François Fillon and France’s lurch towards Russia

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil writes: François Fillon has just won the French conservative primaries by a huge margin. Now, he will be trying to capitalise on the momentum he has gained from his win to deliver the result he wants in the upcoming presidential election. And with his foreign policy option, this presidential vote will pose a formidable challenge to Europe’s unity. Fillon’s views on Russia, in particular, fly in the face of the current European consensus. But neither foreign policy nor Europe are at the centre of the campaign, and domestic issues are much more likely to prevail when French voters make their choice in the spring of next year.

Fillon, a former prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, made his position on Russia clear long before the primary campaign even began, and he has stuck to it ever since. He believes French policy has been too aligned with the US, whether on Ukraine or the Middle East – in spite of the countries’ significant differences in opinion on these issues. And that, with ISIS and Islamism being the top security priorities for France following the terror attacks since January 2015, an alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is badly needed, even at the price of conflating ISIS and other terrorist groups with any other forces fighting against the Assad government.

Worryingly, he calls not only for the ‘re-establishment’ of a political dialogue with Russia – a dialogue that was actually never interrupted – but also for the EU to lift all sanctions against Russia, including those adopted as a consequence of the forceful and unlawful Russian annexation of Crimea.

The French public’s opinion on the Russia question differs from Fillon’s. The majority have no confidence in Vladimir Putin and support maintaining economic sanctions against Russia on the Ukraine issue. Fillon’s critics add that, rather ironically, his desired relationship with Russia mirrors the alleged alignment with the US that he has attacked so fervently.

If both Fillon and the Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, reach the second round of the presidential election, a rapprochement with Putin’s Russia will become the order of the day for French foreign policy. At the moment it seems that a majority of presidential candidates will run on a pro-Russia or at least anti-sanctions platform. [Continue reading…]

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A candidate rises on vows to control Islam and immigration. This time in France

The New York Times reports: A patriotic sea of supporters, waving red, white and blue flags, greeted the newly ascendant presidential hopeful François Fillon this week at a soulless conference center in this suburb of Lyon.

Mr. Fillon described radical Islam as a “totalitarianism like the Nazis” to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd, adding that France would need Russia’s help to fight it. Catholics, Protestants and Jews “don’t denounce the values of the Republic,” he thundered — unlike the faithful of a certain other religion.

“We’ve got to reduce immigration to its strict minimum,” he said. “Our country is not a sum of communities, it is an identity!”

In a year when nativist politics have become the ticket to electoral victory, Mr. Fillon, 62, a dark-suited, stern-faced former prime minister has managed to successfully ride the same nationalist and xenophobic currents as that have pushed politicians in Britain and the United States to victory.

For months, Mr. Fillon polled third and even fourth among presidential contenders in France and was largely dismissed. But his defense of French values and identity has suddenly made him the front-runner as France’s right-center Republican Party prepares to vote Sunday in a runoff to choose its standard-bearer in the 2017 elections — and quite possibly the next president of France. [Continue reading…]

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Marine Le Pen says she and Donald Trump are building ‘a new world’

BuzzFeed reports: The far-right leader of the French National Front, Marine Le Pen, has hailed Donald Trump’s victory in the US election and claimed they are both part of a “new world” being built in the wake of Brexit.

Le Pen was interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show on Remembrance Sunday – a move which has angered critics of Le Pen’s right-wing nationalist politics and provoked protests outside the BBC studio.

The National Front leader said June’s Brexit vote and Trump’s victory had boosted her chances of winning the French election next year, saying the votes had “made possible what had previously been presented as impossible”.

Le Pen frequently echoed Trump by criticising worldwide “elites” and went on to predict the European Union would disintegrate if each member state were to hold a referendum on membership. [Continue reading…]

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After Trump win, parallel path is seen for Marine Le Pen of France’s far right

The New York Times reports: It was a moment of intense French patriotism on a sunny Friday, Armistice Day. A band blared “La Marseillaise,” the national anthem. Shouts of “Vive la France!” filled the chilly November air. And there, too, was Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, beaming.

