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2017 César awards

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France’s Oscars. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday)—two days before the US Academy Awards comme d’hab’—at the Salle Pleyel. The full list of nominees is here. Leading with eleven nominations each are Elle and Frantz, Ma Loute (Slack Bay) has nine, Mal de pierres (From the Land of the Moon) eight, Divines seven, Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World) and La Danseuse (The Dancer) six each, and Chocolat and Victoria (In Bed with Victoria) five a piece. As it happens, I don’t have blog posts on any—I haven’t written too much on cinema over the past year—but will soon enough, inshallah. But as I have seen the movies, I possess the necessary qualifications to cast a virtual ballot. So voilà:

BEST FILM: Frantz.
It’s a toss-up between this and Les Innocentes (The Innocents). There was, in fact, no really outstanding French film last year. A number were good, indeed quite—such as these two—but there were no chefs d’œuvre. Elle is a gripping drame psychologique but I had somewhat mixed feelings about it leaving the theater. As for Divines, see the ‘best first film’ category below. Three of the seven nominees, it should be said, do not belong: Ma Loute (screwball comedy that critics liked far more than did the unwashed public, of which I am a part), Mal de pierres (bof), and Victoria (frivolous waste-of-time rom-com).

BEST DIRECTOR: Anne Fontaine for Les Innocentes.
Pourquoi pas? If Xavier Dolan wins for his execrable Juste la fin du monde, I will forever lose respect for the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma.

BEST ACTOR: Nicolas Duvauchelle in Je ne suis pas un salaud (A Decent Man).
There are any number of worthy winners, e.g. Omar Sy in Chocolat and François Cluzet in Médecin de campagne (Irreplaceable) but Duvauchelle is a very good actor and deserves it for his role in this engaging film.

BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert in Elle.
She’s France’s greatest living actress. And her performance here is a tour de force. Other nominees are certainly meritorious: Marina Foïs is powerful as a sociopathic stalker in Irréprochable (Faultless), as is Judith Chemla in Une vie (A Woman’s Life) as an early 19th century bourgeois woman trapped in the gender roles of the era. And the sublime Marion Cotillard is tops in the otherwise unexceptional Mal de pierres. I did not, however, care for Sidse Babett Knudsen in La Fille de Brest (150 Milligrams).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: James Thierrée in Chocolat.
Laurent Lafitte in Elle is the runner-up. If Vincent Cassel wins for his role in the atrocious Juste la fin du monde—or for any role in any film—I will be sorely tempted to commit an unlawful act…

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Déborah Lukumuena in Divines.
She is memorable in her role in this, just a little more so than the other nominees in theirs.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Corentin Fila in Quand on a 17 ans (Being 17).
The other nominees are worthy but he gets the edge.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Oulaya Amamra in Divines.
Absolutely totally. A Star Is Born.

BEST FIRST FILM: Divines.
Hands down. A very good movie. One of the best in years in the banlieue racaille genre.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea).
I’ve only seen one of the others in this category but this one is very good and, in view of the subject matter, deserves to win IMHO.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: Graduation by Cristian Mungiu.
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is a close runner-up, followed by Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is certainly the top gauchiste film of the year. The Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl is honorable but not their best. Manchester by the Sea? Nah. If Xavier Dolan’s abominable Juste la fin du monde wins, I think I’ll…

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Marine Le Pen: can she win?

Photo: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pélissier

Photo: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pélissier

In September 2014 I had a post entitled “Can Marine Le Pen win in ’17?,” in which I answered my rhetorical question with a categorical no. Absolutely not. Don’t even think about it. And I have repeated this on numerous occasions since—on AWAV and in social media exchanges—and dismissing while I was at it the hand-wringers and nervous Nellies who fretted that yes, Henny Penny the sky is falling!, she can win—though without any of these Cassandras offering scenarios as to how this could happen. My confident assertions as to the impossibility of Marine Le Pen being elected president of the republic have been based on her disastrous poll numbers over the past seven years—her favorable/unfavorable rating consistently being one of the worst in the French political class (and far worse than Donald Trump’s at any point)—and the fact that in order for her to prevail in the 2nd round of a presidential election, large numbers of voters who otherwise despise and loathe her, and tell pollsters that they would never under any circumstances vote for her, would then go out and do just that: vote for her. Presidential 2nd rounds have the highest turnout of any election in the French system, averaging—minus one unique, very particular exception—83% since universal suffrage was instituted for the office in 1965. So if Marine were to win, some 20 million voters would likely have to vote for her. To date, the highest number of votes the Front National has ever received is 6.8 million in the 2nd round of the 2015 regional elections (with a 58.5% turnout). Somehow I can’t see this skyrocketing to 20M, particularly as MLP’s popularity ratings (deeply negative) have not moved even slightly in the course of the campaign.

But… circumstances do change. The situation evolves. And when circumstances change and situations evolve, I adjust my analyses accordingly. While I still consider a Marine LP victory to be highly unlikely, I no longer categorically rule it out. Anyone reading this is likely aware that Marine is at the top of the 1st round polls, at around 25%, and with three-fourths of those who say they will vote for her definitive in their choice. She is nigh certain to make it to the 2nd round on May 7th. Everyone takes this for granted at this point. The polls show her losing big in the 2nd, but polls change and her projected 2nd round score is creeping upwards. Whatever happens, she will most certainly break 40%.

