Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, Those days of soda and pretzels and …

… Lobsters

This panorama of an often over-heated summer has to begin (as did those summer months) with ‘Lobstergate’. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days were off and away with a marginally overcooked story about lobsters and Parliamentary Grandes Bouffes.

François Henri Goullet de Rugy is an elegant politico, tracing his ancestry to pre-Revolutionary nobility. With possibly unfortunate timing, Louis XVI ennobled Jean Melchior G. de R. in April 1785. Latterly, François Henri G. de R. rose without trace to become President Macron’s Minister for Ecological (Non-)Transition. De Rugy had replaced rock-star eco-evangelist Nicolas Hulot once the latter understood that even half-serious Green Deals were unlikely to materialise under the current Administration.

Alumnus of several of France’s multiplicity of Green(ish) parties, de Rugy decided that power was more important than principle, so fellow-travelled with the Socialists for a while. He even tried winning nomination as the Socialist Party’s nominee at the last Presidential Election. However, finishing 5th behind now-nearly-forgotten Benoît Hamon, de Rugy garnered a meagre 3.9% support from underwhelmed Socialists.

At last aware where power might lie, de Rugy continued his political meanderings and hitched himself to the starry Macronian bandwagon. So it was that François Henri Goullet de Rugy ascended, effortlessly, to the honorific title of ‘4th most important person in France’: President of the National Assembly.

However, the excitement of managing Parliamentary debates can pall. All of which brings this blog, once again, to Mediapart.

Online news-site Mediapart can be seen as either

  • France’s most assiduous investigative news outlet, publishing stories that Le Canard Enchainé (France’s century-old satirical news-weekly) can’t find, or
  • a shameless scandal sheet, beloved of the young, run by power-hungry Edwy Plenel, ex-Trotskyist, ex-journalist with Rouge (the Revolutionary Communist League’s weekly organ), who graduated to become Le Monde editor … but who still intends (à la trad. Trot) to bring about the end of the civilised order.

Mediapart decided to wage war on hapless/richly-deserving Mr de Rugy. Stories poured forth about his time when President of the National Assembly, and before.

Photos of de Rugy providing over-bountiful Parliamentary generosity to his chums influential opinion-formers. Photos of a red-rose-petal-strewn table for a not-very-intimate St Valentine’s dinner for de Rugy and Mrs de R. at the National Assembly.

What Mediapart had launched was hastily pursued by every news outlet. A media feeding frenzy followed. Over-sized lobsters, dressed to the nines, peered out from front pages. Details of €500 bottles of up-market vino. Provided to his guests by so-generous then-National Assembly President, de Rugy. All at the taxpayers’ expense. That was the daily binge at the start of summer.

For a Government still recovering from condemnation by the gilets jaunes for its priorities, not at all what was needed.

De Rugy tried several forms of defence. Working at keeping his elegant head above the fast-gathering waters, he produced less-than-persuasive explanations as new revelations emerged daily.

  • He’d organised dinners (said de Rugy) to remain ‘connected’ with civil society; admittedly, several such ‘civil society’ guests were his wife’s friends
  • The misguided Minister went on BFM TV explaining that he didn’t himself eat lobsters due to his ‘shellfish allergy’. He didn’t drink bubbly cos ‘it gave him a bad head’. And he’d never spent more than €30 on a bottle of vino. [Though the possibly-only-recently-allergic Minister had evidently forgotten a much earlier tweet extolling the virtues of the pollack, mackerel and (pause for effect) spider crab, all of which he’d enjoyed at the start of his Breton holidays
  • And, talking of heads, bad or otherwise, de Rugy took decisive action following one newspaper revelation. He fired the former Prefect who’d been the head of his political office. She had occupied a Paris social housing flat for 18 years … BUT she hadn’t lived in Paris for 12 years. Said head said: ‘M de Rugy wants to save his head by offering up mine’. [Spoiler Alert … in a noble act of self-sacrifice, at the end of Act III, de Rugy saves the executioner’s time and beheads himself.]
  • De Rugy had spent excessive amounts doing up his official residence. He’d (legally! really) not paid any tax one year. He’d rented social housing near his Nantes constituency paying a discounted rental. The newspapers went into hallucinatory hyperbole. Had public money provided de Rugy a €499 gold-plated hairdryer? [Almost certainly not.] Had public money paid for a 3rd chauffeur for the de Rugy’s? [Almost certainly.] Had €17,000 of public money been paid for a walk-in wardrobe in their official residence? [It appears so.] Had de Rugy illegally used his Parliamentary expenses to pay his Green Party dues? [Probably]. And so on.

