Tuesday, May 3, 2016


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.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Mayday Violence: What Next?

Le Monde tries to make sense of the Mayday violence, but it's hard to draw any firm conclusion from the multiple perspectives represented in the article. Some of the eyewitnesses interviewed blame a change in police tactics, a more muscular presence and a more determined approach to isolating "troublemakers" from other marchers. But others claim that casseurs, rather than separating themselves from the crowd, are now infiltrating it to provide cover for their "insurrectionary" maneuvers (smashing ATMs and bus shelters, starting fires, etc.).

Dans ce contexte, la figure de l’émeutier s’étiole, mise à mal par le témoignage des manifestants : « Il n’y a pas de casseurs qui s’infiltrent et cassent pour le fun, estime ainsi un militant syndical rennais, qui souhaite conserver l’anonymat. Des gens revendiquent ce mode d’action, ciblent des banques ou des grandes chaînes pour marquer une insurrection. C’est ce qu’on appelle les autonomes. Mais ils ne sont pas en marge du mouvement social, ils sont intégrés aux cortèges. »
Meanwhile, the fate of the El Khomri law, the ostensible object of the demonstrations, remains in doubt. Innumerable amendments are under consideration, as the government scrambles to avoid an invocation of Article 49-3. But if it comes down to a test of strength, there is as yet no sign that Valls plans to withdraw the measure. The demonstrators seem convinced, however, that continued pressure will force the government to surrender. So there we are, and the month is now May--the tempus classicus for dérapages. We shall see what happens next.

Needless to say, any actual consideration of the merits and demerits of the proposed bill is now as impossible as it is irrelevant. The bras de fer is so deeply ingrained in the French way of doing politics that, try as one might to avoid it, c'est la faute de la fatalité, as Flaubert might put it.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Ni-ni, et-et, hé-oh, aïe-aïe!, oy-vay!

Thomas Wieder has a long meditation on the blurring of the left-right distinction in France. The immediate pretext is of course Emmanuel Macron's (toujours lui!) declaration that his En marche! movement would be "neither right nor left," soon amended to say that it would instead be "both right and left." The amendment was a fine demonstration of Macron's, er, flexibility--some would say slipperiness.

Traditionally, of course, to say that one was neither right nor left meant that one was firmly on the right. Yet the attempt to escape the dichotomy once seemed vital to "reforming" or "modernizing" the left, at a time when would-be modernizers felt the need to disburden themselves of one piece or another of historical baggage, be it Marxist rhetoric, working-class identification, or a state-centric view of economic management ("l'État ne peut pas tout" was Jospin's famous last word before going down to defeat at the ends of Le Pen père).

But the historical baggage has largely been jettisoned, and the deeper allegation now is that there is no difference between Left and Right in power, whence Marine Le Pen's unkind cut in attaching the epithet "UMPS" to the governing tandem UMP and PS. Macron would like to recast the left-right dichotomy as a division between "progressistes" and "conservateurs." But this hardly advances the debate if one recalls that Sarkozy came to power in 2007 promising to "lutter contre tous les conservatismes." And Lampedusa's Leopard, arch-conservative that he was, knew that "everything must change so that nothing changes."

If progressivism means adaptation to changing conditions, in other words, the progressive may be the true conservative, so Macron's distinction will be of little use unless he is able to clarify the telos of his particular brand of progressivism. What kind of society does he envision once the labor code has been made more supple and competition has been introduced into hitherto protected domains of the economy?

The demonstrators in the streets yesterday protesting the El Khomri law, at times rather overzealously, think they already know the answer, but they are scarcely able even to formulate the question. "We are against unemployment," one of them said on France2 last night. Indeed. Who isn't? A protest mounted on such a complaint blurs the left-right distinction even more thoroughly than the program of En marche!

But it would be wrong to blame the protesters for their inarticulateness. Clearly, they have not been convinced by the solution on offer from the elite, even if they cannot say way. The real disappointment is that the elite, when challenged, has been unable to make its argument any more persuasive or its vision of the future any more vivid or appealing. One used to hope for les lendemains qui chantent. Today one would be content with un lendemain qui marmonne. But all that is on offer is slogans: Flexibility! Market! Competitiveness! Growth!

General de Gaulle once said that "if what you think the French need is autoroutes, you have to sell them with poetry." Today, the poetry is sorely lacking, whether it is from the right, left, up, down, top or bottom. The lexicon is that of an OECD report (no offense! some of my best friends work at OECD!). But with paving stones and fire extinguishers flying once again at police wielding shields and batons, it's time for one of France's innumerable énarques to start thinking in verse rather than prose. Surely some of these brillantissimes men and women remember their Racine and Molière, even if the alexandrines have been layered over by deep piles of Hayek.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nuit debout: Movement or Stasis?

