Saturday, November 29, 2014

He's baaaaaack!

Nicolas Sarkozy is once again the head of the UMP. Le Monde and many other commentators would nevertheless like to see a victory here for Bruno Le Maire, who scored a respectable 29+ % on a turnout of 57% and kept Sarko below the 70% threshold that would have allowed him to claim a resounding plebiscite (he was elected head of the party 10 years with a majority of 85%). But still, this was a badly wounded Sarkozy, saddled with a dozen investigations, widely perceived to have botched his comeback campaign in a number of respects, yet he scored nearly 70% among the party faithful, despite polls showing that the electorate at large preferred Juppé as a 2017 presidential candidate. This was also a Sarkozy who is up to his eyeballs in the Bygmalion affair, where all signs are that his campaign looted the party coffers in its desperate bid not to lose the 2012 presidential election. And this was a Sarkozy who is probably going to rebrand the party with a new name and conceivably set the rules of the presidential primary to favor himself. He is, as I've often said, a gifted politician, so it's not surprising to find that he still has strong support, but he is also a politician who has proven that his gifts were not sufficient to ensure a successful presidency, so it's not easy to explain why his support remains as strong as it is. Since the UMP powers-that-be have decided not to release details about the voting, we will probably never have a full demographic-political analysis of the vote. But at least we are sure that the always-entertaining Sarkozy will make the next couple of years interesting. Unless the courts sideline him, of course.

How Le Maire plays his cards from here will also be interesting to watch. At first he said he would not participate in the leadership of a Sarko-headed UMP. Then he seemed to backtrack a bit. I wouldn't be surprised to see him emerge as a strong backer of Juppé's candidacy, perhaps with a prominent role in the campaign. The Le Maire-Wauquiez battle will be interesting to watch. Wauquiez surely resents the way Le Maire's bid for the UMP leadership pushed his rival forward as the next-generation candidate of the Right. He now needs Sarkozy's support to reposition himself, and Sarkozy could use Wauquiez's support in rebuilding the party.

I'm supposed to be writing an article on all this, so I'd better save something for later.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hell hath no fury ... which is a bad thing when your phone has been tapped

Gilbert Azibert, pauvre con ... He thought he could wangle a nice post in Monaco for his retirement by lending a helping hand to a former president of the Republic in trouble with the law. His wife warned him not "to get mixed up in any shady dealings with that Sarko fellow." But did he listen? No! So now not only the cops and "les petites jugettes" are after him, but he's got to listen to his wife telling him what a jerk he's been as well--and that line is tapped too, so we know just how much marital hot water he was in:
A cette époque, cela fait trois mois qu’il subit la pression. Depuis le 4 mars, jour où les perquisitions se sont succédé à ses domiciles, puis à son bureau. Désemparé, alors que les policiers viennent de quitter son bureau, il joint sa femme, sur son portable. Cette dernière le rembarre : « T’es au trentième dessous. Mais enfin… aussi… qu’est-ce que tu veux, t’es allé te magouiller avec Sarkozy et tout… T’aurais mieux fait de pas aller discuter avec ce Sarko, toi ! Je te l’avais dit à l’époque !!! Si tu t’en étais pas mêlé non plus hein… » Sursaut de Gilbert Azibert : « Oui mais attends. Je pense que je suis sur écoute téléphonique, hein… »
One almost feels sorry for the fellow.

Friday, November 21, 2014

France's New Regions

The new "aménagement du territoire" won't accomplish much, in my opinion, but it is an occasion for comparisons that may or may not be significant.

Monday, November 17, 2014

François Dubet Discusses French Schools with the Minister of Education

Interesting discussion in an interesting new online journal, Alter Eco Plus.

Putin's French Supporters

From the "Politics makes strange bedfellows department." Putin has some staunch supporters in France, including Thierry Mariani, leader of la Droite populaire, the ultra-rightist faction of the UMP; François Fillon; the right sovereignist Philippe de Villiers and left sovereignist Jean-Pierre Chevènement; the gauchiste Jean-Luc Mélenchon; and his nemesis on the extreme right, Marine Le Pen. Ce qui fait déjà beaucoup.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Right and la Loi Taubira

The UMP is in a tizzy about gay marriage, medically assisted pregnancies, and surrogate mothers. The linking of these three issues may seem strange in American eyes, but that is because our right wing has abortion as its hobby horse, whereas the French Right, thanks to the centrist Simone Veil, made its peace with abortion long ago, considers its tolerance a mark of enlightenment and progress, and is not about to reopen the issue. But since it is useful to a political party to "increase the dimensionality of the political choice set," as political scientists (some of whom are my best friends) like to say, we have this potpourri of hot-button issues surprisingly in the forefront of the UMP party leadership race. After all, it would hardly do to get exercised about corruption at the very heart of the party (the Bygmalion scandal has already taken down the former leader J.-F. Copé and threatens to take down the once and future leader N. Sarkozy as well), so it makes much more sense to argue about who can appear to be most vicious on the sexuality-and-reproduction front.

