Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Loncle Lashes Out--Again

François Loncle, the Socialist deputy from Eure, has some harsh words for Bernard Kouchner, who explained the recent negotiations with Libya before the Assemblée Nationale today. Loncle found him confused, illogical, flitting from subject to subject, evasive, etc. He attributes Kouchner's poor performance to his having been upstaged by the Sarkozys and forced to swallow a realpolitik line that he has always opposed in the past.

This is the same Loncle, incidentally, who before the PS chose its candidate, indicated that there were in the running deux présidentiables et une présidente de Poitou-Charentes. When the interviewer asked if this wasn't a bit harsh, Loncle replied that he knew Ségolène Royal well and was sure she wasn't up to the job. The video can be viewed here.

The ad hominem (or feminam) appears to be Loncle's preferred mode. In a punning mood one might even call him a Dutch Loncle, specializing in the avuncular scold.

Talking with the "Enemy"


In the United States the political talk is about whether Obama helped or hurt himself by appearing more eager to talk with Hugo Chavez than Hillary Clinton. In France, the political talk is about some Greens appearing more eager than others to talk with minister of the environment Jean-Louis Borloo. In the end it was decided not to invite him to the Green's "summer university."

Libé has no doubt that this was the correct decision. "Three months from the 'environmental Grenelle' concocted by the chief of state to cut the ground out from under them, the Greens pummeled one another last week over an apparently trivial issue," that of the invitation to the summer U. For the newspaper, apparently, Sarko and Borloo are as unfrequentable as Chavez or Ahmedinajad are for some in the United States. One doesn't talk to the "enemy."

This might seem short-sighted of the Greens, who at this point have little but moral suasion to work with, but a comment reported later in the article gives the game away. For one Green, the purpose of the party is not to influence environmental policy nor "to set speed limits on superhighways but to break with liberalism. That can't be done with the right."

Another says that Borloo's presence would have been confusionnante.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Eichengreen on Germany


Barry Eichengreen on the German economy's recent success is to be read in conjunction with the paper in the previous post and this earlier one comparing French and German export production. The warning that Eichengreen issues to Germany also applies to France, and the need to shift from manufacturing to product design focuses attention on the importance of university reform.

Labor Market Rigidities and Unemployment


A central contention of Sarkozy's proposed economic reforms is that high unemployment rates in France are due in part to labor-market rigidities, which can be remedied by measures intended to reduce regulatory frictions and allow more rapid adaptation to changing market conditions. But is there any evidence that this thesis is true? A new paper by Lucio Baccaro and Diego Rei addresses that question and finds that the answer is "not much."

Here is the abstract:

Abstract: The view that unemployment is caused by labor market rigidities and should be addressed through systematic institutional deregulation has gained broad currency and has been embraced by national and international policymaking agencies alike. It is unclear, however, whether there really is robust empirical support for such conclusions. This article engages in an econometric analysis comparing several estimators and specifications. It does not find much robust evidence either of labor market institutions direct effects on unemployment rate, or of a more indirect impact through the magnitude of adverse shocks. At the same time, we find little support for the opposite, proregulatory position as well: the estimates show a robust positive relationship between union density and unemployment rates; also, there is no robust evidence that the within-country variation of bargaining coordination is associated with lower unemployment (as frequently argued), nor is it clear that bargaining coordination moderates the impact of other institutions. All in all, restrictive monetary policies enacted from an independent central bank and other determinants of real interest rates appear to play a more important role in explaining unemployment than institutional factors.


Technical details from the paper:

Our preferred model ...estimates the direct effect of institutions with data averaged over five-year periods. It includes only one macroeconomic control, the interest rate, six institutional variables: employment protection, unionization rate, a measure of generosity of unemployment benefits, tax wedge, central bank independence, as well as wage coordination, and no interactions. Such a parsimonious model, which we consider both in levels and first differences, gives changes in labor market institutions a fair chance to explain changes in unemployment. Yet little support for the deregulatory view emerges from the analysis: not just employment protection, but also, and more surprisingly, the generosity of unemployment benefits and the size of the tax wedge do not seem to be associated with higher unemployment.



