Archive for the ‘France: politics 2012-16’ Category

Protest at the French embassy, London, August 25th (photo credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Protest at the French embassy, London, August 25th
(photo credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

It is now mid September and the burkini brouhaha, which had France in a state of hysteria the entire month of August, has yet to abate. The story doesn’t end, in large part because it’s about much more than the burkini. The brouhaha over this banal article of clothing is merely the latest installment in the never-ending obsession in France over the visibility of Islam and public display of religious identity by a minority of French Muslims—and with the very real threat of terrorism by Muslims fueling public fear and anxiety, and offering irresistible temptations for demagogic politicians to capitalize on this.

The reaction outside of France as to what’s happening here is also attracting attention, notably the New York Times article of September 2nd that gave voice to hijab-wearing Muslim women in France and Belgium, and that the Times had the excellent idea to translate into French, guaranteeing that it would be widely read in France. And it was, getting under a lot of peoples’ skins in the process, including that of PM Manuel Valls—a warrior for laïcité de combat who wants the burkini banned—who felt compelled to respond to the NYT, penning a piece in Le Huffington Post (September 5th)—translated into English under the title “In France, women are free“—which, in turn, provoked a rejoinder from the NYT but also from Le Monde, which referred to Valls’s “charge bancale” (shaky accusation) against the Times.

Then, last Tuesday, Libération’s Brussels correspondant Jean Quatremer unleashed a diatribe on his Libé blog against the reaction of the “Anglo-Saxons” to the burkini affair, “Burkini, voile: les racines religieuses des leçons de ‘tolérance’ anglo-saxonne,” which was followed on Wednesday morning by France Inter’s political analyst Thomas Legrand, whose daily political editorial was consecrated to the apparent “Anglo-Saxon” incomprehension of French-style laïcité: “Laïcité, la France et les Etats-Unis ne se comprennent pas.” (Oh, how nice it would be if the French could cease talking about “les Anglo-Saxons,” of reflexively throwing the United States and Great Britain—two countries that differ on a myriad of domains—into the same sack, and then seeing them as a repoussoir…).

Now Messrs. Quatremer and Legrand so happen to be among my favorite French journalists and for many years now: Quatremer for his excellent reporting on the European Union, plus other things (e.g. he was one of the first journalists to call out DSK for his unacceptable behavior toward women and denounce the omertà of his colleagues in the media on the matter); Legrand for his brilliant analyses of French politics, with which I am in full agreement 98.5% of the time. I listen to his three-minute “édito politique” every weekday morning at 7:45, and if I’m still in my beauty sleep at that moment, I catch up with it on the France Inter web site. When it comes to analyzing French politics, Legrand is the best. Point barre. These two gentlemen are my heros in French journalism. So understand my dismay in reading/listening to their above mentioned back-to-back commentaries, which were quite simply awful. Legrand’s was the worst I’ve ever heard by him and Quatremer’s was ten times worse than that. It was a disaster. As we are Facebook friends, I informed him on his comments thread last Wednesday that he was “à côté de la plaque,” “[qu’il s’est trompé] de A à Z,” and that I would take apart his piece point by point. We had a good exchange—he didn’t seem ruffled by my bad humor (though some of his FB friends were)—with me promising to respond to him at length on my blog, and him saying he looked forward to that (je lui ai dit que j’allais le faire en français, même si ça me prendrais plus de temps, mais il m’a dit qu’il n’y avait pas de problème si j’écrivais en anglais, donc j’ai mélangé les deux).

So here it is, followed by my critique of Legrand’s editorial. N.B. I write here in a fraternal spirit, as my admiration for these two gentlemen and their journalism is in no way diminished by their commentaries on this one question.

M. Quatremer writes: 

Ne nous y trompons pas : le débat va bien au-delà de la place de la religion musulmane (dans sa version islamiste) en France, les critiques étant tout aussi virulentes à l’égard de la politique française à l’égard des sectes, aucun Anglo-saxon ne comprenant pourquoi l’Église de scientologie, pour ne citer qu’elle, n’est pas reconnue comme une Église comme une autre.

M. Quatremer, you are laboring under some misconceptions here. En effet, ce que vous dites est sans fondement. First, on the Church of Scientology, with which I have been personally familiar since precisely 1973 (as Scientologists used to proselytize in public in my Chicago suburb and, in my adolescent naïveté, I would engage them in conversation): I have never—not once, ever, not a single time in my now long life—heard about an American—let alone met one—who considered the Scientologists to be anything other than a bizarre cult (en français, une secte bizarre). I guarantee you that no American who is not him or herself a Scientologist—or maybe a friend of Tom Cruise or John Travolta—considers this “church” to be a legitimate religion comme les autres. Everyone views it as a cult (une secte). When I tell my American students in Paris—niveau bac+2, en France pour un semestre d’études—about the French campaign against the Scientologists—which I have occasion to do when teaching the subject of laïcité à la française—not one expresses disapproval of the French attitude. And they all think the Scientologists are a weird cult.

So why are the Scientologists considered a religion in the US and with the US government scolding the French and Germans for their anti-Scientology campaigns? There’s a story to this. First, the one organ of the American state that may formally accord the status of a religion to a group claiming this what it is is the Internal Revenue Service (le fisc fédéral). Organized religions (les cultes) in the US have tax-exempt status, which only the IRS can accord. From the founding of the Church of Scientology until 1993, the IRS rejected the Scientologists’ repeated requests for tax-exempt status, insisting—correctly—that this so-called church was in reality a profit-making enterprise. So what the Scientologists—who are not nice people—did was to initiate an underhanded campaign of intimidation against the agents of the IRS who were handling the Scientology dossier. Ils ont lancé une guerre d’usure contre le fisc. And as the Scientologists had a lot of money—with all the Hollywood stars and other rich people they had succeeded in indoctrinating—they could and did intimidate the press and anyone else who stood in their way, via lawsuits and outright personal harassment (and engaging highly-paid lawyers when hit with lawsuits themselves). Pour avoir la paix, the IRS, in 1993, threw in the towel—il a jeté l’éponge—and gave the Scientologists the tax-exemption they had sought (it is also possible—and this is pure speculation on my part—that there may have been some quiet lobbying of the Clinton administration by personalities in the motion picture industry toward this end, with Hollywood having had close ties to both Clinton’s entourage and the Scientologists; for more on all this, see the lengthy 1997 enquête in The New York Times).

The second part of the story is the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which was cooked up by the Republican-controlled Congress of the time, enacted with a veto-proof majority, and signed into law by President Clinton. The Act made the promotion of religious freedom an objective of US foreign policy and, entre autres, obligated the State Department to submit an annual report to Congress on the state of religious freedom in every country in the world. So in conformity with the law, the US embassy in Paris has reported annually to its hierarchical superiors in Washington on the state of religious freedom in France—and noting the status in France of the Church of Scientology, recognized as a religion in the US—which the State Department has dutifully noted in turn in its obligatory report, and with the US government—conforming to the law—expressing its pro forma concerns on the matter to the French government. And with the French government taking the American letter of concern and throwing it in the poubelle—and with no one saying anything more about it.

I guarantee you, M. Quatremer, that no one in Washington or at the embassy in Paris could have cared less about the anti-Scientology lawsuits in France or the French state considering the Scientologists to be a profit-making enterprise and not a religion.

As for “virulent” critiques of France’s policy toward sectes (i.e. cults), from whom? Who has been “virulent” about this? Do you have any examples?

Again, M. Quatremer, I guarantee you that no one in Washington, London, or anywhere else in the “Anglo-Saxon” world, who is not him or herself a member of a secte, cares what happens in France on this score.

En France, les défenseurs du droit des femmes musulmanes intégristes à couvrir leur corps à la plage ou ailleurs

M. Quatremer, serait-il possible d’éviter le mot “intégriste” quand vous parlez de l’islam? Ce terme est polémique et péjoratif, et qui ne veut rien dire en ce qui concerne l’islam. Aucun spécialiste—universitaire ou journalistique—de l’islam ou des musulmans ne le utilise. Et il ne se traduit même pas en anglais (par ex., “intégrisme catholique”—which is the only legitimate use of the term—is called “Catholic traditionalism” in English).

As for Muslim (and other) women having the right to cover their bodies on the beach and elsewhere, well, that is their right, is it not? I mean, France is not only a free country but also a civilized one, which is not going to tell women what clothes they may or may or not wear when they venture out of their homes. Et on ne va certainement pas les obliger à exposer des parties de leur corps sur la plage qu’elles n’ont pas envie d’exposer. N’est-ce pas? One certainly hopes not.

Seriously, this burkini hysteria in France is completely ridiculous. It is an only-in-France affair.

C’est moins le débat sur le burkini ou le voile qui m’intéresse ici que les raisons sous-jacentes aux critiques de la presse anglo-américaine… elle a manifesté là une gigantesque incompréhension de ce qu’est le modèle français

Question: what precisely is this famous “modèle français”? The law of 1905? If this is the model you have in mind, there no “incompréhension” whatever. The 1905 has its specificities but is entirely comprehensible to any “Anglo-Saxon.”

Let us continue:

et les Français qui se sont réjouis de ces critiques n’ont pas mesuré à quel point le modèle britannique et américain est différent du nôtre, un système dont ils ne voudraient par ailleurs à aucun prix : place de la religion, liberté d’expression, relativisme culturel, autant d’éléments qu’il faut prendre en compte si l’on veut comprendre la nature profondément différente du débat en France, en Grande-Bretagne ou aux Etats-Unis.

In point of fact, the American and British “models” of church-state relations differ more from one another than the American does from the French. The United Kingdom has an official church—the Church of England—whereas in the United States of America church and state are separated. As France also separates church and state, the USA and France are on the same side and against the Brits. Les Amérloques sont plus proches aux Frenchies qu’ils ne sont aux Rosbifs… Sérieux!

D’abord, la place qu’occupe la religion dans le monde anglo-saxon est particulière : la laïcité à la française n’y existe tout simplement pas.

Ça c’est vrai. La laïcité à la française ne peut pas exister aux USA ou ailleurs, pour la simple raison qu’elle est française. La laïcité à la française ne peut exister qu’en France, de même que, par ex., la laïcité à la turque (laiklik) ne peut exister qu’en Turquie, et la laïcité à l’américaine (secularism) ne peut exister qu’aux États Unis d’Amérique. Et ainsi de suite. Les relations entre l’État et les cultes sont spécifiques à chaque pays. They are a product of each country’s history and culture.

Certes, l’État est séparé de l’Église, mais en ce sens qu’il est neutre à l’égard des religions, qu’il n’en favorise aucune en particulier. Mais, la religion est partout. Toutes les religions sont autorisées en vertu du premier amendement de 1791 : «le Congrès ne fera aucune loi qui touche l’établissement ou interdise le libre exercice d’une religion».

Religion is indeed more present in the USA, as is the overall level of religiosity in American society. But this is cultural. It has nothing to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the constitution—which you cite—which defines the relationship between religion and the state. Just as Article 1 of the 1905 law—”La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes sous les seules restrictions édictées ci-après dans l’intérêt de l’ordre public.”—defines the relationship between the French state and religion, though does not speak to society. That French society may be non-practicing or atheist in its majority or, rather, deeply religious—as was the case for a sizable portion of Frenchmen in 1905—is immaterial in regard to the 1905 law. The 1905 law, as with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US constitution, speaks to law, not to culture. And the Establishment Clause and Article 1 of the 1905 law—the bit about “ordre public” aside—are really very similar.

Depuis 1956, la devise officielle est «in god we trust» et elle figure même sur la monnaie américaine.

This has been deemed constitutional, as it refers to god, who is common to all and not to a specific religion. Those who don’t believe in god may, for good reason, object to this. Quant à moi, en tant qu’athée—et depuis ma petite enfance, n’ayant eu aucune instruction religieuse de mes parents (athée et agnostique)—je m’en fous. La devise “In God we trust” est purement symbolique, sans conséquence aucune. Son inscription sur la monnaie me laisse totalement indifférent, comme pour le plus grand nombre d’athées outre-Atlantique. C’est du folklore américain.

Mieux, le président américain prête dans la quasi-totalité des cas serment sur la Bible (mais c’est une pratique non obligatoire).

This is a French classic, à soulever le fait que les présidents américains prêtent serment sur le Bible (quoique cette pratique, comme vous dites, n’est pas obligatoire). À propos, in 2005 I attended a colloquium in Paris, at the Palais de la Justice, on French and American conceptions of laïcité/secularism, with prominent specialists of church-state relations in the USA present, among them the well-known constitutional law professors Sanford Levinson and Marci Hamilton. During the intermission I had the opportunity to ask these two august scholars about the constitutionality of the president swearing the oath of office on the Bible. They both told me that, in their well-considered view, this did indeed violate the letter of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and certainly did its spirit. Voilà. But so long as a citizen did not file a formal lawsuit against a newly elected president doing this, there would be no jurisprudence on the question.

Résultat, même les sectes les plus extrémistes y ont droit de cité (des Mormons de l’Utah aux Amishs, en passant par les Témoins de Jéhovah, les Scientologues, etc).

What precisely is a “secte” (in English, a cult)? Juridically speaking, the term is not defined, either in France or the US. So here’s how I define it: a group calling itself a religion (a) that is small in number, (b) that is led by a guru figure with an all-powerful hold over his faithful, (c) that espouses beliefs that are far removed from the mainstream and are considered bizarre or weird by just about everyone outside the group, (d) in which members disconnect from, or outright sever relations with, persons outside the group, including their families, and (e) where there are severe costs, including threats, against members who wish to leave the group. If one accepts this definition of a cult, the Mormon church—a religion with some 15 million mostly prosperous adherents worldwide—is decidedly not one (as for the Amish, this is an Anabaptist community dating from the 16th century, so please don’t call it a secte; and likewise for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who’ve been around since the 19th century). And none of these three can be qualified as “extremist,” whatever one means by this.

Vous avez certainement entendu la vieille boutade, qu’une religion est une secte qui a réussi…

On compte aux États-Unis plus de 450.000 églises et ce n’est pas demain la veille qu’un président officiellement athée pourra se faire élire.

450,000 churches in the US, a country of 320 million inhabitants? Is that a lot? In France—whose population is one-fifth of the US’s—the number of religious edifices is around 100,000. On an atheist being elected president of the United States, who knows? Ten years ago who could have imagined that a métis—seen in the USA as black—and with a middle name of Hussein could have possibly been elected president? Pas moi. Things don’t happen until they happen.

De toute façon, je parierai qu’il y aura un président athée ou areligieux aux USA avant que la France laïque n’élise un président de la République d’identité musulmane…

À cela s’ajoute le respect absolu de la liberté d’expression, pendant de la liberté religieuse totale : on peut proférer toutes les opinions même les plus extrémistes, qu’elles soient racistes, antisémites, négationnistes, etc. L’existence officielle du KKK et d’autres groupes suprématistes blancs sont là pour le montrer.

On frise la basse polémique ici. Je ne vois pas le rapport entre le KKK, groupes antisémites etc, et la question de la laïcité. M. Quatremer, vous savez pertinemment que la liberté d’expression aux USA est dans le premier amendment de la constitution et que ses paramètres sont définis par les arrêts de la Cour suprême, pas par le législateur. C’est une particularité du système américain. Ça on le sait.

En outre, la société britannique reste une société de classe strictement hiérarchisée où chacun fait ce qui lui plait dans sa classe sociale tant que l’ordre social n’est pas perturbé.

Voilà une caricature d’une autre époque de la société britannique. Ce cliché était exagéré même il y a deux générations—en fait, il a toujours été exagéré—mais en 2016?… Allons.

By the way, do you believe that class consciousness has been less important in France than in Great Britain? Or that the hierarchies in British society are steeper? Academic studies of the question (e.g. this) have, in fact, shown the opposite, that France is a more hierarchically ordered society than Great Britain. Just saying.

Enfin, outre-Manche, tout comme outre-Atlantique, la liberté d’expression y est quasi absolue, héritage de la rupture avec Rome et ses dogmes. Cette liberté a néanmoins ses limites, des limites marquées au coin de la religion : pendant longtemps, l’homosexualité a été durement réprimée (alors que la polygamie des sectes était admise)

Until very recently homosexuality was repressed everywhere, not just outre-Manche et Atlantique. As for polygamy, this has always been illegal in the United States. In this respect, the state of Utah, which was founded by the Mormons, could not be admitted into the union (which it was in 1896) until the Mormon church formally abolished polygamy.

et, comme dans une banale théocratie, les États américains n’hésitent pas à s’inviter dans le lit de leurs citoyens. Ainsi l’Alabama a interdit, jusqu’en 2014, la fellation et la sodomie, même au sein des couples hétérosexuels, la Virginie interdit de faire l’amour en pleine lumière ou encore le Dakota du Sud impose que les hôtels aient des chambres à lits jumeaux séparés de 60 centimètres si le couple réserve pour une seule nuit. Il est même précisé qu’il est formellement interdit de faire l’amour au sol, entre les deux lits… Les lois et pratiques de la plupart des États américains sur les atteintes à la pudeur n’ont rien à envier aux pays musulmans.

M. Quatremer, the United States of America is a big country—the size of a continent—with a large population and a federal system of government. And there are countless jurisdictions, each of which enacts local ordinances (arrêtés municipaux) on all sorts of things. America is a country and society where one finds everything and its opposite. Aux USA, on a tout et son contraire. In America, if you look for it, you will find it. The laws and ordinances you mention were enacted a long time ago—many in the 19th century—and most have been long forgotten. In any case, none of these silly laws in any way affects the lives of the near totality of the American population.

rappelons le scandale du Nipplegate

Ouf. I’d forgotten about that one. So what’s the point?

Allons un peu plus loin et rappelons à nos amis américains que la ségrégation à l’égard des Noirs, peuple fondateur des États-Unis d’Amérique, n’est pas si lointaine – en considérant même qu’elle ait vraiment cessé — et que les États-Unis n’ont pas hésité, il y a 70 ans à enfermer dans des camps tous les Américano-japonais parce que soupçonnés d’être génétiquement des ennemis…

Vous frisez encore la basse polémique. Je ne vois absolument pas le rapport entre la ségrégation raciale du passé, ou le traitement des Japonais-américains pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, et le sujet de départ de votre article. Où voulez-vous en venir?

Par ailleurs, si on veut parler des méfaits des USA du passé, parlons de ceux de la France aussi, par ex., de son histoire coloniale et les massacres qu’elle a commises—particulièrement en Algérie, le pays d’origine de la majorité des musulmans en France—et, tant qu’on y est, l’implication de l’État français dans la déportation des juifs pendant la guerre… Si on veut parler de l’Histoire, parlons de l’Histoire.

Better yet, let’s just stick to the subject at hand.

Si une femme musulmane française voilée affirme sans rire qu’elle est moins bien traitée qu’un chien alors qu’une autre se demande si on ne va l’obliger à «porter une lune pour être reconnue» (heu, ça n’est justement pas le but du voile ?), que pourraient dire les Afro-américains, eux, qui peuplent les geôles américaines et qui n’ont pas intérêt à avoir affaire à la police blanche s’ils ne veulent pas être abattus…

Encore la basse polémique. What do imprisoned Afro-Americans have to do with the personal opinion of one Muslim woman on the way she feels treated in France? Personally speaking, I do not see the connection.

Enfin, rappelons que ce sont les Anglo-américains qui se sont jetés à corps perdu dans des guerres contre des pays musulmans avec les résultats que l’on voit, ce qui accroît le sentiment d’une guerre entre le monde occidental et le monde musulman. Les leçons de tolérance des Américains sont assez étonnantes à l’heure où le candidat républicain, Donald Trump, veut interdire l’accès du territoire aux Musulmans, ce qui est autrement plus grave que quelques interdictions municipales du burkini. Faut-il aussi rappeler que la ville de New York s’est opposée à la construction d’une mosquée à proximité du mémorial du 11 septembre ? Et on n’a guère entendu les Anglo-saxons lorsque tous les pays d’Europe de l’Est ont refusé d’accueillir des réfugiés parce que musulmans. Mais le burkini, voilà une atteinte intolérable aux droits des femmes musulmanes…

M. Quatremer, l’article du New York Times vous a manifestement mis de mauvaise humeur, as you’re throwing everything at it but the kitchen sink (expression américaine): the Iraq war, the Ground Zero mosque, Donald Trump… Ouf!

Allez, none of these have anything to do with the subject of the NYT article.

And by the way, you are mistaken that the ville de New York opposed the Ground Zero mosque. The mayor of the time, Michael Bloomberg, strongly supported the project, as did the Manhattan borough president and many other local elected officials, plus the current mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Il ne s’agit pas de dire que le modèle français est parfait, ce qui n’est manifestement pas le cas, mais qu’il est différent : la liberté d’expression n’est pas totale (diffamation, lois mémorielles, répression du racisme et de l’antisémitisme)

Freedom of expression—a value that I think we are all deeply attached to—is not total anywhere. E.g. the Official Secrets Act in the United Kingdom is far more severe than its equivalent in the US, as are British libel laws. And commercial speech in the US is not protected by the First Amendment. As for lois mémorielles in France, I think these are terrible, as I have written on more than one occasion (if one is interested, see here, here, here, and here).

l’espace public est étroitement réglementé

Qu’est-ce que vous voulez dire par “l’espace public”? La rue? Si oui, vous avez tort, car celle-ci n’est pas étroitement réglementé en France. La France est un pays libre—et heureusement—où les gens peuvent s’habiller en public comme bon leur semble (pourvu qu’ils ne dissimulent pas le visage, bien entendu).

la séparation de l’Église et de l’État est absolue (sauf en Alsace-Moselle)

The Alsace-Moselle exception. Guyane aussi. Ce n’est pas rien. In America, there are no exceptions to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. And in France, there are several domains where the church-state separation is not total, e.g. the state subsidizing confessional schools (Loi Debré)—which is impossible in the United States—and paying for the upkeep of places of worship built before 1905 (provided for in the 1905 law). Some ten years ago, when my daughter was in collège (public) we received a letter informing us of the school’s service d’aumônerie (chaplain services). I was astonished to learn this existed in public schools in laïque France, as such is impossible in public schools in the US, laïcité à l’américaine oblige (and with, par ailleurs, public schools in the US educating a higher percentage of school children [90%] than the public system in France).

And then there’s the Bureau Central des Cultes in the Ministry of Interior. There is no such official interlocutor with organized religion at any level of the American state.

Conclusion: les États-Unis d’Amérique sont, à maints égards, plus laïque que la France. Je ne rigole pas.

l’Église catholique ayant été renvoyée dans ses églises avec une violence dont on n’a pas idée aujourd’hui

Vous exagérez. Le conflit entre les deux France autour de la loi de 1905 était âpre mais le sang n’a pas coulé dans les rues. Je ne crois pas qu’il y ait eu mort d’homme.

Même la langue française a un statut incompréhensible pour le reste du monde (c’est la seule langue admise par la Constitution et une Académie veille à sa pureté)

Many countries in the world have an official language and which is inscribed in its constitution. This is incomprehensible to no one.

Bref, invoquer l’exemple de «tolérance» anglo-américain est donc un non-sens puisqu’il ne se découpe pas en tranche et qu’elle est religieuse. Est-ce de ce modèle dont nous voulons ?

I have no idea what you’re talking about here. And believe me, no one is proposing that France exchange its precious “model” for another.

N.B.: Il y a 7,5 % de musulmans en France, le pays occidental qui en compte le plus, 4,6 % en Grande-Bretagne et 0,8 % aux Etats-Unis. Même s’ils sont à prendre avec d’infinies précautions, ces chiffres de 2011 restent intéressants, car ils montrent aussi la spécificité de la France qui accueille forte communauté non chrétienne.

France has the largest Muslim population in the Western world—in both percentage and absolute number—on account of its colonial past. Some 85-90% of Muslims in France have roots in former French colonies. And France’s complex history with its largest Muslim colony—Algeria—explains at least in part its neurotic relationship with Islam and its present Muslim population. But that’s for another discussion.

Moving on to Thomas Legrand’s editorial (if one is still with me…). It begins with a question by Patrick Cohen, followed by M. Legrand’s response:

Vous revenez sur la polémique entre le New York Times et Manuel Valls à propos de la condition réservée en France aux femmes voilées..

Oui, le quotidien new yorkais a donné la parole à des musulmanes, françaises ou vivant en France. Précisons que ce n’est pas une enquête journalistique mais un appel à témoignage. Ces femmes ont des mots très durs, parlent de ségrégation et dépeignent une société française largement hostile. Manuel Valls a réagi à cet énième portrait d’une France raciste. Il estime que ne pas avoir donné la parole à des Françaises musulmanes qui ne portent pas le voile (l’immense majorité) produit une image déformée de notre pays. Il l’a écrit au journal, qui lui a d’ailleurs répondu. Cet échange entre le 1er Ministre et le NYT montre, encore une fois, le mal que nous avons à faire comprendre à l’étranger notre rapport collectif à la religion. L’idée que l’Etat, ou même la société politique, puisse contester à la religion le droit de vouloir édicter des règles de vie sociale est une idée totalement incomprise, singulièrement dans le monde anglo-saxon.

A couple of remarks. First, if Manuel Valls and other Frenchmen who adhere to his conception of laïcité have a hard time being understood by non-French people, maybe it’s because their arguments are not good. Maybe Valls & Co are trying to defend something—the right of the state to interfere in the decisions of women as to what clothes they may or may not wear—that is, in fact, almost impossible to defend before non-Frenchmen.

