Apr. 18, 2017

On April 23 France will hold the first round of the 2017 Presidential election. The top two candidates will advance to a run-off election to be held on May 7. Incumbent Socialist President Francois Hollande is not running for re-election due to his extreme unpopularity (on a good day his approval ratings will reach 10%.) The election has eleven candidates, but there are only four that have a feasible path to the Élysée Palace (the office of the President.)

Before I examine these candidates, it will help to give a little context behind the current political atmosphere in France. An Ipsos poll from October 2016 found that a shockingly high 88% of French respondents felt that France was heading in the wrong direction and felt pessimistic about the future. Besides France being the birthplace of Existentialism, the French seem to feel that a sort of stagnation has taken over their nation. After the Second World War had ended, France underwent a 30-year economic boom that lasted until the 1970s. Known as Les Trente Glorieuses, or The Glorious Thirty, France underwent high economic growth as well as developing a comprehensive welfare state. French living standards, along with much of Western Europe, increased dramatically.

However, by the mid-1970s the boom years had ended. Since then, France has had low economic growth and a consistently high unemployment rate. The extensive social benefits that the French states offers its citizens have been very expensive to maintain, and services are increasingly strained by demand. While large cities such as Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux have generally prospered, provincial towns have suffered as industries closed and residents have left for larger cities. Businesses have to follow a rigid labor code that makes expansion difficult, and thus resulting in fewer jobs. Youth unemployment is quite high, such as in January 2017 at the rate of 23.6%.

While economically stagnant, France also suffers from critical social ills. Specifically, French minorities are often stuck in grim suburbs of major cities (the infamous banlieues) that in 2015 the Prime Minister admitted was in a state of “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid.” Often made up of North African Muslims, the banlieues can seem like a world apart from the prosperity of central Paris. For the young men of the banlieues, few economic opportunities arise that can lead to leaving the banlieue behind. Many of these banlieue residents have failed to integrate into French society. Discrimination against North and Sub-Saharan Africans is a major problem, along with unwillingness by these immigrants to give up the culturally conservative values of their old countries that clash with the secular values of modern France. Indeed, the state-imposed secularism of France is seen by many Muslim immigrants as hostile to their way of life.

These young men who cannot get jobs often turn to crime as a way to get ahead. Willing to use violence and angry at the French state and French society, these men often drift to radical Islamist groups that are quite popular in the banlieues. Jihadists have found France to be an extremely fertile recruiting ground for future terrorists. This has led to the multiple terror attacks that have struck France over the past several years. Unsurprisingly, many French increasingly view Muslims as a threat to their country.

All of these ills have led to the popularity of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front (FN, in its French initials.) The FN is the traditional party of the French far right, founded by Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen. Under Jean-Marie, the FN was a motley collection of Algerian war veterans, ultra-conservative traditionalists and Vichy supporters (the regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Second World War.) Prone to anti-Semitic outbursts, Jean-Marie was a longtime gadfly on the French political scene. However, in the 2002 Presidential election, Jean-Marie stunned France by defeating the candidates of the Left and advancing to the second round of the election. While Le Pen was eventually overwhelmingly defeated by the conservative incumbent of the time (Jacques Chirac) the FN had still proven to be a key element of the French political spectrum.

Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine took over the FN in 2011 and has since become one of the most dominant politicians in France. Marine has worked to detoxify the FN of the open bigotry of her father in favor of a strong French nationalism opposed to the European Union and immigration. Marine traffics in xenophobia rather than the simple racism of her father, and presents herself as a defender of French values against Islamism and the other ills that immigrants bring. She also advocates protectionism and the protection of the welfare state (no benefits for immigrants, naturally,) sounding statist themes on economics. Marine also deeply admires Russian President Vladimir Putin as a defender of traditional values and is a strong supporter of Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria. She is generally hostile to American power, although she celebrated the election of Donald Trump.

