Friday, 31 March 2017

What's next ? Election fever mounts.

Three weeks on Sunday, French voters will go to the polls in the first round of the presidential election. After the developments of the last few days, this seems as good a time as any to weigh up the stakes and try and imagine which two of the five candidates might face each other on May 7.

I say five, as only five represent large numbers of voters. The other six, all from one extreme or another, are only of electoral interest insofar as they will shave a percentage point, possibly two, from the scores of the main candidates.

There have been three significant developments over the last few days: Jean-Luc Melenchon has again ruled out joining forces with Benoit Hamon; Manuel Valls has come out in support of Emmanuel Macron to howls of protest from Hamon and his supporters and Penelope Fillon, like her husband, has been placed under formal investigation by a judge on suspicion of embezzlement.

This last event, however embarrassing for François Fillon, may, paradoxically, put an end to the endless media attention surrounding his employment of his wife as a parliamentary assistant. Unless further damaging revelations come to light, and media willing of course, the judicial investigation should now take a back seat to campaigning until the election is over.

Melenchon’s refusal to join forces with Hamon is not unexpected and probably final. A united left will not contest this election. Melenchon, after all, left the socialist party in 2008 to go his own way. My reading is that he prefers to snipe, with great talent, from the sidelines, rather than play second fiddle to Hamon and make a serious bid for power, where he would run the risk of seeing his utopian programme collide nastily with economic reality. He will do his best to come in ahead of Hamon on April 23, declare, if successful in this limited ambition, that progressive forces have won a great victory, decide not to endorse either of the finalists and then retreat to his comfortable seat in the European Parliament to ponder his next move. As for Hamon and his allies, with the Melenchon option now closed off and the right wing of the party increasingly hostile, a long period in the political wilderness looks more than likely.

The support expressed by Valls for Macron has a different significance. Although Valls is not the first leading figure of the socialist party to declare such support, he was until recently President Hollande’s Prime Minister and the other finalist in the socialist party primary. By going back on his promise to support Hamon, the winner of that contest, he has probably initiated the realignment of the socialist party, a strategy he is thought to favour. If Macron wins the presidency, Valls will probably try, with other leading socialists, to line up as many candidates as possible for the parliamentary elections in June, labelling them, possibly, candidates of the presidential majority rather than of the socialist party.

So what about the three leading candidates? The latest polls put Le Pen at 25%, Macron at 26% and Fillon at 18%. However, we are also told that 41% of the electorate remains undecided.

Things could go one of two ways for Marine Le Pen: either she will attract more votes than the polls give her credit for, as voters have often been reluctant in the past to tell pollsters who they will really vote for or, as the inanity of her economic policies becomes clearer, even to her electorate, do considerably less well. It is interesting to note that in another poll, 82% of respondents say that they do not want France to ditch the Euro, which is the key plank of her economic policy. However, whatever she polls on April 23, and assuming she is one of the finalists, she is unlikely to do any better on May 7.  A question that nobody seems to have asked yet is whether voters who do find her economic policy unpalatable may choose to entrust their protest vote to Melenchon. It would not be the first time that voters have moved from one extreme to the other.  

Which leaves Fillon and Macron. When given the airtime to explain his programme, Fillon does so calmly and clearly. It is not too much to hope that as the election draws near, serious political debate will take precedence over media tittle-tattle. To be sure, some voters will have been put off Fillon for good, but with 41% still undecided, it is not impossible that after surveying the alternatives, many will cast their vote on the day for the candidate whose programme sounds the most convincing and forgive his lapses of judgement.

Macron for the moment is still the darling of the polls and, it must be said, of the media. But with only three weeks to go, more searching questions are likely to be asked about what he really stands for, who is paying for what looks like a very well-oiled campaign, whether his youth and relative inexperience are more of a drawback than an advantage, whether future parliamentary battalions will materialise and from where.  Is he really a clone of Hollande, as Fillon is now trying to portray him? What will be the role of his ally Bayrou, the eternal loser in French politics? A future Prime Minister? The leader of a small party seeking to cement his own position by placing as many candidates as possible into winnable constituencies? A parliamentary majority of rightward leaning socialists and leftward leaning centrists, from different political traditions and who have never governed together, plus assorted hangers-on, may prefigure a realignment of political parties in France but is likely to be a combustible mixture on which to base the bold and pragmatic programme of government that Macron has promised the country.