What M. Legrand says here reminds me of something I read two or three years ago by the conservative American intellectual Walter Russell Mead, who, writing on his visit to Europe (including France), sighed about the difficulty he had in trying to explain to uncomprehending Europeans the attachment of Americans to the Second Amendment of the US constitution (sur les armes à feu) and, as he put it, the preference of the American people for “small government.” My reaction in reading Mead on this was that if his European interlocutors couldn’t comprehend him, maybe it was because what he was arguing was, objectively speaking, incomprehensible to European sensibilities—and, one may add, to those of a very large number of Americans too. No European who is not slightly batty can comprend the unrestricted, over-the-counter sale of semi-automatic rifles and other weapons of war such as exists in large parts of the United States, and of the legal right of people to parade around in public with these, including in schools and stores. Yes, the world-view of the National Rifle Association is indeed a difficult one to explain in Europe (and including in Anglo-Saxon Great Britain, where the consensus view is that Americans are crazy when it comes to firearms).

As for “small government,” if Mead means by this that Americans prefer that the government not organize social insurance schemes such as health insurance and old-age pensions—that this be left up to the private sector and not be obligatory—then, yes, Europeans will not understand this, and rightly so (what Mead suggested about the preferences of Americans also happens not to be true, but that’s another matter).

So back to Manuel Valls and those who support his laïcité de combat, yes, they will indeed have a difficult time explaining to non-Frenchmen that the state should have the right to tell women what clothes they may or may not wear. If you’re trying to sell an objectively shitty product—here, a conception of laïcité that is liberticide and that, in effect, discriminates against believers of one religion in particular—people are not going to buy it.

Second remark. No religion in France is “dictating the rules of social life” to anyone. M. Legrand implicitly essentializes Islam and then implies that it is telling women what to do and wear. But no one has any evidence that Muslim women in France who wear a headscarf or burkini are being ordered to do this, that anyone is telling them to do anything.

The editorial continues:

Manuel Valls est-il le mieux placé pour mener ce débat ?

En France, pourquoi pas, même si l’on peut considérer qu’il est parfois un peu raide sur le sujet, le 1er Ministre, chef de la majorité, est tout indiqué es-qualité pour donner sa définition de la laïcité, en débattre et, le cas échéant, proposer au parlement de préciser, adapter la loi dans l’esprit, du moins, du consensus patiemment établi depuis 1905. Mais ça, les Américains ne le comprennent pas. Ils sont organisés en communautés agrégées (ont la même prétention universaliste que nous) et n’admettent pas que l’Etat se mêle des préceptes d’une religion. Et pour eux, quand le chef du gouvernement se préoccupe des droits (et devoirs) des femmes musulmanes, il empiète forcément sur les libertés d’une communauté et donc sur les droits de l’Homme.

Americans organized in “communautés agrégées”… Voilà, le fameux communautarisme anglo-saxon… This is one of the most hackneyed clichés (clichés éculés) in the French ideological repertoire. It is a French fantasy. A figment of the French imagination. And a tremendous French conceit, as Frenchmen who speak about “communautarisme anglo-saxon”—which is never defined or explained—are implicitly asserting the superiority of the supposedly universal French model over that of the imagined “Anglo-Saxon.”

In fairness to the French, it should be pointed out that French academic specialists of the United States never employ the term “communautarisme”—a neologism devoid of social scientific value—in their work on the US.

Non, M. Legrand, les Américains ne sont pas organisés en “communautés agrégées.” Ils sont tous des citoyens avec les mêmes droits et devoirs. Comme en France.


Il est très difficile d’expliquer aux Américains l’individualisme positif des Lumières, le fait que la République française ne reconnaisse qu’une seule communauté, la communauté nationale composée d’individus émancipés. C’est d’autant plus difficile qu’objectivement, tous les Français ne sont pas égaux et que la consonance des noms des citoyens discriminés n’y est pas pour rien. Qu’une religion impose, par une forme d’aliénation qui écrase le libre arbitre, un accoutrement qui cache et soumette la femme, nous choque autant que les Américains sont choqués de voir un 1er Ministre s’occuper de ces questions. Vu d’une grande partie du reste du monde, Manuel Valls est un blanc, chrétien qui veut soumettre des minorités. Je me souviens d’une discussion avec des confrères américains quand Lionel Jospin était 1er ministre. Aucun de mes interlocuteurs ne me croyait quand je leur disais que personne en France n’accordait aucune importance au fait que Lionel Jospin soit protestant et que d’ailleurs quasiment personne ne le savait. En réalité, nous n’en avons pas conscience, mais notre modèle laïc, auquel nous tenons, est une spécificité dans le monde. Il faudra trouver les moyens de le préserver, sans qu’il puisse être perçu, à l’étranger, pour ce qu’il n’est pas : un repli identitaire…

I have much to say about this passage, which has a number of problems, but will limit myself to two comments: First, if, as suggested above, a Frenchman is having difficulty in making an argument about France to educated foreigners—and particularly to those from the Western world—then maybe his argument is flawed. Maybe he needs to rethink his argument. Second, Americans are as open-minded as anyone else, and certainly as much so as Frenchmen. And intellectually speaking, they are also products of l’Âge des Lumières. Educated Americans are not so different from educated Frenchmen or other Europeans. If you explain something to them and do it well—including the story about Lionel Jospin (which I have also done many times to Americans)—they will understand you. Believe me.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire (pour le moment au moins).

UPDATE: In case one missed it, the best analysis that has appeared on the bigger picture of what the burkini hysteria is all about is the tribune by Farhad Khosrokhavar in Le Monde, dated September 9th, “‘Le fondamentalisme laïc fragilise la France des droits de l’homme et de la femme’.”

2nd UPDATE: Financial Times Paris bureau chief Anne-Sylvaine Chassany has a good article, dated September 15th, “France: Islam and the secular state.” The lede: “The burkini bans have exposed historic tensions that are dividing Muslims and threatening French unity.”

3rd UPDATE: France Culture’s Sylvain Bourmeau had an absolutely excellent, must-listen half-hour discussion, September 24th, with sociologist Fabrice Dhume-Sonzogni, entitled “Le communautarisme, cette chimère toxique,” on France Culture’s ‘La suite dans les idées’ program he produces. The lede: “Au terme d’une longue enquête, le sociologue Fabrice Dhume montre comment le mot épouvantail ‘communautarisme’ n’est précisément que cela: un épouvantail planté au milieu de notre espace public.” This is the first time I have ever heard such an argument in France on the bogus notion of “communautarisme” and with Dhume-Sonzogni saying almost exactly what I have since the neologism took off in French public discourse in the 1990s. Listen to it here.

The occasion of the France Culture interview was the publication of Dhume-Sonzogni’s latest book, Communautarisme: Enquête sur une chimère du nationalisme français, prefaced by Eric Fassin. It is certainly a must-read.

See also Dhume-Sonzogni’s article, “L’émergence d’une figure obsessionnelle: comment le «communautarisme» a envahi les discours médiatico-politiques français,” on the academic TERRA-HN website (July 2013) and blogger Ossman Zamime’s post, “Vous avez dit ‘communautarisme’?,” in Mediapart (March 6, 2016).

An update to this update (October 31st): Philippe Blanchet, who teaches sociolinguistics at Université Rennes 2 and is a member of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, has an excellent review, on his Mediapart blog, of Dhume-Sonzogni’s book, “‘Communautarisme’: attention aux retours de manivelle!”

4th UPDATE: Journalist Aude Lorriaux has a first-rate enquête (September 30th) in Slate.fr, entitled “Les femmes musulmanes sont-elles forcées à porter le voile, comme on l’entend dire?” The lede: “De nombreux hommes politiques affirment ou suggèrent que la plupart des femmes voilées subissent des pressions et sont contraintes de porter le foulard, comme Manuel Valls, dans un tribune intitulée «En France, les femmes sont libres». Notre enquête démontre que ces faits sont très minoritaires.” The article is long but well worth the read.

5th UPDATE: Another enquête, this one in L’Obs (October 6th), by David Le Bailly et Caroline Michel, “Burkini, histoire d’une manipulation.” The lede: “Au cœur du mois d’août, l’interdiction sur certaines plages du maillot de bain intégral islamique a provoqué une controverse qui a frôlé l’hystérie. Qui a sciemment alimenté la polémique? Quel rôle a joué l’entourage de Nicolas Sarkozy? Révélations.”

6th UPDATE: Emile Chabal—a smart historian at the University of Edinburgh—has an excellent, salutary, necessary, and long overdue essay (September 18, 2017), published on the highbrow intello website Aeon, simply entitled “Les Anglo-Saxons.” The lede: “Not just American or British, the Anglo-Saxon is a mirror to Frenchness: the country’s alter-ego and most feared enemy.” Hopefully Chabal’s essay will be translated into French—I’ve suggested it to him—and be made required reading for everyone in France who refers to Americans and Brits as “les Anglo-Saxons”…

7th UPDATE: L’article d’Emile Chabal cité ci-dessus a été traduit en français et publié dans Courrier International, le 2 janvier 2018, sous le titre “Le terme ‘Anglo-Saxons’, miroir des peurs françaises.”

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Nice, August 23rd (photo: Vantagenews.com)

Nice, August 23rd (photo: Vantagenews.com)

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Alhamdullilah for the Conseil d’État. It is not par hasard that the judges of France’s supreme administrative law court are nicknamed les sages (the wise men)—though the Conseil’s ruling yesterday striking down the anti-burkini municipal ordinance in seaside Villeneuve-Loubet—which will serve as jurisprudence for abrogating like ordinances in other municipalities—was an obvious no-brainer. It would have been truly stunning had the Conseil ruled otherwise, as, in point of fact, there is no serious argument for legally banning the burkini. None whatever. If a person—woman or man—on a beach in a free society wishes to wear a garment that covers the entire body minus face and maybe feet—or, alternatively, an itsy-bitsy cache-sexe concealing only that most intimate part, or anything in between—s/he has the right to do so. Point barre.

The psychodrama France has descended into over this fabricated issue has to be the most preposterous and irrational in the 25-odd years I have lived in this country—not to mention one of the more pernicious, in view of the overt Muslimophobia that has been unleashed by politicians and media alike. The spectacle of the Muslim women in Nice and Cannes—who were minding their own business and troubling no public order—being harassed and humiliated by the police was a disgrace, accomplishing nothing but the degradation of France’s image abroad and making the country look ridiculous in the process—and, one may also add, intolerant, racist, and sexist (yes, sexist France, as the latest hysteria over French Muslims concerns, as usual, only woman, with men, including the most bearded Salafist, naturally being free to wear any damned outfit they please in public space). And all over a piece of clothing that practically no one in France had heard of—and even fewer had actually seen—before this month of August 2016.

Numerous commentaries over the past two weeks on the absurd burkini affair have gotten it exactly right, e.g. the New York Times’s August 19th editorial—penned by sharp, Paris-based editorial writer Mira Kamdar—”France’s burkini bigotry.” Other spot on critiques of the anti-burkini crusade include public law professor Thomas Hochmann’s Le Monde op-ed (August 19th), “L’interdiction du ‘burkini’ est une faute juridique et politique;” Edwy Plenel in Mediapart (August 14th), “‘Un vêtement comme les autres’…;” political scientist Jean-François Bayart, also in Mediapart (August 18th), “La laïcité, nouvelle religion nationale;” and law professor Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, writing in Libération’s “Do you law?” blog (August 23rd), “Le burkini de l’état d’urgence.”

One may also profitably reread the invariably excellent Patrick Weil’s 2013 interview in L’Opinion, “‘Qu’on laisse en paix les femmes voilées’.”

French public opinion is, as one may expect, not favorable toward the burkini, with 64%, according to an IFOP-Le Figaro poll released on Thursday, opposed to it being worn on the beach. Majorities can be wrong, of course. Even if 94% were opposed, that wouldn’t suddenly make the masses right. Politicians, as one may also expect, have been indulging and stoking the fears of the public—naturally traumatized over the recent terrorist atrocities—with, not surprisingly, the unspeakable Nicolas Sarkozy, now on the campaign trail, leading the demagogic charge, demanding, entre autres, a legislative ban of the burkini—though Sarko knows full well, in principle at least, that any such law is impossible, that it would be nullified illico by the sages of the Conseil Constitutionnel.

Not to be out-Sarkozy-d, the insufferable Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has likewise been gesticulating over the burkini, labeling it “a political project, a counter-society, based in particular on the subjugation of women” and, on his Facebook page yesterday, the expression of “a deadly, backward-looking Islamism” (un islamisme mortifère, rétrograde). Ouf! Even academic savants have been echoing these themes, e.g. emerita philosophy professor Catherine Kintzler, who, in an interview in Le Figaro (August 26th), called the burkini a symbol of “communautarisme” (mais bien évidemment; what else could it possibly be for any self-respecting defender of le modèle républicain français?) and “an ultra-reactionary, totalitarian political Islam,” that represents “an effort to stigmatize all Muslim women who refuse to wear it, who refuse to veil themselves, who refuse the uniformization of their lives.” No less.

And then there’s the well-known social scientist Philippe d’Iribarne, who wrote in Le Monde (August 19th) that the burkini is “unacceptable,” as, entre autres, it violates an apparent French “social norm that asks for a certain discretion in the public expression of that that distinguishes one’s social status or political or religious convictions.” Women who wear the burkini are imposing an alternative social norm, indeed a “projet de société,” so d’Iribarne has it: A “societal project,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Monsieur d’Iribarne suggests that women who wear the burkini and other Islamic articles of clothing do not really do so of their own free will, that they may “simply be seeking not to be bothered in the neighborhoods where they live, or wish to please their entourage, or are constrained to do so by their fathers or husbands, or fear burning in hell, or are perhaps militants of an islam de combat.”

This is one of the stupidest pieces I’ve read by an otherwise smart person in I don’t know how long. Fortunately Le Monde published an op-ed (August 24th), by Patrice Obert—president of the center-left association Le Courant des Poissons Roses—that critiqued d’Iribarne, explaining why it is “unacceptable not to ‘accept’ the burkini.”

Islamism, projet de société, counter-society, Islamic “cultural imperialism,” women being ordered by men, subjugation of women, fundamentalism, burkini-wearing women willfully seeking to provoke and shock…

Let me make an assertion: the legions of pundits, politicians, and other commentators and academic savants who have made these allegations and/or imputed hidden motives to the Muslims in question have not a shred of evidence to support their contentions. They have not a shred of evidence to refute the manifest fact—and, until proof to the contrary, I am asserting it as fact—that 99+% of the women who wear the burkini do so on their own volition—that no one has forced them into it—and that their motives have nothing to do with politics or trying to make a statement. The burkini-detractors could not credibly support their assertions if their lives depended on it.

And the threat to public order that the burkini supposedly constitutes, which was one of the stated reasons for the municipal ordinances? Read this interview with Radio France Internationale’s David Thomson, who has written a book on French jihadists, and tell me if the threat comes from the burkini-wearers or, rather, the actions of the burkini-banners themselves.

As for those who consider the burkini to be Islamist or reflecting of a rigorist interpretation of Islam, they have no idea what they’re talking about, as Salafi women would never go to a mixed beach or don such a piece of clothing that reveals the shape of their body—as the burkini does—in the first place.

But what if, for the sake of argument, some of the above allegations were at least partly true? As social scientist and friend Nadia Marzouki wrote on social media the other day

What if there *is* something political in wearing a burkini, in criticizing the French religion of laïcité, in not eating the French republican “soupe au cochon”, in performing alternative ways of life etc.? What’s wrong with being political?

Yes, if some Muslim women do, in fact, seek to make a statement in wearing a burkini, if they are indeed signaling that their religious faith is primordial in their lives, what of it?

And what about the burkini itself? Even pundits critical of the anti-burkini campaign have felt the need to assure readers that they do not approve of the offending swimsuit. Libération’s Laurent Joffrin thus editorialized (August 17th) that

one would have to have a particularly twisted mind to maintain that the wearing of a piece of clothing that covers all parts of the female body, including swimsuits, is merely a harmless fashion, or a vector of the emancipation of women. In the great majority of cases, it is a religiously ostentatious signifier reflecting a rigorous interpretation of sacred texts that relegates women to a secondary role.

I beg to differ, though this is admittedly a complex question. The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, in an aptly titled column (August 25th), “France has a strange concept of feminism—and secularism,” opposed the burkini bans but did specify that

I actually agree with the critique of veiling. Whatever else it may be, it’s inextricably bound up, like the Orthodox Jewish dress code, with notions of female-only “modesty”—i.e., the acceptance of the female body as the site of sexuality, which must be concealed as a danger and provocation to men. If covering is just about faith, why don’t men do it too?

Yes, of course. These are old questions. We know it. Veiling, objectively speaking, does reflect patriarchy. What else is new? But at the risk of being provocative, I will argue that the creation of the burkini is, in fact, an advance for pious Muslim women, that it represents progress—and particularly for women in the Arab world itself and other Muslim majority countries. For these women, the choice is not between the burkini and a more conventional swimsuit, but rather between the burkini and either going to the beach fully clothed (hijab and all)—and, at most, wading into the water—or not going at all—and not because they are forbidden by men but simply because they won’t go, period. In a country like Algeria, there are a number of “family” beaches where women sunbathe in one or two piece swimsuits, but in long stretches of coastline one sees only young men. Women simply won’t go to these beaches. Gender relations in that society and cultural attitudes toward the body are what they are. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more women to these beaches and learning how to swim while they’re at it, well, tant mieux, n’est-ce pas?

As Saul Alinsky used to say, in order to change the world we first need to see the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. If patriarchy and conservative notions of gender among Muslims are going to change, it’s going to be brought about by Muslims themselves—gradually, one step at a time—and not by laïcard Frenchmen ideologically browbeating them.

And then there’s the inventor of the burkini herself, Aheda Zanetti—who has no ties to Islamist organizations or personal convictions of this nature (if she did, we would know about it)—who explained in a Guardian op-ed (August 24th), “I created the burkini to give women freedom, not to take it away.” The piece—qu’on peut lire en français—carries this lede: “The burkini does not symbolise Islam, it symbolises leisure and happiness and fitness and health.”

As for the burkini not symbolizing Islam, good point. One may bet that it will find a growing market among women of all faiths—or of no faith at all—and particularly in a country like India, where women traditionally do not wear swimsuits on the beach (those who actually go to one). À propos, the NYT has an op-ed (August 26th) by writer Jennifer Weiner on “The women who won’t wear swimsuits,” in which the burkini is not mentioned once. There are a lot of women out there—including a member of the older generation in my own family—who have never felt comfortable in a bathing suit. Just as there are certainly many men in France—perhaps myself included—who don’t like the rule in public swimming pools that men have to wear swim briefs, a.k.a. moule-bites. They feel self-conscious wearing the stupid thing. The burkini is probably not a solution for them but can be for women.

Back to the case of France, today’s Washington Post has an article on “France’s burkini debate: About a bathing suit and a country’s peculiar secularism,” in which the well-known specialist of French laïcité, Joan Wallach Scott, is quoted

For Scott, the greatest irony in the entire affair is that the burkini in fact embodies the achievement of a secular, integrated society.

The women who wear burkinis, she said, cannot be called oppressed. They are not the women subservient to a conservative Islam; they are the women who sit on beaches unsupervised by men, enjoying their leisure time in mixed social company.

But because of the same type of secularism ostensibly designed to foster equality among citizens, those same women could in fact be driven further from the social mainstream.

“It just convinces Muslims who are already feeling discrimination and alienation that indeed they’re right,” Scott said. “And that the French government is interested in getting rid of them, not in integrating them.”

In conclusion, check out the images of the burkini here and here. C’est chic, non? How can anyone object?

UPDATE: Jean Baubérot—the well-known sociologist and specialist of religion in France—was interviewed in Libération (August 17th) on the burkini affair. This passage is particularly interesting:

Cette polémique a été précédée d’une autre, en mars, autour de la «mode pudique», qui ne pose pas de problème dans d’autres pays occidentaux, par exemple en Angleterre. Pourquoi tant de stress ?

Les pays anglo-saxons ont une culture de la diversité, cultuelle et culturelle, plus forte. C’est Voltaire qui a écrit: «Un Anglais, comme homme libre, va au ciel par le chemin qui lui plaît.» En France, une mentalité «catholique et français toujours» perdure, une mentalité de l’unité. On parle encore de «la France une et indivisible» alors que, depuis la Constitution de 1946, «une» a été enlevé au profit de «indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale», et ça n’est pas pour rien! Or, culturellement, on a l’impression que ça n’a jamais été intégré, et «démocratique et sociale», on l’entend peu. C’est une conception de l’unité assez uniforme qui prédomine, peu inclusive de la diversité. Résultat, on ne sait plus séparer ce qui peut être dangereux de ce qui peut choquer mais peut être accepté par la démocratie. On ne met pas la frontière au bon endroit.

2nd UPDATE: Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy—who specializes in sexuality, gender, and religion—has two pieces in Al Huffington Post that are worth reading: “Le burkini, un compromis anti-islamiste” (August 21st) and “Le burkini, entre féminisme blanc et féminisme islamique” (August 23rd). N.B. Dialmy is equally opposed to the burkini and attempts to ban it.

3rd UPDATE: The Forward’s The Sisterhood blog has a post (August 24th) asserting: “Seriously, what Orthodox [Jewish] women wear to the beach is no different from a burkini.”

4th UPDATE: Le Canard Enchaîné has a short piece in the latest issue explaining—in its trademark ironic style—why the burkini would not pass muster with those who adhere to a rigorist interpretation of Islam.

5th UPDATE: Robin Wright has a piece in The New Yorker (August 26th), “A court overturns a burkini ban, but not its mindset.” Money quote

The irony of the swimsuit crisis is that the laws—and their enforcement—shamed the Muslim women who want to participate in French society. “Tying the burkini to extremism is absurd. Actual Salafis are against the burkini because they don’t think women should be swimming in public in the first place,” Shadi Hamid, the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World,” told me on Friday.

Also see the article by Alissa J. Rubin in the NYT (August 27th), “From bikinis to burkinis, regulating what women wear,” in which interesting people are quoted.

6th UPDATE: Philippe Marlière, who teaches political science at University College London, has a must-read post on his Mediapart blog (August 26th), “La gauche de l’entre-soi et le burkini.” The lede: “Cet article revient sur les récentes controverses sur le port du burkini en France, montre la ligne de fracture qu’elles ont créée au sein de la gauche française, et réfute les arguments qui sont déployés pour justifier des attaques racistes et sexistes contre les femmes musulmanes.”

Marlière notes, entre autres, that the French left—which is almost entirely atheist and with an anti-clerical tropisme from another era (which is specific to France’s history; we’re not talking about universal values here), and that has been transposed to any public manifestation of religiosity—is an outlier among its progressive European counterparts when it comes to conventional Muslim veiling. On the European left—not to mention the left in the Americas, north and south—only in France does the sight of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf provoke a negative reaction—and automatically excludes her from participation in a left-wing political party.

7th UPDATE: Here’s the official English translation of the Conseil d’État’s ruling on the burkini affair.

8th UPDATE: Benjamin Haddad, a French research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, has an essay (August 30th) in The American Interest entitled “Behind the burkini.” The lede: “The overturned ban is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.” Now Haddad is normally incisive in the analyses I have read by him but is in error on a number points in his piece here. E.g. he opines that

The fact is that many in France consider the aggressive display of this brand of Islamic fundamentalism in a public space to be a provocation, an intentional rejection of the French Republic’s long tradition of secularism, and an attempt at self-exclusion from the rest of the population.

As I have written above, the burkini has nothing whatever to do with “Islamic fundamentalism.” This is a phantasm. And no one who thinks this has a shred of evidence to defend the contention that even one single woman—une seule—who wears the burkini does so to provoke, to signal a rejection of secularism, is attempting to exclude herself from the rest of the population, or is an “Islamic fundamentalist.” This is a figment of the addled French imagination. (But then, even if a burkini-wearing woman did have these things in mind, eh alors? La belle affaire! Dans un pays libre comme la France, c’est son droit. Qu’est-ce que ça peut vous faire?).

And while the vast majority of French Muslims keep their faith privately and are peaceful citizens, this model of integration makes the country an inviting target for those who don’t.

What is this supposed to mean? How does one “model of integration” make a country a target for—what precisely?—more than another “model”?

To be clear, wearing a burkini is manifestly not considered a mandatory religious requirement by France’s overwhelmingly moderate Muslim population, who don’t wear it.

But no one has even hinted that the burkini is religiously required. Pour mémoire, the burkini is the trademarked product of an Australian fashion designer named Aheda Zanetti (see above), who created the garment for pious Muslim women—but also for non-Muslim women (why not?)—who wish to go to the beach but, for their own reasons, will not wear a conventional swimsuit. The burkini is, above all, a business proposition that aims to satisfy a heretofore underserved market.

À propos, how much would one like to bet that the burkini® under another name sells like hotcakes in Israel among Jewish women?

That the burkini may be worn free of pressure does not change the underlying message.

But what underlying message?! And sent by whom precisely? (and please give names). The notion that there is a message in the burkini is a collective French phantasm.

Please, there is no message here. No burkini-wearing woman is sending a message, even subliminal. This I promise you.

Moreover, the burkini, which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.

What “radical minority”? Who are you talking about? Please name names. And while you’re at it, please provide references of what this “radical minority” has written about the burkini.

The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Such incidents have indeed happened but how do you know that they “are becoming increasingly ubiquitous”? In point of fact, you don’t know at all. There have been numerous anecdotes over the years of disturbing and unacceptable things happening—as there inevitably will be in a society of 65 million inhabitants—but the extent of this has not been established. Seriously, we really don’t know.

In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.

A fait divers. It was outrageous and with the perpetrators meriting prosecution, but it was still just one incident.

But not reacting to the burkini also has its consequences and runs the risk of normalizing such practices.

But so what if the burkini is “normalized”?? In point of fact, it should be normalized. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more Muslim and other women to the beach, that’s a good thing, is it not? À propos, see the quotes above of Joan Wallach Scott and Shadi Hamid.

In the coming years, Europeans will continue to grapple with the tension between their liberal principles and the necessity of rolling back the hold of a radical minority.

