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Art Goldhammer

Arthur Goldhammer

Writer, translator, scholar, blogger on French Politics, affiliate of Harvard's Center for European Studies, writes for The American Prospect, The Nation, etc.

Articles by Arthur Goldhammer

Caesar Was an Ambitious Man

12 days ago

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‘Tis the weeks after Christmas, in the year before the next presidential election, and ambitions are stirring throughout France and Navarre. Le Monde dutifully warns that the French left is in danger of disappearing for want of unity: Arnaud Montebourg is once again engagé, after trying his hand at beekeeping; Ségolène Royal is seeking to recapture the magic of 2007; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon remains persuaded that “la République, c’est moi,” even though Yannick Jadot is convinced that green is the new red. Bernard Cazeneuve is lurking in the wings, discreetly as always, and others stand at the ready in case one of the prematurely ambitious falters.

Of course, the conventional wisdom, conveniently encapsulated in the

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Paradoxes of France

20 days ago

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This is the first of two reviews of Emile Chabal’s brief history of France since 1940: France (Polity, 2020).

Emile Chabal’s splendid new book is entitled simply France, without further qualification. What sort of book is it? A history or an interpretive essay? If a history, what period does it cover? The unadorned title offers no clue. If an interpretive essay, does it purport to present, as General de Gaulle famously did in his memoirs, “a certain idea of France,” fiercely personal and unique to its author and his experience of the country, or something less intimate, a vast panoramic landscape intended to awe readers with the sublimity of its all-encompassing view rather than orient them in the here and now?

The answer is

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First Le Maréchal, then Mlle Maréchal

28 days ago

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Is Macron’s flirtation with the far right intensifying? A week ago he gave an interview to L’Express in which, mine de rien, he dropped the names of Charles Maurras and Maréchal Pétain. Of course, he did so with a characteristically graceful pirouette, insisting that these are two important figures in French history, too important to be left out of any reckoning with the past. Indeed, they are, but did Macron invoke their names as an historian, with an eye to placing them in their context and critically evaluating their work, or did he intend to use them as icons to signal his affinity with demagogues of the far right such as Eric Zemmour, who seek to rehabilitate the exclusionary nationalism they represent?

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Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing

December 3, 2020

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Giscard-d’Estaing, who died yesterday, marked a transition in the history of the Fifth Republic. Or, rather, he should have marked a transition, but the “modernization” he championed proved abortive, and the “republican monarchy” he sought to overthrow proved stronger than he imagined. In a sense, he was betrayed by his aristocratic instinct, which outwitted his énarque‘s intellect. He retreated from his initial campaign to bring the presidency down to earth into a frosty hauteur that struck many as a failed simulacrum of Gaullian grandeur, and in the end he was replaced by Mitterrand, who displayed a more developed theatrical flair for the monarchical role.
Giscard began as a technocrat–the best economist of his generation,

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The All Too Candid Cameras

November 27, 2020

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Pandering to the police, which was the purpose of the notorious Article 24 of the so-called Global Security Law (see my previous post), has backfired, putting Prime Minister Castex and President Macron in the awkward position of being obliged to denounce police violence even as they are attempting to pass a law that would cover it up by making it illegal to publish images of police caught in the act of beating citizens, such as the four who launched an unprovoked attack on music producer Michel Zecler. They are now suspended, but so is Article 24, which has been farmed out to an “independent commission” for a rewrite–a move which The Financial Times describes as a “humiliating climbdown” for Macron. But even a humiliating

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De quoi le Parti Socialiste est-il le nom?

November 24, 2020

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What’s in a name? Not much, or perhaps all too much, in the opinion of Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure. In an appearance this morning on France Inter, he announced that he would push for the party to change its name, because the adjective “socialist” no longer conveyed what it stood for. “What is that?” inquired the interviewers. Well, that remained to be seen, responded Faure, with characteristic decisiveness. There would first need to be a debate among “socialists,” and then a consultation with the broader left (including, apparently, the Greens, but not Mélenchon), and then perhaps with the country at large. And Anne Hidalgo would of course have to be part of it, even though she is currently feuding

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Separatism or Diversion?