So how could she win? Here are the scenarios:

  • François Fillon, who, as one knows, is seriously damaged politically, nonetheless manages to rally the LR party base and squeak past Emmanuel Macron and into the 2nd round. Fillon will probably defeat Marine, as a sufficient number of left voters (myself included)—so terrified by the prospect of a Marine victory—will probably vote for him while holding their noses. But large numbers of left voters will not bring themselves to do this, and particularly if Fillon is mis en examen—and he now insists that he’s staying in the race regardless—and doubles down on his Sarkozy-like, hard right rhetoric on immigration and security. The revulsion against Fillon is massive on the left (in a way it was not for Chirac in 2002). If masses of left voters nullify their ballots or stay home, and with a certain number of working class ones who voted Mélenchon in the 1st actually voting for Marine in the 2nd—and one may be sure that she will appeal to this latter cohort in the final phase of the campaign—she could possibly win in a cliffhanger, and particularly if enough conservative LR voters disgusted by Fillon also decide to go for her.
  • Benoît Hamon pulls off a shocker and makes it to the 2nd. In this scenario, Fillon’s support would plunge into the mid-teens, with LR voters defecting to Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or to Marine LP herself, who reaches 30% in the 1st. Likewise with Macron, whose serial flip-flopping, trying to be too many things to too many people, and finally revealed as a political Nowhere Man having benefited from a bulle médiatique would prompt his erstwhile center-left supporters to go with Hamon after all—or to François Bayrou if he enters the race. If Bayrou gets in—and he’ll be making an announcement on this tomorrow—he will most certainly peel off voters from Macron, possibly reaching 10% in the 1st round. In the 2nd round, the left would vote as a block for Hamon but LR voters, who so despise the left—and will simply not accept five more years of the PS in power—will go massively for Marine, particular as she will sweet-talk them to death entre les tours. If centrist voters vote blanc/nul or abstain, Marine may well gain enough votes to break 50%.
  • The nightmare scenario: Fillon’s and Macron’s numbers go south for the aforementioned reasons and with Hamon losing ground on the left to Jean-Luc Mélenchon. With the four candidates all bunched in the mid-teens—and Marine at 30%—Mélenchon ekes out a narrow second place finish and goes on to face MLP on May 7th. The right votes as one for Marine and with centrist and center-left voters emigrating en masse to Canada or maybe killing themselves. And Marine wins.

And there’s more. One thing I have insisted on over the years is that even if, in some outlandish scenario, Marine Le Pen were elected president of the republic, there is no way the FN could possibly win the legislative elections in June. Marine would almost immediately find herself in a cohabitation—and, as one knows, during cohabitations power constitutionally shifts to the prime minister and away from the president. This assertion of mine needs revision. If elected on May 7th, Marine’s first act will be to appoint a prime minister. I guarantee that the man or woman she names will not be from her party. She’ll ask a high-profile hard-right personality from LR, e.g. Laurent Wauquiez, who shares her views on just about everything save Europe (and even then). If she offers the post to Wauquiez, of course he’ll accept. To win over LR support, she’ll compromise on Europe, e.g. postponing her referendum on the euro to an undetermined future date. Marine’s overtures, not to mention the mere fact of her being at the summit of the state, will blow LR apart, with the right-wingers—Sarkozyistes, Copéistes, most Fillonistes—endorsing an alliance with the FN, and the more moderate conservatives—Juppéistes, some Fillonistes—refusing collaboration, rendering inevitable a breakup of the party. The government constituted by a prime minister Wauquiez will include ministers from the FN, LR, DLF, and MPF, i.e. it will be a coalition of the hard and extreme-right, assembled into an enlarged Rassemblement Bleu Marine (RBM). Some hypothetical ministerial appointments: Florian Philippot (economy/finance), Steeve Briois (interior), Gilbert Collard (justice), Thierry Mariani (foreign affairs), Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (European affairs), Gérard Longuet (defense), Eric Ciotti (education), Philippe de Villiers (culture), Robert Ménard (communication), Valérie Boyer (social affairs), Geoffroy Didier (immigration and integration), Lydia Guirous (cities/youth and sports), David Rachline (government spokesman)…

With Marine’s election and such a government in place, the FN would go into the June legislative elections with a head of steam. Given the fragmentation of the political field—with candidates of LR-UDI, the PS, La France Insoumise/PCF, and whatever remains of En Marche!—the number of triangulaires would be exceptionally high, particularly if the turnout is likewise (reaching, say, 70%). Withdrawal accords between FN and pro-FN LR candidates would almost certainly guarantee an RBM majority in the National Assembly. And the rest would be history. Marine Le Pen and the FN would rule France for the next five years. And there’s not a thing the left or anyone else could do about it.

This would be a disaster, needless to say. Marine Le Pen is Donald Trump without the crazy, as James Traub pithily put it, and which thus makes her more dangerous. She knows exactly where she wants to take France and, as president of the republic and with a legislative majority, would have more instruments at her disposal than does Trump in the US, as there are fewer checks on executive power in France hors cohabitation. And her government, such as hypothesized above, would not be made up of kooks and whack jobs à la Trump but rather of seasoned political pros. I will speculate at a later date as to what Marine would do in her first few months in power but, trust me, it would be bad. Very very bad.

The one candidate who can most certainly beat Marine, and handily, is Emmanuel Macron. I’m a little unsettled about him at the moment—I think he’s making some mistakes—but have to hope that his campaign does not falter in the coming two months, that he finishes strongly, and moves into the 2nd round. The fate of the republic may depend on it.

The Trump regime: week 4

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After the inauguration I had intended to have a post a week on the new regime in Washington, with links to good articles I’d read and maybe a thought or two. But that idea went out the window with the daily deluge on my social media news feeds and the websites I follow, and with everyone obsessed and talking about little else. It’s too much. Trying to keep up with the insanity outre-Atlantique plus the wild-and-crazy presidential campaign in France—in which a heretofore unthinkable outcome can no longer be dismissed out of hand—I am, to borrow from my friend Laurie L., mentally exhausted. We’ve gone from No-Drama Obama to drama all the time. It’s the “fog of Trump,” as FP’s David Rothkopf put it: the chaos of  the new regime is such that you start to follow one crazy thing Trump said or did and maybe plan to write about it, but then, within the day, there’s some crazy new thing that causes you to forget about the previous one.

And since I started writing this post, there was Trump’s press conference… And with his response to questions like this one. Just watch it.

Donald Trump is a despicable human being. And any Trump fan who can watch his response to the Ami magazine reporter and remain a fan is equally despicable.

How long can this go on?

