Friday, December 2, 2016

Post-Hollande

After President Hollande took himself out of the presidential race yesterday, I was surprised by two reactions: first, the surprise of many commentators that he would have done so, and second, the hostility to the departed.

I was not surprised by Hollande's decision, because as I have said all along, if he had one area of supreme competence, it was the reading of polls. He knew that he would lose if he ran, and lose badly, even in the primary. He knew that the primary debates would degenerate into a dissection of his presidency, which he would be able to defend, as he defended it yesterday, as at best a prelude to better times ahead. Whether prescient or delusory, such a defense never wins in politics, and, as I said, if there's one thing Hollande understands, it's politics.

As for the hostility, it seems pointless to me. Hollande did what many politicians do. He said whatever he needed to say to get elected, assuming that once in power he could do as he pleased (insofar as the traffic would bear) and be justified by the results. When the results failed to materialize, he temporized, hoping that something would turn up. It never did--except for two terrible and tragic terror attacks, which he briefly thought might give him the presidential stature he had been unable to achieve in any other domain. The effect quickly faded, however.

Some observers are now praising Hollande for lucidity and courage. His unprecedented withdrawal (no president of the Fifth Republic has ever shied away from seeking a second term) is supposed to set the stage for a renewal of the Socialist Party and perhaps even for a united left and a chance of making the second round. This is not true. The Socialist debate will remain what it has been for decades: a contest between social liberalism, this time represented by tough-talking Manuel Valls, who has reduced the "social" component to la portion congrue, and some form of resistance to that nebulous doctrine, be it Mélenchon's, Montebourg's, Hamon's, Aubry's, or what have you? At this stage it's not worth trying to pick apart the small differences sustained by these various narcissisms of the left of the left. It might be more useful to ascertain whether a sufficient social base exists to support them.

Valls' biggest handicap is that he will have to defend Hollande's bilan, but he can finesse this by denouncing Hollande's hesitations and saying that he will do what needs to be done with greater vigor and less head-scratching. One challenge will be to fend off Montebourg on his left within the primary and Macron on his right outside. Here I will go out on a limb: once Valls starts skirmishing with Macron in earnest, Macron's bubble will quickly deflate. I don't personally like Valls' style (nor do I much like Macron's), but my sense is that outside the Paris media bubble Valls will be the much more popular candidate. In any case, we should find out quickly. And Macron may now be under increased pressure to join the primary of la Belle Alliance Populaire. He no longer has the excuse of not wanting to bite the hand that fed and petted him (Hollande's). He really has no alibi for remaining un cavalier seul.

Valls' more difficult challenge will be Montebourg, who is adroit, clever, and surrounded by all the PS scribes and thinkers who dislike everything Valls represents. I find Montebourg's economic policy vague and unconvincing, but it will have a superficial appeal to many and, if presented well, can be made to seem a more uncompromising alternative to what Fillon is offering.

So it will be an interesting primary ahead, but not the ultimately clarifying one that the PS needs. Neither Valls nor Montebourg has a sufficiently clear alternative to the European status quo. Both remain politicians who fly largely by the seat of their pants. At the end of all this, the result may still be what it would have been if Hollande had remained in the race: the disintegration of the Socialist Party and its replacement by two or more new political formations.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Hollande Is Out. What Now?

As I predicted in my previous post, François Hollande announced today that he will not be a candidate for his own succession. In a televised speech, he defended his bilan except for la déchéance de nationalité, which he recognized as a serious (and costly) error. He said that throughout his presidency, which one might describe as a calvary, he retained his lucidity, and he correctly concluded that his presence in the race would divide the left and pave the way for its elimination in the first round of the presidential election.

His face told the story even before he reached its dénouement. He was a man in pain, announcing his failure, desperately hoping that history may yet convert it into a victory.

Valls will now surely enter the ring, and I would guess he will immediately surpass Arnaud Montebourg--but not by much. The unity of the left is still far from assured. Mélenchon, I wager, will never drop out. Macron's bubble may collapse, but then again it may not. And Bayrou may still decide to get in (although I suspect that if Valls is the candidate, this becomes less likely, whereas if Montebourg is, Bayrou will almost surely run).

Little by little, the murk is dissipating, and we can begin to see the contours of the presidential race.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The State of the Race

Here is my latest piece on the French presidential race. And here is a scoop not in the article: my read of yesterday's luncheon summit at the Elysée is that Hollande told Valls that he is not going to run for re-election.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Bartolone's Hail Mary

Claude Bartolone is now calling for a unified primary of the left that would include Mélenchon, Hollande, Valls, and Macron, along with the smaller fry (Montebourg, Lienemann, etc.). Thomas Piketty did the same thing last January, when it might have done some good, but to no avail. Such a primary is clearly the only chance of averting a hard-right government come next May, be it Fillon's or Le Pen's (barring a miraculous Juppé victory tomorrow). One understands Bartolone's reasons (including his pique at Hollande for unflattering comments about him in the now-notorious book that has sunk his approval rating to a stunning 4 percent). One understands his impatience to get Valls into the race before Mélenchon and Macron divide what's left of the left between them in a cage match between the Passionaria and the Nureyev of oratorical fancy-dancing. One understands his desperation.

But it must be recognized as desperation. Whatever you think of Valls, he has stuck with Hollande past the bitter end. And whatever credit you give Hollande for perseverance, you have to wonder what voices he is listening to that persuade him he still has a chance. They can't be human voices. Nobody gives him a ghost of a chance.

And why would Macron want to throw in with la Belle Alliance Populaire (gad--what a name!) when his chief claim to the presidency is that he is not one of ces Pieds nickelés? He would immediately sink himself by attaching these rusty old sea anchors to his swift (and frankly frail) bark. Why would Mélenchon, the Don Quixote of gauchisme, dampen the image he has worked so hard to create of himself as the lonely knight of doleful countenance?

And what would be the end result? A series of debates in which the candidates, unlike the yea-sayers of the right, attacked and bloodied one another without mercy for all the host of unforgivable sins of which each is guilty in the eyes of at least one of the others: neoliberalism, irrealism, fatalism, reformism, capitalist-roadism, financialism, imperialism, Hollandism, Strauss-Kahnism, Putinism, communism, social-democratism, Blairism, Third-Wayism, Thatcherism,  affairism, defeatism, etc. "Circular firing squad" would be a euphemism for this crew.

But perhaps Bartolone is right to make the suggestion in the hope that some fairy will spread her dust and transform one of this hapless lot into a contender. Miracles happen. Look at Fillon, who was given up for dead after losing the presidency of the UMP to Copé. And Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. If that could happen, who knows what will go down in France? Perhaps even the re-election of François Hollande.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Fillon vs. Juppé

Last night's debate was surreal in several respects. Fillon's lead is all but insurmountable: not only did he beat Juppé by 16 points in round 1, but the third-place finisher, Sarkozy, advised his supporters to vote for Fillon, as did Bruno Le Maire.

Juppé's only chance this coming Sunday is therefore to mobilize a massive turnout of left-wing voters who would prefer him to Fillon's no-punches-pulled neo-Thatcherism. One might have expected him, therefore, to appeal to this electorate, but instead he offered them bupkis (if your Yiddish is weak, you can look it up). Expressions of mutual respect between the two men were frequent: "You've been my minister, François, and I've been yours" (le tutoiement was adhered to throughout). He pointed out, rightly, that the differences between his program and Fillon's--at least on paper--are largely differences of degree rather than intent: Fillon will reduce the number of civil servants by 500,000, Juppé by 250,000, etc. Needless to say, such honesty and politesse are not likely to give enough hope to Billancourt to fill the ballot boxes with votes for the quintessential énarque, who, though he has learned to moderate his contempt for the untutored, still confuses retail politics with a sans-faute performance on an oral exam.

As for those orals, both candidates were superb. Rhetorical polish is not in short supply in the Hexagon. Well-oiled glibness allowed both men to slip past embarrassing episodes in their past: Fillon described his "first demonstration" as a protest against an English teacher he considered incompetent, neglecting to mention that he was expelled for tossing a tear-gas grenade into the classroom, while Juppé prefaced an answer to a question about how he would deal with an indicted minister by pointing out that he himself had been not only indicted but condemned for corruption, prompting his "old friend François" to come to his rescue by saying nothing he had said should be taken to imply that he regarded "Alain" as anything less than superbly qualified to become France's next president.

In short, Fillon's strategy was to present, in true Thatcherite manner, a radical program for rolling back France's social model as though there were no alternative, while Juppé's strategy was to acknowledge the rationale for such an approach to governing, dissenting only to the extent of suggesting he would take a more pragmatic line and attempting to raise doubts about Fillon's commitment to protecting abortion rights and other "values" issues. I doubt that this will come anywhere near overcoming his deficit.

Hence François Fillon is likely to be the LR candidate. I have already said what I think this implies for the emergence of a center-left opponent. But what about Marine Le Pen? Fillon's victory was certainly unexpected, so she will need to revise her strategy, but I don't think she needs to do much. A part of la droite populaire, which failed to turn out for Sarkozy, has probably already deserted to Le Pen. Fillon is the candidate of the provincial bourgeoisie, of traditionalist Catholics, of family values. This worked in the LR primary, but only 4.7 million voters participated. Fillon's Thatcherism will be anathema to left-wing voters, to the millions of youths and union members and civil servants who took to the streets to protest the much milder Hollande reforms. If Fillon carries through with his promises to come in with guns blazing in his first hundred days, it's not hard to envision a long hot summer in 2017 (disrupting my vacation plans, I might add, but let's not be petty). It will take only a small pivot for Le Pen to present herself, as she already has to some extent, as the ultimate defender of the "French social model," at least as concerns les Français de souche. Welfare chauvinism will be her line against uninhibited market competition. And it is not impossible to envision this line as the winning ticket in round 2 against a Fillon who seems unwilling to make the slightest gesture to mollify left-wing voters set adrift by the chaos in their camp.

I am therefore deeply pessimistic. And I note, further, that Vladimir Putin now has two candidates in the French election, Fillon and Le Pen. Not to mention a friend in the White House. How many more refugees will be driven out of Syria by this prospect, and how many will reach Europe if Erdogan makes good on his threat to open the gates once again? The implications for the stability of the European Union do not need to be spelled out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What Next?

The next week in French politics promises to be interesting. Alain Juppé has to decide how fierce an attack to mount against Fillon, who stands on the brink of victory. Juppé can make an open appeal to the left by pointing out that Fillon's policies promise to magnify a hundredfold the tentative baby steps toward a liberalized market economy represented by the hated Lois El Khomri and Macron. Or he can conclude that his best course is to let the left mobilize itself if it so chooses while he saves himself for what? A ministry in the Fillon regime? Would he even want it? it's hardly even a choice.

This is therefore the last shot of his career, and he should go all out for it. But on France2 last night, he seemed, to coin a phrase, "usé, vieilli, fatigué" (as Jospin famously said of Chirac in 2002, for you youngsters out there). He was trying to appear relaxed, at ease, unfazed by his defeat and its unexpected magnitude. But he failed. The cameras had caught him earlier dining with his family at Allard, a Parisian eatery I know well. Like Juppé, it is respectable but a bit "usé, vieilli, fatigué." The same segment of the news showed Fillon donning a crash helmet for a spin around the track: his hobby is racing automobiles. The contrast was unmistakable: Fillon, young, dynamic, a bit dare-devil, burning rubber off his Michelin tires, vs. Juppé, contented bourgeois at his Michelin-rated table.

Evidently, the TV news producers think it's over, then. What if they're right? Can Fillon's Thatcherism à la française really be made to seem the policy for French renewal merely by wrapping it in a Nomex racing suit and buckling on a crash helmet? Surely not in 2016, with the entire world in revolt against neoliberalism. In short, Fillon's stunning victory locks the "respectable right" into a set of policies already in disrepute and rejected by substantial segments of electorates in all the advanced democracies. Marine Le Pen must be licking her chops.

Can Fillon stop Le Pen? I'm not at all sure. She will blast him--rightly--as the representative of everything left-wing protesters have been demonstrating against for the past five years. And there will be no sugar-coating of sauce Hollandaise (to mix metaphors).

Meanwhile, a gaping hole opens in the center of the spectrum. Several contenders are available to fill it. First of all, Emmanuel Macron, le jeune espoir. He has several things going for him: youth, charm, a reputation for speaking his mind, and a je ne sais quoi of "modernism," as a French official put it to me the other day. He also has serious disadvantages: no party, an ambidextrous identity of ni droite ni gauche, association with the hated financial sector, which made him wealthy at a very young age, and a tendency to come off as just a bit too smart and cocky.

Then there is Manuel Valls, if he decides to get in. He has cultivated the left-center terrain that Macron wants to occupy for years. But he stuck with Hollande longer than was healthy for a presidential run. If he had broken with the president when Macron did, he would be in a better position now. Both men remain tainted by their long association with Hollande.

Montebourg, it is said, could beat Hollande in the primary should the president decide to run, but he is a bit too far to the left of center to attract the votes of the right that a centrist candidate would need to win. He might team up with Mélenchon to attract the votes of the far left, but there aren't enough votes there to put him across the finish line, and Mélenchon would definitively alienate everyone on the right.

And then, as my friend Greg Brown forcefully reminded me this morning, there is Bayrou, the perennial bridesmaid. It has been rumored that he had a deal with Juppé, whom he backed for president, to become prime minister if Juppé won. Bayrou also said that he would run himself if Sarkozy, whom he detests, won the primary of the right. With the Sarkozy dragon now slain but Juppé on the verge of elimination, Bayrou could decide to run himself. It's more than a little late to mount a candidacy, however. And Bayrou is also a bit usé, vieilli, et fatigué, even if it's true that Fillon, who has been in politics longer than either Juppé or Bayrou, is hardly the ingénu, despite his exploits on the racetrack.

If 3 or 4 of these potential "centrist" (Macron) or "left-centrist" (Valls, Montebourg) or "right-centrist" (Bayrou) candidates get in as Juppé substitutes, you have quite a mess in the center and a potentially divided vote, ensuring a Fillon-Le Pen face-off in round 2. If the center coalesces around one candidate, my guess is that it will be Macron, who, for all his weaknesses, combines the advantages of political virginity with important establishment backing. But until now I have thought his media-driven candidacy would collapse when put to the test of retail politicking. He has many vulnerabilities that Le Pen could exploit, but he also has the important advantage of being more acceptable to voters on the right than any of his potential rivals (except possibly Bayrou, but Bayrou doesn't have the wind in his sails as Macron does).

Frédéric Lefebvre-Naré, how do you see a Bayrou candidacy?

In short, it's a free-for-all, and a Le Pen victory is looking less unthinkable to me today than it did last week. That is of course terrible news. The worst, as Donald Trump might say. Not nice.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fillon's Victory

Here is the long published version of the analysis I sketched out last night.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Preliminary comments on Sunday's Republican primary

I was in an airport when I learned of Fillon's stunning victory. On the flight home, I began to write a column for The American Prospect, which will probably be ready tomorrow. In the meantime, I offer these preliminary thoughts:

... The final result came as a shock even to observers aware of the last-minute Fillon surge. The candidate given up for dead only a few weeks ago won by a margin of 16 points over Juppé, while Sarkozy finished a distant third, six points behind Juppé.

What happened? Were the polls simply wildly wrong? As in the case of the Brexit and Trump votes, pollsters had picked up the last-minute change in the temper of the race and correctly gauged the direction of the trend toward the winning position or candidate, but in each case they made the wrong prediction, and in the case of Fillon the final margin was far greater than the predicted one and well beyond the usual margin of error. Of course primary polling is extremely difficult, especially when the party in question has held no previous primary, making it hard to predict which respondents are likely to vote. But poll watchers, severely chastened now three times in a row, must refrain from drawing quick conclusions.

Where does this leave the race for the Republican nomination? Having failed to predict Fillon’s victory, I should hesitate to hazard a guess, but his lead is large enough that it will presumably be difficult for Juppé to overcome. Unless, of course, it galvanizes left-wing voters, who may have stayed home in round one of the primary, to turn out in large numbers in order to put Juppé over the top. Fillon is well to Juppé’s right, so this is not impossible.

Can Fillon’s victory be put down to a “Trump effect?” Perhaps, in the sense that a Juppé-Le Pen matchup would in some ways resemble the Clinton-Trump contest. Juppé is a solid centrist technocrat, well-known after many years in politics, but linked to policies that were unpopular in the past, such as increasing the legal age of retirement. Fillon is also closely associated with retirement reform, but he is younger, and by the time he overhauled the French pension system, opposition had dwindled. Juppé’s reform effort is remembered for triggering a month-long general strike and turning the country upside down, whereas Fillon’s reform passed relatively easily. In style Fillon has nothing in common with Trump: he is soft-spoken and disarmingly mild in demeanor, though beneath the surface he is a tough and savvy political infighter.

The big question, of course, is whether Fillon, if he emerges as the candidate after next week’s run-off, can defeat Marine Le Pen. This was to have been Juppé’s role, and polls have consistently shown him as the candidate most likely to stop Le Pen—if not the only one able to do so. Because Juppé was so widely expected to win, there has been less polling regarding a Fillon-Le Pen face-off in the second round. But as yesterday’s vote showed, the polls may not be accurately reflecting the volatile mood of the electorate in any case, and the final round is still a long way off.

