Thursday, May 21, 2015

Meanwhile, chez les Socialistes ....

The previous post was about rightwing Hotspur Laurent Wauquiez. Meanwhile, on the left, the Socialists, as is their wont, have achieved unity in vagueness, muffling their message in a pile of mush. Leader Cambadélis likes it that way. Indeed, he has chosen a via negativa to the definition of the Socialist God (the mauvaises langues will find it irresistible to quip that this is the God that failed circa 1983, but pay them no mind):
On arrive ainsi à une définition en négatif de ce qu’est la social-démocratie, version Solférino : « Ni social-libéralisme ni néocommunisme ». Entre les deux, le champ des possibles est ouvert. « J’ai tout millimétré, bouché les éventuels angles d’attaque », savoure le premier secrétaire.
 One might have expected Cambadélis, the ex-trot, to be a different kind of leader from Hollande, who also preferred the mushy via negativa to any forthright effort to formulate a positive program, but the factional divisions, always in evidence when the Socialists are in power, are today deeper than ever and would split the party wide open if openly acknowledged. So Cambadélis has chosen to bury them for the next two years, hoping somehow to muddle through to re-election on the strength of being neither this nor that. The one flaw in this strategy is that the Hollande-Valls team has chosen to be frankly "social liberal," so Cambadélis's via negativa is daily contradicted by the facts. It would be more accurate to define the Socialists today as "neither FN nor soft-FN"--that is, neither Rassemblement Bleu Marine nor her baby blue emulators.

Killer Instinct: Wauquiez

They say that a presidential candidate needs fire in the belly, a killer instinct, a willingness to go for the jugular. If so, Laurent Wauquiez appears to be ready to make a run for it:
L’alerte devient autrement sérieuse en janvier 2011, lorsque « Jean-Noël » guigne un autre canton, à 15 kilomètres de là. Wauquiez et le jeune Barrot se retrouvent dans l’ascenseur de l’hôtel du département. La phrase exacte n’a pas été consignée, mais le second entend clairement le premier lui parler de « balle dans la tête ».

Une balle, comme cette « balle perdue » que Wauquiez promet, par texto, en 2012, à la députée européenne Françoise Grossetête, qui soutient Jean-François Copé dans sa guerre au couteau contre François Fillon pour prendre la tête de l’UMP. Une spécialité, chez Laurent Wauquiez, ces salves de textos, souvent nocturnes, qu’il envoie frénétiquement : « Tu m’as trahi… », « Tu me trouveras sur ta route »… « Je te briserai »… Des menaces qui se ressemblent toutes, et que leurs destinataires racontent à voix basse. Jacques Barrot s’en inquiète désormais tout haut.
Le Monde's lengthy profile of Wauquiez (by Ariane Chemin and Alexandre Lemarié, well worth reading) follows the same pattern as every other profile I've read of him: it starts out by building up his brainy credentials (top student in the history agrégation, ENA, DEA in public law), hints a few paragraphs in that he's swallowed the Buisson-Sarkozy line--no enemies to my (extreme) right--hook, line, and sinker ("« Quand j’entends Wauquiez, j’ai l’impression d’avoir Philippot du FN en stéréo », ironise le sénateur centriste de Paris Yves Pozzo di Borgo."), and then delivers the coup de grâce with the stories of threats, thuggishness, etc.

Of course he has plenty of competition for the UMP--er, excuse me, Republican (this will take some getting used to)--investiture. If Sarko falters, there is Juppé, and then there is Le Maire, NKM, etc. But Wauquiez will be in the mix and in line for a top ministry if the Republicans carry the day. Hence he bears watching, especially as becomes more and more the camel's nose of the FN under the edge of the Republican tent.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mélenchon's Herring Sticks in Duflot's Throat

So much for the Front Écolo-Pinko. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has written an apparently incendiary screed entitled "Bismarck's Herring," an attack on Germany, or, more precisely, on those misguided souls who take Germany's apparent economic success as reason to emulate its wrong-headed "ordoliberal" thinking about economics. Duflot sees in her erstwhile ally's book a "Déroulèdian" attack on a country that is not France's Enemy. As far as I'm concerned, the chief interest of this scrap in a teacup is that it will serve to remind the young collègiens in whose tender minds la classe politique entière has taken an inordinate interest these past few weeks of the existence of the unlamented nationalist Paul Déroulède, founder of the Ligue des Patriotes and revanchard extraordinaire. They might learn something about the history of the Republic in whose name everyone is shouting at everyone else by reading a bit about M. Déroulède.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Une certaine idée de la République

