Friday, 28 April 2017

The French rust belt

On Tuesday a friend on Facebook posted a link to a map of France published by the Ministry of the Interior showing the areas where Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen had picked up most of their votes last Sunday. It showed clearly that Le Pen had registered the strongest support in Northern and Eastern France as well as the Mediterranean coast from the Spanish to the Italian borders. The link triggered quite a discussion. One person described how her native village  had become little more than a ghost town with deserted houses, an exodus of young people and a crying lack of decent Internet connections.

Readers who are familiar with France will know that the traditional rust belt industries of coal mining and iron and steel production were concentrated mainly in Northern and Eastern France. I wrote in my post of April 7 (“Macron unplugged”) how the French government, during the Hollande presidency, promised the workers of the last blast furnace in Lorraine, when it was threatened with closure, that the plant would be saved. In the end it was unable to stop it closing. Despite fine words and multiple promises, many former miners, steel workers and employees in traditional industries have been unable to find new jobs. Without jobs young people have left, leaving behind ageing and blighted communities. For lack of demand, public services have been cut and Internet service providers unwilling to make big investments. A vicious but familiar circle has set in.

In the Mediterranean area, the story is a little different. It is here that most of the former French colonists and their families settled when they were forcibly ejected from Algeria at the end of the 1950s. It is also an area of high immigration from North Africa. Le Pen’s party, Le Front National has been skilful in exploiting both the decline of traditional industries in the North and East of the country and anti-immigrant feeling in the South. I shall return to this issue in another post

It is hard to believe that successive French governments of the right and the left have not realised the mounting feelings of frustration and abandonment of people in these areas. Have the ever increasing electoral scores of the Front National since the middle 1980s not been enough? Apparently not, because in spite of repeated pledges, promises and commitments, precious little has been done about it. Regional authorities, embroiled over the past few years in complicated reforms of regional borders and powers, have not done much better. The visible investment in major infrastructure like high-speed rail links and motorways, has benefitted mainly cities like Lille and the Channel ports in the North and Metz, Nancy and Strasburg in the East. Rural and semi-rural communities still have the feeling that the rising tide of globalisation has passed them by.

As often happens in France there has been a great eagerness to talk about all these problems, in general and often theoretical terms, but too little has actually been done. And at each election, more and more voters have registered their anger and frustration by voting for extremist parties. Jacques Chirac who beat Jean-Marie Le Pen by a huge margin in the run-off of the 2002 presidential election, after the shock elimination of the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, had, with hindsight, a golden opportunity to take the bull by the horns and initiate a series of bold and forward looking initiatives to win back disaffected voters. He did nothing of the kind. During his presidency and particularly during his campaign for re-election in 2012, Nicholas Sarkozy tried to hoover up the extremist vote by advocating more hard-line right-wing policies. He too failed, falling victim to the cruel but effective jibe from Marine Le Pen:    “Vote for the real thing and not for the copy”. François Hollande, caught up in the contradictions between a radical sounding electoral platform, the necessary pragmatism of power and the reality of his parliamentary majority, has been unable to do much more than try and hold back the rising tide of extremism by opposing the closure of uncompetitive plants and staving off the concomitant job losses. The two page document issued on Monday by the first secretary of the Socialist Party, after its humiliation on Sunday, is full of lofty rhetoric about republican values, the dangers of unbridled nationalism and need for a “republican front” to prevent Marine le Pen from winning power, but illustrates once again that the party has little clue about how to win back voters who have deserted it. Little wonder, after so many years, that many people consider that the seemingly common sense and simplistic remedies proposed by Marine Le Pen will solve all their problems. On TV the other night, one young man summed it all up when asked who he would be voting for on April 23: “Marine Le Pen, because everyone else has failed, we should give her a try.”

All this will sound only too familiar to those who watched, mesmerised, as Donald Trump conquered the U.S Presidency last November. His opponent, Hilary Clinton, in addition to running a pretty soggy campaign, was far too easily identified in the eyes of many voters with a privileged Washington elite that had done nothing to stop the decline of traditional industries and employment in the rust belt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. These were the states that tipped the balance in favour of Trump.

The lesson should be crystal clear. If Emmanuel Macron is elected the next President of France, as the opinion polls are predicting, one of his first tasks should be to talk less and do more than his predecessors have done to give back to so many French voters a feeling that they have a stake in their future, that of their children and of their communities. There is surely no more urgent task in France today than to restore a sense of unity to an increasingly divided people.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Seen on a train....

….between Newhaven, Connecticut, and New York City. The pollsters will be the first to rejoice. Their central scenario for the 2017 presidential election, a contest between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting on May 7, has been vindicated, even if the gap between them, just over 2%, in the first round of voting, is, if anything, wider than predicted. They also seem to have been right about the last minute surge of both François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with Fillon edging into third place.

