Monday, January 19, 2015

A Great Leap Forward?

In the wake of the terror attacks, François Hollande's popularity has jumped from 13 to 40 percent in a matter of weeks--a historic record. Is this a Great Leap Forward, to borrow a phrase from the late Great Helmsman, or a confirmation of Michel Houellebecq's prediction that Hollande would win re-election in 2017 only to lead his country to its ultimate Berezina in 2022?

As we Americans saw on 9/11, a terror attack can do strange things to a nation's psyche. Democratic judgment, fallible in the best of times, falls prey to the demons of mass psychology. In a consensus of generalized fear and suspicion, few are willing to say, "That way madness lies." Thus far, at least, Hollande has committed no major faults. Many commentators are saying that the events gave him an opportunity to embody the presidential function in a way that has hitherto eluded him. Frankly, I think incarnation is in the eye of the beholder. Hollande has thus far taken no major decisions, unless it was the decision to kill the attackers, which his press service has let it be known was an order issued by him personally. This was not a challenging decision. Those that remain are.

What we still don't know is whether the events of the past two weeks will have affected the balance of power in Europe. Frau Merkel, now facing the dangerous anti-Islam Pegida movement at home, showed unusual emotion when she came to mourn in Paris. At last the two most important leaders in Europe have been forced to take off their accountants' eye-shades and stare at bodies rather than the bottom line. The experience may have reminded them that their economic decisions have implications for the health of the body politic that do not appear in the spreadsheets presented to them by their finance ministers. Since they are facing a new form of terrorism, perhaps they will recognize in time that what is required is not a war on terror but a rigorous exercise regime. They need to recondition their bodies politic. It won't be easy. No pain, no gain. But it's time to get off the starvation diet and start pumping iron. I'd best stop now, before the calisthenic metaphors run away with me. But you get the idea.


bernard said...

It is very difficult to understand what you mean in your last paragraph. I for one did not get the idea. Is it simply that you think that they should realize that policies have actual consequences in every day life (I would suspect they do)? Can you explain. I mean, everyone understands that reversing the ills of our ghettos will be horribly difficult and an affair for at least one or two generations.

As for the rebound in popularity, it was to be expected (you underrate a bit the power of the decisive image that Hollande projected, which often in politics and elsewhere is more telling than words) and I for one am happy about it. Will it be lasting, I have no idea.

bernard said...

BTW, not that I like him especially, but does anyone realize that Houellebecq writes fiction and is not a political analyst?

Art Goldhammer said...

In plainer words, Bernard, what I mean is that austerity has accelerated a disintegration of the social bond that has been under way for generations. To be sure, as you hint, loosening the purse strings will not reverse this at once, but it will mark a start--if it happens. I am not confident that it will happen. But money will need to be spent to take any significant step toward remediation, and even more money will have to be spent on security. I know you reminded me the other day that this is but a drop in the bucket compared with the size of the output gap. But I am suggesting that a mental shock has been administered by the killings that may change the direction of French politics. Is that plain enough? As for your strictures concerning my underestimate of the "decisive image," I'm afraid we disagree both about the character of the image and its power to persuade. Hollande is temporarily enjoying a halo effect, which often follows significant events. He hasn't yet committed himself to any course of action. When he does, the halo will fall away.

bernard said...

We are not disagreeing. All I was saying was that Hollande projected the right image at the time of crisis, which many apparently would not have deemed him capable of prior. Whether that will be lasting does obviously rest on policies to be implemented and so forth, and even on stuff that he has no control of.

Aaron said...

Maybe I'm a little cynical, but I'm sure Hollande's declaration of a deuil national didn't hurt his popularity. Having said that, he might just have been anticipating a call for just such a thing from the likes of MLP.

FrédéricLN said...

Just for record ;-) , austerity remains a word in France. Only the families of the middle class (between the top 1% and the top 10-20%), hardly struck, and those paying, say, 10% or more of their income in Income tax, really had to pay.

If austerity is defined by "cuts in public spending", France is not in this case; public spending grows every year:

Increase of 14% since 2008 (in €), from 53% of GDP in 2008, to 57% in 2013.

For sure, the millions who lost their jobs experience more austerity than comfort; and in my opinion too, the inadequacy of French policies is the major reason for the failure. But "inadequate" does not necessarily mean "unexpensive" ;-)