Monday, March 31, 2014

The Greens Go Into Opposition

As expected, the reaction to the Valls nomination was quick:

Les écologistes Cécile Duflot et Pascal Canfin ne feront pas partie du gouvernement Valls

La nomination de Manuel Valls à Matignon n'est "pas la réponse adéquate aux problèmes des Français", estiment les ministres écologistes du logement et du développement dans un communiqué diffusé lundi. (AFP)

Hollande's Speech

It was a bizarre performance. Hollande appeared in what I assume was the park of the Élysée but shot in such a manner as to obscure the grandeur of the setting and make it look like someone's backyard, with a few scraggly bushes in the background (actually I think he spoke indoors in front of a "green screen," with his image and the inevitable French and European flags projected onto a background of the Élysée park). He did mention that he had just lost the municipals by a historic margin but only at the end, after announcing that he would not waver one iota from the course he had already set, with the Responsibility Pact as its centerpiece. He promised a reduction of social contributions for individuals as well as firms, but he didn't explain how this would square with his commitment to reduce the budget deficit. His discourse remained firmly gestionnaire with a bit of window dressing about not tolerating stigmatization of minorities and a plea for France to overcome its divisions. This seemed a wan plea. In short, the severe sanction of the polls has left François Hollande tel qu'en lui-même il a toujours été: insufficient.

Kapil on the Election

My fellow political blogger Arun Kapil has always delivers some solid insights, such as this:
After the 2008 elections the PS was looking to be the party of cities, the one with the strongest local base, but now the UMP/UDI have taken that mantle (and with the UDI, led by François Bayrou in Pau, taking its share of communes, meaning that it will be a big center-right player in the coming years) . Even the PS victories in the large aforementioned cities have to be relativized, as the intercommunal administrative structures that have been established over the years, and particularly since the 1990s—and which will progressively supplant the communes themselves in local decision-making—, will also pass to the right.

Valls Is In

Manuel Valls nommé premier ministre, selon Matignon

Au lendemain de la cuisante défaite de la gauche aux élections municipales, François Hollande, qui s'exprimera à 20 heures, a demandé à Manuel Valls, en remplacement de Jean-Marc Ayrault, de former un nouveau gouvernement, selon Matignon.

Changement de cap?

Naturally, there are many voices this morning calling for a change of course in government policy. Benoît Hamon and the Greens have written a letter to Hollande asking him to renounce the Responsibility Pact and concentrate on increasing the purchasing power of workers. François Bonnet in Mediapart suggests that the victory in Grenoble of a Front de Gauche-EELV alliance, which increased its advantage over the PS candidate (who refused to desist in the second round), points the way to a viable policy alternative. Laurent Mauduit, writing the same paper's editorial, says that the problem is that while previous left-wing governments going back to the Popular Front have been forced to "pause" their reforms after running into obstacles, Hollande paused before he began; he veered rightward on day one of his presidency.

All this is a bit hasty. Hollande's real problem is that he has to change his deep nature, his very character. He is at heart a compromiser and temporizer. By compromising and delaying, he has disappointed everyone rather than choose his enemies and make them angry while pleasing others. Now he must decide whom he is going to confront.

Why not confront Brussels? He can do this by reneging on the promise to cut €50 billion from the budget after implementing the Responsibility Pact. The cut in employer social charges should not be rescinded. It won't do any harm to firm competitiveness, though it won't help as much as some expect either. The budget deficit is larger than the government predicted for last year, €4.9 billion rather than 4.1, because expansionary contraction did not work. Spending the €50 billion will add to the deficit, to be sure, but it will put some people back to work and avoid taking money out of the pockets of others. Brussels will be livid, of course, but Hollande can afford to irk Brussels; Merkel will cut him some slack because she's a politician and recognizes reality, not a market ideologue like the Brussels gnomes. But Hollande can't just spend the money. He's got to dress it up with a credible logic of stimulus, investment, R&D, and relief for the most miserable victims of the crisis. Most of all, he has to show that "Europe" is not an immovable obstacle against which states must hurl themselves regardless of the consequences.

In addition, he needs to have a serious talk with le patronat. They're not going to give him a quid pro quo for the break he's given them on social charges, nor should they. But he should require of them a credible growth strategy. How do they plan to compete in their respective sectors? The automobile sector is a case in point. The German companies have revamped their supply chains, outsourced to east and south, and figured out ways to reduce costs without cutting wages at home (restraining wage growth, to be sure, but not cutting). Do the French companies have an answer to this, or are they content to be outcompeted in Europe while salvaging the future by building plants abroad that will contribute nothing to the French economy? Supply-chain restructuring can preserve French jobs, but not all of them, and it will entail considerable disruption at home, hence considerable opposition. Hollande should coordinate his strategy with the companies as the price of their tax breaks.

