Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Sad Compendium of "Quenelles"

It looks as though those of us who were unaware of the "quenelle," now lamentably made famous by Anelka, have had our heads in the sand. (h/t PB)

This is truly shocking, and saddening.

Monday, December 30, 2013


An aggressive foreign policy has its rewards. Le Monde is speaking of a "honeymoon" between Paris and Riyadh, Alstom will build the Riyadh metro, and Arnaud Montebourg is rubbing his hands together over the prospect of selling some nuclear goodies to the Arabs--and not so long after France lost out to a Spanish firm on the contract to build a high-speed train from Mecca to Medina.

Suddenly France's interest in backing the Syrian rebels appears in a new light. The rebels are the Saudi team, and France chose the winning side in the commercial war, even if turns out to be the losing side in the civil war.

One can hardly blame the Iranians for feeling picked on: France isn't as keen to see Iran build nuclear power plants on its own as it is to sell French power plants to the Saudis. "It's just business," as the Godfather says in the film.

And all that flak from the EU about the French need to improve its competitiveness. In Brussels they may have been thinking about wage cuts and labor market reform, but France has found its own way to compete.

Inequality in France: The Contribution of the Grandes Écoles

Interesting statistics:

La réalité est plus triviale : alors qu’ils représentent 29% des bacheliers, seuls 5% d’enfants d’ouvriers sont inscrits en classes préparatoires, et leur part tombe à 2,5% des élèves des écoles normales supérieures et des grandes écoles commerciales. Ce chiffre n’a d’ailleurs cessé de décliner depuis vingt ans. Rappelons aussi que le nombre élevé d’heures de cours en classe préparatoire (une quarantaine, soit deux fois plus environ qu’à l’université), couplé à un système de bourse insuffisant, exclut de fait les élèves les plus défavorisés souvent obligés de travailler pour payer leurs études ; et que, enfin, ce sont en réalité quatre ou cinq lycées, en préparant aux concours, qui, derrière les statistiques rassurantes de la Conférence des grandes écoles, assurent à eux seuls le recrutement des élites de la République.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

"La quenelle" d'Anelka

Who knew what a "quenelle" was (apart from the dinner table, of course) until the French striker Nicolas Anelka, who plays for the British football club West Bromwich Albion, used the gesture twice to celebrate goals in a game on Saturday? It turns out that the touching of the right shoulder with the left hand while the right arm is stretched straight down at one's side is a gesture used by the anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné, allegedly as an inverted parody of the Hitler salute. The French interior minister Manuel Valls has threatened to ban performances by Dieudonné on the grounds that they may occasion public disturbances:
Il annonce qu'une circulaire sera adressée aux préfets « dans les prochains jours, en tout cas avant la tournée » de l'humoriste qui commence à Nantes le 9 janvier. « A l'occasion de chaque spectacle, ils devront apprécier si le risque de trouble est caractérisé et justifie d'interdire la représentation », explique le ministre, qui note toutefois qu'« arriver à l'interdiction peut prendre du temps ».
Anelka's coach pretends that the player did not know the significance of his gesture:
“I’m aware of it, but it has got nothing to do what is being said,” Downing said at his postgame news conference. “It is dedicated to a French comedian he knows very, very well. He uses it in his act and I think speculation can be stopped now. It is absolute rubbish really. He is totally unaware of what the problems were or the speculation that has been thrown around. He is totally surprised by it.”
This, alas, is disingenuous at best, since if Anelka "knows [Dieudonné] very, very well," he cannot be unaware of the comedian's sulfurous reputation. The whole episode reeks in every respect. One can only shake one's head at the absurdity of a black athlete and black comedian borrowing a gesture associated with the Front National, which must regard them, to borrow the Stalinist phrase, as "useful idiots." And of course the interior minister's reflex, which is not peculiar to Valls but is a common reaction in France, to respond to Dieudonné's provocations by banning him only allows him to play the victim of the "Establishment" to which he claims his "quenelle" is a riposte.

What a sad commentary on the state of the European mind 75 years after Kristallnacht.

Addendum: See here for Dieudonné and Anelka together doing the "quenelle." (h/t Martin O'Neill).

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Vous" Is Back

"Je dis 'vous' à ma mère, je dis 'vous' à mon père." That line, spoken by the marquis de La Chesnaye in Renoir's La règle du jeu, has always stayed with me. And I have a couple of colleagues at Harvard who have known each other for 50 years but still vouvoyer. So I was amused to read in Rue89 that le vouvoiement is making a comeback among young couples, who find it more "respectful," slightly "aristocratic," and even "erotic":
La psychosociologue Dominique Picard, auteure de « Politesse, savoir-vivre et relations sociales » (éditions Que sais je ? , 2010), assure que « Le phénomène se développe » :

« Cela relève d’une volonté de retrouver des valeurs de respect que l’on pense perdues et d’une identification à une certaine classe sociale – l’aristocratie – qui aurait maintenu ces valeurs. Cela peut être aussi une volonté de repousser l’usage du “tu” à outrance vécu par certains comme une intrusion violente dans leur vie. Enfin, l’usage du “vous” peut passer par une volonté de se démarquer des autres et de singulariser sa relation. »
Dans les faits, le « vous » peut être un garde-fou. Ses adeptes assurent qu’il limite l’usage de mots vulgaires et les attitudes blessantes :

« Avec le “tu”, il y a l’idée que l’autre nous appartient, que l’on est naturels et donc plus amoureux, mais rien n’est plus faux. On n’aime pas 24 heures sur 24. Il y a de la violence dans une relation amoureuse. Afin de la canaliser, certains couples, souvent jeunes, utilisent le vouvoiement. »

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Some articles to read ...

Why are Germans wedded to ordoliberalism? Stephen Alamowitch provides an answer in Contrelignes.

In the same issue of Contrelignes, there is an interesting comparison of the US Democratic Party and the French PS by Jean-Claude Pacitto:
On a beaucoup reproché à Clinton l’abrogation du Glass-Steagall Act en 1999 et donc de la séparation des activités bancaires, ce qui a incontestablement favorisé ce qu’il convient d’appeler la financiarisation de l’économie. Oublie-t-on que la gauche française l’avait fait dès 1984 et que c’est sous le ministère Bérégovoy que cette financiarisation de l’économie atteindra son paroxysme. De la même façon, si Clinton a beaucoup œuvré pour la ratification de l’Alena, les socialistes ont milité pour l’immersion de la France dans une Europe dont ils ne pouvaient ignorer qu’elle était très largement le produit d’une matrice libérale37
Pourtant, et au-delà d’une remise en cause minimaliste, les socialistes n’ont jamais vraiment théorisé à partir de ces expériences leur nouvelle vision de l’économie. Leur condamnation quasi-unanime du social-libéralisme est pourtant assez contradictoire avec les politiques qu’ils ont effectivement menées. Dire que l’on est devenu réaliste ou moderniste n’a aucun sens si l’on ne s’assigne pas des objectifs précis, un « cap » dirait-on aujourd’hui. Il a été fait beaucoup grief à Lionel Jospin d’avoir révélé en 2002 que son « projet » n’était pas socialiste. On s’est beaucoup moins posé la question sur le fait de savoir si sa politique l’avait été ! La réponse à cette question aurait conduit les socialistes à mieux définir les contours d’une politique économique de facture socialiste au-delà des incantations verbales et des inventions conceptuelles sans consistance.

And finally, in European Ideas, is my own piece on the populist backlash in France.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tiberi Lashes Out

One doesn't have to like Jean Tiberi (and I don't) to relish this exercise in political character assassination:

Tibéri : "NKM s'y prend mal" by Europe1fr

Monday, December 23, 2013

NKM in Difficulty

Nathalike Kosciusko-Morizet's candidacy for the Paris mayoralty is in trouble. There are dissidents everywhere, and the national party isn't giving her the support she expected, perhaps because J.-F. Copé sees her as a future rival for the presidency. Not that it would suit Copé to see dissidents loyal to Fillon get elected. But why not knock off the small fry first? And then there's Charles Beigbeder, a self-appointed ego of the 8th Arrdt, who was at first NKM's no. 2 there but was then displaced and organized a dissident list in a fit of pique. Copé has now disavowed him, but he remains in the field. And as if all that were not enough, Rachida Dati (remember her?) has warned her sister ex-minister that the time has come to take things in hand or face defeat.

The pity of it is that NKM is perhaps the UMP's strongest anti-FN voice. Indeed, that, as much as personal ambition, is perhaps the source of Copé's coolness toward her, since he wants to reposition the party to scarf up as many FN votes as possible (if possible, I should say). Meanwhile, another older head, Nicolas Sarkozy himself, has reportedly delivered himself of a lapidary judgment on NKM's campaign: "Elle ne fait que des conneries."

