Monday, January 31, 2011

Another Debate

Valls-Mélenchon. As always, the longer a candidate's chances, the more willing he or she is to debate. I haven't had a chance to listen to this yet. Could be interesting.

Later: Well, I did just listen to the exchange on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. "Dégage!" say the demonstrators. Elkabbach puts it to the debaters: Who must go?

Valls skirts the question: We must be prudent, the Muslim Brothers are waiting in the wings, it does no good for Mubarak to go if democracy does not follow, etc.

Mélenchon attempts an even more artful dodge: The revolution is coming here too, we have our own Ben Ali, "la bande à Fouquet's," etc.

And there you have the problem with so much "political debate": it's so easy to bandy about opinions (I apply this stricture to myself), so difficult to take decisions with real consequences. From this exchange, I conclude that Valls would do what Sarkozy is doing--attentisme prudent. No surprise there. What is perhaps surprising is that Mélenchon would do the same thing (though he doesn't say so) on the grounds that some day "the revolution" will take care of all our problems. No need to have a foreign policy, then: what happens elsewhere is only the precursor of the reckoning to come here. "Qu'ils s'en aillent tous." Come the millennium, le bon peuple will govern. D'ici là, best to install the Ultimate Revolution's vicar on earth, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This is what passes for radical laïcité chez le Parti de Gauche. Aron said that Marxism was the opium of the intellectuals. Not any more. Now it's le révolutionnisme sans l'analyse qui est l'opium du Pape populiste.

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that he doesn't have Alzheimer's. The bad news is that he will have to stand trial as scheduled. The bearer of the news is the interested party's wife, Bernadette Chirac. He's often impatient, she adds, but in her case there's nothing new about that.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Krugman Compares France and the US

Paul Krugman:

So, here are some ratios of France to the United States:
GDP per capita: 0.731
GDP per hour worked: 0.988
Employment as a share of population: 0.837
Hours per worker: 0.884
So French workers are roughly as productive as US workers. But fewer Frenchmen and women are working, and when they work, they work fewer hours.
Why are fewer Frenchmen working? As I’ve pointed out, during prime working years they’re as likely to work as Americans. But fewer young people work (in part because of more generous college aid); and, mainly, the French retire earlier. The latter is arguably the result of misguided policies: Mitterand made early retirement alarmingly attractive. But it’s not a problem of weak productivity or mass unemployment.
And why do the French work shorter hours? Probably for the most part because of government policies mandating vacation time.
The bottom line is that France is a society with the same level of technology and productivity as the US, but one that has made different choices about retirement and leisure. Vive la difference!

Change of Tune

"Dog bites man" is not news, goes the old saying. "Villepin attacks Sarkozy" has also ceased to be news, so Villepin has adjusted: henceforth he will develop his "program."

Gay Science

Marine Le Pen, social liberal? Not so much, at least when it comes to gay marriage. The PACS is "super," says Marine Le Pen, especially since 95% of the time it is used by straight couples rather than gays. But she is "totally opposed" to gay marriage. In fact, she goes further: gay organizations don't speak for the majority of gays, she says, most of whom don't want gay marriage. (MLP speaking for gays: a definition of chutzpah.)

So, has the FN evolved? Well, approval of the PACS certainly doesn't connote hidebound traditionalism. Is it progress for the far right to support cohabitation, or concubinage, to use a French word that has a rather disagreeably archaic ring in English? Or is it just electoralism, since so many people nowadays avail themselves of civil unions? Or--third possibility--is it just that religion and right-wing politics don't intersect in France in the same way as in the United States? Marine Le Pen will say a lot of things, but the sentence "marriage is for one man and one woman" is not one that is likely to leave her lips. In the French context it has no constituency, except perhaps for Christine Boutin's. Gay-bashing, on the other hand, is alive and well, but in the UMP rather than the FN: after Christian Vanneste, we have Jacques Myard, député UMP:

"Pas du tout, j'ai dit ceci ; on me dit qu'il faut prendre en compte l'homosexualité parce qu'elle existe. J'ai dit qu'à ce moment-là, toutes les perversions sexuelles… Le zoophile existe, vous allez le prendre en compte ?"

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hirschman in the Tocqueville Review

A new issue of the Tocqueville Review is out, devoted to the work of Albert Hirschman. Of particular note is the article on Hirschman in France by Pierre Grémion. This issue also contains the text of my Collège de France lecture on Tocqueville.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Daniel Bell Dead at 91

Daniel Bell has died at the age of 91. A prolific writer, prodigious thinker, and provocative public intellectual, Bell left his mark on many aspects of American intellectual and political life. His connection with France is less well known, but he was one of the founders of the Tocqueville Review/Revue Tocqueville and maintained close relations with a number of important French intellectuals. (And his son David is one of the leading French historians in the U.S., who, incidentally, played an instrumental role in launching this blog by publicizing it in the New Republic). I knew Dan Bell for many years, and my family connections go back to before I was born, because my parents-in-law knew both Dan and his wife Pearl in New York intellectual circles in the late 1940s. He will be missed. My condolences to David and to all the family.

There is no more fitting epitaph than Dan's self-description:
“A socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture.”

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Democracy and Fantasy

For Tocqueville, democracy was a system of government based on "the dogma of popular sovereignty." Though Tocqueville had the greatest respect for religion, his use of the word "dogma" in this passage of Democracy in America was not without irony. A dogma is a firm tenet of belief, but it is also an unexamined assumption to which people devote blind faith. The people are indeed sovereign, Tocqueville thought, but it was best if they remained un roi fainéant, leaving the arcana of government to ministers better versed in the affairs of the day than the average voter. Participation was a fine thing on the local level, where the people understood the details of their own business. But as the scale of government increased and the art of government came to require higher and higher levels of technical competence, democracy functioned best, Tocqueville thought, in nations where the popular sovereign grasped the need to delegate authority to competent elites.

