Thursday, December 31, 2015

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Unhappy Political Families

I've agreed to write a regular column on European politics for The American Prospect. Here's the first. Suggestions for future columns are welcome.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unforced Errors

Politics is a difficult game. There are many ways to go wrong. But just as professional football players make fewer unforced errors than amateurs, so one expects professional politicians to acquire over the course of their careers some skill at the mechanics of the game.

The Hollande administration has been disappointing in many ways, but its unforced errors are painful to watch. The last in the series, concerning the amending of the constitution to permit stripping naturalized dual nationals to be stripped of their French citizenship if involved in terrorism, has been appalling in every way. It was an error of principle to begin with, but then it devolved into a series of basic tactical errors, all unforced.

The error of principle was to have considered stripping nationality in the first place. The use of this instrument against naturalized French Jews under Vichy should have been enough to discredit it. The fact that it was proposed as a weapon against "insecurity" (and not just terrorism) by the right--indeed, by the FN before Sarkozy--and opposed by the left before Nov. 13 should have been further reason not to surrender to--unnecessary and totally futile--expediency in order to demonstrate resolve after the latest terror attacks. It is fundamentally wrong to make two classes of French citizens--the authentic aborigines, as it were, and the rest, subject to different and unequal treatment under the law. It was a decision that should never have been announced, no matter what the provocation--and I concede that the provocation of Nov. 13 could not be ignored. But there were other ways to respond, and Hollande availed himself of some of his many options--more serious options than this ridiculous symbolic gesture, which will hardly deter anyone bent on murder and mayhem. He should have left this one alone and stuck with declarations of a state of emergency and a state of war--surely potent enough gestures in response to any level of provocation or threat.

But having announced the decision in a solemn session of the full congress (National Assembly and Senate) in a special session at Versailles, of all places, it should have been a decision actually taken at the highest level of government and not a talking point still to be kicked around among the various ministries. And if it had been presented as a decision taken at the highest level for the most solemn of reasons--an imminent threat to the security of the state--ministers should have been instructed to suck it up or quit. "Un ministre, ça ferme sa gueule or ça démissionne," as J.-P. Chévenement once said. Christiane Taubira should not have been allowed to speak as though she were countermanding a presidential order, and if it was in fact an order and she spoke out of turn, she should have been fired on the spot.

So now, once again, Hollande looks both inept and unprincipled, incompetent and uncommitted to one of the fundamental values of the left. This was not an error forced on him by circumstances. It was an error induced by his predilection for the path of least resistance, his readiness to retreat at the first sign of opposition, and his inattention to the details of governing. Taken together, these failings explain why his presidency has been such a depressing spectacle.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Anti-Sarkozy Backlash

It's remarkable how little support Sarkozy seems to enjoy among the other leading figures of the party. NKM's departure is of course no surprise, but when one sees even Christian Estrosi sticking the knife in, one begins to think that Sarko's time is up:

Avez-vous parlé à Nicolas Sarkozy depuis votre élection?
Nicolas Sarkozy est un ami, je le respecte. Mais contrairement à lui, je ne pense pas que nous, élus Républicains, devions tenir un discours toujours plus à droite. Plus on va à droite, plus on fait monter le FN. Plutôt que chasser sur le terrain du Front national, je préfère chasser le Front national du terrain. Je déplore l’état de dispersion et de querelles dans lequel se trouve mon parti. Nous n’avons pas su, collectivement, donner une bonne image. C’est une des raisons pour lesquelles je n’ai pas souhaité me rendre, lundi, au bureau politique ni, mardi, à la  réunion de groupe à l’Assemblée nationale. Je ne veux pas participer à un débat à chaud, rentrer dans le jeu des petites phrases.
Comprenez-vous l’éviction de Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet dont la position est proche de la vôtre?
J’attendais de Nicolas Sarkozy un message d’unité et de rassemblement et des mots qui apaisent. Ces décisions sur l’organisation interne  du parti sont prématurées. Ne pouvions-nous attendre  le conseil national de février?
Bruno Le Maire called for a "new generation" of leadership of the LR. Xavier Bertrand acknowledged that his miraculous victory depended on the support of left-wing voters, who wisely rejected the implicit message of Sarkozy's "ni-ni" line that their support was unwelcome. Juppé regretted the loss of NKM's "talent" in the party leadership.

Although Sarkozy has tried to spin the second-round results as a vindication of his position, the first-round debacle obviously has the rest of the party worried about the wisdom of driving centrists away by mimicking Le Pen when doing so seems to hold so little appeal for those inclined to vote FN anyway. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

On the Regional Elections

I wrote an article on the French regiona elections for The American Prospect. I'll have another piece out in The Boston Review later this week.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Just a Word on the Elections

There's a little bit for everyone in today's results. Many in France breathed a collective Ouf! The FN failed to win any region despite leading in 6 after round 1. The PS can be satisfied that it was not wiped out. Holding on to 6 regions was a triumph in view of the dire predictions after the first round. The Republicans also took 6 regions, and Sarkozy's ni-ni strategy appears to have paid off, despite much commentary that he was the big loser in the first round. And finally, Marine Le Pen, though visibly crestfallen after her defeat, did achieve the FN's highest national score ever, with 28.2% of the vote.

Nevertheless, the big story is that there is still significant resistance to seeing the FN in government. People are certainly disappointed with the performance of the mainstream parties, but many are not disappointed enough to allow the FN to carry the day. Participation improved between the 2 rounds, and those who left their couches to vote did so in order to stop the FN. Left-wing voters also found the strength to set aside their revulsion against a candidate as far from their views as Christian Estrosi in PACA because they found the prospect of an FN victory even more unpalatable.

Does this mean that the right-wing populist backlash has crested in France? Hardly. The economic crisis is not yet over, hostility to refugees and Muslims remains high, and discontent with the mainstream has not abated. But the dramatic reversals in PACA and the north and the Republican victory in a triangular race in the northeast clearly indicate that Marine Le Pen has still not surmounted the final hurdle on the road to de-demonization.

I will have more to say in two commissioned articles in the days to come.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Le Premier Parti de France

The polls were accurate. The FN has come in first in 6 of 13 regions. Nationally, it is now the leading party in France with 27.2% of the vote against 27.0% for Les Républicains (according to early estimates). The only surprise is that the "left bloc," if one can call it that, held up better than expected, with about 24% of the vote nationwide going to the PS and another 5 or 6 to EELV and Front de Gauche (which differ substantially from the PS on central issues). The participation rate was just over 50%, up 4 since the regionals of 2010.

As has been clear for some time, France's party system is now tripartite. It will be very interesting to see what left-wing voters do in the second round. In the Nord-PdC-Picardie region, where Marine Le Pen herself is heading the FN list, which garnered over 40% of the vote, the left-wing candidate has called implicitly for a "republican front" (without using the term). His words left little doubt that he will drop out of Round 2 in favor of Xavier Bertrand, who heads the Republican list. Bertrand's statement also avoided alluding to a republican front but simply claimed the right to lead the resistance to the FN as "the Gaullist" candidate. But Le Pen seems likely to win anyway, as does Marion Maréchal Le Pen in PACA.

I will have more to say in the coming day.s

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Tomorrow's Elections

I suppose I should have known better than to think any good could come of the terror attacks of Nov. 13. The polls that initially showed a rise in Hollande's approval ratings (as after the January attacks) have now been supplanted by new polls showing a significant "differential mobilization" favoring the Front National. Marine Le Pen's party is leading in 6 (!) of 13 regions. The prospect of a "republican front" to block the FN's progress seems more remote than ever. In short, tomorrow's election promises to be a disaster.

I have already committed myself to writing about the elections for several publications, and it's always better to wait for actual numbers than to pretend that polling has now supplanted voting as the authentic measure of public opinion, even as polls have proven to be increasingly inaccurate, especially in non-presidential elections.

But I must say that the prospects going forward look very bleak indeed. My pre-mortem assessment is this: as the appeal of the FN mounted, French elites did nothing. The Socialist Party has been in the hands of technocrats for so long that they have forgotten about the emotional currents that roil electorates and shift large blocs of voters. Obsessed primarily with abstract measurements of economic progress, or the lack thereof--the growth rate, the unemployment rate, the exchange rate, the every elusive "competitiveness" of French products--they failed to perceive the increasing anxiety and alienation of voters. The right, in closer touch with the mood of the country, could think of no way to win back the allegiance of voters other than to emulate the Frontistes. Nonna Mayer's analysis of the role of anti-Muslim sentiment in all this is excellent.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

From Bellagio

Dear Readers,
I am at a conference in Bellagio, Italy, and as you will gather from the photo below, the atomsphere is not conducive to writing about French politics. La dolce vita ...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

PS risen from the dead?