Andrew Sullivan, in a great essay in New York magazine last week, “The madness of King Donald,” concluded with this observation

With someone like [Trump] barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.

One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent — and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you — to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves — to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes. This is what I mean by the idea that we are living through an emergency.

Being ruled by a malignant narcissistic megalomaniac—who barges into your consciousness every hour of the day—can lead one to darkly fantasize about him being terminated with extreme prejudice; and one feels justified in this fantasizing when learning that the unhinged ruler has near unilateral power to launch a nuclear war. Intellectual polymath and dear personal friend Adam Shatz described such fantasies in a post on the LRB blog earlier this week. Adam begins by relating a discussion he had in Paris last summer with an American political scientist friend he called Laxminarayan—not his real name—who expressed the hope that the American “Deep State” would intervene to thwart a looming Trump victory. Hmmm, I wonder who that Laxminarayan could be?…

Speaking for myself, I did write before the election about the Deep State—the military, intelligence, and foreign policy establishment part of it—and my conviction that it would pull out the stops to prevent Trump from winning if such looked possible in the final month of the campaign—though I did not think for an instant that this would—let alone should—happen with the committing of a capital crime. I had in mind leaking Trump’s tax returns or damaging information on his dealings with Russia, that sort of thing. This obviously didn’t happen—or, rather, another sector of the Deep State intervened and in favor of Trump—but looks like it could be underway now.

One wishes the Deep State well in its efforts. But these will absolutely not involve assassination. Call me naïve but I consider it inconceivable that even a rogue faction inside the USG would try to commit such an act, as, entre autres, it would be too complicated to successfully pull off, the plotters would all be arrested, and, in the end, administered lethal injections at the USP Terre Haute. Conspiracies do happen but, in countries with a semblance of democracy and a free press, they’re uncovered sooner or later, and usually sooner. Always. (And yes, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone).

For the first two weeks of the new regime I was, along with a few tens of millions of others, in a state of despair. The Jan. 21st march was exhilarating but mass demos don’t, on their own, change a thing. The fact is, Trump is POTUS for the next four years, his top policy advisers in the White House are outright fascists—and that’s not a word I toss around lightly—the extreme right-wing Republican Party is in the driver’s seat—in Washington and the majority of state governments—and the 2018 midterm elections are not going to change that. The Democrats are in a deep hole, as the NYT’s Timothy Egan reminded us the other day. As one knows, the only way Trump can be terminated is via impeachment/conviction or the invoking of Amendment XXV, Section 4. But the Vichy Republicans are not going to do either: not so long as their party base continues to support Trump. His approval rating may be a historically low 40% for a POTUS after a month in office, but that 40% is of the entire adult population, and the only figure that matters to the Vichy Republicans is of their own voters—and for the moment, that one is in the 80-90% approval range. If that number starts to plummet—to François Hollande levels—then they’ll impeach. But not before.

À propos, a Facebook friend, writing on a comments thread on Trump’s unhinged press conference, had this observation

I think it is extremely important to realize that there are many, many voters in the rural areas who think that Trump is doing a perfectly fine job and who never see anything of the news apart from bits and bobs on Fox News or hear from Limbaugh and Hannity on the radio. (I know these people, I talk to these people, I take them seriously.) I say this because…his confidence and TV-tested delivery appeal to millions of voters, and when excerpted and framed by right-wing news outlets, he looks just fine to those people…

And those people don’t give a shit what liberals, Democrats, and Never Trump Republicans like David Brooks think. And their ranks go well beyond hicks in the sticks. Perusing the comments threads of two of my right-leaning, anti-Trump Facebook friends—well-known journalists on that side of the political spectrum, so with several thousand fans, almost all with some kind of university diploma (which is obvious from randomly checking their profiles)—one is left sans voix. To get an idea, take a look at the comments that follow this essay by the well-known conservative-libertarian legal scholar Richard Epstein, in which he calls on Trump to resign. Note that Epstein’s piece was posted on the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas forum, not some loopy website in the alt-right fachosphère. Breathtaking.

NYT journalist Josh Katz had a bone-chilling post earlier this week on The Upshot page, informing us that “Older judges and vacant seats give Trump huge power to shape American courts.” If Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer don’t make it to 2021, the boulevard will be clear for the Republicans to abrogate the Voting Rights Act, destroy the labor movement, dismantle what remains of the welfare state, and deal multiple body blows to constituencies in the Democratic Party base. One-party Republican rule will be locked in for decades. And America will, in effect, cease to be a democracy.

While this apocalyptic scenario is entirely realistic, I have become somewhat less pessimistic of late that it will come to pass. Everyone who didn’t vote for the idiot has been impressed with and gratified by the mass resistance to the new regime. As the very smart and always interesting Yascha Mounk, who teaches in the government department at Harvard, put it in one of his recent columns in Slate

Since Trump got elected, one of my great fears has been that most American citizens might cling to a false sense of security, brought on by decades of prosperity and stability, while the president slowly and surely subverts our democracy. But between Trump’s spectacular assault on democratic norms and the furious response it has already unleashed, I no longer worry about a quiet death. The American republic won’t go down without putting up a hell of a fight.

A third of the American electorate may be fine being ruled by a dictator but the other two-thirds are not fine with it at all. America’s new opposition is robust and will only become more so. It will fight to the bitter end. And then there’s institutional resistance from the states (on this, see, e.g., the article in Politico on how New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman “is emerging as the leader of the Trump resistance.”). And the media, not to mention late-night comedy, will not let Trump go.

In this respect, America cannot be compared to other polities in the Western world where liberal democracy is under assault or has collapsed in the past. Cf. Italy in the 1920s and the Weimar Republic: neither Italy nor Germany had had a long tradition of liberal democracy at the time they descended into dictatorship. The Vichy regime in France could have never happened without the German occupation. Victor Orbán’s Hungary and Poland under the PiS today: neither of these countries had known liberal democracy before the 1990s. Ditto for Russia and Turkey. Moreover, the four aforementioned countries witnessed the decimation of their elites—the multiethnic forces vives of their societies, who would have otherwise constituted the pillars of a liberal order—in the course of the 20th century: by war, genocide, emigration, and/or decades of totalitarian rule. America’s cosmopolitan, liberally minded cultural and intellectual elites are intact. And they’re not going anywhere.

