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.


Anonymous said...

Slightly off topic, but: I'm wondering if Sarkozy's defeat in the LR primary buried Hollande's last hopes and convinced him once and for all it was time to go. It seems to me the prospect of a Sarkozy candidacy might have given FH a shot (if admittedly faint) at making the second round. The incumbent could have brought the bad old days of "Casse-toi pov'con" and other stupidities and run a campaign along the lines of "whatever mistakes I made, do you really want to go back to THAT?" Not saying it would have ensured FH's re-election, but I can imagine some voters would have responded to a "Stop Sarko" campaign.


bernard said...

Frankly speaking, if Aubry - Delors's daughter - is now the left of the left, Le Pen, a first hour Social Nationalist, will soon be labelled centre-right and I will be ready to join actively the Komintern or its latest emanation.

More seriously, the reason I pick on your bunching up Aubry with a number of lightweights is that, if only she would run (she likely won't), this would probably be her hour.

The conservative electorate has said very clearly that they want a right that is the right and Fillon has obliged.

The centre is covered by Macron, and if not, by the eternal Bayrou.

What the electorate of the left reproched Hollande is his implementing supply-side policies - not vigourously supply-side, but still suply-side - when they expected demand-side policies ( my personal professional opinion: France needed supply side policies and it needed demand side policies as we were in the midst of a banking crisis, they last on average 10 years, and we were and still are to some extent in a liquidity trap).

And, so, it appears to me that the left electorate will want a left that is the left, not the centre-left. And that would be the only way I can fathom where the left passed the first round hurdle: drain the ground under the feet of the paleo-trotskist candidate, Melenchon, run on the left fundamentals in the fist round, let Macron make his choice between Fillon and the left candidate in the second round.

Unfortunately of course, a Montebourg is not going to scare away Melenchon, only someone with stature, government experience and unifying qualities such as Aubry could do that and she will likely not run.

And so, we will probably be left with Montebourg - I can't see the left electorate voting for Valls, his time may come later - and an awful choice in the second round.

I sincerely hope I got this wrong. It really is Aubry's hour if only she would realize, and I am saying this when I couldn't stand her in the past.

ledocs said...

It would have been extremely helpful, to state things euphemistically, to outline the platform of a unified Left party. Raise taxes on the rich in order to induce capital flight? Restate an intention to stand up to Germany and somehow break the constraints imnposed by European economic institutions? Call for permanent strikes anywhere and everywhere? If someone could tell me what the program is, maybe I'll sign up for it.

Until ambitious and upper middle class French youth stop leaving the country because, being ambitious, they have no choice, and start creating businesses that bring new employment to France, it's all bullshit. But as one can see from the example of the United States, where the prospects for children of the upper middle class are not bad and where relatively few go abroad to work, this particular problem is just the tip of the iceberg as regards employment and wages in a mass "democracy."

If Piketty has a program that would have a reasonable chance of producing something like full employment in France and would get millions of people off of government assistance, then the imagined unified Left should be created and adopt that program as its platform.

Mitch Guthman said...


I tend to disagree with your gracious and excessively generous assessment of Hollande’s presidency. Even if one focuses simply on the political dimensions, he’s been a total flop. The best one can say of him is that he played a bad hand badly.

Certainly I must acknowledge that he was a very good machine politician. He ran the PS reasonably well. He was extremely adroit in his maneuverings after DSK’s fall. But he was never more than a party hack---and as president he wasn't even a capable provincial party leader.

Nevertheless, I think that from a purely political political perspective basically everything he’s done from the moment he settled into the Elysée Palace has demonstrated world-class political ineptitude. Every battle he fought was against his ostensible allies and weakened him politically; and every battle was on behalf of people who wouldn’t even piss on him if he was on fire.

He surrounded himself with a collection of politicians who had very little personal loyalty to him, none of whom offset his political weaknesses and none of whom except Valls seemed to display even the slightest gratitude or loyalty. Again, with the lone exception of Valls, Hollande gathered around himself a government of kooks, egomaniacs and chancers none of whom were in much of a position to deliver the various "tribal" constituencies they were supposed to represent.

Merits aside, I think if Hollande has started out fighting to make good on his campaign promises, he’d have all credit for trying and much less of the blame for the damage caused by austerity in which he does seem to genuinely believe. Instead, as you say, he sat around and hoped that something would turn up to save him. That’s not good politics in my book.

Politically, fighting the good fight for something get you points with voters even if you lose. Sitting around muttering that supply creates it own demand just make a president look like an ineffectual custard.

Mitch Guthman said...


I think that’s very well said. I too am puzzled by Aubry. It’s quite clear that she’s the one figure that could unify the left and have a decent shot at getting to the second round against MLP. This is the second time she has declined to run and I think for the good of party and country, she needs step up and run.

But I suspect that Valls has a better shot at unifying the left than you give him credit for; objectively speaking, he shouldn’t but he does. One of the things that’s been puzzling me about French politics lately is the polls, particularly of PS voters. I perceive a very strange divergence between the centrist politicians who are popular with the left (Valls, especially) and the center-left policies that are overwhelmingly favored by those same voters.

It’s very strange and I can’t really explain it, but if I’m reading the polls correctly, I think Valls is the second most popular figure in the PS (with Aubry being the most popular). Makes very little sense to me but that’s how I read the polls.

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