Hmm. Kinda sorta reminds you of Ségolène Royal's campaign for the presidency in 2007, when the Socialists seemed more intent on putting the female candidate in her place than on winning the election. Could misogyny be the one constant in French politics?

Willem Buiter Foresees Secular Stagnation in the Eurozone

Here (behind FT paywall).

Friday, December 20, 2013

Mitterrand's Reading

Bernard Girard draws my attention to this 1975 broadcast of Apostrophes. I quote Bernard's comment:
En 1975, Bernard Pivot invitait François Mitterrand pour parler des livres qu'il aimait. C'est tout simplement stupéfiant de culture, de finesse, d'intelligence. On peut trouver cette émission ici. Je doute qu'aucun de nos politiques actuels lui arrive à la cheville. Affaire de génération? de formation? de personnalité? de carrière? Je ne sais, mais il faut voir cette émission.

Ayrault's Riposte ...

If Libé is backing Moscovici in the betting on the next prime minister (see yesterday's post), Le Monde, while not exactly backing Ayrault, has at least been willing to make itself the vehicle for his press flacks and allied leakers:
Le premier ministre ne compte pas s'arrêter là. « Depuis le début, Ayrault trépigne, dit un conseiller. Il a toujours voulu aller beaucoup plus loin que le président », dont il dit volontiers en privé qu'il est « moins à gauche » que lui. Cette fois, les freins sont lâchés. Son entourage promet de nouvelles initiatives « fortes » à la rentrée sur la baisse des dépenses publiques ou la politique de décentralisation. Surtout, M. Ayrault plaide, comme depuis des mois, pour la formation d'un gouvernement resserré avant les municipales et les européennes. « Il y a trop de ministres, tout le monde en est conscient », glisse-t-on à Matignon.
As we say in America, "Yeah, right." The picture of a dynamic PM, chomping at the bit and restrained by his overcautious president but at last unleashed by the threat of imminent dismissal to do what he's wanted to do all along--"strong" measures to cut spend and decentralize the government--is a bit hard to swallow. But--whatever.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

About that tax overhaul ...

Remember when PM Jean-Marc Ayrault announced, to everyone's surprise, that there would be a total overhaul of the French tax system? It wasn't that long ago, but it seems the initiative is already dead in the water. Or so this article in Libé would have you believe. Of course, what we are actually reading in this article is an artillery salvo against Ayrault by some of his "internal enemies." Whether he has actually lost the "war against Bercy" is anybody's guess, even if, as Libé points out, Ramon Fernandez, whom Ayrault had apparently decided to sack, is still there at the minister's side.

Watching French politics lately has become an exercise in Kremlinology. Hollande promised to be the "normal" president, but in fact he has become "the sphinx president," since his philosophy of governance appears to be to conceal his strategy from everyone, perhaps even from himself. This version of "normality" might have seemed like a good idea when Sarkozy was president, daily announcing a new battle plan only to replace it with another grand design a few days later. To be sure, there are fewer forced marches and countermarches under General Hollande. Instead, all the troops seem to be running off in different directions. It's "Sauve qui peut!" in an administration that appears to be going nowhere fast, if not actually sinking. Meanwhile, all the second bananas are dreaming of being "the One" who will be tapped to replace Hollande when he bows out of the 2017 presidential contest. And the always dependable media are already handicapping the race. Thus Libé, with this volley in favor of Moscovici and contra Ayrault. Meanwhile, Valls is in the news a bit less than a few weeks ago. Montebourg has entered a quiescent period. Benoît Hamon has become all but invisible. And there are even some outlets speculating that Moscovici has settled in with his 26-year-old girlfriend as a maneuver to steal the virility thunder from Sarkozy (forgetting that the marriage to Carla did not in fact push him over the top in the presidential sweepstakes).

Such is French politics these days, folks. Is it any wonder I'm blogging less?

Monday, December 16, 2013

FT Claims that France Is Holding Back the Eurozone

The Financial Times has a rather pessimistic piece on France today, which makes the claim that France is the sick man of the Eurozone. (I can't quote from the article without violating the FT's rather strict reading of the copyright laws, so you'll have to settle for the link and find your way beyond the paywall). Suffice it to say that the article's stark conclusion is based entirely on the Purchasing Managers' Index, which has been misleading in the past and probably is now as well.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that the French economy is doing at all well. But to single it out as the weak link in the European economy is wrong, and probably a prelude to louder calls for stricter adherence to austerity by the French, on the grounds that more austerity-minded governments had a better third quarter. This is wrong-headed and short-sighted.

Pissarides on the Euro

Nobel laureate Christopher Pissarides, once a passionate supporter of the euro, now thinks the EMS must either be changed profoundly or dismantled:

The euro should either be dismantled in an orderly way or the leading members should do what’s necessary as fast as possible to make it growth and employment friendly. We will get nowhere plodding along with the current line of ad hoc decision-making and inconsistent debt-relief policies. (Compare, for example, Cyprus and Greece, where the source of problem was similar but the solution very different). The policies pursued now to steady the euro are costing Europe jobs and they are creating a lost generation of educated young people. This is not what the founding fathers promised.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Right-Wing Kaleidoscope

A few weeks ago, all the headlines were about the rapid disintegration of the center-right as it raced headlong in pursuit of the galloping Front National. This week, however, the bit and pieces of the fragmented Right seem to be recomposing themselves in new patterns, rather like a kaleidoscope. And the dominant color is by no means "bleu marine" but rather a sort of pallid powder blue. On the one hand we have the reconciliation of Juppé and Fillon, who fell all over each other extolling the suppression of personal ambition in favor of "the general interest," while on the other hand we have the newly reunited centrists led by Borloo and Bayrou forming an alliance with the UMP's NKM to divvy up the seats on the Paris city council.

All of which means that the presidential election is still a long way off. Juppé and Fillon may yet square off against each other, but first they have to keep Sarkozy from re-entering the ring and keep Copé's ambitions under control. So a tactical alliance is in order. And NKM will need all the help she can get to win in Paris, so putting a little water in her wine is a smart move for her (unless it's MoDem/UDI who are watering their wine, since NKM would seem from certain angles to stand to their left, if the left/right distinction has any meaning in this particular arena).

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Et tu, Brute?" Has Hollande lost the teachers too?

Are teachers deserting the Socialist Party along with everyone else? The most unkindest cut of all? Le Monde would have us think so:
« Les changements étalés dans les médias sont des miettes électorales, un saupoudrage de mesures rendues invisibles dans les écoles par l'afflux d'élèves [30 000 élèves de plus en 2013], s'énerve-t-elle. J'entends dire autour de moi : on a voté pour eux, et il ne se passe rien, on s'est bien fichu de nous… L'heure est à la désillusion. »
« Droite ou gauche, c'est la même logique, lâche Denis Pourrat, professeur de français dans un collège ZEP à Vaulx-en-Velin (Rhône). On est brossé dans le sens du poil, sans doute mieux considéré… Mais les conditions de travail ne changent pas, et la misère sociale, qui ne reste pas aux portes de l'école, exacerbe les difficultés. » Son cheval de bataille : « la chasse aux sans-papiers », dont il n'entrevoit pas d'infléchissement malgré la sanctuarisation de l'école promise après les affaires Khatchik et Leonarda. « On doit héberger des familles à la rue avec leurs enfants, les urgences sociales sont pleines à craquer dans le département », s'indigne-t-il.
If this is true, it's the end for Hollande.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"La France en face"

An interesting if somewhat oversimplified documentary about "the new social fracture" and the rise of the Front National:

(h/t EJ)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Front de Gauche: No Enemies on the Left?

The Front de Gauche organized a large demonstration in Paris, gathering some 30,000 participants according to Mediapart. The goal, interestingly enough, was to outnumber the Bonnets Rouges, which FdG leaders have characterized as a corporatist, regionalist, and rightist reaction co-opted by the patronat and the parties of the Right rather than a populist movement. In the presidential election, Mélenchon's goal had been to outdo the Front National, but the enemy of the moment seems to be the Bonnets Rouges rather than the FN. This will no doubt change as the municipal elections approach, unless the BR, who show signs of flagging support lately, rally national support.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Algeria Is What Pains Me"

My paper from yesterday's extremely interesting Boston College conference on "Camus in Algeria." I enjoyed all the papers--a rarity--as well as meeting Adam Gopnik, who is as charming in person as one would guess from his New Yorker pieces.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Camus in Algeria"

The "Camus in Algeria" colloquium takes place today at Boston College, 1 PM. Speakers include Adam Gopnik, Annie Cohen-Solal, Rob Zaretsky, Patricia Lorcin, Daniela Caruso, James Le Sueur, and me. Details at the link.

