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Bayrou, heir to liberal-right UDF tradition, joins forces with center-left Macron

François Bayrou, giving up plans to run in what would have been his fourth attempt at the French presidency, has endorsed Emmanuel Macron. (Facebook)

In French politics, François Bayrou is always the bridesmaid — never the bride.

That was true in the 1990s, it was true in the 2000s and it now seems true in the 2010s as the longtime centrist ended his own presidential hopes for 2017 and endorsed the center-left independent candidate, Emmanuel Macron.

The 65-year-old Bayrou, who got his start in politics in the 1980s, and who has waged three earlier presidential campaigns, is forming an alliance with Macron as France turns to the first round of its presidential election on April 23, a presidential runoff on May 7 and parliamentary elections on June 11 and 18.

In stark language, Bayrou warned that his country was at ‘extreme risk’ after an election campaign that had so far ‘made a mockery of France,’ a risk that necessitates an ‘exceptional response’ — in the form of elevating the relatively inexperienced 39-year-old Macron to the presidency.

Bayrou came closest to winning the presidency himself in 2007, when he appealed to voters with doubts about both the center-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), Ségolène Royal, winning nearly a fifth of the French electorate in that year. But his appeal faltered in recent years, and polls show that Bayrou would win merely 5% or 6% of the vote among an extraordinarily fluid and crowded 2017 field.

Once a rising moderate star of the French right, Bayrou served as education minister under former prime minister Édouard Balladur from 1993 to 1995 and then under Alain Juppé from 1995 to 1997. Bayrou also serves as the mayor of Pau, the capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of southwest France. Yet Bayrou never incredibly warmed to Sarkozy, and he has excoriated François Fillon, the former Sarkozy prime minister who came from behind to win the Républicain nomination (eclipsing both Sarkozy and one-time frontrunner Juppé). Fillon has been stung by accusations in recent weeks that, while in office, he funneled public funds to his wife, Penelope, and children for jobs they never actually performed.

Greater scrutiny is taking its toll on Macron

Though Macron’s popularity soared in December and January, his campaign has stalled with voters at around 20% support. With the far-right candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen, leading the first-round vote with around 26%, Fillon and Macron are essentially tied for second place and the all-important ticket to the May presidential runoff against Le Pen. Polls show that either Fillon or Macron today would trounce Le Pen by a nearly 60%-to-40% margin.  Continue reading Bayrou, heir to liberal-right UDF tradition, joins forces with center-left Macron

Benoît Hamon’s rise as Socialist standard-bearer could forever break French left

Benoît Hamon has emerged from third place to lead the race to carry the Socialists in the French presidential election. (Facebook)

As it turns out, a center-right figure known for his tough talk on ‘law and order’ and immigration who has served for years as prime minister to the most deeply unpopular president in modern French history was probably never the best bet to lead the French left into the 2017 presidential election.

Furthermore, with few signs that they are likely to prevail in the presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, party members in France’s (barely) governing center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) seem to want to use this month’s presidential primary as an opportunity to draw a line for the party’s future — not to choose the most credible future president.

That explains how Benoît Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist firebrand, came from third place to edge both former prime minister Manuel Valls and former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg in the first round of the Socialist presidential primaries on January 22. Party voters this weekend will choose between Hamon and the 54-year-old Valls in a final runoff to decide the official Socialist standard-bearer in the spring’s presidential election.

During the primary campaign, Hamon, an avowed fan of US senator Bernie Sanders, openly called for a universal basic income of €750, making him one of the first major European politicians to do so. At a time when many French reformists argue that the country must abandon the 35-hour workweek it adopted in the year 2000, Hamon wants to lower it to 32 hours (and for his efforts, has won the support of the author of the 35-hour week, Martin Aubry). Hamon would scrap the current French constitution and inaugurate a ‘sixth republic’ that would transfer power away from the president and to the parliament, the Assemblée nationale. To pay for all of this, moreover, Hamon would introduce higher wealth taxes and a novel tax on robotics that approximates an ‘income’ attributable to the work done by such robots.

His slogan?

Faire battre le coeur de la France. Make France’s heart beat.

Though Hamon has often been reluctant to discuss the role of France’s growing Muslim population, he has nevertheless pushed back stridently against Valls for stigmatizing French Muslims (including the ill-fated ‘burkini’ ban introduced after the Nice attacks). Valls, for example, was one of the few members of his party to support the burqa ban in 2010, and as prime minister he attempted (and failed) to strip dual-national terrorists of French citizenship.

