Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Macron Makes His Move

Today's the day, apparently. If you didn't know this was coming, you haven't been paying attention. Macron's been en marche since before he landed in the limelight. Ambition is his middle name. Why this young man, of all the aspiring talents, is the one to have captured the public imagination is a bit puzzling. He stands for everything the populist groundswell of the moment is supposed to have been stirred up by. He's made his share of gaffes. He's been on both sides of the political divide, having served on the Attali Commission under Sarkozy and in the Valls government under Hollande. He was a banker--not exactly a guarantee of popularity--and had made a bundle by the time he was 35. He lacks the popular touch. And yet there he is, riding high in the polls--for the moment.

Whether the moment lasts once he is definitively in the ring and no longer merely un jeune aspirant remains to be seen. He may well go pschittt. I half expect him to. But thus far he has led a charmed life, and miracles do happen in politics. Especially when there's money behind them, and Macron has been lining up support in that department for a while now.

I'd love to know what makes him tick, but I have to say that right now I'm mystified. The "brilliance" vaunted by the press seems to lie mostly in a gift for repeating the conventional wisdom with a certain boyish ingenuousness, as if he weren't quite aware that it was the conventional wisdom. He has the perfidious streak that successful French politicians often exhibit, the gift for emitting petites phrases guaranteed to win media coverage, as when he let drop last week that "To be honest, I'm not a socialist." It naturally made all the JT 20H, as he knew it would. It was a harbinger of today's announcement.

But really, anyone who wants to be president needs more. Show us what you got, Macron.

As for the man who is president: le pauvre François, 3 ex-ministers running to unseat him, his Republican rivals capturing the front pages and the talk shows, and that famous unemployment curve finally beginning to turn just as the media focus all their attention on the substantial peloton of people out for his skin. And meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has been in a more or less silent sulk since the regional elections. Expect her to start turning up the heat come la rentrée. Hollande is the piñata for all these ambitions. Expect the floor of the arena to be littered with his stuffing for the next six months.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sarko décomplexé

It's becoming harder and harder to remember that Nicolas Sarkozy was once a Balladurien--a neoliberal centrist. Then he was Sarko l'Américain--a muscularly compassionate conservative in the style of George W. Bush. In 2012, with the help of Patrick Buisson, he became a sort of Le Pen Lite. And now, all on his own, he is bidding fair to become Le Pen Heavy. Take a look at the list of positions he embraces in his new book: end family reunification, suspend the droit du sol (jus soli), end economic migration, ban the veil in the university, create an exceptional tribunal to try terrorist crimes, draconian sentences for recidivists, assign sentence determination to prosecutors rather than judges, etc. The old Sarko reappears in some relatively mild economic proposals, such as raising the legal age of retirement to 64 and eliminating payroll taxes on overtime wages. But he also wants to eliminate the wealth tax and the 35-hr week altogether.

This is a "no-enemies-to-my-right" platform. And it might just work. Juppé's rocket has been a bit of a dud thus far. Retail campaigning isn't really his thing, and mushy centrists seem to be drawn to the new kid on the block, Macron, whose fan dance at least keeps them guessing, whereas Juppé is just the same old same old (as well as old, literally). Of course Sarko faces the handicaps of strong negatives and various affairs under investigation (but so does Hillary Clinton, and she's winning).

Sarko has been more or less forced into cette surenchère sécuritaire by the fact that terrorism has everybody in France more or less unhinged. The moderate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was on the radio this morning calling for an outright ban on Salafism in France, and Valls is not far behind. With such tough competition, Sarko has little choice but to go for the gold: Tuez-les tous, le bon Dieu reconnaîtra les siens. I used to think my fellow Americans were champions at losing their sang-froid, but I now see that the French have overtaken us.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Des Machiavelli à la petite semaine

Le Monde today begins what promises to be a very interesting series on how the Loi El Khomri was pushed through the Assemblée. It is a tale of small-time Machiavellis manipulating one another for the benefit of an audience--the public--that had seen through the ruses long ago and therefore stopped paying attention.

The chief lion-tamer was one Boris Vallaud, adjunct secretary general of the Elysée, aka M. Vallaud-Belkacem (he is the husband of the education minister). His advice to those representing the government: "Pretend to believe that everyone is willing to compromise." But of course compromise was out of the question, because the president had already made up his mind that there had been enough discussion: "Article 49.3 is anti-democratic when a bill has not been thoroughly debated and amended. ... I did everything possible to strike compromises and make amendments that would allow the Socialists to support" the proposed law. But there was still that recalcitrant group of malcontents, who would now have to be disposed of by whatever means were available.