"Populism" is not an easy term to define, but with Tocqueville's dictum in mind, we might venture to say that populism describes a situation in which the popular sovereign fails to recognize the limits of its competence and presumes to pronounce on all manner of things beyond its ken. Populism is of course an inevitable and constant feature of democratic government. Without it, elites would tend to become autonomous, not to say autocratic. Hence a certain dose of populism serves the useful function of keeping elites honest and responsive to the broader concerns of the population. Populist outcries are loudest when elites become most rapacious and self-serving. Thus in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the U.S. saw its most potent populist uprising, provoked in part by the ravages of robber-baron capitalism.

And so it is again in this latest Gilded Age, at the end of an era of growing inequality, reduced social mobility, elite consolidation and closure, and the extraordinary rapacity of some of the best and brightest. Populism is on the march across the United States and Europe. In the U.S., for example, we have Rand Paul, an outspoken opponent of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, assuming responsibility for Senate oversight of the Fed. Populist parties have arisen in many European countries as well. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has led the Parti de Gauche in a populist direction, attacking elites in blunderbuss fashion (his book is entitled "Qu'ils s'en aillent tous," despite the often Mandarin quality of his rhetoric) and accusing the IMF of "organizing famine, disorder, and dismantlement of the state." Olivier Besancenot's NPA has wrapped a core of Marxist doctrine in a fanfare to the common man, ably trumpeted by the golden-tongued postman himself. And Marine Le Pen, as Laurent Bouvet reminds us, has moved her party from racist xenophobia toward a less pestiferous set of populist economic themes, focusing in particular on the same IMF that is Mélenchon's preferred target.

Bouvet also analyzes Mélenchon as an exemplar of what he sees as a "new populism," defined primarily by an anti-Islamism grounded in fidelity to republican laicité but fueled by popular fears of a dilution of the national cultural identity (one sees similar fears in classic 19th-c. U.S,. populism as well). Bouvet echoes the point that I've been trying to make here, that these various manifestations of populism can be ignored only at considerable peril:

Ces mouvements néopopulistes servent ainsi aujourd’hui de signal d’alerte et de symptôme démocratique. Ils avertissent les « élites » que le mal-être du « peuple » doit impérativement être mieux compris et mieux pris en compte qu’il ne l’est. Où l’on voit que le populisme est sans doute le mal nécessaire de la démocratie.

The question, then, is how to respond to the populist cri du coeur. Although it is tempting to dismiss Rand Paul by assuming that the electorate is well-informed enough to imagine what would happen if the Fed were dismantled tomorrow or to counter Mélenchon by asking if he really believes that the IMF has "organized famine and disorder," the reality is that the selective designation of scapegoats for the errors of government can be a potent rallying point of mass movements that open the door to unsavory politics of many varieties. The danger is most acute in the United States, where the Republican Party has been infiltrated and taken over by radical populist elements. In France, populism is weakened by internal division and comes in left and right variants. In any event, the prospect of seeing populist fantasies empowered, even to a small degree, is something that should concern responsible democrats everywhere. But what to do about it?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Yet Another New Editor for Le Monde

The three principal stockholders of Le Monde will propose to the board that Erik Izraelewicz be named managing editor, to replace Eric Fottorino. Izraelewicz, an HEC graduate, has a degree in international economics and came up through the ranks as a business journalist at L'Expansion, Les Échos and La Tribune. He has also held numerous posts at Le Monde previously, including editor-in-chief. Beyond that, I don't know much about him or have any sense of his political sensibilities. Anybody?

The situation at Le Monde continues to be unsettled. As we head into the presidential season, the choice of editor is more than usually significant. Bergé has been a supporter of Ségolène Royal in the past, but there have been signs more recently that his support for her has cooled. Whether this has any bearing on the choice of Izraelewicz is of course impossible to say from where I sit.

Hard Numbers

In case you think that presidential polls at this stage mean anything, Le Monde offers a sobering reminder of just how wrong they were 18 months before the last three presidential elections. The problems are numerous: too many candidates, aleatory press coverage, and, perhaps most interesting, misleading comparisons demonstrating Arrow's impossibility theorem at work. All right, so the application of Arrow's theorem isn't rigorous: different polls involve different groups, different questions, and different combinations of candidates. But the principle remains: person A may prefer Valls to Royal to Besancenot in poll X and wind up voting for Sarkozy over Montebourg in round 2 of 2012. Voters are hard pressed to sort out their preferences when there are too many candidates to choose from, and there is no consistent way of aggregating the preferences over the broad field to arrive at a consistent group choice in a binary confrontation. For the same reason, we tend to overinterpret "presidential mandates." The ultimate binary choice required in a presidential system of the French type yields the illusion that "the nation" has made a consistent choice between two competing sets of preferences. But underlying that choice is a chaotic sea of individual preferences that cannot be consistently combined.