French voters have therefore given themselves a choice that is both clear and unprecedented. Clear inasmuch as the political choices of Macron and Le Pen could not be further apart. For Macron, the vision of an open and tolerant France within the European Union, setting out to put its economic and financial house in order, in accordance with its commitments under European treaties. For Le Pen, an inward-looking, xenophobic and go-it-alone France, harking back to an imagined eldorado of many years past and seeking to turn back the tide of history.

Unprecedented inasmuch as the next President, whoever he or she is, will not come from one of the established political parties that have governed France since 1958. Both candidates have deliberately turned their back on the mainstream right and left-wing parties and sought to stake out new political ground, astride both left and right for Macron or on the extreme right for Le Pen. Whatever else happens or doesn’t happen, France is in for a major realignment of its political parties and the shock waves from today’s vote will be felt for many months and years to come, starting with the parliamentary elections in June.

For now, it looks very much as if Macron will win on May 7. The unfortunate candidate of the socialist party, Benoit Hamon, has already endorsed Macron and more significantly, so has Fillon, as well as many other members of the right-wing Républicains. Mélenchon has not endorsed anyone, although counter-intuitively perhaps, some of his electorate might vote for Le Pen. Two further factors could however have a big influence on the final outcome; the first is abstention by voters who feel they have been deprived of a choice and want neither Macron nor Le Pen as their President. But turnout in the first round of voting was very similar to that of the first round of the 2012 election and it’s hard to imagine massive abstention handing victory to Le Pen. In addition, pollsters and media will certainly do their bit to warn of the possible consequences of abstention in the two weeks before the final vote; the second is the likely televised debate between the two finalists, that is probably being arranged as I write.

And, more frighteningly, a new terrorist attack cannot be ruled out.

As I wrote in my post of April 7 (“Macron unplugged”) I shall vote Macron on May 7. Beyond the closely argued analyses and media chatter that we shall be treated to for the next two weeks however, today’s results simply and ominously confirm that powerful forces of division are gnawing at the fabric of French society. One can only hope that the next President will set out, first and foremost, to tame them.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Fallen hero - François Fillon

Two days before voting starts in the French 2017 presidential election, it’s interesting to look back to last November when voters went massively to the polls to designate the centre right candidate for the French Presidency.  Their two main wishes were to eject Nicholas Sarkozy, once and for all, from the political scene and to designate a fresh face with a reputation for integrity and a bold programme. Not only to take over from a worn and indecisive François Hollande but also to put France back on track after nearly 15 years of drift.  François Fillon emerged from that primary in what was perceived at the time as a decisive victory for both his hard-hitting ideas and his credibility to put them into practice. He had successfully discredited Sarkozy, foiled a second round challenge from Alain Juppé and cloaked himself in the image of the revered de Gaulle. Opinion polls at the time predicted that he would win a decisive victory over Marine Le Pen in the run-off on May 7.

How different things look today. If a week is long time in politics, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson used to say, five months have taken a terrible toll on François Fillon.  First came revelations, published by the Canard Enchaîné, about his employment, as an MP, of his wife and two of his children as parliamentary assistants, for very generous salaries but, it was suspected, very little actual work. This was followed by the immediate start of an investigation by a special prosecutor, even though the employment of family members by French MPs is not in itself illegal, as Fillon was quick to point out.  Further revelations followed about generous gifts from successful businessmen, the series of “affairs” culminating in both Fillon and his wife being placed under formal investigation (mise en examen) on suspicion of embezzlement. Every media interview focused far more on these matters than on Fillon’s programme, party colleagues turned away from him and urged him to quit and he spent more time responding, sometimes vigorously, sometimes awkwardly, to these allegations than to explaining how his programme would be applied. Despite his dogged determination to fight on against the odds, he has never regained the aura of November 2016. Two seemingly insignificant events yesterday show just how far he has fallen and seem to indicate that the game is finally up. First he refused to be interviewed by Le Monde, which claimed that he had ruled out being questioned about his personal affairs. This morning, he pulled out of a meeting with students of a special training school for future computer whizz kids because some of the students were reportedly planning to use his visit to mount a protest demonstration  - an incident that would not have looked at all good on TV just four days before the first round of voting.