And what about the street protests, the student marches, the union protests, Nuit Debout? All written off: "I never believed we were facing a powerful movement," the president told Le Monde. "The leader of this movement was [Philippe] Martinez [head of the CGT]. There was nobody else."

By contrast, Laurent Berger, the leader of the CFDT, is credited by Hollande with being "very clever," although the executive recognized that the text of the bill went beyond what the CFDT was prepared to accept. The strategy for circumventing this last pocket of serious opposition was to agree to 500 or so of the roughly 5,000 proposed amendments, but with a list of amendments from the more intransigent frondeurs that were ruled off the table in advance.

Now, all of this is probably a reasonably accurate description of how the process looked from the executive side. But the confession that the last six months of politicking around the bill was largely a sham, the government having already decided that it had reached the end of its tether in private negotiations and would force through the bill that it had unilaterally decided was the only reasonable outcome, confirms the alienating and widely shared suspicion that French public discourse has become a public-relations veneer designed to put the best face on decisions that have already been taken behind closed doors by a small group of insiders.

What is missing from the published account is any discussion of the merits of the reform itself, the reasons for accepting certain amendments and rejecting others, or the intended results, to be used as benchmarks for evaluating the law's effectiveness. To the insiders, all of this is no doubt too obvious and tedious to recount. Or perhaps, in the heat of combat, the desire to win simply took over, and it became pointless to count the casualties or to weigh them against the anticipated value of victory. After such a battle, is it any wonder that the public is morose and dispirited?

Meanwhile, Arnaud Montebourg, in addition to announcing his candidacy for the presidency, devoted much of his speech to attacking Hollande's record as "indefensible." Having stripped his annual Burgundy shindig of its former moniker, "Festival of the Rose," he put the PS on notice that he may run as an outside candidate if the conditions of the primary are not to his liking. And the chief of those conditions is whether Hollande will choose to be part of it. Clearly, Montebourg is hoping that Hollande will decide not to run, which would leave him well-placed to make an inside run against the less charismatic Benoît Hamon. But if Hollande does run, Montebourg can still run outside the party, thus adding yet another nail to the electoral coffin in which the president finds himself immured. Of course, Montebourg has little organization and no money, so he really needs the party more than the party needs him, and Cambadélis may decide simply to call his bluff. But this maneuver merely proves that he is yet another small-time Machiavelli, playing what he thinks is a clever game before a public that is largely uninterested and universally unimpressed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Burkini Controversy

Once again, France is giving free rein to its ongoing psychodrama in regard to Islam. This latest round points up the hypocrisy of the previous episode involving the burqa. Then, in order to avoid censure by the European Court, it was asserted that the burqa ban was a "security" measure. Faces in public places had to be identifiable, and clothing should not permit the easy hiding of weapons of terror. The ban had nothing to do with religion, proponents claimed, at least for legal purposes. In private the prohibition of the burqa was also defended on the grounds that it liberated women from oppression.

With the proliferating burkini bans, the liberation of women argument has again been raised, but now it is supplemented by the allegation that the body-hiding bathing outfit is "l’uniforme d’un mouvement contre lequel nous sommes en guerre," as the mayor of Cannes put it. Much of the rest of the world finds this position shocking, as documented by the Libé article linked above. Some in France will of course invoke, yet again, the uniqueness of laïcité. In a radio debate broadcast the other day on the subject of "Qu'est-ce qu'être Français," the inevitable Alain Finkielkraut insisted that France's extreme sensitive to the apparel choices of Muslim women stems from its "civilisation féminine." Seriously. And this was greeted with much applause from the audience.

Le Bal des Aspirants

Benoît Hamon is in. Arnaud Montebourg will soon be in. About Emmanuel Macron, only his hairdresser knows for sure. Gérard Filoche and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann are in. The Socialist primary will be a crowded affair. The tone of the future debate was signaled by Hamon's announcement on France2 last night. The candidates purporting to represent the party's left will accuse Hollande of treacherous betrayal. Macron, if he runs, will say he didn't go far enough. Hollande, if he runs, will say he got it just right. And the divisions that have beset the PS throughout its existence will once again be aired in the place where they are least likely to be discussed thoughtfully, let alone resolved: a presidential primary.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Le Monde Profiles Me

Here. The interview dates from last February, but Le Monde waited for a slow news week to run it, since I'm less newsworthy than Donald Trump, Kanye West, and the other Amerloques who appear more often in its pages. The photographer took 200 photos but managed only to capture my scowl.