Friday, June 28, 2013

The Scandals

Any number of scandals from the past continue to haunt France. The financier Ziad Takieddine now says that he financed Edouard Balladur's 1995 bid for the presidency to the tune of more than €100 million. Nicolas Sarkozy was the campaign treasurer, and a close associate of his has been named as the conduit. In perhaps the biggest scandal of all, Bernard Tapie has now been mis en examen in an affair that has already caught up a member of the arbitration panel, Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, Tapie's lawyer, the former secretary general of the Elysée Claude Guéant, and Éric Woerth, already up to his eyes in the Bettencourt scandal but now accused of underestimating Tapie's tax bill on his arbitration award by an eye-popping €100 million.

Of course, one question raised by the Tapie affair is why all these people would have taken such risks to aid Tapie. Surely his support for Sarkozy was not worth that much. Another possible motive would of course be pecuniary: the implication is that those who aided and abetted Tapie were somehow compensated for their services. As far as I am aware, no evidence to that effect has yet been leaked, so we are left waiting for another shoe to drop.

If Sarkozy, as rumored, is really contemplating a political comeback, these numerous affairs, in which his closest associates are deeply implicated, will complicate his task, to say the least. It's really quite astonishing: corruption of Italian magnitude at the very heart of the Republic.

French Anti-Fracking Law Could be Overturned

The American firm Schuepbach, which had a contract to do exploratory drilling in France, wants a court to reconsider the case.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Badiou badine avec la philo

No comment necessary:

Incroyable mais vrai : Alain Badiou veut envahir Hollywood ! Plus exactement, le philosophe communiste est en train d’écrire le scénario d’un film en vue de sa production par des studios américains. Le titre : La Vie de Platon. Au casting : Brad Pitt en Platon, aux différents âges. Pour Madame Platon, Meryl Streep. Et pour Socrate, le maître de Platon, Sean Connery. Voici le casting rêvé du penseur de L’Être et l’événement. Très sincèrement, au départ, on a cru à une blague potache de post-situ en quête d’ultime détournement... Mais pour Alain Badiou, c’est du sérieux. Il veut, selon ses propres mots, « faire entrer Platon, emblème de la sagesse universelle, dans le temple contemporain des images commerciales, la machine propagandiste de la vie américaine, la capitale de la corruption capitaliste : Hollywood ! »

Austerity à la française

The Cour des Comptes has called on the government to reduce expenditures by about 1.25% of GDP over the next two years. In the view of the Cour, the tax increases that reduced France's deficit by 1.1% of GDP since Hollande's election have gone as far as they can, since the share of GDP claimed by all taxes and other charges is now at a historical high. Further progress toward the government's proclaimed deficit goal must therefore come on the spending side of the budget. So far, there is little reaction from the government.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Historical Revisionism

Le Programme Commun: A Model for the Right?

If you're of a certain age, you will remember le Programme Commun--depending on your orientation, either the master stroke that enabled the Left finally to break the Gaullist monopoly on power in the Fifth Republic or the perfidious alliance of "Socialo-Communists" that brought the Cold War enemy into the fortress of power (eventually annihilating that enemy in a reversal of the Trojan horse metaphor). Now there is a book about "l'union sans unité."

Its most avid readers may well be on the Right, however, because the opportunities for a "political recomposition" of the sort that Mitterrand effected in the 1970s now lie on the other side of the political spectrum. Now it is the Front National rather than the Communist Party that lies outside "the republican consensus," and it is the "republican Right," first under Sarkozy and now even more nakedly under its new leader Jean-François Copé, that would like to reinforce itself by bringing in (and to heel) its once-taboo nemesis.

There is a difference, however. The PCF in the 70s was an aging party that was not replenishing its ranks with new young blood. The FN is energetically--and apparently successfully--recruiting young people, as the surprisingly good performance of a 23-yr-old candidate in Villeneuve-sur-Lot shows. The dynamism of the FN among young people aged 20-40 has to be a concern for the UMP. Demographics turned the Common Program into an instrument for defanging the PCF, but demographics may work in the opposite direction if the UMP attempts to make common cause with the FN.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hollande's Unpopularity

It's been quite a dramatic fall, and there's no sign that it's stopping. Hollande's presidency is now disapproved by 73% of voters. 94% of UMP voters disapprove, perhaps not surprising, but so do 80% of "workers" and 70% of Greens.

