

Unions have called for another day of strikes on November 23, but it was unclear how many would take part, as the public opposition to the bill was running out of steam toward the end of the debate.

Author: Andrew Bowen (AFP, AP)
Editor: Rob Turner

DW-WORLD.DEPrint

| http://www.dw-world.de | © Deutsche Welle.

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French protests continue over pensions

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Tens of thousands rally on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010 against France’s pension reform legislation.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators have returned to the streets across France to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s controversial pension reform legislation.

Over 130 rallies were held across the country on Saturday to protest a government decision to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The largest rally is expected to be held in France’s capital Paris.

French Unions have announced that the ongoing strikes seek to force President Sarkozy to agree to amendments to the pension law.

“Today’s day of protest marks another high point, there will be others,” Bernard Thibault, the head of the General Confederation of Labor Union (CGT) told the French daily L’Humanite, insisting that they would “go on right to the end.”

“For us, the key date is July 1, 2011, when the measures are opposed to come into effect. Between now and then we have a very real chance of creating the kind of strength necessary to open negotiations,” he said.

Meanwhile, other French trade unions have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the protests.

“If I said today we’re going to force the president to back down, no one would believe me. People would say, ‘That guy there, he’s dreaming,'” AFP quoted Francois Chereque, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor Union (CFDT), as saying.

President Sarkozy’s pension reform bill was passed by the Senate last week despite nationwide protests. The legislation is now expected to be cleared by France’s Constitutional Council before being signed into law by President Sarkozy.

According to opinion polls, between two-thirds and three-quarters of French people oppose the reforms.

LF/CS/MMN

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Greece intercepts parcel bomb addressed to Sarkozy

November 1, 2010 1 comment

French president, Nicolas Sarkozy

French president, Nicolas Sarkozy

Main Image
Main Image
Main Image

A police explosives expert arrives to detonate a suspicious package in Athens November 1, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Eurokinissi/Tatiana Bolari

ATHENS | Mon Nov 1, 2010 3:41pm EDT

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek police intercepted a booby-trapped parcel addressed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday, after another package exploded at a courier company in Athens, slightly wounding an employee.

Police suspect the parcels were linked to Greek leftist guerrilla groups. Greece has been rocked by a wave of gas canister and bomb attacks, usually claimed by leftist groups, since the police killing of a teenager in Athens in 2008 sparked the country’s worst riots in decades.

The parcel that exploded in the hands of a female employee was addressed to the Mexican embassy in Athens, police said.

Shortly after the explosion, police arrested two suspects and detonated two more makeshift parcel bombs they carried and a third one found at another deliver company.

“One of the explosive devices that the suspects were carrying was addressed to the president of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy,” police spokesman Thanassis Kokkalakis said, adding the other packages were addressed to the Belgian and Dutch embassies in Athens.

“It is not clear what the motive behind these attacks was,” he said.

Another police official said the quantity of explosives used in the parcel bombs was too small to kill.

In June, a booby-trapped package exploded at the ministry in charge of police, killing one of the minister’s closest aides.

On Friday, two air cargo packages containing bombs, both sent from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago, were intercepted in Britain and Dubai.

Kokkalakis said police believed Monday’s events in Greece were not linked to this. “We don’t see a link with al Qaeda, but we are still investigating,” he said.

The suspects, aged 22 and 24, were carrying weapons and one was wearing a bullet-proof jacket, police said. The youngest is suspected to be a member of a Greek leftist guerrilla group known as the Fire Conspiracy Cells.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry confirmed that a parcel was addressed to the Dutch embassy but declined to comment on the type of explosives or the reason the embassy was targeted.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Janet Lawrence)

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Fuel blockage in France hampers feed supply 26 Oct 2010

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

various types of legume (left) and grass (righ...

various types of legume (left) and grass (right) fodder

Farmers Union FNSEA demanded that the French government takes action against the blockage of the supply fuel in the interest of the agricultural sector. Besides seasonal crop farming activities, the collection of milk and delivery of the feed is becoming difficult.
Fuel blockage in France hampers feed supply
The blockage of fuel stations, distribution centres and refineries as a protest to the Government decision to increase the pension age with two years (from 65 to 67) have been going on for two weeks now and are paralyzing France.
As a result in Brittany, the heart of French agriculture, manufacturers of animal feed are ringing the alarm bells. They fear for the supply of livestock feed.
As a result of the blockage of the majority of French refineries the French Farmers Union FNSEA fears for the feed supply to the farms. “The lack of diesel is a hindrance to the general supply to farms, and key challenges for planting and other fieldwork, but especially for the animal feed supply,” it said.
Also the collection of animals for export or slaughter and collection of milk is becoming critical.
FNSEA urges the French government to take proper action to secure that regular farm work can continue.
Ships waiting at sea
It is not only that it is becoming difficult to supply farms with feed, also ships loaded with raw materials lay in waiting to enter the French ports.
“The Ports of Montoire of Brittany, Nantes, Saint Nazaire, Lorient and Brest are blocked for several weeks. Vessels are waiting for a long time in the port and unload only sparsely,” said Lawrence Morin, director of the Afab (Association of Feed Manufacturers).
“We import a lot of soybean meal and grain, including feed wheat in northern Europe, which is less expensive than French bread wheat that is exported from Rouen. If no significant improvement in the situation is created by someone, animals will starve. Today, we can still organize ourselves to deliver the farmers, but we will run into great difficulties soon,” Morin states.
Plant closures
The lack of fuel also threatens food and feed processing plants with closure, especially in western France, the National Association of Food Industries (Ania) said in a statement, requesting that the sector enjoys priority in access to fuel.
“The area of western France, a major food-processing region in the country (over 130,000 jobs), is the most impacted by the supply problems,” Ania said.
It said that if “the fuel shortage persist in the next 48 hours and if blocking of ports continues, many plants may no longer be supplied with raw materials or meet their obligations to collect milk, among others.”
According to Ania these factories “will therefore have no choice but to close their doors or some production lines.” The organisations fears for lay-offs.