As Jean-Claude Monod disarmingly admits at the outset of his "impression" of Nuit debout in Libération, it has become something of a cliché for graying philosophical heads to mingle with the crowd on the place de la République to try to glean from the assembled masses some inkling of what is going on. Is this a social movement, despite its apparent lack of ... movement--after all, its distinguishing mark is that it stands still, going nowhere, rather than marching on some Bastille of the imagination? Or is it yet another sign of social stasis--an indication that people are fed up with the way things are but have no idea where to go from here? Monod seems to come down, gently, on the side of the latter interpretation:
Ce mouvement est bien l’expression d’une «crise de gouvernementalité», selon l’expression de Foucault dans Naissance de la biopolitique, c’est-à-dire d’une façon de dire «nous ne voulons plus être gouvernés de cette façon». La crise de la gouvernementalité néolibérale est aujourd’hui patente, la subordination de la politique aux intérêts économiques dominants manifeste, le roi est nu… mais les contre-propositions sont peu lisibles, les alternatives économiques peu élaborées, l’organisation en mouvement durable incertaine, bref - «il se passe quelque chose», mais tout reste à faire.
I'm 3000 miles away, so it's hard for me even to form an impression of the movement, let alone an analysis. I hope that along with the philosophers, from Monod to the unfortunate Alain Finkielkraut, who was jeered by some of those gathered on the place when he tried to sample what was on offer, a few sociologists are at work among the demonstrators. I have seen very little about the social composition of the crowd: even basic data such as age, class and educational background, and employment (or lack thereof) are absent. We know that the movement has spread from Paris to dozens of other cities around France, but we, or at any rate I, have little information about how sustained the presence of demonstrators is elsewhere or whether the social composition varies from place to place.

Commentators remark on the similarity to the Occupy and Indignados movements, but we know that in the case of Occupy the social composition of the crowd changed over time, tensions arose among the participants, and there were conflicts with authorities in some places but not in others. We also know that these earlier manifestations of inchoate discontent found political prolongations in some places (Podemos in Spain, for example) but not in others, or at least less visibly in others (the extent to which Bernie Sanders, say, or Jeremy Corbyn drew on veterans of Occupy is not well understood). In short, there is work to be done on Nuit debout, and I hope there are chercheurs in the field doing it. In the meantime, testimony like Monod's is valuable for what it is--the impression of an intelligent and sympathetic but skeptical older head, wondering, as older heads must, what all these young people are on about.

ADDENDUM: A reader calls attention to this article on the social composition of the movement.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hé oh Sarko! déboute Nuit debout

C'mon, guys, admit you miss him. The inimitable Sarkzoy, président anormal, pissing people off right and left. This time it's left: the Nuit debout people are "brainless," said the ex-president, and the government is gutless for letting them occupy the place de la République. It was vintage Sarko, divisive, polarizing, and above all ignorant, undiscriminating, and insulting: all the qualities that made Sarkozy the president he was and ensured that he would not be re-elected. But it was these same qualities that got him elected the first time, so he's back with the old program, the attempt to re-position himself as a mature, sage elder statesman having failed.

But, let's be honest, what folks on the right think France needs is un vrai chef: this poll tells us that 99% of supporters of both the Republicans and the FN agree on this point. Ninety-nine percent! And it's not just those bloody fascists on the far right. It's mami et papi back in the village looking for a tough guy to whip those brainless young slackers planting endives in the place de la République into shape and line them up in disciplined straight lines at Pôle emploi.

Perhaps this poll was taken before this month's encouraging drop in unemployment was registered. Surely these new figures are going to catapult le président normal back into the presidential race, scattering the crowds at République, Or perhaps that miracle will be effected by the enormous positive energy unleashed by Stéphane Le Foll's creatively named Hé oh la gauche!, which mobilized a phalanx of ministers to tell the world how well they were doing. Alas, the country seems not to have gotten the message, since the oddsmakers apparently still believe that Round 2 will be a Juppé-Le Pen faceoff.

Hé oh mon cul. Quel pays!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Two Articles on Structural Labor Market Reforms

To set the El Khomri law in perspective, these two articles are useful: here and here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


No, the title is not a typo. The question on everyone's lips these days is, Whither Macron? Just as Macron intended. He has played his hand as Sarkozy played his during Chirac's fin de règne. Make your ambition clear, multiply the stabs at your boss to demonstrate your independence, endure his rebukes for a while, and then slam the door.

The latest round between Macron and Hollande is the lamentable EDF affair, detailed here (paywall). Supposedly a slap in the face for Macron, whose recent statements on the future of the Hinkley Point project were countermanded by Hollande 3 days later. But Macron has the last laugh: the €3 billion needed to rescue EDF will make Hollande's economic record look even sorrier than it does already, facilitating Macron's task of running against it--even though he will have only recently abandoned his post as Hollande's minister of the economy. Is it any wonder that voters have tired of these games? Yet they seem not to have tired--yet--of Macron, who is riding high in the polls.

