Thursday, September 28, 2017

NY Times Quotes This Blog

The evidence. Maybe Trump is right. Fake news. Failing NY Times.

Team Macron at KSG

The Harvard Gazette covers the show. Caption contest: Describe my attitude. (Far right. I am the discussant and the only non-member of Team Macron.)


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Cambadélis on Hollande

Jean-Christophe Cambadélis was on RTL this morning, and his comment on Hollande's attitude toward Macron struck me as perceptive. One of the great mysteries of last year's campaign is why Hollande did so little to rein in Macron when he started to go off-reservation. The impudence of a sitting minister launching a movement that to many appeared aimed at unseating the sitting president went unpunished. The question is why.

Armchair psychologists, including myself, have seized on Hollande's remark (to Davet and Lhomme) that he regarded Macron as his "spiritual son" and concluded that this special kinship somehow made Macron untouchable. Cambadélis has a different explanation, equally speculative but probably better informed by intimate knowledge. Hollande, he says, intended to "instrumentalize" Macron in order to neutralize Juppé. Macron would "ringardiser" Juppé and his centrism and thus clear the way for a Hollande comeback, since at that point everyone expected that Juppé would be the candidate of the right. Then (although Cambadélis did not go this far) Hollande could have bought Macron off with a promise of the prime ministership in Hollande's second term. This would have been more than a sufficient prize for most ambitious 39-year-olds and should have fulfilled the desires of both the spiritual father and the spiritual son.

This grubby political calculus is indeed Hollandesque: as intricate as it was short-sighted, not to say blind to the hopelessness of the president's own position. One wonders if such a scenario might even have been discussed openly. Perhaps Macron was party to it, until his own candidacy took off and Hollande's fate was sealed by the very book in which he revealed his spiritual kinship to Judas. Of couse this is also precisely the sort of political calculation that would appeal to Cambadélis, so perhaps the whole thing is a figment of his imagination.

I have ordered his book. Political perfidy makes for good bedtime reading.

Le JT 20H de France2

The network news is a bit ringard in the 21st century of the Internet, but, as a subscriber to TV5Monde, I have been watching the JT 20h of France2 for many years now. As is well-known, we old folks have a hard time getting used to change, so it was with trepidation that I greeted the announcement that the seemingly inoxydable David Pujadas had been replaced. Not that I held any particular brief for Pujadas. His blandness simply seemed de rigueur, what one might expect from a state channel.

His replacement, Anne-Sophie Lapix, is no less bland, her smile no less ubiquitous, though rather more motherly. Pujadas was a Ken-doll, while Lapix is anything but Barbie. But the personality differences matter less than the changes in staging. Someone at France2 has decided that the news should be delivered by people on their feet, roving about the stage, which is now fitted out with diorama-like backdrops and plexiglas comptoirs. Lapix wanders stage right, notes in hand, to confront François Lenglet or one of the other in-house regulars, then veers stage left to take up another subject. All the movement seems quite pointless. Perhaps the very idea of an "anchored" news delivery is outmoded. The Internet has led us to demand interactivity, the ability to zap from headline to headline, focusing only on what interests us rather than on what L'Oeil du 20 Heures has declared the day's feature story.

I'm curious to know if anyone else watches, and, if so, how you've reacted to the changes at France2.

Macron's Europe: Et le service après-vente?

President Macron chose the Sorbonne to give his big speech on Europe yesterday, following by a quarter century the great pre-Maastricht debate on the future of Europe at the same venue between François Mitterrand and Philippe Séguin. Coming only two days after the German vote cast a new shadow over Europe's future, Macron's words put a brave face on inner anxiety. He took care to avoid irritating German sensibilities, although there was a passing dig at the red line that FDP leader Christian Lindner said must not be crossed. In other respects the French president took care to remain well within the vague limits the German chancellor has already indicated she would be prepared to accept: a European finance chief wielding control over an unspecified budget, closer cooperation on immigration and security, candidates for the European parliament on transnational slates, taxation of American high-tech firms doing business in Europe. He also called for harmonization of French and German corporate tax rates, on which I don't believe Merkel has yet committed herself.

