Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Valls Find His Audience--at the MEDEF Summer School

I can't help but feel a certain admiration for Manuel Valls. Here he is at the MEDEF Summer School, receiving a standing ovation from the captains of French industry a day after purging his government of 3 recalcitrant soi-disant gauchistes. He is the opposite of François Hollande, at whose pleasure he serves. Instead of seeking a soft consensus, he divides to conquer. He has made his choice, and now he will run with it. And since, unlike Hollande, he recognizes that a government held up du bout des lèvres cannot stand, he has sought more tangible support where he knows he can find it: with the interests his policies will serve. His choice may not be socialist, but it's forthright and openly assumed.

On the other hand, Valls isn't really my kind of guy. I felt that last night ever so strongly as I watched him bat away David Pujadas's softball questions on the evening news. He is in a perpetual state of dyspepsia. He's a man in too much of a hurry to tarry with doubt, or even thought. He's all instinct, a Spanish toreador who knows that everyone has come to see how close he can get to the bull's horns without getting himself gored. To worry about the details of policy he's got people like Macron. His job is to embody the political world as will; the idea (pace Schopenhauer) is left to the énarque.

I've long thought the future of the Socialist Party was in the center, but Valls seems to have leaped over the center to plant his flag on one of the main bastions of the right. The alacrity with which Gattaz et cie. have embraced him is arresting. It's as if they've utterly lost confidence in their own camp since the Copé fiasco, and as if they've judged Sarkozy too heavily burdened with legal handicaps to run another race. It's an alliance that makes a certain kind of sense. Valls can deliver a lot in the short term, and if he flags in the longer race, the MEDEF can easily switch its bets. But for now he's their man, and they are his constituency, for want of any other, unless it's the vaguely progressive middle, the cadres and the jeunes loups and the bankers and the bobos, the electorate of the US Democratic Party without the minorities. That's nowhere near a majority, but in France, you don't need a majority to make it to Round 2 of the presidential election, you need 25-30 percent of the vote, and it's not out of the question that Valls could get that much even if he cedes the entire working class to Le Pen and peels off 5 percent or so of the UMP's social liberal wing. It could just work, with a little help from the gods (although Paul Krugman promises to tell us in tomorrow's column why the gods won't be smiling on France anytime soon). In any case, it's the only game left in town on the left side of the screen--if the distinction between "left" and "right" still means anything.

At least he's not Hollande, the sight of whom fills me with pity. And would we be here, I can't help asking myself, if DSK hadn't gone to the Sofitel that night? What's that you say about Cleopatra's nose?

Two more takes: Ron Tiersky and Arun Kapil.


bernard said...

I've never liked him, I must admit. I remember thinking a number of years ago after listening to him in an internal meeting that he sounded like some kind of audit engineer...His propensity for making transgression a personal trademark has since inflated seriously and reminds me of an adolescent urge to shock.

As for his possible political calculation, it won't work because French institutions do not reward centrist positions. The centre is quite simply a black hole in our institutional set-up which rewards block against block positioning. Ask Bayrou, he is probably aware by now that he never had a chance. Things could of course be different with a different mode of voting, single round or proportional, as many people are somewhat centrist, but that is not the way French electoral law works.

As for the "fond du débat", it is obvious that France has developed a huge competitiveness problem since 2000 approximately and therefore does need serious structural reform. It is equally obvious that France and, further, Europe need more stimulative policies as we are close to/on the verge of experiencing the third recession since 2009. In other words both Hollande and Krugman are correct.

DavidinParis said...

In reading these comments, and the postings of the last few weeks (months, ok, years...) I also find myself lamenting over the present fiasco "Hollande". Bernard is correct, the center is a black hole (in contrast to the crowded middle found in most countries) in France. Reforming the welfare state is political suicide and the much (too much) emphasis is put on 'packaging' versus substance by the electorate (always a capricious group). In a recent post, you state that you thought the situation could sink no lower, but then it does.
While apocalyptic thinking is generally for religious cults who assume that the 'end' will bring paradise, I sometimes wonder if France needs to sink this low, or lower still, to finally make it clear to both the right and the left that the course cannot continue and neither tacking to the right nor left will make things better. The solution is in the middle. Liberalizing the private sector but reinforcing the social net. Why make it so hard to fire someone if they are taken care of anyhow? It is not as if they lose their health insurance? Quite simply, France wants the here we are.