October 2, 2020

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I’ve been quiet for so long that some of you must have concluded that this blog had ceased to exist. The political situation here in the US has been so anxiogenic that it has been hard to concentrate on France. But Emmanuel Macron’s speech today on the subject of “separatism” has awakened me from my slumbers. It signals, if nothing else, the beginning of the 2022 presidential race and tells us something about how Macron plans to position himself on the political chessboard. But the subject deserves a closer look on its own merits.
The French Republic is founded on the premise that it is “une et indivisible,” and the current president’s hostility to “separatisms” and “communitarisms” is, to take him at his word, intended to

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The EU Survives

July 22, 2020

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European summits are odd affairs, in which the high and mighty are reduced to pulling all-nighters, like second-year students obliged to endure a college bull session–which by some accounts these meetings resemble. There are the conciliators and the prima donnas, all duly described by the EU press, which must wait outside closed doors through white nights in the hope of catching word of the irritation of Leader A, the witty repartee of Leader B, or the pounding of fist on table by Leader C. The sessions drag on longer than expected. The caterer is not prepared, and Europe’s potentates must make do with improvised sandwiches. Hopes are raised, then dashed. Despair mounts. And then, at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute an

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The Castex Government

July 6, 2020

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Emmanuel Macron’s self-reinvention did not get very far. The just-appointed Castex government is as unexciting as the new prime minister himself. After Philippe, Castaner and Belloubet were shown the door. Darmanin was moved to interior. Le Maire, Blanquer, and Le Drian remain in their posts.
So what distinguishes the new government from the old? Nothing, really, except that Macron is no longer the young man in a hurry who was going to reshape everything and transform French politics from top to bottom. By essentially keeping the old government in place and firing his popular prime minister, he demonstrates that he has failed to make good on his promise.
The new prime minister is slightly farther to the right than the old: he

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Macron bis has begun

July 3, 2020

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There should be no surprise about Macron’s dismissal of Édouard Philippe: any prime minister who is more popular than his president is ripe for sacking. And it is doubtful that Philippe would have been so assiduous about regaining his mayoral post in Le Havre if he had expected to be kept on. Still, he had demonstrated a quiet competence that might have counted for something. But perhaps Macron wanted to avoid any possibility of his PM building a presidential candidacy on disloyalty to his president, as Macron himself did successfully in 2016-17 and as Valls attempted to do much less skillfully.
The president might of course have chosen a figure as substantial as Philippe to replace him–Bruno Le Maire, say–but Le Maire is also a

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Green Wave?

June 29, 2020

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Yes, the Greens did very well in yesterday’s Covid-delayed second round of municipal elections. They captured some major prizes: Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg, and, most surprisingly, Bordeaux. They retained Grenoble. They came close to winning in Lille, the fiefdom of former Socialist PM Martine Aubry, and Toulouse. In short, a fantastic showing in all of France’s largest cities, save Paris. They have the wind in their sails–or should I say in their turbines?
But what does it all mean? The Green vote actually signifies a number of different things. First, it surely expresses growing concern about the environment, especially among urban professionals. Second, it embodies a vague and not always clearly formulated protest against the current

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Mediapoliticking Comes to France

June 3, 2020

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A movie star and a reality-TV buffoon have won the presidency of the United States in recent years. Is it conceivable that the mantle of Charles de Gaulle will devolve upon a 9/11-denying film clown like Jean-Marie Bigard, a televisual vulgarian like Cyril Hanouna, or a provocateur of the infotainment circuit such as Éric Zemmour? The French media are full of speculation that one of these men might challenge Macron in 2022. Macron is reportedly worried enough about this possibility that he placed a telephone call to Bigard, facilitated by yet another entertainer-cum-politician, Patrick Sébastien.
Or–another interpretation–Macron may actually be trying to instigate a candidacy by one of these media populists, whose

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The Future of the EU: Too Many Plans, Too Many Hands

May 28, 2020

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There are now numerous Covid rescue plans on the table for European leaders to consider. There is no need to run them down here because Prof. David Cameron of Yale has provided an excellent summary of their provisions. Briefly, the central bone of contention is whether EU assistance will be provided in the form of loans, ultimately to be reimbursed by member state recipients, or as grants. In both cases, the EU itself will amass the funds to be disbursed by borrowing in its own name, and it will repay those loans in one of two ways: through taxes it will somehow acquire the power to levy, or through repayment of secondary loans to member states. There is also a further question: to what extent will

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Virage à 1 km–mais à droite ou à gauche?

May 26, 2020

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The pandemic has presented Emmanuel Macron with an opportunity. He can now reimagine his presidency without appearing to have been forced into retreat by the Gilets Jaunes and opponents of his retirement reform. The first moves have already been announced: more resources for hospitals, including long-demanded and long-resisted salary hikes and new hires, plus an 8 billion euro bailout for the auto industry. With Merkel now having come around on debt mutualization, one could almost imagine a reboot of the Macron presidency back to its hopeful early days, but this time with un virage à gauche rather than à droite.
But the right still holds the top posts in the Macron administration, and two of its ambitious

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A Long-Awaited Breakthrough?

May 18, 2020

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It took a pandemic, but Germany’s Angela Merkel has at last agreed with French president Emmanuel Macron that a fiscal response to the crisis is necessary, that it will be achieved by increased spending from the common European Union budget, and that it will be financed by common European debt. As Le Monde says, this is nothing short of a “revolution”:
Mais le fait que le couple franco-allemand se soit mis d’accord sur les grandes lignes d’un plan de relance financé par une dette commune des Etats européens, émise par l’Union et dépensée par le biais du budget européen, est en soi une révolution. Car ce sont deux tabous qui sont finalement tombés outre-Rhin, au fil de ces dernières semaines.
To be sure, there are caveats.