Nicolas Sarkozy has chosen a new name for his party: Les Républicains. He has also chosen a new idea of the Republic, quite different from the one he championed 10 years ago. That, at least, is the point of this sharply worded article in Le Monde. Ten years ago, Sarko was all for diversity, multiculturalism, openness, and toleration à l'Américaine. Remember Sarko l'Américain? Now he is as franchouillard as can be. Gone is the Sarko who thought that the republican schoolteacher needed to have a priest at his side to inculcate moral values. Gone is the Sarko who stood at the Pope's side (texting, to be sure, on his cell phone).
Car c’est une tout autre République que défendait avec la même force de conviction, il y a une dizaine d’années, celui qui était alors ministre de l’intérieur. Une République autrement plus ouverte ; si ouverte à tous vents – et en particulier à ceux soufflant d’outre-Atlantique – que l’on pouvait craindre pour ses piliers. Pour apparaître comme un homme neuf et s’imposer dans son camp, face aux chiraquiens, le futur candidat à l’élection présidentielle n’avait alors qu’un mot à la bouche, la « rupture ». Pour mieux installer cette idée, M. Sarkozy avait fait mine de s’attaquer à l’essentiel : notre « modèle républicain ».
Ode à la diversité, valorisation des religions en général et de l’islam en particulier, remise en cause de la loi de 1905, ouverture vers les statistiques ethniques et la discrimination positive, jusqu’à prôner la nomination d’un « préfet musulman »… M. Sarkozy n’y était pas allé de main morte. Laissant libre cours à sa fascination pour les Etats-Unis, le ministre de l’intérieur répondait aussi à sa préoccupation du moment, la mise en place du Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM).
The new Sarko is a staunch defender of the Law of 1905, of separation of church and state, and of the sacrosanct republican school in which the Revolution remains a bloc, the colonies were civilized for their own good with nary a dissenting word, and good little boys and girls studied Latin and Greek because France had inherited the mantle of empire from Rome.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Reform of the Collège

To listen to the polemics raging in France these days about the reform of the collège proposed by education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, you'd think the very basis of civilization was at stake. The most contested reforms, involving the teaching of Latin and Greek and dual-language classes in French and German, are really rather minor, as this article makes clear. Clearly, it is not the reforms themselves that have provoked such passion but what they are taken to symbolize: namely, a "downward leveling" of the public educational system and an attack on "elitism." Questions of "national identity" are also involved, especially in the accusation that less time will be devoted to the history of Christianity and the Enlightenment and more to Islam and non-European cultures.

There is no question that the French educational system is elitist, but its elitism remains firmly entrenched at the top of the system, in the Grandes Ecoles. The collèges, or middle schools, are hardly the place to begin an attack on the ills that stem from the rapid narrowing of the educational pyramid. French students need better preparation in (living) foreign languages, and the proposed reform seems intended to extend that better preparation to a larger number of pupils. As for Latin and Greek, those who want to study them--and their number is relatively small--will still be able to do so.

History programs everywhere must face the challenge that "the world" has grown larger in recent decades. It is no longer enough to concentrate on Europe alone, or "the West." Curricular adjustments will have to be made. The proposed middle-school reforms may not strike the optimal balance, but they are not yet set in stone, and the debate inaugurated by the ministry makes a necessary start. Defenders of the status quo should ask themselves if they really believe the status quo leaves out nothing essential.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ceci n'est pas un Acte Patrote.

Throughout the debate on the new surveillance law, passed today by the Assemblée Nationale, the government repeatedly insisted that this was "not a French version of the Patriot Act." Perhaps not. If anything, it grants even more sweeping powers to French intelligence services than the Patriot Act did to their American counterparts. Under the Patriot Act there is at least a semblance--a fig leaf--of independent judicial control by the FISA court, even if that court exercises its nominal powers only once in a blue moon. In France, the only oversight will be administrative: the intelligence services will control themselves. The refrain of "not another Patriot Act" seems to indicate a guilty conscience more than anything else.

I am not a zealot on privacy protection. I prefer intelligence-gathering by electronic means to military intervention as a response to terrorism. I deplore the confusion of anti-terrorist police work with warfare. But the watchers need to be watched, in view of the immense intrusive powers they have developed with the aid of modern communications technology. France, in its understandable desire to respond swiftly and effectively to the January attacks, has over-reacted, just as the US did after 9/11. This is unfortunate, and France will probably come to regret it.

