Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Bold First Step

François Hollande has shown the world that he has the right stuff to be president. Yes, his bold proposal to cut his own salary by 30% has shown the world that he means business. To be sure, €100,000 is but a tiny fraction of the €100 billion by which he has promised to reduce the French deficit (1 one-millionth, to be exact), but one can easily imagine the next steps: flying coach to the next G20 meeting, taking the Métro to work instead of a limo with police escort, state dinners catered by Quik, and lowering the Élysée thermostat by 2 degrees during the winter months. Who needs une règle d'or when the head of state is prepared to set such an example of frugality. Sarkozy's slogan is "la France forte." Hollande's could be "la France pingre."

Polls, sigh

Writing about polls is the degree zero of blogging, but I must do my duty. The latest CSA poll has Hollande closing the first-round gap with Sarkozy and still leading comfortably in the second round. The interesting thing, though, is that the center is hollowing out. Bayrou is down to 10%, and Eva Joly has ceased to exist, dwindling to numbers that put her in the company of Poutou and Arthaud. Mélenchon and Le Pen slug it out at 15 and 13 respectively.

So--and this is something of a surprise--we have a four-tier election: the two frontrunners, followed by the two extremes, followed by a center that is not quite holding, and finally a rump of non-factors. Another poll shows Sarkozy taking votes from both Le Pen and, somewhat paradoxically, Bayrou. What this suggests is that the inexorable logic of the presidential contest is coming into play. Voters are increasingly certain that there will be no inter-round funny business as there was in 2007, when it seemed possible that Royal and Bayrou might conclude some sort of alliance. Hence they must choose either Hollande or Sarkozy. Some voters who had formerly supported Bayrou but who cannot countenance a victory of the Left are therefore deserting to Sarkozy, while some Le Penistes have been seduced (yet again) by the droitisation of Sarkozy's rhetoric.

Since most of Mélenchon's voters will go for Hollande in round 2 (and Aubry is now canvassing the possibility of Communist ministers--"Why not?" she asks--to make sure they don't desert or stay home), the question remains: What will Bayrou's hard-core 10% do in round 2? Despite Hollande's comfortable lead in round 2 polling, I don't think this is quite a done deal. The inter-round head-to-head debate between Hollande and Sarkozy therefore looms ever larger. A major slip-up by Hollande could shift the report des voix in this crucial centrist group one way or the other. My guess is that these centrists have forgotten how good Sarkozy can be in debate. They remember all the things they don't like about the past 5 years, but they haven't yet seen Hollande fully exposed in the glare of the presidential spotlight. No one has, really. So that last debate will have a lot riding on it.

A New Europe

How it must rankle the Élysée to hear Czar Nicolas derided as "Angela's poodle." Alain Juppé has been dispatched to set things right. If Nicolas is re-elected, he says, there will be a new Europe, with France back in the driver's seat. "It's not a bad method from time to time to bang the table," he adds, to reinforce the image of his boss taking an active role in remaking things. And what will this new Europe look like? It will be a "Europe of borders," a "Europe that protects."

And it's not just the Schengen borders that Sarkozy proposes to restore. The new idea is far more ambitious, namely, to shield Europe from "the profoundly new world in which we live." This certainly sounds like a vague promise (threat?) of some unspecified form of protectionism, which might not sit at all well with a country such as Germany, which exports as much to China as it imports. Indeed, since the EU as a whole is in trade balance with the rest of the world, it's not at all clear whose ox Sarkozy wants to gore, although it is clear whose voters he wants to woo: the 40+% of the electorate who have been seduced by the protectionist sentiments voiced by the likes of Le Pen, Mélenchon, and even Montebourg.

France, of course, has a trade balance problem of its own, but it's a problem within the EU as well as without, and erecting a barrier, or more precisely a low sand dune, along Europe's coastline won't help, for example, to alleviate the decline of France's auto industry. And what is the source of the threat to France's auto makers? Is it Japan? China? Eastern Europe? Not really. It's Spain, believe it or not. Over just the past few years, France has become a net importer of automobiles from Spain. This is certainly good news for Spain, and to some extent belies the contention that Spain put all of its marbles into an unsustainable construction boom in the 2000s. Apparently some of those marbles went into auto plants belonging to SEAT, a Volkswagen subsidiary. Sarkozy and Juppé might want to consider this as they try to persuade Frau Merkel to restrain her fury against all this talk of a "protective Europe." Because as far as Germany is concerned, it played by the rules of the single market and won. Now Sarkozy is proposing to change the rules while accusing his opponent of besmirching France's honor by reneging on a solemn agreement.

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.