I normally avoid blogging about polls. but this one catches the eye, no doubt more than it should. Regionals: FN 27, PS 26, LR-UDI-MoDem 25. OK, the bad news is that the FN is still out in front, and the race is, as the phrase goes, "a statistical dead heat." But the PS had been taken for dead, and now here it is back in the running. How did that happen? A consequence of Nov. 13? Fear of a Le Pen juggernaut? Revulsion of center-rightists against the Le Penisation of nearly all the leading Republican figures other than Juppé?

Or just bad polling? The polls in recent elections in many countries have been way off the mark. Deep currents are roiling electorates everywhere, and in France the currents are deeper and more contradictory than most, with the latest atrocity only stirring the witches' brew even more. It would take a fool or a seer to offer an explanation of these numbers, so I simply present them for your consideration.

The Best Piece Yet Written on the Paris Attacks

Adam Shatz writes brilliantly and penetratingly about apocalyptic violence in Europe.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

My first comment on the Terror

I promised to write something about Friday the Thirteenth, but people have offered to pay for my thoughts, so I haven't given them away this time. You can read a piece of my mind here.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


I am in NYC without a keyboard. Will write about yesterday's tragedy when I return. I hope all of my parisian readers are OK. In solidarity, vive la France, vive la République !

Friday, November 13, 2015

Guéant Convicted

Claude Guéant, once Nicolas Sarkozy's right-hand man and interior minister, has been convicted of misuse of public funds and given a suspended sentence of two years. But France is so inured to corruption in high places that no one is really shocked by the pettiness and venality of people entrusted with enforcing its laws. And like other ministerial criminals, he will do no jail time, despite being called the "instigator" of a scheme to defraud the public treasury. Perhaps he considers the blot on his reputation a small price to pay for the years of comfort his peculation afforded him. Of course he still faces charges in connection with alleged fraud in a sale of paintings, so perhaps he won't escape real punishment altogether.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Tax Man and the Media

It's no secret that the French news media are subsidized. "General-interest newspapers" ranging from Le Monde to Humanité receive tax breaks that help keep them afloat. For exact figures on the size of these subsidies, you can refer to Julia Cagé's Sauver les médias (Harvard will publish my English translation next year). But it seems that the authorities are reluctant to extend this advantage to the new online media, at least in the cases of Médiapart and Arrêt sur images. 

Now, it may be simply that the tax authorities and legislators are slow to catch up with the changing realities of the media and the increased importance of online versus print. Or--a more sinister interpretation--it may be that the authorities are reluctant to support iconoclastic and critical news outlets that often take the lead in exposing government malfeasance, as Médiapart did when it broke the story of Jérôme Cahuzac's tax cheating or beat the drums regarding campaign finance law violations by the UMP and/or Nicolas Sarkozy. Are we witnessing backwardness of retribution? Hard to say, but in either case the consequences could be serious.

Médiapart is inviting concerned citizens to help by contributing money to keep it in business. If you're interested, you can use the site I did. But be forewarned: the form insists on knowing your country of residence and will accept only "France" as an answer, and when I clicked to pay, I immediately received an e-mail from my bank suggesting that someone might be misusing my credit card. But my contribution appears to have gone through.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Marine Le Pen and the Jewish Vote

Jérôme Fourquet has taken up the question of the Jewish vote for the FN in As Fourquet himself points out, this is a difficult question to investigate, because ethnic statistics are hard to come by in France and major polling organizations do not break down results along ethnic lines. Hence inferences about ethnic group voting patterns have to be inferred indirectly from precinct-level electoral results and known residential patterns. The results are never as clear as one might like. Nevertheless, Fourquet concludes that there has been a modest but discernible increase of Jewish support for the Front National as Marine Le Pen has shifted the party's discourse to downplay antisemitic themes and to emphasize concerns about "insecurity" at home and support for Israel abroad. As Jewish-Muslim tensions increase in France, so does Jewish support for the Front National. At the same time, as Fourquet is careful to note, the Jewish vote for the FN remains below the national average and largely confined to specific urban areas where Jewish-Muslim tensions have been particularly high.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The FN Reverts to Form

Gone are the paeans to republicanism, the critiques of the euro, the gestures toward economists like Jacques Sapir who seemed to support Marine Le Pen's position on currency union, and the various other rhetorical stratagems by which Marine Le Pen sought to differentiate her party from her father's. The refugee crisis has changed all that, and it is now "safe" for the FN to fly its xenophobic colors openly. The party no longer needs to be "de-demonized" because the demons are on the loose un peu partout in Europe, and the demons are on the side of the Front. Hence FN mayor David Rachline of Fréjus can boast of having saved several sheep from ritual slaughter by Muslims. Mayor Robert Ménard of Béziers can storm a refugee shelter, demanding that they leave. And the party leader herself can go to Calais, where hundreds of migrants are living in squalid conditions and risking their necks to get out of France and cross the Channel to London, to announce that it's either the Vague Bleu Marine or la vague migratoire. One or the other will "submerge" France.

How ironic that Jean-Marie Le Pen should have been excluded from the party just as support for his ideas attains its apogee.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tip-toeing Toward the Quagmire

France will begin bombing in Syria soon. Thus far its military intervention against Daesh, or ISIS, has been limited to Iraqi territory, largely for fear of aiding the Assad regime in Syria. Why has Hollande suddenly changed his mind on that point?

One reason is obvious: the massive influx of Syrian refugees is a problem that Europe cannot handle. To humanitarians, the initial--and rather heartening--German welcome transformed Chancellor Merkel overnight from the villain of the Greek drama to the heroine of the refugee crisis. But in the eyes of many fearful Europeans, her kindness sent the wrong message, encouraging even more Syrians to leave. And European governments showed no great eagerness to help the Germans out by accepting assigned quotas of immigrants. Now even the Germans have backtracked, more rapidly than one would have thought possible.

Hollande therefore seems prepared to take the risk of attacking Daesh in Syria in order to stop the migration at its source. The more quickly ISIS is eliminated, he seems to believe, the more likely potential refugees will be to judge the risks of emigration greater than the risks of staying put. But this calculation runs up against the perverse logic that has bedeviled Syrian policy from the beginning. Any move against Daesh strengthens Assad, whom no one wants to maintain in power--no one, that is, except the Russians and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who apparently supports the Russian position. (A rundown of the attitudes of various French politicians toward the escalation in Syria can be found here.)

Indeed, it is questionable at this point whether any intervention by outsiders can stanch the flow of refugees from Syria. The social fabric has been destroyed by years of civil war. The skilled, the educated, anyone with means and many without--all have fled the war zones. It is hard to see what can be built on such ruins. And Assad's forces have claimed more victims than Daesh, even if the latter's ideology is more rebarbative in Western eyes.

Still, I think that the severity of the refugee crisis will push Europe toward a more forceful intervention, of which the French bombing is only the first step. Villepin may be right to say that military intervention failed to do much good in Iraq and Libya and undoubtedly contributed to the godawful mess in Syria, but the refugees will create domestic pressures on Europe to intervene, and it is an ominous sign that four prominent members of Les Républicains, including one presidential candidate (Le Maire, who may seem mild-mannered but is bidding fair to become the French John McCain with his aggressive stance on the Middle East), favor sending in ground troops. I am not at all sure that we will not see European boots on the ground in the very near future, under President Hollande.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lessons of Stanley Hoffmann's Work for France Today

Slate asked me to reflect on the lessons of Stanley Hoffmann's work for France today. Although it's presumptuous to take up such a challenge, I was rash enough to take a stab at it. Here is the result.

Governing the Banque de France

President Hollande has nominated François Villeroy de Galhau to be governor of the Banque de France. 150 economists, including François Bourguignon and Thomas Piketty, have signed a letter opposing this nomination for fear of "potential" conflicts of interest.

It's an interesting confrontation. Villeroy, an énarque (of course) whose "brilliance" everyone concedes, was the chief of staff of DSK when the latter served as finance minister. His former classmate at the ENA, Pierre Moscovici, attests to his "social conscience" dating from his youth. Villeroy has renounced a whole series of bonuses, stock options, deferred compensations, and the like from due him his time in the private sector. The JDD estimates the monetary value of these concessions at more than €1 million. Yet these sacrifices are not enough to allay the fears of the economists, who note the peculiar susceptibility of the banking sector to conflicts of interest.

No doubt the protesting economists know more about M. Villeroy de Galhau's outlook and commitments than I do. It nevertheless seems odd to make such an issue of this particular appointment, when another énarque with a similar experience of private banking, Emmanuel Macron, is already in the government and, according to polls, largely approved in his reform efforts by the general public.

