Friday, December 9, 2016

One More Down on the Left

La sénatrice Marie-Noëlle Lienemann annonce au « Monde » qu’elle renonce à être candidate à la primaire de la gauche

« J’ai décidé de ne pas être candidate à la primaire de la gauche », annonce dans un entretien au « Monde » la sénatrice de Paris, qui dit vouloir éviter « un éparpillement des voix ». 

First Hollande out, now Lienemann. Not that anyone ever gave her the slightest chance. Still, simplification helps. I wouldn't be surprised to see Hamon drop out as well before the first round. That would give Montebourg a boost.

Investors Worry About French Political Risk

Despite polls assuring that a Le Pen victory remains highly unlikely, investors have become wary of French sovereign debt. The spread between French and German bonds has increased by 10 basis points since September. The anxiety in the bond market is focused primarily on the outside chance of a Le Pen victory next way. But there is also political risk in a "safe" Fillon win, which would pose less of a threat of Frexit than a Front National victory but conceivably more of a threat of widespread worker resistance to Fillon's proposed overhaul of the French social safety net, including drastic modification of both the pension and health insurance system, as well as labor law reform. Given the massive demonstrations against the Macron and El Khomri laws, these fears are not exaggerated.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Macron Rejects the Siren Call of Unity

Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that he will not accede to demands that he bring his maverick candidacy within the broad tent of the Socialist Party. And why would he do otherwise? The moment he stuck his nose inside the tent, the people now trying to woo him with the siren song of Unity will begin to whack away at it. Outside, he's still a novelty; inside, he's just another contender.

His only worry, as the new kid on the block, is assembling the required 500 parrainages. Apparently, he doesn't have them yet, so he's appealing to France's 35,000 mayors to help him out. Of course, most of those mayors belong to political parties that have an interest in locking him out of the race, so he may have difficulty getting them. He has had no trouble raising money: although he enjoys substantial backing from wealthy donors, he claims that most of his money comes from small donations. But getting the parrainages of élus, a peculiarity of the French system, may prove to be a greater obstacle.

Macron's decision makes good strategic sense. Inside the Belle Alliance Populaire primary, he and Valls would divide the social-liberal reformist vote, with the likely result of making Montebourg the winner. Since Valls is bogged down by all of Hollande's baggage, Montebourg may still win the primary even with Macron out, leaving a 3-way contest between him, Mélenchon, and Macron for the "left" of the political spectrum in round 1, but then Montebourg and Mélenchon would whittle away at each other's base, allowing Macron perhaps to top both and thus positioning him nicely for a 2022 presidential run, which may well be his real objective. Even if Valls is the candidate, Macron could still beat him in round 1, with the same result: demonstrating his inevitability for 2022.

Or, then again, the Macron bubble may well collapse. It's really hard to say. But at this point he seems to be playing the hand he's been dealt as well as can be expected.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Vincent Peillon? Really?

As if the Socialists don't have enough problems already, Vincent Peillon is preparing to get into the race. If you've been following the PS for a while, you'll remember Peillon as the spokesperson for Ségolène Royal's campaign in 2007 and then as minister of education in the Ayrault government.

He's the son of a Communist banker, who headed the first Soviet bank outside the USSR, and the great-grandson of Léon Blum--quite a pedigree for an authentic man of the left. (CORRECTION: Jacob Soll points out that his great grandfather was not Prime Minister Léon Blum but Dr. Léon Blum, famous in his own right but not as a prominent Socialist--apologies for the error). Though involved in numerous efforts to reform the PS, his quiet intellectual demeanor never seemed to catch on with the rank-and-file. He comes across as a friendly schoolteacher, a French Mr. Chips, and in fact he has been teaching school since his retirement from active political life, which came about when Manuel Valls came to power: Peillon had gotten along well with Ayrault, another schoolteacher in politics with a similar style, but he and Valls were oil and water, and Valls got rid of him. Peillon fled to Switzerland.

Now he's back, in part, apparently, to make trouble for Valls. Peillon had been prepared to support Hollande, but he can't stomach Valls. Some say that disgruntled Hollandistes have egged him on precisely to make mischief for Valls. Who knows.

Peillon's candidacy will probably go nowhere, but it is one more symptom of the terminal state of the PS. There is not even a pretense of seeking to unite behind a candidate through the primary process. The primary is being taken rather as an occasion to express everything that has been repressed since Jospin's defeat. The prevailing wisdom had been that in order to prevent a repeat of 2002, differences had to be kept muted in order to prevent another fatal dispersion of energies. Hollande was the father of this crack-papering approach to politics, and his failure, along with the probable elimination of the left from the second round again this year, as in 2002, has put an end to the wish to project even an illusion of comity. All voices now want to be heard, and Peillon, who had chosen silence for the past two years, has suddenly recovered his powers of speech.

As an historian, Peillon has worked on the origins of laïcité and published a polemical attack on Furet's revisionist history of the French Revolution. One can imagine how such subjects might figure in the campaign he may be preparing to launch. The schoolmasterly tone will be an interesting alternative to Valls's hectoring. One takes one's amusement where one can. If nothing else, a Peillon candidacy might offer a few weeks' diversion in what otherwise promises to be a depressing holiday season of intrasocialist bloodletting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Valls to Cazeneuve

Bernard Cazeneuve is the new prime minister. The volume at Matignon will be dialed down from 12 to 6 or 7, but security policy will become no less firm. Otherwise the governmental changes appear to be cosmetic. The phrase "shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic" is not only a cliché but also too kind to what remains of Hollandia, because the Titanic had survivors, while the good ship Hollande will sink without a trace.

Unless, of course, Manuel Valls pulls off a miracle and somehow arrives at the Elysée. Current polls rate his chances as slim to none. He is running behind both Macron and Mélenchon. Of course he hasn't yet begun whatever strategy he has in mind to separate himself from the president and project a vision of Vallsism different from that of Hollandism, so he is still saddled with all the baggage of the ancien régime. But it's hard to see how he can possibly shed this baggage. It must be galling to Valls to see Macron, who should be sandbagged by the same set of policies, leap out ahead with his winning smile and softshoe routine. But that, for now, is the reality. Polling at this stage (and perhaps right up to the end) is to be viewed warily, however.

Still, in the end, no poll has any of the "left" candidates getting anywhere close to the second round as long as the three principals remain in the race, so it's all moot, except perhaps in positioning for 2022.

Friday, December 2, 2016


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.