Friday, October 31, 2014

Scary Clowns Terrorizing France

No, this is not a story about the French government. My son Zach, who now writes for The Atlantic, stumbled onto this story about the spate of terror-clowns currently plaguing the French countryside. It's the latest French bizarrerie.

The Emerging Split in the Extreme Right

The deep cleavages in the mainstream parties have never been more apparent. Less obvious, however, is the emerging split in the extreme right. Alain Soral, together with his partner Dieudonné, wants to forge an alliance between right anarchists, his traditional stock-in-trade, and the young and angry shock troops of les banlieues. To do this, he is banking on "the new antisemitism" exemplified by Dieudonné, an antisemitism obsessed with the destruction of Israel (and therefore calling itself anti-Zionism) and eager to identify with radical Islamism and, lately, with the so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS).

The Front National, on the other hand, has been trying to divest itself of Le Pen père's legacy of antisemitism, which Le Pen fille views as the principal impediment to the mainstreaming of her party and the last remaining obstacle on the road to actually taking power at the national level. Her foreign policy advisor Aymeric Chauprade has therefore written in support of the American bombing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, thus putting himself in Soral's sights. Soral, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned "Goy," has therefore attacked Chauprade as a "Zionist agent" and is agitating for his removal from his FN post.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes

The institutions of the European Union work in wondrous ways. Last week the voice of doom thundered out of Brussels: "France, thou shalt explain why thou hast sinned against the Stability and Growth Pact." At first Michel Sapin denied that God had spoken, but then the First Vicar and President of the Republic admitted that He had, but that "it was nothing," just a friendly communication between sommités. This morning France announced that a miracle had indeed taken place over the weekend, and as a result of lower interest rates and some other hocus-pocus France's "structural deficit" had indeed fallen more than previously noted. And now, just a few hours later, word has it that the Lord on high has been mollified. France will not be sanctioned after all. Just as everyone predicted would happen after the divine throat clearing. And so we limp on for another year.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Perils of Victory

How much easier it was for the Socialists to be in opposition than to govern. The contradictions that have always riven the party were relatively muted--at least in the sense that un panier de crabes is mute. Now les éléphants, trumpeting loudly, are trampling one another to death. Or are they piranhas taking bites out of one another? Animal metaphors are endless, and poor J.-C. Cambadélis can no longer ignore the blood in the water: moments ago he issued a "solemn call" for "unity."

Yesterday, Hollande bestowed a medal on his prime minister, which gave him the opportunity to remark that the Republic always needs an homme de synthèse. He could not help snickering at his bon mot, since clearly he sees himself slipping once again into the comfortable middle-of-the-road, not too hot, not too cold, not too left, not too right role he played as party leader. It's his comfort zone.

Unfortunately he is now president of the Republic, and people expect him to lead rather than triangulate--or snicker at his own jokes. Aubry's weekend blast seems to have loosened other tongues. Benoît Hamon announced that the rightward turn of the party under Valls was a "threat to the Republic" that promised "an impending democratic catastrophe," a rather elaborate way of warning that the Front National is going to win more votes in 2017 than the PS. Everyone now takes this as a given. Who would have thought that victory in 2012 would lead to this Bérézina? Like Napoleon in Russia, the PS is discovering that apparent victory is sometimes a prelude to abject misery.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Europe Has No Foreign Policy, but Total Does

Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of the oil company Total, was killed yesterday when his airplane struck a snowplow on a Moscow runway, The accident throws an interesting light on Western threats to impose sanctions on Russia. Le Monde reveals that Margerie was in Moscow to discuss Total's investments. The firm's "ambition is to make Russia its primary zone of hydrocarbon production by 2020. Total is counting on Russia in order to compensate for decreased output in the North Sea."

The EU may not have a foreign policy, but Total does.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Après-Hollande Has Begun

The presidency of the Fifth Republic was conceived by its founder, Charles de Gaulle, on the model of the Jansenist Dieu caché, whose center is supposed to be everywhere and circumference nowhere (Pascal). François Hollande promised a different sort of presidency: he aspired, he said, to be un président normal. Undoubtedly he meant to contrast his ideal of the presidency with that of Nicolas Sarkozy (who had no center but whose circumference was ubiquitous) rather than that of de Gaulle. If so, he mistook his own intention, because Sarkozy, too, sought to be un président normal in the sense of a partisan political leader rather than an aloof arbiter standing above the partisan fray and governing sub specie aeternitatis.

