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France: the state of the race

fillon-juppe-2e-tour-primaire-resultat

[update below]

I feel badly for Alain Juppé. It was clear that he was going to lose the 2nd round and in a landslide—i.e. by a margin > than 10 points—but this was a rout. He’s an honorable man and did not merit such a drubbing. So the French right now has an uncontested champion in François Fillon, around whom the entire LR party has united and that will likely be followed by a large portion of the UDI as well. As I have written in previous posts, Fillon, politically speaking, is at the midpoint of the mainstream right side of the French political spectrum, in that large space between the centrist fringe of the Socialists and the Front National. And as I have equally written, Fillon has the personal stature and temperament to be President of the Republic, which no one even on the left would dispute (quite unlike Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande, whose temperamental and stature issues necessitate no explanation). Fillon, at this stage of the race, has to be seen as the front-runner in next spring’s presidential election: to qualify for the 2nd round, which goes without saying, and then to win it.

As to whether or not he will in fact win it, all sorts of pundits and commentators outre-Atlantique and outre-Manche have been weighing in with hypotheses and speculation. Among those handicapping the race is my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer—the outre-Atlantique French politics specialist whose analyses I look to before any other—who has a post-2nd round commentary up in The American Prospect, portentously entitled “Will Marine Le Pen become France’s next president?” A good piece, comme d’hab’, and with Art correctly concluding that “[he has] no idea what’s going to happen [a]nd neither does anyone else.” In the first paragraph, though, he says that Fillon’s victory “makes the election of the Front National’s Marine Le Pen more likely.” I’m not sure about that. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here IMHO.

Three points. First, with five months to go to the 1st round—the precise date is April 23rd—it is simply too early to be making predictions. Things are likely to change in the course of the campaign and with surprises in store. This likelihood is readily revealed by a cursory examination of the previous presidential elections of the Fifth Republic. As one will note, the only prior election where the final outcome more or less mirrored the state of the race five months before the first vote was cast was the last one, in 2012. In late November-early December 2011, Hollande was killing Sarkozy in the polls and, of course, ended up defeating the incumbent president in the end (though his 3.2% margin of victory was far narrower than what all the earlier polls had presaged). As for the other elections, here’s a quick run-down in inverse chronological order:

  • 2007 — In early December 2006, Ségolène Royal—fresh off a blowout 1st round victory in the PS primary—was at parity in the polls with Nicolas Sarkozy. They were exactly equal. The outcome: Sarkozy won handily (53-47).
  • 2002 — In late 2001, both Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin were at 25-30% in the polls, and with not a soul in France and Navarre doubting that the two would face off in the 2nd round. Jean-Marie Le Pen, for his part, was in the single digits. The outcome: Jospin received but 16.18% on that 21 avril de funeste mémoire and was shockingly overtaken by Le Pen (at 16.86%). As for Chirac, his 1st round score was a paltry 19.88%. The 2nd round was a foregone conclusion (and with the French people, in effect, deprived of a presidential election).
  • 1995 — In late autumn 1994 PM Édouard Balladur was flying high in the polls and with Chirac going nowhere. Conventional wisdom was that Balladur all but had it in the bag. As for the Socialists—who, at the end of President Mitterrand’s interminable second septennat, were as discredited then as they are today—they didn’t even have a candidate after their great hope Jacques Delors announced, on precisely December 11th, that he wasn’t interested in running. The PS organized a quick primary for January—France’s first ever (a closed one, for card-carrying party members only)—and with two declared candidates: the PS’s gauchiste First Secretary Henri Emmanuelli and Lionel Jospin, who unexpectedly emerged from the political wilderness and to much mockery. Almost no one in the punditocracy or political class took Jospin seriously as a presidential candidate, even after his surprising 2 to 1 landslide victory in the primary. The CW was that he would be eliminated in the 1st round and with the 2nd pitting Balladur against Chirac. The outcome: Jospin finished an unexpected first in the 1st round (23%), going on to lose against Chirac, who had bested Balladur, in the 2nd but with a respectable 47.4% of the vote (thus making him the uncontested chef de file of the PS for the next seven years, that absolutely no one foresaw in late ’94).
  • 1988 — In late 1987 Raymond Barre was polling in the mid 20s and ahead of PM Chirac, and with his 2nd round poll numbers against President Mitterrand showing a relatively close race (52-48 for Mitterrand). The outcome: Chirac decisively overtook Barre in the 1st round (and proceeded to be buried in the 2nd by Mitterrand, 54-46).
  • 1981 — In December 1980 President Giscard d’Estaing had a solid lead in the polls over François Mitterrand and was seen by all and sundry as headed to reelection. The outcome: Mitterrand stuns Giscard in the 2nd round (52-48) on that glorious 10 mai 81.
  • 1974 — At the beginning of the short five week campaign following President Pompidou’s death, the historic Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas had the edge over Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the contest on the right as to who would square off against the unity candidate of the left, François Mitterrand. The outcome: Giscard easily distanced Chaban in the 1st round (and squeaking by Mitterrand in the 2nd).
  • 1969 — At the onset of the five week campaign following De Gaulle’s resignation, the centrist Alain Poher—president of the senate and acting president of the republic—was level with Georges Pompidou. The outcome: The left having been eliminated in the 1st round, Pompidou went on to pummel Poher in the 2nd (58-42).
  • 1965 — The IFOP poll just three weeks before the vote had President de Gaulle winning outright on the 1st ballot, with 60%. The outcome: CDG, netting a mere 44.65% of the vote, was forced into a 2nd round against François Mitterrand (whom he defeated 55-45: a great score for just about any mortal candidate but for a man of de Gaulle’s stature, somewhat of an échec).

The moral of the story: it is best to avoid handicapping or predicting in November an election scheduled for the following April.

Second point. On Marine Le Pen, I have insisted I don’t know how many times that so long as she remains the most unpopular major political figure in France—with an favorable/unfavorable rating on the order of +25/-71 (in the latest IPSOS baromètre)—she will have no chance—I repeat, no chance whatever—of winning the 2nd round of a presidential election. And even less so against a candidate whose fave/unfave numbers are far less negative than hers. If MLP is Donald Trump (who is actually far more popular in his country than she is in hers), Fillon is not Hillary Clinton: voters of the left don’t like his positions on the issues but there is no visceral loathing and hatred of his person such as that heaped on Hillary following decades of demonization by the Republican/right-wing attack machine. The mass detestation of the left toward Sarkozy has not transferred to Fillon. The notion that voters of the left, faced with a Sophie’s Choice between Fillon and Le Pen, will hold their noses in the fetid stench and vote for the latter because her campaign rhetoric is a little more social makes no sense at all. Working class and other voters from the couches populaires—not to mention fonctionnaires (teachers et al)—who still vote for the left are not going to suddenly defect to the extreme right and vote for a candidate named Le Pen. For Marine LP to win in a 2nd round against Fillon—the candidate of the mainstream right, supported by every last courant in the LR party—well over half of her vote would necessarily have to come from the left, from those who habitually vote for the PS and Front de Gauche; from people who hate the FN and all it stands for, who consider Marine LP to be a danger to democracy and the republic.

This is crazy. C’est du grand n’importe quoi. What will, in fact, happen if it’s Fillon vs. Le Pen in the 2nd is that a few contrarian left voters will go for the latter, with more—out of Front Républicain reflex—holding their noses and voting Fillon to block MLP, and the sizable rest voting blanc or nul, or simply staying home.

Another thing. If Marine LP’s campaign rhetoric accents the social—if she tries to outflank Fillon on the left by playing up her attachment to the famous modèle social français—a potentially consequential number of FN voters in the south will defect to Fillon. Part of the FN’s vote may be populaire and living in conditions of précarité but an equal part is bourgeois, Catholic, and/or ultra-conservative—i.e. not far removed from Fillon’s core voters. FN voters in the Var, Vaucluse, and across the Mediterranean basin do not have precisely the same concerns—or the same socio-economic profile—as those in the Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and elsewhere in France’s northeastern Rust Belt. So MLP will have to think hard and fast before trying to rob Pierre to pay Paul.

As for the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon will be the unique candidate of the gauche de la gauche (the NPA and LO candidates are each worth 1% max, thus irrelevant). Mélenchon’s 1st round ceiling is 14%, as the addition of votes of all candidates to the left of the PS’s in presidential elections has, from 1988 on, never exceeded that. As for the total vote of the left, I mentioned the IFOP poll in my Nov. 23rd post, which put voters who identify with the left at 48% of the electorate, i.e. almost half, though the total stock of left votes in the 1st round—of all left candidates added up—has not reached this number since ’88 (as a small percentage of left-identifying working class voters have voted Le Pen in the 1st round). In order to win a presidential election, the 1st round stock for the left has to reach 43% (in 2012 it was 44.5%). If the left is at 40%, the PS candidate loses respectably. Unless there is a significant abstention of left voters in next April’s 1st round—or if a François Bayrou candidacy siphons center-left votes—the left stock should attain that number. That means that if there are but two major candidates occupying the space between Mélenchon and Fillon, i.e. the PS candidate and Bayrou or Emmanuel Macron—one of the two will have a good chance of overtaking Marine LP to make it to the 2nd round (as for Yannick Jadot and Sylvie Pinel—if she goes the distance—the two are worth 3% max together, thus negligible). If there are three candidates—PS, Macron, Bayrou—then MLP will almost surely make the 2nd round but, for the moment, I don’t see that happening. On n’en est pas là.

