Argument

Je T’Aime, Ron Paul

France has its own Tea Party -- and it's upending Europe’s socialist stronghold.

France and Texas go way back. In 1839, as the handsome wood mansion in Austin that housed the French Legation still reminds us, France was one of the few nations to recognize Texas during its short life as a republic. (Although, relations weren't always cordial, and during the famous "Pig War" of 1841 the French chargé d'affaires had his valet shoot a number of porcine marauders that had invaded his residence.) A few decades later, a motley crew of Provençal poets, enamored of "le wild west," dressed up as cowboys and Indians, transforming the Camargue, a stretch of swampy land in southern France, into a Mediterranean Texas, replete with bulls and ranches. A few years after that, in 1984, French audiences and the Cannes jury hailed Wim Wenders stunning film "Paris, Texas" -- an equally romanticized, though somewhat grimmer, French riff on the Lone Star state.

Is it possible that France is now importing the brand of conservative politics peculiar to Texas? Following their first round of local elections last Sunday, the French, at least at first glance, seem intent on doing so. Though a second round of voting will take place this Sunday, French voters have already spoken. What they had to say echoes what Texas conservatives, in particular the Tea Party stalwarts, have been saying for some time: Less federal government (whether D.C. or Brussels), more traditional values, and please, no more immigrants trying to change things around here. 

To be sure, close to 40 percent of voters spoke by refusing to speak at all: Never before has the abstention rate been so high in a French election. As with the Texas Democrats -- scarcely half a million turned out to vote in the most recent primary -- voter abstention is the ruling Socialist Party's greatest fear. And the problem has only gotten worse as the approval ratings of national leaders have plummeted. François Hollande continues to go in public esteem where no French president has ever gone before: Just before the elections, a poll taken by the newspaper Le Figaro placed his approval rating at 17 percent. (For a little perspective, Obama's approval ratings in Texas are hovering at just above 30 percent.)

Whether it reflected widespread apathy or hostility, France's unprecedented abstention rate benefitted the conservative opposition's base. The neo-Gaullist UMP outperformed the Socialists by 8 percentage points in the popular vote, despite being convulsed by a series of financial and political scandals, many tugging at the heels of both their current leader, Jean-François Copé, and those of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. But the real significance of the UMP's relative success was that it required the party to move substantially to the right. Like mainstream Texas Republicans, French conservatives have succeeded by glomming onto the worldview espoused by their extreme right flank. Indeed, the real winner last Sunday was the extreme-right Front National (FN). The party captured only around 5 percent of the popular vote, but presented candidates in only 600 of the 32,000 towns and cities that held elections over the weekend. This indisputable victory not only could lead to the capture of several city halls, but perhaps more importantly, has already redefined France's political landscape.

Even from the modest height of the ersatz Eiffel Tower in Paris, Texas, the twinned radicalization of Lone Star and French conservatives unfolds in neat parallel. On a number of issues, the discourses of the Tea Party in Texas and the FN in France have pushed the traditional conservative establishments to the right. While "compassionate conservatives" have long argued for a more humane and generous immigration policy, the Tea Party has pushed mightily in the opposite direction. This seismic shift has led to the growing isolation of establishment figures like former President George W. Bush, and the growing prominence of radicals like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who himself becomes a beacon of moderation when compared to Tea Party militants like Senate candidate Chris Mapp, who told the Dallas Morning News that ranchers should be allowed to shoot on sight illegal immigrants -- in his words, "wetbacks" -- crossing the border.

The French right has responded in a similar manner to the FN's harsh immigration policies. While no one has suggested shooting illegal immigrants from Romania or North Africa, the FN long ago called for the expulsion of three million "illegals" from France. More recently, FN leader Marine Le Pen has spoken about an "Arab occupation" of many French cities, while Florian Philippot, the FN candidate who is poised to win the mayor's race in the Alsatian city of Forbach, insists on the term "invasion."