Without going as far as far as the parliamentary elections however, my dearest wish at this stage would be a run off between Fillon and Macron. This would be a chance, at last, to witness a real political debate between the two most serious candidates, to compare their personalities, their programmes, their respective chances of attaining a majority in parliament and to assess who comes off best.  With a relatively small shift in the figures one way or another, it may still happen, I haven’t given up hope yet!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Post-colonial curse ?

“How can we continue to launch rockets in the middle of shanty towns?”*  It was President François Mitterrand who asked this rhetorical question in 1985, just after he had witnessed the launch of an Ariane rocket from the Kourou space centre in French Guiana (Guyane). It is a question that has been repeated several times in the media over the past few days, as massive protests have strengthened throughout the territory, culminating in a general strike that started on Monday. 

Guiana has enjoyed the status of a French département since 1946 and in theory therefore, enjoys all the rights and standards of any other département in France. But as with many things in France, there is often a gap between the theory and the practice. And as that gap has been growing wider and wider over the years in Guiana, the pent–up anger and frustration finally boiled over last week. The French Prime Minister has called for calm and the newly appointed Minister of the Interior and the Minister responsible for France’s overseas territories have been dispatched to Guiana to try and calm things down.

Guiana is one of a large number of France’s overseas territories, remnants of its colonial past, that are dotted all over the world, including French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific, La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and Guiana in the North Eastern corner of South America. They are subject to the same legislation, have the same currency and membership of the EU, and are supposed to have the same levels of public services as the rest of France. This is very clearly not the case in Guiana, nor, for that matter (but, arguably, to a lesser extent) in the other overseas départements. Apart from a small island of prosperity immediately surrounding the Kourou Space Centre, now run as a European facility by the European Space Agency that generates a modicum of economic activity, huge tracts of the département are dirt poor, with nothing like the living standards that people in mainland France take for granted: economic activity is stagnant, agriculture is impoverished, unemployment is well over 25%, the streets are unsafe, there is sore lack of  hospitals and other health care facilities, the number of pupils dropping out of school is alarmingly high, quite apart from the fact  that many children never go to school in the first place because  there are simply not enough schools and teachers.  And as if this were not enough, Guiana’s problems are compounded by high levels of illegal immigration from neighbouring Brazil, with which France has its longest land border, on one side and Surinam on the other. Even though Guianese living standards are low compared to mainland France, they are still substantially higher than in those neighbouring countries, which is a powerful incentive to cross the borders to try and take advantage of the difference. An added attraction for immigrants is the lure of gold that can be found in Guianese rivers and forests, much of which is extracted illegally.

And when the situation takes on crisis proportions, as it has in the past week, the response is always the same: a delegation of ministers and senior officials does the rounds during a well-publicised visit and miraculously comes up with some public money to spend on roads, schools, hospitals, public housing and the like. Just enough for normal life to resume but not enough to bring about long-term improvement. And yet, Guiana and the other overseas départements, have considerable potential, particularly forestry and maritime reserves that, if properly exploited, could go a long way to improving economic opportunities and living standards. However, ever since 1946, Paris has shown precious little interest in doing anything of the kind.  “Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be the order of the day.

In a book written about Francois Mitterrand at the end of his political career, he is quoted as saying: “My long political career has led me to the realisation that in France, problems are only solved when there is a crisis. As long as a trial of strength has not reached its point of maximum tension, nothing happens, nothing is settled”.*

The latest crisis in Guiana seems a perfect illustration of what he meant.

* Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Dirty tricks ?

In a scene from second-rate film that was shown on TV last night, a woman chef who has just been engaged as the personal cook of the French President is being taken through the daily routine by a protocol officer:

“At 11am you will know if your proposal for the day’s menu has been approved and how many guest to prepare it for. You then have two hours to prepare the meal  - lunch must be served at 1.15pm sharp”.

“But ever since I arrived”, she protests, “I’ve only heard about procedures and protocol. Could I not speak to the President himself to ask him what he likes and what he is expecting of me?”

“That’s not the way we do things here” the supercilious protocol officer replies,  “If the President wishes to speak to you, he will let you know.”*

Listening to this dialogue, my immediate reaction was that it could have taken place over 200 years ago in the Château de Versailles with the word “President” replaced by the word ”King”. Look no further for a neat illustration of the phrase “the Republican Monarch” that has often and aptly been used to describe Presidents of the Fifth Republic.

