Friday, December 30, 2016

The Joy of Vicarious Aggression

An article in Le Monde this morning sent me to the video clip linked below of Georges Marchais, erstwhile leader of the French Communist Party, with interviewers Alain Duhamel and Jean-Pierre Elkabbach.

When I lived in France in the 1970s, I quite enjoyed the Marchais spectacle. We had nothing like it back home, where Communists were pursued by the FBI rather than by high-profile TV newsmen, and political interviews were rather sedate affairs. It was impossible to imagine even the surliest of American pols--Richard Nixon, say--telling Walter Cronkite to get it into "your little head that I, too, have a brain."

George Wallace might have said such a thing, but I never thought of comparing Marchais to George Wallace, because Marchais, after all, represented the "revolutionary" left and Wallace the racist right. But the two had much more in common than I imagined in my callow youth. Not only did Wallace enjoy strong working-class support in certain regions of the country, he also brought cheer to millions who didn't care a fig for his policy agenda (because they never expected him to achieve power) but immensely enjoyed watching a pugnacious and earthy scrapper stick it to the stuck-up mouthpieces of the powers-that-be. Marchais tapped into the same vein of ressentiment. "You think of me as a worker," he says to Elkabbach, that is, as someone who can't think for himself, who is simply a tool in the hands of other men, be it the capitalist boss or the communist ideologue. But in fact you are the tool, and a greater fool than I because you don't understand when you are being used.

"Bourgeois" viewers used to watch these Marchais performances with fear in their hearts, thinking how they would spirit their savings out of the country if that madman ever came to power. But those without savings loved to watch him spar with the anointed representatives of the officially-sanctioned media. Jean-Marie Le Pen recognized the appeal of Marchais's pugnacity and made it his own. He passed the gift on to his daughter, who has learned to sing the same tune in a different key. But this is an instrument that doesn't need to be learned from a virtuoso. Some politicians immediately recognize its potential and play it with skill from the moment they pick it up: Wallace and Donald Trump are cases in point.

The music may be crude, but countries fall into moods in which the only music they can hear is a music undergirded by primitive rhythms and harsh, simple melodies repeated ad nauseam until any finer harmony become inaudible.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mélenchon's Social Media Strategy

Le Monde today has an interesting piece on Jean-Luc Mélenchon's use of social media. Apparently he's reaching large numbers of people via the net, which has turned out to be a medium particularly congenial to his style of politicking. As rhetorician, Mélenchon has many admirers. I confess that I've never been among them. His great set speeches à la Passionaria are often full of fine verbiage larded with historical references, but impassioned nostalgia for the halcyon days of the left fails to work its magic on me.

But Mélenchon's fireside chats on YouTube are another matter. Take this one, in which he analyzes Renzi's failure in Italy. The analysis is tendentious, to be sure. Mélenchon accuses Renzi of playing a double game, in which he conspires with "Brussels" to put the Italian economy in difficulty, then imposes neoliberal labor market "reforms" to put things right. Italians, JLM argues, having seen through the media-abetted subterfuge, voted No in the referendum to put an end to Renzi's double-dealing depredations.

The (familiar) argument is worth what it is worth, but what I want to call attention to is Mélenchon's relaxed style. His speech is familiar rather than high-rhetorical. He is relaxed rather than angry, lightly mocking rather than irritable (as he often is with the press), and in his element, because he is excellent at taking a basic theme and embellishing it with marks of familiarity and invitations to assent. His points come off as obvious truths, and since there is no interviewer to contradict him, one sits entranced by his bonhomie and faconde. There is a charm in his directness. YouTube suits him to a T.

I also sampled the site Blabla 18-25 Ans mentioned in the Le Monde piece but found nothing of interest. I visit JLM's blog and press reviews from time to time, but these are more arduous exercises. Written down, Mélenchon's volubility passes less easily. One tires of reading him, whereas listening to him is like sitting down for an apéro with an amusing friend rather to one's left politically but still diverting to hear.

What actual political effect will the new media have? It's impossible to predict. But there's no question that social media have given politicians who understand them the means to circumvent the filters of the old media, for better or for worse, and to speak directly to new strata of voters not reachable via the old routes. Trump's success attests to this. It surprised everyone, and Mélenchon could well surprise in France in a similar way. He won't be in the second round, but it's not impossible that he will surpass the candidate of the "governmental left" in the first round, and that, in its own way, would be a shock of some magnitude with serious implications for the future of the Socialist Party.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Is Fillon Fading?

A remarkable thing has happened since Fillon's surprisingly strong victory in the primary of the right: instead of receiving a post-primary boost, momentum has drained from his candidacy. It's as if those who voted in the primary, determined as they were to retire the two old warhorses Juppé and Sarkozy, did so without paying much attention to the program of the eventual candidate. With the increased scrutiny that comes of being the winner, Fillon has stalled out. And, lo and behold, the apparent gainer is not the yet to be designated candidate of the left but the unaffiliated centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Polls at this stage are of course to be treated with extreme caution, but there are some striking figures here: for instance, 56% of FN sympathizers would prefer Macron to Fillon. This is not altogether surprising. The FN is the leading party of the working class, and Fillon's platform is decidedly worker-hostile. Macron enjoys even stronger support on the left, despite his having distanced himself from the Socialist Party.

Of course, Macron's problem remains making it to round 2. He would need some of those FN voters to defect in the first round, and he would somehow need to demolish the candidacy of the winner of the left primary and simultaneously reduce support for Mélenchon. But stranger things have happened. If Fillon's inevitability wanes, Macron just might edge him out. Or perhaps it will be Le Pen whose invincibility comes into question. She has been having difficulty raising money for her campaign, and voters may decide, as they did in the regional elections, that taking the final step with the FN is just too much.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Guaino Schools Fillon on Laval--and Austerity

Well, I guess if this is the 93rd most important political blog in the world, I ought to blog something.