The speech was echt Macronism. Lofty in conception, bold in symbolism, vague on details. Macron's method is to indicate a general direction and leave the actual destination sufficiently unclear that whatever end is finally chosen can be declared as a victory. It worked with labor code reform; it might work with Europe. But eventually people will tire of the exercise of marking points on a map and begin to wonder if they've actually moved anywhere. Planning a vacation is fun, but you haven't been there until you can start posting those snapshots on Facebook, as it were. Europe is indeed necessary for France's future, as Macron suggests, but until its fruits start showing up in people's paychecks, it's going to be a hard sell. Macron can be a persuasive salesman, but potential buyers are already asking about le service après-vente.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Faint Glimmer of Hope

Is it possible that my initial reaction was too pessimistic? Might the German election results actually facilitate rather than hinder EU reform? Not if you believe that Christian Lindner of the FDP will be a strong voice in the "Jamaica coalition":

The party’s leader, Christian Lindner, was blunt on Sunday night, repeating his opposition to Mr. Macron’s ideas. Without ruling out all reform, he said that a eurozone budget that could be used to send money to France and Italy “would be unthinkable and a red line for us.”

Mr. Lindner told journalists before the election that he would push for the finance ministry in a coalition. If he succeeds, it may produce little change from the similarly tough-minded Wolfgang Schäuble, who has been Ms. Merkel’s finance minister.
“Will Lindner be tougher than Schäuble?” asked Hans Kundnani of the German Marshall Fund. “Unlikely.”
But consider an alternative scenario: The SDP now goes into opposition and will try to revive its leftish voice, muted throughout the years of the Grand Coalition, a malady that induced leftist laryngitis.

One way to do that would be to call for solidarity among the social democratic parties of Europe. Job creation could be a first priority in such a call, and increased spending on infrastructure--much needed in Germany--could be made a prime policy goal. A European infrastructure fund could be created, to be financed by bonds jointly backed by the member states. These would not be "Eurobonds" per se, since Merkel has already declared her opposition to Eurobonds and Lindner would be even more opposed, but "infrastructure bonds," a modest subterfuge of the sort for which Eurocrats are deservedly famous.

Lindner would still be opposed, but with the backing of the SDP and the Greens, Merkel could finesse his opposition, and it remains to be seen if he would break the coalition over such a difference. Such stimulus spending could be placed under the joint authority of an infrastructure czar, French, and a new EU finance minister (German), thus effecting the kind of structural reform for which Macron is calling. A German fin min would mollify German conservatives and liberals by insisting on rules, while a French czar would be granted a certain discretion in doling out the euros.



Thus the founding tension within the EU would be perpetuated in yet another grand structural compromise of the sort for which the EU is (in)famous. Et voilà: progress snatched from the jaws of reaction. Am I dreaming? Who knows what Merkel really wants? But surely she does not want to see the AfD making further advances, and this will require some creative thinking to accommodate both the diehard advocates of the Schwarze Null and those who believe that something must be done for those deprived of the benefits of Modell Deutschland, the growing ranks of Germany's poor (the poverty rate has increased sharply in recent years despite the growing trade surplus, a sign of the woefully unequal distribution of the rewards of wage restraint).

So there is hope, if Lindner is not feeling too big for his breeches, if Merkel is alert to the opportunity, if Macron does not overplay his hand, and if the social-democratic left rises to the occasion in Germany and elsewhere. A lot of ifs, adding up to a faint maybe.



