The majority of French voters have rejected Marine Le Pen. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the elected president is a free-market fanatic whose programme inspired a record number of people to cast blank votes.
Had Le Pen won the presidency, another country would have succumbed to the revamped right-wing populism represented by Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orban and Brexit – not fascism, in my view, but a new kind of majoritarian authoritarianism endorsed by popular mandate, fuelled by fear of the future and resentment of the establishment, finding its expression in xenophobia and prejudice.
Emmanuel Macron could hardly be styled a courageous defender of minorities but he did resist Le Pen’s racism in the campaign TV debates, which is more than can be said for the mainstream right candidate François Fillon and, for that matter, more than can be said for Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls while in office.
So we’ve escaped a national-level version of the discrimination, repression and racist rabble-rousing the far right has let loose on the towns it controls. And Le Pen’s National Front (FN) seems to have big problems ahead.
Crisis for National Front
The result, and Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the few days before the poll, appears to have plunged the FN into crisis.
In one sense, they don’t have so much to complain about. They achieved a record 10.6 million votes, nearly double their score when Marine’s dad, Jean-Marie, made it to the second round against Jacques Chirac 2002. That’s a lot of Islamophobes – or, at least, a lot of people prepared to go along with the FN’s hatred of Muslims, immigrants, Roma and other minorities to poke the “elite” in the eye, which should, but won’t, give the “elite” pause for thought.
But, and this is really worrying, they could have done even better.
Le Pen ran an effective campaign up until the last few days. Then she had the bright idea of picking a holocaust-doubter as her party’s interim president (he also thought that beating up commies was a good political education but that received less media attention) say that France was not responsible for the wartime rounding up of Jews, call Fillon and his party “shits” (the FN claims she just said they were in the shit) and, worst of all, behave just like her father’s daughter during the crucial final TV debate.
The debate performance – where she was caught out lying, blustered, bullied, slouched and grimaced like the chip off the old block she is – has probably destroyed the “dedemonisation” strategy that had been working pretty well for Marine and her pals.
The FN’s canal historique is already sharpening its knives. Its best-known representative, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, one of only two FN-affiliated MPs at the moment, said on Sunday evening that the party must consider its strategy in the election after the “disappointment”.
And, if reports are to be believed, the rank and file is in disarray. An anonymous FN official told the Mediapart website that a the party’s post-debate postbag contained a number of torn-up membership. And the “fachosphere” – the far-right social media network – is full of recriminations, mostly against Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot, the FN vice-president who’s seen as the Svengali behind the dedemonisation strategy and the party’s “social” turn.
One is tempted to ask whether Le Pen threw the debate deliberately. As a Trump admirer, she must have read his comment that leading a country is harder than he’d thought. Being the party of mean-minded, resentful opposition has been a profitable business for her family, making them millionaires. Had the FN watered down its opposition to the EU, the real point of difference with the Fillons, Sarkozys and other tough guys of the mainstream right, it could have undergone the same transformation as Italy’s MSI and joined a coalition government some years ago.
But no, the FN leaders were riding a wave of anti-establishment resentment mixed with xenophobia and seemed genuinely to believe they were on the road to power on their own terms. Hence the disappointment today.
It remains to be seen if the backbiting will hamper their campaign in June’s parliamentary elections. A good result there could staunch the crisis.
Macron and extremes
Something else revealed in that TV debate is that Macron is not a very skilful politician.
He’s an intelligent man, a skilled technocrat who knows his facts.
But Le Pen destroyed herself, he didn’t destroy her.
When she posed as a defender of gay and women’s rights during an attack on a Muslim group that supported him, he failed to remind her of her own party’s record on those questions – the potential for mockery was great but Macron doesn’t do funny. When she justified her claim that the wartime deportation of Jews was not France’s responsibility but that of the Vichy government, he let it go without even a mention the former collaborators who helped found the party. Apparently, he also doesn’t do history.
This is not just a historical quibble. Obscuring the party’s Nazi origins and airbrushing out its anti-Semitism are a key part of the dedemonisation strategy and Macron passed on an opportunity to deal it a powerful blow.
In short, Macron has no political culture, which is also the problem of his newly founded En Marche ! movement. Apparently, the political experience that his presidential campaign lacked was made up for by Socialist Party traitors, working against their own candidate, Benoît Macron, in the first round and even more openly for a republican front – nominally anti-fascist but in reality more pro-Brussels – in the second round.
That was also apparent in his speech after the result was announced. In what he imagined was an olive branch to supporters of Le Pen and left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he told them they had voted for “extremists”.
Repeating the old canard of the “extremes” meeting up is hardly a way to win over the seven million who voted Mélenchon in the first round and Macron’s assurance that he understood voters’ “anger, anxiety and doubts” is undermined by his obvious lack of empathy with ordinary people on the campaign trail.
With 25 percent abstention, the highest since 1969 when France’s youth was radicalised by May ’68, and an absolute record of four million blank votes, Macron can expect trouble.
His programme, for the most part a collection of micro-measures and expressions of good intentions, is ardently pro-EU and pro-capitalist. Despite a promise to revive Europe’s connection with “the people”, Macron is determined to press on with reducing the debt through austerity, the very policy that has done so much to help demagogues like Le Pen. On the economy it’s more of the same – tax cuts and subsidies for employers, in the desperate and so far unrewarded hope that they will be bribed to invest, longer hours, later retirement and less social protection for employees.
He has promised to bring in more changes to labour law in the summer, his main proposal being to encourage company-level negotiations on working hours and other conditions, a further undermining of collective bargaining and trade union solidarity.
Mélenchon’s seven million votes mean that, for the first time for years, the left is not demoralised.