Guaino vs. Le Pen

I haven't watched this yet, but I'm curious about the line Guaino will take:

BFM Politique: Marine Le Pen face à Henri... by BFMTV

Oy. Just watched the first ten minutes. Marine Le Pen is a counterpuncher of considerable skill.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Summit Meeting of French Philosophers

This discussion among a Pléiäde of French philosophers (Georges Canguilhem, Jean Hippolyte, Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, Alain Badiou, and Dina Dreyfus [Claude Lévi-Strauss's first wife]) is an incredible document (if you're into this sort of thing, as I was in my misspent youth). (h/t to Stefanos Geroulanos both for the lead to the video and the correction of my misidentification of Dina Dreyfus).


Tensions are running high within the Ayrault government. Arnaud Montebourg refused to share a couch with his prime minister and other senior colleagues the other day, despite the presence of cameras to record the scene. Now Pierre Moscovici has given signs of displeasure at the PM's proposal to make changes at the finance ministry in furtherance of his new proposal to complete a thorough overhaul of the French tax system by 2015.

Make no mistake: a thorough tax overhaul is essential. The government's approach to budget-balancing by laying on new taxes, and particularly regressive taxes like the VAT, has been counter-productive. A tax revolt is brewing. I heard plenty of grumbling about tax hikes during my recent trip to Paris (the atmosphere seemed eerily familiar to my American antennae). But it's surprising that the initiative seems to be coming from Ayrault, whose forte, if he has one, is not economic policy. As usual, there is considerable lack of clarity about what the plan is, who initiated it, and even whether or to what extent the president supports it. Illegibility is a hallmark of the current regime.

It may be that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering in anticipation of a remaniement. Or it may just be another reflection of the apparent confusion that has sapped confidence in Hollande's leadership.

Is NKM Going to Lose in Paris?

There are politicians whom the press anoints as "young hopefuls," whose every move seems not so much a fulfillment as a promise of what comes next. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was one such. Her star seemed perpetually on the rise, and her reputation grew faster than her list of accomplishments. She is among the few in the UMP who have established solid anti-Front National credentials, so that if the party implodes, she can be there to pick up what pieces might remain in the center of the political spectrum (she will have competition among the debris rakers, starting with Bruno Le Maire and François Baroin).

But a funny thing has happened on her way to the top. Some of the people she has elbowed aside aren't happy and are elbowing back. Even though Rachida Data seems to have quieted down, there remains opposition to NKM's parachutage into the Paris mayoral raise. The Tiberis, perennial troublemakers, are among the dissidents, but there are others. The problem seems to be that politicians whose ambitions are more circumscribed than NKM's are determined to cling tooth-and-nail to whatever petty fiefdoms they have carved out for themselves, even if the domain is nothing more than a lowly spot on the ticket of one of the city's arrondissements. If NKM can't put down these minor eruptions, her capacity to lead a national ticket will be in doubt. So the mayoral race is worth watching as a test of the tactical smarts of a young présidentiable.

Friday, November 22, 2013

In Vino Veritas: Bibulous Papists Outdo laïque French

Bibulous papists:
But this is largely because the American population is roughly five times the size of France’s or Italy’s. In 2011, according to figures from the Wine Institute, a trade group in California, Americans drank about 10.46 liters of wine per person; Italians, 37.63 per person; and the French, 45.61 liters. Even France trailed the good people of Luxembourg, who consumed 49.11 liters per person, to say nothing of the Vatican, population 836, each of whom accounted for 62.20 liters.

"Sclerotic" France?

NY Times:
But the unexpectedly strong performance of Germany had a downside, because it highlighted the growing gap between competitive countries concentrated in Northern Europe and a group of sclerotic countries exemplified by Italy and now, it seems, France.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reflections From My Fellow Bloggers on Hollande's Failed Presidency

I'm too busy preparing a talk on Albert Camus (next Monday, Boston College Clough Center, 1 PM) and reading the proofs of my translation of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century to devote much time to political reflections, so I'll steer you to interesting comments by two of my blogging confrères. First, Bernard Girard reports on a luncheon with an old friend, a former Communist, who stunned him by announcing that he would vote for Marine Le Pen. A sign of the damage that has been done--or, as Bernard puts it, of the "mental confusion" created--by the apparent rudderlessness of the Hollande presidency.

And then Arun Kapil contributes this very interesting speculation about how the politics of the coming months might play out. I won't spoil the story by giving away the possible endings. Suffice it to say that Arun's prognostications are by no means implausible.

And that is where we find ourselves, folks, on this Nov. 17, 2013, which just happens to be both my 67th birthday and my 30th wedding anniversary.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

SciencesPo under Mion ...

... seems to have survived the crisis.

How Is He Doing?

Mayor Koch of New York used to walk the streets of his city asking people, "How am I doin'?" I would counsel François Hollande against emulating this in the streets of Paris.

Although I don't make a habit of reporting on approval polls, which generally contain more noise than information, Hollande's trend has been so consistently downward, and the depth of his fall has been so profound, that there has to be information in the overall shape of the curve. A new poll has him at 15%. The latest quarter saw GDP shrink by 0.1%. Unemployment is up. The Bonnets Rouges are in the streets. Demonstrators booed the president on his way to the Arc de Triomphe to commemorate Armistice Day (to the dismay of many, who viewed this politicization of the memorial event as an affront to the Republic). And while Paul Krugman rightly notes that the downgrade of French bonds from AA+ to AA is not warranted, this is yet another woe to add to Hollande's Job-like burden. Eighteen months into his five-year term and he already seems as done as a Thanksgiving turkey.

I know: three years is a long time in politics. But first he has to get through the next several months.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Slides From Eloi Laurent's Talk

Some of you asked for the text of Eloi Laurent's talk entitled  "Distrustful, Miserable, Fearful: Meet the French." There is no text, but you can find the PowerPoint slides here.

Mélenchon and Les Bonnets Rouges

The battle to harness the political energy of les bonnets rouges is on. Jean-Luc Mélenchon believes that the Breton social movement is in danger of being co-opted by the right and the extreme right. He has called for a demonstration on Dec. 1 against the government's tax policies, which he thinks are at the root of the eruption in Brittany. Meanwhile, however, he has referred to the demonstrators in Quimper as "nigauds" for allowing themselves to march behind the banners of the UMP, the bishopric, and even the Front National. His language is unlikely to win him many friends among the rank and file even if his diagnosis is correct, which there is reason to doubt.

The UMP and FN are chipping away at the same mother lode as Mélenchon himself. There is genuine popular anger in Brittany, and it remains to be seen whether any politician has the right mix of allures to win its favor. Mélenchon is of course continuing his quest to prevent the ras-le-bol sentiment from driving yet another contingent of the working class into the arms of the extreme right. It's a Sisyphean task, especially when the anger is now directed against a government of the Left, as Mélenchon recognizes:
Les Français ont porté au pouvoir en mai 2012 un gouvernement de gauche. Ils pouvaient donc s’attendre à ce que soit mise en œuvre une politique de gauche. Il en existe certes de nombreuses variétés, mais elles ont toutes, habituellement, un dénominateur commun : elles visent à promouvoir une politique de la demande, dont la logique est la satisfaction plus ou moins étendue des besoins de la société, et non une politique de l’offre, dont la logique est de produire n’importe quoi, n’importe comment sur le plus grand marché possible.
Unfortunately, when one asks the question that is begged here, namely, "What is preventing the government from adopting a demand-side rather than a supply-side policy?" Le Pen has a ready though deeply problematic answer that Mélenchon is obliged to reject. It's the EU, she says, and France should get out of it. Mélenchon rightly refuses this facile answer, but many of the demonstrators he would like to win over probably find it more plausible than his insistence that a more social Europe is possible. So he is hoist by his own petard--despite his insistence that he needs no lessons about social movements from people who have never participated in one. As one who has participated, he of all people should recognize that rational argument does not always carry the day.


The government has sued Minute to protest its cover defaming yet again Christine Taubira, who has become the target of a series of dismaying and disgusting racist attacks by the extreme right. As Le Monde puts it:
Inutile de prolonger le florilège. Il est abject. Et il démontre que l'expression d'un racisme pur et dur, biologique, racialisé et assorti de références animalières, loin d'avoir disparu, s'est au contraire banalisé. Il est le fait d'une extrême droite qui en a toujours fait son détestable fonds de commerce. Mais le silence ou l'embarras perceptibles à droite, et jusque tout récemment à gauche, le démontrent : peu à peu, des digues se sont rompues, des tabous ont été levés, des inhibitions ont disparu, et le procès incessant contre la "bien-pensance" et le "politiquement correct" a réveillé de vieux et détestables réflexes, autant qu'il a tétanisé les défenseurs des valeurs essentielles de la République.

Monday, November 11, 2013

English Proficiency Falling in France

From the Times:
According to Ms. Bell, the level of English proficiency among French adults suffers both from inadequate teaching at high school level and the reality that — despite fears of French culture’s being overwhelmed by American pop culture, very little English is actually used in everyday life.
France’s secondary school system, which has only recently started testing English oral skills as part of the Baccalaureate, is a major reason for poor language skills, she said.

