Macron’s ambitions face test in high-stakes EU polls

President Emmanuel Macron will find it tricky to challenge the dominance of the conservative European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats in the 751-seat parliament. (AFP)
Updated 24 May 2019

Macron’s ambitions face test in high-stakes EU polls

  • The EU election represents a critical juncture for Emmanuel Macron
  • Sources close to Macron say a bad loss could prompt a major cabinet reshuffle

PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron this weekend faces a critical test of his ambitions to reform France and champion a liberal Europe in European Parliament elections where his own party risks losing to the far-right.
The latest opinion surveys show the far-right National Rally (RN) outpolling Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) by between 0.5-2 percentage points, after months where the two were neck-and-neck.
Analysts say that two years into his five-year term, the EU election represents a critical juncture for Macron and will influence whether the 41-year-old president can continue reforming in what he calls the “second act” of his time in office.
Macron has made no secret of the importance of the polls in France Sunday, telling regional newspapers this week the elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat.”
At stake is the youthful president’s vision of implementing further pro-business reforms in France, while emerging as a champion of more integration among EU member states.
Losing to Marine Le Pen’s RN — formerly known as the National Front — could be a glaring blow to those ambitions.
Sources close to Macron say a bad loss could prompt a major cabinet reshuffle, with the job of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe seen as being on the line.
“Symbolically, losing European elections in his own country would be seen as a repudiation of someone so pro-European,” said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute think-tank.
“What is at stake for Emmanuel Macron is to have an influence in the future European parliament. This is not a given.”
Macron will find it tricky to challenge the dominance of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the 751-seat parliament.
His European allies, grouped together in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), may only end up with some 100 seats.
“If you don’t have a position in the European parliament then your European influence is limited,” said a French presidential official.
“This is what is at stake in the elections in the face of the nationalist risk.”
The elections also come at a prickly time in Macron’s relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is due to leave office in 2021 but who the French president wanted to cultivate as an ally in reforming Europe.
Merkel is unhappy with Macron challenging the EPP which she backs, while tensions have flared over Brexit, the choice of the next EU commission chief and France’s decision to increase its budget deficit.
“The European political landscape is very fractured, there is no leadership and Macron has not succeeded in imposing his,” said Jean-Thomas Lesueur, political scientist at the Franco-Belgian Thomas More Institute.
After an initial burst of optimism, the “Germans became disenchanted quite quickly,” he said.
The elections come with Macron still shaken after six months of sometimes violent anti-government protests by the “yellow vest” movement which prompted him to announce tax cuts for the working classes and a rise in the minimum wage.
The protests have shrunk in size, but Macron’s popularity ratings remain leaden with the president painfully aware his two predecessors both lasted only one term without leaving any major mark.
Sources said if the LREM falls behind the RN all eyes will be on the margin to determine the magnitude of the reaction.
“If there is nothing in it, behind or in front, I don’t see a reshuffle. But if we are three to four points behind the RN, or below 20 percent, people within the ruling party will start to ask questions,” said a person close to Macron, who asked not to be named.
“And this will require a change in personnel,” the source said.
A minister, also speaking on condition of anonymity, added: “If we are far behind the RN then things are going to shake. There will be a big reshuffle. I don’t see how we can lose the elections” and not change the prime minister.
For Brice Teinturier from the polling institute Ipsos in France, a victory for Macron’s party would give the government some “political oxygen” and capacity to allow reforms to continue.
“But if they are overtaken by the RN — and not just by 0.5 but two percentage points — this will be a failure and the capacity of the government to reform will be something that is merely hypothetical,” he said.


11 million North Koreans are undernourished: UN investigator

Quintana said collective farming and the failure to allow farmers to benefit from individual plots of land is further exacerbating food insecurity. (AFP)
Updated 37 min 53 sec ago

11 million North Koreans are undernourished: UN investigator

  • The resumption of Mt Kumgang tours has been repeatedly mentioned as a possibility by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in recent years

UNITED NATIONS: Food insecurity in North Korea “is at an alarming level,” with nearly half the population — 11 million people — undernourished, the UN independent investigator on human rights in the country said Tuesday.
Tomas Ojea Quintana told the General Assembly’s human rights committee that 140,000 children are estimated to be suffering from “undernutrition,” including 30,000 who “face an increased risk of death.”
Quintana said the government, which has primary responsibility for ensuring access to food, “is violating its human rights obligations due to its failing economic and agricultural policies.”
In addition, he said, “climate conditions, infertile land, natural disasters and the negative impact of sanctions have contributed to further food insecurity.”
More broadly, Quintana said he has seen no improvement in North Korea’s human rights situation during his three years as special rapporteur.
“The country’s economic resources are being diverted away from the essential needs of the people,” he said. “Pervasive discrimination in the public distribution system means that ordinary citizens, especially farmers and people in rural areas, have not been receiving any rations.”
Quintana said collective farming and the failure to allow farmers to benefit from individual plots of land is further exacerbating food insecurity.
“At the same time, the government has failed to put in place conditions where people can securely engage in trade and exchange in marketplaces without facing criminalization, extortion and other forms of abuse,” he said. Nonetheless, he added, the vast majority of North Koreans “are now engaged in such market activity for their survival.”
Ironically, he said, the government’s failure to regulate nascent market activity is creating increasing inequality based on wealth, “where only those with money have access to basic rights such as education, health care, freedom of movement and adequate housing.”
Quintana said severe restrictions on basic freedoms continue to be widespread, including surveillance and close monitoring of civilians.
“North Korean people continue to live in the entrenched fear of being sent to a political prison camp,” called a kwanliso, he said.
“If you are considered to be a spy of the hostile countries or a traitor, when in reality you are simply exercising your basic human rights, you can be suddenly taken by agents of the Ministry of State Security to a kwanliso and never be seen again,” Quintana said. “Suspects’ families are never informed of the decisions or of the whereabouts of their relatives.”
On the issue of North Koreans who have fled to China, Quintana said in the past six months he has received information from family members living in South Korea of an increasing number of these escapees being detained in China.
He said any North Korean who escapes should not be forcibly returned because there are substantial grounds they would be tortured or subjected to other human rights violations.
“I appreciate the government of China’s increased engagement with me on this concern, and I hope that this will lead to greater compliance with international standards,” he said.
Quintana said North Korea has accepted 132 recommendations from other UN member states, including one “to grant immediate, free and unimpeded access to international humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to the most vulnerable groups, including prisoners.” He said this could lead to the first international access to places of detention, “and could therefore be an opportunity to improve prison conditions.”