Before Donald J. Trump’s presidential victory in the United States this week, Ms. Le Pen was considered a disruptive political force but far from a true threat to become president herself when France votes next spring. Not anymore.

Since Wednesday, French news outlets, along with Ms. Le Pen’s mainstream political rivals, have been repeating the same thing: It could happen here.

And Ms. Le Pen is not alone. From the Balkans to the Netherlands, politicians on the far right have greeted the election of Mr. Trump with unrestrained delight and as a radical reconfiguring of the political landscape — not just in the United States, but in Europe as well.

They are seeing it as a sign that their time has finally arrived, and that the politics of heightened nationalism, immigrant-bashing and anti-globalization have overturned the pro-globalization, pro-immigration consensus. [Continue reading…]

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From French soldier to ISIS spymaster

Michael Weiss writes: The photograph is nearly a decade old, but it is not difficult to imagine that the young man staring inscrutably into the camera, his face bathed in the white light of a flash, now looks much older. The clean-shaven teenager, about 16 or 17, with close-cropped black hair, probably has a long beard now. Gone will be the stylish patterned T-shirt he’s wearing, which looks like it was picked up at a local H&M. Ditto the blingy chain around his neck. If the ravages of time have been accelerated on this young face in the nine years since this portrait was taken then it is because the young man has got the blood of hundreds on his hands, blood that has been spilled in two capital cities of Europe.

The boy in the photograph, which a Western intelligence source shared exclusively with The Daily Beast on the condition that it is not published, is Abdelilah Himich, who U.S. and French intelligence officials have identified as the mysterious Abu Suleyman al-Firansi, the terror operative believed to have been a prime mover of the Paris and Brussels attacks over the last year, and arguably the single most important European in ISIS.

Much that was speculated about Abu Suleyman, pieced together from testimony of active informants inside the ISIS security branch he allegedly heads as well as from defectors from the organization—a game of terrorist telephone—missed some nuances, but otherwise was close to the mark. [Continue reading…]

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British MPs deliver damning verdict on David Cameron’s Libya intervention

The Guardian reports: David Cameron’s intervention in Libya was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, according to a scathing report by the foreign affairs select committee.

The failures led to the country becoming a failed a state on the verge of all-out civil war, the report adds.

The report, the product of a parliamentary equivalent of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, closely echoes the criticisms widely made of Tony Blair’s intervention in Iraq, and may yet come to be as damaging to Cameron’s foreign policy legacy.

It concurs with Barack Obama’s assessment that the intervention was “a shitshow”, and repeats the US president’s claim that France and Britain lost interest in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. The findings are also likely to be seized on by Donald Trump, who has tried to undermine Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy credentials by repeatedly condemning her handling of the Libyan intervention in 2011, when she was US secretary of state. [Continue reading…]

Chris Stephen writes: When Nato went to war against Gaddafi in the revolution, the US took a back seat, with Britain and France sharing the leading role. But with the revolution over, Cameron walked away.

In London, few parliamentary debates on Libya were called by the government or the opposition, even though British bombing had done so much to create the country’s new order.

When last year the foreign affairs select committee called on Cameron to give evidence in its inquiry into British planning in Libya, he informed them he had no time in his schedule.

Meanwhile, diplomats insist that Libyan leaders of all persuasions have shut out offers of support. Memories of domination by outside powers leave Libyans suspicious of the motivations of foreigners, and offers to help build a modern state were spurned.

London finally woke up to Libya last year, with people smugglers taking advantage of the chaos to build a booming business – and with Islamic State on the march.

The UK, along with the US and Italy, is a prime mover behind the troubled government of national accord (GNA), created by a UN-chaired commission last December. Unelected and largely unloved, the GNA has failed to create a security force of its own, relying instead on militias that are also busy fighting each other.

The capture of key ports by the powerful eastern general Khalifa Haftar this week may have sealed the fate of this new government, now deprived of oil wealth.