President Macron and Prime Minister Philippe both went into Saving Private de Rugy mode. The President launched an offensive against elements of the press, rejecting a society in which people suffered press-denunciation and were found guilty before investigations began.

Macron condemned a situation where ‘I only have to produce a photo, say some things about you, about anyone. It’s becoming like Dix petits nègres‘ [Oddly, that remains the French title of The Blessed Agatha’s ‘And then there were none‘]. One might, however, question why President Macron seems not quite so keen nowadays to talk about that ‘exemplary Republic’ which erstwhile Candidate Macron felt so important.

The Government became twitchier at daily allegations of de Rugy’s over-excessive over-consumption paid for by the public purse. Summer 2018 had been totally overshadowed by the endlessly distracting tale of Presidential Bodyguard/’Head of Security’, Alexandre Benalla [whose Court appearance(s) for violence/illegally wearing police uniform/illegally using diplomatic passports and several other offences are still awaited]. A similar summer 2019 saga would be unwelcome.

And so it came to pass: de Rugy did the right thing. He resigned his Ministry post as N° 2 in the Government (in honorific terms alone). People rushed to make clear that de Rugy hadn’t been pushed. This was, said President Macron, de Rugy’s ‘personal decision’, which the President ‘respected’, and done so de Rugy could ‘devote time to his defence.’

Complaining bitterly of a ‘media lynching’, de Rugy instantly began a post-resignation fight-back and ‘communications offensive’. (Over-)hasty investigations by official bodies declared [almost] ‘no irregularity’ in the use of public funds. Most of de Rugy’s slap-up entertaining was cleared of impropriety … though the cost of 3 meals had to be reimbursed, including that Valentine’s Day dinner.

De Rugy then reclaimed his position as Parliamentary Deputy. [When a Deputy becomes Minister, their Deputy’s function is entirely fulfilled by a suppléant [substitute], elected at the same time as the Deputy, who performs all the Deputy’s activities in both the constituency and the National Assembly. On departing office, the ex-Minister is entitled to reclaim their former role as Deputy.]

De Rugy, doubtless, longs (im)patiently for the day when he will once again serve his country in high office, having been declared Not Guilty on most counts. Pending that happy day, de Rugy is suing Mediapart for defamation regarding what he still calls their ’tissue of lies’, accusing them of behaving like ‘gangsters’.

However, pleading lack of financial resources, de Rugy’s legal action only relates to the allegation of his getting social housing while earning too much money. Nothing else. Still, he found time to appear on France 2 television announcing grandiosely (if wrongly) ‘I appear as one who’s been totally vindicated and cleared of guilt regarding every accusation made against me.’ He now says that in his view everyone’s got it ‘in for him’. He claims he was set up by former Green colleagues unhappy at his having joined the Macron Government. 

Mediapart must have felt slightly bruised by the reaction of most of the political class to the de Rugy revelations. Wagons largely encircled de Rugy. Politicians made clear their dislike of Mediapart‘s attacks on their Parliamentary lifestyle a good chap who had been found guilty of nothing. Deputies of various political stripes commented:

  • ‘parts of the press operate like the KGB and the Stasi’
  • some ‘want to destroy the world of politics’
  • ‘I fear that this Poujadisme [reactionary petit-bourgeois attitudes] will lead us towards a dictatorship’
  • ‘I think this is all terrible for democracy. We’re not part of a Republic which has been given over to the media or M. Plenel to decide who’s good and who isn’t’.

Anyone wishing to delve further to understand the extent of de Rugy’s ‘innocence’ – and reflect on the likelihood of de Rugy (who the maybe-not-entirely-informed court of public opinion likely considers tarred forever by photos of giant dressed lobsters) fulfilling his still-burning ambitions – may wish to read Mediapart‘s lengthy (and free – they’re usually behind a paywall) analysis (in French) of how We Woz Right.