Fate has not been kind to the normal presidency, however. Hollande's motorcades soon ceased to stop at traffic lights, for security reasons. He began to fly the presidential jet rather than take trains. He was photographed on the back of a motorscooter on his way to a tryst with an actress. His budget minister and trade minister resigned in the wake of scandal. The "normality" of Hollande's presidency came to mean simply this: that he was no more exemplary, modest, or disciplined than his predecessor. Alas.

And then he vanished. The nomination of Manuel Valls as prime minister placed a more dynamic and compelling figure at center stage. The subsequent appointment of Emmanuel Macron gave a new face to the "social-liberal/neoliberal turn" that Hollande had previously tried to sell under the "social-democratic" banner. This weekend, Hollande's old nemesis Martine Aubry emerged from obscurity to mount an all-out attack on the direction of Hollande's presidency, only to have the riposte come from Valls, as if the president himself were no longer a figure of sufficient consequence to parry the blow.

Hollande has the worst of both worlds. He bears full responsibility for the neoliberal turn of French socialism. Even though the prime minister has fully embraced the policy, he offers the president no protection. The prime minister as bouclier or lightning-rod--the Gaullist model of politics--is a model unsuited to the age of TV and Internet, in which the president becomes the embodied form of policy, the incarnation. Yet there is something oddly ectoplasmic about Hollande, which renders him unfit for the role of incarnation.

Nor can he retreat into the traditional chasse gardée of the presidency, foreign policy. Where he has intervened successfully--Mali, Central Africa--his successes are diminished by the global insignificance of the crises that led to his involvement. By contrast, where the action rises to global significance--Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine--his role is overshadowed by the American presence (or, in Ukraine, the German presence).

So the post-Hollande era has begun. Montebourg's candidacy is all but underway. Aubry has not broken her silence for nothing. Macron, already a media darling on the strength of all of three weeks of gaffe-marred ministerial experience, is openly being touted as a future prime minister under President Valls (an unlikely prospect, to be sure, but journalists must write about something). Ségolène Royal is giving away free weekend rides on the autoroutes in the hope of kindling a little presidential heat ("Why not make pastries free on Sundays?" quipped the UMP's Christian Jacob, who needs to resurrect himself now that his former savior Jean-François Copé has self-immolated).

One can almost feel sorry for François Hollande, left alone in his palace without companion or mistress, ignored by his countrymen, neglected by his peers, spurned by the press, upstaged by Merkel and Renzi, too colorless to attract even cartoonists and caricaturists, a man whose flaws are too trivial to rise to the level of the tragic, pitiable in his normality.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Second French Nobel

The French economist Jean Tirole has won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on regulating firms with market power. This follows Patrick Modiano's Nobel for literature. Even a non-chauvinist can say it's been a good week for France.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Il n'y a que le ridicule qui tue ...

France has enough trouble without this: a UMP deputy (male) has been sanctioned by Sandrine Mazetier (PS) for addressing her as "Madame le Président" rather than, as she prefers (but the Académie Française does not) Madame la Présidente:

«C'est Madame la présidente, ou il y a un rappel à l'ordre avec inscription au procès verbal», l'a averti la députée de Paris. Julien Aubert a persisté, affirmant qu'il ne faisait que suivre «l’Académie française» en disant «Madame le président», la féminisation se référant à la femme du président. Et a écopé d'un rappel à l'ordre.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Renzi Dares to Say What Hollande Won't

From the FT:

“I prefer to have a France with 4.4 per cent [debt-to-GDP ratio] today than a France with Marine Le Pen tomorrow. This is very important for Europe,” he added, referring to the leader of the far-right National Front.
“We must give a message of comprehension for countries with problems,” Mr Renzi said.

Gender Madness

A decade or so ago, when I translated L'Histoire des femmes, the French weren't sure they had a word for "gender" in their language. Genre now fills the role well enough that Le Monde can refer to "les 'antigenre"'in a headline without risk of being misunderstood. Among "les antigenre" we find such groups as "Vigi-Gender" and the Fédération des Parents Engagés et Courageux. Courageux enough to invent an imaginary enemy of homosexuals and feminists allegedly bent on "destroying the family" and "effacing traditional gender roles." A sinister feature of this movement is the way it has brought together elements of the extreme right with representatives of the immigrant community (consider the strange alliance between Alain Soral and Farida Belghoul, for example). The movement seems to be gaining steam, drawing on hidden networks flourishing on social media, and is now ready, it seems, to move into the schoolhouse and demand direct action.