But what “radical minority”?? Please give names of such radicals in France.

These attempts, however clumsy, deserve a more understanding reception than scorn and conceit.

Oy vey, the attempts by demagogic French politicians to “roll back” the hold of this imagined “radical minority” deserve not only scorn and conceit but disdain as well.

9th UPDATE: Christine Delphy—a sociologist and leading personality in France’s feminist movement of the 1970s—has an excellent tribune in The Guardian (August 29th) on “How a legal misunderstanding is fueling France’s witch-hunt of Muslim women.” The lede: “Of course, banning women from wearing what they want is illegal in France. The establishment claim they want Muslim women to achieve independence yet are depriving them the means to do so.”

Also see Delphy’s 20 July 2015 Guardian tribune, “Feminists are failing Muslim women by supporting racist French laws.” The lede: “If women’s groups see Muslims wearing headscarves as an oppressed minority, it should be a reason to embrace them and understand why, not collude in widening one of the worst rifts within French society.”

10th UPDATE: Nathalie Heinich—a sociologist and ideological warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat—has a virulent op-ed in Le Monde (August 30th), “Burkini: Il faut combattre le prosélytisme extrémiste et le sexisme,” in which she responds to the well-known sociologist Michel Wieviorka’s thoughtful tribune (August 26th) in The Conversation, “Panique morale autour du ‘burkini’.” Heinich’s broadside has the merit of arguing that opposing the burkini concerns neither laïcité nor public order but is all about fighting against “an extremist, totalitarian conception of Islam.” Tout court. The piece is a doozy. E.g.

Dans le contexte de la France d’aujourd’hui (qui n’est ni celui des Etats-Unis, ni celui de la France d’il y a une génération), l’interdiction des signes religieux les plus extrêmes – la burqa dans les rues, le burkini sur les plages – ne doit plus être une question de laïcité: ce doit être un combat politique contre une manipulation de la religion à des fins d’ordre sexuel, moral, juridique, civique, voire guerrier.

En faire une question religieuse, c’est entrer dans le jeu de nos adversaires, qui utilisent cet argument pour imposer leur conception rétrograde de la citoyenneté – la soumission à l’ordre religieux – et de la différence des sexes – la soumission des femmes.

C’est pourquoi, dans le contexte actuel, l’affichage de comportements manifestant l’adhésion à une conception fondamentaliste de l’islam, tel que le port du burkini, ne relève pas de l’exercice d’une religion (va-t-on à la plage pour prier?): il relève de l’expression d’une opinion, et d’une opinion délictueuse, puisqu’il s’agit d’une incitation à la discrimination sexiste, qui en outre banalise et normalise l’idéologie au nom de laquelle on nous fait la guerre. C’est pourquoi le Conseil d’Etat aurait pu, aurait dû valider les arrêtés antiburkini, en vertu de la légitime limitation du droit à la liberté d’expression.

The wearing of the burkini is an “opinion délictueuse“… Translation: the expression of a “criminal opinion.”

Wow. That’s intense. Mme Heinich is lusting for blood.

Another morsel:

Il faut donc choisir son camp: non pas le camp des sectaires contre les «tolérants», mais le camp des partisans d’un islam respectueux des lois et des valeurs de notre pays – au premier rang desquelles l’égalité entre hommes et femmes et le droit pour celles-ci d’occuper librement l’espace public – contre un islam dévoyé, sexiste, intolérant, violemment prosélyte, et ­ ennemi des libertés car exerçant de puissantes pressions communautaires contre ceux et ­ surtout contre celles qui ne se plieraient pas à ses règles archaïques.

«Pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté»: c’était bien un slogan politique, n’est-ce pas? Est-ce parce qu’il est ici question de femmes qu’on dénie la dimension politique du problème, au profit d’une dimension religieuse et morale?

Again, as concerns the burkini, all this is a figment of the French imagination. Mme Heinich & Co are seeing heavy symbolism in an article of female clothing that, until proof to the contrary, is not seen by the women wearing it. One thing that strikes me in reading viewpoints such as this is that women who wear the burkini or hijab are accorded no agency. They are seen as either passive victims living under the yoke of misogynistic men or as fanaticized zombies in the service of a totalitarian ideology. And they have no voice. I will wager that Mme Heinich and others who share her views have never engaged veiled Muslim women in dialogue or had the slightest interest in hearing them out. Veiled Muslim women are the ultimate Other. At minimum, there’s a lack of empathy here, not to mention absence of intellectual curiosity. I don’t relate to this way of thinking.

11th UPDATE: Gershom Gorenberg—The American Prospect’s Jerusalem-based senior correspondent—nails it in a commentary (August 31st) entitled “The beach movie of the absurd.” The lede: “The Burkini fuss isn’t just an embarrassment for France. Diversity is under attack across the West.”

12th UPDATE: Daniel Pipes, like that proverbial stopped clock, gets it exactly right on the burkini. And he links to a site selling “original kosher swimwear.” I rest my case.

13th UPDATE: The NYT (September 2nd) seeks out the views of Muslim women in France and Belgium—gives them voice—in an article (and that may be read in French translation), “‘The way people look at us has changed’: Muslim women on life in Europe.”

14th UPDATE: Libération (September 1st) has a meditation by Université Paris 1 philosophy professor Sandra Laugier, “SOS fantasmes.” Observing the negative reaction on social media to the all-female cast of the latest “Ghostbusters” movie, Laugier offers this

Ce déferlement de misogynie a trouvé un équivalent plus tragique en France avec le débat politique, virtuel et public, sur le droit des femmes musulmanes à choisir leur tenue de plage. Quelle que soit l’opinion ou l’affect qu’elles suscitent, le plus extraordinaire est que tant de gens se soient sentis autorisés à l’exprimer.

Comme l’indique déjà la façon de nommer ce débat («le burkini»), les femmes concernées sont les dernières qu’on va consulter sur la question, et il a été fort pénible ces dernières semaines de lire et d’entendre les uns et les autres, hommes en majorité, des femmes de pouvoir aussi, énoncer doctement ce que ces femmes musulmanes doivent faire, voire traduire ce qu’elles pensent et expriment par leur comportement.

It occurs to none of the burkini critics to solicit the viewpoints of the women who wear it…

In this vein, Laugier links to an important analysis by Université Paris 13 linguistics professor Marie-Anne Paveau, “Parler du burkini sans les concernées: De l’énonciation ventriloque,” posted August 17th on the website “La pensée du discours: La théorie du discours ouverte à de nouvelles épistémologies.”

15th UPDATE: Dominique Rousseau, the well-known professor of public law at the Université Paris 1, settles the legal/constitutional side of the question (September 1st) in Le Huffington Post, “Sous le burkini, l’Etat de Droit.”

Also see Etienne Balibar’s tribune (August 29th) in Libération, “Laïcité ou identité?” The lede: “Alors que le Conseil d’Etat vient d’invalider l’interdiction du burkini, il faut mettre fin au développement de la «laïcité identitaire». Cette conception, obsédée par le communautarisme en vient à construire un «communautarisme d’Etat».”

16th UPDATE: The Times of Israel has an AP dispatch (September 4th) on how the “French uproar [has created an] opportunity for Israeli burkinis.” One learns that Israel

home to large populations of conservative Jewish and Muslim women, has cultivated a local industry of modest swimsuits, and the full-body outfits that have caused uproar in France have been a common sight on Israeli beaches for several years.

On the uproar in France, the founder of one of the first Israeli modest swimwear companies rhetorically asked

“What does a woman do in France who wants to cover up for sun protection or who wants to cover up some scarring, or if she is a little overweight and she doesn’t want to wear a bikini?…It doesn’t make any sense that they are banning a specific type of modest swimwear. It’s very racist to me.”

As for Palestinian Muslims

Sahab Nasser sells SunWay burkinis at her lingerie shop in Tira, a mostly Muslim town in central Israel. She said she sold burkinis for four years before she finally bought one so she could accompany her three-year-old daughter in the pool. It has been life-changing for her and other Muslim women, she said, because previously they would stay out of the water while the men and children in their families would go swimming.

“The burkini has let (Arab women) go to the beach, spend quality time with the family, to go to mixed gender pools, to swim with their families and feel comfortable, without criticism,” she said. “Who said the bikini is the right look for the beach?”

Personally speaking, I prefer seeing women in bikinis, particularly if they have the body for one. And if they want to go topless, tant mieux (en tant qu’homme hétéro je ne vais pas être hypocrite là-dessus). But if women want to wear burkinis, no prob’. Laissez les gens vivre, bon sang !

17th UPDATE: Michel Wieviorka has a tribune in Le Monde (September 4th) responding to Nathalie Heinich’s unhinged diatribe (above), “La sociologie à l’épreuve du burkini.” The lede: “Afin de pouvoir légitimement intervenir dans le débat public, les intellectuels doivent s’appuyer sur des recherches et des faits établis. Non pas sur des opinions et des préjugés.” Money quote:

Le sociologue qui s’exprime sur le «burkini», puisque c’est le dossier qui nous occupe ici, devrait s’appuyer sur des recherches portant directement sur ce phénomène, ou sur des phénomènes proches – burqa, par exemple (je dirige des travaux de doctorantes sur ce thème): que signifie le port de ce vêtement islamique pour les femmes concernées? Quelles sont ces femmes, qu’ont-elles à dire? Quel est le sens du refus énergique du burkini: républicain? féministe? nationaliste? islamophobe? Quel est celui de la tolérance à son égard: républicain, féministe, naïf…? Chez qui? Etc.

Faute de s’appuyer sur des travaux solides, le sociologue perd une bonne partie de sa légitimité à intervenir, pour devenir au mieux un essayiste et plus vraisemblablement un acteur, ou l’intellectuel organique d’une cause, et non plus un analyste.

See also the tribune in Le Monde (September 6th) by IEP–Aix-en-Provence sociology professor Raphaël Liogier, “Contre les idées reçues sur l’islam, créons un ‘Observatoire des identités plurielles’.”

18th UPDATE: The well-known political science specialist of Islamism, Shadi Hamid, who is presently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, has a piece (July 20th 2017) in The Atlantic on “The Dilemma of the Burqini: Is there any right way to react to the swimwear?”

19th UPDATE: Writing on the Islamic headscarf—though he could be on the burkini—Matthew Kaemingk—who teaches theology, ethics, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA—has an outside-the-box commentary in the Summer 2017 issue of the magazine Comment: Public Theology for the Common Good that will no doubt ruffle French feathers, “The headscarf: Islam’s gift to Western democracy.” The lede: “Learning to welcome Islam is a way to relearn what democracy is about.” I don’t necessary adhere to Kaemingk’s views across the board but what he says is worth the debate.


Sydney, Australia (photo: Aheda Zanetti)

Sydney, Australia (photo: Aheda Zanetti)

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(Photo credit: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

(Photo credit: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

I have a short article, or briefing, up on the website of World Politics Review, under the title “France’s Hollande enters final year in office disavowed and ineffective.” The piece is behind the paywall—as is all of WPR’s content—but the editors have kindly “whitelisted” it for my blog, so the entire text may be accessed here (if the link doesn’t work, see the update below).

If I had been writing just for AWAV, I would entitled the post “François Hollande: the fiasco.” In assessing Hollande’s record, which is what the WPR editors asked me to do, one important issue I was not able to develop at any length—the briefing being limited to 1,200 words—was Hollande’s determination to constitutionalize the déchéance de nationalité—the stripping of French citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism—which he finally had no choice but to abandon late last month, in the face of determined opposition within his own party—92 of the 223 deputies of the Socialist group in the National Assembly who showed up for the vote opposing the amendment—and the Senate adopting a different wording of the amendment than the one laboriously passed by the lower chamber, thereby precluding the convening of a joint session of parliament to vote it into the constitution (or reject it, as may well have happened). The déchéance affair was a fiasco of the first order, less for the fact that Hollande thankfully failed in his effort—which I predicted when he declared on December 23rd that he would indeed seek to have the déchéance inserted into the constitution—than him coming up with the idea in the first place. That Hollande—profiting from the national trauma in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks—could appropriate a proposal heretofore identified solely with the extreme right and then try to ram it in to the constitution, definitively discredited him in the eyes of many of those who voted for him in 2012, myself included.

I wrote about this in January, in my piece in the winter issue of the web magazine South Writ Large. There were several serious problems with the déchéance measure, as I argued. If one gave the slightest thought to these—and few of those who defended Hollande on the matter did—it would have been clear how crazy but also potentially dangerous the whole thing was. The first problem—and that was cited by most critics off the bat—was that it symbolically—but also juridically—created two categories of French citizens: those who were 100% French—with both parents born in France—and those of second-generation immigrant origin, who are French citizens by jus soli. As one knows—though many manifestly do not—large numbers of French-born dual nationals inherit the citizenship of their parents. They do not request it.

The second problem—and to which less attention was paid—was the circumstances under which French citizenship would be stripped. Hollande and his surrogates assured that it would only be in the extreme case of convictions for terrorism. The problem is, “terrorism” does not have a juridical definition in France. Moreover, this is not the term that was used in the rival versions of the constitutional amendment passed by the National Assembly and Senate. The formulation was “gravely undermining the life of the nation” (atteinte grave à la vie de la nation). This was imprecise, to say the least, both juridically speaking and otherwise. What, pray, is “the life of the nation”? Socialists and other mainstream currents hugging close to the center of the political spectrum would no doubt interpret this to mean terrorist acts such as the ones committed on November 13th, but who is to say that a future government of the hard right, not to mention the Front National, would not interpret such a constitutional provision otherwise, that “undermining the life of the nation” would include, say, disrespecting a person invested with public authority, e.g. a police officer or teacher, and with the offending citizen subsequently being convicted of outrage à agent public—the iniquitous, liberty-undermining délit d’outrage—or booing “La Marseillaise”—and all the more so as the version of the déchéance amendment passed by the National Assembly encompassed both crimes and misdemeanors (crimes et délits)? The symbolism here was not only terrible but dangerous, and with possibly disastrous consequences for many French citizens in the future, not to mention the cohesion of the French nation, as the entire jus soli principle—which underpins the French republican conception of citizenship—would be fatally undermined.

A third problem is how the French state would know who is a dual national. In point of fact, the state has no way of knowing how many of its citizens hold the citizenship of another country. E.g. my daughter, who was born in France and has lived all but one of her 22 years here, is an American citizen, because I, as her American father, undertook the demarche with the US consulate in Paris when she was a few months old to acquire her “consular report of birth abroad of a citizen of the United States of America.” So she is a Franco-American dual national, though is culturally 100% French and has never lived in the United States. But then, one of my French students told me recently that her father is American but never declared her to a US consulate in France, so she does not possess US citizenship. My daughter and student were both born in France to a French mother and American father, but one is a dual French and American citizen, and the other is only French. But the French state does not know this. So if Hollande’s constitutional amendment had been adopted and then a future hard right-wing government decided to implement it in an expansive way, the only way for it to know who was a dual national would be to legally oblige all French citizens holding another citizenship to declare this, perhaps to their local commissariat de police—as happened with one category of the French population back in 1941… Does France really want to go down this road?

So one gets the idea. Hastily enacted laws—not to mention hastily amended constitutions—may have unintended consequences in the future. That François Hollande and those advising him did not perceive this or take it seriously—and Hollande was personally informed of all this by political scientist Patrick Weil, who publicly campaigned against the déchéance measure—almost defies belief. Whatever the case, it morally disqualifies Hollande from being elected to a second presidential term.

UPDATE: Here is the original, unedited version of my World Policy Review article:

On May 7, 2017, French voters will go to the polls to elect, or re-elect, their president. Barring a dramatic reversal of fortune on his part, that president is most unlikely to be François Hollande. As he enters the final year of his term, Hollande is in the weakest position by far of any president in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. His poll numbers have been negative since September 2012 – four months after his victory over Nicolas Sarkozy – with his popularity – short-lived spikes following the terrorist attacks of January and November 2015 excepted – not exceeding 30% since April 2013. The latest IPSOS-Le Point poll has Hollande’s job approval rating at 15%, with 80% disapproving his action. Worse for him, a survey of the electorate published last month by the academic institute CEVIPOF, the sample size of which was 21,000, revealed a mass rejection of Hollande even by voters of his own Socialist Party (PS). The survey, moreover, projected his certain elimination on the first ballot in the 2017 election should he be in the running and regardless of the identity of the opposition Les Républicains party’s candidate. In short, Hollande’s predicament heading into the 2017 campaign is dire.

How did this happen? The immediate explanation is naturally the state of the French economy. Hollande, as befitting a presidential candidate of the left, was elected on a platform pledging to reduce unemployment, France’s decades-long scourge – 1983 being the last year when unemployment did not exceed 7% – and promote economic growth. To say that Hollande has failed in his objective would be an understatement. Unemployment is presently at 10.3% – one point higher than when he took office – and rising, whereas it is half that in Germany and the UK, and dropping in Italy and Spain. As for economic growth, annual GDP increase has ranged from 0.2 to 1.2% over the past four years, which is par for the course in the eurozone but manifestly not sufficient to appreciably reduce the numbers of those registered with Pôle Emploi.

Apart from a youth employment measure enacted in 2012 – which, in effect, involved the state subsidizing the jobs created – the first significant piece of legislation billed as both tackling unemployment and liberalizing the labor market was drawn up only in 2015, dubbed the Law on Growth, Activity, and Equality of Economic Opportunity, a.k.a. the Macron Law, sponsored by the youthful, dynamic, nominally left-of-center economy minister Emmanuel Macron. Though the measures were small bore – loosening restrictions on Sunday store openings, liberalizing intercity bus transport, opening up protected professions (such as driving schools), among others – they provoked a veritable psychodrama on the left, including the left flank of the PS, and a part of the trade union movement, with the inevitable street demonstrations and symbolic one-day strikes in public services, though the controversy ceased once the law was enacted.

More consequential is the proposed reform of the Code du Travail – the 3,860-page compendium of French labor legislation – informally referred to as the El Khomri Law, after Myriam El Khomri, the labor and employment minister, a relative political novice who had no prior knowledge of the dossier when she was promoted to her ministerial post in September 2015, or any experience in negotiating with trade unions or other social actors. Needless to say, the unfortunate El Khomri, who has become the government’s lightening rod on the question, was not the veritable author of the proposed law, which bears the imprint of Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls. The bill is presently under parliamentary deliberation, has been significantly amended by the government itself, and likely won’t come up for a definitive vote before the summer, but has already generated a firestorm on the left, been roundly denounced by the unions, and led to several days of mass demonstrations across the country, which witnessed the participation of large contingents of university and high school students in addition to the inevitable trade unionists and others on the organized left.

The provisions of the bill that have provoked the most opposition concern the capping of indemnities by the Conseils de Prud’hommes (labor arbitration boards) for employees terminated from their jobs for non-economic motives (i.e. fired at the employer’s whim) – a measure the government has now dropped – and allowing company CEOs to arbitrarily rewrite collective bargaining agreements and then submit them to a vote of the company’s staff, perhaps informing the latter in the process that if the revised accord is not approved, the company may have to proceed with layoffs and transfer part of its production abroad.

In the US, UK, and elsewhere, this is already the status quo and, for elites at least, is utterly uncontroversial. But in France, and particularly on the left – with which close to 50% of Frenchmen and women continue to identify – such proposals to appreciably undermine job security are unacceptable – and when coming from a government of the left, are profoundly shocking. An Odoxa-Le Parisien poll conducted in mid March indeed revealed that 71% of Frenchmen and women are opposed to the El Khomri Law. A refrain of left-wing critics has it that a Socialist government is offering the employers’ lobby more than it had ever asked for itself, and is going further in labor market reforms than previous conservative governments have dared. As for the beneficial effects of the El Khomri Law on employment and economic growth, this has been the subject of a vigorous debate among economists, which, as happens in France, has been played out in the op-ed pages of the elite press, notably Le Monde, where collective tribunes signed by august personalities have argued for and against the proposed law. The bottom line: whereas the El Khomri Law may enhance profit margins and the competitiveness of French companies, there is no a priori reason to expect that it will singlehandedly reduce unemployment or increase GDP growth.

For many voters of the left, the seemingly gratuitous campaign to undermine the Code du Travail is the final straw in a series of disappointments and actions seen as incomprehensible coming from a Socialist president. One of these actions was Hollande’s initiative – announced in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks – to amend the constitution to allow for the stripping of citizenship (déchéance de nationalité) of dual nationals convicted of terrorism, which was billed as a symbolic measure but, in juridically creating two categories of French citizens, could have deleterious consequences in the future under a hypothetical far right-wing government (for more on this issue, see the present author’s commentary in the update here). Faced with a rebellion by PS parliamentarians, Hollande announced on March 30th that he was abandoning his effort to amend the constitution.

The damage, however, was done. The fact that Hollande could appropriate an idea heretofore proposed only by the extreme-right and then insist on its constitutionalization, and despite fierce opposition within his own political camp, signified that he felt he could dispense with his party and many of its voters in a re-election campaign. As it stands, sizable numbers of Hollande’s 2012 voters will likely dispense with him as well should he decide seek that re-election.

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Photo credit: Peter Dejong/AP

Photo credit: Peter Dejong/AP

That’s the title of an article of mine (here) which was just published in the web magazine South Writ Large: Stories, Arts, and Ideas from the Global South, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The article was commissioned by editor Samia Seragaldin, who asked me to offer my personal sentiments and analysis of France in the aftermath of the November 13th terrorist attacks. The first half of the piece is my blog post of November 14th, written à chaud, which a certain number of people read at the time (it got a lot of hits). The second half is an update—dated January 20th—in which I discuss the reaction of the French government, i.e. of François Hollande and Manual Valls, to November 13th, specifically the état d’urgence and déchéance de nationalité. I will have a longer post on that subject soon.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

It’s been a week since the 2nd round of the regional elections, the results of which are known to all with a passing interest in French politics: the alliance of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party and UDI/MoDem centrists won seven of the thirteen regions, François Hollande’s Socialists—allied with or supported by the rest of the left—took five, Corsican nationalists scored an upset in one—Corsica obviously—and Marine Le Pen’s Front National was shut out. The FN won nothing, due in part to the 8.5% spike in the participation rate: from 49.9% of registered voters in the 1st round to 58.4% in the 2nd. The increased participation was, personally speaking, readily apparent in my polling station, where I was an assesseur titulaire, with almost a hundred more voters (of 940 registered) showing up for the 2nd round, including an unusually high number—for this kind of election—in their 20s and even late teens (and in view of the result, they didn’t come to vote FN). There have been a few good analyses in English of last Sunday’s outcome, e.g. Pierre Briançon in Politico.eu, Arthur Goldhammer in The American Prospect and the Boston Review, and Hudson Institute research fellow Benjamin Haddad in The American Interest. So as not to repeat what these august commentators have to say—or my own analysis of the political field after last March’s departmental elections—I will make just a few points about France’s three political poles coming out of Sunday’s vote (in their order of finish).

Les Républicains“: This was not a victory for the ex-UMP, loin s’en faut, despite its victory in seven of the new regions—corresponding to 12 of the 22 old ones, compared to a single one in the 2010 elections and a mere two in 2004—as Sarkozy and his acolytes had visions of winning 10 or 11 until the final phase of the campaign. The weekly L’Express—whose editorial line does not lean left—indeed called Sarkozy “the real loser” in its cover story on the election, as LR, entre autres, failed to break 50% in any triangulaire and with its most decisive victories being in the three regions—NPDCP, PACA, and the Grand Est—where the Socialists withdrew or disowned their lists after the 1st round—and thus sacrificing any representation in the regional councils there for the next six years—in the higher interests of  the “front républicain“—a stance expressly rejected by Sarkozy for his own party—to bar the route of the FN. It was striking to see Sarkozy’s droitisation strategy—of mimicking the Front National on the immigration and national identity issues to lure back defecting right-wing voters—and rejection of an anti-FN front républicain with the PS openly disparaged in his own party in the aftermath of the vote, and not only by the usual suspects—e.g. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-Pierre Raffarin—but also the hard right-wing sarkozyste historique Christian Estrosi in PACA and the conservative ex-villepiniste Hervé Mariton. Estrosi’s public critique of his now erstwhile mentor’s neo-frontiste rhetoric—the principal consequence of which has been to inflate the FN’s ranks and votes—was quite something.

Of equal note was Xavier Bertrand’s address in Lille on Sunday night, in which he explicitly thanked voters of the left—and with manifest sincere humility—for his victory over Marine LP in the NPDCP region. I will bet a small sum of money that Bertrand’s poll numbers will spike sharply in the next IPSOS baromètre with those on the left, who greatly appreciated his generous words [UPDATE: Bertrand’s favorable rating did indeed spike, going from 26% in November to 39% in January]. Estrosi did not initially go as far as Bertrand but has made it clear since that he will not forget about the left voters who enabled his victory over Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Had the PS not committed hara-kiri in those two regions, Marine and Marion would likely be presiding the regional councils in Lille and Marseille, point barre. In view of the FN’s large anchor in these regions, Bertrand and Estrosi will be beholden to left voters indefinitely, future elections included. And then there was Sarko’s unceremonious eviction of NKM from the nº2 post in LR’s leadership at Monday’s political bureau meeting—which Alain Juppé and Bruno Le Maire didn’t even bother showing up for—a move criticized by Juppé, Raffarin, and other Sarko detractors in the party.

