News and Features
Earthquake. Cataclysm. Electroshock. The 9/11 of French politics.
These were the recurring terms that established political leaders of
both left and right used to characterize the April 21 presidential
elections in France--in which nearly one in five voters cast
their lot with the two neofascist parties of the extreme right, and
racist National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen edged past Socialist
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to become the sole candidate against
conservative President Jacques Chirac in the May 5 runoff. How did it
With opinion polls showing throughout the campaign that between
two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate could find no difference
between the programs proposed by Chirac and Jospin, the elections
represented a stunning rejection of the French political establishment.
Roughly a third of the electorate (28.8 percent) abstained--a record in
France--or cast blank ballots. Only half of those who did vote supported
the governing parties of the traditional left and right. The rest voted
for one of the protest candidates in the field of sixteen, including
three Trotskyists; a candidate claiming to represent the interests of
rural France; an antihomosexual demagogue of the Catholic right; and the
two neofascists, Le Pen (who got 16.9 percent) and Bruno Megret (the
former Le Pen lieutenant whose tiny MNR Party got 2.35 percent). Thus,
two-thirds of the voters rejected the perceived stasis of politics as
It's important to remember that these elections took place against the
backdrop of the ongoing, hydra-headed political corruption scandals
making headlines for a decade, which have revealed that all the major
parties with the exception of the Greens--the Socialists and Communists
as well as the conservatives--were involved in highly organized systems
of bribes and kickbacks on the letting of government contracts, with
secret corporate contributions, laundered money and Swiss bank accounts.
In this context of massive voter alienation, it is the defeat of the
governing left that stands out. Only 195,000 votes separated Le Pen from
Jospin, but as Serge July editorialized in Libération,
"the left defeated the left." A bit of history: When the Socialist
Jospin--with the support of the Greens, the Communists and two tiny left
parties--lost the 1995 presidential runoff to Chirac, he obtained 44
percent of the vote, which represented the maximum strength of the
united left. After leading his "plural left" coalition to victory in the
1997 parliamentary elections, Jospin as prime minister dedicated himself
to finding the 6 percent of votes he needed to eventually win the
presidency by governing to the center-right on economic matters.
Jospin's austere, technocratic style of governance created legions of
the disaffected among "le peuple de gauche" (the left-identified
electorate), all the more so when he appeared impotent in the face of
industrial plant closings by multinationals with rich profit margins,
which threw tens of thousands of workers into the streets. Le Pen, who
blames the immigrants for unemployment and high taxes, got twice as many
working-class votes as Jospin did this time around, according to exit
polls. Jospin, who proclaimed early this year that his was "not a
Socialist program," was further undercut when the two most significant
Trotskyist candidates garnered a surprising 10 percent of the vote.
Chirac succeeded in making "insecurity"--the French code-word for crime,
blamed largely on immigrants--the central issue of the campaign, and
Jospin played into voters' fears on this issue by repeatedly claiming
that Chirac had "copied my program." Both Chirac and Jospin thus
legitimized the central discourse of Le Pen, whose law-and-order
immigrant-bashing has long been his staple stock in trade; and, as Le
Pen never stopped proclaiming, many voters "prefer the original to the
photocopy." September 11 only heightened fear of the immigrant Arab
population, as did the recent wave of violent anti-Semitic incidents by
French-Arab delinquents in the wake of the Israeli war in Palestine (303
in March alone). Le Pen's victory reflected the growing, Continent-wide
wave of racism that has led to startling breakthroughs by the xenophobic
extreme right, whose parties now participate in the governments of
Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Austria.
Although the parties of the French "plural left" lost 1.5 million votes
this time compared with their 1995 first round score, the traditional
right lost more: 3,846,000. France's president is relatively powerless,
and the real test of political strength will come in the two-stage
parliamentary elections on June 9 and 16. The left could well win these
elections if the National Front achieves the 12.5 percent
district-by-district threshold to stay on the ballot in the second round
of voting and divides the conservative vote. The Communists and the
Greens have already agreed to join the Socialists in supporting united
candidacies of the left in swing districts. Many of those who cast
protest votes for the Trotskyists to pressure the "plural left" back to
the left will return to the fold and support them. Meanwhile, Chirac has
just created a new formation, the Union for a Presidential Majority, to
run unified conservative candidates in June--but so far two smaller
parties in Chirac's coalition (they got 10 percent of the vote in the
presidential first round) are balking at joining. Whoever wins in June,
the incoming government will have to work creatively to heal the social
and racial fracture the presidential election revealed--and to stop the
racist virus from spreading even further.