All of which leaves Libya, in the words of Britain’s special envoy, Jonathan Powell – a veteran of Blair’s meeting with Gaddafi – veering towards becoming “Somalia on the Mediterranean”. [Continue reading…]

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One ISIS recruiter tied to at least four plots to attack France since June

The Associated Press reports: A single French Islamic State jihadi has emerged as the link among at least four plots to attack France since June, three people with knowledge of the investigation said.

The precise role of the extremist, Rachid Kassim, is under investigation, but the officials say he has become a key instigator who directs recruits in encrypted forums on how and where to carry out the Islamic State’s call for European Muslims to strike at home. Most recently, he was believed to be in contact with a 19-year-old in an unprecedented cell of French women who failed in their attempts to detonate a car bomb and kill police.

From the Loire River town of Roanne, the 29-year-old Kassim is believed to be in either Syria or Iraq yet figures in multiple French anti-terror investigations.

Kassim’s virtual fingerprints were found as early as the June 14 knifing of two police officials at their home in the Paris suburb of Magnanville, in which the killer left behind not only a video that he had streamed on Facebook Live but a hit list of politicians, journalists and public personalities. That list is believed to have been drawn up by Kassim ahead of time, one of the officials said. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: By early August came the first indication that Rashid Kassim was targeting women and children to carry out attacks.

His name has been linked a girl of 16 arrested at Melun, south of Paris, and to another teenager in Clermont-Ferrand. The 16 year old had gone on Telegram to announce her plan to launch an attack.

And on 11 September, a boy of 15 was arrested in Paris on suspicion of planning an attack in a public place. Investigators said he too was in contact with Kassim and been under surveillance since April.

Another plot in Paris this month involved several women and was, in the words of Paris prosecutor Francois Molins, “remote-controlled” from Syria. Unconfirmed reports said Rashid Kassim was the inspiration.

In the early hours of 4 September, a car packed with gas canisters and jerry-cans of diesel was abandoned by female jihadists in a street near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. [Continue reading…]

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‘The way people look at us has changed’: Muslim women on life in Europe

The New York Times reports: The storm over bans on burkinis in more than 30 French beach towns has all but drowned out the voices of Muslim women, for whom the full-body swimsuits were designed. The New York Times solicited their perspective, and the responses — more than 1,000 comments from France, Belgium and beyond — went much deeper than the question of swimwear.

What emerged was a portrait of life as a Muslim woman, veiled or not, in parts of Europe where terrorism has put people on edge. One French term was used dozens of times: “un combat,” or “a struggle,” to live day to day. Many who were born and raised in France described confusion at being told to go home.

Courts have struck down some of the bans on burkinis — the one in Nice, the site of a horrific terror attack on Bastille Day, was overturned on Thursday — but the debate is far from over.

“For years, we have had to put up with dirty looks and threatening remarks,” wrote Taslima Amar, 30, a teacher in Pantin, a suburb of Paris. “I’ve been asked to go back home (even though I am home).” Now, Ms. Amar said, she and her husband were looking to leave France.

Laurie Abouzeir, 32, said she was considering starting a business caring for children in her home in Toulouse, southern France, because that would allow her to wear a head scarf, frowned upon and even banned in some workplaces.

Many women wrote that anti-Muslim bias had intensified after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, and in Brussels, Paris and Nice more recently. Halima Djalab Bouguerra, a 21-year-old student in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, dated the change further back, to the killings by Mohammed Merah in the southwest of the country in 2012.

“The way people look at us has changed,” Ms. Bouguerra wrote. “Tongues have loosened. No one is afraid of telling a Muslim to ‘go back home’ anymore.” [Continue reading…]

The French prime minister didn’t like this article: Je tenais à répondre à l’article “Regards changés et langues déliées”, paru dans les colonnes du New York Times le 2 septembre, et qui donne une image insupportable, car fausse, de la France, pays des Lumières et pays des libertés. [Continue reading…]

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Days of rage

Kenan Malik writes: In the past, the distinction between political violence and sociopathic rage was relatively clear. No longer. There seems today almost a continuum between ideological violence, disjointed fury and some degree of sociopathy or mental illness. What constitutes ideological violence has decayed; instead, amorphous rage has become a persistent feature of public life.

