Another Perspective

The Montebourg Option

Occupiers of the world, unite! Heading into Sunday's primary runoff, France's Socialists show the way.

By 10.14.11

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With our country engaged in foreign wars and in demonstrated danger of terrorist attacks on our own soil, you would think we have better things to worry about than the French Socialist Party presidential primary. And you would be right. Whoever wins the honor of carrying the colors of the left into the campaign to unseat President Nicolas Sarkozy next May will get more than enough attention in the pages of the Financial Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Corriere Della Serra, so who needs it.

However, what is interesting about these Socialists is the way they mirror the situation of the American left. The word left itself, of course, comes from the Parisian political lexicon, and the Occupy Whatever crowd owes the tradition of taking over public space to make a non-negotiable demand, however mad, harks back to the Parisian sans-cullotes' idea of freedom of assembly, essentially mob-driven as opposed to ours which is exactly what it says it is, free assembly, respectful debate. The French always have had a marvelous talent for simplifying things -- putting ideas and trends into clear and straightforward prose. It is what they call la haute vulgarisation, putting notions and facts into readily accessible form without condescension or intellectual downsizing. If you want the heavy version you can always turn to the original German but, be my guest, turn to the original German. Our friend Mark Falcoff is in Munich right now studying that unpronounceable language, and maybe he can help us out when he returns, but basically he is in it for the opera and I doubt he wants to be bothered.

Actually, a good example of haute vulgarisation at its best is provided in the reporting and commentary of a top-notch French historian and journalist, Michel Gurfinkiel, who occasionally appears at the Pajamas Media site or in the Weekly Standard, sometimes translated by me, when I am able to make sense of his prose. Whoops, that was a slip; by definition you can always make sense of French prose, that is what I was saying about luminous, straight, clear as crystal, etc. Anyway, I highly recommend his occasional articles, you will learn all you need to know about the situation in France, the Middle East, Russia, and the kosher restaurants of Paris, which are many and excellent.

The two leading vote-getters in the first round of the Socialist Party, the one that Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was supposed to walk away with until he encountered certain personal difficulties in New York City, are Mr. François Hollande and Mrs. Martine Aubry. Their views are practically interchangeable, which may be the reason they hate each others' guts, as can only happen in big happy families. In this first-ever primary in French political history, you can vote if you sign a pledge stating you share the values of the left and the Republic. The more traditionally leftist Socialist in the contest, Mr. Arnaud Montebourg, ran a strong third. Although observers affected to be surprised, France has an "anti-capitalist" constituency worth between 15 and 25 percent of the votes and it appears Mr. Montebourg, who is 50 and who grew up during the Mitterrand era listening to the Socialists' hard-left rhetoric and watching their liberal-centrist actions, has been making a career of saying the party should match deeds and principles. 

Neither the in-power liberal-right UMP (trans.: People's Party) nor the national-right National Front (trans.: not National League) has scheduled a primary. Seditious factions in the former are whispering about it because the incumbent, Mr. Sarkozy, is so desperately unpopular they do not trust his ability to counter-attack in a dashing charge like the Napoleon he thinks he is and make a brilliant come-back. They may well be right, although I would not underestimate the man when he gets passionate about something. However, he gives the impression of having spent the past four and a half years enjoying the prestige and the power and forgetting the French expect a certain gravitas in their presidents, and some mastery of the historical situation.

The National Front is an authoritarian and dynastic party whose leader is the daughter of the founder and the idea of a primary is not even broached. They have sharp-knife debates during party meetings, based on personal rivalries and suspicions of the old nazis that the new ones want to say goodbye to all, but outside they stand together behind Mrs. Marine Le Pen, not the mighty orator her father was but, they say, more reassuring and fréquentable, socially acceptable.