Sarkozy is not at all convinced, however, that the election result was in any way a repudiation of his hard-right strategy. Au contraire, he sees it as confirmation of this, particularly in view of LR’s victories in France’s two largest and richest regions, the Île-de-France (Paris and its banlieues) and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (capital: Lyon). Valérie Pécresse, who headed the LR-UDI-MoDem list in the ÎDF, did not win by a large margin but her victory was nonetheless sans appel. And it was a particularly gratifying one for her, as Claude Bartolone’s 2nd round Socialist-led list represented the broadest-possible left and ecologist coalition—there were no less than 15 party logos on its campaign flyers—and with the outcome uncertain to the very end. The PS knew the race would be close but was confident it would win it. Pécresse—whom I’ve written about positively in the past, BTW— is moderately conservative and very much her own person—she is not a Sarkozy sycophant—but tacked right in the campaign, emphasizing the insécurité issue (fear of crime and terrorism), excoriating “communautarisme” (a code word for public displays of Muslim identity), and embracing personalities from the anti-gay marriage movement (La manif pour tous) that swept the conservative, practicing Catholic portion of French society in 2013 (and included religious Muslims and Jews), taking by surprise all the parties of the right, including the FN, none of which supported it. And then there was her campaign spokesman—and now chief-of-staff at the Conseil Régional—Geoffroy Didier, co-founder of the ex-UMP’s fanatically sarkozyste, Patrick Buisson-inspired La Droite Forte caucus and who is as far right as one can get in that party without becoming an outright frontiste. So it is entirely normal that Sarkozy would take particular comfort in Pécresse’s victory, as with that of Laurent Wauquiez in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. This one was decisive and somewhat unexpectedly so, as the PS, whose list was led by the incumbent Jean-Jacques Queyranne—a longtime politician in the greater Lyon area—had reason to hope it could win the region via an addition of left voters. Wauquiez is an unabashed hard rightist, whose rhetoric accents economic libéralisme—which plays well with right-wing voters in the southeast (Wauquiez’s base is the Haute-Loire)—denunciation of “l’assistanat“—read: welfare cases and other slackers who would rather receive taxpayer-funded free stuff from government than get a job—and defense of farmers and small-town folk, who provided his margin of victory on Sunday. Sarkozy’s replacement of NKM with Wauquiez as party nº2 was the logical thing to do from his standpoint.

Further reinforcing Sarkozy’s attitude was the poor performance of Virginie Calmels, the LR-UDI-MoDem’s list leader in the Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes, a member of no party until this year who not only lost the region by 12 points to the PS’s Alain Rousset but was bested in Bordeaux itself, where she is a vice-mayor and protégé of Juppé, who’s been the mayor of that city for two decades now. Sarkozyistes exulted over Juppé’s embarrassment (which one could observe on Twitter after the result was announced on Sunday night). And then there was the defeat in Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Centre-Val-de-Loire, and the narrowest of victories in Normandy, the lists in all three regions headed by UDI centrists (specifically from Le Nouveau Centre, one of the UDI’s principal constituents; for the record, the NC is, despite its centrist label, moderately to the right). For LR’s right-wing, this was proof that, electorally speaking, the centrists bring little to the table—and may even be a liability—and that tilting in a centrist direction is not the way to go for LR. Sarkozy defended the alliance with the UDI and MoDem and his offering the centrists the head-of-list slots in the three aforementioned regions, but could only be comforted in his droitisation strategy by the UDI’s counter-performance.

So there is not a chance that Sarkozy will modify his neo-frontiste discourse between now and LR’s primary next November—or after, in the appalling eventuality that he should win it. In this, he will be ardently supported by LR’s hardcore base and the online réacosphère of websites, blogs, and social media, and which has become ever more influential on the right. The incarnation of this is Valeurs Actuelles—US equivalents: National Review, Human Events—which was long a low circulation weekly magazine read by bourgeois reactionaries and ignored by everyone else but whose website is now the most high-profile in that segment of the political spectrum. If one wants to know what French hard-rightists are reading and thinking, that’s where to look.

The bottom line: the cleavage in LR is deep—which I discussed in my pre-2nd round post a week ago—and can only deepen further as the primary campaign dominates the life of the party in the coming year—and during which LR will be transformed into the sole instrument of Sarko and his clan, and all but abandoned by Juppé and the other candidates for the presidential nomination. It’s hard to see how the party can possibly unite around the candidate who wins the primary. In the horrific event that it’s Sarkozy, a centrist or center-right candidacy is certain—most certainly François Bayrou—and who will siphon many moderate LR voters. And if it’s Juppé—or even Le Maire or François Fillon—the LR’s Tea Party base will defect in sizable numbers to the best hard-right candidate on offer, e.g. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or even Marine LP.

The nominee will, however, not be Sarkozy, as I’ve been insisting for over a year now. His political comeback has been a flop, too many people in his own party can’t stand him, and his poll numbers are execrable. Now he did rise seven points in the last IPSOS baromètre—to 38% positive/57% negative—but this was taken in the week following the November 13th terrorist attacks and with almost every politician’s numbers improving; it was as if, in the post-attack national trauma, people felt the need to believe in their elected representatives. But Sarko’s positive rating is destined to tumble back to where it’s been since his return to the partisan arena—20s/low 30s—while Juppé will remain in the 50s, thereby maintaining his status as the most popular political personality in France. And there is no reason why this should change in the coming year barring an unforeseen affaire, as Juppé does not hold national office and therefore has no active bilan over which opinions of him can evolve. He incarnates a center-right sensibility conforming to that of the French median voter and with a steely but calm, steady temperament that reassures rather than disquiets. On this level, the contrast between Juppé and Sarkozy—with his feverish, frenetic, trash-talking persona, constantly blowing his stack in front of his associates (which has been reported countless times over the past decade)—could not be starker.

À propos of all this, France Inter’s political editorialist Thomas Legrand—who is the sharpest, most incisive analyst of French politics in the media—asserted on Friday—correctly, in my view—that France’s next president will be on the center-right. He did not specify who that man or woman would be, though did advance a few names, including Sarkozy and Hollande (most unlikely, IMO). Juppé pretty clearly fits the bill. As for the relative strengths of these three men in the general election, an IFOP/Atlantico poll released December 18th has some interesting numbers: if LR’s candidate is Sarkozy and with Bayrou running, Hollande will overtake Sarko to face off against the first place finisher Marine LP in the 2nd round (it’s likewise if Fillon wins the primary). But if LR’s candidate is Juppé—and with or without Bayrou in the race—he finishes in first place and well ahead of Marine (and whom he will annihilate in the 2nd round). If these IFOP numbers remain steady over the coming year, Sarkozy is toast. Point barre. 100% cooked. There is no chance whatever that right and center primary voters will give the majority to a candidate who looks even iffy for the 2nd round.

The Socialists: The PS is satisfied with last Sunday’s outcome, which is hardly surprising in view of its debacles in the 2014 municipal and European elections and last March’s departmental. But it should not be, as its victories in two of the five regions it won—BFC and CVDL—were narrow and due only to the high scores of the FN. And its loss in the ÎDF was a real setback, as the PS and its allies have governed this region since 1998 and with the city of Paris now safely voting left. And adding to these is the left’s disappearance altogether from the councils in NPDCP—a historic PS/left stronghold—and PACA.

Back to the ÎDF, the loss here laid bare much of what is wrong with the Socialists these days and the precarious situation they find themselves in. First, with Claude Bartolone heading the list. The manner in which he had Jean-Paul Huchon ejected—with the manifest assent of François Hollande, even though Huchon had loyally, if uncharismatically, presided the ÎDF Conseil Regional for the previous 17+ years—was unseemly. Moreover, it’s not as if Bartolone, who happens to be President of the National Assembly—the fourth ranking post in the French state—was seeking a mandate commensurate with his political stature—unless, of course, he was looking to assure his own political future, knowing that his party will be wiped out in the legislative elections in 18 months time. Now “Barto,” as he is known, is said to be greatly appreciated by PS deputies but for those outside the party he is the epitome of a Rue de Solférino apparatchik. There is, objectively speaking, nothing compelling about him as a politician. And then there was his demagoguery in the 2nd round campaign, calling Valérie Pécresse the defender of “Versailles [i.e. reactionaries], Neuilly [i.e. filthy rich people], and the white race…” Personally speaking, I considered voting blanc on account of this low road attack, though finally cast my ballot for Barto, solely to (unsuccessfully) deprive Sarkozy the satisfaction of winning the region.

Secondly in regard to the ÎDF was the PS’s failure to win the region despite the broad left coalition it put together in the 2nd round. As mentioned above, absolutely every constituent on the left save neo-Trotskyist groupuscules (NPA, LO etc) supported the PS-led list. These even included Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche, Mélenchon normally loathing the PS with a passion. Now most of these formations are admittedly not too significant—when not entirely unknown to the general public—but the symbolism was important nonetheless. The fact that a broad left coalition could still not win the ÎDF—and despite LR’s rightist campaign rhetoric and the FN not being a factor—will have implications for the PS’s future calculations—and to which may be added the PS’s victory in Brittany—the list led by Jean-Yves Le Drian breaking 50%—without any support from the rest of the left (Le Drian, finding the écolos’ 2nd round demands for slots on the list to be unreasonable, told them to go f— off). In view of the poor 1st round performance of the Europe Écologie-Les Verts and the Front de Gauche, and the total stock of left votes barely reaching 36%, it is now clearer than ever that the gauche de la gauche is all but useless to the PS in winning elections, at least when it comes to formal accords between partisan formations.

This is not to say that the overall identification with the left is on the decline or that the French left is finished (even though I’ve said as much myself in moments of despair or disgust). The French left is certainly in crisis—unsure of what it believes or wants, and insofar as it knows this, with no idea how to get there—and with its partisan structures in various stages of deliquescence or discredit, but the left identity remains strong. An IFOP poll for L’Humanité back in September revealed some interesting figures on this—and which seem right to me—with 53% of the sample situating itself on the right and 47% on the left (self-identified centrists were likely asked to tilt in one direction or another or with such being determined in follow-up questions). Breaking these down, 28% identified as left, 15% center-left, and 4% extreme-left. On the other side, 25% identified as right, 17% center-right, and 11% extreme-right. These numbers show at least four things. First, they confirm what has been known for most of the past century—and particularly during the Fifth Republic—which is that France leans to the right. There been have moments when the left surged ahead—1936, 1945-46, 1981—but these have been exceptional and short-lived. Second, there has not been a droitisation of French society, whatever Nicolas Sarkozy and other rightists may think: it’s the right that has lurched right—to the hard and extreme—not French voters as a whole. Third, the relatively low stock of left votes in current elections is not due to the defection of left voters to the right but rather their retreat into abstention (and disappointed but politically engaged voters who stop going to the polls can be lured back). Fourth, if one considers the new reality of French politics to be tripartite—PS, LR, FN—one can order the IFOP numbers to reflect three political poles of almost equal voter strength: left/extreme-left, center-left/center-right, and right/extreme-right.

François Hollande, Manuel Valls, and other social-liberals in the PS look to have drawn the inevitable conclusion from both the 2nd round results—in regard to the écolos and rest of the left—and the IFOP numbers, which is that there is no electoral salvation for the PS exclusively on the left. The cleavage within the party—between the social-liberals and those who are not this, who do not, e.g., appreciate Emmanuel Macron—is widening, and that with the FdG being an unbridgeable chasm. If the PS is ever to win another election, it has no choice but to look right for coalition partners with whom it can govern: UDI/MoDem and the center-right formation that issues from the eventual breakup of LR. Valls and others in his corner have been talking since last Sunday about a major “recomposition,” indeed upheaval, in the French political field and this is what they have in mind—and their thoughts have been echoed by moderate LR politicos, notably Raffarin and Bertrand.

Such a recomposition will necessitate the PS changing its name—i.e. shedding the “socialist” label—which Valls and Julien Dray mentioned during the week. The PS’s hack First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis tried to quash the idea and others called it irrelevant but the party will need to do this, as “socialism” simply doesn’t mean anything anymore; or, rather, it refers to a doctrine from another era that no one in the PS—or even PCF—advocates or believes is possible. People are not completely disconnected from reality. Moreover, it was precisely when socialism became the dominant creed on the French left that the latter ceased to cover over half the political spectrum—which it had in the early decades of the Third Republic—through the First World War—when adherence to republicanism and laïcité was what situated one on the left. Rid of the “socialist” label—to which older PS members and left voters are viscerally attached but means nothing to the younger generation—a reconstituted social-liberal party—likely including the PRG and non-EELV écolo groups—would have a wide boulevard to constitute coalitions with the center and a new center-right formation, based on republicanism and economic policies such as those associated with Macron. The consequence of this will no doubt be a split in the PS, with its frondeurs and other gauchistes (Benoît Hamon et al) forming a new party that will ally with a post-Mélenchon FdG, forming the left pole of French politics (and which still represents many people).

This is all post-2017, though—a project for the future—after the PS has been relegated to the opposition and Hollande sent into retirement. And it will necessitate a change in the electoral system, of a dose of proportional representation in legislative elections—of up to half the deputies in the National Assembly being elected on national PR lists—as three poles with roughly equal electorates and coalitions of several small parties cannot happen with the current mode de scrutin. But there is no chance whatever that a post-2017 government of the right will introduce even a modest dose of PR. And though this was one of Hollande’s 2012 campaign pledges, he has now abandoned it.

Yet one more Hollande disappointment… Despite his post-November 13th leap in the polls—which, like that in January, will not last—Hollande has disappointed just about everyone. His presidency has been that: one huge disappointment. If he had pushed through just one big reform and that everyone could feel—and most in an immediately positive way—e.g. reforming France’s impossibly complex, incomprehensible, and unfair tax code—making it less complex, more comprehensible, and fair, such as proposed, e.g., by Thomas Piketty et al—he could have secured his presidency and legacy. As an énarque surrounded by énarques, he understands this dossier and could have taken it on. But his cautious, splitting-the-difference political style would not allow for such audacious action and that risked upsetting various constituencies and interest groups. And then there is his and the Valls government’s wild overreaction to November 13th, with the état d’urgence and talk of amending the constitution on this, so as to allow for, entre autres, the stripping of French nationality of native-born citizens. This latter bit—which is outrageous and unacceptable, not to mention shocking coming from a PS government—will, in view of the outcry on the left, no doubt be dropped but if it’s not, Hollande will definitely not make it to the 2nd round should he be a candidate. Large numbers of left voters will defect to another candidate or abstain. Like Sarkozy, he’ll be toast in ’17.

Front National: I have less to say about the FN than the above-mentioned political poles, as it is, objectively speaking, by far the least important. The FN is a party that has never governed any Frenchman or woman—apart from those in a tiny handful of unfortunate communes that the great majority of French citizens have never set foot in—and which is not about to change. The FN is not a party of alternance and, in its present form, will never be.

A few brief points about this objectively minor political party. First, all the post-1st round talk about the FN being le premier parti de France was, pardon my French, a load of bullshit. A political party that has existed for over forty years but sent a total a five deputies elected in single-member constituencies to the National Assembly, two senators to the Luxembourg palace, elected fewer than twenty mayors of communes of over 3,500 inhabitants in its history, has never controlled a single regional or departmental council, and is influential in not a single civil society association or organization of any significance cannot be considered important. Point barre. For those who differ with me on this—who do think the FN is a consequential party—here’s a question: have you ever been to a major FN event, e.g. a Jean-Marie or Marine Le Pen rally, May 1st Jeanne d’Arc march in Paris, Fête BBR before it was discontinued in 2007? Anyone who has—and I have at least a half-dozen times—will have observed that the FN is a relatively small party, whose hard-core base doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Cf. the PCF, whose national vote is now in the low-mid single digits but which can attract a hundred times more people to its events than the FN can to its.

Second, the FN, as a festering boil on the French body politic, does merit close attention, study, and analysis but, as happens with boils, it was lanced in last Sunday’s 2nd round. The result was proof for the umpteenth time that breaking 50% of the vote in any given constituency is something the FN cannot do. This was the case 20-30 years ago and remains so today. That the FN can’t even come close to winning the PACA region—the most right-wing in the country and where it is solidly implanted—makes the mere notion that it could win a presidential election—in 2017, 2022, or anytime in the foreseeable future—absurd and laughable. The FN won 6.8 million votes last Sunday, which was a historic achievement and nothing to sneeze at. But the sky is not the limit for Marine LP and her party is not likely to go much higher, particularly in high participation contests such as legislative and, above all, presidential elections. E.g. the average of the participation rates in the 2nd round in all the presidential elections since 1965—with the exception of 1969, which was an anomaly (as one of the major parties instructed its millions of faithful voters to stay home)—is 83%. If Marine LP makes it to the 2nd round in 2017, which looks likely, one may bet that the participation rate will reach, maybe even exceed, 85%, i.e. that over 40 million voters will go to the polls on that day. I’m sorry but there is no way—not a snowball’s chance in hell—that 20 million French citizens will vote to send Marine Le Pen to the Élysée palace. Jamais de la vie. Not in 2017, or 2027, or ever.

Third, the reason why the FN cannot break 50% is because it has not changed. Apart from Marine Le Pen striving the rid the party of her father’s hang up about Jews, it’s still the same FN. In this respect, all the talk about the FN having transformed itself from a parti de protestation to a parti d’adhésion is nonsense and rubbish. The FN remains a protest party for which populism is its DNA. And at the core of populism is an across-the-board denunciation of “the establishment”—of the governing elites, mainstream political parties, the media, intelligentsia, educational institutions, etc, etc—which is seen as the enemy and with which compromises are not to be made. Marine LP is said to want to be President of the Republic, that this is her ambition and her goal. It may well be. But she has not elaborated a credible strategy to get there, a centerpiece of which would be to cultivate at least part of “the establishment” and seek out allies within it. Unless she’s a megalomaniacal narcissist, which is possible, one may hypothesize that she doesn’t really want state power after all—as her father never did—as if she were to obtain it, this would immediately make her part of the establishment and impose all sorts of compromises that she would have no idea how to make. And the FN, as the party of the new establishment, would lose its raison d’être, as all populist parties do when they wield executive power.

Fourth, on the question of allies: Florian Philippot spoke between the two rounds of allying with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France, that this is something that the FN should maybe try to do. There seemed to be no takers in the FN leadership for this, even though Dupont-Aignan’s position on Europe is closer to the FN’s than anyone else’s outside the party. But while Dupont-Aignan may be a Europhobe he’s not a facho and would never ally with the frontistes, as he would gain nothing from it but would lose a lot, namely his credibility in “the establishment” (which he does have). Likewise with Philippe de Villiers—now retired from electoral politics—who is way out on the right—more so than Dupont-Aignan—but never showed the slightest interest in allying with the FN and despite movement of cadres between the latter and de Villiers’s now moribund Mouvement pour la France. So the FN’s absence of allies—which it manifestly does not want and that no one wants with it—will continue indefinitely. And without allies or some kind of entrée into “the establishment,” the doors to power will be forever closed to the Le Pens.

One other point about the FN and why it cannot be placed in the same league with LR, the PS, UDI, MoDem, the FdG or any of the other “establishment” parties or blocs. The FN is the private preserve of the Le Pen family. It is a Le Pen family enterprise. Without a Le Pen at the head of the FN, the FN does not exist. If Marine and Marion were to suddenly leave this earth—as Jean-Marie certainly will sooner rather than later—there would be no one to take their place. The FN would fragment into several pieces. The French extreme right would cease to speak with a single, dominant voice. And it would thereby disappear as a significant electoral force.

UPDATE: If one didn’t see it, Sarah Palin had a column in Breitbart.com, dated December 13th, praising Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and her aunt Marine. The Wassila Wacko thus begins: “I have a political crush, but one I couldn’t vote for today – because she ran for office in France.” The “she” is Marion M-LP. Read it and behold. As I’ve tirelessly insisted for years, the conservative wing of the GOP = Front National.

2nd UPDATE: A faithful reader—my mother—emailed me the following comment about the above: “I did…read the article supposedly authored by Sarah Palin. I use that qualifying phrase because I believe someone wrote it for her. It is too literate and well-written to be hers, and she has allies out there to support her as a public personality.” My mother is no doubt correct. I was struck that Palin—whom I rather doubt reads French—would know enough about Marion M-LP & Co. to write about them, let alone be interested in doing so.

3rd UPDATE: Two post-election polls are out, by ELABE and Odoxa, that show a reinforcement of Alain Juppé’s position and a collapse of Nicolas Sarkozy’s. The gap between the two men is wider than ever. As for François Hollande, he’s headed south.

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Tomorrow is round two. I have a number of things to say on last Sunday’s round one result, which I’ll reserve for a longer analysis after the definitive outcome. In the meantime, a few points on the strictly electoral, horse race side of tomorrow’s vote.

First, it is impossible to predict what is going to happen. The Front National could well win three of the new enlarged regions where it finished first by a wide margin—Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie (NPDCP, where Marine Le Pen heads the list), Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA, the contours of which have not been enlarged; the head of list being Marion Maréchal-Le Pen), and Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine (Grand Est; led by Marine LP’s right-hand man Florian Philippot)—and theoretically take up to six, if one adds the other three regions where it finished ahead of the Socialist and Les Républicains party lists: Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées (LRMP; led by Marine LP’s live-in companion Louis Aliot), Centre-Val-de-Loire (CVDL; Philippe Loiseau), and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (BFC; Sophie Montel).

In view of the FN’s historic 1st round score—28.4% in metropolitan France and 6.1 million votes, which is quite simply amazing given the 50% abstention rate—and first place finish nationally, it stands to reason that it should win at least something. But the Frontistes could possibly end up with nothing at all. Two polls out in the past three days—from TNS-Sofres and ELABE—have Xavier Bertrand and Christian Estrosi—who head the LR lists in NPDCP and PACA, respectively—decisively beating Marine LP and Marion M-LP, and with LR’s Philippe Richert in the Grand Est overtaking Philippot, and despite the PS’s Jean-Pierre Masseret there disobeying instructions of Socialist HQ in Paris to withdraw his list in the 2nd round and support LR against the FN; so though there will be a triangulaire, which would normally render the vote a done deal for the FN—with its 10% lead over LR—the outcome is uncertain. The track record of election polls is admittedly not excellent these days—cf. Israel, UK, Turkey—and the advance of Marine LP and Marion M-LP over their LR runner-ups is considerable (14-15%). For Bertrand and Estrosi to beat the Le Pens, the great majority of orphaned left voters—terrified by the prospect of an FN victory— would have to vote for these two high-profile right-wingers—and, in the Grand Est, to defect from the now dissident Socialist Massaret to LR’s Richert. On verra. If I were a PS voter in PACA, folding the ballot of the odiously hard-right, sarkozyste historique Estrosi into the envelope and dropping it in the ballot box would possibly be too painful to bear, though concentrating the mind on Marion M-LP, who, behind that soft-spoken persona and pretty face, is an intolerant, ideological extremist to the right of her aunt, could persuade me to bear the pain (as for Bertrand in NPDCP, he’s okay as far as LR personalities go, so no problem voting for him to knock off Marine LP).

In any case, the FN-LR duels in NPDCP and PACA are of critical importance for the future of the FN—and of French politics. Almost every contest the FN has won in a non-proportional representation election to date has been in triangulaires, i.e. with a plurality of the vote. Attaining an absolute majority in any given constituency has been beyond the FN’s ability (in legislative elections it’s happened only twice, both in the late 1980s). In the 2nd round of last March’s departmental elections, the FN won only three of the 535 duels it waged. If the FN crosses the 50% threshold tomorrow in two important regions—and with candidates named Le Pen—it will be a huge event: a stunning victory for the FN, rendering it more credible in the eyes of many voters as a party of alternance, and sending Marine LP’s 2017 ambitions into orbit.

The second point, on the PS, which took a mediocre 23.5% of the national vote: The Socialists look sure to win Brittany (defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—who is highly regarded these days—heading the list) and are well positioned in Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes (ALPC; Alain Rousset) but could lose everywhere else. Then again, the Socialists could win up to eight or nine—or even ten—regions if the stars perfectly align, i.e. if there is a flawless transfer of voters of the 1st round lists of Europe Écologie-Les Verts and Front de Gauche—which did poorly, netting 6.8% and 4.2% of the national vote respectively—a few of the lists having merged with the PS for the 2nd round but with most eliminated outright (for the stock of left votes, see the map below). For écolo and FdG voters, the question is how many will put aside their detestation of the PS—of François Hollande, Manuel Valls, Emmanuel Macron et al—to bar the route of the FN or defeat the LR of the hated Nicolas Sarkozy (particularly in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, where the LR list leader is the reactionary Laurent Wauquiez). One may be cautiously optimistic that republican reflexes will prevail for gauche de la gauche voters, who will hold their noses and vote PS—and particularly in a region like LRMP, with the specter of Louis Aliot presiding the regional council in Toulouse too appalling to contemplate.

In the improbable event that the left loses LRMP to the FN, this will be a body blow to the PS that could ultimately prove fatal. The ex-Midi-Pyrénées region is a historic stronghold of the republican left and where the FN has, until recently, been insignificant. If the PS loses there tomorrow, this will be added to the disastrous performance of its lists in NPDCP and PACA last Sunday—and then the decision to withdraw them from the 2nd round altogether—which has been devastating for the party and its adherents in those regions. The Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and Bouches-de-Rhône were the principal bastions of the French Socialists throughout the 20th century, and while the latter has been trending rightward for over two decades now—and with the local PS in a state of advanced deliquescence—the former two departments have remained strong for the party. The disappearance of all PS representation in the regional councils in Lille and Marseille—and with the hundreds of salaried posts that go with this—is just so terrible for the party—and for the French left in general. PS militants and sympathizers in the two regions are shattered by what has happened. Unless the PS overperforms tomorrow, I don’t see how it can ultimately survive all this as a party in its current form. I’ll come back to this thought at a later date.

On the level of base political calculation, however, the decision of the PS to withdraw the two lists—which was announced by party First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis but certainly taken by President Hollande—can only work to the party’s benefit and regardless of tomorrow’s outcome. E.g. if Bertrand and Estrosi defeat the two Le Pens, then the Socialists can claim credit, as the LR victory will be owed to the PS’s republican reflexes in committing hara-kiri to stop the FN, but with Sarkozy’s LR having refused to do likewise for the PS. And Bertrand and Estrosi will, in principle at least, have to acknowledge their gratitude to left voters and promise not to forget about them over the coming six years. But if the Le Pens end up winning the duels, it will be seen as a catastrophic defeat for LR and, above all, Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s authority as president of his party will be severely undermined—probably fatally—and his credibility as a candidate for 2017 in tatters.