Rather it is in combative mood, witness all those blank votes. So strikes, demonstrations and social upheaval are guaranteed, indeed the first took place on the afternoon after the election.
Parliamentary elections – who know what will happen?
It’s all very well winning the presidency but afterwards you have to form a government.
For someone who doesn’t actually have a real party that’s a problem.
And, with the mainstream parties rejected by voters in the presidential election, everything’s up for grabs in June’s parliamentary election.
Will Macron succeed in destroying the Socialist Party, as seems to be his intention, with his assurance that En Marche ! won’t endorse any candidate standing under another party’s colours?
Will the mainstream right Republicans lose their more liberal MPs, tempted by the prospect of ministerial positions?
Will voters be as ready to reject sitting MPs as they were to turn their backs on their parties’ candidates in the presidential first round?
Will the FN pick up MPs in some of the 95 constituencies where Le Pen won more than 30 percent in that round?
Can Mélenchon and his allies build on the presidential campaign success and win more seats?
I don’t know the answers to these questions and I don’t think anyone else does, either.
Which means that the parliamentary poll is going to be another cliffhanger and, whatever happens, French politics will never be the same again.
Read my analysis of the result for RFI English here
Turkey is executing a dramatic change in foreign policy, aligning itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in part because of the US’s and the EU’s reaction to the purge that followed the 15 July coup attempt. Ruling party leaders say the state of emergency will not last more than three months and that the Kurdish-based HDP will not be left out of national unity efforts. We’ll see about that!
Ankara 27-28 July 2016
Accompanying the mayor I meet on Wednesday evening is someone who’s introduced as an advisor to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim – another one who doesn’t want to give his name, but for different reasons to the others I’ve spoken to – along with a couple of gentlemen who apparently have something to do with intelligence and defence.
They say that a key Gülenist, whom they name as Adil Öksüz, was captured at the nearby Akinci airbase during the coup attempt.
Other Gülenists have apparently come forward to confess, including another prime ministerial adviser, known as Fuat Avni, and are spilling a certain amount of beans on the movement.
Avni’s statements led to the arrest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military aide de camp Colonel Ali Yazici, they say, and that has led to other top aides, past and present.
However highly placed they are, the organisation’s cell structure means that defectors can’t name a lot of names, if the information I’m given is correct.
Cells are led by a “big brother”, who reports to a bigger brother, and they all use code names.
Given that the AKP worked with the Gülenists for many years, there must surely be many members in the party, I point out.
They agree and say that an “in-depth investigation” is taking place and that some have already come forward.
The party seems ready to forgive individuals who were attracted by the movement’s ideals but were not aware of the coup plot.
Gülenists ready to explain themselves to the media having always been in short supply – even more so at the moment – I am not in a position to say what those ideals really are.
AKP people say that Gülen claims to be the new Mahdi, who will redeem Islam, and that the movement is a threat wherever it has schools and other interests, ie a number of countries in central Asia, Africa and, as it happens, the United States.
Relations with US under threat
The government found that the US was slow to condemn the coup and this, combined with its criticism of the post-coup purge and its apparent reluctance to extradite Gülen from his Pennsylvania compound, has given rise to accusations that it was aware of and supported the coup attempt.
If Washington refuses extradition it will be taken as proof of involvement, the adviser says, and that will mean a complete change in relations between Turkey, a key member of Nato, and the US.
There were already accusations that Gülen is a CIA agent and my informants seem to believe them, one of them throwing in a claim of German involvement for good measure.
EU criticism of the Turkish government’s reaction to the purge have also been poorly received and there is already evidence of a major realignment of Turkish foreign policy, which would mean Turkey joining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to establish a bloc to rival the West on the world stage.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek on Tuesday announced that Erdogan would visit Russia on 9 August, while he himself was on a visit to Moscow along with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci.
Russia is, of course, strictly non-judgemental about the reaction to the coup and has lifted a damaging embargo imposed when the Turks shot down one of its jets over Syria last year.
Even before the coup attempt there were indications that Ankara may normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad, a prospect that stunned Syrian rebel groups.
Is military weakened? Will national unity last? The AKP line
AKP vice-president Mehdi Eker refuses to “speculate” on what will happen if Gülen is not extradited when we meet him at the party’s huge headquarters in Ankara.
“We know, and are very sure – we have a lot of evidence – that Fetullah Gülen is the leader of this organisation, as it has been confessed by many members who were involved in the military coup,” he says. “We have conveyed these files to the US. President Erdoğan called [US President Barack] Obama and asked for the extradition of Gülen, and PM Yıldırım also had a phone conversation with [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and asked him officially.”
So “an ally and friendly country” is bound to “act according to international law and according to bilateral relations on this issue”, he declares.
Eker is defensive on defence.
The 8,000-plus personnel dishonourably discharged is a small percentage of the huge Turkish armed forces, he points out, but has to concede that then over 40 per cent of generals and admirals fired could be damaging.
“The Turkish army is traditionally very strong and powerful,” he says with masterly understatement. “Of course, as far as they get the support from the people and administration, they will recover. I have no doubt whatsoever about it. In previous coup attempts, for example in 1971 there was again a coup attempt, it recovered. It will again recover. No problem!”
He confirms reports that responsibility for the gendarmerie and the coastguard will be transferred from the defence to the interior ministry and that the polie may be given heavy weapons.
The Kurds – the elephant not in the national unity room
Like the CHP’s Tezcan, he is enthusiastic about the post-coup spirit of national unity.
“The people are all together, hand in hand,” Eker declares. “All the people from different statuses, different backgrounds, different parties all stay together.”