The green party, by whatever name, had a complicated nominating convention that few paid any attention to and scarcely less few know who their candidate is, either. Some say it is Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the original Occupier, but in truth it is Eva Joly, a prosecutor who went after corruption in high places and is widely respected as the most courageous woman in Europe. Greenlanders have no country: Cohn-Bendit was long a municipal councilor in Frankfurt, Germany, and Joly retains her Norwegian-French bi-status. Both Hollande and Aubry support immigrants' right to vote, at least in local elections, pointing out this is becoming the norm in the European Union. They are Europeanists. So is Montebourg, but he flirts with the national card from the left, as Sarkozy flirts with it from the right. Mrs. Le Pen does not flirt, she is in bed with it. Brigitte Bardot, their answer to Marilyn Monroe, is anti-immigrant on animal rights grounds due to so many of them being lamb-slaughtering Muslims, but she is not running for anything this year. About the same numbers voted in the Socialists' primary as vote in American party primaries, but hey, democracy works better than the alternatives.

Mr. Hollande got somewhat ahead in the votes, but fell short of a majority, which is why they are running off on Sunday. (Unlike Judaism, Catholicism discourages but does not prohibit Sabbath labor, which voting presumably is since it involves thinking, though maybe I exaggerate there. Hollande, Aubry, Sarkozy, Le Pen, Montebourg are all of Catholic background. Cohn-Bendit is of Jewish background. Joly, who left her native Oslo for Paris as a teen and married a Frenchman, is of Reformed background.) He, I mean Hollande, was Mrs. Audry's predecessor as party first secretary, her current job after serving as labor minister under Lionel Jospin and introducing the compulsory 35-hour week (amended during the incumbent administration), which is why they both have networks of supporters in the party's regional federations, incomprehensible to the naked eye of the outside observer and having much more to do with deals and favors and power relations than policy issues. That is why the dashing, musketeer-handsome Arnaud Montebourg (he looks a lot like me, but never mind) was much courted in the days following the first round, and the smoke filled rooms were thick with deals being cut to gain his support, which he threw to Hollande.

He insisted in doing this he was speaking only for himself, but the endorsement could matter. Mr. Strauss-Kahn, for example, who retains considerable support here, voted for Mrs. Aubry, which figures since she had been planning to support his candidacy until he ran into problems of a s*xual nature which I am not going to disclose, due to my respect for the private foibles of politicians as well as other famous people, including Mr. Tyrrell's drinking buddy Taki Theodoracopulos.

Of course if the private foibles of individuals charged with public responsibilities interfere with the carrying out of their duties or reveal character flaws that might suggest they are not reliable or all there in the head, then, as a newsman, I have a responsibility and a duty to report what I know. If, for example, I knew that Mr. S-K -- assume for a moment he were president and not merely finance minister, as he was during the premiership of Lionel Jospin in the late 1990s early '00s, or head of the Bilderberger International Monetary Fund as he was until his recent slipup in Manhattan -- were engaging in certain s*x acts at the Elysée Palace while a Mex-mullah squad of killers was a few blocks away gunning for our ambassador, and I had credible information that he could not postpone, you know, and assume his duties as chef suprême, which is how they call the C-in-C, that might be news that supersedes my respect for his privacy. There could be something there of legitimate interest to the public and the voters, as well as our ambassador, with whom I stand because politics stops at the water's edge. I would write a memo to that effect to Mr. Pleszczynski, which I would close with "Your call, chief," which is why they always say I never flinch.

Observe that we might have got rid of al Qaeda during the Clinton administration if certain personal matters had not intruded, which by the way is why Miss Midge Decter, to whom I always defer in matters of this kind, was not well disposed toward the puritanical rigidity of certain of the president's enemies. The implication, of course, is that he could multi-task. But when a lawsuit got into it too, and a big one -- impeachment is no garden-variety law suit, are you listening Bob Barr? -- that was too much and the man lost his concentration. That, at any rate, was Miss Decter's view of the sordid matter. What is unfortunate is that he did not delegate the anti- terror stuff to his vice president, who would have handled the assignment brilliantly since, as I seem to recall, he said once he was a general in Vietnam as well as the inventor of the Internet, the author of a 20-volume history of the U.S. Mint, a major agricultural engineer and a top sailor.

Anyway, as I was saying about Arnaud Montebourg, he would be right at home with the Occupiers. He has not actually said the earth is flat, but he believes if the banks thought they could turn a profit by flattening it they would try. If you want to know, I believe that too, but I also think that so long as we have Free Enterprise and Constitutional Government -- admittedly under threat from the long post-seasons -- such efforts will fail.