This leads to the third point, on LR, which did not do well last Sunday, taking 27.1% of the metropolitan vote—but in merged lists with the UDI and MoDem centrists (who could net up to 10% were they to run separately)—and finishing in first place in only four regions. LR will probably win a few, though only the Pays-de-la-Loire (Bruno Retailleau, president of the LR parliamentary group in the Senate, heads the list) looks fairly sure (as the PS and écolos are in conflict there). It is not out of the question, though, that LR could end up with just this one region (if it even manages that). If so, it will be the death knell for Sarkozy and his 2017 ambitions (and even if Bertrand and Estrosi win). And so much the better.

This will be excellent news if it comes to pass, as Sarkozy has shown himself during this campaign—and for the umpteenth time—to be the worst person in the top-tier of French politics, demagogically mouthing Front National rhetoric and with his trademark hot-tempered, trash-talking style. Increasing numbers of Sarkozy’s LR colleagues are fed up with him (see, e.g., this piece in Mediapart) and his strategy of mimicking the FN. And these fed-up LR tenors now go beyond the usual suspects (Alain Juppé, François Fillon, and their associates). Sarko’s refusal to even consider withdrawing Dominique Reynié’s LR list in LRMP—which finished in third place—to help the PS defeat the FN there, was denounced by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Raffarin, who is normally calm and soft-spoken, was practically shouting on France Inter last Monday morning. There are indeed decent, moderate personalities on France’s parliamentary right. Unless LR shocks everyone tomorrow night with a major victory—winning eight regions or more—it will be reglèments de comptes time in that party when its Bureau Politique next meets.

Last Monday I discussed the 1st round result with the students in my three Master’s classes—who lean markedly to the right (mainstream and souverainiste)—at the Catholic University of Paris. One of them, who is highly politicized and works on the presidential primary campaign of one of Sarkozy’s LR rivals, spoke of the deep split in the LR, between the moderates—those who are real republicans (Juppé, Fillon, Bruno Le Maire etc)—and the hard-right/reactionaries led by Sarkozy. She was of the conviction that the two currents would not be able to eternally co-exist in the same party—and in saying this, she was seconded by another student, also an LR activist. If, down the road, the LR does split and there is a major upheaval in the PS, this could signal a wholesale recomposition of the French political field. I’ll come back to this in my post-election post, as well as with other thoughts I have on this subject.

One recurring thought is the striking similarities between what is happening in France with the United States. On this, I recommend Paul Krugman’s column in yesterday’s NYT, “Empowering the ugliness,” in which he discusses the two countries and gets it exactly, totally right.


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CEVIPOF_Liegey Muller Pons

For those who don’t live in the Hexagon or keep up with politics here, the first round of the regional elections is happening tomorrow. There are 13 regions in France; until this year there were 22 but François Hollande and his Socialists decided, for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, that 22 was too many and that the apparently too-small regions needed to be larger. So Hollande had his Socialists push through a stupid, half-baked law earlier this year—that only graduates of ENA, of which Hollande is one, could cook up—to force through a merger of a few—but that absolutely no one in the affected regions understood or wanted—to bring the number down to 13. For those interested, the old map is here, the new one here.

The regional councils don’t have a lot of power—considerably less so than state legislatures in the US—though have some responsibilities—mostly technical—and the budget to go along with them. But most people don’t think about the councils too much, so the participation rate in regional elections is relatively low (46% in the last ones, in 2010). The mode de scrutin (electoral system) is proportional list in two rounds. It used to be in one round, through the 1998 elections, thereby allowing for the theoretical possibility of ad hoc coalitions. When the political system was bipolarized—with a left and right pole—coalitions didn’t need to happen, but with the Front National’s breakthrough that year, the then Socialist-led government decided to modify the electoral system, with a majority bonus awarded to the list arriving in first place in the second round, the idea being that this would prevent the FN from holding the balance of seats in a hung council.

Brilliant Socialists. Now that we have a tripolar system in France—with the FN being one of the poles—Marine Le Pen & Co. could well take control of three—or even more—of the regional councils after the second round next Sunday. This didn’t need to happen but, with the current mode de scrutin, most likely will. Electoral systems matter. The above map shows, based on the latest polling data, which list will finish in first place where and by what magnitude. The black/gray is FN, blue is LR (Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party), the red/pink the PS (as for the Front de Gauche and écolos, they’re non factors). Bleak, as my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer puts it in a post today (N.B. the important article he links to by Nonna Mayer).

I’ll be an assesseur titulaire (election judge) at my own polling station tomorrow (representing the PS, whom I will probably vote for, out of pity). It will be interesting to see how many of my neighbors vote FN (I fear the worst). Post-election commentary will follow on Monday or Tuesday.

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Mobile, Alabama, August 21st (photo credit: Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Mobile, Alabama, August 21st (photo credit: Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

I had intended, until a few weeks ago, not to have a single post on the US presidential campaign before the new year, as whatever happens prior to the Iowa caucuses is invariably overtaken by events, neither here nor there, and soon forgotten. I may be a political junkie but only up to a point. But then there was Donald Trump. Whatever one may say about The Donald, he’s certainly made this presidential campaign—at this early stage, at least—the most interesting in as long as I can remember—and it is, BTW, far more interesting than anything happening politically in France these days (not even this compares)—not to mention highly revealing about the Republican party base.

À propos of this, Michael Lind has a spot-on article in Politico Magazine (September 3rd) on “How Trump exposed the Tea Party.” The lede: “The proof is in: the GOP base isn’t small-government libertarian; it’s old-fashioned populist.” Money quote

The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party [which Trump has galvanized] for what it really is; Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years: that the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism. Think William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long, not Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government overall than they are that so much of it is going to other people, especially immigrants and nonwhites. They are for government for them[selves] and against government for Not-Them[selves].

Pour mémoire, Lind’s argument was made four years ago by Harvard social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, in their (excellent) book on the Tea Party phenomenon.

Conclusion: The “small government” discourse of the GOP is a lot of hokum. It’s eyewash; as I wrote in my last Trump post, Republican voters, including Tea Partiers, don’t care about the size of government, as rightist pollster Frank Luntz said himself 2½ years back. They just don’t want government benefits going to the “wrong” people.

On the GOP’s Trump conundrum not being Trump himself but rather those Republicans who support him, see MoJo’s David Corn (September 3rd), “The GOP’s problem is not Donald Trump: It’s their voters.” See as well NYT contributing op-ed writer Thomas B. Edsall examine “What Trump understands about Republicans.” Edsall thus begins

Donald Trump’s success is no surprise. The public and the press have focused on his defiant rejection of mannerly rhetoric, his putting into words of what others think privately. But the more important truth is that a half-century of Republican policies on race and immigration have made the party the home of an often angry and resentful white constituency — a constituency that is now politically mobilized in the face of demographic upheaval. (…)

Trump is going directly after those Republican voters who seek to protect what some scholars call “compositional amenities” – the comfort of a common religion and language, mutually shared traditions, and the minimization of cultural conflict.

The territory Trump has ventured onto is fertile ground for his brand of demagoguery. (…)

Transfer this to France and you have the hardcore base of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party down to a tee: a base that has been pulling France’s mainstream conservative party further to the right for the past decade and that Sarkozy strives to flatter and indulge… And then there’s Marine Le Pen, whom Sarkozy strives to mimic…

The Trump phenomenon is not only a hard right one, though. Christopher Caldwell, the unhackish senior editor of the otherwise Republican party hack rag TWS, has an interesting report (September 7th issue) from the campaign trail in Iowa, in which he asks “What’s the deal with the Trump?” Entre autres, Caldwell observes that a certain number of those who have attended Trump rallies and otherwise shown an interest in his candidacy are independents and even Democratic party voters, c’est-à-dire, Trump is not only attracting support from the Tea Party/hard right GOP base. His appeal goes well beyond that.

Caldwell makes a number of valid points, one of them this

One might compare Trump’s rise to the anti-immigrant populisms on the rise in Europe, but the parallel is deceptive. European immigration, unlike American, appears to be turning into an outright military threat [AWAV: this is nonsense]. The parties that focus on it often are suspicious of the European Union and have ideological affinities with old right-wing movements. Whatever one thinks of Trump, he is not an ideologue. (“I’m fine with affirmative action,” he recently told the Los Angeles Times.) The European radicals he most resembles are those freelances who combined (or combine) truth-telling and piss-taking: the Dutch firebrand Pim Fortuyn, assassinated on the eve of the 2002 elections, the radio host and UKIP leader Robert Kilroy-Silk, who rose and quickly fell two years later, the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, who still leads the Five-Star Movement.

In French terms, I’ve said it before and will say it again: Trump is a mix of Nicolas Sarkozy (for the brutality of his political persona, rank demagoguery, absence of core principles or morality, and careening all over the right side of the political spectrum in changing his positions on a dime), Jean-Marie Le Pen (for his flamboyant, megalomaniacal macho showmanship and oratory, brutal personal style, and general demagoguery, particularly on immigration), and Bernard Tapie (the brash, flamboyant businessman and TV entertainer dabbling in politics—from center-left to center-right—to further his ego and personal interest, and who, like his pal Sarkozy, is devoid of principles and morality).

Continuing with French parallels, the Trump phenomenon may perhaps be viewed as less Tea Partyish or reactionary than a sort of downmarket Bonapartism à l’américaine: a providential, nationalist, charismatic strongman leader who is generically conservative but devoid of ideology—there’s no fascism here or doctrinal rupture with the existing order—whose positions can lurch from the far-right to the almost center-left, and whose appeal consists entirely of his outsized persona and promise to uphold or restore national grandeur (the Bonapartist strain on the French right was, in the 20th century, incarnated by Charles de Gaulle but I won’t insult the great general’s memory by equating Trump with him). And there’s not a shred of libertarianism or “small government” blather in it.

MoJo blogger Kevin Drum has a post (September 5th) telling conservatives “Sorry…you deserve Donald Trump” and in which he links to a lament-rant by the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg against Trump and his Republican trumpenproletariat (great neologism) supporters. Goldberg’s jeremiad, “No movement that embraces Trump can call itself conservative,” is a doozy. This bit is particularly noteworthy

If you want a really good sense of the damage Donald Trump is doing to conservatism, consider the fact that for the last five years no issue has united the Right more than opposition to Obamacare. Opposition to socialized medicine in general has been a core tenet of American conservatism from Day One. Yet, when Republicans were told that Donald Trump favors single-payer health care, support for single-payer health care jumped from 16 percent to 44 percent.

Wow, that’s awesome! No wonder conservative ideologues are so disoriented and distraught at the Trump phenomenon. It is hardly surprising that some are even darkly suspecting that Trump may be, as National Review columnist John Fund wonders, “a double agent for the left.” E.g.

Indeed, all that hanging around Democrats really rubbed off on him. In a 2000 book, he declared “we must have universal health care” and said it should look a lot like Canada’s system: “Doctors might be paid less than they are now, as is the case in Canada, but they would be able to treat more patients because of the reduction in their paperwork.” As recently as last year, Trump was still praising single-payer medical systems overseas.

At the same time that he was plumping for single-payer health care in 2000, Trump called for a one-time 14.25 percent net-worth tax on individuals and trusts with a net worth of over $10 million. He has also called for a 20 percent tax on importing goods. All this has led talk-show host Glenn Beck to declare: “Donald Trump is a progressive. He’s not a conservative.”

A progressive or, rather, a moderate Republican, as the NYT’s Josh Barro suggested in a post last month on the NYT’s The Upshot blog? Whatever the case, the bottom line—and it’s kind of scary—was laid out by journalist Conor Lynch in Salon three days ago: “The shocking truth about Donald Trump: He’s actually the least terrifying GOP candidate.” Ex-GOPer Bruce Bartlett said much the same thing in a social media comment today: “Honest to God, if forced to vote for one of the wankers now running, I would vote for Trump in a minute.” Personally speaking, if I were ordered to choose among the candidates in the large GOP field, it would be a toss-up between John Kasich and Trump. Scary and shocking indeed.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman, in his Labor Day column, says that “Trump is right on economics.”

2nd UPDATE: Differing with Krugman, Wall Street executive and contributing NYT opinion writer Steven Rattner, in his August 14th column, laid waste to “Trump’s economic muddle.

3rd UPDATE: Michael Tomasky has a review essay in the September 24th issue of the NYRB—and that is well worth the read—of Donald Trump’s 2012 book Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again!

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[update below]

Jean-Yves Camus has a column in the latest Charlie Hebdo (June 3rd) on the trend among far right populist parties in Europe—particularly in the northern countries—to give themselves names that represent the precise opposite of what they stand for, e.g. Sweden Democrats, the Norwegian Progress Party, and Geert Wilders’s Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, to which one may add Christoph Blocher’s Union Démocratique du Centre in Switzerland. The main focus of Camus’s column, however, is the far right party in Finland that has named itself The True Finns (this is the precise translation of its name from Finnish), which is the second largest party in parliament there. So if this party is the “true Finns” tout court, Camus asks, does that make Finns who don’t vote for it not true Finns? And what of Finland’s Swedish minority, not to mention Lapps and naturalized immigrants?

Camus didn’t mention it but he no doubt had in mind Nicolas Sarkozy’s engineering the change in his party’s name from the UMP to “Les Républicains,” which was consecrated in the latter’s “founding congress” last Saturday (perhaps the subject of Camus’s next column). For the Gaullist movement and its successors, this is the tenth time—count ’em, ten—that they’ve changed their name—and with seven different acronyms—since the founding of the RPF in 1947 (since then: UNR, UNR-UDT, UD-Ve, UDR, RPR, UMP). Rebaptizing the RPR in 2002 as the UMP made sense, as the UMP involved the merger of the RPR with other conservative and center-right formations (DL, most of the Nouvelle UDF)—creating a big tent of the right and center—so it was indeed a new party. But there’s nothing new about “Les Républicains”—and the party’s juridical status, as Le Canard Enchaîné (June 3rd) points out, has, apart from the name, not been altered one iota. Legally speaking, it’s simply the UMP with a new name, Sarkozy wanting to cast off the UMP label, identified as it had become with scandals (Bygmallion, etc)—all dating from his presidency, during which nothing happened in his party that he didn’t authorize—and to deprive Marine Le Pen of her cherished sobriquet “UMPS.” A “sham reinvention,” as my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer put it. As for the brazen usurpation of the republican label—cherished on the left, where it’s a fetish word—and with no adjective or qualifier (rassemblement, union, parti, etc)—just “The Republicans,” as if, like The True Finns, we’re the only ones—, this has been denounced by numerous civil society actors and intellos (e.g. here, here, and here), and been the subject of a lawsuit (here and here; though Sarko has won the first round of this, it’s not over). Sarkozy’s response is that, yes, the PS may be republican but it’s socialist first (as for the FN—which, under Marine LP, has been wrapping itself in the republican mantle—they’re nationalists first, so Sarko says; on this at least, he’s not entirely wrong). In the case of the PS, not only has it never said that it was “socialist” before being “republican” but the very idea that it is socialist at all—that this is a label one can affix to François Hollande, Manuel Valls, and Emmanuel Macron, entre autres—would be viewed as a laughable joke by sizable numbers on the left. And as it happens, the cover story of the latest issue (June 4th) of the somewhat left-leaning L’Obs (ex-Le Nouvel Observateur) is entitled “Le PS est-il de droite?” (Objectively speaking, the French Socialist party is no longer socialist by any commonly accepted definition of that term, but that’s another discussion).

An even more laughable joke is that Sarkozy’s party—which is increasingly indistinguishable from the Front National on just about every issue except Europe—can call itself “republican” avant tout, of which more on below. In any case, I, along with everyone else on the left side of the political spectrum, will decline to refer to Sarko’s machine de guerre by the name it has usurped. As Sarkozy refuses an acronym for his renamed party, I will refer to it as LR (I could take a leaf from ex-US Republican Bruce Bartlett—the Reagan and Bush 41 administration policy adviser who, disaffected with the GOP and its extreme right-wing lurch, has labeled it the “wanker party”—and call Sarko’s formation “Les Branleurs,” but will resist the temptation).

Many who have commented on Sarko’s show last Saturday—and on his stump speeches over the past few months more generally—have remarked on his verbal violence, on the virulence of his attacks not only against the government and its policies but the person of François Hollande himself. Even seasoned political analyst Thomas Legrand was taken aback by the tone of Sarkozy’s speech on Saturday, observing that Sarkozy was now becoming a caricature of himself. Journalist and commentator Bruno Roger-Petit, in a column on Sarkozy’s “one-man shows” before the UMP/LR faithful, also noted Sarko’s penchant for showering President Hollande with insults. Calling such comportment “unworthy of Republicans,” Roger-Petit had this to say about Sarkozy’s stump style

La mine tendue. La mâchoire serrée. Le poing brandi comme un marteau. L’œil noir. Quel communicant osera dire à Nicolas Sarkozy qu’une telle posture en meeting, si elle est de nature à rassurer et galvaniser le noyau dur des militants fanatisés, n’est guère de nature à imposer l’image d’un ancien président de la République, empli de sagesse et de sérénité? Pour qui connait les us et coutumes de la cour, la réponse est évidente : aucun.

Some three years ago I called Sarkozy “le voyou de la République.” Needless to say, the man has not changed. Once a voyou, always a voyou.

In his commentary, Roger-Petit also remarked on Sarkozy’s Napoleon Bonaparte wannabe act

Pour l’ancien chef de l’Etat, tout est joué, tout est plié. 2017 sera une épopée à la Napoléon revenant de l’Ile d’Elbe. L’Aigle de la Sarkozie volera de clocher en clocher jusqu’aux tours de Notre-Dame et François Hollande contraint de s’enfuir, en pleine semaine sainte, pour Bruxelles, dans son carrosse Citroën hybride, lourd et pataud, emporté par une irrésistible vague populaire…

Sarkozy’s Bonapartism may be an old story but it nonetheless merits mention, as it so dominates his political persona. Alain Duhamel, who is no gauchiste, thus entitled his column in the June 4th Libération “La République bonapartiste de Nicolas Sarkozy.” Noting Sarkozy’s “personal attacks of extraordinary violence” on François Hollande, Duhamel wrote that the UMP/LR faithful at the congress loved every second of it. They lapped it up. And they’re desperate for an homme providentiel. If Sarkozy can play Bonaparte to the UMP/LR base—whose precise American equivalent is the kind of people who show up at a Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin rally—it’s because that base is Bonapartist. It wants a strongman in charge. Thus Sarkozy’s emphasis on the need to reestablish “authority,” which is one of the pillars of his discourse and what he will propose to the French electorate in the unthinkable event that he’s LR’s candidate in 2017.

As for the other pillars of Sarkozy’s discourse—of what he has to say to the French people these days—one would think that, with unemployment inexorably on the rise and GDP growth near zero, they would be focused on the economy. But, amazingly enough, they’re not. Sarkozy has almost nothing to say about it. For Sarkozy, the primordial issues facing France today are immigration, national identity and, above all, Islam. That Sarkozy is throwing red meat to his hard right base—which is not only not unemployed but does not relate to those who are—and trying to keep up with Marine Le Pen goes without saying. He is also doing something that he does extremely well—which comes naturally to him, and to hard right-wing politicians generally—which is to polarize the electorate, stigmatize a part of the population, and play the politics of resentment (e.g. see these pages from the new book on Sarkozy’s erstwhile Rasputin adviser, Patrick Buisson, whose influence looms large in Sarkozy’s head). Bruno Roger-Petit, in his column on the Challenges website yesterday, asked “why such an obsession with Islam?” on the part of Sarkozy (and the FN). He thus began

Que seraient les droites, LR et FN, Sarkozy et Philippot, Guaino et Le Pen, sans l’Islam? Qu’auraient-elles à dire, et à faire, sans les musulmans, réels ou supposés? Quel projet porteraient-elles si elles ne pouvaient plus brandir sans cesse l’épouvantail de l’époque ? Sans l’Islam, LR et FN seraient deux coquilles vides. Le vide et le silence. Le néant et le néant.

Le néant. Tout à fait. In his conclusion, Roger-Petit delivered the coup de grâce

Par la faute de leur président, “Les Républicains” ont donc une obsession collatérale de l’Islam. Ce n’est pas tant cette religion qui les obsède que l’usage qu’en fait le Front national. Résultat : LR court après le FN de Marine Le Pen et Florian Philippot, mais sans savoir où cela mène, et pire encore, sans se demander si cela vaut la peine de courir. Dès qu’il s’agit d’Islam, de FN, de religion et de laïcité, “Les Républicains” explosent, se ventilent et se dispersent, façon puzzle. En route pour le terminus des prétentieux ?

Indeed. As for what Sarkozy is proposing on the question of “Islam,” who knows? He has no idea where his rhetoric on this is supposed to lead and likely doesn’t care. If it is politically expedient for him to demagogue the Islam non-issue—or any issue or non-issue—in the here and now and point the finger at France’s Muslim population, then he will do that. Period. So yesterday Sarkozy convened an LR “Journée de travail sur la question ‘islam en France ou islam de France’,” but which was closed to the media and at the end of which no communiqué was issued. And which, to their honor, LR’s honest, real republicans—Alain Juppé, Bruno Le Maire, François Fillon—declined to attend, as did just about every Muslim personality who was invited. Seriously, can one imagine, as writer-artist Joann Sfar rhetorically asked Sarkozy hitman Geoffroy Didier on BFM the other day, what the reaction would be if LR were to organize a closed-door study session on the Jewish Question in France? We would, at the very least, not consider LR to be “républicain.” Given its present obsession with Islam, it stands to reason that LR, today, cannot be considered republican. Point à la ligne.

Returning to Sarkozy’s penchant for verbal violence and trash talking everyone but his sycophants—and even then—François Hollande has hardly been the only target of his acid tongue these days. As the latest Canard Enchaîné reports, Sarkozy, in speaking about François Bayrou in a discussion with UDI centrists, said that “I’m going to whack that stutterer” (le bègue, je vais le crever; Bayrou apparently had a stuttering problem in his youth, long overcome). Classy guy, that Sarko (Bayrou’s properly ironic response on France Inter Wednesday morning: “C’est une remarque distinguée. Avec des déclarations comme ça, voici qui élève le niveau de la politique française…”). On the same page of Le Canard (p. 2) is an account of the informal “debriefing” Sarkozy gave to journalists at LR HQ on Monday, in which he knifed in the back his LR rivals—Juppé, Le Maire, Fillon—but also party nº2 Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet—who was put there by Sarko, to give LR a moderate, big tent facade—for her backhanded criticism of his demagoguery on Islam and her generally non-reactionary tone, that was so driving Sarkozy up the tree that he was getting ready to eject her from the party leadership, but then desisted when his pollster Pierre Giacometti—who was the genius behind the “Les Républicains” label, as we have learned—told him that that would not be a good idea at all. So NKM is safe for the time being, though she has made it pretty clear that she’s not going to toe Sarko’s Buisson line.

What all this confirms, and for the umpteenth time, is that Nicolas Sarkozy is the worst person in the top tier of the French political class. Period. I have already asserted this on several occasions (e.g. here, here, and here; if anyone has somehow missed my 2012 election eve treatise on Sarkozy, go here), though qualified it by not including Marine Le Pen in that tier. But now I will categorically state that Sarkozy is worse than Marine. At least with Marine, you know what you’re getting. There is some consistency in her positions. MLP has core principles and values, however odious they may be. Sarkozy has no core principles or values; he believes in nothing but his own personal ambition and vanquishing anyone and everyone who gets in his way. That he could find himself back at the helm of France’s largest political party—after losing re-election—and preparing to take back the presidency speaks not only to the deliquescence of the French right but also to the political and moral depravity of the UMP/LR militant base that has made this happen.

But as I have been insisting since the day Sarkozy made his ambitions for 2017 known, he won’t make it. Alain Juppé will beat him in the 2016 primary. The French people in their great majority—72% in a poll last week (and 31% of UMP/LR sympathizers)—don’t want Sarkozy to even be a candidate in 2017, let alone the next President of the Republic. At this point I will even bet that Juppé beats Sarkozy (a bottle of halfway decent wine, of my choice; maximum three bets).

One final thing, on which I have seen no commentary. Sarkozy’s congress last Saturday was reported by most of the media as having taken place at “la Porte de la Villette,” which is a geographical location (and metro station). But the LR’s “founding congress” was, in point of fact, held at an exposition and meeting hall near the Porte de la Villette—built by a private company and that opened last year—called the Paris Event Center. Not Le Centre Événementiel de Paris but Paris Event Center. In English, and with “center” spelled à l’américaine, not the EU-standard, British way (centre). France Inter anchorperson Patrick Cohen thus pronounced it, on the Monday morning news, “Ze Pareese Ivente Centaire.” I find this amazing. How was this allowed to happen? How could the public authorities approve such a center in the city of Paris carrying a non-French name and for no legitimate reason? Whatever happened to the Loi Toubon, la défense de la langue française et de la francophonie, Article 2 of the Constitution de la République française, et j’en passe?! So, in opening LR’s congress, did they say “Soyez le bienvenu au Pareese Ivente Centaire!”?? Did the Buissoniste “Républicains” present not have a problem with their party holding a “founding congress” in an arena with an Anglo-Saxon name? Même moi je suis choqué. La France m’inquiète, honnêtement…

UPDATE: I linked above to two smart columns by Challenges columnist Bruno Roger-Petit. I now see, however, that he had a column yesterday (June 5th) in which he all but said that Sarkozy is a shoo-in in the LR primary, that it’s a foregone conclusion he’ll win it, it’s in the bag, and that Alain Juppé

seul aujourd’hui au sein de la droite à pouvoir faire barrage à la réélection de Nicolas Sarkozy en 2017, ne parvient toujours pas à convaincre de sa capacité à éveiller un imaginaire susceptible d’ébranler les hordes de militants et sympathisants de LR prêts à confier, encore et encore, le destin de leur camp à Nicolas Sarkozy. Quant aux autres, les Le Maire, NKM, Bertrand ou Fillon, ils sont d’ores et déjà les idiots utiles de la primaire LR, les rasoirs dont Nicolas Sarkozy usera pour faire manger la laine du pauvre mouton juppéiste.

