Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The State of Europe

I wrote a shamelessly speculative piece for The Tocqueville Review on the current state of Europe. You can read it here.

Ça chauffe à gauche

The defection of Manuel Valls has broken upon the simmering caldron of resentment that has been building in the Socialist Party since the primary. Macron continues to dominate Hamon in the polls, so the party's "reformist" wing, of which Valls is the leader, can invoke the voter utile alibi for abandoning the candidate who won their primary by a landslide. Disloyalty is one thing, but the specter of a repeat of 2002 is another. And yet Macron remains a deeply troubling candidate for many on the left, for reasons well described in this paywalled FT article:
"In 2010, he advised, for free, the staff of Le Monde when the newspaper was put up for sale. Journalists at the daily started doubting his loyalty when they happened upon him in conversation with Mr Minc, who was representing a bidding consortium that the staff opposed. They did not know that it was Mr Minc, a fellow Inspecteur des Finances, who had helped the young Mr Macron secure his interview at Rothschild.
A media executive who was part of the same consortium recalled: “It wasn’t clear who Emmanuel worked for. He was around, trading intelligence, friends with everyone. It was smart, because he got to know everybody in the media world.”
An open letter to Le Monde, signed by a number of intellectuals (including friends of mine), expresses the anger that has erupted on the left:

Nous avons toutes et tous cru – que nous ayons voté ou non à la primaire, que nous ayons soutenu ou non Benoît Hamon – que le jeu démocratique serait respecté. Naïfs que nous étions ! Aujourd’hui, vous opposez au choix des urnes au mieux un silence assourdissant ou une moue circonspecte, au pire un soutien à un autre candidat. Ce mépris total que vous opposez au vote citoyen est intolérable.
Pierre Laurent of the PCF has called for renewed discussions between Hamon and Mélenchon in view of joining their two campaigns.

In short, we are witnessing the breakdown of both mainstream parties. Long-buried cleavages in both the PS and LR have been exposed. Of course, the dynamic will be quite different in the legislative elections, but at the presidential level, the party system has completely broken down.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Watering Her Wine

Marine Le Pen faces one of the paradoxes of democracy. Many in France feel that the EU constrains French economic policy in unacceptable ways, but they don't want to leave it.  (Technically speaking, there are Condorcet cycles in French preferences.) Le Pen has made attacking the EU-imposed constraints a centerpiece of her campaign, but as voters contemplate the possibility of an FN victory, they have become increasingly nervous that she might actually make good on her promise. So she has been playing up her deference to "the will of the people" by promising a post-election referendum on the euro and the EU, trying to have her cake and eat it too. But this compromises her image as a no-nonsense authoritarian. Not quite as shameless as Donald Trump on Obamacare, she can't make people believe that she will both smash the EU and retain its benefits. But as with Trump, the contradictions in her underlying position are increasingly undermining her appeal. Unfortunately, Americans were slow to cotton on to Trump's flagrant flaws. Le Pen's recent back-tracking shows that she is afraid the French are already onto her.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Le Parti Socialiste n'est plus

Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has joined the Macron camp. But what really struck me in Le Monde's report was the following:

Ce ralliement était attendu. Depuis plusieurs semaines, les membres du cabinet de M. Le Drian travaillaient main dans la main avec ceux de M. Macron. Son programme en matière de défense, dévoilé le 18 mars devant un parterre de gradés de l’armée, avait été entièrement conçu par des proches de l’élu breton.
In other words, staff personnel of a regalian ministry are lending their expertise to a candidate whom the president must refrain, and has reportedly urged ministers to refrain, from publicly endorsing. Meanwhile, the Haute Autorité governing the Socialist primary has officially rebuked Manuel Valls for denying Hamon his parrainage after losing to him in the primary.

The French left is usually a contentious place, but this kind of open guerrilla warfare is something new (one saw it on a smaller scale when Ségolène Royal was the candidate and in a more covert form when Mitterrand was cutting the legs out from under Michel Rocard). But it is clear that les éléphants have decided to cut Hamon loose, are all in for Macron, and are no doubt already negotiating behind the scenes for a joint campaign with En Marche! in the legislative elections and for positions under the future President Macron.

The first post-debate poll has Hamon down a couple of points, moreover, so that the PS candidate could finish an unbelievable fifth after Macron, Le Pen, Fillon, and Mélenchon (in that order--Macron now leads Le Pen in round 1 in the same poll). In short, the party bearing the name "Socialist" seems to be dying, but a new center-left, or rather left-center-right, or perhaps more simply, "center" party is being born under the name En Marche!

