French head to polls in presidential election

First round voting begins in overseas territories as incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy appears set to face a stern test.

More than 44 million French voters are to go to the polls for the first round of a presidential election that represents a serious threat to incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy‘s tenure in the post.

While predictions of a high abstention rate and a strong protest vote have left the outcome uncertain, opinion polls point towards Francois Hollande, Sarkozy’s main Socialist challenger, replacing his conservative rival.

The two 57-year-old political leaders are on course to finish in the top two in Sunday’s polling, thus setting them up to square off in a second round vote on May 6.

The result of that vote will decide who is France’s president for the next five years.

Voting began on Saturday in France’s overseas territories, which are mainly islands dotted around the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

On Sunday, voting will continue in 85,000 polling stations across the country’s European mainland. Voting will begin at 8am local time (06:00 GMT) and continue until 8pm (18:00 GMT).

Voting estimates will then be immediately published, giving what has been a traditionally accurate assessment of how the polls will stand once results are finalised.

In all, 10 candidates are in the race, with Hollande and Sarkozy trailed by far-right leader Marine Le Pen, hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and veteran centrist Francois Bayrou. A handful of outsiders round out the field.

Once the first round is over, the top two candidates will face each other in the final poll, with the run-up to that including a televised debate.

Spotlight coverage of April 22 presidential election

Hollande says that Sarkozy has trapped France in a spiral of austerity and job losses, and has called for the European response to the debt crisis to be more pro-growth.

Sarkozy, meanwhile, says that his rival is weak-willed and would spark panic in financial markets by adopting an approach that involves increased government spending.

Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from Paris, said that Sarkozy faces a stiff challenge due to his “extraordinary” unpopularity.

“A lot of the people voting will be putting their ballot paper into the ballot box more against Sarkozy than perhaps for the candidate they eventually vote for,” he said.

Since Saturday, there has been no sign of any of the rhetoric that has characterised an increasingly heated contest, as French law prohibits campaigning and opinion polls on the eve of voting.

Voters went about their business without being accosted by pamphleteers, the campaigns’ websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds were left without updates and broadcasters had to find other subjects to interview.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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Psychos in charge of World Politics

A fascinating peek into the heads of world leaders.

Psychopathology And World Politics
Author: Ralph Pettman
Publisher: World Scientific
Publishing, 250 pages

THE list of apparently “unhinged” national leaders is distressingly lengthy. The 20th century gave us the maddest and baddest of all time, Adolf Hitler. But there were many others.

Among them, Jean Bedel Bokassa (or to give him his full title: “His Imperial Majesty Bokassa the First, Emperor of Central Africa by the will of the Central African people, united within the national political party, the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa).” Myanmar’s crackpot dictator Ne Win, who changed the denominations of his country’s banknotes to his lucky numbers: 15, 35, 45, 75 and 90. Alleged cannibal Ida Amin of Uganda. And the absurdly vain, self-proclaimed “Genius of the Carpathians,” Nicolae Ceauescu of Romania, who died in a hail of bullets fired by his own soldiers, whose loyalty and patience he had finally exhausted by 1989.

Mental illness and abnormal or maladaptive behaviour has all too often shared and sharply affected the stage of global politics. Prof Ralph Pettman looks at why this is so. And what the consequences might be, or have been.

What happens when a leader’s mind ceases to function in what we might call a proper or normal manner? How does this impinge on world affairs? What is to be done, for example, when a statesman ceases to act in a seemingly sane fashion and yet still commands the loyalty of those who keep him or her in power? What to do when a leader’s advisers have a less than sufficient grasp of political realties themselves? Indeed, how can we react when a whole society goes insane, as happened in Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the late 1970s?

Prof Pettman is an informed voice on such matters, and well positioned to inspect the broader canvas on which these questions have been painted. He is a member of the editorial board of advisers of Global Change, Peace and Security, a member of the international advisory board of the European Journal Of International Relations, and a member of the advisory boards of International Politics and Religion. And he brings a wealth of insight to this multi-disciplinary topic.

Rather than provide a comprehensive account on this unwieldy realm of study, which would be beyond the scope of a single work, what this book does is first describe psychopathology in general terms and its relationship to world affairs in the first two chapters. Prof Pettman then deftly moves on to the four lynchpins of this penetrating work, chapters three to six, entitled: Denial, Truth, Delusion, and Reality, respectively.