The odd thing is that this massive disapproval does not seem to be associated with the kind of widespread fulmination, loathing, and mockery that accompanied Sarkozy's fall from grace. The French don't hate Hollande; they just don't think he's up to the job. This judgment is no doubt unfair. The job that citizens want the president to accomplish is clearly impossible. But one can imagine another president doing a better job of explaining things, clarifying his choices, mapping out future directions, accounting for past misperceptions and failures. Something isn't clicking between Hollande and his public. The rise of the Front National, apparently confirmed by the voting in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, is just one symptom of a wider malaise.

The danger is that Hollande now has no cushion. If he does finally act forcefully, as he has threatened to do in regard to pension reform, he will provoke opposition. His prime minister is such a pallid figure that he provides no protection for the president. All anger will be directed at him, and he has no way to deflect it.

Detailed Analysis of Villeneuve-sur-Lot

This marvelously detailed analysis of voting in Villeneuve-sur-Lot is the best I have seen. Would that one had instant analyses of this sort for every election.

The ‘republican front’ strategy has been challenged and almost thoroughly discredited since 2010. On the one hand, the UMP no longer automatically endorses the left against the FN and many UMP leaders - Copé first and foremost – have had ambiguous statements on all this. The UMP nowadays tends to prefer the ni ni strategy – neither the left nor the FN – although the party remains split between a moderate faction of the ruling elite which still has sympathy for the ‘republican front’ and a more conservative activist base which has a large minority favouring open electoral alliances with the FN. The PS, meanwhile, still has a preference for the ’republican front’ but the UMP’s strategy has unnerved it, to the point where some local PS candidates will endorse neither the UMP nor the FN. Recently, there were allegations that the PS in the Vaucluse covertly supported FN candidate (now deputy) Marion Maréchal-Le Pen by not withdrawing its candidate from the three-way runoff in which Marion Maréchal-Le Pen emerged victorious.
Finally, the continuation of a ’republican front’ strategy tends to play right into the FN’s hand. A large part of Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric is denouncing the corrupt ‘UMPS’ elites – a message incessantly regurgitated by her new circle of obedient young leaders and candidates, including the FN candidate in this constituency. A ‘republican front’ between UMP and PS can easily be presented by the FN as ‘proof’ that both parties are, in reality, two sides of the same coin and are in cahoots with one another. And neither the UMP nor the PS try very hard to disprove that – PS deputies recently found common cause with UMP deputies in significantly watering down the government’s post-Cahuzac transparency and ethics legislation.
As in the Oise-2, this by-election has shown two things – the PS is unpopular and faces an electoral drubbing if these numbers hold up in a national election; the FN is the only political force in the country which is truly on the upswing and it has proven that it has a remarkable ability to gain significant support from one round to another in duel runoffs. The cordon sanitaire is – in good part – gone. The FN has a far less ‘toxic’ image. Marine Le Pen’s dédiabolisation efforts are paying off, and many voters – left and right – are willing to vote for the FN over a more ‘acceptable’ party in the runoff when their preferred candidate is eliminated. We cannot treat voters as mathematical, rational and predictable individuals who can be expected to follow the directions given by their party of choice. Despite the strong enmity between national PS and FN leadership, there is some overlap between both parties. Some left-wing voters will prefer the FN over the right when faced with that choice.

Monday, June 24, 2013


In the by-election to fill Jérôme Cahuzac's seat in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, the UMP beat the Front National by 53.76 to 46.24%. The strong showing by the FN is a warning to both parties that the center is not holding. One assumes that in this former Socialist stronghold, part of the UMP vote in the second round comes from Socialists seeking to block the FN, which may well now be the strongest party in the district.

It's never wise to overinterpret the vote in any by-election, especially one in which the incumbent was forced to resign by scandal. But the results here compound worries that the Socialists have lost their way, having ceased to exist as a party and become merely a mouthpiece for the government. Harlem Désir has come in for particular criticism.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Never-Ending Crisis of French Universities

It's baaaaaaaaaack. Of course, it never really went away. "The French university is in crisis" is more or less the French equivalent of "the boy who cried wolf." Except there really is a wolf at the door, and has been since the university was "massified" in the wake of May '68. Concurrent reports indicate that many universities have become holding pens for students who would rather be elsewhere: recipients of a bac pro waiting for a spot where they can earn a BTS; young people who would rather collect a modest bourse than join the unemployment lines; students unprepared for higher education who flail about for two years before joining the 50 percent of washouts (90 percent among the bac pro group--yes, 90 percent! Eine schande, as my grandmother would have said).

