Monday, August 31, 2015

Le B-A-BA de la gauche

The Socialist Party attended summer school over the weekend. What did it learn? That "Emmanuel Macron is not on the right" while Manuel Valls, who used to define the right wing of the PS, is somewhere to his left. Meanwhile, on the left of the left, Pierre Laurent and Jean-Luc Mélenchon have fallen out, with Mélenchon's ego apparently boosted by his having precipitated a split in EELV between those who want to form an alliance with him and les démissionaires de Rugy and Placé, who want nothing to do with him.

In short, we are about to experience a typical rentrée, with the left characteristically squabbling, editorialists characteristically trying to make some sense out of the bedlam, and polls predicting yet another victory for the FN in the upcoming regionals.

The unfortunate fact is that none of this frantic positioning will make any difference. The politicians are obsessed with certain shibboleths, which they hope will define them sufficiently to carve out a segment of the electorate. Does one dare tamper with the 35-hr week or not? Is the labor code too complicated for an era that demands agility in order to remain competitive, or does it embody the acquis of decades of social struggle and thus define what it means to be on the left? Must capitalism be destroyed if the planet is to be saved? Etc. etc.

The dogs bark, the caravans pass. In truth, the only actual reforms on the table and with the slightest chance of passing will have little effect on the economy between now and the next presidential election. Valls worked himself into a literal lather, moistening his shirt, in order to say that, with a little luck, there will be some mild changes to labor laws, some minor tax reductions (after the sharp tax increases that marked the first half of the quinquennat), and probably some spending cuts to pay for them (in order to keep Brussels satisfied), thus negating any stimulative effect. Mélenchon and Duflot will court the dwindling pool of the angrily dissatisfied with a revivified ecolo-gauchiste rhetoric, while the really dissatisfied will continue to decamp to the FN. And meanwhile Juppé and Sarkozy continue to duke it out on the right, running about neck and neck.

In short, all's quiet on the western front. The next war will start in September. Tomorrow, in other words.

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Suffer the little children to come unto me": Hollande panders to big and small alike.

This has to be seen to be believed. I mean, shameless pandering is a necessity in the life of any politician, but aren't there laws against exploiting children? Watch the video.

Du rififi chez les Verts

Avec le réchauffement climatique, le réchauffement politique: François de Rugy, ex-co-president of EELV, has quit the party in a lather, all hot and bothered about its alleged radical turn and prospective alliance with the Front de Gauche. Mélenchon and Duflot may strike the world as an unlikely pair, but as the extreme right moves closer to the corridors of power and begins to attract the rising elite (see previous post), the extreme left is ever more determined to mark its difference from those time-servers in government. This, of course, means standing on principle, no matter how unpopular, while denouncing compromise as treason. Excess of principle drove Daniel Cohn-Bendit to distraction and out of the party years ago, and now de Rugy has followed, soon to be emulated (according to DCB) by another party leader, Jean-Vincent Placé. Leaving Mme Duflot in sole charge of her 2% of the electorate.

A fine prelude to upcoming Paris summit on climate change at the end of the year.

UPDATE: Placé is now gone.

The FN Comes to Sciences Po

No one ever accused Sciences Po students of lacking ambition. The institution may have a conservative reputation, but if something new comes along that promises a faster rise to the top and a way to break out of le peloton and reach for le maillot jaune, you can count on a contingent of enterprising Sciences Po-ers to avail themselves of the opportunity.

So it comes as no surprise that the rise and rise of the FN has attracted a nucleus of supporters at France's elite incubator. I mean, look where Florian Philippot has gotten in just a few years. Of course the énarquisation of the erstwhile anti-establishment party has Jean-Marie Le Pen turning in the grave he is not quite yet in. Another sign of the disintegration of the French party system is the diversity of recruitment of these fresh FN cadres. To go by the sample chosen by the journalist, they come in all stripes: former UMP, only to be expected, but also former PS and Front de Gauche. These are not ex-street brawlers of some extreme-right groupuscule. They are apparently young hotshots trying to find their political bearings and seemingly without firm moorings on what used to constitute the two shores of the political world.

