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Archive for April, 2012

Ouf ! Political scientist Henry Farrell read the inane editorial in The Economist on “the rather dangerous Monsieur Hollande” (huh? WTF? Flanby “dangerous”??) and, no doubt reading my mind, beat me to it in expressing his low opinion of its hack-like argumentation (here, via Krugman). Money quote

I’ve no idea what Hollande is going to be like (except that he’s certainly going to be disappointing). But I do know that this [Economist editorial] is one of the most exquisitely refined examples of globollocks that I’ve ever seen. It’s as beautifully resistant to the intellect as an Andropov era Pravda editorial. A few more years of this and the Economist won’t have to have any human editing at all. Even today, I imagine that someone with middling coding skills could patch together a passable Economist-editorial generator with a few days work. Mix in names of countries and people scraped from the political stories sections of Google News, with frequent exhortations for “Reform,” “toughminded reform,” “market-led reform,” “painful reform,” “change,” “serious change,” “rupture,” and 12-15 sentences worth of automagically generated word-salad content, and you’d be there.

And the clincher

I wonder whether even the writer of this editorial would be able to define ‘reform’ or ‘change’ if he were asked, beyond appealing to some sort of ‘social protection bad, market good’ quasi-autonomic reflex embedded deep in his lizard brain. I also wonder whether the people in there are as cynical about their product as Andropov-era journalists were, or whether they actually believe the pabulum they dish out.

This was precisely my reaction in reading The Economist’s broken-record admonishing of the French to “reform” their welfare state, to get themselves a Margaret Thatcher and, well, do what exactly? Imitate Mrs. Thatcher and her acolytes Blair and Cameron—both carrying The Economist’s AOC label—so the French can replicate the brilliant success of the British economy? Right. I am really quite fatigued with this neoliberal Anglo-Saxon finger-wagging at the French. Really, what are the French supposed to do? Privatize? It’s already been done (and thanks in no small part to directives from a European Union that neoliberal Anglo-Saxons claim to abhor). Raise the retirement age and reform pensions? That’s being done (and the left in power will not reverse the legislation of the past decade on this). Reform the Sécu? How so? Reduce the number of state functionaries? Okay, but in which categories? Cut spending? Okay, but please specify what and where.

If anyone out there adheres to The Economist (or Wall Street Journal editorial page et al) line on all this, I invite him or her to state very specifically what the French should be doing, with precise, specific references to actual French legislation. If one is able to do this—and I’m not going to hold my breath on it—then s/he may spell out what s/he thinks the salutary effect would be, of how this would make France a better country. I’m not suggesting that there are not important reforms that need to be made—e.g. merging the régimes spéciaux into the general system—but I just want to hear it from the finger-wagging neoliberal Anglo-Saxons. If they can’t explicitly spell it out, then I will ask them to please STFU.

ADDENDUM: One of the Anglo-Saxon finger-waggers is Walter Russell Mead, who has a bee in his bonnet about what he calls the “blue social model” and its supposed bankruptcy, figurative and literal. He liked The Economist editorial on Hollande (here). Okay, Mr. Mead, please tell us very specifically how you would reform France.

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Le 1er mai

Grande journée demain de défilés et rassemblements politiques, mais étant absent de Paris je vais malheureusement le louper. Big day for political marches and rallies in Paris tomorrow, but as I’m still outre-Atlantique I will unfortunately miss it. Si on va assister à une ou plus de ces manifestations faites-moi signe et je publierai vos observations et/ou commentaires (et même photos). If anyone is going to attend one or more of these demos, do let me know and I’ll post your observations and/or commentaries (and even pics).

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The right-wing Murdoch rag The Weekly Standard—a normally loathsome publication but which has a few not bad writers and the periodic article worth reading—has two cover story pieces on the French election in its latest issue. The lead one is by Christopher Caldwell (here), TWS’s in-house Europe specialist and who has written extensively on French politics over the years. Caldwell is smart and knows France well. His articles on France are, along with Philip Gourevitch’s in The New Yorker, the best in American journalism (David A. Bell in TNR doesn’t count, as he’s an academic). But though Caldwell has good insights into French politics, his own politics sometimes get in the way, leading to assertions and observations that are peculiar, when not completely à côté de la plaque. This article does not depart from the rule. A few passages

All Western social democratic parties have, over the past generation, made the transition from the factory floor to the faculty club. American Democrats and French Socialists have gone farthest, and now have scant support among the working classes they were built to represent. Intellectuals…can get excited about the fate of the Socialist party, but no one else can.

Actually, not even intellectuals get too excited about the Socialists hors périodes électorales. As for working class support, there is a certain amount of nonsense in the conservative conventional wisdom on this. The US Democrats still have a working class base—albeit not at the same level as five decades ago—as do the French Socialists. The latter, in fact, lost a good part of its working class base to the Communists from the 1920s onward, though still had its bastions in the Nord and parts of the Midi. With the decline of the PCF in the 1980s, the FN became the n° 1 vote-getting party among ouvriers—at least in presidential elections—, with the PS following a close second. The syndrome is not new. In last Sunday’s vote, according to the IPSOS exit poll, Marine Le Pen came in first place among ouvriers, as could be expected, with 29%, followed by François Hollande at 27% (and with Nicolas Sarkozy a distant third at 19%). As for employés—which includes pink collar/clerical—, Hollande was first with 28%, followed by NS at 22 and MLP at 21. Among lower-income earners, the Socialists are still the n° 1 party.

The Socialists are the party of les bobos—a word coined by David Brooks in The Weekly Standard as shorthand for “bourgeois bohemians” but which is now much more commonly heard in French. Professors, minorities, the mega-rich, single women, and government employees … these are the core of the coalition. It is arguably mightier in France than in the United States because the state is mightier. Government spending takes up 56 percent of GDP.

Ouais, bof. This bobo-Socialist business has become the new cliché in French politics, and good for one-line zingers at right-wing rallies (Marine LP got in a few, and to a resounding chorus of boos, at the Zénith the week before last). But it is just that: a cliché. As for the “core of the [Socialist] coalition,” foutaise I say! Professors? They vote no more for the left nowadays than they ever have (and at the university level, more vote for the right in France than in the US). Minorities? If one is referring to those of Muslim Maghrebi origin, their désamour toward the PS is heartfelt. The Socialists have never gone out of their way to cultivate them as a community. Maghrebis in France in fact tend to dislike the Socialists, voting for them only to counter the right and its hard-line discourse on immigration. The parliamentary right could indeed have made inroads into the small and fragmented but growing Maghrebi electorate—playing on the De Gaulle heritage, conservative social values, and their désamour toward the Socialists—but clearly decided that there were more ducks to be hunted among voters in France who dislike those Maghrebis. The mega-rich? Huh? In France?? Are you serious, Monsieur Caldwell? Single women? As a “core of the coalition”? Sorry but no. Government employees? Mais bien sûr. No doubt about that one.

Hollande’s platform is nugatory. Next to it, Bill Clinton’s 1996 “micro-initiatives” look like the Sermon on the Mount.

This is true. Policy-wise Hollande has proposed little of substance and for three reasons: 1. Anything interesting he could propose would cost money, which he won’t have, 2. Important reforms that he and the Socialists know they should propose will seriously alienate important components of the Socialist electorate, and 3. Hollande and the Socialists are not entirely sure what they stand for and in what direction they want to take the country. If Sarkozy hadn’t done himself in with his personality failings, disastrous style of politics and governing, and unprincipled opportunism, he would be a clear favorite for reelection. I’ll come back to this in the very near future.

Economists (not to mention the Economist) think Hollande is going to be a catastrophe for Europe. They are probably wrong. Not because Hollande is wiser than he lets on but because markets have likely already priced this fiscal laxity into the euro and because Hollande’s policies are not as different from Sarko’s as they look.

Good observation. Mélenchon voters darkly suspect that Hollande will in fact pursue similar policies to Sarkozy. The May Day march of the syndicats on Tuesday will be a signal to Hollande that the left will have an eye on him, so I was informed by a cégétiste this weekend (via Skype). They are not likely to be pleased by decisions a Hollande presidency will take.

The European Union has managed to dismantle democracy at the national level without reconstructing it at the transnational level. It no longer does justice to the problem to say that the EU has a “democratic deficit.” It is more accurate to say that it has an “antidemocratic tradition.”

Typical Anglo-Saxon Eurosceptic pablum and of which Caldwell and other US conservatives are fond. There has indeed been a democratic deficit in the construction of Europe and that no one would deny. The European Constitutional Treaty was designed to rectify that, but which the stupid French electorate rejected in ’05. Too bad for them.

In fact, the major preoccupations of the National Front in recent years, and especially since the party was taken over by Marine Le Pen 18 months ago, have been the erosion of French democracy by the European Union and the erosion of the French economy by globalization (of which immigration is certainly an aspect).

The FN is opposed to Europe for nationalistic, France-first reasons, not because it erodes French democracy. GMAB!

But Le Pen and Mélenchon are not as different as that, and there is something we need to be conscious of. The extremists in olden times were extremists because they took the view that democracy was not up to the challenges of the day. Mélenchon and Le Pen, whether you like them or not, are calling for more democracy, not less.

On this, Caldwell is completely, totally à côté de la plaque. My dim views on Jean-Luc Mélenchon are well-known to all who read this blog but there is really no comparing him to the Le Pens except for a penchant for trash talking and verbal violence against political opponents. If Mélenchon is calling for more democracy, I have failed to see it in his discourse. As I have explicated, democracy is not one of his core values. As for Marine LP, she has had nothing to say about the functioning of institutions except to call for the systematic recourse to referendums on just about every issue dear to the FN and with the possibility of citizen initiatives. Whether or not the tool of the referendum enhances democracy is a big question that I won’t get into here—national referendums are, of course, non-existent in the US and Germany and practically so in the UK—, except to say that historically speaking they have not been associated with democracy in France. Until the Fifth Republic referendums = plebiscites, and plebiscites = Bonapartism. In view of the FN’s ideological antecedents and its manifest predisposition toward strongman (or strongwoman) leaders, the recourse to the referendum/plebiscite were it to come to power could only be viewed with disquiet (not to mention the very idea of the FN exercising power).

There is one concession that would drop most of the Front’s votes into the UMP’s lap. That would be an agreement to form alliances with FN candidates in the legislative elections that are scheduled for June.

