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.

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.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Out with the New, In with the Old

Two names one had thought definitively removed from the news have resurfaced in the past two days. First, François Hollande, who had imposed a decorous silence on himself following his ignominious ejection from the presidency, apparently felt that the opportunity for vengeance had come. His "spiritual son" is in trouble, the negotiations over the labor code reform are coming to a head, and the time for mischief was maximally ripe. The ex-president's perfidious side could not resist, so he issued a "warning" to Macron that ... he must not go too far. And there you have Hollande in a nutshell: both the perfidy and the paralyzing caution, the penchant for saying too much and the penchant for not saying enough. He reminded everyone why they were glad to be rid of him. Perhaps in the end he will have helped Macron.

And then François Fillon, who has thrown in his lot with a new group of financial buccaneers, Tikehau Capital. Now he can buy his own suits (unless the state decides to buy him one by sending him to prison). The hedge funders hope to rely on his "international expertise." Can an overture to Russia, whose leader expressed admiration for Fillon during the campaign, be far behind?

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Word from the Techies

Astute readers will have noticed that the blog URL has changed to secure HTTP: the prefix is now https rather than http. If you use the old URL, you will be redirected automatically. This change has been mandated by our benign overlords Google to improve Web security, a public good we all enjoy. You may want to change your bookmarks and feed aggregators accordingly, although in most cases this shouldn't be necessary.

Maybe it will help to cut down on the comments spam, of which I see a good deal more than you do, since much of it is intercepted before it can try to sell you a vacation in Cambodia or a cure for herpes.

The Management

Robust Growth Ahead for France

UBS is forecasting the fastest growth rate of the French economy since the crisis. If the forecast is correct, Macron will reap the benefits of the Hollande-era reforms (plus cyclical recovery stemming from inventory replenishment and pent-up consmer demand) without lifting a finger. French unemployment is also at a 12-yr low. Indeed, UBS worries that if he overexerts himself by lifting too many fingers (read: labor code reform), he could hinder the recovery just as it gets rolling. This is the only cloud the analysts see on the horizon.

This is the kind of problem every president wants to have. And yet the mood in France is once again morose, after the brief euphoria of May. A glance at the US should reveal to the French how lucky they are to have dodged the populist bullet now firmly lodged in the American spine. Courage, chers amis. You don't know how good you have it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Macron Seeks More Clout in Brussels

According to the Financial Times, Emmanuel Macron is seeking to have Bruno Le Maire replace Jeroen Dijsselbloem as head of the Eurogroup, the committee of finance ministers who set Eurozone policy. Failing that, he'd like to see Odile Renaud-Basso become the head of the so-called Working Group within the Eurogroup. Meanwhile, he's also pushing for the creation of the post of Eurozone finance minister--a move to which the Germans may accede. Agreement on any of these proposals would signify progress toward a Franco-German entente on Eurozone policy, which is long overdue. But any decision may be delayed until after the German elections in the fall.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The New New Left and the New Old Center

La France Insoumise would like to replace the near-defunct PS as the party of the left. In keeping with its "insoumis" label, however, it is encountering difficulty in achieving the kind of party discipline necessary to such a role or even to resigning itself to the fate of becoming a party rather than a movement:

Cette soif démocratique sera nécessairement débattue à Marseille. Sur une note de blog publiée le 28 mai, Jean-Luc Mélenchon assure que des processus de « démocratie interne » sont à l’œuvre mais il veille à ne pas en faire un « sujet de conflictualité interne » : « Il n’y a donc pas de “majorité”, de “minorités”, pas de plates-formes concurrentes, pas d’orientation générale opposée aux autres. Autrement dit : le mouvement se soucie d’abord d’être inclusif et collectif davantage que formellement “démocratique”, sachant à quelles violences et dérives conduisent les soi-disant pratiques “démocratiques” organisées par les règlements intérieurs des partis traditionnels. Le mouvement n’a qu’une référence idéologique commune à tous ses membres : le programme. »
Rather than learn the lessons of Occupy Wall Street, La Nuit Debout, Les Indignés, Los Indignados, etc., LFI seems intent on repeating their mistakes. The energy of youth brings with it the illusions of youth--or the rhetoric of the rusé Jean-Luc, who knows the meaning of democratic centralism and evidently prefers the swooning obedience of un parti godillot to the "violences et dérives [auxquelles] conduisent les soi-disant pratiques “démocratiques” organisées par les règlements intérieurs des partis traditionnels..." One does have to love that soi-disant. But who am I to give advice to such an expression of le peuple authentique?