Economic Patriotism 3


In several previous posts I've taken up the theme of "economic patriotism," which might be defined as the notion that at times sovereign interests may insist that the market bend its knee to them. With the market ascendant in recent decades, economic patriots have tended to acquire a somewhat "retro" look, and it has been common to decry the defense of national economic interests as shortsighted and backward. Now we have a cautionary statement from an influential voice generally linked to the market side of the debate: Larry Summers, economist, former US Treasury Secretary, and former president (need I remind anyone?) of Harvard. Specifically, Summers worries about the rise of "sovereign wealth funds," that is, large amounts of cash and securities controlled by states but invested in the market. He writes:

The question is profound and goes to the nature of global capitalism. A signal event of the past quarter-century has been the sharp decline in the extent of direct state ownership of business as the private sector has taken ownership of what were once government-owned companies. Yet governments are now accumulating various kinds of stakes in what were once purely private companies through their cross-border investment activities.


Suddenly French-style economic patriotism is not looking quite so backward. Sarkozy may well derive some benefit for his eclectic approach to markets and globalization from this shifting of the winds.

Response to Mary on Identity


In a previous message, I presented Brice Hortefeux's remark about immigration as constitutive of the French national identity as a significant departure. In a comment to that message, Mary gives examples of similar statements by Raffarin in 2003 and 2004. Thank you for these examples, Mary. I would, however, note one difference between Raffarin's two statements and Hortefeux's. Raffarin is careful to insist on either "a single community" or "a shared idea of national identity." Hortefeux's characterization of immigration as "constitutive" of the national identity leaves open the question of whether assimilation is to erase all trace of origins; it is more tolerant, as is Sarkozy, I believe, of a "communitarian" understanding of identity.

Mary goes on to say this:

There are countless more examples of this type from the CNHI project. Rather than seeing Hortefeux's discourse as anything new I would be more inclined to situate it in the context of an attempt to differentiate the 'good' immigrants of the past who have 'integrated' from today's 'bad' migrants, making it easier to sever any sort of link between the two and thus secure maximum support for a populist, repressive agenda.


One can indeed cite any number of statements by Sarkozy differentiating "successful" "immigrants" from unsuccessful ones, and he often uses his cabinet members with immigrant backgrounds as examples of such success. I agree that this is an unfortunate rhetorical choice, which obscures the impediments to "success" and places the onus on individuals. You may be right about the ulterior motive, and your view certainly reflects the pre-election conventional wisdom about the kind of government Sarkozy would run if elected--a conventional wisdom I shared. The reason I cited Hortefeux's remark is that it seemed to me to make concrete my sense that, since the election, Sarkozy has sought to soft-pedal the repressive theme. There has always been an "other Sarkozy," a Sarkozy interested in intercommunal dialogue and, I would suggest, more tolerant than many others of ethnic, religious, and cultural difference. He brings one other advantage to the table compared with a good many other politicians: he doesn't assume that the problems associated with immigration will solve themselves if not discussed in public or if drowned out by paeans to the Third Republic and its mystical assimilative virtues (not unlike the "dormitive virtue" extolled by Molière's doctors). I may be wrong in interpreting the positive signs--and I persist in regarding Hortefeux's statement as an advance--but I think it's premature, to say the least, to draw the conclusion that the intention of the new ministry is purely repressive.

I might add that we also focus on different parts of the speech Sarkozy gave in Sénégal. I emphasized his condemnation of colonialism and characterized the speech as "well-crafted," whereas Mary, in her blog, cites his patronizing comments about la pensée sauvage as little more than a throwback to colonial attitudes. She is right, I think, in her comments about this aspect of his speech. This embrace of paradox is increasingly characteristic of Sarkozy. Only time will tell whether it represents a real complexity of policy or merely an untenable rhetorical bridge between incompatible positions.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rama Yade in Debate

Commenter "Fr." had this to say about Rama Yade:

This calls strong contradiction: I remember watching her on France 5 a few moths ago, and she was absolute rubbish at her job (weak répartie, lack of argument, low communication cues).