Tunisia

After Alliot-Marie and Frédéric Mitterrand, President Sarkozy offers an apology of sorts to the Tunisian people while praising his government for its "reserve":

Sur la Tunisie, Nicolas Sarkozy a esquissé un timide mea culpa, reconnaissant que la France n'avait "pas pris la juste mesure" de la contestation du peuple tunisien, auquel il a réitéré la "solidarité du peuple français", promettant l'avénement d'une "ère nouvelle" entre les deux pays. Mais selon lui, "dire que nous sommes restés silencieux devant les morts est un peu exagéré". Le gouvernement va par ailleurs proposer une "série de mesures" pour aider la Tunisie.
Quant à l'attitude de la France, qui a très longtemps soutenu l'ex-président tunisien Ben Ali, le chef de l'Etat s'est abrité derrière le passé colonial de la France et les "blessures de l'histoire" pour mieux vanter une "réserve" française vis-à-vis des pays étrangers. "Plus nous voudrons faire de l'ingérence et moins nous serons influents."
Nicolas Sarkozy a estimé que "la puissance coloniale est toujours illégitime à prononcer un jugement sur les affaires intérieures d'une ancienne colonie". Il a par ailleurs mis en avant le fait que la France ait abrité des membres de l'opposition tunisienne, et évoqué les relations passées de ses prédécesseurs avec Ben Ali ou Bourguiba.
Interrogé sur la prise de position malheureuse de Michèle Alliot-Marie, qui avait proposé, quelques jours avant la chute de Ben Ali, l'aide de la France au maintien de l'ordre en Tunisie, Nicolas Sarkozy a préféré botter en touche, asssurant que la ministre souhaitait simplement "éviter qu'il y ait plus de drames".

For the American attitude toward Tunisia and reflections on the proper future course of the West in promoting democracy in the Arab world, see this article by Steve Coll.

Cambadélis: We're going to lose the electiion

Jean-Christophe Cambadélis sees the contingent of 10 Socialist candidates as a circular firing squad, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the center with a Gatling gun mowing them all down. A bit histrionic, perhaps, but not altogether inaccurate as a portrait of the current state of the Left.

Sarko Embraces the Tobin Tax

Once an idea associated with the "radical crazies" of antimondialisme, the Tobin tax (on financial transactions) has now been embraced by Nicolas Sarkozy, whose election was supposed to have signified the triumph of globalization and neoliberalism in France. Politics works in mysterious ways (les crises du capitalisme aidant):

À propos de la taxe sur les transactions financières, il s'agit, selon lui, de la "meilleure des formules" pour trouver "de nouvelles ressources pour le développement", même s'il a admis qu'elle avait à cette heure de "grands ennemis". "La France considère que cette taxe est morale compte tenu de la crise financière que nous venons de traverser, utile pour dissuader la spéculation et efficace pour trouver de nouvelles ressources pour le développement", a dit Nicolas Sarkozy en présentant ses voeux à la presse.
I've always been a fan of the Tobin tax and was sorry to see its virtues compromised by association with a lot of less savory ideas floated by various social movements. It remains to be seen just how Sarkozy, as head of the G20, will propose that it be implemented. It is sure to be resisted tooth and nail by American and British banking interests. Opposition from French banks will inevitably be more discreet. In the early days of the crisis, one heard bold talk of Paris's ambitions to replace London as a global financial center. Such talk is rare these days, particularly since the French government placed itself, rhetorically at least, on the side of regulation and taxation. But the devil is in the details.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Edgar Morin and Sarkozy's "Politique de civilisation"

From an Edgar Morin interview in Rue89:

C'est un malentendu. Pendant ses vœux, Nicolas Sarkozy a parlé de « politique de civilisation ». Son conseiller, Henri Guaino, qui connaissait au moins le titre, a eu cette idée. Quelques journaux ont dit que j'avais été pillé. Dans Le Monde, j'ai dit que je ne savais pas ce que Nicolas Sarkozy entendais par là et j'ai expliqué ce que j'entendais par « politique de civilisation ».
Comme je n'avais pas été très agressif, j'ai été invité à rencontrer Nicolas Sarkozy à l'Elysée. Il m'a dit que pour lui la civilisation, c'était l'identité, la nation, etc. J'ai expliqué : « C'est lutter contres les maux de notre civilisation tout en sauvegardant ses aspects positifs. » La discussion a été cordiale.
Il s'est trouvé qu'en le quittant, je lui ai dit : « Je suis sûr que dans vos discours, vous êtes sincère les trois quarts du temps, ce qui vous permet le dernier quart de dire autre chose. » C'était une petite blague.
Le lendemain, un journaliste l'interpelle sur la « politique de civilisation » et lui a répondu : « J'ai reçu Edgar Morin hier. Il m'a assuré être d'accord avec les trois quarts de ma politique. » Je n'ai jamais vu autant de micros me solliciter après ça.
En France, j'ai eu une tribune assez importante pour que les gens comprennent que je n'étais pas devenu le féal de Sarkozy mais des amis me téléphonaient d'Italie et d'Espagne en me demandant : « Toi aussi, mon pauvre ami ? »
C'était après Kouchner, Amara… Remarquez, grâce à Sarkozy, le livre a été tiré à des milliers d'exemplaires. Ce qui est dommage, c'est que ça n'a pas eu d'influence du tout sur sa politique. Il n'avait pas compris.

Bouvet on Le Pen

Laurent Bouvet offers an interesting analysis of Marine Le Pen's ascendancy that differs in one essential respect from other analyses I have seen.

He begins by noting that the mainstream parties of both Right and Left are afraid of a repeat (or anti-repeat) of 2002, with MLP finishing ahead of either Sarkozy or the eventual candidate of the Left. To be sure, the thought has crossed many minds, and it's not out of the realm of possibility. But let's not get too far ahead of the evidence. At this point, the possibility seems remote, and even though Sarkozy has lost considerable support on the FN side of the party and has reached a nadir in his approval ratings, he still wins handily in all first-round polls that I have seen.