Another depressing sign of the times.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Widening and Deepening in French and European Politics

Is this blog dead? Some might think so, but in fact I'm still here. Indeed, I should have more time to write than ever, because I've translated my last book--or so I tell myself. But retirement from translation has seen me working harder than ever on a variety of projects. I'm writing a novel and an historical essay, reviewing books, and developing a computer program that "reads" a dozen European newspapers and presents me with a morning news briefing in four languages, with hundreds of articles automatically classified in a number of categories. It's working pretty well, and I may even make it publicly accessible at some point. But none of this fits very well in a blog space ostensibly devoted to French politics.

So what's up with French politics, as opposed to the blog "French Politics?" Not much, at least on the surface, and that is the problem. Indeed, as I reflect on what's been happening over the past little while, it seems to me that Europe's problems, like the European Union itself, have grown deeper even as they have grown broader. "Widening" is of course in some ways the cause of "deepening" on the problem level, or, to put it the other way around, the absence of political "deepening" has made "widening" increasingly untenable.

Although the problem of the euro and its role in the Greek debt crisis have dominated the headlines over the summer, in the great historical scheme of things I think that the euro problem will recede. The crisis that will loom large in the history books is the refugee crisis and--still more broadly--the great population shift that is taking place before our eyes. Refugee troubles have lately displaced the euro from the headlines. Yesterday Angela Merkel spoke at the scene of violent attacks on recent immigrants by extreme right-wingers in Germany. France, which complains loudly about the burden of immigration, has been much less affected than other countries, including Greece and Germany. Indeed, France's main border control problem at the moment is dealing with refugees who are trying to get out, who prefer the greener pastures they believe await them in England and are camped out in Calais waiting for a chance to cross the Channel. Germany, on the other hand, is on track to receive more than 800,000 refugees this year, more than four times as many as last year.

This is an extraordinary number, a number so large in proportion to the population that any country would have trouble dealing with it. Merkel, to her credit, was quite outspoken in her defense of the refugees and of the need for compassion in this moment of tragic upheaval across a vast swath of territory, but of course talk is cheap. The German government faces enormous challenges, which France can only be thankful it does not yet have to confront. But it needs to do more, if only to alleviate the pressures on the Germans. Indeed, one path toward the much desired "ever closer union" would be to come to an agreement about the sharing of the refugee burden, but such an agreement would probably be even harder to achieve than the impossible but also necessary agreement about fiscal coordination, eurobonds, and the like.

The refugee problem is complicated by the fact that the very countries from which refugees are streaming into Europe (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and sub-Saharan Africa) are also foyers of an ideology that appears to be behind several recent terrorist attacks on European soil. The thwarted attack on the Thalys train last week was perpetrated, we are told, by an individual who had traveled to Syria and been in touch with elements of ISIS.

This situation strikes me as potentially explosive. Its implications for the electoral balance in France are quite worrisome. Marine Le Pen has been somewhat distracted by the contretemps with her father, but I expect that she will begin to exploit the compassion-vs.-security dilemma at the rentrée. The rhetoric will get ugly, and I am not at all confident that the current government will respond well. The challenge may divide the Republicans as well. It is easy to foresee a Sarkozy hard line confronting a disappointingly tepid response from Juppé about the need for "Europe" to shoulder more responsibility.

For the blogger, the problem has become that to write about French politics, one must write about European politics, because none of the salient issues of the day can be confined within national boundaries. And European politics is extraordinarily difficult to write about for the same reason that it is extraordinarily difficult to practice: all its actors are two-faced (in the literal as well as the pejorative sense: they must address both domestic publics and international interlocutors, and they speak different languages in each context).

In any case, I hope to be blogging more once the dog days of summer are over and political life resumes. But I am at the mercy of events. The blog form is perforce episodic and superficial--"event-driven" in the common parlance. But European politics has become increasingly subterranean, a matter of tectonic shifts whose surface manifestations are hard to track until "the big one" comes and permanently alters the landscape. My fear is that the likelihood of a large shock--an 8 on the Richter scale--is increasing daily.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Batman, Proust, and I

A little self-promotion. I can't say I ever expected to share a bill with Batman, but there it is (NY Times Best Seller List):

Hardcover Graphic Books

  1. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
  2. CAN'T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?, by Roz Chast
  3. SECONDS, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
  4. NATHAN HALE’S HAZARDOUS TALES: THE UNDERGROUND ABDUCTOR, by Nathan Hale
  5. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME: SWANN'S WAY, by Marcel Proust, Stéphane Heuet and Arthur Goldhammer

Anyone eager to buy a copy can find it here. It's a nice, gentle introduction to Proust for those who haven't had the pleasure.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Whither Europe?

