A Night at the Opera

Paris has two opera houses. Smack in the middle of the city there’s the Phantom of the Opera place – the Palais Garnier – a big white and gilt thing from the late nineteenth century, with a grand staircase you often see in fashion shoots (that’s Audrey Hepburn as the reluctant model in Funny Face) – and, added much later, a great ceiling painted by Chagall. It’s from the Belle Époque – the beautiful years. Over here we had our Gilded Age – much the same sort of thing. But those beautiful years in France ended abruptly – World War One ended it all, and almost ended the country. Still the old opera house is an over-the-top hoot, just like our Vanderbilt mansions in Newport and North Carolina and elsewhere. And just down the street from the Garnier is Place Vendôme, where you’ll find the Ritz, where Lady Di spent her last night, which is surrounded by the flagship stores of the world’s most expensive jewelers. Just keep walking. You don’t belong there, and you know it.

But the Garnier isn’t used for opera any longer, just ballet. The Paris Opera left in 1989 for the severely modern Opéra Bastille – and yes, that ungainly and rather ugly structure sits right on the Place de la Bastille – where the Revolution started, when the angry mobs stormed the prison that’s no longer there. And the new opera house was inaugurated on July 13, 1989 – the eve of the two hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille – when the Ninety-Nine Percent of the time rose up against the One Percent of the time. And the new opera house is surrounded by bland working-class neighborhoods, east of the now-trendy Marais and far from any glamour. You won’t be intimidated.

And the sturdy Opéra Bastille is the legacy of François Mitterrand – the last socialist elected president of that country – which is fitting. Public works projects reflect the politics of the time. Socialists don’t erect palaces for and in praise of the One Percent, thus the quite fine but austere opera house on the Place de la Bastille. Heck, Mitterrand even invited the Communist Party into his first government, as they do have one of those in France. But Mitterrand was gone by 1995 – the last of his kind.

Still, the two opera houses reflect the two faces of France – rich and remote exclusivity, in high style, and the scruffy masses singing La Marseillaise and demanding justice and fairness and at least a little piece of the pie – liberté, égalité, fraternité and that sort of thing. They’re still working it out. And now they’ve shifted back to the Mitterrand side of things:

France handed the presidency Sunday to leftist Francois Hollande, a champion of government stimulus programs who says the state should protect the downtrodden – a victory that could deal a death blow to the drive for austerity that has been the hallmark of Europe in recent years.

Mild and affable, the president-elect inherits a country deep in debt and divided over how to integrate immigrants while preserving its national identity. Markets will closely watch his initial moves as president.

He narrowly defeated the hard-driving, attention-getting Nicolas Sarkozy, an America-friendly leader who led the country through its worst economic troubles since World War II but whose policies and personality proved too bitter for many voters to swallow.

“Austerity can no longer be inevitable!” Hollande declared in his victory speech after a surprising campaign that saw him transform from an unremarkable figure to an increasingly statesmanlike one. He will take office no later than May 16.

Okay, he shares a first name with Mitterrand (the Associated Press doesn’t use diacritical marks) and he chose the venue carefully:

“In all the capitals there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us, and want to finish with austerity,” he told supporters early Monday at Paris’ Place de la Bastille. “You are a movement lifting up everywhere in Europe, and perhaps the world.”

Celebrations continued into the night on the iconic plaza of the French Revolution, with revelers waving French, European and labor union flags and climbing the base of its central column. Leftists were overjoyed to have one of their own in power for the first time since Socialist Francois Mitterrand was president from 1981 to 1995. …

“Too many divisions, too many wounds, too many breakdowns and divides have separated our fellow citizens. This is over now,” Hollande said in his victory speech, alluding to the divisive Sarkozy presidency. “The foremost duty of the president of the Republic is to unite … in order to face the challenges that await us.”