Finally, he needs to get out more. If people disliked Sarkozy for being always in their face, they dislike Hollande for having disappeared from view. Since Gayet-gate, cartoonists like to depict him hiding under his motorcycle helmet. It's an apt image.

Another Scandal?

La ministre Yamina Benguigui suspectée d'avoir menti sur sa déclaration de patrimoine (Le Monde)

La Haute Autorité pour la transparence de la vie publique va saisir le procureur de Paris. Si les faits sont avérés, la ministre de la francophonie encourt trois ans de prison, 45 000 euros d'amende et 10 ans d'inéligibilité.

Hollande's Problem

Try this online game to pick your own new government. You see what Hollande's up against. If you had to pick from this rogue's gallery, how could you possible meet the expectations of the country? My advice is to set France on its ear by choosing a totally unexpected prime minister: Louis Gallois (make the left howl but strengthen your cred in the center and with the business community, whose cooperation is essential). Of course, he might achieve the same end by choosing Pascal Lamy as PM, and he's already in the mix.


Pascal Riché argues (while admitting to a certain bad faith in doing so) that the FN didn't do all that well, not really, mmm, maybe, you know, with all due allowances ...

Map of the Debacle


Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Une défaite pour nous, incontestablement." Le désir d'une présidence thaumaturge

The quoted words in the title of this post are Pierre Moscovici's, but nearly every Socialist leader repeated one version or another of the same sentiment throughout the evening. Clearly, the word had gone out: Do not deny that we took a beating, do not try to put a good face on things, do not appear defensive, indicate that "something will be done." Well and good. Given the magnitude of the defeat, and given François Hollande's own words when the UMP suffered a similar defeat in the second year of Sarkozy's presidency, any other response would have been a mistake. But what will the actual response be? Un remaniement is inevitable, everyone agrees, and it could come as soon as tomorrow or as late as the Council of Ministers meeting on Wednesday. And some tax cut will probably be announced. But what diagnosis will Hollande offer? How will he explain to himself, let alone to the country, what has gone so disastrously wrong with his presidency?

It would be tempting, I imagine, to compare the collapse of Hollande's presidency to the collapse of Sarkozy's. If you compare the approval ratings of both men over the first two years of their quinquennats, you find roughly parallel rates of decline. Sarko started a bit higher, between 60 and 70 (as against Hollande's 50-60), and didn't fall quite as low, but his peak-to-trough ratio was about the same as Hollande's.

Of course, Hollande can't do this: he would appear to be evading the issue if he did. But I think it is the right explanation: there's something wrong with the French presidency itself. It raises outsized expectations. Its magisterial position, created expressly for de Gaulle and intended to express his belief that national sovereignty stands above politics and national grandeur trumps squabbles over interests, foments illusions of rapid and total transformation: executive power as a substitute for revolution.

Presidents since Giscard, with the exception of Mitterrand, have been trying to tamp down the dangerous illusion of the omnipotent presidency. Both Sarkozy and Hollande sought to "normalize" the presidency: Sarkozy by attempting to assume direct responsibility for everything, eliminating the shield of the prime minister, and Hollande by declaring a "return to normalcy" and shedding, as it was not difficult for his unprepossessing self to do, any semblance of charisma. But both normalizations failed, because le bon peuple really did long for un roi thaumaturge.

The magisterial presidency really has no place in un état gestionnaire, but un état gestionnaire cannot satisfy the expectations of the French people. That is the dilemma of the Fifth Republic.

Where Did the FN Win?


Le Monde's Headline Says It All

"Débâcle de la majorité, « vague bleue » pour l'UMP, une dizaine de mairies pour le FN et abstention record : voilà ce qu'il faut retenir du second tour."

Béziers, Fréjus, Hayange to the FN

The FN has won the three cities in the title. For the rest, the UMP is winning big, as expected.

The list grows longer:
Béziers, Fréjus, Hayange, Beaucaire, Villers-Cotterêts, Le Luc, Le Pontet et Cogolin.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Even the Moderate Right Is Divided

It's interesting to find a relatively moderate UMP politician like Bruno Le Maire defending the ni-ni line pushed by Copé--refuse to back the Socialist candidate anywhere even if it means allowing the FN to win an election it would otherwise lose--while former MEDEF head Laurence Parisot is adamantly opposed. There are respectable arguments on both sides (as well as disreputable ones not voiced by either). Le Maire contends that le front républicain is tantamount to substituting morality for politics. As long as the FN plays by the rules of democracy, and no one (he implies) denies that it does, the party needs to be defeated not by moral anathema but by refuting its ideas and demonstrating the impracticality of its policies, even if the latter means allowing its policies to fail after being implemented, as they have in the past. Parisot, by contrast, maintains that treating the FN as a normal party means that it will be "normalized," an evident tautological truth. Meanwhile, she insists, necessary debate within the right is sidetracked: there are real differences over many issues, which need to be confronted squarely, but these issues are obscured by the attention devoted to the attitude to be taken toward the FN.

