Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Hollande Renounces and Is Renounced, along with Sarkozy

François Hollande has abandoned his proposed constitutional amendment to strip nationality from convicted terrorists. Having torn his party apart for nothing, he has now given up on his symbolic but futile assertion of toughness.

Meanwhile, polling indicates that the French do not want to see a rerun of the 2012 Hollande-Sarkozy presidential contest. They want both candidates to be replaced by others. Quelle surprise!

Friday, March 25, 2016

He's Baaaaaack!

Aranud Montebourg, of course, the irrepressible Arnaud. Apparently he wants to "uberize" politics. By that I suppose he means that he wants to "disrupt" things, to use a fashionable word, or to turn things upside down (rather than stand them on their head, as Marx used to say). I doubt that he has in mind distributing an app for your phone that you can use to call up any policy mix you want 24/7.

It sounds hip and modern, perhaps, but it doesn't mean anything, which makes it a perfect Montebourgian vehicle, I guess. But with Hollande's chance of even being a candidate, let alone being re-elected, sinking like a stone, Arnaud's candidacy has to be taken seriously. Who will he have against him? Valls? Aubry? Macron? Hamon? Royal? At this point I can imagine just about anyone who is left in the PS getting into the race: Moscovici, Rebsamen, Cambadélis ... They've got to scrape the bottom of the barrel, because that's where they find themselves. Nicolas Hulot, anyone? Thomas Piketty? Mélenchon? Poutou? Besancenot? It's going to be a free-for-all on the left, and Arnaud's just the first out of the box. Let's hope it doesn't turn out to be Pandora's box.

Stuck in the Middle with You

My latest for The American Prospect: the center can hold!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sarkozy vs. Hollande: Endgame?

Things are not looking good for either François Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy to serve another term as president. Once again unemployment rose sharply in France--38,400 jobs lost last month, the most in a single month since 2013--and it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how Hollande can meet his own condition for running again--to invert the unemployment curve.

As for Sarkozy, les petits juges he so reviles may finally have caught up with him. The cour de cassation validated the tapping of the burner phone he had rented in the name of Paul Bismuth, on which he is overheard discussing using his influence to obtain a post in Monaco for a court official who had leaked information to Sarkozy's lawyer about another corruption case in which he was allegedly involved. This clears the way for his trial on charges of influence peddling. Of course, the facts are already known--the contents of the wiretap having been leaked long ago--and that hasn't yet been enough to sink the former president. But his trial, if it occurs before the primaries, could affect the outcome. Of course, it might also be postponed until after the primaries, because the informal rule in France is that politicians aren't tried in the middle of an election campaign. But if he loses, he would then surely be tried in the period leading up to the presidential election. If he wins, he could get another postponement. Jail or the presidency--an interesting choice for voters.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Dishonorable Discharge

When politics is drained of substance and reduced to symbolism, even the greatest blunders can be quietly buried. That is what the Senate did yesterday with la déchéance de nationalité, Hollande's folly. By approving a different text from the National Assembly--authorizing stripping nationality only from binationals rather than any French citizen convicted of terrorism--the Senate ensured that neither provision will become part of the Constitution. And that is that.

Since la déchéance would have been an ineffective measure in any case, no one cares. One might see this dénouement as a face-saving way out for Hollande and Valls, except that the damage has already been done. They have shown their readiness to jettison principle and divide the Socialist Party at its very core. To the majority of French citizens who (wrongly, in my estimation) favored a strong déchéance clause, they showed that they were powerless to get it done even after reneging on their previously professed values. They may have saved face, but only after castrating themselves. A monumental error, from which I doubt Hollande will recover.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Rigidity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

As the fragrance of fumigènes once again fills the streets of Paris and lycéens grant themselves another day off from the task of preparing for the bac, Le Monde, mine de rien, publishes a nice graph showing that, according to the OECD, Germany's "rigidity index" is actually slightly higher than France's. In other words, the idea that revising the labor code to make it easier and cheaper for firms to shed workers is not likely to reduce France's unemployment rate (currently 10.4%) to Germany's (4.3%). But never mind that: France will gain a jump in the race to the bottom of the rigidity league tables, currently occupied by the United States and New Zealand.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Madness in Their Method

