France, Germany Discuss Russia Partnership

Ahead of the G20 summit in South Korea later this month, the leaders of France, Germany and Russia met privately to discuss the future of economic and security cooperation between Russia and the West.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev as well as German chancellor Angela Merkel for two days of talks at the Normandy seaside resort of Deauville this week. No major decisions are expected to be announced; Merkel and Sarkozy wouldn’t want to be seen as trying to bypass the rest of the European Union. Read more “France, Germany Discuss Russia Partnership”

Unions March Against Austerity in Europe

Throughout Europe people are taking to the streets to protest announced austerity measures. With conservatives in power in most of the eurozone countries, students are organizing demonstrations and unions have launched strikes against plans to cut welfare spending and raise the retirement age.

After spending billions of euros on stimulus measures and the nationalization of major financial firms, all of the eurozone is bracing for spending cuts. Despite American calls to continue deficit spending lest austerity imperil the global recovery, European governments are committed to restoring balance to their budgets. Read more “Unions March Against Austerity in Europe”

Christine Lagarde Defends European Austerity

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde rejected any dichotomy between austerity and growth on Sunday. “We need to address both issues,” she said, adding that that is the European policy. Her comments came mere days after American treasury secretary Timothy Geithner urged Europe not to cut stimulus spending.

Lagarde spoke with ABC’s This Week after a meeting with her American counterpart to explain that both Europe and the United States need to start reducing their deficits lest they imperil the fragile economic recovery worldwide. “People worry about public deficit,” she said. “If they worry about it, they begin to save. If they save too much, they don’t consume. If they don’t consume, unemployment goes up and production goes down.”

Across Europe, countries are balancing their budgets. Germany and the United Kingdom have announced ambitious budget revisions while the European Commission wants to sanction eurozone members that plunge too deep into the red.

The American narrative has been the very reverse. At home President Barack Obama has pushed for major stimulus measures and is running a deficit of almost $1.3 trillion. This summer, he called upon Europe to also continue stimulus spending, alleging that renewed austerity would undermine the recovery. The rest of the G20 countries disagreed however and agreed to cut deficits in half by 2013.

Economists in the United States, including Paul Krugman and Simon Johnson, have been critical of the European approach, complaining that “arrogant” and “incompetent” EU policymakers failed to anticipate that economic disparities between eurozone member states would lead to the sort of crisis that happened in Greece in May. Asked why she hasn’t taken advice from such American experts, Lagarde said that she would rather base policy on numbers — “which is better than, you know, theories and speculations.”

France did stimulate the economy “massively” between 2008 and 2009, according to Lagarde. “Unemployment is going down,” she added. “Why would I inject more public money into the system when private investment is picking up?”

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government is still struggling to meet European budget rules. He has pledged to bring down the country’s deficit from 8 to 3 percent in the next three years, implying almost a hundred billion euros in spending cuts. The government is planning to eliminate some ten billion euros in tax breaks but has vowed to avoid unpopular increases in income, corporate and value-added tax rates. The retirement age is also set to rise over mass union protest.

Asked whether the government could withstand popular pressure against pension reform, Lagarde said that it has to “in the interests of the next generations.” The only way to make the system financially sustainable “is to increase the retirement age by two years,” she said, from 60 to 62. “It’s only two years,” while the average Frenchman has gained some fifteen years in life expectancy since the system was devised half a century ago.

France will chair the G20 next year. President Sarkozy has teamed up with German chancellor Angela Merkel — considered the leading voice in the austerity camp — to implement stricter financial regulation, including a ban on certain speculative trading activity. Germany has already banned the naked short selling of eurozone government debt and financial stock, as well as naked credit default swaps involving eurozone debt.

Lagarde wouldn’t say whether the mechanisms are now in place to prevent another near collapse of financial markets. “We’ve been working really hard in the last two months to put in place what our leaders decided was needed,” she did say, including “an alert control system, a supervisory system [and] discipline in the markets.”