Another cause for relative optimism—or at least not sinking into deep pessimism—is the sheer incompetence of the Trump White House. Trump apart, take the case of Stephen Bannon, who’s seen as some kind of evil genius, who has everything figured out, including the resistance to Trump, which is said to be but another pièce maîtresse in his grand strategy. GMAB! Bannon is a crackpot and a crank. Were it not for the fact that he does, for the moment, hold some institutional power, he would be viewed as a laughable joke. On this, see the post by the Brookings Institution’s Quinta Jurecic on the Lawfare blog, “Bannon in Washington: A report on the incompetence of evil.” And when you’ve read that, check out LA Weekly film critic April Wolfe on “The story behind Steve Bannon’s hilariously terrible movie about the horrors of climate science.” What a nutcase.

The upshot: there is no way a cabal of far right kooks, even ensconced in the White House, will cause the “system” to come crashing down or be able to impose their will. The American republic will survive them.

If one missed it, see the must-read interview with Garry Kasparov in Vox last week. Kasparov, who knows something about life in an authoritarian regime, has pertinent advice for resisting Trump. Entre autres, make him look like a loser and before his fan base. If that image takes hold in l’Amérique profonde, he’s toast.

À la prochaine.

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After the Socialist primary and with Penelopegate—or, rather, Françoisgate—dominating the news. This past week has been the craziest in French politics in I don’t know how long. What is clear: François Fillon, who looked to be an all but shoo-in after his brilliant, amazing victory in November’s LR primary—a victory absolutely no one foresaw even three weeks beforehand—is now toast. Il est mort. And with the French Republican party—the largest in the country, which looked set to govern France for the next five years, following the debacle of François Hollande’s quinquennat—now reeling and in disarray, and eleven weeks before the 1st round of the presidential election. This is a disaster for the French parliamentary right and deeply unsettling for the French political system. Thanks to the venerable Le Canard Enchaîné—the honor of the French press—and the investigative reports in its January 25th and February 1st issues of the egregious nepotism practiced by Fillon over a dozen years, the presidential race has been completely upended—and with the 2007 interview with Penelope Fillon, unearthed by France 2 last Thursday (watch here), looking to be the coup de grâce. And if not, the latest revelation, this in today’s Le Monde, should do it.

Fillon is defiant, first railing on about conspiracies hatched by unnamed cabals and saying that he would quit the race only if magistrates deemed that his nepotistic practices were in violation of the law—which we won’t know for weeks, if not months—then with his press conference this afternoon, in which he apologized to the French people for “errors” committed in the past regarding the employment of his family, though which was entirely legal. But whether or not the nepotism was, in fact, legal—which it may possibly have been—it doesn’t matter. Fillon’s sober, upright, squeaky clean image—a man of integrity and probity: one of his big selling points—has been shattered—and with voters of his own party, not to mention the larger electorate. Seriously: how can one call for belt-tightening and budgetary blood, sweat, and tears when one has been revealed to have shamelessly enriched one’s own family—i.e. oneself—at taxpayer expense? I don’t see how Fillon recovers from this. If he maintains his candidacy—and only he can decide to renounce, which he appears determined not to do—he will most certainly be eliminated in the 1st round on April 23rd—and the latest polls are already projecting this (here and here). Most LR voters will, out of partisan loyalty, vote for him—and an IFOP-JDD poll out yesterday shows 64% of those voters continuing to support his candidacy—but enough will defect—to Marine Le Pen, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, or Emmanuel Macron—nullify their ballots, or stay home, thus killing his chances.

What is striking in this affair is Fillon’s cluelessness. Though he sounded contrite at his press conference, he manifestly did not understand even ten days after the affair broke that politicians can’t get away with this kind of thing anymore. Political mores in France are no longer what they used to be. Until recently politicians would explain away such corruption as a natural product of France being a “Latin country”—as opposed to an “Anglo-Saxon” or “Nordic” one (and, as I have noted over the years, people really do believe these cultural clichés). As a politician of the right once said in waving off affairs of corruption, “si la France était la Suède, ça se saurait” (if France were Sweden, we would know it). I remember listening on the radio, back in the ’90s, to the conservative journalist Philippe Tesson justifying the time-honored practice of government ministers annually receiving, as a perk, thick envelopes of public cash, with which they could do whatever they pleased and with no accountability. Autre temps, autres mœurs.

The drama for the LR party—whose leadership, looking into the electoral abyss, has been desperately hoping that Fillon would withdraw his candidacy—is that it has no procedure for selecting a new candidate. It’s too late to organize another primary, that’s a certainty. But what legitimacy would a candidate designated à la va-vite by the party’s Political Bureau or National Council carry in the eyes of the party membership? And who would that candidate be? Primary runner-up Alain Juppé has ruled himself out, which is a good thing. The conservative LR base doesn’t want him, which is why he was buried in a landslide by Fillon in the primary’s 2nd round. Making the loser the winner won’t fly. And in a field of candidates born in the 1960s and ’70s, Juppé would look out of place. His moment has passed. Nicolas Sarkozy? LOL.

