A Requiem for French Cynicism: Thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

If a traumatic event is one that deprives you of the mental resources needed to make sense of it, then the attack on Charlie Hebdo and subsequent happenings fit this definition perfectly. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself lurching back and forth between my immediate reaction—that, whatever its underlying causes, the attack was a horrific assault on freedom of expression—and skepticism about my own instincts: are the secularist assumptions implicit in that right not, after all, a kind of Western fundamentalism? Ultimately, however, I find it difficult not to see the shootings as an assault on free speech, and, most tragically, as an attack on a particularly vibrant and emancipated strand of French culture. Continue reading


The French Right Marches against Gay Marriage

I live in North Carolina, a state governed by Christian extremists who have banned gay marriage and fear that the federal government is a leftist dictatorship intent on taking away their rights. Last week, I returned to Paris for the first time in two years and, on Sunday, was fortunate enough to witness a mass demonstration—of Christian extremists who oppose gay marriage and believe that France is governed by a leftist dictatorship intent on taking away their rights.

Manif pour tous, 05-26-13 023Sunday’s gathering was the latest in a series of protests against the legalization of same-sex marriage. This one was unusual in that it occurred after President François Hollande had promulgated the legislation—known as the “Taubira law,” after Christiane Taubira, France’s justice minister—on May 17. Hollande himself had dubbed the initiative “le marriage pour tous”—“marriage for everyone.” In reply, Sunday’s event called itself a “manif pour tous”—a “demonstration for everyone.” In this way, the organizers sought capitalize on polls suggesting that a narrow majority of the French public opposes the law. They also went out of their way to present themselves as positive and inclusive, insisting, at least officially, that they were not gay-bashers. They showcased, for instance, several gay participants who favor civil unions but not marriage for same-sex couples. Continue reading

Who Will Be the New Face of the French Right? Part I: Jean-François Copé

What does it mean to be “on the right”? In France, this question has long been debated. The great political scientist René Rémond famously saw the right in France as torn between a series of apparently contradictory positions: secularism and clericalism, authoritarianism and liberalism, statism and anti-statism. In recent decades, the French right has seemed similarly fractured, in ways that both perpetuate and depart from its earlier cleavages. It can espouse free-market capitalism but also “economic patriotism,” European integration as well as national sovereignty, republican tolerance but also rabid xenophobia. In particular, the French right has been dogged by the persistent problem of its relationship with the National Front (Front national, or FN). Does the Le Pen family party ultimately share many of the mainstream right’s values, only expressing them in more virulent terms? Or is the FN’s identity sui generis, as distinct from the center right as the latter is from the left? Continue reading

French Politics after the Parliamentary Elections

Last Sunday, June 17, the French—well, some of them (voter abstention was unusually high)—went to the polls for the fourth time in 2012, bringing the year’s election season (two rounds for president and another two for the parliament’s lower house) to a close. As a result, France has a new president, a new government, and a new National Assembly. Now that the campaigning is over, are there any general conclusions to be drawn about the 2012 cycle? Americans like to glean election results for signs of “realignments.” Do France’s elections over the past two months show evidence of shifting political tides?

In many ways, the French political landscape looks remarkably stable: this year’s elections were, for the most part, classic left-right contests. If anything, it could be argued that France’s famously fragmented political spectrum has become streamlined, evolving towards an almost “Anglo-Saxon” system of bipolarization. Yet this is, I think, somewhat misleading. The 2012 elections have occurred in the midst of a major international crisis (the Eurozone meltdown and the prospect of a new recessionary dip) that has weakened the French economy, shaken its political class, and unsettled the country’s already tenuous sense of national identity. The left-right confrontation that prevailed in this year’s elections may look conventional, but in light of the circumstances, this familiarity is misleading: this traditional cleavage has played itself out in a context of considerable ideological uncertainty and partisan reconfiguration. Continue reading

The Ayrault Government: A Preliminary Analysis

Lemas Announces the Government

Nearly three and half hours behind schedule, the Elysée’s new Secretary-General, Pierre-René Lemas, announced, standing on the steps of the presidential palace, the composition of the first Ayrault government. A chaud, here are a few off-the-cuff reactions:

The new socialist government is decidedly moderate. It represents the triumph of Parti socialist’s right or centrist currents and is resolutely social democratic. The factions loyal to President Hollande himself, as well as Ségolène Royal in 2007 and the once important Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have prevailed. This is evident first of all in the choice of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault himself, who interestingly combines a traditional socialist trajectory (rural working-class background, employment as a public school teacher, youthful activism, and municipal politics) with a pragmatic, centrist outlook (with the added bonus of German language skills). The “Hollandais” did especially well: the new president’s ENA classmate Michel Sapin was given the labor ministry, his campaign spokesman Manuel Valls was rewarded with “Place Beauvau” (the interior ministry), and loyalists Jean-Yves Le Drian and Sebastien Le Foll landed defense and agriculture, respectively. Though his career is finished (and his legal troubles increasing by the day), Dominique Strauss-Kahn still managed to leave his mark on the new government: his former student and leading social democrat Pierre Moscovici will take over the finance ministry, somewhat surprisingly edging out Michel Sapin, a Hollandais who had the job back in the nineties. Continue reading

The Ayrault Government: Who Will Make It In?

Ayrault & Hollande

Today (Tuesday, May 15), François Hollande became president and he named Jean-Marc Ayrault prime minister. Ayrault is expected to announce his government tomorrow (Wednesday, May 16) afternoon. What follows is some reckless speculation, based on press reports, on who the members of the government are likely to be: Continue reading

Who Will Hollande Name Prime Minister?

The Hotel de Matignon:
The Prime Minister’s Residence

On Tuesday, May 15, in a ceremony held at the Elysée Palace known as the “passation des pouvoirs” (or transfer of powers), François Hollande will succeed Nicolas Sarkozy, becoming the seventh president of the Fifth Republic. One of his first tasks—besides determining Europe’s fate with Angela Merkel—will be to appoint a prime minister, whom he will charge with forming a government. The current prime minister, François Fillon, submitted his resignation on May 10. The president-elect has said that he would like to have a new government appointed by the evening of May 16. This government will serve until the second round of parliamentary elections is held on June 17, at which point it is likely that a slightly modified government will be named—one that, presumably, will serve a number of years, until Hollande decides a reshuffling is needed.

Naming the prime minister will be one of Hollande’s most important early decisions as president—one that should prove particularly illustrative of his governing style. Who are the top contenders? What factors will he consider? And whom will he choose? Continue reading