Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"Parfois, résister c'est partir"

Christiane Taubira has resigned (or "been resigned," as they say in French). It is surprising that this didn't happen earlier, in view of her public opposition to the very unfortunate nationality stripping measure that Hollande wants to enshrine in the constitution. I stated my criticisms of this proposal earlier and expressed my surprise that a president could tolerate such open defiance. Now, as the amendment comes up for debate in the Assembly, she is going. Whether she left or was pushed out doesn't matter. She tweeted:

Parfois résister c'est rester, parfois résister c'est partir. Par fidélité à soi, à nous. Pour le dernier mot à l'éthique et au droit.ChT
She was the last minister truly de gauche, and with her departure the government now fully assumes its neoliberal, sécuritaire orientation. Taubira's replacement will be Jean-Jacques Urvoas, who is closely associated with what has been called "the French Patriot Act." Who in the audience at Hollande's 2012 campaign speech at Le Bourget would have thought we'd wind up here?

Taubira will be remembered primarily for the gay marriage bill, which she ably shepherded through the Assembly. The vicious attacks on her person by racists of the extreme right will also be remembered. The opposition branded her laxiste, and after the departure of Montebourg, Hamon, Filipetti, et cie. she stood as a symbol of a rapidly fading memory of a different and possibly imaginary Socialist Party. Her departure will make little difference to policy. Hollande and Valls had already set their course. Now we will see how well they have judged the political winds. My guess is, not well at all.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sarkozy's Mea Culpa

Several readers have asked me to comment on Sarkozy's new book. I haven't read it and have seen only excerpts in the press, but it's probably safe to assume that they've extracted the most significant bits. My impression is that this "confession," like every other move Sarkozy makes, is a carefully calculated part of his communications strategy.

He had hoped to be embraced as the party's savior, returning from ascetic retirement to bring order to a chaotic scene. That hasn't worked out. Juppé continues to best him in poll after poll. Other party leaders have tired of his imperious ways and are openly or covertly scheming to get rid of him. He is well aware that many Republican voters regard his presidency as a failure. So he has decided to change tactics and present himself not as a condottiere on a white charger but as a victim and sinner, betrayed by people he trusted (Buisson, Fillon, Copé), scorned by the media, and himself a fallible sinner (Fouquet's, the yacht, the "casse-toi pauv' con" episode--j'ai abaissé la présidence).

His base is increasingly made up of elder Catholics, so casting himself as a scorned sinner may seem like a wise strategy. Absolution may be slow in coming, however. He's adopted this pose before, often in interviews with the press. Expanding the confession to book length was probably a mistake. He still needs the strong man image, and while the occasional short confession is tolerable in a republican monarch, the extended one tends to magnify the artifice and create an impression of desperation, which is probably accurate.

The most amusing moment, I thought, was his assertion that he married Carla quickly in order to spare her prurient speculation in the press about the nature of their relationship. This is the same Carla who crooned "j'ai 40 ans et trente amants ..." I don't think she was overly worried about being portrayed in the press as a scarlet woman.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Michel Tournier

Michel Tournier has died at the age of 91. I translated Le vent paraclet.

The Other Shore

I don't usually comment on US politics, but some of my friends encouraged me to do so here, in case anyone is interested.

Hollande, tapis!

Hollande has pushed all his chips to the center of the table. Tapis, as they say in poker. All in.

In fact, he doesn't have many chips left. His big bet comes to €2 billion, or 0.1 percent of GDP. As stimulus programs go, that's a sneeze in a hurricane. And the policy mix is a hasty retread of the flat tires of yesteryear. Bonuses to firms for new hires, a pittance for a retraining program here and a prep-for-the-workplace program there. Some more tinkering with the labor code. Und so weiter.

The only real politics here is whether to remove the floor on negotiated overtime payments, as Macron wants, which would effectively end the 35-hour week, or retain the floor, as Myriam El Khomri wants. But the 35-hour week has been reduced to an occasionally useful political fiction, a sentimental reminder of the days when it was still possible to entertain aspirations to a different reality. It has been whittled away over the years, and the average French worker puts in considerably more hours on the job each week. The only question is how much they'll be paid for their time, and the constant tinkering with overtime pay now serves mainly as a way to obfuscate actual wages under a camouflage of supplements and bonuses to offset charges and deductions. It's a shell game.

