Friday, 18 May 2012

Eurovision under attack…by Iran

Azerbaijan’s close historical and ethnic relationship with Iran is causing discomfort in the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest final next weekend, hosted in Baku. Last week angry Iranian demonstrators, probably government-organised, surrounded the Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz condemning the country for hosting a ‘gay contest’. 

This week a Eurovision news website was attacked by Azeri hackers in protest of Eurovision, which they said was a “gay pride event”. It is not yet known whether these were Azeris in Azerbaijan or Iran - but the later is more likely.

The contest organisers have appeared unsure of how to respond to the protests. Eurovision is, after all, not actually a “gay event” as the Iranians have claimed. But it is true that it has a large gay following, and there has been concern about the safety of the many gay fans who will be converging on Baku this week for the show.

Azerbaijan, as is evident from its flag, is a Muslim country. But given that the former Soviet Socialist Republic is largely secular, it has been a matter of speculation whether this would cause problems for gay fans (homosexuality was decriminalised in the country in 2000, in order to join the Council of Europe). Turkey, another Muslim but nominally secular country, hosted the contest in 2004 without incident.

But interestingly, much of the religious-based resistance to the hosting of the conference has come from neighbouring Iran, where the majority (3/4) of the Azerbaijani people live. Iran’s population is 30% Azerbaijani.  

Obama gets tough with Merkel, but is it too late?

Now that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been hobbled by the loss of her key ally in France, it seems the Obama administration is wasting no time in pressuring her into a course correction. The chorus of anti-austerity (and by extension anti-Merkel) voices is growing louder by the minute.

At next week’s G8 summit at Camp David, Barack Obama is reportedly going to put pressure on Germany to drop its insistence on the Eurozone economies adopting a severe austerity regime. He will ask Merkel to instead pursue a policy of stimulus and growth. He will apparently do so in no uncertain terms – warning Merkel that if she does not change course quickly she risks plunging the world into another deep recession that would be even worse than the Lehman Bros collapse in 2008.

The Guardian reports that the Obama administration is expected to try to forge close ties with new French President Francois Hollande at the first meeting of the two leaders on Tuesday. They are keen to rapidly establish Hollande as an ally in exerting pressure on Merkel to change course.

Obama already has the support of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who while unwavering in his demand for austerity at home, publicly chastised the German chancellor in a speech yesterday for her lack of flexibility. Saying that the eurozone either had to “make up…or break up”, he said urgent steps are needed quickly to prevent an economic implosion of epic proportions in the coming weeks. He will reportedly tell Merkel this weekend to use Germany's wealth to rescue Southern Europe before it is too late.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Angela vs. the growth

As predicted, Socialist Francois Hollande ousted the centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy in French elections on Sunday after a campaign in which he railed against the German-led austerity drive in Europe. He has insisted that Europe needs to end its obsession with austerity to dig its way out of the debt crisis, and instead focus on growth.

Coming as it did on the same day that anti-austerity parties in Greece took a majority of the vote, Sunday has been interpreted as a Europe-wide rejection of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her insistence on austerity and budget cuts. The markets have certainly interpreted it as such. Stock exchanges across the world have taken a dive the last three days, particularly in Europe, over fears that the delicately crafted ‘fiscal union pact’ worked out over the past several months is now about to fall apart.

Whether that actually comes to pass may depend less on Hollande than on how his victory is interpreted in other European capitals. All eyes will be on the new French president’s first meeting with Merkel next week, a day after he is sworn in on 15 May. It is in both of their interests that the meeting goes well. Hollande needs to walk away with something to say that he “renegotiated” the fiscal compact, while Angela needs to reassure the German people that Eurozone countries will still have to adhere to strict budgetary rule while at the same time reassuring the markets that there will be no Franco-German rift.

What will likely be worked out is the addition of a paragraph about stimulating the economy into the compact – something that wouldn’t require new ratifications by national parliaments.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Sarko presents a Latin/Germanic choice to France

Someone tuning in to last night’s presidential debate in France might have thought Nicolas Sarkozy was running for president of Germany. Praising the economic model of France’s eastern neighbour, he continually stressed that Germany is more competitive and an easier place to do business.

Even his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande had to agree with him. “Germany in all fields is better than us,” Hollande conceded, with a tone that seemed to imply, ‘if you love it so much, why don’t you go there.’

Germany and its chancellor Angela Merkel loomed large over this debate, although she was never mentioned by name. Sarkozy continually returned to a theme of defending his close partnership with the chancellor and her austerity regime for Europe. He has been accused, both in Germany and France, of being Merkel’s poodle. “We avoided the implosion of the euro,” he spat at Hollande incredulously after he questioned the austerity strategy. “It was hard work, which was founded on the Franco-German partnership. It is irresponsible to want to question it.”

And thus the lines were drawn in precisely the way Sarkozy wanted them. “For me, the example to follow, it is that of Germany rather than that of Greece or Spain,” said the president. He stressed that it was the Socialists who have been in power in Spain during the economic crisis, and today Spain’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Contrast that, he said, with Germany where his fellow conservatives have been in power. Germany has the most successful economy in the EU. Hollande, he warned, would make France like Spain.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The battle for the May Day voter

The first of May is always a big deal in France. This year it’s taken on an even more politically charged tone, with groups of far-left and far-right demonstrators possibly coming into conflict during the course of today. But it might be hard today to differentiate between the two groups based on their rhetoric alone.

May Day, originally a pagan spring festival, became an international workers day in the late 19th century. Ironically this Socialist holiday is unknown in the United States, despite the fact that it actually commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. An American ‘Labor Day’ was instead set in September so that it wouldn’t coincide with international workers demonstrations. The day has long since lost any association with workers rights in the US.

But in continental Europe, the 1st of May is still a public workers holiday during which labour unions and activists demonstrate in the streets. It is also known for anti-capitalist violence, particularly in Southern Europe.

In recent years, the increasingly mainstream far right in Europe has challenged the idea that May Day is the sole domain of the left. The National Front party in France has begun to stage May day marches to the Place de l’Opera in Paris. There they hold a rally in front of a statue of Joan of Arc, who they have adopted as a symbol. This year, following the record 18% showing of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in last Sunday’s first round of presidential elections, it is predicted that they will garner the largest turnout ever.