France Scuttles Iran Accord

Did France scuttle an imminent deal with Iran on nuclear materials? Whether or not this is actually the way things went down, France seems to be eagerly claiming the role of spoiler. Fabius personally inserted himself into the negotiations when he learned that John Kerry would be going to Geneva, and, as Le Monde writes the story, he did so because he feared that an agreement was imminent. His main concerns were the heavy water reactor at Arak, which can make plutonium, and Iran's stock of 20% enriched uranium. Neither of these problems is new, however, so in essence the story that the French are putting out is that the US was prepared to accept guarantees on these two issues that France considers to be insufficient or unacceptable. That's a bold claim, and in the absence of further details, I find it rather suspect.

In any case, Fabius has succeeded in establishing France's independence, which is always an important French desideratum in foreign-policy negotiations. Whether France has any goals beyond establishing its independence remains to be seen. Of course it's possible that the deal was a bad one that the US was willing to accept simply for the sake of a deal. Nevertheless, granting Rohani some reward for his flexibility might be a way of strengthening his position at home, which is a necessary prerequisite to further concessions. The French appear to believe, however, that any weakening of sanctions will only lessen the pressure that has produced the first steps toward a resolution of the conflict. Fabius seems determined to hang tough. Let's hope he knows what he's doing.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Breton Revolt

This Breton uprising of les bonnets rouges is quite interesting. Here is Le Monde's comment with emphasis added:
La fronde de la Bretagne, terre socialiste, majoritairement proeuropéenne, mieux dotée que d'autres régions frappées par la désertification ou l'atonie industrielle, est un vrai signal d'alarme. « On voit des publics aux parcours très différents se mobiliser contre le pouvoir central. C'est comme si la France d'en bas était en rébellion contre l'Etat central », analyse François Miquet-Marty, président de Viavoice, institut d'études et de conseil en opinions. « Ces derniers temps, l'exaspération est montée d'un cran,constate-t-il, elle se cristallise sur la politique fiscale vécue comme un matraquage à la fois injuste et inefficace. Les gens ont l'impression qu'on les mène en bateau et ils sont en colère. »
Here, at last, we have the emergence of a populism whose basis is not racist, xenophobic, or identity-based. It is an eruption of anger against a government that has failed to persuade its own electorate that its policies have a chance of working. It is a rebellion that is economic at its core.

Of course it's very early to say where this is headed. It could all fizzle out rather quickly, as similar flashes of anger have done in recent years. I'm hoping for a different outcome: perhaps the parties that now seem to be racing each other to catch up with Marine Le Pen will recognize that there are issues other than controlling the borders and cracking down on crime that matter to large numbers of voters. And perhaps the Socialists, in particular, will be encouraged to look more closely at unemployment numbers than at the red ink in the budget. The Breton revolt is in part a tax revolt, but it is also a protest against a wave of layoffs in a number of Breton firms directly threatened by intensifying international competition. Nothing in the Socialist version of austerity so much as hints at an answer to this problem. There's nothing like a vigorous stirring at the base to concentrate the minds of party leaders and ambitious présidentiables.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Former Ambassador Caught Smuggling Currency

How time flies. Only a couple of years ago young Boris Boillon was in the news as the newly minted minister to Tunisia, whose début appearance before the press did not go as planned. Boillon managed to insult the reporters sent to cover him and, despite speaking Arabic, angered his Tunisian hosts so much that they asked to have him recalled. See my 2011 post on this episode here.

Now Boillon, a little older but none the wiser, is in the news again. He was arrested at a Paris train station in July as he was about to depart for Belgium with €350,000 euros in his pocket. That's quite a sum for a 43-year-old public servant to have accumulated--how we are not told. The Times simply chose him as an exemplar of what is apparently a growing phenomenon: the smuggling of cash by would-be tax evaders.

Ras le bol: Les Bonnets Rouges

Photo credit: Vincent Mouchel

Something ominous is afoot. The opposition to Hollande has begun to change character. Until now most of the talk has been about the rising threat of the Front National. That threat remains, to be sure, but it has inherent limitations as a national political phenomenon, since a substantial majority still considers Marine Le Pen to be an unacceptable alternative to the mainstream parties.

The Bonnets rouges represent a new threat. Hastily assembled to protest the "ecotax" on truckers, the movement initially seemed to be a routine affair of an interest group harmed by a policy reacting in self-defense. But the movement has spread and grown more violent. It seems to be coalescing into a regional revolt against any number of consequences of government actions and inaction. The issues range far beyond the ecotax, and all manner of anti-Hollande elements are getting into the act: 
Les organisateurs du rassemblement, regroupant pêle-mêle le Medef, le NPA, la FNSEA, FO ou encore le Parti breton, sont pourtant bien incapables de prévoir la suite du mouvement.
Strange bedfellows indeed. But Hollande must take note. Brittany has been une terre de conquête for the Left, but it now seems to be slipping away, as its agrobusiness interests succumb to international competition (the meatpacker Gad has had to lay off hundreds of workers) and angry truckers attack the "electronic gateways" that had been erected to monitor the passage of trucks in preparation for collection of the ecotax.

Meanwhile, Hollande's approval rating has sunk out of sight, barely above 20%, the lowest ever recorded in the Fifth Republic, while a recent poll shows that more than 90% consider the government to be on the wrong track. It hardly needs emphasizing that these are disastrous results, and the government seems to have no response--not even the standard pseudo-response of un remaniement ministériel.

What is interesting is that no party, not even the Front National, speaks for this movement, which expresses rather a generalized ras-le-bol and disgust with the absence of a "political offer" that it can understand. It's not so much that the government lacks a policy. Even its enemies acknowledge that it  has one. What it lacks is an explanation of its policy, a plausible rationale that what it is doing will lead to improvement in any of the areas that concern the proliferating ranks of the protesters. "Show us--not that your plan will work but that it can work," they are saying, and meanwhile rejecting the few incoherent answers they have received.

This is a moment of maximal danger, not just for Hollande but for the establishment generally. Legitimacy is rapidly draining away. And when it is finally gone, who knows what comes next?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Boston-Area Readers: Talk Monday at CES

On Monday, Nov. 4, economist Eloi Laurent of the OFCE and Sciences-Po will give a talk entitled "Distrustful, Miserable, and Fearful: Meet the French," at the Harvard Center for European Studies, 27 Kirkland St., Cambridge. I will be the discussant. The talk is scheduled for 4:15-6 PM in the Goldman Room. I hope to see some of you there.

Germany Remains Adamant in Face of Record EU Unemployment

The US Treasury has accused Germany of "deflationary bias" in its economy policy, but Germany angrily rejected the charge, saying that nothing in its economic policy required adjustment. Meanwhile, European unemployment remains at a record high level. One might think that this would give the Germans pause ...

The Ecotax Scandal: A Modern-Day Tax Farmer Will Collect a Penalty of 1 Billion Euros

Mediapart has another scoop. The now-infamous "ecotax," which would have forced truckers to pay for every mile traveled, was to have been collected not by the state but by a private company called Ecomouv. The state signed a contract with Ecomouv during the Sarkozy years, which called for the payment of a penalty of 1 billion euros if the tax should be withdrawn for any reason, to compensate Ecomouv for infrastructural investments it would have had to make to prepare for collection (all trucks were to be equipped with GPS devices that could be monitored remotely to tally up the miles driven). Now, of course, the tax has been rescinded in the face of violent opposition (see previous post), and the state will be obliged to pay the contractual penalty for non-performance.

Even more interesting is the fact that any number of politicians of the Right who have been vociferously critical of the Hollande government's actions in recent days signed off on the Ecomouv contract: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Valérie Péresse, and Jean-Louis Borloo, to name a few.

It will be interesting, no doubt, to learn more about the details of this incredible contract, which recalls the tax farmers of the Ancien Régime. What cronyism was involved in the original award, for example? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

L'écotaxe est morte! Vive l'écotaxe!

The scenes of truckers blocking highways and engaging in violent confrontations with police may remind some older readers of the revolt of the truckers in Chile against the Allende government. We know how that ended. Today the Ayrault government ignominiously surrendered on the ecotax with these immortal words from Jean-Marc Ayrault:

"Le courage, ce n'est pas l'obstination. Le courage, c'est d'écouter et de comprendre, c'est de rechercher la solution et d'éviter l'engrenage de la violence."
It's almost enough to make one nostalgic for the jaw-jutting Sarkozy. It's difficult to imagine him acknowledging flight in the face of a raised fist--even though that's what he did often enough. As his advisor Emmanuelle Mignon said of him, his biggest fault was that he "lacked backbone." Well, perhaps not his biggest fault, but one of his many faults.

