Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Déjà vu

Nicolas Sarkozy was on TV last night berating the absence of government in France, the lack of "authority," the absence of "order." He was referring to the chaos caused by refinery blockages, shortages of gasoline at the pump, and long lines at service stations. "Where is the government?" he asked.

Where is M. Sarkozy's memory, I ask in turn. When he pushed through retirement reform in 2010, the CGT responded as it is responding now, by blocking refineries and impeding fuel deliveries. It took a while, but eventually Sarkozy decided to get tough, as Valls is about to do.

Parallèlement, M. Martinez politise son discours. Alors que la gauche de la gauche est en miettes, il se place dans la posture de chef de l’opposition de gauche à François Hollande et Manuel Valls et anticipe une défaite de la gauche en 2017. « Hollande et Valls utilisent les mêmes méthodes que Nicolas Sarkozy en 2010, a-t-il déclaré samedi à Wizernes (Pas-de-Calais). Face à la lutte des salariés, ils envoient les forces de l’ordre pour casser les grèves. »
M. Sarkozy may have forgotten the episode, but I'm sure Front National voters remember and take it as one more demonstration that the UMPS is one barely differentiated party of grandes gueules. despite the metamorphosis of the UMP into LR.

Friday, May 20, 2016

President Normal Becomes President Beauf

I did a double take when I read the headline in Le Monde: "Hollande mise sur l’Euro pour rebondir." What? I said to myself. Doesn't he know that the euro is in crisis. Then it dawned on me that the reference was to the European football championship. Apparently, Hollande feels that if he "invests himself," as the paper puts it, in this mega-event, his fortune will take a turn for the better. Here is yet another gauge of the pathetic fin de règne at which le président normal has arrived. De normal il est devenu beauf. The picture of him dribbling in coat and tie says it all. Quel gâchis--as several of his former ministers now candidly admit.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Using Kafka to Describe Trump

My latest for The American Prospect, on the Trump candidacy as a hideous metamorphosis of the Republican Party.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Wreckage of a Presidency

It hardly seems possible that François Hollande's approval rating four years ago, just after his election in 2012, stood at 65%. Yesterday the Valls government survived an attempt to file a censure motion supported by 56 Socialist frondeurs, 2 short of the required 58. The El Khomri law is now on the books, but in a form that leaves everyone unhappy: neither the reformist unions, the refractory unions, nor the patronat likes the result (although one suspects the latter of shedding crocodile tears, because a number of key provisions supported by employers are now the law of the land, including one that allows firm-level contracts to supersede branch-level contracts, which weakens worker bargaining power, and another that permits supplementary pay for overtime to be negotiated as low as a 10-percent premium over the standard wage rather than the previous 25-percent minimum premium). Ironically, Sarkozy tried to dynamize the economy by eliminating the payroll tax on overtime pay, thus encouraging overtime; Hollande seems to be trying to dynamize the economy by allowing cuts in overtime wages. Travailler plus pour gagner moins: Is it any wonder that he's in trouble?

A reader asks how Hollande--this hapless president, so seemingly inept at governing--earned his reputation as a political tactician. The answer is simple: he held the fractious Socialist Party together by papering over deep cleavages and formulating a bland consensus that hid ideological splits. This allowed the Socialist Party to expand its influence at the local and regional level--at one point it controlled 20 of 22 regions--where supposed managerial competence reaped rewards and philosophical differences about how to govern the economy did not matter. But the consensus turned out to be horribly fragile when the party took power nationally, and yesterday's censure motion marked the end of the road. The split is now consummated, even though the threat to expel the frondeurs from the party is now on hold, for fear that they would constitute a separate parliamentary group if expelled and perhaps make common cause with the Greens and the Front de Gauche. Not that it matters. The Hollande presidency is over, except for the shouting.

And there will be plenty of shouting. Mediapart reports that Macron will announce his presidential candidacy in June. The kicker is that he may be doing so with Hollande's approval and possibly connivance, or so says the often well-informed Laurent Mauduit. The theory is apparently that Macron will be a stalking horse for Hollande, who will line up support (and financing) mainly from le patronat (the "oligarchy" is Mauduit's preferred term) but eventually withdraw when Hollande announces his candidacy later this year, with the implicit promise that Macron will become his prime minister. Such a--desperate, il faut le dire--maneuver would consummate the moult of the Socialists under Hollande from party of the left into "party of modernization," modernization here being a term of art to describe the Teutonification of the economy that Hollande has been trying to achieve since day one.

By "Teutonification" I mean a policy designed to favor firms that prove themselves to be competitive at the global level. This is the significance of the emphasis on firm-level as opposed to branch-level accords in the El Khomri law. Those firms capable of building sufficient "trust" between workers and management to wrest voluntary wage-limitation and productivity-enhancing agreements will thrive; the rest will fail. If "trust" turns out to be a product of reduced worker bargaining power rather than German-style mitbestimmung, so be it: the result will be the same. The Socialist Party, as Hollande envisions it, will then reconstitute itself as a party of "winners of globalization" in alliance with minorities rebuffed by the xenophobic opposition, together with its traditional base of fonctionnaires.

