Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sarko décomplexé

It's becoming harder and harder to remember that Nicolas Sarkozy was once a Balladurien--a neoliberal centrist. Then he was Sarko l'Américain--a muscularly compassionate conservative in the style of George W. Bush. In 2012, with the help of Patrick Buisson, he became a sort of Le Pen Lite. And now, all on his own, he is bidding fair to become Le Pen Heavy. Take a look at the list of positions he embraces in his new book: end family reunification, suspend the droit du sol (jus soli), end economic migration, ban the veil in the university, create an exceptional tribunal to try terrorist crimes, draconian sentences for recidivists, assign sentence determination to prosecutors rather than judges, etc. The old Sarko reappears in some relatively mild economic proposals, such as raising the legal age of retirement to 64 and eliminating payroll taxes on overtime wages. But he also wants to eliminate the wealth tax and the 35-hr week altogether.

This is a "no-enemies-to-my-right" platform. And it might just work. Juppé's rocket has been a bit of a dud thus far. Retail campaigning isn't really his thing, and mushy centrists seem to be drawn to the new kid on the block, Macron, whose fan dance at least keeps them guessing, whereas Juppé is just the same old same old (as well as old, literally). Of course Sarko faces the handicaps of strong negatives and various affairs under investigation (but so does Hillary Clinton, and she's winning).

Sarko has been more or less forced into cette surenchère sécuritaire by the fact that terrorism has everybody in France more or less unhinged. The moderate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was on the radio this morning calling for an outright ban on Salafism in France, and Valls is not far behind. With such tough competition, Sarko has little choice but to go for the gold: Tuez-les tous, le bon Dieu reconnaîtra les siens. I used to think my fellow Americans were champions at losing their sang-froid, but I now see that the French have overtaken us.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Des Machiavelli à la petite semaine

Le Monde today begins what promises to be a very interesting series on how the Loi El Khomri was pushed through the Assemblée. It is a tale of small-time Machiavellis manipulating one another for the benefit of an audience--the public--that had seen through the ruses long ago and therefore stopped paying attention.

The chief lion-tamer was one Boris Vallaud, adjunct secretary general of the Elysée, aka M. Vallaud-Belkacem (he is the husband of the education minister). His advice to those representing the government: "Pretend to believe that everyone is willing to compromise." But of course compromise was out of the question, because the president had already made up his mind that there had been enough discussion: "Article 49.3 is anti-democratic when a bill has not been thoroughly debated and amended. ... I did everything possible to strike compromises and make amendments that would allow the Socialists to support" the proposed law. But there was still that recalcitrant group of malcontents, who would now have to be disposed of by whatever means were available.

And what about the street protests, the student marches, the union protests, Nuit Debout? All written off: "I never believed we were facing a powerful movement," the president told Le Monde. "The leader of this movement was [Philippe] Martinez [head of the CGT]. There was nobody else."

By contrast, Laurent Berger, the leader of the CFDT, is credited by Hollande with being "very clever," although the executive recognized that the text of the bill went beyond what the CFDT was prepared to accept. The strategy for circumventing this last pocket of serious opposition was to agree to 500 or so of the roughly 5,000 proposed amendments, but with a list of amendments from the more intransigent frondeurs that were ruled off the table in advance.

Now, all of this is probably a reasonably accurate description of how the process looked from the executive side. But the confession that the last six months of politicking around the bill was largely a sham, the government having already decided that it had reached the end of its tether in private negotiations and would force through the bill that it had unilaterally decided was the only reasonable outcome, confirms the alienating and widely shared suspicion that French public discourse has become a public-relations veneer designed to put the best face on decisions that have already been taken behind closed doors by a small group of insiders.

What is missing from the published account is any discussion of the merits of the reform itself, the reasons for accepting certain amendments and rejecting others, or the intended results, to be used as benchmarks for evaluating the law's effectiveness. To the insiders, all of this is no doubt too obvious and tedious to recount. Or perhaps, in the heat of combat, the desire to win simply took over, and it became pointless to count the casualties or to weigh them against the anticipated value of victory. After such a battle, is it any wonder that the public is morose and dispirited?

Meanwhile, Arnaud Montebourg, in addition to announcing his candidacy for the presidency, devoted much of his speech to attacking Hollande's record as "indefensible." Having stripped his annual Burgundy shindig of its former moniker, "Festival of the Rose," he put the PS on notice that he may run as an outside candidate if the conditions of the primary are not to his liking. And the chief of those conditions is whether Hollande will choose to be part of it. Clearly, Montebourg is hoping that Hollande will decide not to run, which would leave him well-placed to make an inside run against the less charismatic Benoît Hamon. But if Hollande does run, Montebourg can still run outside the party, thus adding yet another nail to the electoral coffin in which the president finds himself immured. Of course, Montebourg has little organization and no money, so he really needs the party more than the party needs him, and Cambadélis may decide simply to call his bluff. But this maneuver merely proves that he is yet another small-time Machiavelli, playing what he thinks is a clever game before a public that is largely uninterested and universally unimpressed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Burkini Controversy

Once again, France is giving free rein to its ongoing psychodrama in regard to Islam. This latest round points up the hypocrisy of the previous episode involving the burqa. Then, in order to avoid censure by the European Court, it was asserted that the burqa ban was a "security" measure. Faces in public places had to be identifiable, and clothing should not permit the easy hiding of weapons of terror. The ban had nothing to do with religion, proponents claimed, at least for legal purposes. In private the prohibition of the burqa was also defended on the grounds that it liberated women from oppression.