The entire French Establishment (except for Fillon and his stubborn LR rump) is now all-in on Macron as the only alternative to Le Pen.

After the election, France could thus end up with an eco-socialist anti-European extragovernmental Left party, a Macronist Center Party, a traditionalist Right party, and a xenophobic Far Right Party. This would be a highly unstable mixture.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What Was Fillon Thinking?

There is a real puzzle about the disintegration of François Fillon. Employing the wife and kids, OK, maybe he did make a "mistake," as he says. Maybe he was slow to catch on to changing mores, as he says. But the suits? Taking money from a guy like Robert Bourgi in 2016, as he was contemplating a presidential run. Setting up his consulting firm, 2F (clever, that!) just before the law requiring disclosure of same? Taking on clients like Ladreit de Lacharrière, who was already involved in the dubious payment to Penelope by La Revue des Deux Mondes? And then this guy, Fouad Makhzoumi? The king of the fiber optic pipeline, who wanted Fillon to use his good offices with Putin? It's too much.

All this happened relatively recently, after Fillon had decided to run for president, in contrast to the nepotism. It's as if he decided that you can't become president without dirtying your hands, so might as well plunge in up to the elbows. There's plenty of precedent for this among his political mentors and peers: Balladur, Chirac, Sarkozy. This is the way it's done on the right. You raise money by going where the money is, inside France and outside.

By contrast, the Le Roux affair is small potatoes. And the Fillon affair might be explicable in terms of the traditions of the right if he hadn't decided to run as Mr. Clean. That's the baffling part. It's almost as though he was overcompensating for his sins, as if he were driven by guilt to stage his innocence.

As Donald Trump would say, Sad!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Polls Give Macron Debate Victory

Polls give Macron victory in debate, according to Politico.

Et Tu, Le Roux?

Another case of dubious nepotism: Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux appears to have employed his teenage daughters as parliamentary assistants, in some instances while they also held other jobs:

« Quotidien » affirme toutefois que certains de ces CDD effectués en tant qu’assistantes parlementaires ont pu se superposer avec des stages en entreprise ou le temps universitaire, à l’été 2013 pour l’une des filles de l’ancien député, 20 jours en mai 2015 pour l’autre, mettant ainsi en doute la réalité du travail accompli. Et attirant donc les soupçons sur de possibles emplois fictifs.
More grist for the tous pourris mill. In only Le Pen weren't compromise on this score herself, she could have a field day. I say he'll be gone by the end of the week.

The Debate

I feel an obligation to comment on the debate but not much enthusiasm for the task. With the aid of two glasses of wine and some lively banter with a happy few on Facebook, who kept up a diverting conversation throughout, I made it through to the end and can therefore state with authority that no knockout punches were thrown. There were not even any particularly memorable petites phrases. In the end I would say everyone stands more or less where he or she stood going in.

For Marine Le Pen the finest moment came before the debate began. She stood on the platform with the four men, shoulder to shoulder, shook hands with them, exchanged smiles, etc. She revealed neither horns nor tail nor cloven hooves. De-demonized, in short, a normal candidate, even if she would make a far from normal president. Of course, in the debate itself, she showed herself telle qu'en elle-même, with her usual faintly contemptuous smile and "patriotic" disdain for everything even faintly foreign. She knows she will be in the second round and is keeping her powder dry for the inter-round debate.

For Macron the stakes were higher. He chose a strategy in keeping with his campaign overall: et de droite et de gauche, frequently agreeing with one or another of the others (except Le Pen), compulsively nodding in approval of this or that remark to indicate silent assent. But when an opportunity for disagreement presented itself, especially with Le Pen, he seized it eagerly, revealing a pugnacious counterpuncher beneath his blandly agreeable surface. What's more, he came across as feisty rather than drily technocratic. Occasionally he used more words than necessary, and when he uses words, no one will accuse him of poetry--he has none of Mélenchon's ability to savor his own speech, to chew his verbiage the way wine-tasters chew their wine. For him, language is an instrument.  He wields it well enough.

Hamon held his own. His TV presence is appealing, even if the contrast between his debate presence, more or less pedestrian, and his meeting presence of the day before, when he somehow lifted himself above the political quotidian and for a moment soared in the lofty empyrean of the statesman, was made all the more striking by the proximity in time. His mistake, I thought, was to concentrate his fire on Macron (le parti de l'argent, which he attacked on lack of financing transparency) while sparing his real enemy, Mélenchon. Yes, he wants JLM's voters, but he had to give them a reason for switching, and he didn't. I was also struck by the prominence given to Thomas Piketty and Julia Cagé, seated directly behind where he stood on the platform. I confess I felt oddly implicated in the campaign. Hamon is using Piketty as a branding device--"parmi mes soutiens il y a un économiste mondialement connu"--and I had something to do with establishing the brand. But in fact Hamon had nothing to say about inequality.

