Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Les voeux de Hollande

The New Year's voeux of the président de la République have become a tradition as tedious as it is inescapable, like the American president's State of the Union address. It is difficult for any president to live up to expectations. I've grown tired of criticizing Hollande: on substance the criticisms are predictable and should be directed more at the constraints of the situation than the will of the individual, whereas on style the inevitable complaints about absence of charisma, failure to incarnate the function, want of gravitas, whininess of voice, and sing-song phrasé are no less tiresome for being accurate and, in their way, devastatingly unanswerable. But there's a boorishness in going on about these things that Hollande is powerless to alter: it's like attacking someone's physical impairment. Surely there's something more spirituel to say.

One could of course concentrate on the production values. Le président normal has, on the no doubt sage advice of his media consultants, reinstalled himself in the gilt precincts of the Elysée, in the hope that the majesty of the place will reflect from his earnest forehead and imploring eyes. The gestures were impeccably rehearsed and timed to coincide with the savant switches of perspective from close to medium to wide shots, from high angle to reveal the rich red of the uncluttered desktop to eye-level when sincerity has to be driven home, reinforced by the discreetly pointed index finger of the right hand, hovering just above the surface of the desk. The words were delivered as flawlessly as they can be by a speaker said to be more comfortable with the sarcastic one-liner than with the Ciceronian period.

The familiar presidential anaphora, common to both Sarkozy and Hollande, was of course unmistakable, this time falling heavily on the syllables "la France," repeated in a crescendo of platitudes meant to evoke the themes of the remaining years of the Hollande presidency rather than the disappointments of the years already elapsed to no good purpose.

By contrast, Sarkozy, in his voeux, all slick and commercial, struck again and again the theme of rassemblement, as well he might. He was jaunty and relaxed, whereas the incumbent was all esprit du sérieux.

Montebourg and Filippetti: What Passes for a Left Critique in France

Quel beau couple! Arnaud Montebourg and Aurélie Filippetti, anciens ministres et amoureux actuels, ended their year by tweeting nearly identical jabs at Hollande, who in their view lacks the courage displayed by Matteo Renzi in Italy. What courage? Renzi nationalized the Ilva steel mill. In the view of Montebourg and Filipetti, he thereby "saved" 5,000 Italian jobs. On another view, however, he saddled the Italian state with an obsolete plant that makes losses of €80 million a month--nearly a billion euros a year--and is such a polluter that it causes 10-15% excess deaths in the neighboring towns. For Montebourg and Filippetti, this solution--subsidizing 5,000 jobs at a cost of €200,000 per job per year (!!) while polluting the environment in a Europe already saddled with steel production overcapacity--is the progressive answer to Italy's problems, one that France ought to emulate. And as in the case of Florange in France, Arcelor-Mittal is hovering overhead, ready to swoop in to pick up whatever bargain it can persuade desperate politicians to offer. The politicians aren't yet desperate enough, however, to offer the steel magnate a sufficient enticement to part with any actual cash, so thus far the burden is entirely on the taxpayers.

This is what passes for opposition from the left. They do make a glam' couple, though.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Brown Is the New Green

The Front National is going green as well as gay. It launched its "New Ecology" movement this week. Of course its idea of ecology introduces a few interesting "nationalist" twists: it favors nuclear power "in defense of the French worker" and opposes international climate talks because they are, well, international. It also considers halal and kosher butchers guilty of cruelty to animals. 

Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a climate sceptic who once cut open a watermelon to illustrate how environmentalists were supposedly red communists underneath. But the issue of whether human activity caused global warming was “a very technical question,” d’Ornano said.
“We have to find a balanced position and we don’t have to be politically correct or ideologically biased about it. There are pros and cons to the scientific evidence. We have to find out what really comes from human activity, or doesn’t.”
The FN's spokesperson on climate change also denounced the international climate talks as a "communist project."