How about this? I agree with Henri Guaino. Not something I say very often. But apparently he irked François Fillon by comparing him to Pierre Laval. One can understand why such a comparison would rankle, not that it's likely to shake many voters loose: As Fillon is fond of pointing out, French schoolchildren don't learn any history anymore, so today's voters aren't likely to know much about Laval. Still, if they look him up on Wikipedia, they might be dismayed to learn that he was un collabo. So Guaino, perhaps afraid he might be challenged to a duel, backtracked a bit:

J’ai appris, cher François, que tu t’étais ému de ma référence à Pierre Laval à propos de ton programme économique et social. Je souhaite d’emblée dissiper tout malentendu pour qu’il ne subsiste aucune ombre entre nous.
Nous nous connaissons depuis très longtemps. Assez pour que tu saches que je n’aurais jamais pu songer à faire le moindre rapprochement entre toi et le Pierre Laval des années 1940, celui de Vichy, du déshonneur et de la collaboration. C’est au Laval de 1935, président du Conseil de la IIIe République, et à son programme que j’ai fait explicitement référence, programme qui est resté comme un cas d’école dans les annales des politiques économiques.
Indeed, it turns out that Guaino was comparing Fillon not to the collabo Laval but merely to the dimwit prime minister who opted for a deflationary economic policy in the midst of the Depression.

Now, for Guaino, to be sure, this was a disastrous choice not so much because it deepened the misery of millions of Frenchmen but because it brought on the Popular Front, which Guaino regards as a national catastrophe. I'm rather more sympathetic to the Popular Front, but I have to agree with Guaino about the foolishness of imposing austerity in recession, which is what Fillon is proposing in his platform for 2017. It really isn't very wise.

The lengthy historical detour via Laval 1935 may not be strictly necessary to make this point, but Guaino knows Fillon better than I do (il le tutoie dans Le Monde!), so perhaps he's right in thinking that the best way to penetrate Fillon's well-armored mind is to appeal to his vanity as a connoisseur of French history.

The former prime minister's pride in his knowledge of the past may not be entirely justified, to judge by the rather banal examples he chose in his speech on the subject (M. Fillon, I knew François Mitterrand, François Mitterrand was a friend of mine, and you're no François Mitterrand--at least when it comes to showing off your knowledge of history), and Guaino's lesson may therefore serve him more than he knows, even if he is unlikely to follow his economic advice.

When it comes to following the eminently respectable precepts of German Ordoliberalism down the road to ruin, François Fillon has no peer.

Number 93

French Politics has been named no. 93 of the 100 top political blogs. That might not seem like much to write home about, but the NY Times is only no. 4. And they probably have somebody to brew the coffee for them.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Meanwhile, back in the USA ...

My latest for The American Prospect on Trump's cabinet and leadership style.

Lagarde Found "Negligent" but Goes Unpunished

A court of her peers--other politicians--found Christian Lagarde, head of the IMF, "negligent" in her handling of the award of hundreds of millions of euros to Bernard Tapie back when she was minister of finance but decided to impose no penalty. No doubt this jury of peers recognized that her negligence was an occupational hazard of working for a boss (Nicolas Sarkozy) who knew what he wanted and held her own future in his hands. Neither Tapie nor the Crédit Lyonnais being above reproach, what was a few hundred million among friends? Now Lagarde, standing Fabius on his head, is judged "coupable mais pas responsable." Expedient justice.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Juppé Seeks to Prevent Defections to Macron

Alain Juppé turns out to be a rightist after all. He wants his supporters in the LR primary to support Fillon over Macron. Many apparently feel orphaned by Juppé's loss and are thinking of jumping to the "ni droite ni gauche" candidate. Juppé's lieutenants are trying to head this off. What will be his reward? Prime minister under Fillon?

De quoi le candidat Valls est-il le nom?

Patrick Cohen interviewed Manuel Valls on France Inter this morning. It was a curious colloquy. Cohen, an experienced interviewer (though evidently afflicted with a cold), kept trying to get Valls, an experienced interviewee, to softpedal the boilerplate and say something substantive, but Valls was determined to make the most of his 10 minutes and include every talking point he seemed to be reading from the back of his hand. Until, that is, Cohen brought up the subject of the use of article 49-3 to ram through unpopular legislation, and Valls, to Cohen's astonishment, said he was agin' it--despite having had recourse to the provision several times during his prime ministership. He also said he would eliminate the tax on overtime pay--one of Sarkozy's key measures, which Hollande rescinded. And despite having been prime minister as recently as last week, Valls presented himself as the "anti-system" candidate and declared that in fact journalists like Cohen represented the system.

It was a baffling performance, at once a defense of Hollande's (and his own) record and an attempted repudiation of it, or at any rate an effort to place himself in the position of "outsider" running against the errors of "the government," which he himself headed. Valls' indifference to reality rivals Trump's (which is saying something), yet his style could not be more different. He remains the aggressive, no-nonsense, get-things-done politician he has always been but is now determined to pretend that he had nothing to do with the aggressive, no-nonsense, get-things-done prime minister whose ruthlessness made his president so unpopular and steadily whittled away at his own approval rating while alienating much of his own party--the very party whose members' primary votes he is now courting.

This has all the earmarks of a losing strategy, and I would be very surprised if the next polls do not show a precipitous drop in support for Valls. Le Monde today suggests (h/t Greg Brown) that the Hamon camp sees some hope that he will emerge as the spoiler on the left, in a position to emerge as Fillon did on the right as the candidate of those who reject the early press favorites. Perhaps. My guess is rather that les déçus du vallsisme will desert to Macron, who offers a similar social liberal platform in a rather less off-putting package and who has somehow escaped the need to twist himself into a pretzel in order to justify his role in the Hollande regime while at the same time pretending that as president he would be able to overcome the resistance on the left without recourse to the "brutal" methods that Valls now disowns, as if he weren't their very embodiment.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Polls ... Fluctuate

Le Monde covers the latest CEVIPOF poll with great seriousness, as though a fluctuation of a couple of points were a significant indicator rather than sampling noise. This permits them to portray Macron's small advantage over Valls and slightly larger advantage over Montebourg as major news, while neglecting the fact that Mélenchon is running neck-and-neck with the lot of them. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has slipped a bit behind Fillon, who is enjoying a post-primary bubble. In short, all's quiet on the western front: the second round is still Fillon vs. Le Pen, with nobody from the left even within shouting distance unless by some miracle they settle on a common candidate--in which case their voters might desert them anyway.