What is really at stake seems to be a deepening split between the "managerial left" and an increasingly restive element within center-left parties across the developed world. The Corbyn victory in the British Labour leadership contest is one sign. The unexpectedly good performance of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary race in the US is another. Many on the left feel they have given the "managers" ample opportunity to prove that they know what they are doing, and the results are simply not there. Patience has worn thin. The resistance is coming not solely from angry radicals--although there are certainly some of those, especially in the UK. It stems rather from disappointed center-leftists. made anxious by the rising populist tide on the right and unconvinced that the seasoned leaders who acquired their "insider" experience in the pre-crisis years of social-liberal compromise with neoliberal institutions can steer center-left parties toward either electoral success or robust recovery. M. Villeroy de Galhau may be sacrificed on this altar of doubt. He may not be the right expiatory victim, but jettisoning him may nevertheless prove necessary--though almost certainly not sufficient--to placate the festering internal opposition, which thus far, and surprisingly, remains far milder in France than in Britain or even the US.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Stanley Hoffmann, 1928-2015

Austrian-born, French-educated, Stanley Hoffman taught generations of Americans about French and European politics and international relations. I was proud to call him my mentor and friend. He died this weekend. My remembrance of him is published here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

European News App

As I mentioned the other day, I've been working on a Web app that collects news feeds from a number of European newspapers and magazines in several languages. An early version of this software is now up and running at this site. If you try it out, let me know if you discover any bugs or have suggestions for improvements, additional categories and features, etc.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hollande in a Nutshell

We may not yet know what the labor code reform will be, but we know what it won't be. The following two excerpts from Le Monde pretty much sum up the timidity of the Hollande presidency in all its aspects:

Le chef de l’Etat, s’il partage la lecture de son premier ministre, n’a pour sa part aucunement l’intention de faire la révolution sociale à trois mois des élections régionales et à moins de deux ans de la présidentielle.
Le pouvoir veut néanmoins assouplir et bouger vite. ... Ce texte sera porté par la nouvelle ministre du travail, Myriam El Khomri, encadrée de près par le président de la République et le premier ministre. « Ils sont autour d’elle », euphémise un conseiller de l’Elysée.
Move quickly but not too far, and don't ruffle any feathers along the way.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Macron Paradox

Emmanuel Macron now enjoys a higher approval rating than any other Socialist. To be sure, he is approved by more on the right (63%) than on the left (45%), but his approval on the left is increasing despite his urging further reforms, which conventional wisdom says are unpopular among Socialist voters.

But perhaps these results aren't as paradoxical as they seem. Perhaps the way to think about this is to suggest that as the left-right distinction breaks down, the electorate is increasingly divided between two new camps: the angry, who despair of government entirely and want to throw the bums out (whether in the form of Mélenchon's "qu'ils s'en aillent tous" or Le Pen's derisive "UMPS"), and the pragmatic, who aren't sure what should be done but prefer leaders who state forthrightly and in some detail what they would like to do and persist in the face of opposition without trimming their sails to suit the prevailing winds.

For the pragmatic voter, Macron is exemplary. They know what he wants to do. They aren't sure it will work, but they're willing to let him experiment. If it fails, they'll move to another policy. What they can't stomach is the kind of politics Hollande exemplifies: impossible to pin down, forever shifting tactics, reluctance to persevere in the face of vocal opposition. Pragmatic voters want consistency and accountability above all.

If this is correct, the question of the hour is then, Do the pragmatic outnumber the angry? I don't know. What's your guess?

On the other hand, the two politicians with the highest approval ratings are Juppé (76%) and Sarkozy (66%). Sarkozy was extremely unpopular in the months before the 2012 election, and Juppé was in his way the Macron of his day, a pragmatic reformer willing to persist in the face of vocal opposition, yet he was ultimately sacrificed to angry protesters. So perhaps the truth is simply that voters are highly fickle. Sometimes they like you if you show backbone, other times they'll cut you down for standing droit dans vos bottes.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Macron Proposes Refounding the EU

At last, a major political figure has called for a refounding of the EU. As the economist Herbert Stein once said, "If something can't go on, it won't." It has been apparent for some time that the EU as presently constituted can't go on, but nobody has been prepared to do anything about it. Whatever one thinks of Macron's policy views, he has one indispensable virtue in a politician: he is free of the conviction that his life's future depends on maintaining his electability. This frees him to say what he thinks. And he thinks that Europe needs to be rethought. Everyone else thinks so too, but no one wants to rock the boat--except for the likes of Schäuble, Varoufakis, Krugman, or Piketty, who are not shy about reminding the world that the EU can't go on like this. In any case, it's good to have Macron on record.

La politique politicienne

I love the French phrase "la politique politicienne." In two words it expresses the widespread contempt for "the political" that fuels populist reactions everywhere. Of course it is often used by politicians to deny that they are indulging in it, or else to criticize their rivals for indulging in nothing else.

In the nomination of Myriam El Khomri to replace François Rebsamen as minister of labor, we see an exemplary exercise of la politique politicienne. One often despairs of any generational renewal in the French political class, where the same faces can dominate the news for decades on end. Mme El Khomri is at least a new face. Le Monde describes her rise as "meteoric." She previously held the post of secretary of state for cities, in which she apparently performed admirably, with a penchant for confronting the FN on its terres de prédilection--for which she deserves full credit. Of course her appointment to that post was a successful exercise in la politique politicienne, a riposte to Sarkozy's nomination of a Muslim woman to fill the same job. Mme El Khomri was less in the news than the headlineogenic Fadela Amara but probably more effective in her role.

That efficacity has now earned her a promotion to replace the hapless Rebsamen, a mayor with national ambitions who had badly wanted a ministry, but not the one he got. He knew nothing about labor. Neither, apparently, does Mme El Khomri. But the slot was hard to fill. No one of consequence wanted it, because the government is threatening to reform the labor code (mildly), and this will no doubt trigger the kinds of reaction that bring bad press to anyone unfortunate enough to be in charge of the dossier at the time. In any case it is obvious that the reforms, if they come, will be managed by the government's heavyweights, Valls and Macron, and not by the minister of the labor. Who would want a job with little power but plenty of opportunity to be blamed for failure, or even for "success" in achieving "reforms" that the ministry's chief constituency will very likely resist?

Of course Hollande might have chosen to play a different politique politicienne by appointing one of the renegade EELV ex-leaders, de Rugy or Placé, to the post, thus splashily announcing that he hasn't, after all, split the Left by alienating the Greens and further marginalizing Duflot and her "objective ally" Mélenchon. Not doing so, however, allows him to claim that he is not playing la politique politicienne. Rather than move his Green pawns, he can move this other pawn, who has the virtues of being both a woman and a "minority." Win-win. I wish Mme El Khomri nothing but the best in her new job and hope that she survives her meteoric ascent to the position of sacrificial lamb.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Le B-A-BA de la gauche

The Socialist Party attended summer school over the weekend. What did it learn? That "Emmanuel Macron is not on the right" while Manuel Valls, who used to define the right wing of the PS, is somewhere to his left. Meanwhile, on the left of the left, Pierre Laurent and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have fallen out, with Mélenchon's ego apparently boosted by his having precipitated a split in EELV between those who want to form an alliance with him and les démissionaires de Rugy and Placé, who want nothing to do with him.

In short, we are about to experience a typical rentrée, with the left characteristically squabbling, editorialists characteristically trying to make some sense out of the bedlam, and polls predicting yet another victory for the FN in the upcoming regionals.

The unfortunate fact is that none of this frantic positioning will make any difference. The politicians are obsessed with certain shibboleths, which they hope will define them sufficiently to carve out a segment of the electorate. Does one dare tamper with the 35-hr week or not? Is the labor code too complicated for an era that demands agility in order to remain competitive, or does it embody the acquis of decades of social struggle and thus define what it means to be on the left? Must capitalism be destroyed if the planet is to be saved? Etc. etc.

The dogs bark, the caravans pass. In truth, the only actual reforms on the table and with the slightest chance of passing will have little effect on the economy between now and the next presidential election. Valls worked himself into a literal lather, moistening his shirt, in order to say that, with a little luck, there will be some mild changes to labor laws, some minor tax reductions (after the sharp tax increases that marked the first half of the quinquennat), and probably some spending cuts to pay for them (in order to keep Brussels satisfied), thus negating any stimulative effect. Mélenchon and Duflot will court the dwindling pool of the angrily dissatisfied with a revivified ecolo-gauchiste rhetoric, while the really dissatisfied will continue to decamp to the FN. And meanwhile Juppé and Sarkozy continue to duke it out on the right, running about neck and neck.

In short, all's quiet on the western front. The next war will start in September. Tomorrow, in other words.

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Suffer the little children to come unto me": Hollande panders to big and small alike.

This has to be seen to be believed. I mean, shameless pandering is a necessity in the life of any politician, but aren't there laws against exploiting children? Watch the video.