Several months ago, pundits predicted that the run-off would come down to Le Pen and the candidate of the largest conservative party, The Republicans (LR.) The LR candidate, Francois Fillon, served as Prime Minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy before defeating Sarkozy and others to win the LR primary in late 2016. Fillon offered a free-market economic program that earned him comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, promising to reduce the size of the French states and reform the labor code. Fillon also cannily appealed to socially conservative Catholic voters that other candidates neglected. Disturbingly, Fillon also boasted of his friendship with Putin and promised warm relations with Russia, claiming that France could serve as a sort of mediator between Russia and the United States. Fillon quickly became the favorite to win the entire election, and many began to ponder what a Fillon presidency would look like.

Unfortunately for Fillon, in January 2017 allegations arose that he had placed his wife on the public payroll to act as his assistant. His wife, Penelope, did not seem to do any actual work while drawing a not unsubstantial salary from the taxpayer. Later, it was revealed that several of Fillon’s children were also given high-paying jobs while doing essentially no work. The scandal, dubbed “Penelopegate,” began to consume Fillon’s campaign. Fillon had loudly proclaimed himself to be ethically “beyond reproach” as opposed to his scandal-tainted rivals in the LR primary. Fillon was formally placed under investigation in March for a number of allegations, such as fraud, embezzlement and similar crimes.

While Fillon has suffered politically over the last few months, Emmanuel Macron has surged ahead to become the favorite to win the election. As recently as December 2016 this situation would have seemed ridiculous. Only 39 years old and never having run for office before, Macron is an unlikely candidate. He does not even belong to a political party, having left the Socialist Party as early as 2009. Macron has a quintessentially elitist background, graduating from the traditional schools of the French elite and becoming an investment banker at the Rothschild bank in France. Although an independent, he worked, as an advisor to President Hollande and in 2014 became the Economic minister under Hollande. Macron represented Hollande’s rejection of the traditional socialism that had gotten him elected, and Macron proceeded to attempt to push through free-marked economic reforms. Macron had mixed success politically, but still managed to become one of the more popular members of a deeply unpopular government.

Macron announced his candidacy in 2016 and formed a centrist movement titled En Marche (On the Move.) Socially and economically liberal (pro-free markets,) Macron is also pro-European and much more open to immigration than his rivals on the right. Often compared to center-left leaders in the English-speaking world such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Macron is a highly unusual member of the French political establishment, which seems to have helped him in a country that has grown viscerally hostile to the political establishment.

Macron, while a former member of a Socialist government, is not actually a Socialist. Instead, the Socialists have nominated Benoit Hamon as their candidate for the election. Hamon was briefly a minister under Hollande before returning to the backbenches of parliament to act as a left-wing critic of Hollande’s shift towards the center. Since becoming the Socialist candidate in January 2017, Hamon has languished in the polls in a distant fifth place. Macron has attracted the support of moderate Socialists such as former Prime Minister Manuel Valls and weakened Hamon.

From the far-left, the communist-backed political veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged ahead of Hamon. French leftists do not seem to feel that Hamon can represent them better than the champion of French leftism Mélenchon, so voting for Hamon seems rather pointless for both the center-left and the far-left. Mélenchon wants to get rid of the entire Presidential system while redistributing wealth, nationalizing industries and the rest of the traditional leftist platform. Deeply anti-American but pro-Russian, Mélenchon is also opposed to the EU as a German-dominated neoliberal hegemony. Ironically, there are a number of similarities between Mélenchon on the far-left and Le Pen on the far right. Mélenchon has performed strongly in the debates between the candidates over the past few weeks and has surged ahead in the polls.

The most likely scenario after Sunday is that Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron will advance to the run-off on May 7 and Macron will be elected President. I hope this is correct, since if I were French I would cast a vote for Macron. Of course, one year ago most analysts predicted that Britain would remain in the European Union and that Hillary Clinton would be the next American President. Macron is still a largely untested politician who has stumbled at times. Le Pen is a charismatic and skilled politician with a passionate base of support who should not be underestimated. Fillon, despite his scandals, has maintained a solid core of supporters that could still cause him to advance to the run-off. Mélenchon could continue his surge in the polls as well. Thus, one could make an argument in favor of Le Pen, Fillon, Macron or Mélenchon. With French pessimism about the future, along with a disgust at much of the political class, the 2017 election has become unpredictable. The French seem to demand radical change, but do they know how radical it might be?