… Passions

The most important fact about ex-President Sarkozy’s 2019 summer best-seller, Passions (as far as as the author himself is concerned) is that it’s far outsold ex-President Hollande’s 2018 not-so-best-seller, The Lessons of Power. In a single month, Sarkozy racked up sales of over 210,000 copies. Compare that to Hollande’s feeble(ish) 150,000 … over a whole year.

Plus there’s a further reason for Sarko to have had a spring in his step this summer, allowing him (maybe?) to push to the back of his mind the near-certainty of his having to appear in Court on charges relating to illegal campaign expenditure, attempts to subvert the judicial process etc etc. The reason? His warm relationship with President Macron.

It’s all very touching. In Passions Sarko writes about the funeral of his mother in December 2017: ‘Arriving with Carla to take [my mother’s] coffin to the church, I was surprised to find two police motorcyclists who would accompany us. That was the touching thoughtfulness of President Macron.’

On 15 August, Sarko was President Macron’s Celebrity Invitee for the 75th anniversary of Operation Dragoon: the WW2 landings to liberate the South of France. Hollande? His diary was apparently too full to join the President.  Here‘s a touching, nearly passionate, Le Parisien picture of President Past and President Present.

Might there be a more political motive underlying President Macron’s whispering the political equivalent of Je t’aime while keeping ex-President Sarkozy so close? For the ‘democratic’ right, Sarkozy remains their favourite politician: 76% of supporters of the traditional right Les Républicains party want to see Sarko play a role in politics. This Macro-Sarko bromance – reinforced by dinner invites for the Sarkos, plus Macron’s partial adoption of Sarko’s flagship measure of cutting tax on overtime hours [with the additional irony that that re-introduced a Law overturned by Hollande] – fits perfectly with Macron’s continuing desire to ensure France’s political right remains neutered.

… not-to-be-unemployed public servants

A much-vaunted Macronian analysis was that there were 120,000 public servants too many. Off with (many of) their heads was his pledge. 70,000 jobs would be ‘lost’ in local government, plus a further 50,000 cut in State employees. But it now seems that over President Macron’s first 5-year term, as far as State employees are concerned, there will be a reduction of ‘only’ 15,000. Local government has to do the heavy lifting chopping by ridding itself of 70,000 posts. The Government evidently finds job-cutting extraordinarily complex: in 2018 it cut 1660 posts and its objective for 2019 is a further 4164 jobs. Maybe it’s beginning to understand real people are required for real jobs.

… questionable choice of Macron flag-waver to win Paris

Following Emmanuel Macron’s stunning Presidential Election victory of 2017, it was nearly inevitable that his République en Marche party would win a landslide victory in the subsequent National Assembly elections. The President’s next major electoral test came with 2019’s Euro-Elections: his party performed creditably (in unhelpful circumstances), losing by a short neck to the Front National, with the rest of the field also-rans (pace a better-than-expected Green vote). 

The coming challenge will be 2020’s municipal elections in every French town.

For much of their first two years in power, the Macron administration had a strong disinterest in, almost disdain for, local government. In classic French style, everything revolved around Paris. However, after months of gilets jaunes struggles, President Macron recognised that local Mayors had a unique role in trying to reconcile the nation. Leading his Great National Debate, Macron brought as many as possible of France’s 35,000 Mayors into the post-gilets jaunes healing process. [Actually, it’s strictly incorrect to refer to a post-gilets jaunes era. Ca continue. On Saturday, Montpellier and Rouen saw confrontations between demonstrators and police. There’s talk of a major gathering on 21 September, the same day as a climate rally. Certain gilets jaunes collectives claim the two movements need to merge for the climate demands to be heard. ]

But a President talking to local Mayors does not take him far. Equally, promises of decentralisation that produce little of substance are futile.

It’s increasingly evident that – for the Macron phenomenon to have its intended long-term future – it will, at some point, become essential to embed Macron’s République en Marche ‘party’ throughout the country. But, thus far, the ‘party’ has barely moved towards the creation of a recognisable national structure.