Ah bon. In his column, Roger-Petit links to the latest CSA-Les Echos-Radio Classique baromètre (released June 5th) but whose numbers he manifestly did not analyse. What the CSA poll shows is that Alain Juppé remains the most popular politician in France—and by far—with a 57-39 positive-negative image. As for Nicolas Sarkozy, he is at 35-64. These numbers are about the same as in other polls taken over the months, i.e. they’re not outliers. What is interesting, however, is the breakdown of the numbers by partisan affiliation. It is being said, particularly by Sarkozyistes, that Juppé’s higher popularity is coming from voters on the left but that Sarko remains the champion of the right—and it is rightist voters who will decide the nominee in the LR primary. Now it is indeed the case that those on the left have a rather higher opinion of Juppé than they do of Sarkozy: 54-42 for Juppé (and with PS sympathizers at 67-30), according to the CSA poll, with Sarkozy at 16-83. But what is interesting is the numbers on the right: for the “droite” as a whole, Juppé is at 73-24 and Sarkozy 64-34, i.e. Juppé beats Sarko even in their broad camp. As for UMP/LR sympathizers, their numbers are identical: Juppé is at 73-24 and Sarkozy 73-25. Where Juppé massacres Sarkozy is among UDI and MoDem sympathizers—who will be voting in the primary: 85-15 and 76-24 for Juppé vs. 14-86 and 30-70 for Sarkozy. Juppé is more popular than Sarkozy even among FN sympathizers: 46-51 vs. 34-65. Conclusion: If these poll numbers hold steady between now and the LR primary—and, barring a game-changer in Sarkozy’s favor (or in Juppé’s disfavor), there is no reason to believe that they won’t—and some 3 to 4 million voters participate in the primary—which, in view of the 2.8 million who turned out for the 2011 PS primary’s 2nd ballot, is likely—then Alain Juppé will beat Nicolas Sarkozy. Hands down. It’s as simple as that.

Oh yes, for those who missed it, the Odoxa-Le Parisien poll two weeks ago had Juppé beating Sarkozy 55-45 in the 2nd round of the primary.

À mon avis, M. Roger-Petit devrait revoir sa copie…

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

I had hoped to get this post up earlier this week but better late than never. There were no big surprises in Sunday’s 2nd round (for my quick take on the 1st round, go here). As one knows, it was a smashing victory for the UMP-UDI (as expected) and a severe defeat for the Socialists and the rest of the left (though it could have been worse). As for the FN, the result was en demi-teinte. Marine Le Pen & Co had hoped to take two departments, the Vaucluse and l’Aisne, but took neither, and the 31 cantons the frontistes won overall was short of their expectations. But the FN’s national score—25% in the 1st round, 22% in the 2nd— confirmed its enracinement at the local level and, as the commentators and pundits are putting it, France’s new political tripolar reality. Tripartisme is the new watchword in French politics.

A few comments on the three poles coming out of the election.

The UMP: The headline in Tuesday’s Le Monde Tuesday reads “Nicolas Sarkozy conforté,” i.e. Sarkozy has been reinforced by the election result. Perhaps, though the election was not about him and it is most unlikely that the excellent result for his party was due to anything in particular he did or said. Given the unpopularity of President Hollande and the Socialists, the UMP was going to benefit no matter what, in the same way as the PS did in regional and local elections when the UMP was in power in the 2002-12 period. And the new binôme system was tailor-made for the UMP—merci aux socialistes!—as it rendered almost effortless the constitution of tickets with the UDI, thus sealing the right and center alliance for this election. As for notable things Sarkozy said during the campaign, there was mainly his declaration supporting the UMP mayor of Chalon-sur-Saône on ending substitute meals when pork is served in school cafeterias (meals that had been offered in cafeterias without debate or controversy for decades). For good measure, Sarko reiterated his endorsement of a law banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves by students in universities. With his peremptory pronouncements on these non-issues—fabricated de toute pièce in the ambient climate of anti-Muslim bigotry—Sarkozy demonstrated once again that he is the worst person in the top-tier of French politics, utterly devoid of principles, shame, or republican values. In a live call-in studio interview on RTL the Tuesday before last, Sarkozy was politely challenged on the school menu question by a listener named Hisham. Sarko’s response was to lecture citizen Hisham on laïcité (as if the 1905 law or even the most militant conception of laïcité de combat speaks to the burning question of school lunch menus). He was so patronizing and odious that I turned off the radio. I couldn’t bear to listen to him, as I cannot bear to watch him on television.

Sarkozy’s grotesquely opportunistic, demagogic fishing expedition in Front National waters was too much even for his colleagues in the UMP leadership, not only the honest republicans among them—Alain Juppé, François Fillon, Bruno Le Maire—who immediately spoke out against Sarko’s declaration, but also those politically close to him, e.g. Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, a sarkozyste historique, very right-wing himself, and whose city is equally right-wing, but who, in implicitly critiquing his friend, asserted that there would be no question of ending substitute school meals in his city (Muslims are numerous in Nice and Estrosi is not going to gratuitously pick a nasty fight with them). Rachida Dati, who owes her political existence to Sarkozy, also backhandedly rejected her erstwhile patron’s declaration, calling it a “non-subject” that could only “divide” and “fracture” French society. For his part, former Sarkozy speechwriter Henri Guaino—the “left hemisphere” of Sarkozy’s political brain at the Elysée—was biting in his reaction to his former boss and those in the UMP base who agreed with him on the pork issue, deploring the “stoking of the flames of anger” and rhetorically asking what image the UMP would give “if it whipped up one sector of the population against another, of non-Muslims against Muslims” (which, pour mémoire, was precisely Sarkozy’s presidential M.O. under Guaino’s watch). And even new FN municipal governments—e.g. in Fréjus and Cogolin—said that school cafeterias under their authority would continue to serve substitute meals.

But Sarkozy, whose political instincts were reformatted by Patrick Buisson—the “right hemisphere” of his presidential brain—couldn’t care less what his associates—most of whom he badmouths behind their backs anyway—think. What he knows is that a sizable portion of the UMP base—if not the majority—is far to the right and shares the same preoccupations and world-views as does the FN on immigration and national identity. The boundary separating the UMP’s Tea-Partyized right flank and the FN is increasingly blurred. So in order to persuade his voters not to defect to Le Pen, he’s going to talk like Le Pen. He already started doing this during the 2007 campaign and doubled down from 2010 on. But on the question of making electoral deals with the FN, or possibly entering into coalitions in elected assemblies, Sarkozy—along with the rest of the UMP leadership—has been intransigent: there will be no pacts whatever with the frontistes. While the barrier separating the two parties is becoming increasingly porous, the UMP’s firewall against dealing with the FN, even at the local level, will not be breached. This is not a matter of  ideology or high-minded principle—though there are indeed irreconcilable differences between the two parties on certain issues, notably Europe—but rather a pragmatic choice by the UMP for survival. The FN can only grow at the UMP’s expense and become the nº1 party of the right—and thus the natural alternative to the Socialists, which is, of course, Marine Le Pen’s goal—if it supplants the UMP. If the UMP deals with the FN in any way, the firewall will cede and with an inevitable torrent of defections from the former toward the latter, not only of voters but also of élus at the local level. Marine Le Pen & Co would be the sole beneficiary of any electoral pact with the UMP (as was the PS during the years of the Programme Commun with the PCF). So the hostility of Sarkozy and the rest of the UMP leadership to the FN is driven less by ideology than a rational instinct for survival.

In my post on the UMP six months ago, I categorically stated that I did not believe for a minute that Sarkozy would succeed in his comeback and impose himself as the UMP’s candidate in ’17. I still hold to this. We’ll have to see what effect, if any, Sunday’s outcome will have on his poll numbers but, for the moment, they’re not good. In the latest IPSOS baromètre—the best poll out there measuring the popularity of politicians IMO—Sarkozy is at 35% positive and 60% negative. And outside the hardcore UMP base, large majorities of those polled over the past three years—including non-UMP right voters and centrists—have consistently said they don’t want to hear about another Sarkozy presidency. And though he’s the champion of the UMP base, a sizable portion of party members do not want him, as was revealed by Bruno Le Maire’s unexpectedly high 30% score in the internal party election last November 29th. Sarkozy, ceding to the insistence of the majority in the UMP’s Bureau Politique, had already accepted à contrecœur the principle of a presidential primary open to all voters of the right and center (and not just card-carrying UMP members). The alliance with the UDI in the departmental elections—and with Sarko’s buddy-buddy campaign appearances with UDI president Jean-Christophe Lagarde—made an open primary a done deal (it will be held in November 2016 and with much the same organization as the 2011 PS primary). If centrists and UMP non-sarkozyistes coalesce around Alain Juppé’s candidacy, Juppé will beat Sarko—period—and particularly if their respective poll numbers stay about where they are today (Juppé, who remains the most popular French politician, is at 52% positive/33% negative in the March IPSOS baromètre). As one knows from presidential primaries in the US—plus the French Socialists’s in 2011—the primordial consideration for the majority of primary voters is winning the election, of having the strongest possible candidate to beat the opponent. Exceptional moments excepted, everything else is secondary.

The primary will hardly be a cakewalk for Juppé, though, as the immigration and national identity questions are sure to be central and on which Sarkozy is more in tune with the Tea-Partyized UMP base—a base that increasingly rejects Juppé, seeing him as a centrist, even a crypto-gauchiste (on economic issues the proclaimed UMP candidates are all playing the same broken record—baisse-des-impôts-baisse-des-charges-moins-de-fonctionnaires-réculer-l’âge-de-la-retraite-blah-blah—which everyone’s heard thousands of times, stokes the enthusiasm of no audience, and shifts no votes). The only thing for Juppé—who’s as principled a politician as one will find—to do will be to defend classic neo-Gaullist republican values, to stand squarely against the phobia of Islam and Muslims that is infecting public discourse in France. If he does this and in a principled way—again, in invoking republican values—it will work for him, I guarantee it. He’ll attract more votes than he’ll lose. The campaign is sure to be a nasty one, particularly if Sarkozy underhandedly sponsors a centrist candidate (e.g. J-C Lagarde) or coaxes other UMP tenors into the race (Le Maire, NKM…) in order to split the Juppé vote, which he’s entirely capable of doing (though a manifest subterfuge by Sarkozy will render inevitable a centrist/moderate right candidacy in the general election, e.g. François Bayrou or even Juppé himself). Whatever happens, the UMP primary will be of capital importance, as whoever wins it will be the prohibitive favorite in 2017 and with a huge UMP majority in the National Assembly that will follow.

The Socialists: It is hard to overstate the calamity that has befallen the PS. On Sunday the Socialists lost 28 of the 60 departments whose councils they headed and several hundred conseillers départementaux. The bérézina included longtime departmental fiefdoms or electoral bases of PS heavyweights that fell to the UMP: Corrèze (François Hollande), Nord (Martine Aubry), Seine-Maritime (Laurent Fabius), Essonne (Manuel Valls), Saône-et-Loire (Arnaud Montebourg), and Deux-Sèvres (Ségolène Royal), to which one may add the Territoire du Belfort, Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s longtime bastion. And then there was the Bouches-de-Rhône (biggest city: Marseille), run by the Socialists for an unbroken 70 years and which the UMP won. To all this may be added the disastrous municipal elections of March 2014, in which the PS lost 133 of the 371 municipalities of over 9,000 inhabitants that it governed (of 1,018 in the country) and several thousand municipal councillors (h/t Gérard Courtois for these figures). One shudders to contemplate the wipe-out that awaits the PS in December’s regional elections.

This is, quite simply, a catastrophe for the Socialists. As a party where élus have been a core component of the (dues-paying) membership, the loss of these thousands of elected politicos at the local level will seriously undermine not only the PS’s ability to seriously wage future elections but also the party’s finances in the here and now. And the party’s downward spiral risks accelerating, as disaffected and/or demoralized card-carrying militants decline to renew their membership. It is entirely possible that the PS may soon have fewer dues-paying members than the Front National. The PS is in the deepest hole in its modern history, worse than after the 1969 presidential election or the 1993 legislatives. The nadir of 1969 was followed two years later by the Epinay congress, François Mitterrand taking over the party, and a clear plan to win national elections. And Lionel Jospin emerged as l’homme providentiel after the 1993 debacle. There are no hommes (ou femmes) providentiel(le)s in the PS today. François Hollande’s spike in the polls in the wake of Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher was short-lived. Having leapt from 13% approval to 38% in the IPSOS baromètre, he’s now back down to 26%. Barring another national drama, he’s not likely to move significantly upward from here on out. If Hollande nonetheless decides to run for reelection, his chances of suffering a humiliating 1st round elimination are on the order of 98.5%. But if he throws in the towel on ’17—an unambiguous admission on his part of the failure of his presidency—one imagines with difficulty Manuel Valls—the failed president’s PM, thus a failure himself—being the substitute candidate. Martine Aubry is pretty much hors course—her moment has passed—as is Arnaud Montebourg, who’s now trying to make it in the private sector and isn’t really credible as a potential President of the Republic in any case. He’s too much of a gadfly. Ségolène Royal? Je ne crois pas. That leaves Laurent Fabius, who, as the elder statesman, finally respected by the public, and with nothing to lose, could save the Socialists’s honor (I advanced this hypotheses last year), but this is pure speculation on my part. In any case, a PS candidate can only be one of these aforementioned persons.

What also makes the Socialists’s situation worse than in ’69 or ’93 is the impossibility of any broad-based electoral pact on the left, let alone a governing coalition, or of one with the center. The 1970s saw the Programme Commun with the PCF and MRG, and Lionel Jospin’s accession paved the way for the gauche plurielle in the 1997 élections anticipées. There can be no repeat of a gauche plurielle and for reasons that do not require explanation. With the PS now firmly down the social libéral road, the chasm between it and the Front de Gauche will remain unbridgeable, indeed permanent. But the FdG itself is going nowhere. In the 1st round of the departmental elections it took 7% of the vote nationally, which is about what the FdG is worth. It will not and cannot become a French SYRIZA—i.e. the FdG can’t be anything more than what it is—for reasons I explained after the 2012 election on why Jean-Luc Mélenchon failed. If Mélenchon runs in 2017—which he may or may not—he won’t top his 11% score of 2012. And if JLM is not the FdG standard-bearer, then who? Pierre Laurent? Yeah, sure. Perhaps Clémentine Autain? She’d be okay, pour la figuration. As for the écolos, they’re in an even more pathetic state than the FdG, perpetually infantile and unable to decide if they want to participate in government with the PS—and with a couple of ministries—or exist in permanent opposition. And if a couple of écolos (e.g. Jean-Vincent Placé, Barbara Pompili) end up joining the Valls government—possibly in the next week or two—it will likely lead to a split in the already diminutive EELV.

The bottom line is that in order for a PS candidate to win a presidential election, the total stock of 1st round votes of left candidates (including extrême gauche) has to reach 43%. Anything less and the right wins. In the 1st round of the departmental elections the total left vote was 36%. It stands to reason—maybe—that PS voters who’ve sat out elections since 2012—and much of the abstention has been this—will come home, as it were, in the presidential election—if only to vote against Marine Le Pen and, in the ghastly eventuality he’s the UMP candidate, Sarkozy—in which the participation rate is the highest (it was 79.5% in the 2012 1st round). Again, maybe. But when the Minister of the Economy and Finance in a PS government regrets that France did not reform itself in the 1980s as did Great Britain at the time—i.e. during the Margaret Thatcher era—many PS voters will wonder what it is that makes the PS a party of the left (they’ve been wondering for a couple of years now, in fact). The second bottom line: looking into the crystal ball, it will be nothing short of miraculous if the total left vote in ’17 reaches even 40%. Third bottom line: the French left, as we’ve known it, is finished. If the PS does not thoroughly reconstitute itself after the inevitable debacle in ’17, change its name (getting rid of the “socialist,” a 19th-20th century concept now devoid of meaning), and forge an alliance with a reconstituted center, it will be out of power for the foreseeable future.

Front National: As mentioned above, the FN won 31 cantons on Sunday, meaning it will send twice that number of élus to the Conseils Départmentaux. Compared to the Front’s situation before the election—with its one conseiller général in all of France—this is an impressive result—though in view of the 1,073-odd 2nd round races the FN contested, maybe it’s not so impressive. Most of the cantons the FN took are in its strongholds in the northeast—notably the Pas-de-Calais and l’Aisne, where it won six and four, respectively—and the southeast, notably the Vaucluse, Var, and Hérault, taking three in each. One FN victory outside its traditional terre de prédilection worth noting was in Le Nord-Médoc (Gironde), which includes some of the greatest Bordeaux wine-producing communes, e.g. Pauillac (Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour…) and Saint-Estèphe. One may also note that FN binômes received high scores in the eleven communes the Front won in last year’s municipal elections, which may be interpreted as a thumbs up by local voters to the FN’s management of the towns it now runs. The FN will certainly do very well in December’s regional elections, particularly as these use proportional representation—and with a bonus for the list coming in first place, which almost guarantees that the FN will outright win one, two, or even more of the redrawn, enlarged regions.

But this will in no way signify that the FN is en route to national power or that Marine Le Pen has a chance of winning in ’17. At this point it looks probable that she will make it to the 2nd round of the presidential election but, as I explained in some detail seven months ago, she won’t win it. Not a chance. The reasons are several but I will reiterate just three here, the principal one being her doggedly high negatives in the polls. The FN has gone from one historic election result to another over the past three years but this has not markedly affected MLP’s poll numbers. E.g. in the latest IPSOS baromètre, MLP is at 29% positive and 65% negative. These have been more or less her numbers for the past four years (they were worse before 2011). At only two brief moments (in 2013) has her negative rating dipped below 60%. Repeating what I wrote last September, it is quite simply impossible for any candidate to be elected President of the Republic—or, barring some highly unlikely scenario, to any public office—with these poll numbers. And if MLP’s negatives have not significantly dropped over the past year in view of her serial successes and high media presence, there is no a priori reason to think they will in the coming two years.

A second reason MLP and the FN won’t be governing France after ’17 is that no party in the French system can come to power nationally without allies; or, if it somehow succeeds in doing so, cannot govern by itself for any length of time. The UMP needs the centrists, just as the PS needs the PRG, écolos, and whatever other minuscule left formation it can add to its coalition. The FN has no allies and will not have any in ’17. As asserted above, the UMP, thinking of its integrity and survival, will not allow its firewall against the frontistes to be breached, and one does not imagine Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or the moribund Mouvement pour la France throwing in their lot with Marine LP. So once the FN reaches its electoral ceiling—probably in the low-mid 20s in a high participation election (+70%)—it will likely settle into a role akin to that played by the PCF in the 1950s and ’60s: an anti-system party aggregating a fifth of the electorate, with a presence at the local level but excluded from national power (though the FN will never hold a candle to the counter society, dense civil society network, or municipal power base of the PCF in its heyday).

A third reason. The FN’s program is not credible—and not just in the eyes of persons who think like me but in those of the majority of voters. Putting aside the questions of immigration and national identity—which are primordial for the totality of FN supporters, but also for many in the UMP—the FN’s positions are rejected by large majorities of the electorate. E.g. its stance on Europe, notably on quitting the euro—and, consequently, the EU—is endorsed by only a quarter of those responding to the question in public opinion polls. There is no way the French electorate will vote a party into power that has pledged to carry out such a project. And then there’s Marine LP’s economic program, which is being labeled “leftist” but is more of a half-baked Bonapartist étatisme—an old strain on the French right—mixed with the FN’s traditional economic libéralisme adhered to by her father. As Le Canard Enchaîné detailed in its March 11th issue, the FN’s economic proposals are a Santa Claus grab bag of tax cuts, tax increases, mandated pay increases, mandated price decreases, nationalizations, planning, lessened regulations, increased regulations, protectionist barriers but with increased exports… And, naturally, la préférence nationale in employment, social insurance, and everything else. The numbers—the few that are offered—don’t begin to add up. The whole thing is preposterous, unserious, and disconnected from reality. In a presidential debate Marine LP would be shredded into little pieces by Juppé, Sarkozy, Hollande, or anyone else she would face. The program, moreover, is the brainchild of a single member of the FN leadership, the énarque and ex-chevènementiste Florian Philippot, who is close to MLP but not overly appreciated in the party as a whole, as one learned at the FN’s congress last November. The gravity of the FN’s middle class base in the Midi—incarnated in the person of rising star Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, whose rhetoric is more akin to her grandfather’s than her aunt’s—and everywhere else outside declining industrial towns of the northeast remains libéral, closer to the US Republican party on economic questions than to the Front de Gauche.

I have more to say on all this but will reserve it for later. In the meantime, here’s the cover of the latest Charlie Hebdo, which (rhetorically) asks the exact right question.

UPDATE: My blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer has a post on my post, in which he differs with my view on Sarkozy’s vs. Juppé’s prospects in the UMP primary. Art thinks that Sarko has indeed consolidated his position as UMP leader and that only the courts can stop his triumphal march to victory in the primary. Perhaps. I should say here that in hypothesizing on all this, I have violated my own longstanding principle of not speculating on the outcome of elections more than a year before they take place. But I can’t help myself here and, in any case, do think I’m right. Art is correct in reminding us of Sarkozy’s political skills but one must also keep in mind the dislike of Sarko—indeed intense antipathy toward him—not only on the left but also among a not insignificant portion of voters on the right and center. As for crossover voters in the primary, it is possible that some will come from the left—though probably not in the hundreds of thousands—but even more possible they’ll come from the far right, of Marine Le Pen supporters out to scuttle Sarkozy’s candidacy. On verra. In any case, the only thing to do will be to watch the polls. If Sarkozy’s positives are into the 40s in mid-late 2016, I’ll say he wins. But if they remain in the 30s, I say no.

BTW, Art has an op-ed on the departmental elections, published on the Al Jazeera America website, “The far right is redrawing France’s political map.”

2nd UPDATE: Le Monde has an interview, in its April 4th issue, with the well-known academic specialist of the French Socialists, Gérard Grunberg, in which he says that “the left has never been so weak and divided” as it is today. Grunberg, like me, is not optimistic for the future of the PS, or the French left more generally. BTW, I learn from the intro to the interview that the website Telos—that Grunberg is a director of—has been back up and running since January, after having been discontinued in 2013. This is one of the best, most intellectually high quality websites of analysis and reflection on politics and economics that one will find in the French language—and whose political sensibility is precisely my own. I’m glad to see it back.

3rd UPDATE: Art Goldhammer has a pertinent blog post (April 5th) on “The conservatism of the French.”

nº 1184, 01-04-2015

nº 1184, 01-04-2015

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Two comments on yesterday’s election, which I had not intended to write about at this point but, in view of its manifest political importance, merits comment. First, this type of election, for departmental councils (conseils départementaux)—as the conseils généraux will be called from next month onward—is the least interesting and least paid-attention-to election in the French political system. Until now it was called an élection cantonale—a canton being a single-member constituency (elected in two rounds) for a departmental conseil général—and which hardly anyone not a farmer or living in a small town could care less about (as for the council’s powers, they’re not extensive; akin to county boards in the US). If one were to ask a representative sample of people in any urban area in France—and probably in smaller towns as well—who their conseiller général is, I guarantee that the vast majority would have no clue. So this has inevitably been the election with the lowest turnout rate. Moreover, the conseils généraux for the 96 departments of metropolitan France—minus Paris, whose municipal council is also a conseil général—were elected in halves, thus lessening the national impact of the vote. But President Hollande and his Socialists, in their (half-baked) scheme to redraw the administrative map of France—and ultimately abolish departments altogether, which will likely never happen—decided to change the system, to create gender parity in the new conseils départementaux, mandating “binôme” male-female tickets in each canton, thereby cutting in half the number of cantons, from 4,035 to 2,054. Moreover, the new law decreed that all the new conseils départementaux would be elected in one shot this year, making this the first-ever truly national election (minus Paris, the Lyon metro area, and DOM-TOM) of this type.

Lovely scheme of the Socialists—who can be against gender parity in a legislative body?—but which was guaranteed to be highly prejudicial to them in this election, as the new binôme enabled the UMP and UDI to establish tickets in most cantons, whereas there was no way the left—in view of its fragmentation, dixit Art Goldhammer—could possibly do the same. With a few exceptions (e.g. in the Île-de-France) electoral pacts between the PS and Front de Gauche have become nigh impossible (and with the infantile EELV going its own way). So it was a certainty that the UMP was going to come out on top in this election—and over and above the current political conjuncture—and with the PS taking a drubbing.