European Terror Plot Thwarted

European intelligence services have intercepted a terrorist plot to strike London and cities in France and Germany in imitation of the Mumbai attack of 2008. Pakistani militants are reported to have been tracked by spy agencies “for some time” in preparation of a similar assault.

Sky News reported on Wednesday that plans to attack different European cities simultaneously in commando style raids have been “severely disrupted” thanks to intelligence sharing between European and American agencies.

The attacks in Mumbai, India occurred in November 2008. Pakistani terrorists at the time coordinated shootings and bombings across the city, killing at least 173 people and wounding more than three hundred.

The news of the planned attacks coincided with the second evacuation of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in one week. Sky News’ foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall noted that the tower wasn’t necessarily a target, “but it shows how nervous the French are,” he added.

In September, the United States have been undertaking more drone attacks against Pakistan than during any previous month. Twenty missiles strikes against suspected terrorist targets in the country’s northwestern tribal area of Waziristan have been recorded. According to Marshall, “a number of these attacks were designed against the leadership of this particular plot, which had an Al Qaeda and possibly some sort of Taliban connection projecting into Europe.”

Several of the plot’s organizers are reported to have been killed in these drone attacks which is why, in the United Kingdom, the terror threat hasn’t risen from “severe” to “imminent”.

A British government official anonymously told the Associated Press that the plot was “in its embryonic stages” and “still active” on Wednesday. According to CNN, the conspiracy came to light after a man captured in Afghanistan tipped off investigators to a potential “Mumbai style” plot in Europe. Financial institutions, including banks and stock exchanges, could be possible targets, said one American federal law enforcement source.

Despite concern over a potential terror plot, American and German officials maintain that they have found no evidence of an imminent attack in either Europe or the United States.

Britain, France Not Sharing Aircraft Carriers

Britain and France may be teaming up on defense but the notion of sharing an aircraft carrier, as was suggested this summer, is “utterly unrealistic,” said Defense Secretary Liam Fox yesterday.

Fox was in Paris to speak with his French counterpart Herve Morin about sharing the cost of military aircraft programs. Both countries are bracing for spending cuts which Fox, last month, described as “the absolute mother of horrors of a spending review.” Britain’s armed forces may have to give up whole brigades, armored formations, artillery units, maritime surveillance aircraft, the Royal Air Force’s fleet of Tornado strike aircraft, amphibious landing ships and one of the Royal Navy’s four Trident submarines. Read more “Britain, France Not Sharing Aircraft Carriers”

Sarkozy’s Tough Reelection Prospects

Entering his fourth year in office, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has to cope with a public increasingly wary of his policies and political challenges from within his own party.

Sarkozy was elected in 2007 with some 53 percent of the vote, in part because he campaigned to strengthen internal security.

The capital of Paris had witnessed a string of violent incidents in its banlieues just two years prior. Pressured by the rising popularity of France’s xenophobic National Front, the conservative Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) adopted a more assertive stance on immigration under Sarkozy’s leadership.

In recent weeks, that position has backfired. Read more “Sarkozy’s Tough Reelection Prospects”

America’s Shadow War on Terror

The heavy military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is driving terrorists to seek shelter elsewhere. In almost a dozen “failed states” in Africa and Asia, they find conditions to meet their needs, granting different terrorist networks fresh safe havens from where to launch attacks against the United States and its allies which are left with the nigh impossible task of nation building in countries too safe for terrorists but too violent for civil society to take shape.

America’s “shadow war” on terror around the world would seem to contrast sharply the administration’s imminent retreat from Iraq and its scheduled departure from Afghanistan starting less than a year from now. No matter hopes of another “surge”, this time against the Taliban but executed by the very general, David Petraeus, who successfully subdued the insurgency in Iraq in 2007, the United States are preparing for defeat in Afghanistan as the notion of allowing the Taliban a foothold in the south and southwest of the country gains widespread acceptance.