Yannick Jadot, a French Green MEP, said that the new FN grouping was a sham.
“They never talk about biodiversity because that means respecting diversity,” he told the Guardian. “They oppose animal cruelty, but they also defend hunters and big agricultural industries. They pretend to defend fish but vote in favour of deep sea fisheries. Again today [Wednesday] they voted in favour of allowing Canadian tar sands in EU fuel.” 
The FN's program finds echoes in the "ecology agenda" of other extreme right parties:

New Ecology’s launch closely follows a spectacular, if unsuccessful, campaign by ‘eco-nationalists’ in Switzerland to cap immigration levels at 0.2% of the resident population.
In Hungary, the neo-Nazi Jobbik party has campaigned against invasive flora from abroad which they say is destroying Hungarian plants and animals as it spreads unchecked.
The far-right Danish People’s Party is virulently opposed to immigration, multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity. But it also pledges “to ensure that the way in which the earth’s resources are used bears the stamp of consideration, care and a sense of responsibility for the natural world and all its living creatures.” 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Extreme Right and "Entrisme"

"Entrisme," or "entryism" in English, is a political strategy in which an organization encourages its members to join another organization in order to influence its actions and gain power. In the French context, the term usually calls to mind Trotskyists or Lambertists making their way among the Socialists (older heads will remember the flap around Lambertist entrisme when Lionel Jospin, an alleged entriste, was prime minister). But suddenly entrisme is in vogue on the extreme right. Not only do we see the head of a prominent gay organization joining the FN (see previous post). We also learn that the extreme nationalist group SIEL has placed one of its members, Fatima Allaoui, in a high position in the UMP (the story was broken by Libération). And the FN itself has been attempting entrisme with the union Force Ouvrière. Actually, there's nothing new about FN entrisme, but with the party's fortunes on the rise, there's more reason to take notice.

FN, LGBT, même combat?

The "pinkwashing" (h/t Karim Batar) of the FN was the talk of the town last week, but I wonder if this article is for real or just lazy journalism. Didier Lestrade takes the outing of Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen's strategist, and the rallying of GayLib founder Sébastien Chenu as evidence that gays in general are turning to the FN out of frustration and disappointment with both the PS and the UMP, the latter because it supported the anti-gay Manif pour Tous and the former because its response was muted. Is there any substance to this? I find it hard if not impossible to credit.

Immigration in France

Le Monde publishes the hard facts about immigration in France in advance of François Hollande's speech on the subject today. The numbers are interesting even to one aware that the hysteria that often surrounds the subject has no basis in reality. For example, in 30 years, the percentage of immigrants in the population has risen from 7.2 to just 8.4. Hardly a "flood" or a "deliberate and strategic replacement of the native population." And France is not more affected by immigration than other, comparable countries: Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK all receive more immigrants annually.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Decline of Saint Lundi and the Rise of Saint Dimanche

A new poll suggests that a majority (59%) of the French favor allowing more shop openings on Sundays. Sunday work is to be "voluntary" under the new law and compensated by an amount to be negotiated branch by branch.

It's interesting to compare the apparent new tolerance for Sunday work with the decline of another old French institution, "Saint Lundi," the widespread practice among workers of taking Mondays off to compensate themselves for Sunday work:
Avant 1830, le chômage du lundi est en général étroitement lié à celui du dimanche, formant ainsi une unité temporelle. Or le repos dominical entre, après les Trois Glorieuses, dans une sphère de grandes turbulences. Notamment à Paris, mais aussi dans les centres industriels du Nord et de l’Est de la France, où artisans, compagnons et ouvriers travaillent de plus en plus dans la matinée du dimanche, pour consacrer le reste de la journée à leur famille 24 et pour fêter, le lendemain, le lundi. Le travail du dimanche se développe donc, et avec lui le chômage du lundi : « La plupart des ouvriers qui travaillent le dimanche, se reposent ensuite le lundi… » écrit Théodore-Henri Barrau en 1850 25. En 1872, 63 cas de chômage du lundi, sur les 98 relevés par l’Enquête sur la situation des classes ouvrières 26, sont liés au travail du dimanche. La combinaison repos du dimanche et repos du lundi ne se retrouve plus que dans les régions catholiques respectueuses du repos du dimanche.
The Macron Law is, as many observers have commented, a small-bore affair that is unlikely to do much to improve the French economy. Its "divide-and-conquer" design may serve as a blueprint for further legislation, however: the law goes after the ever unpopular professions réglementées (huissiers, notaires, etc.); it opens up the market for intercity bus travel, offering a lower-cost alternative to expensive trains; it promises consumers more time to shop on a day of leisure; it offers shop workers the prospect of better remuneration for a part of the work week; and there may be new jobs for the currently unemployed to staff the stores during Sunday openings. The aggrieved groups do not share common interests. Small shop owners who may now feel compelled to open on Sunday to compete with big-box stores have nothing in common with huissiers threatened with lower fees, etc.