It won’t happen. Not a chance. More on this later.

The upshot of this election’s first round is a likely victory in the short-term for the Socialists, but a larger long-term victory for the National Front. Sheer arithmetic is doing away with the cordon sanitaire, turning the FN into the natural political home for voters driven out of the two larger parties by an evolving economy. It may be turning the FN into the natural opposition party of France.

I don’t think so. The chances of the FN replacing the UMP as the principal opposition party if the left comes to power are minimal. More on this later too.

The other TWS article is by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a columnist for the London Daily Telegraph, who writes on how she was a “Facebook martyr for the Sarkozy cause” (read here). Moutet is, as she informs us, the conservative brebis galeuse of an old and venerable French Socialist family—her grandfather was a member of Léon Blum’s Popular Front government no less (Minister of Colonies, to be precise)—and has to subir des avanies from leftist, Sarko-hating cousins indignant at her irreductible sarkozysme. Having been polemically pounced on by Republican relatives many times over the decades, I can relate. Moutet writes about

the anti-Sarkozy frenzy that has seized France in ways that make Bush Derangement Syndrome look like afternoon tea in an Edith Wharton novel.

This is very true. E.g. I was a Bush hater from Day One, i.e. from the 2000 campaign onward, but felt that the even more virulent Bush hatred of liberal-lefties was over the top. It was too much, particularly during his second term. Likewise with Sarkozy. There are in fact excellent reasons to despise the S.O.B. and to desperately want his political career to end next week, but too many French lefties—as well as non-lefties—have become unhinged in their Sarko hatred. It has become less a political phenomenon than one of mass psychology. Again, a subject I will come back to before next Sunday.

Mme Moutet knows that Sarkozy’s chances are slim next Sunday but “would love to see [her family's] faces if Sarko pulls it off.” This sounds personal. All I can say is that if Sarko does indeed pull it off, I’ll put egg on my face. Literally. I promise.

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Let’s just say it

[update below]

The Republicans are the problem. So say Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, the well-known Washington think tank scholars of American politics at, respectively, the centrist Brookings Institution and conservative American Enterprise Institute, in a devastating tribune—excerpted from their latest book—in The Washington Post. They cut right to the chase

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

I wonder how long Ornstein will remain at the very right-wing AEI with his take on the ever more frightening GOP. Among other things, he and Mann quote Mike Lofgren, a longtime GOP congressional staffer to whom I linked last September, who

wrote an anguished diatribe last year about why he was ending his career on the Hill after nearly three decades. “The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe”

An apocalyptic cult. Or simply an extreme right-wing party. One thing’s for sure: if I had to choose between the current GOP and the French Front National of Marine Le Pen, I would take the latter without the slightest hesitation. The Republican party has really gotten that bad.

UPDATE: WaPo reports that Mann & Ornstein can’t get on the Sunday morning talk shows to discuss their book. Too hot to handle. Incredible. Or maybe it isn’t. (May 14)

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Arthur Goldhammer asks the question in linking to an explanation in Marianne by David Djaïz, a lefty civil society actor, who argued that while Mélenchon offered “des réponses plutôt convaincantes” to the economic insecurity of les couches populaires, he was mostly silent on their cultural/identity insecurity, i.e. he could not, unlike Marine Le Pen, respond to their fear of immigration and the perceived undermining of French identity. What is needed, according to Djaïz, is to reconquer “l’imaginaire collectif” of the left

par l’action militante et syndicale, par l’éducation populaire, par la formation politique. Mais cela ne peut se faire que sur le temps long et dans un climat apaisé.

This discourse reminds of me of my gauchiste college days of the 1970s, where lefties—invariably from the middle and upper-middle class—, having studied Lenin’s What Is to Be Done, would talk about the need to change the consciousness of the American working class and provide it with the necessary leadership to bring about socialism. Sure. Art Goldhammer does not find Djaïz entirely convincing:

what is needed is not a revival of the “collective imaginary” of the left but rather a commitment to “collective realism,” which recognizes that the globalized economy cannot be rejected, reversed, or “protected” against but must be conquered by abandoning old ways and taking advantage of France’s comparative advantages. That means change, and it means bucking the conservatism of some segments of the working class. Mélenchon failed because he reinforced that conservatism, because he fed the fantasy of revolutionism rather than the reality of politics

Tout à fait. I will add to Art’s critique. One of main factors limiting Mélenchon’s appeal to the broad couches populaires—that put a ceiling on his potential vote—is the nature of his class base, which is heavily comprised of fonctionnaires in the professions intermédiaires and salaried, unionized employees in publicly owned enterprises (SNCF, EDF, La Poste, etc), or those that were in the nationalized sector until the wave of privatizations of the past two decades (and where the CGT and other syndicats are still present in force). This is the aristocracy of the working class in the semi protected sector of the economy—with its special pension regimes, well-endowed comités d’entreprises, and the like—, and who have mostly attained middle class status (as with the working class heroes of Robert Guédiguian’s films; Guédiguian was, not surprisingly, a big supporter of Mélenchon’s candidacy). Employment in public enterprises used to be entirely protected from layoffs but such is no longer the case, or looks like it will no longer be so, with the juridical transformation of a number of them—including big ones such as EDF, GDF, and La Poste—into sociétés anonymes governed by the Code du travail, i.e. with the same juridical status as the private sector. The state may remain the sole or majority shareholder but juridically speaking the way is paved for an eventual privatization in the future. The employment of a large and ever-increasing number of contractuels in La Poste is a sign of things to come. These erstwhile insiders with their tenured employment are feeling precarious, with their special pension regimes and other acquired rights dans le collimateur, and are fighting to maintain their status and privileges. They are the Front de Gauche’s core constituency—thus Mélenchon’s pledge, entre autres, to titularisé the tens of thousands of contractuels at La Poste—and were out in force in the march on the Bastille on March 18th.

The point here is that Mélenchon’s base is conservative, not revolutionary—in that it seeks to conserve something, to make sure that things do not change—, but also that it has little to do with the larger swath of the couches populaires who are truly in a precarious situation. The kinds of lower class voters attracted to Marine Le Pen’s siren song are not the same as those who voted for Mélenchon. It was salutary that the latter made a pitch for workers tempted by the FN but it was not likely to bear fruit. Mélenchon may have had a populist rhetoric but he was fundamentally an institutional candidate and with an institutional base of economic insiders. Those on the outs were not going to go for that. In this respect, it may be noted that those who voted for Arlette Laguiller and Olivier Besancenot in past elections—and particularly the former—did not transfer as a bloc to Mélenchon. A certain number of them may well have voted for Marine (as an anti-system vote of outsiders).

BTW, I’ve been outre-Atlantique since Monday and while I’m following the French campaign as closely as possible on the net, I haven’t been able to tend as much to the blog. And when it comes to Sarko and Hollande, NPR doesn’t have the same level of coverage as France Inter. Things will be back to normal toward the middle of next week.

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according to Aaron David Miller, who says Obama “already has this one in the bag.” Inshallah. His chances are better than Sarkozy’s in ten days time, that’s for sure.

UPDATE: A Fox News poll says “grossed-out independents” will help Obama in November. (May 17)

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Economist Charles Wyplosz lays out a feuille de route for Monsieur Hollande

La campagne du premier tour n’a pas vraiment abordé les deux sujets les plus importants : la crise de la dette publique et le chômage. Sans aucun doute, il en ira de même pour la campagne du second tour. Mais François Hollande, dont la victoire semble assurée, va devoir méditer très précisément ce qu’il dit et, surtout ce qu’il va faire. Un petit tour des questions économiques critiques.

Read the whole thing here. Wyplosz’s recommendations are resolutely social-libéral. I’m pretty sure he’s on the right track. Assuming Hollande is indeed elected on May 6th—a reasonably safe assumption, though accidents can always happen—he’ll need all the help from the center he can get. And maybe even from the moderate right, in the event of a UMP crackup (a possibility I will speculate upon later). Hollande has said that there will be no ouverture such as Mitterrand’s after the 1988 legislative election, but, as we know, les promesses n’engagent que ceux qui y croient. Mélenchon’s lower-than-expected score will turn out to have been a godsend. À suivre.

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says Michael Kazin in TNR. Kazin compares Barack Obama and the US Democrats to François Hollande and the French Socialists, and finds the former wanting. François Hollande an inspiration for the American left? Whoda thunk it?

(Above: Obama’s road map to reelection. Obama is saying: I illegally downloaded Hollande’s program from the Socialist party website [oblique reference to the Hadopi law]. By the Algerian political cartoonist Dilem, guest cartoon in Le Monde, 26 January 2012)

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I’m getting ready to leave early tomorrow morning on a long trip, so don’t have time for an extensive instant analysis. I will leave the deep thinking for the moment to my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer. I’ll come back to the subject in a couple of days. Clearly the big surprise of tonight was Marine Le Pen’s higher than expected score (18.5%) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s much lower than expected one (11.7%). The assumptions of the instituts de sondage in the weighting of their data was clearly faulty. Or maybe there was indeed a late shift. I did anticipate a good score for Marine but not this high, though am not overly surprised. As for Mélenchon, I can’t say that I’m overly disappointed for him (see my post from yesterday). A salutary douche froide for la gauche de la gauche. It will be interesting to see where his lost votes went. There did seem to be a Poutou mini-boomlet, as well as a mini-sympathy vote for Eva Joly. Hollande now has free rein to pursue his second round strategy without his left flank breathing down his neck. Ouf. His score (close to 29%) is very good and puts him in fine shape for May 6th. The total stock of the left vote is 44-45%, which is on a par with Mitterrand’s two elections in the ’80s. Nothing to sneeze at. Nor should one sneeze at his first place finish, the first time a challenger has ever overtaken the incumbent in the first round. The exit polls have the second round transfer of Bayrou votes breaking down in even thirds for Sarkozy, Hollande, and abstention/undecided; for Le Pen, it’s 60-20-20. As Mélenchon’s vote will go massively to Hollande, the latter has far better reserves than Sarkozy. It will be most entertaining to watch Sarko twist himself into contortions trying to appeal to both Bayrou and Le Pen voters. Of course it ain’t over till it’s over but at the present moment I’m not too concerned for François Hollande. More on Tuesday.