And what reason is there to put any faith in polls this year anyway?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fillon Waters His Wine

This was predictable: François Fillon has moderated the assault on health insurance that figured so prominently in his primary campaign.

Elu à la primaire sur un projet de « rupture radicale », M. Fillon a été contraint d’adoucir son discours pour tenter de ne pas effrayer les classes moyennes et populaires. « On ne tient pas le même discours aux électeurs de droite et à l’ensemble des Français », justifie son entourage, en ne voulant surtout pas entendre parler de « reculade ». « Il clarifie », explique un proche. « Il fait de la pédagogie », selon un autre.
"Pedagogy" is a euphemism for flip-flopping, but flip-flopping has a long pedigree in French presidential politicking, where the trick is to unify one's own party by throwing red meat to the base before tacking back to the center to pick up "the median voter," as political scientists like to say. Fillon seems to have wasted no time in adjusting his course and will likely pull off the maneuver without shedding too much support from the base, which has nowhere to go but far right, where Marine Le Pen offers no solace if what they are looking for is a reduction of medical benefits for the "undeserving." 

Le Monde describes the maneuver in these delicate terms:
Pas question d’accréditer l’idée que le candidat de la « vérité » et du « courage » se serait finalement résolu à affadir son « projet de redressement » à tonalité libérale et aux accents thatchériens assumés. Mais, entre la crainte de décevoir une partie de ses électeurs de la primaire, en quête d’une ardeur réformatrice à toute épreuve, et le risque de se mettre à dos une majorité de Français, le candidat a opté pour le moindre mal.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

About That Macron Rally

Emmanuel Macron staged a massive rally in Paris yesterday. His team claims an audience of 15,000. His peroration inevitably calls to mind Howard Dean's famous scream after winning the Iowa primary, which was widely mocked and ended up sinking his candidacy. Macron's will survive. It may even prosper. Many wondered before yesterday whether En marche! really had legs. Apparently it does. This was a good crowd by any standard, and certainly larger than any of the other candidates have turned out to date.

But what about substance? Macron gave a speech of Castro-like proportions: 1 3/4 hours of nonstop talk by the candidate. I have yet to see a full accounting of the details and am not about to listen to the entire speech, but what I have seen is vintage Macron: a clarion call to transform attitudes toward, for example, risk-taking, coupled with a laundry list of mini-measures intended to effect the desired transformation: convert unemployment insurance, say, into "solidarity wages" that would be paid to failed entrepreneurs as well as unemployed workers. Will this produce a French Facebook or a host of corner grocers hoping to compete with Félix Potin? And would a French Facebook, if it arose, resolve the deep problems of the French economy?

These are no doubt the wrong questions to ask. The right question, at least for the short term, is whether the patented Macron formula of lofty goals coupled with long litanies of wonkery will mobilize the masses in sufficient number to drive Mélenchon and the eventual Socialist candidate from the field, catapulting Macron into a position where he might edge out Fillon for the number 2 spot. Or, failing that, will he make a strong enough showing to start in pole position for the left's 2022 nomination?

I think it's a long shot for both, frankly, but I have to concede that Macron does seem to have galvanized a segment of the population to embrace him as the candidate of "change"--always a desirable position in an era when publics everywhere seem convinced that the status quo has run its course and something new is required. I just can't read how large a segment of the population that is. On my Facebook feed this morning I read a post by a young entrepreneur who attended yesterday's rally and was convinced. For him, the long speech was a Saul on the road to Damascus experience. But commenters immediately retorted that Macron was a "bobo populist," whose appeal would soon find its limits. On the other hand, I've heard from two older friends, one a French diplomat, another an academic, that Macron represents precisely the mix of youthful energy, decent values, and deep familiarity with the workings of the economy that for them represents a revival of hope in an otherwise dismal field of candidates.

Macron took pains to differentiate himself from Fillon by insisting that he would leave the legal work week at 35 hours, for example (although he then called for firm-level negotiated modifications), and promised to increase the number of civil servants rather than eliminating 500,000 of them, as Fillon as said he would do (but Macron did not say how he would pay for them).

We shall see. I myself have yet to succumb to the Macron magic. His economic nostrums do not strike me as particularly insightful or likely to succeed. His energy and intelligence are not in doubt, but the breadth of his base remains to be seen. Thus far, his most obvious qualities are his ambition and his chutzpah. Neither is particularly endearing. But perhaps I expect too much from politics in an era that seems determined to yield too little.

Friday, December 9, 2016

One More Down on the Left

La sénatrice Marie-Noëlle Lienemann annonce au « Monde » qu’elle renonce à être candidate à la primaire de la gauche

« J’ai décidé de ne pas être candidate à la primaire de la gauche », annonce dans un entretien au « Monde » la sénatrice de Paris, qui dit vouloir éviter « un éparpillement des voix ». 

First Hollande out, now Lienemann. Not that anyone ever gave her the slightest chance. Still, simplification helps. I wouldn't be surprised to see Hamon drop out as well before the first round. That would give Montebourg a boost.