I could have written this post any number of times over the past forty years. I remember discussing the French government's penchant for concocting its plans in secret, avoiding concertation with potential allies, and springing half-baked reforms on unsuspecting victims with the late Michel Crozier in 1977: that's 40 years ago! Like the Bourbons, les monarches républicains have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Today Le Monde tells us :

Du récent passé, ils ont pourtant fait table rase ou presque. « Ce qui comptait beaucoup, tant pour nous que pour les syndicats réformistes, c’était de montrer que ce n’était pas le même texte qui était changé, mais un nouveau texte, explique un proche du président.
Of course, they could have shown them the original draft a month ago, heard the objections privately, and revised accordingly. But apparently public confrontation is preferable. Perhaps it is the confrontation that is concerted rather than the text: it may be that it serves everyone's interests for "reformist" unions to be dragged kicking and screaming rather than ambling arm-in-arm with the evil "neoliberals."

Or it may be that everyone enjoys flexing a little muscle now and then. First Valls brandishes the threat of 49-3, then the unions brandish the threat of strikes and the students enjoy a little kermesse to remind everybody of the good old days:

Quoi qu’en dise le premier ministre, son choix initial de présenter un texte centré sur l’entreprise, et donc sur le patronat, plutôt que les salariés, tout en agitant la menace d’un recours au 49-3 en cas de blocage parlementaire, a été une grave erreur. « En faisant cela, Valls a avoué à sa majorité que sa loi n’était pas très propre », estime un conseiller ministériel. « C’était mal parti », a reconnu lui-même le premier ministre, lundi soir. Impossible, pour le pouvoir, de risquer le rapport de force avec les syndicats comme avec le PS.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Compromise? Comme d'hab'

Manuel Valls was on TV tonight defending the deal he'd struck with ... whom, exactly? Apparently the CFDT has accepted the government's modifications of the proposed labor code revision. The details are not important to understand at the moment, since they may (or may not) be subject to further modification. The crucial fact is the impression of movement. I say impression, because there may not have been any real movement. The apparent concessions are the kinds of things good bargainers on both sides would have anticipated as useful tokens: signs of flexibility where necessary, but also signs of commitment to principle when the case needs to be made in other quarters.

Of course, key actors remain unconvinced, or give the appearance of remaining unconvinced. The CGT and FO say no as adamantly as ever. The student organization UNEF says Hell, no, through its spokesperson, the unfortunately named William Martinet. Even the Medef is making unhappy noises through Pierre Gattaz--but it would hardly help the government's cause if the bosses said they were delighted.

When asked if further modifications were possible, Valls hedged. Dialogue would continue, he said, but so would reform. So who knows where things stand? My guess is that this will not be a repeat of 1995 or 2006. The students will march again, the CGT and FO will make a last stand, a vote will be taken without invoking 49-3, and the government will whip just enough votes to its side to put the thing across the finish line.

And then nothing will happen. Hollande's popularity will remain in the pits; Valls will sink a bit lower in the polls; Macron, who seems never to be blamed for anything, will rise a little higher, because he is le jeune espoir du moment; and Myriam El Khomri will be forgotten, having served her purpose as fusible for a controversial reform. Employment will not increase significantly. And all attention will turn to the presidential primaries, as the capstone reform of the Hollande regime fades into oblivion along with the reforms of the Sarkozy era.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Obama on Sarkozy

From Jeffrey Goldberg's Atlantic piece on "The Obama Doctrine":

Of France, he said, “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention. This sort of bragging was fine, Obama said, because it allowed the U.S. to “purchase France’s involvement in a way that made it less expensive for us and less risky for us.”

Is Something Stirring in French Politics?

Populism is getting all the headlines, but la classe politique has awakened to the fact that something else is stirring in the French political id. L'Express, now owned by a telecomm magnate (is this the fate of all news magazines?) but still under the editorship of Christophe Barbier and his red scarf, has inaugurated its new look edition with a cover featuring Emmanuel Macron, who is supposed to embody "the reformist spirit" that the magazine hopes will reshape French politics. Other ambitious reformers in the Macron mold--as Barbier imagines it--are Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (and some, including this morning's France Inter editorialist, have taken to referring to NKM as Nathalie Kosciusko-Macron) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What do these three have in common? EM and NKM share a generational bond, but DCB is a comparative geezer (my age, that is). Yet all rather ostentatiously eschew party ties and party ideologies in the name of solving problems. All three share, to some extent, a mind-set that might be called empirical, for want of a better term. It's not technocratic, though, since their idea of political empiricism includes a need to persuade people to vote for their preferred policies rather than to impose them as self-evidently superior because conceived by the finest minds.

