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.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Has Macron Sliced the Gordian Knot?

Emmanuel Macron badly needs a win. I think he may have it. His labor code reform is out, and there has been no earthquake. It seems unlikely there will be. I'm working on a longish magazine article, but here is my initial reaction:

Today, the details of the reform proposal were finally released. A key provision was a reduction of the maximum indemnity available to employees deemed by a review panel to have been fired without cause. In return, labor received a sweetener: an increase of 25 percent in the compensation due to employees judged to have been laid off for legitimate economic reasons. But, to the unions’ displeasure, employers can now claim to be in economic difficulty if a plant in France is unprofitable, notwithstanding profitable operations outside France. The unions are also unhappy with a provision allowing small firms more room to negotiate with workers directly, without the presence of a union representative.
 On the other hand, the government offered a number of new benefits designed to win union support, including a training allowance for union members who wish to expand their skills and a new office to ensure that companies do not violate rules governing collective bargaining.
 The olive branch extended to the unions may prove effective. Force Ouvrière, the third largest union in France, has announced that it will not participate in the general strike called by the second largest union, the CGT, for September 12. Since FO had been one of the most vociferous opponents of a previous labor code reform, this is a sign that Macron may have sliced the Gordian knot of labor code reform. The country’s largest union, the CFDT, has long been more receptive to liberalization of the labor laws than its two rivals and had already refused to join the CGT. But CFDT leader Laurent Berger said[ that he was disappointed by the provision narrowing the definition of economic difficulty to operations within French borders. He nevertheless characterized other provisions of the reform as “productive” and “intelligent.” He also indicated that the government had withdrawn certain proposals in response to union objections and said that the final result was not “the destruction of the labor code that some critics have proclaimed.”
 As is often the case in French politics, the symbolism of the reform has come to overshadow the substance. The measure is widely seen as a test of Macron’s strength and resolve. Proponents make the exaggerated claim that persistent high unemployment in France is due primarily to labor-market rigidity, which the reform will fix once and for all. Opponents, led by the fiery orator Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise and the mustachioed union boss Philippe Martinez, hope to gin up the fervor of their troops by presenting the measure as an all-out assault on the anti-neoliberal resistance (although Martinez did not refrain from participating in negotiations to obtain a better deal for his members, he did not back down from his call for a general strike after the results were announced). While the clash will be dramatized for maximum political effect on both sides, the outcome looks more like an incremental shift toward lighter labor-market regulation rather than a wholesale jettisoning of France’s byzantine labor code.


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Friday, August 25, 2017

Poincaré's Postage Stamps




With the news that Emmanuel Macron spent €26,000 on makeup in the first 3 months of his presidency, les mauvaises langues were quick to make the comparison with François Hollande's €10,000 a month hairdresser's bill. Being historically minded, I thought rather of Raymond Poincaré, who is said to have reimbursed the government for the postage stamps he used while in office. Or of General de Gaulle, who scrupulously paid his grocery bill at the end of every month.

In one of my articles on Macron, I opined that his ambition was to walk on water, and for a while he seemed quite successful at it--or at least at creating the illusion that his buoyancy knew no bounds. Alas, he has been sinking rapidly of late, and not just in the polls. Ordinarily I think it churlish to hold les grands de ce monde to the same standards as the rest of us. But there are limits. It's no doubt excessive to insist that the head of state pay for his own postage stamps. But if he thinks he needs €26,000 euros worth of face paint to be an effective "pedagogue," as he put it the other day, able to persuade the recalcitrant French of the need for reforms that they instinctively "detest," perhaps he could send one of his flunkies to Le Drugstore to pick up his cosmetics at a discount. Pour encourager les autres.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

En Même Temps

During the campaign Emmanuel Macron became notorious for his frequent use of the phrase "en même temps." It was his trademark segue from left to right or vice versa, a device for having his cake and eating it too, giving with one hand and taking away with the other, etc. Now that he is president, en même temps is back (although yesterday he put it slightly differently: dans le même temps). But now it's Europe where he shows his left profile and the home front where he turns sharply to the right.

Europe has long served as an alibi for French governments. We don't want to take this painful step, they would say, but Europe is forcing our hand--applying leverage often handed to Brussels by the very same people, but never mind.

Macron's two-step is different. He doesn't claim that Europe is forcing him to do anything. Rather, he pretends to be forcing Europe's hand by invoking its better angels. Yesterday's blast was aimed at social dumping. This plays well in Poitiers, of course, and less well in Poland, which serves the president's purpose perfectly. In Europe he can be the champion of the (French) working man. Mais en même temps, at home, his government was announcing that a reduction in worker-paid payroll taxes promised by Macron on the campaign trail will be partly delayed.

Economic policy at home, firmly in the hands of the Macronian right, continues to obey an accountant's logic: we set ourselves a bottom-line budget reduction goal, hence x % must be shaved off every line, no matter how bad the political optics. This move is as ill-considered as the reduction in the housing allowance (APL). It looks callous. A cannier politician wouldn't do it. Macron, for all his mastery of showmanship, at times seems as tone-deaf as Hollande. Or perhaps he hears the sour notes and thinks he can drown them out by speaking loudly on the European stage. It isn't going to work, and the mistakes are piling up at the worst possible moment, just ahead of crucial decisions regarding labor code reform and the budget.