Ayrault shares the same vice but would turn it into a virtue, reminding us once again of Rochefoucauld's dictum that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And there has been no shortage of hypocrisy on the ecotax issue. For example, we have Jean-Louis Borloo
"Les modalités de l'écotaxe sont d'une complexité effrayante. Il faut la remettre à plat."
No doubt the tax is complex, but it was enacted back when Borloo was "superminister" of ecology and the environment in the early days of the Sarkozy presidency and was a direct outgrowth of his signature achievement, the "Grenelle de l'environnement." And we have Valérie Pécresse, a minister in the same government: "L'éco-taxe devient la goutte d'eau qui fait déborder le vase. Qui dans ma TL refusait l'hypothèse d'une révolte fiscale?"

Yes, a tax revolt, but against whom? Hollande or Sarkozy? Pécresse argues that it's only because Hollande imposed so many other taxes that truckers are rejecting this one, hence "the drop of water that causes the vase to overflow." But is this really the case? Or is it a classic instance of a Pigovian tax imposed on a special interest in the interest of all in order to force it to take account of a negative externality (pollution) not currently incorporated in its pricing structure? When the special interest responds with violence, is it really in the general interest for the government to surrender meekly?

Here, then, is yet another instance where a consensus in the center of the political spectrum, enjoying (I believe) majority support, has been blocked by a determined minority. The tyranny of the majority is one thing for democratic theorists to worry about, but I think that the tyranny of the minority is a more important issue for our time, in the United States as well as France.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Left's Best Shot in 2017?

Who is the candidate on the left most likely to defeat the Right in the 2017 presidential election? According to a recent poll (I know, I know, the election is 3 1/2 years away, etc. etc.), the winner, by a large margin, is Manuel Valls (and the biggest loser is François Hollande). On the other hand, the poll respondents don't really believe that Valls will be a candidate of the Left: he belongs, it sesems, to a new category, la droite bis:
Autre information concernant Manuel Valls, les avis sont également partagés sur le fait de savoir s’il est « de droite » (53 %) ou simplement « pas de gauche » (42 %). Il est « incroyablement dynamique et certainement pas socialiste » pour 71 %, « vraiment bien de droite, sait où il va, pas à gauche en tout cas» (63 % des personnes interrogées).
Take if for what it's worth, folks (not very much, probably).

Eolas on the Leonarda Affair

The legal blogger Maître Eolas offers a lengthy analysis of the Leonarda Affair, which concludes with this stinging indictment of the government:

De même qu’il est incorrect d’invoquer l’autorité des décisions de justice, aucun juge n’ayant décidé ni du refus de séjour ni de la procédure de reconduite, ni de ses modalités. Tout ce qu’a dit la justice est que Resat D… n’a pas démontré l’illégalité de ces décisions. Ni plus ni moins. Et l’administration était libre de prendre, en toute légalité, la décision d’accorder une autorisation de séjour à la famille D… C’est un choix de l’État, pris par son représentant, le préfet : qu’il l’assume.
Un mot sur l’affaire elle-même, sur le phénomène médiatique qu’elle est devenue. La question des enfants scolarisés doit être prise à bras-le-corps et tranchée courageusement. Soit on ne veut plus les expulser, et je n’aurais rien contre, et dans ce cas il faut fixer les conditions de régularisation de leur famille. Soit on ne le veut pas et on assume les interpellations devant les caméras. Le faire honteusement, en catimini, en serrant les fesses pour que ça ne se sache pas est le signe d’une mauvaise solution. Car des Leonarda, il y en a des centaines.
L’exécutif a été ridicule dans cette affaire et je ne vois pas comment il aurait pu plus mal la gérer. Mais ce qui me choque le plus est de voir une jeune fille de 15 ans livrée en pâture médiatique, sans la moindre protection car sa famille n’a aucune expérience en la matière et ne réalise pas ce qui se passe. Ce que j’ai vu ces derniers jours est monstrueux, il n’y a pas d’autre mot : demander à une jeune fille de 15 ans de réagir en direct et à chaud, dans une langue qui n’est pas sa langue maternelle, à une proposition aberrante formulée par le président de la République en personne, qui interpelle une mineure pour lui faire une proposition alors que la loi française dit que seuls ses parents peuvent faire un tel choix, faire de ses moindres mots dits sous le coup de l’énervement une déclaration officielle, lui jeter à la figure un sondage disant que deux tiers des Français (soit 40 millions de personnes) ne veulent pas de son retour (en oubliant de dire que 99,8% des Français ne connaissaient rien à ce dossier ni au droit applicable), est-ce donc cela que nous sommes devenus ? Avons-nous perdu toute décence pour faire ainsi de la maltraitance sur mineur en direct ?
Before reading Eolas, I had a different view of the case, because I believed, wrongly, that a court had ordered the expulsion of the family. Eolas persuades me that I misunderstood the procedure. In any case, whatever one thinks of the legal niceties, he is absolutely right about the media's culpability in the affair and its exploitation of the child Leonarda.

(h/t Arun K.)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Gentrification of Paris

Some interesting reflections on the gentrification of Paris here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Veiled Truths

The Cour de Cassation has just issued a decision in the "Baby Loup" case, throwing out a previous ruling that the day care center's manager was within her rights to ban the wearing of a veil by an employee. This being private space, the court ruled that the veil could be banned by the employer only for carefully delimited reasons of safety, health, ability to perform duties, etc.

Nevertheless, a poll finds that 83% of the French favor the extension of the veil ban to the firm, the street, semipublic spaces like restaurants and stores, etc. Alain Finkielkraut, meanwhile, has just published L'identité malheureuse, one of the bestsellers of the fall season, in which he explicitly criticizes Americans like me with our "innocents abroad" notions of multiculturalism. France cannot survive the onslaught of conflicting symbolisms, he argues. It is and always has been a monist culture, in which the foreigner can assimilate only by shedding all alien affiliations. And the foreigner must be grateful for being deprived of his patrimoine by a culture as rich as that of France, which has brought the world so much treasure of truth and beauty. I caricature, but only slightly.

To tell the truth, I see more headscarves daily in my North Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood than I saw during 2 weeks in France, though I'm sure I wasn't sampling the towns and neighborhoods where the Muslim population is densest. Still, the response seems far stronger than the stimulus warrants. The same can be said of the Roma problem. Despite the fact that there are only 20,000 in the country, everyone I talked to seems to believe that they are at the gates of every town and village in France and Navarre. The mathematical impossibility of such ubiquity carries no weight against the evidence of what people think they have vu, vu de leurs yeux, vu! 

The eternal recurrence of these two highly symbolic issues calls for an analysis of the French psyche. I'm not sure I'm ready to give it, but I'm pondering the matter.

Brignoles: Is There Anything That Hasn't Been Said?

Sunday was my last full day in France, and it happened to coincide with the victory of the Front National in Brignoles. At a dinner party in Paris on Sunday evening, with the election returns already in, I heard both the glass half full and glass half empty versions of the election.

The optimists noted, rightly, that the FN candidate had been elected with only 2,728 votes in a town with only 20,000 registered voters, barely a third of whom had turned out. The pro-FN vote in Brignoles was no larger than in previous elections (giving the lie to allegations of mass defections of the working class), and the winning candidate benefited primarily from the abstention of moderates disappointed with both the current president AND his predecessor and therefore unwilling to do their "republican" duty to block an extremist candidate. What is more, pro-FN sentiment is hardly unknown in the Var, where it draws not only on anti-immigrant sentiment but also on a strong base of pied noir descendants.

The pessimists, on the other hand, simply repeated the stark fact that the FN had won with 54 percent of the vote despite a call by the president of the Republic for a "republican front." Significantly, however, the UMP did not join in that call, so the republican front was fatally weakened by the pre-emptive defection of the center-right, symptomatic of the larger dissension that is wreaking havoc in "respectable" rightist circles, where it is feared that despite the current unpopularity of the Socialists, hors d'une alliance avec l'extrême droite, pas de salut.

Make no mistake: the latter belief is the real danger here, and the real drama of Brignoles is that it may confirm many UMPers in the belief that this analysis is correct. Moderates on both left and right are banking on the notion that an economic recovery has begun: a Gallic version of the "green shoots" thesis that was prevalent in the US in 2009 before the debacle of the 2010 midterms swept into Congress a raft of radical rightists who survived the 2012 election to deliver us into the chaos in which we now find ourselves. The US example should be proof to moderates, if proof were needed, that attentisme is not the right strategy.

The 2,728 votes for the extreme right in Brignoles cannot be taken as indicative of a national trend, but national polls do indicate moderately increased support for the extreme right across the country and among all social classes and categories. This does not, however, represent adhesion to Frontist ideas or values. It is mainly, I believe, a protest vote against the lack of a clearly articulated response to the crisis from either the center-right or center-left. Sarkozy offered the frenetic bluster of a dervish who whirled but went nowhere, while Hollande has proceeded in his disciplined way to mark time, hence also giving the impression of no forward motion. Meanwhile, everyone is grumbling about increased taxes. To be sure, spending has also been decreased and the deficit shaved since Hollande took office, but what the average voter sees is a steadily increasing tax bite despite the presidential announcement of a "pause," soon postponed by his prime minister until next year (assuming that the "green shoots" have by then yielded a few ears of corn).