Mélenchon enjoyed himself immensely and rewarded his audience with a few bravura passages, but otherwise his truc was all too familiar. Let's be done with the Fifth Republic, return power to the people, stop pissing on Putin, and tell off Europe. On the latter point his frequent agreement with Le Pen should have embarrassed him but didn't. He doesn't even seem to notice a problem in the convergence of the extremes.

And that leaves Fillon, who fully merited the appellation "Droopy" last night. He was strangely subdued. Trying to appear relaxed despite being under investigation for corruption, he smiled a lot, unaccountably, but his smile came across as more Mephistophelean than it should have. He likes to project la force tranquille but looked to me more like la force tranquillisée. He joined Mélenchon and Le Pen in expressing sympathy for Russia and did not flinch at the fleeting mention (by Macron) of the fact that two of the candidates on stage were at grips with la justice. Otherwise, everyone tiptoed around the scandal, as though Fillon were already dead meat and it would only look cruel to peck at the corpse.

The two anchors contributed little but timekeeping to the affair, which is probably appropriate. All five of the contenders displayed a facility with language and a fluency in regard to the issues at which I can only marvel (and of course regret that no American politician can rise to such a level). Despite the fact that several of the candidates expressed discomfort with the exclusion of the six lesser contestants from the debate, I felt that five was quite enough, more than enough, and was grateful for being spared the likes of Dupont-Aignan and Jacques Cheminade, though I always rather enjoy Philippe Poutou. who has a delightful way of pronouncing "la gauche."

Monday, March 20, 2017

Some Versions of Utopia

There is a utopian strain in the programs of each of the five major presidential candidates. In advance of tonight's debate, I analyze them in my latest article for The American Prospect.

Hamon and Mélenchon Rallies

For firsthand accounts of the Hamon and Mélenchon rallies, you can't do better than Arun Kapil.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hamon Speech

Excellent speech by Benoît Hamon. Mélenchon is often praised as the orator of this campaign, but Hamon is better in my opinion.

Benoît Hamon en meeting à Bercy

Friday, March 17, 2017

Macron as Debater

I've been worrying here and elsewhere about how Macron will perform in head-to-head debate with Marine Le Pen. Here's a sample of his style, albeit on a panel where everyone is more or less in agreement on the EU, which will certainly be a major bone of contention between EM and MLP:

Bottom line: he's good, sometimes too technical, but capable of pith, charm, and wit.

A Two-Person Race?

Has the dust finally begun to settle? We won't really know until next week's televised debate, but there are signs that the race is settling into a two-person contest. For instance, Florian Philippot was a guest the other day on Les Grandes Gueules (I know I shouldn't listen to trash radio, but there is nothing better than les GG to while away the time a traffic jam), and he concentrated all his fire on Macron. When asked about the expulsion of a Holocaust-denier who headed the Nice chapter of the FN until a few days ago, Philippot's answer, brazen beyond belief, was to suggest that if journalists with hidden cameras followed Macron around into the back rooms he frequents, they'd uncover equally scandalous things. It's a fascinating ploy. To respond to the charge that you're harboring neo-Nazis in your midst, you imply that someone else also has things to hide, and immediately one begins to speculate about what those things might be. You do the propaganda work yourself. Philippot doesn't have to make any charges or offer any proof. He just hints.

The polls continue to point in the same direction: Macron consolidating his no. 2 position and perhaps even closing in on no. 1, Le Pen holding her own, Fillon losing ground as his scandals thicken around him (today we learned that the secret admirer who paid for his suits was Robert Bourgi, a lawyer with connections to African heads of state), and the divided left going nowhere (together Mélenchon and Hamon now add up to less than Macron).