Bayrou: if he runs and Macron desists, I will support him in an instant. He will occupy a sizable space from the center-left to the center-right, and with a positioning on a range of issues that will appeal to a good fifth of the electorate, including those of my general bent (and, pour l’info, I have not been a fan of Bayrou’s in the past or felt affinity with his Christian Democratic world-view). He is also very smart and, given his longevity in the upper tier of the political class, has the stature to be president of the republic. But… I do not—not today at least—see him taking the plunge. It would be his fourth presidential run in a row, his party (MoDem) doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, he does not have a conflictual relationship with Fillon, and if Fillon co-opts the UDI, which appears likely, Bayrou’s political space will shrink comme une peau de chagrin. Malheureusement, I think M. Bayrou’s moment on the presidential scene may have passed.

As for Macron, he’s too green: too young and politically inexperienced to credibly aspire to the Élysée, and bereft of a party to boot. Having a high IQ and being bardé de diplômes does not, in itself, qualify one to be president of the French Republic  Sure, he can run—provided he obtains the 500 signatures to make the ballot—but I don’t see him going past the 1st round. In the highly unlikely event he were to make it to the 2nd, François Fillon would make short work of him. It would be a replay of the Chirac-Laurent Fabius debates in the run-up to the 1986 legislative elections, which the former dominated.

That leaves the Socialists. For better or worse, the front line candidate to face Fillon will most probably come from the ranks of the party that has been in power the past five years, which is the PS. President Hollande will announce any day now—maybe this weekend, no later than Dec. 15th—whether or not he’ll run for a second term. It has been my utter certainty for well over a year, even two, that he’ll throw in the towel, that his poll numbers are simply too catastrophically low for him to have the slightest chance of rallying enough voters on the left to even make it to the 2nd round, let alone be reelected. This has just seemed so obvious to me. But numerous pundits and politicos have been convinced that, yes, he will indeed do it—and with some submitting that he will even bypass the PS’s “Belle Alliance Populaire” primary in January (which would be the shortest political suicide note in modern French history, for both Hollande and his party).

We’ll know soon enough. If Hollande does announce his candidacy—which will, at minimum, constitute definitive proof that his personality is almost as narcissistic as that of the US president-elect—he will go up against at least five candidates in the primary, with Arnaud Montebourg looking to be the strongest. In that event, Montebourg will most certainly win. Seriously, why wouldn’t he? The mere chance that President Hollande would risk such humiliation renders it almost inconceivable that he will run for a second term. But crazier things have happened in history. On verra. If Hollande bows out, then Manuel Valls will certainly leap in, setting up a confrontation between him and Montebourg. The interest engendered by this match-up will certainly insure a relatively high turnout in the primary, probably not on the same level as the right’s (4.3 million) but perhaps equaling that of the PS primary in 2011, with 2.8 million voting in the 2nd round. And the candidate who emerges victorious from that will go up against Marine LP in the 1st round, to determine who faces Fillon in the 2nd. On this, scroll up and reread what happened in 1995.

Third point. Fillon’s program is, as one knows by now, très libéral. It is a program designed to win the core LR electorate but not one that will attract many new adepts in a 2nd round campaign, or even a 1st. The promise to axe 500,000 posts in the fonction publique and significantly increase out-of-pocket costs in the health care system will not fly with a large portion of the electorate, and beyond the part that votes for the left. The question is whether or not Fillon will modify some of his campaign promises to rally 51% of 2nd round voters, particularly if he faces the PS candidate. Some commentators, e.g. the panel of A-team pundits on France 5’s ‘C dans l’air’ two days ago, think Fillon will stick to his guns, that he won’t modify a thing, that it’s the program that won him a landslide victory in the high turnout primary, that it’s his marque de fabrique, he’s going to run on it, and voilà c’est tout. But other commentators, e.g. France Inter’s très libéral economic editorialist Dominique Seux, think that Fillon’s program will witness modifications in the imperative of broadening his base. Raising the retirement age and scrapping the 35 heures will remain, as will abolishing the ISF. But there will be flexibility on Sécu reimbursements and, above all, on axing the 500K public sector jobs, which, the free-marketeer Seux asserts, is “impossible.” Personally speaking, I think Fillon is sufficiently pragmatic that he will take the latter course, that he will inch a bit toward the center. On verra bien.

In conclusion, here’s a tribune posted Monday, “Meet the conservative leader who might become France’s next president,” by Arthur Prévôt, who was a student of mine—Master 2 at the ICP—two years ago. Arthur is a militant in the LR party, politically very conservative, has lived in America, is favorable to Russia, was a part of Sarkozy’s foreign policy team during the primary campaign, and for whom he wrote speeches. We profoundly disagree on just about everything political but he’s bright and was a pleasure to have as a student. He’ll have a brilliant political career if that’s what he decides to do.

ADDENDUM: I just came across a piece, dated Nov. 30th, in Politico.eu, “Why Marine Le Pen won’t win,” by Jacques Lafitte and Denis MacShane. The particulars of their analysis differ from mine but they arrive at the same conclusion.

UPDATE: I watched President Hollande’s address last night (Dec. 1st). I was nervous while he was talking and when it was over, went “wow!” It was a historic moment. Showing my age, I was reminded of LBJ’s address to the American nation on March 31st 1968, which occurred in circumstances similar to the predicament faced by Hollande today. Not only would Hollande have been a certain loser in the election, being eliminated in the 1st round, but most certainly a loser in the PS primary as well. After Sarkozy’s humiliation on Nov. 20th—plus Juppé’s last Sunday—Hollande’s defeat at the hands of Montebourg, Valls, or whoever would have been a foregone conclusion. Listening to the commentaries and reactions after the address, I am astonished at the surprise of pundits and politicos who expected Hollande to run for a second term and despite his execrable poll numbers (e.g. see the latest polling data linked to in this WaPo op-ed, dated Nov. 30th, by Christine Ockrent). What political planet do these people live on? As of today, it looks like the Belle Alliance Populaire primary will be a battle between Valls and Montebourg (though a third man or woman could, of course, emerge). There will be more adepts on the left for Montebourg’s dirigiste-like economic proposals than Valls’s relative libéralisme—and whose identification with the El Khomri law will be a handicap—but the latter’s tough guy pose and intransigent republicanism will likely swing the vote his way. Valls, like Ségolène Royal in the 2006 PS primary, will find his base with Français moyen PS voters in the provinces. That’s the way I see it today, at least.

Repeating what I have said above and over the past two weeks, if both Macron and Bayrou run it is difficult to see how the PS candidate—with Mélenchon gnawing at his heels—will be able to overtake Marine LP to qualify for the 2nd round. But if Bayrou does not take the plunge or Macron fails to land 500 parrainages, then Valls, with a vote in the low 20s, will have a good chance of beating MLP to make it to the 2nd (where he will then lose to Fillon). As usual, the maître-mot is: on verra.

Fidel Castro, R.I.P.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, 13 October 1979 (UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata)

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, 13 October 1979 (UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata)

I suppose he should R.I.P., despite having been a dictator who ruined countless lives and impoverished his country in the process. He was, politically speaking, certainly one of the more significant personalities of my life, at least in its early decades. Before becoming an anti-communist and anti-castriste—a personal evolution that was complete by my early 30s—I was a supporter to varying degrees of Third World communist regimes, and particularly the one in Cuba. I was a big fan of Fidel Castro during the 1970s and into the early ’80s, with the roots of this in my formative years in the 1960s, partly thanks to my father, who was born and raised in India—he came to America at age 20, in the early ’50s—and though a good liberal in US domestic politics, had visceral tiersmondiste reflexes—owing to his origins, as he came of age in the climactic years of the anti-colonial struggle in India—and sympathized with the Cuban Revolution. He never uttered a negative word about the Castro regime (or of the Vietnamese one in Hanoi)—at least not when I was around—and despite his otherwise dim view of communism and, in particular, of the Soviet Union. And I couldn’t argue with him about it after my viewpoint changed. My interactions with my father on this, at least in my youth, were certainly different from those of John Judis with his, as he relates here.

During my youthful gauchiste years, I, along with friends and kindred spirits on the far left, held Cuba up as a model. In my tiny gauchiste bubble of the era, only Trotskyists and Maoists—of the RCP and October League variety, micro-sects we considered ultra-leftist and generally insane—critiqued Cuban-style communism, though from their own particular doctrinal standpoint. One couldn’t say anything negative about Cuba. E.g. at a small meeting at my gauchiste-friendly college, in precisely 1977, a student—Latino, with that Latin American revolutionary look of the era—who had just returned from a stint with the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba, spoke of his experiences and offered information for those interested in participating in the Revolution by cutting sugar cane in the tropical sun. He mentioned in passing that gays were not allowed. One woman present had an astonished WTF?! look on her face upon hearing this—she likely hadn’t gotten the news that homosexuality was illegal in Cuba and with gays imprisoned in work camps—but didn’t say a thing, and no one else did either. The Latino revolutionary student moved right along in his presentation.

