Monday, 26 November 2007

Did Sarko win?

It was a long battle, but looks like French president Nicolas Sarkozy may have won this round in his war with the French left. Or did he?

The past weeks have seen a broad range of unions take to the streets to protest Sarkozy’s attempted reforms of the French social system. Public transit workers, civil servants, teachers, nurses, tobacco shop owners, air traffic controllers, fishermen and even opera stagehands have taken to organized action in attempts to resist the changes. Last week nearly half of all universities in France were shut down by protests, and there are reports that soon lawyers and judges are also going to have a walk out.

Now of course such things are not unusual in France, it’s a nation quite fond of revolutions and street protests. But there’s been something very different this time around, found notably in the lack of public support for the strikers. This feeling that the public was not behind them was probably what convinced many of the transit unions to vote to return to work late last week. Sarkozy, it seems, isn’t prepared to blink any time soon, and the unions may be starting to do so.

This current battle is just the first of many that will come in the coming year, and the French people knew it was coming. Sarkozy’s entire election campaign was centred around his central slogan, “work more to earn more,” and was filled with promises to break the power of the unions and drastically alter the French social system, which many people see as crippling France’s productivity, making it impossible for the country to compete in the modern global economy.

But no one said it would be easy, and history has not been on the capitalist reformers’ side. Former President Jacques Chirac tried to take on the transport workers and their pensions in 1995, only to be forced to surrender after three weeks of industrial action. But Nicolas Sarkozy is a very different man than Jacques Chirac. He has been very direct and clear about the radically new direction he plans to take France in, and the public voted him in (relatively narrowly), thereby giving him a mandate for change. So far, the public seems to be sticking by their vote.

How long will their patience last? We are still in the early days of this fight, and long protracted strikes like those seen in France in the 60’s and 70’s may be too much for the public to take. Clearly, its too early to tell who will win this fight, but it’s clear that both sides are prepared to dig in their heels. The question is, who will blink first?

Friday, 23 November 2007

Poland changes its tune

The effects of the election in Poland that ousted the Kaczynski stranglehold on power is already being seen, with the new government saying it wants to be the first to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

The speaker of the Polish parliament Bronislaw Komorowski said yesterday "I hope that Poland will be the first country to ratify the treaty. This would be a symbolic gesture, signifying Poland's return to the heart of Europe."

At the same time, that signature is going to have one notable caveat - Poland will still be exempt from the the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Komorowski said that to try to undue the exemption worked out by the country's previous far-right regime would be too much of a risk, saying "We won't run the risk of the president not ratifying the treaty (..) That would be the worst for Poland and for Europe."

That document, which outlines citizens' rights and is technically legally binding by the treaty, is seen in conservative circles as a backdoor to allowing abortions, euthanasia or gay marriages.

The fear is that the older Kaczynski twin, who is still president, would refuse to sign any agreement which embraced the human rights declaration, throwing the whole treaty into jeapordy. Poland, as wella s all of Europe, he argues, can't risk it.

Interestingly, the new government is also signalling a change in its relationship with Russia and the US, possibly softening toward the former and hardening toward the latter. He says Warsaw is also willing to "open dialogue" with the Kremlin on two thorny issues – the US ambition to place parts of a missile shield in Poland. That project, which the US desperately wants, may now be in jeopardy.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Brown feeling blue

It’s safe to say this has not been a good week for Gordon Brown. First came the news that Northern Rock, the mainstay UK bank that had a bank run about a month ago and was bailed out by the government, can’t find a buyer except predatory private equity firms making obscenely low-ball bids. This is bad news for chancellor Alastair Darling because the government may not recoup its bailout money, and although they assured the bank’s customers that their money was safe in order to stave off the bank run, it is now unclear whether that money really is safe.

But this news was quickly overshadowed by the bombshell that dropped Tuesday, when it was revealed that the government has lost data on 25 million Britons. Two unencrypted disks with the records of 7.2 million families claiming child-benefit payments went missing when they were sent from the Revenue and Customs department, which is overseen by the Treasury, to the National Audit Office. It's the biggest loss of personal data in British history, and second only to the loss of data by the VA in the US last year.

Then yesterday Sir Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general, told the House of Commons yesterday that not only did they not support Brown’s proposal to extend the amount of time suspected terrorists can be held without charges, they would resign if any such changes were to be imposed.

It’s been a meteoric fall for Brown in the last two months, from riding high during his initial ‘honeymoon period’ to his current position, it’s unbelievable how a PM can fall so far so fast. It all started when Brown allowed election rumours to persist unabated, catching political flack when he finally squashed them. This made Brown look irresolute and calculating, and gave the Tories a big opening to criticize him. Now, with the vicious tongue lashing delivered by David Cameron to Brown in yesterday’s prime ministers questions, some in the Labour party are even quietly wondering whether Brown is the right man to lead them into the next elections. Even though there’s virtually nothing Labour MPs could do to change this, the fact that they are hypothesizing about it must be deeply worrying to Brown’s team.