Indeed, the same split can be seen on the Left, although it is posed rather differently. A politician like Harlem Désire believes that the best course for the Socialists is to demonize the FN, to declare it morally suspect and thus, by implication, to shame anyone who votes for it. A political scientist like Laurent Bouvet believes that such an approach is suicidal for the Left, because it means abandoning forever many people who formerly voted left but have drifted toward the FN. Bouvet:
Mais le problème n’est pas là. Le problème est qu’une telle stratégie pose infiniment plus de difficultés qu’elle est supposée en résoudre.
D’abord parce qu’elle fait écran à toute analyse de la réalité complexe de ce qu’est le Front national, notamment depuis quelques années, et conduit donc à un réductionnisme toujours mal venu en politique. Mal comprendre ce que l’on dit vouloir combattre est l’assurance d’un échec.
Ensuite parce qu’elle assimile toute attitude, réflexion, proposition… qui ne s’inscrit pas immédiatement voire bruyamment dans cette unique perspective à une trahison ou à une complaisance en faveur du FN.
Enfin parce qu’elle finit par mobiliser contre elle-même non seulement les citoyens qu’elle prétend mettre au ban de la société mais encore les démocrates de bonne foi pour qui la politique consiste en un combat d’idées plutôt qu’en des postures morales répétées en boucle sur un ton d’inquisiteur.
The symmetry of these two debates is interesting. It reveals clearly that the reorientation of the FN under Marine Le Pen has laid bare a deep cleavage in French society. I do not see this wound being closed any time soon.

Tracking the FN Vote

An excellent source of information (h/t Arun Kapil).

The President's Agenda

  • Lundi 31 Mars

    • 10h00
      Entretien avec M. Manuel VALLS, ministre de l’Intérieur
    • 13h00
      Déjeuner avec M. Jean-Marc AYRAULT, Premier ministre
  • Mardi 01 Avril

    • 08h30
      Entretien avec M. Laurent FABIUS, ministre des Affaires étrangères
    • 15h00
      Entretien avec M. Bill GATES, président de la Fondation Bill et Melinda Gates
    • Looks like a remaniement in the works: Valls gets the nod Monday morning, Ayrault is sacked a couple of hours later, Fabius is tapped ... to become Czar of Bercy, replacing Moscovici and all the other mini-ministers over there. At least that's my guess. What's yours? Then Bill Gates comes in to discuss what? AIDS in Africa? Transitioning all of France to Windows 8?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Did the Front de Gauche Outperform the FN?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been arguing, graphiques à l'appui, that the Front de Gauche outperformed the FN in the first round of the municipals:

Le Monde has looked into this and enters a few caveats. It all depends on how you separate the Parti Gauche vote from the PCF vote:
Le graphique ci-dessous représente le « potentiel électoral » de chaque composante, c'est-à-dire le nombre d'électeurs qui avaient la possibilité de voter pour une liste PG, PCF ou FG, et le nombre qui l'ont fait. On le voit, il y a moins de listes PCF, mais elles obtiennent plus de voix que les listes FG, plus nombreuses. Quant au PG, il présente peu de listes autonomes et obtient peu de voix.
Mélenchon and many others are probably right that the media are disproportionately focused on FN gains and unduly ignore the persistence of a substantial number of voters to the left of the PS. He's also correct that the FN did not increase its share of the vote nationwide compared to recent presidential elections. But the left-wing vote persists essentially in places with a long left-wing tradition, whereas the FN has lately established itself in places where it never had a presence before. It is the perception and reality of an expanding FN that accounts for the disproportionate attention (and appropriate alarm). The left of the Left continues to exist, as Mélenchon notes, but it is static, not expanding, and has receded from its previous high-water marks, whereas the FN seems to be attracting new constituencies.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

No "Inversion of the Unemployment Curve" in Sight

For a moment, it looked as though the "inversion of the unemployment curve" promised by François Hollande at the beginning of his term might finally be arriving. But no more. Just in time for the second round of the municipals, the bad news has arrived. There has been a strong surge of newly unemployed workers, and long-term unemployment is also up. Many have dropped out of the work force entirely.

Dans un communiqué, le ministère du travail et de l'emploi convient que la hausse est "marquée", mais ne l'explique pas vraiment. "Ces chiffres contrastent avec les derniers indicateurs disponibles tant sur le front de l’emploi et du chômage que sur celui de l’activité économique", plaide-t-il, en évoquant les indicateurs d'activité positifs publiés ces derniers jours par l'Insee. "L’activité économique présente des signes de reprise de plus en plus tangibles", estime-t-il, avant de promettre que "le pacte de responsabilité viendra amplifier la dynamique de création d’emploi".