The result of all this is that the candidate who looked unbeatable at the end of November has now been made to look devious and cynical and his ideas unnecessarily harsh and out-dated. The aborted visit to the computer school is indeed indicative of the way the battle of ideas has slipped from Fillon’s grasp. The bold programme of last November has now come to be seen as a collection of unfair and reactionary recipes, appealing only to narrow electoral fringes like hard line Catholics and privileged conservatives. A wider appeal to the young and the middle classes, which was always going to be difficult, has largely failed to take root. One of Fillon’s sentences at a meeting the other day neatly illustrates the point. Appealing to the traditional values of France, he scathingly referred to the supposed vision of his main rival, Emmanuel Macron, as the “France of the open space”. Now, however much the concept of the open space has come in for criticism by people who work in one every day, it is nevertheless the symbol of a new way of working together, widely used in many established companies as well as start-ups, especially in the net economy. In just one sentence Fillon has unwittingly made himself look like an old fuddy-duddy, out of touch with young people and particularly young innovators, one of the groups that holds the key to France’s future.

Debate will undoubtedly continue for many months about the reasons for Fillon’s fall from grace. Was he solely responsible for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, or has there been a plot initiated at the highest level of the state and fuelled by a merciless media campaign to discredit him and ensure that his bold but unpalatable remedies would never be applied? The answer is probably a bit of both - but is now largely irrelevant to the outcome of the presidential vote. The damage has been done and it is probably irreparable. I am sure I am not the only one to feel that French voters have thus been deprived of a clear-cut choice between a seemingly harsh but realistic and well thought-out programme applied by a skilled politician, backed by a solid parliamentary majority and a number of fresh and interesting ideas advocated by a relative political novice but with no guarantee of a supporting majority in parliament. On Sunday April 23, the most likely outcome is that Fillon will fail to make it to the run-off and that the only choice left will be between two largely untested candidates, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.

On May 8, while voters digest the final outcome and consider their options for the parliamentary elections in June, François Fillon will have all the time in the world to ponder a quotation attributed to Britain’s famous 19th century Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli: “Next to knowing when to seize an opportunity, the most important thing in life is to know when to forgo an advantage.” 

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Flying the flag

Like many French travellers flying out of Paris, I always look to Air France first. The miles that build on my frequent flyer account are one reason, even though I am now more of an infrequent flyer. But it’s not a decisive one any longer. After all, for short flights, low-cost carriers are usually cheaper and for the long haul, those of the newer airlines from Asia or the Gulf are always worth looking at.  In addition, Air France’s fares tend be lower for passengers starting their journey outside France than for those in their home market.

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that if the French state, Air France’s majority shareholder, had not been unstinting in its support for the airline over the past two or three decades, it would no longer be flying today. But this is France, and no French government could ever have countenanced its very own flag carrier going the way of Pan Am, TWA, Sabena or Swissair.  To its credit, the state started, some years ago, to prepare it for a more competitive market. The airline’s top managers, usually recruited from the senior echelons of the civil service, were instructed to do what most industries confronted with globalisation have been doing, retrench, consolidate and cut costs. A merger with the Dutch carrier KLM was engineered, an alliance called Skyteam (that so many Air France stewards and stewardesses have difficulty in pronouncing properly in English!) was formed with Delta in the U.S and a number of other carriers, some of airline’s equity was sold to investors, staff travel privileges were reduced, longer working hours and more flexible working practices were slowly but surely negotiated. At the start of this process, at a time when I was still a frequent flyer, I distinctly remember complaining to a hostess about the meagre tray of semi-edible goodies that was the only food served on a three hour flight. “Isn’t the company ashamed to serve passengers with a tray like this?” I asked. Her answer was as cryptic as it was final: “the company isn’t, but I am.”

Many years and many strikes later, one of which nearly disrupted the Euro 2016 soccer championship, Air France is slowly attracting more passengers and regaining profitability.  It has established a low-cost subsidiary called Hop for domestic services, Transavia a low-cost subsidiary for the European market and is in the process of negotiating with its unions the launch of a long-haul alternative carrier called Boost. Cabin staff in all of these ventures are expected to work longer hours for the same pay. For the reduced number of flights still under the Air France livery it has successfully revamped cabins and in-flight services. The state has gone as far is it can to help without falling foul of EU rules on competition and state subsidies, notably by directing the Paris Airports Group (ADP), of which it is also the majority shareholder, to refurbish old and build a number of new well-equipped terminals at Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports, reserved for Air France and its code sharing colleagues. One of most recent terminals for instance, Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle airport, can compare favourably with the best airports in the world.

