The Runoff

On yesterday’s elections: 1. the French have rejected both traditional parties in an election for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic. And 2. the pollsters largely got it right, which is more than can be said for their British and American counterparts these last couple years.

While the next two weeks are potentially fraught, for the moment the idea of a functioning European project survives. But headlines like

“Macron to ‘blow Le Pen out of the water’ in final round of French election – Not even a terrorist attack could increase Front National’s chances, experts believe”

in this morning’s Independent are exactly what forces of moderation don’t want to see over the next two weeks. Because, as Der Spiegel explains,

“if only a fraction of those who believe that Macron’s victory is a given end up staying home on May 7, then Le Pen has a shot at becoming France’s next president. Because there is one certainty that has survived: Front National supporters will turn out in force.”

While the periphery frays (Brexit, the Turkish referendum), you can at least make an argument this morning that the core still believes in the European idea. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with this ‘blow her out of the water’ kind of loose talk. Two delicate weeks lie ahead for an entirely untested would-be leader in a world full of surprises.

French Election Watch

A good “if you only read one article about the French elections” article: Extremists on Left and Right Push France to the Brink in Spiegel Online.

Excerpt:

(Marine) Le Pen was asked in a recent TV campaign special what she would do if the French voted to remain in the EU in a referendum she has said she would hold. She normally has an answer ready for whatever question might be asked, but this time she said nothing for a long moment, before responding: “I would resign.” When the moderators then asked what the point of a referendum is if she wanted to determine the outcome beforehand, she became angry and quickly switched to her favorite topic: the media’s vicious attacks on Le Pen and her party.

System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

••••

It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

••••

An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.

It’s Show Time for French Elections

This will get you up to speed on the state of things one month before the French election: The center-right Républicains and center-left Parti Socialiste have dominated French politics since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and this year neither may advance to the final round. Among the Républicains, the two best known candidates went down in turn. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comeback attempt was turned back early, then in the primaries’ second round, Alain Juppé was defeated by former Prime Minister François Fillon, who promptly became embroiled in a scandal that has brought his poll numbers down to 18%. He is currently polling in third place.

President François Hollande’s hapless governance has brought the center-left Socialistes’ prospects down with him, and the Socialistes have chosen to radically shake up their status quo. As on the center-right, the expected standard bearer, Manuel Valls, fell decisively in the primaries to a harder left candidate named Benoit Hamon, who proposes shortening the work week to 32 hours, and a tax on robots. He languishes in last place, most recently polling 14.1%.

The candidates most likely to finish one-two are Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Macron has positioned himself squarely in the center, having left the Socialistes to form a party called En Marche, meaning sort of “on the move,” or “let’s go!” While Macron, 39, is accused of a lack of policy heft, he is just about tied atop the polls with the leader of the Front Nationale, Marine Le Pen. Le Pen has worked hard on the “de-démonization” of the anti-EU, law and order party she inherited from her father, the holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen. The firebrand populist hopes to benefit from the rise of nationalism in the west, and from the “Trump effect.”

Here is one in a series of election ads (with English subtitles) that seeks to show Le Pen’s steely determination and patriotism:

The first round of the elections in Sunday, 23 April, with the top two candidates moving to a runoff two weeks later. Conventional wisdom suggests the rest of the political spectrum will close ranks against Le Pen, behind whoever emerges as her opponent in the second round, to be held Sunday, 7 May. More on that then.

Out in the Cold: France in North America

outinthecoldcoverrightsidePublication of the book is imminent. It’s called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and as we run up to publication I’m sharing some photos and excerpts here on the blog.

In Out in the Cold we explore up north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon. That forgotten bit of France is where we are today.

FRENCH NORTH AMERICA

stp

I can’t recall ever having to call a taxi at an international airport, but they are good enough to hang a phone on the terminal wall for you to do so. He wants five Euros for the ride. That is correct; surrounded by Canada and 2,350 miles from Brest, the closest landfall in continental France, he wants Euros.

My conjured vision of a grand Place Charles DeGaulle isn’t quite so grand in reality, not to denigrate. La Place is dominated by the post office on the waterfront and a happy tourism office with bright little displays in the windows. Scarcely a two-minute walk away, the Hotel Robert, a former police barracks, is a throwback, a tiny reminder that once, personal honor trumped personal gratification.

