Thursday, May 17, 2012

France's Love and Politics: Vive la Différence!

Americans often have a hard time figuring out certain things about France.

Last week, Jon Stewart asked the most fundamental question about French politics:
"What do your elderly middle-age bureaucrats have really hot spouses or girlfriends?"

His question came from his analysis of the French presidential runoff between Nicolas Sarkozy and François hollande which came down to: "a choice between a diminutive middle-age establishment bureaucrat (Nicolas Sarkozy) with an implausibly hot wife , or a diminutive middle-age socialist bureaucrat (François Hollande) with an implausibly hot girl friend."

In a slightly more serious tone, MSNBC Evening news Brian Williams himself reflected the American fascination for French love and politics:
Can you imagine if one of the men running for president of the United States right now was in a relationship with a woman for whom he left his long-time partner, the mother of his children and the two of them had no plans to marry, and what if they declared it all none of our business. That's pretty much to descrive the new president of France, a nation very different from our when it comes to love and marriage and politics.

I like his non-judgmental tone, and his simple acknowledgement of our differences. It is refreshing from the sometimes moral view by some other media. There is still a lot to say about the myth of the hot French women, but this would take more time than I have right now. And indeed, Vive La Différence!

But the really weird part of the whole story, strangely not mentioned in either coverage is that François Hollande's former partner, and the mother of their four children, Ségolène Royal, was also the presidential candidate in the last runoff against Sarkozy in 2007, to whom she lost.

So in effect, she missed the Elysée Palace (i.e. the French White House) twice: first as a political candidate and then as a partner of the newly elected president.

Hollande and Royal officially broke up right after she lost her bid in 2007, but the relationship had started crumbing years before but the tow of them had maintained a pact of silence until then.

Intrigue, love lost, love found and power struggles are all so French, aren't they? It plays along the American view of France for sure, but to the French, love and politics are two different things and their politicians' private lives should be their own and kept private, unless of course they are accused of raping hotel maids in New York.

(Yes, DSK (le Perv) was also a potential presidential candidate but that did not fly well in France, because, as it seems, the French may be tolerant when it comes to love, not so much when it comes to sexual perversion. Not all French who cannot take 'no' for an answer are acceptable to the French: Pepe Le Pew (a supposedly French skunk who strolls about Paris constantly seeking love) may be cute, but DSK was not.)

Talking about harassing skunks, that was one of the other question asked by Jon Stewart:
Why are all your skunks so date-rapey?
Along with others that will say plenty of American clichés about France:
"Why when you buy a baguette do you only get half a bag to put it in? Bag is in the name.... Why do you put your most hunchbacked people in charge of bells? Do you really think your kid should be drinking wine? Why do you have so much trouble walking against the wind? How windy does it get there? Gerard Depardieu?”
NOTE: Beyond his tone, Jon Stewart ends on an excellent note concerning the European economic situation these days:
Nearly 70 years after the end of WWII, Germany controls all of Europe. The irony: they don't have an army! Who would have thought the key to German world domination would wind up being a an international banking conspiracy. They need US (i.e. "jews"). 


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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Colored French Presidential Electoral Map

Different cultures, different colors: on this French electoral result map, as you can, François Holland's wins (LEFT leaning candidate) are shown in PINK whereas, Sarkozy (RIGHT leaning candidate) 's are shown in BLUE.

The reason for pink, I believe, is that since 1971, the French Socialist Party has used the emblem of the Fist and the Rose. This emblem became associated with the 1980s and Mitterand. It has fallen out of use, but the color pink is now often associated with the Socialist Party. It may be appropriate since pink is watered down RED, traditionally associated with the LEFT (and not just communism) and revolutions.

Except in the United States where RED is now associated with the Republican Party, while BLUE is associated with the Democratic Party, but it has only been so since.... the 2000 elections and it is due to television media, not party decision.
I like the irony that such an old leftist symbolic color, partly associated - even in the United States - with communism is now used for the American RIGHT.

NOTE: Interesting reminder that the seemingly universal division between RIGHT and LEFT in politics actually originated in the French Revolution:
The terms "left" and "right" appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left. One deputy, the Baron de Gauville explained, "We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp." However the Right opposed the seating arrangement because they believed that deputies should support private or general interests but should not form factions or political parties. The contemporary press occasionally used the terms "left" and "right" to refer to the opposing sides. (Wikipedia)

Monday, May 7, 2012

New French President, The Reasons He Won and What It (Really) Means.

As some of you may have seen in the news, France has a new President: socialist François Hollande who beat conservative Nicolas Sarkozy by 51,67% to 48,33% last night. This is a historica moment for France.

So a word or two (or more) is in order.

