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Sensemaker: Macron becalmed

Monday 28 June 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • US jets carried out airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia targets in Iraq and Syria for the second time since Biden became president. 
  • In his first Commons appearance as Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid was expected to dampen hopes of a full reopening of the UK earlier than 19 July. 
  • Wimbledon prepared to open its gates with rain forecast for seven of the next ten days. 

Macron becalmed

In the language of those early sat navs, France is recalibrating. President Macron and Marine Le Pen drew blanks yesterday in the first big regional elections since 2016. Both lead national parties which they hope will propel them to the presidency next year but neither won a single regional race. The socialists and Les Républicains (LR), which looked like dinosaurs of the old left and right when Macron rose to power, roared back as power bases for presidential pretenders largely unknown outside France. Except that with record low turnout “crept back” might be more accurate. 


Does this mean the Macron-Le Pen rematch scheduled for next year is off? Not necessarily. Presidential and regional races are very different beasts. But Macron’s goal of heaving local candidates from his La République en Marche (LREM) party into regional power now looks delusional – LREM won such a low share of the vote in round one of this election (11 per cent) that he couldn’t vote for it in the second. And Le Pen was determined to show her rebranded National Front, now the Rassemblement National, could actually govern, by winning the southeastern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. It lost to LR by 14 percentage points. The upshot is a crop of newly hopeful presidential contenders led by Xavier Bertrand.

Xavier who? Bertrand trounced the far right’s candidate in the northern Hauts-de-France region as the incumbent LR leader, and immediately said the result “gives me the strength to go and seek the support of all the French”. He’s 56, has served under presidents Chirac and Sarkozy and hopes to elbow aside Le Pen next year as too extremist and Macron as a phoney. It could happen. 

Could it happen for anyone else? Yes. Laurent Wauquiez (LR, re-elected in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes) and Valérie Pécresse (formerly of LR, now leader of her own centre-right party, re-elected in the Île de France) both want a shot at the Elysée. Both will argue that a) only true conservatives can be counted on to see off Le Pen and b) a president who fails to put down any hint of grassroots in five years doesn’t deserve a second term.

Is the far right hurting elsewhere? Up to a point. Germany’s Christian Democrats crushed the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland by 17 points in an important recent race in Saxony-Anhalt, and the AfD more broadly has been on the slide in the pandemic. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s plan for domination via the Northern League backfired in 2019 and he now finds himself in a more moderate coalition with Mario Draghi.

Does this mean Britain’s populist Conservatives could stumble in Thursday’s Batley and Spen by-election? Don’t bet on it. 

Back in Paris, Macron is enjoying the presidency as ever, rising above regional races by hosting his annual “Choose France” forum at Versailles (where else?). The object is to woo bankers to France, mainly from Brexit Britain. The only awkwardness is that Ireland consistently woos more of them. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Sub net threat
Russia has conducted open water tests of the biggest new nuclear submarine it’s built since the Cold War. The sub carries nuclear missiles but also serves as mother ship to smaller submarines that could cut internet cables on the ocean floor. The mighty Belgorod is 184 metres long (nearly twice as long as Britain’s longest) and has already prompted the Royal Navy to warn it will deploy a “spy ship” – says the Telegraph – to deter this sort of meddling. The Belgorod was tested in the White Sea at the weekend, according to Russian state media, days after a British destroyer irked Putin by sailing through Ukrainian waters off Crimea in the Black Sea. At the same time a soggy bunch of classified British defence ministry papers were found at a Kent bus stop. They appeared to show the MoD fully expected Putin’s reaction. So they should have. But who on earth left them there? And why?   

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Miami towers
Local authorities are checking the safety records of every high-rise residential building on the low-lying land north of Miami Beach where a tower collapsed early on Saturday. 156 people remain unaccounted for – the confirmed death toll currently stands at nine – after Champlain Towers South pancaked in 11 seconds while most of its residents were asleep. An engineering firm reported serious structural damage to the property in 2018, possibly because a concrete slab under its swimming pool was laid flat rather than at an angle that would have encouraged drainage. The report recommended major repairs that had yet to be undertaken. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Northern heat 
The Pacific Northwest is enduring its most extreme heat wave since records began. A high pressure zone known to forecasters as a heat dome is positioned over Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia, driving temperatures to record highs in Portland and Seattle. The US National Weather Service says the heat wave will be “historic, dangerous, prolonged and unprecedented”. Cooling centres are to be opened for people without air-conditioning and heat records are likely to fall from Canada to northern California, where millions are already under excessive heat warnings. Absent global warming, the chances of this sort of heat at this time of year would be about one in a thousand.  

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Diamonds for Russia 
A UN report says Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic are there to secure access for Russia to the country’s gold and diamond reserves, rather than to bring stability as Moscow claims. The mercenaries are known to have been operating in the CAR since 2017 and to have organised the murder of three Russian journalists investigating their work. The report says supposedly unarmed Russian “military advisors” linked to the pro-Putin businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin have led CAR troops into battle, opened fire on a truck full of civilians and led government soldiers in an attack on a mosque where rebels were said to be hiding. Russian officials deny the claims in the report, which also accuses the mercenaries of participating in torture.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Home v office
Europe’s banks are leaning towards working from home while American ones definitely want staff in the office. And the FT suggests this signals “a fundamental split in working practices”. The details: UBS has said two thirds of its 72,000 staff can permanently mix WFH and being in the office. HSBC, Standard Chartered and France’s Société Générale have all moved in a similar direction while the titans of Wall Street want to go back to the world as it was. “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office and we want you in the office,” Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman told his staff. Many will agree that was always part of the fun of living in New York, but it will be HR departments and applicant-per-vacancy numbers that tells us who has called this right.

The week ahead

UK: 28/06 – Boris Johnson expected to make announcement on Covid restrictions; new health secretary Sajid Javid addresses Commons on plans to ease measures, 29/06 – England play Germany at Wembley in Euro 2020 last-16 tie; IPPR think tank issues release on post-Brexit delays in right to remain applications; Home Affairs select committee publishes report on violence towards retail workers, 30/06 – EU Settlement Scheme application deadline; Malta and Barbados among places added to Covid travel green list; independent anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton appears at select committee session on modern slavery, 01/07 – Batley and Spen by-election; Orange Order holds parades across Northern Ireland to commemorate Battle of the Somme, 02/07 – Boris Johnson hosts German chancellor Angela Merkel; Supreme Court hands down judgment in government legal action over blood pressure drug delay

World: 28/06 – Mobile World Congress starts in Barcelona; Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping hold virtual talks; US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken meets the Pope; NHL Stanley Cup Finals begin, 29/06 – Elon Musk delivers keynote at Mobile World Congress, 30/06 – France set to fully lift lockdown restrictions except in nightclubs; Virgin Orbit rocket launch; US vice president Kamala Harris expected to speak at Generation Equality Forum, 01/07 – EU digital covid certificate scheme comes into use; anniversary of handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China; Xi Jinping expected to speak in Tiananmen Square on centenary of founding of Chinese Communist Party, 02/07 – World UFO Day, 03/07 – former president Donald Trump holds rally in Florida; Belarus Independence Day, 04/07 – US Independence Day

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Giles Whittell

Xavier Greenwood

Photographs Getty Images

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