Second, Bouvet, like other commentators, notes the "left-populist" shift in Le Pen's economic rhetoric:

L’évolution qu’elle poursuit, c’est celle qu’elle a elle-même entreprise il y a quelques années en faisant bouger le discours économique et social de son parti vers… la gauche ! D’abord par petites touches, notamment dans son « laboratoire » du Nord-Pas-de-Calais, à Hénin-Beaumont, où elle s’est implantée et désormais de manière plus ample : « À chaque fois qu’un secteur est transféré du public vers le privé, cela se traduit par une régression de l’égalité et par une explosion des coûts. Je suis donc pour un service public des transports, de l’éducation, de la santé, des banques et des personnes âgées. Et je suis également pour l’intervention de l’État dans des secteurs stratégiques : énergie, communications, télécommunications et médias. Je réfléchis par ailleurs à une révolution fiscale qui rétablirait notamment l’équilibre entre le capital et le travail. » (Entretien, Causeur, janvier 2011)

Where Bouvet parts company with other analysts, however, is in his treatment of Le Pen's "social" rhetoric. Instead of seeing her as a "social conservative," he glimpses a new "liberal" voice on issues such as abortion and homosexual rights:


C’est toutefois dans un autre domaine que Marine Le Pen rompt les amarres avec le navire paternel : celui des valeurs morales et culturelles. Elle déclare en effet depuis quelques temps que le Front national est le premier rempart non seulement de la laïcité et de la République mais encore des droits individuels dits post-matérialistes (ceux des femmes et des homosexuels par exemple) contre l’islam, ses lois, ses pratiques et, surtout, ses croyants. L’amalgame constant entre islamisme et islam, entre fondamentalistes et pratiquants occasionnels, entre la variété des pratiques elles-mêmes… tout cela ne compte évidemment pas dans la rhétorique radicale déployée par le néopopulisme contemporain. Ce qui compte, c’est l’extension du domaine de la lutte politique par le FN à de nouveaux terrains et à de nouvelles catégories de la population.
Car en empruntant le chemin ouvert il y a quelques années déjà par le Néerlandais Pym Fortuyn, Marine Le Pen saisit sur le vif les ambiguïtés de l’idéal multiculturaliste qui s’est déployé depuis une trentaine d’années dans les sociétés européennes, et dont le trait commun a été de valoriser, politiquement, socialement et culturellement ce que l’on appelle couramment les « minorités » : les femmes, les homosexuels, les immigrants, les « minorités visibles » qu’elles soient ethno-raciales ou religieuses, etc. Bref, tous les individus dont un des critères identitaires au moins peut les distinguer du groupe majoritaire – celui-ci étant vite réduit aux « hommes blancs hétérosexuels » ainsi qu’on le nomme ironiquement aux Etats-Unis, dont la fonction identitaire et sociale principale est donc de dominer et de discriminer les membres des minorités.
En jetant aux orties le vieux modèle familialiste de l’extrême-droite (anti-avortement, anti-gay…) et en brisant ainsi le lien multiculturaliste unissant les minorités de toutes origines, Marine Le Pen se donne, au nom de la défense des femmes et des homosexuels contre les musulmans, les moyens de séduire de nouveaux milieux et de nouvelles catégories sociales, au-delà de ceux que le FN touchait jusqu’ici. Si elle réussit son pari non tant de dé-diaboliser son parti que de le faire sortir de son carcan électoral en grignotant des voix sur ces enjeux-là, comme c’est déjà le cas sur les questions économiques et sociales, elle pourrait bien menacer les partis de gouvernement notamment à gauche.

Une gauche qui ayant déjà largement perdu son électorat populaire traditionnel (davantage en faveur de l’abstention certes que du vote frontiste) peut difficilement se permettre de voir disparaître encore quelques pans de ce qui lui reste, surtout sur des sujets tels que la défense des droits des femmes et des homosexuels ou encore de celle de la République et de la laïcité. Dans ces conditions, il est difficile de voir comment une gauche qui aspire à gouverner le pays dans la durée pourra longtemps encore éviter de penser à nouveaux frais – et ils seront élevés – son idéal multiculturaliste : en clair la cohérence entre d’une part une inclination devenue quasi-naturelle et sans cesse revendiquée pour le respect absolu de la « diversité » et, d’autre part, son attachement viscéral à la défense et à l’extension des droits de l’individu.

Now, this is a very interesting reading, but is it a correct interpretation of what Le Pen is up to? I am skeptical, for a number of reasons. To be sure, it would be perfectly in keeping with Le Pen's new rhetoric of "republican solidarity" and "defense of laïcité against Islamic fundamentalism" to feign interest in some of the individual rights that have been derived from a laïc understanding of the role of the state. Le Pen may indeed have made some oratorical stabs in this direction. But will such rhetoric really serve her with the working-class voters she is trying to woo? Are what Bouvet calls "post-materialist" rights and minority rights really prime concerns of this group? And what about the well-known and much-studied petit bourgeois support for the FN? Doesn't Le Pen risk alienating this part of her electorate if she moves too far in a "post-materialist" direction? Isn't the fundamental passion that the FN exploits discomfort with "diversity" rather than defense of the droit à la différence?

To be sure, the FN new-style, like other right-wing populist parties across Europe, has been seeking a new form of "reactionary modernism" free of past associations with anti-Semitism, colonialism, etc. The "Islamic occupation" is the centerpiece of Le Pen's effort to reorient her party's symbolism. But I don't see her leading a gay rights parade of opening an FN abortion clinic anytime soon.

