France And Russia, Why Democracy Needs Healthy Opposition

Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron during their meeting in Versailles, on May 29
Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron during their meeting in Versailles, on May 29

"A Masterstroke," "A Tsunami," "The Takeover." Newspapers in France summoned their best metaphors this morning to describe what already looks like a landslide — yes, another favorite electoral metaphor — in favor of Emmanuel Macron's party in yesterday's first round of legislative voting.

Ahead of next Sunday's second and final round, the new president's party looks on target to have between 400 and 440 seats in the 577-member National Assembly. That would hand the 39-year-old president the largest majority enjoyed by a French leader under the current Fifth Republic, founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

The remaining members in the parliament will likely be split between the three major remaining parties: center-right Les Républicains, far-right National Front, and far-left France Unbowed, while the Socialist Party that ruled for the past five years has been largely annihilated. At first glance, it seems as though an overwhelming majority of the French electorate has rallied behind Macron — a bold and talented newcomer — to give him carte blanche to push forward a sweeping series of reforms of the country's economic and political system that many agree are long overdue.

Dig a bit deeper, however, and we see a less rosy picture for the state of French democracy: a record-high 51.3% of the electorate did not turn out to vote yesterday, the highest abstention rate in memory. The cold hard reality is that Macron will likely govern with an unprecedented majority based on the support of less than one in every five voters.

As Le Figaro notes in its editorial this morning, Macron has "dynamited it all." But beyond the questions about the democratic legitimacy of such a majority, the expected result raises concerns about how the unrepresented opposition will make its voice heard over the next five years. Especially when Macron is planning to use executive decrees to swiftly pass a labor reform that goes well beyond the one passed just over a year ago, and which had protesters bringing the country to a standstill for weeks.

A healthy democracy is more than freely elected rulers — it also must be nourished by a real opposition. On the other side of the European continent, this is a fact that Russians will express today, in the streets. All things being relative, President Vladimir Putin is a popular leader who was voted into office. But his ruling majority has long remained unchallenged in the halls of the country's institutions. But today, on Russia Day, thousands are expected to take to the streets of major Russian cities in anti-government demonstrations, to show that when their voice can't be heard in the halls of power, opponents will always find other ways to speak out. The movement is led by Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption activist, who himself has reportedly already been arrested this morning, as he was in March during another nationwide protest.

Like everything that's man-made, democracy is imperfect. It requires finding a subtle balance between determination and care, action and patience, majority and opposition. Stifle your rivals and, sooner or later, they'll come back to haunt you. At that point, the temptation for either side is to take aim at democracy itself. Both French and Russian history have textbook examples of both.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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