The Dictator of France

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron outside the Elysée Palace in Paris, June 23, 2018 (Elysée/Ghislain Mariette)

What’s gotten into Persuasion?

First they published a ridiculous hit piece arguing Spain’s center-left prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is the greatest threat to democracy since Francisco Franco. Now it’s Emmanuel Macron’s turn.

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston, accuses the French president of becoming “authoritarian”.

To be fair, Zaretsky recognizes that a measure of autocracy is built into France’s presidential-centric Fifth Republic. On paper, the French president is the most powerful leader in democratic Europe; both ceremonial head of state and chief executive. Every president, from Charles de Gaulle to François Mitterrand, has been accused of dominating French politics in their time.

Macron is no different. Zaretsky marshals little evidence to prove this president (ab)uses the powers of his office more than his predecessors. Read more “The Dictator of France”

Butter on Their Heads

Wopke Hoekstra
Dutch finance minister Wopke Hoekstra in The Hague, September 15, 2020 (Ministerie van Financiën/Martijn Beekman)

There’s a Dutch expression for hypocrisy that doesn’t have a direct translation in English: you accuse someone of having “butter on their head”. It means they better avoid the heat lest it stream down their face.

Party leaders Wopke Hoekstra of the Christian Democrats and Lilianne Ploumen of Labor stepped into the heat on Saturday, when they addressed their respective party congresses (held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic). It wasn’t long before the butter on their heads started to melt.

Both accused Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in power for ten years, of dismantling the Dutch welfare state.

Just one problem: their parties have each governed with Rutte for five of the last ten years. Read more “Butter on Their Heads”

Rutte’s Liberal Party Shifts to Center in Netherlands

Mark Rutte
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte joins a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, January 20, 2016 (European Parliament)

The Netherlands’ ruling liberal party has further moved to the center in its manifesto for the upcoming election, arguing that the coronavirus, climate change, American disengagement and instability in the European periphery call for a stronger state and a stronger EU.

It’s not sudden shift. The traditionally anti-statist and mildly Euroskeptic liberals have become more middle-of-the-road during the ten-year prime ministership of Mark Rutte, who will be seeking a fourth term in March.

They have overtaken their traditional rivals on the right, the Christian Democrats, who are polling at a mere 8-10 percent compared to 25-28 percent for the liberals — faraway in first place, but short of an absolute majority.

The manifesto therefore won’t be implemented in full, but it is telling the party is already signaling a willingness to move to the left in a future coalition.

The draft has yet to be approved by members. There are liberals who complain Rutte has been too willing to compromise with left-wing parties and left a space on the right for Forum for Democracy and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, which are polling at a combined 15-19 percent. But liberal rebellions against the party leadership are rare.

Here are the manifesto’s highlights. Read more “Rutte’s Liberal Party Shifts to Center in Netherlands”

Criticism of Macron’s Islam Policy Is Over the Top

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron gives a speech in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, April 17, 2018 (European Parliament)

Emmanuel Macron is the most liberal president France has had since the 1970s, when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing legalized abortion and made contraceptives commercially available. Yet there has been a tendency on the left to blow every hint of Macronist illiberalism out of proportion.

Macron did not, on balance, cut public spending. He raised welfare benefits, extended unemployment insurance to the self-employed and penalized companies that made excessive use of short-term contracts. But he also liberalized labor law, to make it easier for firms to hire and fire workers, and abolished a wealth tax few millionaires paid, which earned him the moniker “president of the rich”.

Police largely tolerated the so-called Yellow Vests protests against Macron in 2018, but left-wing critics seized on a few instances of police violence to argue the president couldn’t stand criticism.

Now that Macron is taking a harder line against Islamic extremism, following the beheading of a French teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils, John Lichfield reports for Politico Europe that the same tendency is rearing its head on the (American) left.

The New York Times claims Macron has ordered a “broad government crackdown against Muslim individuals and groups.” The World Socialist Web Site, in a widely retweeted story, accuses Macron of “whipping up … anti-Muslim hysteria.” An American sociologist who researches white supremacists laments that French officials “respond to violent extremism with violent extremism.”

What is this “broad crackdown”? Macron’s government has closed a mosque, which was run by a radical imam. A number of arrests have been made. “Anti-Muslim hysteria”? 51 more Islamic organizations are being investigated for alleged extremist sympathies. What about “violent extremism”? There are plans to take away the French passports of 231 foreign-born criminals.

Some of this may be an overreaction. Expelling dual citizens will be difficult if their countries of origin refuse to take them back. The rhetoric of Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has not been helpful. He believes France is fighting a “civil war” against Islamists.

But — the convictions of the woke American left notwithstanding — words are not violence, and anyway Macron himself hasn’t gone so far. Read more “Criticism of Macron’s Islam Policy Is Over the Top”

Dutch Parties Take Risk Attacking Liberalism

Hugo de Jonge Mark Rutte
Dutch health minister Hugo de Jonge chats with Prime Minister Mark Rutte during the state opening of parliament in The Hague, September 16, 2019 (Ministerie van Financiën/Valerie Kuypers)

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has taken a hard line in Brussels on the conditions of coronavirus aid to Southern Europe, but at home his government has abandoned austerity without controversy.

During the last economic crisis, Rutte, who has led the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy since 2006, raised taxes and cut public spending to keep the Netherlands’ budget deficit under the EU’s 3-percent ceiling.

Now, when the economic contraction caused by COVID-19 is even more severe, he is borrowing €56 billion, or 7.2 percent of GDP. Debt as a share of economic output is projected to rise from 49 to 61 percent.