Second, the Front National vote, at 25% nationally, is quite simply amazing—and preoccupying, to put it mildly—and all the more so in view of the 50% participation rate, which is considerably higher than anyone expected (I thought it would be 40% max). The FN has never been competitive—or even tried to compete seriously—in this type of local election. La politique de proximité has not been the FN’s thing. But everything has changed with Marine Le Pen, whose party presented binôme tickets in 93% of the 2,000-odd cantons. But, as the FN doesn’t have a dense network at the local level in the vast majority of France’s 36,000+ communes, it recruited n’importe qui to be candidates, i.e. anyone it could, including one’s next door neighbor (e.g. go here and scroll). And it manifestly worked; or, rather, no one cared who the FN candidates were when putting the ballot in the envelope. For the anecdote, I was an assesseur titulaire yesterday (for the PS ticket) in my banlieue, in a polling station encompassing the one cité in my otherwise middle class/bourgeois, right-wing commune—one of the most so in the Île-de-France—and that has voted more to the left than any of the other 53-odd bureaux de vote in town. There were six tickets in the canton: UMP, UMP dissident, PS, FG, EELV, and FN. Taking them together, at least one of the binômes and their alternates are known personalities to those who follow local politics. Except for the FN. The FN has practically no presence in my town (which is sufficiently right-wing, so who needs them?). In the 15+ years I’ve been living here, I have never, not once, seen FN people leafleting in the marchés during election time or doing anything at all. And the head of the FN ticket, named Antoun Elkik (he goes by Antoine in his daily life)—a Franco-Lebanese architect by profession, who lives in an upscale part of town—is a rank unknown among local political activists. The politicos I spent yesterday with—both left and right—knew nothing about him, and despite insulting tweets he lobbed at Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (since deleted from his Twitter account, which has all of 21 followers). But his ticket nonetheless finished in first place in the polling station I helped run, with 22% of the vote (participation rate was 36%). Du jamais vu. I tried to imagine which voters who passed in front of me—whose IDs I checked—voted for the FN ticket. The bureau de vote is certainly the most ethnically diverse in town, with Algerians, Moroccans, Africans (Ivorians, Senegalese, Malians, Congolese, Comorians…), Sri Lankan Tamils (recently naturalized, with their over 18-year-old children, performing their civic duty), Portuguese, and regular French, most petits blancs and retirees on small pensions. One can’t know for sure but I have little doubt it was the latter who slid that FN ballot into the envelope, though am also quite sure not a single one had ever heard of Antoun Elkik or could care less (the FN ticket finished fourth in the canton with 14.6%).

More on all this after next Sunday’s 2nd round.

Projections dimanche 20h00 : 4 chaînes, 4 résultats différents  (Le Lab Politique-Europe 1)

Projections dimanche 20h00 : 4 chaînes, 4 résultats différents
(Le Lab Politique-Europe 1)



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Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

The latest issue of Le Canard Enchaîné reports that Nicolas Sarkozy has referred to Bruno Le Maire, his main rival in the upcoming UMP primary, as a “connard,” among other noms d’oiseau (which include “ordure,” best translated as “asshole”). Speaking of others—his political adversaries and allies alike—in insulting, denigrating terms is par for the course for Sarkozy. He does it all the time and with just about everybody, as we’ve learned on countless occasions over the years via the indispensable Le Canard Enchaîné and other sources. This is yet further confirmation, if confirmation were still needed, that Sarkozy is, as I called him in my post of nine days ago, the worst person in the top tier of French politics. He is the worst on account of his antipathetic persona and way of doing politics, which is characterized, entre autres, by rank opportunism and an utter lack of principles. The man will say and do just about anything if he deems it politically expedient, and trash talk everyone in his way.

When it comes to policy and what he accomplished during his five years in office, the bilan is naturally negative—if it had been otherwise, he would have been reelected—, though his foreign policy is generally given a pass, notably on account of his mediation, as president of the European Council, of an end to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. But Sarkozy’s foreign policy was, in fact, as calamitous as his policies on the home front, as the well-known political scientist Jean-François Bayart has reminded us in an op-ed in Le Monde three weeks ago, “Les dégâts d’une diplomatie désinvolte,” in which Bayart asserts that Sarkozy’s foreign policy was the worst of the 5th Republic. Period. The série noire is lengthy. The high (or maybe low) points: sucking up to Muammar Qadhafi and then doing a 180°—in trademark Sarkozy fashion—in declaring war on him four years later and on fallacious pretexts; supporting the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia to the bitter end; promoting Bashar al-Assad and honoring him with a state visit to France; taking a harder line toward Iran than even the US, which undermined French interests in Iran but not the Iranian regime; poisoning relations with Turkey for no good reason (a subject I have covered extensively on this blog); poisoning relations with Mexico over a judicial affair (involving a private French citizen) that a president of the French Republic had no business getting involved in; et j’en passe. For those who cannot get behind Le Monde’s paywall, Bayart’s piece may be read in its entirely here.

On Libya in 2011, I so happened to support the US-French-British military action to terminate the wretched Qadhafi regime with extreme prejudice—and do not regret my position one iota despite how things have turned out there since—and for my own reasons, which may or may not have overlapped with those of the leaders of intervening powers. In regard to Sarkozy’s reasons for waging war, it seems that these were multiple—among others, avenging the fiasco of the Paris state visit of 2007 and Qadhafi making Sarko look like a fool, making up for supporting Ben Ali—but it also seems, and almost without doubt, that it was Bernard-Henri Lévy who persuaded Sarkozy to do it. BHL, who dropped by the Elysée for a visit, was the driving force in a major French foreign policy decision, which was not subject to serious internal debate at the summit of the French state and took the then foreign minister, Alain Juppé, by surprise. This alone totally disqualifies Nicolas Sarkozy from ever getting near the Elysée palace again.

Another pièce au dossier on Sarkozy’s unfitness to be President of the Republic, and that pertains to foreign policy, is his rapprochement with Dominique de Villepin, which Arthur Goldhammer finds one of the stranger moments in recent French political life. Indeed. These two men really hate one another. Or, one should say, hated (past tense). How to explain the 180° about face on the part of both men and Villepin’s support for the presidential ambitions of his erstwhile nemesis? The response to this may be found in an article by Serge Raffy in the September 25th issue of Le Nouvel Observateur, “Villepin, le nouvel ami.” Money quote

L’improbable lune de miel entre les deux hommes a une explication simple: le Qatar. Le petit et si influent émirat leur voue une passion immodérée depuis près de dix ans. Dominique de Villepin, désormais avocat international, tire l’essentiel de ses revenus du fonds d’investissement Qatar Investment Authority. C’est de ce même fonds que Nicolas Sarkozy espérait un soutien financier pour se lancer dans une nouvelle vie de brasseur d’affaires. Villepin, très discret sur les dossiers qu’il traite dans son cabinet, s’est rapproché de Sarkozy, il y a quelques mois, par la médiation tenace de l’homme d’affaires Alexandre Djouhri, connu pour ses relations privilégiées avec les monarchies du Golfe…

So it’s Qatar. And, of course, its money (ça va de soi). That patch of desert that owes its accidental existence as a country to a geological scandal. And whose awarding of the 2022 World Cup happened in part thanks to behind-the-scenes lobbying by Sarkozy. Quelle pourriture. No wonder voters are defecting to the Front National. The Nouvel Obs article is not online but maybe I’ll transcribe the whole thing in the comments section.

It’s not looking too good for Sarko at the moment, with the latest IPSOS/Le Point baromètre showing a sharp drop in his numbers and Juppé now overtaking him even among UMP members. My conviction that Sarko will bite the dust even before the 2016 primary is reinforced. Readers who have differed with me on this may want to reconsider their position.

UPDATE: Bloviator extraordinaire Bernard Kouchner published a book last month, in which he asserts that Nicolas Sarkozy was loathed by the French people because of his Jewish origins. As Kouchner put it

Nicolas Sarkozy wasn’t cherished; he was detested also because he was the son of a Hungarian and the grandson of a Jew.

On RMC two days ago Kouchner reiterated his words on Sarkozy, adding that France is a “racist” country…

The only thing one can say here is that Kouchner made this up. He invented it in his head. He could not empirically substantiate his assertion if his life depended on it. His conviction also begs the question as to why the French elected Sarkozy to the presidency in the first place back in ’07—and by a decisive margin—if they so hated him for his part Jewish origins. And how he remains popular with the hardcore right-wing UMP base, which is not the most philosemitic segment of French society.

I am not a fan of Kouchner’s, having seen him speak three times and been less than overwhelmed. He gives long-winded gasbags a bad name. With his above mentioned assertion on Sarkozy and the French people, I’m now even less of a fan.

Larrons en foire

Larrons en foire

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This is the title of an important, must read analysis of the French economy by Simon Tilford, Deputy-Director of the Centre for European Reform in London—the leading think tank focusing specifically on the European Union—, posted September 24th on CER’s website. Tilford’s analysis thus begins

The French government’s announcement in early September that France would fail to bring its deficit below 3 per cent of GDP until 2017 was met with the usual mixture of frustration and resignation. Many eurozone policy-makers see France’s refusal to play by the fiscal rules and its inability to reform its economy as the biggest threat to the eurozone’s stability. The list of allegations is pretty comprehensive: a bloated state, a lack of competitiveness, intractable structural problems and a mulish refusal to reform or to acknowledge that globalisation has left France living on borrowed time.

Some of these criticisms have merit, but as a whole they form little more than a caricature. France has some supply-side problems: very high non-wage labour costs deter employment; and parts of the service sector urgently need an injection of competition. But these are secondary to those of its problems that stem from self-defeating austerity and chronically weak domestic demand elsewhere in the eurozone. Without change to the latter France could yet come to justify the ‘sick man of Europe’ tag so beloved of journalists.

Further down Tilford says

To recap, the French economy is in trouble. It has barely grown for the last two years and unemployment is stuck at near record levels. But France has performed pretty well in a eurozone context. It stacks up favourably not only compared with the currency union’s periphery but also with the likes of the Netherlands and Finland. France’s supply-side problems are no doubt significant, but do not justify its status as some kind of hopeless case. They are certainly not as serious as those faced by Italy, and arguably no worse overall than those of Germany and the UK, although they are in different areas. Nor will France’s economic prospects be improved by adhering to the European Commission’s calls for austerity, wage restraint and labour market reforms which, if heeded, would exacerbate unemployment.

And he concludes

The French government should certainly push ahead with structural reforms of its economy, but not necessarily those prescribed by the European Commission. When demand is very weak and firms do not need to hire workers, reducing social protection and wages increases unemployment rather than reducing it, and depresses consumption. However, France should reduce the burden of taxation from labour and transfer more of it to wealth, property and carbon consumption. And it should open up the country’s non-tradable services sector to greater competition. But even structural reforms of this kind will do little to increase economic growth without a change to fiscal policy, aggressive measures by the ECB to reflate the eurozone economy as a whole and concerted action by the German government to rebalance Germany’s economy.

France is not the ‘sick man of Europe’, but it is certainly ailing thanks to the medicine prescribed by Brussels and Berlin. The French government needs to step up its resistance. Indeed, perhaps the most serious charge that can be laid at France’s door is that it has meekly gone along with a eurozone policy doctrine that has done so much damage to the French economy rather than corralling opposition to it and forcing through a change in direction.

As an 1800 word article can’t cover all the bases, there were a few problems in the French economy Tilford didn’t mention, e.g. underinvestment by French enterprises in R&D (only 1.4% of GDP), a relative paucity of SMEs—which are a strength of the German economy and a source of innovation there—, and inefficiencies in the distribution system (i.e. superfluous layers of middlemen taking their cut, resulting in a price structure that is higher than it should be, and certainly more so than in Germany).  But Tilford’s Krugman-like analysis is very good and salutary nonetheless. Read the whole thing here.

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Nicolas Sarkozy in Lambersart (Nord), September 25th (photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP)

Nicolas Sarkozy in Lambersart (Nord), September 25th (photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP)

Arthur Goldhammer had a blog post last Thursday on the coming bataille royale between Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé—over who will be the UMP’s presidential candidate in 2017—and that provoked a lively exchange in the comments thread, with contributions by myself and regular readers of both Art’s and my blog (for the record, I differ with Mitch Guthman, who believes Marine Le Pen will win in ’17—Mitch and I have already been around the track on this—, and am in entire agreement with Massilian). Art writes that his French friends assume that the left has no chance whatever in ’17, will be eliminated in the first round and with Marine Le Pen advancing to the second, but that as she cannot possibly win, the next Président de la République will logically be the candidate of the UMP (or whatever the UMP renames itself, if Sarkozy gets his way on this), thereby turning the UMP primary—that will be held sometime in 2016—into the veritable presidential election. This is indeed the assumption of the majority in this country who at all follow politics, myself included. France Inter’s Thomas Legrand, whose daily political editorials are as incisive a commentary on French politics as one will get, said so himself on Thursday morning. If there are any Socialists out there who really truly believe that François Hollande—or a PS replacement candidate, should Hollande throw in the towel (a hypothesis not to be excluded)—has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in ’17, I’d like to know their names. PS Pollyannas, should they exist, will certainly not have been comforted by the headline in Le Monde dated Saturday: “Croissance, chômage, déficits: la France n’a pas encore touché le fond”… i.e. the economic situation in this lovely country has not yet hit bottom, i.e. we ain’t seen nothin yet… If a governing party in an advanced democracy has ever been reelected in such a context, I am not aware of it.

So the next President of the Republic will most certainly issue from the UMP. And as Sarkozy has confirmed more than once over the past ten days, the UMP’s presidential candidate will be designated in a primary open to all voters, not just card-carrying UMP members (and with eventual candidates not being limited to the UMP). One may thereby presume that the primary will be organized in the same manner as was the one held by the PS in October 2011: open to all registered voters who sign a statement at the polling station pledging that they adhere to the values of the right and center—the wording of this will be interesting (the charter signed by voters participating in the 2011 PS primary is here)—and who contribute a minimum of €1 (for my posts on the 2011 primary, see here and here). The participation in this one is sure to be significant, no doubt higher than the 2.8 million who voted in the PS primary. As well over 90% of participating voters of the right and center will not be UMP members, the outcome of the November 29th vote for party president—which Sarkozy looks sure to win haut la main—will provide no indication whatever as to what will happen in 2016.

As I’ve been saying since the question was first broached in 2012, I do not believe for a minute that Sarkozy will succeed in his comeback. He’s the same old Sarko: febrile, frenetic, feverishly pulling demagogic, off-the-wall, half-baked, and/or unserious proposals out of a hat one after the other, and with his trademark croque-mort look (black suit/black tie), bullying journalists when questioned ever so politely, and trash talking and denigrating en off just about everyone outside his inner circle of sycophants (and even those inside that circle). And then there’s his posture of victimization and Berlusconian attacks on the judicial system and its magistrates, which speaks volumes as to the low regard in which he holds the institutions of the republic and French democracy. He’s the same dog doing the same tricks, that we saw countless times during his calamitous five years in the Elysée (for my treatise on Sarkozy, posted on the eve of the presidential 2nd round in 2012, go here). Sarkozy’s public appearances since his formal return to the political arena two weeks ago—the Sep. 21st France 2 interview sur le plateau (for which he was scandalously given 45 minutes of free air time on a chaîne de service public and for which all television set owners pay the redevence) and the subsequent rallies in Lambersart and Saint-Julien-les-Villas—have demonstrated yet again that he is the worst person in the first tier of the French political class (which does not include Marine Le Pen, at least not yet). And that the UMP base, with its pathetic, Bonapartist culte du chef, has been so desperately awaiting his comeback is, for its part, yet another demonstration of the deliquescence of French politics more generally (the left is hardly in better shape than the right but that’s another matter). Triste France.

Re Sarkozy’s demagogic and/or cockamamie proposals of the past two weeks—tossed out like so many bones to the increasingly hard right UMP base—, I will cite just two. The first: Replacing “lifetime employment” for fonctionnaires with five-year contracts (with the police and school teachers exempted, so Sarko says). One wonders if Sarkozy has given any thought to this nutty idea or just cooked it up as he was going along (or maybe heard about some such practice elsewhere while on one of his $100K speaking gigs). Now it is the case that short-term contracts (usually five years) have become the norm in a number of international organizations, but these mainly concern young, highly educated professionals, who know they will move on to lucrative employment—including in the upper civil services of their home countries—once the contracts with the prestigious organizations (World Bank, OECD, etc) are up and the young professionals’ international epistemic networks have been constituted. Such is, however, not likely to obtain for most fonctionnaires of the French state outside the grands corps. And, BTW, will the latter also be concerned by Sarkozy’s measure? Will members of the Conseil d’Etat, Cour des Comptes, Corps Préfectoral etc all be put on five-year contracts? And will the contracts be one shot or renewable? If the former, the French civil service will be gutted, as few outside the (soon to be ex-) grand corps who have any options on the job market—who are not desperate for a job right now, immediately—will sign such a fixed term contract. One end result will be a mass outsourcing of the missions of the state, including its regalian ones, to the private sector, which is one of the most pernicious developments in advanced democracies over the past two decades (on the privatization of the state, see here and here). Another result—and particularly if the contracts are renewable—will be a patronage/spoils system à la française and on a scale larger than anything witnessed in Chicago at the height of the Daley père machine era. In all likelihood, though, such a scheme, which is sure to generate considerable opposition (an understatement), will not see the light of the day in the ghastly event that Sarkozy returns to power in ’17, as once back in the Elysée—and confronted with an unfavorable rapport de force on the question—he’ll forget about it.

A second demagogic proposal: Generalizing the recourse to the referendum and for a whole range of policy issues, including one that would constitutionally proscribe public spending that exceeds 50% of GDP (recalling proposals by the American right for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, which were so ridiculous and disconnected from reality that even the proponents of this loopy idea seem to have dropped it). The French Bonapartist right—incarnated in modern times by the Gaullists and their successors—has always been plebiscitarian but Sarkozy’s proposal, if acted upon, would take this to a whole new level, with one result being a dangerous undermining of the institutions of representative democracy and a reinforcement of the already outsized power of the President of the Republic hors cohabitation, as he would determine when and over what issues the referendum would be organized, either directly or via his handpicked prime minister (as for the constitutional provision of the initiative partagée, this is too cumbersome to work, and particularly in the time frame Sarkozy has in mind). Moreover, Sarkozy is proposing that referenda on policy be held the same day as the first round of the legislative elections, which, in the current calendar, happens less than five weeks after the newly (re)elected President of the Republic takes office. Not only is this proposal thoroughly preposterous but is also constitutionally impossible—if I understand the Fifth Republic constitution’s Article 11 correctly—, as the National Assembly would not be in session when the President or his newly appointed government proposed the referenda, which the Assembly would have to be in order to debate the question as Article 11 mandates. But constitutionally possible or not, Sarkozy will surely not follow through on his harebrained proposal if he finds himself in a position to make it. Sarko may be a lot of things but he’s not stupid, and he knows that Presidents of the Republic must be extremely careful with the instrument of the referendum, lest it blow up in their faces by irate voters (and many voters will be extremely irate in the unthinkable event that Sarkozy is elected in ’17).

It looks like Sarkozy, whose poll numbers are in the black only with UMP voters, has not provoked a bandwagon effect—au contraire—, as the latest IFOP-JDD poll shows him dropping seven points with UMP sympathizers over the ten days following his tonitruant return to the political arena and six points with voters overall. Citizens are clearly perceiving that the new Sarko is the same as the old Sarko. The latest popularity polls and baromètres will be published in the coming two weeks and are not likely to bear good news for the ex-Président de la République. À propos, one shudders to imagine what posture he’s concocting on the immigration and nationality issue. Given the general mood of his base on this, it will likely not differ significantly from the neo-frontiste turn of the latter years of his presidential term. Patrick Buisson without Buisson. The mere prospect of a second round square-off between Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen—the two most polarizing figures in French politics and both with negative poll numbers far higher than their positive ones—will be so appalling to so many voters, including on the center and moderate right, that voters of the left may well participate in the UMP primary and en masse to prevent the nightmarish Sarkozy-Le Pen 2nd round scenario from coming to pass.

And then there are the affairs. Not even Chirac in the 1990s was dragging as many casseroles as Sarkozy is today. And as today’s Le Monde headlines, Sarkozy is now directly threatened in the Bygmalion affair, i.e. the investigating magistrates are closing in on him. If he is mis en examen in this—and there could well be other indictments down the road (Karachi, Qadhafi-Takieddine…)—and the procedure does not result in a non-lieu before it goes to trial, it’s hard to imagine Sarkozy even being able to head the UMP, let alone run in the 2016 primary. Bygmalion is a big deal and with practically no one in the UMP taking seriously Sarkozy’s denials that he was unaware of what was going on during the campaign (and while it is possible that Sarkozy told his lieutenants to do what they had to do to raise and spend money, and to cover his own tracks on it, he is still legally responsible in the end). So je persiste et je signe: for all the reasons mentioned above, Sarkozy will not go the distance to 2017.

That leaves Alain Juppé as the only credible UMP candidate. As one is aware—and which I mentioned last month—he is the most popular politician in the country at the present time and only one of three whose overall poll numbers are more positive than negative. Juppé’s comeback with public opinion is striking. He has indeed quashed the image of arrogance and antipathie earned during his short-lived term at the Matignon (1995-97), which ended in failure with the right’s stunning defeat in the élections anticipées that brought the Gauche plurielle to power. One remembers how respected Juppé was when Chirac appointed him PM—even moderate left voters were well-disposed and wished him well—and how he blew it during the grèves of Nov.-Dec. 1995. Now I happened to think that the plan Juppé that unleashed the grèves was pretty good—and other forward-thinking persons on the left thought likewise—but his arrogant méthode was unacceptable, causing the capital of sympathy he had entered office with to all but vanish. He was the imperious énarque-normalien, le meilleur de la classe, who viewed most others, at minimum, as less intelligent than he, when not downright stupid (and for the anecdote, two people I knew back in those days who dealt with Juppé confirmed his froideur). But his traversée du désert following the humiliating repudiation of 1997—and then with his judicial conviction in 2004 as Chirac’s fall guy in the Mairie de Paris corruption trials—manifestly humbled him. And the politique de proximité he has practiced during his 17 years as mayor of Bordeaux—where he is hugely appreciated—has humanized him. I was not a fan of his during his period as PM but changed my view in precisely October 1999, when a cercle de réflexion that Juppé created, called France Moderne, published a 60-page report on immigration in France and the reality of discrimination, which I read at the time and found excellent. The report—which was unsigned but probably written, in part or in whole, by Juppé himself—repudiated the entire approach, indeed world-view, of the right toward the immigration issue at that time. It was a remarkable document indeed (as it seems to have disappeared from the web—I have a hard copy somewhere—I have pasted in the comments section Le Monde’s article from the time announcing the report’s publication). After reading it, I started to look at Juppé more favorably. In fairness, it should be said that Sarkozy also had interesting things to say on the immigration issue in the early ’00s, but, being Sarkozy, he radically altered his discourse when political expedience so dictated. Juppé has not changed his tune on the issue.

When it comes to mastery of policy, Juppé is second to none in the political class (he’s not an Inspecteur de Finance for nothing), and his positions are fairly consistent. He does not, unlike his principal UMP rival of the moment, change his positions 180° on a dime or lurch wildly from one thing to another. He is firmly anchored on the neo-Gaullist moderate right. Juppé is solid and serious. And he is an homme d’Etat and a republican, which no one would deny. Nicolas Sarkozy is not an homme d’Etat and it is not certain that he is a republican. And one is not going to get demagoguery from Juppé or outlandish proposals that he would not be able to implement. E.g. on the economy, Juppé advocates abolishing the ISF, gutting the RTT, and raising the retirement age to 65; these are clearly positions of the right but mainstream and not totally unreasonable. Last Thursday night Juppé was the guest on France 2’s Des Paroles et des Actes, where he was grilled for 2½ hours by a succession of journalists, politicos, and citizens (one of the politicos being the 24-year-old FN deputy Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who was surprisingly impressive on form: articulate and far less antipathique than her aunt, and certainly her grandfather). What to say, Juppé was Juppé. He was good, even though I won’t say I agreed with him down the line (I remain well to his left). He drew a big TV audience—to be expected given the current political context—and the instant poll at the end of the program showed a leap in his favorable numbers. And importantly, he showed himself to be the anti-Sarkozy and in almost every respect.

As for the other announced candidates for the UMP presidential primary, François Fillon and Xavier Bertrand, they will strive to be heard. Fillon was looking good and solid after the 2012 elections but did damage to his image in the guerre à outrance with Jean-François Copé for the presidency of the UMP. And politically speaking, his moderate, social Gaullist image was seriously undermined when in 2012, out of the blue, he spoke of readopting the provisions of the 1993 Loi Pasqua (abrogated by the left in 1998) in regard to French nationality acquisition. Fillon’s erstwhile social Gaullism is now definitely in the past, with his très libéral discourse on the economy (calling for, entre autres, the elimination of no less than 600,000 posts in the fonction publique). As for Bertrand, il fait de la figuration, au moins pour le moment. Both are likely waiting/hoping for Sarkozy to drown in his affaires and be forced out of the race, after which they will present themselves as the more conservative alternative to Juppé (and as Juppé is not too appreciated on the UMP hard right—where he’s seen as a sort of RINO à la française—, the political space for them will be there). In any case, the choice on the French right for ’17 could not be more clear, that’s for sure.

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen & Alain Juppé, France 2/Des Paroles et des Actes, October 2nd

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen & Alain Juppé, France 2/Des Paroles et des Actes, October 2nd

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(image credit: BFMTV.com)

(image credit: BFMTV.com)

[update below]

What a miserable affair. Worse than pathetic. One can hardly believe that French politics has descended to this level. And with everything else happening in France and the world, that this is the talk of the town. I, for one, refuse to read Valérie Trierweiler’s book. I won’t even pick it up. I have learned as much as I need to know about it from the media coverage, plus these choice morsels published in Les Inrocks. Now I have no sympathy with François Hollande in this sentimental psychodrama, as I made clear in my posts of last January when the thing first broke (here and here), but now have even less for Valérie T., who, in her manic—and likely successful—effort to politically assassinate her ex-companion and permanently sully his character, has only further discredited herself—and sullied the institutions of the Republic in the process.

