The comedy goldmine that is the race for the US Republican party presidential nomination had long distracted attention in the UK from another imminent presidential election that is perhaps more significant for British interests. But the actions of a different kind of lunatic in Toulouse have brought the campaign in France to greater prominence over recent days.
Entertainment value aside, much of the UK focus on the US stems from the lingering British notion that it still has a “special relationship” with the US. In fact, the political perception of Britain in the US roughly equates to the way Tranmere Rovers are seen by Liverpool and Everton. Namely, it is barely noticed at all, except for the occasional outbreak of pity at such abjections as the Prime Minister Cameron’s entourage getting all giddy about riding on Obama’s big plane during his recent visit to the US. Clearly it would have an impact on Britain if one of the Republicans’ Coney Island freak show escapees were to end up in the White House. But that, mercifully, remains unlikely and it is the forthcoming election in France that matters more to the UK.
France is, of course, the UK’s biggest immediate neighbour and our third largest trading partner. It is a major power in the European Union (EU) and its influence in Brussels, particularly on economic issues, has a significant impact on the UK. This will continue to be the case because Britain is not going to leave the EU voluntarily anytime soon. Despite the endless rabid speculation in right-wing political circles, most of the Tories big business backers would have a conniption fit at any serious threat to withdraw from the world’s most lucrative free trade area. The greater short-term risk is that continued negotiating incompetence by the Cameron government in Brussels, as demonstrated by last December’s phantom “veto” fiasco, will leave the UK isolated and unable to counteract any French-influenced initiatives that it does not favour. EU withdrawal, in any case, would not change the fact that France matters to the UK, just as it did for centuries before the EU was ever imagined.
The UK and France are closely aligned on most foreign policy issues, such as the effort to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. The fact that the UK and France occupy two of the five permanent seats on the United Nations’ Security Council gives them an exaggerated joint influence over global politics in comparison with their ostensible economic and military weight. The intervention in Libya also showed that making more of the UK and France’s military compatibility could preserve the power of both countries, especially in these financially straightened times.
For much of the French presidential election campaign so far, the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, has seemed certain to win. Amongst many issues of relevance to the UK, he favours even stricter regulation of the financial sector than the incumbent president, Nicholas Sarkozy. This can be seen as either a good or a bad thing, depending on whether you are one of the minority who is paid their wages by the banks or the majority who has spent the last few years bailing them out.
The electoral odds on an easy Hollande victory have, though, shifted since the awful events in Toulouse. The early signs are that the killings there and the reaction to them have given the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, a chance to climb back into contention. Sarkozy had previously been written off due to the economic situation and his Champagne Charlie reputation in the eyes of the French citizenry. But law and order issues are Sarkozy’s specialist subject and the increased emphasis on them may serve him well. Despite being a bumptious posh kid from the suburbs, Sarkozy has a knack for articulating the concerns of many ordinary people about security matters. He also justifiably benefits from the indelible image of him personally carrying small children out from an armed school siege when he was mayor of his home town of Neuilly.
The events in Toulouse have enabled Sarkozy to divert attention from his weaknesses to his strengths and to regain some of the initiative on security issues from the neo-fascist National Front (FN). The FN’s line on crime and insecurity is simplistic and obnoxious - they blame foreigners and non-white Frenchmen for all of it. But they have managed to seduce about 15 % of the electorate, a disproportionate number of whom might otherwise vote for Sarkozy. The FN’s leader, Marine Le Pen, has already sought to make political capital out of the Toulouse murders. But, given her inheritance from her openly racist, holocaust-denying father and predecessor, Jean-Marie Le Pen, it might be too complicated for the FN to profit from a case where all of the victims were Muslim, black or Jewish.
Sarkozy’s attempt to garner support from potential FN voters has led him to adopt some dubiously extreme rhetoric on issues such as immigration. He also questioned the right to free movement of citizens within the EU, one of the Union’s proudest achievements. This is of direct relevance to the several hundred thousand British citizens living in France.
In short, it matters to the UK who is in charge in France, whether it is the traditional social-democracy of Francois Hollande or the more nationalist Nicolas Sarkozy. The election campaign across the Channel may be less amusing than the one over the Atlantic but it is worthy of equal attention.
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