Still, Bouvet's analysis is worth considering, not least because it points to a sector of the political space that has not yet been occupied: the socially progressive anti-Islamic space. Perhaps the UMP will see an opportunity there, or Manuel Valls on the PS side. Because on these issues, there is no coherent right-left division.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Mélenchon Candidacy

I confess to a guilty pleasure: I enjoy French demagoguery. Perhaps it's because French isn't my mother tongue. There's a certain thrill in grasping the demotic register, and the virile bass tonality masks the monotony of the content. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has a style that combines a certain old-leftist grandiloquence with flashes of colicky anger. His hyperbole could fill textbooks:

Je redis que le FMI est une organisation internationale vouée à organiser la famine, le désordre et le démantèlement de l'Etat. Avec DSK, le PS s'enfonce dans l'impasse", insiste M. Mélenchon.
The IMF seems to be the designated whipping boy of this moment in French politics, no doubt because Dominique Strauss-Kahn became its head with Sarkozy's backing. In my youth, the role now assigned to the IMF was filled by the Trilateral Commission. For some, the ills of capitalism must be imputable to some identifiable central agency in order to achieve the requisite degree of monstrousness. The truth, that the vices as well as the virtues of capitalism can be attributed precisely to the fact that it is a body without a head, a marvel of coordination without central control, was known to Adam Smith as well as Marx. But this truth is of no use for the dramaturgy on which Mélenchon's rhetoric draws. For some reason I'm reminded of Fritz Lang's film, "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse." For those who want the longer version of Mélenchon's views, his blog is a good place to start. His written style is more in the grand manner, nourished by the great myths of revolution and national liberation. Here is a sample (on the revolution in Tunisia):

Nul n’est plus légitime au pouvoir, quelles que soient ses difficultés, qui a fait tirer l’armée contre le peuple. L’usage de l’armée contre le peuple marque la ligne de partage dont aucun pouvoir ne revient sans s’être transformé en autre chose. Ben Ali le savait. Et comme il était irréel de l’entendre parler de cesser les tirs « à balle réelle », façon d’avouer qu’ils étaient autorisés auparavant et donc froidement délibérés.

Thank You

If you check the little counter under "Site Statistics" in the right-hand column, you'll see that sometime today or tomorrow this blog will pass the milestone of half a million page views. I had no idea when I began that I would persist this long (nearly 3 1/2 years now) or reach this large an audience. I am grateful to all of you who read the blog, especially to the happy few who have been here since the beginning. I don't promise to continue forever, but I think you can count on my being here at least until the 2012 elections. After that, it will be time to reassess. Thanks for reading, and special thanks to those of you who have taken the time to comment, send leads, or point me toward sources of information.

Baby Doc vs. Ben Ali

France recently refused asylum to fleeing Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. Baby Doc Duvalier, who has now returned to Haiti ("just when you thought things couldn't get any worse," said one Haitian), was luckier: France sheltered him for twenty-five years, despite his being "un étranger en situation irregulière."

Mélenchon, Le Pen, and Plantu

Yet another mini-brouhaha (and thanks again to Bernard Girard).

Friday, January 21, 2011

The New Nationalism ...

... as seen by Bernard Girard.

Hollande Becomes Credible?

Yes, the polls are in, and it seems that just about any Socialist can beat Sarkozy in 2012, except perhaps Ségolène Royal. Sure, one can't take polls seriously at this stage of the game, but still, the signs are unmistakable. And perhaps the most surprising thing about Sarkozy's collapse is that it has restored some of François Hollande's lost luster. Royal may have lost the 2007 election, but it was Hollande's party that aided and abetted the defeat of his former compagne--and not without a certain unseemly alacrity. But now Hollande is back, and Françoise Fressoz speculates that it is thanks to his judicious playing of the sobriety card. The voters have had enough of their Café de Commerce president and are ready to see a little sérieux restored to the Élysée.

I don't think this is right, but I do think that Hollande has played his cards remarkably well. Too many observers have assumed that the contest is between DSK and Aubry, with Royal in the role of spoiler. The famous "pact" all but officialized this program for the PS primaries. If "Dominique" runs, we're all behind him, Ségolène went so far as to say on television, but meanwhile, since he doesn't appear to be running anywhere very fast ... But Dominique's main trump card was his good second-round polling, and as Sarko has further declined, that no longer seems quite so important. Nor does Aubry, weakened by continued internal bickering and her confused position on retirement reform, seem like the inevitable alternative. Furthermore, her strength in the primaries should not be taken for granted. Hollande, who has his own base among party militants, could outstrip her as the alternative to Royal. And he might well be the better candidate in the general election--indeed, the best candidate, because he does know the dossiers and is quicker with a sound bite than any of the others.

I've never found Hollande a very compelling personality, but he could grow on me if he were to emerge as the alternative to another 5 years of Sarkozy. I suspect, moreover, that he would be far more acceptable to the extragovernmental parties of the Left and Right than Strauss-Kahn, who is vulnerable to the populist attacks of Marine Le Pen, Olivier Besancenot, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. If DSK is the candidate, the PS could bleed votes to the FN, PG, or NPA in the first round and to Sarkozy in the second. This would be less likely with Hollande, I suspect. And Hollande is not as closely tied to the 35-hr week as Aubry, nor is he the daughter of Jacques Delors (Mr. Europe, another target of both the anti-EU extreme left and the anti-EU extreme right).

The French BDS Movement

I generally avoid writing about Israel-related issues in this blog, because the blog form does not permit the many nuances and caveats (contortions?) that I find necessary to bring to the subject. But I posted something the other day about the cancellation of an appearance by Stéphane Hessel at the École Normale Supérieure. This led to a somewhat testy exchange among several commenters on the original post. I therefore want to return to the issue today. And since Israel is at the center of the French free speech issue, I will inevitably be drawn into a comment on French attitudes toward Israel.

I note first that a petition protesting the cancellation of the Hessel lecture has drawn a response from Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF (Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France). Prasquier, like Cincinna (one of the commenters on my previous post), claims to be a supporter of free speech and invokes a career of pro-speech positions in support of his claim. Also like Cincinna, he sees no contradiction between his general support for free speech and his specific opposition to M. Hessel's appearance at ENS. On what grounds?