Fichage?

Conveniently, Robert Ménard, mayor of Béziers and fellow traveler of the Front National, has opened himself to attacks for alleged fichage of schoolchildren because he said on TV that 64.6% of Béziers students were Muslims. But the fact that the mayor is linked to the FN merely forecloses debate and obscures the underlying issues.

Now, as regular readers know, I think there are reasonable grounds for the collection of certain ethnic statistics. What is problematic here is the term "Muslim," since the city has no idea whether a child with the first name "Mohammed" practices Islam or any other religion--and it needn't know. But it can be useful for educational planning to know, for example, what percentage of students speak French at home or have French-speaking parents. Staffing and resource decisions can be more intelligently made with such information than without it, and if it is not collected formally, it will very likely be collected informally by school officials. So one might as well be open about it. It seems to me problematic to make "republican" synonymous with "blind to social and cultural realities." But I know that many French friends will disagree with me.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Le Pens: Endgame

Jean-Marie Le Pen, suspended from the Front National and denied the right to speak in its name, wants his daughter to marry Louis Alliot or Florian Philippot, so that she will no longer bear his name. This marks the end of a month-long battle. Some observers believed it was all a sham, a clever ploy designed to allow the daughter to distance herself from her father in order to further her ambitions, with his consent. Anyone who saw her face when Jean-Marie, wearing a bright red coat, mounted the platform in front of the statue of Joan of Arc and tried to usurp the role of party leader can no longer believe that the pair are playacting. They have come to a parting of the ways, as child and parent sometimes do. We are witnessing a psychodrama, not a political drama.
Dès dimanche, la présidente du parti avait souhaité que son père ne s'exprime plus « au nom du FN ». Cette fois, son père souhaite qu'elle « perde son nom ». « J'ai honte que le président du Front national porte mon nom et je souhaite qu'elle le perde le plus vite possible », a-t-il lâché, lui suggérant d'épouser son concubin, Louis Alliot, ou le vice-président du parti Florian Philippot. « Je ne me reconnais pas de lien avec quelqu'un qui me trahit d'une manière aussi scandaleuse », a-t-il encore fustigé.

Self-Restraint

Some of you will not like this op-ed of mine on the PEN/Charlie Hebdo brouhaha.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Macron as Colbert

Emmanuel Macron, the symbol of Hollande's supposed neoliberal turn, now declares himself to be a Colbertist, in the finest French tradition of state capitalism:
La France a bâti après la seconde guerre mondiale un capitalisme d’Etat, fidèle à sa tradition colbertiste, et un capitalisme familial. C’est le soutien des pouvoirs publics et l’énergie entrepreneuriale qui ont rendu possibles les réussites industrielles de notre pays, et ce sont les choix industriels de long terme qui ont permis les investissements de l’économie française des « trente glorieuses ».
Sheesh. Rien que ça: revive the spirit of les trente glorieuses. But how? Well, that's where the column gets a little murky and needs greater financial acumen than I possess to decipher its meaning. There's some huffing and puffing about Google and Facebook B shares, for example:
Que dire en effet des actions B de Google ou de Facebook, pour ne citer que ces seuls exemples, qui accordent dix voix par action à leur détenteur ? Sortons de la naïveté française qui voudrait un libéralisme offert qui n’existe nulle part ailleurs ! Soyons compétitifs, exigeants avec nous-mêmes, mais cohérents avec notre vision de long terme.
Hmm. OK. In any case, the bottom line seems to be that the state is going to buy more shares in Renault, enough to constitute a blocking majority, to force Renault to do what it wants, and will later sell those shares. Beyond that, there seems to be some longer-term plan afoot to make strategic state investments in order to oblige certain firms to maintain manufacturing operations in France that they might otherwise shift elsewhere. And underneath all this, there is apparently an intention to change the way dividends are taxed and to encourage individuals to own shares in French companies rather than investing in real estate and assurances-vie.

Is there a coherent economic strategy behind this? Are large shareholders about to be given a tax break with significant distributional effects, which for obvious reasons Macron prefers not to discuss? What is the real strategy here? I confess I don't know. But this bears watching. It has the earmarks of one of those significant reforms that will ultimately change everything but that no one pays attention to while they're happening because the language in which they are expressed is addressed to tax accountants.