Established as a ‘movement’, La République en Marche is still reluctant to bear too close a resemblance to a classic political party. Since its beginning, this movement has no card-carrying members who pay an annual fee. What’s required for ‘membership’ is an email, full address, phone number, date of birth, nationality and a statement that you comply with the rules. There’s virtually no pyramid (local/municipal/regional/national) structure. The ‘National Council’ of La République en Marche is an unelected body made up of 80% of people who have national or local elective office (Deputies or local Councillors) and 20% of members whose names are chosen at random. There’s nothing which enables a formal articulation of disagreement with policy. Little by way of internal democracy. It’s all very 21st 19th century.

For March 2020’s municipal elections, La République en Marche is focussed on winning town councils. In some places, identifying an existing (usually centre-right) Mayor, who is what is called Macron-compatible, is the preferred (central) solution, though that leads to discontentment amid those ‘on the ground’. But for high-profile towns, a République en Marche team, led by a high-profile candidate, is required.

And what could be more high-profile than Paris? The Socialists have been in power in Paris for 18 years. No town in France has more symbolic importance than Paris. It’s worth any number of Masses.

In mid-July, after several months’ bitter internal competition, La République en Marche chose ex-Government spokesperson, ex-Socialist, ex-wunderkind, Benjamin Griveaux, as The Man To Win Paris. Griveaux hopes to build on strong support: in May’s Euro-Elections, the President’s Renaissance list won 16 of Paris’s 20 arrondissements.

Yet Griveaux winning Paris for La République en Marche is by no means a given. The Socialists have long-established organisational advantages – plus they’re awfully proud of their new cross-Paris cycle routes.

The Greens will win many votes. While the right (who they?) ran Paris for decades.

But, to cap it all, the usually hyper-disciplined République en Marche may just have a medium-high-profile dissident candidature to confuse matters. One of the final 3 people who tried to win the République en Marche nomination was another Deputy, Cedric Villani. Former winner of the Fields Medal (known as ‘the Mathematician’s Nobel’), Villani announced last week his intention to be a candidate, despite not having won the nomination, claiming foul(ish) play. Will Villani be kicked out of the non-party for public treachery? Not thus far.

Reinforcing the idea that ‘All politics is local’, La République en Marche’s Parisian discomfiture is worsened by their Problèmes à la bordelaise. This weekend La République en Marche held its first-ever Summer University (called a Campus des territoires). This end-of-summer, political party ritual perhaps demonstrates that the President’s non-party increasingly resembles other political parties. All senior apparatchiks were ‘on campus’, from Prime Minister Philippe downwards.

However, holding their event in Bordeaux merely served to highlight another municipal clash. La République en Marche has chosen its lead candidate to win Bordeaux. But the centre-right Républicains have chosen their own successor to centrist-ish Alain Juppé, Bordeaux’s Mayor for 12 years. Could the Right lose Bordeaux after 72 years uninterrupted rule? Or has La République en Marche pushed too far?

… further evidence that La République en Marche is becoming a ‘normal’ political party

Many British readers of this blog will be developing expertise in free trade agreements. Negotiations on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) concluded in 2014, having started in 2009. It’s currently being ratified.  At the end of July, the National Assembly voted CETA’s ratification by 266 votes to 213, with 74 abstentions.

The revelation was the largest-ever revolt by President Macron’s Républiqe en Marche Deputies. They were so like a political party. 52 Macronista abstained. 9 of Macron’s Deputies actually voted against. Serious lèse-majesté. The Deputies’ reluctance to nod through CETA came about after intense lobbying by farmers. But not much good it did them. Throughout the summer, there were regular reports of attacks on Républiqe en Marche Constituency offices by those hostile to CETA.

… and to cap it all, a Prevaricating President

  • The interminable discussion on the President’s proposed fundamental reform to France’s 42 separate public pension schemes goes on. Candidate Macron announced that, regardless of the potential explosiveness of the subject, France would reduce its multiplicity of public pension schemes (different for employees/public servants/farmers/self-employed/professionals/railway workers etc) to a single ‘universal’ pension system. Every euro paid in to the universal scheme would give rise to the same rights, regardless when paid and regardless the status of the person paying. And all would be achieved without touching either the all-important retirement age (historically, the subject of many of France’s most vigorous recent demonstrations of anti-Government feeling) or the quantum of pension paid. Initially promised for mid-2018, the reform may now be presented in 2020 … post-municipal elections. It may then be brought into effect in 2025. In the meantime, September will see several major demonstrations against the proposals: lawyers and doctors on the 16th; Force Ouvrière trade union the 21st; CGT trade union the 24th. Le Monde reported of a letter sent by ex-Socialist Minister, Schwartzenberg, to Prime Minister Philippe asking: ‘Has procrastination once again become a system of Government?’, comparing Philippe to former Premier Queuille. He’d said: ‘There’s no problem so complex that the long-term absence of a solution won’t end by resolving it.’ Tanned, relaxed President Macron, recognising the importance of retaining the vital support of the moderate (and largest) trade union, CFDT, promised the nation (another) Great Debate

