Monday, December 11, 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Édouard Philippe

Has there ever been a quieter prime minister than Édouard Philippe? He's certainly a change from Manuel Valls. For insight into his personality, I recommend listening to a podcast of this morning's Répliques, in which Alain Finkielkraut and Philippe discuss not politics but ... books.

Finkielkraut, armed with his bottomless chrestomathy of high-brow quotations and his endless supply of cut-and-dried and unalterable préjugés (no one reads anymore, the Internet has killed culture, France's teachers have abandoned the young, the schools reenact The Lord of the Flies, etc.), wants to enlist Philippe in his quixotic crusade to save the Republic, but Philippe will not be drawn. "Do you listen to music when you read, M. Finkielkraut? Some people say they can't. It's impossible. Well I do, so I know it's not impossible. And perhaps it's the same with the Internet and with electronic devices. Let me tell you about my daughter. She is seven and reads a lot, as everyone in the family does. And she discovered reading through an electronic device. So the two are not necessarily incompatible." (I'm quoting from memory, not verbatim.)

I find Philippe straightforward, plain-spoken, intelligent but undemonstrative and without designs on you (unlike Macron, whose use of cultural references invariably suggests a certain strategic cunning). Why had his parents advised him to read Cyrano de Bergerac? Because his ears stuck out, his classmates taunted him, and he suffered from his physical defect. So he read the play, but it didn't speak to him in that hour of need. He rediscovered it years later, thanks to a film. And he wasn't ashamed to mention it as a text that was important to him even though he knew it was dismissed as a minor work which he had never been mentioned in all his years of study.

Philippe gives every impression of being that rare thing in politics, a man content to cultivate his garden without aspiring to become either the sun god or the Sun King. Jupiter has found the perfect complement.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Whither Europe?

I ponder the future of Europe in the wake of major political changes in France and Germany.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Johnny et Jean

France is about to be submerged by a wave of nostalgia. The deaths of Johnny Hallyday ("notre Johnny national", as a French friend once put it to me with a tinge of savage irony) and Jean d'Ormesson will remind people of a certain age--my age--that their days are numbered.

Those who danced to the endless string of Johnny hits in the years leading up to May '68 will recall what it was like when the sap flowed more freely in their veins than it does today. Those who imagined their own future amorous lives on the model of Johnny and Sylvie will conjure up the pangs of lost loves.

The Johnny cult has always more or less mystified me. I was an American and therefore had no need of the French Elvis. I had the genuine article. French rock largely struck me as a pale shadow of the real thing. I had somewhat warmer feelings about Johnny the film actor. He had a certain something, which came I suppose of being a national monument called upon to play an ordinary bloke. The Fabrice Lucchini film Jean-Philippe played with this a bit.

As for Jean d'Ormesson, while no one would quite call him "notre Jean national," he was for a time a rather ubiquitous presence. I doubt that he would have much of claim on the nation's nostalgia were it not for Apostrophes, the Bernard Pivot bookchat show, of which he was a fixture. Despite having been editor of Le Figaro for many years, it was his genial presence on Pivot's stage that made him a celebrity, a status that neither his novels nor his election to the Académie française would have earned him. He dined with presidents (and was in fact Mitterrand's last luncheon companion before his death), but television made him a household name and broadcast his seductive charms even to those in the audience who found his politics a bit on the réac side.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Loyal Opposition Loses Its Cool

I had missed Jean-Luc Mélenchon's appearance on L'Emission Politique, but my blogging confrère Arun Kapil alerted me with a Facebook post. To say that Mélenchon was disagreeable would be an understatement. It has been said that he was embittered by his elimination from the presidential contest after round 1, when he had come so close. Perhaps. Or perhaps bitterness and invective have become his strategic weapons. At times he seemed to be following the playbook of Georges Marchais (Taisez-vous, Elkabbach!). At other times his model seemed to be Donald Trump, who knows how to use humor to get the crowd on his side when he lashes out at the "elite" media (as Mélenchon did in his little routine on Venezuela, with the line about the child's toy cow that says "Moo!" each time you turn it over). He got the laughs, but one had the feeling that the crowd remained uncomfortable even as it guffawed because the spectacle was that of a man not quite in control of his emotions.

All that was bad enough, but now we have Mélenchon on his blog attacking the journalist Léa Salamé for her ethnicity:

J’ai cru à un super débat sur les deux doctrines économiques en présence et ainsi de suite. Je ne me suis pas préoccupé de ses liens familiaux et communautaires politiques. Quand elle m’a pris à parti sur mon patrimoine de riche, moi le fils d’un postier et d’une institutrice, j’aurais pu lui en jeter de bien bonnes à la figure en matière de patrimoine et de famille. Depuis, ma naïveté fait rire mes amis mieux informés et plus vigilant que moi sur tout cela.
This from the self-appointed champion of laïcité. The claim that he was sandbagged by journalists and a network with a hidden agenda because of his naivety is hardly credible from a man who has been in politics for 40 years and who has appeared countless times on L'Emission Politique. Perhaps his model is not so much Marchais or Trump as the elder Le Pen, who knew so well how to transform clashes with journalists into proof of his anti-establishment bona fides.