I'm sure she isn't always at the top of her game, but she handles herself pretty well here, I think:

Young Sarkozyans

Membership of Les Jeunes Populaires, the UMP youth wing, is up from 10,000 to 45,000 in the years since Sarkozy took over the party in 2004. Although Royal handily won the under-30 vote, this figure, and the post-election "Sarkozy effect" on recruitment, have to be worrisome to the opposition.

Rama Yade


I've mentioned before that this blog occasionally serves as a barometer of public interest in certain personalities. When Christine Boutin made news a while back, there was a sudden uptick in Google searches on her name and referrals from other Web sources landing on pages that concerned her.

Over the past three days I've observed a similar phenomenon with Rama Yade. Eloi Laurent's guest post seems to be the best available on-line biography of her, and that includes French sources. So his post has been picked up by Wikipedia and by the Law School Discussion, and these sources, along with Google, have been sending hundreds of readers this way.

Yade appeared on the France2 news last night and was radiant, magnetic, smart, and articulate. It should be of great concern to Socialists that they couldn't retain a woman of her quality. It seems that Sarko called her "my Condoleeza Rice." A writer on the Law School Discussion found that remark offensive, but Yade demonstrated her diplomatic skills as well as her realism by taking it in good humor, recognizing the distance between a junior member of Bernard Kouchner's cabinet and the U. S. Secretary of State, and expressing the hope that she might some day justify the comparison. She has one clear advantage over Condi: a genuine warmth of character to go with her unflappable poise and ability to find the right words. A woman to watch--and it will be interesting to see how she handles the negative reaction to Sarkozy's speech in Senegal, the country in which she was born. It was a good speech, I thought, but it was taken as paternalistic by some Senegalese, and the grumbling in the Senegalese press has made it back to France. This might be a good opportunity for her to prove her mettle by trying to sell her boss's vision to African editorialists. Sarko is proposing a real change in France's posture toward Africa, I think, but the message doesn't seem to have gotten across. Or perhaps Africans are waiting for words to be transformed into deeds, the only currency in which Sarkozy himself sees any value.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

La Fermeture Annuelle


It's that time of year again when the French hear the dire warnings of Le Bison Futé, the Wily Bison, about how bad the traffic is on the routes to the sun and surf: 556 km of traffic jams today dans le sens des départs. But not everyone is going. As I mentioned in an earlier post, "Clichy Plage," the divide between those who vacation and those who don't is one of the great class markers in France today. Le Monde has the numbers: depending on which survey you believe, either 12 million or 21 million French don't take vacations. Some don't go because they're very old, although it seems that "seniors under 65" are the great beneficiaries of increased leisure time (which reminds me that I don't have much time left to enjoy the boon). But most are held back by lack of means.

I was thinking of all this last night as I watched Michael Moore's Sicko. Of course it was heartening to see France presented in a positive light in an American cultural product, however one-sidedly polemical the presentation. But I admit to squirming in my seat a bit as Moore encouraged American yuppies working in Paris to rattle on about their marvelous vacations (as if the legal guarantee of vacation time made expensive vacations universally available), and when he showed the French engineer's wife with her collection of sand samples from exotic beaches (as if every Frenchman sojourned annually in Saint-Tropez, Bali, or Rio), to say nothing of the thirty-something convalescent who got a note from his doctor entitling him to three months' recuperation on the Côte d'Azur at his company's expense.

Film, it seemed to me as I watched, is a powerful medium for presenting comparisons of "social models" in a form accessible to large numbers of people and therefore useful for enriching democratic debate. A certain intellectual hygiene is desirable, however, or at least it seems so to me with my academic biases. Of course decorum has not always been a salient feature of democratic debate, and maybe it's better that no holds should be barred. I'm not sure that the kind of film I have in my mind would reach an audience as broad as Moore's, and the people in the theater didn't seem disappointed or bothered by the omissions or the obvious comparative improprieties. There was applause in the theater. But of course this was in Cambridge, Mass.

Sundays Off

The historian Patrick Fridenson explains in Libé the history of the law governing work on Sundays. A reform of this law is currently under discussion. Fridenson makes a number of interesting points, especially when he discusses the frequency of exceptions to the law of 1906: "Despite its determination to universalize and generalize, which comes from the French Revolution and the Church, France is also the country with the most exceptions [to its laws]--in contrast to other countries which regulate less but also grant few exceptions."