 

Jan. 31, 2017

 “When one with honeyed words but evil mind
Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state”-Euripides

 Congratulations, President Trump. You’ve only been President for less than two weeks and already you are on the path to becoming the worst leader in American history.

 “That’s absurd! It’s not like he started a war or destroyed the economy,” you might say. This is true, which is why I said he is merely on his way to becoming a disaster. He has not yet launched his promised trade war, which would harm the economy. He has not yet tweeted himself into a military conflict with China. He has not yet cleansed the country of the Dreamers. He is merely walking down this road that leads to the grim destination.

 What has set Trump along this road is, first and foremost, contempt for the truth. This is an administration that will deal in “alternative facts,” in the now immortal words of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. Claiming that all politicians lie is a cynical but not entirely unfair belief. Trump is unique, however, in how he lies. Trump does not merely spin facts but makes them up completely. If he is called out on his lies, he doubles down and instead smears the questioner. He then has an army willing to repeat the lies again and again in the form of administration officials like Conway and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and media networks like Breitbart and others from the right-wing online swamps of fake news. When a world of “alternative facts” is assembled, one cannot make the decisions that a leader must rationally make for his country. Any rational person can quickly see that Trump’s claim of rampant “carnage” in America is absurd. There is no evidence for Trump’s ridiculous claim that millions of illegal voters cast their ballots for Clinton, resulting in Trump’s loss of the popular vote. But now, too many Americans have chosen to invest themselves in the idea of Trump. All evidence to the contrary is damned. As the ancient Greek historian Thucydides once wrote, “it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire.”

 Some of Trump’s more lukewarm defenders point to whom Trump surrounds himself with to help make decisions to argue that Trump can be guided in the right direction. Vice President Mike Pence was a conventional Republican governor, while cabinet officials like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are widely respected among Republicans and Democrats. House Speaker Paul Ryan is an intelligent policymaker, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka is often considered to be a moderating force on her father. And yet, the figure that has come to dominate the early days of Trump’s administration has been the President’s Counselor Stephen Bannon. Bannon was the former chairman of Breitbart News, providing a platform for bigoted far-right voices and ideas. He has compared himself favorably to Vladimir Lenin (no, I’m not joking) writing, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing own, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon, along with Trump aide Stephen Miller, wrote Trump’s inaugural address that painted an absurd picture of America as some post-apocalyptic hellhole. Bannon and Miller, according to news reports (from real news sites like CNN) were the officials who pushed through the xenophobic entry ban of people from seven Muslim countries. This policy has been cruelly designed and incompetently carried out, providing a perfect snapshot of the Trump administration so far. The supposedly reasonable administration officials and Congressional leaders that could keep Trump in line have been proven useless throughout this entire crisis.

 While Trump is not wrecking American alliances, bribing and coercing American companies, or waxing rhapsodically about Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin, he is working on getting his Cabinet nominees approved by the Senate. These nominees include Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin, who forgot to disclose $95 million worth of real estate investments that he owned. There is Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, who would be comfortable enforcing civil rights laws like it’s 1950s Alabama all over again. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt has been a fantastic investment for the energy industry, as Pruitt has devoted much of his career to combating any and all environmental regulations. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson has close ties with Russian spy turned energy oligarch Igor Sechin, who is naturally one of Putin’s closest allies (and we all know how much Trump loves the man in the Kremlin.) Education nominee Betsey DeVos seems pretty clueless about basic American education policy, but no matter. Dr. Ben Carson was picked to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development because… he grew up in Detroit, I guess? Frankly, these have been the worst Cabinet picks in a long time from any President, Republican or Democratic.

