Friday, October 31, 2014

Scary Clowns Terrorizing France

No, this is not a story about the French government. My son Zach, who now writes for The Atlantic, stumbled onto this story about the spate of terror-clowns currently plaguing the French countryside. It's the latest French bizarrerie.

The Emerging Split in the Extreme Right

The deep cleavages in the mainstream parties have never been more apparent. Less obvious, however, is the emerging split in the extreme right. Alain Soral, together with his partner Dieudonné, wants to forge an alliance between right anarchists, his traditional stock-in-trade, and the young and angry shock troops of les banlieues. To do this, he is banking on "the new antisemitism" exemplified by Dieudonné, an antisemitism obsessed with the destruction of Israel (and therefore calling itself anti-Zionism) and eager to identify with radical Islamism and, lately, with the so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS).

The Front National, on the other hand, has been trying to divest itself of Le Pen père's legacy of antisemitism, which Le Pen fille views as the principal impediment to the mainstreaming of her party and the last remaining obstacle on the road to actually taking power at the national level. Her foreign policy advisor Aymeric Chauprade has therefore written in support of the American bombing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, thus putting himself in Soral's sights. Soral, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned "Goy," has therefore attacked Chauprade as a "Zionist agent" and is agitating for his removal from his FN post.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes

The institutions of the European Union work in wondrous ways. Last week the voice of doom thundered out of Brussels: "France, thou shalt explain why thou hast sinned against the Stability and Growth Pact." At first Michel Sapin denied that God had spoken, but then the First Vicar and President of the Republic admitted that He had, but that "it was nothing," just a friendly communication between sommités. This morning France announced that a miracle had indeed taken place over the weekend, and as a result of lower interest rates and some other hocus-pocus France's "structural deficit" had indeed fallen more than previously noted. And now, just a few hours later, word has it that the Lord on high has been mollified. France will not be sanctioned after all. Just as everyone predicted would happen after the divine throat clearing. And so we limp on for another year.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Perils of Victory

How much easier it was for the Socialists to be in opposition than to govern. The contradictions that have always riven the party were relatively muted--at least in the sense that un panier de crabes is mute. Now les éléphants, trumpeting loudly, are trampling one another to death. Or are they piranhas taking bites out of one another? Animal metaphors are endless, and poor J.-C. Cambadélis can no longer ignore the blood in the water: moments ago he issued a "solemn call" for "unity."

Yesterday, Hollande bestowed a medal on his prime minister, which gave him the opportunity to remark that the Republic always needs an homme de synthèse. He could not help snickering at his bon mot, since clearly he sees himself slipping once again into the comfortable middle-of-the-road, not too hot, not too cold, not too left, not too right role he played as party leader. It's his comfort zone.

Unfortunately he is now president of the Republic, and people expect him to lead rather than triangulate--or snicker at his own jokes. Aubry's weekend blast seems to have loosened other tongues. Benoît Hamon announced that the rightward turn of the party under Valls was a "threat to the Republic" that promised "an impending democratic catastrophe," a rather elaborate way of warning that the Front National is going to win more votes in 2017 than the PS. Everyone now takes this as a given. Who would have thought that victory in 2012 would lead to this Bérézina? Like Napoleon in Russia, the PS is discovering that apparent victory is sometimes a prelude to abject misery.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Europe Has No Foreign Policy, but Total Does

Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of the oil company Total, was killed yesterday when his airplane struck a snowplow on a Moscow runway, The accident throws an interesting light on Western threats to impose sanctions on Russia. Le Monde reveals that Margerie was in Moscow to discuss Total's investments. The firm's "ambition is to make Russia its primary zone of hydrocarbon production by 2020. Total is counting on Russia in order to compensate for decreased output in the North Sea."

The EU may not have a foreign policy, but Total does.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Après-Hollande Has Begun

The presidency of the Fifth Republic was conceived by its founder, Charles de Gaulle, on the model of the Jansenist Dieu caché, whose center is supposed to be everywhere and circumference nowhere (Pascal). François Hollande promised a different sort of presidency: he aspired, he said, to be un président normal. Undoubtedly he meant to contrast his ideal of the presidency with that of Nicolas Sarkozy (who had no center but whose circumference was ubiquitous) rather than that of de Gaulle. If so, he mistook his own intention, because Sarkozy, too, sought to be un président normal in the sense of a partisan political leader rather than an aloof arbiter standing above the partisan fray and governing sub specie aeternitatis.