This does indeed seem to be the consensus at least among journalists. E.g. Ariane Bonzon—whom I know for her excellent enquêtes on Turkey—has a good commentary in Slate.fr on “La triple faute de Valérie Trierweiler,” which thus begins

Lors de l’affaire DSK, un de mes amis, qui n’avait pourtant rien à voir directement avec cette histoire, m’avait dit qu’il se sentait lui aussi touché: «J’ai honte à trois titres: en tant qu’homme, en tant que juif et en tant que libertin.» Chacune de ces identités impliquant chez mon ami une certaine exigence, éthique. Comme si l’opinion qu’il avait de lui-même avait été bafouée par DSK, homme, juif et libertin.

En lisant le livre de Valérie Trierweiler, j’ai ressenti le même sentiment que cet ami: ce livre me fait honte en tant que femme, en tant que citoyenne et en tant que journaliste.

Renaud Dély of Le Nouvel Obs had a similarly entitled commentary on Thursday, “La faute de Valérie Trierweiler,” in which he asserted that

Le livre de l’ex-Première dame n’est pas seulement un brûlot anti-Hollande, c’est une attaque contre l’esprit civique et une menace pour les institutions.

Rue 89’s Pierre Haski was on the same longueur d’onde in his commentaire à chaud, “Grand déballage de Trierweiler : la vengeance est mauvaise conseillère.” For his part, France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand—who is one of the smartest, most insightful analysts of French politics around—, in speaking of VT’s book, deplored “L’arlequinisation de la vie politique” in his commentary the day before yesterday. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, in an interview on Europe 1, called VT’s book a “moral suicide” of the ex-première dame, and in which he quoted from an editorial by La République des Pyrénées’s Jean-Marcel Bouguereau, who observed that

L’image que son “ex” donne de François Hollande est terrible au point qu’on se demande comment elle a pu rester une décennie avec personnage qui apparaît sous sa plume comme menteur, arrogant, infidèle, veule, lâche et surtout cynique.

Indeed. Mme Trierweiler does not smell like a rose in all this. Loin s’en faut.

One thing I need to assert—and that I have been doing since Wednesday—is that I do not believe for a split second that Hollande uttered the bit about “les sans-dents” in the first degree, i.e. in a literal sense. If he indeed said such a thing about poor people, there was certainly a context, or he was being ironic about someone else who may have said it, or something like that. As Libé’s Laurent Joffrin said on France Inter this morning, no one who has known Hollande personally over the years and spent time with him—as has Joffrin and so many other journalists, politicians, and public personalities—gives the slightest credence to VT on this. For this smear alone, she deserves permanent banishment from public life—and certainly from the journalistic profession.

If all this is not the coup de grâce to Hollande’s presidency, it’s not far from it. I don’t know how he and his entourage at the Elysée will pick up the pieces from this but they’ll no doubt soldier on nonetheless, as Hollande will certainly not resign. Unless he commits a crime or misdemeanor, or some really gross indiscretion, there is no reason for him to do so. He just won’t do it. And almost no one outside the Front National wishes for him to, or for him to dissolve the National Assembly at the present time. As the latest TNS-Sofres baromètre reveals, every political party in this country—including the FN—is presently judged negatively by public opinion. C’est du jamais vu. And the latest baromètre of L’Observatoire Politique CSA shows only two national political personalities—Alain Juppé and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem—to have higher positive than negative numbers with those polled. I mentioned this in my post last week on Valls II and it’s being confirmed with every poll that’s coming out. If neither the PS nor UMP has an interest in going to early elections, then they won’t happen. Period. Moreover, alarm at the damage to the political system and institutions of the Republic is sure to be expressed by increasing numbers on both left and right, as has Sophie de Menthon in a tribune in the right-leaning webzine Atlantico, in which she calls for a “Halte au feu! Pourquoi il faut sauver le soldat Hollande malgré lui.” As she puts it

A trop critiquer François Hollande, nous contribuons à mettre plus bas que terre la fonction de président de la République, ce qui finit par être mauvais pour la croissance et le moral de la France.

If one hasn’t seen it, Art Goldhammer had an incisive analysis yesterday of this weeks’s events (and in which he offered a tidbit about me, which I clarified in the comments thread).

Triste France, c’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

UPDATE: Magistrate Philippe Bilger—whose political views are solidly on the right—has read Valérie Trierweiler’s book and written a commentary on it, entitled “François Hollande en compagne!,” on his Justice au Singulier blog (September 6th). On “les sans-dents” business, which right-wingers are going to town with on social media, he has this to say

La version de VT est-elle d’ailleurs exacte? L’Elysée dément et conteste ces allégations. On comprend que François Hollande soit «atterré»: on le serait à moins, sans que cela valide en quoi que ce soit les coups ciblés de VT.

Même si elle a mis en lumière les ambiguïtés de l’histoire amoureuse et politique entre Ségolène Royal et François Hollande, j’attache cependant infiniment plus de crédibilité à celle qui a été sa compagne durant longtemps, la mère de ses enfants et qui est autant imprégnée d’humanisme que la journaliste. Ségolène Royal a formellement contredit cette image d’un François Hollande sarcastique et dédaigneux des affres de la misère en se fondant sur l’expérience qu’elle a eue de l’homme et du politique.

Bilger’s review is interesting and well worth the read.

Le baromètre des partis TNS-Sofres de septembre 2014

Le baromètre des partis TNS-Sofres de septembre 2014

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(photo: AFP/Joel Saget)

(photo: AFP/Joel Saget)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Faithful reader and regular commentator Mitch Guthman, responding to my post of last week, thinks she can and likely will. I say no way. Here’s why.

Five reasons. First—and this isn’t really a reason, just a preliminary point—, I am very reluctant to handicap an election three years down the road, as all sorts of things will obviously happen between now and then to changer la donne. It’s fun to speculate but is, objectively speaking, a waste of time.

That said—and secondly—I will continue to assert that Marine Le Pen has no chance—I repeat, no chance whatever—of being elected President of the Republic. I assert this because no candidate with negative poll ratings as high as MLP’s—i.e. in the 60s—can possibly win the presidency. It has never happened in the history of an advanced democracy and is not going to happen in France in 2017. Now if MLP’s negative numbers start to drop significantly—and, concomitantly, her favorable ratings rise—then I may change my tune. And I will definitely change that tune if the curves cross. But there is no reason to believe that this will or even can happen. The Le Pen name is radioactive—absolutely, totally toxic—for the entire left, center, and moderate right. As for those who have been casting protest votes for the FN in recent elections, a significant number would think twice about doing so if they actually thought the FN had a chance of winning (à propos, according to one survey in 2002 fully half of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s voters in the presidential election that year said that they would not have voted for him if they had thought he had a real chance of winning).

Thirdly, if there were a freak accident and with MLP somehow winning the presidency, she would be unable to govern. There is no way she would have anything close to a majority in the National Assembly (ergo, there would be no FN PM or government). And a significant portion of the haute fonction publique—where the FN has precious few members or sympathizers—would decline to cooperate with her. For the anecdote, back in 2002 I asked an énarque member of the Cour des Comptes whom I knew if he and his colleagues would have cooperated with Jean-Marie Le Pen had he won that year. His response was a categorical no. A Marine Le Pen presidency would thus not only be a fiasco from Day One but also bring about a constitutional crisis.

Fourthly, France is a mature democracy and the French citizenry is—appearances sometimes to the contrary—a mature electorate. French voters are not going to embark on some crazy adventure with a populist party of the extreme right, and that has no experience whatever in government to boot. The gravity of the French electorate has been on the center-right for most of the past century and remains so today. In this respect, it needs to be said that while the economic situation in France is bad it is not catastrophic. France is not Greece—as Paul Krugman has reminded us more than once—and is not going to be. Mitch’s assertion that France is being subjected to “murderous austerity” is hyperbole. The French are morose and fearful for the future—and many for good reason—but the majority of people are working and will continue to. As for the increasing numbers who are unemployed and excluded from mainstream society, they will retreat into political abstention rather than vote en masse for the FN.

Fifthly, if MLP makes it to the 2nd round of the election, she will most certainly face the candidate of the UMP (or whatever the UMP eventually renames itself). And the latter will win. Period. My dread fear is that that candidate will be Sarkozy (and rid of his legal problems). If so, we’ll have to live with the S.O.B. for another five years. The mere prospect of that depresses me to no end.

UPDATE: Slate.fr’s Eric Dupin, echoing my viewpoint, says “Non, le FN n’est pas aux portes du pouvoir.” (September 9th)

2nd UPDATE: A poll conducted by Odoxa—a new polling institute founded by a couple of former directors at BVA—for I>Télé-CQFD-Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui reveals that “65% des Français considèrent que le FN n’a pas la capacité de gouverner [la France]…” It indeed does not make sense, IMHO, that large numbers of Frenchmen and women would vote for a party to govern France that they do not believe has the ability to govern France… Ça n’a pas de sens… (September 13th)

3rd UPDATE: And then there’s the circus in FN-governed Hayange (here, here, and here). Does one really imagine that the French electorate will send these whack jobs to the Élysée and Matignon? (September 15th)

4th UPDATE: France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand poses the question: “Le Pen peut-elle arriver au pouvoir en 2017?” He says yes, that Marine LP could indeed win the presidential election—that this is within the realm of the possible—but there is no way the FN can win the legislative elections that will follow. A Marine LP victory in ’17 will thus mechanically lead to an institutional crisis. (December 18th)

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Manuel Valls, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Fleur Pellerin (photos: MaxPPP)

Manuel Valls, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Fleur Pellerin (photos: MaxPPP)

[update below]

I haven’t written anything on French politics in three months and didn’t anticipate doing so this week, but, with all that has happened in the past three days, think I should. My blogging confrère Art Goldhammer has been going to town on the latest psychodrama, summing up François Hollande’s “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week” in The American Prospect on Monday and, in his jeremiad today, mournfully evaluating Manual Valls’s new government, plus the lamentable state of French politics more generally. As I agree 98.5% with Art’s analyses, I won’t cover the same ground here as he. Just four comments.

First, after Arnaud Montebourg’s Sunday grandstanding in Frangy-en-Bresse (in the Saône-et-Loire profonde), Hollande had no choice but to have the government resign and ask Valls to form a new one. This was apparently not Hollande’s initial reflex but when Valls watched Montebourg’s improvised address on the télé before the latter’s copains et copines at his annual Fête de la Rose—visibly made after he’d had a verre too many—and took note of Montebourg’s petite phrase promising to send the President of the Republic “une bonne bouteille de la ‘cuvée du redressement'”—which means what it means—Valls told Hollande that it’s him or me, that if Montebourg (and Benoît Hamon) weren’t fired illico, that he (Valls) would resign. Question d’autorité et de cohérence. If Valls were to quit, then Hollande would clearly have no choice but to dissolve the National Assembly. Or maybe quit himself. So PM Valls exercised his authority over Président de la République Hollande. Quel spectacle.

Second, the whole operation was manifestly staged to get rid of three ministers and three only: Montebourg, Hamon, and Aurélie Filippetti (who should have probably been gotten rid of when Valls formed his first govt back in April). The big story with the new government is the replacement of Montebourg at the Ministre de l’Economie etc with the social-libéral Emmanuel Macron. As Art Goldhammer has well described Macron in his aforelinked post I needn’t say anything about him here, except maybe to add a personal detail, which is that Macron, age 36, is married to his high school literature teacher twenty years his senior—intéressant; normalement c’est l’inverse—and to observe that he’s almost a caricature of the French bourgeois d’Etatet l’énarque pantouflard—, un prodige qui a eu un parcours sans faute. Le meilleur de la classe. Et la gauche caviar dans toute sa splendeur. À propos, France 2’s David Pujadas made Valls uncomfortable during the latter’s interview sur le plateau last night (from 19:33)

Valls: Emmanuel Macron est un Socialiste…

Pujadas: Mais ex-banquier chez Rothschild on a entendu…

Aïe! Ça fait mal…

As for the other ejected ministers, Hamon has been replaced by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem—the rising Socialist star, of Algerian-Moroccan parentage—at the Ministry of Education—the first woman ever to head this very high-profile ministry—and Fleur Pellerin (of Korean origin, adopted by a French family)—, who knows the dossiers—, happily taking over from Filippetti at culture and communications. Both are good, IMO. The new government, which is resolutely social-libéral—i.e. Blairist, or maybe Clintonian-Obamaist—is tighter and more ideologically coherent than the last one. France finally has a social-libéral government, but a decade too late. Problem now is, entre autres, the government’s political base is too narrow. With the exception of the PRG and allies (i.e. Christiane Taubira)—who, electorally speaking, represent not quite nothing but almost—the rest of the left (Front de Gauche, EELV) opposes the government and with the frondeur PS in quasi-opposition. And Hollande not having seized the perch extended by François Bayrou in 2012, an opening to the center is no longer possible. The last time a government governed with such a narrow electoral base was during the Cresson and Bérégevoy years (1991-93), and we know what the electoral consequence of that was. With the majority hanging in the balance and the left-wing of the PS up in arms, Valls will almost certainly be obliged to use Article 49-3 to get certain key bills passed (Pacte de responsabilité, etc) and dare the frondeur Socialists to vote for a censure motion, which, if it were to succeed, would result in early legislative elections—and certain defeat of up to 80% of PS deputies. This is not a good way to govern—ce n’est pas la bonne méthode, as Jacques Chirac would say—but if Hollande-Valls want to get their social-libéral legislation passed, this will likely be the way.

But it’s hard to see how this situation can last for three years. Hollande is at 17% in the polls, a hole too deep to climb out of, next year or in three years. In view of the calamitous state of French industry—the problems are deep, structural, and will take years to remedy (and many years have already been lost here)—, unemployment is not about to drop anytime soon. Ce n’est pas une information but Hollande—if he runs—and the PS are toast in the next presidential and legislative elections. Period. But the UMP—qui est en piteux état—is, as one knows, absolutely not in a position to take over. Not right now. The PS may be in a calamitous state but so is everyone else. Looking at the latest IPSOS/Le Point “baromètre de l’action politique,’ what is striking—and this is my third point—is how almost all major politicians have negative ratings higher than positive—and for the majority of these, the negative-positive gap is considerable. French voters are fed up with all of them, left, right, and center. The whole lot. It’s quite amazing, actually. Of those who are hypothetical presidential candidates, the only ones whose favorable numbers are higher than his/her negative ones are, at present, Alain Juppé, François Bayrou, Ségolène Royal (yes!), and (believe it or not) Laurent Fabius. It’s hard to see Mme Royal making a run if her ex decides not to in ’17, quoique on ne sait jamais… But Fabius? I’m going way out on a limb here but if Hollande throws in the towel in ’17, Fabius, the elder statesman, could well emerge as the candidat de réchange (and with Valls, burned by Matignon, biding his time till ’22). Une hypothèse, c’est tout. As for the UMP, all I can say is that I hope and pray that Juppé remains steadfast in his announced intention to run for the presidency of the UMP and, presumably after that, to be the UMP’s presidential candidate. And to, of course, block a return by Sarkozy (a return by whom I have never believed but that must, in any case, be prevented at all costs). Juppé will certainly be opposed by the UMP right-wing—which is forming into a French Tea Party—but he’s the only one on the right who, at present, has the stature to lead this country. And ward off a disastrous second round face off between Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen.

As for Mme Le Pen—and this is the fourth point—, just about everyone is now predicting that she will go to the second round of the next presidential election. Ça va de soi, presque. I normally eschew engaging in such speculation three years before an election but it is indeed possible that this will happen, that Marine LP will finish ahead of the PS or UMP candidate (mostly likely the PS) and square off against the one who makes it through (most likely the UMP). Many are also predicting that she will win outright, that Marine Le Pen will be the next Présidente de la République. I will say right now—d’ores et déjà—that this will not happen. It is totally out of the question. Period. I offered some of the reasons as to why in my post after the European elections in May but may also add her tenaciously high negative poll numbers, which today are at 63%—far higher than any other first-tier political figure save Jean-François Copé (and, of course, François Hollande, but he’s the chef de l’Etat being judged on an actual bilan). Poll numbers bounce around, of course, but there is no reason whatever to believe or expect that Marine LP’s curve will cross, as it were, in the next three years, that her positives will overtake her negatives. And that, as a consequence, 50.01% of French voters will cast their ballots for her in the second round of a presidential election. It won’t happen. Never. Jamais de la vie.

A final point. I return to my speculation of last November, on Hollande’s predicament and a possible way out for him. Dissolultion of the National Assembly and élections législatives anticipées. In 2016. You read it here first.

UPDATE: I reread my posts on the PS presidential primary campaign, of the fall of 2011. In the one on the first round of the primary (here), I devoted more space to analyzing the candidacy of Arnaud Montebourg than of the others. Those interested in his case may find it worth the read (as what I wrote three years ago is still relevant).

Benoît Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg having a fine time at the Fête de la Rose, Frangy-en-Bresse (Saône-et-Loire), August 24 2014 (photo: LP/Olivier Corsan)

Benoît Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg having a fine time at the Fête de la Rose,
Frangy-en-Bresse (Saône-et-Loire), August 24 2014 (photo: LP/Olivier Corsan)

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Photo: AFP/Pierre Andrieu

Photo: AFP/Pierre Andrieu

It was a disaster. A catastrophe. Worse than anyone expected—and certainly than I expected. I knew the FN would do very well, even come in first place ahead of the UMP and PS—as the polls predicted—, but not with 25% of the vote and a participation rate (43%) higher than in 2009. I am going to follow my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer and not do an instant analysis, though, like Art, I will offer a couple of instant comments (and, BTW, I entirely agree with his).

First, the FN’s score is nothing to sneeze at. For the frontistes to come in first place nationally and with a quarter of the vote—and even in a low participation election—is a very big deal. But this does not make the FN the nº1 party in the country. GMAB! On this, Olivier Duhamel and LCP’s Jean-Baptiste Daoulas are entirely right in relativizing the FN’s victory. The fact is, it was a high abstention election, with the FN’s national vote total (4.8 million) equaling that of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s in 2002 but falling well short of Marine LP’s in 2012 (6.4 million). When it comes to membership, number of elected officials—and their quality and competence—, financial resources, ability to turn out crowds at rallies, and you name it, the FN remains a dwarf; it does not rise to the ankle of the UMP and PS. The FN has exactly two deputies out of 577 in the National Assembly—and wouldn’t win too many more if élections anticipées were suddenly held, as MLP is demanding—and controls a grand total of eleven mairies out of 36,000+. And the FN remains totally isolated, as no institutional party of the right will ally with it. The result of the European election, which was a big setback for the UMP, will only cause to UMP to take a harder line against any dealings with the frontistes. There is not a snowball’s chance in hell that the UMP and FN will enter into some kind of common program as did the PS and PCF in the 1970s. And no party in France can win an election or exercise power without a coalition with other parties possessing distinct bases of support. The FN’s predicament here will not change in the coming years, this I promise.

Art Goldhammer is correct in saying that the FN is a fixture on the political landscape and will not likely be removed. But it is still very much a protest party. One hears and reads continually that the FN now has a structured base of support, which is true in some parts of the country—in the southeast and certain dying industrial towns in the north—but a lot of its support, I am convinced, is soft. E.g. in the bureau de vote in which I was an assesseur in Sunday’s election—which is the most relatively leftist in my very right-wing banlieue (meaning that the PS, Front de Gauche, and écolos together are normally in the 40-45% range)—the FN came in a close third with 17%, which is double its usual score (and in my own adjacent precinct, the FN won 14%). The FN is hardly present in my town. It hasn’t even run a list in municipal elections since 1995. In the 15 years I’ve been living here, I have never seen FN activists hand out leaflets in the marchés during election campaigns. Many of those who voted FN in my neighborhood yesterday were first-timers, expressing ras-le-bol. It’s been this way with the FN for three decades now, though just a little more nowadays.

Another point. European elections are particular; for many voters, it is a low stakes election and ideal for protest voting. And European elections do not prefigure the outcomes of the subsequent (higher stakes) presidential and/or legislative elections. E.g the 1994 European outcome—a calamitous score for the PS (14%) and excellent one for right-wing souverainistes and populists (Bernard Tapie)—was followed the next year by an unexpectedly respectable score for the PS presidential candidate and with the souverainistes sidelined. The 1999 election—in which right souverainistes humiliated Nicolas Sarkozy’s joint RPR-DL ticket (the core of the future UMP)—was followed by a decade of the UMP in power. And the PS biting the dust in 2009—with 16.5%, just a hair ahead of Europe Ecologie—in no way prefigured the 2012 presidential race. So yesterday’s outcome offers no hints for 2017.

Which is not to say that the PS can relativize what has just happened to it. François Hollande and the Socialists are in a deep hole and one has no idea how they can possibly dig themselves out of it. The election outcome was as decisive a rejection of Hollande’s austerity policies as one can get. So what are Hollande and Manuel Valls going to do? Stay the course, implement the pacte de responsiblité, and cut €50 billion in spending? If that happens, Valls will plummet in the polls, and with Hollande descending into maybe even the single digits. I personally know of no one at the present moment who will defend the Socialists—and I travel mainly in left-wing circles. Hell, I was an assesseur for the PS and didn’t vote for them (casting my ballot for Europe Ecologie). But if Hollande were to change course, where would he go and how? With France now diminished in Brussels and Strasbourg, will he really take on Angela Merkel and Mario Draghi? His situation really does seem hopeless.

Another thing. The Front de Gauche, at 6%, did not do well at all. And the extreme left (NPA, Lutte Ouvrière et al) has all but vanished. The French left is K.O., more so than at any time in memory. At least Europe Ecologie rose to the occasion, winning almost 9% and in the absence of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

As for the configuration of the European parliament, we’ll know about that in a few days. À suivre.

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Conservative Eurosceptic commentator Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the conservative, très Eurosceptic Daily Telegraph had a hard-hitting column the other day on “Europe’s centre crumbl[ing] as Socialists immolate themselves on altar of EMU.” The lede

Francois Hollande must be willing to rock the European Project to its foundations, and even to risk a rupture of the euro. This he cannot bring himself to do.

Money quotes:

By a horrible twist of fate, Europe’s political Left has become the enforcer of reactionary economic policies. The great socialist parties of the post-war era have been trapped by the corrosive dynamics of monetary union, apologists for mass unemployment and a 1930s deflationary regime that subtly favour the interests of elites.


One can understand why the Left in small countries may feel too weak to buck the EMU system. The mystery is why a French Socialist president with a parliamentary majority should so passively submit to policies that are sapping the lifeblood of the French economy and destroying his presidency.

Quite a few on the French left have been asking the same question…

The French nation does not have to accept economic asphyxiation. France is the beating heart of the Europe, the one country with the civilizational stature to lead a revolt and take charge of the EMU policy machinery. But to call Germany’s bluff with any credibility Mr Hollande must be willing to rock the Project to its foundations, and even to risk a rupture of the euro.

This he cannot bring himself to do. His whole political life from Mitterrand to Maastricht has been woven into European affairs. He is a prisoner of Project ideology, drilled to think that Franco-German condominium remains the lever of French power, and that the euro is what binds the two. French statesman Jean-Pierre Chevenement compares Mr Hollande’s acquiesce in this ruinous course with Pierre Laval’s deflation decrees in 1935 under the Gold Standard, the last time a French leader thought he had to bleed his country dry in defence of a fixed-exchange peg. It is the brutal truth.

Paul Krugman couldn’t have said it better. Evans-Pritchard’s column makes for tough reading—for a supporter of the European moderate left, at least—but needs to be read.

I’ll be an assesseur in a polling station tomorrow for the PS—as I’ve been in every election round here since becoming a citizen and getting on the voting rolls—and titulaire, meaning that I’ll be supervising the vote count (with the other assesseurs titulaires). Though I’ll be the PS rep in the bureau de vote—I am not a party member, pour l’info, and have no intention of ever being—, I can obviously vote for whomever I please (and have broken ranks a couple of times). If the PS list in the Île-de-France were headed by Harlem Désir, as it was in 2009, I announced to those around me that I would definitely vote for the UDI-Modem. But as the tête de liste in the ÎdF is Pervenche Berès—an MEP since 1994 and solid européenne—I decided to go with the PS after all (and forgiving the fabusienne Berès for her support of the non in the 2005 European Constitutional Treaty referendum). But now I’m hesitating again, and even more so after reading Evans-Pritchard’s column. I want Martin Schulz to be the next President of the Commission but just don’t know if the PS deserves my vote. As I liked Ska Keller in the two debates I saw—and particularly the second—, I just may cast my ballot tomorrow for the Europe Ecologie list (headed in the ÎdF by Pascal Durand and Eva Joly), as I did in the 2009 European elections, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit led the French écolos’s campaign. And the EELV is not a “wasted vote,” as their MEPs are a pillar of the Green political group in Strasbourg and will support Schultz for Commission president if the choice comes down to him or Jean-Claude Juncker. Donc on verra.

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PS rally, Lyon, May 23 2014

PS rally, Lyon, May 23 2014

I turned on LCP last night, to see what was on, and caught live coverage of the Socialists’s final election rally, in Lyon, with party bigwigs in the front row and Martin Schulz the guest of honor. Manuel Valls had just started his speech, which I watched to the end. He was good! both on form and substance. The focus was on Europe. To watch it, go here and scroll down. After Valls’s speech LCP went live to Jean-François Copé’s UMP rally in Evreux. What a contrast. Whereas Valls was uplifting and Europe-focused—and with frequent references to Martin Schulz and the importance of him being elected the next president of the Commission—, Copé spoke almost exclusively about national politics, mainly beating up on François Hollande, the PS, and Marine Le Pen. It was a repeat performance of the Thursday night event on France 2 (see previous post). Lamentable partisan hackery. He mentioned Europe only in passing and, unless I missed it, made not a single reference to Jean-Claude Juncker, the presidential candidate of the European Peoples Party—the Europarty of which the UMP is a member. The UMP has not put the speech on its website, though this one from two days earlier looks to have been much the same. The sooner the UMP dumps him as party president—which may well happen sooner rather than later—, the better.


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