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Macron at Midterm

May 11, 2020

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These are difficult days for political commentators. Politics-as-usual has given way to quarrels over the Covid-19 response. Commentators can choose one of two courses: concentrate on the errors, inevitably plentiful and satisfyingly concrete, of the powers-that-be, or speculate about the unknown and unknowable future, which offers an enticingly blank canvas to be filled with figments of one’s political imagination: Will it be globalized capitalism that disappears, or open borders, or everyday freedoms, or the corner pub and grocer?
French political commentary, as much at sea as political commentary everywhere, has filled the empty column-inches with two regular staples. As long as the Fifth Republic has existed, crises have given

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Two Articles Published Elsewhere

April 29, 2020

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I reflect on the corona crisis and the concomitant “Rebirth of Tragedy” at The Public Seminar. And I summarize France’s just-announced deconfinement policy for The American Prospect.

Tags: Covid
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Melvin Richter, 1921-2020

March 25, 2020

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Tocquevillians recently suffered a major loss: Melvin Richter, the great historian of political thought, died a little over a week ago. Mel was the kindest of men, and intellectually generous in a way that not all great scholars are. He and I shared not only an interest in Tocqueville but also a past as military linguists: the Army taught Mel to speak Chinese as it taught me to speak Vietnamese. We liked to laugh together about the absurdities of military life and the pitfalls of translation. Tocqueville was not the only object of his scholarly interest–far from it–but I am happy to say that Tocqueville absorbed him right to the end of his life, and he has left us the gift of a book on the theorist of democracy now in press.

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Municipal Medicine

February 17, 2020

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Until last week, the impending municipal elections in France were distinguished only by the eagerness of candidates across France to dissociate themselves from any of the political parties, affiliation with which was seen as a dead weight. There was a bit of a kerfuffle around a memo from interior minister Castaner instructing prefects not to tag candidates as belonging to the left, right, or center–nuançage in the somehow colorful yet colorless language of French officialdom–for which he was duly rebuked by the Conseil d’État.
But then came Griveaux-gate: the former government spokesperson and LRM candidate for mayor of the city of Paris suddenly became the French Anthony Weiner, exposed, as it were, by the machinations of a

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Municipal Medicine

February 17, 2020

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Until last week, the impending municipal elections in France were distinguished only by the eagerness of candidates across France to dissociate themselves from any of the political parties, affiliation with which was seen as a dead weight. There was a bit of a kerfuffle around a memo from interior minister Castaner instructing prefects not to tag candidates as belonging to the left, right, or center–nuançage in the somehow colorful yet colorless language of French officialdom–for which he was duly rebuked by the Conseil d’État.
But then came Griveaux-gate: the former government spokesperson and LRM candidate for mayor of the city of Paris suddenly became the French Anthony Weiner, exposed, as it were, by the machinations of a

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Démocratie dans la rue, démocratie en danger

January 30, 2020

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En Avril 2019, Arthur Goldhammer a prononcé ce discours aux étudiants de l’Université de Chicago. Nous sommes reconnaissants de sa permission de publier ses remarques dans notre forum sur les l’Université et la démocratie, organisé en tandem avec le blog Journal of History and Ideas. Cet entretien a été traduit par Justin Saint-Loubert-Bié (read it in English here).
« Qui suis-je et pourquoi suis-je ici? » Vous êtes tous trop jeunes pour vous souvenir de la campagne présidentielle de 1992, où un amiral retraité, James Stockdale, s’est preśenté de cette manière à l’ouverture du débat vice-présidentiel. L’Amiral Stockdale avait l’air de ne pas trop savoir comment il avait fini derrière ce podium, dans

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January 11, 2020

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At last, there is some movement in the strike talks. The government has proposed eliminating the âge pivot for retirements until 2027 instead of 2022 as originally proposed, but this is contingent upon acceptance by the social partners of a plan to bring the retirement system into financial balance in some other way by that date. This plan is to be worked out between now and the end of April.
The CFDT seems at first sight to have embraced this proposal as total victory: the reformist union “greeted” the “withdrawal” of the âge pivot provision from the reform bill as a win “obtained” by its actions, even though Édouard Philippe’s announcement would seem to fall quite a bit short of “withdrawal.” And even if Laurent Berger is prepared to

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Mes voeux … et ceux du président

