Argument

The Gauche Cadaver and the Socialist Tea Party

A war within in François Hollande’s teetering government is threatening to end socialism in France as we know it.

French President François Hollande visited Ile de Sein, a tiny, rocky, and windswept island off the Breton coast, on Aug. 25 to mark the 70th anniversary of France's liberation from Nazi occupation. Ile de Sein was a fitting choice: All of the island's men, upon hearing Charles de Gaulle's BBC address on June 18, 1940, declaring that France had lost a battle, but not the war, clambered onto their trawlers and sailed to England to join the Free French Forces.

Hollande no doubt felt as alone that day as de Gaulle did in London more than 70 years ago. As he was speaking on a rain-lashed field -- his glasses fogged over and water dripping down his forehead -- his government, formed scarcely five months ago on April Fool's Day, was in the throes of civil war back in Paris. We can measure Hollande's solitude, perhaps, when we recall that he won office under the banner "Le changement, c'est maintenant" ("The time for change is now"). Clearly, now is the time to strike the words "le changement" from the banner and in its place pencil in "la crise."

In fact, there is not one crisis, but several that are now confronting Hollande, his party, and his country. The deep causes of the unfolding drama in France are economic, institutional, structural, and ideological. Yet like a bolt of lightning striking a forest, a single event this past weekend lit up and set alight the French political landscape.

On Sunday, Aug. 24, Minister of Economy Arnaud Montebourg and Minister of Education Benoît Hamon met in Frangy-en-Bresse, the heart of Montebourg's electoral district in eastern France, for the annual outdoor gathering of local Socialists, called the Fête de la Rose. The sharpest thorns, it turned out, were in the toasts and not on the stems.

Taking aim at Hollande's recent declaration to Le Monde that his government would reduce the national deficit by 50 billion euros in three years, Montebourg declared: "The priority needs to be on getting out of this crisis and the dogmatic reduction of deficits should come second." He left no doubt as to the keeper and enforcer of these dogmas: "France is a free nation that is not duty-bound to align itself with the obsessions of the German right."

Hamon, who like Montebourg belongs to "the left of the left," also emphasized the existence of alternatives to the politics of austerity embraced by Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls. While Hamon insisted on his loyalty to the government, he knew he was invited to the gathering because, in an interview a few days earlier, he had affirmed his support for a growing number of Socialist frondeurs in the National Assembly. The term "frondeur" was coined in the 17th century to identify those aristocrats and commoners rebelling against the Bourbon monarchy, but now is applied to those Socialists who are increasingly restive over their government's efforts to reduce the national deficit and lighten the tax burden on businesses, while unemployment continues to climb and the social fabric continues to fray.

Whether Montebourg and Hamon had scripted their hit-and-run or had just savored one too many glasses of the local wine, it didn't matter. The consequences were immediate.

According to several sources, Valls delivered an ultimatum to a waterlogged Hollande on Ile de Sein: "It's either them or me." Hollande, though notorious for his inability to make decisions, immediately demanded the resignation of all his ministers. He then renamed Valls as prime minister and tasked him with forming a new government.

The president had no choice. He had to keep Valls by his side. Only five months earlier, in the wake of the Socialist Party's pummeling in the municipal elections, Hollande named Valls as his new prime minister in the hope that he could save his own presidency by carrying out the painful belt-tightening demanded by Brussels, all the while keeping his ministers in line. The pugnacious and authoritative Valls, then serving as minister of the interior, was the only politician with the necessary credentials to reverse the Socialist government's dimming popular support.

Hollande's hopes for salvation have proved illusory so far. Not only does he continue to break his own records as France's most unpopular president in recent history, but Valls, who has his eyes fixed on the 2017 presidential election, has seen his own ratings plunge as well. The events preceding and following the resignation and remaking of the government have less to do with France's dire economic and social condition than the jockeying for the best position in the polls. Like Valls, Montebourg is young, determined, and ambitious. In the 2011 Socialist primaries he ran against both Hollande and Valls. Though he lost to the former, Montebourg ran circles around Valls, winning 17 percent of the vote against Valls's 6 percent.