Investors Worry About French Political Risk

Despite polls assuring that a Le Pen victory remains highly unlikely, investors have become wary of French sovereign debt. The spread between French and German bonds has increased by 10 basis points since September. The anxiety in the bond market is focused primarily on the outside chance of a Le Pen victory next way. But there is also political risk in a "safe" Fillon win, which would pose less of a threat of Frexit than a Front National victory but conceivably more of a threat of widespread worker resistance to Fillon's proposed overhaul of the French social safety net, including drastic modification of both the pension and health insurance system, as well as labor law reform. Given the massive demonstrations against the Macron and El Khomri laws, these fears are not exaggerated.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Macron Rejects the Siren Call of Unity

Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that he will not accede to demands that he bring his maverick candidacy within the broad tent of the Socialist Party. And why would he do otherwise? The moment he stuck his nose inside the tent, the people now trying to woo him with the siren song of Unity will begin to whack away at it. Outside, he's still a novelty; inside, he's just another contender.

His only worry, as the new kid on the block, is assembling the required 500 parrainages. Apparently, he doesn't have them yet, so he's appealing to France's 35,000 mayors to help him out. Of course, most of those mayors belong to political parties that have an interest in locking him out of the race, so he may have difficulty getting them. He has had no trouble raising money: although he enjoys substantial backing from wealthy donors, he claims that most of his money comes from small donations. But getting the parrainages of élus, a peculiarity of the French system, may prove to be a greater obstacle.

Macron's decision makes good strategic sense. Inside the Belle Alliance Populaire primary, he and Valls would divide the social-liberal reformist vote, with the likely result of making Montebourg the winner. Since Valls is bogged down by all of Hollande's baggage, Montebourg may still win the primary even with Macron out, leaving a 3-way contest between him, Mélenchon, and Macron for the "left" of the political spectrum in round 1, but then Montebourg and Mélenchon would whittle away at each other's base, allowing Macron perhaps to top both and thus positioning him nicely for a 2022 presidential run, which may well be his real objective. Even if Valls is the candidate, Macron could still beat him in round 1, with the same result: demonstrating his inevitability for 2022.

Or, then again, the Macron bubble may well collapse. It's really hard to say. But at this point he seems to be playing the hand he's been dealt as well as can be expected.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Vincent Peillon? Really?

As if the Socialists don't have enough problems already, Vincent Peillon is preparing to get into the race. If you've been following the PS for a while, you'll remember Peillon as the spokesperson for Ségolène Royal's campaign in 2007 and then as minister of education in the Ayrault government.

He's the son of a Communist banker, who headed the first Soviet bank outside the USSR, and the great-grandson of Léon Blum--quite a pedigree for an authentic man of the left. (CORRECTION: Jacob Soll points out that his great grandfather was not Prime Minister Léon Blum but Dr. Léon Blum, famous in his own right but not as a prominent Socialist--apologies for the error). Though involved in numerous efforts to reform the PS, his quiet intellectual demeanor never seemed to catch on with the rank-and-file. He comes across as a friendly schoolteacher, a French Mr. Chips, and in fact he has been teaching school since his retirement from active political life, which came about when Manuel Valls came to power: Peillon had gotten along well with Ayrault, another schoolteacher in politics with a similar style, but he and Valls were oil and water, and Valls got rid of him. Peillon fled to Switzerland.

Now he's back, in part, apparently, to make trouble for Valls. Peillon had been prepared to support Hollande, but he can't stomach Valls. Some say that disgruntled Hollandistes have egged him on precisely to make mischief for Valls. Who knows.

Peillon's candidacy will probably go nowhere, but it is one more symptom of the terminal state of the PS. There is not even a pretense of seeking to unite behind a candidate through the primary process. The primary is being taken rather as an occasion to express everything that has been repressed since Jospin's defeat. The prevailing wisdom had been that in order to prevent a repeat of 2002, differences had to be kept muted in order to prevent another fatal dispersion of energies. Hollande was the father of this crack-papering approach to politics, and his failure, along with the probable elimination of the left from the second round again this year, as in 2002, has put an end to the wish to project even an illusion of comity. All voices now want to be heard, and Peillon, who had chosen silence for the past two years, has suddenly recovered his powers of speech.

As an historian, Peillon has worked on the origins of laïcité and published a polemical attack on Furet's revisionist history of the French Revolution. One can imagine how such subjects might figure in the campaign he may be preparing to launch. The schoolmasterly tone will be an interesting alternative to Valls's hectoring. One takes one's amusement where one can. If nothing else, a Peillon candidacy might offer a few weeks' diversion in what otherwise promises to be a depressing holiday season of intrasocialist bloodletting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Valls to Cazeneuve

Bernard Cazeneuve is the new prime minister. The volume at Matignon will be dialed down from 12 to 6 or 7, but security policy will become no less firm. Otherwise the governmental changes appear to be cosmetic. The phrase "shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic" is not only a cliché but also too kind to what remains of Hollandia, because the Titanic had survivors, while the good ship Hollande will sink without a trace.

Unless, of course, Manuel Valls pulls off a miracle and somehow arrives at the Elysée. Current polls rate his chances as slim to none. He is running behind both Macron and Mélenchon. Of course he hasn't yet begun whatever strategy he has in mind to separate himself from the president and project a vision of Vallsism different from that of Hollandism, so he is still saddled with all the baggage of the ancien régime. But it's hard to see how he can possibly shed this baggage. It must be galling to Valls to see Macron, who should be sandbagged by the same set of policies, leap out ahead with his winning smile and softshoe routine. But that, for now, is the reality. Polling at this stage (and perhaps right up to the end) is to be viewed warily, however.

Still, in the end, no poll has any of the "left" candidates getting anywhere close to the second round as long as the three principals remain in the race, so it's all moot, except perhaps in positioning for 2022.

Friday, December 2, 2016


After President Hollande took himself out of the presidential race yesterday, I was surprised by two reactions: first, the surprise of many commentators that he would have done so, and second, the hostility to the departed.