Du rififi chez les Chirac

Monsieur favors Juppé, Madame is for Sarkozy. Daughter Claude is engaged in shuttle diplomacy. What a touching spectacle of family discord. One can imagine the scene. After all, cher Alain, le meilleur d'entre nous, took a bullet for his boss back in the day and suffered a criminal conviction, ineligibility for several years, and exile in snowy Canada for his trouble. Bad boy Sarko may have called papa un roi fainéant, but before that he nearly became the son-in-law and no doubt flattered the often-deceived Bernadette as bad boys are known to do with susceptible mothers when suspicious prospective fathers-in-law are overly protective of their precious offspring.

Will any of it matter in the end? Probably not. Let's not forget that Chirac all but endorsed Hollande in 2012, while Bernadette was even then with Sarkozy. I don't think they swayed many votes. But everyone likes a soap opera--so much more diverting than the problems of the euro or the competitiveness of French industry.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sarkozy vs. Juppé

Among my French friends, the working assumption today is that the Left has no chance of winning the presidency in 2017, hence the important battle is for the nomination of the UMP, since my friends also assume that Marine Le Pen will make it to the second round but cannot win the presidency. For the sake of argument, let's grant these two assumptions (though both are open to challenge). What will happen on the Right?

It seems clear that Sarkozy will win the presidency of the UMP, despite a strong challenge from Bruno Le Maire. Sarkozy's support among the rank-and-file of Sarkonostalgics is simply too strong to overcome. His support among voters at large, however, is much weaker than among UMP militants, so the next obstacle becomes the organization of the UMP primary, to which Sarkozy has now committed himself (after some initial hesitation). Who will be allowed to vote? The party, emulating the Socialist success with an open primary, committed itself to follow suit, but the devil is in the details, and a Sarko in charge of the party apparatus will surely attempt to tailor the rules in his favor.

Sarkozy's second trump card is Juppé's age, of which he has already begun to make an issue. There is also Juppé's conviction for corruption, but as Juppé himself points out, Sarkozy is hardly in a position to claim clean hands in the matter of campaign financing. Juppé's fondest hope, in fact, is that the courts will deal Sarko a KO. Things are moving rather rapidly in the Bygmalion case, but none of the many affairs in which Sarkozy is involved is likely to reach a conclusion before he is elected party leader. So there is a tricky passage ahead.

Then there is the question of platforms. How exactly will Juppé differentiate himself from the "recentered" Sarkozy? Patrick Buisson, the man responsible for Sarko's droitisation in 2012, threatens to reveal any number of dark secrets from his devil's kitchen:

Il a cru me tuer. Il va voir que je ne suis pas mort. Ah, il va voir ce qu’il va voir !
Indeed, Buisson goes so far as to predict that Sarkozy will be obliged to stand aside as candidate:
Il ne pourra pas se présenter devant les Français en 2017, il ne pourra pas même se présenter à la primaire. Il fait système avec François Hollande.
 Today we learn that Chirac has endorsed Juppé (no surprise there). Will this carry any weight with UMP militants or simply remind them, as Sarkozy observes, that Juppé was prime minister 20 years ago and not exactly a harbinger of a more radiant tomorrow?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The "Illiterate" Working Class

In his first interview, Emmanuel Macron tripped over his silver tongue d'énarque. Evoking the difficulties of workers at the troubled Gad meatpacking plant in Brittany, he noted that the advice that employees likely to lose their jobs seek work elsewhere was impractical because in order to travel to nearby factory towns, they would need driver's licenses, which are costly to obtain in France (as much as €1500), and in any case, many of these workers are women and "illiterate" (or more precisely "unlettered"--illettrées as opposed to analphabètes). Macron no doubt thought he was commiserating with the plight of these malheureuses rather than insulting them, but even if their knowledge of Racine and Grevisse is deficient, they're sufficiently literate to decipher the colloquy between the indéboulonnable J.-P. Elkabbach and the Boy Wonder of Bercy and to recognize that the word illettrées expressed, if not contempt for their status, at best a condescension unbecoming in a minister of the Republic. Macron quickly made amende honorable before the chamber of the Assembly, but the damage was done.