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on the French election. First, Paul Krugman, telling it like it is (as usual)…

And then this, by three dozen top flight French economists

Nous, économistes, soutenons Hollande

Le Monde.fr | 17.04.2012 à 10h24

Par Philippe Aghion, Michel Aglietta, Julia Cagé, Thomas Chalumeau, Daniel Cohen, Elie Cohen, Jean-Hervé Lorenzi, Jacques Mistral, Thomas Piketty…

Nous sommes économistes et suivons avec attention les débats en cours et les annonces faites par les candidats à la présidence. Nous jugeons leur ambition économique à la pertinence des options qu’ils proposent, en particulier pour ce qui concerne la reprise de la croissance et de l’emploi, le redressement de notre compétitivité, la régulation financière et la vision des politiques économiques européennes. Mais nous jugeons aussi de la crédibilité de leur projet, notamment la cohérence d’ensemble des propositions, leur impact sur la cohésion sociale de notre pays, la constance et la fiabilité des engagements et leur compatibilité avec les contraintes budgétaires. Un candidat se dégage à nos yeux, le plus apte à redresser la France et rassembler les Français. Ce candidat, c’est François Hollande.

En effet, l’heure est aux choix. La crise de la zone euro montre que le pire reste possible : une course absurde vers le moins-disant social, des politiques d’austérité qui brisent la croissance, et finalement la tentation du chacun pour soi qui devient la plus forte. Il faut mettre un terme à ces politiques qui dévastent les économies européennes. La crise de la dette ne pourra se régler si la croissance est brisée et le pouvoir d’achat en berne. Une réorientation de la construction européenne est urgente, au service de la croissance et des citoyens européens, avec notamment la négociation d’un nouveau Pacte de responsabilité, de croissance et de gouvernance avec nos partenaires européens.

La croissance des dettes publiques rend indispensable l’assainissement des finances publiques. L’objectif de revenir à l’équilibre budgétaire à la fin du quinquennat constitue un cadre exigeant mais crédible. La grande réforme fiscale annoncée par François Hollande devra certes être précisée et son calendrier accéléré. Mais le cap fixé est le bon, avec une réorientation de la politique fiscale dans le sens d’une plus grande justice sociale et d’une plus grande efficacité économique. Il faut mettre un terme à la sous-taxation du capital et des rentes, qui conduit non seulement à l’aggravation des inégalités, mais aussi aux excès spéculatifs à l’origine de la crise financière.

L’efficacité et la justice se rejoignent donc pour rendre nécessaire une remise en cause des avantages fiscaux inefficaces, plutôt qu’une augmentation des impôts des ménages les plus fragilisés ; par la sélection, voire la sanctuarisation des dépenses d’investissement indispensables à la croissance à moyen terme, en particulier l’éducation et la recherche.

En fixant une norme d’évolution des dépenses publiques strictement inférieure à celle du PIB, François Hollande montre qu’il veut un Etat efficace et soucieux des deniers publics. Mais il tourne le dos aussi à la politique menée depuis 2007 qui réduit la modernisation de l’Etat à une simple équation comptable : le non-renouvellement d’un fonctionnaire sur deux. Cinq ans plus tard, nos administrations sont désorganisées, nos fonctionnaires démobilisés et la qualité des services publics dégradée… Il est temps de mettre un terme à des pratiques budgétaires qui n’ont de cesse d’entamer la légitimité de l’action publique. Restaurer notre crédibilité financière, ce n’est pas simplement jouer sur des paramètres financiers, c’est redonner à l’Etat le sens de sa mission et de ses responsabilités.

En matière d’emploi et de pouvoir d’achat une nouvelle orientation est nécessaire. La France dispose d’un atout exceptionnel, celui d’une jeunesse nombreuse et dynamique. Mais celle-ci connaît un taux de chômage inacceptable. L’accent doit donc être mis sur les mesures en faveur de l’insertion professionnelle des jeunes, à travers la sécurisation des parcours professionnels, la réorientation des efforts de formation professionnelle, le développement de contrats ciblés – tels que les contrats de génération – et le renforcement de l’éducation nationale. Redonner leur place aux syndicats – en organisant une Conférence nationale pour la croissance et l’emploi – est également crucial pour que les salariés contribuent à la transformation du monde professionnel sans être cantonnés à la seule critique de décisions déjà prises par l’employeur. Comment faire évoluer sinon la mixité sociale, l’égalité hommes-femmes, les mobilités interentreprises et les stratégies d’embauche et de promotion dans les entreprises et les administrations ?

La mondialisation a été porteuse de croissance et de diffusion des connaissances mais a aussi engendré un monde plus fragmenté et, paradoxalement, moins solidaire, augmentant les inégalités de salaires et favorisant les délocalisations. La finance internationale n’a pas joué son rôle de catalyseur de la croissance et a fait revenir le capitalisme à ses pires travers. Des mesures indispensables pour remédier à ces défaillances du système financier sont nécessaires. Ainsi, la séparation des activités bancaires entre spéculation et économie réelle permettra de circonscrire les risques, et donc de limiter les engagements futurs de la puissance publique en cas de crise bancaire.

L’interdiction d’utiliser les paradis fiscaux est également nécessaire, et permettra de réduire l’évasion fiscale, notamment si la mesure est étendue à l’ensemble des grands groupes français. Enfin, la mise en place d’une véritable taxe sur les transactions financières, l’interdiction des stock-options, le plafonnement des frais bancaires et l’encadrement du crédit à la consommation répondent au souci légitime de mieux protéger des dysfonctionnements de la finance.

En matière de compétitivité, le bilan des cinq dernières années – 350 000 emplois industriels perdus, 900 usines fermées et un déficit commercial structurel – atteste d’une erreur stratégique dans l’analyse des déterminants de la compétitivité française, laquelle repose principalement sur la qualité de nos produits, de nos processus industriels et de notre gouvernance. Création d’une banque publique d’investissement dotée d’un réseau régional, incitations fiscales à la localisation des investissements en France, baisse de la cotisation foncière pour les entreprises qui innovent, instauration d’un crédit impôt innovation ciblé sur les entreprises effectivement concernées par la concurrence internationale… Ces mesures du candidat socialiste s’inscrivent dans la perspective qui convient pour relever le défi de l’innovation qui se pose aujourd’hui.

Le débat sur la politique économique à suivre ne doit pas occulter les questions économiques fondamentales qui se posent maintenant. Voulons-nous toujours plus d’objets de consommation, à l’obsolescence accélérée, consommateurs d’énergie et générateurs de déchets ? Ou bien plus de santé, plus d’éducation, plus de qualité de vie ? Réussir la transition écologique, c’est changer de mode de vie, créer une nouvelle civilisation urbaine fondée sur des activités de proximité, mettre fin à l’étalement urbain – catastrophe économique, écologique et sociale – et mettre en œuvre les investissements considérables qui seront nécessaires à la transition énergétique.

Pour toutes ces raisons, nous appelons à voter pour François Hollande. Alors que le souvenir de 2007 nous oblige à la plus grande réserve sur les multiples promesses de campagne du candidat sortant, François Hollande a présenté un agenda de réformes qui dessinent à nos yeux la voie souhaitable. La crédibilité, l’ambition et la cohérence sont de son côté.

Philippe Aghion (Harvard), Michel Aglietta (Paris-X Nanterre), Yann Algan (Sciences Po Paris), Rémi Bazillier (université d’Orléans), Maya Beauvallet (Telecom Paristech), François Bélorgey (Irest), Françoise Benhamou (Paris-XIII), Eric Brousseau (Paris-Dauphine, Institut universitaire européen), Julia Cagé (Harvard), André Cartapanis (IEP Aix-en-Provence), Gilbert Cette (université de la Méditerranée), Thomas Chalumeau (Sciences Po Paris), Mireille Chiroleu Assouline (Paris-I), Daniel Cohen (Ecole normale supérieure), Elie Cohen (Sciences Po Paris), Brigitte Dormont (Paris-Dauphine), Bernard Gazier (Paris-I), Jean Imbs (Ecole d’économie de Paris, CNRS), Marc Fleurbaey (Princeton, Collège d’études mondiales), Samuel Fraiberger (New York University), André Gauron, Jérôme Gautié (Paris-I), Patrice Geoffron (Paris-Dauphine), Tristan Klein, Jacques Le Cacheux (université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour), Jean-Hervé Lorenzi (Paris-Dauphine), Philippe Martin (Sciences Po Paris), Jacques Mistral (Harvard Kennedy School), El Mouhoub Mouhoud (Paris-Dauphine), Pierre-Alain Muet (fondateur du Conseil d’analyse économique, député socialiste, et membre de l’équipe de campagne de François Hollande), Fabrice Murtin (Sciences Po Paris), Dominique Namur (Paris-XIII), Romain Perez (Paris-I), Thomas Philippon (New York University), Thomas Piketty (EEP et EHESS), Michel Rainelli (université Nice-Sophia-Antipolis), Lionel Ragot (université d’Evry-Val-d’Essonne), Romain Rancière (EEP), Katheline Schubert (Paris-I), Laurence Tubiana (Sciences Po Paris, Columbia), Joëlle Toledano (Supélec), Dominique Villemot.

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On this eve of the first round of the election, I don’t have a particularly brilliant final analysis or assessment. I’ve pretty much already said everything I have to say about it by now. (Well, I actually do have more to say about Hollande and Sarkozy but will save that for the second round campaign.) This year’s campaign has been rather less interesting than the one in 2007. I reread today the J – 1 analysis on that one that I sent out to friends, family, and students via email (in my pre-blogging days). It was lengthy, reflecting the high level of interest and uncertainty in that race. It was a riveting campaign. This one? Bof. What to say? Sarkozy’s frenetic, neo-frontiste pulling-something-new-out-of-a-hat-everyday strategy seemed to work for a few weeks but then hit a wall. A year ago I all but pronounced him toast in ’12 and at no point did I feel the need to revise my assessment. Hollande’s staying the course with his pépère strategy looks like it’s paid off, if the polls are in any way accurate. Marine Le Pen is doing about as well as was expected all along, given the state of the economy (economic hard times always benefiting the FN). François Bayrou had delusions of grandeur if he thought he could match his 2007 score. As this is his third try, it’s the end of the road for him, unless he decides to become the Harold Stassen of French politics. In France you get three shots at becoming president. Three strikes and you’re out. The real revelation of the campaign has, of course, been Jean-Luc Mélenchon—if there is anyone out there who hasn’t made this observation by now, I would like his or her name—, but, like the Bayrou revelation in 2007, it ultimately won’t mean much. JLM’s voters will shift massively to Hollande in round two no matter what and it won’t significantly impact on the legislative elections in June. This I will come back to later.