That leaves the younger generation. François Baroin would seem a good compromise choice except for the bad blood between him and Juppé, and though he’s a well-spoken, eternally boyish-looking 51-years-old, has been in politics for so long that he seems old and, moreover, has no demonstrated appeal outside the core LR electorate. And his poll numbers aren’t too good: +24/-36 favorable/unfavorable in the latest IPSOS baromètre politique, and with 40% having no opinion of him. Il ne marque évidemment pas les esprits. Xavier Bertrand wouldn’t be bad but, like Baroin, lacks notoriety and is probably too moderate and gauche-friendly for many LR voters. Laurent Wauquiez: too right-wing. C’est un vrai réac celui-là. Valérie Pécresse: she could have a certain appeal but, frankly, I can’t see her being it. And her IPSOS fave/unfave rating, presently at +25/-45, is also not brilliant. Senate president and filloniste Gérard Larcher’s name has been advanced. Problem: if he were to walk through the Forum des Halles, down the Canebière, or across the Place Bellecour, most people wouldn’t recognize him. Just as most people don’t know what his voice sounds like. He has never been on anyone’s list of présidentiables. His notoriety, or lack thereof, is such that his name doesn’t even figure in the IPSOS baromètre. So scratch that one.

The LR party is in a truly bad situation. Even if Fillon throws in the towel and a replacement candidate is designated by some hasty procedure—and this would have to happen very soon—s/he will have to put together a program and discourse in short order—it can’t and won’t be 100% Fillon’s—and then try sell it to a party base in a state of shock and disarray, not to mention a larger right-of-center electorate so disgusted by LR that a sizable portion of it will have already defected to Macron (or Marine LP). And then, if s/he were to somehow make it to the 2nd round, would have to attract a sufficient number of left voters to defeat Marine. What a calamity. No one has any idea of how this is going to play out.

As for the Socialists, they’re looking in better shape than LR at the moment, which is quite amazing. Benoît Hamon’s victory over Manuel Valls the Sunday before last was as decisive as victories can get—and with participation crossing the 2 million threshold, carried legitimacy. Hamon is the best possible candidate for the PS right now: he’s smart and well-spoken, which was demonstrated in his stellar debate performance of Jan. 25th; is relatively young (age 49) but with a long political career; was a frondeur—i.e. party dissident these past three years—so doesn’t have Hollande’s bilan hanging around his political neck; and best incarnates the current état d’esprit of the PS median voter. A certain number of Valls militants and supporters are defecting to Macron, which is inevitable. But if the polarizing Valls had been the primary victor, the exodus of Hamon voters to other candidates—Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Yannick Jadot, even Macron—would have been greater. Valls was more unacceptable to Hamon supporters—and which includes those who voted for Arnaud Montebourg and Vincent Peillon—than vice-versa. E.g. Valls’ authoritarian, intransigent laïcité de combat discourse—and demagoguery on the issue against Hamon—so repulsed many PS and other left voters (myself included) that they would not have voted for him under almost any circumstance.

And then there’s an issue that may seem secondary but is actually significant, both symbolically and practically, which is the legalization of cannabis. France has been way behind the curve on this compared to other European countries (and also the US), for reasons I have not entirely comprehended. The right but also the PS has refused to even debate the question of decriminalizing cannabis and other soft drugs, maintaining a repressive posture from another era that, entre autres, diverts law enforcement and the judicial system in a hugely expensive and time-wasting endeavor that is doomed to failure. Hamon and others on the left and center—including Mélenchon and Macron—now advocate legalization, but not Valls. The latter’s tough guy, Sarkozy-like posture just doesn’t fly on the left and it’s hard to see where he goes politically from here. The future of the French Socialist Party—or what remains of it after this election cycle—is with Benoît Hamon and those who have rallied to him.

As for Hamon’s signature issue, the revenu universel—that the right, center, and Valls-supporting Socialists dismiss as harebrained pie-in-the-sky—I said last time that I don’t pay much attention to Santa Claus-type promises from presidential candidates. As for whether or not the revenu universel is realistic, I don’t know and have neither the time nor interest in delving into the issue to find out, though I do note that brilliant, high-profile economists, such as Daniel Cohen and Thomas Piketty, have endorsed some form of what Hamon is advocating. What is important with grandiose proposals such as the revenu universel—which may sound unrealistic (one thinks of Bernie Sanders and single-payer health care or tuition-free college)—is not that they will necessarily see the light of day right away—Hamon, in the most unlikely event he were elected president of the republic and obtained a legislative majority, would certainly compromise on his scheme or scale it back—but rather express the candidate’s world-view and point in the direction s/he wants to take the country. (BTW and for the record, Hamon is much more akin to Bernie than he is to Jeremy Corbyn; the latter’s French kindred spirit is Mélenchon).

Left voters are clearly happy with Hamon’s victory, in view of the sharp spike in his poll numbers. The Cevipof-IPSOS-Sopra Steria-Le Monde mega poll of mid-January had him at 7% in the event he were the PS candidate. He’s now as high as 18%—in fourth place, just behind Macron and Fillon—and with his favorable numbers way up. It’s clear that Hamon is taking votes from Mélenchon; such is reflected not only in the latter’s significant polling drop—down to 9-10%—but is also what I’ve been hearing from people. Hamon is an attractive alternative for leftist voters otherwise furious at the Socialists’ record in power over the past five years but doubtful over JLM’s ability to reach the 2nd round, let alone win (and the mere thought of a Marine LP-Mélenchon run-off—a scenario out of the Twilight Zone—is enough to strike terror and sleepless nights in persons like myself). JLM may be running a good campaign and, with his hologram, packing the meeting halls but, as I’ve said many times, there is a ceiling to his support, of 14% of the electorate max. And I will wager here and now that he will not match his 11.1% score of 2012. As for Hamon’s score: if the écolo Jadot withdraws his candidacy and throws his support to Hamon, it is not totally out of the question that he could finish third. Making it to the 2nd round is another matter. I doubt anyone in the PS thinks that one is realistic.

