What We're Watching: Le Pen on the rise, big leak in Iran, bad omen for Japan's LDP

Leader of France's far-right National Rally party, Marine Le Pen

Why is Marine Le Pen gaining momentum in France? "Each time France is hit by terrorism, the extreme right benefits," one French journalist told the Times Friday after an immigrant from Tunisia, who had been in the country illegally for a decade, fatally stabbed a French policewoman on the outskirts of Paris. After the attack, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, called for illegal immigrants to be "expelled" and for the "eradication of Islamism." As France continues to suffer from a series of Islamist terror attacks, polls show that Le Pen's hardline views on immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment are resonating with many mainstream voters. That's in part because France has suffered more terror attacks in recent years than any other Western country. Le Pen's electoral prospects are also getting help from President Macron's dismal performance: his approval rating has plummeted (he now has a 60 percent disapproval rating) because of perceptions that his government has botched the pandemic response and the vaccine rollout. Trying to appeal to the center-right before the attack, Macron vowed to uphold "the right to a peaceful life," and after Friday's killing said his government would get tough on "Islamist terrorism." But the opposition said the president's words are tokenistic and don't go nearly far enough. With just a year until the next presidential election, Le Pen is seizing the moment while Macron is mired in a deepening political crisis.


Leaked audio in Iran: Who Done It? Just weeks after the start of Vienna-based talks that aim to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Tehran finds itself rocked by a political scandal after Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was caught on tape dissing the country's hardline political elite. In the recording, Zarif, a fierce proponent of the nuclear deal, accuses Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of attempting to scuttle the nuclear pact, and accuses popular General Qassim Suleimani, who was killed in a US attack last year, of colluding with Russia to "demolish" efforts at a rapprochement with the West. The timing of the leaked audio is particularly curious given that Iran's presidential election is just six weeks from now. So who leaked? Analysts say it was probably political hardliners aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who released it as part of a plan to embarrass and discredit Zarif, perhaps to stop him from running for president himself. (In Iran, deriding the IRGC, a military force established during the revolution that plays a major role overseeing Tehran's foreign policy, is not a popular look.) We're watching to see if there's any more political fallout from the tapes, and how they'll affect the vote.

Japan's PM suffers three ominous losses: On Sunday, Japan held special elections to fill three parliamentary seats vacated over the past year. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost all of them to the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, suggesting that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is in rough shape politically as general elections approach this fall. Suga took over the top job last August after the long-serving Shinzo Abe resigned due to poor health. While Suga was initially popular, the economic impact of the COVID pandemic and a sluggish vaccine rollout have hurt him. Importantly, a series of recent graft scandals also seem to have sapped his support: two of the three elections held over the weekend were for seats vacated by LDP politicians implicated in bribery scandals. Suga must call general elections before mid-October, which are sure to be a big test for the LDP at a time when the people of Japan are increasingly frustrated and impatient with their leaders.

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.

An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?

Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.

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It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.

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158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.

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