What I particularly liked about Cuba at the time was its internationalism, of militarily assisting Third World liberation movements in Africa, notably the MPLA in Angola, which was under military attack by the apartheid regime in South Africa. This was one of my personal pet causes of the era. In 1978 I took a course, at the American University in Washington, on the politics of Cuba, taught by Cuba specialist William LeoGrande (who’s spent his entire career at AU). It was a great class and LeoGrande a great teacher. He did not reveal his political views during the course, though, as I learned in discussions with him outside class time, he was an ideological Marxist—an Althusserian, to be precise—and not unsympathetic to the Cuban revolution. My research paper was on Cuban policy in Africa—and specifically Angola—in which I relied unduly on an account by Gabriel García Márquez, published in New Left Review, of Castro’s decision to send troops to Luanda in 1975 and how the operation was carried out, apparently without the Soviet Union having any idea about it. Professor LeoGrande gave my paper an A, though he told me that it was because he was grading on a curve, and that for me personally it was only worth a B. I guess he wasn’t blown away by the quality of my research. We were politically on the same page on Angola, though, and also agreed that Cuba’s military assistance to Ethiopia in the 1977 Ogaden war with Somalia was problematic, as was its support of the ubuesque Macías Nguema dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea. A couple of years later, I mentioned the García Márquez article to Cuba specialist Pamela Falk, then at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, with her responding that it was “naïve.”

Malgré my present-day anti-Castroism, I will not go back on my attitude toward the Cuban intervention in Angola, the immediate effect of which was to repulse the South African invasion of that country. And as one learns in the fascinating 2013 documentary Plot for Peace, it was precisely Cuba’s material support of the MPLA regime that ultimately led South Africa, in 1988, to negotiate with SWAPO and grant Namibia independence, which led to the freeing of Nelson Mandela and finally the end of apartheid and advent of majority rule. It is not for nothing that today “South Africa loves Cuba,” as Piero Gleijeses of Johns Hopkins-SAIS put it in a 2014 article in The National Interest.

BTW, Cuba really did send troops to Angola in 1975 without receiving the green light from the Soviet Union, let alone acting as the latter’s proxy, as one may read in Jeremy Harding’s recent review essay in the LRB, “Apartheid’s last stand.”

And then there was Castro’s visit to New York City in October 1979, to give his first address to the United Nations General Assembly since 1960. I was living in NYC at the time (on the Upper West Side). It was a circus in Midtown, with Fidel staying at the Cuban mission to the UN, on Lexington & 38th, protected by dozens of policemen, who kept the thousands of anti-Castro Cuban demonstrators at bay. My father was in town and we went over to mission just to get a look. There was no approaching the UN HQ itself the day of the speech. It was broadcast live on television—on one of the major networks, as this was the pre-cable era—and I watched the whole thing—with, for the anecdote, my GF and her good friend Melissa Benn, daughter of the British Labour Party politician Tony, both of whom were (separately) visiting town (for the further anecdote, the Right Honourable MP Benn took us to dinner one evening, which was most interesting—it was at the Waldorf-Astoria, if my memory is correct, though he was staying himself at a chain hotel on 10th Avenue in the 40s). When Castro finished his speech—which went longer than the UNGA’s normal allotted time for heads of state—he sat down in a chair next to the podium, pulled out a cigar, lit it, and, manifestly content with himself—the applause was sustained and thunderous (the US delegation was not present)—puffed away. I thought that was so cool.

After the speech, Castro decided to stick around for a few more days at the Cuban mission, just to emmerder the US government and make Mayor Ed Koch spend more money to protect him from the enraged Cuban exile demonstrators. During his visit, he gave extraordinary access to documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert, whose informal interviews with the laid-back, almost playful Fidel were broadcast on NBC. Alpert accompanied Fidel on the plane from Havana—one saw in the report how thrilled Fidel and his entourage were on landing at JFK—and, in the days after the speech, went to the mission to find out how El Comandante was spending his time. He didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, mainly lounging around and watching television, specifically the World Series. Baltimore Orioles & Pittsburgh Pirates. He didn’t want to leave town until it was over (he was for the Pirates, so he said, who won it in seven after being down 3-1). How could one not like him?

One thing about the support of American leftists for Castro and the Cuban regime, including by those who had no interest in the Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellite states: A lot of it was visceral, driven by opposition to US foreign policy and America’s support of right-wing Latin American dictatorships. There was also the romanticizing of Latin American revolutionaries, who were culturally not distant for North Americans (and Europeans) and spoke a language many had studied in high school, when they didn’t speak it themselves (American leftists of the time naturally had a stronger affinity with Latin America than any other part of the world outside Europe). Radical chic played a role as well, with the cult of Che Guevara and all. Latin American revolutionaries were cool in a way that, e.g., Palestinians were not back then.

And then there were the Miami Cubans, who were right-wing and voted Republican. American lefties, mouthing the Cuban communist insult, called them “gusanos.” I will admit to my own visceral, not-at-all-thought-through sentiments of negativity toward the Cuban exiles, that were only quashed in the ’90s after reading David Rieff’s The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami.

As mentioned above, my views of Castro and the Cuban regime underwent a sea change in the ’80s. No need to detail them here, not that I imagine anyone would have any interest. But in the event one does, see my blog posts on the general subject here and here.

There have been countless articles and dossiers on Castro’s death since yesterday—all no doubt written years ago and ready to be posted—of which I’ve looked at a small number. The lengthy obituary in the Miami Herald is absolutely worth the read. Here are three particularly noteworthy passages, the first on Fidel’s relationship with his children. One can tell a lot about a man’s character by how he is with his children and how, as adults, they feel about him:

In all, Castro is known to have fathered as many as 11 children by four different women. There were rumors of others by his many mistresses.

His relations with his children were distant and sometimes strained. His only daughter, Alina Fernández, aligned herself with Cuba’s dissident movement and tried for years to leave the island before she escaped in 1993 with a false passport.

Now living in Miami, Fernández is a harsh critic of her father. “When people tell me he’s a dictator, I tell them that’s not the right word,” she said. “Strictly speaking, Fidel is a tyrant. I have looked up the two words in the dictionary. A dictator is ‘a person who is granted absolute powers to face a national emergency on a temporary basis.’ A tyrant is an ‘absolute ruler unrestrained by law, who usurps people’s rights.’”

On prostitution, a scourge supposedly eradicated by the Revolution:

In a mark of just how close to the brink the Cuban economy really was, Castro even welcomed the large-scale return of prostitution, which he had called a “social illness” in the early days of the revolution. But in a 1992 speech to the National Assembly, he bragged that the army of freelance hookers who swarmed through Havana’s streets every night in search of tourists were the most cultured in the world.

“There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist,” Castro said of the women, known as jineteras in local slang. “Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily, and without any need for it. We can say that they are highly educated and quite healthy.”

And on the disastrous outcome of the socio-economic order willed by Castro:

The dream of a Marxist society without social or economic distinctions was gone. In its place was a rigid class system: those with dollars and those without. Doctors, lawyers and even nuclear engineers were abandoning their professions in droves to drive taxis or work as tour guides, anything to get their hands on dollars instead of nearly worthless Cuban pesos.

Tenants in Havana’s low-cost colonial tenements watched fearfully as their neighbors were evicted and their buildings torn down to make room for quaint new tourist hotels and restaurants. And the Internet bristled with endorsements of Havana as one of the world’s top sex-tourism spots, with thousands of pretty women available for the price of a cheap dinner.

A few links:

William LeoGrande, “Will history absolve Fidel Castro? The legacy of Cuba’s socialist revolution is still very much in doubt,” in Foreign Policy.

Amherst College political science professor Javier Corrales, “Fidel was hell: The longest-ruling dictator of the 20th century was a radical bent on transformational, alternative global development. Ironically, he left his country conservative, impoverished, and isolated,” also in Foreign Policy.

Yale University history professor Carlos Eire, “Farewell to Cuba’s brutal big brother,” in The Washington Post.

Kings College London visiting history and war studies professor Antony Roberts, “Fidel Castro was a cruel dictator. Ignore the revisionists,” in The Spectator.

Fillon & Juppé… & Putin

Photo: WITT/SIPA

Photo: WITT/SIPA

Continuing from Wednesday’s post. François Fillon and Alain Juppé had their debate yesterday: a little short of two hours, with two highly articulate, supremely self-confident men in command of their arguments on the issues, that they expounded upon in a gaffe-free, wonkish detail inconceivable in political debate outre-Atlantique not including Hillary Clinton. As Arthur Goldhammer remarked in real time on Facebook

Watching the Fillon-Juppé debate. I think we should send our politicians to France for debate prep…. I think these guys could out-debate our guys in English, let alone French. And not just Trump.