 The late Christopher Hitchens once wrote that there was “a limit to the success of conservative populism and the exploitation of “little guy” or “silent majority” rhetoric, and it is very often reached because of the emaciated, corrupted personalities of the demagogues themselves.” I hope that Hitchens will still be proven correct, but the truth is that America has just elected a bigoted buffoon to the most powerful position on the planet. I will be writing much more frequently from now on, as I cannot in good consience remain silent while the country I love is being harmed. I still subscribe to the words of Emile Zola, who wrote that “if you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.” Trump cannot stand the truth. Let us therefore raise our voices and let him hear it.

 

 

Nov. 7, 2016

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump win on November 8, the turmoil of this election will not simply go away. My prediction is that Clinton will win by a solid margin in the Electoral College but a relatively narrow margin in the popular vote. Democrats will gain a small Senate majority while Republicans will maintain their majority in the House. If this result turns out to be true, I believe that the most likely scenario would be widespread gridlock until the 2018 midterm elections.

While Republicans will maintain their House majority, they will probably lose at least a dozen seats. Moderate Republicans who are the most likely to seek bipartisan compromises hold many of these seats. The hard-right Republicans in the House largely represent safe Republican seats and can easily win re-election. The Republican caucus will become more dominated by the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus (as well as by Ted Cruz in the Senate), who usually opposes any compromise or deviation from conservative ideology. Paul Ryan will have a limited amount of freedom to bargain with a Clinton Administration, or else risk losing the Speakership.

The Democrats might also be prone to division. During the Obama years many moderate Democrats in regions such as the Southeast lost their seats. The Democratic caucus is more Northern, urban and liberal that when Barack Obama took office in 2009. The passion in the Democratic base is also behind left-wing figures such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Where Obama talked of entitlement reform as part of a “grand bargain” with Republicans in 2011, Sanders and Warren call for expanding entitlements. While Bill Clinton supported free trade and welfare reform in the 1990s, Democrats in 2016 oppose trade agreements and would never consent to reforms of welfare of the type that were carried out in the 1990s. Democrats have also moved to the left on identity politics, which obsess progressive Millenials. Put simply, Democrats have become strongly more progressive and less likely to seek compromise with Republicans who have become more conservative over time.

Republicans ultimately have a much more alarming future than Democrats, however. If Trump loses tomorrow, Republicans will have lost three straight general elections. Republicans have only won a majority of the popular vote once in the past 25 years (the re-election of George W Bush in 2004.) African Americans continue to overwhelmingly support the Democrats, while Republicans have alienated Asian and Hispanic voters. Younger voters are also more supportive of Democrats. Aging white men, who are a shrinking demographic, dominate the Republican base. This is not a viable future for a national political party.

There is also a real disconnection between a Republican establishment who are largely still operating on Reagan-era ideas and a Republican base that elected Donald Trump. The Reagan agenda of tax cuts, smaller government and a belief in a strong America as a force of good in the world has less and less appeal to many Republican voters. These voters are hostile to free trade and globalization. While not anti-war pacifists by any means, they also see the world as a violent and chaotic place that America should build walls to protect itself from. They have written off the Democrats as an urban, liberal party willing to put racial and sexual identity politics ahead of the troubles of the white working class. These voters feel much more at home with the ideas of Donald Trump than with the ideas of Paul Ryan or anyone really in the Democratic Party.

Even if Trump does win, Republicans will still face a party more divided than at any time in decades. Democrats, while facing less of a predicament than Republicans, also have real divisions that could create trouble in the future. The next several years will almost certainly be a desultory time for American politics. 

Nov. 6, 2016

As an American, I confess that the 2016 Presidential campaign has been deeply embarrassing. And yet I find that the ugly phenomenon of Donald Trump is similar to political situations in other Western nations.

It has been no surprise that Trump has strongly supported Brexit, or Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Brexit was fueled by anti-immigration sentiment and calls to “take back control” of Britain from an international elite. While supporters of remaining in the EU had much stronger economic evidence to support their arguments, they were never able to successfully address voters concerns over immigration. Many British voters thought that the political and economic elites of Britain were happy to let in a large number of immigrants (usually from Eastern Europe) that would take jobs away from working-class Britons. Similarly to Trump, Brexit supporters wanted to put Britain first while rejecting globalization. The most prominent pro-Brexit politician, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, has actually campaigned in America with Trump and blasted Hillary Clinton.