Since 2007, when there was briefly talk of a Royal-Bayrou tandem, I have felt that a coalition of center-left and center-right could win. Most people I talked to said no, impossible, the center never wins in France. But this year a strange concatenation of circumstances--Juppé's elimination, Macron's extra-party run, the gauchisation of the PS primary in reaction against Valls, Bayrou's endorsement of Macron, and Fillon's unexpected scandal--have made possible a unique natural experiment. It seems that a centrist candidate might indeed win. The question will then become whether he can govern.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hamon's Brain Trust

I keep reading about how Benoît Hamon has brought the intellectuals back into politics, but somehow it's always the same intellectuals: Dominique Méda, Julia Cagé, Thomas Piketty, etc. I know a few others whom Hamon tried to recruit but who declined. I know a larger number who are supporting Macron. Hamon is said to be innovative while Macron is dismissed as a "populist" of the center:

« Hamon est plus ancien en politique, mais il innove. Macron incarne une soi-disant modernité, mais s’appuie en réalité sur les sondages pour dire aux Français ce qu’ils veulent entendre, c’est une forme de populisme », estime ainsi Romain Slitine.
But in fact Macron also has a brain trust: Philippe Aghion, Pierre Rosanvallon, Terra Nova, l'Institut Montaigne, etc. Hamon's people are younger and lefter, drawn to the Sanders/Corbyn/Podemos model.

Une fois sorti du gouvernement, Benoît Hamon est resté connecté à cette sphère des idées, tout comme il a suivi les campagnes de Podemos en Espagne ou de Bernie Sanders aux Etats-Unis.
It's a different generation behind Hamon, still feeling its rebellious oats but not planning to stick around after the election:
« Le PS, je m’en fous, prévient d’emblée Piketty. Moi, je suis là pour parler directement avec Hamon et son équipe, pas avec les courants et les sous courants du parti ».
Many in the younger generation see Macron vs. Le Pen as Clinton vs. Trump: the centrist, they think, will always lose to the extremist demagogue. It takes something more radical on the left to fight the radical right. I nevertheless stuck with the center in the US race, even disagreeing with my own son, and lost. Nevertheless, I still think the center can hold and have my doubts, my sincere and serious doubts, about the left alternative. The examples of Corbyn and Podemos are not exactly inspiring, nor are the polls for Hamon. But I admit I may once again be overestimating the strength of the center. On the other hand, yesterday's results in the Netherlands show that it's also possible to overstate the strength of the xenophobic right.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

FN Party Boss in Nice Is Suspended for Holocaust Denial

Benoît Loeuillet, the FN party boss in Nice and regional councilor, was filmed on a hidden camera in a back room of his bookstore where "forbidden" negationist literature was kept. He is seen on camera expressing doubt that mass murder of Jews took place during WW II. Soon after the news broke, he was expelled from the FN.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The EU in the French Election

A fragment of a longer piece I'm writing for The Tocqueville Review:

The most recent Eurobarometer shows that only 51 percent of the French feel “attached” to the European Union. Two French presidential candidates, Le Pen on the far right and Mélenchon on the far left, are calling for “Frexit” on the grounds that there is no other way to restore exclusive national sovereignty over budgetary and regulatory matters—sovereignty which they insist is both necessary and sufficient to resolve the problems that have bedeviled two successive French presidents. The Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon has taken up economist Thomas Piketty’s proposal for a Eurozone Parliament to bring greater democratic management (and legitimacy) to the common currency, but European commissioner for the economy and monetary affairs Pierre Moscovici has rightly criticized the plan as an impractical “dream”: “One has to start with Europe as it is, not as one dreams it ought to be.”

Indeed, opposition to “Europe” now functions as opposition to capitalism used to function in the past: it is a rhetorical badge of “radicalism,” proof that one is not in any way complicit with the existing “system,” the disappearance of which is taken to be the prerequisite for any improvement in the status quo. The particulars of the replacement are seldom specified or analyzed, however. This is radicalism on the cheap, predicated on the assumption that what is different can only be better. The inertia of what exists is minimized, and the transformative, disruptive power of the unknown and untried is magnified as only a projection on a tabula rasa can be.

In contrast to the radical options of exit or impossible institutional transformation, the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron characteristically prefers the blandly enigmatic formula of “strengthening the Franco-German couple” that is at the heart of European construction. Critics denounce this as merely more of the same, “muddling through,” a recipe for continued dominance of German ordoliberal preferences for rules over discretion, austerity over stimulus, and for the famous schwarze Null, the zero-deficit nirvana that is supposed to give backbone to otherwise spineless politicians inclined to spend their way out of whatever troubles arise.

The possibility that some reforms work slowly—il faut donner du temps au temps, as François Mitterrand put it—is discounted, as is the possibility that a shift in the balance of power in Germany’s Grand Coalition, from Christian Democratic to Social Democratic dominance, might make Macron’s cautious gradualism a more attractive (because less risky) choice. Of course, it is too early to say whether polls showing Martin Schulz for the first time ahead of Angela Merkel in the race to become the next chancellor will prove prophetic. What is certain, however, is that if any of the candidates proposing a radical change in France’s stance toward Europe should win the presidency, the pressure in the combustion chamber of the European engine will build to dangerous levels. If it explodes, the radicals will be left trying to reassemble the fragments of the shattered system, for which the people they claim to serve will be clamoring loudly once it ceases to supply their needs.