But it is a hope echoed by the green stripe in the Jamaica coalitiion: Green Party leader Cem Ozdemir, said: “The next government, which we want to join, must support France. There is no other way,” adding that austerity alone was no recipe for Europe.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Senatorial Elections

REM sought in advance to interpret away the bad news it knew would be coming out of the senatorial elections. It's true that the Senate vote is generally a projection of the past onto the present, and since REM blasted away the past with its overwhelming victories in May and June, it was inevitable that the projected spirit of the antediluvian past would stand in sharp contrast. But it's also true that the mood has changed sharply since June, REM's "marche" has slowed to a crawl, and its failure to give much of a sign of life at all in the senatorials is fresh cause for worry.

The traditional right and center picked up 17 seats, the Socialists, with 80, lost only 6, and the Communists will be able to for a group. REM will have only 25 senators.

This is not a major setback for Macron, but there's no disguising the fact that it is a setback, and together with the disappointing German vote (see previous post), which weakened Merkel and therefore undercut German support for Macron, the president has new cause for worry and the opposition new warrant for seeing an opening that it would dearly love to exploit.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

My Hot Take on the German Election

Here. TL;DR version: Not good for Macron or France.

Mélenchon's Revealing Gaffe

In his "resistance proclamation" on Saturday, Jean-Luc Mélenchon praised the politics of the street, which he said had toppled kings, would-be reformers, and Nazis--implying that he would take his movement to the streets to stop the would-be reformer Macron.

Mélenchon, who is often praised for his "historical culture" as well as his eloquence, was here either ignorant or willfully blind, as Jean-Claude Mailly reminded him:

Jean-Claude Mailly a jugé "choquants" dimanche les propos tenus la veille par Jean-Luc Mélenchon, le secrétaire général de FO estimant que la rue n'a pas "abattu" le régime nazi, et l'a même "amené d'une certaine manière".
"Le régime nazi, c'est pas la rue qui l'a abattu, ce sont les alliés, ce sont les Américains, ce sont les Russes à une époque, etc (...) Si on connait un peu son histoire, c'est même la rue qui a amené le nazisme d'une certaine manière, donc il faut faire attention à ce que l'on dit", a déclaré M. Mailly lors de l'émission Le Grand Jury de RTL/Le Figaro/LCI.
(h/t Bert)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The FN Explodes

The handwriting has been on the wall since the election. In recent days the pace quickened, as Marine Le Pen's lieutenants intensified their attacks on Florian Philippot. Marine herself summoned him to abandon his internal movement, Les Patriotes, and then stripped him of important party functions. Finally, Philippot, bowing to the obvious and declaring his lack of "taste for ridicule," announced his departure with a blast at the FN, which, he said, had succumbed "to its old demons." He had come as the harbinger of the famous "de-demonization," he would leave as a sacrifice to the goblins.

So it's the Night of the Long Knives on the far right. And this raises the stakes for the formerly respectable right as well. Laurent Wauquiez will see an opportunity to snag voters who came to the new, supposedly de-demonized, supposedly retooled FN architected by Philippot. These voters were drawn to the Philippot doctrine of economic sovereignty, national preference in hiring, and all-out opposition to the EU. The softening of the FN's image was essential to their recruitment. They were left dismayed by Marine Le Pen's obvious inability, in the inter-round debate, to give a coherent articulation of the Philippot line, much less defend it against criticism. They were disappointed by the FN's failure to meet its electoral expectations. They are likely to see the re-demonized party as a party with an even more dismal electoral future.

Philippot will woo them, perhaps attempting to turn his Les Patriotes movement into a full-fledged party, but I doubt he will succeed. He was a superb second to MLP but lacks the heft of a party leader. So this is an opportunity for Wauquiez. It's also an opportunity for Marion Maréchal Le Pen, but my hunch is that the interfamilial Sturm und Drang is too much for her and that her withdrawal from politics could be more than temporary.

There is also, potentially, an opportunity for J-L Mélenchon, but he is likely to trip over his own ego if he tries to seize it.

The discomfiture of the FN is an occasion for rejoicing. May it be confirmed by polling in the coming months and then by the next electoral test. Interesting times.

