Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tip-toeing Toward the Quagmire

France will begin bombing in Syria soon. Thus far its military intervention against Daesh, or ISIS, has been limited to Iraqi territory, largely for fear of aiding the Assad regime in Syria. Why has Hollande suddenly changed his mind on that point?

One reason is obvious: the massive influx of Syrian refugees is a problem that Europe cannot handle. To humanitarians, the initial--and rather heartening--German welcome transformed Chancellor Merkel overnight from the villain of the Greek drama to the heroine of the refugee crisis. But in the eyes of many fearful Europeans, her kindness sent the wrong message, encouraging even more Syrians to leave. And European governments showed no great eagerness to help the Germans out by accepting assigned quotas of immigrants. Now even the Germans have backtracked, more rapidly than one would have thought possible.

Hollande therefore seems prepared to take the risk of attacking Daesh in Syria in order to stop the migration at its source. The more quickly ISIS is eliminated, he seems to believe, the more likely potential refugees will be to judge the risks of emigration greater than the risks of staying put. But this calculation runs up against the perverse logic that has bedeviled Syrian policy from the beginning. Any move against Daesh strengthens Assad, whom no one wants to maintain in power--no one, that is, except the Russians and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who apparently supports the Russian position. (A rundown of the attitudes of various French politicians toward the escalation in Syria can be found here.)

Indeed, it is questionable at this point whether any intervention by outsiders can stanch the flow of refugees from Syria. The social fabric has been destroyed by years of civil war. The skilled, the educated, anyone with means and many without--all have fled the war zones. It is hard to see what can be built on such ruins. And Assad's forces have claimed more victims than Daesh, even if the latter's ideology is more rebarbative in Western eyes.

Still, I think that the severity of the refugee crisis will push Europe toward a more forceful intervention, of which the French bombing is only the first step. Villepin may be right to say that military intervention failed to do much good in Iraq and Libya and undoubtedly contributed to the godawful mess in Syria, but the refugees will create domestic pressures on Europe to intervene, and it is an ominous sign that four prominent members of Les Républicains, including one presidential candidate (Le Maire, who may seem mild-mannered but is bidding fair to become the French John McCain with his aggressive stance on the Middle East), favor sending in ground troops. I am not at all sure that we will not see European boots on the ground in the very near future, under President Hollande.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lessons of Stanley Hoffmann's Work for France Today

Slate asked me to reflect on the lessons of Stanley Hoffmann's work for France today. Although it's presumptuous to take up such a challenge, I was rash enough to take a stab at it. Here is the result.

Governing the Banque de France

President Hollande has nominated François Villeroy de Galhau to be governor of the Banque de France. 150 economists, including François Bourguignon and Thomas Piketty, have signed a letter opposing this nomination for fear of "potential" conflicts of interest.

It's an interesting confrontation. Villeroy, an énarque (of course) whose "brilliance" everyone concedes, was the chief of staff of DSK when the latter served as finance minister. His former classmate at the ENA, Pierre Moscovici, attests to his "social conscience" dating from his youth. Villeroy has renounced a whole series of bonuses, stock options, deferred compensations, and the like from due him his time in the private sector. The JDD estimates the monetary value of these concessions at more than €1 million. Yet these sacrifices are not enough to allay the fears of the economists, who note the peculiar susceptibility of the banking sector to conflicts of interest.

No doubt the protesting economists know more about M. Villeroy de Galhau's outlook and commitments than I do. It nevertheless seems odd to make such an issue of this particular appointment, when another énarque with a similar experience of private banking, Emmanuel Macron, is already in the government and, according to polls, largely approved in his reform efforts by the general public.

What is really at stake seems to be a deepening split between the "managerial left" and an increasingly restive element within center-left parties across the developed world. The Corbyn victory in the British Labour leadership contest is one sign. The unexpectedly good performance of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary race in the US is another. Many on the left feel they have given the "managers" ample opportunity to prove that they know what they are doing, and the results are simply not there. Patience has worn thin. The resistance is coming not solely from angry radicals--although there are certainly some of those, especially in the UK. It stems rather from disappointed center-leftists. made anxious by the rising populist tide on the right and unconvinced that the seasoned leaders who acquired their "insider" experience in the pre-crisis years of social-liberal compromise with neoliberal institutions can steer center-left parties toward either electoral success or robust recovery. M. Villeroy de Galhau may be sacrificed on this altar of doubt. He may not be the right expiatory victim, but jettisoning him may nevertheless prove necessary--though almost certainly not sufficient--to placate the festering internal opposition, which thus far, and surprisingly, remains far milder in France than in Britain or even the US.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Stanley Hoffmann, 1928-2015

Austrian-born, French-educated, Stanley Hoffman taught generations of Americans about French and European politics and international relations. I was proud to call him my mentor and friend. He died this weekend. My remembrance of him is published here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

European News App

As I mentioned the other day, I've been working on a Web app that collects news feeds from a number of European newspapers and magazines in several languages. An early version of this software is now up and running at this site. If you try it out, let me know if you discover any bugs or have suggestions for improvements, additional categories and features, etc.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hollande in a Nutshell

We may not yet know what the labor code reform will be, but we know what it won't be. The following two excerpts from Le Monde pretty much sum up the timidity of the Hollande presidency in all its aspects:

Le chef de l’Etat, s’il partage la lecture de son premier ministre, n’a pour sa part aucunement l’intention de faire la révolution sociale à trois mois des élections régionales et à moins de deux ans de la présidentielle.
...
Le pouvoir veut néanmoins assouplir et bouger vite. ... Ce texte sera porté par la nouvelle ministre du travail, Myriam El Khomri, encadrée de près par le président de la République et le premier ministre. « Ils sont autour d’elle », euphémise un conseiller de l’Elysée.
Move quickly but not too far, and don't ruffle any feathers along the way.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Macron Paradox

Emmanuel Macron now enjoys a higher approval rating than any other Socialist. To be sure, he is approved by more on the right (63%) than on the left (45%), but his approval on the left is increasing despite his urging further reforms, which conventional wisdom says are unpopular among Socialist voters.

But perhaps these results aren't as paradoxical as they seem. Perhaps the way to think about this is to suggest that as the left-right distinction breaks down, the electorate is increasingly divided between two new camps: the angry, who despair of government entirely and want to throw the bums out (whether in the form of Mélenchon's "qu'ils s'en aillent tous" or Le Pen's derisive "UMPS"), and the pragmatic, who aren't sure what should be done but prefer leaders who state forthrightly and in some detail what they would like to do and persist in the face of opposition without trimming their sails to suit the prevailing winds.

For the pragmatic voter, Macron is exemplary. They know what he wants to do. They aren't sure it will work, but they're willing to let him experiment. If it fails, they'll move to another policy. What they can't stomach is the kind of politics Hollande exemplifies: impossible to pin down, forever shifting tactics, reluctance to persevere in the face of vocal opposition. Pragmatic voters want consistency and accountability above all.

If this is correct, the question of the hour is then, Do the pragmatic outnumber the angry? I don't know. What's your guess?

On the other hand, the two politicians with the highest approval ratings are Juppé (76%) and Sarkozy (66%). Sarkozy was extremely unpopular in the months before the 2012 election, and Juppé was in his way the Macron of his day, a pragmatic reformer willing to persist in the face of vocal opposition, yet he was ultimately sacrificed to angry protesters. So perhaps the truth is simply that voters are highly fickle. Sometimes they like you if you show backbone, other times they'll cut you down for standing droit dans vos bottes.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Macron Proposes Refounding the EU

At last, a major political figure has called for a refounding of the EU. As the economist Herbert Stein once said, "If something can't go on, it won't." It has been apparent for some time that the EU as presently constituted can't go on, but nobody has been prepared to do anything about it. Whatever one thinks of Macron's policy views, he has one indispensable virtue in a politician: he is free of the conviction that his life's future depends on maintaining his electability. This frees him to say what he thinks. And he thinks that Europe needs to be rethought. Everyone else thinks so too, but no one wants to rock the boat--except for the likes of Schäuble, Varoufakis, Krugman, or Piketty, who are not shy about reminding the world that the EU can't go on like this. In any case, it's good to have Macron on record.

La politique politicienne

I love the French phrase "la politique politicienne." In two words it expresses the widespread contempt for "the political" that fuels populist reactions everywhere. Of course it is often used by politicians to deny that they are indulging in it, or else to criticize their rivals for indulging in nothing else.

In the nomination of Myriam El Khomri to replace François Rebsamen as minister of labor, we see an exemplary exercise of la politique politicienne. One often despairs of any generational renewal in the French political class, where the same faces can dominate the news for decades on end. Mme El Khomri is at least a new face. Le Monde describes her rise as "meteoric." She previously held the post of secretary of state for cities, in which she apparently performed admirably, with a penchant for confronting the FN on its terres de prédilection--for which she deserves full credit. Of course her appointment to that post was a successful exercise in la politique politicienne, a riposte to Sarkozy's nomination of a Muslim woman to fill the same job. Mme El Khomri was less in the news than the headlineogenic Fadela Amara but probably more effective in her role.

That efficacity has now earned her a promotion to replace the hapless Rebsamen, a mayor with national ambitions who had badly wanted a ministry, but not the one he got. He knew nothing about labor. Neither, apparently, does Mme El Khomri. But the slot was hard to fill. No one of consequence wanted it, because the government is threatening to reform the labor code (mildly), and this will no doubt trigger the kinds of reaction that bring bad press to anyone unfortunate enough to be in charge of the dossier at the time. In any case it is obvious that the reforms, if they come, will be managed by the government's heavyweights, Valls and Macron, and not by the minister of the labor. Who would want a job with little power but plenty of opportunity to be blamed for failure, or even for "success" in achieving "reforms" that the ministry's chief constituency will very likely resist?

Of course Hollande might have chosen to play a different politique politicienne by appointing one of the renegade EELV ex-leaders, de Rugy or Placé, to the post, thus splashily announcing that he hasn't, after all, split the Left by alienating the Greens and further marginalizing Duflot and her "objective ally" Mélenchon. Not doing so, however, allows him to claim that he is not playing la politique politicienne. Rather than move his Green pawns, he can move this other pawn, who has the virtues of being both a woman and a "minority." Win-win. I wish Mme El Khomri nothing but the best in her new job and hope that she survives her meteoric ascent to the position of sacrificial lamb.