I was not surprised by Hollande's decision, because as I have said all along, if he had one area of supreme competence, it was the reading of polls. He knew that he would lose if he ran, and lose badly, even in the primary. He knew that the primary debates would degenerate into a dissection of his presidency, which he would be able to defend, as he defended it yesterday, as at best a prelude to better times ahead. Whether prescient or delusory, such a defense never wins in politics, and, as I said, if there's one thing Hollande understands, it's politics.

As for the hostility, it seems pointless to me. Hollande did what many politicians do. He said whatever he needed to say to get elected, assuming that once in power he could do as he pleased (insofar as the traffic would bear) and be justified by the results. When the results failed to materialize, he temporized, hoping that something would turn up. It never did--except for two terrible and tragic terror attacks, which he briefly thought might give him the presidential stature he had been unable to achieve in any other domain. The effect quickly faded, however.

Some observers are now praising Hollande for lucidity and courage. His unprecedented withdrawal (no president of the Fifth Republic has ever shied away from seeking a second term) is supposed to set the stage for a renewal of the Socialist Party and perhaps even for a united left and a chance of making the second round. This is not true. The Socialist debate will remain what it has been for decades: a contest between social liberalism, this time represented by tough-talking Manuel Valls, who has reduced the "social" component to la portion congrue, and some form of resistance to that nebulous doctrine, be it Mélenchon's, Montebourg's, Hamon's, Aubry's, or what have you? At this stage it's not worth trying to pick apart the small differences sustained by these various narcissisms of the left of the left. It might be more useful to ascertain whether a sufficient social base exists to support them.

Valls' biggest handicap is that he will have to defend Hollande's bilan, but he can finesse this by denouncing Hollande's hesitations and saying that he will do what needs to be done with greater vigor and less head-scratching. One challenge will be to fend off Montebourg on his left within the primary and Macron on his right outside. Here I will go out on a limb: once Valls starts skirmishing with Macron in earnest, Macron's bubble will quickly deflate. I don't personally like Valls' style (nor do I much like Macron's), but my sense is that outside the Paris media bubble Valls will be the much more popular candidate. In any case, we should find out quickly. And Macron may now be under increased pressure to join the primary of la Belle Alliance Populaire. He no longer has the excuse of not wanting to bite the hand that fed and petted him (Hollande's). He really has no alibi for remaining un cavalier seul.

Valls' more difficult challenge will be Montebourg, who is adroit, clever, and surrounded by all the PS scribes and thinkers who dislike everything Valls represents. I find Montebourg's economic policy vague and unconvincing, but it will have a superficial appeal to many and, if presented well, can be made to seem a more uncompromising alternative to what Fillon is offering.

So it will be an interesting primary ahead, but not the ultimately clarifying one that the PS needs. Neither Valls nor Montebourg has a sufficiently clear alternative to the European status quo. Both remain politicians who fly largely by the seat of their pants. At the end of all this, the result may still be what it would have been if Hollande had remained in the race: the disintegration of the Socialist Party and its replacement by two or more new political formations.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Hollande Is Out. What Now?

As I predicted in my previous post, François Hollande announced today that he will not be a candidate for his own succession. In a televised speech, he defended his bilan except for la déchéance de nationalité, which he recognized as a serious (and costly) error. He said that throughout his presidency, which one might describe as a calvary, he retained his lucidity, and he correctly concluded that his presence in the race would divide the left and pave the way for its elimination in the first round of the presidential election.

His face told the story even before he reached its dénouement. He was a man in pain, announcing his failure, desperately hoping that history may yet convert it into a victory.

Valls will now surely enter the ring, and I would guess he will immediately surpass Arnaud Montebourg--but not by much. The unity of the left is still far from assured. Mélenchon, I wager, will never drop out. Macron's bubble may collapse, but then again it may not. And Bayrou may still decide to get in (although I suspect that if Valls is the candidate, this becomes less likely, whereas if Montebourg is, Bayrou will almost surely run).

Little by little, the murk is dissipating, and we can begin to see the contours of the presidential race.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The State of the Race

Here is my latest piece on the French presidential race. And here is a scoop not in the article: my read of yesterday's luncheon summit at the Elysée is that Hollande told Valls that he is not going to run for re-election.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Bartolone's Hail Mary

Claude Bartolone is now calling for a unified primary of the left that would include Mélenchon, Hollande, Valls, and Macron, along with the smaller fry (Montebourg, Lienemann, etc.). Thomas Piketty did the same thing last January, when it might have done some good, but to no avail. Such a primary is clearly the only chance of averting a hard-right government come next May, be it Fillon's or Le Pen's (barring a miraculous Juppé victory tomorrow). One understands Bartolone's reasons (including his pique at Hollande for unflattering comments about him in the now-notorious book that has sunk his approval rating to a stunning 4 percent). One understands his impatience to get Valls into the race before Mélenchon and Macron divide what's left of the left between them in a cage match between the Passionaria and the Nureyev of oratorical fancy-dancing. One understands his desperation.

But it must be recognized as desperation. Whatever you think of Valls, he has stuck with Hollande past the bitter end. And whatever credit you give Hollande for perseverance, you have to wonder what voices he is listening to that persuade him he still has a chance. They can't be human voices. Nobody gives him a ghost of a chance.

And why would Macron want to throw in with la Belle Alliance Populaire (gad--what a name!) when his chief claim to the presidency is that he is not one of ces Pieds nickelés? He would immediately sink himself by attaching these rusty old sea anchors to his swift (and frankly frail) bark. Why would Mélenchon, the Don Quixote of gauchisme, dampen the image he has worked so hard to create of himself as the lonely knight of doleful countenance?

And what would be the end result? A series of debates in which the candidates, unlike the yea-sayers of the right, attacked and bloodied one another without mercy for all the host of unforgivable sins of which each is guilty in the eyes of at least one of the others: neoliberalism, irrealism, fatalism, reformism, capitalist-roadism, financialism, imperialism, Hollandism, Strauss-Kahnism, Putinism, communism, social-democratism, Blairism, Third-Wayism, Thatcherism,  affairism, defeatism, etc. "Circular firing squad" would be a euphemism for this crew.