There, however, is the hitch. At present as we speak, the Greeks are threatening to bring down the euro. (So it was true about them and their gifts, after all.) Now many people dislike the euro. I dislike the euro. Montebourg dislikes the euro. Hollande and Aubry do not dislike the euro out loud, though they may be ruing the day they helped create it. Mr. S-K, another one of its founding fathers, does not dislike the euro, but where his needs are concerned, he will use whatever currency is demanded. However, regardless of how you feel about the euro per se, you have to recognize the cold reality. The cold reality is that if the euro goes down in flames like some gyro, there could be real trouble in Europe, finance-wise. And even if they save the euro by kicking the Greeks out -- Taki, as an international class tennis player, is always welcome here on the Anacostia Avenue courts -- the only special on the menu will be cold turkey, baby, so eat up while you can.

You might think that is good for us. Europe goes down the tubes and you get massive flight of capital into the markets here. Why, we would have so much money that we could turn Occupy into a permanent Hippie Reservation, supported by the Department of the Interior, finally make those office boys earn their paychecks. Given their record of inhumane treatment of the Sioux, Navajos, Iroquois, and other indigenous tribes and the wreck they made of our national parks -- am I right, Alston Chase? -- it could not happen to a nicer bunch.

For better or for worse, however, this is unlikely to happen. The Europeans are going to wring their hands and then sit on them. Both Mrs. Aubry and Mr. Hollande come out of the Catholic social movement, which is to say they are essentially anti-capitalists. They do not understand the virtuous consequences of bullet-biting. So the result is that they will fudge -- try to save the Greeks, save the euro, save the banks. Ya can't always get what ya want, however, especially if you want contradictory objects. These fuzzy-wuzzy socialists are like Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank, they want to have their cake and eat it, too. That is why they are called "centrists."

Mr. Montebourg, who married a princess in an old-fashioned Catholic ceremony, understands this better than they do. Not unlike his own father, who married an Algerian princess, thus demonstrating the potentiality of what some in France still call "republican integration," the ability of the republic to bring people together in national concord under a meritocratic, free, and egalitarian set of principles, Montebourg senses the danger of Euromush.

But he does not draw the logical conclusion, which is that the answer to this danger is Eurosteel. He favors old-hat solutions, notably the nationalization of the financial sector, which is simply silly apart from having been done disastrously in the not-too-recent past -- Martine Aubry's dad, Jacques Delors, had to save the French economy from just such a solution when he was François Mitterrand's Finance Minister; the truth is that neither man believed it would work but they went through the motions in order to convince the Socialists they were Socialists, even though Delors was of the Christian-Democrat background and Mitterrand, a monarchist in his youth, was his own sly fox.

Instead of saying the French version of ain't no more difference between those rascals as between a nickel an' a dime (which if you want to know is "tous pourri!"), Mr. Montebourg came out for Mr. Hollande. I lost a bet on that, but gambling is a little like investing. I would have thought he preferred Aubry due to her blue-collar social democrat side, seeing as how she is mayor of Lille in France's north and thus a protégé of her old-school predecessor there, Pierre Mauroy. Also, he, I mean Montebourg, served as spokesman for Ségolène Royal, who is the mother of Hollande's children, and he famously said Miss Royal's only problem was her boyfriend. He was fired for that, but the power couple broke up. Or maybe they already had broken up. You can look it up. The key point, anyway, is that Royal comes from an austere right-wing family, the kind that can, given a few turns in a life, produce in its daughters the same values as those the republican hussar Montebourg sees in the mirror.

Since no one said anything real in these primaries, their significance lies in the evidence they provided for the persistence of significant nationalist currents in the ranks of the left. How Arnaud Montebourg capitalizes on the prestige he gained for championing these currents should shape his own political career, which still lies before him. For the business directly at hand, I guess everybody's getting on the Hollande bandwagon -- even his ex -- because nothing beats a loser like a winner. Gambling is addictive, however, so I am putting my dough again on Aubry on Sunday. What the hell, you know.

Anyway, we too are surrounded on all sides by men and women of the centrist persuasion. We will wring our hands and sit on them, just like them, and then we will bail them out, though with what money only Mr. Bernanke can say.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.