Universities


The parliament last week passed the first university reform measure. Although Marianne's article on the reform is entitled, with characteristic subtlety, "Cultural Revolution or Feudal Regression," the text notes that the bill submitted by the government was significantly amended in the course of debate to provide for election of the presidents of the newly autonomous universities by their faculties, and candidates must be chosen from the ranks of professors and lecturers. The original bill had envisioned the potential recruitment of non-academics. Jean Fabbri, the head of SNESUP, the union representing academics, calls this a "noteworthy evolution."

Nevertheless, Pierre Cohen, a PS deputy from Haute-Garonne, hints darkly at a "Sarkozyization" of the universities, with a concentration of all power in the hands of university presidents. Meanwhile, Marianne has another piece alleging that Bruno Julliard, the head of the student union UNEF, is "in a relationship of incredible seduction with Sarkozy," but this quotation is attributed rather vaguely to le milieu syndicaliste. It is further asserted without attribution that Sarko won Julliard's heart by letting drop the remark, "The profs are reactionaries." He is also alleged to have inserted the proposal to select students at the entry to masters' programs specifically in order to withdraw it when Julliard predictably made this issue a deal-breaker. Win-win, says Marianne: Sarkozy got to appear flexible, Julliard got to appear victoriously intransigent, and in fact the whole issue has only been postponed until the other pieces of university reform are in place.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Errors and Crimes


Years of living under Bush have accustomed Americans to what it is like to have a president who is impervious to criticism, who simply refuses to acknowledge it. Such an attitude is ultimately corrosive of democracy, because it denies the very existence of the minority; so long as the majority's supremacy holds, and even beyond, until the incumbent's tenure of office expires, opponents, deprived of the courtesy of a response or even the respect implicit in the effort to offer coherent logical justification for one's position in the face of conflict, must endure the imaginary universe created by the leader's denial of reality.

Sarkozy, whatever one might think of his policies, is a different kind of animal. He hears criticism and responds to it in a variety of ways. Sometimes the response is direct, forthright, even curt, as it was in Libya. When he was criticized for signing the nuclear deal so quickly after the release of the nurses, he was blunt: "Some came to Libya before they were released. Better to come after than before."

In Sénégal, by contrast, he delivered a prepared speech, an eloquent response to his critics that was not so much a rebuttal of their position--that he ought to apologize for the past wrongs of colonialism and slavery--as an elaboration of his. He showed that he recognized the enormity of past sins and the emotions that motivated the demands for apology. Indeed, he consigned the "errors and crimes" of the past to the Ninth Circle: these were "crimes against man," he said, "crimes against humanity." Repentance could go no farther than this, except that he continued to refuse to apply the label repentance to his unmistakably expiatory language. He then turned, "with respect" as he was careful to note, to the other side of the ledger, to the responsibility that erstwhile victims bore in his view for their present situation, which he indicated was a problem for "us" as well as "them." And he proposed a cooperative search for a way out of the predicament.

It was a well-crafted speech, but of course he had said in Algeria two weeks earlier precisely what he thought of well-crafted speeches: "I indicated to Pres. Bouteflika that friendship ... thrives on projects and action more than on treaties, speeches, or words." So we will wait to see what projects and actions he proposes for Africa. In Libya, a proper concern for justice and a bold personal engagement in diplomatic brinksmanship earned admiration, while the projects and action that immediately followed gave pause. In Senegal the rhetoric perfectly reflected the image Sarkozy wants to give of himself and his presidency, firm and uncompromising yet neither unfeeling nor unresponsive. May his actions follow.

Brickbats already have, but that goes with the territory.

P.S. The image, in case you're wondering, is of Talleyrand. The relevance? Talleyrand conjoined the same words as Sarko, crime and faute, in the famous phrase, "Pire qu'un crime, c'est une faute" (Worse than a crime, it's a blunder), the quintessential expression of political cynicism. Of Talleyrand Napoléon reportedly said, "De la merde en bas de soie" (shit in silk stockings). Did Guaino have these precedents in mind when he wrote Sarkozy's speech? The coupling of the two words makes the association almost inevitable--something a speechwriter as skilled as Guaino might have hoped to avoid.