In response, the mainstream French right has adopted the same language, sometimes with even greater ferocity. In 2005, Sarkozy famously dismissed the rioting youths in suburban Paris, many of whose parents were from North Africa, as "la racaille" or scum of society. A few years later, he proposed that naturalized citizens -- i.e., North African immigrants -- who break the law be stripped of their citizenship. Since becoming the leader of the UMP, Jean-François Copé has upped the ideological ante, asserting that the children of illegal immigrants born on French soil should not automatically become French citizens.

The so-called droitisation, or pushing to the right, of the UMP's discourse, is clearing the ground for tacit alliances with the FN. In a few cities and towns, deals between FN and UMP politicians have been struck in this Sunday's run-off elections. When the Socialists expressed alarm, Sarkozy's former Prime Minister François Fillon chuckled: "The Republic is not in danger should two or three FN candidates win city halls."

But the Front National and the Tea Party share more than just a deep fear of being overrun by foreigners with brown skin. Libertarians apart, many members of the Tea Party have a distinctive view of Christianity and the religious foundations of the United States. This is also the case in France, where the FN has attracted a growing proportion of young Catholic voters and even allied with militant Catholic organizations during the recent anti-gay marriage demonstrations. These Catholic voters are, admittedly, less than enthusiastic over Le Pen's desire to resurrect the death penalty in France, outlawed in 1981. (They would have been thoroughly nonplussed when an American audience cheered the announcement that 234 executions have taken place under Gov. Rick Perry's watch.) But they are attracted to Le Pen's opposition to state-reimbursed abortion and applauded the recent claim by her second in command (and companion), Louis Alliot, that the French state "does everything to encourage abortion and nothing to preserve life."

While the UMP and other conservative and centrist parties have not embraced all of these positions, the FN has nevertheless tilted the playing field in that direction. Like the Tea Party, they continue to ram the center of political discourse ever farther right. For this reason, the results of the second round of elections this Sunday are already in. After Steeve Briois, the FN candidate in the city of Hénin-Beaumont, won the first round outright last Sunday, one of his supporters shouted gleefully: "The world will now know who we are." As we like to say in these parts, "Texas is bigger than France" -- a claim that, unless it plans to annex Luxembourg, France can never challenge. But it may soon be able to make a different boast: "France is redder than Texas."

Photo Illustration: Ed Johnson/FP

Argument

The Saudi Problem and the Head of the Snake

Does Obama still have pull over Riyadh, when the king's point man -- Prince Bandar -- is pulling the strings from afar?

The key figure in U.S.-Saudi relations wasn't present when President Barack Obama met with King Abdullah on Friday, March 28, but his spirit undoubtedly dominated the meeting. Prince Bandar bin Sultan -- the nephew of the Saudi monarch, the head of Saudi intelligence, and a former long-serving ambassador to Washington -- was probably still in Morocco, where he has been recovering from surgery to his shoulder. But despite rumors to the contrary, he remains the key player in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Bandar's disappearance a couple of months ago was spun by U.S. officials as the sidelining of a fading, volatile figure whose views on Iran and the civil war in Syria were irritatingly incompatible with the U.S. perspective. The reality is that Bandar is still the point person for Saudi policy on Syria, even as his cousin, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, coordinates with the United States. And from Riyadh's point of view, if the man once termed "Bandar Bush" for his closeness to Republican circles of power gives the Obama administration heartburn, that's just too bad.

Bandar's persistent strength is that he is the enabler of King Abdullah's vision for his kingdom and the Middle East. The monarch wants Syria's Bashar al-Assad overthrown, Iran's Hezbollah surrogates contained, and the "head of the snake" -- Iran, in the king's view -- cut off. While Bandar deals with the specifics, it's the king who sets the broad course of Saudi policy and may even be more hawkish than his intelligence chief. Compared with the king, Bandar is a self-described "pussy cat."

Previous meetings between Obama and King Abdullah have proved to be a political and diplomatic minefield. Their first meeting, in April 2009, produced the famous video of Obama allegedly bowing to the king, which his critics seized upon as evidence that the president was being overly obsequious to the monarch. Two months later, Obama stopped in Riyadh before making his famous speech in Cairo, which promised a "new beginning" to American relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds after the Bush-era invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. At this meeting, Obama asked King Abdullah to allow overflight rights to Israeli passenger jets heading to Asia, as a gesture to kick-start the Middle East peace process. Annoyed at this request being sprung on him without proper preparation -- an early indication of the naiveté of the Obama team -- Abdullah gave a curt "no."

