Saturday, December 16, 2017

How Macron Circumvents His Own Ministers

Much was said during the campaign about Macron's lack of political experience and not enough about his intimate familiarity with the real levers of power in France, which are found not on the village marketplaces where politicians distribute their tracts but in the back offices of the various ministries. And now that he is in power, Macron has devised an efficient method of circumventing the politicians, including his own ministers, and reaching directly into those back offices in order to influence how the levers are pulled. His method is detailed in this article in Le Monde. I have long maintained that government in France is effective only when the chief executive forges an alliance with the top administrators. Conservatives used to know how to do this. The Socialists had something of the knack in the early Mitterrand years, when many young énarques in the ministries brought left-wing sympathies with them into the administration.

Macron knows from experience how the sausage is made. It's the secret of his effectiveness so far. He inspires all those departmental directors. Meanwhile, it's said the luster has begun to wear off for many REM deputies, especially those who came from the private sector. They are said to feel "useless." In their previous jobs they were VIPs, decision-makers, movers and shakers. Now they're legislators, who must sit all day day in the hémicycle just to raise their hands. I feel their pain.

Macron Turns 40, Hardens His Heart

Emmanuel Macron is celebrating his fortieth birthday at the Château de Chambord, surrounded by hunters chasing wild boar. It's an injudicious choice for a president who has made much use of the power of symbolism, unless of course he wants to project a Jupiterian power ensconced in a proper seat, or throne.

Meanwhile, he is projecting power of a different kind, cracking down on refugees in makeshift shelters and welcome centers, which the immigration police have allowed themselves to enter for the first time. He would prefer, however, that we refer to "migrants" rather than "refugees." Because apparently the president's policy on immigration is that France remains a "land of asylum" but only for those officially classified as "refugees" before entering Europe. The rest are unwanted migrants who are liable to arrest and deportation.

So while Angela Merkel labors to persuade her reluctant European partners to share the refugee burden more equitably, Macron is setting a very different example, demonstrating that on his watch France is going to take a very tough stand indeed. Which can only encourager les autres to defy Merkel as well. This--far more than the reform of the labor code--is the unattractive side of Macronism.

Meanwhile, François Bayrou, who has kept a low profile since his ouster from government, is apparently plotting a comeback as--listen well!--"the left wing of Macronism." Yes, you heard that right. Bayrou, Monsieur le Centre, sees himself as the left wing, the "social" wing, of Macronism. He is certainly right that such a thing is needed. Perhaps this refugee crackdown will give a chance to show what he means when he says that Macronism needs a social wing. Le Macronisme à visage humain remains to be defined.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Édouard Philippe

Has there ever been a quieter prime minister than Édouard Philippe? He's certainly a change from Manuel Valls. For insight into his personality, I recommend listening to a podcast of this morning's Répliques, in which Alain Finkielkraut and Philippe discuss not politics but ... books.

Finkielkraut, armed with his bottomless chrestomathy of high-brow quotations and his endless supply of cut-and-dried and unalterable préjugés (no one reads anymore, the Internet has killed culture, France's teachers have abandoned the young, the schools reenact The Lord of the Flies, etc.), wants to enlist Philippe in his quixotic crusade to save the Republic, but Philippe will not be drawn. "Do you listen to music when you read, M. Finkielkraut? Some people say they can't. It's impossible. Well I do, so I know it's not impossible. And perhaps it's the same with the Internet and with electronic devices. Let me tell you about my daughter. She is seven and reads a lot, as everyone in the family does. And she discovered reading through an electronic device. So the two are not necessarily incompatible." (I'm quoting from memory, not verbatim.)

I find Philippe straightforward, plain-spoken, intelligent but undemonstrative and without designs on you (unlike Macron, whose use of cultural references invariably suggests a certain strategic cunning). Why had his parents advised him to read Cyrano de Bergerac? Because his ears stuck out, his classmates taunted him, and he suffered from his physical defect. So he read the play, but it didn't speak to him in that hour of need. He rediscovered it years later, thanks to a film. And he wasn't ashamed to mention it as a text that was important to him even though he knew it was dismissed as a minor work which he had never been mentioned in all his years of study.

Philippe gives every impression of being that rare thing in politics, a man content to cultivate his garden without aspiring to become either the sun god or the Sun King. Jupiter has found the perfect complement.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Whither Europe?