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kapil: Losing the Immigrant Vote

A very interesting post by Arun Kapil explains the poor performance of the PS in neighborhoods with a high density of immigrants and issus de l'immigration.

"Une quenelle dans l'urne"

This is unbelievable: two racists, so extreme that they were excluded from the Front National, whose campaign poster features the slogan "Glissez une quenelle dans l'urne," got 11.49% of the vote in Vénissieux.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Another Word on Tax Exiles

I was critical the other day of a Times article on tax exiles fleeing France for the Anglo-Saxon fiscal paradise. Here's more on the subject from Le Monde:
Que les installations outre-Manche s'accélèrent ou non, une chose est certaine : la fiscalité n'y est pas pour grand-chose. Même M. Cadic le dit : « Il n'y a pas d'exil fiscal vers le Royaume-Uni. » La raison en est simple : la fiscalité britannique n'est guère plus intéressante que la française. L'impôt sur le revenu comprend trois barèmes à 20 %, 40 % et 45 %, qui sont proches de ce qui se pratique dans l'Hexagone. Pour les familles avec enfants, la France est même plus intéressante, dans la mesure où le quotient familial n'existe pas outre-Manche. Bref, pour échapper au fisc, mieux vaut partir à Monaco ou dans un canton suisse.
Cela ne veut pas dire que la fiscalité n'y est pour rien du tout. Les oligarques russes en savent quelque chose : pour les très grandes fortunes, il existe un statut de « non domicilié », qui permet de ne pas payer d'impôt sur son argent hors du Royaume-Uni. Pour les entrepreneurs aussi, l'imposition est moins lourde, particulièrement au niveau des charges patronales. L'impôt sur la fortune n'existe pas non plus.

L'élection pour les nuls


Anti-Semitic Attack in the 19th

Reported here:
nouvelle agression antisémite particulièrement violente commise le 20 mars 2014 à 22h rue Arthur Honegger à Paris 19èmecontre un homme de confession juive identifié comme tel par ce qu’il portait la kippa et des franges à ses vêtements . Selon la victime Mr K. Richard enseignant domicilié dans le Nord sortait d’un restaurant cacher rue Manin, lorsqu’il a été suivi et insulté « Mort aux juifs, Sale juif ainsi que des expressions en langue arabe qu’il n’a pas comprises ». Mr K Richard relate dans sa plainte déposée à la police , que ses agresseurs au nombre de 3 l’ont collé contre un mur, lui ont porté des coups violents sur le visage à la hauteur des yeux du front et du nez ainsi que sur le torse . L’un des auteurs lui a arraché et ouvert la chemise, et à l’aide d’un marqueur a dessiné en noir une croix gammée sur sa poitrine à même la peau. ce n’est que quand il a crié au secours qu’une personne âgée s’approchant de lui a mis en fuite les individus qu’il décrit comme trois hommes âgés de 20 à 25 ans , mesurant 1m70 à 1m 80 portant des casquettes de couleur claire, vêtus d’un jean et d’origine nord-africaine. La victime, le visage tuméfié s’est rendue à l’hôpital où a elle reçut les premiers soins d’urgences. L’examen a révélé des lésions orbitaires, la déformation de la pyramide nasale, la fracture du nez.

Monday, March 24, 2014

What Happened to President Normal?

Remember when Hollande was first elected and he had his motorcade stop at traffic lights to show he was an ordinary, law-abiding citizen like M. Tout-le-Monde? When he traveled to a summit in Belgium by train? No more. Yesterday he took the presidential jet to Corrèze to vote in the local election. Peine perdue. The gesture didn't do much to buoy the party around the Hexagon. But rank has its privileges, I guess.

Krugman: French Labor Costs Are Not the Problem

According to Paul Krugman, the rate of increase of French unit labor costs has been about right; the problem is that Germany's is too low.

What Should the ECB Do?

Jeff Frankel has an interesting proposal: the ECB should go in for quantitative easing without skirting the EU constitutional treaty by buying US Treasury bonds rather than the sovereign debt of member states. The idea is that this would bring down the foreign exchange value of the euro.
The strength of the euro has held up remarkably during the four years of crisis. Indeed the currency appreciated further when the ECB declined to undertake any monetary stimulus at its March 6 meeting. The euro could afford to weaken substantially. Even Germans might warm up to easy money if it meant more exports rather than less.
Central banks should and do choose their monetary policies primarily to serve the interests of their own economies. The interests of those who live in other parts of the world come second. But proposals to coordinate policies internationally for mutual benefit are reasonable. Raghuram Rajan, head of the Reserve Bank of India, has recently called for the central banks in industrialized countries to take the interests of emerging markets into account by coordinating internationally.

How would ECB foreign exchange intervention fare by the lights of G20 cooperation? Very well. This year the emerging markets are worried about tightening of global monetary policy. The fears are no longer monetaryloosening as in the “Currency Wars” talk of three years ago. As the Fed tapers back on its purchases of US treasury securities, it is a perfect time for the ECB to step in and buy some itself.
It's an interesting idea.


