France

As François Hollande’s socialist government has taken a distinct turn to the right under Manuel Valls, his reformist prime minister, many have questioned the role of Arnaud Montebourg, champion of the left, fierce critic of globalisation and scourge of corporate bosses, both French and foreign.

Rumours have circulated in the French media that Mr Montebourg, promoted to economy minister when Mr Valls was appointed at the end of March, might soon quit the government to position himself for a potential presidential tilt in 2017 if Mr Hollande fails to recover from his current rock-bottom ratings. Read more

Tony Barber

It’s the fashion these days for outsiders to lecture France as if it’s a talented but obstinate schoolboy failing his grades. The idea seems to be that the more you tell the French off, the faster they’ll pull their socks up. This approach is wrong. We should, instead, smother France with love.

Like anyone, the French like to hear from time to time that they are clever, beautiful, funny, kind and successful. But for the past 10 years or so, the outside world has spoken fewer nice words about France than about any developed country.

It’s reached ridiculous proportions. Anyone would think, from all these foreign sermons, that French civilisation was falling apart. This is hardly the way to get the best out of any nation, not just the French. We need to stop finding fault and start smothering France with love. Read more

After all the UK press has written about him over the past few weeks, it is good to see Jean-Claude Juncker still has a sense of humour.

The former Luxembourg prime minister has largely kept his head down since he emerged as the front-runner for the European Commission presidency – and came under fire from UK prime minister David Cameron and the pro-Conservative battalions of the British media.

On Tuesday Mr Juncker broke cover to deliver a speech at a Berlin security conference – he had, he said, accepted the invitation before becoming embroiled in the latest battle of Brussels.

Explaining that he was between jobs – having handed over the reins in Luxembourg in December and yet to be installed in a new post – he added with a smile: “I am a transgender person, in the political sense.” Read more

Gideon Rachman

In recent days there has been heavy briefing that Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, would be the perfect candidate to head the European Commission. The idea of a Lagarde candidacy is particularly popular in Britain, where the government is desperate to stop the job going to Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg. Headlines such as “Angela Merkel wants Christine Lagarde as EC president” have fuelled the frenzy. But while the German chancellor may or may not want Lagarde for the job, nobody seems to have paused to ask whether Lagarde herself is interested. Read more

Tony Barber

No doubt about it, Sunday’s European parliament elections have produced a political tremblement de terre – an earthquake – in France, with Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) claiming victory in the poll. But across the 28-nation EU as a whole, the mainstream pro-European parties will breathe a sigh of relief tonight at having held their ground relatively successfully against anti-establishment insurgents from the far right, far left and anti-EU camps.

The protest vote is not nearly big enough to be labelled a comprehensive rejection of the EU, its political values and its economic crisis management over the five years since the last European elections. Eurosceptics, broadly defined, are projected to win about 130 of the EU legislature’s 751 seats. Given that the EU has just gone through the biggest financial shock and recession of its 56-year history, the damage could have been greater.

Conversely, the vote cannot be considered a ringing endorsement of the cause of closer European integration. The mainstream centre-right European People’s party looks set to be the winner, but with its representation in the EU legislature sharply down to about 211 seats from 273. Moreover, estimates of a pan-European voter turnout of just over 43 per cent – well below the levels recorded in national elections in every member-state – indicate that more than half of the 388m eligible voters simply do not think the European parliament matters much. Read more

Gideon Rachman

For months, the Russian government has been proclaiming that “fascists” have taken over Ukraine. Now we have some exit polls from the Ukrainian presidential election and it looks like the two far-right parties – Right Sector and Svoboda (pictured above at a recent rally) – have failed badly, notching up just 0.9 per cent and 1.3 per cent of the vote respectively.

There is, however, a part of Europe where the far-right really is on the march. In France, the Front National (FN) have apparently come first in the European elections, with 25 per cent of the vote. Oddly enough, however, Marine Le Pen, FN leader, is an admirer of Vladimir Putin, and was treated with great respect by the Russian government on a trip to Moscow last month. Read more

Four days away from potentially her biggest election victory, Marine Le Pen (above) has had a sharp reminder of the biggest threat to her assiduous efforts to detoxify the far-right National Front (FN) in the eyes of French voters: her father.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN founder who handed over the party reins to his youngest daughter in 2010, remains its honorary chairman and is a candidate in Sunday’s election for the European parliament.

Before joining his daughter on the podium for the closing rally of the FN’s election campaign in Marseille on Tuesday evening, the party’s 85-year-old patriarch was heard discussing the issue of population growth and immigration with an FN mayor by two journalists from AFP, the French news agency.

The agency reported him as saying that France “risked submersion” from immigration and a low birthrate, complaining that the issue was being ignored.

In response to the suggestion that it was never to late to act, the agency said Mr Le Pen replied: “It is never too late, but still is it very late,” before adding: “Monseigneur Ebola could take care of it in three months.” Read more

By Gideon Rachman

In America, they have Super Tuesday. Europe is about to have a Super Sunday, with elections for the European Parliament taking place across the 28-member EU, ending on May 25. That same Sunday, Ukraine will be holding a presidential election. The next day, Egypt will hold its own presidential vote. And then, towards the end of that week, on May 29, President Vladimir Putin’s pet project – the formation of a Eurasian Union – will receive the formal go-ahead with a signing ceremony between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Tony Barber

Ten minutes into moderating Friday night’s European parliament election debate in Florence, I was gripped with the unnerving sensation that someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and murmur: “Mr Barber, where is it all going wrong?”

Voting kicks off in less than two weeks, but the big event in the Palazzo Vecchio is unlikely to have any more influence on the outcome than the opinions of Lorenzo de’ Medici in his tomb. Read more

Gideon Rachman

 

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during talks in Stralsund, northeastern Germany. (Getty)

Over the weekend, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande met and issued a statement that threatened Russia with new sanctions if it disrupts the Ukrainian presidential election or fails to pull troops back from the border. So far, so resolute.

However, President Hollande’s visit to Germany took place against the background of newspaper headlines that send an embarrassingly different message. France is pressing ahead with its sale of two warships to Russia. Indeed 400 Russian sailors are due to arrive in France on June 1st, for extended training on the Mistral ships. The first of the ships is due to be delivered later this year. Read more