Does this Republican Monarch indulge in dirty tricks to disparage and damage his political opponents? That, after all, is what the right-wing presidential candidate, François Fillon, accused the current President of, very clearly, in a political talk show last Thursday evening.  He quoted from an as yet unpublished book (Bienvenue Place Beauvau) written by three journalists, in which they are reported to describe how various bits of information gathered from police nosing and eavesdropping are reported directly to the President.  The French police are under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior which is housed place Beauvau in Paris, just a few yards from the Elysée Palace. In an interview the next day, one of the authors contradicted Fillon’s claims that the President had set up a special "dirty tricks office" (un cabinet noir)  but went on to say that although he and his fellow authors had marshalled evidence for such activities since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958, they were totally unable to prove anything, however much they would have liked to. Another journalist, asked what he thought of Fillon’s accusations, avoided answering the question but considered that Fillon was simply trying to deflect attention from his own misdeeds. Yet another noted that there was probably no such thing as a "dirty tricks office" but that the President had people in whom he had full confidence in strategic posts so that he is always in a position to know the results of intelligence gathering activities.

This last statement has a ring of truth about it. Any President of any country has to make it his business to have the best possible intelligence about everything, including what his political opponents may be up to  - and the various French intelligence services are not known for their incompetence!  What he does with that information and whether his conduct in this respect is strictly legal or not is almost impossible to know and totally impossible to prove. Being both the Head of State and the de facto Head of Government, a Republican Monarch in France has more power than most. As Lord Acton said famously: "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely".

* Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own. 

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Media frenzy

In a free society, governed by the rule of law and democratic rights, it is never easy to criticise the media without being accused, and even accusing oneself, of yielding too quickly to the temptation to restrict freedom of the press. It is only when red lines are very clearly crossed, like the journalistic behaviour that led to the shutting down of the News of the World in the U.K some years ago, that criticism of the media hits home. Nobel prize-winning author Heinrich Böll, in his short novel “Die velorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (“The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum”) in 1976, with its subtitle “how violence arises and where it can lead” captured a similar moment in the Western Germany of the time. It is the story of an innocent young woman caught up involuntarily in a hunt for a terrorist and hounded by the gutter press, under cover of “freedom of the press”. Böll intended the story as a vigorous denunciation of the methods of Bild Zeitung (“should the reader find any similarities between the journalistic practises described in this story and those of the Bild Zeitung, they are neither intentional nor accidental – simply unavoidable”).*

In France, thankfully, no such newspaper exists. That being said, a number of recent media incidents during the election campaign are disquieting and raise questions, particularly about the attitude of the French public sector media, Radio France and France Televisions. The most recent concerns a highly unedifying spectacle on Thursday night when François Fillon was verbally lynched on prime-time TV by a well-known contemporary novelist known for her left-wing sympathies. Although Fillon defended himself with dignity, the sequence was clearly meant to surprise and embarrass him and further tarnish his battered reputation.  The programme producers must have known what was coming but preferred, for reasons best known to themselves, to go ahead. The least that can be said about the whole incident is that it has done little to advance serious political debate – the ostensible purpose of the programme.  This was also the occasion on which Fillon launched his now well-reported attack on President François Hollande, accusing him of overseeing a carefully orchestrated campaign of dirty tricks from his privileged position as Head of State. I shall return to this in a future post.

What has gone relatively unnoticed however is that some time last autumn, the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported over two or three weeks that France Info, a 24 hour news network of Radio France had been granted, in record time, a TV licence and would soon be broadcasting both on radio and on TV. At about the same time, another TV news network, owned by TF1, a private company, was experiencing considerable difficulty obtaining an extension of its own broadcasting licence. For the Canard this was a clear indication that François Hollande had decided to stand for a second term and was preparing a compliant mouthpiece for his achievements, policies and future ambitions. The pieces were written in the Canard’s usual jocular and ironic style but the insinuations were clear. Since then of course, Hollande has decided not to stand again, Fillon won the right-wing primary and the Canard has shifted its attention to him. Although I am an assiduous reader of the Canard every week, I have found no recent reference to “la TV Hollande” as it was disdainfully described at the time.

Those who are at all familiar with France will know that government interference in the media has deep roots. After General De Gaulle was first elected President by universal suffrage in 1962, the well-known diplomat, politician and author Alain Peyrefitte became Minister for Information. It was an open secret that he regularly telephoned the news department of the state-owned broadcaster, ORTF, that he himself had set up as an ostensibly independent corporation, to “give his views” about what should be broadcast on the evening news. During his presidency (1974-1981), Valéry Giscard d’Estaing broke up the ORTF and converted it into a number of autonomous broadcasters, free, it was assured, of government interference. The truth is that while the outer trappings of the public sector media have substantially changed over the last 40 years, it is doubtful whether anything else has, any intervention being all the more insidious for being covered by a veneer of independence. At every change of President and government, journalists reputed to be hostile to the new President are replaced or side-lined by those said to be more sympathetic. Which is one of the main reasons why these media do not enjoy the same degree of respect as the BBC or NPR, to put it mildly.