Of course, the difficulties of organizing a party among the legions of the (tolerably) like-minded are as nothing compared with the difficulties of organizing a government capable of dealing with the multiple conflicting interests that the polity comprises. Coping with the latter is the challenge facing La République En Marche, a challenge that it has met with the varying degrees of success to be expected after the dramatic changes that swept over French political life in May and June. I am therefore forbearing in my criticism, unlike any number of you readers, who have leapt to the conclusion that Macron has either already failed or, if you are of a somewhat different ideological bent, succumbed to the contradictions inherent in the ideology of "en même temps" supposedly embodied by the neoliberal weasel.

Heavens! There is still a long way to go, even if the first 100 days have elapsed, requiring the usual outpouring of overwrought assessments. Steady as she goes. Fluctuat nec mergitur. We shall see what happens when the general strike called for Sept. 12 takes place. On that day I am supposed to be in France taking a TGV from Paris to Bordeaux. If the scene at the station is sufficiently bordélique, I may join the chorus of doomsayers. Until then I say, Keep your shirts on. Nothing much has happened yet. France has commenced its fermeture annuelle and transhumance of the vacationing classes, the newspapers are devoid of actual news, all the political commentators are away on holiday, and even the president seems to be making himself scarce after his round of partying with the likes of Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Vladimir Putin, Mr. and Mrs. Trump, and Rihanna.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

French Employment Picture Improves

The Financial Times notes a marked improvement in the French job market. An annual survey by
Pôle Emploi shows that hiring intentions of French employers are up 8.2 percent over last year. In the increase is 22.5 percent. The paper attributes the increase to labor market reforms initiated under Hollande (when Macron was minister of the economy).

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bye-bye Solférino

It looks likely that the PS will sell its headquarters on rue Solférino in order to keep the wolf from the door. The decimation of the party in the presidential will cut deeply into its revenues, and there's just not enough money to keep the lights on at Solférino.

Some Socialists are trying to put the best possible face on this debacle. It will help the party reconnect with its "popular base," says Olivier Faure, and this is supposedly hard to from a "power neighborhood" like the 7th Arrdt. A mauvaise langue might point out that having its HQ in the 19th hasn't done much for the PCF, but let's not be churlish. The Socialists are hurting, and if they want to pretend that the impending eviction from Solférino is a matter of choice rather than necessity, who would want to stop them?

Friday, July 28, 2017

"Hey, How'm'I doin'?"

When the late Ed Koch was mayor of New York, he was famous for approaching people on the street and asking "Hey, how'm'I doin'?" Emmanuel Macron, seeking to emulate the august aloofness of Charles de Gaulle, eschews the folksy Koch touch, but he is no less keenly interested in how he's doing. And the signs from the month of July have not been good: a sharp fall in approval rating (not only for Macron but for Edouard Philippe as well), a polemic over the firing of a general, some dissension in the REM ranks, stiffening union resistance to his labor code reform plans, a perception that budget cuts have taken precedence over everything else, and a dust-up over a 5-euro a month cut in the housing allotment.

Now, it's possible to defend the new government's actions on all these matters. Budget minister Gérald Darmanin, for example, offered a pretty good defense of the APL cut after it was attacked in characteristically showy fashion by Mélenchon's lieutenant Alexis Corbière, who in his speech referred to Mélenchon as le président Mélenchon (he is president of his parliamentary group, after all!), a nice rhetorical touch. Corbière used as props a collection of items that could be purchased for 5 euros, the amount of the APL cut. Good theater, even if the collection itself was unlikely to impress even le peuple d'en bas at whom it was aimed. Nobody missed the real point, which was that this was, in symbolic terms, a stupid move by the government.

