Thursday, February 11, 2016


The remaniement is one of the more tedious rituals of French government. It reminds me of the singing of the national anthem before American baseball games. One expects it to happen, one expects it to be all but meaningless, and one can't wait until it's over so that the players can get on with the game. Today's remaniement is a classic of the genre. Fabius is out (of his own volition, headed to the Conseil Constitutionnel and the irrelevance of immortality), Ayrault is in. Three--count them, three--ecologists have somehow been persuaded to lend their cover to a government that desperately needs to shore up its left flank. An énarque by the name of Audrey Azoulay replaces Fleur Pellerin at Culture. Who knows what offense Pellerin gave to be punished this way, or what service Azoulay performed to be so rewarded (she is said to be a friend of Julie Gayet, and perhaps that counts as service enough). Nothing changes in the regalian ministries or in the economic portfolios. Jean-Michel Baylet, a faithful old retainer, has been pressed into comforting service in the untranslatable office of aménagement du territoire--after the last major territorial reform has been fully consecrated by the regional elections.

Ho hum. Bottom line: all is well, stay the course, success is just ahead, but let us pay homage to the importance of the environment and kneel in reverence to the good works of Laurent Fabius, tel qu'en lui-même enfin son départ le change, by taking on board some Greens and thus strengthening, perhaps, the president's hand in the coming primary challenge from the left. As General de Gaulle is said to have remarked when France's "victory" in World War II was celebrated with a Te Deum at Notre-Dame, "quelle mascarade!"

Etat d'urgence?

I'm just back from a 10-day stay in France, during which I spoke to dozens of people and spent a fair amount of time nosing around Paris. While I was in the air on the way home, the National Assembly voted yes to a constitutional amendment allow la déchéance de nationalité, as Hollande and Valls apparently succeeded in persuading deputies on their side that preserving Hollande's crumbling authority was paramount, while Sarkozy apparently convinced deputies on his side that ideological consistency was more important than dealing yet another blow to an already damaged presidency.

Among people I spoke to there was a consensus, nevertheless, that the country wants neither Hollande nor Sarkozy for its next president. The problem is how to get there, when both the current and the former president, for all their failings as presidents, remain clever political operatives and in possession of the means to compete in intraparty infighting. Many people who normally vote left seem prepared to vote for Juppé, if only he can find a way to be nominated, but no one seems confident in his skills as a candidate or a primary competitor. Meanwhile, Hollande is sure to be challenged on the left--if not in an open primary of "all the left," as has been proposed in a petition signed by Piketty, Rosanvallon, Cohn-Bendit, and others, then in the primary to which the PS is committed by its own by-laws, in which it is clear that Arnaud Montebourg is prepared to mount a challenge (openly discussed in the most recent Canard enchaînée). We shall see where these initiatives go.

And now there has been a remaniement, with Ayrault returning to the government as foreign minister. Fabius leaves on a high note, having succeeded with the COP21, a laudable initiative that he pursued with passion but that to my mind looks like one of those laudable initiatives that history will remember in the breach rather than the observance (Kellogg-Briand pact, anyone?).

I was impressed, finally, by the Parisian stiff upper lip in the face of last year's terror attacks. The état d'urgence continues, but life seems to have returned to normal. Occasionally one runs into a heavily armed contingent of troops guarding this or that site,  but people aren't looking right and left in the Metro, where the police presence actually struck me as lighter than usual. There are fewer tourists, people say, with a consequent dent in the chiffre d'affaires of hotels and department stores, but the restaurants and cafés are full, there are still lines at all the museums, and Charlie Hebdo is as cheeky as ever (most recently with its Hanouna cover).

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"Parfois, résister c'est partir"

Christiane Taubira has resigned (or "been resigned," as they say in French). It is surprising that this didn't happen earlier, in view of her public opposition to the very unfortunate nationality stripping measure that Hollande wants to enshrine in the constitution. I stated my criticisms of this proposal earlier and expressed my surprise that a president could tolerate such open defiance. Now, as the amendment comes up for debate in the Assembly, she is going. Whether she left or was pushed out doesn't matter. She tweeted:

Parfois résister c'est rester, parfois résister c'est partir. Par fidélité à soi, à nous. Pour le dernier mot à l'éthique et au droit.ChT
She was the last minister truly de gauche, and with her departure the government now fully assumes its neoliberal, sécuritaire orientation. Taubira's replacement will be Jean-Jacques Urvoas, who is closely associated with what has been called "the French Patriot Act." Who in the audience at Hollande's 2012 campaign speech at Le Bourget would have thought we'd wind up here?

Taubira will be remembered primarily for the gay marriage bill, which she ably shepherded through the Assembly. The vicious attacks on her person by racists of the extreme right will also be remembered. The opposition branded her laxiste, and after the departure of Montebourg, Hamon, Filipetti, et cie. she stood as a symbol of a rapidly fading memory of a different and possibly imaginary Socialist Party. Her departure will make little difference to policy. Hollande and Valls had already set their course. Now we will see how well they have judged the political winds. My guess is, not well at all.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sarkozy's Mea Culpa

Several readers have asked me to comment on Sarkozy's new book. I haven't read it and have seen only excerpts in the press, but it's probably safe to assume that they've extracted the most significant bits. My impression is that this "confession," like every other move Sarkozy makes, is a carefully calculated part of his communications strategy.