And chalk up another manna-from-heaven victory for Emmanuel Macron. As I put it in a talk yesterday, he is the luckiest man on earth. His gaffes seem to do him no harm, his opponents self-destruct, and meanwhile the economy has begun to revive, slowly to be sure, but, this time, seemingly inexorably.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Defeat Is an Orphan

Victory has a thousand fathers, they say, while defeat is an orphan. Perhaps, but defeat has a way of generating countless attributions of paternity. One sees this phenomenon at work right now on the far right and the far left.

On the far right, Louis Aliot has launched an all-out attack on Florian Philippot. With Marine Le Pen herself under attack within the party, she seems to have chosen her partner as designated hitter to fasten the blame for the debacle on her erstwhile BFF Philippot, who may be making his own bid for leadership.

Meanwhile, on the far left, PCF leader Pierre Laurent chose the occasion of La Fête de l'Humanité to tear into Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon's crime is to have chosen to jouer perso, as they say, but in the case of Mélenchon egoism is such a central part of his character that it can hardly be seen as a defect thereof. If he weren't an egotist, he wouldn't exist. Laurent appears to resent Mélenchon's effort to put himself forward as the first and best enemy of Macron. Not so fast, says Laurent. Me too. And for good measure Benoît Hamon adds that wherever anyone turns out to oppose les ordonnances, there he will be too. But an opera with three such prima donnas is bound to end in fiasco, or the be upstaged by Martinez, who not only sports a villainous mustache but also has troops he can turn out on command.

Meanwhile, the Macron machine lumbers on, no longer quite the juggernaut it once appeared. But despite the bumps in the road, and the wagoneer's penchant for getting people's backs up with unnecessary insults, he retains the support of his base. I was in France this past week, for once among small businessmen rather than academics, and support for Macron in that quarter was unsurprisingly fairly solid. The carping left and right scarcely registers in these quarters. Fluctuat nec mergitur. The dogs bark, the caravans pass.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It's No Longer 1995

When Emmanuel Macron announced that labor code reform would be his first priority, I worried. Mightn't this trigger a strong union reaction, as when Chirac and Juppé tried to reform state pensions in 1995, shutting down public transport, sowing chaos, and eventually forcing a strategic retreat? Well, today is the day of the CGT's general strike, and it's clear that this is not 1995. I happen to be in Paris for a brief visit, so I can report firsthand that the subways are running as usual. There is some disruption of the RER and SNCF, but nothing major. The demos are as colorful as ever, but smaller, and the union united front is no more.

In fact, what has happened reinforces rather than undermines Macron's  strategy. He aims to win a series of small victories, timed to follow one another rather closely, in order to create the impression of steady movement. But because each step is small, the opposition remains small--small but visible and vocal, which suits him nicely because the existence of opposition tends to accredit the idea that he is making big changes--"heroic" changes, as he put it in his marathon interview with Le Point, which hit the streets just as the labor reform was announced (France, he says, needs more heroes).

The interview is a rather odd mix of the heady and the petty, or perhaps more accurately, the lyric and the technocratic, much like Macron himself. To wit: "Ce n'est que le début du combat. Nous sommes un pays ... de calcaire, de schiste et d'argile, de catholiques et de protestants, de juifs et de musulmans." On the one hand. On the other, or, rather en même temps, as the president likes to say, ou presque: "Nous supprimons 3.15 points de cotisations sur les salaires pour les transférer sur la CSG."

This split consciousness leads to some rather dubious formulas, such as "Pourquoi les jeunes de banlieue partent-ils en Syrie? Parce que les vidéos de propagande ... ont transformé à leurs yeux les terroristes en héros. ... Le défi de la politique, aujourd'hui, c'est donc aussi de réinvestir un imaginaire de conquête."

By shaving 3.15 points off the CSG? I'm not sure this will impress the banlieusards in search of heroes. But the lad seems to enjoy what he's doing--or at least he enjoys describing what he purports to be doing. As a friend remarked to me last night, "It's not clear whether we have elected a providential man or a providential child." Peu importe. For the moment his luck has held. If he gets through the Mélenchon menace on Sept 23 (preceded by yet another CGT-organized (non-)general strike (the CGT having decided it wants nothing to do with Mélenchon, nor does it want to see him become the leader of the opposition), Macron may have something to celebrate by Christmas.