As I survey the wreckage this morning, I wonder what comes next. Even if President Hollande tells himself that he is playing a long game, that the famous "curve of unemployment" has at last begun to creep upward, and that a feeble recovery is underway in Europe, he has to recognize that he has lost his wager with the French people. Nearly 40 percent abstained from voting, and abstention was particularly high in the working class and among the young. The PS may hold on to Paris by the skin of its teeth, and it will hold other important cities like Lille and Lyon, but its serene reign at the local and regional level is over. Just two years after the Right was driven from office, and despite numerous affairs and scandals that stain every aspect of its past and present, it can still claim to have mobilized more voters and greater enthusiasm than the now thoroughly discredited Left. As for the Front National, the evidence is clear: it is henceforth firmly implanted across France. It racked up truly impressive scores in a number of medium-sized cities. While it remains an anti-immigrant party, it is now more than ever an anti-Establishment party first and foremost, and the Establishment has been shaken to its foundations.

So Hollande faces a challenge. The "normal" presidency has failed. The attempt to "lead from behind" or from the shadows has failed. The continuation of politics by the means of soft and stealthy compromise that served Hollande only too well as leader of the PS has failed to produce a consensus at the national level. So, as Le Monde says in today's editorial, Hollande must change. Since he is not a stupid or unperceptive man, he no doubt recognizes the need. But is he capable of meeting it? And what can he do that will not reek of desperation?

A ministerial shakeup is no doubt in the offing, but if it is the usual reshuffle of the same old faces, it will accomplish nothing. Yet ouverture is unlikely to yield anything either: who from the Right would want to sign on to this sinking ship? To be sure, he might reach out beyond the political sphere to what is nowadays called "civil society." He could replace the hapless Ayrault with, say, a respected business leader like Louis Gallois. That would get the attention of the chattering classes, but it would further alienate the left-wing electorate, and the Right would deride the move as an act of desperation. He could make Valls prime minister, but Valls, although popular, is rather volatile, and it remains to be seen how he would perform under pressure. And what would he do? It's one thing to be a law-and-order interior minister, another thing to assume responsibility for a stalled economy, an area in which Valls has no demonstrated competence. Well, no use speculating: we'll see soon enough. But given Hollande's track record, the response is likely to fall short of expectations.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Paris Vaut Bien Une Messe

It's close in Paris, 35 and change for NKM, 34 and some for Hidalgo. The smart money says Hidalgo is in because the right is in mauvaise posture in two key arrondissements, the 12th and 14th (the mayor is elected by the council, not directly by the voters). We'll see. Still, it's hardly a glorious night for the Left even in Paris, where it has been doing well in recent years and where the EELV outpolled the FN in the first round (a good sign for the Socialists). But clearly the overriding theme in this election is that disappointment with Hollande has trumped everything else. The left is demobilized and morose.

Juppé in 2017?

We haven't heard much from Alain Juppé recently, but he was just re-elected mayor of Bordeaux in the first round. He remains untouched by the (recent) scandals of the UMP, and his past scandals have been forgotten. He might seem an obvious candidate for 2017, but his support among the UMP rank and file is weak. That could change, however, if things look worse for Sarkozy and Copé. He's undoubtedly one of the party's more competent leaders.

Extreme Right on the March in the Municipals

A strong showing by the Front National was not unexpected, but the results in certain cities are fairly dismaying:
Dans ces territoires où il est implanté, les électeurs se sont mobilisés : la participation était partout supérieure à la moyenne nationale : 63 % à Hénin-Beaumont (Pas-de-Calais), 64 % à Béziers (Hérault), 68,4 % à Fréjus (Var). L'objectif affiché de Marine Le Pen de faire élire au moins 1000 conseillers municipaux sera donc largement rempli.
The PS, as expected, has received a strong rebuke. The UMP, at first blush, seems to have done a little better than expected. The recent spate of affairs has not discredited the party of the right as much as deep disillusionment with Hollande's leadership has discredited the party of the left.

Entrepreneurs, Again

The Times refers to a theme that is becoming as tired as the baguette and the béret whenever France comes up: the supposed exodus of youth, of entrepreneurs in search of the deregulated paradise in which anyone with an idea becomes rich as Croesus in a trice.

Undoubtedly there is something behind all this verbiage, but what, exactly? The article is not wholly devoid of statistics:
... 1.6 million of France’s 63 million citizens live outside the country. That is not a huge share, but it is up 60 percent from 2000 ...
But what exactly do these numbers tell us? Other advanced economies also have many emissaries abroad. How many of these are actually young entrepreneurs seeking refuge from an oppressive welfare state, and how many are rather cadres of large French firms thriving in the regulated French economy and doing business abroad. After all, Axa is the world's largest insurance company; French banking sends many employees overseas; Airbus employs thousands of people throughout the world; etc. etc.