It's a bit of a shock to those of us who thought that France was beyond all this nonsense. The opposition to gay marriage came out of nowhere. Hollande no doubt thought it was safe ground to venture onto compared with budget cutting, tax hikes, and labor market reforms. But somehow a "Christian" right, hitherto politically dormant, emerged out of nowhere, and young people who had previously marched in the streets only on the way to their first communions suddenly appeared in parades of the bon chic bon genre led by one Frigide Barjot, who was anything but chic and not of the usual genre. The extreme right chimed in with an attack on "the theory of gender," which was supposedly being foisted on French schoolchildren to turn them all into transgendered zombies, and a bridge was established between Français de souche and anxious Muslim mothers via Farida Belghoul.

Hence striking a pose on these issues has become an essential order of business for any right-wing politician, and as usual, the most striking pose was struck yesterday by Nicolas Sarkozy, who outdid himself in impassioned ambiguity. He promised, in stentorian tones, to "rewrite the loi Taubira"--or did he say he would "abrogate" it? Well, actually, he said both and refused to distinguish between the two: "rewriting," he said, meant "abrogating the old law and writing a new one." Well, did that mean no more gay marriage? Did it mean unmarrying gays already married, which Bruno Le Maire said would be "unthinkable" and Alain Juppé advanced as a reason why it was impossible to abrogate the loi Taubira? He didn't actually say he would get rid of gay marriage, but he didn't have to, because he already had the crowd on his side, while the same crowd jeered Bruno Le Maire when he said that "we of the republican right will not revisit the issue of gay marriage." When you pare away the posturing, Sarkozy said the same thing, even if he said there would be one "marriage" for homosexuals and another "marriage" for gays, because, after all, "there is a difference." Exactly how this difference would affect the issue of "filiation," to which the French attach a great deal of importance because of the way jus sanguinis is peculiarly woven into the legal codes of inheritance and citizenship, Sarkozy didn't say, leaving him plenty of wiggle room should he, by some special pardon of a perverse Etre Suprême or Haute Cour de la République, return to the presidency.

In short, the loi Taubira has opened a can of worms on which the UMP is desperately trying to feast. Unappetizing though it may be, it is certainly more digestible than the numerous more urgent issues it faces. Being tough on gays and surrogate moms seems to be the Right's menu du jour, and they're trying to pretend to enjoy it so that no one will ask what they intend to do about unemployment or the deficit or Ukraine or the sale of the Mistral to Russia or taxes or ...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Question of Authority

If you haven't been following the Sivens affair, it can be summed up fairly quickly. There is a small stream in the Tarn on which a few dozen farmers depend to water their crops. For 20 years the regional authorities have been dickering with various interested groups about how to ensure an adequate supply of water through the summer months. A project was finally approved, and work began. Environmental activists mounted a protest, however, because in their view the damage to the environment would be excessive. What began as a peaceful protest was joined by an organized group of casseurs, apparently experienced in violent combat with the police from another long-running battle over Notre-Dame-des-Landes farther to the north. Gendarmes were attacked with rocks, bottles, iron bars, and Molotov cocktails. As things degenerated, the gendarmes were authorized to use so-called "offensive grenades," a stun weapon used as a last resort in these kinds of confrontations. A demonstrator, Rémi Fraisse, who belonged to the "peaceful" group and not the casseurs, was killed. The resulting outcry led to a review of the project by environment minister Ségolène Royal, who may or may not intervene to block or scale down what local authorities had finally agreed on.

In reacting to this affair, some commentators have spoken as though the tragic death of the young demonstrator forecloses all questions about the value of the project itself. It serves no purpose, they say, and will damage the environment, hence it should be ended. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the proposed dam does indeed serve a useful purpose, as local farmers attest. Whether that purpose outweighs actual and potential environmental damage is of course a question for debate, but it's not as if that debate hasn't occurred. It has been going on for twenty years, and the process ended in a decision whose conformity to the law no one disputes. There is, nevertheless, dispute about the influence exerted by various interests as the process unfolded. I'm not naive enough to think that these kinds of environmental reviews proceed in pristine purity. But still, the proper forms seem to have been observed, whatever one thinks of the process and its outcome.