Du rififi chez les Verts

Avec le réchauffement climatique, le réchauffement politique: François de Rugy, ex-co-president of EELV, has quit the party in a lather, all hot and bothered about its alleged radical turn and prospective alliance with the Front de Gauche. Mélenchon and Duflot may strike the world as an unlikely pair, but as the extreme right moves closer to the corridors of power and begins to attract the rising elite (see previous post), the extreme left is ever more determined to mark its difference from those time-servers in government. This, of course, means standing on principle, no matter how unpopular, while denouncing compromise as treason. Excess of principle drove Daniel Cohn-Bendit to distraction and out of the party years ago, and now de Rugy has followed, soon to be emulated (according to DCB) by another party leader, Jean-Vincent Placé. Leaving Mme Duflot in sole charge of her 2% of the electorate.

A fine prelude to upcoming Paris summit on climate change at the end of the year.

UPDATE: Placé is now gone.

The FN Comes to Sciences Po

No one ever accused Sciences Po students of lacking ambition. The institution may have a conservative reputation, but if something new comes along that promises a faster rise to the top and a way to break out of le peloton and reach for le maillot jaune, you can count on a contingent of enterprising Sciences Po-ers to avail themselves of the opportunity.

So it comes as no surprise that the rise and rise of the FN has attracted a nucleus of supporters at France's elite incubator. I mean, look where Florian Philippot has gotten in just a few years. Of course the énarquisation of the erstwhile anti-establishment party has Jean-Marie Le Pen turning in the grave he is not quite yet in. Another sign of the disintegration of the French party system is the diversity of recruitment of these fresh FN cadres. To go by the sample chosen by the journalist, they come in all stripes: former UMP, only to be expected, but also former PS and Front de Gauche. These are not ex-street brawlers of some extreme-right groupuscule. They are apparently young hotshots trying to find their political bearings and seemingly without firm moorings on what used to constitute the two shores of the political world.

Another depressing sign of the times.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Widening and Deepening in French and European Politics

Is this blog dead? Some might think so, but in fact I'm still here. Indeed, I should have more time to write than ever, because I've translated my last book--or so I tell myself. But retirement from translation has seen me working harder than ever on a variety of projects. I'm writing a novel and an historical essay, reviewing books, and developing a computer program that "reads" a dozen European newspapers and presents me with a morning news briefing in four languages, with hundreds of articles automatically classified in a number of categories. It's working pretty well, and I may even make it publicly accessible at some point. But none of this fits very well in a blog space ostensibly devoted to French politics.

So what's up with French politics, as opposed to the blog "French Politics?" Not much, at least on the surface, and that is the problem. Indeed, as I reflect on what's been happening over the past little while, it seems to me that Europe's problems, like the European Union itself, have grown deeper even as they have grown broader. "Widening" is of course in some ways the cause of "deepening" on the problem level, or, to put it the other way around, the absence of political "deepening" has made "widening" increasingly untenable.

Although the problem of the euro and its role in the Greek debt crisis have dominated the headlines over the summer, in the great historical scheme of things I think that the euro problem will recede. The crisis that will loom large in the history books is the refugee crisis and--still more broadly--the great population shift that is taking place before our eyes. Refugee troubles have lately displaced the euro from the headlines. Yesterday Angela Merkel spoke at the scene of violent attacks on recent immigrants by extreme right-wingers in Germany. France, which complains loudly about the burden of immigration, has been much less affected than other countries, including Greece and Germany. Indeed, France's main border control problem at the moment is dealing with refugees who are trying to get out, who prefer the greener pastures they believe await them in England and are camped out in Calais waiting for a chance to cross the Channel. Germany, on the other hand, is on track to receive more than 800,000 refugees this year, more than four times as many as last year.

This is an extraordinary number, a number so large in proportion to the population that any country would have trouble dealing with it. Merkel, to her credit, was quite outspoken in her defense of the refugees and of the need for compassion in this moment of tragic upheaval across a vast swath of territory, but of course talk is cheap. The German government faces enormous challenges, which France can only be thankful it does not yet have to confront. But it needs to do more, if only to alleviate the pressures on the Germans. Indeed, one path toward the much desired "ever closer union" would be to come to an agreement about the sharing of the refugee burden, but such an agreement would probably be even harder to achieve than the impossible but also necessary agreement about fiscal coordination, eurobonds, and the like.

The refugee problem is complicated by the fact that the very countries from which refugees are streaming into Europe (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and sub-Saharan Africa) are also foyers of an ideology that appears to be behind several recent terrorist attacks on European soil. The thwarted attack on the Thalys train last week was perpetrated, we are told, by an individual who had traveled to Syria and been in touch with elements of ISIS.

This situation strikes me as potentially explosive. Its implications for the electoral balance in France are quite worrisome. Marine Le Pen has been somewhat distracted by the contretemps with her father, but I expect that she will begin to exploit the compassion-vs.-security dilemma at the rentrée. The rhetoric will get ugly, and I am not at all confident that the current government will respond well. The challenge may divide the Republicans as well. It is easy to foresee a Sarkozy hard line confronting a disappointingly tepid response from Juppé about the need for "Europe" to shoulder more responsibility.

For the blogger, the problem has become that to write about French politics, one must write about European politics, because none of the salient issues of the day can be confined within national boundaries. And European politics is extraordinarily difficult to write about for the same reason that it is extraordinarily difficult to practice: all its actors are two-faced (in the literal as well as the pejorative sense: they must address both domestic publics and international interlocutors, and they speak different languages in each context).

In any case, I hope to be blogging more once the dog days of summer are over and political life resumes. But I am at the mercy of events. The blog form is perforce episodic and superficial--"event-driven" in the common parlance. But European politics has become increasingly subterranean, a matter of tectonic shifts whose surface manifestations are hard to track until "the big one" comes and permanently alters the landscape. My fear is that the likelihood of a large shock--an 8 on the Richter scale--is increasing daily.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Batman, Proust, and I

A little self-promotion. I can't say I ever expected to share a bill with Batman, but there it is (NY Times Best Seller List):

Hardcover Graphic Books

  1. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
  3. SECONDS, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
  5. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME: SWANN'S WAY, by Marcel Proust, Stéphane Heuet and Arthur Goldhammer

Anyone eager to buy a copy can find it here. It's a nice, gentle introduction to Proust for those who haven't had the pleasure.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Whither Europe?

The lull did not last long. Whatever Merkel and Hollande thought they had accomplished with their Potemkin bailout has now been exposed for the sham it is by none other than Mario Draghi. Draghi announced that the ECB will increase its Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) to Greek banks to €900 million a week, but he also said that Greece "indisputably" needs debt relief, thus reinforcing the position of the IMF (or at any rate its research staff as opposed, thus far, to its policy arm).

L’homme fort de l’institution de Francfort a également clairement pris position dans le vaste débat sur la dette grecque. Selon lui, il est « indiscutable » qu’un allégement de la dette de la Grèce est nécessaire — dette dont le poids représente quelque 180 % de son PIB. « La question sera quelle est la meilleure forme d’allégement », a-t-il ajouté lors d’une conférence de presse à Francfort.
The question is now squarely on the table. The Eurozone as presently constituted does not work. It either needs to cease and desist or face the challenge of establishing central--and hopefully democratic--political control in place of the unworkable combination of deregulated markets, semi-sovereign member states, and ad hoc emergency arrangements. One of the staunchest supporters of the European project, Jürgen Habermas, has conceded that left-wing critics such as Wolfgang Streeck have a point: "Europe is stuck in a political trap," he says. But he disagrees with Streeck that "a return to nation-states can solve the problem."

I agree. For Habermas,
Such tendencies [toward de-democratization and growing social inequality] can only be countered, if at all, by a change in political direction, brought about by democratic majorities in a more strongly integrated ‘core Europe’. The currency union must gain the capacity to act at the supra-national level. In view of the chaotic political process triggered by the crisis in Greece, we can no longer afford to ignore the limits of the present method of intergovernmental compromise.
Indeed. But Habermas simply skips over the formidable, perhaps insurmountable, political obstacles to achieving this "ever closer union." Doubts about the wisdom of continuing with the European project are on the rise everywhere. The problem of the Greek debt is urgent, but the EU moves glacially when it moves at all. Still, denial of the Merkel-Hollande variety is becoming daily more untenable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Eurozone Must Change

I don't have time today for a full post, but I just want to reiterate what I said yesterday. Eurozone leaders are patting themselves on the back for having prevented Greece from abandoning the euro. But their "solution" is merely another futile exercise in temporizing, kicking the can further down the road and Greece once again in the gut. The IMF minces no words on the futility of this maneuver, and Eurozone leaders knew this before they forced Greece to sign the agreement:

Dans un rapport publié mardi mais dont les autorités européennes ont eu connaissance le 11 juillet, soit avant que l’accord qui conditionne un nouveau plan d’aide à Athènes ne soit signé, le FMI estime en effet que la dette grecque ne peut être viable qu’« avec des mesures d’allégement ».
Continuing with this denial is madness. It will end badly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tragedy, Farce, Theater of the Absurd

Even as François Hollande was preening himself in today's 14 July interview on his brilliant role in "saving the euro" ("J'ai dit à Alexis, maintenant, après le réferendum tu es plus fort, mais tu es aussi plus faible"), the IMF was revealing the absurdity of the latest round of extend and pretend:
Greece’s public debt has become highly unsustainable. This is due to the easing of policies during the last year, with the recent deterioration in the domestic macroeconomic and financial environment because of the closure of the banking system adding significantly to the adverse dynamics.
The financing need through end-2018 is now estimated at €85bn and debt is expected to peak at close to 200 percent of GDP in the next two years, provided that there is an early agreement on a program. Greece’s debt can now only be made sustainable through debt relief measures that go far beyond what Europe has been willing to consider so far.
This charade cannot go on. Hollande's participation in it discredits and dishonors him. To echo Matteo Renzi, enough is enough.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Endgame in Greece

It didn't end as I had hoped, but it's important to be lucid about what this episode has demonstrated. European politics will not be the same going forward. I offer some initial thoughts here. The implications for French politics are profound.

