Bread and circuses: The last days of the Hollande presidency?

François Hollande en compagnie du président argentin Mauricio Macri (à gauche) à Buenos Aires, le 25 février. AFP

Art Goldhammer directs our attention to a bizarre and fascinating article in Le Monde suggesting that President François Hollande is hoping that a French victory in the Euro 2016 would give his presidency a desperately needed bounce.  This is pathetic beyond words.  It’s also disheartening that the worlds of football and French politics would seem to be intertwining in a manner more typical of an impoverished third world dictatorship seeking to distract the minds of the people from the failings of the regime with bread and circuses.

One oddity struck me, though, as it surely must have struck everyone who follows French football: In typical Monsieur Flanby fashion, at the very moment when President Hollande was supposedly salivating at the prospect of associating himself with a famous victory, his prime minister was (in my opinion) seriously undermining France’s prospects for achieving that victory by excluding the scandal beset Karim Benzema, the country’s best striker and leading goal scorer, from the national team.

The indecision and lack of consistency on display here has, of course, been the very hallmark of the Hollande presidency.  On the one hand, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has quite legitimacy taken a strong and compelling moral stance; he has excluded Benzema because Benzema has been involved in numerous scandals including his allegedly having purchased the services of an underage prostitute (something which he has denied but, in fact, the charges were dropped only because a French judge concluded that, although Benzema did indeed have sex with the underage girl and knew she was a prostitute, it couldn’t be proved that he knew she was only 16 years old).

Benzema’s long history of scandal and, in particular, his recent arrest for allegedly blackmailing a fellow footballer makes him a very poor example for young French people, to say the least.  As Valls stated in making the moral and ethical case for excluding Karim Benzema:

“A great athlete should be exemplary. If he is not, he has no place in the France team. There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes. They wear the blue jersey, the colours of France, which are so important in these moments.”

Yet, on the other hand, if my presidency’s last best hope for a « rebondir » was riding on France winning the Euro 2016, I might be less concerned with moral niceties and more concerned with selecting players capable of delivering victory.  You can’t win if you don’t put the ball in the net.  Warts and all, Benzema is still the best striker that France is capable of fielding. If Paris was worth a mass to Henry IV, surely a man as desperately ambitious and cynical as François Hollande ought to be willing to hold his nose and employ a supremely talented football player who, in addition to being innocent until proven guilty, is also very popular with Frenchmen of North African descent who were once a key voting bloc for the Socialist Party and could perhaps be again.

So, is President Hollande a man of exceptional moral principles willing to risk his future by insisting on doing the right thing or is he the M. Flanby who couldn’t overrule his prime minister even to save his presidency?   If Valerie Trierweiler is to be believed, François Hollande is a cynical, yet chronically indecisive, man of overpowering and, at times, unscrupulous ambition who surely would not give a tinker’s dam whether Benzema was a suitable role model if it would even slightly improve his prospect of reelection. My inclination is towards agreement with Trierweiler’s description of the man so my guess is that Hollande was too afraid or indecisive to overrule Valls, even though he probably wanted too. But then, as with everything in politics, “you pays yer money and you takes  yer choice”


Hollande will run.


Art Goldhammer adds to the growing speculation about whether Hollande will step aside and not be a candidate in the 2017 presidential election. Goldhammer thinks Hollande will step aside.  I think he won’t.

It seems to me that if Hollande genuinely cared about the fate of the Parti socialiste, he wouldn’t have waited until his party’s hopes for the next election were irretrievably damaged before stepping aside. If you think, as I do, that Hollande is for himself first and nobody else second then he has nothing to gain by stepping down and everything to win by staying and playing out the hand.

Hollande will not go gentle into that good night because whether he goes now or waits to be given the boot, the end result would be that he must give up the Elysée and that is the thing I believe he most wants to avoid. Miracles can happen. My prediction is that he stays and rolls the dice.