“As long as they take a firm stance against coups and any other anti-democratic affairs, we are together. They are elected by people so they are legitimate.”
The gendarmerie being deployed in rural areas, their transfer to the interior minister may mean more involvement in security operations in the south-east.
Torture hasn’t happened but, if it has, it will be punished
Earlier today lawyer Sercan Aran told us that soldiers detained since the coup claims to have been abused, tortured and even raped.
Some had been deprived of food for three days, others housed in stables or kept in stress positions for the same length of time.
A general said he had been sodomised by a police truncheon – one suspects an element of resentment from the lower ranks – but refused to file a complaint because of the shame he would feel if his family knew.
There was evidence of other similar cases, Aran said, and lawyers had faced obstruction and physical assault while trying to represent detained soldiers.
To read my report for RFI on torture allegations click here
“Everything is done under the rule of law,” Eker insists, describing Amnesty International’s report on the torture allegations as biased.
But the charges will be investigated, he says, and if any cases come to light “of course they will be punished”.
Prosecutors have been given exceptional powers, including the right to search premises, including lawyers’ offices, without a judge’s warrant and the right to seize documents from lawyers.
Plotters, including officers who tried to assassinate Erdogan, are still on the loose, Eker says, so exceptional measures are justified.
But, he adds in reference to France’s eight-month state of emergency, Turkey’s will probably not last more than three months.
As I write French voters are casting their ballots in the first round of regional elections, although turnout will be much lower than in presidential or legislative elections, so a sense of proportion is needed when analysing the results. Nevertheless it looks almost certain that the Front National (FN) will do well, possibly even taking control of one or more regions after the second round next week. Why is the FN’s vote rising and what does it actually represent these days?
The main difference between the FN and the mainstream right is not racism or Islamophobia but hostility to the EU. A short quiz. Who said the following?
“There is no Islamophobia in France. There aren’t any anti-Muslim acts — or no more than acts against women . . . or short people. But there is a rise in anti-Semitism.”
”Someone who comes to us must assimilate, adopt our lifestyle, our culture …. Do you keep your shoes on when you visit a mosque when you’re abroad?”
The first is FN leader Marine Le Pen, the second is Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the ex-UMP now rebaptised the Republicans. But it could have been the other way around, couldn’t it?
True, some members of the Republicans – Sarkozy’s rival for the party’s presidential nomination Alain Juppé, for example – are alarmed by Sarkozy’s appeals to Islamophobia, which this year have included the proposal to drop alternative meals for religious minorities in school canteens and to extend the ban on the hijab already enforced in schools to universities. It’s also true that Sarkozy can hardly be accused of consistency, sometimes trying to create a state-sponsored Islam or cultivate Muslims who will toe his line, and that the party from time to time reins in individuals like the slightly deranged Nadine Morano. But the appeal to prejudice in the name of a selective laïcité is now as likely to be heard at a Republicans rally as in one of Le Pen’s almost incessant radio and TV interventions.
What makes further rapprochement between the two parties impossible is not racism, Islamophobia or any other prejudice but the FN’s hostility to the EU, stance that is unacceptable to the French establishment, the Republicans, the Socialist Party, François Bayrou’s Modem and all the other mainstream politicians.
The FN is no longer a fascist party. The FN plays on prejudice, is authoritarian in office and, like the fascist movements of the ’30s, has stolen aspects of the left’s social policy to consolidate a popular base. But, although it was in its origin a far-right coalition dominated by fascists, it is not really fascist now, unless you are one of those people for whom “fascist” just means “nasty”. In fact, the mainstream right – sometimes risibly called the “centre right” – now shares many of the attributes listed above. The FN has no militia, does not physically attack or murder trade unionists or left-wing activists, does not appear to have a plan to create a corporate state. No reasonably sized party in Europe has these characteristics today because it is no longer necessary to atomise the working class, as Trotsky, in my view correctly, described the task of fascism, because that has already been accomplished democratically, thanks to globalisation, the decline of heavy industry in western Europe and the US, the weakening of trade unionism and the labour movement, consumerism and the brand in individualism that goes with it, the ideological offensive against collectivism and the rise of neoliberalism, and the confusion on the left that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The FN would certainly be authoritarian and whip up intolerance if it ever formed a government. How authoritarian I don’t know and I don’t think it does, either.
Support for the FN is a perverse revolt against the establishment. Obviously, the 13 November Paris attacks have boosted the FN, part of the polarisation that Isis wants to take place in Europe. But the FN’s steady growth in areas that were once strongholds of the left are a sign that an atomised working class believes that the mainstream parties have failed to defend their interests and, in fact, despise them. The Nord, which could fall to the FN, has seen its heavy industries destroyed over decades. Mining, steelmaking and other heavy industries have been destroyed, sometimes deliberately thanks to EU policies based on economic projections that failed to foresee a rise in world demand for steel that led to the Chinese buying, dismantling and importing entire abandoned steel plants. The main parties leaders live comfortable lives, insulated from the daily problems that assail most of the voters, they are frequently caught with their hands in the till or breaking the very laws they or their predecessors have passed and they and much of the media lecture the petit peuple on morality and “republican values”. FN voters are certainly conscious of the party’s racism and mean-mindedness but many, especially the new ones, see their ballot as a poke in the establishment’s collective eye.
The Socialist government has betrayed its voters. If any French party is centre-right, it is the Socialist Party, even if its voters and some of its members are left-wing. The first-ever public declaration of ministers’ wealth revealed that eight cabinet members were millionaires. And their policies have protected their and their fellow Croesuses’ interests. The government has stuck to the austerity line, combined with massive tax cuts for businesses, despite their manifest failure to reduce unemployment or revive the economy. The only time it has faced down the right has been over same-sex marriage, a measure that proved perfectly acceptable to Britain’s Conservative Party. One of the main reasons for the FN’s increased share of the vote is that left-wing voters are completely demoralised and have stayed at home.