Commentators and political opponents lost no time in denouncing the measure as a last desperate attempt by Hollande to inflect the unemployment curve, which he foolishly made the sine qua non of his candidacy in 2017. Who cares? If unemployment comes down a tenth of a percent, will it make Hollande a weaker candidate than if it goes up a tenth? All it will do is spare him the embarrassment of literally renouncing his promise. "I know I said I wouldn't run unless unemployment came down, but of course you never really believed I meant it, did you?"

The real problem with Hollande is of course that he still thinks this is the way to play the game. His only chance to resurrect himself--and it's a small one--is to say that he's discovered that the poker game he needs to be playing is a high-stakes one and not penny-a-pot. But it's not in his character, and character is destiny.

Monday, January 18, 2016

NEH Summer Seminar on Tocqueville

Come study the world's greatest book on democracy at the institution founded by America's greatest democratic thinker. Over two mid-summer weeks on the iconic grounds of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, 16 NEH Summer Scholars will explore American democracy with Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America as guide, with two leading experts on Tocqueville and his thought: Arthur Goldhammer (Harvard) and Olivier Zunz (University of Virginia).

For more information, and to apply, please visit the seminar web site.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Natives Are Getting Restless, or Is It Just the Media?

It is the mission of the Fifth Estate to fill the doldrums between presidential elections with wild speculation. So the JDD is stirring up the pot. What if Emmanuel Macron quit the government and ran for president? Nothing simpler than to commission a poll, and, lo and behold, when you ask disgruntled voters if they'd go for a new face to replace the les vieux et usés, they say, "Why not?" So 53% say they'd like to see him as president. More than Valls, who gets only 48%, but less than Juppé (57%). Hollande and Sarkozy of course come in last (leaving aside poor Cécile Duflot). Ho hum.

Meanwhile, Valls made a controversial appearance on On n'est pas couché, the infotainment vehicle that allows pols to show what regular people they are by fielding nasty questions with more or less grace (your regular person quotient can go up either way--regular people get angry when attacked, but you get elegance points for keeping cool under fire).

And so le bal continue. Nobody can quite imagine another Hollande-Sarkozy face-off, but nobody can quite see how to get from where we are to somewhere else either, unless, of course, we can arrange some kind of "primary" election that will more accurately reflect what the pollsters would like us to believe "the people" actually want, which means wresting control of the primaries away from the party apparatuses and turning them into a kind of pre-general general election. A plebiscite, in other words, and France loves plebiscites, which flatter its monarchical yearnings by creating the illusion of an acclamation of the monarch by the general will. Huzzah! If only France had places like Iowa and New Hampshire, it could imagine a purer way of choosing its next republican monarch.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

And the Revolt Against Sarkozy Is Well Under Way

A new poll shows Juppé leading Sarkozy 38-29 among people who say they will vote in the Republican primary.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Revolt Against Hollande and Valls Has Begun

"This is not a revolt, Sire, it's a revolution." So Louis XVI was informed when he asked about the ruckus in the streets of Paris. We are not quite there yet in this year of our lords 2016, but we are inching, if not toward revolution, then at least toward a political upheaval that may spell the end of the Socialist Party stemming from the era of Mitterrand, which has recently been the subject of numerous reminiscences.

One sign of the shifting mood is the call for a "primary of the left"--meaning all the left, not just the PS--signed by a number of public intellectuals, including several I know well. Another is the 16-2 vote by the Socialist members Assembly's Commission des Lois to reject the déchéance de nationalité proposal that has caused such a furor on the left.

Since the déchéance proposal is clearly a symbolic proposal, whose practical effect is more or less universally acknowledged to be nonexistent, one has to ask why Hollande and Valls took this step. The only possible answer is political. They have given up on the classic Socialist strategy of running left and governing right. This was Mitterrand's formula, and Hollande faithfully executed it in 2012. But Hollande has no remaining credibility for a run on the left: his "hatred of finance" has been used up, his only remaining "leftist" cover is Taubira, who opposes him openly and defiantly on déchéance, and the economy has refused to respond to Macron's medicine.

Exploiting the somber post-terror mood in a France where the only rising political force is on the extreme right is his only hope. He calculates--and I hope he is right--that 30 percent of the first-round electorate has now permanently deserted the mainstream for the FN but that the FN has now reached an upper limit. Hence 70% of the electorate remains to be divided between the other contenders for a second-round slot. The far left and the ecologists have been whittled down to la portion congrue, let's say 10% at most. That leaves 60% to be divided among Socialists, Republicans, and centrists--and depending on the platform and the circumstances, the centrists might be induced to throw in with one of the other two. Hence Hollande's best shot is to do everything possible to ensure that the candidate of the Republicans is someone as unacceptable as possible to people in the center of the political spectrum--thus Sarkozy rather than Juppé (or some other less "marked" candidate).

