World News You Missed This Week
French elections, the crisis in Qatar, and protests in Morocco
1. France’s Parliamentary Elections: Macron’s En Marche Wins a Majority
The second round of parliamentary elections in France this week yielded a majority for Republique En Marche (REM), the recently formed party of France’s President Emmanuel Macron. REM secured 319 of the 577 seats in Parliament, with Democratic Movement (MoDem), their allies, providing an additional 42 seats. This actually marked a lower yield than expected for REM; some had previously worried about the prospect of an unchecked one party system in the face of an REM majority of over 60 percent.
The elections marked a further blow to France’s mainstream parties, with the right wing Republicans winning less than a fifth of votes (113 seats), while the Socialists, who had been in power since 2012, winning just 29 seats. The far-right National Front — whose leader, Marine Le Pen, lost handedly to Mr. Macron in the presidential election — secured just 8 seats.
Like Mr. Macron, most of the candidates REM fielded were generally younger, and most had little to no political experience. 40 percent of the new parliament are in office for the first time. The average age of the new parliament, 48 years eight months, is about 6 years less than the previous one. France will also be represented by the most number of women ever, with 223 seats (nearly 39 percent), and will also include the most minority MPs (eight).
Despite this victory, Mr. Macron’s road ahead will not be easy. Historically low turnout (only 43 percent voted Sunday; the lowest mark since 1958) weakens his mandate and highlights the level of dissatisfaction with the political system in France. Despite the parliamentary majority and a presidential victory of 66 percent, it is difficult to gauge how much popularity Macron actually enjoys. He secured only just over a quarter of the vote in the first round of his election, with a large portion of his support in the second round coming from voters repudiating Ms. Len Pen. Macron’s pro-EU, reformist agenda — the liberalization of France’s heavily protected labor market is Macron’s top priority — may therefore run into heavy opposition and protests from blue collar and lower income workers. Other issues such as high unemployment (particularly among those under 25), low growth, and national security (an attack just occurred in Paris’ Champs-Elysees on Monday), will also prove difficult to tackle.
He will also need to ensure competency and unity within REM. With so many new faces, the new parliament’s learning curve will be steep. The centrist party achieved broad appeal by taking in ideas and politicians from both the right and the left of the spectrum, but this may quickly become its undoing if factions form within the party itself. His allies in the MoDem have so far done him more bad than good; two ministers from the party have resigned over allegations of inappropriate use of EU funds. Mr. Macron’s upending of the French political status quo has so far been remarkable, but heavy will lie his newfound crown.
2. The Crisis in Qatar
Three weeks ago, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, along with Egypt, leveled heavy sanctions against Qatar, blocking their airspace, ceasing all imports, and expelling Qataris expats living in their borders. This has created a diplomatic crisis, one that threatens stability in an already volatile region. Qatar, the world’s wealthiest nation per capita and the biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), has so far weathered the sanctions. Sharing only a small land border with Saudi Arabia, they have been forced to airlift food and other unavailable goods.
The Saudi-led actions against Qatar have supposedly been undertaken because of Qatar’s support for terrorist groups and its warm relations with Iran. There are reports that Russian hackers may have inflamed tensions by planting a fake news story that Qatar’s monarch, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, made a speech supporting terrorist groups, however this has not been thoroughly verified. Qatar has indeed previously supported groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and may also be funding groups in Iraq and Syria, as well as Hamas, the organization running the Gaza Strip (considered a terrorist organization by most of the West). Qatar has also maintained relations with Iran, however, they can hardly be called allies. It should be noted that the Saudis also fund extremist groups of their own and, along with the UAE, have been fighting a brutal war in Yemen for almost two years.
The onus for the sanctions may be more pragmatic than ideological. Qatar is a direct competitor economically and politically with the Saudis and Emiratis in the region. The countries also do not take kindly to Qatar’s ownership of Al-Jazeera, a media company that dominates news coverage of the region that has long been accused of being the kingdom’s mouthpiece, spreading propaganda against the countries in question, and portraying groups Qatar bankrolls in a kinder light.
It is hardly coincidental that these countries initiated such actions just a week after President Trump’s visit to the region. President Trump seemed to give countries such as Saudi Arabia the go-ahead to act as they please in the region, as long as they were fighting terrorism and Iran. In a series of tweets he even seemed to support the sanctions against Qatar.
So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding…
extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to walk the US stance back a bit, and with good reason. The US can hardly afford strained tensions with the Qataris, on who’s territory they have a crucial military base. Secretary Tillerson has vowed to work to ease tensions, calling for a summit between all countries involved. Meanwhile Turkey, a close ally of Qatar, has intervened on its behalf. They have made food deliveries past the blockade, and have also sent troops to conduct training exercises in the country.
So far, there has been no escalation in tensions. Qatar’s huge LNG reserves give it quite a bit of leverage; if the other countries try to block their vital economic lifeline, importing countries such as China would then quickly get involved. It is not hard to see the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to this crisis, though Qatar has refused to negotiate until the blockade against them is lifted.
Crucially, the tensions have reverberated to other parts of the region. For example, Hamas, as if testing the diplomatic winds, have sought to improve relations with Egypt. Iran, now seemingly more marginalized than before, will be that much harder to predict and engage. The region can hardly afford more instability.
3. Morocco Protests
Morocco is facing unrest of its own. Protests started in October in the northern Rif region, an impoverished part of the country with a large ethnic Berber population. They originally began over the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fisherman in Al Hoceima, the capital of the Rif, was killed as he was trying to recover fish stock confiscated by police.
The protests have reached new heights recently after the arrest of Nasser Zefzafi, a leader of Al Hirak al Chaabi, or Popular Movement, as the protests movement is called. Demonstrations have sprung up in Rabat, Morocco’s capital and Casablanca, its economic hub.
Scores have been arrested so far; some report 4 to 10 arrests per day. What started as a protest over Mr. Fikri’s death has morphed into a repudiation of the government over corruption, poverty, inequality, and marginalization of people in the Rif region, as well as minorities like the Berber.
Morocco is one of the region’s few stable countries. Its economy has been growing steadily for the past decade, and improvements have been made in health and education. It was one of the few countries in the region to avoid the turmoil of the 2011 Arab Spring. Morocco’s King, Mohammed VI, was then the only ruler who acquiesced to the demands of his country’s protestors, enacting constitutional reforms that ceded greater power to parliament and provided more individual freedoms.
However, Morocco remains corrupt, impoverished, and unequal. The top 20 percent own almost half of national income, while the bottom 20 own about 7 percent. A tenth of the population is unemployed. Many vital parts of the economy are controlled by the makhzen, members of the King’s royal court. The current government has been in power for only three months; the country had been in political gridlock for almost half a year before then, with parties unable to negotiate a ruling coalition.
Though these protests are the most serious Morocco has seen since the Arab Spring, they are unlikely to create major upheaval, at least for now. Just as in the 2011 iteration, government forces have responded with a relatively light touch, and anyway, protest leaders do not list the removal of King Mohammed as part of their grievances. Government officials have promised to invest in the region to improve livelihoods. That would be a start.