The real problem, as in so many things in France, is a cultural one. Air France is a cameo of France.  Unlike the pragmatic Dutch who have put their economy, and their flag carrier, into good working order a lot faster, the cultural outlook of many employees of Air France is still coloured by the prestige of its glorious past (the company was founded in 1933) and the heroic era of French aviation, the Aéropostale and figures like Mermoz and Saint-Exupéry. Like France, the airline has been too slow to adapt to the impact of globalisation, bringing keen competition from new and well-funded carriers, greater and cheaper travel opportunities and changing customer expectations.  Unions, particularly the powerful pilots union, have resisted change, especially if it meant working longer hours for the same pay and they have ruthlessly exploited the fear of damaging France’s international standing to extract concessions from management and government. Constructive social dialogue is difficult not to say impossible as out-dated management practices have collided with excessive demands of militant unions. Everyone remembers the pictures of the airline’s Head of HR having his shirt ripped off his back in a violent scuffle with union representatives only a couple of years ago.

But through it all, Air France, like the mother country, has slowly, if painfully, adapted to globalisation. And in spite of everything, it remains for me the essence of French elegance and style. Just as George Orwell described the iconic red pillar-box as quintessentially English, there is something quintessentially French about boarding a sparkling Air France aircraft for the flight home from Seoul, Johannesburg or San Francisco and being greeted at the top of the steps by a beautifully turned out stewardess with a dazzling smile and a generous “Bonjour Monsieur, bienvenue à bord”. At such moments you know what it means to fly the flag.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Ordre Rébublicain

As I predicted in my post on March 18 (“Eleven candidates in the running “) two more steel hoardings have been added to the ten put up that day in front of the primary school down the road from where I live. One more for the eleventh candidate and one displaying four official documents concerning the election:  a ministerial decree announcing the date of the election and setting out the organisational details; a ruling from the Constitutional Council giving first and last names of the eleven officially qualified candidates; a circular from our département’s préfet specifying at what time polling stations will open and close on polling day; a facsimile screen of the electronic voting machine which has replaced the traditional polling booths for the past two years or so. Much to the relief of the station supervisor who no longer has to buttonhole likely looking voters to enquire, “if they wouldn’t mind coming in at 8 to give us a hand with the count”.  But also much to the disappointment of camera crews who can longer capture the moment when a political celebrity slips his or her envelope into the ballot box to the accompaniment of the words “a voté” (“has voted”).

As the official campaign started on Monday of this week, eleven official, taxpayer-funded, posters have been put up by municipal employees. Not in any old order of course, such désordre would be inexcusable, but in the order determined by a national draw organised by the Ministry of the Interior, in which M. Dupont-Aignan occupies hoarding N°1 and M. Fillon hoarding N° 11. The order on the screen of the voting machine will be the same, as will the order in which the ballot papers will be arranged in those polling stations that do not yet have such a marvel of modern technology.

Somehow however, désordre has crept in: someone with an anarchistic turn of mind has written below the ministerial decree (not across it of course as this would be an offence!), the words “ne pas voter!” (“don’t vote !”) in neat indelible and capital letters.

Others have made their own politically motivated and idiosyncratic modifications to the posters themselves. In front of our polling station, in a well-to-do part of town, Le Pen has been decorated with the inevitable Hitler moustache, Mélenchon has been given an expertly drawn pair of devils horns and the Macron poster has been torn down. Fillon and the marginal right and left wing candidates have been left unmolested. On the hoardings down by the railway station however, Mélenchon supporters have been out in force, sticking small paper squares with the Mélenchon campaign logo over the noses and eyes of le Pen and Fillon.

I shall follow the first round of voting from the Eastern seaboard of the United States where I shall be spending ten days. But don’t think that I shan’t be voting! Far from it. I have given my proxy vote to a neighbour, who will vote for me on the day. There is no postal vote, no early voting and no proxy can be given to the authorities  - just an official proxy form countersigned by a local police officer that my proxy holder will take to my polling station on April 23 to cast my vote. Only he, not the authorities, will know how I vote. And If he doesn’t vote the way I asked him too, I will have no way of knowing.

The republican electoral machine is shifting into top gear.   I shall miss the fun of the last few days, but not the news – watch this space!

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

School's out !

For someone like myself who went to school in England in the 1960s, school holidays were something to look forward to but never very long: about ten days at Christmas and Easter, six weeks during the summer and a couple of half-terms which were no more than a long week-end. My brother went to a different school for few years. His holidays were not always the same as mine.  I never remember it bothering my parents. Life went on as usual.

It was only when I had been living in France for some years and my own children were going to school that I had a first culture shock. I learnt that schools are managed nationally by the Ministère de l’Education Nationale (note the “nationale”, meaning nation-wide) and that holidays were the same for everybody, same weeks, same duration. Over the years, the length of those holidays has gradually increased. Children, and of course their teachers, now have two full weeks at Christmas, two full weeks in February, another two full weeks around Easter and almost two months during the summer, a long holiday that apparently has roots in France’s rural past when children were expected to help bring in the harvest! In the Autumn there used to be a longish weekend around All Saints Day on November 1st. This was gradually extended by a day here and there before François Hollande, in one of his first acts as President in 2012, granted all schools another two full weeks.