Guillaume Durocher said...

There is a kind of foreboding intensity to him.

He has a certain will, vigor, decisiveness which Hollande lacks, although I'm not sure Valls uses his qualities for good. Faible avec les forts, fort avec les faibles?

Mitch Guthman said...


The last few days have seen you posting some powerful stuff. Extremely well said.

By the way, the current headline on the France 24’s English language site is “French businesses ‘hoping for a new Thatcher’” under a giant picture of Valls. Obviously, whoever said that irony was dead wasn’t a student of French politics.

Mitch Guthman said...


Thanks for the updated perspectives. Arun’s analysis was very thoughtful and informative, as usual, although I think he is terribly mistaken to take it for granted that MLP is unelectable. Unless there is a dramatic change in course, the difficulties of the French economy will almost certainly deepen and perhaps even drift into a deflationary spiral. If that happens and the all of the other major parties continue to stand for nothing but austerity and liquidationism, then the FN will be the only party claiming to be willing to at least toss a life preserver to the middle class. I think that more French people will hold their noses and vote for self-preservation than Arun thinks.

By contrast, Ron Tiersky’s article was interesting but slightly detached from the reality of French politics that I have observing. I was struck by his almost worshipful regard for “centrists" even as he seems to tacitly acknowledge that “centrist policies” have already been implemented, with disastrous effect. Perhaps this is because Tiersky sees centrism less as a collection of sound policies than as a talisman.

But is “centrism” really the magic bullet that Tiersky seems to think it is? I say no. Surely, if there was a vast "silent majority" of Frenchmen yearning for centrism, Bayrou would be president today---instead of being the leader of an ever shrinking "centrist" party.

Similarly, I think Tiersky confuses being “pro-business” with policies that reward incumbents, even when those policies are a drag on the economy as a whole. What Valls really wants is to give his rich friends a bigger slice of a shrinking pie. What a revitalized left would offer is a new “socialism du possible” that would create a greater prosperity that would reward everyone, including businesses, with a generous portion of a bigger pie. That what I think would be “pro-business”

But then, I think Tiersky seems confused about other things, too. Manuel Valls is a “realist” only if that word is synonymous with “unprincipled opportunist”.


FrédéricLN said...

As a militant of the center, I agree with most of the comments above.

I read often in papers or individual comments that Valls will carry out a "centrist" agenda, but I consider that a complete misunderstanding. Valls, very much like Ayrault, Villepin or Raffarin, is carrying out a "no policy at all" agenda. Taken from a leftist perspective, "no leftist policy anymore" might be understood as a move towards the center; seen from the center, I understand that as sinking with all the left in the wetlands of powerlessness.

It's more that a feeling. I heard Valls II on TV insisting on two policy lines: be serious because "the world is dangerous, many young French go to the Jihad in Syria", and "reduce taxes".

But the main change in 2014 compared to 2011 was the tax increases, so the new policy would not bring much change compared to before Hollande (BTW, my one income taxes were multiplied by more than 3, and there is no error in computation; but my income did increase by something like 50%, I should compare on a same income basis, I haven't done it yet).

And regarding young people going to Syria, who will seriously imagine than our policies would be very different depending on the ruling party or Prime Minister?

The sad thing is, all these rulers are convinced that it's impossible to do much (all: imho and my humble knowledge of them, nearly all PS and most of UMP altogether — not most of the center, I hope…). They think that the best governments can accomplish, is faire semblant, make as if they decided something, in order to "restaurer la confiance" (restore confidence, meaning: keep people still in order to make some foreign money come to France, be it from Qatar or elsewhere). They know very well how important are the issues our economy and society meet; but they are absolutely sure that the first person who will try to achieve something on such issues, will be ejected from the political stage. So they keep on acting on their ever-diminishing stage.