As regular listener to France Info, I can only register my increasingly irritated surprise that it has kept up such a barrage of negative news and virulent criticism of François Fillon since he became the right-wing candidate for the presidency of France. To the extent that I now switch to another station. After Fillon’s attack on the President on Thursday evening, citing evidence from a soon-to-be published book about police snooping and how findings are consistently misused by those in power, one of the three authors called Radio France almost immediately to deny Fillon’s claims. The next day, François Hollande gave an indignant and exclusive radio and TV interview to France Info and a regional offshoot of Radio France. Viewers and listeners may draw their own conclusions. I have drawn mine. 

* Böll's subtitle and foreward to the story.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Well-stocked municipal flower beds

The expression comes from a recent article on France in The Economist. The writer meant it, I think, as a tongue-in-cheek dig at the French predilection for spending taxpayers’ money on prestigious, feel-good projects that may be difficult to justify in purely economic terms.

This morning, as I was walking to the municipal gymnasium in the medium-sized town just outside Paris where I live, I walked through the municipal park. Three gardeners were mowing the grass and tending the borders. I must admit that it looked magnificent in a pale morning sun. Primroses and dark blue, yellow and white pansies are in full bloom, daffodils and forsythia are coming out, the tulips are not far behind and the climbing roses have been neatly cut back and trained around their wooden frames. The gardeners were equipped with regulation clothing, boots and gloves, garden tools and two modern lawn mowers. The had wiped off the well varnished wrought iron and wooden benches and placed clean bags inside the rubbish cans next to each one. Behind the park, there is a large and well-equipped playground where children from the surrounding flats can meet after school or on a Sunday afternoon to play basketball, football or use the slides and swings. In the background is a handsome and well-maintained 18th century building that houses an internationally renowned centre specialised in the teaching of French as a second language. A plaque recalling De Gaulle’s stirring address of June 18, 1940,  (“France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war”), almost standard issue in most municipalities, is displayed on a patch of grass near the entrance.

None of this of course is done on a shoestring. For a not too taxing 35 hour working week, the three well-equipped municipal gardeners I saw at work this morning are probably paid a little more than the minimum wage of about €1200 month, including, as they are local authority civil servants, fairly automatic wage increases and more generous health and pension benefits than they would get in the private sector. A recent, half-baked local authority reform was supposed to save money and generate greater efficiency but has clearly failed to have any impact on manpower. Although the national headcount of local authority civil servants has not increased, it certainly hasn’t fallen.  And as central government subsidies to local authorities have been severely pruned, local taxes have tended to increase. In his municipal newsletter, our mayor consistently finds apologetic and convoluted explanations for the necessary increase in local taxes. In spite of almost zero inflation, they have risen by about 7% in the last three years. For a modest (77m2) apartment in an early 1960s block of flats, I pay a total of about €2500 a year in local taxes.

All that being said, when I listen to the BBC Today Programme and regularly hear tales of woe from local authorities throughout Britain, some of which are closing libraries and parks because they can no longer afford to keep them open, I don’t grumble too much as I fill in my on-line tax payment form every autumn. Well-stocked municipal flower beds may be feel-good projects but they undoubtedly do contribute to the quality of life in our town.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The slow revenge of Eva Joly

Eva Joly is probably not a household name outside France or her native country of Norway.  Now 73 years old, a second-term MEP and former candidate for Europe Ecologie-les Verts in the 2012 presidential elections  - she polled just over 2% - she came to France at the age of 20 as an au-pair girl, studied law at night school and eventually became an examining magistrate, specialised in financial affairs.  In this capacity she investigated what came to be known as the Elf financial scandal of the 1990s, a saga of huge illicit payments from a French oil company (since taken over by TOTAL) to politicians and senior officials. She tells the bruising story in a book that was published in France in 2003,  “Est-ce dans ce monde-là que nous voulons vivre?” (Edtions les Arènes, 2003) that later appeared in an English translation, “Justice under siege” (Arcadia books 2006).