Yet the standard trope in these "French bashing lite" stories is, France is losing the cream of its jeunesse to the irresistible belle dame sans merci of the "Anglo-Saxon free market economies." Yet we are also told that "80 to 90 percent of all startups fail," and young M. Santacruz, around whom this article is built, seems destined for imminent failure himself, despite his dreams of emulating his successful friend with the mansion in the Luberon.

If France has real problems with fostering entrepreneurial culture, which I do not doubt, a more serious analysis is needed to pinpoint their nature. Otherwise, one might stack endless anecdotes about the likes of M. Santacruz against endless anecdotes about domestic entrepreneurial successes like M. Néel's (of Free--on which no small amount of journalistic ink has also been spilled). We still won't learn much about the strengths and weaknesses of the French political economy or its rivals.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Times on the Paris Mayoral Race

Interesting to see the Paris mayoral race getting such extensive coverage in The New York Times. I hadn't seen this exchange before. It suggests that NKM's staff is more than bit politically tone-deaf:
Early in the campaign, a member of Ms. Kosciusko-Morizet’s team was quoted as saying the race was between “a star and a concierge.”

Ms. Hidalgo retorted, “Being mayor of Paris is to love the concierges and the stars, because I know that the concierges are the stars of our daily life.”

Le Monde Shreds Sarkozy's Arguments

Le Monde pulls no punches in its devastating riposte to Sarkozy's blast. I score this one as a knockout for the newspaper.

To cite just one example:

Ce qu’il a écrit :
« Voici que j'apprends par la presse que tous mes téléphones sont écoutés depuis maintenant huit mois. Les policiers n'ignorent donc rien de mes conversations intimes avec ma femme, mes enfants, mes proches. Les juges entendent les discussions que j'ai avec les responsables politiques français et étrangers. Les conversations avec mon avocat ont été enregistrées sans la moindre gêne. L'ensemble fait l'objet de retranscriptions écrites dont on imagine aisément qui en sont les destinataires ! »
M. Sarkozy est ici quelque peu outrancier : il a utilisé un téléphone sous un faux nom depuis 2012, et son entourage a confirmé qu’il l’a fait car il se savait écouté sur son téléphone officiel. Difficile donc de croire qu’il n’était pas au courant, sinon du fait que sa seconde ligne, sous un faux nom, était elle aussi écoutée.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Taubira to Culture?

Discussions about a cabinet shakeup are under way, and rumor has it, apparently, that moving justice minister Christiane Taubira to culture has been contemplated. But unnamed "movie people" are against the move:

Ceux qui ont la chance d'avoir un lien direct avec François Hollande ont alerté directement le président de la République pour tenter d'éviter cette nomination, faisant notamment valoir les succès de l'actuelle ministre, notamment sur les dossiers explosifs de la convention collective ou le combat de l'exception culturelle.
Now, that's a very interesting "blind quote," as journalists say. "Those who are lucky enough to have a direct link" with the president: who might they be? Of course ceux in French is a masculine plural, but might the reference not be to celles or even celle lucky enough to have the most "direct" of links to François Hollande: namely, Julie Gayet. Just speculating, of course.

Sarkozy Speaks

Nicolas Sarkozy has now counterattacked in l'affaire des écoutes. He compares France under Hollande, Taubira, and Valls to East Germany under Honecker and the Stasi or to a Third World dictatorship in which the dictator places his political rivals under surveillance. He complains that "world leaders" who might otherwise solicit his advice about this or that will now hesitate because they know his phones are tapped. He says nothing substantive about the various allegations of corruption, subornation of malfeasance, etc., that led to his being placed under surveillance, except that if his lawyer did contact the "respected jurist" who is believed to have leaked investigative documents without authorization, it was only to "seek advice" about how to defend his client from "a friend of thirty years' standing." Nor does he say that there was anything irregular about the procedures under which the taps were approved.

What to say about all this? I don't think allegations of corruption should be tried in the press or the blogosphere. I don't know if M. Sarkozy is guilty of the alleged crimes. I don't know if there were political motives behind any of the numerous investigations in which he is involved. I don't think the government has handled its public relations in this affair very well at all, but that is hardly the same thing as accusing it of breaking the law. And having said that, I will await further developments. There will be no shortage of loud and ill-informed voices speaking out on these matters, and I'd prefer not to be one of them.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Eurozone Recovery?

A few encouraging signs:

Laurent Bouvet on "Normality" in Politics

Laurent Bouvet has an interesting essay on the "normalization" of the French presidency, which, as he rightly notes, began not with le président normal but with his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. The normal president is a tactician rather than a strategist; he accepts the conditions imposed by the ambient "system" rather than presuming to change them; he "manages" but does not found, establish, or create. And for this he pays a price when the system proves to be dysfunctional. He then becomes, along with the system itself (tous pourris), an easy target for populists.