So this is a morose period in French politics, but I think the FN panic, to which I may have contributed with my two previous posts, is somewhat overblown, and there is a real danger that it will stampede politicians of both parties into emulating Marine Le Pen rather than fighting her. What is needed is the offer of some rival goods on the political market, not a flooding of the stalls with une rhétorique sécuritaire de pacotille.

UPDATE: On the other hand, there's this report of an impending alliance between Geert Wilders of the Netherlands anti-immigrant Party of Freedom and Marine Le Pen's National Front. Anti-EU feeling is on the rise across Europe.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Copé Refuses to Choose Between Hollande and Le Pen

Jean-François Copé, the leader of the UMP and presidential hopeful-in-waiting, was asked point-blank how he would vote in 2017 if the second round came down to a choice between Hollande and Le Pen. He refused to choose (watch the video at the link to appreciate the full smarminess of his expression), accrediting the notion that he would consider both alternatives equally unpalatable. This after Jean-Pierre Raffarin had just said without hesitation that he would make the "republican" choice in favor of Hollande (as Hollande reminded everyone he did in favor of Chirac in 2002). Copé thus aligns himself with Fillon, who also refused to draw a clear distinction, saying only that he would vote for the less "sectarian" of the two candidates (without specifying his criteria of "sectarianism").

The UMP is thus dividing itself rapidly into two camps: those who want to distance Le Pen and those who hope to entice her voters by suggesting that if the lights are turned down low enough, they might just embrace her. It's an appalling spectacle, this courtship of the Mean Girl, who is rightly most contemptuous of those who would steal a kiss from her if they thought it would make them more popular with the tough kids on the far right end of the schoolyard.

My instincts tell me that Copé and Fillon are discrediting themselves with these âneries. Both look increasingly desperate. Meanwhile, Juppé, who has been clear in his rejection of Le Pen, has been quietly putting himself forward as the potential standard-bearer for those on the Right who cannot stomach the UMP droitisé. Subtly, the vaunted rivalry between Copé and Fillon is thus giving way to a more substantial struggle between Juppé and a Sarkozy (miraculously delivered from disgrace by the favor of his judges in the Bettencourt scandal, although he still has Karachigate and Tapiegate to worry about, entre autres). As for the next generation, NKM is the clear anti-Le Pen candidate, and she is doing better than expected in the Paris mayoral contest, although I'm told she will probably still lose. Bruno Le Maire has been disappointingly circumspect in the Le Pen controversy.

Since the UMP will choose its next presidential candidate by open primary, it's not out of the question that a principled centrist could prevail even without a substantial base among party militants.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Front National Leads Poll

My apologies to faithful readers for the long absence of news on this blog. I've been traveling in France and away from my computer. Although it is possible to blog, as I'm doing now, with my tablet, it is scarcely inviting. Nevertheless, I am compelled to report the news of a new IFOP poll, which shows for the first time the Front National ahead of all other parties in expressed intentions to vote in the next European election. The FN is at 24%, the UMP at 22, and the PS at 19.

No one will be surprised by these results. It has been clear for some time that the FN is gaining strength. The irony, of course, is that the FN is the most anti-European of French parties, but that may well be the reason for its surge to the top in this particular poll, since for many voters the European elections are mainly a chance to vent hostility against the Union. The European Parliament having little real power, a protest vote in this kind of election risks nothing.

Nevertheless, the results show an increased willingness of voters to profess open support for the FN, so much so that IFOP is no longer correcting for a supposed "Bradley effect" in FN polling. The "de-demonization" of the FN is complete.

The question now is whether anything still places a ceiling on FN support, and I think the answer must still be "yes." Even if the FN becomes the largest party in France, which is not impossible, a substantial majority still believes that it remains beyond the Pale of respectability and will not for it. Nevertheless, the "FN effect" is already obviouus in the decomposition of the Right. Fillon has lately joined his rivals in attempting to appeal to far right voters. Even the recent realignment in the center, with Bayrou joining forces with longtime rival Borloo, reflects a determination that the "center-right" has moved definitively toward the far right, perhaps opening a place (or a black hole?) in the center.

But do the parties continue to matter in the way they used to? With the UMP now ready to join the PS in choosing its presidential candidate by primary, party discipline and organization will no doubt be trumped, as in the United States, by individual entrepreneurship, with each candidate obliged to run from a local power base and to raise funds independent of the parties.

Meanwhile, some observers attribute to Hollande a strategy not unlike Mitterrand's toward the FN: the stronger it becomes, the more it divides the Right, leaving him, despite his desperate unpopularity, as the only "republican" recourse. This is of course a dangerous game. I've talked to a few people in Paris with government connections, and they all reflect Hollande's perhaps overly optimistic faith in an imminent economic recovery, which will rescue him from the difficult pass in which he finds himself. Perhaps they have evidence to back their hopes that is not yet public. I am less sanguine. But the impression I get is that Hollande believes he has very little room for maneuver until economic conditions improve, and he is unwilling to take any risks to improve them on his own. He is counting, like a peasant, on a change in the weather--a fitting attitude for a man who is governing, as one sage observer of French politics put it to me, like the "president of Correze," as if this were still the Third Republic or, worse, the Fourth.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Duflot Attacks Valls on Romani

Manuel Valls is the most popular Socialist minister, more popular by far than either the president or the prime minister. He had harsh words the other day for the Romani--les Roms--living in France: "their way of life is extremely different from ours." Cécile Duflot, minister of housing, refused to let this pass, despite strong support for Valls from a number of Socialist mayors.

This little passe d'armes is more than just another episode in France's contentious relationship with its Romani population. It is a manifestation of a new cleavage in a Left already deeply divided over economic issues, European integration, and environmental concerns. The Romani are but the latest symbol of l'insécurité. Beyond that, as I noted yesterday, Duflot is in the process of reasserting her control over EELV, which lost its leader Pascal Durand yesterday. She is very likely preparing to leave the government (a sinking ship) to return to active political life at the helm of the Greens, a role in which she will be free to criticize the sitting government. This salvo at Valls is a first indication that she will not pull her punches once she leaves office.

Meanwhile, Valls is positioning himself to become the heir apparent to the failed Hollande leadership. He has staked out a distinctive position among the young contenders. His critics may see this position as nothing more than "Sarkozy lite," if not "Le Pen lite," but it's popular not only in the polls but also with Socialists governing at the local level, which is where l'insécurité lives. At the national level, the Socialist Party is now rubble, with Hollande's approval rating running in the low 20s, but at the local and regional level the Socialists remain a force to contend with. And that is where Valls is building his candidacy, while potential rivals like Montebourg court an imaginary constituency.

So what happens when the Front National emerges from next year's municipal elections with, perhaps, more votes than the UMP? Hollande might well turn to Valls as the next prime minister as a way of telling the French "Je vous ai compris."

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Greens Decompose

Pascal Durand will not seek a second mandate as head of EELV. Noël Mamère announced he is quitting the party. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, former Green, said "I told you so." Dominique Voynet, former party leader, accused Mamère of not playing the "collective" game and simultaneously lashed out at Cohn-Bendit and Hulot, two other "great solitaries" of politics. And behind the scenes, they say, it's all Cécile Duflot's doing, as she maneuvers to take back the reins of a party that has become too critical of the government in which it participates and she is a minister. All in all, a not very appetizing spectacle.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Chantal Mouffe on "Post-Politics" and France

The same thing exists in other countries. For instance, in France at the moment we have a socialist government, but François Hollande is not really doing anything which is different from Sarkozy. The same thing happened in Spain with Zapatero. So this is basically what I call ‘post-political’: the fact that there is no real alternative, there is no choice given to citizens. And I don’t think that this is something which is good for democracy.

Of course some people have been arguing that it is good for democracy, this blurring of the line between left and right, because democracy is supposedly more ‘mature’. I disagree with this. For instance in my book, On the Political, I’ve tried to explain the development of right-wing populist parties as a reaction to the lack of choice which is given to citizens. Right-wing populist parties are, in many countries, the only parties who argue that there is a real alternative. Now the alternative that they propose is unacceptable, would not work economically, and on top of that often reflects some form of xenophobia, but they give the possibility of mobilising passion toward change.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Green Week" Shrouded in Smog of Vagueness

This week is supposedly "green week" in France, although the season is nearly autumnal. "Orange is the new green" might be the government's motto. Its rhetoric is stirring, but whether anything is actually happening is difficult to make out through the smog of words. There is to be "une fiscalité verte" sometime soon, but not too soon. And the regressive consequences of whatever form this green tax takes will somehow be compensated--but exactly how is to be left to future arbitrages. "It's still under discussion." The president has said that "for every additional tax, there will be one tax eliminated," but perhaps une contribution is not un impôt. But never mind the details. The government's heart is in the right place, et même si on n'a pas le monopole du coeur, on peut toujours faire semblant.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

France's Demographic Advantage

That France has a "demographic advantage" over Germany is well-known, but Paul Krugman (via the OFCE) has data and graphs showing just how big a role demographics will play in the years ahead.