As Afghanistan struggles to recover, the United States prepares to move on.
Hostility to the Palestinians has all but evaporated, thanks to Sharon's war.
I am beginning to suspect that Nation readers may not fully appreciate the challenges Attorney General John Ashcroft faces. What would you do in his place? Your intelligence agencies had no advance knowledge of the September 11 plot and don't appear to know much more about future attackers. Airport security screeners are letting test bombs and guns pass at alarming rates, and your immigration agency is so hapless that it issued visa extensions to two of the hijackers six months after they died flying planes into the World Trade Center towers. When you consider the threat from their side and the incompetence on ours, it's understandable that Ashcroft has cast his net so wide. He's shooting in the dark. In fact, the expanse of his net is probably inversely proportional to the depth of the intelligence he has received.
But just as with the terrorists themselves, understanding Ashcroft's motives does not justify his actions. To date, despite the thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants arrested, searched, profiled and questioned, Ashcroft has charged only a single person--Zaccarias Moussaoui--with any involvement in the attacks of September 11. And he was arrested before the attacks occurred. Such broad-brush tactics are unlikely to succeed, for they give notice to potential targets, allowing them to evade detection while alienating the very communities we must work with to identify potential threats who may be living among them.
Ashcroft has shown no signs of getting closer to his target. And the less he finds, the wider he sweeps. He recently announced that he was extending to 3,000 more people his much-criticized initiative to subject male immigrants from Arab countries to "voluntary" interviews, despite the fact that the initial interviews have led to no further charges in the investigation. And having learned how easy it is to use immigration law as a pretext for criminal law enforcement when you lack probable cause, the Justice Department is now preparing to enlist local police officers to help enforce immigration law, a disastrous proposal likely to drive immigrant communities even deeper underground.
The lengths to which Ashcroft will go was revealed most recently by his indictment of Lynne Stewart, a 62-year-old New York attorney who has made a career of courageously taking on clients for whom few other lawyers are willing to risk their reputations. Her most notorious such case was defending Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in his 1995 criminal trial for conspiring to bomb the tunnels into Manhattan. Now she's charged with providing "material support" to the sheik's organization, the Egypt-based Islamic Group, largely by abetting communications between the sheik--whom prison regulations prohibit from communicating with virtually anyone in the outside world--and others in the group.
The government simultaneously announced that it will make Rahman its test case for its unprecedented initiative to listen in on attorney-client communications. Confidential exchanges with lawyers have long been sacrosanct, because they are critical to any fair legal process. In the past, they could be intruded upon only with a warrant based on probable cause that the communications were intentionally furthering criminal activity, but the new regulations permit monitoring without a warrant or probable cause. But under regulations issued after September 11, the government claims the authority to monitor attorney-client communications without establishing probable cause for believing that the communications are being used for illegal ends, and without obtaining authorization from a judge.
Most troubling, Ashcroft is prosecuting Stewart although she has not been charged with furthering any illegal or violent activity of the Islamic Group, a wide-ranging Islamic political movement that engages in a great deal of lawful activity in addition to terrorism. While many have criticized the government for targeting a lawyer, of far more concern is its criminalization of speech and associations having no connection to terrorism. Unable to link Stewart to any actual terrorist activity in any way, Ashcroft has resorted to guilt by association. As a US citizen, Stewart will at least have an opportunity to defend herself in a public trial. Not so the hundreds of noncitizens still being detained on immigration charges in connection with the September 11 investigation, many long after their immigration proceedings have concluded. Under orders from Ashcroft, they are being tried in secret proceedings closed to the public, press, legal observers and family members.
In a major setback for the Ashcroft agenda, US District Judge Nancy Edmunds on April 3 declared the closed proceedings unconstitutional. She ruled that open trials are a fundamental feature of our justice system and that any closure must be carried out not in the sweeping manner that Ashcroft so favors but through means narrowly tailored to protect national security interests. The government has appealed, arguing that to act in a more narrowly tailored fashion might tip off Al Qaeda to what we do and don't know. But one has to wonder whether the government's real concern isn't that opening the proceedings might tip off the public to just how wildly John Ashcroft is shooting in the dark.
