As the late British parliamentarian Enoch Powell famously noted, all political careers end in failure. Powell’s grim maxim haunted Europe last 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 rumours about Blair being unseated by the same kind of brutal putsch that kicked out Margaret Thatcher. Britons are fed up over Iraq and Blair’s closeness to U.S. President George Bush.
Italy is a political zombie. Former PM Silvio Berlusconi, ousted in a razor-thin vote, 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 centre-left coalition of Romano Prodi by promoting political paralysis.
Germany’s new PM, Angela Merkel, has dedicated herself to doing 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. Only 20% of the French still back him. Chirac has one more year in office and is unlikely to run again.
With Chirac offstage, his two would-be successors, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, are waging an embarrassing, increasingly ugly public battle. During the recent riots over employment reform, De Villepin 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 Villepin is accused of trying to frame rival Sarkozy through faked documents and false testimony. Even Chirac is accused of hiding kickbacks in Japan.
Political street fighter Sarkozy has access to police and domestic security agency secret files, hence vast amounts of dirt on everyone, especially his opponents. The hyperactive, 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 five million Muslims back to Africa. In fact, Le Pen, who beat the Socialists in the last election, could very well emerge a front-runner.
Last legs of the left
The left’s amiable leader, Francois Holland, is boring and bereft of ideas. 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, 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.