French Socialists Get Shot Of Momentum As They Choose Sarkozy's Challenger

Analysis: the first-ever open Socialist party primary has injected new life into France's center-left opposition. But of the two candidates who survived for next Sunday's runoff, François Hollande and Martine Aubry, whoever emerges faces

Aubry and Hollande are set to face off for the chance to challenge Sarkozy
Aubry and Hollande are set to face off for the chance to challenge Sarkozy

PARIS - Jean-François Copé is a sore loser. The leader of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement, Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling center-right party) tried to dampen enthusiasm after the success of Sunday's Socialist primary election. For the first time, voting was not restricted to party members. Although some 2.5 million people participated on Sunday, Mr Copé chose to note that "Only four out of 100 French people voted."

But it would be a mistake for the French right to underestimate the significance of such a turnout.

The primary election attracted almost 6% of the total number of registered voters, about 44.5 million. Out of the 17 million votes that the 2007 Socialist nominee Segolène Royal managed to collect, about 15% participated. In the US, for example, primary elections were introduced in 1910 and became commonplace from 1968 on, and usually mobilize between 8 and 10 % of registered voters.

So far, the Socialist Party is undoubtedly living up to its objectives and ambitions. In a country crippled by a social and economic crisis that has stirred anxiety and bitterness, and where mistrust towards its leaders is at an all-time high, the party has managed to attract the interest of leftist voters. It introduced a ground-breaking democratic innovation, by putting an end to the customary power struggles that led to the election of a single candidate.

There will be a before and after October 9, 2011. The French right itself, once it denounced a ballot that threatened "the secrecy of voting" and would only lead to a "political categorization", is actually adopting this modern kind of participatory democracy. Prime Minister François Fillon, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and even Mr Copé have all agreed that in 2017, the champion of the French right should be designated after a similar kind of primary contest. Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua had already pushed for such a process back in 1994.

The Socialist primary election is a success. But it may not last long. The primary's main role was to provide its designated candidate with an almost irresistible momentum. Elected by the people, and not by the partisans, it was hoped that the candidate would start the presidential campaign a few steps ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy.

But the results of Oct. 9 don't really create that ideal scenario. Although François Hollande was the clear winner with 39% of the votes, he leaves Martine Aubry only 8 points behind, when it was thought he would triumph with an advantage of more than 20 points. Arnaud Montebourg (17%) turned out to be Sunday's genuine surprise, together with Segolène Royal's astounding collapse. Montebourg, the so-called "deglobalization" candidate, who categorized Aubry and Hollande as the "official candidates," two sides of the same coin, could now tip the balance, although his influence is debatable. A primary election is not an internal Socialist meeting.

It looks like it's going to be a delicate week ahead of next Sunday's runoff. The primary has not yet answered the Socialist Party's leadership question. Moreover, Martine Aubry and François Hollande, who at first held very similar political opinions, will now have to do battle to decide who best epitomizes "change" and "togetherness' –as well as who is the Socialist Party's best chance to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy. But they also should not let the fight weaken the party's standing compared to the right.

It looks like it's going to be a particularly open, indecisive and tight second round –at the risk of not granting its winner the credibility and momentum it promised at first.

Read the original article in French

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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