France goes to the polls; Baswedan elected Jakarta governor; Korean missile fails. By Hamish McDonald.

France prepares to put Le Pen to paper

National Front party presidential candidate Marine Le Pen at a meeting in Paris this week.
National Front party presidential candidate Marine Le Pen at a meeting in Paris this week.

The French turn out on Sunday for the first round of their presidential election, and it’s no exaggeration to say the fate of the European Union depends on the outcome of this and the runoff vote two weeks later.

Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front is expected to command one of the biggest shares of the first vote, and go on to the second round on May 7. She promises a referendum on leaving the EU, and wants to withdraw from the common currency and restore the franc. This week she said she would suspend all legal immigration to France and introduce “much more drastic, more reasonable, more humane, more manageable rules”.

The centrist Emmanuel Macron, who is running at the head of his hastily formed En Marche (On the Move) grouping, is roughly even with Le Pen in the polls, but only a few points ahead of conservative Republican Party candidate François Fillon and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But a third of French voters are still undecided, the polls say.

Should Macron make it to the second round, he is expected to attract enough votes from the knocked-out candidates to beat Le Pen. A late surge for Mélenchon − who wants to renegotiate the EU, end fiscal austerity, and confiscate all income more than €400,000 ($570,000) − would see a showdown between far-left and far-right. Macron said Mélenchon’s France would be “Cuba without the sun, or Venezuela without the oil”.

British voters will vote again on June 8, a month after we know the French result, following Prime Minister Theresa May’s snap election call this week, breaking repeated promises not to go to the polls before parliament’s term ends in 2020. Put at 21 points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in polls, she hopes to multiply her Conservative Party’s current 17-seat majority, enabling her to ram through legislation for completely severing ties with the EU while attempting to negotiate a new relationship with it as an outsider.

The opposition parties will campaign against May’s so-called “hard Brexit” and point out contradictions in her plan to end EU migration rights while maintaining free trade access. The Liberal Democrats, led by Tim Farron, and the Scottish Nationalists look like being more effective than Labour. It is unclear if anyone will propose a second Brexit referendum. If Le Pen wins in France, there may not be much left to exit from.

Jakarta divided

Provincial-level elections in Indonesia don’t usually warrant much attention from the outside world, but Wednesday’s runoff in Jakarta for the governorship of the capital was important and disturbing.

The election that had looked headed for re-endorsement of the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – nicknamed Ahok – turned into a forum for religious extremism and racism, Ahok being of Chinese descent and a Christian. As The Jakarta Post said in an editorial, the campaigns had been “the dirtiest, most polarising and most divisive the nation has ever seen”.

The result was a victory for Anies Baswedan, a university rector who used to be paraded as a voice of Islamic moderation. But he pandered to a thuggish element of religious bigots called the Islamic Defenders Front or FPI to unseat Ahok and thereby strike back at President Joko Widodo, who dropped Baswedan as education minister last year. Ahok had been Widodo’s deputy in Jakarta before the latter’s successful 2014 presidential win.

Also backing Baswedan was the sinister former special forces general Prabowo Subianto, who sees Jakarta as a step towards ousting Widodo in 2019. Baswedan clearly didn’t mind where he got support. No wonder he looked rather shame-faced after his win. Ahok still faces a verdict in a blasphemy trial brought on to placate the FPI’s violent protests.     

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan predictably won his constitutional referendum for greater presidential powers, which will allow him to appoint the cabinet, have a large say over the body that appoints judges, and be able to order investigation of any civil servant. He gets to stand for another two permitted terms from 2019, allowing him to entrench himself as a neo-Ottoman ruler.

The vote of approval was a narrow 51.4 per cent, however, and exposed a divide between the more cosmopolitan cities of Istanbul and Ankara, which voted “no”, and the more pious small towns and rural areas of Anatolia. This suggests continuing internal conflict. On Monday, the government extended emergency rule by another three months.

Full marks for Australia’s Turkish community, which voted against this abandonment of separation of powers in the former homeland. The “no” vote where Turkish missions had polling stations was some 66 per cent in Sydney, 81 per cent in Canberra, and 52 per cent in Melbourne.

Fizz bombs

The latest Korean crisis looks like ending in a fizzer, literally. Kim Jong-un fired off a missile on Sunday, the day after his triumphant parade in Pyongyang marking the 105th birth anniversary of his grandfather and regime “eternal leader” Kim Il-sung, but it blew up soon after launch.

The mighty “armada” that Donald Trump had said was close to Korea to deter Pyongyang and perhaps take unilateral action if provoked turned out to have headed in the opposite direction from its last port of call in Singapore. It headed south for exercises with Australia’s navy in the Indian Ocean. But no one in the Pentagon wanted to spoil Trump’s story.

The carrier Carl Vinson and its four missile-ship escorts will arrive off Korea some time next week, however, and Kim’s birthday parade featured an array of new missiles that had defence wonks poring over the pictures. It seems the North Koreans are still some way off perfecting an intercontinental missile, but have short-range solid-fuel missiles that can be fired from land and submarines. They haven’t got a nuclear device small enough to fit on missiles, but are working on it.

Many Western commentators and politicians claimed this was a threat to all of us, and that Kim was crazy. More seasoned analysts said that while Kim’s regime survival depends on keeping his state hyped up at perpetual war-footing, he would never take the risk of firing the first shot.

The United States vice-president, Mike Pence, did the rounds of South Korea, Japan and Indonesia this week, finishing up in Sydney on Saturday. His difficult job was to reassure US allies that Washington was in safe hands, while allowing Beijing to fear that Trump was crazy enough to make a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. America’s “strategic patience” was over, but it was open to talks and preferred Chinese sanctions.

Kim ski

The scope for Beijing to apply more pressure was made apparent in a report made public in early March by a UN Panel of Experts on Pyongyang’s evasion of existing sanctions.

It revealed a network of front companies and financial intermediaries used to sell banned exports, including radioactive elements, and import weapon components. South Korea’s navy retrieved remnants of a long-range missile tested in February 2016, and among them found high-tech components manufactured by Western companies and ostensibly exported to Chinese firms.

But the Chinese are not the only lax ones. The panel said an “Australian brand of ski clothing” had sourced luxury gear from a factory in Pyongsong, North Korea, despite sanctions, helping subsidise the factory’s line of military uniforms and earn hard currency.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2017 as "France prepares to put Le Pen to paper".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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