Statism is back in a country that is (or used to be) considered a champion of liberalization and free trade.

Rutte’s competitors spy an opportunity. Read more “Dutch Parties Take Risk Attacking Liberalism”

Standing Up to Cancel Culture

Empire State Building New York
The Empire State Building in Manhattan, New York (Unsplash/Gaurav Pikale)

You wait for three years for the center-left and center-right to make common cause against the extremists on either side and in the course of a week it all happens at once:

  • Yascha Mounk has created a community and newsletter in defense of liberal democracy called Persuasion, which includes left-wing thinkers, such as Sheri Berman and Thomas Chatterton Williams, as well as Never-Trump conservatives Jonathan Haidt, David French and David Frum.
  • Seventeen academics have started the blog Radical Classical Liberals.
  • The Neoliberal Project has launched the Center for New Liberalism, a center-left think tank and pressure group.
  • The conservative Lincoln Project is putting out the most effective ads against Donald Trump.
  • 153 intellectuals of the left and right, including Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, Ian Buruma, Noam Chomsky, Richard T. Ford, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Yascha Mounk, Jonathan Rauch, J.K. Rowling, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Gloria Steinem, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Matthew Yglesias and Fareed Zakaria, have signed “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” warning that cancel culture is getting out of hand and stifling free debate. Read more “Standing Up to Cancel Culture”

Center-Left and Center-Right Need to Team Up Against Extremists

Washington Monument
View of the Washington Monument from the General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington DC, July 3, 2018 (DoD/Reese Brown)

John F. Harris argues in Politico that the center-right anti-Trump movement could outlive the president and make common cause with the center-left.

Both oppose efforts to stifle free thinking and the bullying of those who dissent from ideological or racial orthodoxy, he writes.

James Bennet was recently fired as opinion editor of The New York Times for publishing an incendiary op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton. A Boeing spokesman resigned over an article he wrote 33 years ago, as a young Navy lieutenant, in which he argued against women in combat. There are countless other examples of Americans losing their jobs for holding the “wrong” opinion or for merely giving a platform to the wrong opinion.

“If we lived under some fickle absolutist king, who arbitrarily decided what was offensive, outrageous or even criminal, we’d all recognize the illiberalism of it,” Jonah Goldberg writes in his newsletter. “But when a mob arbitrarily rules the same way, we call it social justice.”

The pro-Trump right loves to hate on left-wing cancel culture, yet they have purged many Trump critics from conservative media, organizations and think tanks. Under the guise of free speech, Trump wants the federal government, not social-media companies, to decide what the likes of Facebook and Twitter can publish. So much for free enterprise. (And have Republicans considered what a Democratic administration might do with such power?)

Traditional conservatives and liberals also share an interest in propping up institutions, which the Bernie Sanders left and the Trump right agree are beyond repair. The far left wants to abolish the Electoral College, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and in some cases the police. The far right wants to uproot the media, universities and the Washington “deep state”. The center-left and center-right argue for reform.

Harris wonders if the alliance will endure beyond the election:

Once Trump leaves, so too will the incentives that drove liberals and conservatives together in opposition.

But defeating Trump in November will not necessarily defeat the authoritarian right. Read more “Center-Left and Center-Right Need to Team Up Against Extremists”

Macron the Secret Islamophobe

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron speaks with Renaud Muselier, president of the Regions of France, in Paris, November 15 (Elysée/Kadidia Nimaga)

French president Emmanuel Macron has startled observers with a number of policies that might seem to contradict his previously held beliefs.

Despite being pro-EU, he blocked membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Once clear-eyed on the Russian threat, Macron now argues for dialogue with Moscow and calls Islamic terror NATO’s number-one enemy. He even made a point of attacking political Islam.

Some hear dog whistles to the far right, assume bad faith and call Macron an Islamophobe. That is unfair to the most liberal president France has had since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Read more “Macron the Secret Islamophobe”

Spain’s Liberal Party Needs to Make Up Its Mind

Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas listens to Spanish Citizens party leader Albert Rivera during a meeting of European liberal party leaders in Brussels, December 13, 2018
Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas listens to Spanish Citizens party leader Albert Rivera during a meeting of European liberal party leaders in Brussels, December 13, 2018 (ALDE)

Spain’s liberal Citizens party needs to decide what it’s for: fighting the Catalan independence movement or liberalizing Spain?

The party clearly doesn’t know, which is causing it to go back and forth on possible coalition deals. Albert Rivera, the party leader, needs to make a choice and stick with it. Read more “Spain’s Liberal Party Needs to Make Up Its Mind”

Trying to Turn Republicans into Liberals Is Now Hopeless

View of the Washington Monument from the General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington DC, July 3
View of the Washington Monument from the General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington DC, July 3 (DoD/Reese Brown)

David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, argues in The Atlantic that the Republican Party should become the party of liberalism in the United States.

As the Democrats move to left on economic policy, there is room for a party that defends free markets, free trade, limited government and personal liberty.

I agree, and before Donald Trump I was optimistic that the Republican Party could move in this direction. I called it Republican Party 2.0.

On the eve of the 2016 election, when I was still confident Hillary Clinton would win, I even urged Republicans to purge Trump’s insurgents and return the party to its pre-Newt Gingrich center-right bearings.

But then Trump won and now Republicans have surrendered to him and his philosophy. Read more “Trying to Turn Republicans into Liberals Is Now Hopeless”