Fillon Mis en Examen

It's official: François Fillon has been mis en examen:

Le candidat Les Républicains à la présidentielle François Fillon a été mis en examen ce mardi 14 mars, pour "détournement de fonds publics", "complicité et recel de détournement de fonds publics", "complicité et recel d'abus de biens sociaux", "manquements aux obligations de déclarations à la haute autorité de la vie publique", ont affirmé des sources judiciaires à l'agence Reuters.
This comes two days after the JDD revealed that some mysterious person has been signing large checks for bespoke suits from chez Arnys.

I can't think of another candidate whose image has been so totally transformed in the course of a presidential campaign. Yesterday came word that 100 young Juppéistes were deserting LR for En Marche!, so however much the Trocadéro demo, with troops turned out by Sens Commun, may have shored up Fillon's support on the catho-traditional right, it weakened him in the center. If I had to guess, that means that most of Fillon's remaining supporters will go for Le Pen in round 2. This is the hard core of the ex-governmental right, which has no problem with the FN's xenophobia but rejects its defense of welfare chauvinism in favor of a hard-right paring back of the welfare state. The cross-cutting cleavages on immigration, social spending, and relation to the EU are tearing apart the French party system.

The next few years look to be quite unstable no matter who wins the presidency. The Fifth Republic may not be formally replaced by a Sixth, but its vaunted stability seems more and more likely to evaporate in a way that will revive memories of the Fourth.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Hamon on L'Emission politique

I finally watched portions of Hamon's appearance on L'Emission politique. I thought he did well, particularly in his confrontations with the four policemen and with Laurent Wauquiez. Hamon is an excellent debater: concise, firm, pointed in his responses without being snide or impolite. I'm not convinced by his universal (actually quite a bit less than universal--up to 1.9 smic, with exceptions) basic income, 32-hour week, robot tax, or ecosocialist velleities. But he's firm on freedom of conscience and not one to mince words when telling the police that all is not well in their approach to dealing with minorities. I'd like to see him as minister of the interior. As a potential president, however, he's less convincing.

Political Debate and Debates

Yesterday I put the finishing touches on the draft of an article I've been writing about the elections. I ponder at some length the strange death of French social democracy as it has evolved since World War II and its still stranger rebirth as Macronism.

Then I woke up and listened to a podcast of Le Grand Rendez-vous d'Europe 1, in which a series of economists defended the programs of the five leading candidates, and I realized how surreal the political debate has become and how bewildering it must seem to people who do not follow politics with any persistence.

The Grand Rendez-vous consisted essentially of confrontations between the interviewers, who picked out some aspect of each candidate's program--Hamon's basic income, Macron's expanded unemployment benefits, Le Pen's euro exit and franc devaluation, and the economists, who were challenged to explain how some supposedly related set of numbers added up. There was absolutely no coherence to the discussion, no attempt to situate the challenged figures in a more comprehensive vision of the economy, no effort to look beyond a time horizon a year or two out to ask what kind of world each candidate envisioned a generation down the road. In short, it was all noise.

And no doubt it is this pattern of noise-making that will continue as we move into the final sequence of the campaign. There is nothing more to say about Fillon's scandals, so the media will have to start examining the candidates' programs, but radio and TV are equipped to do so only in the Gatling gun style that is enforced by the assumption that the attention span of the audience is limited to ten minutes if not two. So question follows hard upon question, and candidates and their surrogates must squeeze twice the normal number of words into the time allotted. With no time to think, only pre-masticated answers can be regurgitated, and the audience is impressed more by the fluency of the answers than by their adequacy.

Yet as Thierry Mandon observed this morning on RTL, this is a year in which voter volatility is the most salient fact about the electorate. Something like 50% of the French have yet to settle firmly on one candidate or another. Hence the election is likely to be decided in the final few weeks, as the electorate finally tunes in and forms its hasty impression on the basis of the kinds of superficial judgments encouraged by the format described above. Both the Brexit and Trump votes seem to have solidified in the final weeks of the campaign, not before. The French election may well follow the same pattern.