But perhaps Bartolone is right to make the suggestion in the hope that some fairy will spread her dust and transform one of this hapless lot into a contender. Miracles happen. Look at Fillon, who was given up for dead after losing the presidency of the UMP to Copé. And Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. If that could happen, who knows what will go down in France? Perhaps even the re-election of François Hollande.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Fillon vs. Juppé

Last night's debate was surreal in several respects. Fillon's lead is all but insurmountable: not only did he beat Juppé by 16 points in round 1, but the third-place finisher, Sarkozy, advised his supporters to vote for Fillon, as did Bruno Le Maire.

Juppé's only chance this coming Sunday is therefore to mobilize a massive turnout of left-wing voters who would prefer him to Fillon's no-punches-pulled neo-Thatcherism. One might have expected him, therefore, to appeal to this electorate, but instead he offered them bupkis (if your Yiddish is weak, you can look it up). Expressions of mutual respect between the two men were frequent: "You've been my minister, François, and I've been yours" (le tutoiement was adhered to throughout). He pointed out, rightly, that the differences between his program and Fillon's--at least on paper--are largely differences of degree rather than intent: Fillon will reduce the number of civil servants by 500,000, Juppé by 250,000, etc. Needless to say, such honesty and politesse are not likely to give enough hope to Billancourt to fill the ballot boxes with votes for the quintessential énarque, who, though he has learned to moderate his contempt for the untutored, still confuses retail politics with a sans-faute performance on an oral exam.

As for those orals, both candidates were superb. Rhetorical polish is not in short supply in the Hexagon. Well-oiled glibness allowed both men to slip past embarrassing episodes in their past: Fillon described his "first demonstration" as a protest against an English teacher he considered incompetent, neglecting to mention that he was expelled for tossing a tear-gas grenade into the classroom, while Juppé prefaced an answer to a question about how he would deal with an indicted minister by pointing out that he himself had been not only indicted but condemned for corruption, prompting his "old friend François" to come to his rescue by saying nothing he had said should be taken to imply that he regarded "Alain" as anything less than superbly qualified to become France's next president.

In short, Fillon's strategy was to present, in true Thatcherite manner, a radical program for rolling back France's social model as though there were no alternative, while Juppé's strategy was to acknowledge the rationale for such an approach to governing, dissenting only to the extent of suggesting he would take a more pragmatic line and attempting to raise doubts about Fillon's commitment to protecting abortion rights and other "values" issues. I doubt that this will come anywhere near overcoming his deficit.

Hence François Fillon is likely to be the LR candidate. I have already said what I think this implies for the emergence of a center-left opponent. But what about Marine Le Pen? Fillon's victory was certainly unexpected, so she will need to revise her strategy, but I don't think she needs to do much. A part of la droite populaire, which failed to turn out for Sarkozy, has probably already deserted to Le Pen. Fillon is the candidate of the provincial bourgeoisie, of traditionalist Catholics, of family values. This worked in the LR primary, but only 4.7 million voters participated. Fillon's Thatcherism will be anathema to left-wing voters, to the millions of youths and union members and civil servants who took to the streets to protest the much milder Hollande reforms. If Fillon carries through with his promises to come in with guns blazing in his first hundred days, it's not hard to envision a long hot summer in 2017 (disrupting my vacation plans, I might add, but let's not be petty). It will take only a small pivot for Le Pen to present herself, as she already has to some extent, as the ultimate defender of the "French social model," at least as concerns les Français de souche. Welfare chauvinism will be her line against uninhibited market competition. And it is not impossible to envision this line as the winning ticket in round 2 against a Fillon who seems unwilling to make the slightest gesture to mollify left-wing voters set adrift by the chaos in their camp.

I am therefore deeply pessimistic. And I note, further, that Vladimir Putin now has two candidates in the French election, Fillon and Le Pen. Not to mention a friend in the White House. How many more refugees will be driven out of Syria by this prospect, and how many will reach Europe if Erdogan makes good on his threat to open the gates once again? The implications for the stability of the European Union do not need to be spelled out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What Next?

The next week in French politics promises to be interesting. Alain Juppé has to decide how fierce an attack to mount against Fillon, who stands on the brink of victory. Juppé can make an open appeal to the left by pointing out that Fillon's policies promise to magnify a hundredfold the tentative baby steps toward a liberalized market economy represented by the hated Lois El Khomri and Macron. Or he can conclude that his best course is to let the left mobilize itself if it so chooses while he saves himself for what? A ministry in the Fillon regime? Would he even want it? it's hardly even a choice.

This is therefore the last shot of his career, and he should go all out for it. But on France2 last night, he seemed, to coin a phrase, "usé, vieilli, fatigué" (as Jospin famously said of Chirac in 2002, for you youngsters out there). He was trying to appear relaxed, at ease, unfazed by his defeat and its unexpected magnitude. But he failed. The cameras had caught him earlier dining with his family at Allard, a Parisian eatery I know well. Like Juppé, it is respectable but a bit "usé, vieilli, fatigué." The same segment of the news showed Fillon donning a crash helmet for a spin around the track: his hobby is racing automobiles. The contrast was unmistakable: Fillon, young, dynamic, a bit dare-devil, burning rubber off his Michelin tires, vs. Juppé, contented bourgeois at his Michelin-rated table.

Evidently, the TV news producers think it's over, then. What if they're right? Can Fillon's Thatcherism à la française really be made to seem the policy for French renewal merely by wrapping it in a Nomex racing suit and buckling on a crash helmet? Surely not in 2016, with the entire world in revolt against neoliberalism. In short, Fillon's stunning victory locks the "respectable right" into a set of policies already in disrepute and rejected by substantial segments of electorates in all the advanced democracies. Marine Le Pen must be licking her chops.

Can Fillon stop Le Pen? I'm not at all sure. She will blast him--rightly--as the representative of everything left-wing protesters have been demonstrating against for the past five years. And there will be no sugar-coating of sauce Hollandaise (to mix metaphors).