For the past twenty years I have offered my election predictions—for national elections in the US and France—on the eve of the vote. FWIW, here is mine for tomorrow:

Hollande: 28%
Sarkozy: 25
Le Pen: 17
Mélenchon: 14
Bayrou: 11

Participation rate: 75%

First round elections always have a “surprise.” I don’t see a big one here, except maybe a higher score for Marine LP than the final average of the polls. If Sarkozy’s momentum hadn’t stopped dead in its tracks ten days ago I would put him higher, but his camp is demoralized and internalizing defeat. If he overtakes Hollande tomorrow night, that will be the big surprise. Pollsters have talked about volatility and a high number of undecideds, but these are almost all fluctuating with the same camp: between Hollande and Mélenchon or Bayrou, and between Sarkozy and Le Pen or Bayrou. If the total left vote reaches 45 or 46%, the carrots are cooked for the second round.

My track record for predictions has been pretty good on the whole. Here’s what it was in 2007:

Sarkozy: 26.5%
Royal: 26
Bayrou: 19
Le Pen: 12
participation rate: 78%

I was way off on Sarkozy, of course, as on the participation rate, but on the money for Royal and Bayrou. And I had been predicting since the previous year that Le Pen would underperform, that his 2007 score would be lower than what he obtained in the previous three elections. On that, I was spot on.

FWIW, this was my prediction for the first round of the 2002 election:

Chirac in first – Jospin second – Possible “nasty surprise” – High abstention rate.

“Nasty surprise”: I said it…

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[update below]

Je ne peux pas blairer Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Je ne peux pas le saquer. Translation: I cannot stand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. I cannot bear the S.O.B. I have had a tenacious loathing of Jean-Luc Mélenchon since I first became aware of his existence 18 years ago (in 1994 to be exact). Jean-Luc Mélenchon incarnates in his person everything I despise and execrate in the hard left, and particularly the French hard left. He is a thoroughly despicable, reprehensible individual, both politically and personally, and is absolutely the most despicable, reprehensible major personality in French politics at the present time. Period.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, allow me to elaborate. I have been intending to spell out my views on Jean-Luc Mélenchon almost since I launched this blog a year ago but have been putting it off. But it can’t be put off any longer, as the first round of the presidential election is happening tomorrow and in which Mélenchon will obtain a much higher score than anyone—myself included—would have thought possible even three months ago. I also noted with pleasure that my general view on Mélenchon is shared by various persons I respect, e.g. my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer, who informed his readers last week that “I do not like this man” (see here; for more of Art’s commentary on JLM, see here and here). In my approval of Art’s sentiment, I pledged to write on the matter within a week. So voilà. I will try to be brief. And if this sounds like a diatribe par moment, so be it.

There are several domains in which Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s ignominiousness is laid bare. I will cite five. The first is the authoritarianism of his political reflexes and ideological world-view. To put it succinctly, the more I see Jean-Luc Mélenchon on television—speeches, interviews, debates—and the more I read about him, the more I am convinced that he is a potentially dangerous person who, were he ever to come to power—which will thankfully never happen—, would rule as a dictator or try to. Sarkozy’s Bonapartist hyper-presidentialism would pale by comparison. The political scientist Marc Lazar said recently that the Communist party in France may be all but dead but that a communist culture still exists on the French left, and that Jean-Luc Mélenchon has achieved the singular feat in his presidential campaign of awakening this culture and giving it a unified political expression.

Mélenchon was of course never a member of the PCF. As a youthful militant in the Lambertiste sect of French Trotskyism, where he cut his political teeth, Mélenchon was naturally opposed to the “Stalinist” PCF. But this hardly made him more of a democrat. The name of the Lambertiste party at the time was, after all, the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (emphasis added). For those who know the sectarian world of French Trotskyism well—and many moderate lefties who were youthful Trots or cocos do (including numerous personal friends and associates)—, the Lambertistes were the among the most sectarian, authoritarian, and conspiratorial in their internal culture, and with a cult of personality around the sect’s founder and guru, Pierre Boussel-Lambert. Variations of the word “crazy” (e.g. fou, taré) have been used to describe them by many lefty friends over the years (including former Trots, though from more “mainstream” Trot groups, e.g. LCR). Now, there are former Lambertistes who turned out okay politically and are fine individuals to boot, e.g. Lionel Jospin and the historian Benjamin Stora (the latter I know personally and like). And for reasons having to do with my private life, I have socialized on many occasions over the past decade and a half with current Lambertistes, who are perfectly fine people on the human level. But their politics are insane. Debating politics with a Lambertiste Trot is as exasperating as with a Tea Party GOPer. They are totally ideological and live in an alternate reality. As arguing politics with them is both aggravating and pointless, it is to be avoided at all costs.

Mélenchon may have left the Lambertistes 35 years ago but was profoundly marked by their culture and world-view, and which shapes his political action to this day, so one learns in the sympathetic, though not hagiographic, biography Mélenchon le Plébéien, by journalists Lilian Alemagna and Stéphane Alliès. Politically and psychologically speaking, Mélenchon did not leave the communism (small c) of the Lambertistes (as did Jospin, Stora, and others). On the level of ideology, one aspect of the Lambertiste culture, in addition to Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism, is exaltation of France’s revolutionary heritage and, above all, the French Revolution. It is normal for French lefties of all stripes to speak with pride of France’s revolutionary tradition. It’s a French lefty thing. Un peu folklorique mais pas bien méchant. Mélenchon is particularly virulent in this exaltation. The heritage of the French Revolution is inscribed in his political “genetic code” and over and above Marxism (Alemagna & Alliès, p. 27). But it’s not the Revolution of 1789 so much as that of 1793, of the Committee of Public Safety, the Terror, and the guillotine. Mélenchon’s revolutionary references are Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Babeuf. Lovely. Saint-Just is indeed a Mélenchon “favorite” (here). French communism did not need Marxism-Leninism to be infected with the totalitarian germ. To see Mélenchon on television last week, telling David Pujadas with a crocodile grin and visible delectation that, yes, if he came to power he would indeed impose a 100% tax on all income over €300,000—including that of movie stars, athletes, best-selling authors, etc, not to mention Pujadas himself—, that a Mélenchon-led state would in effect confiscate all wealth over that ceiling, sent a chill down my spine. Not that I would in any way be affected by this personally (though I can always hope I would if good fortune were to come my way…). As a social democrat I am naturally for progressive taxation, reducing inequality, and doing something drastic about the obscene, ill-gotten wealth of investment bankers and the like. But there’s a difference between a socially useless hedge fund manager accumulating wealth in the nine figures and a hard-working, talented, creative, and/or entrepreneurial person who makes several hundred thou a year. The difference is not apparent to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and he is not open to hearing and pondering divergent views, which would be immediately dismissed with a discrediting label (e.g. libéral).

The man does not accord supreme value to liberty or democracy, as a member of his ministerial staff during his two year stint in the Jospin government told Alemagna & Alliès (p. 212)

Je ne suis pas en train de dire que c’est un apprenti dictateur, mais pour lui, dans l’exercise du pouvoir, la question démocratique est secondaire. Mélenchon avec le pouvoir absolu aujourd’hui me ferait peur. C’est sa tradition jacobine, plus guesdiste que jauressienne. À la fois autoritaire et centralisatrice.

Mélenchon may venerate Jean Jaurès but he is indeed closer to Jules Guesde in his conception of socialism. His undemocratic reflexes are reflected in the lack of regard he displays toward those who are not on the same ideological page with him: his many adversaries in the PS until he quit the party, les Verts—his animosity toward Daniel Cohn-Bendit is longstanding—, centrists, and of course the right. Mélenchon has been on record for twenty years in calling for the banning of the Front National. Calling for the legal interdiction of a political party supported by many French citizens, that has always played by the rules of the game and never engaged in illegality, and whose candidate will likely obtain more votes than he tomorrow… I am not exactly a fan of the FN but to call for its outlawing is profoundly undemocratic. In fact, I find the mere idea both shocking and reprehensible. I have been continually amazed over the years at the number of French lefties—including good friends—who have approvingly pronounced Saint-Just’s infamous line “pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté.” France may have the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen but it does not have a First Amendment, or at least a First Amendment mindset among those who should have it. But if the FN were to be banned—and for what reason, other that one does not like it?—, why not Philippe de Villiers’s MPF too while we’re at it? If one, in fact, applied Saint-Just’s dictum to the letter, then the most logical parties to ban over the past several decades would have been the PCF and Lambertistes! Obviously. But idiots people like Jean-Luc Mélenchon don’t seem to get that. Nor do they grasp the truism that what goes around comes around, i.e. the same reasoning employed by your political enemies can so easily boomerang against you.

A notable aspect of Mélenchon’s undemocratic mindset is a reflexive intolerance to social categories other than his own and to behaviors and beliefs he does not share. E.g. his scheme to confiscate even modest wealth—€300K is certainly a nice income but it’s not that much—is indicative of a hostility to the world of business and entrepreneurship. As one of his political associates recounted to Alemagna & Alliès (p.99) of Mélenchon’s years as head of the PS federation in the Essonne

les questions de pognon et de relations avec les entreprises faisaient flipper. Une peur panique !… Il refusait même de simples rendez-vous avec un patron, toujours persuadé qu’on allait lui ouvrir une valise de billets. Alors qu’il aurait pu juste discuter avec certains de la situation économique !

We’re not talking about CAC40 captains of industry here, or some rentier issuing from les 200 familles. The kind of patron Mélenchon would have encountered at the time would have more likely been from a local PME. But in Mélenchon’s vision they’re all cigar-chomping capitalists out to corrupt politicians with briefcases of cash. So he refused to even meet with them. Needless to say, this is indicative of a caricatured vision of society, an abject ignorance of the same society, an economic inculture, and an utter closed-mindedness. A man who thinks this way has no business exercising political responsibility at any level and in any way, shape, or form.