The lull did not last long. Whatever Merkel and Hollande thought they had accomplished with their Potemkin bailout has now been exposed for the sham it is by none other than Mario Draghi. Draghi announced that the ECB will increase its Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) to Greek banks to €900 million a week, but he also said that Greece "indisputably" needs debt relief, thus reinforcing the position of the IMF (or at any rate its research staff as opposed, thus far, to its policy arm).

L’homme fort de l’institution de Francfort a également clairement pris position dans le vaste débat sur la dette grecque. Selon lui, il est « indiscutable » qu’un allégement de la dette de la Grèce est nécessaire — dette dont le poids représente quelque 180 % de son PIB. « La question sera quelle est la meilleure forme d’allégement », a-t-il ajouté lors d’une conférence de presse à Francfort.
The question is now squarely on the table. The Eurozone as presently constituted does not work. It either needs to cease and desist or face the challenge of establishing central--and hopefully democratic--political control in place of the unworkable combination of deregulated markets, semi-sovereign member states, and ad hoc emergency arrangements. One of the staunchest supporters of the European project, Jürgen Habermas, has conceded that left-wing critics such as Wolfgang Streeck have a point: "Europe is stuck in a political trap," he says. But he disagrees with Streeck that "a return to nation-states can solve the problem."

I agree. For Habermas,
Such tendencies [toward de-democratization and growing social inequality] can only be countered, if at all, by a change in political direction, brought about by democratic majorities in a more strongly integrated ‘core Europe’. The currency union must gain the capacity to act at the supra-national level. In view of the chaotic political process triggered by the crisis in Greece, we can no longer afford to ignore the limits of the present method of intergovernmental compromise.
Indeed. But Habermas simply skips over the formidable, perhaps insurmountable, political obstacles to achieving this "ever closer union." Doubts about the wisdom of continuing with the European project are on the rise everywhere. The problem of the Greek debt is urgent, but the EU moves glacially when it moves at all. Still, denial of the Merkel-Hollande variety is becoming daily more untenable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Eurozone Must Change

I don't have time today for a full post, but I just want to reiterate what I said yesterday. Eurozone leaders are patting themselves on the back for having prevented Greece from abandoning the euro. But their "solution" is merely another futile exercise in temporizing, kicking the can further down the road and Greece once again in the gut. The IMF minces no words on the futility of this maneuver, and Eurozone leaders knew this before they forced Greece to sign the agreement:


Dans un rapport publié mardi mais dont les autorités européennes ont eu connaissance le 11 juillet, soit avant que l’accord qui conditionne un nouveau plan d’aide à Athènes ne soit signé, le FMI estime en effet que la dette grecque ne peut être viable qu’« avec des mesures d’allégement ».
Continuing with this denial is madness. It will end badly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tragedy, Farce, Theater of the Absurd

Even as François Hollande was preening himself in today's 14 July interview on his brilliant role in "saving the euro" ("J'ai dit à Alexis, maintenant, après le réferendum tu es plus fort, mais tu es aussi plus faible"), the IMF was revealing the absurdity of the latest round of extend and pretend:
Greece’s public debt has become highly unsustainable. This is due to the easing of policies during the last year, with the recent deterioration in the domestic macroeconomic and financial environment because of the closure of the banking system adding significantly to the adverse dynamics.
The financing need through end-2018 is now estimated at €85bn and debt is expected to peak at close to 200 percent of GDP in the next two years, provided that there is an early agreement on a program. Greece’s debt can now only be made sustainable through debt relief measures that go far beyond what Europe has been willing to consider so far.
This charade cannot go on. Hollande's participation in it discredits and dishonors him. To echo Matteo Renzi, enough is enough.