To read my article on Marine Le Pen’s efforts to clean up the Front National’s image on the RFI English website, click here.
Everyone was surprised by the result of Turkey’s second election this year, including, I suppose, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won an absolute majority. Erdogan’s gamble of stoking security fears by reigniting the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems to have paid off and was ably assisted by Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you want to call the gang that bombed two pro-peace rallies and apparently has cells planning more mayhem currently in the country. Just to prove that I, too, was surprised, here’s my account of my reporting assignment, which ended two days’ after polling day. I’ve already posted reports on RFI English and will include links to them.
Istanbul 25 October 2015.
It appears that the president in his wisdom has decreed that Turkey’s clocks will go back one week later than Europe’s this year, leading to Turkish Airlines announcing the wrong time on arrival, my personal mobile and my work mobile giving different times and me being late for my first appointment.
A concerned Onur Öymen rings to ask if I’m having difficulty finding the address while I’m time over a Turkish coffee.
I arrive flustered but the former ambassador and MP for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) greets me charmingly.
He’s old-school CHP – while some party members admit it has alienated religious voters with its enthusiasm for Kemalist secularism and has watered down is hardline nationalism, leading apparently to a rapprochement of its youth wing with the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP), he supports the government ending peace negotiations with the PKK, blaming the guerrillas for firing first.
If the election results in no party with an absolute majority, as looks likely, Öymen would like to see and AKP-CHP coalition but admits that the AKP is more likely to want the right-wing secular nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP).
“I believe that it is politically possible because, to tell the truth, what’s in common between AKP and MHP is much more visible than what’s in common between MHP and the CHP,” he says.
The MHP, whose members wished CHP campaigners good luck when I first met them both during the 2007 presidential campaign, seems now strongly attracted by Erdogan’s authoritarian turn, which has seen legal and physical attacks on opposition media, AKP links to mafia bosses connected to coup-plotters of the shadowy “deep state” and, of course, repression and a new military offensive against alleged and real supporters of the PKK.
After 7 June’s inconclusive election the MHP refused to join an AKP-led coalition, citing the then-still-extant peace process and Erdogan’s plans for constitutional changes as the reason. It objected to his plan to shift decisive power to the presidency and, perhaps more vehemently, proposals that would have left former AKP ministers off the hook in corruption investigations launched by magistrates, whom Erdogan accuses of being agents of his former ally Fethullah Gülen.
Now the peace talks are off and maybe the MHP could be reconciled with a string presidency, if it goes hand in hand with a clampdown on Kurdish nationalism and the left. In a move that can only have delighted Erdogan, its paramilitary wing, the fascistic Grey Wolves, attacked HDP premises during the election campaign.
The last time I met Koray Caliskan was outside the CHP headquarters on the night of the 2014 presidential election campaign. This time I meet him in his office at Bogazici University, a beautiful campus overlooking the Bosphorus that was once the American University of Istanbul.
He is dismayed by Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and supportive of the CHP’s shift to the left.
The MHP is right-wing but will probably not be tempted to support the AKP he says.
“They want rule of law in this country, they want checks and balances to be structured again and they want democracy to work. So there are three forces for democratisation, CHP, MHP and HDP, and the only political party that blocks this is Ak Party. The main division is between democracy and authoritarianism in the country right now.”
Caliskan has had his own brushes with authoritarianism and has three legal cases opened against him for “supporting terrorism” and “libelling the president”.
“In our penal law there is a clause that specifies one to four years for anyone who insults the president, which doesn’t exist in any democratic society.
When Angela Merkel was due to visit Turkey during the election campaign he and other academics published an open letter appealing to her not endorse Erdogan’s rule and giving 10 examples of government actions that, they said, breach the European Union’s conditions for membership.
That earned him a disciplinary hearing in front of the higher education committee, whose president, he says, is an Erdogan appointee, for “libelling the president” but his university refused to open an investigation into the case.
Most of the students sunning themselves on the campus, several of them petting some of Istanbul’s thousands of stray cats, are too young to vote and don’t expect much change after the election.
Yaran would like to see a coalition but thinks the vote is a “waste of paper”.
“I don’t think there will be much change but the military operations against the PKK and also the other important news, like blasts in Ankara, will really affect the percentages but I don’t think there will be a single winner to govern,” says Volkan, a young man who expresses himself very clearly in English.
He would like to see the AKP win and rule alone, although he is unhappy that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu allows Erdogan to go beyond his mandate and dominate the country’s politics.
Özgur also expects no big changes but clearly dislikes the AKP.
“From a realistic point of view I’d like to see a working government to be established, wo that this turmoil after the elections will end we could have a ministry that can function,” she says. “Hopefully that will bring an end to all the social turmoil in Turkey right now, so that all these bombings and stuff would end.”
On my way back to the city centre from Bogazici I come across members of the CHP, the MHP and the AKP campaigning at a busy crossroads in Besiktas district.
The one English-speaker on the AKP stall, where voters can pick up a free sandwich, will not be interviewed without permission, there are no English-speakers on MHP stall but two members of the CHP are ready to speak, the head of the party’s youth wing in Besiktas, through an interpreter, and the vice-president, who turns up later and speaks English himself.
“The CHP is the only party with a lot of support that defends social democracy,” says Seçkin Aybar, the youth wing president.