Euro wins, Europe loses: From Beethoven's Ode to Joy to Rihanna's S&M

So in the end my faint glimmer of hope was misplaced. It came down to a German diktat, with Hollande sitting in the room probably congratulating himself that he had prevented Wolfgang Schäuble from forcing Greece out of the euro, along the lines I suggested yesterday. But in retrospect it seems clear that Schäuble was prepared to yield on Grexit if nothing else. He got everything he wanted and more. Merkel, when she finally ended her temporizing, proved to be German at heart rather than European.

So the euro is saved, but the euro, it is now clear, is going to be a thorn in Europe's side if not a spike in its heart for years to come. Institutional change is impossible in today's climate of inflamed nationalism. One can even doubt that there is anything left in the European project worth saving. Europe should change its anthem from Beethoven's Ode to Joy to Rihanna's S&M.

Perhaps tomorrow will look brighter.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

An Ingenious Blunder?

As I have written elsewhere, the obvious strategy for Greece in its debt negotiations was to try to split the creditors. This the Greek government failed to do up to the moment of the referendum. The subsequent backtracking from the No position and apparent unconditional surrender made the decision to hold the referendum at all appear to be a monumental blunder. Or was it monumental duplicity? There are some who say that the only reason Tsipras called the referendum was because he expected the Yes to carry the day:
The Greek government and particularly the circle around Alexis, were worn down by this process. They saw that the other side does, in fact, have the power to destroy the Greek economy and the Greek society — which it is doing — in a very brutal, very sadistic way, because the burden falls particularly heavily on pensions. They were in some respects expecting that the yes would prevail, and even to some degree thinking that that was the best way to get out of this. The voters would speak and they would acquiesce.
But what has happened since the referendum is interesting. The creditors have at last been split. Two cleavages are of the utmost importance: between Germany and France and between Schäuble and Merkel.

France has emerged in recent days as Greece's strongest and perhaps only active ally in the crisis. A technical team dispatched from Paris helped draft the Syriza surrender document, which appears to have satisfied the immediate demands of the Eurogroup if nothing else. François Hollande has at last found a voice of sorts. If nothing else, he has made it clear that he would regard a Grexit as a genuine disaster. This puts him at odds with his German Social Democratic counterpart Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the SPD, who wasted no time in saying that the Greek No vote meant that there was no choice but Grexit.

With this declaration, Gabriel aligned himself with Schäuble against Merkel, who is caught in a dilemma of her own making. She does not want Grexit, but her uncompromising position on Greece until now has convinced many in the CDU-CSU that no matter what the Greeks say, they cannot be trusted. Hence even abject capitulation is not enough. If Merkel tries to save the euro by coming to an agreement, she makes herself vulnerable to a challenge from Schäuble within her party and from Gabriel without, but within her Grand Coalition.

Meanwhile, former Greek finance minister Varoufakis, who fled Athens to his island home in order to avoid voting on whether to accept the surrender to the Troika and thus became one of 17 Syriza deputies to abandon Tsipras, claims,  rather bizarrely, that Schäuble's ultimate goal is to intimidate France:
Based on months of negotiation, my conviction is that the German finance minister wants Greece to be pushed out of the single currency to put the fear of God into the French and have them accept his model of a disciplinarian eurozone.
Of course France and Germany are not the only players. There are other countries, some more recalcitrant than Germany. And there is the IMF, which has suddenly become more vocal about the need for debt reduction as part of an overall settlement.

Can one say that Tsipras's endgame has been an ingenious blunder? It has achieved two things. First, it has moved the debate away from the terrain of economics and into the realm of politics. This of course complicates the picture enormously and introduces many imponderables. But there was always something absurd about having the fate of the European project hinge on a debate about whether hotels on Greek islands should pay a VAT of 17% or 23%. At least now there is scope for removing the green eyeshades and beginning to contemplate the real stakes, even if it also means contemplating the abyss.

Second, it has put Merkel in a position where she can no longer temporize. She always prefers delay to decision, and she has been encouraged in her passivity by Hollande's equal and opposite aversion to choice. But Hollande now seems to have been forced at last to stand firm against Grexit, and Tsipras's blunder may have made it more expedient for Merkel to seek an alliance with Hollande in order to wrongfoot both Gabriel and Schäuble simultaneously. We do not yet know which way she will go, but her place in history will depend on her choice.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

French Cavalry Arrives, Deal in Sight?

The NY Times:
The French assistance appeared to be an effort to make sure the Greek proposal,, submitted just before a midnight deadline, would be as thorough and salable as possible to Greece’s creditors and would smooth the way for a compromise on a new bailout package to keep Greece afloat financially and inside the euro.
“There is a group of people who have been sent to help the Greeks, to try to transform words into action,” said a French government official with knowledge of the effort.
France has been the most steadfast major nation in Europe supporting Greece ever since Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was ushered in to power in January on a mandate to repudiate austerity. Paris has been particularly outspoken in recent days about the need for a compromise that would help Greece and hold the eurozone together.
Have I been selling Flanby short? He has pulled out all the stops, and, together with Wolfgang Schäuble's concession that debt reduction is possible, we have the makings of a way out of this crisis:
Wolfgang Schäuble, finally gave a little on that Thursday, admitting that “debt sustainability is not feasible without a haircut,” or writedown of debt, even if he then appeared to backtrack.

Slouching Toward Grexit: That Whirligig Sarkozy, Signs of Life Among the Socialists, European Democracy, etc.

A week ago Nicolas Sarkozy had a clear position on the Greek question: throw the bums out. In his detestation of Alexis Tsipras, he seemed to recover some of the joy of the good old days, when he could direct his heavy artillery against the "socialo-communists." No doubt he thought the Greek mess provided him with a nice issue on which he could both look tough and differentiate himself from Marine Le Pen, for whom Tsipras's "resistance" to the consummately evil forces of the Europe Union is an inspiring example, despite her advocacy of Grexit, which Tsipras says he does not want, as the quickest way to destroy the European Union, which is her ultimate solution for everything.

Alas, problem: Alain Juppé, whose presumably more statesmanlike approach to politics has put him ahead of Sarkozy in the race for the Republican nomination in 2017, also came out in favor of Grexit--rather surprisingly, because one would have expected a more conciliatory position from the former prime minister. So Sarkozy seized the opportunity: he would be statesmanlike, advocating compromise, thus setting himself apart from both Juppé and Le Pen--the two people he needs to demolish if he hopes to regain the presidency.

Meanwhile, Manuel Valls made a rather rousing pro-Greece speech in the National Assembly yesterday. The dormant Socialists have aroused themselves in other ways as well. Claude Bartolone spoke out in favor of compromise. Sapin and Macron are doing their best to slow the seemingly inexorable drive to expulsion. Even Christine Lagarde is now openly calling for debt reduction to be combined with extended austerity, and US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has added to the pressure on the EU to stop short of forcing Greece out.

But yesterday's session in the EU Parliament was not encouraging to those who think that "more democracy" is the solution to Europe's problems. The sentiment among the democratically elected representatives of the peoples of Europe was decidedly anti-Greece.

And suddenly there is political life again in Europe. Instead of a very unequal tug of war between accountants in Brussels and firebrands in Athens, we are at last beginning to hear some discussion of the historic implications of the threat to the European project that Grexit poses. It may well be too little, too late, but at least we will have heard some debate that rises above the level of whether hotels on Greek islands should pay a value-added tax of 23% or 17%.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Disappointment Thus Far

The other day I said it was time for Hollande to step up. Thus far he has not done so. No surprise there. Of course he is constrained by the proprieties of the "Franco-German couple." Public differences must be muted at all cost, lest there be "embarrassment." Of course there is a glimmer of difference: Sapin, Macron, and Valls have all repeatedly said that negotiations should be resumed immediately, but beyond that--nothing. Debt reduction is dangled implicitly, as before, but first there has to be agreement on continued austerity, or else the embarrassing thought of Grexit nastily intrudes upon the tranquil routine of yet another Eurozone summit.