One reason is the breakdown of social and moral boundaries that once acted as firewalls against such behavior. Western societies have become more socially atomized and more riven by identity politics. The influence of institutions from the church to labor unions that once helped socialize individuals and inculcate them with a sense of obligation to others has declined.

As broader identities have eroded, and traditional social networks and sources of authority have weakened, people’s sense of belonging has become more parochial. Progressive movements that gave social grievance a political form have faded. Instead, the new oppositional movements are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity and take sectarian or separatist forms.

There is a growing disaffection with anything “mainstream,” and a perception of the world as out of control and driven by malign forces. All this has helped incubate a sense of rage without an outlet, undermined people’s ties to others as human beings, and weakened the distinction between sociopathy and political violence. [Continue reading…]

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High court suspends ‘burkini’ ban in French town while Sarkozy calls for nationwide ban

The New York Times reports: France’s highest administrative court on Friday suspended a ban by a Mediterranean town on bathing at its beaches in so-called burkinis, the full-body swimwear used by some Muslim women that has become the focus of intense debates over women’s rights, assimilation and secularism in France.

The Council of State, the highest court in the French administrative justice system, ruled that the ban, enacted by the town of Villeneuve-Loubet on Aug. 5, violated civil liberties.

At least 20 other municipalities, most of which are on the French Riviera, have imposed similar bans, and although the decision on Friday does not apply directly to them, it can be seen as a warning that their bans are likely to be similarly struck down if challenged in court. The largest such community is the city of Nice.

Critics of the bans have said they unfairly targeted Muslims and stirred up fear in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe.

The bans recently provoked a backlash in France and abroad, after photographs spread online showing armed police officers enforcing them. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Nicolas Sarkozy says he will impose a nationwide ban on burkinis if re-elected to the presidency in 2017, positioning himself as a strong defender of French values and tough on immigration.

Hundreds of supporters waving French flags chanted “Nicolas! Nicolas!” and applauded as Sarkozy, a conservative president from 2007 to 2012 before losing an election to Socialist François Hollande, promised to protect the French people in his first rally for the 2017 election.

“I will be the president that re-establishes the authority of the state,” Sarkozy told a crowd of more than 2,000 in a sports hall in Châteaurenard in Provence, a town where his Les Républicains beat the far-right Front National (FN) in regional elections last year. [Continue reading…]

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All hail the burkini’s blend of Islamic values and western lifestyle

Rachel Woodlock writes: Men forcing women to remove their clothes is never going to look like freedom, equality, and encouraging “good morals”, no matter the justification. There are now 15 French towns that have targeted beach-loving Muslim women in the wake of July’s terrorism-linked murders in Nice and Normandy. When the inevitable pictures of French police enforcing the burkini ban emerged this week, we saw not an effective counter-terrorism measure, but a clumsy attempt to push back against Islam’s visibility in France.

Keen to win over anti-immigration supporters from the right in his forthcoming bid for the French presidency, the former head of state Nicolas Sarkozy jumped in to the debate yesterday evening, claiming that burkinis are a sartorial prison and a “provocation” that supports radicalised Islam.

It’s a theme being repeated all over Europe, where the palpable fear of Islamic religiosity conflates its most extreme, violent and – as Charles Kurzman argues in his book The Missing Martyrs – rare form with the peaceable faith of ordinary Muslims. Yet we know from researching the lives of Muslims in western countries that most do not want to hide away in isolated ghettos, or abandon their cultural heritage and assimilate into invisibility. They want to find a happy balance between the two: adapting and integrating into western societies, and being acknowledged as fully contributing and worthy citizens in the nation states they call home. [Continue reading…]

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

By Fraser McQueen, University of Stirling

Images of armed police confronting a woman in Nice, apparently forcing her to remove some of her clothing, have added fuel to the already combustible debate over the prohibition against women wearing burkinis on many beaches around France.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit.

Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

[Read more…]

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