Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Socialists Get Their Show on the Road

Lately, I wake up every morning to listen to interviews with candidates in the Belle Alliance Populaire via podcast. A few impressions:

1. Arnaud Montebourg has stepped up his game. He's always been a smooth talker, but he now seems quite well-prepared to engage on issues at a level of detail he previously avoided. Even when challenged, he responds adroitly, and he does not let interviewers get away with what he considers to be mischaracterizations of his stands. His forensic skills should stand him in good stead in the upcoming debates.

2. Manuel Valls seems totally unprepared for the race. He is of course in a difficult position of his own making, at once a defender of Hollande's record, from which he can hardly dissociate himself, and self-styled policy innovator. But his innovations are far from clear, unless they are self-repudations of the "I will abolish Article 49-3" variety. His customary belligerence remains abundantly on display, but there seems to be nothing of substance behind it. I think he expected to be the automatic front-runner once Hollande stepped aside and is surprised to discover that other candidates are being taken seriously.

3. Vincent Peillon is quick on his feet and has worked up his dossiers, but he put his foot in his mouth the other day by alleging that laïcité had somehow been an alibi for Vichy's anti-Semitism as it is said to be an alibi for anti-Muslim sentiment today. He quickly retracted, but the episode left a bad taste.

4. Benoît Hamon comes off as earnest but not particularly adroit.

I list the contenders in the order in which I expect them (as of now) to finish in the primary, with 3 and 4 more or less ex aequo.

The other candidates are thus far inaudible, at least from my vantage point in the US.

The Russia Question in the French Presidential Campaign

Foreign policy as usual seems unlikely to loom large in the coming presidential race. Allegations of Russian interference in the US election have put Russia in the limelight on this side of the Atlantic, and Donald Trump's expectation that Europeans should pay more for their own defense, his professed admiration for Vladimir Putin, and his hints that US guarantees to certain Baltic countries might not be terribly robust have raised anxieties in Europe.

French presidential candidates have generally emphasized the need for engagement with Russia rather than confrontation. This is true across the board from far left to far right, with the exception of Manuel Valls. Marine Le Pen is the most outspoken supporter of Putin, and she has been accused of being dependent on Russian bank financing. François Fillon alleges that the West provoked Putin into taking defensive action in Crimea and Ukraine. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is even more vociferous on this point and discounts alleged Russian interference in the US election by pointing to known US espionage on European leaders (including Hollande and Merkel) and firms.

Somewhat more reserved is Socialist candidate Arnaud Montebourg, who has called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia in connection with a "process" that would ultimately lead to Russian concessions on Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron regards Russia as an "unfriendly" power but, as a "realist," insists that "discussion" is necessary.

The most forthrightly aggressive candidate on the Russia front is the characteristically combative Manuel Valls, who is trying to differentiate himself on this issue first from François Fillon but secondarily from his Socialist opponents.

The Russia question will not be decisive in the election, but it is an issue worth watching, particularly in the upcoming Socialist primary debates.

Beyond the nuances in the positions of particular candidates, I think the important points here are: 1) Le Pen's pro-Putin position does not put her outside the mainstream of French debate; 2) possible Russian interference in the US (and French) election is no more a source of outrage in Europe than known US hacking of European officials (including Merkel and Hollande) and firms, and all espionage charges are discounted as business as usual; 3) Russia's muscle-flexing has achieved its goal--Russia is again a major power whose wishes foreign-policy "realists" must take into account; 4) Russia-related issues such as ensuring a continued flow of oil and gas from Russia and the Middle East and controlling the flow of refugees from Syria and elsewhere are more important to Europe than they are to the US. Europeans in general don't like Trump and are particularly wary of his backing away from NATO, but many are also unhappy with the escalation of anti-Russia rhetoric by US Democrats in the wake of the election.

Addendum: On Russia and the need to defend the liberal world order, see this by Yascha Mounk.