A Reply to Josh Marshall: America must never wage a war without mercy

مجزرة حماه - Hama Massacre
The aftermath of the 1982 Hama Massacre in Hama, Syria. (Freedom House/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

I was disappointed with Josh Marshall’s proposal to make Assad the winner of the Syrian Civil War. I understand it was meant to be something of a “realpolitik” approach but it looked to me like the attacks in Paris have made him think about spending some quality time on the Dark Side with Darth Cheney. It isn’t a very well thought out idea and he seems to be foolishly assuming that there are no consequences that would follow from the United States taking action to bring about the Assad Family’s victory.

To begin with, the whole idea struck me as revolting; a sort of reverse trolley problem in which Josh Marshall decided that it was the right choice that ten thousand innocent muslims should die rather than one innocent European or American. I don’t that’s the right choice for us as a people. We went down that road after September 11th and look at our public discourse now.

The moral issues notwithstanding, there are also problems that make this a very poor idea from a “realpolitik” perspective. To begin with, here is my assumption about what happens if we make Assad the winner. The losing side of this civil war is going to be in for decades of truly horrific, unspeakable reprisals. Even if that is acceptable to us, the rest of the Islamic world is going to horrified at what they see our client doing to their coreligionists.

If you Google “Hama Rules” you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. We’re talking about whole families being slaughtered in the most graphic, nightmarish ways possible. The Assad Family has done things to political opponents that I wouldn’t even be willing to put on my blog. Just reading about it gives me nightmares. The fact that Assad himself is a Muslim isn’t going to matter nearly as much as his being the client of the Americans and Europeans.

Marsall’s proposal also doesn’t say what happens to the millions of refugees who have already fled. Will they be sent back to be massacred? Will they be resettled in a Europe that backed the man who has slaughtered their families and will soon be pleasuring himself with a truly epic bloodletting of everyone in their extended families who couldn’t make it out in time?

And, of course, the moment it becomes clear that the Americans have chosen Assad as their champion, the trickle of refugees will become a raging river. That isn’t a problem for Americans since it’s clear that as a people we’d rather see them all dead then let a single Muslim child find refuge here but it will be a very tricky situation for the Europeans.

If, as Art Goldhammer says, “the question of political Islam has become for the twenty-first century what Sartre said Marxism was for the twentieth: the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of our time,” the betrayal of millions of helpless people and the horrific reprisals by our client will be a radicalizing event like nothing else could ever be. The ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda practically writes itself. And it will strongly resonate throughout Sunni Islam.

Once Assad becomes our client, Syrian refugees will become both pitiful and very, very dangerous. And if they aren’t today, they soon will be. The millions of Sunni Muslims in Western countries around the world will know that we’ve sided against them and will reason, correctly, that their position in the West is precarious with predictably disastrous consequences.

There are five million Muslims in France alone. Tens of millions in Europe as a whole. As Arun Kapil has written:

The Islamic State, telling Muslims in the West that, in effect, they must either adhere to the IS and its conception of Islam or ‘apostatize’ and adopt the ‘kufri’ (infidel) religion of the West. In other words, Muslims in France must get off the fence and choose their camp. It goes without saying that, if presented with that choice, the huge majority will side with the ‘kuffars.’ As they say, it’s a no brainer.

As a reminder, on Thursday the Islamic State staged a terrorist attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs—the Dahiya—that killed over forty people. The Dahiya is entirely populated by Shi’ite Muslims and where state power is exercised by Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state. Ergo, the Islamic State death cult is as great a threat—when, concretely speaking, not more of one—to Muslims than it is to non-Muslims.

I think Arun is basically right about the implications of the attacks for Muslims. He’s right, too, about the opportunities we have right now for making a billion Muslims allies in the fight against Islamism. We need to dampen down the idiots in the Republican Party talking trash and trying to bring about a clash of civilizations. But, equally, if making Assad the winner results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of Sunnis, the choice for the billion Muslims on the planet will still be a “no brainer” but not in the way that Arun thinks.