In France, the most important question for the undecided is how to voter utile, and this of course depends not on what each voter thinks but rather on what each voter thinks other voters will think. For the moment the anti-Le Pen vote seems to be gravitating toward Macron, but if he falters in debate, where he is untested, there could be a panicked flight to an alternative. The polls could swing wildly in the weeks ahead, and what will emerge from the ensuing confusion is impossible to predict. I therefore don't believe that one can place much confidence in the polls. And since the polls are predicting that Le Pen will lose, this is a disturbing state of affairs. I already sense a certain complacency that the danger is past, and this is of course a sure sign that it isn't.

Friday, March 10, 2017

La bouillabaisse Macron

Robert Hue is backing Macron. Dominique Villepin is backing Macron. Daniel Cohn-Bendit is backing Macron. Alain Madelin is backing Macron. Bertrand Delanoë is backing Macron. What strange bouillabaisse is this? Macron's christic tendencies have made him an extraordinary fisher of men, and out of the troubled waters of French politics he has fetched up an extraordinary haul of political has-beens (pardon the unkindness). Strange bedfellows hardly does justice to this extraordinary ménage.

Of course all these supporters are quick to say that while they support Macron, they are not Macronistes, but since no one knows what Macronisme is, this doesn't tell us much. Listen to Hue, the former Communist leader:

Je n’ai pas cédé à je ne sais quelle mutation social-démocrate ni, moins encore, succombé au parfum libéral dans l’air du temps. Soyons clairs, je continue de penser que l’heure n’est pas à l’aménagement mais au dépassement de cette société inégalitaire dans laquelle perdurent et grandissent des injustices inacceptables et révoltantes.

Personally, I'd settle for a little aménagement, leaving dépassement to less desperate times. It seems impossible for anyone to say simply that Macron's politics, if unexciting, are cautiously sensible, and that should be enough when his opponents are calling for exit from the EU and euro or anticipating the disappearance of work or proposing to eliminate 500,000 civil service jobs. But the name "common sense" has been appropriated by a group opposed to gay marriage, so even saying one is in favor of common sense has become politicized.

I personally am quite fond of bouillabaisse, but I think Macron's needs to be flavored with a strong dose of aïoli lest this mixture of strange old fish develop an unpalatable flavor of fishiness. With a little judicious seasoning from the chef, a satisfactory meal could soon be set on the table.

Le Pen the Future?

Even if she doesn't win this time, Marine Le Pen's popularity among younger voters bodes ill for the future:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Nail-Biting Time

A new poll shows the race settling into a two-person contest between Macron and Le Pen, but Fillon is hanging on to his ~20%, while Macron's support is remarkably soft, with 58% of his voters saying they could still change their minds, compared with only 24% of Le Pen's voters. With the left-wing candidates going nowhere, it's not clear where Macron's supporters would go if they lose confidence in him.

Abstention Could Determine the Outcome of the Presidential Election

As I reported last week, the expected level of abstention in this year's presidential is abnormally high. A new study confirms the one I mentioned previously, and the softness in the center in particular is no doubt alarming to the campaign of Emmanuel Macron. I don't have time to analyze these findings in detail today, but I will return to this topic in the future. It's a new and interesting development in French politics, in which participation in presidential elections has historically been high. Apparently, the decomposition of the party system and the blurring of the left-right divide has left many voters disoriented and unsure which way to turn.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Mr. Clean Has a New Problem

Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, the same financier who paid Mme Fillon €100,000 euros for three pages of book reports, also lent €50,000 interest-free to her husband. No problem, says his lawyer. He paid it back. But in the US an interest-free loan is a gift that incurs a tax liability. I don't know what the law is in France. The investigators are looking into this, as well as into the activities of M. Fillon's consulting firm, which also has a connection to Ladreit. The Republicans are going to regret having stuck with Fillon.

J'y suis, j'y reste.

The words uttered by MacMahon at Malakoff might as well be those of Fillon at Trocadéro. And there he remains, a survivor, the last man on the island, the others having been voted off, he claims, by le peuple de droite if not, in his more grandiose moments of self-pity, le Peuple tout court. Thomas Legrand's editorial this morning compared Fillon to de Gaulle, not to flatter him but to diminish him. De Gaulle had a knack for dramatizing political differences, for turning nuances into existential crises; it served him well. Fillon has dramatized his petty personal corruption--his "errors," as he calls them--into a similar existential crisis, a "civil war" in which the fate of la Grande Nation hangs in the balance. The effect is bathetic rather than tragic, tragicomic rather than Racinian, as Gérard Courtois puts it this morning.

So that is where we are. The fundamentals have not changed. Fillon will continue to be dogged by protesters with casseroles wherever he goes. His hypocrisy has now fallen like the rain at Trocadéro on many of the LR comrades who had deserted the sinking ship but have now returned because they see no alternative. It will be amusing to watch those who had previously denounced the wounded candidate invent formulas to praise his bravery in fighting on, bloodied but unbowed, for the sake of his "political family."