The coming months will reveal whether it would have been safer for Valls to keep Montebourg in the government, and thus tied, however loosely, to its policies, or push him out and thus free him to oppose the government. But what has been clear for quite a while is that the two men represent the two principal wings within the Socialist Party that are now struggling for its soul. Last year, the New York Times's well-known specialist in French politics, Maureen Dowd, described Montebourg as the "Charles de Gaulle de gauche." The comparison spurred many smirks in France, though not nearly as many as did Montebourg's own self-description this week: "I will follow the example of Cincinnatus, who preferred to quit politics and return to his fields and plow." (A stirring comparison, once we overlook that Montebourg never farmed a day in his life and rather than quitting, was fired.)

But there is at least one crucial conviction shared by Montebourg and de Gaulle: the primordial importance of the state in cultivating and protecting the nation's economy and industries. Montebourg first made his mark in 2011 with his campaign pamphlet, titled "Votez pour la démondialisation!" ("Vote for de-globalization!"), which denounced the "cult of free markets" and the "fundamentalists of unrestrained commerce." Globalization, which Montebourg associates with the United States, was undermining not just France's cultural and economic health, but also its national sovereignty. As minister of industrial recovery, then minister of the economy under Hollande, Montebourg continued to play the protectionist card, most notably in his failed effort to keep open and in French hands a faltering steel plant in the economically depressed town of Florange.

While this is a card Montebourg will play in the coming months, Valls will instead deal from a different ideological deck. Ever since he joined the Socialist Party, Valls has situated himself on the liberal right. In the peculiar vocabulary of French politics, this means that Valls wants to lighten the state's footprint in the marketplace, but maintain it in the public sphere. In the tradition of Georges Mandel, the Socialist minister of the interior in the 1930s who hounded the fascist leagues and Communist Party with equal vigor, Valls insists that a Socialist can be as authoritative, if not downright authoritarian, as someone from the right. (Not surprisingly, the title of Valls's own 2011 campaign pamphlet was "Security," which was preceded by the no less significant "Let's Finish with the Old Socialism" and "Power.")

The test for both men will come next month, when Valls has promised he will go to the National Assembly and demand a vote of confidence for the new government and the continuation of its economic policies. With the elimination from the cabinet of Montebourg and Hamon (plus Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti), as well as the earlier shedding of the Greens, the government's base has dangerously narrowed. It claims 305 supporters, whereas a majority in the National Assembly requires 289 votes.

But Valls and Hollande cannot find much inspiration in the math, since at least 30 Socialists identify themselves as frondeurs, and, in late August, a little more than 200 Socialist deputies signed a manifesto urging their colleagues to support the new government. Among the remaining 100 or so, no doubt there were more than a few who were less than reassured when Valls declared to an audience of business executives on Wednesday: "J'aime l'enterprise!" While the executives swooned, the editors of L'Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party, moaned that Valls had just delivered "the left's corpse" to capitalism.

It may well be that -- as the title to one of Valls's pamphlets would have it -- France is finished with traditional socialism. What will take its place, however, remains to be seen.

EPA/FRED DUFOUR / POOL

Argument

The New Arab Cold War

As the United States steps away from the Middle East, its allies have tried to fill the void -- with disastrous results.

A bitter proxy war is being waged in the Middle East. It stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and reaches into North Africa, taking lives in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt's Western Desert, and now Libya. Although the nihilism of the Islamic State and the threat of other extremist groups have garnered virtually all the attention of the media and governments, this violence is the result of a nasty fight between regional powers over who will lead the Middle East. It is a blood-soaked mess that will be left to the United States to clean up.

The popular conception of the Middle East is one of a region divided along sectarian lines pitting Sunni against Shiite, but another simultaneous struggle is underway among predominantly Sunni powers. The recent Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes on Libyan Islamist militias is just one manifestation of this fight for leadership among Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these countries have waded into conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and now Libya in order to establish themselves as regional leaders.

Yet these regional contenders for power have rarely achieved their goals. Instead, they have fueled violence, political conflict, and polarization, deepening the endemic problems in the countries they have sought to influence. And if the United States doesn't step in, the chaos will only get worse.

