Friday, April 29, 2016

Ni-ni, et-et, hé-oh, aïe-aïe!, oy-vay!

Thomas Wieder has a long meditation on the blurring of the left-right distinction in France. The immediate pretext is of course Emmanuel Macron's (toujours lui!) declaration that his En marche! movement would be "neither right nor left," soon amended to say that it would instead be "both right and left." The amendment was a fine demonstration of Macron's, er, flexibility--some would say slipperiness.

Traditionally, of course, to say that one was neither right nor left meant that one was firmly on the right. Yet the attempt to escape the dichotomy once seemed vital to "reforming" or "modernizing" the left, at a time when would-be modernizers felt the need to disburden themselves of one piece or another of historical baggage, be it Marxist rhetoric, working-class identification, or a state-centric view of economic management ("l'État ne peut pas tout" was Jospin's famous last word before going down to defeat at the ends of Le Pen père).

But the historical baggage has largely been jettisoned, and the deeper allegation now is that there is no difference between Left and Right in power, whence Marine Le Pen's unkind cut in attaching the epithet "UMPS" to the governing tandem UMP and PS. Macron would like to recast the left-right dichotomy as a division between "progressistes" and "conservateurs." But this hardly advances the debate if one recalls that Sarkozy came to power in 2007 promising to "lutter contre tous les conservatismes." And Lampedusa's Leopard, arch-conservative that he was, knew that "everything must change so that nothing changes."

If progressivism means adaptation to changing conditions, in other words, the progressive may be the true conservative, so Macron's distinction will be of little use unless he is able to clarify the telos of his particular brand of progressivism. What kind of society does he envision once the labor code has been made more supple and competition has been introduced into hitherto protected domains of the economy?

The demonstrators in the streets yesterday protesting the El Khomri law, at times rather overzealously, think they already know the answer, but they are scarcely able even to formulate the question. "We are against unemployment," one of them said on France2 last night. Indeed. Who isn't? A protest mounted on such a complaint blurs the left-right distinction even more thoroughly than the program of En marche!

But it would be wrong to blame the protesters for their inarticulateness. Clearly, they have not been convinced by the solution on offer from the elite, even if they cannot say way. The real disappointment is that the elite, when challenged, has been unable to make its argument any more persuasive or its vision of the future any more vivid or appealing. One used to hope for les lendemains qui chantent. Today one would be content with un lendemain qui marmonne. But all that is on offer is slogans: Flexibility! Market! Competitiveness! Growth!

General de Gaulle once said that "if what you think the French need is autoroutes, you have to sell them with poetry." Today, the poetry is sorely lacking, whether it is from the right, left, up, down, top or bottom. The lexicon is that of an OECD report (no offense! some of my best friends work at OECD!). But with paving stones and fire extinguishers flying once again at police wielding shields and batons, it's time for one of France's innumerable énarques to start thinking in verse rather than prose. Surely some of these brillantissimes men and women remember their Racine and Molière, even if the alexandrines have been layered over by deep piles of Hayek.