As for the substance of what was said, the first half was given over to the economy, and specifically to reform of the state—i.e. the number of posts in the fonction publique that will be eliminated, though precisely which ones not specified—revamping—i.e. shredding—the Code du travail, raising the legal retirement age, and the rest of the litany that one has heard countless times on the right and for almost as long as one can remember. Not that the issues aren’t legitimate subjects of debate—they absolutely are—or that reforms are not called for, but politicians—here, Fillon—make it sound like embarking on “radical,” “difficult” reforms (Fillon’s words) is a mere matter of political will on the part of the president of the republic, that upending the labor and tax codes, slashing unemployment insurance, overhauling pension regimes, to name just a few pledges, can be carried out swiftly, in the first three months of a presidential term—i.e. during the summer, when people are on vacation—via ordonnance—i.e. by fiat, without debate—and that will be that. The modern history of France suggests that it will not happen quite that way.

Fillon and Juppé are more in agreement on these issues than they’re not, though there is a question of degree, with the former a few notches to the right of the latter and more Bonapartist in posture. There will be occasion to examine the programs in detail once the real campaign is underway—in the late winter and early spring—but what strikes one about Fillon’s neo-Thatcherite rhetoric is how has-been it is. It’s from another era. Fillon gave the impression that he was addressing an electoral clientele—PME patrons and provincial bourgeois retirees—not the broader electorate. In point of fact, it’s hard to see his neo-Thatcherite project catching fire during the general election campaign. Au contraire. Not only has it not been demonstrated that outsourcing public services to the private sector and making it easier for employers to fire personnel fosters economic growth, lowers unemployment, or saves the precious taxpayer’s money—and no partisan of these measures has dared argue that they will reduce inequality—but voters in their majority are not asking for this. In France, people want more public services—for the state to be more present—not less. And they don’t want job security, such as it exists, to be undermined (and pedagogy about insiders and outsiders in the labor market are not going to convince a single citizen to flip his or her vote in the direction of neoliberalism). People want a stronger social safety net, not less of one. On this, N.B., e.g., the huge unpopularity of the El Khomri law in public opinion polls, with not only the left opposing it but sizable numbers on the right as well—and which is one reason, among many others, why François Hollande’s reelection chances, should he suicidally decide to run, are close to nil.

The bottom line: Fillon, assuming he wins on Sunday (a safe bet) and then next May 7th (and he’ll be the favorite come next Monday), will be the most conservative president the Fifth Republic has seen to date. Arch réac Patrick Buisson said as much on Europe 1 yesterday, calling Fillon’s victory a “historic moment” for the French right. So much for Fillon’s erstwhile séguiniste social Gaullism (insofar as this was ever his real conviction). What makes Fillon so effective—and redoubtable—a politician is his mild manner combined with solidity of character. As I said last time, he presents himself very well and is very well-spoken. He is, in reality, no less right-wing than Sarkozy—including on the ‘4 Is’, with perhaps a nuance here and there—but, because of his style, has given the impression of greater moderation. As Libé’s Laurent Joffrin put it, whereas Sarkozy will blurt out to a citizencasse-toi pauv’ con” (beat it, asshole), Fillon will politely say “passez votre chemin, mon brave” (please move along, my good man). In public speaking, as I never cease to say, form is as important as substance, when not more so.

Fillon also knows to downplay his conservative positions on societal issues and resist the temptation to demagogue. E.g. he is personally opposed to abortion but, when the question was put to him in the debate, he insisted that he will never touch the Loi Veil or seek to abrogate the Loi Taubira on same-sex marriage (it was striking to watch him and Juppé both solemnly affirm their support for a woman’s right to chose, and with Fillon saying that “as a man, [abortion] is a not a decision for me to make;” hell will freeze over before such words are ever heard in a US Republican Party debate). As for his ties to conservative Catholic anti-gay marriage groups like Sens Commun, it is most unlikely that, given the ambient anti-religiosity in French society—France being one of the most atheistic countries in the world—that this will translate into any retrograde policy initiatives. Lefties and laïcards are shrieking over Fillon’s liaisons dangereuses with reactionary Cathos but he’s just playing symbolic politics. It’s not a BFD.

What is a BFD, however—and a big one indeed—is foreign policy, and specifically Fillon’s ties to Vladimir Putin. Russophilia—Putinophilia, en réalité—has become pronounced on the French right over the past decade and with Fillon one of Putin’s best friends in Paris. The bienveillance of Donald Trump and Michael Flynn toward Putin does not compare. Fillon and Putin know one another well—a relationship forged during Fillon’s five years as Sarkozy’s PM—have met some fifteen times, and are on the same page on numerous questions, among them Syria, with Fillon outright supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On this, see Daniel Vernet in Slate.fr and Pierre Haski in L’Obs and The Guardian, plus his à chaud reaction on Facebook the night of the 1st round, in which he said

D’ailleurs, si Fillon l’emporte à droite et se retrouve au deuxième tour avec Marine Le Pen, ce seront deux amis de Moscou qui s’affronteront, assurant à Vladimir Poutine une victoire assurée. Son “investissement” a payé.

Now France does need to have a correct relationship with Russia but there are limits, as Juppé, who differs considerably with Fillon on the issue, asserted in the debate, notably on Ukraine and Syria. For Juppé, there can be no compromising or dealing with Bashar al-Assad. Fillon took care to assure that France under his presidency will not change alliances (go here and scroll to 1:56:30), that she and America are allies, and that France shares “fundamental values” with America that she does not with Russia. Très bien. But then, how to explain this tweet that Fillon sent out last March?

“American imperialism”? And during the Obama administration? And that “threatens” Europe? Now what is that supposed to mean? This is the first time I’ve seen the expression “American imperialism”—exclusively far left in pedigree—in a long time. And I have no memory of having ever heard it uttered by a high-level politico in a French party of government, and by one who may be elected president of the republic no less.

Strange. This requires explanation, though less so to the crazy new administration in Washington that awaits us than to Angela Merkel and the other principal actors in the European Union (a subject that was not mentioned once in last night’s debate, BTW). If a President Fillon makes nice with Vladimir Putin over and above France’s relationship with Germany, that will mark a sea change of major proportions on the continent—and in geopolitics more generally.

France Inter’s great geopolitics commentator Bernard Guetta has had some very good commentaries this week on Fillon, Putin, France, and Russia, here and here.

On the matter of Russia, we have learned over the past week that Alain Juppé has been subjected to an odious, viral campaign on the fachosphère—France’s nebula of Alt-Right websites—accusing him of being an “ally” of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and generally being in cahoots with “Islam,” on account, entre autres, of his cordial relationship, in his capacity as mayor of Bordeaux, with Bordeaux’s imam Tareq Oubrou—the epitome of moderation, whose liberal interpretation of the Islamic faith is music to French ears, but whom the fachosphère, along with extreme right-wing Jewish websites, have libelously slandered as a fundamentalist and antisemite, and sullying Juppé’s name in the process, nicknamed “Ali Juppé” by the fachos (for details, see the article by Claude Askolovitch in Slate.fr, “L’alliance de la fachosphère et des ultras du sarkozysme pour éliminer Juppé,” and the enquête in Libé, “Qui veut la peau d’«Ali Juppé»?”).

So what’s the link with Russia? Russian trolls, so L’Obs reports, who lent a helping hand to the fachosphère—which is entirely pro-Putin—to undermine Juppé and help Fillon. As there is now no doubt that the Russians undermined Hillary Clinton via cyberattacks and fake news to favor Trump, the circumstantial evidence that they likewise employed their underhanded methods in the French primary campaign may be regarded as prima facie.

There was a small brouhaha over something Fillon said Wednesday on Europe 1 that sounded borderline antisemitic

I think that sectarianism is increasing today within the Muslim community and that the sectarianists are taking that community hostage. We need to combat this sectarianism and we need to do it as we have in the past. We fought against a form of Catholic sectarianism or like we fought the desire of Jews to live in a community that does not respect the laws of the French Republic.

There was a time in history when Jews as a “community” didn’t respect the laws of the republic? WTF? Claude Askolovitch took Fillon apart on this in a great piece on Slate.fr, “Des juifs, de Fillon, et de l’inculture historique de nos politiques.” Who knows what Fillon was thinking when he said this. I rather doubt he’s a closet Judeophobe, as there has been no indication of this in his long life as a public person. If he were, ça se saurait. He clarified the matter almost immediately on his Facebook page. L’incident est clos.

My prediction au pif for Sunday’s vote, FWIW: Fillon 58%, Juppé 42%.

Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, March 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, March 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

Fillon & Juppé

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[update below]

No one—and I mean absolutely no one—predicted this result. Nothing even close to it. The final poll (IPSOS)—which was carried out mid-week, before the final debate—had Alain Juppé, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Fillon in a three-way tie—which, in turn, absolutely no one, apart from maybe Fillon himself, could have anticipated even a week earlier—but that Fillon ended up 16 points ahead of Juppé, and with Sarkozy finishing a humiliating distant third, was as stunning as Trump winning Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—and thus the American nation—on that cataclysmic night two weeks back. Now the consequences of the first ballot of France’s “open primary of the right and center” are not quite on the same level as those of the US election—it wouldn’t make sense to speak of them in the same breath—and did not provoke nervous breakdowns outside Sarkozy’s and Juppé’s inner circles, but the result does nonetheless significantly scramble the French presidential race. The primary isn’t over, as there will be a runoff next Sunday, but the thing is pretty much in the bag for Fillon, as the majority of Sarkozy’s voters are sure to vote for him over the RINO Juppé, who has practically no reservoir of 1st round votes that could move into his column. Juppé’s only hope is a massive turnout of centrist and left voters coming to his rescue and to thwart the conservative Fillon, but this is not too likely, to put it mildly. It is estimated that some 600,000 of the 4.2 million odd primary voters, i.e. 15%, issued from the left—the near totality voting for Juppé and for the sole purpose of blocking Sarkozy (disclosure: I was one of them)—but it is simply not realistic to expect that number to measurably increase, let alone triple or quadruple, in the 2nd round. Lefties are hardly fans of Fillon but he does not provoke the visceral repulsion that Sarko does, so they are most unlikely to descend on the polls into the seven figures to stop him, and by voting for a candidate, Juppé, who is not exactly a gauchiste himself—and whom, in this respect, one remembers well—including older millennials—from late autumn 1995.

Fillon has the reservoir of votes and the momentum, voilà. My blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer nailed it in assessing Juppé’s interview sur le plateau on the France 2 evening news Monday—which I also saw—observing that he came across as “usé, vieilli, fatigué” and contrasting him with Fillon—at 62, nine years Juppé’s junior—in a racing car—his favorite pastime—in the reportage that followed. If France allowed political ads on TV, this contrasting image would have killed it for the Fillon campaign.

So how did Fillon climb 30 points in the polls in the final three weeks of the campaign? One thing needs to be laid to rest, which is that the primary result constitutes yet another big time misfire of the polling institutes. Polls are not predictions, as one knows—though sometimes people need reminding of this—and with inevitably wide margins of error in multi-candidate primaries, which concern only a small, unrepresentative slice of the electorate and with turnout uncertain. And as primaries involve single political families—here, the mainstream right—the candidates are well-known by all potential voters and with the latter highly partisan in their great majority. And as most of the candidates are acceptable to most primary voters, the latter will readily flip based on changing circumstances, notably perceptible movements in the polls. The bottom line: a sizable number of Juppé and Sarkozy supporters—as reflected in the polls throughout the campaign—were, in fact, mainly backing their candidate to oppose the other—not because they were particularly enamored of their man—so when Fillon’s climb became apparent, it generated a bandwagon effect, with large numbers switching to Fillon in the final two or three days of the campaign. Fillon is situated right at the mid-point on the LR party spectrum, incarnating the political world-view and zeitgeist of the French right-wing median voter. And no one doubts that he has the experience and stature to accede to the presidency (which was less the case with Bruno Le Maire). As soon as LR voters—impressed by Fillon’s determination, confidence, and dogged campaigning—began to see him as a winner, his dramatic surge was, in retrospect, almost a foregone conclusion.

Then there were Fillon’s two campaign books, Faire and Vaincre le totalitarisme islamique—published in September and October, respectively—and with the first one a best-seller (I have looked at neither but will now put them on my list). One notes Fillon’s changing poll numbers since the books were published: e.g. in the IPSOS baromètre politique he was at +34/-50 in September, rising 9 points in the one released Nov. 16th—and notably among LR voters—to +43/-48.

On the subject of books, there was also l’ultra droitier Patrick Buisson’s La Cause du peuple, published in late September, the subtitle of which is L’histoire interdite de la présidence Sarkozy. Buisson, who was the “right hemisphere” of Sarkozy’s political brain at the Élysée but with the two falling out, shredded his erstwhile protégé. The book, which sold like hotcakes on the right, is a règlement de comptes en règle. From the bonnes feuilles and passages quoted in the press—I have admittedly not read it myself—it was devastating for the former président de la république.

Sarkozy’s elimination may have been a surprise and his humiliating 20% score even more of one, but I am mystified that pundits, analysts, and political état-majors—notably Hollande’s at the Élysée—thought that he ever had a chance of winning. Regular AWAV readers will know that I excluded this possibility from the outset—when it became clear in 2014 that Sarko was plotting his comeback—entirely on account of his consistently awful poll numbers—among the worst in every favorable/unfavorable ranking—and inability to publicly conceal the most detestable aspects of his personality, thus keeping him mired in negative polling territory. And then there was his stratégie clivante—of polarizing society, pitting people against one another, and stoking fear of and/or animosity toward persons in one’s daily midst—which was openly assumed by sarkozyste historique and hitman Brice Hortefeux—and who, to drive the point home, claimed Donald Trump as his mentor’s explicit model. General de Gaulle was no doubt turning in his grave at such an anti-rassemblement posture of a supposed heir of Gaullism. The ineluctable consequence of Sarkozy’s political instincts: +29/-68, which was his final, pre-primary coefficient in the IPSOS baromètre. I’m sorry but one simply does not win a race—open primary or election—with that level of unpopularity. That pundits and état-majors seemingly didn’t understand this is something I just couldn’t get.

In any case, it is so nice to see Sarko gone from the political scene and inshallah for good. Alhamdullilah.

Various journalists and pundits have already been handicapping the presidential election with Fillon now the probable LR candidate, assuming that a Fillon-Le Pen 2nd round confrontation is all but certain, and with the latter’s prospects enhanced. One august US journalist-writer, who has recently authored a fine book partly on the Front National, went so far as to assert on social media yesterday that “Marine Le Pen must be licking her chops.” Now I have made a vow not to engage in any speculation whatever on the presidential election before January 30th, when we will have a fairly clear idea as to what the political field will look like: if François Hollande will be in the running for a second term, which candidate will emerge victorious from the PS’s “Belle Alliance Populaire” primary (on January 22nd & 29th), what happens with Emmanuel Macron, and if François Bayrou throws his hat in the ring. Until then, no speculation, handicapping, or hypotheses from AWAV.

Just two points. First, Marine LP has not, in fact, been licking her chops at the prospect of facing Fillon, whose victory she was absolutely not expecting. She was counting on squaring off against Sarkozy or Juppé, both prospects opening new pools of voters for her (in the event of Juppé) or provoking mass abstention on the left (if Sarkozy). The conservative Fillon complicates that, as he could well siphon off some of her bourgeois Catholic voters, though without her being able to compensate for the losses by attracting new voters from other horizons. With Fillon the LR candidate, MLP may hit a lower-than-expected ceiling in the 1st round—a ceiling rather lower than what polls have been indicating for her up to now (N.B. horse race polls taken six months in advance of the election are worth what they’re worth). If Marine LP garners, say, 7 million votes in the 1st round of the presidential election—which would be a historic high for the FN for any contest—she would, with an 80% voter turnout, barely clear 20%. It is indeed possible that this would qualify her for the 2nd round but possibly not; not if the candidate emerging victorious from the January Belle Alliance Populaire primary is sufficiently compelling (and this does not include François Hollande). If so, that candidate will likely finish in at least the low 20s on April 21st, which may well suffice to overtake MLP and qualify for the 2nd round. If MLP were to reach, say, 25% of the 1st round vote, this would mean that 9 million people voted for her. This is huge. It would represent a near 50% increase in her aggregate vote over what she received in 2012. Again, this is not beyond the realm of the possible but I just don’t see it, not in view of MLP’s ongoing terrible approval rating and which simply does not change for her: +25/-71 in the latest IPSOS baromètre. These are not the numbers of a candidate with momentum. In short: it is not a foregone conclusion that Marine Le Pen will be in the 2nd round. It is not a done deal. And on this, I am pleased to see that at least one analyst—Michel Wieviorka, writing in Le Monde yesterday—shares my view.

The second point. Continuing from the above, as Art Goldhammer pointed out in his à chaud analysis in The American Prospect, Fillon’s likely victory opens up a wide space on the political spectrum, spanning from the center-right to the moderate left. There are a lot of voters in this space, perhaps 40, even 45%, of the electorate. If Juppé were the LR candidate, he would corner the center-right and perhaps even part of the center-left vote. Fillon will no doubt attract some center-right voters but in view of his conservatism—of his neo-Thatcherism on economic issues and the state, and his conservative Catholic reflexes on questions de société—the more centrist center-right voters will likely look to another candidate. If three major candidates occupy this wide space—the PS’s, Macron, and Bayrou—then the vote will fragment, which will likely enable Le Pen to make the 2nd round. But if there are only two major candidates, i.e. if either Macron or Bayrou desists—or if Macron doesn’t qualify, or, alternatively, changes his mind and enters the January primary—then one of the two will have an excellent chance of beating out Marine LP to qualify for the 2nd round.

One thing to keep in mind. The PS may be discredited, the Front de Gauche flying apart, and the left as a whole in crisis, confused about what it stands for, and clueless what to do in power, but fully 48% of the French electorate, according to the latest annual IFOP poll on the question, continues to situate itself on the left. Breaking this down, 17% identify as center-left, 27% left, and 4% extreme left (the numbers for the right: 18% center-right, 25% right, 9% extreme right; N.B. the number for the extreme right is down 2 points from 2015 and 3 from 2014). Voters on the left are simply too numerous to be shut out of the 2nd round of a presidential election. The prospect of a 2nd round pitting the right vs. extreme right will be seen by well over half the electorate as a perversion of democracy. The outcome will lack legitimacy in the eyes of too many citizens and discredit the process, not to mention the president and government that issues from it. Sure, France saw this in 2002 but that was an accident—it should have never happened, as I explain here—and Chirac was also less right-wing than Fillon is today. There will be/is a demand for a left or left-compatible candidate to face the right in the 2nd round and, I will wager, that demand will be fulfilled.