Unfortunately for François Holland, the rewards will come too late.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The UMP Veers Hard Right

For the second time, François Fillon has made it clear that he will not be outbid on his right flank by either Copé or Sarkozy. Jean-Louis Borloo, speaking for the center-right, expressed his dismay that all 3 heavyweights of the UMP have now signaled that they believe the UMP has no choice but to harden its rhetoric in order to appeal to FN voters. Within the UMP itself, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, speaking for many others, has expressed his alarm that the party's very identity is at stake. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen's popularity continues to rise dramatically on the right, even if 65% of the French still consider her unacceptable as a national leader:
La popularité de Marine Le Pen augmente très fortement parmi les sympathisants de droite, en passant de 34 % à 56 % (+ 22 points).

Communists In, Greens May Be Out

It looks as though the PCF will stick with Hollande, despite J.-L. Mélenchon's wish that they go their own way. But EELV is looking for a sign of commitment from Hollande to some semblance of a green program ... or else.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

German Voter Flows

Germany votes later this month and Die Zeit online has a fascinating graph of voter flows into and out of the various parties since 2005. I wish there were a similar graphic for France. In any case, note the substantial flows out of the center-left SPD and into the extreme-left Die Linke as well as the Greens and the abstainers, and, more surprisingly, the CDU/CSU, and the equally substantial flows out of the center-right CDU/CSU into the FDP and the abstainers. The big difference is that there is almost zero flow from CDU/CSU into SPD, but SPD members will cross over to CDU/CSU.

Death of Jean Véronis

Jean Véronis, the linguist and analyst of political language, whose work I cited frequently on this blog, has died in a car accident. Very sad news. (h/t Eloi Laurent)

An Explanation for Hollande's Timidity?

It is often said that François Mitterrand was afflicted with Allende Syndrome: he feared that the US would somehow contrive to remove him from power if he became too independent. Perhaps François Hollande is suffering from Berlusconi Syndrome. It seems that, according to former ECB executive council member Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi, Berlusconi was removed from power because the Troika insisted on it:
Ex-ECB insider Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi has quietly dropped a few bombshells in his new book Morire di Austerita(Dying of Austerity), worth a read if you know Italian.
Mr Bini-Smaghi – until recently on the ECB's six-man executive council, and for many years Italy's man in Frankfurt – states that Silvio Berlusconi was toppled as Italian premier in November 2011 as soon as he began to rattle the EMU cage in earnest.
(h/t Glyn Morgan)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Union Action Against Pension Reform Fizzles

Two unions, the CGT and the FO, had called for today to be a "day of action" against the government's proposed pension reforms, but the movement was "almost invisible." Why? In part because the reform is minimal (and therefore insufficient):

Cette réforme à minima a évité tout ce qui était susceptible de fâcher (et donc de mobiliser) la fonction publique et les entreprises publiques. La CGT et FO ont même salué comme une "avancée" ou un"progrès" la création d'un "compte pénibilité". Et les syndicats se gardent bien de demander le retrait du projet et visent essentiellement son amélioration.
But there is an even deeper reason for this failure: hopelessness. When large numbers of people turned out to protest the Fillon government's reforms, there was hope that someday they would elect a Socialist who would come up with a different plan. But a Socialist was elected and came up with ... a plan that effectively ratifies the Sarkozy-Fillon reform but adds a little window-dressing. So France limps on, but I suspect that the next elections will show a fairly substantial number of desertions from the Socialist party, if not to the Parti de Gauche or the Front National, then to the growing ranks of the abstainers. Hollande's presidency has been most effective at demobilization--not entirely by design, but a demobilized population suits Hollande's managerial style of governing just fine. A hot autumn might have forced a change in the government's approach, but the French are tired and resigned, employed workers are happy to have jobs and pensions that will be good enough for themselves (even minor changes have been postponed to 2035), while the unemployed do not turn out for union-inspired demos.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sheep and Wolves

The wolf is back in France, and shepherds are not happy about it, Scott Sayare writes:
“If you ask me, when they talk about ‘environmentalism’ today, it’s meant for city people,” Mr. Bruno said. “You go talk about the bear, the wolf, about nature that’s a bit wild, and you send them all off dreaming.
“Come ask us, the shepherds, about putting sharks in the Mediterranean,” he added wryly. “You’ll get 99 percent in favor. I don’t go swimming, I don’t give a damn!” France’s wolf population is hardly Europe’s largest, at about 250, but it is likely to be the most contentious. There is little uninhabited wilderness to speak of here, and many of the country’s most rugged expanses — habitats suited to the wolf — are occupied by farmers and their animals.
“We’re not in a big country,” said Serge Préveraud, the president of the National Ovine Federation. France’s six million sheep, Mr. Préveraud said, cannot reasonably be expected to “cohabitate” with wolves.

French Fiscal Outlook Improves

France will have a primary budget surplus this year. The government has achieved this goal by raising taxes rather than cutting spending. EU Commissioner Olli Rehn thinks it should have been the other way around. Simon Wren-Lewis and Paul Krugman argue that Rehn is revealing the true aim of EU-enforced austerity: to pare back the welfare state. Both would prefer a counter-cyclical rather than pro-cyclical fiscal policy, but given that France has agreed to the latter, they think that a government elected to raise taxes rather than cut benefits should be permitted to do so without interference from the EU.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pension Reform, Again

The Ayrault government has finally announced its long-awaited pension reform proposal. As one would expect from this government, it's a bit of a wet squib. The plan does nothing to reduce the opacity of the overly complex French pension system. It is entirely directed at trimming the deficit. I use the word "trimming," rather than, say, "eliminating," advisedly. There is not even a pretense that the increase in the system's revenues will be enough to restore equilibrium. But to get even this far, the government has been forced to ratify what the previous government (of the Right) did. It will reduce neither the payroll tax nor the number of quarters of contributions required to earn a full pension; in fact, it will increase both. Although the so-called "legal retirement age" of 62 is maintained (even though many who voted for the left wrongly believed that Hollande promised to reduce it to 60, where Mitterrand had put it long ago, they are wrong: he made no such promise), it is in large part a fiction that ought to be abolished. With the quarters of required contribution increasing from 41.5 years to 43 years by 2035, only those who begin work at age 19 and suffer no periods of unemployment will be able to retire at 62 with full pensions.

The proposed reform does break some new ground. There are provisions to assist workers in particularly arduous jobs, women, those who endure extended periods of unemployment, etc.

On the whole, however, this is a disappointingly timid effort. What is really needed is a sweeping reform to unify and clarify the entire system, so people know what they are paying in, what they can expect to get out at whatever age they choose to retire, and what options they have at every stage of their career. What they got instead is a reform that is carefully calibrated not to get anyone too angry, that will pare back the existing deficit by just enough to satisfy Brussels, and that makes a few gestures toward remedying the most serious inequities of the last several reforms. That's not nothing, but it's also not as much as one might have hoped from a government of the Left.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Like the beleaguered PS, I have reliably radical critics on my left flank: Brent and Mitch. Both castigated yesterday's post for its hostility to M. Mélenchon's "personality" and neglect of his "ideas," which Brent characterized as "ecosocialism." But one doesn't have to put up with--or revel in, as the case may be--Mélenchon's acidulous style to encounter new ideas about sustainable development, innovative energy sources, etc. There's this, for example, from the "social-liberal" Jacques Delors Institute, well to Mélenchon's right.

Both Brent and Mitch seem to be outraged by Hollande's timorous approach to governing, which quickens their taste for something bolder, which they find in Mélenchon. But boldness is cheap when it seeks no compromise and contents itself with standing perpetually in the minority. Ideas may then be merely a camouflage for intransigence. I see in M. Mélenchon's ideas nothing as distinctive as his style or personality, which is why I direct my criticism at these to my mind unfortunate defects rather than praise his undoubted qualities, among them rhetorical mastery, historical acumen, and a readiness to embrace any number of innovations, some of them worth supporting, others not.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The "Left Front" Cracks

The Front de Gauche is no longer a front, to judge by the frosty exchanges between former FG presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Communist party chief Pierre Laurent over the weekend. The cause of the rift is not far to seek. Mélenchon, the classic cavalier seul in politics, will be content to lose in a splashy way, as he did in the presidential elections. The logic of office-holding, patronage, dues collection, and party maintenance is not for him. So he can indulge his penchant for "heightening contradictions" and eschew any hint of "republican solidarity" with the Socialists, whom he accuses of kowtowing to the Germans, buying into austerity, and plotting to tear the social safety net. Laurent, on the other hand, has a party to run, a party headquarters to staff, and bills to pay. For him it isn't enough to keep his face in the TV news by making stinging attacks on the center-left. He needs the support of the PS to win the occasional town or city in the upcoming municipals, and he knows there is a price to pay for that support. So he is not happy with Mélenchon.

