France: Elections not likely to change development cooperation policy

All major presidential candidates promise in their platforms to increase the French development cooperation contribution to 0.7 per cent of GDP and yet "I bet you a bottle of champagne that whoever gets elected, when we gather again five years from now that promise will not have been met".

Jean-Michel Severino, the author of the bet, was speaking on behalf of Emmanuel Macron in a public debate about French international relations and development cooperation among representatives from the five leading presidential candidates, a contest so close that four of them are deemed likely to pass to the second and final round next May.

As former director-general of the French Development Agency, Severino knows what he is talking about when he says that "almost any other issue has a stronger constituency than development cooperation" and therefore the 0.7 per cent promise will not be high among the priorities of any politician.

European parliamentarian Yannick Jadot, speaking on behalf of the socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, was the most vocal defender of development cooperation, arguing that "four centuries of hegemony are at the base of our current development" and therefore cooperation should not be limited to official development assistance (ODA) but include a "do not harm policy, ending current and proposed looting commercial agreements with developing countries".

With less than 10 per cent of the votes in the polls, Hamon is the only one of the first five candidates seen as without chances of making it to the second round.

Bernard Feraud, one of the founders of the non-governmental organization "SOS Racisme", spoke in representation of Leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, whose rise in the opinion polls is surprising all analysts.

He proposed that not only should French cooperation be doubled to reach 0.7 per cent but that half of that sum should go to least developed countries.

In representing the right-wing candidate Francois Fillon, senator Jean Bizet promised more mobilization of public funds in support of private investment, while Bertrand Dutheil de la Rochere, a member of the "strategic committee" of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, wants ODA to be prioritized to those sectors that can help "stop migration", favouring issues like agriculture and professional training, as well as reinforcing the power of partner States.

The representatives from the far right and the left were both critical of the European Union, but while Dutheil de la Rochere characterized his stand as "anti-globalization", Feraud was more specific: he is against the policies of the IMF and the World Bank but in favour of UNCTAD and UNDP (the UN agencies in charge of trade and development, respectively) and even sympathized with the BRICS (the group formed by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as a welcomed power shift.

The spokesman of Benoit Hamon emphasized instead that "only Europe can save us" in front of the "Trump- Putin threat."

The far-right representative reminded the public (mainly students of the School of Political Sciences, where the debate was held) that France "did not fall in the trap of believing [US Secretary of State] Colin Powell when he showed slides of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" and should not prematurely judge about chemical weapons in Syria without an international investigation.

In representing centrist candidate Macron, Severino commented that in the face of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, "nationalism is not the answer, but we need to listen [to] what the citizens are saying" and argued that "the IMF, World Bank (of which he was vice-president for Asia) and trade, they are all necessary, but need to be transformed" with a stronger regulation of banks as a most urgent step.

The current distribution of French ODA, with 60 per cent of the budget for bilateral (country to country) cooperation, 20 per cent channelled multilaterally (World Bank and UN agencies) and 20 per cent through the EU was not challenged, nor the assumption that Africa should be a priority, followed closely by "the Mediterranean" and "la Francophonie".

Without mentioning US president Trump, the representative of Marine Le Pen agreed with his request of NATO partners to increase their military budgets and argued that 2 per cent of GDP should go to the army and that promotion of the arms industries should be part of the economic recovery policies.

On the specific issue of nuclear arms, the spokesman of Francois Fillon argued that the nuclear arsenal was "essential" for "the image and respect of France"... while hoping it would never have to be used.

The representative of Melenchon defended the need for "strategic autonomy", while at the same time emphasizing that French nuclear forces have "no visible threats for which they could be useful".

The Socialist Party wants more public debate on defense issues and wonders if a huge budget is necessary, envisaging the United Nations disarmament negotiations as a promising alternative.

Severino briefly promised to "keep the dissuasion capabilities at the present level".

The issue of migration was the one where the "Republican front" expressed itself.
When Marine Le Pen's father (and founder of her National Front) made it to the second round of the French elections in 2002, all other parties, left, center and right, formed a "Republican front" to vote against him.

As much as Madame Le Pen has tried to distance herself from her father's fascist sympathies, it is very likely that even if she wins in the first round next April 23, as some polls predict, all other candidates might unite against her in the second round of voting in May.

Le Pen's representative, Dutheil de la Rochere, considered migrants as a "reserve army" (of whom he did not specify) against France, arguing that assimilation is not working and "multi-culturalism equals decomposition."

All the other four panellists disagreed, with nuances in their views on migration.

Severino said that those policies would not have allowed his family of Italian roots to be in France.

Feraud reminded the audience that "all empires in history were multi-cultural" and said that "everybody deserving it should be admitted to France".

Jadot commented that [German chancellor Angela] "Merkel was left alone in her sensitive policy of accepting refugees" and Europe was now engaging in "shameful agreements with Libya and Turkey to forcefully retain migrants and refugees" before reaching Europe.

Bizet argued for a common European policy on migration to be negotiated, "in full respect of the Geneva Conventions on refugees".

Throughout the debate, neither Asia nor Latin America were mentioned at all.

By Roberto Bissio. Roberto Bissio is Coordinator of Social Watch, an nternational network of citizens' organisations.

Source: SUNS - South North Development Monitor, 8446  Thursday 20 April 2017.