Another case in point of Mélenchon’s intolerance: as a militant républicain and intransigent laïc, he was of course a supporter of laws banning Islamic veiling in public spaces. Par for the course in France. Mélenchon does have a special relationship with the Maghreb and Maghrebis, which is nice, but his fondness for the latter does not extend to those who are particularly pious in the practicing of their religion. He has spoken of an almost physical discomfort he feels when seeing women in hijabs on the street (I can’t find the reference for this so take my word for it). A physical discomfort at seeing a woman with an Islamic headscarf (not a face veil, which is another matter). I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by French (female) friends over the years. My response: well, why don’t you engage them in discussion, ask why they cover themselves up, maybe hear them out on the matter (which I’ve done numerous times myself)? Show some interest and maybe a little curiosity. But it’s one thing for an ordinary citizen who doesn’t know much about Muslims to have this epidermic reaction, and quite another for a politician of the left, who is normally close to Muslims, and hails from the Maghreb himself. Total intolerance.

And then there’s his detestation of spectator sports. Mélenchon does not like soccer. That’s perfectly fine. One is hardly obliged to have an interest in soccer or any other sport. But he can’t leave it at that

Il faut dire que Jean-Luc Mélenchon ne s’intéresse pas du tout au football et n’a toujours vu dans ce sport que des «antihéros du sport, gorgés d’argent, planqués du fisc, blindés d’ingratitude». Pour ce marxiste, le football n’est rien d’autre que l’«opium du peuple», et il ne comprend pas que la lutte des classes ne franchisse pas les portes des stades: «Ça m’a toujours choqué de voir des RMIstes applaudir des millionnaires.» (Alemagna & Alliès, p. 95; emphasis added)

This is breathtaking. Mr. Mélenchon claims to identify with les couches populaires but he manifestly knows little about them, except what exists in his caricatured, ideology-addled brain. And how judgmental of him. Even his PCF allies—who know well that the working class likes soccer and supplies most of its players—don’t understand him on this. Again, what intolerance and lack of curiosity, not to mention empathy.

Mélenchon may not have a concrete knowledge of the working class but he does want to replenish its ranks, even if it means forcibly tracking a given number of schoolchildren straight into working class employment. As Ministre Délégué de l’Enseignement Professionnel (vocational eduction) in the 2000-02 period, Mélenchon attacked the collège unique and argued for allowing the tracking of some seventh graders toward an early school-leaving certificate (BEP), and ending the possibility for high school students in the vocational stream from entering that of students bound for higher education (Alemagna & Alliès, p. 203). My, how progressive of him. A vision straight out the 1950s PCF.

One gets the idea here of Mélenchon’s authoritarian and intolerant political reflexes and world-view. Related to this—and this is the second domain I will cite—is his fondness for authoritarian regimes. His enthusiasm for Venezuela’s caudillo Hugo Chávez is well-known, as is his support for the Castro regime in Cuba (and which he has refused to qualify as a dictatorship). In December 2010, MEP Mélenchon stormed out of the European Parliament in Strasbourg when it awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas (who was denied an exit visa by the Cuban government to receive the prize). Mélenchon’s explanation of his act: “Le Parlement européen est embrigadé dans des croisades anticommunistes qui m’exaspèrent.” This in 2010… An old friend of his, Renée Frégosi, further explained his pro-Castroism

Pour lui, la démocratie n’est pas l’essentiel. C’est le mouvement populaire qui est plus important que les institutions. (Alemagna & Alliès, p. 271)

Mélenchon also has a political fascination with China. As his ministerial collaborators remarked on a trip Mélenchon took there in 2001

«C’est quelqu’un qui aime l’ordre, poursuit l’ancienne conseillière [Françoise Castex]. Et la Chine est quand même un petit pays [sic] bien tenu !» Que le représentant du Parti communiste chinois passe avant le recteur dans l’ordre protocolaire, «ça nous faisait rêver», plaisante-t-elle. «Le vrai truc qui le rend béat d’admiration, c’était que 1.2 milliard de Chinois étaient organisés par 13 personnes.  Ça, il n’en revenait pas», murmure Didier Leconte, son ancien chef de cabinet. (Alemagna & Alliès, p.207-208)

If one doubts that Jean-Luc Mélenchon holding the reins of state power would be a cause for worry, indeed alarm, just reread and meditate on the above passage. And while one is at it, meditate on the Mélenchon campaign poster above, on the slogan—”Take power”—and the image of the man himself. In my admittedly subjective estimation, he resembles at best an Eastern European Communist party apparatchik; at worst, he looks rather more sinister. Posters around town have been defaced, with a little moustache added, such as that worn by the leader of Germany from 1933 to ’45. Now I hate these kinds of comparisons and normally refuse them, whatever the context (vide Godwin’s Law). But I have to say, the physical resemblance here is uncanny.

Continuing with his backing of authoritarian regimes, there is Mélenchon’s fondness for Arab dictatorships. He supported the cancellation of the electoral process in Algeria in 1992, said nothing critical of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia until January 2011, enthusiastically greeted Bashar al-Assad at the airport in 2001 when his Socialist party associates declined to make the gesture… Well, one gets the idea.

The third domain of Mélenchon’s loathsomeness is his anti-Americanism, anti-Americanism defined not as opposition to America for what it does but for what it is. A detestation of America for its very existence and being. Le Monde, referring to Mélenchon’s “visceral hatred” of the United States, thus quotes him as saying

“Les Yankees représentent tout ce que je déteste. Un empire prétentieux et arrogant, composé d’incultes, de chefs pitoyables.”

Qualifying this as beneath contempt is too mild. If he were to say this in my presence, I would be tempted less to respond with reasoned argument than to lui flanquer un coup de poing sur la figure. When Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche held its founding congress in November 2008, not a single speaker made the slightest mention of Barack Obama and his victory earlier that month (I watched much of the congress via live streaming). The French public was captivated by Obama and his election, and particularly the Socialists. But not a peep from the mélenchonistes. Mélenchon’s anti-Americanism goes back to his childhood, when he dreamed of being a Cosmonaut (but never an “astronaut!”). Alemagna & Alliès inform us (pp. 26-27) that Mélenchon attributes his precocious anti-Americanism to “une hérédité familiale [mais] sans pouvoir donner plus de raison”…

Mélenchon does in fact give a partial explanation of his anti-Americanism, as a reaction to America’s “imperialism,” so he insists, and the fact that it has military bases all over the world. Insofar as America’s global military posture is in large part a heritage of the Cold War, when it stationed troops in Europe to protect it from the Soviet Union, if one sympathized more with the latter, then the opposition to America on this score is at least ideologically coherent. But does Mélenchon’s horror of the US here have to do with a principled opposition to imperialism or rather the fact that it’s America that has the power to be imperialist and not France? This reminded me of Hubert Védrine’s recounting of the time a European foreign minister counterpart told him that if France had the military might of the United States its behavior would be much worse. And indeed, one does recall how France behaved when it was militarily powerful, establishing not only a colonial empire but also waging war on its neighbors. It would be interesting to know what Mélenchon, who sacralizes the French Revolution, thinks of the revolutionary wars of the 1790s—initiated by France, BTW—, when after pushing the forces of the First Coalition out of la patrie the French revolutionary army continued into the Rhineland, Netherlands, Italy, Egypt… Hey, when you’re on a roll, why stop? And then there were the Napoleonic wars of the next decade, Napoleon being a product of the Revolution, bien entendu.

This leads in to the fourth domain of Mélenchon’s ignominiousness, which is his nationalism bordering on the franchouillardise. Nationalism is not something one associates with the left in America but is strong in the communist culture in France. Mélenchon, as a fervent républicain, is an equally fervent believer in France’s mission universelle. During his ministerial days, when his counterpart from Luxembourg responded to a disdainful remark he had made by telling him that he was displaying “l’arrogance française,” he replied, “En effet, en effet…” (Alemagna & Alliès, pp 205-206). This bit from blogger Riwal Ferry is particularly on target (as is the rest of his post; h/t Arthur Goldhammer)

Malgré son talent, son humour dévastateur, son énergie, sa culture, j’ai beaucoup de mal avec ce bonhomme : il personnifie la franchouillardise jacobine et centralisatrice, l’arrogance du « gallus » perché sur ses ergots qui pense avoir raison contre le monde entier sous prétexte qu’il fait davantage de bruit que ses voisins de basse-cour.

And then there’s this morsel, of Mélenchon railing on against the new members of the EU following the 2004 enlargement

“Les nouveaux entrants… qu’ils aillent se faire foutre ! Les Lituaniens? T’en connais un, toi, de Lituanien? Moi, j’en connais pas!”

Quel beauf

The fifth domain of his loathsomeness—and maybe the most marked—, is the brutality of his personal style. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a trash-talking, foul-mouthed bully, on a par with Jean-Marie Le Pen. One has only to see him in action to grasp this. His verbal violence was brilliantly dissected by the journalist-blogger Titiou Lecoq after reading Mélenchon’s best-selling 2010 pamphlet Qu’ils s’en aillent tous! (which I could not bring myself to even pick up). The title of her review: “Pourquoi Mélenchon me file de l’urticaire” (Why Mélenchon gives me hives). Mélenchon’s penchant for showering insults on those who disagree with him was taken up in turn by Libération’s excellent Brussels correspondent Jean Quatremer. And then there was Mélenchon’s now (in)famous 2010 insulting of a young journalist intern as a “petite cervelle” who simply tried to ask him a question (watch here). How anyone can have the slightest consideration for Jean-Luc Mélenchon after watching his contemptuous, foul-mouthed treatment of this stagiare is beyond me.

Lest I forget, there is also Mélenchon’s machismo and problem with women in politics (which Ségolène Royal, who was on the receiving end of his insults, knows well). This from Alemagna & Alliès (p. 261)

Ah, les femmes ! Jean-Luc Mélenchon est si mal à l’aise avec elles en politique, et peut parfois se laisser déborder par des réflexions misogynes, pour les regretter aussitôt.

Oh yes, one last thing: Mélenchon’s uncritical veneration of François Mitterrand. The left naturally remembers Mitterrand with fondness—at the Hollande rally last Sunday each mention of his name aroused cheers—and Socialists do not hesitate to evoke his memory. But Hollande and others in PS have taken their distance from some aspects of his legacy and know that his record was mixed, both politically and personally. I gave my own bilan last year of Mitterrand’s years in power (here), on the 30th anniversary of his victory. That Mélenchon lacks a critical spirit toward Mitterrand and the many black spots on his record attests to, well, a lack of a critical spirit.