I have more to say. I am not done. I will continue in the following post.

UPDATE: Michel Goya—a French defense intellectual, former army colonel, and author of several books—has a good analysis of the primary vote, “Le point Fillon,” on his “La Voie de l’epée” blog, and that is similar to mine on the late bandwagon effect.

debat_primaire_droite_13oct2016_photo-reutersphwojazer

[update below]

It’s formally called the “open primary of the right and the center,” which will select the single candidate of the parliamentary right for next spring’s presidential election. Six of the seven candidates are first-tier personalities from the party that nowadays calls itself Les Républicains, LR being the latest iteration of the neo-Gaullist movement—the rassemblement or union inspired by the great general having changed its name some ten times over the past six decades—and incorporating other historic currents of the French right and center (droite libérale, Christian Democracy). The is the first time the neo-Gaullist party—with the cult of the providential leader at the core of its culture—has ever gone about selecting its candidate via an open primary: open to any candidate who passes the ballot access threshold and in which any registered voter may participate. The organization of the primary is almost a carbon copy of the one the Parti Socialiste organized five years ago, which was inspired by the American experience and the first of its kind in France. I was initially dubious about the PS imitating the US model of selecting presidential candidates—of which I have never been a fan—but had to acknowledge its manifest success. As I wrote on October 11, 2011

The PS primaire à l’américaine is now the new French model for all eternity (it will certainly be adopted by the UMP in 2017, one may be assured of that).

If the major French political parties can be inspired by the American primary model, the two US parties—and particularly the GOP—would be well advised to adopt French ballot access rules. To qualify for the one tomorrow, LR candidates had to be sponsored by 250 elected officials in at least 30 of the 101 departments of metropolitan and overseas France—and with no more than one-tenth from any one department—20 being parliamentary deputies, and with signatures of 2,500 card-carrying party members spread out over 15 departmental party federations (and again, with no more than a tenth from any one federation). Imagine the outcome of this latest US election if Republican candidates had needed the formal endorsement of, say, 20 members of Congress, plus a certain number of governors and mayors, in order to contest primaries and caucuses… Alas.

As for registered voters who wish to participate in the primary, they have only to contribute €2 and sign a declaration that reads: “I share the republican values of the right and the center, and am committed to the alternation of power to insure the recovery of France.” C’est tout. Now who can be against the recovery of France? And the alternation of power between political parties, which is a cornerstone of any democracy worthy of the name: it is not explicitly stated that this should happen in 2017 and between which political parties power should alternate. As for the “republican values of the right and the center,” these are not precisely spelled out in any text, not to my knowledge at least, nor is it apparent how they differ from republican values of the left. In point of fact, there is a republican consensus in France that republican values are the common patrimony of all Frenchmen and women across the political spectrum: right, center, and left.

So voilà, there is no political, ideological, or moral impediment for any citizen who identifies with the left to cross over and strategically vote in the right’s primary—and which was precisely what was sought by Alain Juppé and some of the other candidates in forcing the wording of the declaration on Nicolas Sarkozy—LR party chief since 2014—who didn’t even want a primary to begin with. Sarkozy got rolled big time. As the winner of the primary will be the heavy favorite to win the presidential election—in view of the discredit of François Hollande and his Socialists—and after squaring off against Marine Le Pen in the 2nd round, the stakes in this contest are thus high, indeed exceptionally so. The specter of Sarkozy facing Le Pen next May 7th being too nightmarish to contemplate—and, personally speaking, after the Brexit vote and cataclysmic outcome of the US election, I don’t think I could handle another such result; not here in France—habitual PS voters will possibly turn out in consequential numbers tomorrow, to vote Juppé and for the sole purpose of blocking Sarkozy. And, pour l’info, I will be among them.

Sarkozyistes have been freaking out of late at this prospect—which they cluelessly did not see coming—and crying foul, but they have no cause whatever to do so. These are the rules of the game and that’s that. And looking outre-Atlantique: with the exception of the dozen or so closed primary states, there is nothing to prevent Democrats and Republicans from voting in the other’s primary; this sometimes happens and no big deal is made of it (its incidence is minimal mainly because D and R primaries usually happen on the same day). Moreover, as a citizen’s voting choices are a private matter, how can it be known outside of villages and small towns—where everybody knows everyone—if a given voter is on the left?

N.B. sarkozyistes have been silent on the prospect of FN voters participating in the primary to support their man—which probably won’t happen in significant numbers, as frontiste voters already have their champion in Marine LP—even though the extreme-right has never been considered by neo-Gaullists to be a constituent component of the family of right and center parties and movements.

Three prime time debates were held in the run-up to tomorrow’s vote, on Oct. 13th, Nov. 3rd, and Nov. 17th. I saw the first and last, missing the middle one. They were typical French debates: the candidates were all well-spoken and wonkish in their responses to the questions put to them. They all sounded like Hillary Clinton talking policy (form, not substance). And they were articulate and fast on their feet in a way one simply does not see in a debate among US Republicans, where there’s almost a premium on sounding stupid and not speaking in complex sentences (for candidates who are capable of this). This is France: if you sound like a dimwit on television, vous êtes mort, i.e, you’re toast. On most economic and social policy questions, the candidates are pretty much on the same page, differing only in degree, e.g. in how many hundreds of thousands of posts in the civil service they’re going to eliminate (the right has a fetish-like obsession with taking an axe to the number of state employees, ostensibly to save taxpayer euros, though which never saves a centime; I’ll come back to this at a later date). Or on what repressive measures will be taken in getting tough on crime (minimum mandatory sentencing, etc). Noteworthy is the hegemony of free market libéralisme among the heirs of neo-Gaullism, which was not the case during the era of Chirac’s RPR. If one is interested in the positions of the candidates on the issues, see Le Monde’s helpful guide.

The central issues for the right today—and on which one may situate the candidates along the political spectrum—is the “4 Is”: Immigration, Identity, Islam, and Insécurité (i.e. law-and-order and crime: the kind of street crime associated with youthful males of post-colonial immigrant origin): issues that unprincipled, vote-grubbing right-wing politicians find irresistible to demagogue. As for where the candidates generally stand and what their prospects are, here’s a quick rundown, proceeding from the most right wing to the closest to the center.

Hard-right:

Jean-François Copé: He’s tied with the next two for the most reactionary. Copé, who’s an énarque and non-practicing Jew, was a more-or-less mainstream conservative until 2012, when, during his knock-down drag-out fight with François Fillon for the leadership of the UMP, he staked out a particularly reactionary position on the “4 Is,” and with his rhetoric and public pronouncements becoming almost indistinguishable from those of the Front National. He has also gone the full Bonaparte, promising that, if elected president of the republic, he will rule by decree (ordonnance) for a period upon taking office, enacting sweeping laws on fifteen major issues without parliamentary debate or vote (this is constitutionally possible). And he’s the most economically libéral of the candidates. Copé—who’s been one of the most unpopular politicians in France over the past four years—has had zero chance of winning from the outset and knows it. He’ll be lucky if he reaches 2% tomorrow. His main motivation in running is to settle scores with Sarkozy, whom he despises and loathes, Sarko having made him the fall guy in the Bygmalion Affair. If Sarko bites the dust, Copé will be happy. Mission accomplished.

Nicolas Sarkozy: Anyone who’s read my posts on French politics over the years knows what I think of him. I have said it countless times and will say it yet again: Nicolas Sarkozy is the worst person in the top-tier of French politics. He is despicable and loathsome in ways too numerous to mention in a short blog post, the main one, though, being the “4 Is,” which he has made the alpha and omega of his campaign. Some examples of Sarkozy’s demagogic posturing over the past three months: 1. His call for the banning of the Islamic headscarf from universities and workplaces, despite the manifest unconstitutionality of such measures and the certain rage and resistance they would engender. 2. Riding the wave of the late summer’s burkini hysteria, his demanding the banning of the offending swimsuit and by constitutional amendment if necessary, how such a fantastical amendment could be possibly be worded not being explicated and the European Convention of Human Rights be damned. 3. Calling for the automatic, indefinite administrative detention, and without judicial oversight, of all persons “fiché S,” i.e. put on a police watch list for possible links to terrorists but with the persons in question having committed no crime or been charged with anything. In short: Guantánamos à la française, in France, and for French citizens. 4. Suspending family reunification for immigrants legally resident in France, malgré the right to live with one’s family being a fundamental human one and contained in declarations and treaties to which France is a signatory, e.g. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the aforementioned European Convention. 5. Demanding the end to alternative meals in school cafeterias, so that if, say, pork is all that’s on the menu and a pupil does not want to eat this, he or she has only to ask for a double order of French fries. Honnêtement, it takes a truly perverse, twisted mind to come up with something like this—as well as to thunderously cheer it from an audience. 6. Not so much demagogic as comically laughable: calling on primary schools to teach children, regardless of their actual origins, that their ancestors were the Gauls. Such would be akin to all American students—of all races, ethnicities, and creeds—being informed by mandate of the state that they are descended from the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. Sarkozy delights in this rhetoric, whipping LR base audiences into a frenzy in stigmatizing a part of the population and with his trademark trash-talking style. À propos, he’s fascinated with Trump. The similarities between the two men are indeed striking—though Trump has more money and higher poll numbers. The hugely unpopular Sarkozy, who is obsessed with avenging his 2012 defeat and determined to vanquish his LR rivals, has never led in a primary poll. He will likely finish second tomorrow. If he somehow wins the 2nd round, it will be an even greater upset than the Nov. 8th one outre-Atlantique.