In any case, the left is in a shambles, and no left-wing candidate is likely to make it to the second round of the presidential election. President Francois Hollande’s approval rating has fallen into the single digits, and he is likely to be beaten if he decides to run in the upcoming Socialist primary.

There is, however, one major source of uncertainty on the left. If Juppé is knocked out by Fillon, a space opens up in the center of the political spectrum, and two other men could vie for the role of center-left opposition: Prime Minister Manuel Valls and former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. Valls, out of loyalty to the president, has not yet declared himself a candidate, but he is chafing at the bit, especially now that Macron has thrown his hat in the ring. Macron, who has never been elected to anything, declared his candidacy in the week before the primary of the right, and this may have contributed to Juppé’s lackluster showing, as voters who might have cast their ballot for him decided that the much younger and still untarnished Macron would make a better standard bearer. Polls show Macron doing well, but once again one has to wonder what the polls are really reflecting. He has no party behind him, which will complicate a presidential run, although he has raised a substantial amount of money from both small donors and large contributors.

It would take a foolhardly prognosticator to speculate about what French voters are thinking. The Front National is already the first choice of working-class voters in France and has been for some time, so it is hard to see her picking up more votes from that quarter as Trump is thought to have done in the United States. In order for Le Pen to win, she has to draw votes away from the center-right Republicans. Does the unexpectedly large margin of Fillon’s surprising win indicate a surge of anger among Republican voters, a rejection of the notion that what they really want is a staid and relatively pro-European alternative to Le Pen’s xenophobia and anti-EU rhetoric? Will they then take the next step and abandon Fillon for Le Pen when they get the chance next year? Such speculation goes too far. But Sunday’s vote is highly unsettling. It suggests that, just as in the UK and the US, something deeply troubling is roiling under the surface, perhaps ready to erupt with explosive force.

If that happens, the EU will almost surely collapse. The Western democracies will all have swung far to the right, except for Germany, where Angela Merkel has just announced that she will seek a fourth term. Matteo Renzi is about to lose a key referendum vote in Italy, which may force him to resign. Come next year, the political universe may look far different from what most observers would have imagined a year ago. The consequences of these changes would be incalculable.

And yet, and yet … this primary vote may well mean nothing. The Republican primary voters are not a good sample of the general electorate or even of the entire right-wing electorate. And one shouldn’t exaggerate the differences between Fillon and Juppé. If either is elected, it’s quite likely that the other will receive an important ministry. Their platforms are not that different. The styles of both are subdued, dignified, and correct. They are more similar to each other in manner than either is to Sarkozy, much less to Trump. So the significance of this vote, however surprising, should be kept in perspective.


One final note: Nicolas Sarkozy’s political career is probably over, and his legal problems may well land him in jail.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Two More Articles about the US

On truth after Trump, here, and on the evil demons of our nature, here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

En marche, mais où?

Emmanuel Macron will announce his candidacy tomorrow. Why choose this moment? Perhaps it was planned this way all along, but I think we can discern a possible Trump effect. Macron has concluded from Brexit and Trump that this is the year of the anti-system vote. In terms of policy, he represents a fairly standard Third Way, neoliberal, "structural reform," "supply side" agenda, but in terms of optics he is the new guy on the block, the broom that promises to sweep clean, toss out the scoundrels, and start politics anew. So this is the moment to strike, with the world still reeling from the Trump shock.

It also puts Macron's hat in the ring ahead of Manuel Valls, who is no doubt itching to get in as François Hollande's approval rating drops toward zero. And it steals a little of Alain Juppé's thunder, planting a flag in the center of the spectrum ahead of Juppé's likely win in the impending Republican primary.

Will Macron's high poll ratings stand up now that he is in? I have been skeptical until now, but this has been a year of shocks. The media have loved Macron until now, but they may turn on him. Young ambition is always vulnerable, no matter how good the story line of the bright, ambitious young subaltern turning on his mentor along with the other conspirators: Et tu, Brute?

With Macron now in the ring, will Juppé seem less inevitable? Will fewer left-wing voters cross over to vote in the Republican primary? Will this be enough for Sarkozy to squeak by? What will Bayrou do, and will it matter?

A very complicated presidential contest just got even more difficult to handicap. Macron moved now precisely in order to maximize the confusion, which he hopes will work to his advantage. He may be right.