And Macron appears to have taken the point. He called a meeting today in which he asked everyone concerned to reconsider their approach not so much in terms of substance as in terms of optics, which had become too "Bercyized," as one wag put it. The point is not to meet quotas in budget reduction; it is to persuade people that the ultimate outcome will be positively redistributive. But the question that remains as to what meaning Macron attaches to "positive." Does he intend to redistribute upward, to the richest, or downward, to the poorest. The APL cut lent itself to the former interpretation, and the Mélenchoniens were quick to seize the opportunity. Macron cannot much longer remain in the ambiguity of en même temps upward and downward redistribution. Gouverner, c'est choisir.

And in one respect, at least, a choice has been made. That there are limits to Macron's neoliberalism is now clear. Lemaire has nationalized the shipyards to ensure that jobs will not be lost to Italy--much to Italy's dismay. There will also be export subsidies for grain growers. The free market is a wonderful thing, except when it isn't. This is France, and le nationalisme économique is always on the agenda, no matter who is in power. This, too, is part of the Gaullist legacy in which Macron wishes to wrap himself. Today's meeting marks a first and necessary course correction. He is learning on the job. Reports of his early demise are greatly exaggerated. But no one is still describing the transition from Hollande to Macron as sans faute.

How is he doing? OK so far, but he's gotta keep his eye on the ball.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

General Hullaballoo

It's a very simple story, really. General de Villiers, brother of the far-right politician with whom Macron flirted on the campaign trail, forthrightly told deputies he would "not allow [himself] to be fucked like that,"  meaning by Macron's announced budget cuts for the military. Macron just as forthrightly told the general he didn't appreciate such airing of differences in the public square, much less in such salty language, and reminded the old soldier that, despite his youth, he was his commander-in-chief. The general resigned, as was inevitable. And now all of Macron's enemies, from Mélenchon, who can hardly be suspected of wishing that generals should get as much money as they want, to Ciotti to Le Pen, are accusing the president of caesarist pretensions.

Let's all get a grip. Of course the general wants more money and says that the army's ability to carry out its mission depends on it. He may even be right, but that's no reason to take him at his word: generals always say that. Macron was right to forcefully reassert civilian supremacy over the military: this is a fundamental principle. Of course he may be a bit overfond of wielding the prerogatives of his office, but he wouldn't be the first president to become so intoxicated. A new chief of staff has been appointed. He, too, will insist that he needs more money to carry out his mission. He may even get some. And life will go on.

Tyranny has not yet come to France, though you'd hardly know it to hear the politicians flocking to microphones to seize what they perceive as a first major chink in Macron's armor. They're wrong. The Boy Wonder comes out of this looking more in command than ever. The dogs bark, the caravans pass.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Macron's Remarkable Vel' d'Hiv Speech

Jacques Chirac was the first French president to acknowledge France's responsibility in the Holocaust, but Emmanuel Macron is the first to attempt to school the French in the precise nature of their responsibility while at the same--en même temps, as he likes to say--recognizing the courage of those who refused to stand idly by:

Les 16 et 17 juillet 1942 furent l’œuvre de la police française, obéissant aux ordres du gouvernement de Pierre LAVAL, du commissaire général aux questions juives, Louis DARQUIER DE PELLEPOIX et du préfet René BOUSQUET.
Pas un seul allemand n’y prêta la main.
Je récuse aussi ceux qui font acte de relativisme en expliquant qu’exonérer la France de la rafle du Vel d’Hiv serait une bonne chose. Et que ce serait ainsi s’inscrire dans les pas du général DE GAULLE, de François MITTERRAND qui, sur ce sujet, restèrent mutiques. Mais il est des vérités dont l’état de la société, les traumatismes encore vifs des uns, le déni des autres a pu brider l’expression.
Les déchirures vives qui traversaient la société française ont pu faire primer l’apaisement et la réconciliation. Nos sociétés ainsi s’offrent de ces répits pendants lesquels le travail de la mémoire reste souterrain, pendant lesquels les peuples reprennent leurs forces et doivent se réconcilier peu à peu pour reconstruire, avant de trouver les mots de vérité qui les guériront vraiment. Avant aussi de retrouver le courage collectif d’affronter les fautes et les crimes.
C’est pourquoi nous n’avons pas à juger ici le parti choisi par ces deux chefs de l’Etat, tous deux acteurs de la Seconde Guerre mondiale et de ses complexités. Mais rappelons-nous aussi que c’est François MITTERRAND qui institua cette Journée du souvenir ; et rappelons-nous surtout durant toutes ces années le combat souterrain de tant et tant pour que rien ne soit oublié.