The problem is that this vision of the future Socialist Party resembles the current Democratic Party in the US, but in a country where the centrist terrain of globalizing social liberals is contested by a center-right crowd (Juppé, Bayrou, et al.) that doesn't exist in the US. In Germany this problem has been solved by a working fusion of center-right and center-left in a Grand Coalition, which is itself looking increasingly fragile. Grand Coalitions are not in the French political DNA, although it is becoming less and less difficult to envision, say, a Juppé-Macron tandem (just as there was brief thought of a Royal-Bayrou tandem in 2007, and even Sarkozy flirted for a while with ouverture--remember Besson, Boeckel, Kouchner, etc.).

Whatever emerges from the current wreckage will not resemble the Socialist Party of Mitterrand and the Congrès d'Epinay. That era is over. That it dragged on for so long is largely a testimonial to François Hollande's skill as a political tactician, which delayed the final reckoning for decades. His disastrous presidency stands as proof that this postponement was a great historical error, the consequences of which will become clearer in the months ahead.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Baroud d'honneur?

An extraordinary meeting of the council of ministers has been called to decide whether or not to invoke Article 49-3 in order to force passage of the labor code reform known as the El Khomri Law. Prime Minister Valls, who does not want any further compromise on the law, had already called a halt to further votes on the 5,000 proposed amendments.

This impasse has been looming for some time. The proposed reform has become one of those symbols by which, rightly or wrongly, rationally or irrationally, people declare their political identities. The street demonstrations against the reform, coupled with the amorphous but clearly hostile Nuit debout protest, have converged to make this vote a test of the strength, or rather a proof of the weakness, of the Valls government and the Hollande presidency. It is likely to be a baroud d'honneur, because the consequences of forced passage are likely to be intensified protest and legislative paralysis for the remainder of Hollande's term. If not worse ...

And what will the government get from the patronat in return for this reform? Nothing. Yves Gattaz has already said that the law is hopelessly compromised. Once again France demonstrates that it is the "stalemate society," unable to move very far in any direction and content to fiddle while the populace fumes. Eppure se muove ... That is perhaps the most remarkable thing: that for all the moroseness and complaining, France isn't really that badly off, as we are frequently reminded by Paul Krugman and, less authoritatively, by François Hollande.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Frexit?

In today's Le Monde, four Socialists (j'allais dire non-présidentiables, but that would be unkind) propose a set of sweeping reforms for the European Union: massive investments, a European tax, democratic control of expenditures by the European Parliament, a tax on multinational corporations, fiscal harmonization, powers to fight white-collar crime, etc. It's a breathtaking, inspiring agenda--and therefore of course completely unfeasible in the current state of intra-European relations. This sort of blue-sky thinking might be appropriate in an era of good feeling, but in a morose climate like the present, it only reinforces the sense that PS elites are out of touch with the country and the continent. What Cambadélis et al. are proposing is really a kind of Frexit par le haut, une fuite en avant toward the better tomorrow that might make a certain kind of sense if the Socialists had been out of power for 20 years but smacks of utter irrealism at the end of a disappointing quinquennat. It's as if they were saying, We haven't delivered on any of the promises we made on the domestic front, so let's make some new promises about how we're going to reform Europe.

This is not to say that there is not a sore need for proposals to reform Europe. But the only proposals that have a chance, in my view, are those that address the concerns of the moment. Security is one: Frontex is underfunded, and it should not be impossible to persuade member states to infuse a little cash to beef up border security. More investment would be welcome, but no plan based on a Eurotax or Eurobonds has a chance at the moment. But bilateral agreements to increase infrastructure spending should be possible. The European core needs to be strengthened, because if the bonds fray there, there is no hope of preventing the newer member states from heading off in their own direction, which they have already begun to do with respect to the refugee question.

More democracy for Europe--the basis of the Socialist appeal in Le Monde--sounds lofty and principled, but if implemented today it would likely further strain international ties, as nationalist majorities within states reject any and all cooperative ventures. It's time to hunker down, not stick one's neck out. Camba et al. do not seem to have grasped the gravity of the situation.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Guest Post: Interview with Sudhir Hazareesingh by Alexander Hurst

GUEST POST
This interview with Sudhir Hazareesingh was conducted by Alexander Hurst.

At the beginning of one of the final episodes of Des Paroles et Des Actes, a political show known for the marathon of incisive questioning it throws at politicians, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut pulled out a reproduction of a painting by the late 19th century Nabi Edouard Vuillard, of a woman standing in a corridor, bathed in golden yellow light. The painting, Finkielkraut said, symbolized France because the nation was “an incarnation of the feminine,” and hence its intransigence in banning the burka.