After a long and painstaking investigation, senior figures including Loïk le Floch Prigent, the boss of Elf at the time of the scandal and of SNCF at the time of the investigation and Roland Dumas, a well-known lawyer, minister and close friend of François Mitterand were charged for various offences. Roland Dumas was convicted and sentenced to fines and a prison sentence, later overturned on appeal.

I looked up the whole story again this morning as news broke of yet more investigations into François Fillon’s financial affairs and the sudden resignation yesterday of the Minister of the Interior, Bruno Le Roux, a close political ally of François Hollande, after revelations that he had employed his teenage daughters as parliamentary assistants! While there is very clearly little in common between the Elf affair of the 1990s and the comparatively minor (and legal) sins of which François Fillon and Bruno Le Roux stand accused, both cases are an interesting illustration of how far attitudes have changed in France over the past 25 years.

What is particularly striking in Eva Joly’s book is not so much the reality that she uncovered but the spiteful and violent reactions of the people she was investigating. One senior politician pointedly turned his back on her and read a book while she was trying to question him in her office. Roland Dumas called her, among other things, “crazy”. It was as if these senior member of the establishment, so accustomed to the corrupt ways of the time, assumed that they were simply above the law and were outraged at being publicly exposed and questioned  by a punctilious and “foreign” magistrate applying her Nordic ways to such upstanding officials of a country like France!

Nevertheless, scandal after scandal, both legal and moral standards have been tightening up, under pressure from public opinion and the legislator. François Hollande himself took one of the most recent initiatives, after a scandal in which a former minister was convicted only last year of tax evasion and money laundering. He set up a special public prosecution unit to which the dodgy financial affairs of politicians and senior official can be referred.  It is this body that is investigating Fillon and now Le Roux. Since 2013, MPs are also required to declare all their income from non-parliamentary sources to another body, the "High Authority for Transparency in Public Life” (HATVP), seen as a safeguard against possible conflicts of interest.

The conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that France is indeed moving slowly towards more Nordic standards of integrity in public life. Radio and TV stations regularly report on cases like that of the Swedish minister who was forced to resign for buying nappies with her government credit card or the recent opening of the Norwegian tax administration’s website to any citizen who wishes to consult it.  Whether such levels of transparency will ever be attained in France is a matter of doubt. From her seat in the European Parliament however, Eva Joly must take some comfort from the realisation that the underlying culture in France has changed considerably since she carried out her investigations and that her successors in the new public prosecutor’s unit not only enjoy the backing of public opinion and the state but are also respected - and feared - rather than insulted.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The look and feel of a President

Last night’s televised debate between the five main candidates for the Presidency of France was not riveting.   A debate between five candidates is a misnomer anyway. A real, and decisive, debate between the two finalists will be held a few days before May 7. That is when we may hear a memorable and killer soundbite of the kind that tipped the scales in favour of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 (“Mr. Mitterand, vous n’avez pas le monopole du cœur” – “Mr. Mitterand, you have no monopoly of the heart”)  or the anaphora, “Moi, Président de la République…”  - “If I were President of France”   …… of François Hollande that dealt the  knockout blow to Sarkozy in 2012.

Of the five candidates on stage last night, answering imprecise and sometimes inept questions from two journalists, only three are in the running for the second round and only two will make it. Which two? If current opinion polls are to be believed, they will be Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, meaning the effective elimination of both the right and left wing parties that have governed France since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. But then, as the pollsters themselves are quick to point out, a poll is only a snapshot of public opinion at any given time, and, it must added, of voters who have already made up their mind. A month before the first round of voting many of them haven’t and they are the ones who will make the difference on the day.

So I found myself looking at the candidates last night and wondering what the floating voters would do on April 23 and, above all, on May 7. As they stand in line to cast their ballots, what will they be thinking of? Less, perhaps, of policies and more of character, image and stature. Which candidate will they find the most presidential?

Marine le Pen will clearly attract a sizeable protest vote and given the electoral arithmetic of a divided left and a troubled right, may very well, for that reason alone, make it into the second round. But even that is not a certainty. And on the basis of her performance last night, the usual combination of bluster, anti-establishment and xenophobic  rhetoric and a cheesy, cynical smile, not to speak of her lunatic economic policies, of which she said very little but which were neatly skewered by Fillon at one point, I really can’t see a majority of the French electorate sending her to the Elysée Palace for the next five years. Emmanuel Macron has undoubtedly broken the mould of presidential politics and is the darling of the polls at the moment. But to me he remains unconvincing. A minister, yes, even a Prime Minister, but not yet the stuff of a President.  Too young, too inexperienced, and on the basis of last night’s showing, a little too quick to rise to the bait and a bit flustered on a big night in the face of a hostile crowd. Do the French really feel that a young man of 39, however bold and gifted, can rise to the challenge of leading one of the oldest and richest civilisations in Europe? I have my doubts. Giscard d’Estaing was 48 in 1974, Nicholas Sarkozy 52 in 2007. Both were considered young at the time but both had experience in local and national politics. Both could look forward to solid parliamentary majorities to govern. Neither was re-elected for a second term.