The author cleverly cherry-picks case studies to illuminate his points, and through this methodology we learn just how fragile sanity in the halls of power can be. Hitler, the most disturbing figure in Prof Pettman’s rogues gallery, was beset by a range of psychopathological conditions, which his doctors treated with no less than 73 kinds of “medication” including sedatives, hypnotics, tonics, vitamins, hormones, cocaine and methamphetamine. Der Führer’s brain chemistry was also adversely affected by Parkinson’s disease.

Britain’s most illustrious-ever leader, Winston Churchill, was prone to bouts of bipolar depression, Prof Pettman notes. And he theories that US President Ronald Reagan was already suffering from the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s when he made the authorisations that resulted in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s.

The life and times and mental ailments of the psychologically paranoid US President Richard Nixon get especially rigorous attention from Prof Puttman. While the Vietnam War was raging over 13,000km east of Washington DC, another war was taking place inside Nixon’s head. One between the man who regarded himself as a bold statesman and moral leader, battling the “insecure loner who always thought people were looking down on him or out to get him.”

We also get to read about the psychological frailties of Woodrow Wilson, the only world leader to have ever attracted the scholarly attention of Sigmund Freud (Freud, the “father of psychology”, crops up a lot in this book). Wilson’s passivity at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference was apparently due to feeling of inadequacy brought about by an over-dominating father.

This is all powerful heady stuff, and is pure gold for readers who have ever wondered how so many world leaders – past and present – tick with such a peculiar and menacing tok.

In general, Prof Pettman seems to concur with Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But he doesn’t seem to go as far as the stance held by the late Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, who said: “In government, the scum rises to the top.” Nevertheless, the professor does skate close….

While not answering all the questions it presents – quite an impossible task – this book is a valuable contribution to the field of how international politics intertwines with modern psychology, and will also likely be instructive not only for better understanding of current world affairs, but also concerning the perennial issue of conflict resolution.


Kopitiam, truly Malaysia Boleh!

Ah, for that nice cuppa in the good old kopitiam

I GREW up drinking coffee like plain water. Kopi-Owas served from morning till late at night in my home in Penang. And the best coffee was the one we bought from the nearby kopitiam.

An open-air kopitiam (coffee shop) in Bendemee...

An open-air kopitiam (coffee shop) in Bendemeer, Singapore.

It was common, in those days, for us to tar-pau coffee by the kettle. So when there were visitors, or when the men sat down to play mahjong, the young ones usually had to bring an empty kettle to the kopitiam for it to be filled to the brim, minus the sugar.

Where I grew up, there was even a small coffee mill nearby, and I enjoyed watching the men at work. Rumour has it that they added some special ingredients into the coffee to make the people addicted to their brand.

So where do you think are the 100 best kopitiams in Malaysia?

Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen has challenged the Malaysia-Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors General Association to compile such a list to showcase to the world.

And the minister is correct to say that our kopitiam is a unique heritage that can only be found in Malaysia and that it is time to promote the kopitiam globally.

The kiasu people across the Causeway might disagree but I believe we should quickly trademark this heritage by taking a leaf out of the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tagline and declare this heritage, “Kopitiam, truly Malaysia”.

Some of us may think that the franchise upmarket coffee houses like Starbucks, Coffee Bean and San Francisco are on the top of every country’s list but if you do a search on the Internet, you will find lists for the best coffee shops in the UK, the US, Japan, Australia, etc. and these global brands will not be found there.

Seriously, I do wonder why people want to spend so much money for a cuppa when the real thing is actually found at our humble kopitiam.

I am glad that our own Malaysian versions of franchised coffee houses have sprouted up. Whether their roots are from Ipoh, Kuang, George­town or some other old town, they have cleverly linked their names to the ubiquitous kopitiam.

So when you enter these places, where I am told the wifi access is the fastest, you still get a tinge of nostalgia as the layout and ambience al­­ways pull you back into a different era.

I am indeed quite curious as to where the list of 100 top kopitiams will come from. Will they be the modern-day kopitiam or the real thing nestled in some small town throughout our country?

