Thursday, June 23, 2016

Le Pédalo Torpedoed?

At first, le capitaine du pédalo d'État said, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" His prime minister wanted to ban the demonstrations against the labor code reform promised for Thursday by the heads of the CGT and FO. President Hollande, who has been taking a lot of flak for his want of "authority" because of the regrettable images of casseurs running amok and trade unionists attacking a children's hospital, decided that the time had come to show firmness. So he backed his prime minister.

But then the torpedoes starting coming from another direction: not the unions, now, but the political parties, including most especially his own. And Laurent Berger, the head of the CFDT and the one union leader supporting the reform, messaged from a train that the president's decision was "une immense connerie." What's more, his interior minister, the normally unflappable Cazeneuve, opposed the prime minister. Banning the demo would not spare the police but expose it to an even greater risk of completely undisciplined violence. Without a defined route and a union-provided service d'ordre, wildcat demonstrators would be free to roam everywhere, and trouble could erupt at any corner.

So three hours after backing the PM, the president backed down again. Now the demo would not be banned but rather confined to a presumably more easily policed route around the Bassin de l'Arsenal, away from businesses and in an area subject to strict entry and exit controls. The right to demonstrate, whose denial had provoked howls of protest from both left and right, would be reinstated with many professions of respect for the sanctity of protest tempered by reminders of the sacred rights of property, etc. etc.

So, once again, c'est la débandade à gauche. The president is clearly not in command of his own ministers, let alone the country. The labor code reform still hangs in the balance, but its fate has become secondary to the issues of order and authority: Can the government maintain order, at a time when even the militant unions are frightened of the potential for chaos represented by the casseurs, and does the president have any authority left after yet another episode in which his attempt to appear decisive ended by deconstructing itself.

The economy is at long last showing signs of mild improvement, yet it will do François Hollande no good, because the pédalo is sinking under him, having zigged and zagged for four years only to end up sailing in circles around the Bassin de l'Arsenal. To borrow a judgment from General de Gaulle, "Quelle mascarade!"

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Republican Primary

I mean the French Republican primary, of course. L'Express has published a poll showing Sarkozy overtaking Juppé for the first time. OK, it's probably just polling noise, but Juppé's absurdly large lead has been questioned for some time. AJ may always have been "first in his class" and "the best of us," but Sarko is a political animal of some cunning and seems to rejoice in his new role as first apostle of the "Christian" Republic. With Marine Le Pen still keeping her powder dry, it is just possible that Sarko has made some converts among the heathen, especially those who find Le Pen's laïcité and tolerance of gay rights a tad gauchiste for a latter-day Joan of Arc. Juppé may also be losing votes to Bruno Le Maire, whose technocratic and intellectual credentials are almost as impressive as Juppé's but who can also chant the identitarian lullabyes that seem to appeal more to voters on the right than governmental competence. So the contest on the right may be closer than many people think.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Primary of the "Left"

So, there will be a primary of the left after all. Or rather, a primary of the "left." Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who excluded himself in advance, will not be part of it. Neither will the PCF or the Trotskyists. This one will be limited to the "governmental left," meaning the PS, certain Greens (presumably excluding Duflot), and the PRG. Hollande gave his approval, probably because he thinks he will win, even though a recent poll showed that only 7 percent of the French want to see him serve a second term. But he could hardly declare himself the "natural candidate" of the left under these circumstances. So he chose the next best alternative.

But it's by no means clear that he can win even this contest, of his own choosing, designed by his own party. Hollande was a protégé of Mitterrand, who created the party of Epinay, the party that embraced the PCF and chose to have no (overt) enemies to its left. As I have said before, Hollande has been the (unintentional?) gravedigger of that party. But what he's left with is hardly a party at all, just a collection of ambitions. Some of the them are large: Arnaud Montebourg, for example. Others are small, e.g. the senator Marie-France Lienemann, the only announced candidate thus far. But who knows how many others will dip their toes to take the temperature of the waters? There could be many, and each one will take votes from Hollande--if he runs, which of course he may decide not to do if things look really dire.