Jean-Frédéric Poisson: I hadn’t heard of him until two months ago. And if I didn’t know about him, that means that the vast majority of even politically informed Frenchmen and women didn’t either. He’s a backbench deputy and leader of the Parti Chrétien-Démocrate, a microscopic conservative Catholic party associated with the LR—and that is not an hier to France’s century-old Christian Democratic movement—and was exclusively identified with the personality of its founder, Christine Boutin. Poisson is very conservative pretty much across the board, particularly on questions de société, and revealed some sulfurous ideas about “Zionists” and conspiracies last month, which almost got him expelled from the primary contest. “Un vrai réac,” as Nicolas Sarkozy apparently labelled him in private (Le Canard Enchaîné, 3 Nov. 2016), “encore pire hors caméra.” As his score will be in the very low single digits, no more need be said about him.

Mainstream right:

Bruno Le Maire: A normalien and énarque, he was Dominique de Villepin’s whiz kid right-hand man at the Quai d’Orsay and then Matignon during Chirac’s second term—and was the veritable author of DDV’s famous UNSC speech in Feb. 2003, when France stood up to the Bush administration over Iraq. At 47 years of age, Le Maire has cast himself as the candidate of youth and renouveau—in the first debate he decided to épater la bourgeoisie by not wearing a tie—though his discourse and positions are firmly in the conservative mainstream, with a libéral, rightward tilt, including on the “4 Is.” He’s one of those men who was middle-aged, or acted like it, by the time he was 30. He clearly has a political future—one can definitely see him as prime minister—but won’t be moving into the Élysée next May. He looked like he could be the troisième homme in primary race but that’s not too likely now, as he’s been fading in the polls. He’ll be lucky if he finishes above 10%.

François Fillon: Fillon looked like a loser for most of the campaign, treading water and going nowhere, with no hope of catching Sarkozy and Juppé. Already four years ago, in the wake of the bloodbath between the fillonistes and copéistes for control of the UMP, I pronounced him toast and for all time. But lo and behold, his poll numbers have been surging over the past couple of weeks and with him now in striking distance, even at parity, with Sarkozy for second place. If Fillon makes it to the 2nd round, it will be a stunning coup de théâtre foreseen by no pundit or politico. And if it happens at Sarkozy’s expense, it will be such sweet revenge for Fillon, who hates Sarkozy with a passion, Fillon having been mistreated and humiliated during his five years at Matignon under Sarko’s hyper-presidency. If this comes to pass and Fillon squares off against Juppé, he will have an excellent chance of winning, and ergo be the odds-on favorite next May. Whoda thunk it? Fillon is, in fact, totally credible as president of the republic. He has the stature. I personally think he presents himself well. His personality and style are reassuring. As for his politics, that’s another matter. He comes out of the old social Gaullist tradition, having been a protégé of the late Philippe Séguin, but, like Bruno Le Maire, has tacked libéral and rightward in recent years. I think some of his positions on the economy, plus the “4 Is,” are nuts. And then there’s his Russophilia and problematic rhetoric on Syria, which does not sit well chez moi. But as Fillon’s positioning is exactly there with the French median voter of the right, it is politically serving him well.

Center-right:

Alain Juppé: He’s been the favorite from day one and whom I have been asserting for the last two-plus years would vanquish Sarkozy, win the primary, and most likely succeed François Hollande at the Élysée. I still think this but if Juppé unexpectedly faces Fillon in the 2nd round, then all bets are off. Juppé is, it must be said, a mainstream conservative, though maybe a little less libéral than the other candidates. He was a chiraquien, which means he believes in the state, but has forged an image as a moderate, almost a centrist, via his positions on the “4 Is,” which are the most liberal and well-thought out on the right. Juppé simply refuses to demagogue these issues or flatter the hard-right LR base on them, which has led the latter to intensely distrust him (for LR militants, he’s a RINO à la française). If the 2nd round next May is Juppé vs. Marine Le Pen, there will be significant defections of LR voters to the latter, though with Juppé more than compensating with centrists—he has been formally endorsed by the centrist UDI plus François Bayrou and his MoDem—and center/moderate-left voters who appreciate him for the “4 Is” but also the fact that he manifestly has the stature of an homme d’État. In the Élysée he’ll be a French Angela Merkel, with a strong commitment to Europe, a proper wariness of Russia, a disinclination to deal in any way with Bashar al-Assad, and, most importantly, will be the most reassuring  president this country could want to deal with the new occupant of the White House. But first Juppé has to get to the Élysée. La route n’est pas encore dégagée.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet: She’s the closest to the center of the seven candidates, with left-compatible positions on several issues, notably the environment and emphasizing resistance to the Front National and all that it represents. And though she’s made a few stupid or off-the-wall statements on the “4 Is,” she’s not bad on these overall. I’ve always liked NKM: she’s smart—as a polytechnicienne, she has to be—well-spoken, and gives a positive impression, at least in my book. But she won’t make it out of the mid single digits tomorrow. In fact, she was helped in extremis to qualify for the primaries—with LR élus signing for her—as the party correctly deemed that it would really not look good if it fielded an exclusively male slate of candidates.

The bottom line tomorrow will be turnout. If it’s on the low end, with less than 2 million voters schlepping to the polls—the number of bureaux de vote are fewer in number than for an election (e.g. mine is a 15 minute walk from chez moi, as opposed to the usual 5 minutes)—then that’s good news for Sarkozy. But if it exceeds 3 million, then Sarko is in big trouble. As the participation in the 2011 Socialist primary reached 2.8 million, it stands to reason that it will be markedly higher in this one, in view of the high interest it has generated (5 million people watching the third debate last Thursday night), as voters of the right and center are more numerous than those of the left, with the high stakes involved, and the polarizing nature of the former président de la république who wants his job back.

Verdict late tomorrow evening.

UPDATE: Sunday morning: the latest IPSOS poll, released Friday—but which I hadn’t seen before writing this post—has Fillon, Juppé, and Sarkozy essentially tied, at 29-30%. Wow, what a retournement de situation! 8% of registered voters says that they’re certain to vote, which corresponds to some 3.5 million people. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

America’s Deep State

snowden_1

[update below]

I saw Snowden the other day. It’s good entertainment, as Oliver Stone’s movies tend to be, and with solid acting—notably Joseph Gordon-Levitt, excellently cast as Edward Snowden—though is not without flaws. E.g. way too much time is given over to Snowden’s relationship with his GF, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), the portrayal of which conforms to classic Hollywood conventions. And the political subtext is typical simple-minded Stone, uniquely skewering the United States for engaging in action—here, mass surveillance of the world’s population—that any state would engage in if it had the technical capacity to do so. There’s no morality in this domain. States are states. And, as we have learned since the Snowden affair broke in 2013, Germany, France, and the UK, among others, have indeed engaged in technological eavesdropping à la NSA (my posts on the NSA/Snowden are here and here).

Watching the film I naturally thought of the current political drama in the US and its unspeakable president-elect. In depicting the NSA/CIA surveillance apparatus, such as Snowden informed the world about, I had a thought: the American state knows everything relevant about any person—and particularly any American citizen—it wishes to know about. The American state—its national security apparatus—knows all about Donald Trump. It has the goods on him: maybe not of every last p*ssy he’s grabbed but of his foreign dealings—with the Russians et al—his finances, tax returns, shady persons he’s been associated with, you name it. There is necessarily something in Trump’s life over the decades—just one little thing—that is seriously comprising, not only to himself legally but eventually to the national security of the United States. Trump, America’s commander-in-chief to be, knows nothing about America’s national security apparatus and precious few of his handful of advisers do either, a flake or two excepted, but the apparatus knows about him. So my question is: over the next four years, who will have the ascendancy over whom in matters of the national security: the ignoramus president or the apparatus?

IMHO, I believe it will be the latter. Trump will be boxed in. The apparatus will dominate him—inform him of what he can and cannot do—rather than the other way around. For this reason, I am somewhat less concerned about Trump’s foreign policy than his actions on the home front.

One comment about Stone’s film. President Obama is shown defending the NSA and condemning Snowden’s whistleblowing. Likewise Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Knowing Stone’s political parti pris, the effect on the spectator is clearly intended to be one of disapproval. But in view of the posts Obama and Clinton occupied in the state, does one seriously expect that they would have reacted otherwise, that their public statements would have been to condemn the NSA and praise Snowden? Allez.