The minister has mentioned that tourists prefer to patronise the franchise outlets because of better hygienic conditions. So it is time for the association, set up in 1946, and with more than 20,000 members, to push their mem­bers to adhere to high standards.

And financial institutions should do their part to help them groom kopitiam operators and instil greater professionalism among them.

Instead of a crowded franchise at KLCC, I would rather be in a friendly small town set-up, like Sitiawan, sipping kopi-O while having my roti bakar with kaya and butter and two half-boiled eggs.

Except that I will also have my faithful iPad2 next to me connected to a highspeed wifi while I engage in conversation with the owner, in his white singlet.

I will be sharing YouTube videos with him while he tells me his grandfather stories. And as he browses through The Star, I will show him how the newspaper can talk to him because of iSnap. That, truly, must be a kopitiam that should be on the top of the 100 list.

SUNDAY STARTERS By SOO EWE JIN > Deputy executive editor Soo Ewe Jin wonders why he can no longer take coffee after lunch because it keeps him awake at night, unlike during his growing-up years when he had to take coffee as a nightcap.

Europe: ‘Dark clouds on the horizon’

Michael Klein, is the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and a nonresident Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution.

This weekend’s meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are overshadowed by “dark clouds on the horizon” that threaten the “light recovery blowing in a spring wind,” according to Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF.

The main source of the dark clouds is Europe, where recovery remains weak.

More than three years into the crisis, policy options in Europe are limited; fiscal stimulus is out of reach for many countries, and recent efforts by the European Central Bank provided only a temporary respite. In this environment, strong and sustained recovery depends upon rebalancing within Europe, whereby countries’ trade imbalances are reduced.

But rebalancing is a two-sided affair. We have all heard the ongoing calls for some European countries to rebalance deficits through painful austerity measures.

These calls need to be balanced with demands that countries with surpluses also move to rebalance.

In particular, Germany must take advantage of its scope for fiscal expansion to bolster European recovery and to forestall its own slippage towards an economic slowdown.

There are those who argue that the German surplus reflects its productivity growth and labor market reform. These people argue that Germany could only rebalance by stifling its own economic dynamism.

There are three responses to this argument:

Shared rewards: Reforms have made labor markets more flexible in Germany. Innovative policies, such as the Kurzbeit, the short-time working policy, limited the unemployment effects of the crisis.

German unemployment briefly peaked at 8% in July 2009 while the U.S. unempoloyment rate spiked to 10% in October of that year. Despite the soft landing, workers have not fully shared in the benefits of the recovery, and trade unions have been demanding higher wages.

Higher wages for workers would raise their demand for consumer goods, including the products from other euro-area nations.

Shared consequences: German exporters, and German producers of import-competing goods, have benefited from the weak euro.

Since 2008, the German real exchange rate has depreciated by almost 9%, even while its economy recovered relatively strongly from the crisis and its economy was strongly in surplus.

In contrast, over this same period the Swiss franc appreciated 16% — estimates suggest that had the German real exchange rate tracked the Swiss real exchange rates, German export growth would have been cut in half.

Another major surplus country, China, saw an appreciation of its real exchange rate by more than 10% over this period.

If Germany had a free-floating currency of its own, rather than one whose value is determined by the fate of the full set of euro members, it would have seen an appreciation that would have brought down its current surplus.

Shared experiences: Another surplus country offers a striking recent example of rebalancing: China. In 2007, China’s surplus exceeded 10% of its GDP.

The IMF projects that the debt to GDP ratio will fall to 2.3% in 2012, well below the 6.3% forecast published in its World Economic Outlook last year. In contrast, the most recent IMF forecast of the 2012 German debt to GDP ratio, of 5.2%, exceeds last year’s forecast of 4.6%.

As a member of the euro area, Germany will not see the natural forces of a currency revaluation bring about a reduction in its current surplus.

But the government has the tools available to rebalance, and foster growth both domestically and more widely in Europe, through a stimulative fiscal expansion.

There are other tools available as well, such as policies to promote female labor force participation (which is low relative to other industrial countries) and liberalizing retailing (which could help promote domestic demand), to raise growth and to widen its benefits among its citizens.

Rebalancing needs to occur for both deficit and surplus countries to support and sustain growth during these challenging times. To top of page

By Michael W. Klein @CNNMoneyMarkets April 21, 2012: 10:50 AM ET

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