Long stories short
- Putin said he had no choice but to attack Ukraine, as Biden said for the first time that Russia’s actions there amounted to genocide.
- Johnson apologised but didn’t resign after becoming the first British prime minister to be punished in office for breaking the law (more below).
- US inflation hit 8.5 per cent, its highest rate in 40 years, as UK inflation reached 7 per cent, its highest rate in 30.
- The artist Heather Phillipson was nominated for the Turner Prize for a giant sculpture depicting a swirl of whipped cream on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square.
Spectre of Le Pen
Five years ago Macron cruised to victory. This time he’s in a real race. His rival is the same Trump-Putin fan who wants France for the French and a complete ban on hijabs, but voters from the left and right are drifting her way as they weren’t in 2017. Marine Le Pen’s message of protection from the cost of living is spiced with dog whistles to xenophobes, and it could just work. Le centre may not hold.
For now the polls favour Macron in round two on the 24th, but not by much more than the margin of error:
- He’ll add votes from parties to his left but has already banked millions that would otherwise have gone to the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains. Round-one voters migrated to the fringes, but also to Macron to strengthen him against Le Pen – so he can’t count on a round-two bounce from the traditional parties of the left and right, which did worse on Sunday than in any election since 1945.
- Le Pen can count on a bounce – from the nearly 2.5 million voters who supported the hard-right provocateur Eric Zemmour. He’s explicitly endorsed Le Pen and could tip the balance in her favour in huge swaths of France south of Paris and north of the Cote d’Azur.
- The bigger prize for both run-off candidates is the 22 per cent vote share won by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, hero of the hard left. He told supporters not to give a single vote to Le Pen, but didn’t endorse Macron. Expect mass abstentions instead.
- Instead of campaigning for round one, Macron made a show of international diplomacy to prevent war in Ukraine. It didn’t work.
A Le Pen presidency would, in addition to banning hijabs…
- hold a referendum on limiting access to housing, benefits and healthcare for foreigners including non-French citizens;
- withdraw France from Nato’s command structure, depriving the alliance of its second-biggest military power;
- keep France in the EU but unilaterally cut its contributions to the bloc’s budget.
A Macron presidency might continue to drive down unemployment, which has fallen from 10 to 7.5 per cent since 2017; would probably drop the goal of raising the state pension age from 62 to 65, which Macron admitted on Monday was dividing France; and would definitely keep France at the heart of the EU, which he says Le Pen will damage irreparably by trying to recast it as a federation of nation states.
- There’s a paradox at play in this election. Both candidates are tacking left in the home straight in search of Mélenchon’s 7.7 million supporters, as France continues a long-run drift to the right. From Nice to Marseilles and from the northeast to the Massif Centrale voters are persuading themselves that Le Pen’s new-look, soft-focus nationalism might be acceptable in the Élysée palace.
- Macron says it wouldn’t be. He says a Le Pen presidency would make France a de facto ally of Putin’s Russia and an international outcast. There’s more than a grain of truth in that, but even if he wins Le Pen will still be a political force in 2027, and French term limits mean Macron won’t be.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund invested $2 billion in a new private equity fund founded by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, six months after he left the White House and against the advice of the Saudi fund’s own due diligence panel. The panel warned about the Kushner fund’s excessive fees and “unsatisfactory” operations; about the reputational risk of Kushner’s association with Trump, and about the unwisdom of taking on the bulk of any commercial risk associated with Kushner’s investment decisions. The $2 billion stake was acquired even so, apparently because of Kushner’s close personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US intelligence has said approved the dismembering of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The money may or may not prove a sound investment in relations with the next US president. Trump is far from a shoe-in, even as a nominee. Maybe it’s just a token of gratitude for Kushner’s help brokering US arms sales to Saudi worth $110 billion on Trump’s watch.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
Boris Johnson never seriously looked as if he might resign on the day he became the first UK PM found to have broken the law while in office, but it was closer than it might have been. The reason was his neighbour. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, was handed a fixed penalty notice along with the prime minister and did not expect or like it. The notices were for attending a brief birthday gathering arranged for Johnson by his wife, Carrie. Politico reports that Johnson – who, unbelievably, was also said to be “shocked” by the turn of events – promptly phoned Sunak and got him to agree to a joint statement of remorse. But Sunak then agonised for seven hours over whether to resign. Had he done so, Johnson would have been isolated as never before. As it is, Sunak remains in post for now and the Tory backbenchers who wanted Johnson to go two months ago have mostly withdrawn their letters of no confidence. To note: there may be more fixed penalties to come for Johnson. If so, all bets are off. Required reading: Danny Finkelstein’s column in the Times. He says it’s time to go, war or no war.
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS
Hackers working for Russian military intelligence (the GRU) tried to knock out power to two million Ukrainians earlier this month but were foiled by Ukraine’s “very aggressive” cyber defences, the MIT Technology Review and others report. The GRU unit responsible is known as Unit 74455. The hacking group goes by Sandworm, and Ukrainian officials together with a Slovakian cybersecurity firm said yesterday that the same group is known to have taken down part of Kyiv’s power grid in the winter of 2015-16. Sandworm is “an apex predator” but not infallible, one US expert tells the WSJ. The malware deployed in 2015 was known as Industroyer, and a new version called Industroyer2 was used on 19 March to target nine electricity substations and computers used to control the Ukrainian grid. Why then? The attack coincided with Ukraine’s connection to the EU’s power grid, which has been able to back up Ukraine’s own grid ever since.
The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT
We reported yesterday that officials were starting to ease restrictions on Shanghai’s 25 million people, even though they remain in lockdown thanks to Covid. Closed businesses and limits on activity at Shanghai’s port – the world’s biggest – are having a wider ripple effect. Foxconn and now Pegatron, two giant iPhone makers, have closed their Shanghai plants. So has Tesla. As Robin Harding writes in the FT, container ships are queueing up offshore. Global supply chains that were already in a twist are getting more backed up, not less. That will drive inflation up and Chinese growth down, by up to 4 per cent of national income per month that Shanghai remains in lockdown, according to one model. Can Xi ride this out? Is his third term guaranteed? These are not questions he expected to be facing.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
Rainier and rainier
Regular readers will know Sensemaker is fascinated by the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, which says that for every one-degree rise in sea surface temperature the water content in the air above it goes up by 7 per cent. Well, ocean warming made the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season the rainiest on record, according to a study in Nature Communications. And the three wettest hours of each named storm that year were 8 per cent rainier than they would have been without climate change. 2020’s hurricanes caused 330 deaths and damage worth $41 billion in the US alone. The AP report on the study even mentions the “fundamental rule of physics” at work here, but without mentioning Clausius or Clapeyron. They deserve some credit.
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