Still, it's hard to imagine Macron getting the nomination of the PS or the broader left, where he is generally regarded as the symbol of everything that has deepened the rift between the government and its base. It's much easier, in fact, to imagine Macron as a potential prime minister under Alain Juppé, who might try to sell such an appointment as a reconciliation of center-left and center-right. Of course there would be howls from Republicans who might think they deserve the nod, but a number of the obvious candidates would seem to have disqualified themselves. Bruno Le Maire has taken a turn to the right in his presidential bid, so Juppé might hesitate to appoint him. Laurent Wauquiez has skated even farther right and in any case stuck his neck out as Sarkozy's liege man. There have been reports of a deal between François Baroin and Sarko that if the latter becomes president, Baroin will be named prime minister, in return for which he is quietly working as head of the association of French mayors to persuade Republican mayors not to dump the ex-president as damaged goods. NKM is too loose a cannon for a buttoned-down leader like Juppé, and she wouldn't bring him the cred with le patronat that Macron has earned with services rendered.

And of course if Juppé doesn't nominate Macron, the young Emmanuel will nevertheless have positioned himself nicely for a presidential bid in 2022 as the candidate of either left or right--such is his marvelous ambidexterity, a very desirable quality at a time when both the Socialists and the Republicans are threatening to come apart at the seams. The party landscape in 2022 may look quite different from what it is today, and no one is better placed to take advantage of a party realignment than Macron.

When you think about it, it's really a rather bizarre situation. The leading candidate on the center-right is a man who was not so long ago booed when he appeared before the party faithful. And the man who might be his choice for prime minister is similarly a bête noire for many in his own camp. The reaction against elitist rule is fueling the rise of the Front National, yet it's easy to imagine two énarques as the next president and prime minister. And they would likely come to office, as both Sarkozy and Hollande did, with approval ratings above 60%. France is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Pierre Manent's Spiritual Nationalism

In The American Prospect I reflect on two European responses to Islam: Pierre Manent's peculiar spiritual nationalism and Alternative für Deutschland's "religious racism."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Two Reading Recommendations

A long but well-observed article on the FN in Harper's by Elisabeth Zerotsky.

And a new book by Catherine Collomp, Résister au nazisme, about the work of the Jewish Labor Committee in New York, which played an important role in rescuing endangered European Jews.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Will Hollande Drop Out?

Speculation has been rampant these last few days that François Hollande will not be a candidate to succeed himself in 2017. A TNS/Sofres poll released 2 days ago shows him running just ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and losing badly to Marine Le Pen. With such numbers, as humiliating as they are disastrous, it is hard to see how he could decide to run again, either as a candidate in a primary or a presidential contender.

Everyone agrees that Hollande is no fool and, if nothing else, an authentic political professional. Hence if nothing happens between now and some date in the future (probably no later than September) when a decision becomes inevitable, he will read the handwriting on the wall and step aside. I agree with this conventional wisdom. But what then?

The poll cited above suggests that Juppé is by far the most likely candidate to succeed the current president. I also agree with this analysis. He is the safe choice for people on the right and acceptable to many on the left. But there will be a real scramble to redefine the left in general and the Socialist Party in particular.

The "social-democratic" Socialist Party has never really managed to coalesce. The post-Epinay party that Mitterrand created was not really social-democratic: it was rather an equivocal war machine that combined venerable Marxist rhetoric with Florentine suppleness in order to devour the Communist Party with its amoebic embrace. After destroying the Communists, Mitterrand went on to destroy the Rocardians, who might have defined social democracy with a French accent if they hadn't been displaced into the European arena, where, under the influence of the social Catholic Jacques Delors, they became something else. Hollande himself is an unstable amalgam of Delorian and Mitterrandian elements.

Valls and Macron would both like to jettison the last vestiges of social democracy à la française and become full-throated social liberals, with a more authoritarian tinge in the case of Valls and a kinder, gentler face in the case of Macron: the scowl versus the smile. It's hard to predict how either one would fare electorally if finally cut loose from the legacy of the old PS. Both men represent a giant step away from the French tradition of the ideological party and toward the politics of personality, American-style, where the fading Sarkozy has also pitched his tent. At the moment, Macron's popularity is rising while Valls's is sinking with Hollande's, though not quite to the same depth. In a multiway contest, however, neither man enjoys a secure electoral base, and la nébuleuse gauchiste of greens, Mélenchoniens, communists, Trotskyists, etc., still has life in it. The nascent but rudderless Nuit debout! movement might yet find its Bernie Sanders, Pablo Iglesias, or Yanis Varoufakis despite its avowed distaste for leaders or direction. Thomas Piketty anyone? (The suggestion has been made and batted aside by l'intéressé, but in such matters one never knows where history will turn next.)

In short, a Hollande withdrawal will precipitate a free-for-all and a likely victory for the staid but tested center-rightist Alain Juppé--in a best-case scenario. The worst is too horrible to contemplate.