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April 10, 2018

A mood of radicalisation in France

Radicals had their day in France yesterday in universities and on the occupied site of Notre-Dame-des-Landes coinciding with the second week of strikes against the SNCF reforms. A mood of radicalisation is in the air this spring, and it could cost Emmanuel Macron the willingness of the French to give him a chance, writes Nicholas Beytout. The climate could also make it more difficult to push through the SNCF reforms, with the radical unions becoming more prominent. L'Opinion already evokes parallels with the May of 1968.

This is still a far-fetched comparison: over previous weeks some students put up barricades and symbols of their hate for police, politics and the society in their universities. But yesterday there were violent clashes between police and eco-activists in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. About 2000 police officers were employed to evacuate about 100 activists who live on the site since 2008 to protest against a controversial airport project, and who refused to leave even after the government decided to ditch the project. Over the last 10 years these eco-warriors, farmers, and anti-capitalists, turned the area into an experiment in autonomous living and put up makeshift buildings, which the government says have to go so the site can be redeveloped. 

Some experts say this radicalisation was to be expected and is a normal expression given the government's more radical and assertive political stance. Another expert cited by l'Opinion says it is the lack of public debate that makes these people choose more radical forms of expressions. 

The danger is not so much that the movements converge, but that there is a melting pot of rages expressed by those who consider themselves the losers of an era, those who have not been able to integrate or adapt to the modern world.

Recognising the change in the climate and its danger, Emmanuel Macron will address the nation with two televised speeches next week, in which he will try to quell the rising unrest, or at least reassure the public to keep its faith in him and his government. 

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April 10, 2018

The German far right makes inroads into trade unions

This is a story that had not been on our radar screen so far. Guy Chazan of the FT reported that a fascist trade union recently secured 13.7% of the votes in the works council of Daimler-Benz' main production plant in Stuttgart, and will hold 6 out of 47 members. This is not so much a story of Germany being taken over by fascists, as it reflects more or less the proportion of AfD voters at the recent elections. But it tells us the centre-left is losing control of industrial workers, their traditional stronghold. And it tells us that the far right is not going to disappear, as some of the liberal commentators foolhardily predicted. 

The SPD used to be a coalition of intellectuals and workers, a party to keep the industrial working class aligned to the centre of politics. The weakness of the SPD is the result of that alliance no longer holding up. AfD support comes to a large extent from workers who would have traditionally voted for either the SPD in the west or the Left Party in the east. The large trade unions are mostly affiliated with the SPD, and it is no surprise that the weakness of the SPD feeds into the trade union sector where the same centrifugal tendencies are now visible. The trade union in question is called Zentrum Automobile, run by a guitarist of a former right-wing rock band. The appeal of the union is the same as that of the AfD: it plays to people's  fears of immigration. We found it interesting that the union's leader sees it as a political movement and draws comparisons to Solidarnosc, which succeeded in bringing down the Polish Communist political system. Zentrum and AfD are presently not related, but Chazan writes that it is possible that his union might one day become the party’s trade union wing.

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April 10, 2018

On the absurdity of a new centrist party in British politics

We have been commenting from time to time on the total absence of a strategic direction among the pro-European liberals in British politics. The Remain campaign was a shambles. And now they want to form another party. Behind the project is a British businessman, Simon Franks, who has amassed a fund of £50m from entrepreneurs and philantropists, and who has been running this project on a full-time staff for a year. There are no political figures associated with this movement yet. David Milliband, the centrists equivalent of manna from heaven, is often mentioned in this context, but we doubt very much that he has an appetite to return to the snake pit of UK politics.

One of the reasons is that he would have virtually no chances of making an impact. It is extraordinarily hard for new parties to form in the UK. The last time this happened successfully was the Labour Party itself, founded in 1900, which overtook the Liberals to become the second party of British politics in the early 1920s. The attempt to set up a centrist party in the 1980s - the SDP - seemed initially successful with a string of by-election victories and strong opinion polling, but the party never succeeded in elections and ultimately merged with the Liberals into the LibDems, a fringe party nowadays. Of all the systems we know, the UK’s is the most immune to new parties even at a time when the traditional parties are becoming more extreme.

Another story making the rounds is a potential split in the parliamentary Labour party. We don’t see this happening either, at least not before the next general election. As the Times report rightly concluded, the majority of moderate Labour MPs is now trying to cajole Jeremy Corbyn not into abandoning Brexit, but into making it softer. Rallying the majority of the Labour MPs behind a proposal for a customs union remains by far the most promising act of political insurrection in our view.

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