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Art Goldhammer

Art 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 Art Goldhammer

Melvin Richter, 1921-2020

8 days ago

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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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Endgame?

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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Impasse?

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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Franco-German Couple on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

November 26, 2019

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Steven Erlanger, formerly the Times correspondent in Paris, now based in London, published an extraordinary scoop the other day. Somehow he got on the record this admonition from Angela Merkel to Emmanuel Macron:
“I understand your desire for disruptive politics,” Ms. Merkel said. “But I’m tired of picking up the pieces. Over and over, I have to glue together the cups you have broken so that we can then sit down and have a cup of tea together.”
These are the depths to which the Franco-German relationship has fallen. How far we have come since Macron’s election 2 1/2 years ago, when many commentators, including me, looked forward to an Era of Good Feeling between the two powers at the heart of

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Lucidity and Brain-Death

November 8, 2019

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Yesterday I had harsh words for Emmanuel Macron. Today I must pay respect: à tout seigneur, tout honneur. About yesterday’s post a friend commented, “Yes, but there is no alternative.” And that is the Macron problem in a nutshell: there is no alternative, either domestically or, as the president demonstrated in his interview with The Economist, published yesterday, internationally. What other Western leader is thinking and speaking about such a wide range of such subjects with such strategic intelligence or–to use a word that Macron himself used three times in his interview–lucidity?
Macron professes to “look reality in the face.” Like Raymond Aron, whom he has studied, he thinks that politics should depend not on pious hopes

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Jupiter Redux

November 7, 2019

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It will be difficult, I anticipate, to strike the right tone with this post. I do not want to suggest that the continued influx of immigrants from very poor countries is not a problem for France. This morning’s report of the appalling conditions in one of the many roadside camps on the outskirts of Paris makes clear, moreover, that there is a problem not only for France but also for the migrants, who, at great peril to themselves, have succeeded only in exchanging one kind of hell for another. But the response of the president (and the government) has been an exercise in the venting of futile passions.
The decision to cut state medical aid (AME) to migrants is–not to mince words–a shocking concession to a longstanding xenophobic demand.

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Raphaël Enthoven

September 29, 2019

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Raphaël Enthoven was invited to address Marion Maréchal Le Pen’s nascent movement/party/LePenist fifth-column within the far right–whatever you want to call it. He took the occasion to challenge the New Right to its face. Alexander Hurst translated his remarks, which you can read here. Thanks to Alexander for calling this to my attention.

Tags: Far right, Rassemblement National, Enthoven
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Jacques Chirac

September 28, 2019

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Jacques Chirac’s political career spans the time I have been closely watching French politics. He was first elected to the Assemblée Nationale in 1967, after serving as President Georges Pompidou’s personal fixer: Pompidou called him the “bulldozer.” It was Chirac who was sent out, pistol in pocket, to negotiate with PCF and union leaders at the height of the ’68 general strike. The tough guy with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a gun in his pocket, a Gaullist “enforcer”: this was the image of the early Chirac, quite different from the belated image of the beloved statesmen whom people are lining up today to mourn as he lies in state at the Elysée.
Enfeebled by age and infirmity, he shed the swashbuckling image that had

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“Grenelle” galvaudé

September 4, 2019

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France is currently conducting a “Grenelle des violences conjugales,” the latest in a long series of “Grenelles.” Young folks may not know the origin of this peculiar appellation for a political form to which the French are peculiarly drawn. Here is some background.
The word comes to us from the “Accords de Grenelle” of 1968. The word “Grenelle” refers to the rue de Grenelle, which happens to be the seat of the Ministry of Labor. In 1968, in the thick of the general uprising of that year known simply as The Events, representatives of business, labor, and government met at the ministry and hammered out an agreement that included a 35% increase in the minimum wage and other concessions to working people. Although the “accords” were

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Showing Some Moix-ie

September 3, 2019

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Moxie (U.S. slang): “force of character, determination, nerve.” Or chutzpah, one might say, as Yann Moix, the avowed (ex?) anti-Semite who claims to have abjured his former prejudice to become a student of the Talmud, surely knows. Following the latest Moix scandal, the French might wish to modify the American slang for their own usage: “Moix-ie,” the impudent exploitation of tearful televised apologetics.
I won’t rehearse the details of the Moix scandal for those who haven’t followed it. Details can be found here, here, and here. I will simply note that the revelation of the writer’s anti-Semitic and negationist past has obscured the memory of his two previous national scandals, precipitated in turn by his affirmation that he

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L’urgence des réformes n’est plus ce qu’elle était

August 31, 2019

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Time was, “reform” was the watchword of Macronism. Without it, the candidate insisted, France was doomed to stagnation or decline. The established political parties lacked the stomach for it. Real reform would take an outsider like Macron, whose litany of proposed reforms was so extensive that it would amount, he claimed in the title of his campaign tome, to a “Revolution!”
Urgency was in the air in 2017. The barbarians, in the form of the Front National, were at the gate. Without reform, we were told, they would soon be inside. And for the first two years the promised reforms arrived more or less on schedule–until the discontented donned their yellow vests. Then we began to hear more and more about

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La rentrée (la mienne aussi)

August 28, 2019

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My apologies for the long hiatus in this blog. I’ve been translating Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capitalism and Ideology, which will be out in France on Sept. 12 and in English next spring. The manuscript was nearly a thousand pages, so I’ve been busy. But it’s done. Time to get back to French politics.
It was less than nine months ago that pundits were speculating about Macron’s mental health. The Gilets Jaunes had supposedly done in the previously invincible Wunderkind, who was said to be “exhausted” and “depressed.” But a new Macron was already in gestation, and he has adroitly stage-managed his rentrée. First, there was the triumphant G7, in which the young lion-tamer once again bravely confronted the yellow-maned