Having seen Stone’s movie, I’m going to rewatch Laura Poitras’s very good documentary, Citizenfour, which I saw when it opened in Paris last year. It may be viewed free on the web here.

UPDATE: On the NSA and the election, see Esquire journalist Charles P. Pierce’s Nov. 16th piece, “Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is growing by the day: Now the NSA director admits Russia used Wikileaks to meddle in the campaign.”

citizenfour

Digesting the disaster

Hillary Clinton supporters, Tuesday night (AFP)

Hillary Clinton supporters, Tuesday night (AFP)

[update below] [2nd update below]

Yesterday was tough. For me and everyone. I couldn’t listen to my usual radio news programs and did not turn on the idiot box to watch the news. And I couldn’t bring myself to open Le Monde. The banner headline: “Donald Trump Président des États-Unis.” Quel cauchemar. Today is a little bit better but not really. I have been reading post-mortem analyses, though, plus examining the results and exit poll data. Here’s some of what one learns:

  • Everyone knows by now that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. She’s presently at 47.7% and Trump at 47.5%, with an advance of some 280K votes. But once all the mail-in and provisional ballots are tabulated—notably in deep blue California and Washington state—her lead will widen to perhaps 1.5 million votes, even 2M. Her percentage will break 48 and with Trump’s dropping below Mitt Romney’s 47.2 in 2012. The spread between Hillary and Trump will be wider than that of Gore over Bush in 2000 (539K votes and 0.5%). Now this won’t change a thing in terms of the result of course, but it is nonetheless important to know that the election was not a repudiation of Hillary. And with Trump on track to underperform Romney’s numbers—60.9M votes, with Trump presently at 59.8M—one can hardly argue that the American electorate has jumped on the populist bandwagon. And there is no indication, at least not yet, that Trump attracted large numbers of new voters or habitual abstainers, unlike Ross Perot in 1992, whose candidacy caused voter participation to spike, with 13M more voters casting ballots than four years prior. The final turnout number of this election will be below that of 2012 (129M).
  • Hillary underperformed Obama’s 2012 score (51.1%) by some 3% and, projecting to the definitive result, by around 5 million votes (Obama received 65.9M). Some of Obama 2012 voters no doubt stayed home—blacks and millennials; we don’t yet know the extent—but much of Hillary’s shortfall, as one may see in this great NYT map, came from white working class voters in the Rust Belt who defected to Trump. It was a failure of pollsters, but also of the Clinton campaign and its internal polling—or algorithm—that the scale of this movement wasn’t detected.
  • It had been an assumption for much of the campaign, including by myself, that significantly more Republican voters would not vote for their candidate than Democratic voters defecting from theirs. But not only did Republican voters return to the fold (90%) but did so more than Democrats who voted for Clinton (89%). And while defecting Democrats no doubt voted in their overwhelming majority for Trump, many #NeverTrump Republicans look to have voted for Gary Johnson or stayed home rather than cast a ballot for Hillary.
  • The numbers make it clear: there was no Trump wave. His voters were those who always vote Republican plus a sufficient number of white working class Democratic defectors to put him over the top in Rust Belt states that were part of Hillary’s supposed firewall. And Hillary lost because her campaign failed to recognize the danger to that firewall. The bottom line: Trump was elected, as Scott Lemieux reminds us, exclusively on account of America’s archaic, nonsensical electoral system, a.k.a. the electoral college.

A few of the many worthwhile postmortem commentaries:

New York mag’s Jonathan Chait, “Republicans won power, but they didn’t win America.” Not that Republicans care about the latter, of course. The former is what’s essential.

The Nation’s Joan Walsh, “Everything we thought we knew about politics was wrong: The country will survive, probably. But it could fundamentally change.”

Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution, “What the Tea Party tells us about the Trump presidency.”

My friend Monica Marks posted an excellent commentary today on her Facebook page, on the white working class, which I am copying-and-pasting below. Monica, who currently resides in Istanbul and is completing a doctoral thesis at Oxford University on the Islamists in Tunisia, hails from a working class family in eastern Kentucky, so has a unique personal perspective on some of Trump’s voters:

Democrats lost because the “liberal elite” forgot the white working class. This narrative casts bigotry & misogyny as symptoms of neoliberalism, the underlying disease. But is it accurate?

If I didn’t hail from America’s white working class, I’d probably be an ardent purveyor of this narrative. But I come from America’s WWC, and it rankles me. Here are a few reasons why:

(1) Studies of Trump supporters’ median income, which may or may not reflect the final statistics, indicate the average Trump supporter is better off than most Americans, with an annual income of approximately $72,000.

We’re waiting on the final data, but we know from last night’s voting patterns that many well-off Americans in wealthy districts voted for Trump, too. Many white people of all economic backgrounds voted for Trump. Whiteness, not income, may be the dominant unifying factor, indicating that other variables, like racist outlooks, education, geography, etc. may have had more explanatory power.

(2) Besides letting the white middle and upper classes off the hook, this narrative really obscures a lot of good work that Democrats’ policies have done for the white working class, and lets the WWC off the hook for having really bad judgment.

Disclaimer: I’m acutely aware of my own subjectivity here, because my class background powerfully shapes (and perhaps muddles) my views on these issues. I’m a product of the WWC. My father is a floor cleaner & window washer. My mother was a housewife, but since divorcing eight years ago works a caretaker & house cleaner. Neither finished high school. They earn about $25K and $17K respectively. They do not and have never received any government benefits. They live in eastern Kentucky, an epicenter of white poverty.

I’ve seen first-hand how Democrats’ policies help my own parents. Obama’s Affordable Care Act provided both my parents with health insurance for the first time in their lives. The premiums were high, and there were flaws in the system, but it was definitely progress. The ACA helped WWC families like mine– it was a signature achievement of the Obama administration, and one the GOP is now very determined to roll back (they might succeed, leaving my parents uninsured again).

Democrats have also articulated more policies aimed at economically rejuvenating Appalachia’s coal fields than Republicans. HRC’s website articulated a thoughtful plan for retooling workers in coal country. Trump had no plan at all.

Instead of feeding pablum to the masses — Islamophobia, racism, fear of “the other” writ large, religiously inflected opioids — Democrats offer real policies, many of which could improve WWC lives. Though life has transported me some distance, I still feel deeply tethered to the WWC. I’m less inclined to make excuses for them and to pity than my friends raised in middle and upper middle class backgrounds. I don’t expect them to read the New York Times every day. I do expect them to see through the nonsense the GOP — and especially Trump — has fed to them. And I definitely, definitely expect decency from them. Decency which Trump so obviously didn’t have.

Many liberals and leftists today will be asking themselves where they went wrong. That’s not just good, it’s absolutely necessary. Facts may uphold the neoliberalism / abandoned WWC thesis. I’m very open to the possibility that I’m blinded by my own subjectivities here. It’s personal for me to the extent that I find it extremely difficult to distill cogent analysis from my still-percolating anger at the folks I grew up with, who I always wished would rechannel their rage from away from the phantasm whipping boys of Islam/ LGBT people/ “feminazis”/ “godlessness” etc towards economic policies that actually shape their realities.

But perhaps it’s also possible that, in a liberal/leftist rush to self-blame and find neoliberalism lurking around every corner, we’re denying these people, my people, their racist & misogynistic agency.

This election might not have been entirely defined by bigotry, but bigotry does seem to have played a huge role. As did other factors that aren’t necessarily economic, like being a low-information voter/ reliant on conspiracy theories & rumour-laden blogs; being socially and/or geographically distant from minority communities most vulnerable to Trumpism, etc.

Just a small contribution to a complex discussion surrounding the “why” of all this. We should also remember that we cannot separate the conversation re: Trump’s election from Brexit, or from the rise of racist & anti-immigration / anti-globalization far right parties elsewhere in Europe.

À suivre.

UPDATE: WaPo reporter Chris Cillizza examines “The 13 most amazing findings in the 2016 exit poll.” And these 13 are:

  • Trump won the white vote by a record margin.
  • There was no surge of female voters.
  • There was no surge of Latino voters.
  • Education mattered yugely in your vote choice.
  • Trump did better with white evangelicals than Romney.
  • Trump didn’t bring lots of new voters to the process.
  • The economy was the big issue and Clinton won it.
  • This was a change election. And Trump was the change candidate.
  • Obamacare was a wind beneath Trump’s wings.
  • Trump’s personal image was and is horrible.
  • Clinton’s email hurt her.
  • This was a deeply pessimistic electorate.
  • People didn’t think Trump lost the debates as badly as I did.

N..B. There is disagreement over the Latino vote, with the Latino Decisions Election Eve poll finding that Latinos backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 79-18% margin (as opposed to the 65-29% margin in the National Election Pool exit poll).

2nd UPDATE: To the above 13 findings above may be added the huge turnout in rural America for Trump. On this, see the analyses in the NYT’s The Upshot, “The election highlighted a growing rural-urban split,” and  in Politico, “Revenge of the rural voter.”

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