National Identity


Brice Hortefeux, the minister of immigration and national identity, has a piece in today's Libé. There is a certain amount of wooden language in his essay, but one sentence stands out as new and important. Hortefeux makes his own a remark by Gaston Kelman that "in creating [this new ministry] we recognize officially for the first time that immigration is constitutive of our identity." This is a noteworthy statement, perhaps as significant as the recognition that certain past acts of the state were errors, crimes, or both.

Political Economy


If you've been following my various comments on the Franco-German split on monetary and exchange policy, you'll be interested in this post on Dani Rodrik's blog, which shows how analogous conflicts of interest worked themselves out through a democratic process in India. Another argument for more democracy in Europe, or at least something comparable to India's Economic Advisory Council, which can take a broader view than the central bank is permitted to do. And remember that the European Central Bank's mandate is already narrower than that of the Federal Reserve with its famous "dual mandate" to limit unemployment while maintaining price stability.

Franco-German tensions have been exacerbated by the Libyan nuclear deal. The conservative FAZ is even more critical, on the quite reasonable grounds that nuclear power touches on security concerns that are supposed to be a matter for discussion at the EU level. Sarko's coup for France and for the French company Areva, which now gets access to Libya's 1,600 tons of uranium, may be a boon for "economic patriotism" but is causing consternation in Berlin, despite Siemens' association with Areva (which may not last). And Daniel-Cohen Bendit has called the deal "disgusting," a view echoed by many other Greens (more here).

On the other hand, Die Zeit is asking whether Cécilia Sarkozy might be a "Jackie Kennedy à la française." If so, the Germans might want to be looking for someone to play the part of André Malraux.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

La Débâcle


Anyone who has followed the debacle that is this year's Tour de France will probably be wondering if anything else can possibly go wrong. Of course all this might seem remote from politics--but not if you've read Georges Vigarello's wonderful essay on the origins of the Tour in Les Lieux de mémoire (it's in the second volume of the English version, Realms of Memory, which I translated a decade ago). Vigarello points out that the Tour was a direct product of the revanchist nationalism that gripped the French between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. The route was designed to trace the outline of the Hexagon, with its truncated northeastern vertex thus recalled to the national imagination. In an era before television and mass tourism, moreover, the vivid descriptions of the various Tour venues and étapes by sporting journalists with the pens of lyrical nature poets helped to arouse national sentiment and patriotic ardor in a mass readership that on the whole had little knowledge of the country beyond the home quartier or terroir. Thus the association that the title of this post would create between the current disaster and La Débâcle, the title of Zola's novel about the 1871 defeat, is not misplaced. There is a direct connection.

Neither was it fortuitous that Sarkozy, a president who is open about his wish to restore France's national self-consciousness, should have sought to associate himself with the Tour, to the point even of appearing in one of the team cars in the early stages, poking his head through the roof, megaphone in hand, to exhort the riders and appeal over their heads to the viewing nation about the wonders of sport, energy, endurance, and speed, all quintessential Sarkozyan values. He timed his entrance well. The disasters had not yet begun to accumulate. Now the Tour has dropped from the presidential rhetoric, and cleaning up the mess is left to sports minister Roselyne Bachelot.

Front National

For a while now, Le Monde has been running a series entitled "Rétrocontroverses," in which contributors look back on debates of past years. Today's concerns the emergence of the Front National as a national political force with its victory in Dreux in 1983, which is also the subject of Françoise Gaspard's book Une petite ville en France.

Yves-Marc Ajchenbaum quotes this interesting observation from the late René Rémond in 1985: those "who think they recognize the abhorred features of fascism in the Front National are making the same mistake they made in treating all the 'leagues' [of the far right] as if they were indistinguishable. Such an error of interpretation is not without political consequences; it leads to errors of strategy." And Ajchenbaum adds: "Doesn't the course of French politics over the past 23 years prove him right?"