L'Express would apparently like to see a party realignment in France. A new center would presumably organize around reformers like this trio, pragmatic, energetic, and more eager to solve today's problems than rehash old quarrels. Polls suggest that there would be a lot of support for such a Party of Pragmatism, which is in a sense what Juppé's high poll ratings stand for, much more than support for Juppé himself.

But the only one of these three who is a candidate at the moment is NKM. Many voices are urging Macron to get in, but for the moment he's playing his cards close to his vest. NKM, on the other hand, is playing a long shot. There's almost no chance she will become the Republican candidate for president, but that's not really what she's after. What she wants is to push Bruno Le Maire out of his current position as leader of the Republican quadras.

Does she have the means to do it? Maybe. Le Maire has lately toughened his discourse in an attempt to appeal to the party's right wing. In the short term, this is a paying strategy, but if the long-term direction of the French party system is toward a realignment in the center, then NKM's persistent opposition to the droitisation of her party could stand her in good stead.

But is she a good politician? She lost the Paris mayoral contest to Anne Hidalgo, who is no heavyweight. This morning on France Inter she seemed unsure of herself in an interview with Patrick Cohen, who immediately invoked the comparison with Macron by asking whether she supported the Macron-influenced Loi El Khomri. Even though this was the topic of the day because of yesterday's demonstrations, NKM hesitated. She clearly favors a labor-market liberalization of the kind envisioned by the law, but she did not want to endorse a measure sponsored by the opposition. But this is Politics 101. There are a hundred ways to say you'd do the same thing as your opponent only better, differently, in a wholly opposite spirit, etc. But it was as though she hadn't anticipated the question--an amateurish mistake. Yet this is the problem for all the politicians who are trying to steer a course between populisms. They have to find a way to say that they agree with rivals about the broad outline of solutions while differentiating themselves on other grounds. In other words, they need to reinvent the concepts of a party of government and a loyal opposition. NKM isn't there yet, and Macron hasn't yet tried. Cohn-Bendit is actually more imaginative than either in this respect, but he lacks the goad of personal ambition and isn't going to make anything happen by himself.

ECB Panics as Austerity Continues to Fail

OK, maybe "panic" is too strong a word. But when the ECB cuts its main rate to 0 and invents yet another acronym for "pushing on a string," in this case TLTRO for "targeted longer-term refinancing operation," you know that central bankers, who intensely dislike rumpling their expensive suits, have been ruffled by the latest statistics. Draghi has tried and failed to light a fire under governments that have thus far steadfastly refused to jettison the austerity that threatens to send Europe into a deflationary spiral, but Charles Wyplosz isn't above issuing another reminder:

D’autres soulignent que les causes de l’inflation faible, telles que l’anémie de la demande, échappent en grande partie au champ d’action des banques centrales, qui en ont déjà fait beaucoup depuis la crise. « Elles sont aujourd’hui les seules institutions au chevet de l’économie mondiale, constate Charles Wyplosz, économiste à l’Institut des hautes études internationales de Genève. Il est regrettable que les gouvernements, eux, aient renoncé à faire leur part du travail. »

A Good Pun Is a Horrible Thing to Waste

I recycle Trump-l'oeil for domestic purposes and bring Tocqueville, Hobbes, and Antoine Lilti into the discussion.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Short Hot Spring?

Is this going to be CPE redux? We've seen this scenario before: lycée students get a bee in their bonnet about a proposed reform in part intended, say its proponents, to break down the insider-outsider job market in France and open up more positions to young people, currently locked out by the high cost and high risk of new hires in an uncertain economic climate. The young people don't believe the reformers' promises, however, and are instead persuaded by the rhetoric of the organizations dedicated to protecting the position of the insiders, namely, the unions.

Of course, that way of presenting the conflict is quite slanted and unfair. One could look instead at the supposedly neutral technical analysis of the labor market by leading economists who favor the El Khomri plan. Unfortunately, the economists pay little attention to some of the more unfortunate details of the proposal, which makes many concessions to employers concerned with obtaining more "flexibility" in hiring and scheduling and offers short shrift to workers more concerned with the "security" side of the famous "flexicurity" nostrum for solving persistent unemployment problems.