François Fillon, at 63, projected the experience of his years and his long political career. He came across as calm, serious, on top of his brief, with a sixth sense of when to speak and when to stand back with an enigmatic and distant grin. When he spoke, he sounded convincing and often incisive. Of the five candidates on stage, he was the only one who struck me as having the look and feel of a President. I found myself thinking of François Mitterand.

After Chirac, who thoroughly enjoyed being President but achieved comparatively little during his twelve years in office, Sarkozy, who spend most of his presidency preening himself and Hollande who never recovered from being elected on false pretences, my guess is that this time, the French, in their majority, not only want a serious, calm and conservative father figure to guide their country through the difficult period ahead but also a President who will reflect who they are and how they see themselves and their country. Had François Fillon’s judgement not been found seriously wanting in recent weeks, he would have stood head and shoulders above the other candidates last night. He should not be written off yet. He may still emerge victorious from this long and gruelling campaign. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

France and globalisation

About 25 years ago, I found myself sitting next to a senior French official on a plane. We were both going to the same meeting, me as an interpreter, he as the representative of his country; the kind of highly intelligent public servant, superbly trained in the Republic’s elite schools that has been running France since the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. As we had seen each other before, we got talking and I asked him about globalisation. At the time the word was starting to gain currency but had not passed the lips of any French politician. I wondered why. As globalisation was clearly unstoppable, I ventured, why didn’t there appear to be in France any public debate about what impact it would have, how it could be organised to the country’s advantage and how its positive and negative effects could be accommodated? To my considerable surprise, instead of the tightly argued analysis I was expecting, all I got by way of response was a gallic shrug and a barely audible “je ne sais pas” (“I don’t know”).

That aborted conversation came back to me last night as I read a headline in Le Monde entitled: “Les candidats face à la contestation de la mondialisation” (“Candidates’ responses to anti-globalisation protests”)[1]. As one might expect, they are very different. Le Pen, Melenchon, and, to a lesser extent, Hamon claim that by putting back the clock by about 30 years and /or spending considerably more taxpayers’ money than the country can afford, all our problems will be miraculously solved. Fillon and Macron sound more realistic, talk of making the French economy more competitive and the French state more efficient but say little about the inevitable losers from globalisation and what should be done to support and protect them.

The sad truth is that, 25 years on, no French leader in power over that period, Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande has ever put forward an all-encompassing and convincing narrative about globalisation. It is therefore hardly surprising that anti-globalisation protests have gathered strength over the years, with politicians tending to react, in haste and under media pressure, to its evident drawbacks - the decline of old industries and their attendant job losses, regional desertification and immigration – while failing to point out the less spectacular but nevertheless very real advantages of cheaper international travel, cars and consumer goods and smartphones for all.

The conspicuous absence of a cogent political response has not prevented some French companies from doing very nicely out of globalisation: LVMH, L’Oreal, Airbus and Total, to name just four, generate considerably more profit these days from global markets than they do from their home market, while keeping their centres of decision and research mainly in France.   The huge number of young French entrepreneurs throwing themselves with gusto into building their own businesses, aim, right from the outset to serve the global market. The most successful, like Business Objects, before it was snapped up by SAP, or Criteo, listed first on the Nasdaq.

Only official France has not kept pace. Our education system is hidebound by centralised rules and procedures, apprenticeships are considered an inferior form of education and the whole vocational training system is rife with collusion and even corruption.  It is hardly surprising therefore that unemployment in general and youth unemployment in particular is ridiculously high. The “French social model” that most voters are rightly attached to is rusty to the core.

Will this election campaign turn out to be one more lost opportunity or, on the contrary, a chance to start putting things right and dragging the French state into the modern and globalised world? I sincerely hope that in five years time, I shall be able to report that my question of 25 years ago will have at last been answered by more than a gallic shrug and a barley audible  ”je ne sais pas”.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Eleven candidates in the running

Two days ago, as I was passing the primary school that will serve as a polling station next month, two municipal employees were unloading sturdy steel poster holders from a van. They propped them up against the school wall and wired them together to stop anyone removing them.