It was just like old times – and Sarkozy, who was often called L’Américain – at first fondly, and then with derision – was out. Perhaps Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers and Donald Trump ruined Sarkozy’s nickname for him. And Hollande went all Ninety-Nine Percent in this election:

Hollande has pledged to tax the very rich at 75 percent of their income, an idea that proved wildly popular among the majority of people who don’t make nearly that much. But the measure would bring in only a relatively small amount to the budget, and tax lawyers say France’s taxes have always been high and unpredictable and that this may not be as much of a shock as it sounds.

Hollande wants to modify one of Sarkozy’s key reforms, over the retirement age, to allow some people to retire at 60 instead of 62. He wants to hire more teachers and increase spending in a range of sectors, and ease France off its dependence on nuclear energy. He also favors legalizing euthanasia and gay marriage.

It seems a majority of French voters just aren’t like our Tea Party right:

Sarkozy alienated many voters with a lunge to the right during the last two weeks of campaigning as he tried to lure backers of the far-right anti-EU and anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party.

Ah yes, blame it all on the immigrants. That works here. It didn’t work there:

People of all ages and ethnicities celebrated Hollande’s victory at the Bastille. Ghylaine Lambrecht, 60, who celebrated the 1981 victory of Mitterrand, was among them.

“I’m so happy. We had to put up with Sarko for 10 years,” she said, referring to Sarkozy’s time as interior and finance minister and five years as president. “In the last few years, the rich have been getting richer. Now long live France, an open, democratic France.”

“It’s magic!” proclaimed Violaine Chenais, 19. “I think Francois Hollande is not perfect, but it is clear France thinks it’s time to give the left a chance. This means real hope for France. We’re going to celebrate with drink and hopefully some dancing.”

Did she say hope? Yep, we’ve heard that before. These folks still believe in it. And they didn’t gather at the old opera house.

Still there are problems:

Hollande has said his first act after the election will be to write a letter to other European leaders calling for a renegotiation of a budget-trimming treaty aimed at bringing the continent’s economies closer together. Hollande wants to allow for government-funded stimulus programs in hopes of restarting growth, arguing that debts will only get worse if Europe’s economies don’t start growing again.

Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel spearheaded the cost-cutting treaty, and many have worried about potential conflict within the Franco-German “couple” that underpins Europe’s post-war unity.

This isn’t going to be easy. Merkel and Obama called to congratulate him – but his first trip will be to Berlin, to explain that some folks think you grow your way out of a severe recession, you don’t cut everything and hunker down and wait for good times to magically appear, one day, sometime or others. This idea that cuts in public spending – in education and infrastructure and safety nets – will generate more “confidence” and “certainty” among lenders and investors, and thus lead to more jobs and better wages, is killing the UK right now after all – and Ireland and Greece and Spain and so on. Maybe he’ll take Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, and reams of hard data, along with him on that Berlin trip.

But he does have other friends:

While some market players have worried about a Hollande presidency, Jeffrey Bergstrand, professor of finance at the University of Notre Dame, said it’s a good thing that Hollande will push for more spending throughout Europe to stimulate the economy.

Europe is “going into a really serious and poor situation,” Bergstrand said. Hollande “is going to become the speaker for those countries that want to do something about economic growth.”

But the One Percent is unhappy, as Harvey Morris reports in the International Herald Tribune:

So now that France has chosen a socialist as its president for the next five years, will the wealthy head for the exits?

Benjamin Schmitt, a French web designer, satirized the idea of “rich flight” by tweeting a photograph tagged “Meanwhile, at the Swiss border” that showed lines of identical luxury sports cars ostensibly heading out of France.

And the Brussels website CityPlug.be had some fun at the expense of French voters by offering a city guide to the Belgian capital for those planning to flee there if the election did not go their way.

No, they don’t fear the guillotine or anything like that, but close enough:

Discouraged by the highest taxes of any major European country, and attracted by better job prospects elsewhere, educated young French people have joined more traditional tax exiles in seeking their fortunes abroad.