Meanwhile, a gaping hole opens in the center of the spectrum. Several contenders are available to fill it. First of all, Emmanuel Macron, le jeune espoir. He has several things going for him: youth, charm, a reputation for speaking his mind, and a je ne sais quoi of "modernism," as a French official put it to me the other day. He also has serious disadvantages: no party, an ambidextrous identity of ni droite ni gauche, association with the hated financial sector, which made him wealthy at a very young age, and a tendency to come off as just a bit too smart and cocky.

Then there is Manuel Valls, if he decides to get in. He has cultivated the left-center terrain that Macron wants to occupy for years. But he stuck with Hollande longer than was healthy for a presidential run. If he had broken with the president when Macron did, he would be in a better position now. Both men remain tainted by their long association with Hollande.

Montebourg, it is said, could beat Hollande in the primary should the president decide to run, but he is a bit too far to the left of center to attract the votes of the right that a centrist candidate would need to win. He might team up with Mélenchon to attract the votes of the far left, but there aren't enough votes there to put him across the finish line, and Mélenchon would definitively alienate everyone on the right.

And then, as my friend Greg Brown forcefully reminded me this morning, there is Bayrou, the perennial bridesmaid. It has been rumored that he had a deal with Juppé, whom he backed for president, to become prime minister if Juppé won. Bayrou also said that he would run himself if Sarkozy, whom he detests, won the primary of the right. With the Sarkozy dragon now slain but Juppé on the verge of elimination, Bayrou could decide to run himself. It's more than a little late to mount a candidacy, however. And Bayrou is also a bit usé, vieilli, et fatigué, even if it's true that Fillon, who has been in politics longer than either Juppé or Bayrou, is hardly the ingénu, despite his exploits on the racetrack.

If 3 or 4 of these potential "centrist" (Macron) or "left-centrist" (Valls, Montebourg) or "right-centrist" (Bayrou) candidates get in as Juppé substitutes, you have quite a mess in the center and a potentially divided vote, ensuring a Fillon-Le Pen face-off in round 2. If the center coalesces around one candidate, my guess is that it will be Macron, who, for all his weaknesses, combines the advantages of political virginity with important establishment backing. But until now I have thought his media-driven candidacy would collapse when put to the test of retail politicking. He has many vulnerabilities that Le Pen could exploit, but he also has the important advantage of being more acceptable to voters on the right than any of his potential rivals (except possibly Bayrou, but Bayrou doesn't have the wind in his sails as Macron does).

Frédéric Lefebvre-Naré, how do you see a Bayrou candidacy?

In short, it's a free-for-all, and a Le Pen victory is looking less unthinkable to me today than it did last week. That is of course terrible news. The worst, as Donald Trump might say. Not nice.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fillon's Victory

Here is the long published version of the analysis I sketched out last night.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Preliminary comments on Sunday's Republican primary

I was in an airport when I learned of Fillon's stunning victory. On the flight home, I began to write a column for The American Prospect, which will probably be ready tomorrow. In the meantime, I offer these preliminary thoughts:

... The final result came as a shock even to observers aware of the last-minute Fillon surge. The candidate given up for dead only a few weeks ago won by a margin of 16 points over Juppé, while Sarkozy finished a distant third, six points behind Juppé.

What happened? Were the polls simply wildly wrong? As in the case of the Brexit and Trump votes, pollsters had picked up the last-minute change in the temper of the race and correctly gauged the direction of the trend toward the winning position or candidate, but in each case they made the wrong prediction, and in the case of Fillon the final margin was far greater than the predicted one and well beyond the usual margin of error. Of course primary polling is extremely difficult, especially when the party in question has held no previous primary, making it hard to predict which respondents are likely to vote. But poll watchers, severely chastened now three times in a row, must refrain from drawing quick conclusions.

Where does this leave the race for the Republican nomination? Having failed to predict Fillon’s victory, I should hesitate to hazard a guess, but his lead is large enough that it will presumably be difficult for Juppé to overcome. Unless, of course, it galvanizes left-wing voters, who may have stayed home in round one of the primary, to turn out in large numbers in order to put Juppé over the top. Fillon is well to Juppé’s right, so this is not impossible.

Can Fillon’s victory be put down to a “Trump effect?” Perhaps, in the sense that a Juppé-Le Pen matchup would in some ways resemble the Clinton-Trump contest. Juppé is a solid centrist technocrat, well-known after many years in politics, but linked to policies that were unpopular in the past, such as increasing the legal age of retirement. Fillon is also closely associated with retirement reform, but he is younger, and by the time he overhauled the French pension system, opposition had dwindled. Juppé’s reform effort is remembered for triggering a month-long general strike and turning the country upside down, whereas Fillon’s reform passed relatively easily. In style Fillon has nothing in common with Trump: he is soft-spoken and disarmingly mild in demeanor, though beneath the surface he is a tough and savvy political infighter.

The big question, of course, is whether Fillon, if he emerges as the candidate after next week’s run-off, can defeat Marine Le Pen. This was to have been Juppé’s role, and polls have consistently shown him as the candidate most likely to stop Le Pen—if not the only one able to do so. Because Juppé was so widely expected to win, there has been less polling regarding a Fillon-Le Pen face-off in the second round. But as yesterday’s vote showed, the polls may not be accurately reflecting the volatile mood of the electorate in any case, and the final round is still a long way off.

In any case, the left is in a shambles, and no left-wing candidate is likely to make it to the second round of the presidential election. President Francois Hollande’s approval rating has fallen into the single digits, and he is likely to be beaten if he decides to run in the upcoming Socialist primary.