President Barack Obama's attempt to disentangle the United States from the Middle East's many conflicts has only intensified these rivalries. From a particular perspective, Iraq's chaos, Syria's civil war, Libya's accelerating disintegration, and Hosni Mubarak's fall all represent failures of American leadership. As a result, Washington's regional allies have come to the conclusion that they are essentially on their own and have sought to shape the Middle East to their own specific geopolitical needs and benefits. This has stoked the embers of conflict in various arenas -- notably Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and now Libya -- where this competition is playing out.

Take Turkey, for example. Ankara's activist foreign policy raised Turkey's profile in the region in the 2000s, but the country's prestige has waned as a result of a series of missteps in regional hot spots. After significant financial, diplomatic, and political investment in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime since the ruling Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, the Turkish government has become a leading advocate of regime change in Syria. Unwilling to intervene in the Syrian civil war and unable to coax the United States to do so, Ankara turned a blind eye to extremist groups that used Turkish territory to take up the fight against Assad.

In Egypt, it made perfect sense that the Turks opposed now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's July 2013 coup d'etat. Turkey has a long, unhappy history with military interventions, and then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's own worldview places a premium on Muslim solidarity in the conduct of Turkey's foreign policy. Yet the war of words between Ankara and Cairo since then and the support that the Turkish government has extended to the Muslim Brotherhood -- including the broadcast of Rabaa TV, a Brotherhood television station that has sought to delegitimize Egypt's post-coup political process from Istanbul -- has only contributed to the political polarization and instability in Egypt. Despite the Turkish public's solidarity with the Palestinian people, Ankara's support for Hamas during the recent conflict in Gaza has extended the conflict and contributed to Palestinian suffering, in addition to further souring Turkey's relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel.

Like Turkey, Qatar has taken a populist approach to regional issues, which has veered into support for extremist groups. The Qatari leadership wants to resist Saudi pressure on Doha to fall into line with Riyadh's regional preferences regarding Iran, Egypt, Gaza, and Syria. Saudi Arabia is now trying to offer carrots to entice Qatar into accepting its primacy, recently sending a high-level delegation to Doha, after earlier sticks -- in the form of the withdrawal of Gulf Cooperation Council ambassadors from the country -- failed. Qatar has been less circumspect than others in its support for groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, both offering official funding to Islamist groups in Syria and allowing private contributions to groups including al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate. This has helped create an environment in which groups -- both violent and peaceful -- seeking to overturn the regional political order can thrive.

The failure of the other contenders for power leaves the Saudis and Emiratis enjoying a moment of ascendancy. This is not to suggest that their approach to the myriad problems confronting the region is wise or that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will be successful everywhere they seek to shape the region. Yet faced with what they perceive to be threatening versions of political Islam surrounding them, unchecked Iranian power, and an American determination to leave the region, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have responded with a coherent policy to confront these challenges. By taking matters into their own hands -- sometimes even in opposition to U.S. preferences -- and coupling their financial resources with like-minded agents willing to use force and coercion, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been able to shape regional events.

Yet despite the massive amount of money the Saudis and Emiratis have spread around the region, their efforts have so far only resulted in further violence across the Middle East. In Egypt, money and political support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have given the generals in Cairo cover to engage in a wide-ranging crackdown on political dissent. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2,500 people were killed, 17,000 were injured, and 16,000 were jailed in Egypt between the July 2013 coup and last March. In Syria, disputes among Sunni Gulf nations over which groups to back have fueled incoherent leadership among the opposition and undermined attempts to depose Assad. The implicit support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for Israel's invasion of Gaza has contributed to even more bloodletting.

These conflicts have less to do with Iran and the Sunni-Shiite divide than widely believed. Rather, they represent a fracturing of Washington's Sunni allies in the Middle East. Left to their own devices, the proxy wars the Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris, and Turks are waging among themselves will continue to cause mayhem. After a month of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State and the potential for new military operations in Syria, this is clearly the lesson that the White House is learning.

It seems that by their own miscalculations and craven approach to regional problems, Washington's allies have succeeded in doing what the Obama administration was determined not to allow -- getting the United States sucked back into the Middle East. In the end, the United States is the indispensable nation after all.

Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images