The candidate best situated to make it to the 2nd and face Marine LP—and her qualification is, at this point, an all but foregone conclusion—is Emmanuel Macron. Those of my general political parti pris are, in any case, crossing their fingers that Macron makes it. He has taken off in the polls, as one is likely aware, and, with the Fillon debacle, is a serious contender to be elected president of the republic. I watched part of his speech at the big rally in Lyon on Saturday—streamed live online (thanks to Art Goldhammer for posting the site on social media)—which went for an hour and forty minutes. Monsieur Macron has a lot to say. He made sure to cover all the bases and press all the buttons in his catch-all appeal to voters spanning the center-left to the center-right. There was something in it for everyone—and nothing major that would turn anyone off—in that sizable segment of the political spectrum he seeks to occupy. It was the first time I’ve watched him speak at length. Mediapart’s Mathieu Magnaudeix called his tone that of a “drowsy televangelist.” He sounded good to me, and the crowd at the overflowing arena clearly felt likewise. He has yet to reveal his detailed program but the outline, indeed much of the content, is clear. He’s a social-libéral on the economy and a North American-style liberal on questions de société. On my personal litmus tests—laïcité, migrants and immigration, depenalization of cannabis—he passes. And he’s pro-Europe. His invitation to American scientists fleeing the Trump regime is also appreciated.

Lefties—including personal friends and family members—are bashing Macron, labeling him a right-winger, an ultra-libéral—a grievous insult for French gauchistes—and purveyor of an “Uberized” economy, entre autres. This is excessive, IMO, if not downright silly. One promise I find in the prospect of a Macron presidency is in an area in which he has so far not expressed himself, which is introducing a measure of proportional representation in legislative elections, of perhaps even half the seats in the National Assembly. Small parties are for it, the big ones—PS and LR—against, and as Macron is not of the latter, he has no a priori reason not to favor such a change. François Bayrou, who will announce by mid month whether or not he’ll jump in the race, has long advocated a dose of PR. Bayrou has been critical of Macron but implicitly left the door open to him in an interview late last month on France Inter. If Macron incorporates PR into his program, it could prompt Bayrou—who is polling in the mid single digits—not to run and to endorse Macron, which would increase ever more the latter’s chances of making it to the 2nd round. And if Macron were to hint that he would appoint Bayrou prime minister—which would be entirely logical—that could clinch the deal with a lot of people. This is admittedly idle speculation on my part. On verra.

I’ll have a post on Macron’s program when he fully releases it. In the meantime, he is sure to become an increasing target of Russian dirty tricks and no doubt from the Stephen Bannon White House too. As both the Putin and Trump regimes want to see Marine Le Pen in the Élysée, Macron sera l’homme à abattre

As for Marine—who released her dystopian, Trumpian campaign platform yesterday—I’m not going to talk about her right now, except to say two things.

First, as mentioned above, she is all but certain to make it to the 2nd round and, if current polling holds, finish in first place, with up to 25%, even more. She has her own potential scandals—plus real ones—but, as a populist candidate, they’re not affecting her standing in the polls. Her supporters, like Trump’s outre-Atlantique, don’t care. And insofar as many of them get their information from the fachosphère (French alt-right)—and the FN has a sophisticated internet operation, with troll armies and all—they will dismiss what is reported in the soi-disant mainstream media. Moreover, Marine appears to be attracting increasing interest among voters in social categories that have heretofore been allergic to the extreme right, such as Muslims, domiens, young people, and seniors.

Second, I have been dismissive of MLP’s chances of winning the presidency, on account of her disastrous favorable/unfavorable numbers: +23/-71 in the IPSOS baromètre, signifying that in order for her to win, a lot of people, mainly on the left, who hate her would nonetheless have to vote for her. And while I will continue to insist that the prospect of her winning is minimal, I no longer categorically rule it out. These are crazy times and with populism on the march. France will likely be saved by its electoral system—a victorious presidential candidate needs 50.01% of the vote, and participation rates in the 2nd round are always high: with a single, unique exception, it has never dropped below 79% in a presidential election—but given the discredit of the parties of government, particularly the PS, and the Fillon debacle, all sorts of scenarios can be credibly envisaged, even those considered outlandish two months ago. If Macron runs into trouble, then I will get worried. This election is wide open.

À suivre.

Emmanuel Macron, Lyon, 4 February 2017

Emmanuel Macron, Lyon, 4 February 2017

The French Socialist primary

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I would have normally had at least two or three posts on this by now but as I was in the US for 2½ weeks until last weekend, I didn’t catch any of the three pre-1st round debates—sure, I could have watched them en différé online but didn’t—and was admittedly not following French politics too closely while stateside, what with the unbelievable political nightmare unfolding outre-Atlantique and that naturally dominated political discussion in my entourage there. Also, it didn’t seem to be hugely important—unlike last November’s primary of the right and center—as there is not a soul in France and Navarre who thinks that the PS primary winner has a snowball’s chance in hell of even making it to the 2nd round of the presidential election, let alone winning it (and the participation rate would tend to bear this out: some 1.6 million voters on Sunday, compared to 2.6 in the 2011 PS primary 1st round and 4.3 in the right’s one in November). I did, however, get back to France in time to vote in the primary’s first ballot—disclosure: for Benoît Hamon, sans état d’âme—and watch Wednesday’s debate between the top two finishers Hamon and Manuel Valls, who will square off in the 2nd round on Sunday. Three brief comments.

First, it is labeled the primary of “La Belle Alliance Populaire” (BAP), signifying that it was open to all comers on the left—including Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron—but this was a joke. There was not a chance that these two gentlemen were going to participate in an exercise organized by the Rue de Solférino and with the strings pulled by PS First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis (a.k.a. Camba), who gives the word “apparatchik” a bad name. It was a Socialist Party primary, point barre, with candidates who could have fostered discordance and semer la zizanie in the debates—e.g. la trés gauchiste Gérard Filoche and Pierre Larrouturrou, the latter of the minuscule but intriguing Nouvelle Donne—ruled ineligible by Camba even before they could submit their qualifying signatures. The non-PS candidates who were allowed to participate were there strictly pour la figuration: François de Rugy and Jean-Luc Bennahmias—both former EELV members now with their own microscopic écolo groupuscules no one can remember the names of (and with Bennahmias being a drôle de zigoto to boot)—and Sylvia Pinel, who presently heads the diminutive, centrist Parti Radical de Gauche, holds a ministerial post in the current government that everyone needs to Google to remember what it is, and who is mainly distinguished for saying nothing whatever of interest when speaking before a microphone. The Socialists were nonetheless desperate to have her run in the BAP primary, as they absolutely needed a woman. Six mecs et pas une seule nana: l’image aurait été dévastatrice pour le premier parti de la gauche…