Opponents of the law worry that Sunday work won't be truly "voluntary" for some workers and point to existing abuses in big-box stores. It's a legitimate concern, but remedies exist. Some critics also believe that the law will disrupt un repos dominical that has assumed in their minds the eternal tranquility of a landscape by Poussin, with maidens clad in white dipping toes in an unrippled pond shaded by mighty oaks--a far cry from, say, the Place Danton when the movie theaters let out on a Sunday afternoon and crowds gather in the cafés for a preprandial apéritif. The diversity of modern life has people spending their Sundays in enough different ways that already, without the Loi Macron, 30 percent of the French are employed on the supposed day of rest to keep the restaurants, trains, buses, museums, airports, theaters, etc. running. The Republic will therefore survive the Loi Macron, though you might not know it to hear the cris d'orfraie that currently fill the airwaves, as though all of France still dressed in its Sunday best to troop off to mass before consuming la poule au pot at grandma's house.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gay Liberation Leader Joins Marine Le Pen


Sébastien Chenu, le fondateur de GayLib, "mouvement associé à l'UDI, regroupant les LGBT de droite et de centre droit", rejoint le Rassemblement Bleu Marine.

"Son ralliement est la preuve de l'ouverture du RBM et que de plus en plus d'anciens adhérents UMP nous rejoignent", explique Gilbert Collard, député RBM, au Tout s'est passé il y a cinq mois "autour d'une bonne table via Gilbert Collard" selon le site, qui précise que ce dernier devrait par ailleurs annoncer "dans les prochains mois plusieurs ralliements importants" au mouvement associé au FN.

An Interesting Juxtaposition

Sometimes, the hazards of the news juxtapose interesting articles. Thus we read in Le Nouvel Obs today of NKM's dismay at finding one of Patrick Buisson's disciples limiting her room for maneuver in the party and aiding her rival Laurent Wauquiez:

Après avoir bataillé ferme pour élargir son périmètre d'action face à Laurent Wauquiez, la nouvelle de la future nomination de Guillaume Peltier a fait bondir Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, la nouvelle vice-présidente du parti qui incarne plutôt la frange modérée du mouvement. Elle aurait même menacé de claquer la porte. L'animosité entre eux ne date pas d'hier : "Peltier, c'est le Buisson qui cache la forêt", avait dit l'ancienne ministre pendant la campagne des municipales.

And then we learn from Le Monde that Peltier is under investigation in the Bygmalion affair and will probably have to resign his UMP post:

L'ex-vice-président de l'UMP Guillaume Peltier et le cofondateur de la société Bygmalion, Guy Alvès, ont été placés en garde à vue, jeudi 11 décembre, à Nice, selon la police.
Score one for NKM, minus one for Laurent Wauquiez.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

"Let's not reduce existence to consumption," says Martine Aubry. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has declared "war" on Sunday work. It's rather odd to see the left of the left, les bouffeurs de curé d'autrefois, today defending la paix dominicale. But economy minister Emmanuel Macron wants to "free" retailers to throw open their doors on Sundays, so self-declared "enemies of neoliberalism" must fight him tooth and nail. Yet Macron claims that his famous law will not only put more clerks to work but also drain more euros from the wallets of free-spending Chinese tourists.

It's hardly the stuff of an epic battle of the working class against the capitalist oppressor, this. First time tragedy, second time farce, third time sitcom. But, as Marx also reminds us, if man makes his own history, he does not do so under conditions of his own choosing, and Sunday hours seems to be all the Left has to work with these days. From my perspective in the Land of the Shopping Mall and 24x7 online consumerism, the capacity of French commentators to work themselves into a lather over whether stores should be allowed to open 7 Sundays a year or 12 or 15 seems rather ... quaint, although I would certainly go to the barricades on behalf of a law that would malls from blaring Katy Perry songs through their PA systems at 120 decibels.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Une 6e République naissante?

Des paroles et des actes - Mélenchon, Duflot... by lepartidegauche


Emmanuel Macron has been minister of the economy for a relatively short time, but he's been ubiquitous in the media for almost all of it. He has a knack for attracting attention in every possible way--effet d'annonce, interview, controversial statements, even gaffes--that is reminiscent of the young Nicolas Sarkozy. And like Sarkozy, all his abundant energy and obvious ambition are spurring opposition--and most notably, opposition within his own party. His latest proposal--for a "growth and activity" law--may even fail to win a majority, which would force the government to invoke Article 49-3, making passage an issue of confidence.

