Le Pen-ed In?

It’s not just President Hollande who's under threat from France’s right-wing party. It’s Europe.

Europeans will likely wake up next Monday to find that Europe, or at least a certain idea of it, has begun its decline. Elections for the European Parliament and, for the first time, the EU commissioner, will take place on May 25 and two results seem fairly certain: Voter abstention will reach new heights (or depths), and parties committed to ending or curbing the EU will win a record number of seats. Perhaps no country exemplifies these trends more than France, Europe's second-largest economy and a founding member of the EU. That bodes poorly for the already enfeebled Socialist government of President François Hollande and for the future of European unity.

Hollande's Socialist Party was pummeled in last month's municipal elections, in which the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and far-right National Front (FN) took the lion's share of the vote. To avoid another battering on May 25, Hollande sacked the colorless Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of the party's more traditionally socialist wing and replaced him with Manuel Valls, a liberal on economic issues whose greatest ambition is to replace Hollande. This ambition is far from groundless. A poll released last week revealed that 18 percent of French voters are satisfied with their pallid president, while nearly 60 percent express their satisfaction with the fiery Valls. Prime ministers often enjoy more popularity than their bosses under the 5th Republic, but the chasm separating Hollande and Valls is unprecedented.

In normal times, Valls' popularity would translate into votes for the Socialist candidates for the European Parliament. But these are not normal times, despite -- or because of -- a president who had campaigned as "Mr. Normal." In response to France's rising unemployment and flat-lining growth, the norm was defined by traditional socialist nostrums: taxes on the rich and middle class were raised, the safety net was preserved, and Paris asked the EU for slack when it came to the deadline for bringing the deficit to three percent of France's GNP. But the socialist approach flopped miserably: Unemployment rose while foreign investment withered, a taxpayer revolt brewed at home while Brussels (and Berlin) warned Hollande that they would not push back the deadline any further.

With the nomination of the neo-liberal Valls, Hollande has redefined the government's norm. Corporate taxes have been slashed, the Foreign Ministry has been given the crucial portfolios of commerce and tourism, and Hollande has reassured foreign firms that "France is open for business." Inevitably, the Socialist rank and file, blue collar and state workers, have been left holding the bag: Pensions and health care have taken a big hit, while government salaries have been frozen. As one disabused Socialist remarked to Le Monde, Hollande's new economic agenda is identical to former president Nicolas Sarkozy's, except that it has a "human face."

Valls began campaigning for the European elections two weeks ago when, in a speech to young Socialists, he asked them not "to cede any ground to the extreme right." But his tepid call to arms seems like it will fall on deaf ears. In a poll taken last weekend, little more than 16 percent of voters said that they would cast their ballots for the Socialists. No doubt, the Socialist base has decided to avoid the voting booths where the choice is between two parties whose economic agendas seem nearly identical.

Bad news for the Socialists usually spells good news for the UMP, but that might not be the case this time. The same poll reveals that only 22 percent of respondents said they will vote for UMP, which is neither a union nor popular. It is instead a fractious collection of career politicians who are fighting tooth and nail to fill the shoes of Sarkozy, even though many in the party still see the former president, despite his many legal problems, as their leader. As for their aspiration to be "popular," the UMP elite, like their Socialist counterparts, are products of the elite grandes écoles and no more have a common touch than does the gauche caviar with whom they alternate in power.

But the most impressive aspect of this election is how unimpressed most of France appears to be. Fewer than 35 percent of French voters intend to cast ballots at all on May 25, a level of abstention that speaks volumes on the average citizen's disaffection from their national parties, as well as their distance from the EU. In a poll just published by Le Monde, fewer than 40 percent of French citizens believe that membership in the European Union is "a good thing." An overwhelming majority hold that while the EU has brought peace to the continent, it has done little else. Whether in protecting their economic interests or defending their borders against unwanted immigrants, the EU has failed spectacularly in the eyes of a majority of French.

This disenchantment with politics and disconnect from Europe fuels the most striking result of the poll -- and the biggest upset to the status quo. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they plan to vote for the National Front. Ever since the municipal elections, the FN's leader, Marine Le Pen, daughter of the party's founder Jean-Marie, has proclaimed that her party has shouldered its way onto a stage long monopolized by the traditional right and left -- which she mockingly fuses into a single acronym, the "UMPS."

In the past it was easy to write off the FN, but no longer. The FN was once a party full of neo-Nazis and skinheads who were attracted to its anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and authoritarian bent. (A flame Le Pen père keeps alive: In a May 20 speech he announced that "Monsieur Ebola" will help solve France's immigration problem.) Under Marine Le Pen the FN traded black leather for business suits and anti-Semitism for Islamophobia. Though as pugnacious and, at times, outrageous as her father, Marine Le Pen has been mostly more careful and strategic. As a result, her effort to "normalize" the FN is paying off. More than one third of those questioned in a recent poll by Le Monde now align their own values to those of the FN.