The ostensible reason for these long holidays, which are probably the longest in Europe, not to speak of anywhere else in the world, is that chronobiologists (I first heard of this speciality in connection with school holidays!) have apparently concluded that kids need 2 weeks rest after every 7 weeks in class. A quick calculation this year reveals however that the time between the Christmas holidays and the February holidays and between them and the Spring holidays is only five weeks in some cases, especially as the most populous parts of France, like the Paris area and other major cities, now have their holidays staggered  - Paris' holidays starting and ending a week before those of another area and so on. With three academic regions, the total holiday period during the February and Spring holidays is a full month. The academic calendar is laid down by the Ministry at least two years in advance.

Why then have the chronobiologists been forgotten, contradicted or overruled? The reasons are increasingly apparent. A lead story on the evening news the other night provided a telling clue. Just before the start of the Spring holidays, a number of ski resort operators and tourist offices around the country were asked how their season was going and if they were fully booked for the four weeks of the coming holiday period. They didn’t sound too unhappy.

France is certainly a beautiful country with plenty of opportunities for tourism. And the majority of French families tend to spend their short holidays in France. But it is also true that long and frequent holiday periods justify investment in tourist facilities and a powerful lobby of MPs does everything in its power to make sure that the investment pays off by lobbying for the extension of holidays, or against their reduction.

The result of all this is that most of one’s life in France revolves around school holidays. Working parents who can take up to 5 weeks paid holiday a year regularly take week long breaks with their children during the school holidays or, if it’s not possible to do so, pack their kids off to holiday camps, day care centres or willing grandparents for a week in the country, in the mountains or at the seaside. The impact on everyone else is also profound.  A gym class is normally held in a school gymnasium? Not during the school holidays. A lecture series for adults take place in a room lent by a pedagogical institute? Not during the school holidays. More than once during my career as an interpreter, I heard the French delegate say that this or that week was not convenient for the next meeting “because of the school holidays”, apparently oblivious to raised eyebrows and suppressed smiles in the rest of the room. During the school holidays, ski resorts and holiday camps are fully booked, there are special traffic jam alerts for days on which families leave for, or return from, holidays, extra trains are scheduled and sold out almost as soon as the tickets go on sale. Paris and other large cities empty themselves of a large proportion of their inhabitants. Ski slopes, holiday resorts, rural and seaside villages face a big influx of home-grown tourists.

What all this means for the number of hours that children spend in classrooms and how much they learn is not, surprisingly perhaps, an issue of serious national concern, although once a year there is a ritual wailing and wringing of hands when it is reported that France has slipped further down the PISA rankings. It is certainly a non-issue in any presidential campaign. Tourist areas are delighted to function more or less the whole year round, families get themselves organised to go on holiday or mobilise grandparents. Teachers’ objections, understandably perhaps, are muted.

In the U.K, a father was recently fined for taking his daughter out of school for a week’s holiday during term time. He contested the fine and the case went to the Supreme Court that ruled against him, much to the relief of the representative of a head teachers’ association interviewed on the BBC’s Today Programme.  It is a far cry from France. No parent ever has to take a child out of school during term time. School’s out …..for sixteen weeks a year.

Monday, 10 April 2017

What's next ? Update...

 The plot thickens and the gap narrows. Three events of the  weekend show that this election is evolving into a real cliff hanger, the outcome of which will not be known before 8pm. on April 23.  Maybe even later that evening if the scores are very close.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is clearly making an increasing impact on voters At an open air meeting in front of thousands of supporters on the old port in Marseille, he chose not to focus on his economic programme, which is not, it must be noted, dissimilar to that of Marine Le Pen, but praised the diversity of French society, expressed sincere sorrow over the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and launched into an almost mystical passage about war and peace: “If you want peace, make no mistake in your vote” (“si vous voulez la paix, ne vous trompez pas de bulletin de vote”), a clear reference to the U.S strikes in Syria. Interviewed afterwards, a few people who had attended confessed that Mélenchon had impressed them and that they had now decided to vote for him, after voting for the right-wing candidate at the last presidential election. Which seems to show that part of the anti-establishment protest vote may indeed to be drifting away from Marine le Pen and towards Mélenchon (cf: my “What’s next" post of last week).

