Monday, May 28, 2012

A Communist Bar in Paris

Parisian culture is a rich blend of many cultures and ideas. You see this everywhere and one of the regular places I have lunch with my colleagues is the restaurant/bar Joli Môme (old French slang for "pretty girl"). Located in Square Bolivar in the 19th arrondisement of Paris, the Joli Môme is, for want of a better description, a communist bar. They have posters urging you to protect workers rights, pro-Melenchon stickers (a communist politician), great food and slow service.

My lunch last Friday was a delicious soupe marocaine followed by a fiery tagine poisson washed down by a Stella Artois, a great beer for a warm day. I remember thinking how, in the US, most companies would have fired me for that lunchtime beer but over here, no one cares.

Naturally, if I'm talking about sitting in a Communist bar, I have to talk about Communism in France. Communism in France can be summed up with one word: dead. The communists are unlikely to return to power in France not because the French necessarily abhor communism, but because communism would require a complete rewrite of society and French communists are very uncompromising. The French are often very idealistic, but they're also realists: communism isn't coming back short of a complete collapse of the economy and voters turning desperate.

Today, François Hollande, the President of France is a socialist, the first socialist president since François Mitterrand who left office 17 years ago. But I suspect we'll find that Hollande's socialism is different from Mitterrand's in that Hollande actually appears to be a socialist and Mitterrand was, well, Mitterrand. Mitterrand was a larger than life figure and very politically adroit, the latter showing in his quick abandonment of his early hard-left economic reforms after they turned disastrous. Hollande's reforms are forthcoming and I'm quite curious to see what will happen.

Mitterrand was elected at a time when the US and the UK were taking a hard right turn and France was a bit unusual in not following. Hollande, on the other hand, has become president after we've long traveled down the right fork and people are watching him closely. If an economic recovery comes to France, regardless of whether or not it's Hollande's doing, I suspect that there will be a rethinking of politics in Europe. The free market austerity program has been a dramatic failure in Europe and many are struggling to find other solutions. Greece has seen a massive political upheaval at the polls, with even a neo-Nazi party getting seats in parliament. Meanwhile in Iceland, they're rewriting their constitution and arresting the bankers (!). Hell, even in Germany, the Pirate Party is likely to win 10% in the next election. For my American readers: in the US, that result would be meaningless because you can have 49% of the populace support a party and have that party win no seats. I'm not exactly sure how that represents "democracy".

Europe is getting very, very interesting right now and almost anything seems possible. I'm looking forward to the change as Europe, in contrast to the US, seems to be evolving. I don't know if the result will be good, but I can hardly imagine it will be worse than the mess we're in now.


  1. US politics seems static at first glance, but if you look closely, a schism is forming in the Republican Party between the social conservatives and the libertarians, while the party establishment looks on in horror. I think some dramatic things may happen very suddenly in the next few years.

    1. Brent, while I agree about the schism — I've been watching with interest for a while — I seriously doubt it's going to matter. At the end of the day, you still have a right wing party and a far right wing party battling for superiority. I see no real choice in the US and I doubt there will be one after (if) the schism is healed. They will continue to collude to deny voters any significant hope of significantly influencing elections (e.g., voting in people from other parties to major positions) and "democracy" in America will remain reduced to voting for two rich white guys (a group in which I now include Obama).

    2. Brent, I realize I can restate my concerns more succinctly: having social extremists and economic extremists battling for control of the Republican party is hardly reassuring for the future of the US.

  2. • If you classify Mélenchon as a communist (technically he's not, he's from his own "parti de gauche"), then communism in France isn't by any measure dead (or, if it was dead, it's resurrecting), since Mélenchon scored 11% in the first round of the presidential election, which is better than centrist Bayrou, and way better than the previous communist party's sanctioned candidate (Buffet) with her 2% in 2007. Even at their nadir, the French communists always managed to secure a parliamentary group in both houses of the French parliament, and there were communist ministers in Jospin's govenment in 1997–2002.

    And beyond the national level, there are a number of French cities, notably in the Parisian "banlieue rouge" (Bobigny, Saint-Denis, Nanterre, Malakoff, etc.) having a communist mayor, which are often described as forming that party's power base. (In comparison, the far-right Front national, although it almost certainly commands a larger fraction of the national electorate, currently has no representatives in parliament, and no mayor of any sizable city is from that party.)

    • Mitterrand (spells with two r's) didn't abandon his hard-left economic reforms so much because they were disastrous as because public opinion shifted. In 1981 he had a solid majority in the lower chamber of parliament, but in 1988, when Mitterrand was re-elected, the makeup of the Assemblée nationale wasn't nearly as favorable to the Left, public opinion had shifted, so in 1988–1993 he and his government were distinctly more centrist than in 1981–1984. Also, the Left returned to power in France in 1997–2002 with Prime Minister Jospin, and it was once again very moderate (despite the fact that the communists were part of the coalition); but of course, at the time, the economic context was very favorable.

    Similarly, what Hollande does in the next five years will largely be the result of the parliamentary elections next month and whether he has to rely on the support of the communists / front de gauche or whether the socialists hold a majority by themselves. But in any case, Hollande himself, and his chosen Prime Minister Ayrault, are social-democrats of Rocardian style (Rocard being Mitterrand's Prime Minister between 1988 and 1991 and the symbol of the shift toward the center of Mitterrand's rule): and accordingly, the hard-left has often accused Hollande of being "la gauche molle" ("the soft Left") during the presidential campaign. It is true that he may be very different (in the sense: less economically liberal) from Tony Blair or Gerhard Schröder, but you still shouldn't expect anything radical. Hollande is good at making reasonable compromises, not bold moves toward the unknown.

    1. Thank you for the excellent and detailed response! I've also fixed the spelling of Mitterrand.