There’s also the practical problem of clientism that has basically wreaked so many American foreign adventures. The problem was particularly on display in an Afghanistan where every effort by the US to build a civil society was undercut by the corruption of our client, his family and followers. As seems to be customary with these adventures, the blood and treasure spent to build a country found its way into the bank accounts that we allow our clients and their families to keep in London, New York and Dubai.

Similarly, in Iraq, because keeping our clients happy became the most important thing, we had no way to stop the disintegration of the nascent Iraqi state and its decent into yet another civil war. The Iraqi Army didn’t survive it first encounter with ISIS because they really didn’t care. It was our money, not theirs that paid for the weapons they threw away and there’s always more where that came from. And, by and large, it seems most joined the army as a form of patronage rather than out of a desire to defend Iraq.

Think about what happens to the war against ISIS if Assad becomes our client: What incentive will Assad have to actually defeat ISIS or even to weaken it to the point where it can no longer mount terrorist operations against the West? None. After all, if Josh Marshall’s proposal is acted upon, the attacks of November 13th will have been the best thing to ever happen to Assad. Every further attack would almost certainly bring him vast increases in wealth and power; why should wage real war against ISIS when phony war pays better and we’re committed to keeping him in power no matter what?

Also, whether it was a throw away line to mollify “non-realists” like me, surely Marshall’s saying up front that we can always get rid of Assad once he has done our bidding gives Assad a powerful incentive to favor a perpetual phony war against ISIS over victory that would be his death warrant?

This is a terrible idea. If we make Assad the winner in the Syrian Civil War, we will lose our souls and gain nothing.

Why Jeremy Corbyn will win

17 Aug 2015, London, England, UK --- Labour Party leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn talks to a crowd of supporters unable to enter an election campaigning event at Ealing in west London, Britain August 17, 2015. --- Image by © PETER NICHOLLS/Reuters/Corbis
17 Aug 2015, London, England, UK — Labour Party leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn talks to a crowd of supporters unable to enter an election campaigning event at Ealing in west London, Britain August 17, 2015. — Image by © PETER NICHOLLS/Reuters/Corbis

I don’t have much to say about the current fight for the future of the Labour Party.  A point worth making again, however, is that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid is being propelled by a rising level of disenchantment across the political spectrum with an inbred, self serving political class of which Tony Blair is the archetype. The reason why New Labour fears Corbyn so much is that he will at least try to put an end to the lucrative business of selling the super rich financiers and CEOs the opportunity to dismantle the social welfare state.  This anger towards the political class is driving much of the rise of the extreme right on a platform that bizarrely combines xenophobia and fascism with an anti-corruption and economic platform that could easily have been written by Paul Krugman.

That’s the strange thing about the way in which this leadership fight has been characterized in the media. Nobody’s talking about “old style Labour” or Marxism (or even an affinity for beer and sandwiches). What New Labour is describing in apoplectic terms is nothing more than a centre left political agenda which voters have overwhelmingly supported every time they have been given the opportunity.  The ideas that Corbyn and his supporters are advancing are the very same ones that drove the Scottish National Party to an overwhelming victory in Scotland in the last election and, had they been consistently advocated for by Labour, would likely have resulted in a Labour government instead of a Conservative one.

The other point is that these New Labour people seem incapable of giving a straight answer about anything. There was a truly amazing interview on LBC with Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper—all the leading candidates. Each was asked a simple question, namely, would they ask Ed Miliband to be in their shadow cabinet. Only Corbyn answered the question. He said yes and explained why he would ask Miliband to be in his shadow cabinet and what role he would play. Everyone else responded with plummy, but empty word salad (the Westminster equivalent of authentic American frontier gibberish).  None of the New Labour candidates was willing even to say who they personally would invite to be a part of their own shadow cabinet.  This is beyond belief—it is almost prevaricating for the sake of prevaricating.  That’s why Corbyn will win.