I have much to say about Mélenchon’s politics and the political role he is currently playing but will come back to it later, as he will be around for a while—and will be a problem for Hollande and the Socialists. I will conclude by asserting that under no circumstances would I ever vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Ever. If he were in a face off with Marine Le Pen, I would vote blanc. If he were to make it to the second round against Sarkozy, I would vote blanc. But if that race were tight and the outcome uncertain, I would have no choice but to vote for Sarkozy.

MISE AU POINT: En exprimant mes sentiments négatifs à l’égard de Jean-Luc Mélenchon, je tiens à préciser que je ne porte pas de jugement contre ceux qui pensent différemment que moi. J’ai beaucoup d’amis, étudiants et même membres de la famille qui l’aiment bien et ont l’intention de voter pour lui demain. Ils sont des citoyens libres de leur choix et qui ont évidemment le droit de voter pour qui ils veulent. Je n’ai rien à dire là-dessus et n’en pense pas moins d’eux.

UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer has a commentary on my post here.

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Arthur Goldhammer has a good commentary here on my observation of how “ordinary” the people were at last night’s Marine Le Pen rally. Art’s contrasting frontistes with some of their American counterparts, past and present, I found noteworthy

[The ordinariness of the people] was perhaps the most striking thing to me when I once attended an FN rally in Paris. How sedate they seemed, for the most part. Nothing like the venomous mobs that one saw in Mississippi–or Boston, for that matter–during the civil rights struggles in the United States. And certainly far less colorful and vociferous than a Tea Party rally today.

Absolutely. But then, we have in fact seen “ordinary” Frenchmen and women in relatively recent times behave like Mississippi, South Boston, Chicago Marquette Park, and other such American mobs: in Algeria during the final years of the French presence. The pied noir mobs of Algérie française in its death throes were redoubtable. And when they felt their backs were to the wall in that calamitous final year of 1961-62—when they really got scared—, they supported the terrorist OAS as one man and woman and did terrible, normally unordinary things. And, as we know, the FN’s hard-core base in the Midi over the past four decades has been repatriated Europeans from Algeria. À propos, at the FN’s Fête des BBR in 1997, I struck up a conversation with a man at one of the stands—who was soft-spoken and most ordinary—, which got onto the subject of Algeria, a country I was deeply engaged with at the time. He was pied noir and from Algiers, having left in ’62 of course. I told him that I had lived in Algiers in 1989-90, which seemed to surprise him (as I may well have been the first person he had ever met who had lived in post-independence Algeria). He said that he would never set foot in Algeria, that he had traveled the world in a previous job and had told his employer never to send him to Algeria, that he would sooner quit than go there for even one day. I asked him to explain this vehement sentiment toward a country he claimed to love, the land of his youth and past family generations, and wasn’t he curious to simply see the places of his childhood. He said he didn’t want to go as he would feel too “nostalgic.” I didn’t engage him on this but was skeptical, as many pieds noirs have visited Algeria over the years for trips down memory lane. Given his age—he looked to be in his early 50s—, he would have been in his late teens-early 20s in 1962. I decided that the veritable reason he didn’t want to set foot in Algeria is because he was afraid, that he done bad things in the final year of Algérie française, like commit terrorist acts and kill unarmed people. The OAS had many teenage gunslingers—all certainly acting with the knowledge and approval of their OAS-supporting families—, who murdered Muslims at random on the streets of Algiers, Oran, and other cities and towns. I of course had no proof but given his age and present political convictions, it was the only explanation that made sense to me. Like I said, an ordinary man, et qui ne regrettait sans doute rien.

Re pieds noirs, one may also add that they behaved particularly poorly in 1898 during the Dreyfus Affair. Algeria was the only place where a Jew suffered violent death during that miserable affair. At the hands of an ordinary pied noir mob.

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Marine Le Pen had her big Paris rally last night, at the Zénith. I planned to go but then hesitated, as I already know the Front National up close, having attended several of its events—Fête des BBR, marche de Jeanne d’Arc, meetings at the Salle Wagram—in the late ’90s-early ’00s and seen Jean-Marie Le Pen speak four times, not to mention most other major FN personalities present and past. One must see an FN event once—if one has a particular interest in French politics, of course—, but if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. C’est toujours la même chose, le même discours, les mêmes antiennes… And I didn’t think I would be able to stomach listening to Marine LP’s haranguing the FN faithful with her abject demagoguery. I am not a fan of her or her party, to put it mildly. But I figured I should go anyway, as I’ve already covered the Mélenchon, Sarkozy, and Hollande rallies and should not miss this one. I’m glad I went. Voilà my photos.

Coming out of the metro.

I missed this one.  Wasn’t even aware it had happened. Had I been aware, I still would have missed it.

Arriving at the Zénith, toward 7:30 PM. Last time I was here was in 1996, to hear Cheb Mami in concert. I’ll take Cheb Mami over Marine Le Pen any day (his music over her politics). My teen daughter came here last fall for her very first concert. Wiz Khalifa. I had never heard of him. Now I have. No comment.

The faithful arrive.

Security was very strict. Airport-like. I had to remove everything metallic, belt included, until the metal detector stopped beeping. And my backpack was thoroughly examined. A contrast with security at the Sarko rally on Sunday, where the detectors were permanently beeping but the control was perfunctory.

The event was supposed to begin at 8 PM but was already underway when I entered the arena. The speaker: Paul-Marie Coûteaux. He’s a militant souverainiste and orthodox Gaullist—a true believer—, a compagnon de route of Pasqua and de Villiers in the ’90s, supported Chevènement’s candidacy in 2002, was a founding member of ATTAC, ended up with Marine LP when she took the helm of the FN. He’s not an FN member (so far as I know). For Coûteaux, France and la nation take precedence over left and right. He’ll frequent anyone and any group that is anti-European Union.

Coûteaux’s speech was militant but professorial in tone. Almost literary. He’s an énarque and an intellectual. Not dumb. One either shares his world-view or one doesn’t (I don’t and can’t, and not only because I’m not native born French; I loathe nationalism of any variety and from anywhere). Needless to say, absolutely everyone here (journalists apart) shares his world-view 100%. He attacked “la marchandisation et l’américanisation du monde.” Coûteaux, as with all souverainistes right and left, does not care for America. Other targets: the dictatorship of finance and “la droite et la gauche des bobos” (big applause), and immigrants “qui ne connaissent rien de la France” (thunderous applause). La Nation, la Nation et rien que la Nation…

The arena was packed. Seating capacity of the Zénith is 6,300. This was Marine LP’s biggest rally of the campaign. A far cry from the multitudes at Mélenchon’s open air rallies, or Hollande’s and Sarkozy’s events last Sunday. The FN has never been able to turn out really big crowds. Those who come to its events—the militants and active sympathizers—are a small subset of the FN’s larger electorate, which has a relatively low educational level, tends to be unpoliticized, and could vote for other candidates and parties depending on the circumstances. The FN remains what it has been for the past thirty years: a relatively small party surfing on a huge wave of popular discontent, alienation from the system, and anger toward the political class of both left and right.

FN militants have historically not liked journalists. Journalists used to be insulted at FN events and made to feel unwelcome. No more.

Next speaker: Gilbert Collard, the very high media profile lawyer and president of Marine LP’s comité de soutien. He’s been all over the place politically, supporting Mitterrand in the ’80s, flirting with Lambertiste Trotskyists for a brief moment, before lurching to the right, then to the center, back to the right, and then the hard right, before landing with Marine. Anyone who has regularly watched the TV news in France over the past two decades has seen Gilbert Collard countless times. He’s been an effective spokesman for Marine: well-spoken, no dummy, and not a facho.

The crowd at the Zénith liked his beating up on the right and left, and particularly Sarkozy. Much more dumping on Sarkozy last night than on Hollande, BTW. He gave a good speech (the form, not substance bien entendu)

Reporting live for the TF1 evening news.

Looks like they came straight from the office.

Getting ready for Marine’s entry. The big screen is showing a fast sail boat on the high sea (marine, get it?).

Everyone is on their feet. Screaming, cheering, stomping.

Et voilà !

It’s 8:20 PM.

Unfortunately a lot of my photos were blurry. Don’t know how that happened. This young man’s jacket reads “Fier d’être Français et catholique.”

Wearing a beret. A real BBR.

As I was holding my camera throughout I couldn’t take notes on what she was saying, which is too bad. Lots of good lines. The FN world-view from A to Z.

Lots of trashing Sarkozy (loud boos), a little less for Hollande (boos), an occasional dig at Bayrou (grumbling), and the well-timed jab at Mélenchon (very loud boos). Mélenchon has gotten under the FN’s skin. They really don’t like him. He’s a street brawler like Marine’s père, which they’re not used to from the left.

One reason to attend an FN event is to look at the people and talk with a few. There is a long held, widespread view on the left that FN rallies are frequented mainly by neo-Nazi skinheads or other lowlifes and that one risks physical aggression, if not worse. Lefties seem to think that the FN is a French version of the Ku Klux Klan. Even yesterday, before going, an academic friend (and centrist in her political views) wondered if I would have problems taking photos, that I would be met with hostility. But what strikes one almost immediately at an FN event is how ordinary the people are. They’re just regular French people—des Français moyens—, who one crosses on the street and encounters every day. And they’re no less polite or civil than anyone else. They’re mostly middle class, petit bourgeois and even bourgeois. They are utterly non-threatening.

French politicians don’t use teleprompters. There may be one on the lectern here, as she’s periodically looking down. She’s not skipping a beat.

She’s giving a very good speech, I’ll hand her that.

They’re often on their feet.

She’s giving particular attention to Europe—as in the EU—, globalization, the domination of finance, and all the other malevolent forces from the outside that are bringing about France’s ruin.

On dirait qu’elles sont françaises et qu’elles aiment la France…

He looks kind of Muslim to me (as Sarkozy would say)… BTW, there are always persons “of color” at FN events. No problem for the frontistes, as if they’re there it’s ’cause they must like the FN (and a few persons “of color” indeed do).

Marine must have gotten in a good blow against Sarkozy here. Or the left. Or against Europe. Or against immigration. Or against something they don’t like. The list of FN demons is long.

