France has built a better Donald Trump
Why Arnaud Montebourg might just make France great again
Now that France's conservative primary is over, the Socialist Party primary campaign is starting. And it is, how do you say in English... le boring.
Yet, it shouldn't be! The abysmally unpopular president François Hollande decided not to run, which should have opened things up. Unfortunately, the current frontrunner, Manuel Valls, was Hollande's right-hand man as prime minister and is running as the embodiment of his legacy. Then there is Vincent Peillon, a former education minister, who is running with all the enthusiasm of someone drafted into an unpopular, losing war. There's also a smattering of other candidates whose names, like Lord Palmerston once remarked about the Schleswig-Holstein question, I have forgotten.
But there is a dark horse candidate of legitimate interest. Someone with a reputation for flash, feuds, and industrial policy. That would be former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg and it wouldn't be wholly out of place to call him the French Donald Trump.
Montebourg has a similar taste for showmanship. He first made his mark in national politics as a flashy lawyer-turned-member of parliament, giving impassioned and hand-waving speeches about anything you could name. When he finally made it to government, he was named minister of industry, typically a junior role. But he insisted that the job be called "Ministre du Redressement productif," the exact translation of which ("productive recovery") does not give the same hint to a male erection as the word "redressement" (think "rising up" or "surging"), one which pundits and comedians dined out on (as it were), and which the sometimes dashing Montebourg, who has been romantically linked to several glamorous celebrities, seemed to wink at. Let's just call it the Ministry of Making France Great Again, and its recipe for doing so seemed distinctly Trumpian, making a big show of carving out ad-hoc deals (don't call them bribes) with industrial companies to create or renege on the outsourcing of a smattering of industrial jobs.
Montebourg, then, had a similar anti-globalization, pro-manufacturing, sometimes backwards-looking rhetoric. For example, unusually for a politician of France's enviro-mad Socialist Party, Montebourg unabashedly supports France's nuclear industry, a symbol of government-driven, post-war industrial recovery. The coherent economic vision was married to an incoherent management style that seemed much more interested in winning news cycles than in achieving policy outcomes. Since European law prevents actual protectionist policies, Montebourg's main achievement was a major PR and advertising campaign touting the "Made in France" label (one that featured him in, yes, a striped shirt) — not exactly morning again in France. Montebourg eventually got promoted to economy minister before resigning in protest at Hollande's decision to turn policy rightward. Like Trump, Montebourg cut uncomfortably across ideological lines. Many businesspeople found the former hard-left firebrand surprisingly likeable and pliable, while many in his camp cringed at his parochial, back-to-the-future politics.
Yet in his self-imposed exile from politics, Montebourg huddled with serious trade-skeptical economists and other Keynesian sorts and actually came out with an economic agenda that looks a lot like the best in the country.
The key thing is that France has been in the throes of economic stagnation, one that is caused by a lack of aggregate demand. The European Central Bank has steadfastly refused to pump enough money in the economy to get things started again, and Angela Merkel won't allow the ever-compliant François Hollande to run significant deficits. Meanwhile, France's economy is choked by oligopolies.
In the face of this, Montebourg proposes big working class tax cuts, and, as far as I can tell, the biggest infrastructure spending plan of anyone running. Enticingly, he proposes to create a government-sponsored "risk-taking bank" that would lend aggressively to entrepreneurs and small businesses; given that the French banking oligopoly refuses to take risks in lending to startups, this could be a boon.
Even more interestingly, instead of a universal basic income (the hot idea on the left), he has a proposal that is in some ways even more radical: what you might call a universal basic estate, offering every 18-year-old a significant no-strings-attached, low-interest loan, which they might use to fund an education, or buy a house, or start a business. As one who strongly believes that, across the Western world and particularly in France, income inequality is a much less serious problem than asset inequality, this is a proposal that I am very interested in.
Montebourg has been running an underwhelming campaign and is running behind in the polls. But Montebourgnomics, if you can pronounce that word, looks like a more serious, Frenchified version of Trumponomics. Given the serious problems posed by globalization and inequality, Montebourg is still a man to watch.