With rousing music non-sectarianly attracting attention to all three parties’s activists, he and his vice-president Ugur Demirckan both slam Erdogan’s authoritarianism.
“The AKP mustn’t rule Turkey,” says Aybar. “Since the 7 June elections 600 people have been killed and there could be more in the next few days … AKP is trying to create a one-party system in Turkey, which can be very bad for secularism.”
“Now there is no jurisdiction,” says Demirckan. “There is no real police … It’s more like hunger for power.”
The next day I take to the streets for more voxpops, this time in Osmanbey district.
AKP supporters seem happy with the government’s handling of the economy and have no fears of a slide to Islamisation.
“He doesn’t force me to wear headscarves, for example,” says Zuleyha, a middle-aged woman who runs a lighting business. “Everything is OK for me. No problems.”
Herdem and Abdullah do have a problem with Erdogan and the AKP, however, and she, in particular, is keen to make it heard, dragging him to the microphone.
Herdem is a Zaza, a group that speaks a dialect of Kurdish, while he is a Kurd, and they pose for a picture flashing V for victory signs, having expressed their intention for the HDP, for “democracy, peace and humanity”.
“If the AKP rules again by itself nobody will be able to do anything,” says Herdem.
“We’re stalled and we don’t know why the international remains silent about what’s happening in the eastern part of the country,” Abdullah says. “I have seven family members who have joined the guerrillas. Eighteen have been murdered, we don’t know what’s become of them. I have a wound in my leg because in that region we get hurt. My mother was injured during the fighting in the 90s. But still I call for peace.”
Nihot, a middle-aged businessman, also wants peace.
He supports the CHP and believes the HDP are just PKK representatives in parliament but, reflecting war-weariness among much of the population, as well as the change in his party’s attitude to the Kurdish question, he wants peace talks to be revived.
“I believe that lots of PKK militants want to come to Turkey and live in peace,” he says. “So we want peace and we can do it by negotiation. I believe that.”
I don’t want to sound patronising here, Yanis Varoufakis certainly has more academic qualifications than me and could undoubtedly teach me a thing or two about economics, but it does seem that his time as a minister has been an education for him in politics, the nature and art of negotiation and the ruthlessness of the establishment.
“ … there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.”
But why did he imagine it would be any other way?
Forgive me for saying so, Professor, but you were naïve. These people already know the arguments and have decided that they are of no use to them.
Some – Schäuble, Tusk – appear to be ideologically committed to austerity, perhaps due to a sentimental attachment to the idea of the lower orders suffering or perhaps because of their political, personal or family histories.
Others have built careers in the service of an establishment that is becoming increasingly addicted to short-term financial returns, big dividends, not paying taxes and slashing waste, ie what’s left of the welfare state.
They don’t want to listen to the opposing case and explaining that case was not relevant to negotiation over Greece’s debt.
In the long run, austerity means that the EU, and eventually capitalism, will eat itself.
But – and for anyone who’s read previous relevant posts on my blog may find I sound a bit Johnny One Note here – the restraints on their short-termism have gone. These were essentially a powerful labour movement and, even more importantly in my view, a competing social system in the form of the Soviet bloc. They no longer exist, so the capitalist class no longer accepts that the state disciplines its need for higher and higher returns in the briefest delays possible.
Negotiation is not about persuading your opponents of the correctness of your case, it’s about convincing them that they have something to lose by not accepting your demands or at least reaching compromise.
That’s why I was amazed when the Syriza leaders declared that they would not leave the eurozone or accept loans from Russia.
Whether you intend to do it or not, why rule out a course of action that could frighten some of the people on the opposite side of the table (although not Schäuble in the first case, apparently)?
Equally puzzling was the Syriza leadership’s acceptance of France’s “help” in drawing up its final proposals (after Varoufakis’s resignation).
The French government and the civil servants it deployed to look over the Greeks’ shoulders may not want a Grexit but they have enthusiastically applied austerity policies and seem to have had a major role in drafting a swingeing package for Greece.
While the negotiations were going on, someone suggested to me that Schäuble was playing hard cop to allow Angela Merkel to look like the soft cop. Not a good comparison. Angela was quite hard enough. Wolfgang was more like the cop applies electrodes to your genitals.
The French Socialist leaders were the soft cops, with President François Hollande apparently on the phone to the Greeks and the Germans continuously in the run-up to the last deal and, in the end, they managed to thrust their package down the Greeks’ throats.
Oh well! At least the Syriza leaders showed that politicians don’t have to wear ties.
Ties are the sartorial descendants of a scrap of material that knights used to wear to stop their breastplates rubbing against their necks. Whether the big swinging dicks in the boardrooms and ministries like it or not, we don’t wear armour any more, so ties are pointless.
That’s a tiny victory, I suppose.
I’m off to Greece this week. So more on the blog later.
Whether you agree with the result or not, the massive No vote in Sunday’s Greek referendum was a courageous choice. Nobody knows what will happen now – not the Greeks, not the troika … not even Angela Merkel. The majority of Greeks chose to risk more economic hardship rather than willingly undergo further humiliation at the Eurobullies’ hands. A few observations:
The Greeks said no to do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do: Jean-Claude Juncker and Christine Lagarde told them they were naughty not to have paid their taxes. He was finance minister and then prime minister of a tax haven from 1989 to 2013. Being employed by the IMF, she doesn’t pay taxes anywhere (as was, of course, also the case for her predecessor, the delightful DSK). I don’t think that any of us could swear, hand on heart, that we would insist on our contract being rewritten if offered tax exemption but why exactly do international pontificators on fiscal rigour have this status?