There is, however, one major source of uncertainty on the left. If Juppé is knocked out by Fillon, a space opens up in the center of the political spectrum, and two other men could vie for the role of center-left opposition: Prime Minister Manuel Valls and former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. Valls, out of loyalty to the president, has not yet declared himself a candidate, but he is chafing at the bit, especially now that Macron has thrown his hat in the ring. Macron, who has never been elected to anything, declared his candidacy in the week before the primary of the right, and this may have contributed to Juppé’s lackluster showing, as voters who might have cast their ballot for him decided that the much younger and still untarnished Macron would make a better standard bearer. Polls show Macron doing well, but once again one has to wonder what the polls are really reflecting. He has no party behind him, which will complicate a presidential run, although he has raised a substantial amount of money from both small donors and large contributors.

It would take a foolhardly prognosticator to speculate about what French voters are thinking. The Front National is already the first choice of working-class voters in France and has been for some time, so it is hard to see her picking up more votes from that quarter as Trump is thought to have done in the United States. In order for Le Pen to win, she has to draw votes away from the center-right Republicans. Does the unexpectedly large margin of Fillon’s surprising win indicate a surge of anger among Republican voters, a rejection of the notion that what they really want is a staid and relatively pro-European alternative to Le Pen’s xenophobia and anti-EU rhetoric? Will they then take the next step and abandon Fillon for Le Pen when they get the chance next year? Such speculation goes too far. But Sunday’s vote is highly unsettling. It suggests that, just as in the UK and the US, something deeply troubling is roiling under the surface, perhaps ready to erupt with explosive force.

If that happens, the EU will almost surely collapse. The Western democracies will all have swung far to the right, except for Germany, where Angela Merkel has just announced that she will seek a fourth term. Matteo Renzi is about to lose a key referendum vote in Italy, which may force him to resign. Come next year, the political universe may look far different from what most observers would have imagined a year ago. The consequences of these changes would be incalculable.

And yet, and yet … this primary vote may well mean nothing. The Republican primary voters are not a good sample of the general electorate or even of the entire right-wing electorate. And one shouldn’t exaggerate the differences between Fillon and Juppé. If either is elected, it’s quite likely that the other will receive an important ministry. Their platforms are not that different. The styles of both are subdued, dignified, and correct. They are more similar to each other in manner than either is to Sarkozy, much less to Trump. So the significance of this vote, however surprising, should be kept in perspective.

One final note: Nicolas Sarkozy’s political career is probably over, and his legal problems may well land him in jail.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Two More Articles about the US

On truth after Trump, here, and on the evil demons of our nature, here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

En marche, mais où?

Emmanuel Macron will announce his candidacy tomorrow. Why choose this moment? Perhaps it was planned this way all along, but I think we can discern a possible Trump effect. Macron has concluded from Brexit and Trump that this is the year of the anti-system vote. In terms of policy, he represents a fairly standard Third Way, neoliberal, "structural reform," "supply side" agenda, but in terms of optics he is the new guy on the block, the broom that promises to sweep clean, toss out the scoundrels, and start politics anew. So this is the moment to strike, with the world still reeling from the Trump shock.

It also puts Macron's hat in the ring ahead of Manuel Valls, who is no doubt itching to get in as François Hollande's approval rating drops toward zero. And it steals a little of Alain Juppé's thunder, planting a flag in the center of the spectrum ahead of Juppé's likely win in the impending Republican primary.

Will Macron's high poll ratings stand up now that he is in? I have been skeptical until now, but this has been a year of shocks. The media have loved Macron until now, but they may turn on him. Young ambition is always vulnerable, no matter how good the story line of the bright, ambitious young subaltern turning on his mentor along with the other conspirators: Et tu, Brute?

With Macron now in the ring, will Juppé seem less inevitable? Will fewer left-wing voters cross over to vote in the Republican primary? Will this be enough for Sarkozy to squeak by? What will Bayrou do, and will it matter?

A very complicated presidential contest just got even more difficult to handicap. Macron moved now precisely in order to maximize the confusion, which he hopes will work to his advantage. He may be right.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Paul Magnette

It's hard for an American to think right now about anything other than the dark times ahead, but for that very reason I think it's important to mention one small glimmer of hope across the pond: the emergence at long last of a lucid and intelligent social democratic voice, that of Paul Magnette, the prime minister of Wallonia, who is interviewed today in Mediapart (unfortunately paywalled).

Magnette is worth paying attention to for many reasons. For one thing, he knows the difference between populism and social democracy:

La différente entre un socialiste et un populiste de gauche, c’est que nous avons vocation à gouverner la société. Je dis cela tout en étant convaincu que la fonction tribunitienne est très importante.
And note that even as he recognizes the difference, he also pays tribute to the power of the populist voice to articulate grievances that parties of government fail to heed at their peril.

Magnette is also praiseworthy for his ability to recognize the coercive tactics that the institutions of the EU employ to eliminate political "frictions" in order to ensure that the machine runs smoothly and without impediment. He concedes the power of those tactics and never imagines that a small region like his can smash the machine and take its place. But he also sees how the very need to keep the machine running smoothly creates opportunities that can be exploited in order to strengthen the forces of opposition until the balance of power can be reversed.

Et puisqu'il n'y a plus que vous, vous allez forcément céder. On a dit non. Et là, ils nous disent qu'ils veulent bien discuter, mais uniquement jusqu’à telle date, et sous telles conditions, et uniquement sur tels aspects. Tout l'enjeu pour nous, tout au long des discussions, c'était de rouvrir l’agenda, et de rouvrir le calendrier, pour trouver à chaque fois la manière de ne pas se laisser enfermer. 

And then, having seized the opportunity, he was smart enough not to overplay his hand. Knowing the he could not have everything, he concentrated all his energy on getting something worth having.

To be sure, CETA was relatively small potatoes. But there is at least hope in the emergence of such a strong and intelligent social-democratic voice. I just wish he were French, where the Socialist Party is desperately in need of someone who is neither nostalgic for some vanished Old Left nor hell bent on "modernizing" by adopting a Third Way that, après le déluge, is smelling equally foul.