Saturday, April 22, 2017

Arun's Summary

Arun Kapil gives us a terrific roundup of how things stand on the eve of the contest.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Dernière Ligne Droite

Well, it's coming to the wire, and madness reigns more than ever. Last night's terror attack en plein non-débat may have shaken things up yet again, just as the undecided were coming off the fence. I am in Indiana, where I have been lecturing on the election at Purdue. I refused to make any prediction during my talks here, and I woke up this morning still with no idea how this will turn out. My gut tells me ... nothing. And since I've been watching French elections now for (gasp!) half a century, my profound ambivalence should tell you something.

My sense is that Macron hasn't closed the deal, Mélenchon has been hitting all the high notes lately, Fillon's sheer bull-headedness has kept him in contention, and Marine Le Pen has reverted to form, partly erasing the gains she had made in de-demonizing the party. But I just don't know how it's going to end. On Sunday we'll know. Brexit and Trump have taught me to expect the unexpected, but the possibility of an impending disaster is never easy to contemplate. And this could end in complete and utter disaster.

How's that for a pessimistic start to your day.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Critique of French Polling Methods

Political scientist Jean-Yves Dormagen criticizes the methods used by French pollsters, in particular their use of quotas based on gender, age, and socioeconomic status. All pollsters are obliged to "correct" their samples to compensate for non-randomness in survey responses, but Dormagen argues that the quotas employed in France are applied to categories that are too broad and unrepresentative.

So beware of accepting the poll rankings (currently Macron no. 1, Le Pen 2, Mélenchon 3, and Fillon 4) as definitive. Big surprises may be in store. I'm making no bets on the outcome. Still biting my nails.

The Last Roundup

There won't be a final debate before the first round, but there will be a program on France2 in which each of the 11 candidates will be interviewed for 15 minutes by 2 journalists (with 2 1/2 minutes additional for "droit de réponse"). It's an interesting gambit and strikes me as potentially more useful than yet another 11-way debate, but everything will depend on the ability of the journalists to get the candidates off their prepared talking points and into some sort of discussion. (This is not easy. I know: I've tried it with a few professional politicians, and avoiding any deviation into uncharted waters is what they excel at.) I'm not sure who will watch such a marathon, but there will probably be a large audience for the highlight reels, which could influence the final result with the race so close.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Elie Cohen Dismantles Pro-Frexit Arguments

This very good piece demonstrates why electing either Le Pen or Mélenchon would be a disaster.

Russian Meddling?

The Times has a report on purported Russian meddling in the French election. The goal seems more to defeat Macron rather than secure the election of one of the other three front-runners, all of whom--remarkable fact!--are friendly to Russia.

Philippot

If Marine Le Pen has changed the face of the FN, she has done it with the help of Florian Philippot, of whom Le Monde has an excellent profile this morning.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Response to Another Reader on Macron

In response to my previous post on Mélenchon, another reader writes:
I'm sure that I speak for many of your readers when I say I would appreciate a clear, affirmative presentation of the case for Macron on this blog sometime before the first round of voting. My sense from what you have written so far is that you support him more or less the way I do: faute de mieux, and with considerable foreboding.
The writer seems to want something I cannot provide: assurance that in marking his or her ballot for Macron, he or she will be doing "the right thing." We are in a moment of great uncertainty. No one can say for sure what "the right thing" is.

I am fairly confident that the programs of certain candidates are the wrong thing, however. Yesterday, I said why in the case of Mélenchon. It does not need saying why I think Le Pen's program is wrong: some of the reasons (her anti-European stance, her faith in protectionism and devaluation) are similar to the objections I raised against Mélenchon; others (national preference in hiring, hostility to minorities) are unique to her. Hamon, though personally and morally more appealing than either of those rivals, proposes a radical experiment in social and economic reform that I think would tip the balance against France in what I believe is a precarious early stage of recovery (see, e.g., this article on France's high-tech renaissance).

Macron would seek to push that recovery along by doing what centrist technocrats always do: making gestures friendly to business to improve the investment climate, spending money on education and R&D in areas that seem promising to young entrepreneurs with profiles similar to his own, and helping to position French firms to compete more successfully in the global economy by moving them up the value chain and shifting emphasis away from labor-intensive activities like autos and steel and toward industries where France enjoys a comparative advantage. To people who lose jobs he will offer retraining, which will be painful for some and ineffective for many. There will be pain in the future as there has been in the past. It is hard to predict how he will respond to those cries of pain. Compassion does not seem to be his long suit (I use the word "suit" advisedly, as he advertised the limits of his compassion when he told unemployed workers that the best way to afford a suit like his was to go to work). He will have to learn on the job to curb the asperities of his personality.

What he will not have to learn on the job is what it takes to engage in fruitful dialogue with other powerful economic actors. This is his milieu. Some of you hate this milieu. You don't like Davos men in expensive suits. You don't like successful exam-takers who make millions on their first flyer in the world of mergers and acquisitions just because having the right credentials and the right contacts put them in the right place at the right time. You don't like the way this social hierarchy reproduces itself by securing the best schooling for its sons and daughters.