European unity is good … but at what price? I have to admit to a sentimental attachment to the European Union and the euro. Being able to travel across most of a continent without showing my passport or changing my money is a pleasing taste of a world without national borders. But how many Greeks should be made unemployed, have their pensions slashed or otherwise reduced to penury to afford me that pleasure?
Europe would look pretty stupid without Greece: Juncker and friends said that the Greeks were voting on whether to stay in the euro and maybe the EU. Grexit would be a big blow to the euro project but they may be ready to accept it for the sake of an example to the other southern European slackers. But what will become of all those speeches about Europe’s heritage and values if the country that gave us the words “democracy”, “philosophy” – not to mention “poliics”, “comedy” and “drama” – is no longer part of our Europe? What has Luxembourg’s contribution to our common culture been, remind me?
Opinion polls are crap: Thank God I resisted the temptation to write a headline about Yes and No being neck and neck on RFI’s website on Saturday following the last poll, which showed the Yes winning with 41.5% against 40.2% for the No. This is not the first time the pollsters have been spectacularly wrong or that partisan media and interested parties have tried to influence the result by seizing on the prediction that serves their purpose. What happened? Were those canny Greeks also plotting their revenge on pollsters, journalists and EU chiefs by lying about their real intentions? Of course, even if the pollsters are genuinely trying to get it right, they can’t avoid the fact that being polled is passive and going to vote is active. They include in their calculations the responses of people who won’t be arsed to go and vote, whose opinion, quite rightly, isn’t taken into account in a real democratic process. But still we write articles based on one poll as if it was a factual account of the public’s mood and politicians allow their results to influence policy. I think we do have enough evidence to say that François Hollande is not very popular in France at the moment but can we really be sure that 51% of French people don’t think very highly of Alexis Tsipras on the basis of one poll?
This is the beginning of an era of austerity, not the end: Austerity doesn’t deliver what’s promised and depresses demand, thus further damaging the economy. But the IMF, the EU and the German leadership have turned down Yanis Varoufakis’s kind offer to save capitalism from itself. Electoral considerations come into this for Merkel, although, as George Papandreou showed when he resigned as Greek PM, an establishment politician is prepared to fall on his sword for the greater bourgeois good if bullied enough. Please read my previous post Austerity the new normal on why I believe that the changes in the structure of the working class and the collapse of the Soviet bloc have lifted the restraints on unbridled capitalist accumulation and are likely to lead to all the social reforms of the 20th century being “reformed” away.
In January 2015 Greek voters rejected the austerity policies imposed on them for their previous governments’ sin of accumulating billions of euros of debts. Democracy, whose defence is so often evoked as the reason for wars and restrictions of civil liberties, did not prove so dear to European leaders’ hearts when it resulted in the election of a left-wing government in the country of its birth.
The Syriza government has proved not quite as far left as some predicted, ready to negotiate, its ministers assuring their counterparts they don’t want to leave the euro, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis telling the world that he wants to save Europe from itself.
But Europe’s leaders, the “moderates” of mainstream-media labelling, have insisted it is austerity or nothing.
After Varoufakis visited the European Central Bank in February, the ECB responded to his conciliatory tone by effectively cutting off Greek banks’ access to short-term loans, doing all it could to bring speedy confrontation.
In March the European Commission opposed the government’s “humanitarian crisis bill”, telling it that helping the poor, the aged and the homeless would be “inconsistent with the commitments made”, as would its proposal to facilitate collection of the country’s massive tax arrears by allowing them to be paid in instalments.
Greek tax evasion is estimated to have been worth 20bn euros a year and has been going on for many decades, so pursuing it should provide a tidy sum for the government – France collected 1.8bn euros in 2014 and expects a further 2.2bn euros in 2015 after a number of tax evaders ‘fessed up, motivated both by the fear of exposure thanks to the Swissleaks revelations and a promise of clemency to those who came forward. It could have been far more since tax collectors complained that they did not have enough staff to deal with all the cases in reasonable time.
But collecting tax dodgers’ cash appears to be a low priority for the ECB, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.
The creditors’ conditions “are political”, comments Roman Godin in La Tribune, “the acceptance of ‘reforms’ of the labour market and pensions, which are not urgent economically speaking but which politically ‘cancel out’ the essential points of Syriza’s programme and message”.
Who really believes that Greece can clear its debts if government income is slashed by austerity policies that have led to a 26% fall in production, 26% unemployment and a 33% fall in wages, it is obliged to take out more loans with interest rates attached and, on top of that, it is discouraged from chasing up tax income it is already entitled to?
Anyone would think that for the EU and IMF leaders balancing budgets was less important than destroying what’s left of the welfare state!
French-bashing – the hidden agenda
In France we hear an awful lot about the need to reduce the debt – in fact, it has dictated the Socialist government’s economic policy since its election.
Following the French media is like having a friend who is given to self-flagellating criticism but takes violent exception if you agree with them. On the one hand French commentators get prickly about “French-bashing” (yes, that’s a real Franglais word now), on the other editorialists, analysts, politicians and business leaders insist that the country is locked in a spiral of decline with the working and middle classes frolicking in the sun of unaffordable privilege while employers, big and small, are weighed down by the twin burdens of bureaucracy and taxation. Adding its voice to the chorus of cutters, the European Commission has ordered the government to slash a budget deficit of 4.3 per cent of GDP in 2014 to 3.0 per cent in 2017, although France has gained no less than three extensions, unlike the poor Greeks.
The Socialist government has obeyed orders, drawing up plans to cut 50 billion euros from public spending over the next three years, on top of previous cuts and rises in VAT.