It appeared from the moment François Hollande threw in the towel in December that the primary would pit Valls—on the right end of the PS—against Arnaud Montebourg on the left, and with the former having the edge. I evoked back then the prospect of a dark horse, who did indeed emerge in the person of frondeur Hamon. As for Vincent Peillon, he could have been an interesting competitor to Montebourg but his candidacy was unexpected—he announced out of the blue four days before the December 15th deadline—and, as he had faded from public view since leaving the government in 2014, never got off the ground. I didn’t take Hamon extremely seriously until his appearance on France 2’s semimonthly two-hour political interview show ‘L’Émission Politique’ on December 8th, in which he impressed everyone who saw it (I didn’t). He took off from that moment and I started to predict that he would overtake the eternal gadfly Montebourg to face off against Valls in the 2nd round, and that he did. It was indeed an almost foregone conclusion by the day of the 1st round that Hamon would finish in first place.

Second, the BAP primary, as everyone knows, is less about selecting the strongest Socialist candidate for the presidential election—as the PS is all but hors course for this—but rather the person who will lead the party for the next five years—or what remains of it after the shipwreck of Hollande’s quinquennat. Not only is the PS looking at a rout on April 23rd but risks emerging from the June legislative elections with a parliamentary group resembling the one after the 1993 wipe-out, when it was reduced to 56 deputies (out of 577) in the National Assembly. The party is deeply divided, between a social-libéral, productivist, militantly républicain wing led by tough guy Valls and a more leftist, anti-libéral écolo-friendly one—now represented by Hamon—but that is less sécuritaire and with a more liberal conception of laïcité. For the latter alone I lean in that direction. As Valls has become radioactive for large numbers of PS voters—personally, I can’t stand him—the prospect of him leading a post-election PS—again, what remains of it—would almost guarantee either a formal split in the party or sizable defections to Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. The crisis in the left would worsen. So better to go with Hamon.

As for my own vote for Hamon, it’s strategic. My intention at this date is to vote for Emmanuel Macron in the 1st round on April 23rd. I did not take Macron’s candidacy seriously at all until his mega rally at the Palais des Sports on December 10th (which I was going to attend—just to go—but couldn’t make it to). A 39-year-old presidential candidate who has never run for public office and with no party behind him, ça prête à sourire. But the success of his Paris rally—before a packed arena of at least 12,000—changed everything, and particularly as he’s been repeating the feat at every rally he’s held since then, drawing unprecedented crowds in places like Nevers, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, and elsewhere in the French heartland (Marine Le Pen, by contrast, held her big 2012 Paris rally at the Zénith, which seats but 6,300). And this is being reflected in his rising poll numbers. I’ll have more about Macron at a later date but suffice to say now that he is presently occupying a wide space in the center of the political spectrum, spanning the center-left to center-right. And he has a general discourse that I find congenial: social-libéral but liberal in the North American sense on questions de société and laïcité. And he’s pro-Europe. As the prospect of a Marine Le Pen-François Fillon 2nd round is looking increasingly unpalatable—though Fillon is now in deep trouble on account of Penelopegate—Macron is presently the only candidate, according to the polls, who can knock one of these two out. And then win.

If Valls were to be the PS candidate, his social-libéralisme would complicate matters for Macron. But with Hamon the candidate, many Valls voters will likely go to Macron. Hamon widens the space for Macron while at the same time reducing that of Mélenchon, from whom he will likely take voters. D’une pierre deux coups. Thus my strategic choice for Hamon.

Third comment, on Wednesday’s debate between Hamon and Valls. I’m always impressed with French political debates, as the politicians are so articulate and in command of the issues. They all sound like Hillary Clinton discussing policy—and make US Republicans look like the bumbling, gaffe-prone nitwits they are. Hamon-Valls was, however, the best I’ve seen in a long while. It was a superb debate. Valls was good and less aggressive than expected. But Hamon was downright excellent. It was the first time I’d seen him at any length and was suitably impressed. He killed it. Now I’m talking here about form, which, in a high-stakes debate, is more important than substance. Hardly anyone remembers the details of policy proposals or dwells on inconsistencies. It’s the overall impression that counts. Hamon was extremely articulate, demonstrated mastery of the issues, was fast on his feet, adopted the right tone, and never missed a beat. He simply came across very well (one may see the whole debate here, beginning at around 29:00). As for his proposal on the revenu universel and whether or not this is realistic, who cares? Personally speaking, I discount grandiose promises made by candidates early in a campaign and that need to be financed. The more a promise will cost the taxpayer and impact on the budget, the less I take it seriously. In any case, Hamon’s performance has made victory in this coming Sunday’s 2nd round an all but done deal.

I’ll have more to say about this next week. In the meantime, if one missed Arthur Goldhammer’s posts on the primary—and Art and I have been exchanging views on this via social media—go here and here.

À la prochaine.

My America

Washington, January 21st 2017 {photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Washington, January 21st 2017 {photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

I arrived back in France yesterday after two weeks in the US, chez la famille in North Carolina and with visits to Washington coming and going. I was in DC on Saturday and participated bien évidemment in the Women’s March—which was, of course, a march for everyone, a march of citizens resolutely opposed to the new tenant in the White House and all that he and his extreme right-wing party—now in control of two of the three branches of government (and soon the third)—represent—not to mention to what he and they say they want to do now that they have been blessed with the divine surprise of November 8th. The march was exhilarating. It was clear beforehand that it would be huge, and it was. In my social milieu everyone planned to participate, in Washington or, if they couldn’t make the trip, the cities where they live. Everyone has seen images of the event, and just about everyone who was there took photos on their smartphones. I took a few dozen, which I’ve put in an album that may be viewed here. And, if one somehow missed it, I was interviewed on France 24 on the Mall (video here).