Shifting the focus of the counterterrorism campaign to Central Asia, West Africa, Pakistan and Yemen does make sense though. While terrorist networks, Al Qaeda included, operate in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq, they don’t operate from it. The mountainous and porous border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan represents an excellent stronghold for the insurgents to organize and coordinate their efforts from instead. Similar conditions — a terrain that is difficult for traditional armed forces to penetrate and the near or total absence of government — prevail in parts of Algeria, the Sudan, Somalia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The New York Times reports:

In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

The stealth war that began during the Bush Administration has expanded considerably under President Barack Obama, without explicit congressional approval; indeed, often without being publicly acknowledged.

In West Africa, the administration has found an unlikely ally. Long opposed to the American war effort in Iraq, Paris declared “war” on Al Qaeda after a French aid worker was murdered by the terrorist network’s North Africa branch in July. President Nicolas Sarkozy promised that the perpetrators would “not go unpunished,” his rhetoric being matched with an attack upon a terrorist base camp in Mauritania.

France has long been discreet about its counterterrorism efforts in the region, quietly cooperating with former colonies as Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to curb the growth and evermore violent campaign waged by what is now known as the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. Formerly dedicated to overthrowing the government of Algeria, this coalition of Salafist militants has, in recent years, killed dozens of Algerian and Mauritanian soldiers and police officers and abducted and murdered European tourists and humanitarian aid workers.

In Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan, landlocked between Afghanistan and China, the United States are intensifying intelligence gathering missions and building up a military presence. Besides Tajikistan, the Pentagon is participating in strategic construction projects in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Each of these states is struggling with ethnic division and a specter of foreign interference as both China and Russia have an interest in extending their influence in the region.

Pakistan and Yemen are each plagued with resistance movements that are able to operate almost autonomously in remote parts of the countries. Pakistan’s hopeless predicament is perpetuated as long as Islamabad can’t decide whether to continue to act as an American ally, attempting to crush the insurgency along its western frontier at the risk of civil war, or seek some sort of peace agreement with the Taliban and its affiliates, which would leave it badly compromised in the unlikely event that the United States manage to impose a central authority in Afghanistan, ruled from Kabul, possibly by Hamid Karzai.

In Yemen, the Americans have been carrying out missile and fighter strikes against suspected terrorists camps and strongholds as they have in Pakistan. According to the Times, American officials believe that they are benefiting from “the Yemeni government’s new resolve to fight Al Qaeda” but it is difficult to tell whether they realize that there are two different wars going on in the country: one against Al Qaeda in the central south, another against a Shiite uprising in the north. The Yemeni government, no matter its “resolve,” is using foreign funds to quell the northern rebellion while negotiating with Al Qaeda about a ceasefire, pretending the two conflicts are intertwined.

Pakistan, too, has been taking American dollars and spending them simultaneously on fighting some militants and funding others. Mauritania, in 2005, urged the West to supply it with military equipment in order to combat “the terrorist surge in the African Sahel.” Other governments in Central Asia and West Africa may soon come to realize the rewards to be reaped from being designated a battleground in the War on Terror. The United States, in the process, risk becoming party to local power struggles, forced to pick sides that could further undermine its standing with radical Islamists who quarrel with their secular though often oppressive national leaders.

The risks, according to the reporters of The New York Times, are great indeed. They include:

the potential for botched operations that fuel anti-American rage; a blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies that could put troops at risk of being denied Geneva Convention protections; a weakening of the congressional oversight system put in place to prevent abuses by America’s secret operatives; and a reliance on authoritarian foreign leaders and surrogates with sometimes murky loyalties.

America is no stranger to the latter and should avoid making that mistake yet again, in part because it is exactly what fuels anti-Americanism. Having the American military regarded by local populations as an instrument of their own authoritarian government plays right into the rhetoric of extremists who like to portray the United States as an imperialist power, determined to conquer and subjugate the Muslim world.

Surgical strikes against individuals and organizations that threaten the United States are perfectly justifiable and preferable to full-scale wars that cost America dearly and put entire peoples in harm’s way. But time and again it has proven a mistake to enlist foreign governments in that endeavor. Any state pursues its own interest. It would be unrealistic to demand of countries which harbor terrorist that they imperil their own security and social order because it might serve the United States.