It has also not been a surprise that the leaders of the French National Front have praised Trump. The FN (its initials in French) has been the largest far-right party of the French Fifth Republic. Its current leader, Marine Le Pen, is very likely to be one of the two candidates that will advance to the Presidential election run-off in next year’s election. Le Pen combines a xenophobic French nationalism (which is particularly critical of Muslims) with opposition to the EU along with a populist economic agenda that rejects globalization. Like Trump (who Le Pen has endorsed,) Le Pen has been able to attract support from the white French working class in post-industrial regions. Like many Trump voters who were traditionally working class Democrats, regions with strong FN support were previously strongholds of the French Communist Party (and the French left in general.)

In Central Europe, the nationalist right now leads two countries. Since 2010, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have led Hungary. Orban has dominated Hungarian institutions and weakened checks on his government’s power. He has openly praised authoritarian governance in Russia, China and Turkey while proclaiming Hungary to be an “illiberal democracy.” Orban has cleverly picked fights with the EU to maintain political support in Hungary, most notably in opposing the acceptance of refugees into Europe. Orban has also been a rare world leader to publicly endorse Trump. Since 2015, Orban’s ally Jaroslaw Kaczynski has been the dominant political figure in Poland. Kaczynski is the leader of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (or PiS in Polish.) Kaczynski is neither President nor Prime Minister of Poland, but PiS underlings who are widely known to be carrying out Kaczynski’s agenda have filled those roles. This agenda has included an attack on the Polish judiciary and democratic institutions while picking fights with the EU over issues such as refugees (similar to Orban.) Like Le Pen in France, Kaczynski has pushed a populist and anti-globalization agenda. PiS have also allied itself with a traditional Catholicism that is still strong in Poland, as seen in a recent bill that tried to make Poland’s anti-abortion laws even harsher.

Populist and nationalist politicians have also gained popularity in Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. The Alternative for Germany, a right-wing party whose leaders support Trump, is almost certain to enter the German parliament in next year’s general election. These nationalist European parties all share with Trump a xenophobic rejection of immigration and a belief that a global elite has run a conspiracy to repress the “real people” of their countries. They are all economic populists and do not care for strong institutions that enforce the rule of law. Trump and his European allies also look up to Vladimir Putin as a role model (with the exception of Kaczynski in Poland, due to Poland’s history of being on the front lines of Russian aggression.) Trump, Le Pen and others repeat Russian propaganda while gazing longingly at a Russia that Putin is able to ruthlessly dominate.

Thus, Trump is not only harmful to America. The United States has, at least since the end of the Second World War, been the central nation of the free world and, even with its blemishes, a democratic model. Trump has rejected this role for America, but it is time for American voters to reject Trump and his dangerous vision for our country and our world. 

Nov. 4, 2016

On Tuesday, America should vote to elect Hillary Clinton to the Presidency.

 These words are something I never thought that I would write, but 2016 has been a bizarre year. I am not so much as endorsing Clinton as I am endorsing a defeat of Donald Trump. It is not an exaggeration to say that Trump has been probably the closest America has ever gotten to fascism. Trump has proclaimed that he alone can solve the supposed chaos and destruction that grip the United States of America.

 Trump’s platform is a strange cesspool of egomania, racism and contempt for anything approaching rationality. He has shown again and again that he has exactly the wrong temperament for the office of the Presidency. The Presidency is the most powerful position on the planet, and a President must make decisions that decide the fate of our nation. A man who casually endorses nuclear attacks, and who can fly into rages at the slightest criticism, is quite literally a threat to our national wellbeing.

 This election goes beyond Democrats and Republicans, or progressives and conservatives. Being a loyal Republican is not a reason to vote for Trump, as Trump could not give a damn about the Republican Party. Hillary Clinton is a lousy candidate. She is a corrupt individual who, against a decent opponent, should deserve to lose this election. Unfortunately, Trump is much less than decent.

 I’ll have two more postings expanding upon my endorsement of Clinton by Tuesday.