I must sign a pledge, a strip of paper by which I testify that “I (fill in your name), pledge that we will not smoke in our hotel room.” With a space to sign and date at the bottom.

We live in an annex, down the stairs, across the street and back up the stairs, with fine blonde hardwood floors and two big picture windows overlooking a tiny waterfront promenade and green public space, common “saline sheds” for fishermen, and I can see a bit of the airport control tower across the harbor.

The park’s picnic tables and benches are a fine place to pop across (cars yield to people) with your morning coffee. Trees still budding on the 12th of June, yellow wild flowers and thistle all sway in the breeze on a rare, almost cloudless Sunday morning.

Besides the little ferry that runs fifteen or twenty at a time over and back from Ile Aux Marins, Fishermen’s Island, a zodiac laden with prospective whale watchers is the busiest ship in the harbor, tethered sailboats and Hobie Cats bobbing in its wake. In side-by-side dry slips the P’Tit Saint-Pierre sits under repair beside a smaller sailboat that ran into a problem just beginning a solo trans-Atlantic crossing causing a “famous German sailor,” a woman surnamed Joshka, an extended, unintended Saint-Pierre vacation. The parts for her ship must be summoned from abroad.

Bicycles make more sense than cars, but Saint-Pierre is full of boxy Renaults. Just the same, none of them drive very fast and Saint-Pierre town is one of those places with short stubby blocks built all in a huddle down at the water, buildings right up on the road so drivers must slow at every block to check around them. Pedestrians rule; cars defer.

•••••

Frederic Dotte drives up in fashionably torn jeans and a colorful horizontal-striped sweater, a journalist perhaps curious who would be curious about Saint-Pierre. He has agreed to show us around.

French through and through with a good command of English, he is far too good to us, meeting us at Place Charles DeGaulle, taking us to a lookout point at the top of the island, the radio and TV studios where he works, posing for pictures out front with his work satchel, glasses pushed up on top of his head, showing off his island, freely spending time with strangers.

As it happens, his wife is away enjoying a weekend with friends on Langlade, the southern island in the Langlade/Grande Miquelon duo just over Saint-Pierre Island’s spine to the west. Her absence serendipitously affords us a chance at some of Fred’s time, aside from his fielding regular calls from his sixteen-year-old son and chauffeuring around his daughter.

Fred works as a presenter at Saint-Pierre et Miquelon Première radio and TV, where they employ 87, making it the biggest private employer on the island, although it is a curious hybrid, a government institution dependent on profit, as opposed to say, the hospital, which employs more but not for profit. (Subsidies are everywhere. Construction industry workers get some pay in the non-construction season, which runs much of the year.)

“Winter is hard here,” Fred says. A simple fact. But he and his family have stuck it out for six years. Now with an eighteen-year-old daughter at school back in France and their younger kids here, he and his wife plan two more years on the island. They will return when it is time for their boy to go to college.

They own a home in southern France, a little town toward Switzerland. To get here they swapped jobs with a Saint-Pierrais journalist who rented their house in France, but they also bought a house here. They’re not overly expensive, he thinks, certainly cheaper than in France. €150,000 will buy you 1,500 square meters.

Architecture is a jumble, buildings built right on top of one another in that waterfront clapboard style you see in sand-scoured communities here clear across the continent to the Pacific northwest coast.

Part because it’s built for winter, part because everybody knows where everything is, Saint-Pierre merchants don’t fancy up their storefronts. It’s hard to tell if shops are open, sometimes hard to tell if they are even shops.

Some have display windows but some only offer a door to the street. If you have business somewhere you’ll find it. In a place Saint-Pierre’s size it won’t take long.

It is not quite high season (high and short, running from July maybe into September), so no one bothers to open on Sunday. Everybody knows it who lives here, and there are no tourists liable to pop in and buy something. When we leave we must arrange a taxi to the airport in advance because “sometimes on Sunday everybody disappears.”

•••••

Previous excerpts: Here  from the Faroe Islands, this one, naked and freezing, from Iceland and this from Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole.

Click the photo for a larger version on EarthPhotos.com. Out in the Cold will be ready for purchase this spring. My previous books are Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home, and Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide.