Monday, January 16, 2017

Piketty Defends Populism

No surprise, but Thomas Piketty favors Jean-Luc Mélenchon for president. His argument is devoted to separating the good populism (Mélenchon's) from the bad (Le Pen's). He passes rather quickly over Mélenchon's weak points, particularly in foreign policy:
en dépit d’une rhétorique clivante et d’un imaginaire géopolitique parfois inquiétant, Mélenchon conserve malgré tout une certaine inspiration internationaliste et progressiste.
This rather soft-pedals Mélenchon's conviction that Putin's annexation of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine are legitimate responses to "American imperialism," or his affection for the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes. Piketty retains the romanticism of a radical left international consisting of "Podemos, Syriza, Sanders ou Mélenchon." Above all he rejects the two candidates who, to his mind, appeal primarily to "the winners of globalization" with what he calls "interesting nuances": "Cathos vs. Bobos."

Ils prétendent incarner le cercle de la raison : quand la France aura regagné la confiance de l’Allemagne, de Bruxelles et des marchés, en libéralisant le marché du travail, en réduisant les dépenses et les déficits, en supprimant l’impôt sur la fortune et en augmentant la TVA, alors il sera bien temps de demander à nos partenaires de faire un geste sur l’austérité et la dette.
But then, having made his case, seemingly, for the radical left, he puts water in his wine:

Il est essentiel que cette primaire désigne un candidat qui s’engage dans une remise en cause profonde des règles européennes. ­Hamon et Montebourg semblent plus prêts de cette ligne-là que Valls ou Peillon, à condition toutefois qu’ils dépassent leurs postures sur le revenu universel et le « made in France », et qu’ils formulent enfin des propositions précises pour remplacer le traité budgétaire de 2012 (à peine évoqué lors du premier débat télévisé, peut-être parce qu’ils l’ont tous voté il y a cinq ans, mais c’est bien ce qui rend d’autant plus urgent de clarifier les choses en présentant une alternative détaillée). Tout n’est pas perdu, mais il y a urgence si on veut éviter de placer le FN en position de force.

In the end, like everyone else, Piketty recognizes that Mélenchon has no chance of winning, is disappointed with the Socialist field, and sees the realistic options as either the Catho, the Bobo, or the Facho.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Debate and Vote

The debate of the Belle Alliance Populaire (viewable in its entirety here) drew an audience of over 3 million, apparently, yet was neither popular, beautiful, nor indicative of much of an alliance. In the concluding remarks, Jean-Luc Bennahmias, candidly pointed out that although he is generally considered un petit candidat, it would be more honest to admit that all seven of the debaters were petits candidats in the sense that none of them would make it to the second round unless one of them succeeded in igniting a fire around which the others could and would rally.

This did not happen. The candidates dutifully performed their roles. Valls was tough and wrapped himself in the mantle of wartime prime minister, the war in question being the one supposedly waged against terror; Montebourg, his chief rival, eloquently hit all his marks; Hamon earnestly tried to differentiate himself with his basic income proposal; Peillon schooled the others on social democracy; de Rugy and Pinel acquitted themselves honorably but seemed to accept their lot as petits candidats, unlike Bennahmias, who stood out by being rather less adapted than the others to the rules of the televisual game.

By American standards, all the candidates were masters of eloquence: capable of extended disquisitions on policy, well-spoken, disciplined, respectful of one another, eager to appear dignified rather than ingratiating, and above taking cheap shots. But there was little to sustain attention over 2 1/2 hours, and I doubt the debate swung many votes, although Hamon's performance was stronger than I expected, so he may have gained slightly, and Peillon had a certain appeal, but he is coming from so far back that it probably doesn't matter.

Next week's vote will simplify the field, thankfully, but Bennahmias's theorem remains true: until proof to the contrary, even the two winners will remain petits candidats unless they can somehow generate some momentum going into the next round.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

First Left Primary Debate

The first of three debates prior to the primary of the Belle Alliance Populaire will begin in less than an hour. Unfortunately, I will be on my way to the airport to catch a flight to France, so I'll be reporting on the results this weekend, time permitting.

Marine Le Pen in Trump Tower

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Race Thus Far

"Horse-race reporting" is the pejorative term for the lowest form of political writing, namely, handicapping the candidates as though they were nags circling the oval. But I indulge in it in my latest article for The American Prospect. Readers of FP won't learn anything they don't know, but they may appreciate the kicker:

Hence the chief significance of this primary exercise may be to determine the fate of Macron, the only challenger on the left currently given any chance of actually winning the presidency. Of course, it’s still very early in the race, several debates remain before the left primary takes place, and there is no reason to place much confidence in the polls, not only because polls everywhere have been mistaken this year but also because the fragmentation of the French party system has made it very difficult to predict what voters are likely to vote in the primary. Turnout is expected to be light, much lower than turnout in the primary of the right and center that elected Fillon. This augurs ill for the eventual winner, whose victory celebration may resemble a wake around the corpse of the Socialist Party built by François Mitterrand. If a left remains in France after this election, it will bear little resemblance to the party that still dreamed in 1981 of a “rupture with capitalism” by democratic means and a repair of the breach in the workers’ movement that opened when the French Section of the Workers’ International split from the Communists at Tours in 1920.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Polls, Polls

Thanks to Arun Kapil, I bring to your attention two recent polls. The first brings the surprising news that if the stars align just right, Emmanuel Macron could edge past Marine Le Pen to confront François Fillon in the second round. The stars that need to align include: 1) a Montebourg victory in the left primary and 2) a decision by Bayrou not to run. Unfortunately for 1), this poll shows Valls running well ahead in the left primary. But the first debate (scheduled for Jan 12) hasn't even taken place yet. So a lot could change.