I'd like to hear readers' thoughts about this. Is Ajchenbaum suggesting that the right strategy for defeating the Front National has at last been found--by Sarkozy? That the refusal to deal with the Front and the choice to rule its leader, and by extension his followers, beyond the pale of legitimate national debate--which was Chirac's strategy--was historically a mistake? That it would have been better to co-opt the Front's issues, pick off its rank-and-file supporters and mid-level leaders, and, in short, marginalize it by selective engagement rather than rejection en bloc? If this is what he is saying, do you agree with him?

Can't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

I've often made the point that Sarkozy is resolutely future-oriented. He does not want memory to shape the future or to limit his facility to conceive a future unconstrained by the past. Critics have noted how this truncates his representations of France. But he is nothing if not consistent. In Libya, Kadhafi tried to impose his own version of historical memory by insisting that Sarko visit the ruins of his palace, bombarded by the Americans in 1986. This was his way of emphasizing the selectivity of the memory game: you Europeans want us to remember Lockerbie (1989); we Libyans want you to remember the assassination attempt (1986). Sarkozy was able to sidestep this ploy by writing the following in the guest book: "I'm glad to be in your country to talk about the future."

The other day Christine Lagarde told the French that they had done enough thinking, now it was time to roll up their sleeves and get to work. For this she was vilified by those perennial quotables, BHL and Alain Finkielkraut. Today Sarko tells Kadhafi that he's done enough remembering, now it's time to get to work. It would be obtuse to conclude from Lagarde's statement that she is contemptuous of thinking, and, similarly, it would be obtuse to conclude from Sarkozy's that he attaches no importance to memory. But she has her priorities, and he has his. Neither deserves to be condemned by those whose priorities differ.

P.S. Also on the subject of memory: Serge Klarsfeld states his belief that Sarkozy stands in "continuity" with 1995 Chirac's apology for Vichy.

Petites Phrases

Those who enjoy the petites phrases that provide much of the flavor, and at times a good deal of the unsavoriness, of French politics will enjoy this new blog.

For a good example of the particularly unsavory, there's this from Pierre Lellouche:

“On ne peut pas cacher qu’il y a à l’UMP pas mal de décus. Il y en a même qui ont mal au cul. Sarko devrait nommer un ministre de la vaseline, à condition de le choisir dans la majorité”.



I don't think a translation is required.

Economic Patriotism 2


"National champions" have long been an important feature of French "economic patriotism," a subject I broached yesterday. One of the most successful of French national champions is Areva, the world's leading nuclear energy company, which is 90-percent state-owned. Areva is about to sign an "historic" contract with China to sell two European Pressurized Reactors at $3 billion each. In addition, President Sarkozy, meeting yesterday in Libya with Col. Kadhafi, signed a tentative agreement for cooperation on civilian nuclear power, a deal from which Areva is likely to profit (click on this link for a smashing picture of the colonel clad in an eclectic costume that aspires to combine native traditions with Tom Wolfe and John Travolta). The French president's haste to seal the deal as France's top nuclear VRP might appear to be somewhat unseemly, with the Bulgarian nurses still recounting their torture in Libyan prisons, but to the liberator belong the spoils.

Areva's boss is Anne Lauvergeon, the eighth most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes, and the most powerful woman in France. She is a Socialist, promoted through the ranks by Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg and François Mitterrand. Sarkozy approached her for the position of minister of industry--yet another socialiste d'ouverture--but she declined. Areva is expanding worldwide, including in the US, where it signed a deal with Constellation of Baltimore in 2005. One of the reasons for the delay in the GDF-Suez merger that I mentioned yesterday--the feat of "economic patriotism" engineered by Villepin to prevent a takeover of another French national champion, GDF, by the Italian firm Enel--is that the Sarkozy government may decide to privatize Areva and make it the linchpin of a French energy giant that would include a privatized GDF. An impediment to this arrangement is Sarko's promise as interior minister not to privatize GDF. A further complication is the "Grenelle of the environment," the talks the government is conducting with various environmental groups and others. Green groups are skeptical of nuclear energy and will want assurances about government plans in this regard, but Sarkozy, who touts nuclear as "green energy" and "the energy of the future," and who has been talking with Gordon Brown about a lower VAT for "green commodities," might have his own ideas about promoting the nuclear alternative.