First, he states that the "Boycott, Divest, Sanction" (BDS) movement against Israel contravenes French law banning discriminatory boycotts. And indeed, Alliot-Marie, when she was interior minister, sent a memorandum to prosecutors reminding them of this law and urging them to use it against an array of allegedly anti-Israel actors. This leads M. Prasquier to say that Hessel is being "prosecuted, not persecuted." But Prasquier goes on to undermine his own invocation of the majesty of the law by indicting Hessel for hypocrisy as well as discrimination: why hasn't he boycotted Syria, Libya, and Burma, Prasquier asks? So it appears that there are "good" boycotts and legitimate uses of "discrimination" as well as "bad" ones, and it is to be left to our gentle rulers to decide which causes are just and which are not. Any attempt to disagree with the government's choice of which states can be supported by French citizens and which states can be opposed is deserving of suppression, according to Prasquier. I imagine that Cincinna agrees. This abdication to the French state of the right to protest the foreign and military policy of another state is hardly consistent with the right of free speech as I understand it. (Parenthetically, I also find it difficult to understand why Cincinna, a self-described conservative, wants to grant the state the right to determine what the legitimate exercise of free speech is; I thought conservatives wanted to limit the power of the state in the name of individual liberty and freedom of conscience.)

Prasquier, like Cincinna, also insists that Hessel's protest of Israel policy is aimed at the "delegitimation" of the state of Israel, "the only democratic state in the region." To be sure, there are among supporters of the BDS movement some who would deny Israel's right to exist. There are others who would simply deny Israel's right not only to occupy for more than 40 years but now also to colonize the West Bank. I disagree with those who would put an end to Israel and agree with those who would put an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but I see no reason to deny either group the right to state its case on French (or American) soil. The fact that Israel is a democracy does not render all its actions beyond reproach. Switzerland is a democracy that has banned minarets, but no one has proposed preventing French citizens from stating a position pro or con the Swiss law in France.

In short, one doesn't have to support BDS (and I do not) to support Stéphane Hessel's right to support BDS. I would have thought this would be obvious to self-described champions of free speech, but apparently, when it comes to Israel, different principles apply.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

France, G20, and Commodities Markets

One way in which France proposes to use its G20 chairmanship is to bring greater transparency to international commodities markets. Unglamorous but useful work. Not the sort of thing one usually associates with Sarkozy, so I thought I'd mention it.

Marine Le Pen's Rhetoric ...

... nicely analyzed here by Frédéric Martel. See also this article by Pierre Testard.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tax Reform

The thème politique du jour is tax reform, and economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Camille Landais have a new book and a new Web site devoted to the subject. (Thanks to Anonymous for the lead.)

The French Paradox

The French are the most pessimistic people in the world, according to this poll. On the other hand, they're having babies at a rate of 2.01 per woman, and the population just passed 65 million, according to INSEE. Explain. (h/t Éloi Laurent)

Twisting Slowly in the Wind

It seems that Éric Woerth has been hung out to dry by Sarkozy, who once defended him tooth and nail. He lets loose at Fillon and Baroin in this interview, sparing the monarch by spitting on his ministers, but one feels his pain. This treatment retrospectively compounds the mystery of the unwavering support Woerth received in the thick of the Bettencourt affair. Didn't everyone believe then that he was being protected because he possessed the secrets of the UMP's financing? So why has he been unceremoniously dumped now? Was the racetrack affair really a surprise to the powers-that-be?

In any case, such whining isn't what one expected from a stalwart soldier like Woerth, un ex-premier-ministrable. From a Dati or a Boutin such pique was to be expected. But Woerth? Politics is a cruel business.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Marine Le Pen on France2

Marine Le Pen put in a prime time appearance tonight. She attempted straightaway to reorient the party's message toward economic populism: get rid of the Euro, borrow from the Bank of France "at zero interest" rather than from international financial markets (just print as much as you need, I guess), protect jobs (the name of Maurice Allais was invoked!), etc. David Pujadas remarked that the FN had proposed to reduce the top marginal tax rate--a gift to the wealthy--but walked into MLP's fist when she retorted that this proposition had been removed from the FN Web site immediately after her election. But she also reverted to more traditional themes, defending her father's latest verbal dérapage while insisting that he and she have different ways of expressing themselves.

Did she do herself any good? I haven't much of a feel for the thinking of the part of the electorate likely to respond to her signals, but I suspect that some who find nothing much to like in any of the parties will be drawn to her as a renewed symbol of protest and rejection. She's different enough from her father to seem new; her nationalist rhetoric and "economic patriotism" will resonate in many ears, including some on the left; and she made it clear that she hasn't moderated a bit on opposition to immigration, which she blames for all the ills that can't be attributed to "international financial markets." The FN foresaw everything that has happened, she claims: economic collapse, insecurity, the weakening of France on the international scene. Meanwhile, party membership has rebounded from its low of 2007 to attain 2002 levels. Not good news for Sarkozy. The promise of diminishing the FN might have been his finest achievement, had it been real, but it seems that it was based on a false premise: his strategy of co-optation has actually played into the enemy's hands.

The Fissiparous Left of the Left

It seems like only yesterday that the Parti de Gauche split from the PS, but it has lost no time in developing its own internal divisions and, now that it is allied with the Communist Party (which will back Melenchon for the presidency instead of running its own candidate), its own version of the late and unlamented "demcoratic centralism." Christophe Ramaux, had of the PG's economics committee, has resigned, protesting the all too "personalized" style of Melenchon as leader.

Monday, January 17, 2011

ENS Cancels Hessel Lecture

Stéphane Hessel, a venerable résistant, drafter of the postwar UN declaration of the human rights, and the author of the bestselling pamphlet Indignez-vous! (more than 500,000 copies sold), has been banned from speaking at the École Normale Supérieure of Paris in support of a movement to boycott Israeli products and divest investments in Israeli firms. Éric Fassin defends Hessel's right to speak without taking a position on the movement to boycott and divest.