Evidently he has concluded that the "security" theme is crucial and has chosen to mark his territory by taking a "hard-right" stand on a meaningless symbolic issue, stealing Sarkozy's thunder. So far it hasn't worked at all. It has sown chaos among Socialists while calling attention to the uselessness of the measure as a real contribution to improved security. This is yet another of those "debates," like the Sarkozy-era debate over national identity, that stirs a great deal of hot air while signifying nothing. Meanwhile, potentially more useful measures remain unconsidered, and energy that ought to go into scrutinizing what the police have been doing with their new powers under the state of emergency is instead wasted on high constitutional rhetoric applied to what is in fact une basse oeuvre politique.

The result of all this is obvious in the call for a broadened left primary and the vote of the Commission des lois. If Hollande intends to provoke a recomposition of the political landscape, he is succeeding admirably but losing control in the process. If we must have a party realignment, people are saying, why should the hapless and ineffectual Hollande be part of it. Valls, I presume, is hoping that when the smoke clears, he will be the one to pick up the pieces when Hollande, discovering himself to be a general without an army, is forced to drop out. But his calculation is probably as erroneous as Hollande's. He is now so thoroughly identified with the Hollande presidency that he will sink with it. Fin de règne, fin d'époque ... and then what? My crystal ball is as murky as it has ever been. But if I were the palace whisperer, I would be echoing the words that Louis XVI heard in 1789: "Ce n'est pas une révolte, Sire, c'est une révolution."

Democratic Deficits

Another piece of mine in The American Prospect.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Sarkozy Effect

Politics is a performing art, and style matters. For all his faults, Nicolas Sarkozy is a consummate performer--a method actor who inhabits his roles. When he referred to racaille and promised to clean them out with un Kärcher, or when he challenged a heckler perched atop a crane to come down and have it out man-to-man, he gave good theater. His tough-guy act worked because it wasn't his only mode: he could also taunt interviewers, cite statistics, wax lyrical when equipped with lyrics by Guaino, descend from a shout to a whisper, speak of his marital troubles and subsequent recovery of bliss ("avec Carla c'est du sérieux") with affecting naïveté, reel off statistics with the best of wonks, and think on his feet.

But the act grew old, and it was partly for relief from the ubiquitous "hyperpresident" that voters turned to the man who promised to be un président normal whose motorcade would stop at traffic lights and who would turn the TV screen back to the entertainers. But that act also wore thin, and now the tough-guy mode seems to be making a comeback. Or at any rate this is what occurred to me as I listened to a couple of interviews with Bruno Lemaire. On the printed page Lemaire comes off as anything but a tough guy. He's a literary fellow, un germanisant, whose first book, written while he was Villepin's chef de cabinet, sought to create the impression of a sort of poet astray in politics, craving time for quiet contemplation but sacrificing himself for the greater good. Although the sincerity of such a self-portrait can always be doubted, the presentation was appealing.

Now, however, as a Republican presidential candidate and challenger to Sarkozy, Lemaire seems to have invented a new persona for himself. The printed page is a "cold" medium, whereas the airwaves are "hot." One has only a few minutes to make an impression on the viewer or listener. And Lemaire seems to have adopted the high-decibel approach of Sarkozy at his angriest.

The problem is that he's not as good an actor as Sarkozy. He doesn't know how to modulate his vituperation. He gives the impression of an aspirant who has spent too much time with his media advisor learning the tropes that are meant to convey forcefulness, resolution, and implacability. It's as though he feels he must compensate for his background as man of letters and énarque.

Alain Juppé is under no such compulsion. He rather makes a point of displaying his mellowness, trying never to raise his voice (though not always succeeding). But his campaign manager, Benoist Apparu, makes up for it by being even more truculent than Lemaire. Wauquiez has a similar style. This is the Sarkozy effect: younger Republicans (excluding NKM, of course) seem to think that the way to seduce the base is to come on like gangbusters. But there's a phoniness about all of them that grates. Perhaps they'll grow into their roles. More likely they'll adopt new ones when they realize that the "authentic" Sarko was itself such an artifice that it can't be recreated by anyone who lacks the innate gifts of the born con man.