• A second round for France?

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    EI SUN OH

    THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Manila came and went, without much of a bang, reaching consensus where consensus could be found, and remaining essentially silent on issues deemed perhaps too sensitive and controversial. This is of course in stark contrast to a few previous Asean summits where attempted “forced” consensus either stayed being nothing more than “attempts”, or was even “made” to be withdrawn. Such is the nature of a regional organization still exploring the ultimate options for its continued existence.

    And such is also a reflection of the resilience and the flexibility of its continued existence. Asean member states yield very little, if any, of their respective sovereignty to the intergovernmental organization. Yet, they try to seek consensus on matters of common interest. A little sung but crucial item of Asean cooperation is perhaps in the field of education, where Asean countries share expertise and best practices in language training as well as mathematics and science skills, for example, which would of course be beneficial to the vast Asean population in the long term. And Asean remains pragmatic and in tune with the trends of the time. Strategic concerns in the early days of Asean, for example, gradually gave way to economic cooperation that is vital to the Southeast Asian trading states, culminating recently in the formation of the Asean Economic Community.

    I cannot help but again briefly compare and contrast Asean with the European Union. The EU, or at least its previous incarnations, actually started even more “modestly” than Asean, having essentially been an attempt toward a common market for coal and steel—important commodities for the reconstruction and re-industrialization of Europe after a devastating continent-wide war—for just a few European countries. Over the years, however, euphoria rose among many EU members, and ambition swelled among many EU bureaucrats, as EU’s membership expanded. The key Europhile phrase of forming “an ever closer union” became the mantra for European politicians and laypersons alike, with individual EU member states essentially ceding portions of their sovereignty to the EU headquarters in Brussels. Euroskepticism has always been around, with the United Kingdom having famously opted not to join the Euro currency. And of course, things came to a head last year, when the UK voted to withdraw from the EU.

    And a similar “euroexit” trend seems to be in vogue in France as well, as Marine Le Pen, the euroskeptic candidate from the far-right National Front, garnered enough votes to enter the second round of the French presidential election. I do have a liking for this sort of “second round” election system, whereby a run-off is called for the two top vote-getters if no majority winner emerges in the first round. It sort of buttresses the popular mandate of whoever wins the race eventually. And, especially in developing countries with at best pseudo-democratic political systems, it lowers a bit the chances of the incumbent or powerful candidates from splitting the opponents’ vote bases by means of sponsoring or inspiring many additional opposite candidates, thereby winning outright in a “first past the pole” contest. Of course, “second rounds” incur additional expenditures, but democracy is never free in the first place.

    The French presidential election model also evolved over time. A term used to be seven years but now only five. And granted France is indeed a famously romantic and liberal country, but it also a highly centralized one.

    Major French political powers lie undoubtedly in the national government. Although there is a prime minister usually appointed from among the ranks of the majority party in the national assembly, the president is unquestionably the chief executive. Such is the political arrangement of the “Fifth Republic,” shaped mainly by the strongman and war hero, Charles de Galle.

    And this is again a revolutionary time for France. Neither of the two candidates who entered second round hail from the traditional major parties of France. Although the Le Pen family has been running for the French presidency since at least Marine’s father’s time, their party has remained thus far a decidedly fringe one, with an overwhelmingly nationalistic ideology. But the recent wave of terrorist attacks in France, which are largely blamed on immigrants, gradually propped up the National Front’s anti-immigrant agenda. Although Le Pen may or may not be elected president in the end, her surge into the French political mainstream reflects at least a yearning among the French voters for change, perhaps any change, from the status quo.

    The other second-round candidate, Macron, at barely 39 years old, also appeals to calls for “fresh” political faces and away from the “recycled” politicians. Much media attention has focused on Macron’s age difference with his wife who is a quarter century his senior. This is strictly not even a scandal, as it involves only a candidate’s legitimate amorous preference, and it certainly pales in comparison with the myriad extramarital affairs and unconventional “love” arrangements of the current and quite a few former French presidents. The average French voter, unlike their American or perhaps even Filipino counterparts who may find issues in their politicians’ private oddities, apparently just shrugs off such minor matters and moves on. And both France and Europe need to move on in these difficult times.

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