Slicing the Political Salami Ever Thinner

Valérie Pécresse has officially launched her "movement," Libres ! (Has Macron's En Marche ! unleashed an epidemic of exclamation points?) She wants, according to Le Monde, to fill the space between Wauquiez and Les Constructifs. Xavier Bertrand also sits in this narrow niche of the political spectrum, which is in the process of being sliced up like salami by a proliferation of political entrepreneurs. Macron wanted to encourage risk-taking, and he has succeeded, at least among politicians, by pulverizing the opposition parties to the point where the ambitious see no point in sticking with their parties and plenty of reasons to depart for the wilderness with their bands of the faithful.

Pécresse is an able woman, well-spoken (adept even in English), a good conservative with an allergy to the Front National--in short, a plausible Republican présidentiable despite being charisma-challenged. But who knows? In five years' time, France may have tired of charisma or decided that Macron's was an ersatz and not the genuine article. It could be ready for une présidente normale who will have demonstrated her talents by taking Ile-de-France in hand. But she will have plenty of competition, and the salami can only be sliced so thin without losing its flavor.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Show Us the Money

Why do you rob banks? Willie Sutton was asked. "Because that's where the money is," he answered quite logically. France and Germany are now going after American tech behemoths for the same reason: That's where the money is. It's not quite Piketty's global tax on capital, but it may "disrupt" the Silicon Valley disrupters all the same.

Bruno Le Maire, the French fin min, said last week that “Internet giants are welcome in Europe but it’s not right they pay so little in taxes,” adding that new ideas needed to be explored to deliver fair taxation.


Friday, September 8, 2017

The FN Rebuilds

The problem with a centrist government that draws on elements of both the center-left and center-right is that it sets off a battle to the death on the fringes, which must divide the scraps left from the passage of the LREM juggernaut. On the left, for the moment, Mélenchon has cleared the table. The Socialists are gasping for air, and he is feasting on the remains. But on the right a battle royal is shaping up: Will LR absorb the FN or vice-versa?

Actually, that is putting the matter too starkly. Both parties will retain their identity, but the once-impermeable barrier between them has fallen to the political equivalent of Hurricane Irma. Wauquiez is ogling Le Pen's voters through the now-gaping holes, while Le Pen is ogling his. Nicolas Bay (FN) puts it this way:

Nicolas Bay résume la stratégie qu’il voudrait que son parti privilégie pour élargir l’électorat frontiste, sans forcément avoir besoin d’alliances : « Les électeurs de droite partis chez Macron, je ne vois pas pourquoi ils reviendraient. Ceux qui restent, en revanche, sont souvent en phase avec nous sur la sécurité, l’islamisme, l’identité…
Exactly. A pool of voters who could go either way, a passel of politicians eager to bag them, and a minefield between the hunters and their quarry. No one has quite figured out the messaging--or dog-whistling--necessary to appeal to voters who want their insecurities assuaged without incurring the racist label, and to do so without blowing themselves to smithereens.

Philippot persuaded Le Pen to bet on economic nationalism, but it didn't quite work. Fillon showed that appeals to traditional values had some legs but probably not enough to get across the finish line, even if he hadn't had that unfortunate weakness for bespoke suits. Wauquiez has been groping for the right formula for a while now, but he hasn't really found it, except to take warmed-over Buissonism and try to make it work in a very different political configuration.

And for the moment Marine Le Pen has gone all negative, emulating Mélenchon in casting Macron as the absolute enemy but in rather more picturesque and less Marxoid terms: for her, the new guy represents « la philosophie de l’éphémère, de la précarité, du jetable ». A nice phrase, which at least gets us beyond the ritual denunciations of the "Jupiterian" president. As Le Pen well knows--one point on which she agrees with Macron--the French have no problem with top gods as long as they retain the power to rain down thunderbolts. They prefer Jupiter to le président normal. They just don't know yet whether the Jupiter they've elected is really the top god or just a kid who played Jupiter once in a high school play and is trying to reprise his role.