That is a remarkably balanced and nuanced summation. The remainder of the speech equals it in gravity and solemnity.

Macron has been accused, not least by the left, of being pas seulement un banquier mais un banquier de chez Rothschild.  The antisemitic intent of the charge needs no underlining. With this speech he has responded to the antisemites. Just as Bill Clinton was said to be the first black president of the US, Emmanuel Macron might be honored as the first Jewish president of France. Anne Sinclair was said to have coveted this honor for her ex-husband, but Macron is no doubt a more suitable person for the position.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Blogger's Holiday

Dear Readers,
I haven't forgotten you, but I am on vacation in the south of France and enjoying my time away from the keyboard. See you next week.


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Silly Season

This is the silly season of political commentary. The umpire has called play ball, the first pitch has been thrown--a little wild, some say, without the pitcher's usual stuff, clocking well under 90 on the radar gun--and the batter is still patting his cleats with the fat part of the bat and hitching up his trousers before stepping back into the batter's box. So there is not much to write about but the team photos. Or so they say.

While on the subject of photos, it's rather uncanny that Édouard Philippe's official photo strikes the same pose as Macron's: he's backed up to his antique desk, which he grips with his palms, while emphasizing his lean physique by leaving his suit buttoned and pulled tight across his abdomen. Sarkozy jogged and biked before the press, but these rookies strike more dignified yet still sportif poses, having learned that showing sweat is not a good way of establishing the proper distance between rulers and ruled (ou ceux qui ont réussi et ceux qui ne sont rien, as the president indelicately put it in a moment of revealing wardrobe malfunction--his mask slipped).

On to more serious matters: the president's "state of the Union" speech at Versailles. I'm not kidding: it's Macron himself who likened this inaugural address to the SOTU. Perhaps that's why so many commentators have been misled into calling it "vacuous" and "boring." Most SOTUs are precisely that. I suppose I would have found it so too if I'd watched it, but the Paris weather was perfect yesterday, and I had better things to do. On the other hand, I can't imagine a SOTU in which the president announces that he is going to eliminate the seats of more than one-third of the Congress, as Macron did. This would spark a riot, and the august legislators would tear the supreme but incautious leader limb from limb. But between the French president and the representatives of the nation there is none of the false bonhomie that one sees in the US Congress, where the president's entry is heralded by a sergeant-of-arms and accompanied by much glad-handing, back-slapping, index-finger pointing, and toothpaste ad smiles. The deputies just sat there in louisquatorzien splendor and took it on the chin without reacting.

The commentators who found the speech boring apparently failed to notice the other constitution-upending obiter dicta buried in the text. For example, the president indicated that the job of the legislature henceforth would be not to legislate but rather to "evaluate" the "action" of the government. Action on the one side, passive awarding of grades on the other. To make this evaluation more pertinent, the shrinking of the Assembly would permit greater means to be lavished on technically "competent" parliamentary assistants. In short, no more hiring of wives and mistresses. Henceforth, the lean and mean AN will be shepherded by sportif énarques, men just like the Pres and the PM themselves, who will look good in tightly tailored suits, grip antique desks as firmly as they shake the hands of foreign leaders, and present their legislator fronts with neat spreadsheets indicating in color-coded type where the men of action have kept within their budgets and where they have gone astray and require encore un effort. Une Révolution, as promised in Macron's campaign tome.

How dare anyone calls such a Technocratic Manifesto boring!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Le Silence

There is nothing quite like the silence of Paris early on a rainy summer Sunday morning. It is a nostalgic silence, full of something almost like reverence for a time when actual reverence existed, when Sunday was actually a respite from getting and spending to be consecrated to higher things, rather than simply a pause.

