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 ...