Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Elephant in the Room

[Elephant?  What elephant?  I don't see any elephant.]

In the first round of voting for President of France, the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande got 27.1% and the center-right candidate President Nicholas Sarkozy got 25.6%.  The press is trumpeting this as a victory for Hollande even though 72.9% voted for somebody else.

More important is the fact that Marine LePen, the candidate of the rightist National Front, got 18.9%, the most ever for a National Front candidate.   Imagine an American election in which almost one American in five voted for Ron Paul.  Not one Republican in five, one American in five.  That is roughly what has just happened here.

The anti-capitalist candidate of the Left Front party, Jean-Luc Melenchon got 11.1% of the vote.  Melenchon describes himself as "a red".  6.1% of the vote went to candidates of parties to the left of Melenchon, including Marie-George Buffet of the Parti Communiste.  Between Melenchon and those further left, more than one French voter in six voted for the hard left.

One would think that whether center-left Obama beat center-right Romney by 1.5% or not, was not the most important thing to report about the election.  One would wonder what was going on and why no one was talking about it.

The two establishment parties between them got less than 53% of the vote to more than 47% for anti-establishment parties.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the established order of society.  Yet the establishment press - the New York Times, the BBC, CNN and even the press here, Le Monde and Le Figaro - continue to natter away about Hollande and Sarkozy and the 1.5% more votes that Hollande got than Sarkozy, as though that mattered more than the 47% who voted against both the Democrats and the Republicans.

If the economic crisis (It isn't a crisis - a crisis is short-lived and acute.  This has been going on since 2008.  But I don't know what to call it.  Maybe it is a depression?) is not resolved by the next election in 2017, one can imagine the centrist democratic parties further withering away as they did in the 1930's.

A 47% anti-establishment vote means that France is not stable, and if France is not stable, neither is the European Union.  That is the elephant in the room which no one is talking about.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Triumph of Western Civilization

Last night we heard the Vivaldi 'Four Seasons' performed in the Sainte-Chapelle.  As so often in life, the first step to a joyous transcendant experience was overcoming my preconceptions against it.  Even though we already had tickets to the concert, I was tempted not to go.  My back was giving me a hard time and I had heard the Four Season so often it was sure to be a tired chestnut.  But I went anyway so as not to disappoint Rita.

It proved an outstanding experience.  The Sainte-Chapelle was the private family chapel of the French kings.  While not exactly small, it is intimate compared to Notre Dame.  It was built for Louis IX, who became Saint Louis, and was completed in 1248, a brief but memorable 764 years ago.  It is arguably the loveliest space in Christendom.

Not quite 500 years after the Sainte-Chapelle was built, Antonio Vivaldi composed 'Le Quattro Stagione' - 'The Four Seasons'.  It is a charming piece of music when played on an excellent stereo.  But when played live on violins, cello, and harpsichord, it is a masterpiece of both composition and performance.  The first violin, David Braccini, was masterful and brilliant.  Remember his name.  I predict you will hear it again.

The Sainte-Chapelle is a triumph of 13th Century Western Civilization.  'The Four Seasons' is a triumph of 18th Century Western Civilization.  The fact that 600 closely-packed common people attended the concert, not just the king and his family, is a democratic triumph of 21st Century Western Civilization.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Some Surprising Differences between France and the US

[It's good to be president]

The first round of the French elections are tomorrow.  There are ten candidates - one the rightist Marine LePen, one the center-right incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy, one the Socialist Francois Hollande, and seven others of various leftist persuasions.  The two candidates getting the largest numbers of votes advance to a run-off election in two weeks.

Superficially the system resembles our own system of primary elections followed by national elections.  But the differences are important.   In the US, from the Iowa caucuses to the November election is eleven months of continuous campaigning and is staggeringly expensive.  The campaigns are at least as much about campaign-fund raising as they are about vote-getting.  Among candidates with similar political postures, they are only about campaign fund-raising.  The campaigns are so expensive that the periods between elections are themselves dominated by the prospect of the fund-raising to come.   The urgency of the competitive fund-raising is so great that the interests and desires of prospective and actual political donors come to outweigh the interests and desires of the voters, some would say entirely outweigh them.

Arguably the primacy of donors over voters is the lever with which the power of the ownership classes and special interests is applied.  The French campaign season is only a few weeks.  Its cost is minimal compared to American campaigns.  The explicit domination of money over the French political system is correspondingly less than it is in America.  Because of the smaller cost of campaigns it is harder to translate money directly into political power than it is in the United States.  France has no equivalents to George Soros or the Koch brothers.

I would love to tell you that the result is the reign of reason and the public interest, but alas it is not so.  My impressions, as a tyro and a tourist, are that the two main parties, the Gaullists and the Socialists, appeal to the self-interest of different blocs of voters.  The parties of left and right appeal to the ideology and prejudices of smaller blocs of voters.

The logic of the runoff system is that if one wants to be effective, one must join together with other groups to present a common candidate to try to make it into the top two, one of whom will be president.  Et voila, instead of a unified bloc, the Left fields no fewer than seven competing candidates, eight, if one counts Hollande.  They paraphrase Henry Clay in saying they would rather be Left than be president.

This mindless self-destructive devotion to ideology and political correctness, in the US seen mainly on college campuses, here makes an entire section of French society politically powerless and its leaders politically irrelevant.

It is a close question whether it is better to be ruled by plutocrats or by windbags, and I leave it to the reader to decide.

Friday, April 06, 2012