None of this would matter except that Mélenchon is now by default the leader of the loyal opposition. The Socialists have absolutely disappeared from the scene (in polls they now trail the Communists). The FN is in disarray, and the Republicans are now in the process of splintering, with one faction joining the marais of soft Macronistes and the other following Laurent Wauquiez into swamps of a more feverish sort, on the fringes of civilization and not far removed from the savagery of the Frontistes.

The next elections are European parliament elections, which are generally an occasion for the electorate to vent its discontents with the incumbent government, and there is plenty of discontent with Macron. So La France Insoumise, as the only semi-organized force of any size in the field, could do well. But Mélenchon wants more than votes. He wants to head a movement, a revolutionary force, and his troops aren't responding to the trumpet. Perhaps that's the source of his frustration. Perhaps he thinks that by turning coleric he can rally the rag-tag army of vociferous lycéen(ne)s and trotskystes de troisième âge who form his base. But this latest sally at Salamé is completely out of bounds, particularly coming from someone who now leads the opposition. It's a comment one might expect from a leader of Alternative für Deutschland but not from the leader of La France Insoumise. With such an opposition, France finds itself in a parlous state.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Adam Shatz on the Ramadan Affair

In The New Yorker. This is the best summary I have seen of this latest Parisian brouhaha.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Remaniement

Macron has completed his first remaniement. It turned out to be a small affair. No one was sacked. Even Christophe Castaner, who many thought would have to go because he could not both become head of LRM and remain in charge of relations with parliament, stayed in the end, perhaps as yet another demonstration that Macron can and will do as he pleases, critics notwithstanding. The few ministers and sub-ministers rumored to have their heads on the chopping block kept them in the end.

As a gesture, perhaps, to the left, Olivier Dussopt, once close to Martine Aubry and then to Manuel Valls, became a Socialist Trojan horse in the otherwise solidly right-wing Bercy. He will be in charge of the civil service, which is perhaps the only remaining PS foyer.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Castagne sur Castaner

Christophe Castaner has been named and duly "elected" head of REM. "Named" is putting it mildly and "elected" putting it generously. He was in fact imposed from on high--I would say by Jupiter himself, except that I am tiring of the Jupiter metaphor, with which the president flattered his own pretensions for apotheosis. This was a politician's power move, not an act of god. It rankled at the base. A few hundred Marcheurs have quit the party, and a few local chapters have expressed their discontent. But for the moment there is no fronde, and even those who have quit tend not to blame Macron but rather "the party," which of course has no existence other than as a Macron vehicle, so this is a distinction without a difference.

But the real fissures in REM will not emerge until the first remaniement, which may be coming soon, or the first high-profile resignation, which could well be Nicolas Hulot. Some of REM's young followers believed that the nomination of Hulot was a promise that all contradictions could be reconciled, that deregulation and regulation would be dosed out with an even hand, a labor code reform here, a nuclear plant decommissioning there, etc. This has proved more difficult than they bargained on. But for the moment disillusionment has been held in check. A reckoning is coming.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Ni droite, ni gauche, ni Plenel, ni Charlie: Macron and "le terreau de la terreur"

On Nov. 9 Emmanuel Macron spoke about France's neglected banlieues. It was a good speech, in which Macron repeated the argument that had earned him the enmity of Manuel Valls when Valls was prime minister, namely, that the Republic had failed some of its citizens by relegating them to ghettos, allowing their housing and schools to disintegrate, and permitting discrimination against them in the workplace.

But this admirable willingness to stare directly at one of the open sores on the body politic came in the midst of one of the sadder spectacles of recent years, the absolutely vicious polemic between Charlie Hebdo on one side and Mediapart on the other. I will not rehearse the history; Le Monde does a good job here for anyone not au courant, even as it calls, no doubt futilely, for a truce.

Now it remains for Macron to transform his words into flesh and launch an urban politics worthy of the name. When it comes to repairing social ills, the government cannot do everything, as Lionel Jospin once said in another context, but that is no excuse for doing nothing. This will be one test of Macron's readiness to be something more than a supply-side reformer. This is where he can earn his social liberal spurs. I wish him success. French stability will depend on it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Seminar at Harvard

If you're in the Boston area, you might want to consider attending this on Monday, Nov. 20:

4:15pm - 6:00pm Center for European Studies, Harvard, 27 Kirkland St., Cambridge
Contemporary Europe Study Group — Panel on the Implications of the French and German Elections for the Future of the European Union
  • Adrien Abecassis – Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University; Diplomat, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, France
  • Hans-Helmut Kotz – Visiting Professor of Economics, Harvard University
  • Niels Planel – International Consultant, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
  • Chair Arthur Goldhammer – Chair, Visiting Scholars Seminar: New Research on Europe, CES, Harvard University