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French police force open fuel depot as senate prepares to vote on pension bill

October 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Friday, October 22, 2010

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Top story: French police forced open a blockade of the country’s main fuel refinery today as France’s nationwide strikes continued to intensify. Nonetheless, the French Senate is planning a vote today on President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s controversial pension reform measure, which will raise the retirement ate from 60 to 62 and the age at which workers receive pensions from 65 to 67. Even if the bill passes, which appears likely, unions are planning further days of action on Oct 28 and Nov. 6.

Unions say the marches this week drew around 3.5 million people. Support for the strikes is running around 70 percent according to the latest polls. The leader of the oil workers’ union drew condemnation for comparing Sarkozy’s actions to the roundup of Jews during Nazi-occupied France.

The union had blocked off the fuel depot for 10 days until police breached the blockade today. The French government says fuel shortages at service stations throughout the country will continue for several days.

Economy: U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has called on the G-20 to cap trade surpluses.

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Workers face a struggle for power in France

October 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Sarko-5

Sarko-5

22 October 2010

Police action to break strikes and blockades in the oil sector has not ended France’s fuel shortage or curtailed strikes and protests by workers and students against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s deeply unpopular pension cuts. The French strike wave is the most developed expression of growing working class resistance to the drive by European governments to impose austerity measures in the face of overwhelming popular opposition.

The refusal of the unions to organize broader strikes or protests against the police attacks on oil blockades must be taken as a serious warning. These organizations will mount no struggle to defend workers from state violence. On the contrary, they are sending Sarkozy a signal that he can employ even greater police violence with their tacit support.

The unions’ silence on government strike-breaking is the clearest expression of their hostility to the developing mass movement and their determination to work with Sarkozy to weaken and ultimately defeat it. In this, they are supported by the official “left” parties—the Socialist Party and the Communist Party—as well as the so-called “far left” parties, such as the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), which provide political cover for the unions and insist that workers look to these agencies of the ruling elite and the state to defend them.

The only major actions approved by the unions are two more one-day national protests, on October 28 and November 6. Such “days of action” are already widely seen by workers as ineffective. Indeed, the first is set to take place the day after the combined houses of Parliament agree on the final version of the pension “reform” bill, which the government is trying to force to a vote in the Senate today.

Under conditions where police repression has failed to crush the strikes, Sarkozy is relying more directly than ever on the unions and the “left” parties to defuse and suppress the mass movement. Union spokesmen are already promoting the notion that opposition to the cuts is a hopeless cause. They are counting on mounting financial pressures on strikers and the impact of the unions’ deliberate isolation of strikes in the oil and transportation sectors to sow exhaustion and resignation.

Buttressed by the middle-class pseudo-left organizations such as the NPA, they promote the absurd and dangerous illusion that the government can be pressured to drop or seriously modify its austerity policies. This despite Sarkozy’s repeated declarations that the cuts will be imposed no matter what, and his use of state violence against the workers.

Protest alone will not shift the policies of the government, and those who argue otherwise are encouraging complacency and confusion. They ignore the context in which the austerity drive in France and every other major industrialized country is taking place—the deepest crisis of the world capitalist system since the 1930s.

At the same time, they promote the lie that the Socialist Party—a tried and tested party of the French bourgeoisie which initiated the program of social cuts when it held power in the 1990s—represents a genuine alternative to Sarkozy and the Gaullists. The unions and their “left” allies are seeking to wind down the strike movement and channel popular discontent into the blind alley of support for the Socialist Party in the 2012 presidential election.

The working class is objectively in a fight against the ruling class and its state. The government openly does the bidding of the banks and the financial aristocracy with utter contempt for the democratic will of the people.

The workers’ opposition has immense support in the population as a whole, which overwhelmingly opposes the cuts and supports the strike movement. It is critical, however, that the struggle be consciously conducted as a political fight for power—to bring down the Sarkozy government and replace it with a workers’ government.

The first prerequisite for victory is a break with the trade unions and the establishment of new, democratic organizations of working class struggle. The World Socialist Web Site urges workers in France to form committees of action, independent of the unions and the existing “left” parties, to broaden the strike movement, unite all sections of the working class—the employed and unemployed, native-born and immigrant, union and non-union, young and old—and mobilize behind the immense social power of the working class all of the oppressed layers of society.

The committees will provide a means for French workers to reach out to workers across Europe and internationally who face the same attacks from the same source—the international capitalist class. The crisis can be solved only on a European-wide and worldwide basis, through the revolutionary unification of the international working class.

The committees of action will fight for a general strike to bring down Sarkozy. As the mass movement develops, these committees can be broadened into workers’ councils, which will become the organs of working class political power.

Only on this basis can revolutionary socialist policies be carried out to harness and expand the productive forces for the benefit of the people, and end their subordination to corporate profit and the personal enrichment of a tiny elite.

The fight for workers’ power is deeply ingrained in the history of the French working class. One hundred and forty years ago next year, the besieged workers of Paris rebelled and formed the Commune. This was the first time in history that the working class took power into its own hands. The Commune was ultimately smashed by the bourgeois government of President Adolphe Thiers, which carried out savage repression.

But the example of the Commune played a critical role in the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and continues to stand as a tribute to the revolutionary capacities of the working class. It is to such traditions of revolutionary struggle that workers in Europe and around the world will return in the coming period.

Alex Lantier

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