With the proliferating burkini bans, the liberation of women argument has again been raised, but now it is supplemented by the allegation that the body-hiding bathing outfit is "l’uniforme d’un mouvement contre lequel nous sommes en guerre," as the mayor of Cannes put it. Much of the rest of the world finds this position shocking, as documented by the Libé article linked above. Some in France will of course invoke, yet again, the uniqueness of laïcité. In a radio debate broadcast the other day on the subject of "Qu'est-ce qu'être Français," the inevitable Alain Finkielkraut insisted that France's extreme sensitive to the apparel choices of Muslim women stems from its "civilisation féminine." Seriously. And this was greeted with much applause from the audience.

Le Bal des Aspirants

Benoît Hamon is in. Arnaud Montebourg will soon be in. About Emmanuel Macron, only his hairdresser knows for sure. Gérard Filoche and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann are in. The Socialist primary will be a crowded affair. The tone of the future debate was signaled by Hamon's announcement on France2 last night. The candidates purporting to represent the party's left will accuse Hollande of treacherous betrayal. Macron, if he runs, will say he didn't go far enough. Hollande, if he runs, will say he got it just right. And the divisions that have beset the PS throughout its existence will once again be aired in the place where they are least likely to be discussed thoughtfully, let alone resolved: a presidential primary.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Le Monde Profiles Me

Here. The interview dates from last February, but Le Monde waited for a slow news week to run it, since I'm less newsworthy than Donald Trump, Kanye West, and the other Amerloques who appear more often in its pages. The photographer took 200 photos but managed only to capture my scowl.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Chassé-croisé à droite

The murder of 86-year-old Jacques Hamel in his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray has triggered an interesting chassé-croisé on the right. Nicolas Sarkozy, pursuing his relentless droitisation strategy in pursuit of the presidency, has called for doing away with all legal niceties (arguties juridiques) in the "war on terror." These legal niceties apparently include such fundamental provisions of the rule of law as the presumption of innocence. If la loi des suspects was good enough for the Revolution, it should be good enough for the 21st Century, to hear Sarkozy tell it.

But the Sarkozian surenchère has handed Marine Le Pen a golden opportunity to continue her dédiabolisation, and she has not been slow to seize it. What France needs, she avers in a calm and even tone, contrasting sharply with Sarkozy's shrillness, is "restoration of the rule of law" and scrupulous respect for the Constitution. "Laws are not being enforced."

This puts the putative extremist on the side of the government she decries while casting her as the level head in contrast to both her chief rival on the respectable right, the hothead Sarkozy, and his chief rival for the Republican nomination, the normally unflappable and oh-so-level-headed quintessential énarque Alain Juppé. Juppé was off in New Caledonia when the attack in Saint-Etienne occurred, with no TV crew in tow, and in his haste to get back in the game he seems to have lost, as Le Pen puts it, his sang-froid.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen's niece and potential rival for FN leadership, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, remains as unconcerned with legal niceties as Sarkozy. But her battle cry is not "Lock them all up!" but rather "Christians arise!" "Rise and resist Islamism!" she proclaims forthrightly. "If the state cannot protect the French, the French will protect themselves.""

A 19-year-old with a knife has thus thrown the French presidential race into a bit of a tizzy.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Trump Advisor Involved in French Karachigate

Small world. The skills needed to run a financially corrupt political campaign are rare indeed, and American Trump advisor Paul Manafort lent his to a prominent French politician, according to Franklin Foer:

Money arrives to Manafort circuitously, sometimes through the dodgiest of routes. We know this because he admitted one instance to investigators. If there’s one place on the planet inhospitable to American political consultants, it is France. So when Manafort wrote a campaign strategy for Eduoard Balladur’s presidential campaign in 1995, his role was kept from the public. Payments traveled beneath the table. In fact, the French investigation revealed, the money came from a good friend and old client of Manafort’s, a Lebanese arms dealer called Abdul Rahman al-Assir. (Manafort took Assir to George H.W Bush’s inauguration in 1989; Assir once loaned Manafort $250,000, as the Washington Post reported this week).
Manafort’s fee was a small piece of a larger kickback scheme. At least $200,000 came to Manafort, some of it via accounts in Madrid. It was part of a deal brokered by Assir. He arranged for France to sell Pakistan three Agosta submarines—with tens of millions of euros in “commissions” returning to the coffers of the Balladur campaign. The scandal, known in France as the “Karachi Affair,” has hovered over the country’s politics ever since it broke in 2010. (The English ex-wife of another Franco-Lebanese arms dealer involved in l’affair revealed the Manafort payments to a French judge.)

Friday, July 15, 2016

Horror in France, Again

Nice. One of my favorite cities. La Promenade des Anglais. One of my favorite places. The truck was stopped and the attacker killed in front of the Hôtel Westminster, where I stayed some years ago. People fled down familiar streets. More than 80 killed, hundreds injured. France in mourning yet again, on Bastille Day, just hours after President Hollande announced an impending end to the state of emergency (now renewed for 3 months): "The police are tired," he said. Once again, a perfectly targeted attack, designed to inflict maximum ... despair.

Damage is not the point of these horrors, although there is damage enough, carnage enough, blood enough. The point is to induce desperation and trigger an emotional, irrational, disproportionate, and ill-targeted response. And I fear that the enemy is on the point of achieving its goal.

It is becoming increasingly likely that Marine Le Pen will be elected next year. The government seems helpless, and little by little minds are being prepared to accept an authoritarian xenophobic response as the only conceivable next step.

Not that a Le Pen government would be any less helpless, and not that the authoritarian manner will lessen the threat--au contraire. But for too many people, I fear, it will feel like "doing something rather than nothing"--and in these circumstances it is all too human to want to do something. We saw this in the US after 9/11.

I hope we do not see a repeat in France, but I am no longer as convinced as I once was that France will be saved from catastrophe by its two-round voting system. Fear is gaining the upper hand. This is what is truly terrifying.