The main European destinations have been Belgium, Switzerland and Britain, where in London alone some 400,000 have set up home.

The business newspaper Tribune noted recently that the richer exiles had little cause for celebration whichever candidate won. “François Hollande’s proposals scare them but Sarkozy has also promised to tax French non-residents,” it said.

Tribune quoted one estimate that, in the event of Mr. Hollande’s victory, more than 1,000 French millionaires might flee to Brussels to join 5,000 tax exiles already there, centered on the Square du Bois, the Belgian capital’s “millionaires’ row.”

It’s tough being the One Percent, but Louis and Marie Antoinette didn’t have a Ferrari or two to hop in and speed off, so things aren’t that bad. But the Washington Post reports that things are tough all over:

Greece dealt a powerful blow to traditional parties that backed the tough terms of the country’s massive international bailout. The result left centrists in Athens scrambling to form a fragile new government against strengthened ranks of the far left and right. Even the leader of a center-right party that earned the most votes – New Democracy – backtracked on a pledge to support the bailout conditions late Sunday, casting fresh doubt on Greece’s rescue deal and the nation’s ability to remain within the euro zone.

The results in France and Greece came after a tumultuous few weeks in which the Dutch government fell and Britain’s Conservative-led coalition received a licking in local elections. In all cases, front and center was the growing debate over austerity vs. growth, with opponents of strict cuts arguing that they are succeeding only in driving the region’s economies into the ground.

This doesn’t bode well for Mitt Romney and his love of that Paul Ryan cut-everything-and-give-the-rich-lots-of-money budget. We won’t storm the Bastille or anything, but folks do prefer growth to austerity. But these folks did storm the actual Bastille:

Giddy revelers thronged Paris’s Bastille square on Sunday as Socialist Francois Hollande swept to a presidential election victory, erupting into cheers and rejoicing not seen since the party’s only other elected president won power 31 years ago.

Tens of thousands of Hollande supporters gave a huge cry of joy as a giant screen showed him as victor, echoing the spontaneous street party in the same historic venue that followed Francois Mitterrand’s 1981 election.

The crowd, many too young to remember Mitterrand’s triumph, spilled onto the steps of the Bastille Opera House – a modernist legacy of the Mitterrand era – clutching flags emblazoned with the Socialist logo of a clenched fist around a rose.

Some activists brandishing Communist Party flags and pink and purple balloons clambered up the base of a column erected on the site of the Bastille prison stormed during the 1789 French revolution. The monument commemorates another revolt, in 1830, which finally toppled the restored Bourbon monarchy.

Eat your heart out, Occupy Wall Street. These folks know how to party:

Revelers blew whistles and some pounded African drums. Reggae music and the rhythms of early 1980s hits from French rock band Telephone regaled the Mitterrand generation.

The party paused for Hollande, who arrived after midnight to address supporters from a concert stage with his campaign slogan, “Change, now”, written on a pale blue background.

“I am the president of youth,” he said in a brief speech. “I know how happy you are, those of you who were here 31 years ago, but I also know how much you, the younger generation, want to take part in building the French nation.”

“In every capital, beyond the heads of government and heads of states, there are people who have found hope thanks to us, who are looking to us and want to put an end to austerity.”

And it was probably quiet at the Ritz, without stuff like this:

“I don’t know if Hollande will do any better on the economy than Sarkozy, but I want a president who knows the value of justice and sharing,” said Maxime Vissac, 27, a teacher in training in Paris. “I have no illusions about the economy – it’s going to be tough all over Europe.”

Thus won’t be easy, but there is liberté, égalité and fraternité to consider. And there is the symbolism:

For supporters of Sarkozy, the first president since Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 to fail in a re-election bid, Sunday’s election represented the end of months of hoping for an upset in the face of unfavorable polls. His UMP party cancelled plans for a victory celebration in the central Place de la Concorde, where King Louis XVI was guillotined during the revolution.