This is where election posters will be put up, scrawled over or ripped off by opponents …..and replaced by the party faithful as the election campaign heats up. It’s the same scenario at every election.

I counted ten poster holders. France’s Constitutional Council has just announced that 11 candidates have gathered the requisite 500 signatures of MPs, mayors, local and regional councillors from all over France to be allowed to stand in the first round of the presidential ballot on April 23.

The municipal employees will be out again on Monday to add an eleventh holder!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Mr.Macron goes to Berlin

Last night’s TV news and this morning’s papers show pictures of Chancellor Merkel and Emmanuel Macron chatting pleasantly in Merkel’s office in Berlin. To my knowledge, neither speaks, nor understands, the other’s language but both can get by in English. They were probably indulging in small talk, in halting English, about the weather on the East Coast or Mr. Macron’s flight schedule before the cameras were ushered out, an interpreter was called in and more serious discussions began.

However contrived they may appear, the pictures are nevertheless important. Any serious candidate for the Presidency of France knows only too well that successful co-operation within the E.U depends crucially on France and Germany seeing eye-to-eye, more than ever now that the U.K is heading for the exit. Any further move towards more effective governance of the Euro area for instance can only be successful if Germany loosens up. It will not do so, and not just because Herr Schäuble says no, unless France makes a serious attempt to put its economic and financial house in order first. François Fillon, when he was riding high in the polls, had a meeting with Merkel some months ago. Emmanuel Macron has now, one assumes, been taken over the same ground.

There are at last two strands in the Franco-German narrative: political co-operation and the folk memory. Without going back further than the second world war, the two are still alive and well, if somewhat divergent.

Political co-operation, initially driven by reconciliation, was considered on both sides as essential to normalising relations between the two countries as well as more wide-ranging co-operation within what is now the E.U. It nevertheless took until 1963 for De Gaulle and Adenauer to sign the Elysée Treaty on friendship and co-operation and undertake reciprocal official visits. Since then, whenever political and economic co-operation has flourished, it has been through privileged relations between French and German leaders. Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt laid the foundations of the common currency in the 1970s, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl traded German unification for the setting up of the Euro in 1991, before famously joining hands at a ceremony honouring the war dead of both countries in Verdun in 1994. No first time meeting between a French and a German minister can start or end without at least lip service being paid to Franco-German co-operation.

In 2017, it is hardly a scoop to suggest that the German authorities, whatever the outcome of their own elections this autumn, are keen to see the end of the Hollande Presidency and are looking forward to a fresh start.

As to the folk memory, it is also very much alive, at least in France. Memories of the wartime occupation, not to speak of SS massacres in places like Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin, abound. Go to any medium-sized French railway station and you will probably find, fairly prominently displayed, a plaque with the names of four or five railway workers who were “fusillés par les allemands” during the occupation. (“shot by the Germans” sounds funny in English and even funnier in German but in French it sounds normal). Many street plaques in Paris commemorate the spot where free French solders were killed during the liberation of the city in August 1944. Flowers are placed next to them every year on the anniversary. Back in the 1970s, I remember only too well the barely concealed discomfort of the father of one of my ex-wife’s friends on the news that his daughter had decided to marry a German.  In the village in Brittany where I have spent many summer holidays I was once told, in a confidential whisper, that one of our neighbours had two sons fathered by a German officer during the occupation.

On the German side, despite the many tourists who flock to France’s beaches and countryside during the summer (far fewer French people return the compliment!) there is still a feeling of unease not far below the surface.  “Die Franzosen - das ist ein eigenartiges Volk”  (“The French - they’re a funny lot”) one German department store manager, said to me quite unprompted, not so long ago.

Lingering hostility and suspicion in both peoples will take generations to fade, and only as long as political co-operation continues and mutual benefit results. One can only hope that both Chancellor Merkel and M. Macron were keenly aware of all this in their discussions yesterday.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The economic lunacy of Marine le Pen

Many Europeans are breathing more easily this morning as we consider the encouraging results of the Dutch elections. With a slackening wind from the North Sea holding up, one hopes for good, the progression of the populist ship, it seems a good opportunity to look more closely at Marine Le Pen’s economic programme and hope that its lunacy will become increasingly apparent to electors in France.