A report by François Vatin and Antoine Vernet paints the portrait in more sober language:
La crise de l’Université française est aujourd’hui patente pour toutes les parties concernées : les pouvoirs publics qui dénoncent les dysfonctionnements de l’institution, les étudiants et leur famille qui fuient l’Université pour des formations concurrentes, les enseignantschercheurs eux-mêmes qui, après un long mutisme sur leurs conditions professionnelles, manifestent de plus en plus clairement leur insatisfaction sur l’évolution de leur institution. Les réformes lancées par les pouvoirs publics (réorganisation des cursus conformément aux accords de Bologne ou « LMD », autonomisation des établissements ou « loi LRU », redéfinition des statuts des personnels enseignants) se proposent de résoudre cette crise. Quelle que soit l’idée que l’on se fait de leur capacité à la résoudre à long terme – j’y reviendrai en conclusion –, ces réformes en cours ou en projet ne peuvent, à court terme, qu’amplifier cette crise, tant parce qu’elles constituent une preuve de son existence (on réforme parce qu’il y a un problème à résoudre) que parce qu’elles suscitent des réactions négatives de la communauté universitaire, qui peut être amenée à rejeter dans une même condamnation la maladie et les remèdes qu’on lui propose, considérant, à tort ou à raison, que de tels remèdes ne peuvent qu’empirer le mal.

The social sciences are particularly afflicted. Higher ed minister Geneviève Fioraso offers this oblique defense:
On a besoin des SHS mais les employeurs vous le disent, c’est ça le pire. Ils nous disent à côté des écoles d’ingénieurs, des écoles de commerce, on a besoin de ces compétences, de cette créativité mise en perspective, de sens critique, dialogue, décryptage des différents milieux. Pour vendre, je m’excuse de dire cela, il faut connaître les usages ! Pour concevoir un produit il faut être sensible aux usages, sensible aux évolutions, aux tendances.
She has famously legalized the teaching of courses in English. This is a good idea, but she defends it not on the grounds that French students need to acquire competence in the language of Shakespeare but rather that French universities need to attract foreign students:

Ses propos sur Proust, pour justifier des cursus en anglais à la fac,« si nous n’autorisons pas les cours en anglais, nous n’attirerons pas les étudiants de pays émergents comme la Corée du Sud et l’Inde. Et nous nous retrouverons à cinq à discuter de Proust autour d’une table », n’ont pas rassuré ceux qui attendaient de l’arrivée de la gauche aux affaires un changement de perspective après l’ironie sarkozyste sur La Princesse de Clèves.
As I predicted before the election, the Socialists have swallowed the Pécresse reform more or less wholesale and are proceeding on the assumption that it will work as advertised. It may, but in the meantime turbulence and deterioration are everywhere. Vatin and Vernet put their finger on the core problem:

Soyons clair, l’Université ne peut résister dans un contexte de concurrence croissante où toutes les formations ont le droit, sauf elle, de sélectionner leur public à l’entrée. La conséquence évidente d’une telle concurrence déloyale est que l’Université se trouve chargée d’absorber, bien ou mal, la population qui n’a pas trouvé de place ailleurs. Le fait que les formations concurrentes soient, pour une large part, privées et payantes, ajoute à cette dégradation annoncée de l’enseignement supérieur public un effet d’injustice sociale. Ceux qui, en effet, n’auront pas pu accéder, non pour des raisons de compétences académiques mais pour des raisons financières, à des formations supérieures privées se verront en effet imposé le discrédit attaché à leur formation universitaire.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Energy and Synergy

A French steel firm, Vallourec, has just invested $1 billion in a new tube plant in eastern Ohio. Why invest in the US rather than France? Because the US shale gas industry is the customer for the steel tubes manufactured by the Ohio plant, and there is no shale gas industry in France because the Hollande government has banned even experimental drilling of shale, to say nothing of actual productive development of shale fields.

To be sure, there are environmental concerns associated with the extraction of shale gas, but the technology has been improved and the point of experimental drilling was to demonstrate that the concerns of environmentalists could be met. But instead of authorizing the experiments, Hollande, in a misguided attempt to avoid riling his Green allies, simply banned the effort. Meanwhile, under Sarkozy, the government wasted money trying to keep open aging steel plants whose customers were disappearing: new statistics show a sharp drop in automobile purchases across Europe over the past year. But the Vallourec story shows that there is no shortage of French capital willing to invest in steel production, but only where growing demand for steel can be predicted--as is the case in the burgeoning shale beds in the United States. As one Vallourec executive says, "shale is revolutionary." Unfortunately, the Hollande government seems determined to block the revolution.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

ECB OMT Explained

An excellent primer by Paul DeGrauwe on what happens when a central bank buys government debt, as the ECB has promised to do under the OMT if conditions warrant (Draghi's "big bazooka").