While Hamon’s ideas are creative and imaginative, representing the cutting edge among left-leaning economists, for now they seem unlikely to win a majority of the French electorate. Nevertheless, Hamon’s victory signals that the Socialists — much like the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn — will be veering far to the left in the future. Depending on the circumstances, Hamon’s rise could soon formalize an increasingly severe rupture between France’s hard left and France’s center-left.

Emmanuel Macron left his party behind to run as an independent candidate in 2017. (Facebook)

No matter who wins the Socialist primary runoff on January 29, however, the Socialist candidate will be competing against two other figures of the broad left. The first is Emmanuel Macron, a charismatic figure who served as economy and industry minister from 2014 to 2016, when he left the government to form an independent progressive and reform movement, En marche (Forward). In bypassing the Socialist primaries altogether, it’s Macron who may have ‘won’ the most last weekend. The second is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of France’s communist coalition, the Front de gauche (Left Front).

Polls consistently show that Macron is in third place and rising, floating just behind the center-right candidate of Les Républicains, former prime minister François Fillon and the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen. Both Hamon and Valls languish in fifth place in those same polls, often in single digits, behind Mélenchon. Leading figures in within the Socialist Party (including 2007 presidential candidate and environmental and energy minister Ségolène Royal) have already all but announced their support for Macron.

If Valls wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ leftists supporters to Mélenchon.

If Hamon wins the runoff, he risks losing votes in April from the Socialists’ centrists supporters to Macron and, indeed, it’s even possible that Macron’s supporters voted in the primary for Hamon to engineer this precise outcome.

Still other long-time Socialist voters, frustrated by income stagnation and joblessness, like what they hear in Le Pen’s economic nationalism and antipathy to both the European Union and immigrants from further afield.

How did it come to this?

Blame François Hollande.  Continue reading Benoît Hamon’s rise as Socialist standard-bearer could forever break French left

Macron, France’s new economy minister, angers French left

Emmanuel Macron

One day after French prime minister Manuel Valls resigned, forcing French president François Hollande to invite Valls to form a new government, it’s not clear that the new cabinet is going to quell a growing revolt on Hollande’s left flank.France Flag Icon

Valls, less than five months into his tenure, took the dramatic step Monday after weekend comments from former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg criticizing his own government’s austerity measures that have aimed to reduced French debt and cut payroll taxes, in part, through spending cuts.

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RELATEDWho is Manuel Valls? Meet France’s new prime minister

RELATED: Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

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Montebourg, along with allies like education minister Benôit Hamon, a rising star of the French left, and culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, were banished from the second Valls government, replaced by relatively minor figures deemed more loyal to Valls and Hollande.

Though everyone else in the government remained in government, from foreign minister Laurent Fabius to finance minister Michael Sapin to ecology and energy minister Ségolène Royal, Montebourg was replaced by the Hollande loyalist Emmanuel Macron, a 36-year-old ex-banker and graduate of France’s elite-producing school, the École nationale d’administration.

Macron’s appointment sends a message about the orthodox program of the next government, and it wasn’t particularly subtle. Le Monde called him the ‘liberal sauce’ of the government, and Le Figaro called him the ‘anti-Montebourg.’

After his graduation from ENA, Macron (pictured above) worked as a finance official in the French government for four years, then worked for four years for Rothschild in the private sector. When Hollande was elected, he became one of the new president’s top Elysée aides as deputy secretary general of the presidency, where he once exclaimed that Hollande’s push to institute a 75% income tax rate for millionaires made France equivalent to ‘Cuba, but without the sun.’

The Valls-Sapin-Macron axis in the new French government will assure the French business and investor class that Hollande is serious about a proposed €40 billion payroll tax cut and continued devotion to budget discipline, to the growing outrage of the French left.  

The best thing the left wing of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) can say about the new cabinet is that Valls, at least, retained Christiane Taubira, a legislator from French Guiana who has served as minister of justice from the outset of the Hollande presidency, who pushed through perhaps the Hollande administration’s crowning social policy achievement in legalizing same-sex marriage last year, and who has often clashed brutally, if privately, with Valls, both as prime minister and when he previously served as interior minister, on economic policy as well as on her proposed prison reforms that would relax criminal penalties and eliminate mandatory sentencing for convicts.

There were other choices. Hollande and Valls might have convinced Martine Aubry, the runner-up to Hollande in the 2011 presidential contest and the author, as minister of social affairs in 2000, of the 35-hour workweek. After Montebourg, who routinely lambasted German chancellor Angela Merkel’s fiscal policy, told Indian steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal he wasn’t welcome to invest in France and who picked a fight with American tire producer Morry Taylor, Aubry’s presence in the cabinet might have been a win-win situation — replacing the mercurial Montebourg with a pillar of the French left.

