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.