To be sure, considerable embarrassment is evident among Euro-elites, but I have seen little discussion of what should embarrass them most, namely, the IMF's admission that its staff regards the debt as unsustainable. The report has been reinforced by DSK's suggestion that they frankly acknowledge this and by the leak of the NSA taps on Merkel and Schäuble, showing that they, too, knew that the debt was unsustainable and austerity could not yield the desired results as long as 4 years ago. Instead, they are embarrassed mainly by the imminence of what they have been saying until now was unthinkable and potentially catastrophic, namely, Grexit. They should be explaining why they cling to a fiction rather than trying to scramble back to reality. Instead, they're devoting their energies to blame-shifting, failing to recognize that they will all be blamed in the end if things go badly wrong, as they very well could if the ECB cuts off the Greek banks and the Grexit process becomes "disorderly." People who think Syriza has not managed things well thus far should not be relying on them to manage things going forward. "Humanitarian aid" offers are a poor substitute for authentic humanitarian feelings toward fellow Europeans.

And so we stumble on. Of course Greece did not help matters by showing up for today's Eurogroup meeting without a plan. Mañana there will be one, the say, reinforcing the stereotype of the lazy Mediterranean, although the true reason for their tardiness is undoubtedly not laziness but sheer lack of the staff necessary to pull together a proposal after the turbulent weekend and the sacking of former Fin Min Varoufakis (who in my view richly deserved to go: I am not a fan of negotiators who gratuitously insult their interlocutors by calling them "terrorists"). Still, on the substance, Varoufakis has always been correct: debt reduction is indispensable. If only Europe's leaders can come to that realization.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Time for Hollande to Step Up

It has been announced that President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel will meet in Paris tomorrow night. It is now time for Hollande to show what he's made of. There are already signs of a gap opening up between France and Germany. Although Wolfgang Schaüble said before the vote that there would be no immediate resumption of talks no matter which way the outcome went, both Finance Minister Michel Sapin and Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron called for a resumption of talks and no punitive measures.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that there will be no immediate cutoff of the ECB's Emergency Liquidity Assistance and perhaps even an increase in the daily ceiling. This will allow Greek banks to reopen, alleviating pent-up pressures and preventing a massive outburst of Greek anger and recourse to the streets. There will then be time for both sides to work out a strategy.

In my view, if there is an ounce of humanity and a modicum of rationality on the Troika's side, they must agree to talks about debt reduction now that Greece has voted a resounding No and the IMF has admitted that the debt is unsustainable. Anything else would be heartless, vindictive, and likely to fail. If this happens, Syriza will have won a tremendous victory, which I freely admit I did not think possible.

If the Troika refuses debt reduction talks, I see nothing but trouble ahead. This is the opportunity, if ever there was one, for Hollande to press Germany hard, as he should have done in 2012. It is a moment for statesmanship, and, if I may put it bluntly, time to grow some couilles.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Greece Again

I take another crack at the Greek crisis, which grows more worrisome by the hour.

Sarko vs. Les Guignols

It seems that former president Nicolas Sarkozy does not like les Guignols de l'Info, which, truth to be told, can be a bit tiresome as well as tasteless. In any case, his good friend Vincent Bolloré, who owns Canal+, the network home of les Guignols, wants them gone. A little comic relief is welcome in these troubled times.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Charles Pasqua, Bellowesque Macher

Charles Pasqua was a macher in his day. I use the Yiddish word because he always reminded me of a character out of Saul Bellow, a political mobster with verbal flair. He was as corrupt as they come, deeply mixed up in all the magouilles de la République and Françafrique and the Marseille and Corsican milieus from which he sprang. But he had style. Who else could have said, "Without Charles de Gaulle and Paul Ricard I wouldn't be what I am today." Charles de Gaulle needs no introduction, but some of my non-French readers may not recognize Paul Ricard as the patron of the distiller of Ricard, my favorite pastis, drinking which always puts me in the mood of the Midi on a summer day. Ricard was Pasqua's first employer and major backer. I don't have time to write a proper obit, but you can read about Pasqua here and here. Like the taste of Rica', the taste of Pasqua will not appeal to everyone, nor should it, but it brings back the flavor of French politics in a certain era as effectively as pastis recalls the south of France.

I would say rest in peace, but peace was never Pasqua's cup of tea. He was a scrapper, and will no doubt go on scrapping wherever his soul ends up. I doubt it will be the proverbial "better place."

Monday, June 29, 2015

"Guerre de Civilisation"?

After the January terror attacks, Manuel Valls drew praise for his staunch defense of French Jews. His use of the word "apartheid" to describe discrimination against French Muslims was more controversial but still useful as a way of dramatizing one of the besetting ills of French society. But the praise Valls received for his forthrightness seems to have gone to his head. Yesterday he chose to borrow the bellicose rhetoric of the Bush era by asserting that the latest terror incidents indicate that France and the West are engaged in a "war of civilization."

I won't belabor the long history of abuse of the word "civilization." Is it necessary to recall that the mindless slaughter of World War I was cast as a war of German Kultur against French civilisation? Is it necessary to rehearse all the critiques of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, or to point out that, for all its flaws, Huntington's book was a model of subtlety compared to the crude way in which Valls has distorted its central concept?

What exactly Valls intends to achieve by his use of the war metaphor is unclear. France has already instituted a Patriot Act of its own to tighten its security. No one doubts that radical Islam is a danger that must be confronted, but the secret of how to do so successfully remains unbroken, and verbal excess is not the way to decipher it. Self-restraint is not Valls' long suit, but his job is to formulate policy, not to flail and fulminate.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Greece and the Eurozone

My opinion of the Greek turmoil was sought, and, rashly, I gave it to The Washington Post.

Greek banks will not open tomorrow. France's exposure to Greek debt amounts to about 3% of French GDP. Greek default and eventual Eurozone exit would be more costly to France than granting additional writedowns of the Greek debt. A rational compromise should therefore be possible, but both sides are torn among contradictory forces and subject to ideological blind spots. There is plenty of blame to be shared among the parties. I do not choose sides, but my sympathies are with the unfortunate pensioners, hospital patients, and civil servants in Greece who will be--and have been--the first to pay the costs of this five-year crisis.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sarkozy et le style beauf'

Numerous commentators have remarked on Sarkozy's new penchant for standup comedy. It began with his mockery of Hollande's devastating debate anaphora "Moi, président ...," which the president of Les Républicains, if not of the Republic, travestied as "Moi, je ..." The irony of the once-and-would-be-future Hyperprésident mocking the supposed egotism of his successor was delicious. Sarkozy's successful debut as a comedian has apparently encouraged  him to continue in this mode, most recently with his now infamous sketch comparing the influx of immigrants to the flow of water from a burst pipe, which drew much laughter from a crowd of Sarkozystes.

Sarkozy's style beauf' is quite deliberate, reflecting not merely bad taste but strategic calculation. Irreverence toward power, rejection of solemnity, and emulation of the common man's often healthy democratic contempt for elites are perennial features of populist politics. Marine Le Pen's rhetoric, like her father's before her, effectively mines the comic vein. Beppe Grillo is a comedian turned politician, like Coluche before him. Sarkozy is a politician turned comedian. His successful presidential campaign in 2007 depended in part on a desacralization of the overly remote French presidency. Once elected, however, his irreverence deserted him, to the point where he ordered prefects to arrest protesters who heckled his appearances on charges of lèse-majesté. His recent turn to scabrous comedy is meant to take him back to his roots as scrappy outsider, as if he had never occupied the Elysée.

The problem Sarkozy faces is to know how far he can push his provocations without going too far. He has already overstepped the line several times. His plumbing routine was preceded, allegedly, by a crack about François Bayrou ("Le bègue, je vais le crever"). In the primary against Alain Juppé, whose style is anything but populist, Sarkozy will probably feel compelled to push his barbs to the limit, to mock his opponent as a remote, unfeeling technocrat. Since self-control has never been one of Sarkozy's strengths, he may well trip himself up.

Another Word on the Spying "Scandal"

The French ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, is a refreshingly candid man. After the news of American spying on the communications of three French presidents broke yesterday, he tweeted this:
Later, he added that French officials and diplomats are supplied with secure means of communications and told to assume that anytime they use any non-secure means of communications, what they say is likely to be intercepted.

Really, people. Is there anything else worth saying about this? Let's get real.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Top Secrets We All Know

Scoop! The US has spied on the private communications of French presidents Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande. And what did they learn? That Sarkozy is an egomaniac who believed he alone could save the world and that Hollande, having got nowhere in discussions with Angela Merkel on Greece, went behind her back and met with leaders of the SPD, with whom his discussions proved equally inconsequential. As DSK might have said, tout ça pour ça?