Elle se laisse en effet deviner comme une sorte de vide entre, d’un côté, le règne de la gestion technique des affaires économiques et, de l’autre, les injonctions incessantes de la morale qui pèse sur l’activité publique. C’est dans les mâchoires de cet étau infernal que se sont placés les politiques contemporains à force de vouloir être, à tout prix, « normaux ».

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The FN Is Running a Dead Woman

The Front National, as is well-known, doesn't think much of most politicians. Perhaps putting up a deceased candidate was meant as yet another gesture of contempt for "the system." The list leader claims he didn't know his running-mate Marie-Louise J. had died, because he was out of the country. It's possible. To be sure, she was 95 when she was chosen, but the elderly vote disproportionately for the FN, so maybe this was a strategic choice.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


The late polls confirm the general scuttlebutt: voters are seriously unhappy with the PS, but that doesn't mean that they're flocking to the UMP, and the only question is just how much of the pox-on-both-your-houses protest vote the FN will pick up.

Où en est, justement, le parti de Marine Le Pen ? « En février, on a observé un tassement des intentions de vote en faveur du FN, qui semblait profiter à l'UMP. Mais dans nos derniers sondages, cela ne se confirme pas », prévient M. Dabi. « L'électorat FN est le plus sensible aux questions nationales. La succession des affaires, en ce moment, peut être de nature à consolider ce vote », estime M. Teinturier.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What a Mess

Just when it seemed as though  the Socialists had caught a break, they managed to turn it into another disaster. The judges had been eavesdropping on Sarkozy and his lawyer in regard to a case of influence peddling. How could that possibly damage the Socialists? Well, for starters, the minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, lied about having been informed about the wiretaps by the police--as she had required them to do under general rules she herself laid down at the beginning of her term. There was no reason for this lie. It was perfectly proper for her to be informed of the existence of the taps, which had been initiated by independent judges. She was not, as far as we know, informed of the content. So the right course was to say she knew. But she didn't. Now the whole case is so muddied and tainted that Sarkozy will probably get off yet again, assuming he did what  he's alleged to have done.

What a mess. And who is most likely to benefit from this imbroglio? The Front National, of course.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Hollande's New Speechwriter is Rap Critic

François Hollande has a new speechwriter, Pierre-Yves Bocquet, who, under the pen name Pierre Evil, is also a rap critic:

You can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Krugman Compares France and US

Paul Krugman offers a critique of an IMF paper on the effects of redistribution on growth. He argues that French underperformance relative to the US is a consequence not of more generous redistribution policies but rather of a shorter working life owing largely to policies encouraging early retirement.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sarkozy Wiretapped

Can things get any worse for the UMP and ex-Pres. Sarkozy? It seems that Sarkozy is now suspected of influence-trafficking in connection with the Bettencourt scandal. He is accused of promising a sinecure in Monaco to a judge who was passing him information about the case. The investigators tapped his telephone conversations (using burners, just like on TV!) with his attorney Thierry Herzog:
Me Herzog s'en ouvre au téléphone auprès de M. Sarkozy. Et lui confie au passage que M. Azibert serait ravi de bénéficier d'un coup de pouce professionnel. En effet, proche de la retraite, celui-ci postule pour un poste de conseiller d'Etat à Monaco. Il aimerait bien, aurait-il glissé à l'avocat, que l'ex-chef de l'Etat, doté d'un fort pouvoir d'influence, intervienne en sa faveur.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Buisson Affair Continues

We still don't know who leaked the Patrick Buisson recordings, but we do know that, according to Le Monde, Buisson appears to be an even more unsavory character than he seemed when all we knew about was his frequentation of the extreme right. His habit of covert recordings is said to date from way back. He has quarreled with many people, including his own son, who no longer speaks to him, with whom he engaged in fisticuffs at TF1, and whom he used as an allegedly unwitting front for two corporations apparently involved in extracting money from the government for polling at inflated prices. And yet Nicolas Sarkozy chose this man as a trusted advisor. This lapse of judgment may slow the momentum of the Sarkocomeback, which had been gathering speed in recent weeks as the current UMP leadership was engulfed by still other scandals.

EC: Cutting Wages Will Not Restore French Competitiveness

A 2012 report from the European Commission suggests that efforts to cut effective wages, including the Responsibility Pact signed yesterday by the MEDEF and 3 trade unions, will not help French export performance as much as some hope:
This finding is summarized in the following graph taken from the 2012 imbalances report on France. It shows that price competitiveness only played a very small, almost to be ignored, role in explaining export performance of manufactured goods over the entire 1999 – 2009 period. Instead, export dynamics are to be explained by growth in export markets and non-price competitiveness. The latter is estimated as a residual and refers to the quality of the goods being produced, their level of sophistication and complexity, the efforts in terms of research and development and the ability of firms to engage in exports. As can be seen from the graph, non-price competitiveness has contributed positively to export dynamics of Germany while dragging export growth of France down.
However, this finding is completely at odds with the policy of internal wage devaluation that is actively being promoted by the Commission across major parts of Europe, stating that to improve competitiveness, wages and wage formation systems need to become extremely flexible.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

European Deflation?

