Sunday, July 24, 2016

Trump Advisor Involved in French Karachigate

Small world. The skills needed to run a financially corrupt political campaign are rare indeed, and American Trump advisor Paul Manafort lent his to a prominent French politician, according to Franklin Foer:

Money arrives to Manafort circuitously, sometimes through the dodgiest of routes. We know this because he admitted one instance to investigators. If there’s one place on the planet inhospitable to American political consultants, it is France. So when Manafort wrote a campaign strategy for Eduoard Balladur’s presidential campaign in 1995, his role was kept from the public. Payments traveled beneath the table. In fact, the French investigation revealed, the money came from a good friend and old client of Manafort’s, a Lebanese arms dealer called Abdul Rahman al-Assir. (Manafort took Assir to George H.W Bush’s inauguration in 1989; Assir once loaned Manafort $250,000, as the Washington Post reported this week).
Manafort’s fee was a small piece of a larger kickback scheme. At least $200,000 came to Manafort, some of it via accounts in Madrid. It was part of a deal brokered by Assir. He arranged for France to sell Pakistan three Agosta submarines—with tens of millions of euros in “commissions” returning to the coffers of the Balladur campaign. The scandal, known in France as the “Karachi Affair,” has hovered over the country’s politics ever since it broke in 2010. (The English ex-wife of another Franco-Lebanese arms dealer involved in l’affair revealed the Manafort payments to a French judge.)

Friday, July 15, 2016

Horror in France, Again

Nice. One of my favorite cities. La Promenade des Anglais. One of my favorite places. The truck was stopped and the attacker killed in front of the Hôtel Westminster, where I stayed some years ago. People fled down familiar streets. More than 80 killed, hundreds injured. France in mourning yet again, on Bastille Day, just hours after President Hollande announced an impending end to the state of emergency (now renewed for 3 months): "The police are tired," he said. Once again, a perfectly targeted attack, designed to inflict maximum ... despair.

Damage is not the point of these horrors, although there is damage enough, carnage enough, blood enough. The point is to induce desperation and trigger an emotional, irrational, disproportionate, and ill-targeted response. And I fear that the enemy is on the point of achieving its goal.

It is becoming increasingly likely that Marine Le Pen will be elected next year. The government seems helpless, and little by little minds are being prepared to accept an authoritarian xenophobic response as the only conceivable next step.

Not that a Le Pen government would be any less helpless, and not that the authoritarian manner will lessen the threat--au contraire. But for too many people, I fear, it will feel like "doing something rather than nothing"--and in these circumstances it is all too human to want to do something. We saw this in the US after 9/11.

I hope we do not see a repeat in France, but I am no longer as convinced as I once was that France will be saved from catastrophe by its two-round voting system. Fear is gaining the upper hand. This is what is truly terrifying.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Only His Hairdresser Knows For Sure

Will Hollande boot Macron? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.

OK, it's a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist. With #coiffeurgate à défrayer la chronique, who needs Bastille Day? But the president, in the traditional 14 juillet interview, availed himself of the opportunity to lay down the law to his wayward Minister of the Economy, the ubiquitous M. Macron, whose Bastille Day Eve rally saw him bellowing "On to victory in 2017" without actually declaring his candidacy or specifying whose victory he had in mind--a fair sample of the political ambidexterity that has become Macron's trademark. Ni droite ni gauche, ni candidat ni ministre, ni loyal ni déloyal ... To which Hollande's response was less crisp than Chirac's famous rebuke to the young Turk Sarkozy when he was similarly straining in his traces: "Je décide, il exécute." Hollande instead meekly suggested that there might be limits to his patience without actually naming the person who is trying it.

All this is very amusing, but in the meantime the European left seems to be in utter disarray everywhere. Labour is on the verge of collapse, Renzi is facing a banking crisis in Italy, the Spanish left failed to meet expectations (h/t Sofia Perez), the German left is comatose, Tsipras has lost his luster in Greece ... I can't remember a more dismal scene.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Class Still Matters

Is it time to worry? Sarkozy has improved his standing among voters described as certain to vote in the LR primary. He is up by 3 points, Juppé down by 3, though still maintaining a comfortable lead (38-30). But the most striking finding of the poll (part of the regular CEVIPOF survey) is the class character of the support for each of the leading candidates:

Sarkozy favori des employés et des ouvriers
Le profil sociologique des électeurs potentiels de chacun des principaux candidats est sensiblement différent. Ainsi, M. Juppé est le candidat préféré des cadres supérieurs (46 %), des retraités (41 %), des personnes ayant un revenu mensuel supérieur à 3 500 euros (44 %) et habitant des villes de plus de 200 000 habitants. Au contraire, M. Sarkozy apparaît comme le favori des catégories populaires : il recueille 40 % des suffrages des employés, 43 % de ceux des ouvriers et 43 % des personnes ayant un revenu mensuel inférieur à 1 250 euros. En outre, il devance le maire de Bordeaux dans l’électorat féminin (37 %, contre 36 %). De manière surprenante, François Fillon n’est crédité que de 6 % chez les cadres, alors que son projet libéral devrait être de nature à les séduire. L’électorat de Bruno Le Maire est le plus homogène : 16 % chez les cadres supérieurs, comme chez les professions indépendantes ou les professions intermédiaires, 12 % chez les ouvriers ou 17 % chez les retraités.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Michel Rocard, 1930-2016

Michel Rocard was one of the great "might have beens" of politics. To say this is to take nothing away from his accomplishments, which were real, but simply to underscore the fact that he never fulfilled his ambition to remake the French left from the top by assuming the presidency, of which he was deprived by his detested nemesis François Mitterrand. "Le mépris profond que je porte à son absence d'éthique est compatible avec l'admiration totale que j'ai pour sa puissance tactique", affirmait-il. This might be read as an apologia pro vita sua: "I failed tactically because I was too ethical to do what was needed." If so, it would be a tragic verdict on his chosen métier, for which he expressed his contempt in other long-remembered pronunciamentos: "Politics is disgusting because politicians make it so." For such candor he earned a reputation for blunt-spokenness and honesty comparable to that of another great political might-have-been, his mentor and exemplar Pierre Mendès-France.

Rocard, unlike many of his contemporaries, was never tempted by communism. He came to prominence in the gauchiste PSU, the splinter party that served as the vehicle for many intellectuals who had been party members or fellow travelers to find their way out of communism, largely because of their opposition to the Algerian war. But unlike most of them, he made politics his profession, and consequently his brilliant critical intellect was constantly ground down by the exigencies of political reality. He jumped from the far left to what some would call the right wing of the Socialist Party and others, more accurately, would call the modernizing wing: he stated flatly that nationalization could not be the chosen instrument of a future left politics, that the left would have to make its peace with the market, that social democracy was not compatible with uncontrolled borders.

Was he a French apostle of Tony Blair's "third way?" The ironies abound. Today it is fashionable to say that the third way was a monumental historical error. Many on the left have taken on board Margaret Thatcher's quip that Tony Blair was her greatest achievement, that he represented the defeat of the last vestiges of truly socialist thought, the final victory of "neoliberalism." They are too young to remember the revolutionary illusions that still dominated the PS when Rocard embraced his heresy. Yet in some ways Rocard, heterodox to the end, recognized the validity of the criticism. He was a Brexiter because he believed that the UK, even the Blairist UK, had always been an impediment to the steps needed to build a more social-democratic EU. On the other hand, still confounding the leftist opposition, he saw the El Khomri reform as "a step in the right direction."

Rocard was a brilliant social analyst whose political analysis never seemed quite equal to the complexity of the game he would have needed to play in order to win. Perhaps it was intellectual pride that led him to state what he took to be the truth of any matter even when he knew it would not further his political fortunes. His forthright contrarianism influenced an entire generation of young socialists, many of whom, including Hollande and Valls, are now in command. But even if they consider themselves "Rocardians," as Valls often proclaims, they give the impression of having transformed his contrarianism into a reflexive orthodoxy, the opposite of Rocard's corrosively critical approach to politics. It might be argued that they succeeded (if having achieved purposeless power counts as success) where he failed, but their task was far easier, abetted rather than thwarted by the cunning Mitterrand, whose tenacious antipathy to Rocard was one of the great tragedies of the French left. I was in France in 1988 when the brief hope of a Rocard presidency was blocked by the brilliant maneuvers of Le Florentin. I remember being in a car and hearing the news of Mitterrand's final victory on the radio. And then in a final twist of the knife, the victorious Mitterrand made Rocard his prime minister, but in the most humiliating way possible.