My halfhearted defense of why Hollande is helpless to mediate in the Greek-Germany negotiations

19 May 2015, Berlin, Germany --- Berlin, Germany. 19th May 2015 -- French President Francois Hollande during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 19 May 2015. Image by © Simone Kuhlmey/Demotix/Corbis
19 May 2015, Berlin, Germany — Berlin, Germany. 19th May 2015 — French President Francois Hollande during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 19 May 2015. Image by © Simone Kuhlmey/Demotix/Corbis

A number of observers of French politics have criticized the tepid and ineffective mien of François Hollande as he has refused to aggressively support Greece in her ongoing negotiations with Germany.  President Hollande has demonstrated on countless occasions that he is made of a wobbly caramel pudding with a soft-center.   Nevertheless, I would offer a modest defense of Hollande’s inability to rise to the occasion on this particular occasion.

Frankly, it occurs to me that it may no longer be possible for him to do anything at this point.  In 2012, Hollande had the potential to gather other EU countries (several with governments of the center left) many possible allies around him to support his challenge of German hegemony.  There were a number of EU countries (including several with governments of the center-left) suffering under austerity that might have been interested in joining with France.  Perhaps of even greater importance were popular anti-austerity movements such as Occupy and Los Indignados who could have contributed vast numbers of “foot-soldiers” and their tremendous energy.

Tragically, Hollande didn’t have the courage to seize that moment. Today, all of the governments of the center left have fallen on their swords through their unwavering support of austerity.   Under Hollande, the French government has morphed into a pro-austerity, pro-supply side economics proponent of austerity.

The left is shell-shocked and incapable of action. The popular movements have been crushed and dispersed. It would be difficult for even a beloved and charismatic figure to re-energize them for this fight; for Hollande it would be impossible.

Consequently, Hollande is in no position to threaten Germany’s dominant position or its control over the institutions of the EU. Even if he wanted to fight, I think Hollande has left it for much too late. The great irony is that the mechanism created to end the struggle for hegemony has made Germany the unquestioned ruler of Europe.

Hollande’s “Battle Plan” for 2017

On his blog French Politics, Art Goldhammer discusses François Hollande’s “battle plan” for 2017.   After reading both the Le Monde article and Goldhammer’s excellent analysis this thought struck me:

Either François Hollande is the least self-aware man on the planet or Karl Menninger was right that murder and suicide are interchangeable.  It doesn’t surprise me that Hollande turned out to be a political “family annihilator”.  What surprises me is that it’s that the Parti Socialiste had two recent opportunities to avoid its fate and choose to stick with François Hollande.

Is there really a “new” Nicolas Sarkozy?

I generally agree with Art Goldhammer’s excellent analysis of whether there is a “new” Nicolas Sarkozy (as described in this sharply worded article in Le Monde) to go with the new name for his party.  Speaking for myself only, the “new” Sarkozy reminds me of nothing so much as the “new” Nixon; it’s the same sour wine in a new bottle.

But I would like to say a few words about the ostensible conversion of Sarko l’Américain to the cause of secularism.   His words are good, but even if one credits his good faith, I suspect that Sarkozy and I don’t ascribe remotely the same meaning to them.  Frankly, I can’t tell whether he’s talking about the 1905 law as secularists like me understand it or whether he’s just using laïcisme as an anti Muslim dog whistle.

As Goldhammer points out, Sarkozy would seem to have undergone a radical change in his thinking:

Remember Sarko l’Américain? Now he is as franchouillard as can be. Gone is the Sarko who thought that the republican schoolteacher needed to have a priest at his side to inculcate moral values. Gone is the Sarko who stood at the Pope’s side (texting, to be sure, on his cell phone).

It’s such a remarkable about face that he’s either had an epiphany on the road back to the Elysée Palace or he’s simply playing a joke on everybody.  Personally, I think Sarkozy’s failure to specifically address the historically overbearing role of the Church in France as, shall we say, the impetus for the 1905 law and the way in which his own beliefs have evolved casts considerable doubt on the sincerity of his new found love of secularism and the revolution is the big tip-off to his lack of sincerity.   I think he’s just making a transparently insincere attempt to find new allies in his fight against the Muslims.