La première de ces notes date du 22 mai 2012. Intitulée « Le président français accepte des consultations secrètes sur la zone euro, rencontre avec l’opposition allemande », elle relate une conversation entre François Hollande et son premier ministre Jean-Marc Ayrault à propos de la crise de la zone euro et de la Grèce, le 18 mai 2012. Soit trois jours seulement après son investiture officielle comme président de la République.
François Hollande et Jean-Marc Ayrault discutent de l’organisation, à Paris, d’une réunion « secrète » avec les responsables du parti social-démocrate allemand, le SPD. Après sa rencontre avec Angela Merkel, le jour de son investiture le 15 mai 2012, « Hollande s’est plaint que rien de substantiel n’ait abouti : c’était simplement pour le show. Hollande a trouvé la chancelière obnubilée par le “Pacte budgétaire” et surtout par la Grèce qu’elle a laissée tomber, selon lui, et n’en bougera plus. Résultat : Hollande est très inquiet pour la Grèce », écrit également la NSA.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Leak Metaphor

Nicolas Sarkozy has drawn heavy flak for comparing the influx of refugees to Europe to the flow from a burst pipe:
« Dans une maison (…), il y a une canalisation qui explose, elle se déverse dans la cuisine, a poursuivi M. Sarkozy. Le réparateur arrive et dit j’ai une solution : on va garder la moitié pour la cuisine, mettre un quart dans le salon, un quart dans la chambre des parents et si ça ne suffit pas il reste la chambre des enfants. »
With his characteristic grace and elegance, evidently much appreciated by the UMP--er, Republican--militants who laughed and applauded his remarks, Sarkozy is here denouncing the EU's quota plan, under which each member state would be required to receive a certain number of refugees, based on its capacities.

With his analogy, Sarkozy mocks this solution. The appropriate thing to do, he says, is to cut off the flow. Of course, that would leave the residents of the metaphorical house dying of thirst, deprived of water. The proper response is to repair the pipe.

Branko Milanovic, eschewing such homely analogies, offers a series of thoughtful reflections on the refugee crisis and, more generally, the issue of economic migration from south to north:
It is I think obvious that EU has absolutely no solution to this latest migration crisis. It is simply lost: with no strategy, no policy and no ideas. Not that the problem is easy. But the only approach that might begin to produce something that resembles a solution would be multilateral, not solely amongst EU members (as in the current, strongly contested, idea of allocating migrants among EU member-countries), but in including also the emitting countries from Africa. A general system of both emitting and receiving country quotas seems the only way to impose some order and stability. The quota system may not be able to deal with random events like the Syrian civil war, but it should be able to deal with economic migration.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Consensus in Favor of a Gloomy Status Quo

A brilliant analysis of the functional dysfunctionality of the French labor market by Olivier Galland (h/t Jane Jenson):

Le compromis générationnel dont on vient de décrire les contours induit une préférence pour le statu quo. En effet, le pessimisme sur la société et la défiance à l’égard des politiques sont tels que ces arrangements informels paraissent aux jeunes préférables aux réformes. Ils doutent qu’elles puissent améliorer le sort commun et n’en retiennent que le risque potentiel qu’elles comportent d’amoindrir leurs chances personnelles. La défiance engendre l’individualisme.
Par exemple, l’idée de réduire le clivage entre CDD et CDI, sur laquelle s’accordent beaucoup d’économistes et qui a été à la base de la réforme du marché du travail menée en Italie par Mateo Renzi, peine à s’imposer en France. Un récent sondage le montre bien (Observatoire politique du CSA pour Les Echos et l’institut Montaigne, 2-3 juin 2015). Les mesures qui touchent au CDI n’emportent pas l’adhésion d’une majorité de Français, alors que celles qui visent à étendre l’emploi des CDD sont très largement approuvées. Au fond, les Français préfèrent donc pérenniser et même renforcer le principe clivant du marché de travail que nous connaissons actuellement.

Hollande's "Battle Plan" for 2017

A saturnine temperament like mine is no doubt a disqualification for politics, but I wonder if the phantasmagorical optimism abundantly on display in François Hollande's "battle plan" for 2017 isn't equally disqualifying. The president's plan, it seems, is to do the opposite of what Lionel Jospin did in 2002. Not a bad idea, given what happened to Jospin. And since Jospin went into the election campaign with a record of solid economic growth behind him, Hollande is off to a really good start: he begins the campaign with a record of solid economic failure.

The next step in Hollande's analysis is to note that Jospin suffered from a bit of flagging economic performance toward the end of his prime ministership. Hollande will therefore try to flog the economy into showing a few signs of life in 2016. At that he may well succeed--unless of course Grexit, which appears imminent, sandbags the feeble European recovery. To be sure, Hollande can't be blamed if Greece goes down and the euro is battered as a result, since he didn't lift a finger for Greece and has been an obedient servant of "the Institutions" whose infinite wisdom will have led to this debacle. Blame them. FH had nothing to do with it.

Jospin was of course done in by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Jean-Marie is now on the ropes, tossed out of the FN by his own daughter and beached in the terminal naufrage of old age. So the Hollande plan has that angle covered, right? Nothing to worry about on the extreme right.

Hollande will also try in 2016 to establish himself firmly in the minds of the French as the sole candidate of the Left. He will do this by presenting his plan to collect income tax at the source as the beginning of a "great redistributional reform," despite assurances that the change in the mode of tax collection will lead to absolutely no change in the amount of taxes collected--an interesting notion of redistribution. This will be presented as the capstone of the Great Reforms already accomplished in the period of 2012-2015 and the beginning of the famous comprehensive overhaul of the tax code that Hollande promised in his last campaign but somehow never got around to.

I thought at first that this Le Monde article might be the first episode in its series of Summer Beach Reading, this one obviously entered in the Fantasy category. But no, it seems to be a piece of straight political reportage. The article does note that Hollande's first task will be to "restore a minimal level of popularity." Indeed, I think that would be a good place to begin. It's a long way from 13% to 50%, and it's never too early to get started.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Marine Le Pen Assumes Leadership of Europhobic Right

Marine Le Pen has at last been able to form a group in the European Parliament. She thus takes the lead of the Europhobic Trojan horse within the gates of the European Parliament itself. It seems that the expulsion of her father from the FN eliminated the last obstacle to an agreement. Other right-populist parties that were afraid of associating themselves with JMLP's racist image find his daughter far more palatable--further evidence of the success of her de-demonization campaign. And this new international stature can only reinforce her position at home.

France's Role in Europe's Problems

I have a longish essay out today in Democracy Journal.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Style in Politics: The Naked Toreador

The past week has seen an inordinate amount of talk about Manuel Valls' ill-advised jet jaunt to Berlin to watch a soccer match between Barcelona and Juventus. I will not add to the moralizing. As this article points out, the most prominent critics are frequent beneficiaries of the largesse that the political class regularly lavishes on itself in the form of state dinners, receptions with caviar and petits fours, conferences and retreats in the cushiest of settings, etc. Having enjoyed some of these favors myself, it would be hypocritical of me to cast the first stone, and in any case, it is not only the political class that treats itself well: toutes proportions gardées, the business elite, academic elite, medical elite, judicial elite, etc. do the same. One is often made uncomfortable by the contrast between, say, an academic colloquium on the evils of inequality and the conspicuous consumption that accompanies it. To be sure, in this case Valls is Caesar and should have known that, not to mention Caesar himself, Caesar's wife--and children--must remain beyond reproach. He has paid a price for his lapse of judgment.

More interesting, perhaps, is to reflect a moment on the importance of style in politics. Valls has cultivated a style unique among contemporary Socialists. It is masculine, visceral, and direct. There is no pretense of intellectualism and relatively little flourishing of principles. Pragmatism is its watchword. Every inflection, every gesture is meant to say, "I am a man who gets things done." In this he resembles Sarkozy, but without the nasty undercurrent, the irrepressible Nixonian expression of resentment and persecution. Sarkozy always seems to be (over-)compensating for an inferiority complex, whereas Valls exudes the confidence of a man more than comfortable in his own skin, always on the right foot, and certain of his seductiveness. He taunts the bulls with a toreador's duende.