Instead, Macron’s elevation is sure to accentuate the growing rift between the centrist and leftist wings of the Socialist Party, which could cause the government to fall later this year over the 2015 budget. That, in turn, could cause snap elections that the Socialists might lose altogether, ushering in another era of cohabitation, or divided government, with Hollande’s approval rating hovering between 17% and 20%. 

At the very least, the events of the last 48 hours potentially places Hollande in a difficult position — if Montebourg and the leftist rebels are strong enough, they can force Hollande and Valls either to accept their demands for a more growth-oriented budget this autumn or face a no-confidence vote. 

Amid high unemployment and a growth rate of just 0.1% in the last quarter, Hollande has struggled to implement policies to jumpstart GDP growth and economic activity. That’s left him open to criticism on the right and the left, including Montebourg, who on Saturday castigated Hollande’s administration for being held captive to Berlin — the last straw among the increasingly strident critiques from within his own government. 

Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections


It was always a stretch to believe that there was enough room in France’s government for both Arnaud Montebourg and Manuel Valls.France Flag Icon

Montebourg, who represents the unapologetically socialist wing of France’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), received a promotion in April as economy minister when French president François Hollande reshuffled his cabinet and replaced former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault with Valls. At the time, it was hardly clear that Montebourg deserved it after picking fights with prominent foreign businessmen in both the United States and India and waging an avowedly protectionist ‘Made in France’ campaign while serving as minister for industrial renewal. Montebourg (pictured above), with a charming grin, trim figure and a wavy swath of dark hair, who last weekend shared a photo of Loire Valley red wine on his Facebook feed, fits neatly into the American stereotype of the preening, tiresome, French socialist.

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RELATED: Who is Manuel Valls? Meet France’s new prime minister

RELATEDSapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

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Valls, meanwhile, is leading Hollande’s government at a time when the Socialist administration is turning even more to the center, with a much-heraled (if hokey) ‘Responsibility Pact’ that aims to cajole French businesses into hiring a half-million new workers with the promise of a €40 billion payroll tax cut, financed by an even greater €50 billion in spending cuts. Though he’s regularly touted as a reformer, it’s more accurate to say that the Spanish-born Valls is a tough-minded ‘third way’ centrist who wants to rename the Socialist Party, which he considers too leftist. As interior minister, he showed he could be just as tough on immigration and crime as former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy. When he became as prime minister in late March, Valls had the highest approval rating by far of any cabinet member. Today, his approval is sinking fast — an IFOP poll last weekend gave Hollande a 17% approval rating and Valls just 36% approval.

But Valls always had the support of Hollande and allies like finance minister Michael Sapin, and it was clear even in the spring that  Montebourg was destined to become more isolated than ever in the Valls era.

It took less than five months for the cabinet to rupture.  Montebourg publicly challenged Hollande over the weekend to rethink his economic policy in light of new data that show France’s economy remains stagnant — growing by just 0.1% in the last quarter, far below Hollande’s already-anemic target of 1%. Montebourg has also criticized Germany for encouraging austerity policies throughout the eurozone that he and other left-wing European politicians and economists blame for weakening the continent’s economic growth since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

In response, Valls orchestrating a dramatic resignation on Monday morning, though Hollande has given him a mandate to form a new government that won’t include Montebourg or allies like education minister Benoît Hamon and culture minister Aurelie Filippetti.

The drama surrounding this week’s reshuffle is hardly welcome so soon after Valls’s initial appointment, and Hollande risks a wider revolt on the French left that could endanger his agenda in the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly), where Socialist rebels could join legislators from the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) in opposition to his agenda. Valls will introduce the 2015 budget in the autumn, and if he fails to pass it later this year, his government could fall and Hollande might be forced to call snap elections that the Socialists would almost certainly lose. Continue reading Valls-Montebourg fissure could bring early French elections

Sapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

Michel Sapin

Though French president François Hollande on Monday promised a gouvernement de combat in his cabinet reshuffle, it looks like the government he’s chosen might wind up spending more time combatting one another that the myriad economic challenges that France faces.
France Flag Icon

Just 48 hours after naming interior minister Manuel Valls, the hard-charging, Roma-busting strongman of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) as France’s new prime minister, Hollande announced the rest of his cabinet reshuffle today.

Though the return of Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s partner of three decades and the 2007 Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, is sure to top most headlines, the heart of the cabinet reshuffle are Hollande’s schizophrenic choices for finance minister, Michel Sapin (pictured above), and economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg.

