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Western Press Review: French And Hungarian Elections, Moscow's Caspian Interests

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 23 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The unexpected outcome of the first round of France's presidential elections on 21 April dominates much of the commentary in the Western media today. Far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen came out ahead of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and now faces incumbent President Jacques Chirac in a 5 May run-off. Several commentators view this outcome as further evidence of a Western European rightward political shift, as center-left governments and coalitions have lost ground in Italy, Denmark, Norway, and Portugal, among others.

Other analysis focuses on the 21 April second round of elections in Hungary, which confirmed that the Socialists will form the next government. Also discussed today are Moscow's moves ahead of today's Caspian summit with nations from Central Asia and the Caucasus.


A "Washington Post" editorial says the surprise results of France's presidential election on 21 April "delivered an overdue shock to the country's political system, and to Europe." It notes that far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front party won 17 percent of the vote, which indicates -- as the paper puts it -- "that one out of every five French voters chose to back a platform of bigotry and xenophobia."

The editorial says Le Pen is known for his "racially tinged demagoguery against immigrants," and calls his unexpectedly good showing at the polls "a terrible embarrassment for France's political elite."

The "Washington Post" goes on to say that the election results should spark some national soul-searching, particularly among France's leadership. Voters have been alienated by mainstream political parties that no longer address their concerns. "France's leaders, beginning with President [Jacques] Chirac, ought to re-examine whether their government is doing enough to foster tolerance toward immigrants, particularly those from the Muslim world, while combating growing anti-Semitism. A serious campaign against corruption is also badly needed.

"Above all, France's politicians might take Sunday's results as a warning of what happens when governmental institutions, and bureaucratic decision-making, drift too far from local communities and grass-roots democracy. The vast majority of French voters don't really want an extremist president. But neither do they want to perpetuate a political system whose leaders appear to pay them so little heed."


An editorial in "The Times" of London says the very issues that Jean-Marie Le Pen has spoken out on so stridently in France have also been used by other populist and far-right parties elsewhere in Europe -- among these are immigration policy, the devolution of national authority to the European Union, crime, European integration, and the failure of mainstream parties on the right "to defend the national interest."

The newspaper says that Le Pen "has articulated the fear that political power has been ceded to Brussels and authority on the streets ceded to criminals."

"The Times" says many European populist and far-right parties have tapped into popular resentment against established parties to guard the national interest. "The factors are all interconnected," says the editorial. "European integration distances political elites from the electorate, the EU's slow pace of economic reform and the European Central Bank's interest-rate policy stifle growth and keep unemployment high, [and] economic stagnation increases populist resentment towards the necessary absorption of enterprising migrant labor..."

"The Times" says "Europe's best response to the challenge from the populist and far right would be a determination to tackle the issues on which they feed," combined with a denouncement of the "unscrupulous methods" they use. Political leaders "need to explain why economic liberalization, and its accompanying openness to new pools of labor are the best hope for national renaissance."


A "Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial says that what many are calling the political "earthquake" in France may have a silver lining. "[A] smug establishment has been shaken," it writes. "That the results were such a shocker could very well be the wake-up call France needed. Now economic and political reforms will seem absolutely necessary, to both the right and the left."

The editorial says that a reform-minded government under President Jacques Chirac "that takes the initiative this time around in introducing flexibility throughout the economy, especially in labor markets, should be able to take advantage of the vacuum that will exist on the left for some time," following Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's defeat at the polls.

"This is why there's a chance that France can reform itself when almost none existed last week," the "Journal" continues. And it says the left can also use this opportunity. The editorial suggests France's Socialist Party should now "realize that the best way to help the vulnerable in society is by creating an environment where they can find a job; that a meritocratic society is the best hope for those not to the manor born; that the people are punished by schemes such as the mandatory 35-hour workweek that prevents them from supplementing meager incomes."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Michael Frank hails the 21 April elections in Hungary as the country's "first normal elections," which resulted in the Socialists gaining 178 parliamentary seats in the country's second round and the Free Democrats winning 20. But the Socialists need 194 seats for a majority in the 386-seat house and have therefore invited the Alliance of Free Democrats to join in establishing a coalition government.

Frank says the will of the people is reflected more precisely despite the complicated election system, which combines a proportional and first-past-the-post system. The election system definitely requires reform, says Frank.

But the most pressing task, according to Frank, is to bury the hatchet of animosities that the election campaign has nurtured, the conflict between the "true Hungarians" and "those lacking a fatherland."

Peter Medgyessy, who heads the Socialists and is the designated prime minister, favors an appeasement policy. Medgyessy takes a more sensitive approach than his opponent, incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orban, known for his nationalist views as expressed in his public support for Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries of Slovakia and Romania.

Now that Hungary will have a moderate at its helm, Frank says the country can concentrate on its future EU membership. "Especially considering its progress, it has the right to set an example," he says.

Frank predicts that the combined efforts of the Socialists and the liberals, who emphasize human rights, are likely to guide Hungary toward a stable and dependable partnership with Europe.


An editorial in the British "Daily Telegraph" also discusses the results of France's presidential elections, joining other publications in suggesting that its outcome reflects voter frustration more than a surge in far-right ideologies.