What is striking about Macron's approach to governing through notoriety is his apparent eagerness to use small-bore measures to declare his ideological colors. Extending Sunday working hours and deregulating the notarial profession aren't measures likely to invert the unemployment curve or meet Brussels' demands for deficit reduction, but they do place Macron--and the government of which he is a part--on the ideological map, and that seems to be his main goal. In this he is no different from his predecessor, Montebourg, who also "talked his book" without accomplishing much. The difference was that Montebourg's book was at odds with that of his prime minister (first Ayrault and then, even more, Valls) and president (although the president largely avoided making his position clear, allowing him to straddle the gap, whereas Hollande seems prepared to embrace Macron's line openly).

The new macroneconomics is a lot like the old sarkoeconomics. It is long on symbolism and short on deep reforms. It signals a direction but doesn't actually move very far. This doesn't come as a surprise. Macron was after all the rapporteur of the Attali Commission, which Sarkozy purported to support, and now he is the spokesman for the Gallois report, which Hollande purports to favor.With such persistent policy orientations across changes of regime, one might expect to see some actual change occurring. But France is an old country, and venerable old things change slowly.

My Foreign Affairs Article on Sarkozy's Comeback


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Contre mauvaise fortune, bon coeur

You have to hand it to the UMP. They know how to put a good face on things. Sarko is back, and the knives, if not buried, have been kept out of sight of the cameras. Sarkozy and Fillon were caught on camera, by carefully calculated chance, shaking hands and slapping backs. Juppé and Sarkozy sat side by side, the Bordeaux catcalls already gone if not forgotten. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, hardly a friend of Sarko's droitisation strategy, has been named a VP of the party. Laurent Wauquiez is mentioned as a possible secretary general (sweet revenge against his frère ennemi Bruno Le Maire). Jean-Pierre Raffarin sounded the only sour note, when he announced that he supports the Juppé line--meaning the anti-Sarko line, the only reminder that the UMP remains as disunited as ever.

All this sweetness and light reminds me of nothing so much as the heady first days of the Sarkozy presidency back in 2007, when all the talk was about ouverture and about Sarkozy's supposed transmogrification from canny political infighter to wise statesman and president of tous les Français. We know how long that lasted.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Useful Antagonism, Une Guerre Picrocholine

Emmanuel Macron blames Pierre Gattaz, the head of the employers association MEDEF, for what he terms the failure of the pacte de responsabilité. What dizzying speed! The pact is not even a year old, and already it's a failure. Let's recall the terms. Hollande promised to reduce payroll taxes, and in return firms promised to "negotiate" new hires branch by branch. But after a year, negotiations have led to agreements in only 2 of 50 branches and haven't even begun in 23 others.

But the negotiations were always a bit of a sham. A firm that wants to hire will do so; a firm that doesn't see a prospect of increased demand for its product isn't going to commit itself at the negotiating table to hire new workers just because its payroll tax has been reduced. MEDEF wanted a measure to reduce unit labor costs, and it got one; the government famously wanted to "bend the unemployment curve," and it got a bend, but, alas, in an upward direction. The likelihood of such a failure was noted at the pact's inception.

So what's really going on? It's simple. The government has been in trouble with its voter base ever since Manuel Valls announced that he "loved" business and Emmanuel Macron replaced Arnaud Montebourg, who professed not to be such a lover of business while in office but promptly enrolled in a prominent business school upon leaving it and who declares now that is fondest dream in life is to become an entrepreneur (which may make him feel more warmly about the two pro-enterprise Mannies). If the prime minister could be cheered by CEOs for declaring his love, then who was looking out for the workers? If the minister of the economy felt that French competitiveness was lagging because, as he put it, too many French workers were illettrés, it would probably be a mistake to look to him as a champion of the working class.

What the government needed was an enemy. So it chose one: the MEDEF. The lumbering Gattaz responded to provocation with his customary clumsiness, and the deed was done. The Socialists can now say that, while they still love business, business doesn't love them back, or at any rate not enough. A simulacrum of the old left-right conflict has been put in place, but of course nothing in the way of an actual policy change has occurred. It would be too absurd to, say, rescind the payroll tax reduction, which was and remains a sensible measure, even if it has yet to produce results and may never amount to much. There are no arrows left in the quiver. The government's policy has always been "Wait, something will turn up." It still is. And undoubtedly something will turn up. Eventually. In the meantime it's useful to have an enemy again, even if la guerre reste tout à fait picrocholine.