Of course Mélenchon might well respond that the PCF has been following Laurent's line for decades, and look where it has gotten them. On the other hand, Laurent could respond that Mélenchon revival of classe-contre-classe-style politics hasn't improve matters much, even if it allowed Mélenchon briefly to kindle a cult of personality around himself in the presidential campaign season. And so it goes.

Meanwhile, the wheeling and dealing over retirement reform has begun, with the CGT calling for a demonstration on Sept. 10.

Friday, August 23, 2013

DSK Making €200K a Month

You just can't keep a good man down. Dominique Strauss-Kahn may be through with politics, but high-rollers are still willing to pay good money for his advice. His consulting firm is making €200,000 euros a month. Although DSK is the only employee other than his driver, who is paid about €1,800 a month, he took a salary of only €7,500 a month last year. Presumably the remainder of his honoraria is being invested wisely, perhaps in the Cayman Islands or one of the other tax havens he ought to know a great deal about as former head of the IMF.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Debate" on the Right

The UMP is prepared to avail itself of its "droit d'inventaire" in regard to the Sarkozy years. Actually, the rank-and-file don't seem to be very interested: they'd rather just have Sarko back and be done with it. But the former president has lots of would-be replacements, and they're all for parsing out what he got wrong so as to claim that they, in turn, would get it right.

Jean-François Copé, the party leader, has finally hopped on this growing bandwagon, seeing an additional benefit to himself: he can remind the faithful that the Sarkozy years were in some sense the Sarkozy-Fillon years, and thus whatever Sarko got wrong should also be blamed on his "collaborator," Fillon, who just happens to be Copé's main rival. But it's a tricky game for Copé, so he is taking his precautions: he wants the "debate" to wind up quickly, and he doesn't want it to become a "personal" vendetta against Sarkozy (indeed, he needs the votes of those Sarkozy supporters who still constitute a majority of the party).

It will be interesting to tease out the subtleties when this debate actually gets under way. Everyone will of course be protesting that the UMP doesn't want to become the FN, but that's not where the real differences on the Right lie, and in any case that issue won't be sorted out by debate: it will depend on how well the FN does in future elections. If the UMP electorate continues to erode, it will be hard to keep the floodgates closed.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Eurozone Grows 0.3%, France 0.5%, for Quarter

These are not stellar results, but they are better than contraction. The numbers lend some substance to François Hollande's Micawberish hope that "something will turn up" before the end of the year.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Profile of Christiane Taubira

Scott Sayare has an interesting profile of Christiane Taubira, France's controversial justice minister, in today's Times.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The FN's Electorate

Le Monde commissioned a survey of Front National voters and found two Fronts, one in southern France and the other in northern France. Both groups share an overwhelming belief that "there are too many immigrants in France" (97% in the south, 95 in the north). But the northerners are more concerned with taxes and economic issues, while the southerners are preoccupied with security:
La question du niveau d'imposition des personnes les plus riches en est l'illustration. "Cela laisse apparaître une vraie différence de nature entre les deux électorats", souligne l'étude. 60 % des frontistes méridionaux estiment que "le niveau de fiscalité payé par les personnes plus riches est trop élevé", quand seulement 37 % des "nordistes" partagent cette opinion. A l'inverse, 42 % des électeurs lepénistes du Nord-Est jugent que "le niveau de fiscalité payé par les personnes plus riches n'est pas assez élevé, ce qui ne permet pas de corriger les inégalités". 22 % des "sudistes" sont de cet avis.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fermeture annuelle ou permanente?

The word from France is that François Hollande, le président normal, discouraged his ministers from taking summer vacations (though what is more normal in France than the great summer exodus?), If they did leave Paris, the word went out, they were to remain nearby and available for a quick return, and une permanence was to be left minding the store at the ministry. Et pourtant ... there hasn't been much news out of the government for quite a while now. Perhaps everyone is hunkered down in anticipation of what may well be une rentrée chaude: with new pension and labor-market reforms on tap for the fall, the reaction could well be significant. This isn't what a lot of people who voted for the Left signed on for. But for the moment, it's all academic: we don't really know what Hollande has in mind for the fall.

And that, I submit, is the problem with the Hollande presidency. He is neither a visionary nor a pedagogue but an attentiste. The Germans go to the polls in September. Maybe something will turn up. The US economy and perhaps even the British economy are a little less sluggish than last year: maybe that will be good for France. In the meantime, keep one's own counsel and don't make any abrupt moves.

This seems to be Hollande's philosophy of governance, and the French have tired of it even more rapidly than they tired of the Sarkoshow. I would call it a sad spectacle, except that it's been anything but a spectacle--by design, as if keeping a low profile after Sarkozy's permanently high profile would be enough to ensure success.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kouchner Offers His Advice

Bernard Kouchner has not been in good odor on the left since his fling with Sarkozy, from which he got very little for himself--Sarko ran his own foreign policy and used Kouchner as an occasional messenger. Now he seems to want back into the game, but with his old friends. Here he offers a fairly mild and not inaccurate assessment of Hollande's first year in office:

Diriez-vous qu’il y a un style Hollande comme il y avait un style Sarkozy ?Difficile de trouver plus différents. Le style de François Hollande est patelin, débonnaire, sympathique. Il a toujours une lueur d’humour au fond des yeux. Mais juger du style d’un homme d’Etat est toujours réducteur parce que le président doit penser plus loin pour la France. C’est là où, je crois, François Hollande ne répond pas assez à l’attente des Français. Ceux-ci veulent connaître la route et les étapes nécessaires, les sacrifices qu’ils devront tous, à leur mesure, consentir. Au fond, il faudrait, dans le discours inventer une traçabilité politique. Et mieux connaître son entourage. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Uneven Job Loss Across France

Le Monde today has an interesting map of the level of job loss in the various metropolitan statistical areas (to use US jargon) that make up the French economy. The striking fact is that job loss across the country is very uneven, with the north, east, and center faring particularly badly while the south and west do quite a bit better. It would be interesting to pursue the analysis to a finer level of detail, to try to understand what is going on.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Trappes Is a Powderkeg"

The citizens of Trappes in the Yvelines are not Trappists. Most, in fact, are Muslims, and one, a Martiniquaise converted to Islam, was wearing a niqab on Friday when she was stopped by police for an identity check, (presumably) under the law banning burqas, niqabs, and other face-veiling headgear in public places. An altercation ensued between the police and her companion, a man of "Russo-Maghrebi" extraction. (French ethnic identities are becoming quite complicated these days.) There were arrests, followed by protests and violence that has persisted in the city for several days.

One can cite any number of reasons for this fairly banal incident. It has been hot. Trappes is a city plagued with crime and violence. There are new buildings, according to one observer of the city, but nothing new in the way of social programs, job opportunities, or educational enticements. The police may have been a little too zealous in enforcing the law, or the alleged instigators may have been a little oversensitive to the unwanted attentions of the police. Police-community relations seem in general not to be very good.

So Trappes is a symptom. But it's a symptom that's hard to interpret. Is residential segregation in France getting worse? Is it really true that nothing has been done for minorities? Are tensions rising because of the lingering crisis? Or was this just one of those random eruptions that occur from time to time in multicultural societies?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Du rififi chez l'UMP

Le Monde has an "insider" perspective on the UMP that is unusually candid. Copé tried to form a "club" of ex-Chiraquiens around him. Included were Bruno Le Maire, Valérie Pécresse, François Baroin, Luc Châtel, and of course Copé's Sancho Panza, Christian Jacob. But the group fell apart as ambitions clashed: Baroin and Le Maire over the nomination to replace Christine Lagarde as finance minister, Baroin and Copé over Copé's hiring of the extreme-righist Buisson as an advisor, Copé and Pécresse over Copé's increasingly naked presidential ambitions and her desertion to the Fillon camp, etc. etc. Some of the petites phrases are truly murderous, e.g. Pécresse on Copé:
"Je pense qu'il y a deux catégories de personnes pour Jean-François : celles qui comptent, qu'il faut affaiblir ; et celles qui ne comptent pas, qu'il faut câliner. A un certain moment, en politique, soit on s'essuie les pieds sur vous, soit vous existez. Au moins, maintenant, il se souvient de mon prénom."

Yet for all this maneuvering, the fact remains that a substantial majority of the UMP wants to see Sarkozy run again in 2017, so the ambitions of this whole lot of potential rivals hang on the decisions of various judges and courts in the numerous scandals in which Sarkozy has been caught up of late. Stay tuned.