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The Republicans Temporize

June 20, 2019

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With the news that Les Républicains are about to choose Christian Jacob as their new leader, it is clear that the party has no idea where it intends to go in the future. Christian Jacob is one of those politicians who has always gone wherever the power is at the moment, whether to follow Jacques Chirac, his first master, or Sarkozy, Copé, or Fillon in the years that followed. Fillon is supposed to have called him Rantanplan, after Lucky Luke’s dog, himself a parody of Rin Tin Tin, who came when he was called. LR, in order to avoid yet another guerre des chefs, has called, and Jacob has come, running and wagging his tail.
Of course, the chefs who remain chez LR are pygmies rather than titans and not really in shape for war,

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Whither Europe?

June 10, 2019

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It is now two weeks since the European Parliament elections, and the dust has yet to settle. It was a remarkable election in many ways–unprecedented, really. Normally, EP elections are referenda on incumbents; domestic issues outweigh European issues. It would be too much to say that domestic issues took a back seat this time; of course they always matter, or at any rate the “throw the bums out” reflex always counts for something. But this time a very different sentiment is what moved masses of voters, I think, a sentiment that conjoined the usual disgruntlement with a more ominous foreboding that things might be heading in a seriously wrong direction. Europeans, like Americans, have begun to worry about Big Things: Is the postwar

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From de Gaulle to Tartuffe

May 27, 2019

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To understand the collapse of Les Républicains, one has only to re-run one of the televised debates that preceded yesterday’s European elections. France2 had asked each of party representative to start off with a show-and-tell: each was to present an object illustrating the deep meaning of his or her party’s campaign. Le Pen’s choice was brilliant: she showed an image of a truck driver, one Loïc, who had suffered, she said, from the EU’s detached worker directive. François Bayrou, representing LREM, showed an owl–the owl of Minerva, he said, or Athena for the slower students in the class–and left everyone baffled as to what it meant. And then came Laurent Wauquiez, who held up a picture of a church. “France and Europe are

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Hot Take on the European Elections

May 26, 2019

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The polls were wrong. Despite a lackluster campaign, interest in this election was higher than predicted, and turnout rose. The contest between Macron and Le Pen ended about as expected, with Macron holding his own despite six months of Gilets Jaunes protests–a victory of sorts. But the big news was the collapse of the Republicans, who finished with only 8, despite polls showing that François-Xavier Bellamy–a fairly sympa fellow for a reactionary Catholic–might finish with as much as 15 (but it’s true that his numbers have been declining since hitting that high). This poor showing–compare with Fillon’s result in round 1 of the presidential–will make it difficult for Wauquiez to hold on as leader of LR. This is good

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Mayday

May 2, 2019

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May 1, the tradition fête des travailleurs et travailleuses, turned out not be quite as apocalyptic as the authorities had warned, perhaps exaggerating a bit in order to frighten away potential marchers. Neither was it the convergence des luttes that Jean-Luc Mélenchon had called for. Most of all, it did not signify a renewal of the trade union movement, as Philippe Martinez, the leader of the CGT, had to be exfiltrated from the line of march, or rather one of several lines of march, by his security service when he was caught between the CRS and a contingent of Black Bloc anarchists. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen hid out in Metz, where she bizarrely denounced the EU (which she now, with her customary habit of acronymic punning, calls “l’UERSS”) for

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The Contradictions of Populism

April 30, 2019

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Since November 17 of last year, we have been regaled every Saturday with the lament of the Gilets Jaunes, those salt-of-the-earth French men and women who join together to protest the bloated state of pampered civil servants who batten themselves at taxpayer expense while good people in the provinces struggle to make ends meet. But at least one of those pampered civil servants turns out to be one of the more telegenic Gilets Jaunes, Un fonctionnaire territorial, Jean-François Barnaba. Barnaba has been collection 2600 euros a month for the past ten years for doing nothing. And now he has joined the ex-Front National no. 2 Florian Philippot, now leader of Les Patriotes and advocated of “Frexit,” on the ticket for the

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Macron, Act II

April 26, 2019

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After Gilets Jaunes Act XXIII, yesterday the curtain rose on Macron Act II. There were innovations in both form and substance. Let me begin with the form, where the change was more noticeable. This was the first press conference of this presidential term. The setting, the newly renovated Salle des Fêtes in the Elysée, was spectacular and made to seem so by the occasional cutaway shots showing the impressive gilt ceiling, the forest of chandeliers, the throng of journalists, and, seated at the head table, covered in white, alone, the president.
The table deserves comment. De Gaulle sometimes gave press conferences seated behind a table, but not a plain table like Macron’s, rather an ornate Louis XV antique–Macron used a similar prop,

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Macron, Act II

April 26, 2019

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After Gilets Jaunes Act XXIII, yesterday the curtain rose on Macron Act II. There were innovations in both form and substance. Let me begin with the form, where the change was more noticeable. This was the first press conference of this presidential term. The setting, the newly renovated Salle des Fêtes in the Elysée, was spectacular and made to seem so by the occasional cutaway shots showing the impressive gilt ceiling, the forest of chandeliers, the throng of journalists, and, seated at the head table, covered in white, alone, the president.
The table deserves comment. De Gaulle sometimes gave press conferences seated behind a table, but not a plain table like Macron’s, rather an ornate Louis XV antique–Macron used a similar prop,

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