There is a serious debate to be had here, but once the students take to the streets, as they are doing today along with union marchers, the issues have a way of getting lost in the fog of fumigènes. I would forecast a long hot summer, except that the track record of the Hollande government has been to cave quickly when opposition turns militant (remember the withdrawal of the ecotax after the attacks on les portiques électroniques by the bonnets rouges). If the protests really get going, it may instead be a short hot spring. It took a month of demonstrations to scuttle retirement reform in 1995, two weeks to scuttle the CPE. Will the Loi El Khomri last even a week?

Saturday, March 5, 2016


Despite my concerns, expressed in yesterday's post, about Juppé lack of skill as a retail politician, he continues to widen his lead over Sarkozy in polls. According to Le Monde, Sarkozy has therefore to decided to emulate the political juggernaut of the hour, one Donald Trump--thus giving a whole new meaning to the epithet Sarkozy l'Américain. But thus far the emulation is only superficial. To be sure, both men are married to former models, but Sarkozy has yet to boast about his anatomical proportions. He has, however, begun to characterize his opponent as "the candidate of the elite." This doesn't quite rise to Trumpian levels of character assassination. He might try "low energy" (although peu dynamique doesn't quite have the necessary punch). If anyone on the French scene can do a convincing Trump-l'oeil, it would have to be Sarkozy, but Sarkozy lacks the requisite experience with professional wrestling and reality TV to be really convincing as a con man.

As I remarked on Facebook, if the Trumpesque idea is to build a wall around France and have the Germans pay for it, they already tried this with the Maginot line and WW I reparations, and it didn't work out that well.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Where Is the New Juppé?

I met Alain Juppé once, before the general strike of '95 and his subsequent disgrace, Canadian exile, and alleged moult from grizzly to teddy bear. The Juppé I met lo those many years ago was anything but humble, every inch the énarque and future prime minister. But they say he found humility in the Canadian woods, along with an inner warmth that would make him a less arrogant and unapproachable figure and therefore a more plausible presidential candidate. But yesterday he put in an appearance at the Salon de l'agriculture, a regular rite of passage for all candidates but especially candidates of the Right, since patting cow's asses was one of Chirac's specialties. And of course Sarkozy's famous "casse-toi, pauv' con" was uttered among the sheep and the pigs, so that avoiding this kind of unforced error has become another test of presidential stature. Yet here is a description of Juppé's manner among the peasants:

Dans la retenue, M. Juppé a maintenu une certaine distance avec le public, se contentant de poignées de main polies et de quelques mots. Peu de visiteurs ont osé l’interpeller directement. Beaucoup se sont montrés impressionnés. Un éleveur a souhaité s’entretenir avec lui pour lui faire part de ses difficultés :« Je ne sais pas si j’aurai le temps… Ecrivez à la mairie à Bordeaux », a-t-il répondu sèchement. Le camp Juppé assume l’opposition de style avec M. Sarkozy : « Les agriculteurs ont besoin d’humilité, d’écoute et de solutions. Pas de star. »
"Write to city hall." Is that any way to win friends? Juppé seems to be flunking Retail Politics 101. His young challenger Bruno Le Maire spent 25 hours at the Salon. Count 'em. Twenty-five. More than one full day nuzzling up to cows, sipping cider, tasting cheese, submitting to selfies with the fans, and listening to the tillers of the soil complain about having been sold down the river by Brussels. Le Maire, apparently, really wants to be president. Does Juppé? I sometimes wonder.

Of course, after last night's Republican debate in the US, Juppé's reserve looks like a genuine virtue. I don't expect we'll be hearing boasts about his dick size any time soon. Donald Trump would no doubt dismiss him as a "loser" and a "lightweight." He's certainly no lightweight, but I wonder whether he's figured out how to avoid becoming a loser.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Sid Blumenthal on BHL

An e-mail to US Sec. of State Hillary Clinton from her informal advisor Sidney Blumenthal contains this line:

 Sarkozy's occasional emissary, the intellectual self-promoter Bernard Henri-Levy, is considered by those in the NLC who have dealt with him as a semi-useful, semi-joke figure.  
Just wanted to get that out there. (The NLC is the Libyan National Liberation Council.)