The "boycott, divest, and sanction" movement against Israel has aroused fierce opposition in the US. This seems now to be spreading to France. Hessel's involvement gives the movement a particularly high profile there.

Le Pen Minister?

A provocative post by Bernard Girard considers the possibility.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bakchich Goes Under

Story here. I rarely quoted from or linked to Bakchich, but its feed was in my reader, and I followed the stories it put out. It had axes to grind, and too much of its stuff was unsourced, but it was useful to have around as long as you remained skeptical of the lines it was selling. I'm sort of sorry to see it go.

UPDATE Jan 19: Rumors of Bakchich's death seem to have been exaggerated. Its RSS feed is alive again.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Continuity/Change chez le FN

Marine Le Pen succeeds her father with 67% of the vote, but the Gollnisch faction retains a substantial presence on the party's central committee.

Tunisia

I won't pretend to understand what has happened in Tunisia, but France has hardly covered itself with glory in this episode. First, Michèle Alliot-Marie, the French foreign minister, exhibited a case of foot-in-mouth disease worse than her predecessor's when she had the temerity to propose that France share its "expertise in security matters" with the forces of repression in the former colony. Then, after failing to maintain Ben Ali's government, which made every possible blunder except that of accepting Alliot-Marie's offer, France refused to grant the fleeing ex-president entry. And now we have Jean Daniel pleading for a "velvet revolution" in Tunisia in the most confused terms:

D'abord, je me suis senti malheureux de voir à chacun de mes voyages un peuple se soumettre, des journalistes s'humilier et des élites se laisser domestiquer par un despote dont la famille se comportait de manière injurieuse, et qui leur procurait une économie prospère pour les riches et qui se disait un rempart contre l'islamisme. Les grandes voix ont manqué ou elles ont été pratiquement étouffées, car c'est le peuple qui a rendu aux élites sa dignité. Mais aujourd'hui, en ces moments de célébration, tous les gens qui ont appris l'histoire des révolutions savent que si le pire n'est pas toujours sûr, rien ne l'empêche d'arriver, pour le malheur de tous. Il faut que les révolutionnaires d'aujourd'hui pensent à Lech Walesa et Nelson Mandela, et à toutes les révolutions de velours, plutôt qu'aux émeutes sanglantes de la terreur révolutionnaire de 1793 en France et de 1921 en Russie. Il faut éviter les convulsions de la vengeance et la division tragique des héritiers, comme cela s'est passé un peu partout dans le monde arabe. Il faut revenir à l'époque glorieuse des dix premières années de Bourguiba. C'est de tout mon cœur ce que je souhaite aux Tunisiens.

Can anyone decipher this, or is Jean Daniel in his dotage?

TBTF: EU vs US

Morris Goldstein and Nicolas Véron compare US and EU policies regarding "too big too fail" (TBTF) financial institutions.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Poll

A CSA-Marianne poll has Marine Le Pen scoring 17-18% in the first round of the presidential election. Sarkozy may have thought he had destroyed the FN by co-opting its positions, but instead he seems to have enabled it. The FN is now in the position the Communist Party used to be in: unelectable, but potent enough to inflect the positions of others, especially on the Right. MLP has played her cards shrewdly. Sarkozy was able to outflank her father by dog-whistling to his racist, xenophobic constituency. But MLP has learned this trick and has a dog whistle of her own, which is music in the ears to populist elements in the UMP. Instead of xenophobia, she offers protectionism, anti-globalization, and anti-EU rhetoric. Instead of racism, she offers the clash of civilizations, capitalizing on Europe-wide Islamophobia. Of course when she needs to, she is every bit as capable as her father of plucking the old strings with a carefully chosen word or two: witness her characterization of Muslim prayer in the streets as an "occupation" of France by a foreign force.

By attempting to co-opt the FN, Sarkozy has helped Marine Le Pen to de-demonize the party. He must now persuade his disillusioned and withering base that they must not go this route. But how?

As for the Left, the poll shows Besancenot, who seemed to be fading, with surprising strength, and Melenchon doing well in his first foray, presenting the Socialist candidate with the usual conundrum of how to rally the left of the Left. But the real story here is the FN--and the not unexpected signal of extreme discontent that its substantial support represents.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sciences Po Joins the College Board

Details here.

Farrell on Europolitics

A brilliant post by Henry Farrell on the political fallout of the euro crisis:

It’s worth expanding the argument that I suspect Kevin is hinting at with his mention of ‘unpredictable political consequences.’ We have seen a lot of analysis from economists which points (correctly) to the inherent contradictions of the Eurozone’s shambolic crisis management strategy. Much less attention has been paid to the political fallout which is considerable. The bailout strategies seem almost purpose-designed to corrode popular legitimacy both in the states giving and receiving funds. If the prospect of a politically viable European Union isn’t quite dead yet, it’s haemorrhaging on the operating table, and the surgeon clearly has no clue what to do. We will be running a seminar on Germany and the EU next week – I have a short piece in it which talks to this at greater length.
See also this post by Kevin O'Rourke, which inspired Henry's comment.

Krugman on the Euro

Here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Alarming Statistic

Read this:

Surtout, 32 % des sympathisants UMP se déclarent en accord avec les idées du Front national. "C'est 12 points de plus que l'année dernière", relève Edouard Lecerf, directeur général de TNS-Sofres.
32%!  No further comment necessary.