Yet the new minister, however insensitive, was not entirely wrong, it seems, about the literary capacities of the Gad work force:
Selon le député du Finistère Gwenegan Bui, la proportion de salariés dans cette situation dans l’usine Gad de Lampaul-Guimiliau serait d’environ 20 % (contre 7 % en moyenne en France), rapporte leMonde. Cela crée des problèmes de reclassement. Emmanuel Marcon décrit une réalité qui existe.
Je défie quiconque aujourd’hui de dire précisément ce qu’est un illettré. Un analphabète n’a pas appris à écrire et à lire : là au moins la situation est nette. Certains dits-illettrés savent rédiger des lettres mais font des fautes. C’est ce qui fera qu’on les qualifiera d’illettrés. Cette catégorie n’est pas très sérieusement définie. On présuppose par ailleurs qu’il y a un lien direct, de cause à effet, entre le fait de ne pas avoir les bonnes qualifications et la perte d’emploi ou la difficulté à en trouver. On occupe la jeunesse au chômage depuis très longtemps par la formation, c’est une solution d’attente, qui peut parfois être utile. Quand dans les années 70, le chômage s’est installé de manière structurelle, les pouvoirs publics ont répondu au problème par le retour à la formation. C’est à cette époque qu’a émergé la notion d’illettrisme. On a inversé la causalité. Le moment où l’on a commencé à observer des gens qui avaient des problèmes à l’écrit – une cause d’échec scolaire – correspond au moment d’apparition du chômage. Les mines et les usines sidérurgiques ferment. Les formateurs disent des chômeurs qu’on leur envoie : ‘ils ont du mal à lire et à écrire’. Le chômage a été une condition de mise en évidence de l’illettrisme, mais on a fini par en faire une des causes du chômage. Il y a de nombreux emplois pour lesquels être fort en orthographe n’est pas très important. Les “illettrés” avec un emploi sont des citoyens comme les autres, qui payent leurs impôts. Mais au moment où ils perdent leur emploi, on commence à rendre leur illettrisme responsable de leur situation. Et certains discours ont laissé entendre que les dits “illettrés” ne seraient pas des citoyens comme les autres.

This incident is thus revealing. The new technocrat on the block is clearly well informed, but his knowledge of the Gad dossier, which he was so eager to show off to the veteran interviewer, who had not asked him about it, betrayed the sensibility that has done so much harm to the Socialist Party. The minister knows his numbers but not his people. He has been too long in Paris and sees the remote provinces only through the wrong end of the statistical telescope. He knows the problem, he may even have ideas about how to solve it, but he can't explain it to the "illiterates" he wants to help. The Good Samaritan is hoist by his own petard.

Manifesto of ENS Socialist Section

This manifesto by the PS section at the Ecole Normale Supérieure makes some good points and some less good ones, but this diagnosis of the party's ills strikes me as accurate:
D’abord celle des années 80, quand, aux élites intello-militantes formées dans les années 60 –les Joxe, Rocard, Chevènement, Jospin–, succèdent les techno-élites à la Hollande-Sapin, fils de leur temps et de l’ENA. Eduquées dans l’ombre du pouvoir mitterrandien, qu’ont-elles retenu du vieux Sphinx, qu’elles singent à grand peine et sur la tombe duquel elles se prosternent encore régulièrement? La vanité de toute ambition politique face au réel qui, lui, ne ment pas; la patience de l’alternance; les accommodements avec le pire des institutions de la Ve République; la conviction que toute difficulté est soluble dans la technique administrative; la pratique du double langage et de la langue de bois; le goût des intrigues de palais et des combinaisons de congrès. Pour cette génération sans histoire ni ego, la politique, c’est durer.

Pour la génération des élites communicantes grandies sous le jospinisme triomphant, une bonne politique est avant tout une succession de coups médiatiques réussis.
La génération suivante, celle des élites communicantes grandies sous le jospinisme triomphant, considère elle qu’une bonne politique est avant tout une succession de coups médiatiques réussis. A ses yeux, le 21 avril 2002 est d’abord le résultat d’une communication défaillante. Peu soucieuse de s’affranchir de ses aînés, préférant le buzz et les plans com des spin doctors aux controverses idéologiques, elle s’est soumise avec délice aux exigences des nouveaux médias, réseaux sociaux et chaînes d’info en continu. Pour la génération des années 90, tout en surface, la politique, c’est raconter de jolies histoires.