Fate has not been kind to the normal presidency, however. Hollande's motorcades soon ceased to stop at traffic lights, for security reasons. He began to fly the presidential jet rather than take trains. He was photographed on the back of a motorscooter on his way to a tryst with an actress. His budget minister and trade minister resigned in the wake of scandal. The "normality" of Hollande's presidency came to mean simply this: that he was no more exemplary, modest, or disciplined than his predecessor. Alas.

And then he vanished. The nomination of Manuel Valls as prime minister placed a more dynamic and compelling figure at center stage. The subsequent appointment of Emmanuel Macron gave a new face to the "social-liberal/neoliberal turn" that Hollande had previously tried to sell under the "social-democratic" banner. This weekend, Hollande's old nemesis Martine Aubry emerged from obscurity to mount an all-out attack on the direction of Hollande's presidency, only to have the riposte come from Valls, as if the president himself were no longer a figure of sufficient consequence to parry the blow.

Hollande has the worst of both worlds. He bears full responsibility for the neoliberal turn of French socialism. Even though the prime minister has fully embraced the policy, he offers the president no protection. The prime minister as bouclier or lightning-rod--the Gaullist model of politics--is a model unsuited to the age of TV and Internet, in which the president becomes the embodied form of policy, the incarnation. Yet there is something oddly ectoplasmic about Hollande, which renders him unfit for the role of incarnation.

Nor can he retreat into the traditional chasse gardée of the presidency, foreign policy. Where he has intervened successfully--Mali, Central Africa--his successes are diminished by the global insignificance of the crises that led to his involvement. By contrast, where the action rises to global significance--Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine--his role is overshadowed by the American presence (or, in Ukraine, the German presence).

So the post-Hollande era has begun. Montebourg's candidacy is all but underway. Aubry has not broken her silence for nothing. Macron, already a media darling on the strength of all of three weeks of gaffe-marred ministerial experience, is openly being touted as a future prime minister under President Valls (an unlikely prospect, to be sure, but journalists must write about something). Ségolène Royal is giving away free weekend rides on the autoroutes in the hope of kindling a little presidential heat ("Why not make pastries free on Sundays?" quipped the UMP's Christian Jacob, who needs to resurrect himself now that his former savior Jean-François Copé has self-immolated).

One can almost feel sorry for François Hollande, left alone in his palace without companion or mistress, ignored by his countrymen, neglected by his peers, spurned by the press, upstaged by Merkel and Renzi, too colorless to attract even cartoonists and caricaturists, a man whose flaws are too trivial to rise to the level of the tragic, pitiable in his normality.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Second French Nobel

The French economist Jean Tirole has won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on regulating firms with market power. This follows Patrick Modiano's Nobel for literature. Even a non-chauvinist can say it's been a good week for France.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Il n'y a que le ridicule qui tue ...

France has enough trouble without this: a UMP deputy (male) has been sanctioned by Sandrine Mazetier (PS) for addressing her as "Madame le Président" rather than, as she prefers (but the Académie Française does not) Madame la Présidente:

«C'est Madame la présidente, ou il y a un rappel à l'ordre avec inscription au procès verbal», l'a averti la députée de Paris. Julien Aubert a persisté, affirmant qu'il ne faisait que suivre «l’Académie française» en disant «Madame le président», la féminisation se référant à la femme du président. Et a écopé d'un rappel à l'ordre.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Renzi Dares to Say What Hollande Won't

From the FT:

“I prefer to have a France with 4.4 per cent [debt-to-GDP ratio] today than a France with Marine Le Pen tomorrow. This is very important for Europe,” he added, referring to the leader of the far-right National Front.
“We must give a message of comprehension for countries with problems,” Mr Renzi said.

Gender Madness

A decade or so ago, when I translated L'Histoire des femmes, the French weren't sure they had a word for "gender" in their language. Genre now fills the role well enough that Le Monde can refer to "les 'antigenre"'in a headline without risk of being misunderstood. Among "les antigenre" we find such groups as "Vigi-Gender" and the Fédération des Parents Engagés et Courageux. Courageux enough to invent an imaginary enemy of homosexuals and feminists allegedly bent on "destroying the family" and "effacing traditional gender roles." A sinister feature of this movement is the way it has brought together elements of the extreme right with representatives of the immigrant community (consider the strange alliance between Alain Soral and Farida Belghoul, for example). The movement seems to be gaining steam, drawing on hidden networks flourishing on social media, and is now ready, it seems, to move into the schoolhouse and demand direct action.