Only the blind or those who diplomatically avert their eyes could not see the purpose of Israel's systematic destruction of Palestinian Authority offices and those of numerous cultural and civic NGOs with no connection to the intifada. Serge Schmemann writes in the New York Times of the damage inflicted on ministries in Ramallah, including "a systematic effort by the Israeli Army to strip institutions of the Palestinian Authority of as much data as possible." An "administrative massacre," one Palestinian called it. Sharon's goal has been laid bare, like those bulldozed homes in Jenin: to destroy Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian Authority and indeed all political life in the occupied territories, thus realizing the right's dream of "Greater Israel."
Against the backdrop of Sharon's scorched-earth invasion, there was an air of unreality about Secretary of State Colin Powell's diplomatic mission to the region. The trip ended as it began, with no forceful action or statements by Powell, and no sense that he had achieved anything other than buying time for the Israeli army to continue its incursions into the West Bank. Sharon's brushoff of George W. Bush's hollow demands that he end Operation Defensive Wall without delay made it seem that the President was calling in from some parallel universe. Sharon can read the Washington political winds--the Administration's essential tolerance of his "war on terrorism" and its aversion to pressuring him by cutting off the military aid that paid for those Apache helicopters and F-16s that pounded Jenin refugee camp into a humanitarian disaster. How could Sharon perceive otherwise, given the Likudnik sympathies of Bush's national security and Pentagon staff, the near-unanimous Congressional backing for Israel's hard-line policies, the influential neocon and Christian right publicity offensive against pressuring Sharon and the sight of US legislators entertaining the archfoe of any negotiations with the Palestinians, Benjamin Netanyahu?
Yet there are still principled and pragmatic voices of peace in Israel, like the brave journalist Amira Hass, who derided the Israeli obsession with Arafat (trapped in his offices, unable even to flush the toilet, let alone stop the terror, in the words of a Palestinian official) or the veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, who pointed out that "the more fighters and suicide bombers are killed, the more fighters and suicide bombers are ready to take their place.... Thus Sharon and his chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, create the terrorist infrastructure." And there are the members of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Coalition, led by Yasir Abed Rabbo and Yossi Beilin, who are experienced negotiators striving to keep lines of communication open between the two peoples. These and the civil society groups in Europe and America bearing witness for peace in the area are keeping the flame of hope alive. The elements of a political settlement now exist. The International Crisis Group has suggested an externally imposed solution within the parameters discussed at Taba in January 2001. If the Palestinians are to disavow violence, there must be a real pullback of Israeli troops in return, and a US blueprint for a final political settlement enforced by international monitors.
The IMF deserves to be blamed. But so does the country's willing political class.
Seeking to eliminate the Palestinians as a people, it is destroying their civil life.
Uncovering the industry's multibillion-dollar global smuggling network.
What is the fundamental difference between Slobodan Milosevic and Ariel Sharon? The former is on trial for war crimes, while the latter still leads an occupying army.
History will record April 11, 2002, as a day of enormous significance in the effort to achieve the rule of law in the conduct of international affairs. It marks the day the Treaty of Rome, establishing an International Criminal Court, was to be ratified by sixty nations, thus triggering the establishment of the global tribunal with jurisdiction over those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. Tragically, instead of submitting the treaty to the Senate for ratification, George W. Bush would strike our name from the treaty altogether. In a press conference two weeks before the sixtieth nation deposited its ratification, the Administration's ambassador-at-large for war crimes, Pierre Prosper, made it clear that the President is still a hostage to the reactionary sponsors of the misnamed American Servicemembers Protection Act. This act would allow the United States to invade The Hague, presumed seat of the new tribunal, to "free" any American brought before the bar of international justice. In addition, any existing military assistance program to a non-NATO country that is "a party to" the ICC would be suspended.
The ambassador refused to deny that the idea of unsigning the treaty is under active consideration and review. Mere contemplation of such a course of action is bad enough, but active consideration at a time of war is almost beyond belief. We were isolated from virtually every democratic nation with our vote against the ICC on July 17, 1998, when the ICC treaty was adopted by a vote of 120 to 7. Since then it has been signed by our closest allies, including every NATO country but Turkey and all members of the European Union.
The twentieth century was the bloodiest in human history, with a total of 174 million people killed in genocide and mass murders. If there was ever a moment when a US President should demonstrate his fealty to the abiding principles of law and justice, now is that moment. No President has ever revoked the signature of a former chief executive on a treaty by unsigning it. If Bush carries out this unprecedented action, prodded by the right wing of his party, his capitulation will not only dismay our friends and delight our enemies but also strip us of any ability to negotiate changes to the treaty we might validly seek to make. And as we mute our response to the call for a worldwide embrace of the rule of law, we traduce one of the most important principles of American democracy.