I met Rocard once, at a dinner at Harvard. It was at a time of renewed hope for him, in 1993, when he announced a planned "big bang" in the Socialist Party, which would have transformed it in his image and perhaps saved it from the ignominy of the last 20 years. He was still hopeful but seemed to me already a diminished figure, no longer at the top of his game. Perhaps he was just tired. But the memory of that evening has stayed with me. It brought home the difficulty of the political life, the need to be a consummate actor, always playing to one's audience, as well as a competent analyst, judge of talent, and manager of men and women.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Le Pédalo Torpedoed?

At first, le capitaine du pédalo d'État said, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" His prime minister wanted to ban the demonstrations against the labor code reform promised for Thursday by the heads of the CGT and FO. President Hollande, who has been taking a lot of flak for his want of "authority" because of the regrettable images of casseurs running amok and trade unionists attacking a children's hospital, decided that the time had come to show firmness. So he backed his prime minister.

But then the torpedoes starting coming from another direction: not the unions, now, but the political parties, including most especially his own. And Laurent Berger, the head of the CFDT and the one union leader supporting the reform, messaged from a train that the president's decision was "une immense connerie." What's more, his interior minister, the normally unflappable Cazeneuve, opposed the prime minister. Banning the demo would not spare the police but expose it to an even greater risk of completely undisciplined violence. Without a defined route and a union-provided service d'ordre, wildcat demonstrators would be free to roam everywhere, and trouble could erupt at any corner.

So three hours after backing the PM, the president backed down again. Now the demo would not be banned but rather confined to a presumably more easily policed route around the Bassin de l'Arsenal, away from businesses and in an area subject to strict entry and exit controls. The right to demonstrate, whose denial had provoked howls of protest from both left and right, would be reinstated with many professions of respect for the sanctity of protest tempered by reminders of the sacred rights of property, etc. etc.

So, once again, c'est la débandade à gauche. The president is clearly not in command of his own ministers, let alone the country. The labor code reform still hangs in the balance, but its fate has become secondary to the issues of order and authority: Can the government maintain order, at a time when even the militant unions are frightened of the potential for chaos represented by the casseurs, and does the president have any authority left after yet another episode in which his attempt to appear decisive ended by deconstructing itself.

The economy is at long last showing signs of mild improvement, yet it will do François Hollande no good, because the pédalo is sinking under him, having zigged and zagged for four years only to end up sailing in circles around the Bassin de l'Arsenal. To borrow a judgment from General de Gaulle, "Quelle mascarade!"

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Republican Primary

I mean the French Republican primary, of course. L'Express has published a poll showing Sarkozy overtaking Juppé for the first time. OK, it's probably just polling noise, but Juppé's absurdly large lead has been questioned for some time. AJ may always have been "first in his class" and "the best of us," but Sarko is a political animal of some cunning and seems to rejoice in his new role as first apostle of the "Christian" Republic. With Marine Le Pen still keeping her powder dry, it is just possible that Sarko has made some converts among the heathen, especially those who find Le Pen's laïcité and tolerance of gay rights a tad gauchiste for a latter-day Joan of Arc. Juppé may also be losing votes to Bruno Le Maire, whose technocratic and intellectual credentials are almost as impressive as Juppé's but who can also chant the identitarian lullabyes that seem to appeal more to voters on the right than governmental competence. So the contest on the right may be closer than many people think.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Primary of the "Left"

So, there will be a primary of the left after all. Or rather, a primary of the "left." Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who excluded himself in advance, will not be part of it. Neither will the PCF or the Trotskyists. This one will be limited to the "governmental left," meaning the PS, certain Greens (presumably excluding Duflot), and the PRG. Hollande gave his approval, probably because he thinks he will win, even though a recent poll showed that only 7 percent of the French want to see him serve a second term. But he could hardly declare himself the "natural candidate" of the left under these circumstances. So he chose the next best alternative.

But it's by no means clear that he can win even this contest, of his own choosing, designed by his own party. Hollande was a protégé of Mitterrand, who created the party of Epinay, the party that embraced the PCF and chose to have no (overt) enemies to its left. As I have said before, Hollande has been the (unintentional?) gravedigger of that party. But what he's left with is hardly a party at all, just a collection of ambitions. Some of the them are large: Arnaud Montebourg, for example. Others are small, e.g. the senator Marie-France Lienemann, the only announced candidate thus far. But who knows how many others will dip their toes to take the temperature of the waters? There could be many, and each one will take votes from Hollande--if he runs, which of course he may decide not to do if things look really dire.

One thing is sure: the victor, whoever he or she might be, will not be assured of a place in the second round of the presidential. This is Hollande's gift to the part after 4 years in office.