I ponder the future of Europe in the wake of major political changes in France and Germany.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Johnny et Jean

France is about to be submerged by a wave of nostalgia. The deaths of Johnny Hallyday ("notre Johnny national", as a French friend once put it to me with a tinge of savage irony) and Jean d'Ormesson will remind people of a certain age--my age--that their days are numbered.

Those who danced to the endless string of Johnny hits in the years leading up to May '68 will recall what it was like when the sap flowed more freely in their veins than it does today. Those who imagined their own future amorous lives on the model of Johnny and Sylvie will conjure up the pangs of lost loves.

The Johnny cult has always more or less mystified me. I was an American and therefore had no need of the French Elvis. I had the genuine article. French rock largely struck me as a pale shadow of the real thing. I had somewhat warmer feelings about Johnny the film actor. He had a certain something, which came I suppose of being a national monument called upon to play an ordinary bloke. The Fabrice Lucchini film Jean-Philippe played with this a bit.

As for Jean d'Ormesson, while no one would quite call him "notre Jean national," he was for a time a rather ubiquitous presence. I doubt that he would have much of claim on the nation's nostalgia were it not for Apostrophes, the Bernard Pivot bookchat show, of which he was a fixture. Despite having been editor of Le Figaro for many years, it was his genial presence on Pivot's stage that made him a celebrity, a status that neither his novels nor his election to the Académie française would have earned him. He dined with presidents (and was in fact Mitterrand's last luncheon companion before his death), but television made him a household name and broadcast his seductive charms even to those in the audience who found his politics a bit on the réac side.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Loyal Opposition Loses Its Cool

I had missed Jean-Luc Mélenchon's appearance on L'Emission Politique, but my blogging confrère Arun Kapil alerted me with a Facebook post. To say that Mélenchon was disagreeable would be an understatement. It has been said that he was embittered by his elimination from the presidential contest after round 1, when he had come so close. Perhaps. Or perhaps bitterness and invective have become his strategic weapons. At times he seemed to be following the playbook of Georges Marchais (Taisez-vous, Elkabbach!). At other times his model seemed to be Donald Trump, who knows how to use humor to get the crowd on his side when he lashes out at the "elite" media (as Mélenchon did in his little routine on Venezuela, with the line about the child's toy cow that says "Moo!" each time you turn it over). He got the laughs, but one had the feeling that the crowd remained uncomfortable even as it guffawed because the spectacle was that of a man not quite in control of his emotions.

All that was bad enough, but now we have Mélenchon on his blog attacking the journalist Léa Salamé for her ethnicity:

J’ai cru à un super débat sur les deux doctrines économiques en présence et ainsi de suite. Je ne me suis pas préoccupé de ses liens familiaux et communautaires politiques. Quand elle m’a pris à parti sur mon patrimoine de riche, moi le fils d’un postier et d’une institutrice, j’aurais pu lui en jeter de bien bonnes à la figure en matière de patrimoine et de famille. Depuis, ma naïveté fait rire mes amis mieux informés et plus vigilant que moi sur tout cela.
This from the self-appointed champion of laïcité. The claim that he was sandbagged by journalists and a network with a hidden agenda because of his naivety is hardly credible from a man who has been in politics for 40 years and who has appeared countless times on L'Emission Politique. Perhaps his model is not so much Marchais or Trump as the elder Le Pen, who knew so well how to transform clashes with journalists into proof of his anti-establishment bona fides.

None of this would matter except that Mélenchon is now by default the leader of the loyal opposition. The Socialists have absolutely disappeared from the scene (in polls they now trail the Communists). The FN is in disarray, and the Republicans are now in the process of splintering, with one faction joining the marais of soft Macronistes and the other following Laurent Wauquiez into swamps of a more feverish sort, on the fringes of civilization and not far removed from the savagery of the Frontistes.

The next elections are European parliament elections, which are generally an occasion for the electorate to vent its discontents with the incumbent government, and there is plenty of discontent with Macron. So La France Insoumise, as the only semi-organized force of any size in the field, could do well. But Mélenchon wants more than votes. He wants to head a movement, a revolutionary force, and his troops aren't responding to the trumpet. Perhaps that's the source of his frustration. Perhaps he thinks that by turning coleric he can rally the rag-tag army of vociferous lycéen(ne)s and trotskystes de troisième âge who form his base. But this latest sally at Salamé is completely out of bounds, particularly coming from someone who now leads the opposition. It's a comment one might expect from a leader of Alternative für Deutschland but not from the leader of La France Insoumise. With such an opposition, France finds itself in a parlous state.