Something tells me those elections won’t be coming for a long, long time now.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Farewell, crown jewel

My India visit is drawing to a close, I'm now just trying to kill time while I wait for my very long journey home. Overall it was an interesting and enjoyable trip but I'm eager to get home and be in my own bed. Interestingly, when I lived in New York I would dread going back after a trip, but now each time I go away reinforces how much I love living in London. It's funny, I moved there feeling fairly neutral about the city and have ended up - dare I say it - falling in love with London.

Bombay has been interesting, I definitely enjoyed it more than Delhi. It's so much easier to get a handle on, being as centralized and compact as it is. I’d say Bombay is like New York and Delhi is like DC, both in terms of their layout and their vibes.

Exploring all of the Victorian architecture here in Bombay is a real trip. It’s also nice the way it’s laid out all along the Arabian Sea. The air quality is still horribly bad, but at least in Bombay you get a breeze off the ocean, unlike in Delhi where the dirty air just seems to hang there. Either way I’m eager to get a gasp of fresh air once I get back to London.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Observations on India

I’m on day seven here in India and it’s safe to say the hassles of everyday life are starting to get to me! I keep thinking that if I were here for pleasure I’d be having a really amazing time, being able to relax and just sit by the pool or do sightseeing. But being here on business is a completely different story. The lack of modern amenities and decent infrastructure make getting around extremely difficult here, and when you’ve made five appointments per day spread out across the city, it gets a little stressful!

Not that I’m not enjoying my visit, it really is a fascinating place. But relaxing is definitely not a word I would use to describe this trip. I’ve learned so much so far on this visit though, things I had no idea about before. I really thought that India’s two largest cities would be more developed. Certainly, there is a great deal of development going on, but it would be a stretch to describe these places as ‘developed’ in their present state. Essentially India is where the West was 100 years ago. They’re in a state of rapid building and unprecedented growth, sitting on the back of a 19th century infrastructure and society. It really is like a trip back in time being here. The streets are teeming with the poorest of the poor, the creaking rail cars are filled with people hanging on to the sides, the markets are a jostling cacophony of street merchants. Yet dotted throughout these cities are modern developments, shielded by walls and guards from the rabble outside. This is exactly what New York City would have looked like 100 years ago.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Sarko fever: catch it!

Sacre Bleu! I can’t get over these headlines today from the US about Sarkozy’s visit. “We love America, Sarkozy tells Congress” screams ABC. “Bush, Sarkozy stand on common ground” says the LA Times. “Sarkozy -- a Frenchman conservatives can love,” declares the Baltimore Sun. “French President Says America Can Count on France,” contorts Voice of America.

Head to the other side of the Atlantic and the coverage is very different. The BBC focuses on the disaster Sarkozy heads back to today with the headline “France divided as Sarkozy woos US”. Reuters highlights the distaste Sarkozy’s reception in the US will leave with most French people saying “Sarkozy returns from US to skepticism” And the Belfast Telegraph notes that “Sarkozy's warm words mask deep divisions with US.”

Were they watching the same speech?

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

New EU terror laws

The EU got one step closer today to establishing a coordinated anti-terrorism policy through all member states. And they didn’t pull any punches this time. The ambitious plan calls for banning web sites that show how to make a bomb or advocate violence, and creating a Europe-wide registry keeping extensive information on the people flying into and out of the EU.

The changes, of course, closely mirror what’s taken place in the United States since September 11th and in fact, such directives were put in place by the EU way back then. But with all the chaos over the failure of the constitution, it got lost in the shuffle and little has been done on a coordinated basis.

The report accompanying the new laws issued by Franko Frattini, the feisty and ambitious European Justice Commissioner, basically criticizes every European country for being too soft on terrorism. Frattini is calling for countries to have a specific category of “terrorist murder” offences with tougher penalties spelt out in law. In addition the commission wants all 27 EU members states to have similar separate crimes for terrorist incitement to violence, terrorist recruitment, terrorist planning, etc.

The commission targets the UK, Italy, Germany, Spain and Ireland in particular on this front, saying they have developed few or none of the specific terrorism offenses the EU called for after September 11.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Why are we bound by borders?

A Turkish friend of mine just sent me this map which I find extremely interesting. He was pointing to the AFJ-designed hypothetical creation as an example of “US arrogance,” but I think it makes for an interesting study as the crisis with the PKK pushes Turkey further and further toward an invasion of Iraq.

The map is a redrawing of the national borders of the Middle East based on ethnic and religious lines. It accompanied this 2006 article in the Armed Forces Journal about what a fair Middle East would look like. Apparently the map has been circulating around Turkey without the accompanying article (I had to do some super sleuthing to even find the article) and is being presented as actual plans of the US military to redraw the Middle East. This assumption, of course, is not only wrong but idiotic, considering that much of this redrawing would be not in American interest and the US is actively resisting such a redrawing by clumsily trying to hold together the nonsensical, European-drawn borders of Iraq. A group in Turkey even announced a competition to redraw the US map in retaliation. Check them out here, they’re absolutely absurd. Isn’t the fact that no Turk was able to draw new borders for the US that make any sense evidence against their own point? The US is a culturally and linguistically homogenous nation, and the ethnic and religious divisions that exist are spread out. None of these entries even takes into account the political differences that might actually be astute (like the infamous “Jesusland and United States of Canada” map that came out after the 2004 election).