 

  • President Macron’s long-promised constitutional reforms are also increasingly mired in difficulty. In summer 2018, the proposals were pushed back (near-)sine die, when Government recognised there was no way to get the upper chamber, the Senate, to deal with issues involving cutting down their numbers while the Senate had the Government on the run with their enquiries into the Benalla Affair. Since then, matters have improved little. The Senate, led (and controlled) by ferocious right-wing bulldog, Gérard Larcher, with his substantial Républicains majority, continues to refuse Macron’s demand for both a reduction in the number of Senators and a change in the Senate’s electoral map. What can be said beyond repeating Lyndon Johnson’s (recently oft-repeated – but apocryphal?) remark about the first rule of politics being that ‘practitioners need to be able to count’.
  • Opening up assisted reproductive technology to single women and female couples [who will, on the child’s birth certificate, be called ‘Mother’ and ‘Mother’ and not, as previously announced, ‘Parent 1’ and ‘Parent 2’. This decision was denounced by the anti-gay marriage lobby, La Manif pour Tous, as ‘an ideology which seeks to pretend that a child can be borne by two women’] is a further subject on which President Macron has been dilatory. During the Presidential campaign, Macron commented that he believed the opponents of the gay marriage law had been ‘humiliated’ during that reform. He therefore promised, and then repeated, that there would be a calm debate. The Government hopes (or does it really? Prime Minister Philippe has always opposed this reform) for a law to emerge at the end of the first quarter of 2020. Possibly un-ideal timing for those pesky March 2020 municipal elections? [Electoral Note: Over the last year, support for Emmanuel Macron has consistently been 10 percentage points higher among practicing Catholics than among the population at large. Let the reformer beware.]

… The Long Silence

Regular readers will know that one of my favourite commentators on Matters French Political is American academic and translator, Arthur Goldhammer.

He recently re-emerged from what he called a ‘long hiatus’ in his blog. He explained he’d been translating the 1000 pages of French economist Thomas Piketty’s* new tome, Capitalism and Ideology. The book will be published in France this week, with a version anglaise available next spring. For those wanting a flavour of Goldhammer’s delightful style (nothing like Piketty’s) this reflection on the Rentrée is an excellent intro.

*[Piketty’s blockbuster on the concentration and distribution of wealth, which calls for universal wealth tax measures, Capital in the TwentyFirst Century, sold some 2 million copies worldwide. By using Kindle’s highlights feature, a Wisconsin University mathematician established a ‘Hawking Index’ to identify a list of abandoned books. Once people stopped highlighting, they’d probably stopped reading. The eponymous Hawking’s Brief History of Time came in 2nd with an HI of 6.6%. Most Abandoned Book was none other than Piketty’s Capital: its readers called it a day on page 26 of its 750 pages. That was all of 2.4% through the book. Bring on Capitalism and Ideology. Footnote – Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices was a late-running prizewinner with an even humbler, story-ruining 1.9%.]

As for me, it’s really good to be back following my uncommonly long period of silence. For the avoidance of doubt, I translated nothing more challenging, or lengthy, than sea-food menus.

I hope you’re well … despite the growing madness all about.

For those too young to even begin to comprehend the title of this post

Prescient PS from a long-dead visionary (courtesy Jon Stone, Europe correspondent of The Independent)

One thought on “Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, Those days of soda and pretzels and …

  1. Wow a really lengthy and meaty piece. Apparently the summer respite has certainly done you good.
    In addition to the much (and quite rightly) maligned de Rugy, an interesting future theme might be why so many French politicians (eg Richard Ferrand, President of the Assemblée nationale, and Sylvie Goulard, new European Commissioner) with less than spotless histories are nevertheless appointed to high office.

    Liked by 1 person

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