Especially as Marine le Pen has seriously blotted the copybook she has been trying desperately, and reasonably successfully, to keep clean in the past few years. Asked in a radio interview about her views on France’s role in the round-up and deportation of 13 000 Jews in Paris in July1942, she made it clear that for her, "France is not responsible" ("La France n’est pas responsable" ). This unambiguous statement not only opens up old wounds caused by France’s attitudes and policies during the occupation, wounds that Jacques Chirac’s official admission of French guilt back in 1995 was intended to heal, but is also a sinister reminder of Le Pen’s father’s anti-Semitic and fascist leanings that were the stock-in-trade of the Front National until she set out to sanitise them.

Finally, in Paris on Sunday, François Fillon held a well-attended meeting of fervent supporters and clearly feels that his star is rising again. “I don’t ask you to like me” he said rather curiously, "I ask you to vote for me in the interests of France". (Je ne vous demande pas de m’aimer. Je vous demande de me soutenir, parce qu’il y va de l’intérêt de la France".)

An event that prompted Le Monde in today’s edition to concede that "Francois Fillon is still in with a chance" ("François Fillon peut encore y croire").

Polling day is in just 2 weeks. With Mélenchon and Fillon up in the polls, Le Pen down and Macron stable, it is becoming increasingly difficult for pollsters to predict the outcome of the first round of voting, let alone the final result.

Voters, thankfully, will have the last word.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Macron unplugged

Last night’s political talk show on France Televisions, the French pubic sector TV network, was a long awaited opportunity to find out more about Emmanuel Macron, his personality and his political programme. After Marine le Pen and François Fillon, Macron was taken through his paces and confronted for more than two hours with questions about his views on foreign policy, his economic programme, and above all, how he would deal with two of the most corrosive issues in French society, unemployment and globalisation.

Macron speaks fast and at times impetuously. An irritating little grin occasionally appears on his lips when he knows that he has scored a debating point, hinting at a sense of superiority, often noticed in young, high-flying French officials in whose mould he has been cast. Towards the end of the programme, asked exactly when he had decided to stand for President, both his words and his expression conveyed sincerity. The overall impression was of a clever and ambitious young man with a mission. French voters will now have a clearer idea of whether they wish to entrust him with that mission on May 7.

On the substantive issues, Macron’s foreign policy views, particularly on Syria, were not very different from France’s well-rehearsed positions: military intervention only under a UN mandate, followed by discussions “with all parties” to eject Bashar al-Assad, bring about regime change and fight Islamic State. All this of course has been overshadowed by the events reported this morning, but French presidential elections are not decided on foreign policy issues anyway.  His macro-economic programme, on which he was closely questioned by an economic journalist, quickly became a battle about technicalities and figures that generated far more heat than light. He did not come off well in a short discussion with an articulate history teacher who criticised him for describing, a few weeks ago, the French colonisation of Algeria as a “crime against humanity”. The exchange highlighted the fact, 60 years after the events, that the war in Algeria and its aftermath are still very much a fault line in French society.

However, on unemployment and globalisation, elements of his thinking became clearer and led me to conclude that if he were to be elected President on May 7, official policy on both would shift quite significantly.

Confronted with a militant trade unionist who took him to task for failing to support employees of a Whirlpool plant about to be moved to Poland, Macron retorted that it was pure demagogy for politicians to stand up on the back of a lorry and promise that the plant would be saved. It will not have escaped his listeners that François Hollande and his ministers did just that when Arcelor-Mittal announced the closure of a blast furnace in Lorraine a few years ago.  The plant was subsequently closed and its employees were understandably bitter. Paraphrasing the Schumpeterian maxim of creative destruction, Macron went on to say that while it was legitimate for the French government to demand that Whirlpool pay back state and local authority subsidies, ultimately it was not jobs but individuals who should be protected, particularly through re-training. In a discussion with a cab driver using the Uber app, complaining that he works long hours for low pay, Macron pointed out that there are many others in France, like small farmers, greengrocers and plumbers who also work long hours for low pay but that Uber drivers are better off having a job than having none.

To my knowledge, no politician has made these points so clearly before. The wider issue here of course is the impact on France of what has come to be known as the gig economy, of the “zero hours” contracts in the U.K or “minijobs” in Germany. Those in France who denounce these kinds of jobs fail to mention that they have made a big contribution to lowering unemployment. Conversely, those who are quick to point out that French unemployment is much higher than that of the U.K and Germany fail to mention that it is largely due to a much more flexible labour market than France has been willing to countenance so far. Macron clearly wants to persuade the French to change their attitudes and embrace more flexibility. Of course, France being France, it is unlikely to adopt the free-for-all of its neighbours and will always insist on the need for regulation and protection. But when all is said and done, Macron’s stance is a welcome departure from the fossilised, all or nothing, positions that have dominated this debate in France for too long. The Barcelona v. Uber case currently before the European Court of Justice should help to clarify, later this year, whether Uber can be considered simply as a digital platform, as it claims, or a transport company, subject to labour legislation on employees, as claimed by its detractors. Unsurprisingly, France is in the latter camp.