The silence this Sunday morning is almost eerie. There is not a trace of an echo of the secondary explosion that occurred yesterday, when the beleaguered remnant of the Socialist Party detonated, or rather popped like a lanced boil, with Benoît Hamon's announcement that he will strike out on his own. His traversal of the desert is likely to last more than 40 years. With him are Yannick Jadot and Cécile Duflot, whose presence at the Pelouse de Reuilly made the occasion more green than pink.

Meanwhile, what remains of the non-Macronian, non-Mélenchonian, non-Hamonian left will apparently be contested by Arnaud Montebourg, who fancies himself the left wing of the rump (if rumps have wings), and Stéphane Le Foll, who has appointed himself the night watchman at the Hollandiste Memorial Cemetery, where those who fell in the Phony War on Finance lie interred. They, too, have been relatively silent, particularly as to what purpose the Socialist Party would serve if they do manage to salvage it--other than, of course, as a vehicle, however decrepit, for their personal ambitions.

There is silence also from the Kremlin Elysée, as the president works on the program he will present to the Congress in glory assembled. A noted intellectual told me the other day that she feared France was on the brink of an "authoritarian" turn. Macron's eagerness to wrap himself in the Gaullist mantle has unsurprisingly revived primitive fears of the legal coup d'État. These are overblown, I think, but the outsized symbolism of the French presidency is more or less designed to awaken them, insofar as any human being manages to incarnate the symbol, and thus far all of Macron's talent and effort have been bent to just that end: performing the incarnation, as it were, in an almost sacramental ritual of presidential posturing.

The official photograph, which has elicited much impassioned commentary on this blog, was of course part of the effort of sacralization, even if the realization took the form of a rather strange iconic sabir. The two cell phones and the virile but at the same time décontractée pose clashed with the traditionalism of the literary selection and architectural setting. Le Rouge et le Noir was a bold choice for a brashly self-confident youth who stole an older man's wife, a revisiting of the scene of the crime, as it were. The inclusion of Gide might also be considered bold for a president about whom certain rumors were circulated, but Les Nourritures terrestres should probably be taken as a proto-green rather than a proto-rainbow manifesto. The Gaullian memoir needs no commentary. But leaving aside all these no doubt interesting details, what the image conveys to me is a certain coldly appraising implacability. This is not a young man I would want to cross. His icy gaze conveys a "Don't get mad, get even" lethality. France has a leader who knows that politics is combat and who does not intend to lose.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

La droite déconstruite par les Constructifs

Thierry Solère has formed a new group in the National Assembly, Les Constructifs. This consummates the fracture on the right. Or, rather, one of the fractures. The usual dance of ambitions will ensure that other fissures deepen as well. Baroin vs. Wauquiez is one. The Juppéistes have already merged with the Macronistes, while Solère merely declares himself and his faction Macron-compatible.

Re Solère, here's an interesting tidbit from Wikipedia: "Thierry Solère y porte le surnom de Chihuahua donné par Isabelle Balkany afin de décrire, selon elle, son comportement attentiste et intéressé auprès de Jean Sarkozy, alors fils du président de la République."

Movement at Last in EU?

Angela Merkel is reportedly open to Macron's suggestion that what the EU needs is a common budget and finance minister. The details matter, of course, but this would mark a huge step forward and give Macron the early success he needs to keep his momentum going. Meanwhile, the Times reports that Laurent Berger is actively seeking compromise with Macron on labor-market reform. One is tempted to reply, What else is new? The CFDT is always ready for compromise. Still, it's another positive sign. As I wrote in my Foreign Affairs piece, the atmosphere has changed. There's a readiness to experiment that has been absent for a while. Pourvu que ça dure.

Blessing in Disguise

Has Macron ceased to walk on water? First he lost his right-hand man, Ferrand. Now he has lost the Old Man of the Center, Bayrou, the man who claims to have put him where he is today. And his Good Government renewal effort might seem to have become mired in a swamp of petty corruption.