I read here and there that Sarkozy was ousted because of "public anger over austerity measures and economic crisis", joining a "series of other European leaders booted from office" in Italy, Spain or Greece (Business Week, Wall Street Journal,). In my opinion, this is mostly a wrong superficial analysis of France's mood. And Kevin Drum is wrong, Sarkozy is NOT merely the latest victim of the economic crisis. He is the victim of his own making and he has always been his worst enemy.
The election of Hollande was more anti-Sarkozy than pro-Hollande. There was not necessarily a lot of excitement about Hollande and there is doubt about his economic plan (the French know they're in for tougher time), but "anti-Sarkozy sentiment has become a cultural phenomenon in France." (the Guardian).
Upon hearing the result of the elections, people in French tough neighborhoods cheered loud from the windows in their projects, hunked the horns in their cars; and made all sorts of noises, - something resembling more winning the world cup than presidential elections, certainly not seen in France since 1981.

Sarkozy the Divider: One Does not Rule France by Dividing Its People
Sarkozy was the most unpopular president in French history (about 35% job approval) and his slip in the polls started fairly soon after the elections (Le Monde polls). He was criticized not only for his ostentation display of wealth, favoring the rich while leaving behind high unemployment, but also for his divisiveness and his agressive tone and style,seen as unbecoming of a president. in French culture.

The New Republic has it right:
(Sarkozy has) "constantly undercut himself, thanks to his notorious difficulty sharing the spotlight and his coarsely confrontational personal style. is no coincidence that his single best-known phrase, uttered to a protester in early 2008, is “Casse-toi, pauv’ con” (roughly, “Shove off, asshole”). It is not exactly de Gaulle’s “France cannot be France without grandeur.” (The NR).
Sarkozy may have been quick to react in times of crisis, but he was a lot of hot air, and lack any vision. He failed to see what people need in times of crisis.
 “Nicolas Sarkozy is constantly trying to create cleavages… when what people expect from a president, especially in times of crisis, is to be a unifier,” said political scientist Roland Cayrol of the Centre for Studies and Analysis. (here).
During the campaign, he went further to the right, trying to court far-right Le Pen's voters by playing on the fear of immigration, borders and Islam, missing the point that the French are more worried about the economy and high unemployment than Islam and immigration.

The French Prefer the virtues of the Tortoise to that of the Hare.

This is the allegory rightfully used by the NYTimes to describe the patience, diligence and quiet road chosen by Hollande to win over his rather impetuous rival, Sarkozy. As in the fable, Hollande was seriously underestimated by both the media and his opponent, who was overconfident.

The "New" Socialist.
A word of caution to my Anglo-saxon friends who might be afraid of the word "socialist". Even though Hollande was the candidate of the "socialist party" (which he ruled for years), I agree with Matthew Yglesias that Hollande is actually more a socio-democrat and I also think he's a pragmatist. Yes, he has promised massive taxation on revenues over 1 million euros revenues but that does not make him a socialist. As I reminded a friend the other day: in the United States the top income rate was 75% in 1939 ias high as  94% in 1944 and 1945 and remained between 90% and 70% until 1981, which did not make post-WWII America a socialist country.
Granted that those were other times, but the current crisis demands unprecedented measures and taxing the wealthy maybe one of them for its symbolism if nothing else. You cannot ask the rest of the country to face tough measures if it is not perceived as widely shared by the wealthy. After all, this something that Buffet can agree on.
The greatest challenge for Hollande is his deal with Merkel and the French debt which will require some spending cut and our president-elect has been more than evasive on the question. What is certain is that Merkel's austerity philosophy faces more and more criticism in Europe (NYTimes). Hollande wants to add growth, and that is after all what seemed to be working in the United-States. Of course, Hollande's way of achieving this may not be the same as other leaders' and he will have to compromise, but it is probably about time that someone stands against Merkel's obsessive one-eyed vision.

Franco-American Relationship:
As always in the U.S. it is likely that the election of a "socialist" president will scare some of the media, particularly on the right, the word itself is enough to spook most Americans. This unfortunate as it is largely ignorant of the particular of French and European history and ideology.
In 1981, when Mitterand name four communists in his government, a horrified Ronald Reagan sent his vice president, George H. W. Bush to voice his concern that "the future of Western democracy hung in the balance" (here and here). Yet in the end, Franco-American relations under Mitterand turned out to be one of the closest, including in the containment of Soviet Power (think of the Pershing missile controversy in 1984 or the less-well known but extraordinary Farewell spy case, (here too) or later the Gulf War for instance - LATimes)
In the same way that branding Sarkozy "American" (his view of America was superficial at best) is just as wrong and misleading as branding Hollande a "dangerous socialist".
In fact, one can argue that Hollande's platform has commonalities with Obama's (although not necessarily in the specifics):
The platform that Hollande won on, in addition to the stress it laid on restoring economic growth, echoed several other themes Obama sounded in Ohio on Saturday, when he officially launched his reëlection campaign: fairness, hope, and inclusion. (The New Yorker)
Europe's failures might even be a good lesson for the American electorate:
When the campaign turns to questions of economics, what is happening in Europe should provide Obama with plenty of arguments with which to flay his opponents. Republicans say they want to slash government spending and focus on the deficit regardless of the immediate economic situation. The Europeans have carried out that experiment, and, to say the least, it hasn’t turned out very well. (The New Yorker)