I don't like these things either. But I do not see an alternative at the moment. Nor do I think this reality is the greatest horror, the most oppressive order, the world has ever known. The Google campus (or its French equivalent) may not be my idea of utopia, but neither does it represent a return to the dark satanic mills of old, as one might think from the hyperbolic rhetoric of candidates of the far left and far right, or even from the amorphous grumbling of the chattering classes about the ravages of "neoliberalism." With Macron the trains may not run exactly on time--that was a fascist promise, after all, to discipline society as one disciplines an army--but when they run off the rails, he will shake up the management of SNCF and follow up by appointing competent monitors to measure the progress of the new managers toward meeting his 14-point improvement program for better rail service. That is the kind of politician he is, for better or for worse.

With Macron you wont get les lendemains qui chantent, but you'll get to work more or less on time aujourd'hui et demain, and you'll need to keep getting to work until you're 65 or perhaps 67, because that's the way things are headed. Some of you won't be wanting to break out the champagne to celebrate prospects such as these. But I've been around a while and have stopped looking to politics for intoxication or even inspiration. Just keeping the train on the tracks is enough, even if it's fifteen minutes late. That I think Macron can manage; with the others a wreck is imminent.

Some of you think Macron won't fare any better with Germany or the CGT than Hollande did. I have more confidence in the German leadership, among whom many have recognized that something has to change and are looking for a French leader in whom they too have confidence to make the necessary adjustments. Regardless of whether Schulz or Merkel is the next chancellor, the Germans have signaled that Macron is the French leader they prefer to work with and, I'm reasonably sure, compromise with. So I have hope on that score. The CGT and the Right and Far Right and the Far Left at home will of course be looking to put spokes in Macron's wheels, but in this area (as opposed to others, such as foreign policy) he actually has acquired the requisite experience through his stewardship of the Macron and El Khomri laws. Despite his youth, he is one of the most experienced French politicians in dealing with the unending guerrilla warfare that is French domestic politics, and temperamentally he is better equipped for it than Valls and surpassed only by the wizened Juppé, whose career is over.

The writer suggests that I prefer Macron faute de mieux. Perhaps, but I think it's rather that of the choices on offer I prefer Macron to manage the world as it is, faute de pouvoir en imaginer un autre. Perhaps that failure of imagination is mine, but for now I think, alas, that Margaret Thatcher was right: There is no alternative. When one presents itself, I might consider voting for it. Macron is a manager, not a magus. But politics is the wrong place to look for magi.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Response to a Reader on Why I Do Not Support Mélenchon

Yesterday, a reader wrote:

You suggest "My two chief desiderata are to preserve both the European Union and the French welfare state."

But Mélenchon ​ does not seem to pose a threat to the welfare state, and his opposition to the EU​ is ​based on the body's neoliberal leanings, ​not unreasonably so.

Otherwise, ​you've not been specific about your concerns. What is it specifically about the man's positions that bothers you? Perhaps this should be in a blog post.
This reaction is typical of some quarters of the left, so let me answer briefly.

Mélenchon does pose a threat to the welfare state, because he believes that it is enough to make redistributive demands without proposing a plan to manage the economy so as to generate the revenue needed to meet them. This was what left-wing politicians often did propose before the 1930s, back when the state's role in managing the economy was minimal. This is no longer the case today. One cannot simply decree that pensions should be increased, working hours reduced, the legal retirement age lowered, taxes on households decreased, nuclear power eliminated, etc., without explaining how you expect the economy to respond and how you might manage any adverse consequences. Mélenchon has nothing to say on these matters.

I do not like the term "neoliberalism," however useful it may be as shorthand on occasion. But if you think that the EU suffers from "neoliberal leanings" that would justify leaving it, you have to explain what France will do once it is no longer a member. Capitalism is not going to disappear if France withdraws from the EU; the global market is not going to evaporate; competition from low-wage states is not going to vanish; and financial institutions are not going to be more inclined to lend to states that run deficits far larger than permitted under the EU's Stability and Growth Pact. Mélenchon seems to believe that if France withdraws, it will be free to stimulate its economy at will and devalue its currency until its products become competitive. This is identical to Marine Le Pen's position, and it is in my view dead wrong. France's borrowing costs will rise, as will its trade deficit. Consumers will feel the pinch as the prices of imported goods, especially food and fuel, rise. Remember what happened to the Mitterrand government between 1981 and 1983. Most Socialists do; Mélenchon left the party because he thought his comrades were cowards; if only they had had a little more revolutionary fervor in their hearts, he thinks, things would have turned out differently. He's wrong about that.

Mélenchon appears to believe that he can run the economy by fiat, as Chavez, whom he admires, did in Venezuela. But harsh realities cannot be overcome by mere defiance. Mélenchon is good at enacting defiance rhetorically. I wonder how he will respond when the popular anger turns on him, as it surely will if he comes to power and he fails to deliver on his unrealistic promises.

Finally, I believe that Mélenchon is right when he says that France has more power to affect the course of the EU than it has realized in recent years. But there is no chance of deflecting Europe toward a better equilibrium by confronting the Germans with non-negotiable demands, as Mélenchon intends to do, and by telling them that they are fools for not seeing the wisdom of the course Mélenchon proposes as an alternative. Opponents can be persuaded, but not by making empty threats. Mélenchon's stance toward the EU is like that of a child who threatens to hold his breath until his mother does what he wants. He will turn blue in the face, but eventually he will have to start breathing again, and his mother will still be standing there with her arms folded.