One thing is sure: the victor, whoever he or she might be, will not be assured of a place in the second round of the presidential. This is Hollande's gift to the part after 4 years in office.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The FN Between Two Stools

The Front National, as Marine Le Pen likes to say, has become the party of the French working class. But it is also a petit bourgeois party, with many members who oppose state regulation of the economy. Some in the party therefore favor neoliberal reforms like the El Khomri law currently under debate in the Senate. The FN filed a number of amendments favoring even more deregulation than the government bill proposed. But this riled others in the party, who would like to see it more involved in the "muscular" opposition to the El Khomri law currently being led by the CGT's Phillippe Martinez and the FN's arch-enemy Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has assumed the mantle of le chef des insoumis.

Plusieurs amendements des sénateurs FN David Rachline (Var) et Stéphane Ravier (Bouches-du-Rhône), à la tonalité très libérale, proposaient ainsi la suppression du compte pénibilité, le doublement des seuils sociaux ou encore la limitation « du monopole syndical ».
Rachline now blames these amendments on his assistants, who he says filed them without his authorization. They were later withdrawn at the behest of the party leadership. But the confusion reveals a real split in the FN on economic policy as well as a considerable level of incompetence in the management of legislation and the definition of a coherent party line.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Il faut savoir terminer une grève."

The words are attributed to Maurice Thorez at the time of the Popular Front, but they remain as pertinent as ever. The CGT, having played hardball with the government in a complicated three-bank billiard strategy, now has to persuade the workers that they have in fact won, at least against the SNCF, where the government is the major stockholder. The problem is that some of the strikers thought they were striking against the El Khomri Law. They now have to be persuaded that the sweeteners offered to les cheminots are enough to justify a cave-in on labor code reform.

The problem with playing hardball is that wild pitches tend to hurt people. A lot of people have been hurt in this episode. Start with M. Pepy, the head of the SNCF. At least that's his job title. It turns out that the SNCF is actually run by the president of the Republic, who excluded M. Pepy from the negotiations with the unions. Never mind that poor Pepy had been working to reform the SNCF for several years. More important things are at stake. The El Khomri Law must pass or François Hollande's reelection chances will be even worse than they already are. So the government was willing to cave (once again) to railway workers, who have the power to keep other workers from getting to their jobs and soccer fans from getting to the stadiums for the Euro championship. So Hollande took over and surrendered on one front in the hope of prevailing on another. Philippe Martinez, having bared his teeth in a snarl, must now recompose his face in a smile. This is France, where the law can be "reformed" as long as the requisite "exceptions" are granted to the people with the clout. This may be the country that invented l'intérêt général, but what is le général, after all, if not an accumulation of particuliers?

Hollande and Martinez: two guys qui savent bien terminer une grève.

Monday, June 6, 2016

La Politique Politicienne

As predicted, Nicolas Sarkozy has enlisted François Baroin, former minister of the economy, mayor of Troyes, and head of the association of French mayors for his presidential campaign against Alain Juppé. Baroin has allegedly been promised Matignon if Sarko wins, and this long-coveted prize was apparently enough to overcome any scruples he might have about Sarko's politics (the enmity between the two men, personal as well as political, goes back to 1995, when they worked in subaltern roles for rival presidential campaigns).

Of course, this alliance will strain the already existing alliance between Sarko and another ambitious young man, Laurent Wauquiez. Wauquiez has embraced the hard right, the xenophobic right, while Baroin, who recently approved of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo's announcement that she will open a camp for refugees in Paris, is meant to demonstrate that la gauche n'a pas le monopole du coeur. Nor does it have a monopoly of cynicism, as the NS-FB hookup demonstrates.

Politics, they say, makes strange bedfellows, but there's nothing strange about this duo, which has been a long time in the making. It's always entertaining to watch the burying of the hatchets, which generally coincides with the sharpening of the long knives. Time to bet on when the first back-stabbing will occur, and who will receive the shiv.

Students of ambition will also want to watch carefully how Bruno Le Maire and Xavier Bertrand, the other two members of LR's Four Quadras of the Apocalypse, handle Baroin henceforth.