The "Telegraph" says the recent successes of right-wing candidates such as France's Jean-Marie Le Pen and Austria's Joerg Haider "is chiefly an indictment of the establishment parties. Across much of the Continent, ruling politicians have very deliberately created a consensus on the main issues: immigration, deeper European integration and corporatist economics. Parties which challenge this consensus are shunned, excoriated and sometimes penalized by the rules on electoral registration or funding. Those within it, by contrast, become complacent. Voters thus turn to the outsiders from sheer frustration."

The "Telegraph" goes on to say that the real significance of Le Pen's electoral success lies in what it indicates about public faith in the state of French democracy. The editorial says the ideals of the Fifth Republic "have been gradually eroded by the EU. The president is no longer sovereign, either in economic affairs or foreign policy, while Euro-regionalism has undermined the unity of the state.

"No wonder French voters have ceased to take the office seriously," it remarks. "The Fifth Republic has been hollowed out by Brussels. Now, the outer shell is crumbling."


An editorial in France's daily "Le Monde" observes that at the end of the 1990s Europe was mainly governed by left-leaning Social Democrats, and the EU occupied itself with finding a just balance between the necessity of producing wealth and the need for its redistribution. But Europe today has turned toward the right, with France sadly leading the way, the paper says.

"Le Monde" says there have been numerous explanations offered for this defeat of the Social Democrats -- the sense of national powerlessness following from the devolution of power to EU institutions, or arising from economic and financial globalization; the common perception of rising crime. But there is one common issue that seems to dominate: immigration.

Europe is facing significant migration from its poorer southern neighbors all over the continent, says the newspaper. This trend necessitates the rethinking of the traditional welfare state, diminishes the cohesion of certain communities and gives rise to a number of fears. It also embodies Europe's main challenge: that of integration.

"Le Monde" says the extreme right does not offer solutions to this problem, or else offers unacceptable ones. The paper suggests that Europe's Social Democrats must reinvent -- and fast -- a workable model of integration.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Gunther Nonnenmacher calls France's presidential election results "a defeat for politics as a whole," and advises France's political class to take the outcome seriously. He, too, suggests that voter frustration was largely responsible for the unexpected result.

However, he says Jean-Marie Le Pen's 17 percent of the vote does not mean -- as some have suggested -- that fascism is on the rise in France. But Nonnenmacher says, "The fact that about one-third of the electorate voted for protest movements from both the right and left, while turnout declined dramatically, shows the strength of popular dissatisfaction with politicians in France. For decades, the same people have been quarrelling about the same issues, without giving voters the impression that their concerns are taken seriously."


In the "Financial Times," Judy Dempsey writes from Valencia, Spain, where EU foreign ministers are concluding a two-day meeting with their North African and Middle Eastern counterparts. She says the outcome of the French presidential election is giving European foreign ministers "much reason to ponder the meaning of European values and its political system."

She writes: "European diplomats are at pains to explain the shifting political constellations in Europe, where right-wing governments are now in power in Italy, Austria and Spain, Portugal and Denmark."

There are several reasons for this trend, says Dempsey. First, globalization has raised concerns among European populations. Unemployment "remains stubbornly high in many EU countries, where both the right and the left have failed to convince voters they can have a stake in the more positive aspects of globalization."

Second, she says, EU enlargement has raised concerns that it will bring cheap labor and increase unemployment further. Mainstream politicians often fail to address these concerns, while similarly failing to explain the benefits of enlargement. Dempsey says a third factor is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the possibility that it will create growing unrest among neighboring states -- and lead to increasing migration, both legal and illegal, to Europe.

She concludes that Europe's voters have sought answers "at the national level to deal with these concerns, in the absence of powerful common institutions that can pool resources and influence to tackle the Middle East's problems."


In the regional daily "Eurasia View," Moscow-based CIS affairs analyst Sergei Blagov looks at some of the Kremlin's diplomatic moves ahead of a two-day summit beginning today in Ashgabat between Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan regarding the division of the Caspian Sea's resources.

Blago says Moscow's diplomatic maneuverings seem to indicate it is intent on preserving its influence and options in case the summit does not produce a final, binding agreement. Russia has much to gain from expanding its share of the sea and its oil and gas reserves, says Blagov, and is loathe to surrender any of its share.

He says the relevant states can divide the sea into proportional -- reflecting the length of each country's shoreline -- or equal shares. "Russia's shore now controls 19 percent of the sea. The country had advocated splitting the seabed into five equal stakes. Kazakhstan, which controls 29 percent of the sea by shoreline, opposed that plan; so did Azerbaijan, whose shore covers 21 percent of the sea."

But Blagov says Russia has some leverage over these nations. "Russian pipelines carry much of Kazakhstan's oil, and Russian tycoons can provide capital to Azerbaijan's fossil-fuel industry." He says Russia "appears to be hedging its bets."

Moscow may intend "to clinch a series of bilateral deals with the littoral Caspian states instead of pushing for an overall solution." He concludes that the Kremlin "may be maneuvering for the richest Caspian windfall possible."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)