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Ecomouv during the Sarkozy years, which called for the payment of a penalty of 1 billion euros if the tax should be withdrawn for any reason, to compensate Ecomouv for infrastructural investments it would have had to make to prepare for collection (all trucks were to be equipped with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 Now, of course, the tax has been rescinded in the face of violent opposition (see previous post), and the state will be obliged to pay the contractual penalty for non-performance.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.