December 31, 2019

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Happy New Year to faithful readers of this blog. President Macron delivered his New Year’s address to the French a couple of hours ago, and it seems that he has decided to stand droit dans ses bottes, as Alain Juppé tried to do in 1995. He has thrown down a gauntlet to opponents of his pension reform plan and signaled to the government that he expects it to stand firm. There was no concession whatsoever, not even on the âge pivot, which many observers, including me, thought he did not regard as primary.
Of course, this may have been a tactical move. It does not rule out a concession at a later stage. The calculation may be that if anyone must beat a retreat, it should be the prime minister, not the president. But it

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La lutte continue …

December 28, 2019

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This strike is now longer than that of ’95, with no end yet in sight. Although Parisian tempers are fraying, public support for the strike remains high, yet the government shows no sign of backing down (even as the president vacations in the south of France and his ecology minister suns herself in Morocco–not a good look in the midst of a general strike). The strikers remain determined, despite substantial loss of income, while the economy at large has suffered a major hit, with substantial damage to retail sales during the holiday season, enormous losses by the SNCF and in the tourist industry, and knock-on losses in other sectors. So what next, as the situation becomes increasingly volatile and dangerous?
The left hopes to

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“Il faut savoir terminer une grève”

December 17, 2019

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Another day of significant mobilization with no end in sight, as people wonder if their Christmas travel plans will have to be changed and merchants are smarting over the hit to holiday sales. So how does this end? Because, ultimately, all strikes do end, and as the man said, “Il faut savoir terminer une grève.” (Perhaps the most famous remark of a French Communist leader, to place alongside Marchais’s “bilan globalement positif” of the Soviet Union.)
For what it’s worth, here’s my guess of how this one ends. Sometime after Christmas, the government will withdraw its âge pivot provision, which after all did not figure in Macron’s campaign promise to reform the retirement system. This will bring Laurent Berger and

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Et tu, Berger?

December 11, 2019

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Emmanuel Macron appears to have lost Laurent Berger. This is the French political equivalent of a bad Groundhog Day: we are in for at least six more weeks of winter strikes. I won’t pretend to explain the difference between the “legal age” of retirement and the “equilibrium age,” or between a “parametric reform” and a “systemic reform.” Although the task of explanation would not be impossible, it would nevertheless be pointless, because what it comes down is the fundamental mistrust between the parties to this standoff. On all the issues in this imbroglio, compromise should be possible, but it’s not going to happen until everyone has tired of standing on principle while queuing up for rare buses and subways.
I’m not sure that the

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December 6, 2019

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Both sides have reason to be satisfied with the mobilization of Dec. 5. The unions are pleased that the strike received broad support. The number of demonstrators was large, though not unprecedented by French standards. The government is pleased that order was maintained, in no small part thanks to careful planning by the unions, which were able to maintain discipline within their ranks. Whether this will continue as the strike unfolds remains to be seen.
What is clearer than ever, however, is that the two sides are speaking different languages. The government, taking its lead from the investment banker-in-chief, has examined the spreadsheets and determined that the deficit of France’s 42 separate pension funds is likely to rise to more than

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From Democracy in the Streets to Democracy in Danger

December 6, 2019

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In April 2019, Arthur Goldhammer delivered the following speech to the University of Chicago Democracy Initiative and Social Sciences Collegiate Division. We are grateful for his permission to reprint his remarks as part of our joint forum on the Academy and Democracy with the Journal of the History of Ideas blog. 

 “Who am I and why am I here?” You’re all too young to remember the 1992 presidential campaign, in which a little-known retired admiral named James Stockdale introduced himself with those words at the beginning of the vice-presidential debate. Admiral Stockdale seemed more than a little unsure about how he had ended up on a public podium in a situation for which he appeared to be

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Gaulois réfractaires?

December 2, 2019

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This poll was called to my attention by a reader, Frédéric Lefebvre-Naré. It purports to show that while 75% of the French believe that pension reform is necessary, 64% do not trust the present government to produce an equitable reform.
These results epitomize Macron’s problem. He has said that “les Gaulois son réfractaires aux réformes,” but the truth seems to be rather that they are hostile to him, distrustful of his intentions, and afraid of being duped if they assent to sweeping changes of their social model.
But perhaps this assessment is unfair to Macron. It is common in recent years to see polls suggesting that “the people” of this or that country favor massive though vaguely specified reforms yet to find actual, concrete

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The Fifth of December

November 27, 2019

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The union mobilization scheduled for Dec. 5 to protest the government’s intention to reform France’s pension system (yet again!) is shaping up as the Mother of All Battles for the Macron regime. The government is wary of the dreaded convergence des luttes, in which all of France’s discontented social groups merge their wrath into a unified rejection of the incumbent government. It has therefore delayed some measures, backed off the original reform proposal submitted by M. Delevoye, and engaged in a round of “consultations” with union leaders, to no avail. Even the usually compliant CFDT is divided, with the CFDT’s railway section promising to support the strikers. The situation is seen as all the more dangerous in that the

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