What We're Watching: Le Pen-Macron debate, round two in Ukraine, China's big Pacific move, Israel-Hamas flare-up
France’s moment of truth: Le Pen and Macron go head-to-headAhead of the second round of voting in France’s presidential elections on April 24, President Emmanuel Macron and his rival Marine Le Pen will go head-to-head in a live TV debate on Wednesday. Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally, won 23% percent of the first-round vote on April 10, just five points behind the incumbent. (Macron’s lead in the polls is now believed to be as much as 12 points.) Indeed, the debate will be a crucial moment in the tighter-than-expected race for the Élysée. Le Pen is vying for a comeback: last time the two candidates debated in the 2017 runoff, she was accused of being light on policy and heavy on insults. Le Pen will want to emphasize her populist, anti-establishment credentials that have proven popular with the electorate – particularly young voters – while playing down claims that she is chummy with alleged war criminal Vladimir Putin. Macron, on the other hand, will try to play up his progressive bonafides to appeal to younger voters who cast their first-round vote for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon – who reaped 22% of the vote – but are inclined to stay home on Sunday.
War in Ukraine: Round Two
Russia and Ukraine agree the war has now entered round two. But what did they learn from round one? Having downscaled its ambitions to an aggressive assault on the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east, the Russian army has massed tens of thousands of troops along a 300-mile-long semicircle and launched a fresh assault. Experts say Russians can grind their way toward gains by training more firepower on a smaller range of targets. But Ukrainian soldiers know the terrain. They’ve been dug into these same positions since Russian-backed separatists began their fight with Kyiv in 2014. Even if they can’t win, they might inflict enough damage to force Vladimir Putin to rethink his broader ambitions in Ukraine. According to a report published on Monday by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, Russian weaknesses exposed in round one may continue in round two, including low Russian morale and logistical challenges that “indicate the effective combat power of Russian units in eastern Ukraine is a fraction of their on-paper strength.” In fact, a US official estimated on Tuesday that Russia has lost 25% of its combat troops since the war began.
China makes a big Pacific move
Hours after US officials rushed to the South Pacific to stop the Solomon Islands from inking a landmark security pact with China on Tuesday, Beijing suddenly announced that the deal had been signed. The Americans don't like a clause in the draft agreement that would allow the Chinese to deploy their armed forces in the country, which has experienced political and social unrest in recent months. China, for its part, insists that it'll only do so at the request of the government. The Solomon Islands are now firmly in China's camp after un-recognizing Taiwan in 2019, although the government denies it'll let China establish a military base there. Still, the US and its allies Australia and New Zealand worry that the deal creates a dangerous precedent that'll enable China to gain a military foothold in a region that's become the latest and a rather unexpected flashpoint for US-China competition in the wider Indo-Pacific.
Israeli-Palestinian clashes risk flare-up
Israel struck a Hamas weapons facility in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday after Palestinian militants fired a rocket into southern Israel, the first launched from the Hamas-run enclave in four months. While no group has officially claimed responsibility, Islamic Jihad, a militant group based in Gaza, is believed to have been behind the attack. This could suggest that Hamas, which has long restrained its junior partner to avoid devastating escalations like the one in May 2021, might be loosening its reins or even condoning a flare-up. This follows recent clashes between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, which left dozens injured. Amid the violence, Hamas has been trying to position itself as the “protector” of Jerusalem and the West Bank to undermine its rival, the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, tensions are also high in the West Bank, where the Israeli military has conducted a series of raids after a recent spate of Palestinian terror attacks in several Israeli cities left 14 people dead. Neither side appears to want a serious escalation, but that’s no guarantee it won’t happen.