The larger issue raised by this affair is the question of the authority of the state. If the national authorities overrule the local authorities in this instance, it will be a second major retreat in the face of violent opposition, the first being the withdrawal of the ecotax, which was initially approved by an overwhelming majority of deputies of all parties, resulting in a substantial expenditure of funds for highway monitoring equipment. But the Bonnets Rouges took care of all that in a few weeks by destroying several monitoring stations and confronting police. That was a loss for the environmental constituency, whose more violent adherents appear to have taken their vengeance in Sivens. If the state retreats again, which group might next be encouraged to try its hand at reversing by violence the result of due democratic deliberation? There has been a good deal of emotion around the death of Rémi Fraisse, but it's time for sober heads to reflect on how the general interest is best served.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ayrault at Harvard

For Boston area readers, ex-PM Jean-Marc Ayrault will be at Harvard this Wednesday. If you want to grill him about what's going on in France, this is your chance. Center for European Studies, 27 Kirkland St., Cambridge, 4:15-6 PM.

The Current State of France and Europe

A Public Address by H.E. Jean-Marc Ayrault, Prime Minister of the Republic of France (2012-2014)
Jean-Marc Ayrault H.E Prime Minister of the Republic of France (2012-2014)
Commentary by Michael Ignatieff Former leader, of the Liberal Party of Canada; Professor of Practice, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
France today is under heavy pressure from its European partners to reform its social model and reduce its long-standing budget deficit. At the same time, many French citizens doubt that France can achieve sustainable growth by following an austerity program prescribed by what is perceived to be a German-led European Union. At this event, two former political leaders will discuss the politics of reform in France where social change has traditionally come about through crisis or revolution. This event is open to the public. (Note: Jean-Marc Ayrault will speak in French accompanied by an English translator.) With the support of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States.

Jouyet Twisting Slowly in the Wind

Jean-Pierre Jouyet, after previously denying that Fillon had asked him to "strike quickly" at Sarkozy in the Bygmalion Affair (see previous post), has now admitted that this is indeed what he told reporters Fillon had said. He could hardly do otherwise, since the reporters had recorded his remarks, with his knowledge and consent. This simple fact makes his previous denial seem incredibly foolish, but of course having had this conversation with reporters in the first place was folly enough.

Jouyet is a seasoned public official, not a debutant. He is one of France's best and brightest, an alumnus of the same promotion Voltaire that gave us Hollande, Royal, Villepin, and so many other prominent political actors of the last several decades. How a man of his experience could have committed so many blunders in so short a time is baffling. But if I have to guess, Jouyet is now toast and will probably be gone by the end of the day, or at any rate the end of the week, even if he has been François Hollande's best friend ever since they were army buddies (along with Michel Sapin) back in the day.

In any case, the Elysée is now reeling. It was bad enough that Hollande's "face aux Français" exercise in rehabilitation failed dismally and only added to the mockery to which the chief executive has increasingly been subjected. Now the palace is accused, rightly or wrongly, of having engaged in an "attempted destabilization" of a leading figure of the opposition.

Fillon, of course, continues to deny that he said what Jouyet says he said, and it will be impossible to prove otherwise, since the only other person present at the now infamous lunch backs Fillon's version. The really perverse aspect of this affair is that it diverts attention from the actual enormity of the corruption in the UMP that is the real scandal here. The seriousness of the Bygmalion predations is such that the investigating authorities surely needed no prompting from anyone to pursue the case. But Sarkozy and Copé, who are at the heart of this affair, can now pose as victims of Socialist machinations.

Jean-Pierre Jouyet, whom I had always viewed as a competent bureaucrat and dedicated European, a protégé of Jacques Delors and longtime compagnon de route of François Hollande, who has served France under Jospin, Sarkozy, and now his old friend François, will very likely be forced out of government and end his career in ignominious disgrace. To be sure, he has only himself to blame. How could he have been so stupid?

And for the record, I would say that Fillon is also toast. How can UMP militants consider him as their presidential candidate now that what may have started as a convivial lunch between old friends and colleagues has been portrayed in the press as intelligence avec l'ennemi. I don't think he would have been the candidate in 2017 in any case, but Fillon's difficulties only strengthen the hand of Sarkozy, whose comeback had until the last few days seemed rather underwhelming. Now he has le vent en poupe and the perfect smoke screen with which to cover his own past errors.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Doesn't Anyone Here Know How to Play this Game?

There are moments when any observer of French politics must shake his head in disbelief. Today, Le Monde reveals that in June François Fillon sought a lunch with Jean-Pierre Jouyet, secretary-general of the Elysée, in order to tell him to "strike quickly" against Sarkozy by accelerating the investigation of wrongdoing in the Bygmalion affair. According to Jouyet's account, relayed to two Le Monde journalists in September, Jouyet took this request to Hollande (who had been informed of the lunch beforehand and insisted that it take place outside the Elysée), but the two men agreed that, of course (wink, wink), the judicial branch in France is independent and nothing, absolutely nothing, must be done to interfere.