The Obama administration's attempted rapprochement with Iran has resulted in further headaches with Riyadh. King Abdullah was upset about the terms of the interim nuclear deal signed with Tehran, and he let Secretary of State John Kerry know it during a terrible meeting the two held in November. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal noted in the news conference immediately afterward that "a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness." That's diplomatic code for saying it was a shouting match. Apparently, King Abdullah did the "plain speaking," and Kerry had to listen -- for a couple of hours.

Both sides had an impressive laundry list of issues for this round of talks. Riyadh is concerned with the Iranian nuclear file, the Syrian uprising, Iranian subversion in Bahrain and the oil-rich Saudi Eastern Province, and supporting the military-backed regime in Egypt. Washington takes a different view on each of these topics and also wanted to add a few more issues to the agenda -- most notably, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and women's rights within the kingdom.

The Obama administration wants Saudi Arabia's continuing support-cum-pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Middle East peace process. Despite the kingdom's coldness to Israel, its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative explicitly backs a two-state solution -- and the White House wants to make sure it puts those words into action. Political reforms at home, meanwhile, could help suggest that the kingdom is not opposed to the demise of rigid autocracies across the Middle East -- though this is probably a forlorn hope. Saudi Arabia's ban on allowing women to drive continues to lead many Americans to question their country's close relationship with the kingdom -- and female Saudi activists are planning to flout the law again on Saturday in another "drive day."

Bandar is so crucial to Saudi policy precisely because the king does not believe Washington will deliver on the issues that matter most to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is gravely concerned by perceived U.S. weakness -- whether it's being made to look like a loser by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crimea or standing idly by while Assad regains the momentum in his country's civil war. If Washington is absent, the kingdom needs its own fix-it man to protect its regional interests.

King Abdullah sees Iran as the root of all trouble in the Middle East -- and he wants his Persian rival cut back to size so it is not a quasi-hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf and its support for Assad results in a bloody nose. Apart from strong words, the Saudi monarch may also use threats: After all, he can always go to Islamabad for a few nuclear weapons to bolster the kingdom's sense of security. Such an option directly conflicts with Obama's supposed core foreign-policy issue -- nuclear nonproliferation -- but there is little Washington can really do other than saying it would be very upset.

Saudi Arabia could also tweak Washington by increasing its support to Islamist militias in Syria, which have proved more effective than moderate rebel forces. Bandar has referred to these nasty fighters as "cut-throat sons of bitches." Saudi Arabia has recently banned its citizens from going to fight in Syria, so these SOBs may have to come from somewhere else. The Obama administration is gravely worried that over 1,000 of them hold U.S. or European passports and could someday come home -- fired up with Islamist fervor and training and eager to take their jihad to the West.

This is a lot to cram into what was unlikely no more than a two-hour meeting. King Abdullah is 91 years old this year, and he tires easily these days -- he is overweight and cannot stand without a walker. As reports come out, it will be interesting to see who else was in the room, apart from the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, the king's favorite English-language interpreter. One revealing indicator will be the interaction -- or lack thereof -- between Obama and the king's 77-year-old half brother, Crown Prince Salman. The next prince in line for the throne has just returned from a hectic series of official visits to Pakistan, Japan, India, the Maldives, and China, and he is rumored to be less cogent than King Abdullah. Indeed, a royal decree announced on March 27 that his younger half brother, Muqrin, had been named to a new post of deputy crown prince, perhaps marginalizing Salman.

Being Saudi Arabia's king in waiting, however, does not mean that Salman will be the future leader. The White House is sensitive to this -- so look for who else Obama spends time with. Whoever it is, it won't be Bandar, neither as conversationalist with the U.S. president nor as the leader of his country. But as Bandar is the man to watch today, a new generation of royals will be needed to guide Saudi Arabia through the tumultuous years ahead.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images