He had hoped to be embraced as the party's savior, returning from ascetic retirement to bring order to a chaotic scene. That hasn't worked out. Juppé continues to best him in poll after poll. Other party leaders have tired of his imperious ways and are openly or covertly scheming to get rid of him. He is well aware that many Republican voters regard his presidency as a failure. So he has decided to change tactics and present himself not as a condottiere on a white charger but as a victim and sinner, betrayed by people he trusted (Buisson, Fillon, Copé), scorned by the media, and himself a fallible sinner (Fouquet's, the yacht, the "casse-toi pauv' con" episode--j'ai abaissé la présidence).

His base is increasingly made up of elder Catholics, so casting himself as a scorned sinner may seem like a wise strategy. Absolution may be slow in coming, however. He's adopted this pose before, often in interviews with the press. Expanding the confession to book length was probably a mistake. He still needs the strong man image, and while the occasional short confession is tolerable in a republican monarch, the extended one tends to magnify the artifice and create an impression of desperation, which is probably accurate.

The most amusing moment, I thought, was his assertion that he married Carla quickly in order to spare her prurient speculation in the press about the nature of their relationship. This is the same Carla who crooned "j'ai 40 ans et trente amants ..." I don't think she was overly worried about being portrayed in the press as a scarlet woman.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Michel Tournier

Michel Tournier has died at the age of 91. I translated Le vent paraclet.

The Other Shore

I don't usually comment on US politics, but some of my friends encouraged me to do so here, in case anyone is interested.

Hollande, tapis!

Hollande has pushed all his chips to the center of the table. Tapis, as they say in poker. All in.

In fact, he doesn't have many chips left. His big bet comes to €2 billion, or 0.1 percent of GDP. As stimulus programs go, that's a sneeze in a hurricane. And the policy mix is a hasty retread of the flat tires of yesteryear. Bonuses to firms for new hires, a pittance for a retraining program here and a prep-for-the-workplace program there. Some more tinkering with the labor code. Und so weiter.

The only real politics here is whether to remove the floor on negotiated overtime payments, as Macron wants, which would effectively end the 35-hour week, or retain the floor, as Myriam El Khomri wants. But the 35-hour week has been reduced to an occasionally useful political fiction, a sentimental reminder of the days when it was still possible to entertain aspirations to a different reality. It has been whittled away over the years, and the average French worker puts in considerably more hours on the job each week. The only question is how much they'll be paid for their time, and the constant tinkering with overtime pay now serves mainly as a way to obfuscate actual wages under a camouflage of supplements and bonuses to offset charges and deductions. It's a shell game.

Commentators and political opponents lost no time in denouncing the measure as a last desperate attempt by Hollande to inflect the unemployment curve, which he foolishly made the sine qua non of his candidacy in 2017. Who cares? If unemployment comes down a tenth of a percent, will it make Hollande a weaker candidate than if it goes up a tenth? All it will do is spare him the embarrassment of literally renouncing his promise. "I know I said I wouldn't run unless unemployment came down, but of course you never really believed I meant it, did you?"

The real problem with Hollande is of course that he still thinks this is the way to play the game. His only chance to resurrect himself--and it's a small one--is to say that he's discovered that the poker game he needs to be playing is a high-stakes one and not penny-a-pot. But it's not in his character, and character is destiny.

Monday, January 18, 2016

NEH Summer Seminar on Tocqueville

Come study the world's greatest book on democracy at the institution founded by America's greatest democratic thinker. Over two mid-summer weeks on the iconic grounds of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, 16 NEH Summer Scholars will explore American democracy with Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America as guide, with two leading experts on Tocqueville and his thought: Arthur Goldhammer (Harvard) and Olivier Zunz (University of Virginia).

For more information, and to apply, please visit the seminar web site.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Natives Are Getting Restless, or Is It Just the Media?

It is the mission of the Fifth Estate to fill the doldrums between presidential elections with wild speculation. So the JDD is stirring up the pot. What if Emmanuel Macron quit the government and ran for president? Nothing simpler than to commission a poll, and, lo and behold, when you ask disgruntled voters if they'd go for a new face to replace the les vieux et usés, they say, "Why not?" So 53% say they'd like to see him as president. More than Valls, who gets only 48%, but less than Juppé (57%). Hollande and Sarkozy of course come in last (leaving aside poor Cécile Duflot). Ho hum.

Meanwhile, Valls made a controversial appearance on On n'est pas couché, the infotainment vehicle that allows pols to show what regular people they are by fielding nasty questions with more or less grace (your regular person quotient can go up either way--regular people get angry when attacked, but you get elegance points for keeping cool under fire).

And so le bal continue. Nobody can quite imagine another Hollande-Sarkozy face-off, but nobody can quite see how to get from where we are to somewhere else either, unless, of course, we can arrange some kind of "primary" election that will more accurately reflect what the pollsters would like us to believe "the people" actually want, which means wresting control of the primaries away from the party apparatuses and turning them into a kind of pre-general general election. A plebiscite, in other words, and France loves plebiscites, which flatter its monarchical yearnings by creating the illusion of an acclamation of the monarch by the general will. Huzzah! If only France had places like Iowa and New Hampshire, it could imagine a purer way of choosing its next republican monarch.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

And the Revolt Against Sarkozy Is Well Under Way

A new poll shows Juppé leading Sarkozy 38-29 among people who say they will vote in the Republican primary.