I doubt that Juppé will be among the hypocrites, even though he is to meet with Fillon and Sarkozy today. His renunciation speech yesterday was bitter but becoming, a rare moment of lucidity and honesty in an otherwise sordid political passage. It was also poignant: "For me it is too late." He might as well have said, "For the center-right it is too late." Fillon has gone over to the dark side, relying on the radicalized social conservative movement Sens Commun to organize the Trocadéro rally and turn out the troops that enabled Fillon to carry the day. This was the meaning of Juppé's charge that "the core of LR's militants has been radicalized."

So we now have two parties of the far right contending for the presidency, with the gay-friendly and relatively laïque FN the more "socially liberal" of the two. And we have two parties of the far left, Mélenchon's France Insoumise and Hamon's PS with its unrealistic program of 32-hour-week, basic minimum income of some sort, and incompatible proposals for debt mutualization coupled with new borrowing for investment.

In the center Macron stands alone, hoping it can hold against the extremes. We await the next round of polls as the dust from the Fillon affair begins to settle. Who knows where voters will shake out? Many Juppéistes will undoubtedly jump to Macron, but it's difficult to say how the remainder will split between the LR and the FN.

Monday, March 6, 2017

New Prospect Piece


The Cemetery of Trocadéro

It looked like a military cemetery. The Place du Trocadéro was a sea of bleu-blanc-rouge bunting. All those flag-wavers stood out in the rain for hours to hear their hero, François Fillon, admit to "errors" he now regrets, although he seems to have no intention to give back the dough. Responsable mais pas coupable has worked for others, so why not for FF?

Defiance was the order of the day, and despite the high-flown talk of "examining his conscience" and considering only "the general interest," Fillon's speech was actually a long "Fuck you!" to his party rivals. As he repeated in calmer tones on France2 Sunday evening, he had no intention of deferring to anyone else, be it Juppé, Sarkozy, a cabal of regional governors, his former campaign aides, or the 83% of France that prefers someone else for president. He won the primary, point barre, and nobody can take that away from him. And he turned out 200,000 people on a rainy Sunday in Paris--never mind that the police said it was 40,000. 200,000 is a suitably impressive, almost Trumpian exaggeration. One Fillon aide went so far as to double to already-inflated estimate to 400,000. Fine. All's fair in politics.

So Fillon will remain the candidate, and the race is narrowing to a two-person contest between Macron and Le Pen. As things now stand, neither major party will have a candidate in the second round. And the future of the Fifth Republic will rest on the shoulders of a 39-year-old Wunderkind who thinks of himself on some days as the reincarnation of de Gaulle and on other days as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. So Round Two will be a contest between Jesus and Lucifer. Sauf qu'on dit que Lucifer s'est dédiabolisée.

Heaven help us.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Fillon Rally: You Are There

Thanks to Arun Kapil, an eyewitness account.

My article on the state of the race should appear in The American Prospect tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Twisting Slowly in the Wind

One almost feels for François Fillon. It can't be easy to realize one's life's ambition only to have the prize snatched away by the exposure of a bit of peculation you'd been getting away with for your entire career. It's easy to understand why he feels aggrieved. But his lucidity seems to have deserted him. He is beginning to look even more obtuse than Hollande, who continued for several years after his sell-by date to insist that he still had a chance to be re-elected, even when everyone else agreed that he didn't.

By now Fillon should have gotten the message. His campaign manager and chief spokesman have resigned. He's had Sarkozy on the phone several times telling him that the jig was up. Alain Juppé's lieutenants have been spreading the word that Prince Hamlet has overcome his irresolution and is ready to snatch the crown from the usurper (but remember, it didn't end well for Hamlet). And now, having accused his enemies of fomenting civil war against him, Fillon is calling for his own troops to mount a counter-attack tomorrow at Trocadéro, in the hope that this rag-tag army of irregulars will be enough to face down the Czar and his savage hordes. Failing that, it's "Plan B for Bérézina." The metaphor is looking more and more apt, as Fillonistes desert in droves and die in the cold.