The "Cultural Exclusion" Divides Europe

Michel Barnier, European commissioner in charge of domestic markets, has reacted vehemently to European Commission president Manuel Barroso's declaration that the "cultural exception" to trade negotiations that France has won from its partners is "reactionary." Such public dissension in top EU ranks is rare. Although I rarely agree with Mr. Barroso, I do in this case. The cultural exception is one of those French eccentricities that baffle and exasperate even well-disposed foreigners. It is an "identitarian" anxiety that, altogether too explicably, plays well with the normally anti-identitarian Left because it is directed primarily against the great neoliberal Satan, the United States. It is also a convenient alibi for the Socialist government, a sop to be thrown to protectionist critics of its generally liberal approach to trade issues.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Developments in French Politics 5

I have a chapter in the fifth volume of the series Developments in French Politics. Readers of this blog might find the book interesting.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Front National Could Win the EU Elections

Irony of ironies: the Front National, the most anti-European of French parties, is neck-and-neck with the UMP in polling for the EU elections:
Le parti de Marine Le Pen recueille 18 % des intentions de vote, juste à un point derrière l'UMP (19 %). Le Parti socialiste n'obtient que 15 % des intentions de vote, à égalité avec le Front de gauche.

Social Explosion Ahead?

Retirement reform has been--if I may use an American metaphor--"the third rail" of French political life since at least 1995. Many people who voted for the Socialist candidate in 2012 were probably under the illusion that he would roll back the legal retirement age to 60, although Hollande--or at any rate his advisors speaking on his behalf--never committed himself to any such thing. Nevertheless, the news that the required period of contributions for a full pension will probably be increased from the present 41.5 years to 43 or 44 and the legal age of retirement from 62 to 63 is already sending ripples through the Socialist Party and may well set off a conflagration when finally announced. Nothing has been done to prepare the restive electorate for this shock--unless of course you count the 20 years of public debate about the sustainability of the pension system. The trouble is that this reform is going to be proposed by the Left. When Sarkozy moved some distance in the same direction, the strikers could always tell themselves that the next time would be different. But now that the next time is turning out to be more of the same, frustration will very likely turn to rage. This could be the summer of France's discontent, and Hollande's recent improvement in approval polls will not likely survive, although he hasn't much room to fall on the downside.

MEDEF Will Have a New Boss

Pierre Gattaz, the CEO of a manufacturer of electronic connectors, will replace Laurence Parisot as the head of the employers' association MEDEF. He is the son of Yves Gattaz, who headed the CNPF (MEDEF's predecessor) in the 80s.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Hollande, Eulogizing Mauroy, Pats Himself on the Back

François Hollande was hardly subtle in using the late Pierre Mauroy as an object lesson. Socialists--and while some might question Hollande's claim to the title, no one would deny that Mauroy was a Socialist--must bend to circumstances if they want to reform. That was the message of Hollande's speech. What he didn't mention, however, was that Mauroy was out after three years, replaced by Laurent Fabius, about whom those to whom Hollande was presumably trying to appeal with his eulogy feel a good deal less warmly than they feel about Mauroy:
Les "circonstances" et les "choix" : trente ans plus tard, l'éloge présidentiel fait au premier des chefs de gouvernement de François Mitterrand, également premier socialiste à ce poste sous la Ve République, offre évidemment une singulière résonance avec la situation politique actuelle. La "leçon" de 1981 et de 1983 vaut-elle pour 2013 ?
A cette question, M. Hollande semble répondre positivement, lorsqu'il rappelle que Pierre Mauroy "assuma alors le sérieux budgétaire, le blocage des prix et des salaires, les restructurations industrielles. Des décisions qui lui coûtèrent [...]. Mais qu'il sut prendre parce qu'il les savait non pas inévitables, mais nécessaires pour reconvertir, redresser et repartir".

Friday, June 7, 2013

Pierre Mauroy

There is a rather good remembrance of Pierre Mauroy by Antoine Perraud in Mediapart. It includes the TV segment below, which will serve to teach those to young to remember what socialism used to sound like. Mauroy, to my mind, was already a bit of a dinosaur by the time he became prime minister, and he didn't survive the U-turn in policy that followed the crises of the early Mitterrand years. But he had an undeniable dignity coupled with a political cunning that came close to the president's.