But that would be a superficial reading of the situation. Actually, he has managed, without wielding the knife himself, to rid himself of a potential troublemaker. Bayrou was already acting like a man who imagined himself to possess more power than he actually had. He had exacted a significant price for his support, more deputies than the weight of his party merited. The 42 MoDem deputies will still matter in a legislature not as heavily tilted toward REM as predicted. But the situation is probably more manageable with a weakened Bayrou than with a Bayrou with influence over both justice and European affairs.

The balance of power in the government has now shifted considerably to the right, however. We do not yet know who will replace Bayrou, Sarnez, and Goulard, but the choice will say a lot about the future direction of the Philippe government.

One unfortunate consequence of the Bayrou mess is that Marine Le Pen is now free and clear. Whatever MoDem did with its parliamentary assistants, Le Pen can now claim, with perfect justice, that she was only doing what the others did. "Clarification" seems to be the watchword of the day. It's time for the EU to clarify what if any rules apply to the use of personnel paid by it ostensibly to serve as parliamentary assistant to MEPs.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

La moralisation moralisée

Richard Ferrand, secretary-general of REM and right hand of Emmanuel Macron, has been gently evicted from the government and shunted off to the National Assembly, where he is supposed to lead the REM group--unless, of course, he is indicted. Sylvie Goulard has excluded herself from the new Philippe government in order to prove her "good faith" in the affair of the MoDem parliamentary assistants--which the party leader and justice minister, François Bayrou, says isn't an affair at all, while describing Goulard's decision as "strictly personal." If there is as yet no smoking gun, there is plenty of smoke.

Bayrou, of course, was supposed to lead the effort to "moralize" government and restore public confidence--an effort he imposed on Macron as a condition of his support. Now, however, he seems to personify the problem. His reactions since the eruption of charges has been tone-deaf, not to say obtuse. He seems as clueless as Fillon.

And the atmospherics are not good for Macron and Philippe, whose flawless rollout has been compromised by the gathering clouds, may be on the verge of taking off into a maelstrom. The fresh face Macron put on government is in danger of looking a lot like the same old same old. And François Fillon must be wondering how things would have looked if the various improprieties that have lately come to light, including his own, had been revealed in a different order. A true Cleopatra's nose moment in French politics.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Legislatives, Round 2

I have a piece at Foreign Affairs. If you're in Korea, I'll be on the radio there tomorrow evening. If in San Francisco, I'll be on KCBS early tomorrow.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Legislatives--First Projections

BFM-TV predicts that REM will have a majority of 415-445 out of 570 seats. An unbelievable result for Macron. Both the FN and France Insoumise vastly underperformed compared to their presidential results. For the moment, Macron is in the driver's seat, although the record low turnout--around 50%--suggests that the opposition is silent and sullen rather than non-existent. But make no mistake: the political map of France has been redrawn.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Où sont les fronts républicains d'antan?

The Republicans are splitting apart at the seams. In part this simply reflects the traditional guerre des chefs, even if the chefs in question at the moment are both petits. Both François Baroin and Laurent Wauquiez want to become president, but for the moment they must battle for supremacy within LR. Hence Baroin has come out as the "Katy bar the door" candidate against the FN, while Wauquiez has gone all brownshirt-friendly. This is splitting the party:

Et puis patatras ! Tout s’est effondré le lendemain à cause de la cacophonie qui règne à LR où un certain nombre d’élus – comme le président de la région Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Laurent Wauquiez –, ont jugé prématuré voire carrément non avenu d’évoquer la question, ce qui est le signe d’une profonde fracture entre les modérés du parti et son aile plus droitière.
But the reason the leadership is divided is that the party base is divided. Plenty of LR voters, particularly those who stuck with Fillon, see no reason to shun the FN any longer. Especially in the south, where Marion Maréchal Le Pen is the face of the party rather than her aunt, the FN is seen as traditionalist and conservative, exactly the kind of right that Fillon embodied. And this rift in the base is ultimately driving the leadership contest. The results of the legislatives will be crucial in determining the outcome, and the resulting picture will most likely be geographically variegated.