PARIS – As the late British parliamentarian Enoch Powell famously noted, all political careers end in failure. Powell’s grim maxim haunted Europe this week.
In Britain, PM Tony Blair’s days are numbered as calls intensify for him to set a resignation date. The Labour Party seethes with rumors about Blair being unseated by the same kind of brutal putsch that kicked out Margaret Thatcher. Britons are fed up over Blair’s lies about Iraq and his closeness to George Bush.
Italy is a political zombie. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, ousted in a razor-thin vote, as has been forced to go back to simply owning Italy, rather than leading it. But he and his allies are straining to thwart the new center-left coalition of Romano Prodi by promoting political paralysis.
Germany’s new prime minister, Angela Merkel, has dedicated herself to doing absolutely nothing - apart from making nice to Washington – after promising to reform and revive her stagnant nation.
Here in glittering springtime Paris a sense of `fin de regime’ hangs over the City of Light. The government is torn by open political civil war and barely able to conduct normal business. President Jacques Chirac, still ailing from what his spokesmen delicately described as `a medical mishap,’ remains unwell and appears only fitfully. Only 20% of French still back him. Chirac has one more year in office and is unlikely to run again for president.
With Chirac off stage, his two would-be successors, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepain and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, are waging an embarrassing, increasingly ugly public battle. During the recent national riots over employment reform, De Villepain vowed not to give in to mob demands. Chirac humiliated and betrayed him by doing precisely that.
Now, De Villepin is enmeshed in a vicious scandal that threatens his political demise. The `affaire Clearstream’ involves huge, secret `commissions’ allegedly paid to politicians from the sale of frigates to Taiwan. It’s being called the `French Watergate.’ De Villepain is accused of trying to frame rival Sarkozy through faked documents and false testimony. Even Chirac is accused of hiding kickbacks in Japan.
Interior Minister and political street fighter Sarkozy has access to police and domestic security agency secret files, hence vast amounts of dirt on everyone, especially his political opponents.
The hyper-active, ruthlessly ambitious Sarkozy is now going populist, proclaiming himself defender of the little people and promising to create a modern, dynamic France. In effect, `Sarko,’ as supporters call him, is running against his own government. Meanwhile, high officials desperately try to decide which rival to back since their careers will depend on the right choice.
Sarkozy is also trying to capture working class support by vowing to limit immigration and toughen laws against non-French. This ploy could backfire by legitimizing the far right candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen, who champions halting immigration and sending France’s 5 million Muslims back to Africa. In fact, Le Pen, who beat the Socialists in the last election, could very well emerge a front-runner thanks to fratricide on the Right, and the Left’s exhaustion.
The Left’s amiable leader, Francois Holland, is boring and bereft of ideas. His attractive live-in, Ségolène Royale, is the Left’s current electoral darling. But she offers nothing more than same tired platitudes and the usual leftwing nostrums about taxing the rich.
Europe’s old political order is on its last legs, but there is nothing new to replace it. Unless, of course, one counts Le Pen’s National Front, with its calls for racial and ethnic purity, ending immigration, restoration of `Christian values,’ and `cleansing foreigners and criminals.’
Do not underestimate ex-paratrooper Le Pen. This writer spent a good deal of time with him and found him brilliant and charismatic however much he was a racist and anti-Semite. Le Pen yells what others only whisper. There’s even an outside chance France’s next election might end up pitting the little pit bull Sarko against the menacing Monsieur Le Pen