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?