At first glance, Hollande’s new slimmed-down cabinet (16 ministers instead of 20) seems like a kind of ‘team of rivals,’ given that Valls, Montebourg and Royal all campaigned for the Socialist Party’s 2012 presidential nomination — the only major rival not to hold a post in the new government is Martine Aubry, a longtime champion of the party’s left wing and the former minister who introduced France’s 35-hour workweek (a policy that Valls stridently opposes).

But it’s hardly Lincolnesque.

Sapin and Royal are assuming roles they first held 22 years ago, while Montebourg is a leftist whose views are at extreme odds with the economic policy that Hollande and Valls are expected to pursue over the next three years.  Continue reading Sapin, Royal, Montebourg headline new French cabinet

Hollande’s economic restart falls flat amid domestic drama


Nothing screams ‘sexy’ more than… a payroll tax cut.France Flag Icon

With the French press salivating over French president François Hollande’s surprisingly sordid love life, Hollande tried to refocus his administration’s agenda last week at a press conference to announce a planned cut in France’s payroll taxes and other measures to boost France’s competitiveness.  It’s a bid to win back some control over his unravelling public image.  Hollande suffers from massively low approval ratings —  just 22% of French voters support Hollande (somewhat of an improvement over polls in November that gave him just 15% approval).  There’s even talk that his administration could augur the collapse of France’s Fifth Republic.

But Hollande’s policy revamp has been lost in the furor over Hollande’s alleged dalliance with actress Julie Gayet.  Tabloids showed photos of the French president sneaking off to meet Gayet on his scooter (pictured above), and the news seems to have sent his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, to a Paris hospital for over a week.  Elected on the premise that he would bring decorum and normalité to the Élysée after the ‘bling-bling’ presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s love life began overshadowing his presidency within days of his inauguration.

Trierweiler tweeted in support of Olivier Falroni, a dissident parliamentary candidate in June 2012, who was running against Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner and the 2007 presidential candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party).  Royal lost that race, despite Hollande’s support.  A reporter for Paris Match, Trierweiler fulfills the role of France’s first lady, complete with budget and staff, notwithstanding that she and Hollande never married.  Hollande and Royal also never officially married during their nearly 30-year relationship, which produced four children.

Trierweiler left the hospital after more than a week on Saturday afternoon, but the discord between France’s first couple continues to dominate headlines, with Le Journal de Dimanche reporting that presidential advisers are calling the relationship ‘finished.’  So much for Mr. Normality.  Though Sarkozy and his two predecessors, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterand, were both known for active love lives, the nature of media has changed since the French press kept Mitterand’s longtime mistress a secret from the public in the 1980s.

At a policy level, none of Hollande’s domestic troubles should matter.  But they come at exactly the wrong time, overshadowing Hollande’s push to make France’s economy more competitive.  At the center of Hollande’s proposal is a €30 billion payroll tax cut for French businesses, continue pushing forward with plans for €15 billion in budget cuts this year, with €50 billion more to follow over the next three years.  Though Hollande hopes that will make France’s businesses more willing to hire French workers, it seems unlikely to erase the mistrust Hollande has engendered by pushing a top income tax rate of 75% on incomes over €1 million, a troubled policy that seems set to take effect after facing legal problems in France’s top constitutional court.  Hollande and his leftist parliamentary majority pushed through a labor market reform in January 2013, but it was a relatively minor first step that merely streamlined the process for conducting layoffs.

Hollande would have engendered much more goodwill if he’d announced a retreat from the iconic 75% rate or announced a much bolder labor market legislation.  But that carries with it the risk of a full-scale revolt on the French left.  Continue reading Hollande’s economic restart falls flat amid domestic drama

As Hollande marks one year in office, would Dominique Strauss-Kahn have been better for France?


Today is the one-year anniversary of François Hollande’s inauguration as the new president of France, having swept to the Elysée Palace with a mandate for a more subdued presidential administration and a leftward turn after the ‘bling bling’ administration of center-right president Nicolas Sarkozy.France Flag Icon

Hollande won’t face voters again for four more years, and by 2017, Hollande’s reputation may well have recovered, but at the one-year mark, he’s had a horrific presidency so far:

  • France slipped back, as a formal matter, into recession today, with a GDP growth rate of -0.2% for the first quarter of 2013 with an unemployment rate of over 10% and eclipsing the previous high in 1997. 
  • Barely a month into his administration, Monsieur Normal appeared to be unable to stop a fight between his current partner, Valerie Trierweiler, and his former partner, Segolène Royal, when Trierweiler tweeted her support for Royal’s opponent, thereby ending Royal’s chances to become the president of France’s parliament, the Assemblée nationale, and making Hollande look as if he couldn’t even control matters within his own relationship.
  • The traditional Franco-German axis that’s powered European integration for decades remains at a frigid impasse, despite the widespread belief that German chancellor Angela Merkel has outfoxed Hollande and is winning the policy war on how to address the ongoing eurozone economic crisis.
  • He worked to implement a 75% income tax rate on income above €1 million per year, though France’s constitutional court has ruled it unconstitutional on technical grounds, all the while keeping in place strict targets to reduce France’s budget deficit and retaining a rise in the retirement age from 60 to 62 implemented by the Sarkozy administration.
  • Budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac stepped down in April 2013 after it was revealed he had a Swiss bank account and had potentially committed tax fraud.
  • Altogether, Hollande’s approval ratings are the lowest of any president after one year in office, and fully 73% of French voters are dissatisfied with Hollande and 68% are dissatisfied with his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.

It’s been, from a political perspective — and even from a policy perspective — a bit of a disaster.  Hollande’s chief accomplishment, enactment of same-sex marriage in France, has been accompanied by vigorous opposition from Sarkozy’s party and from the far right, inspiring massive anti-marriage rallies and even an uptick anti-gay violence.

It’s enough to make you wonder — what would have happened if Dominique Strauss-Kahn had never been alleged to have sexually assaulted a maid in a New York hotel, had stepped down with his head held high as managing director of the International Monetary Fund to run for an almost certain nomination as the presidential candidate of France’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and proceeded to challenge Sarkozy?  Strauss-Kahn today, as a matter of coincidence, re-emerged to open a bank in South Sudan, one of his rare appearances since the debacle that led to his arrest in May 2011.  Although U.S. prosecutors dropped charges of attempted rape and other sexual abuse charges in August 2011, Strauss-Kahn’s political career was finished.

Though it’s subject to a ‘grass is always greener’ caveat, there’s good reason to believe that a Strauss-Kahn presidency would have been a smoother affair than the embattled Hollande administration.

Despite whether it would have been better or worse, a Strauss-Kahn presidency would have been an incredibly different beast from the outset.

It seems unlikely that Strauss-Kahn would have ever campaigned on a pledge to raise the top rate of tax to 75%, let alone attempted to enact it, when it’s such an outlier among peer tax regimes.  It seems more likely that Strauss-Kahn, as a relative moderate within the Socialist Party, would have been more receptive to implementing labor market reforms designed to make France more competitive — perhaps a gentler variant of the Hartz IV / Agenda 2010 reforms that Germany enacted under social democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s.

But as a former IMF chief and a former finance minister under the government of prime minister Lionel Jospin from 1997 to 1999 who worked to reduce the budget deficit to prepare for French entry into the eurozone, Strauss-Kahn would have come into office with an unrivaled economic credibility that would have allowed him to challenge Merkel on the direction of economic policy in the eurozone with vigor — and then some.  It’s not hard to imagine Strauss-Kahn pursuing a relatively ambitious reform program domestically while simultaneously calling for less punishing austerity measures in the more devastated southern European economies.

Certainly, Strauss-Kahn’s candidacy and his presidency would have been plagued with the same sort of scandalous affairs that brought his career to such a  screeching halt in 2011.  It’s difficult to imagine Strauss-Kahn being emasculated in his first month in office (fairly or not), unable to stop a very public spat between a current and former lover, one of whom happens to have been his party’s 2007 presidential candidate and a leading political figure in her own right.  Strauss-Kahn would have come to the French presidency after a career in the public eye, unlike Hollande, who had chiefly served a behind-the-scenes role — when he was half of France’s power couple, it was Royal, not Hollande, who was the public star.  Hollande, from 1997 to 2008, was the first secretary of the Socialist Party and, unlike Strauss-Kahn, he was never a minister in the Jospin government and he was certainly not among the presidential contenders in 2007.

Four years are a long time in politics, French or otherwise, and Hollande can at least point to a military intervention earlier this year in Mali that went relatively smoothly by accomplishing a narrowly defined goal, and the Mali operation represents the Hollande administration at its best.  Hollande could engineer his own comeback, especially if the economy improves this year or next — it’s hard to believe he can sink much lower in public opinion.  For now, Strauss-Kahn will still have some ways to go until he, if ever, reaches political redemption in France.  But he’s a formidable economic and political talent, and comebacks aren’t altogether unheard of in France.  Just look at the return of former prime minister Alain Juppé as foreign minister in the final 15 months of the Sarkozy administration, despite his 2004 conviction for mishandling public funds.

With such an uninspiring administration, Hollande could well turn to a cabinet shakeup in the future to replace Ayrault or other top minister, including finance minister Pierre Moscovici — and he might do well to bring Strauss-Kahn or Royal, whose political talents remain unutilized, back into the top tier of government.