First among France’s autoflagellants is the main bosses’ organisation, the Medef. Of course, it is not really indulging in self-criticism as much as criticism of the state insofar as it is perceived to be indulging the lower orders. The Medef and its cothinkers latch onto what the French annoyingly call “Anglo-Saxon” critiques of the French economy, defending France from the French-basheurs with about as little enthusiasm as their forerunners defended la patrie at the end of the 1930s. But then patriotism, like taxes, is for the little people.
International comparisons don’t always bear out the image of the French being especially idle or particularly privileged, especially when one takes into account productivity, which in some sectors was actually boosted by bosses compensating for the 35-hour week by investing or changing working practices.
But the really puzzling question, for me at least, is how it is that France can’t afford to pay for improvements in social conditions conceded since the end of World War II when GDP, despite declining in the post-2008 crisis, has not just risen but soared in the past 100 years.
GDP per capita:
French total GDP in 1950 was 15.5bn euros. In 1990 it was 1 058.6bn and in 2013 it was 2 113.7bn.
Inflation has taken a chunk out of that, of course, but, if I’ve worked the online calculator correctly, 1950’s GDP was 284bn and 1990’s was 1,566bn in 2013 prices. http://france-inflation.com/calculateur_inflation.php. So we are more productive and vastly wealthier than we were 50 years ago, especially if you bear in mind that wealth has not only been created but also accumulated over the years.
A symptom of France’s unbearable tax burden, perhaps?
Not really, in the tax avoidance stakes the country comes behind Switzerland, the UK, Venezuela and the US, none of whom have higher income tax levels than France – Bolivarist Venezuela actually having the lowest at 34%.
In the space of a few months a total of 180.6bn euros went through HSBC’s Geneva branch to be salted away in tax havens. The money came from all over the world with no apparent correlation between the top rate of income tax and rich people’s inclination to tell the truth to the taxman. The blunt truth is that no matter how much you cut tax, the rich – whether they’re arms traffickers, comedians, politicians, surgeons or heirs to family fortunes – will never be satisfied.
On top of which, they’re good negotiators – it’s a lot of what bosses do for a living – so they’re unlikely to say “Thanks, guys, that’s enough!”
“As long as you’re winning, keep playing,” comments Luc Peillon in Libération newspaper, when reviewing yet another set of demands put forward by the Medef last year.
Having already won “a historic reduction in labour costs” of 40 billion euros during the life of François Hollande’s government, the bosses’ union drew up a new shopping list that included cutting two public holidays, more exemptions for businesses on taxes and social security contributions, creating a loophole in the minimum wage, extending Sunday working and that old chestnut ending the 35-hour week, all under the pretence that it wants to create jobs.
After examining the Medef’s claim that their proposals would create up to 600,000 jobs, Peillon found that the real figure would be about 30,000. Except it wouldn’t. That last proposal would probably destroy jobs by expanding overtime working rather than creating new employment.
This medicine doesn’t work … have some more!
Given that right-wing parties the world over continually advocate “reducing the tax burden” and supposedly left-wing parties habitually cave in to the demand, you’d think that bribing the bosses to invest has a proven track record of job creation.
But in France, as in the rest of the world, the pressure for more tax cuts goes on. The wealthy are cancelling their subscription to the state, while still calling on its services when they prove useful.
So where has the money gone?
Into investors’ pockets. Dividends have risen from 12-13% of French companies’ operating income in 1980 to 30% in 2013, according to state statistics unit Insee.
And whoops! There goes investment (it’s the grey line at the bottom of the graph below profit margins and self-financing rates from 1984 onwards):
Sums paid in dividends in France were half those invested in 1980. They are 2.5 times more today.
And it’s not just in France. All over the rich world companies are stuffing their shareholders’ pockets as if there were no tomorrow.
“Global dividends soared 10.5% to $1.167 trillion in 2014, a new record,” the Henderson Global Dividend Index (HGDI) reports with considerable satisfaction. “Underlying dividend growth – which adjusts for currency movements, special dividends, the timing of big payments and index changes – was still robust at 8.8%.”
Commenting on the international trend, investment fund boss Larry Fink is shown in Perrin’s documentary, Cash Investigation, warning of a threat to companies’ long-term survival if they carry on as they are now.
Here’s how investments has fared in the US and the UK:
The pressure to pay out not only means cutting investment in plant but also in training, one of French industry’s real weaknesses. While right-wing economists compare France unfavourably to Germany on many economic fronts, they rarely mention one crucial difference – in 2012 Germany spent 90bn euros on research and development while France could only rustle up 51bn euros.
Maybe French employers should be getting tax breaks for research. Well, actually, they already are. It’s CIR, the purple line in the graph, produced by the campaign Sciences en marche and it shows that they have pocketed nearly six billion euros this year. The blue line shows the number of jobs created in research. Yes, it’s actually falling as the payouts rise. What a scam!
And, as Cash Investigation shows with stories of employee suicides, boot-camp-style training programmes and factory closures, human capital is squeezed to boost the bottom line.
This search for immediate financial gratification is all part of the tendency to growing inequality, noted by Occupy campaigners, Russell Brand, Oxfam, Thomas Piketty (I’m on page 183 – apparently better than most ebook readers who don’t seem to have got much past page 26 – how far have you got?) … anyone with eyes to see, really.
According to Piketty, the trend in Europe and America is a reversal of a trend that lasted from 1770 to 1990.
The ideological justification for this, the self-serving greed-is-good rhetoric of the political right, has, as can be seen in the ex-troika’s dealings with Greece, become the dogma of the global elite, whether represented by the “Socialist” Dominique Strauss-Kahn or the Sarkozy-worshipper Christine Lagarde.