America is a deeply divided society, as one knows, more so than France nowadays. I feel no connection to or affinity with that part of America that voted for Trump. I have nothing to do with those people. And they have and want nothing to do with people like me. For them, I and just about everyone I know are, if not the enemy, the Other. Those who participated in Saturday’s marches—in person or in spirit—are the Americans with whom I identify. This is my America. And I felt this viscerally the Sunday before last, at a rally of some two hundred people in Raleigh NC to defend the Affordable Care Act. I took a few pics of this, which may be viewed here. L’Amérique progressiste et ouverte. L’Amérique qu’on aime. Mon Amérique.

I spent five days in Washington on my arrival in the US two weeks before D-Day, visiting with friends, old and newer. The political catastrophe that has befallen America—and the world—was, of course, a major topic of discussion.The DC friends I saw work for NGOs, labor unions, think tanks, are federal civil servants (at the Justice Department and the Pentagon), academics and scholars, social workers, lawyers… Everyone said the same thing: they were devastated by the election result, could not wrap their heads around the imminence of the unspeakable one’s accession to the presidency, had no idea what was going to happen, and feared the worst. And this was the view of everyone they knew. And now that the unthinkable has happened—with the unspeakable person now in the White House—the worst is underway.

À suivre, malheureusement.

Voyage to Algeria

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This is a post that should have gone up six months ago. Better late than never. I spent two weeks in Algeria last May-June, my first trip there in twenty-five years. I had originally intended to write a lengthy commentary on my impressions of the country after such a long absence; in lieu of that, I will simply link to two albums of photos I took (N.B. the above pic is not mine). The first album here is of Algiers and environs, where I spent most of the two weeks. The second here is of a three-day road trip I took with my friend Hacene, who lives in the Paris area but happened to be in Algeria when I was there—he’s an Algiers native and has an entrepreneurial activity there—and informed me that he was going to take me out east, to show me a part of Algeria I didn’t know. So we went to Constantine (not my first time there), then to Batna, in the Aurès, where we spent the night, and then the next day to nearby Timgad, which has to be the least visited large Roman ruin on the African continent (and to which Carthage does not hold a candle). From there we headed to Biskra via the secondary route, past the Balcons de Ghoufi—the Ghoufi canyon—which, again, has to be one of the more spectacular natural sites that practically no one has seen, as Algeria has never encouraged tourism and has no tourist infrastructure to speak of. Even Hacene, who did part of his military service in Batna in the 1970s, had never been to the Ghoufi canyon. To go there one needs a car but also for it to be a destination.

From Biskra, where we spent the night, we headed back to Algiers along the edge of the Sahara, stopping in Tolga—which is one of the larger palm groves in the country—and then via the High Plateau, briefly stopping in Bou Saâda. I’ve added legends to the photos, which may be seen in small print on the bottom or in clicking on the info icon on the top right.

I have much to say about Algeria, of course, but will limit myself here to five short comments. First, the country is safe. And it feels so. The security forces are everywhere. Their presence in no way feels sinister or oppressive (as was, e.g., the case in Syria on my visits there in years past). They’re there to protect the population. And the state, of course.

Second—and in this vein—Algeria is politically stable (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). There is little to no prospect, in the foreseeable future at least, that the country will witness state collapse or descend once again into the civil strife and violence such as it experienced in the 1990s. Algerians are traumatized by that decade—which they call “the years of terrorism,” during which 40 to 60,000 persons suffered violent death—and are not about to repeat the experience. The society is conservative and religiously pious but there is no threat from jihadist or other extremist groups, which—apart from armed bands in the desert and other remote areas—have been smashed or brought to heel. In this respect, the situations in Tunisia and Morocco—with the sizable numbers of jihadists returning from the Middle East—are more preoccupying. When Algeria’s current president finally passes away, an orderly succession will be organized. And life will go on.

Third, the status of women has evolved significantly since my time in the country in the late 1980s-early 1990s and for the better. Women are present in public space in a way they weren’t in the past, and not just in the capital but in the interior of the country as well (e.g. even in Batna one sees groups of women in outdoor cafés, which was inconceivable two decades ago). And while the great majority cover their hair and wear some kind of hijab (in gay colors)—but with a visible minority in Algiers not veiling—the haïk (face veil) has all but disappeared and the somber black salafist jilbab is a rarity. And old codes of honor in regard to the virginity of women at marriage are a thing of the past for much of urban society.

Fourth, the country remains totally dependent on rentier income from hydrocarbon (oil and natural gas) exports. There is no economic dynamic otherwise, despite significant liberalization and dismantling of public enterprises. But while there’s the usual corruption a sizable portion of the rent finds its way to the population at large. There is no grinding poverty in Algeria such as one sees in Morocco. And the entire country appears to be a construction site. There are chantiers everywhere, even in hamlets in the middle of nowhere. Also, the country’s catastrophic water shortages are a distant memory. The water flows in fountains in Algiers, something one did not see way back when.

Fifth, there has been a marked decline in the French language. When I lived in Algiers in 1989-90, practically everyone spoke French at some level, and with many speaking it fluently. Algeria was the most Francophone country in the world where French was not the native language of the population. One did not need to speak Arabic at all to communicate with people, in Algiers, Oran, and other large cities at least (and in the Kabylie of course). Such is no longer the case. The younger generation—which, for me, means those under age 45—no longer speaks French with any degree of proficiency, and particularly in the interior of country. But somewhat paradoxically, French is much more visible than in the past. From the 1970s through the ’90s—when the language issue was highly politicized, of Arabophones vs. Francophones—French was largely proscribed in signage and advertising (such as this existed in the era of  “specific socialism”). But that ended when Abdelaziz Bouteflika—an unrepentant Francophone—acceded to the presidency in 1999. So all stores now have bilingual signs, even in places like Biskra, where hardly anyone actually speaks French.

There is much more to say about all of this. I’ll come back to the subject at a future date.

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