The FN's two principal targets are France's Muslim population and the EU. Le Pen applauds Switzerland's recent decision to impose an immigration quota, thus flouting an accord with Brussels on the free movement of Europeans and encourages France to do the same. On May 1, during the party's annual celebration at the statue of Joan of Arc in Paris, the FN leader exhorted her followers to "stop the EU." Under a pounding rain, Le Pen urged the crowd to "Do your duty as patriots" and voice their opposition to a "Europe that crushes us."

Le Pen's tirades against "Europe" have found a growing audience and not just in France. Her election-year goal to increase the number of FN deputies in Strasbourg from three to 25 is realistic. Le Pen already serves as a Euro-deputy -- though she's known to be a chronic no-show despite the monthly €11,000 salary -- but her aspirations are bigger: She intends to parlay her victory into a European Alliance for Freedom, a constellation of mostly extreme right-wing parties. Having struck an agreement last year with Geert Wilders, the platinum-blond leader of Netherland's Freedom Party who cannot decide which is more monstrous, the EU or the Quran, she has since invited other extremist and "euro-skeptic" parties, like the Freedom Party of Austria and Italy's Northern League to join their alliance. Britain's Nigel Farage, whose United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is also surfing the waves of anti-EU sentiment at first insisted his party would never join because the FN has anti-Semitism "in its DNA." But Farage may soon conclude that he can be persuaded to overlook this particular genetic flaw. He has since applauded Le Pen's success in France and on May 21 suggested that the UKIP might form an informal alliance with the European Alliance for Freedom.

If UKIP does make common front with the Alliance, the coalition will achieve critical mass. Once a parliamentary group in Strasbourg claims a minimum of 25 members from seven different member states, it becomes eligible to receive generous subsidies, offices, support staff, and a communications budget. For now, it remains an open question whether the alliance will use this largesse as a hammer to smack the EU over the head or if its sudden wealth will domesticate, even "Europeanize," it.  Either of these outcomes would, of course, be ironic. But in either case, it will be tragic that "Europe" will not emerge strengthened and Europe's Muslims will not feel any more secure. Nor, for that matter, will the leaders of France's traditional political parties on the left and right. Not only is European politics entering a new era, but so too is French politics.



Lend Rouhani a Hand

As the hard-liners wage a media war against the reform government of Hassan Rouhani and his nascent nuclear deal, the West has to step up and show it means business.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under fire from his right flank. Less than a year after the reform-minded Rouhani was elected, hard-line critics say that engagement in negotiations with the P5+1 over Iran's nuclear program puts the country in grave danger. The negotiating team is reading the "last rites for the Islamic Republic," one hard-liner said after a May 3 conference of Rouhani critics called "We Are Concerned."

That may be an exaggeration. The Rouhani government, with tentative backing from the powerful clergy, is making earnest efforts to reach an agreement over the future of Iran's nuclear program. But under pressure from political adversaries at home and influential quarters in the Middle East, Rouhani will need the West to cooperate too.

Hard-liners have transformed the negotiations into an excuse to weaken and possibly paralyze the Rouhani administration. They reject the "dishonorable" interim Geneva accord that freezes Iran's nuclear program in return for temporary, partial sanctions relief. They claim that Iran has made every concession, but received nothing in return, and that the most crippling economic sanctions are still in place -- and may not be lifted for years, even if a final agreement is reached. They also claim that the Rouhani administration has colluded with the West and has retreated significantly from Iran's defensible position of maintaining a meaningful nuclear enrichment program, but has received no concessions in exchange for its sacrifices.

While Rouhani's critics oppose the sanctions, they also refuse to make concessions that might get them lifted for good. The sanctions are not a response to Iran's nuclear program, they say, but an instrument to topple the Islamic Republic. They fear that even if Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- plus Germany) reach a comprehensive agreement, the sanctions may not be lifted.

The hard-liners declare that Iran's nuclear infrastructure is a national achievement and thus should not be given up or scaled back, and that Iran can resist the sanctions by resorting to what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei refers to as the "resistance economy" of self-sufficiency. Thus, the hard-liners reject any reduction in the number of centrifuges that Iran may have, oppose redesigning the new research reactor under construction in Arak to produce far less plutonium, and will not accept a complete halt to production of enriched uranium at 19.75 percent.