This story raises any number of questions. If the executive is really as pristine as Jouyet suggests, then why did Fillon, who also knows a thing or two about the inner workings of government, make the request, knowing that if it became public it would make him look like a vindictive rival out to sink a feared opponent for the leadership of the UMP and the 2017 presidential candidacy? Why did Jouyet reveal this sensitive information to Le Monde? Why did Le Monde sit on the story for two months only to publish two weeks before the UMP leadership election. Why did the Le Monde reporters record their discussion with Jouyet, apparently without his knowledge, since he later denied what he told them? Who is manipulating whom and for what purpose in this affair?

I find it quite believable that Fillon, upon joining the triumvirate that replaced Copé as head of the party, was outraged by what he discovered of the Sarkozy-Copé depredations at the UMP. His desire for vengeance against Sarkozy is perfectly comprehensible. He might well have believed that Jouyet, one of those chameleon figures who was as comfortable serving Sarkozy or Jospin as he is serving Hollande, was the right conduit. Taking Sarkozy's own derisive view of him to heart, he might even have decided that de l'audace was precisely what he lacked to be worthy of the presidency, and contacting Jouyet was certainly an audacious move.

But what is Jouyet's game? Why did he talk to the press? And what is Le Monde's game? Why is it publishing now? Does it want to sink Fillon? To what end? To abet Juppé? To elect Bruno Le Maire as head of the UMP, on the theory that both Fillon and Sarkozy are discredited by these allegations? Everything about this affair points to the less savory features of the French political class: the connivance between politicians and journalists, the selective publication of information with timing suggesting occult ends, the betrayal of confidences (first by Jouyet, then presumably by Le Monde, which I have to think received Jouyet's information "off the record" yet recorded his words to back a carefully timed revelation several months later), etc.

To be sure, there is little enough confidence left in the country's political institutions anyway, but this episode only reinforces the partisans of tous pourris--and we know where that sort of thinking ends up. I am flabbergasted.

UPDATE: Fillon is suing the 2 journalists who broke the story in their book for slander. And they claim that they recorded Jouyet with his consent. Whether his remarks were supposed to be off the record or not remains unclear.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Face aux Français, pour faire quoi exactement?

Yesterday, President Hollande participated, probably against his better judgment but on the advice of his image handlers (and one has to pity them!), in an exercise that few presidents have managed well, even when not in a hole as deep as that in which Hollande finds himself. He submitted himself to the questions of four "ordinary Frenchmen" (actually 1 man and 3 women) carefully chosen by the management of TF1 to "represent" key issues (there was a small businesswoman, for example, and a representative of the "visible minorities," etc.). It was an exercise in futility.

Pierre Rosanvallon has written about the need for "proximity" in modern democracies. The media, especially the televisual media, create a false sense of intimacy between governors and governed, and people want to feel "accompanied" in their daily plight by those who are supposed to be solving their problems. Or so goes the theory. In seeming corroboration, the "representative" of the unemployed in yesterday's panel told the president she felt "abandoned," and of course he dutifully replied that she was not alone. Indeed, there she was, "accompanied" by the president himself under the klieg lights. It was really a rather surreal moment, though of course no less surreal than when the president defended himself against his ex-mistress's charge that he prefers "great restaurants" to greasy spoons. "No," M. Hollande protested to his questioner, "have you ever seen me in a great restaurant?" Probably not, since the questioner was the "representative" of the unemployed. In any case, Hollande went on to say, having represented the Corrèze for many years, he had visited all the bistros in Tulle many times to meet with voters. As if he spent all of the past 30 years in Tulle meeting with voters. The absurdity of the response was distressing, and if I were a bistro owner in Tulle I would feel rather insulted, since the president, even if he didn't call their establishments "greasy spoons," was clearly commending them as places good only for meeting with voters and not for flattering one's palate.

But enough. It's all too easy to mock the foolishness of the "grands de ce monde face au petit peuple" genre. What was even more distressing was the evident absence of consciousness on the president's part of why he is in this mess. He felt it necessary, apparently, to affirm his continued existence vis-à-vis Manuel Valls by announcing that Valls was merely carrying out policies conceived and desired by the president. It wasn't quite as peremptory as Chirac's "je décide, il exécute" dismissal of Sarkozy, but it was close, as commentators did not fail to note. In any case, Hollande had already made that point in a marathon press conference only a month ago, and he had nothing new to add. Rather than avail himself of an opportunity to explain the logic behind the direction he has chosen (we can take him at his word that it was his choice), which is not the direction he had promised to go during his campaign, he continued with his baffling predilection for announcing petty measures as if they were grand designs ("A tablet for every junior high student in France!" will probably not go down in history alongside Henri IV's "chicken in every pot", and in any case the tablets had already been promised by Benoît Hamon, whom Hollande recently fired from his job as education minister).

It was a performance that could only leave one still hoping for a resuscitation of French social democracy perplexed and sad. And what is one to say of a democracy in which the "representatives of the people" are chosen by TV news executives without the slightest justification of their "representativity?"