The other interesting highlight was the final debate between Macron and François Fillon’s right-hand man, Senator Bruno Retailleau. Dressed up as a criticism of Macron’s ministerial role in the fate of two French companies, Alcatel, sold to Finland’s’ Nokia and Alstom, a part of which was absorbed by GE, it was in effect a debate about the impact of globalisation and how far France can and should go in protecting its national champions. Faced with the accusation of selling French industrial interests down the river, Macron defended himself vigorously, rolled out all the reasons for his decisions and in doing so, it seemed to me, won the argument. The end of the debate shifted to the more emotionally charged issue of what it means to be French and descended, unfortunately, into a shouting match in which neither man, let alone the journalists trying to moderate the debate, could make himself heard. But I don’t think I was the only one to feel that, all of a sudden, Fillon’s representative looked tired, flustered and old-fashioned, as if long-held concepts, nurtured by a long-established politician, had suddenly been made to look a little stale by some fresh thinking from a new boy on the block.

I wrote in a previous post (“The meddling Mr. Macron”) that I had my doubts about Mr. Macron’s modernising credentials. His performance last night went some way to dispelling them. If, as polls are now suggesting, he contests the run-off with Marine Le Pen on May 7, I shall vote for him. In that configuration, I always would have done. Now, however, I shall do so a little more willingly.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

It's the politics stupid !

I usually listen with great interest to the lunchtime interview on BFM business radio. The journalist, Hedwige Chevrillon, asks well prepared and searching questions, chooses her guests carefully and always manages to get something interesting out of them. Monday’s guest was Jean Messiha, a senior official in the French administration, interviewed in his capacity as the co-ordinator of Marine Le Pen’s presidential programme. As BFM focuses mainly on economics, finance and business, most of the questions concerned Marine Le Pen’s oft-stated intention of abandoning the Euro and going back to the Franc.

M. Messiha is a clever and ambitious man. Of Coptic Egyptian origin, he arrived in France at the age of eight, did all his subsequent schooling in France, got a PhD in Economics and graduated from ENA. He speaks calmly and stated clearly all the familiar arguments to show that the Euro has been a failure and that France should make an orderly exit and have nothing more to do with it.  

Calling for a serious “review” of what the Euro has failed to achieve, he went over the usual ground: it has cramped French industrial competitiveness; the Euro area is little more than a DM zone chafing under rules “imposed by Brussels”; it is not adapted to the structure of the French economy; if France were to restore its monetary sovereignty and devalue, economic growth would pick up, unemployment would fall, deficits would be reduced and everyone would be better off. Asked about Greece, his response was that “it should have left the Euro” in 2011 or 2012, presumably meaning that if it hadn’t gone quietly it should have been pushed, the solution that German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaüble, was said to favour at the time. Messiha was convinced that once all the “facts” had been placed before the French people they would decide, in a referendum promised by Le Pen if she is elected President, to abandon the Euro.

I found myself thinking, with mounting irritation, that I had heard all this before…and that it was only half the story. Listening with half an ear, one could have been mistaken for thinking that France was the only country that had the Euro as a currency or at least the only one that had problems with it.

I would have liked to hear Messiha tell the other half of the story: that France shares the Euro with18 other countries; that the 19 members of the Euro area have decided, not unnaturally, to entrust its governance to European institutions like the European Central Bank and the European Commission; that many of the countries in the area, the original members as well as the more recent joiners, have submitted themsleves to painful economic restructuring. Portugal, Ireland, Spain and the three Baltic republics come to mind, not to speak of Greece. How come that France has come off so badly? Only because of the Euro or also because it has not yet made the necessary efforts to put its own economic house in order? As for Greece, Messiha seems to have forgotten that one of the reasons why Greece did not leave the Euro during the crisis of 2011 and 2012 was that the Greeks, in spite of everything, did not want to. If polls are to be believed, around 80% of the French do not want to either.

I cast my mind back to another debate, in Germany, after the fall of the Berlin wall, long before the introduction of the Euro.  As a prelude to unification of the two halves of the country, Chancellor Helmut Kohl decided, against the almost unanimous view of economists, that one Ostmark would be worth one Deutschmark. It was a political decision. The economists were overruled, just as Schaüble was overruled by Chancellor Merkel during the Greek crisis.  Of course, many of the economic difficulties predicted at the time occurred and the eastern part of Germany, however remarkable its recovery, is still, on average, poorer than the western part. But in 50 years time, long after the economic difficulties have been forgotten, Helmut Kohl will be remembered as the Chancellor who did not fluff the historic chance to unite his country in peace.