The Primaries

I don't know about you, but I'm weary of the Socialists' hand-wringing over the date of their primary. Too early? Too late? Advantage Royal? Disadvantage DSK? This pseudo-debate is, I'm afraid, just a continuation of (Socialist) politics by other means--a substitute for perfecting a platform, confronting real issues, and defining the party in the eyes of the voters. And frankly, if DSK wants to be president of France, it's time for him to show it. The IMF can get along without him, and is it really asking too much of someone who aspires to be a head of state to sacrifice in order to get there? A decision would be a token of commitment, without which he won't deserve the presidency. Strauss-Kahn seems to think that his charm will be irresistible once he chooses to exercise it. Or perhaps, more realistically, he knows that his aura of irresistibility will evaporate once he throws his hat in the ring. True enough, but it's cowardly to put off the day of reckoning in the hope that the candidacy will fall to him by default, after which people will be able to ascertain just how good a candidate he might be.

A Brilliant Solution

Debt-ridden European countries have come up with a brilliant solution to their problems after being shut out of international bond markets: they leaned on their domestic banks to buy their paper. So now they are in a box: if they attempt to restructure their debt, they may bring down their own banks. Postponing the day of reckoning may well result in a worse disaster for their own people than if they had simply defaulted in the first place.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Problems of the Banlieues

La Vie des Idées devotes a very long review to Hugues Lagrange's Le déni des cultures, a study of the social ills of France's suburbs, and to the polemic it has aroused. See this companion review as well. I am not competent to comment on this controversy but would be interested in hearing from any of you who have read the book or are familiar with the issues.

Mr. Sarkozy Goes to Washington

The French president visited the U.S. capital yesterday and was rewarded with lavish praise:

“We don’t have a stronger friend and a stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people,” he said as the French leader, listening to a translator through headphones, solemnly nodded his agreement. “I’ve always found Nicolas to be an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend to the American people.”
But nothing was disclosed about the content of Sarko's proposals for the G20.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Meunier on Sarkozy and the G20

Sophie Meunier reflects on the French presidency of the G20.

Just Wondering

Longtime readers of this blog may recall the name of Denis Gautier-Sauvagnac, the former head of the mining and metals industry association UIMM, who was accused in 2007 of diverting 20 million euros worth of the organization's money to some mysterious purpose. Some said it was to buy off the unions. Others hinted at still more nefarious operations. But as far as I can determine nothing has come of the case. Is there still an investigation? Or has this affair been successfully buried after achieving its goal: the removal of Gautier-Sauvagnac from his post?

The Contentious French

On Thursday, Jan. 13, 6-8 PM, I will be one of five panelists at a session to discuss French styles of protest and demonstration, to be held at the French Library and Cultural Center in Boston. Details here.

Monetary Reform

President Sarkozy will meet President Obama today to discuss reform of the international monetary system and concerns about rising prices of food and scarce raw materials. Details are scarce, as is appropriate at this stage of a negotiation intended to achieve a consensus. But consensus between Washington and Paris is likely to prove elusive.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Valls Interview

Manuel Valls has had everyone talking about him for the past few days because of his comments on the Loi Aubry, but here he is talking about himself to Frédéric Martel in a long and quite revealing interview. There's more to Valls than his recent coup de comm' might lead one to believe. He might well make an attractive candidate, but unfortunately he will need to remake the PS if he is to have any chance of occupying that role. At the moment he is Blair without New Labour: a man with a flair for political strategizing and phrase-making and a certain personal charisma but no social base. One can imagine him leading a Red/Green alliance, but first there has to be an alliance.

Girard on the Loi Aubry

Bernard Girard wonders why the Socialists never developed a convincing economic argument in support of the Loi Aubry:

Mais le plus désolant est sans doute que les socialistes n’aient pas su développer un argumentaire économique convaincant. C’était pourtant possible. Il leur aurait suffi de regarder ce qui s’est effectivement produit dans les premiers mois. La loi demandait aux entreprises de réduire de 10% le temps de travail (passer de 39 à 35 heures) mais leur imposait, pour obtenir les baisses de cotisation sociale, d’augmenter de 6% leurs effectifs. Qu’ont fait celles qui ont joué le jeu? Elles ont recruté, investi dans la modernisation de leurs installations et fait évoluer leur organisation. Cette loi, dans ses premiers mois, contribué à la croissance en mettant en branle simultanément ses deux moteurs : la consommation des ménages (par la création d’emplois) et l’investissement.

Si les socialistes n'ont pas su mieux défendre cette loi c'est qu'ils n'ont, dans leurs profondeurs, probablement jamais vraiment cru aux 35 heures. Les déclarations de Valls ne font que le confirmer.

Theodore Zeldin

Daniel Little reflects on the historical work of Theodore Zeldin:

Zeldin's writing makes one think of a gifted interpreter of literature or art, more than of a traditional historian.  He is very sensitive to telltale nuances, and very creative in building an interpretation of the French based on a series of such insights.  In this regard it is "humanities-inspired history" rather than "social-science history."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Human Development Index

The UN maintains a "human development index" that combines indicators such as health, education, literacy, housing, absence of hunger, etc. France does pretty well: it stands near the top, and its improvement more or less parallels that of the US (two broad blue lines in the graph). The broad green line is China. Most of the red lines are in Africa. For much more, see this site.

They Were For It Before They Were Against It

The "déverrouillage" of the 35-hr law proposed by Manuel Valls has stirred up a ruckus among Socialists. But many of them were in favor of modifying the law in various ways before they discovered unanimity in being against it (or, rather, against Valls). It's good to see that the various PS delegations sent to the US to study the ways of the Democratic Party have borne fruit: they have learned how to emulate John Kerry.

French Film Festival Online

A good idea, perhaps.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Gallimard

The distinguished publishing house is 100 years old.

Thirty-Five Hours

Manuel Valls, who already has nailed down the position of the Socialists' rightmost candidate, upped the ante yesterday by calling for a déverrouillage of the Loi Aubry: the 35-hr week. Not quite sure what that means, except that, like the present government, he doesn't quite have the cojones to come right out and call for repeal of the law. Rather, he wants to chip away at its edges. The Right praised him; the Left disowned him; voters yawned.