Britain, France Teaming Up on Defense

As all of Europe braces for spending cuts, Britain and France are preparing to examine whether and how they might be able to work more closely together in the area of defense. French Defense Minister Hervé Morin described the venture as “a very ambitious operation” in parliament last month.

According to Morin, the new Liberal-Conservative government in London wants France to “analyze in a very detailed way what are the competences and means that each of the two countries should retain complete sovereignty, those which could be pooled, and those on which there could be interdependence.” As much as both countries may dream of retaining “complete sovereignty,” budget restraints mean that cooperation is nothing short of a necessity.

The French are postponing a number of programs, including an order for fourteen Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft and the Ceres satellite surveillance system, in an effort to cut €3.5 billion on defense spending over the next three years.

Last year, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to offer cooperation when it became obvious that Britain could afford just a single aircraft carrier instead of two. Now, with Whitehall scrambling for 10 to 20 percent in budget cuts across the board and the Ministry of Defense anticipating “the absolute mother of horrors of a spending review,” in the words of Secretary Liam Fox, further collaboration may appear appealing in both capitals.

The differences between the British and French armed forces are substantial. As Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations and former chief executive of the European Defense Agency in Brussels, explains at World Politics Review, contrary to Britain, France has pursued an independent defense policy since the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. While Britain focused on its “special relationship” with the United States, France withdrew from the integrated military command structure of NATO in the 1960s and developed a nuclear deterrent of its own. “That’s been a formidable technological achievement,” according to Witney, “but one that has often left French conventional forces poorly equipped, as the first Gulf War demonstrated.”

Differences persist up to this very day. Whereas France welcomes the potential of European might and notions of common defense and foreign policy, Britain, particularly under Conservative leadership, remains weary of everything to do with Brussels. Witney believes that it is “ready to make an exception for France” though which, in turn, will be content to work with other European countries separately.

Any residual animosity or mistrust stemming from centuries of strife has diluted in recent years as Jacques Chirac, in spite of his rhetoric and opposition to the Iraq War, managed to temper traditional anti-Americanism in foreign policy and after President Sarkozy returned France into NATO.

What’s more, Britain and France have proven able to work together on a number of armaments projects in the past — “from Jaguar combat aircraft and Puma helicopters to Storm Shadow cruise missiles,” notes Witney — while both like to maintain a leverage internationally that is quite disproportionate to their actual weight in terms of both military and economic strength. A twenty-first century entente cordiale, in short, makes perfect sense.

Morin last month expected work on the French side to be completed by the end of July. Britain is preparing to publish an extensive strategic defense and security review in October.

Now It’s France’s Turn

France is prepared to start negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program within the International Atomic Energy Agency “without delay,” said President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday while meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev.

A spokesman for Sarkozy’s office said the talks would be held “on the basis of Brazilian and Turkish efforts and the response sent out by Russia, France and the United States,” referring to the nuclear fuel exchange agreement brokered by Brazil and Turkey in May. Iran at the time agreed to deposit 1,200 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium in Turkey in exchange for 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium to be provided by France, Russia and the United States.

The latter wouldn’t play ball though. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman noted in May that “a solution to the (fuel) question, if it happens, would do nothing to settle the problem posed by the Iranian nuclear program.” President Dmitri Medvedev expressed a similar concern. “One question is: will Iran itself enrich uranium?” he wondered. If so, “those concerns that the international community had before could remain.”

American secretary of state Hillary Clinton was quick to announce tough sanctions for Iran, sharing British concerns that its agreement to the Brazilian-Turkish deal was little more than a delaying tactic. After the United Nations Security Council agreed to impose new sanctions against Iran on June 9, both the European Union and the United States have enacted unilateral embargos that target Iranian shipping, trade, insurance, finance and energy. China and Russia, along with Brazil and Turkey, currently nonpermanent members of the Security Council, have opposed far-reaching punitive measures. President Medvedev openly criticized the additional Western sanctions last Thursday.