You have to love that choice of venue, which came with some additional end-of-an-age theatrics:

Sarkozy conceded defeat in a speech to them within 20 minutes of polls closing and his supporters rapidly melted away. As they dispersed, one man held up a French tricolor flag with the words “Thank you, Nicolas” printed on it. Around him a chant sprung up of “Now we are screwed.”

Ah, but you aren’t being guillotined. And, looking at what of all this applies here, there’s John Cassidy in the New Yorker:

When the campaign turns to questions of economics, what is happening in Europe should provide Obama with plenty of arguments with which to flay his opponents. Republicans say they want to slash government spending and focus on the deficit regardless of the immediate economic situation. The Europeans have carried out that experiment, and, to say the least, it hasn’t turned out very well. From this side of the Atlantic, the American economic recovery seems pretty impressive. After more than three years of economic stagnation, most Europeans would gladly take GDP growth of two-to-three per cent and an unemployment rate of eight per cent.

The platform that Hollande won on, in addition to the stress it laid on restoring economic growth, echoed several other themes Obama sounded in Ohio on Saturday, when he officially launched his reelection campaign: fairness, hope, and inclusion. Despite all this, though, it seems unlikely that the President, whom Mitt Romney has already accused of trying to foist a “European-style welfare state” on the American people, will be publicly cheering the victory of a French socialist who has promised to raise the tax on people earning more than a million euros a year to seventy-five per cent.

Yeah, you need to be careful about saying anything good about Europe. But you can cheer privately, and smile, as you see which way the wind is blowing.

But then Matthew Yglesias notes that Europe is a special case:

The Eurozone is simply an unworkable enterprise and European voters simply lack the sense of common identity and solidarity that are necessary for such a large and diverse place to share a single system of economic management.

But what we do know right now is that putting in place a single system of economic management, designed in Berlin to suit the agenda and the sensibilities of German conservatives, doesn’t work. For Greece or even for Spain the only practical alternative to doing what Angela Merkel wants is to ditch the Euro, default, watch the domestic banking system collapse, have everyone’s savings wiped out, and start from scratch with a cheaper currency. But France is not Spain, and a President of France could conceivably push an alternative European-level policy agenda. Hollande might not succeed and he might not even try, but it’s the only hope the project’s got.

Yep, it’s complicated. Or, as Kevin Drum suggests, it’s simple:

Apparently the Socialist François Hollande has beaten incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy to become the next president of France. Does this demonstrate that the French, like so many in Europe, are tired of austerity politics and are in a mood for rebellion? Maybe. More than likely, though, it’s just the one zillionth data point demonstrating that when the economy sucks, incumbents are in big trouble. Sarkozy is merely the latest victim.

Or, as the Los Angeles Times reports, it’s not what it seems:

One of Hollande’s first measures will be to live up to his reputation as “Monsieur Normal” and slash his own salary, and those of his ministers, by 30%, a measure that would put him in stark contrast to Sarkozy, who immediately increased his monthly paycheck upon coming to power.

But in spite of his public dislike of austerity and his calls for more emphasis on promoting growth and employment, Hollande is believed to have assured Germany that he will not be an economic loose cannon within the European Union.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that it had obtained a confidential note from the German Embassy in Paris to Merkel’s office in Berlin, which said Hollande had reassured the Germans that he would not return to Keynesian tax-and-spend practices.

“Hollande is aware that right at the start of his term in office, he will have to spell out hard truths to the French,” the memo said, according to the Guardian. It added that Hollande expects to find France’s public finances in a worse situation than Sarkozy led his compatriots to believe.

No one ever has room to maneuver. And stock markets around the world will drop like a rock on this news. All such markets detest liberté, égalité, fraternité and that sort of thing – they work on the opposite principles.

But look at the pictures – this was a monumental and oddly inspiring event, even from afar. Or it was just another night at the opera – the new one in this case.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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