In America they’d be Rush Limbaugh ditto heads.

She embarked on a defense of les services publics, the Sécu, the SMIC and other pillars of the French social model. And she attacked ultra-libéralisme. This is totally new for the FN, a Marine innovation. The FN of Le Pen père never engaged in such neo-gauchiste discourse. But she did take pains to defend liberté (such as the FN has traditionally understood it; and which the FN’s US counterparts would too).

Saving the pièce de résistance for the last, she launched into the subject of immigration. The FN’s bread and butter. She declared that “Nous ne sommes pas xénophobe ! Nous ne sommes pas raciste ! Nous sommes profondement francophile !” The arena goes wild. Frontistes get all worked up when they’re accused of being racist, just as Tea Party GOPers bridle when accused of the like (as an explanation of their hatred of Obama). It’s a complex subject. Certainly some are—both FN and GOP—but more are not. If a French citizen of Muslim Maghrebi or black African/Antillian origin shows up at the FN and says “J’aime la France et je soutiens le Front National,” s/he will be welcomed with open arms. Likewise with Afro-Americans on the GOP right-wing (e.g. Herman Cain, J.C. Watts).

Marine mentions the “le franco-algérien Mohamed Merah” and how we don’t want people like that in France. The arena is delirious. They’re chanting: “On est chez nous ! On est chez nous !”

She’s been talking for almost 1 hour 20 minutes.

Ça y est ! The outstretched arms, just like her father. Comme père, comme fille….

She’s done. Youngsters rush on stage.

Everyone in the arena is on their feet.

♪♫ Allons, enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé ! ♪♫

♫♪ Contre nous de la tyrannie, l’étendard sanglant est levé ♫♪

♪ ♫ L’étendard sanglant est levé, entendez-vous dans les campagnes mugir ces féroces soldats ? ♫♪

♪ ♫ Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras égorger vos fils, vos compagnes ! ♪ ♫

♫ ♪ AUX ARMES, CITOYENS ! FORMEZ VOS BATAILLONS ! ♪ ♫

♫ ♪ Marchons, marchons ! Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons ! ♪♫

Greatest national anthem in the world! Hands down.

Confetti. À l’américaine…

La jeune génération. Lots of young people here. They look like kids at my daughter’s high school. I need to learn more about them and what motivates their political convictions.

Overheard by several on the way out: “Superbe” “Elle était excellente”… And it’s true. She gave a very good, indeed excellent speech. On form, not substance bien entendu.

Comme père, comme fille… Mais elle est un brin moins antipathique…

Heading for la sortie.

Outside. They were thrilled. As I’ve said, this is the French Tea Party. For more on the US comparison, see my post from last November on Le Pen and America.

Frontistes may be for France first but this young man seems to have been around.

It’s 10 PM.

Back in France, la France mondialisée, pour le meilleur et pour le pire...

Gotta go home.

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[update below]

It’s confirmed: Jacques Chirac will indeed be voting for François Hollande this Sunday and on May 6th. Daughter Claude and son-in-law—and JC’s last chief-of-staff at the Elysée—Frédéric Salat-Baroux too. (Bernadette will still vote for Sarkozy, whom she’s always liked, but she’s quite conservative in any case). Chirac already said last year that he would vote for Hollande but it was laughed off as a “blague corrézienne”—the Corrèze being the longtime political base of both men—and with sotto voce reference to Chirac’s diminishing mental faculties. But it’s a reasoned choice and which he’s telling everyone, as today’s 1 PM France Inter news headlined. Sarkozy says he doesn’t believe it but he knows it’s true.

I think this is a very big deal. The two decades long Chirac-Sarkozy feud is an old story but still…  Bitter frères ennemis in the same party do support one another’s election quests in the end. Chirac was the uncontested leader of the neo-Gaullist movement for almost thirty years, from 1976 to 2004—challenged only briefly by Balladur and Pasqua, and we know what happened to them—, and who of course returned the right to the presidency after Mitterrand’s two septennats. Chirac was the right’s main man for what seemed like an eternity.  His all-but-open support of Hollande is akin to, say, Bill Clinton supporting McCain in ’08 or Romney now. It’s a political defection of the first order. And no one is defecting the other way (unlike in 2007, when intellectuals and other personalities on the left came out in support of Sarko). Insofar as Chirac is hugely popular these days—his brain dead presidency fondly remembered by up to three-fourths of the electorate according to polls over the past three years, and his memoirs a best-seller—, this cannot be helpful to the Sarkozy campaign, to put it mildly, which is trying to whip up fears on the right of the left returning to the helm. But if Hollande is okay with Chirac, alors pourquoi pas ?

This is not the first time Chirac has defected from his own camp. He did it in the 1974 presidential election, leading the internal party revolt against fellow Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas and supporting Giscard d’Estaing, and then backhandedly supporting Mitterrand against Giscard seven years later. We know what the outcome was both times.  In view of Sarko’s faltering poll numbers with five days to go to round one, could this be the coup de grâce? I don’t want to get ahead of myself but I just don’t see how Hollande can lose this thing at this point.

UPDATE: CSA poll just out has Hollande at 29% (+2) and Sarkozy at 24 (-2). Second round is a 58-42 blowout for FH. With the Chirac story, the double whammy for Sarko. (April 17)

(photo credit: JDD/SIPA)

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Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande had the curious idea to hold their big pre-first round Paris rallies on the same day and at the same time, though thankfully at opposite ends of town: Sarkozy at the Place de la Concorde—a traditional gathering place for the right—and Hollande at the Esplanade du Château de Vincennes. How to cover both? I decided to start with Sarkozy’s and then hightail it over to Hollande’s. It worked no problem, though it meant that I had to cut out of the Sarkozy rally before the main man himself spoke. That’s okay. I’ve seen him speak twice before (though never Hollande until today). Here are my pics of the first 45 minutes or so of the Sarko event.

Arriving at the Concorde toward 2 PM. Cloudy day but no threat of rain.

National Assembly in the background.

Nicolas Sarkozy: savior of democracy in the Ivory Coast.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Franco-Ivorians are on your side until victory.

Educated recent immigrants from the ex-African colonies—and supportive of the regimes in their home countries—have tended to be partial toward the neo-Gaullist movement.

He doesn’t look too jeune to me…

US embassy on the left, Hotel Crillon on the right.

In the US these folks would be the GOP base. The GOP of 30 years ago. Today’s GOP base is more out Mme Le Pen’s way.

People are friendly, willingly posing for pics.

Looking up the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe.

People taking pictures of people.

A multi-generational crowd. If I had stayed for the whole thing I would have tried to engage people in conversation, to see what the collective mood is. The Sarkozy camp has been stunned the past few days with the three latest polls all showing a reversal in fortunes for Sarko, with his numbers dropping and Hollande’s increasing, particularly in the hypothetical second round head-to-head, and with the Sarkozy campaign not knowing what to do about it with a week to go to round one. Hollande is now the prohibitive favorite and Sarko supporters know it.

Info on how to connect to Sarko via Facebook and Twitter. Also on how to vote by proxy (par procuration). There is no absentee or early voting in France. If you’re going to be absent on election day, the only way to cast your ballot is to have a trusted friend or family member resident in your commune vote for you by proxy, which involves making a trip to the local Tribunal d’Instance or police station and filling out a form. It’s an issue in this election, as the first round next Sunday falls in the middle of the two week spring vacation for schools in the Paris region and the southwestern part of the country, meaning that a lot of people will be absent on election day. This is a concern for both the Sarkozy and Hollande campaigns, as more of their voters—given the social class profile of their electorates—will be on vacation than those of Mélenchon and Le Pen. This could drive up the abstention rate plus distort the result somewhat (as in 2002, the last time the first round fell in the middle of school holidays in the Ile-de-France).

First speaker to fire up the faithful: UMP head man Jean-François Copé. Thankfully his speech was short. He intends to run for President in 2017. He won’t make it, I promise. Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

Next speaker: Sarkozy spokeswoman and former minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, my favorite politician on the right. I like NKM. She’s smart, moderate, reasonable, well-spoken, an overall attractive personality. A right-winger I could even vote for…

NKM praising Sarkozy and dumping on Hollande, in her pleasant, soft-spoken manner and pleasantly smiling while she’s at it. The crowd seems pleased.

Next speaker: Xavier Bertrand. Booooring… I was hoping it would be pit bull Nadine Morano, Sarko’s attack dog extraordinaire (and antithesis of NKM). She no doubt followed—as no one in the UMP is better at throwing red meat to the party faithful as is she—but I had to leave, to get to the Hollande rally.

America looks on.

Heading into the metro.

Straight shot to the Château de Vincennes and the Socialists (here).

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Twenty minute metro ride from Sarkozy’s rally to Hollande’s (see above post).

Coming out of the Château de Vincennes metro station. It’s 3:15 PM and people are still arriving.

Blaring Algerian raï music (you wouldn’t hear that at a UMP event, not a chance).

Join the campaign – Participate in the door-to-door – Leave us your contact into. This is totally new for the PS. In the past only card carrying party members did campaign work. Now all sympathizers are welcome. But what is really new is the door-to-door campaigning, which is Hollande’s strategy. This comes from Arnaud Montebourg and his study of American electoral campaigns, and notably Obama’s in 2008 (which I wrote about last fall here). Montebourg proposed the American-inspired strategy to the party and it’s been adopted. I have heard anecdotally that it is working very well (which I would have never thought). I’ll come back to this later, when I have more information.

Freedom of movement and residence for all.

Arriving at the Esplanade. The rally has been underway for an hour and a half.

Television.

On stage: Aurélie Filippetti and Najat Belkacem, two rising stars in the PS. They’re great!

In America they’d be the Democratic party base.

Najat Belkacem. You’ll be hearing about her in the coming years.

Aurélie Filippetti. You’ll be hearing about her too.

Next speaker: Bertrand Delanoë, the very popular mayor of Paris, since 2001. First Socialist mayor of the city since the Paris Commune (a very long time ago) and first openly gay politician in France (if anyone doesn’t know by now). He was touted as a possible presidential candidate but I never took it seriously. Too Parisian. And too gay (I don’t think les Français moyens are ready for that yet, not in the Elysée…).

An American-style campaign button! Haven’t seen that before in this country.

Before you know it people will be wearing these in public, and not just at rallies…

La France s’américanise, hélas…

Hot dogs?! Where’s the merguez?!