The Euro, to be sure, will continue to generate heated debate about its economic merits and drawbacks. Many economists like Joseph Stiglitz have been stinging in their criticism that the Euro area is not what they call an "optimum currency area", like the United States, and therefore can never work.

The truth is that the Euro is very much work in progress. Since its launch, institutions and arrangements have been added, usually during or after a crisis, as so often in the EU. The European Stability Mechanism  (2013) and the banking union (2016) are good examples. Others are necessary. The Euro area is still a long way from the transfer union of the United States that took over 100 years to perfect. Fiscal transfers already take place in the EU from the richer to the poorer members. It will take longer for true fiscal federalism, in some form or another, to evolve. Is that a good enough argument for abandoning the whole venture after less than 20 years?

That process will indeed take years rather than months. But if European politicians do not make the political case, debates between opposing schools of economists will become increasingly acrimonious and toxic.  The Euro, let’s face it, is above all a political project, designed to help bring about that “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, that is one of the founding principles of the European Union. And that is precisely what Marine le Pen and her like are afraid of.

But the majority in most EU member countries, including I hope in France, seem to consider that it is still a better path to follow than all the others. If that is the case, political leaders should say so and do their bit to make the Euro work better.

Monday, 3 April 2017

A little political fiction

At a time when fake news and alternative facts are flying thick and fast, it seems hazardous to indulge in political fiction. But a novel I have just finished provides an opportunity that I cannot resist. It is the most recent novel by the French writer Michel Houellebecq, (pronounced Wellbeck) Soumission (published in France by Flammarion in 2015 and in an  English translation by Lorin Stein as Submission by Picador books in 2016).

Houellebecq is a controversial and somewhat provocative contemporary novelist who has won the prestigious Prix Goncourt and other literary prizes.The themes taken up in Soumission will be familiar to his regular readers but one of them in particular has special resonance against the background of the upcoming French presidential elections. The novel is set in 2022 and narrated in the first person by a rather unsavoury university professor, observing the political situation in the run-up and immediate aftermath of the presidential elections of that year, just five years from now. Many of the politicians he refers to are household names in French politics today and are involved, in one way or another, in the election campaign of 2017: Marine le Pen, Manuel Valls, François Hollande and François Bayrou, to name just four. Houellebecq is clearly seeking to extrapolate from the political situation prevalent at the time of writing in 2014. Without wishing to spoil the story for those who have not read it, the scenario described for 2022 is the elimination in the first round of voting of the traditional right and left wing and centre parties that have governed France since 1958 and the triumph, in the run-off, with wide-ranging support from those same parties, of a new figure, heading a new party that had been unheard of five years previously.

Sound familiar? Coming back to the real world of 2017, opinion polls are now predicting that the mainstream candidates of the right and left will indeed be eliminated in the first round of voting on April 23 and that the run-off will be contested by Marine Le Pen and a new figure in French politics, Emmanuel Macron, at the head of a party that was founded a year ago almost to the day, on April 6, 2016.  He has so far won pledges of support from many leading figures in the socialist party, including Manuel Valls, a few from the right and, most significantly, the centrist party of François Bayrou!

In Houellebecq’s novel, one of the characters paints a highly unflattering picture of Bayrou. He is described as vain, obtuse and unprincipled, motivated solely by an obsession to win power. Observers of the real world will have a sardonic smile on their lips as they read or re-read this ferocious portrait, in the knowledge that Bayrou, having lost almost every election he has contested during his political career to date, was one of the first to rally to Macron’s standard and is now well placed, in the event of a Macron victory, to become Prime Minister.

However, the real mould-breaking event described in the novel is not the elimination of the mainstream candidates in the first round of voting in 2022 but that the previously unknown candidate who wins the election that year, beating Marine le Pen in the run-off, is called Mohammed Ben Abbes, at the head of a new party, the Muslim Fraternity, which goes on to introduce an Islamic regime to which French society is obliged to submit.

One can of course debate at length whether this scenario, or a similarly scary one, will play out in 2022. Be that as it may, Houellebecq has pinpointed with uncanny foresight the current and possible future consequences of the slow decomposition of the French body politic since the surprise elimination of Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election of 2002 and the run-off, that year, between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and founder of the Front National. Since 2002, despite the gathering strength of the protest vote at every election, neither Chirac nor Sarkozy nor Hollande have devised, let alone implemented a convincing and credible political and economic strategy designed to bring large swathes of the French electorate back into the mainstream and away from the protesting fringes.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that one of Houellebecq’s implicit messages is that the next President of France will have one last chance, over the next five years, to put the country back on track…and stop the purveyors of fake news and alternative facts from gaining the upper hand.