From the IMF:
You can have too much of a good thing, including low inflation. Very low inflation may benefit important segments of the population, notably net savers. But in the current context of widespread indebtedness problems, it is working to the detriment of recovery in the euro area, especially in the more fragile countries, where it is thwarting efforts to reduce debt, regain competitiveness and tackle unemployment. The ECB must be sure that policies are equal to the tasks of reversing the downward drift in inflation and forestalling the risk of a slide into deflation. It should thus consider further cuts in the policy rate and, more importantly, look for ways to substantially increase its balance sheet, be it through targeted LTROs or quantitative easing (public and private asset purchases).

Who's Leaking the Buisson Recordings and Why?

So, another scandal strikes the UMP. After the accusations against Copé, who allegedly sent inflated invoices to a consulting firm run by cronies of his, now we have recordings of private meetings made by ex-Sarkozy advisor Patrick Buisson--the man who directed the UMP's veer to the extreme right--leaked to the press. Who did it, and why? If Buisson himself leaked the tapes, what was he trying to accomplish? To embarrass Sarkozy? Nothing terribly embarrassing has leaked out yet, other than the existence of the tapes themselves. But perhaps these first leaks are a warning shot across Sarkozy's bow. Stay out of politics--or else. Whose interests would that serve? The suspects are legion.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The News From France: Corruption and Sperm

My mind has been wandering from French politics lately. Hollande's "normal" presidency is just not much fun. Ukraine is so much more diverting. And on a day when the headlines from France give me a choice between writing about "corruption in the UMP" or "quality of French sperm declining," I suppose duty requires me to write about the former.

The Copé scandal has been raging now for almost a week, and I haven't said a word about it. Why not? Because it's so banal. The gist of the allegation is that Copé overbilled a campaign consulting firm run by a couple of his cronies (and former staffers), with the excess presumably being kicked back to a hidden war chest to finance Copé's expected bid for the presidency in 2017. Are the charges true? Shall we say simply that similar schemes have not been unheard of in French politics past?

Meanwhile, Copé says he'll make a clean breast of everything and publish the full party accounts, ignoring the fact that party accounts are already published. Overbilling wouldn't show up in the accounts, of course, since these would simply reveal that an artificially inflated invoice had been paid in full. The real question isn't whether Copé cheated but who's out to get him--and there, as in an Agatha Christie novel, there are any number of suspects.

The immediate wielder of the long knife is Franz-Olivier Giesbert, the editor of Le Point, who seems to have made a personal vendetta out of toppling Copé. Why? I could swear that Giesbert's last book announced that he was getting out of the political reportage game, but I guess he's postponed his retirement. Giesbert is the Gallic Bob Woodward: he's on the inside with everybody who's anybody. But he writes with a good deal more style and flair than Woodward can even imagine. In the book I mention he had sharpened his knife for Sarkozy in particular, yet one felt that he retained a certain affection for Napoléon le Petit bis (as I do) because he was so much fun to write about. Deposing Copé would clear the way for Sarko to return as head of the UMP, which would be a natural way to slip back into harness and gear up for a presidential run in 2017, and Sarko's intimates say this is a decision he's already made. So it would not altogether floor me to hear that Giesbert is doing Sarko this little service, based on a tip from Sarko himself (and who would know more about how UMP campaigns are financed than the former party leader). In exchange, Giesbert gets all the insider dope he needs to write a book on Sarko's comeback.

Of course there are other answers to the Cui bono? question in regard to a potential Copé downfall. François Fillon, Copé's archenemy in last year's guerre des chefs, is a possible suspect, but somehow I don't think the dour Fillon and the flamboyant Giesbert have many atomes crochus. There are the party's young Turks, the next generation of présidentiables and wannabe présidentiables: NKM, Lemaire, Wauquiez, Baroin, Bertrand, etc. I don't quite see it. Anyway, I prefer the Giesbert-Sarkozy axis theory: a larger-than-life journalist hooks up with a larger-than-life pol to eliminate a pesky interloper whom neither man likes.

Of course Giesbert might have come by his information by another route. Nothing says he had to have been tipped off by an insider or that the insider had to be Sarkozy (whose campaign was in effect robbed by Copé and his buddies if the allegations are true). And everything I've written above may be a fantasy. But as I said at the outset, French politics have been so boring lately that I have to amuse myself somehow. It's either a conspiracy theory or declining sperm quality due to insecticides, and I decided to go with conspiracy.