Ouf ! Merguez.

And more merguez…

Does anyone seriously disagree?

Hollande pandering to his hardcore base…

I understand the sentiment and political reflex but this sort of thing does have perverse consequences economically speaking…

A supporter from Ireland.

Button worn by the Irish supporter. I exclaimed: “the French dream!” His response: “Le rêve européen”…

Mega tricolore

Hollande arrives on stage, toward 3:50 PM.

Amusing episode for several minutes: each time Hollande mentioned François Mitterrand it was rendered on the text on the big screen as Frédéric Mitterrand, the traitorous nephew and Sarkozy’s current minister of culture, provoking laughter mixed with boos. When it was finally changed, there was a loud cheer. M. Hollande certainly had not a clue.

Hollande gave a good speech. He’s solid and always well spoken. Never flubs, trips up, or gaffes. He has long been underestimated. He won’t be anymore.

What a nice backdrop for a political rally…

A rare homemade placard, expressing a sentiment absolutely everyone present (and further afield) shares.

The Socialist faithful. I don’t agree with them on everything but I like them. This is the France I know and relate to, malgré tout.

The flag of the Kanaks (New Caledonia Melanesians, who want independence from France…).

There were several EU flags. Didn’t notice any at the Sarkozy rally.

A multi-generational crowd.

Looking into the Bois de Vincennes.

Hollande concludes his speech. Big applause. He spoke for 50 minutes.

They’re singing La Marseillaise. It’s over.

Getting the bus home.

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Claude François

nicknamed Cloclo, unknown in America but one of France’s most famous pop music singers of the 1960s and ’70s, who died accidentally at age 39 (on the day before the first round of the 1978 legislative elections) while at the peak of his career. He’s the subject of a 2½ hour biopic that opened in France last month (trailer here). Reviews are good and it’s been a box office hit (spectator reviews on Allocine—which I’ve begun to pay attention to—rate it even higher than the critics). I enjoyed it myself. It’s well done and better than the recent biopics on Serge Gainsbourg—which I found somewhat disappointing—and Edith Piaf (though as singers I’ll take both over Claude François any day). And Jérémie Renier—a Dardenne brothers’ regular—is perfectly cast. Not only is his performance stellar but he bears an uncanny resemblance to Cloclo. It’s a conventional biopic in its structure, faithfully recounting Cloclo’s life in chronological order, of his childhood in Egypt—Ismailia on the Suez Canal, where he spent his first 17 years, until his family was expelled in 1956—, the launch of his career in Monaco and Paris, take off in 1962, frenetically striving to stay ahead of the curve in adopting new musical styles—Motown and disco among them, but also integrating Egyptian/Oriental beats from his youth—and to remain a teen idol into his 30s, his complicated relationship with his family, turbulent relationships with women… It’s all there in the pic.

Americans may not know a thing about Claude François but all will recognize his 1967 hit “Comme d’habitude,” which Frank Sinatra adapted two years later as “My Way” (thus the English title of the film). The scene where Cloclo receives the special delivery of the advance recording from Sinatra, whom he venerated, and listens to it is one of the high points in the movie. He also adapted songs from American artists and which became big hits in France, such as “J’attendrai” (from the Four Tops’s “Reach Out I’ll Be There”) and “Cette année-là” (from Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons’s “Oh, What a Night”). And then there were his many original hit songs, among them Le Lundi au soleil” (1972), “Magnolias for Ever” (1977), and, above all, “Alexandrie Alexandra” (1977). Borderline kitsch, with his signature stage act and go-go dancers (including black women, which was edgy at the time). Some of his songs aren’t too bad—the tunes are catchy—, though I would have certainly turned my nose up at him at the time in view of my teenage musical snobbery. But then, I paid no attention to Sinatra back then either (though Cloclo was admittedly not on the same level with Ol’ Blue Eyes…).

Hollywood Reporter’s critic, who didn’t like the pic too much, said that it would appeal only to hardcore Cloclo fans. I disagree. One does not need to have been a Cloclo fan, or to even like his music, to enjoy the movie. Like I said, it’s entertaining, well done and acted, tells a good story about an interesting personality, and depicts well the France of les trente glorieuses (and also the pre-1956 foreign enclave in the Suez Canal zone). There is no a priori reason why American and other non-French audiences shouldn’t enjoy it, and maybe come away having learned a little something new about a slice of contemporary French society and popular culture.

(UPDATE: Here’s Claude François in 1962 (calling himself “Kôkô”), singing “Le Nabout twist” in Egyptian Arabic.)

While I’m at it, I will mention other recent French films I’ve seen over the past three months, each of a completely different genre. One was ‘Les Infidèles’ (literally, the unfaithful; English title: ‘The Players’), an “adult comedy” about the DSK segment of French malehood that I went to see strictly on account of the buzz and Jean Dujardin (and also profiting from the annual Printemps du Cinéma, where all movie tickets in France were €3.50 for three days). I’ll let Hollywood Reporter’s critic describe it

Hot off the Oscars and into the bedroom comes The Players (Les Infideles), a raunchy collection of adultery-themed shorts written by, starring and hatched from the mind of best actor laureate Jean Dujardin. Teaming up with The Artist’s Michel Hazanavicius and a handful of rising Gallic filmmakers, Dujardin and fellow two-timer Gilles Lellouche (Point Blank) offer up a slick, occasionally hilarious but ultimately uneven appraisal of France’s favorite extramarital pastime.

Gallic humor for the masses. Only Jean Dujardin could cook this one up. It was indeed very raunchy in parts, occasionally funny—though the audience laughed more than I—, with a well-taken moral or message here and there, and with some of the shorts better than others. And I will admit to having a soft spot for Dujardin’s S.O., Alexandra Lamy, who has a brief role. I doubt Hollywood would dare make such a movie (as it would be hit with an NC-17 rating and get all sorts of groups worked up; and I can’t imagine two major Hollywood actors agreeing to do the pic’s final scene). It’s not for everyone and I won’t recommend it to certain friends and family. Variety’s review is here and former NYT Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino wrote about it here.

Also seen recently was ‘Une nuit’ (English title: ‘Paris by Night’), a neo-film noir about a plainclothes vice squad cop (played by Roschdy Zem) and his rookie cop driver (Sara Forestier) on the night beat, cruising through Paris and hitting one sleazy night club and bar after the other, most of whose lowlife management the Zem character is shaking down. It’s not the Paris by night of Woody Allen’s last film, that’s for sure. Local reviews were good (which is why I went to see it). Hollywood Reporter’s review is here.

And then there’s Benoît Jacquot’s ‘Les Adieux à la Reine’ (in English: ‘Farewell, My Queen’), on the ambiance at the court of Marie Antoinette in Versailles during the three days following the storming of the Bastille. French critics absolutely loved it (again, why I went to see it). Hollywood critics gave it the thumbs up too (here, here, here, and here). Yet one more reason not to blindly trust film critics, and particularly French ones. The acting wasn’t bad, notably Léa Seydoux and Diane Kruger, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor, as I was bored to tears during the film and couldn’t wait for it to end. My friend too, whose first words leaving the cinema were “Qu’est-ce que c’était ennuyeux !” I used stronger language to express the same sentiment. Spectator reviews on Allocine were also rather less positive than those of the professional critics. On this, I echo the vox populi.

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Last June I had a post on Revolutionary Travel in Tunisia, in which I linked to an article in HuffPo of the same title, by an American travel writer who had just visited the country and gushed about it. In the post I added some three dozen photos of my own, of the political/”revolutionary” side of things in Tunisia, taken during a trip there last spring. Last week the NYT travel section had a long piece on “Tunisia After the Revolution” by travel writer Seth Sherwood, in which he strongly recommended the country

for travelers, a visit to Tunisia right now offers a chance not only to witness this pivotal moment in the country’s history, but also to get a sense of the struggles and stakes of the Arab Spring in general. As dictators around the region fall or are challenged, Tunisia, while far from untroubled, offers a reassuring example of what might emerge from the wreckage. Elections in October produced results that would have been unimaginable during the Ben Ali years, when Islamist groups and dissent were smothered: a prime minister from a moderate Muslim party and a president with a résumé as a human rights campaigner.

A year after the revolution’s end, I took advantage of Tunisia’s well-developed tourism infrastructure — abundant hotels, clean restaurants and generally effective transportation — and began an eight-day journey by bus and train to see the country’s storied sights and take the pulse of its vital and suffering tourism sector. In cities like Tunis, where public debate now finds an outlet in newspapers, exhibitions and street art, I found friendly people who were more than happy to share their ideas with travelers. Farther afield, in more tourism-dependent places like El Jem, with its gorgeous Roman ruins, locals expressed relief at the old regime’s demise, but also voiced an urgent need to start refilling empty hotels and restaurants. Everywhere, I found Tunisians to be laid-back and grateful to anyone willing to visit their country during this transitional time.

Absolutely. From a touristic standpoint—and particularly for those with some interest in politics and current events—Tunisia recommends itself in every respect. And the place is safe and not expensive. And Tunisia needs tourists and their foreign exchange (as a lot of jobs there depend on it). So I’m going to do my own bit to promote the country. Except for one thing: avoid the big tourist complexes on the coast—Yasmine Hammamet, Nabeul et al—, with their (erstwhile) hordes of European holidaymakers. Those places are not the real Tunisia.

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Earlier today I had post on Patrick Seale, in which, among other things, I praised his books on Syria. I also need to mention a book of instant history he co-authored on the events of May 1968 in France. Seale was a Paris correspondent for The Observer at the time, reported on the events, and then co-wrote the book a month after the dust settled—it was completed in one month—, which became a best-seller in the UK. I only discovered the book, which has long been out-of-print, four years ago, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the events. I retrieved the dog-eared copy from remote storage of the Sciences Po library, which hadn’t been checked out in ages. I declare this book to be by far—I repeat: BY FAR—the best account in English that has ever been written on May ’68, both as narrative history but also as an analysis of how French society and the functioning of its institutions at the time gave rise to the popular explosion that spring. It is quite simply an excellent book. Used copies may be found on Amazon, Abe Books, and other such web sites for those who don’t have access to a university library, which is about the only way to get hold of it. Le livre a été traduit en français mais est également épuisé depuis longtemps, ce qui est dommage.

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