In St Petersburg this weekend, President Sarkozy stressed that the sanctions “were not to punish Iran but to convince its leaders to resume the path of negotiations,” reported an official. Washington has similarly noted that sanctions should be targeted against the Revolutionary Guard and the evermore authoritarian regime of the ayatollahs.

France and Iran have a history when it comes to nuclear energy. Under the shah, France provided Iran with enriched uranium to support his nuclear ambitions. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 however, this supply was immediately frozen while France and Iran squabbled for many years over the return of a $1 billion Iranian investment in the construction of a French nuclear power plant. The new regime quickly began to finance the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah which abducted French citizens several times during the 1980s in order to put more pressure on Paris.

In more recent years France has expressed a newfound interest in the Middle East. President Sarkozy almost singlehandedly launched a Mediterranean Union and pushed for a Gaza ceasefire plan in conjunction with his Egyptian colleague Hosni Mubarak in January 2009. What’s more, France has been sharing nuclear technology with several Arab states, including Algeria, Libya, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

At the same time, France staunchly opposes any further spread of nuclear weapons. The reaons here are entirely self serving. As John Vinocur wrote in October of last year, “France’s great levers of international influence — its special status as a nuclear power and as a member of the UN Security Council — are best defended by visibly aggressive adherence to the global nuclear nonproliferation treaties that Iran is violating.” In short, France will welcome the chance to assert itself as a great power once again.

Sarkozy Foe Announces Presidential Bid

Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin has announced that he will run for president in 2012, launching his own party, Republique Solidaire (“United Republic”) in Paris on Saturday.

De Villepin served as minister of foreign affairs between 2002 and 2004; as minister of the interior between 2004 and 2005; and as prime minister between 2005 and 2007. He was Jacques Chirac’s favorite for the presidency that year until Nicolas Sarkozy managed to secure the nomination for France’s right-wing party UMP.

In recent years, De Villepin has emerged as a fierce critic of Sarkozy’s, complaining in last Friday’s Le Monde that his administration’s “dominant trait was that it was developing policies with pollsters who every day look at the surveys and ask what publicity stunt they can score.”

Polling data suggest that De Villepin would stand little chance to secure the presidency with barely 8 percent of Frenchmen supporting his bid. Nonetheless, his approval ratings hover near 50 percent which is a far cry from Sarkozy’s own popularity. The president’s approval ratings have sharply decreased in recent weeks to end up balancing around 33 percent.

The dire state of the economy is largely to blame for the mounting discontent shared by French voters. The socialists are prospering, picking up half of the votes nationwide in March’s regional elections, while President Sarkozy’s government is forced to enact austerity measures.

Like much of Europe, France has been unable to control its deficit in the wake of the financial meltdown two years ago. The debt crisis that is raging across the continent won’t stop at France’s borders. Protectionist measures on the part of the Sarkozy government have been able to prevent mass unemployment for now but already, protests are underway because of a scheduled rise of the retirement age from 60 to 62.

De Villepin offers nothing new in this regard. In a recent interview, he even lambasted Europe’s finance rules, describing the 3 percent deficit maximum as “unrealistic.” Brussels, meanwhile, is considering tougher budget rules.

The smooth, patrician De Villepin is downplayed as a bit illuminé — -deranged — by the Sarkozy camp but he may well end up denying them the presidency in 2012. The fact that he has never submitted himself to an election is playing into the hands of critics who like to portray De Villepin as out-of-touch with ordinary voters.

The former prime minister himself claims that he is speaking on behalf of “the orphans of the Republic, les déçus de la politique,” the people disappointed by politics. “That accounts for half of France,” he told Le Monde.

De Villepin probably won’t score enough point to make it through the first round of the presidential election in 2012. But his very candidacy is undermining Sarkozy and the UMP and will weaken them in the years ahead up to the point that they are faced with a strong Socialist Party adversary.