The most complete exposition of this programme I have read so far can be found in an interview published in “Investir, Le Journal des Finances” on February 18 of this year. While M.L-P’s positions on the single currency and the EU itself have been well rehearsed, what caught my eye in particular was a comment tucked away in the middle of the piece where she says: “  … the whole logic our of policy is to no longer depend on foreign creditors.” [1]

A statement that is eerily familiar to those who remember François Hollande’s Le Bourget speech in the run up to the presidential election in 2011: “My enemy is finance.”

It is worthwhile repeating the facts about France’s indebtedness, as reported by Le Monde a few days ago, although M.L-P clearly prefers facts of the alternative variety. Current debt runs to 97.5% of GDP, 60% of which is held by foreigners, or, as the statisticians would describe them, “non-resident investors”. Annual interest payments, amount to €40billion (yes billion!!).

The only way of  “no longer depending on foreign creditors” would be to default on most of that debt, which M.L-P says she would stop short of. But investors worried about the prospect of France ditching the euro and having their debt repaid in a devalued currency are hedging their bets, which goes some way to explaining the rise of French 10 year rates over the last few months and the increasing spread with comparable German rates.

Whatever the bluster from M.L-P, it is very clear that any programme to reduce dependence on foreign creditors will require the implementation of a patient, credible and single-minded policy over many years. To claim anything else is pure fantasy.

Unless of course the Euro is abandoned and the EU falls apart. What would happen then is anybody’s guess.

François Fillon, for all his faults, is the only candidate who seems to have a proper understanding of this challenge. Whether he will be elected President and in a position do something about it is very much a matter of conjecture at the moment. But one hopes that he will at least, in the upcoming televised debates, explode the myths surrounding the lunatic policies of one of his main rivals.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Wilders sets the agenda

Among the millions of Europeans closely watching the Dutch elections today, Marine Le Pen, is surely one of the most keenly interested. If Geert Wilders' party polls more than 20%, she will feel encouraged, if under 20%, disappointed.

The future of many of us will depend on how encouraged or disappointed she feels.

The meddling Mr. Macron

The meddling M. Macron

According to new reports on Monday, consolidation in telecoms is back on the agenda, with Bouygues Telecom being the favourite prey. Bouygues is the only company to have vigorously denied any talk of merger with one of the three other operators, Orange, SFR or Free.

This is not the first time that such discussions or negotiations have been in the news: at the beginning of 2016, actual negotiations between Orange (ex. France Telecom) and Bouygues Telecom, owned by the Bouygues building and public works company, but also the owner of the TV station, TF1, were about to culminate in merger between the two operators when the deal was reportedly scuppered by none other than Emmanuel Macron, the Minister for Economic Affairs at the time and now of course one of the front-running candidates in the presidential elections in April and May. The reason mooted for his refusal was his hostility to the idea that the family-controlled Bouygues group could take a large stake in a company of which the French State still holds 34%.

If this is true, that episode casts M. Macron in a somewhat different light than has been projected so far. When he became the Minister of Economic Affairs of the newly appointed Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, he was seen, like M. Valls himself, as the modernising face of the French Socialist party. Although he had been to the same elite schools from which most of the French establishment come (Sciences Politiques Paris and ENA), he had also worked for a time, unusually for a minister of a socialist government, as an investment banker and was considered to have few of the hang-ups about economic liberalism and the role of markets that still encumber old style socialist champions of the disappearing working class and ideological class warriors. True to this modernist image, M.  Macron went on to sponsor legislation that aimed to liberalise a number of sectors by introducing more competition into slumbering or monopoly areas as disparate as express coaches, Sunday trading and some parts of the legal profession.

It had however been forgotten, until the collapse of the deal between Orange and Bouygues, that M.  Macron had also, some months before, miraculously found a large dollop of French taxpayers money to pay for a bigger stake in Renault, of which the State already owned 15%, in order to maintain its influence at a Shareholders General Meeting that threatened to dilute it.

His apparent refusal to countenance increased influence over Orange by a private telecoms operator appeared to be driven by the same motives.

One of the tempting conclusions from all this is that M. Macron, for all his youth, modernity and supposed lack of dogmatism, qualities which make him an attractive candidate to a French electorate in despair of the mainstream right and left wing political parties, also shows the interventionist reflexes of generations of French politicians and senior civil servants going all the way back to Louis 14th and his famous: ‘L’état, c’est moi”.

The wider question, to be explored further in this blog, is whether the leopard can change his spots and become, if elected, the pragmatic and reforming president that a majority of French voters say they want.