So nobody has quite figured out how to fill the basket with France's equivalent of Hillary's "deplorables," But fill it someone will.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Negative Verdict on Macron

Chris Bickerton, as smart an observer of the French scene as one can find anywhere, judges the Macron presidency harshly in this NY Times piece. He argues his case well but in my view relies too heavily on the ephemeral "approval rating" and ignores what is unusual about the Macron presidency. Macron is a puzzling combination of symbolic toughness and strength with pragmatic timidity and caution. Chris reads him as a slash-and-burn neoliberal; I read him as a technocrat who has long chafed at the deficiencies of pure technocratic management, which he saw up close as an advisor and minister to Hollande, and who seeks to fill the void with a simulacrum of grandeur, be it regal, Gaullian, or philosophical.

Macron is an actor who has not yet found his marks. He has tried on, and is still trying out, for the role that best suits him. His uncertainty leaves the public puzzled. They don't quite know what to make of him--nor do I. Some of what they see they like. Some they don't. So they hesitate. This is the entire meaning of his plunging approval. It may come back. Or it may not, in which case Chris will seem prescient when in fact he is merely reading the past two presidencies, which were histories of steady decline, into the present one, which is (I think) quite different.

Of course it may turn out that I am the one misreading things. Mais on s'engage, puis on voit.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Naked Ambition

No politician can amount to anything without ambition, but some have it to such a degree that they are deformed beyond all recognition. If their existence ever had a core, it has long since been consumed by their will to power. Laurent Wauquiez is a case in point.

Wauquiez is not your garden variety exploiter of rank prejudice or xenophobic nationalist demagogue. He is after all un normalien and énarque. And not just any old énarque: he was actually le major de sa promotion. First in his class. The best and the brightest of the best and the brightest. And once upon a time he was even a sort of lib-lab Chiraco-compatible pro-European centrist. But that was before Macron, un autre ambitieux, sucked all the air out of the center. That was before Patrick Buisson persuaded Sarkozy and his circle that the only votes to be had were on the far right, among the xenophobes and declinists and "unhappy identitifiers" and France-qui-tombistes.

And Wauquiez, being a quick study and a certified smart guy, was quick to make the calculation. The centrist rump, the Juppéistes, have all deserted to form les Contructifs (or Collabos, in the eyes of the hard right). As the Waquieziens see it, even those who nominally remain Republicans serve only to alienate potential voters and drive them to the FN. The only way to bring back la droite décompléxée that Sarko dubbed in his dreams is to go after Sens Commun, Marion Maréchal Le Pen's faction of the FN, etc. And Wauquiez, quick calculator that he is, figures he knows how to do it. So in recent weeks and months we've heard him talking about a "Right that is not afraid to be on the right," etc. And all this tough talk has made him the favorite to take over the party now that the historical chieftains--Juppé, Sarko, Fillon--have all been forcibly retired or sandbagged or sidelined.

How large is this reconstituted Right likely to loom in the French political landscape of the future? It all depends. The FN, its principal competitor, is also in a rebuilding phase. The LR defectors who have glommed onto Macron may find themselves on the raft of the Medusa if the good ship Macron goes down. Then there's Valérie Pécresse waiting in the wings, and Xavier Bertrand. Both would have liked to take the Republicans in a different direction, but both had pledged to stick to the posts to which they were recently elected and in any case probably aren't sure that leadership of LR is really the royal road to a brighter tomorrow. So they're sniping from the sidelines, waiting for Wauquiez to trip himself up.

Wauquiez is only 42 but his hair is already turning white. Perhaps he frightens the person he used to be with the perfidious depth to which his own ambition has caused him to sink.