And the chorus of dissent within Iran is growing louder. In a May 21 newspaper editorial, Kayhan, the mouthpiece of the hard-liners, declared that "all the concessions made to Iran in the Geneva accord were only promises" and that in return for Iran's "27 obligations" made to the P5+1, the West had committed itself to stop its efforts to halt the flow of Iran's oil exports. But, claimed the editorial, under U.S. pressure, Iran's oil exports greatly decreased in March and April. Moreover, Iran was to receive payments of $4.2 billion, but has received only $2.65 billion because, due to the sanctions on Iranian banks and financial institutions, the rest of the funds cannot be transferred to Iran. Japan has transferred what it owed Iran to banks in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, but the funds cannot be transferred to Tehran.

Piling on, Saeed Zibakalam, an academic hard-liner, said in an interview reported by Mehr News that the letter that Rouhani wrote to Khamenei after the Geneva accord was signed was a "big lie." He also claimed that Javad Zarif lies when the foreign minister says that Iran's nuclear rights have been preserved. "I believe he means the building [of Iran's nuclear infrastructure] has been preserved [not the nuclear right]," he added.

Put simply, the hard-liners are worried that control is slipping away, and they appear intent on undermining the Rouhani government. Some conservatives, however, say that these proclamations about Rouhani single-handedly bringing down the Islamic Republic are unnecessarily alarmist. The Iranian Constitution stipulates that the supreme leader has a final say on matters of national security and won't allow a deal to move forward that undermines the regime.

"I declare with certainty that the Supreme National Security Council has set all the details of the negotiations, which cannot be deviated from," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the parliament's national security and foreign-policy commission. "How is it possible that the supreme leader let the negotiations team to continue their work and 'read the last rites' [to the nuclear program]?"

Khamenei himself may not be in line with the most extreme of these anti-negotiation positions, but he does have concerns. He has said repeatedly that he is not optimistic about the talks with the P5+1, predicting that Washington will force them to fail by demanding too many concessions from Iran. "I have always supported creativity in foreign policy and diplomatic negotiations," but the United States and its allies are "trying to force Iran to retreat and bringing it to its knees," Khamenei said this month.

And the supreme leader, who has final say over the country's foreign policy, has his own red lines as well. Iran's conventional missile program is one of them. The legal precedent seems quite clear: U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696 calls on governments to "exercise vigilance and prevent the transfer of any items, materials, goods and technology that could contribute to Iran's enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and ballistic missile programmes." Resolution 1929 stipulates that Iran "shall not acquire an interest in … technology related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons."

Khamenei rejects both resolutions and views them as illegitimate. "They are expecting Iran to limit its missile program while also threatening Iran. Thus, their demand is stupid and idiotic," Khamenei said this month while visiting commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

As the ayatollah tries to pour cold water on the nuclear deal, the P5+1 has an even bigger role to play. If Rouhani doesn't receive tangible results from the negotiations, the Rouhani government may have to forgo any hope of genuine domestic reform -- potentially, a decade-long setback.

But the nuclear negotiations don't have to lead to failure despite contentious issues. All political factions in Iran have repeatedly stated that their country is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Khamenei has even issued a fatwa against the production of nuclear weapons. Iran has indicated its willingness to allow extensive inspections led by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prove its intentions. Even Mohsen Rezai, a retired commander of the IRGC and the secretary of the Expediency Council, has said that Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons and is willing to provide "any guarantee" and make the program "completely transparent."

But the onus is now on Rouhani, who must produce tangible results by winning greater reductions in economic sanctions. This will allow him to stand up to the hard-liners on domestic issues, in particular human rights. The president has firmly and publicly rejected blocking access to social media and text-messaging services, has declared his support for equality of gender rights, and has encouraged free speech.

Significant sanctions relief that will help in reviving Iran's economy will go a long way toward this goal. That has not happened yet. On the contrary, several months after signing the Geneva accord, the West -- and, in particular, the United States -- has still not delivered on its commitment to supply Iran's old civilian aircraft with the spare parts that will allow them to fly safely. And, as the Kayhan editorial notes, Iran still does not even have direct access to the oil revenue that is to be released in installments according to last November's Geneva agreement.

Rouhani wants to reach a comprehensive and final nuclear agreement. He believes that diplomatic relations with the United States -- suspended since 1980 -- can resume after an agreement is reached. But serious forces are aligned against him. Iranian, American, and Israeli hard-liners oppose and are doing their utmost to scuttle the negotiations. The consequences could be dire.

If the negotiations fail, the Middle East will witness more wars, and regional and international security will be unstable for years to come. A collapse of the nuclear negotiations will increase the likelihood of a war between Iran and Israel, a situation that would dramatically disrupt the flow of oil from the region -- and with it inflict serious pain on the global economy.

The West must aid the Rouhani administration in its efforts. If a final agreement is reached, it will have profound consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond. The future of any hope for stability and genuine reform in Iran, too, hangs in the balance.

Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images