You don’t have to agree with Finkielkraut to appreciate the moment as quintessentially French. Sudhir Hazareesingh, a French historian who teaches at Oxford and author of How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, certainly doesn’t. “If he just stuck to literature, he would be great,” Hazareesingh laments. “Instead of peddling this dark, gloomy, pessimistic, self-pitying nationalism.” But in that moment, Finkielkraut incarnated what Hazareesingh devotes a book to meticulously detailing. If that book’s sweeping argument were crystallized in a few short sentences, it might go something like this: France still believes in the intrinsic value of ideas and in the public intellectuals that engage them. Along with the mythical place of résistance, this is a fundamental part go France’s national self-identity. And one of its great malheurs is that it still cares about ideas in a world that is often too busy to stop and think.

We’re sitting in a relatively noisy café at the London School of Economics, drinking coffee that grazes the upper tier of mediocre, when I ask Hazareesingh if Des Paroles et Des Actes is a window into something that France holds on to and won’t let go of. “France has this kind of intellectual, literary tradition that goes back to the late middle age-early modern period, whose high tide is the Enlightenment,” he answers. “All the great writers are also philosophers—there is no separation between Voltaire and Rousseau, who are not just writers, but also people who have grand theories about how society should be. And of course that goes on to shape the French Revolution and Republican tradition in the nineteenth century.”

“They see themselves as a nation of resistance,” he says, “And it is something fundamental to their identity and values.” Philosophy, revolution. Words, acts. The Cartesian poles of French identity?

***

Ever since its Revolution, France has been marked by a universalist character that perhaps only one other nation has shared to the same degree—the United States. “A comparison with America is appropriate insofar as they both see themselves as countries that, since their revolution, have a universal vocation,” Hazareesingh says when I bring up the potential similarity. “But the American Revolution didn’t start like that,” he points out. “It’s particularly with the rise of American power after 1945 that the United States has seen itself as a beacon for the promotion of liberal values around the world.” Though French universalism is much older, the outcome is similar: When you think that you have values—or even a language--that you think everyone else should share, you go through cycles, waves of optimism and decline, he explains.

He makes another comparison between the United States and France. In the 1970’s, he says, the US was called out of a morose mindset by the “morning in America” message of Ronald Reagan. (Hazareesingh, who situates himself on the political left, doesn’t intend that as an endorsement of the economic policies Reagan promoted.) He thinks that the French political landscape could be propitious for a Reagan-like leader to emerge in that sense of a call to optimism. “In France one person who makes it to the top has extraordinary power to shape the collective narrative in the way that he wants. The last person who tried was Sarkozy, who wanted to remake France in a different way, though he didn’t think it through. He was impulsive and impetuous.”

For now, though, potential remains potential. Hazareesingh sees no collective vision emerging that could bring forth a more optimistic Républicanisme. “That idea used to be the European project,” he says, “Which France was a leader in building.” And which at the moment is teetering on multiple edges.

***

Perhaps a uniquely French way forward might lie in reconnecting with the idea of solidarité, as elaborated by the somewhat obscure French statesman Leon Bourgeois in 1896 as a middle path between capitalism and socialism. Bourgeois argued argued that cooperation, not competition, was the prime mover of human nature. Because we naturally exist in intricately interdependent ways, we each have an implicit obligation to the embodiment of that interdependence—society. We cannot help but live our lives, in a way, on the shoulders of giants, and thus we can only truly be free when we pay this debt forward to following generations by contributing to human progress.

“If you look at the amount that is spent on health, at the high level of taxation, that shows that the idea is still alive,” Hazareesingh says.  The trouble though, he continues, is twofold. The first is whether with government spending already at some of the highest levels in the OECD, further economic solidarity can really be the basis for a comprehensive modern political philosophy. “Everyone agrees not to become laissez-faire, but how far can that keep going?” Hazareesingh asks rhetorically.
Also troubling to Hazareesingh is the realization that true social solidarity might be running headfirst into modern conceptions of laicité. As the far right—Marine Le Pen, in particular—has seized laicité as a means to normalization, observers of France like Hazareesingh think that what began as justifiable secular philosophy has morphed into something an antagonistic almost-ideology, more like laicisme. “It has become about the expulsion of religion from everywhere but the private sphere and the home; religion in general is seen as not republican,” Hazareesingh says.
France’s love of abstraction compounds social problems, he says, by making it difficult to “conceptualize the particular,” or in the case of integration, to legitimize diversity. In the abstract, the Republic acts as an enormous tricolore rug, pushing out of view everything that it covers. Indeed, the French state itself is restricted from collecting any statistic about race or religion; French is French is French. Identity then becomes a binary question of French or, when it might be better served by a more inclusive French and. Better thought of, perhaps, as a Republican rug that obscures nothing, but is composed of everything.






Tuesday, May 3, 2016

1968

In my latest article for The American Prospect, I recall the US election of 1968. In between the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the riots in Chicago, I visited France for the first time.