His lapse has compromised this carefully constructed image. Backtracking from his initial defiance, he appeared before the press in civvies, as it were, without his sequined skin-tight torero costume, and admitted an "error of communication" for which he would pay reparations in the form of picking up the tab for his children's transportation. A small thing--far smaller, surely, than Hollande's rapid descent from "exemplary president," whose motorcade stopped at every traffic light, to national laughingstock, whose motor scooter stopped at his mistress's apartment. But in the age of mediatized politics, small lapses become recurrent images of weakness and dishonesty. The visual media are a double-edged sword: they magnify and personalize power but also mercilessly cut it down to size with a thousand trivial cuts.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

French-American Foundation

On Tuesday I received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the French-American Foundation. My friend David Bell, professor of history at Princeton, made the presentation. I can't say enough in praise of the French-American and Florence Gould Foundations, which have subsidized many translations throughout the years and honored numerous translators with their prizes. The intellectual relationship between France and the United States would not be the same without the work of these two foundations. Below is a photograph of me making my acceptance speech:

Monday, June 8, 2015

Coup de con by Sarko lite

Arnaud Montebourg is a sort of Sarkozy lite. He's constantly looking for the right media strategy, the clever petite phrase, the flattering camera angle that will make him president despite, shall we say, a certain fluidity in his ideological commitments. Like Sarko, he noisily "withdrew" from politics only to plunge back in with even more fanfare than he left, as he did yesterday when he chose to upstage the Socialists' grand finale. Having refused to attend their Congrès, he gave the JDD an interview timed to coincide with its closing day. In it, he said nothing new, patting himself on the back for having opposed austerity form day one without explaining why he remained as minister of economic redressment if he was so at odds with the direction chosen by the president and prime minister. He got the attention he expected, but today Martine Aubry, who has at times been equally critical of the government, upbraided him for his lack of elegance.

«Arnaud a été membre du gouvernement: on ne peut pas être au gouvernement et le critiquer comme il l'a fait. Il y a là une question de morale, ce n'est pas une attitude normale», ajoute l'édile lilloise.
Montebourg frequently says he is out of politics and looking to make a career in business, but either he has no self-control or he is positioning himself to run once again for the presidency if Hollande is sidelined or there is a Socialist primary next year. Coup de comm' or ...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The White Working Class: A More Nuanced View than Usual

The FT has a good story on the Etats-Unis section of Lyon, a mixed neighborhood of immigrant and white working class. Worth reading in full. The bottom line:
Nobody I met expressed support for the FN. In part, that’s because doing so is somewhat taboo in France: most FN voters are shy. But the Etats-Unis isn’t an FN hotbed. While some disaffected people here voted for Le Pen, more have simply abandoned politics. In last year’s municipal elections, the abstention rate in the Etats-Unis was 50-60 per cent, compared with 36.5 per cent nationally.
After Muller had lengthily castigated immigrants, he said something that surprised me: “My son is a half-caste.” It turned out the son’s mother was of Algerian origin. Later, Muller had married another Algerian woman but left her, he said, because her 80-a-day cigarette habit had worsened his health problems. “She used to light one cigarette with another,” he recalled.
But he was losing interest in racism, he said. He thought the word was losing meaning. What counted increasingly were money and tech, not skin colour. “My vision is that in 10 years my little son will come up and introduce me to a robot: ‘Hi, I’m going out with a robot, it’s better than a woman.’” By then the people of the Etats-Unis — poor whites and immigrants alike — may have a completely new set of problems.

Adrift: From Epinay to Poitiers

The Socialists met this weekend in Poitiers to set a course for the next two years, but how do you set a course when your ship has been adrift for lo these many months? Manuel Valls delivered another rousing speech in which he said that François Hollande was a great president, if only France would recognize that incontrovertible fact. Esse ist percipi. Je le pense, donc il l'est. No one seemed convinced, although everyone remained on best behavior. Martine Aubry said nice things. Les Frondeurs were subdued. This is of course because everyone recognizes the disaster looming dead ahead, acknowledges that overt disunity will only add to the carnage, but can't think of anyway to prevent a ship dead in the water from being dashed against the rocks by the prevailing winds. And so we wait for the unemployment curve to turn up, remembering that François Hollande has said that he will be a candidate only if it does. The dilemma is patent: if it does, he will run, and all will be lost, and if it doesn't, he won't run, another, potentially stronger candidate will take his place, but that candidate will be sandbagged by the abject failure of the policies pursued by the Socialists for the previous 5 years. If it doesn't, moreover, all hell will break loose, or, rather, all the ambitious will emerge from their crypts where they remain for now, vampire-like, avoiding the cruel limelight that has revealed the absolute incapacity of the modernized, de-revolutionized, de-Marxized, market-harmonized Socialist Party to imagine a future for either France or itself.

I feel implicated in this failure. This zombie party is, insofar as its liberation from the delusion of le grand soir is concerned, the Socialist Party I wished for during the years of illusory belief in la rupture avec le capitalisme, etc. Only I didn't expect it to become a party of the walking dead. I thought it would become a party dedicated to reimagining the French economy, to overcoming the reluctance of capitalists to shift their investments to industries with a future and to persuading workers not to resist the inevitability of change. I failed to see how much the party's intellectual vitality depended on its revolutionary id, on the mistaken belief that du passé on pourrait faire table rase. I failed to see how the careerist technocrats whom the cunning Mitterrand enlisted in service of his will to power would become fixated on incrementalism and statistics as the antidote to passion and imagination. And now I think we've come to the end of a road that began with the Congrès d'Epinay in 1971. Laurent Bouvet is right: "Le PS est moribond, le parti d'Épinay est mort."

Saturday, June 6, 2015


Your humble blogger has been reduced to a New York Times listicle.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Polls, Sigh ...

Polls are like economists. Take any 2 of them and you'll get 3 opinions. Still, some of my best friends are economists, and polls are a hazard with which any political commentator must contend. So take this poll of whether the PS is "sufficiently left" with a couple of grains of salt. According to L'Obs, the bottom line is that the party is divided neatly down the middle, because 49% of PS "sympathizers," whatever that means, responded "A gauche comme il faut" rather than "trop à gauche" or "insuffisament à gauche." But then we see that among PS sympathizers, 67% think Ségolène Royal is "comme il faut," while 54% say the same of Holland and 57% of Aubry.

And of course if we tried to unpack what any of the respondents, or for that matter any of the political figures they have been asked to judge, mean by "left," I'm sure we would discover hyperfine splitting of the spectral lines, to borrow a little jargon from physics.

In short, we have a poll-induced muddle. Much of what passes for political thinking nowadays takes off from such surveys, but we are not likely to get very far if we follow this course. It might be more illuminating to start by asking what "left" means to those who identify with "the left" today. Because it goes without saying that if "left" means what it was taken to mean at the time of the Congress of Tours or the Popular Front, today's PS is not "comme il faut." But that is the whole question: Que faut-il pour être de gauche et réaliste aujourd'hui?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Meet the Republicans

Nicolas Sarkozy has made good on his promise to rebaptize the battered, beleaguered, broke, and discredited UMP "the Republicans." The Republic, said Adolphe Thiers, is the regime that divides us the least, but the Republicans have been born divided. "It's more than a glitch," said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (I love to write that name!). "For me, it's the resurgence of the old party. That's not what the Republicans should be!"

Indeed not, but how could they be otherwise? There has been no rethinking of the party's ideology since 2012, no reckoning with its corrupt practices (J.-F. Copé, who was at the heart of the corruption, appears alongside Eric Woerth and Brice Hortefeux in a photo of the event--and of course Sarkozy, still under investigation in numerous affairs, is the party leader), and no generational renewal (although Bruno Le Maire has made such renewal the premise of his bid for the presidential nomination).

The sham reinvention of the UMP reveals the contradiction at the heart of France's major political parties. On the one hand they are vehicles of personal ambition and must become cults of personality molded anew around each presidential candidate at five-year intervals. On the other hand they are, as the French like to say, "political families," loose coalitions of individuals who share certain precepts of government. As Alain Juppé boldly proclaimed when booed by a fair proportion of the La Villette audience, "This is my political family, and I will remain part of it no matter what." The problem is that what joins Juppé to the family is no longer clear, now that the family has been remade in the image of Sarkozy.

The audience also booed François Fillon, who has become, among certain Sarkozystes, the bouc émissaire for their hero's failures as president. Fillon is in a tough spot. As ex-prime minister, he can't run away from policy failure as easily as the ex-president can. "Presidential" is a free-floating signifier for the mix of ideology and personality that is supposed to capture the mood of the electorate. In order to be presidential in 2007, Sarkozy made himself reformist, neoliberal, pro-European, and pro-American; his pugnacity came naturally. To be presidential in 2012, Hollande portrayed himself as anti-Sarkozyste, anti-finance, and "normal." To be presidential in 2017, Sarkozy has begun to underscore his nationalism, secularism, anti-liberalism, and anti-"mediocrity" while soft-pedaling the (all too irrepressible) pugnacity (as he tried to do, only partially successfully, in an interview on France2 last night).

In that interview, the most bathetic passage was surely the one in which the former president tried to elicit a tear of sympathy for Eric Woerth's five years of tribulations with the courts. Although the charges against him were dismissed, Woerth hardly emerged unscathed from the saga, and in any case the dismissal of charges against Woerth doesn't affect Sarkozy's various legal entanglements, even though the ex-pres artfully sought to transform the judgment into exoneration of himself, the ultimate martyr of Woerth's persecutors. The sorrows of young Woerth reflect the vaulting ambitions of wily old Sarkozy.