Friday, January 6, 2017

Jean-Marie Lends Marine €6 Million

Marine Le Pen is borrowing €6 million from her dad for her campaign. So much for the de-demonization via estrangement theme.

In other news regarding FN financing, the Russian bank that lent the FN €4 million in 2014 has gone bankrupt, and a Russian banking oversight agency is asking for the money back. Whether the overseer is acting independently or for "political reasons" remains ambiguous (the Kremlin may have decided that it has a better shot of obtaining influence in France by backing Fillon, who is friendly with Putin, rather than Le Pen).

Finally, Le Monde claims that Russian official were overheard discussing the usefulness of rewarding Marine Le Pen for her support of the Russian annexation of Crimea:

En avril 2015, des conversations piratées de responsables du Kremlin posaient la question d’un arrière-plan politique à ces transactions financières, les intéressés évoquant la façon dont Marine Le Pen devait être « remerciée » pour son soutien à l’annexion de la Crimée, en mars 2014.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Socialists Get Their Show on the Road

Lately, I wake up every morning to listen to interviews with candidates in the Belle Alliance Populaire via podcast. A few impressions:

1. Arnaud Montebourg has stepped up his game. He's always been a smooth talker, but he now seems quite well-prepared to engage on issues at a level of detail he previously avoided. Even when challenged, he responds adroitly, and he does not let interviewers get away with what he considers to be mischaracterizations of his stands. His forensic skills should stand him in good stead in the upcoming debates.

2. Manuel Valls seems totally unprepared for the race. He is of course in a difficult position of his own making, at once a defender of Hollande's record, from which he can hardly dissociate himself, and self-styled policy innovator. But his innovations are far from clear, unless they are self-repudations of the "I will abolish Article 49-3" variety. His customary belligerence remains abundantly on display, but there seems to be nothing of substance behind it. I think he expected to be the automatic front-runner once Hollande stepped aside and is surprised to discover that other candidates are being taken seriously.

3. Vincent Peillon is quick on his feet and has worked up his dossiers, but he put his foot in his mouth the other day by alleging that laïcité had somehow been an alibi for Vichy's anti-Semitism as it is said to be an alibi for anti-Muslim sentiment today. He quickly retracted, but the episode left a bad taste.

4. Benoît Hamon comes off as earnest but not particularly adroit.

I list the contenders in the order in which I expect them (as of now) to finish in the primary, with 3 and 4 more or less ex aequo.

The other candidates are thus far inaudible, at least from my vantage point in the US.

The Russia Question in the French Presidential Campaign

Foreign policy as usual seems unlikely to loom large in the coming presidential race. Allegations of Russian interference in the US election have put Russia in the limelight on this side of the Atlantic, and Donald Trump's expectation that Europeans should pay more for their own defense, his professed admiration for Vladimir Putin, and his hints that US guarantees to certain Baltic countries might not be terribly robust have raised anxieties in Europe.

French presidential candidates have generally emphasized the need for engagement with Russia rather than confrontation. This is true across the board from far left to far right, with the exception of Manuel Valls. Marine Le Pen is the most outspoken supporter of Putin, and she has been accused of being dependent on Russian bank financing. François Fillon alleges that the West provoked Putin into taking defensive action in Crimea and Ukraine. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is even more vociferous on this point and discounts alleged Russian interference in the US election by pointing to known US espionage on European leaders (including Hollande and Merkel) and firms.

Somewhat more reserved is Socialist candidate Arnaud Montebourg, who has called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia in connection with a "process" that would ultimately lead to Russian concessions on Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron regards Russia as an "unfriendly" power but, as a "realist," insists that "discussion" is necessary.

The most forthrightly aggressive candidate on the Russia front is the characteristically combative Manuel Valls, who is trying to differentiate himself on this issue first from François Fillon but secondarily from his Socialist opponents.

The Russia question will not be decisive in the election, but it is an issue worth watching, particularly in the upcoming Socialist primary debates.

Beyond the nuances in the positions of particular candidates, I think the important points here are: 1) Le Pen's pro-Putin position does not put her outside the mainstream of French debate; 2) possible Russian interference in the US (and French) election is no more a source of outrage in Europe than known US hacking of European officials (including Merkel and Hollande) and firms, and all espionage charges are discounted as business as usual; 3) Russia's muscle-flexing has achieved its goal--Russia is again a major power whose wishes foreign-policy "realists" must take into account; 4) Russia-related issues such as ensuring a continued flow of oil and gas from Russia and the Middle East and controlling the flow of refugees from Syria and elsewhere are more important to Europe than they are to the US. Europeans in general don't like Trump and are particularly wary of his backing away from NATO, but many are also unhappy with the escalation of anti-Russia rhetoric by US Democrats in the wake of the election.

Addendum: On Russia and the need to defend the liberal world order, see this by Yascha Mounk.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Le Parisien Won't Poll During Campaign

Le Parisien has decided not to commission or publish any polls during the 2017 presidential campaign. The paper says it has begun a period of "introspection" in the wake of what it sees as polling failures prior to the Brexit and US elections. This choice is "an experiment," intended, according to the paper's editor, to allow journalists to "breathe the air of the moment," "go into the field," "detect weak signals," and "uncover blind spots." The tens of thousands of euros saved on polling will presumably be used to send more reporters out into the provinces.