This "French carnage" (I borrow from Donald Trump, une fois n'est pas coutume) is horrible to watch, but there may be worse to come. If Juppé is the replacement, as seems likely, today's conventional wisdom--that round 2 will be a Macron-Le Pen contest in which Macron will win--will be fit to wrap fish in. Juppé will no doubt drive some considerable number of LR voters into the FN camp while repatriating some who had already defected to Macron. Back when Juppé was the favorite to be the LR nominee (I know, it seems like ancient history), the smart money had it that most PS voters would flock to Juppé in order to stop Le Pen. But now, who knows? Many will hesitate between Macron and Juppé. Will familiarity breed more contempt than novelty breeds affection? Will the sidelining of Fillon enhance Le Pen's chances or diminish them?

It's hard to dope out, despite a few instant polls, with one even showing a first round with Juppé on top, Macron second, and Le Pen eliminated. A consummation devoutly to be wished, except by all those on the far right and far left who will feel caught in the mucky quicksand of the mushy center--and remember that the number of such dispossessed could well amount to more than half of the electorate, an indication of the rapidly declining legitimacy of the Fifth Republic itself. France could well find itself with a president judged sane by Europe's elites presiding over a nation angered an electoral process that has been the opposite of sane. Indeed, it's the craziest election I've witnessed in half a century of observing the French scene.

As Laurel used to say to Hardy, "What a fine mess you've gotten us into this time, Ollie!" What a fine mess you've gotten us into this time, Fillie. And for what? A château in the Sarthe? One almost feels nostalgic for the bling-bling president with his fancy watches and yachts and supermodels. His vices were so much less stodgy. It's 2017, after all. Qui voudrait investir en pierre quand il pourrait diner chez Fouquet's? One has to learn to sin with one's times. Fillon is a character out of the Third Republic, not the Fifth. Perhaps that's what will have doomed him in the end.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Is Juppé Coming Back?

The pressure is increasing on the mayor of Bordeaux to mount his white charger and ride to the rescue. The saga of Les Républicains is beginning to look like the perils of Pauline, although at the moment it looks like everyone wants to leave the heroine Fillon tied to the tracks as the locomotive runs her over. The exasperation with the stubborn candidate is palpable.

I lectured in Ottawa yesterday on the election and failed to mention the Juppé groundswell. It seems to have gained considerable strength overnight. One can only imagine the febrile conversations among Republicans. I hope they've sorted things out by the time of my next lecture next week. It's getting to be annoying to have to redo my PowerPoints every 24 hours.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Department of Hoist by His Own Petard

Dept. of hoist by his own petard: People forget that François Fillon had lunch with Jean-Pierre Jouyet a while back. He asked Jouyet to have Hollande accelerate the various investigations of Nicolas Sarkozy in order to stop Sarko from winning the LR nomination. Now he complains that les petits juges are too zealous and that Hollande has staged a coup d'état institutionnel. Right.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Frondeur frondé, Fillon filet

"Avez-vous déjà écrit votre article sur notre élection ... démente?" a former government minister wrote me the other day. A demented election indeed. I have never witnessed a crazier one. But today is shaping up to be the craziest day of all. The establishment fronde against the former anti-establishment frondeur Hamon is picking up steam. Prominent Socialists are accusing him of having "hardened" his platform since winning the primary, thereby justifying (or rationalizing) their refusal to support him despite his having won the democratic contest. The breakup of the Socialist Party appears to have been consummated.

Meanwhile, Macron is picking up so many endorsements from former sommités of the right that frictions are developing between leftists and rightists in his entourage. A particular bone of contention involves the naming of former Chirac minister Jean-Paul Delevoye to head the committee to choose En Marche candidates for the legislative elections. Dominique de Villepin and Jean-Louis Borloo are also rumored to have thrown in their lot with Macron. It is as if Marine Le Pen's charge that the two parties of government were really only one, the UMPS, has been made flesh. The power-seeking moths are inevitably drawn to the only candle still burning.

And then comes the news that the Fillon flame may be about to be snuffed out. He abruptly canceled a scheduled visit to the Salon de l'Agriculture, that obligatory passage required of all candidates. Rumor has it that he is about to be mis en examen. He is scheduled to make an announcement imminently.

UPDATE: Fillon announced that he will indeed be mis en examen on March 15, but he is staying in the race nevertheless. He continued his unblinking (and unconvincing) insistence that he is the victim of a conspiracy and has done nothing wrong. It didn't work the first time, and it's unlikely to win him more votes now. I expect him to decline further in the polls. Yet the Republicans, many of whom appeared with him at today's press conference, appear to have decided that there is no alternative to going down with their leader. Behind the scenes the battle for the future leadership is undoubtedly fierce.

UPDATE 2: Bruno Le Maire has resigned as Fillon's foreign policy advisor. He thinks Fillon should have renounced his candidacy because he will be mis en examen. Other desertions have followed.