À propos de Pierre Mauroy (1928-2013) by Mediapart

Thursday, June 6, 2013

French Skinheads Kill Sciences Po Student

Clément Méric, an 18-yr-old student at Sciences Po, was beaten to death by skinheads. Méric had been in an apartment buying clothes "appreciated by young militants of the extreme left and extreme right" when several skins arrived on the scene for the same purpose. A fight broke out between the two groups of clients, and Méric was killed. He was involved in the union Solidaires and a member of Action Anti-Fasciste.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mélenchon Is Not Thriving

One might have expected Jean-Luc Mélenchon to thrive at a time when his bête noire, the Socialist Party, is floundering in power. But the opposite is the case. He seems to be losing ground. In a year, his approval rating has fallen from 47 to 35%--not as far as Hollande's, to be sure, but still a slide. He has been attacked by some of his Communist allies for following a "personal" rather than a "party" strategy. And the Front de Gauche has done even worse in legislative by-elections than it did in the presidential election: 4,48 % dans l'Hérault, 6,6 % dans l'Oise, 6,93 % dans les Hauts-de-Seine, 8,79 % dans le Val-de-Marne.

Gallic Pessimism Makes France Less Attractive to Global Investors

Or so we are told:
"Si le Royaume-Uni et l'Allemagne sont considérés comme des destinations de rang mondial, les investisseurs étrangers pourraient désormais classer la France parmi les localisations secondaires, aux côtés de l'Italie et de l'Espagne, avec le risque de la voir réduite à un rôle de puissance moyenne", avertit M. Lhermitte. "Cette image d'un pays désynchronisé du tempo global, tenté par le repli sur lui-même, est malheureusement alimentée par le pessimisme français", estime-t-il. La France reste néanmoins numéro un en nombre d'implantations industrielles, mais celles-ci accusent un recul de 25 %, à 127 projets en 2012, et n'ont créé que 3 605 postes, plaçant l'Hexagone à la 13e place.
(From Le Monde's 12:15 newsletter)

INSEE Has Problem With First-Quarter Employment Figures

Three days before first-quarter employment statistics were to be published, INSEE, the French national statistical agency, announced that there were problems with its survey, so that it would not be possible to publish the complete figures.

This cryptic announcement raised suspicions, as often in the past, that the government was up to no good, possibly laundering a report even more depressing than what many already expected. Who knows? Further information may be forthcoming eventually, but for now we know nothing about what happened.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

NKM Conquers Paris

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, with 58% of the vote, easily won the UMP primary to become candidate for the Paris mayoralty. She was aided by national name recognition and the support of Bernard Debré, to whom she has family ties. She also overcame opposition by anti-gay marriage activists in the party, who called for a vote against her.

NKM is a rising star in the UMP and a presidential hopeful. Her performance in the mayoral elections will therefore be a harbinger of things to come. She will face Socialist Anne Hidalgo in March 2014.

Large Families Live in the North

If you  want to brush up on your French demographics, read this piece in Rue89, which includes the following map:

This patter has deep roots in French history, as another map in the same article suggests:

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Strange Blog Traffic Patterns

Blog traffic has been unusual for the past few weeks. I have been getting large spikes, 2 to 3 times my normal daily traffic, on days when nothing is happening, even on days when I have no new posts. This used to happen only when there were exceptional events: DSK's arrest or "Casse-toi pauvr' con." (That these were the most exceptional events of the past five years in the judgment of the Internet already says something about either the state of French politics or the state of the Internet. But I have no idea what's going on now, and the blog logs, oddly enough, show nothing that would give me a clue.

Anybody have any ideas? Arun, BernardG, other bloggers: Have you seen anything similar?

Finkielkraut Disintegrates

Alain Finkielkraut has attained a new level of spleen. His latest target is what he calls "the divine left," which he believes to be arrogant, doctrinaire, and hermetically sealed against criticism. His evidence for this is, apparently, the Taubira Law. It seems that, in Finkielkraut's mind, the fact that homosexual marriage was authorized by a democratic majority carries no weight. Rather, for him, the new law is the creation of certain television networks which trade on an amalgam of "les banlieues et le show-biz." France, he claims, is not reducible to this sum. The proof of the Finkielkraut inequality is the anti-gay marriage movement. Le Point sees fit to characterize this farrago of nonsense as "brilliant." Go figure.