Today we see the same tendency to the reduction of public spending, stigmatisation of the poor and their increased impoverishment, rising inequality and a rise in the share taken by profit all over Europe and the US.
All this is accompanied by an ideological war on taxation – coopting the middle and working classes into the destruction of social solidarity – and social engineering – privatisation of social housing and the encouragement of home ownership, employee-shareholder schemes and other forms of non-salary pay, hierarchies in the workplace and career structures that pit workers against each other, all of which have the effect of undermining the concept of the collective.
But an ideology only becomes dominant if it suits those who call the world’s political tune.
The rich are reverting to type because they no longer fear revolution
The limited income redistribution that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries was no more an ideological decision than is its current reversal.
Nor were today’s “democratic values”, living standards and social welfare systems handed down by an enlightened elite, reared on a benign Western cultural tradition, as claimed by the political successors of the men who ordered the troops out at Peterloo, had union organisers murdered in the US, butchered the Paris communards and Lyon’s Canut insurrectionists and embarked on the “civilising mission” of colonialism.
Every social and political advance was bitterly resisted, usually with the same brutality that reappeared in the Thatcher government’s showdown with the British miners in 1984.
The modern social welfare state was the product of class struggle, its precursors created primarily by trade unions and other working-class organisations and adapted to capitalism’s needs when it proved necessary to take the edge of the class struggle.
But, according to Piketty’s graph, all this went into reverse in 1990. Why would that be?
To start with, and I know I’m not the first to say this, the labour movement in Europe and the US isn’t what it used to be.
I live in what used to be known as the ceinture rouge, the red belt around Paris, a bastion of the French Communist Party, whose political and trade union base was to be found in big factories like Renault Billancourt, now closed, its site now apparently destined to become an “isle of all the arts”. The factories are no more, the Communist Party has about 70,000 paid-up members, compared to 800,000 in 1946, and the unions, while still pretty shouty in that famous French way, are divided and weakened.
The British unions are similarly weakened and the Labour Party has had its class content surgically removed – no longer one half of a two-party system that reflected the struggle between capital and labour but a competitor in a political game show with an ever-expanding number of players.
Both in Europe and the US the unions have seen their power greatly diminished. The nature of employment in the most advanced economies has deprived them of the means to inflict serious financial damage on major employers with a few exceptions. The conditions that Marx said made the proletariat the gravediggers of capitalism – the collectivism that arose from the industrial process – have been substantially changed in these countries both by accident and design.
In the US today, according to Piketty, 18% of the workforce is employed in manufacturing and 80% in services, while in France the figures are 21% and 76%. Even if the big shift has been the decline in agricultural employment, manufacturing employment stood at 33% in both the US and France in 1950 and services at 50% and 35% respectively.
Of course, the working class has not been abolished. The “knowledge economy” is a fantasy dreamt up by people who apparently haven’t noticed that they are sitting in glass, concrete and steel offices, typing on computers manufactured from steel, plastic and rare earths. But the proletariat does to a large extent seem to have moved east and, even there, is more dispersed and more at the mercy of the movement of globalised capital than its predecessor of a century ago.
And more and more labour is going to be replaced by computerised technology, as John Lanchester indicates in The London Review of Books. He cites an Oxford University study that estimates that 47% of US jobs are “potentially automatable” . So it’s bye-bye telemarketers, insurance underwriters, mathematical technicians, sewers (hand) and title examiners, abstractors and searchers. It will be mainly low-wage, low-skilled jobs that will go, the study finds.
“So the poor will be hurt, the middle will do slightly better than it has been doing, and the rich – surprise! – will be fine,” comments Lanchester.
Given that Le Monde newspaper recently used a computer programme to produce some of its coverage of departmental election results and that Lanchester himself reproduces an article written entirely by computer, I find his prognosis a trifle optimistic so far as my own trade is concerned and the list of skills that are likely to vanish indicates that the middle is likely to be increasingly squeezed worldwide.
Of course, the replacement of human labour by machines, the squeezing of wages and the destruction of the welfare state will all vastly reduce markets and be against the long-term interests of capitalism as a system. But those markets were for the most part created by processes that the capitalists themselves resisted, both individually and collectively, and are being destroyed by the immediate concern for the bottom line that is the motor force of private enterprise.
Piketty attributes some of the 20th century’s redistribution of wealth to the effects of two world wars and the 1918 flu epidemic but I doubt if any of us are hoping for similar cataclysms to create labour shortages and disperse inherited wealth.
In my view the key constraint on capital’s unrestrained greed in the 20th century – the principal reason why the welfare state and the social-democratic compromise was conceded – is overlooked or understated by most commentators.
It was fear of revolution.
And, although its full implications are taking time to filter into the bourgeois brain, that fear is no more.
From 1918 to 1989 an alternative economic system to capitalism existed. It turned out not to lead to the liberation of humanity, to put it mildly, but, ironically, it did oblige capitalism to render itself more acceptable. The US’s propagandists even enrolled abstract expressionism and avant-garde theatre in their efforts to portray the West as the home of freedom but, above all, some of the massive wealth that was being created was invested in providing the mass of the people in the rich, metropolitan democracies with higher living standards than their Russian, east European or Chinese counterparts.
Those days are over. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and China’s conversion to capitalism there’s no need to do that any more – hence austerity as dogma.
Although the 2008 crash brought an end to the post-1989 ideological euphoria, it has not stopped the austerity onslaught.
And why should it?
Consciously or unconsciously, the ruling elite does not feel that its hold on power is under threat, either ideologically or materially.
So maybe Marx’s theory of increasing misery – of all his predictions the one that seemed to be most definitively disproved by the reality of the 20th century – was not so daft after all.