Of course the temptation to privatize Areva will be strong, since the money it would bring to the treasury would go a long way toward financing Sarko's tax reforms. On the other hand, it is sure to provoke strong resistance.

P.S. If you live in the US, you've probably enjoyed Areva's animated TV commercial, which makes nuclear power look like as much fun as a day at the beach. It was created by the celebrated design firm H5 in Paris, which also does a lot of work for the entertianment and luxury goods industries. Prominent friends of Sarkozy have interests that span these same areas: communications, luxury goods, energy. The new economy creates some unusual synergies, and the inclusion of politics and the state in the mix is obviously of some interest.

LATE ADDENDUM: For the strong negative German reaction, see here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

bROCARDé


With his usual political realism, acumen, and flair, it seems that Michel Rocard asked Ségolène Royal in March to step aside as candidate and hand the role over to him, since it was plain as day that she was going to lose. It's a little difficult to imagine the conversation. How might he have put it? Sure, he could have pointed out that the polls were trending downward, but how exactly would he have persuaded her that he, Michel Rocard, age 77, having failed to make the case for his candidacy in all those years, should now step forward and be embraced by his compatriots as the inevitable man on the white horse come to save France from the Black Knight? Would it really have helped matters to expose the party's internal chaos even more fully than was already the case? If she had accepted his proposal, would he have scored even 47 percent? I doubt it.

And by the way, Rocard says that Royal told him that if she did step aside, it would be for François Hollande. On croit rêver.

The Future of France

I spent two hours this morning with the future of France. At 18, this young man has already founded an association that brought about a change in French law. At 18, he has already served as an advisor to a presidential campaign. At 18, about to begin his studies at a French university, he has already discussed with his friends whether it is best to try first for success in politics and then business, or the other way around. As we walked through Harvard Square, I didn't see anyone I knew, because most of my colleagues vanish for the summer, but he was warmly greeted by someone he had met on his previous visit to the United States, for a gathering of young Internet entrepreneurs.

And did I mention that this young man was un beur? No, because it didn't seem to loom large in his mind. His identity, like the identity of any 18-year-old, is a much more complicated, much more subjective, much more fraught matter than his ethnicity, which is merely an objective fact about him. He has so much else on his mind.

Clearly, this is an atypical young man. But still a hopeful sign of change.

Economic Patriotism


A lull in the news cycle affords me the leisure to begin a discussion of "economic patriotism," in response to a request made a few days ago.

What is "economic patriotism?" Taken in its most general sense, of course, the phrase is by no means peculiarly French. Even the freest of free traders is occasionally tempted by the venial, and often-times venal, sin of hypocrisy: witness George Bush's protectionist measures in favor of the steel industry after the United Steel Workers contributed handsomely to his campaign, or in favor of the furniture industry when North Carolina's electoral votes proved to be a prize too tempting to pass up. Old-timers will recall the "Buy Britain" signs that loomed above the greenswards of Merrie Olde England in the Sixties, to say nothing of the smashing of windshields of imported cars in the parking lots of American auto plants.

In France, however, the phrase patriotisme économique has several more specific associations. It came into prominence on July 27, 2005, when Dominique de Villepin used it in a press conference to denounce Danone's plan to close a French plant. Protests by plant workers had drawn a considerable amount of publicity, and since Danone was not in the red at the time and had made the move to consolidate operations in a way that the company deemed rational but that cost French jobs, the media found it convenient to portray the episode as an instance of the purported ravages of the unfettered market and international capital. Since the government was still reeling from the No vote on the European Constitution referendum, Villepin seems to have seized the opportunity in yet another of Chirac's fitful efforts to prove that he was not a stalking horse for neo-liberalism and had thoroughly recovered from his brief flirtation with Thatcherism-Hayekism of circa 1995. Villepin later continued on this line when he successfully blocked an attempted takeover of GDF by the Italian firm Enel SpA in February 2006. (He accomplished this by arranging a merger of GDF with Suez, which Sarkozy is now reconsidering and may scotch.) All of this of course drew negative comment from numerous angles, as outlined here and here.

These fits and starts of what might be called le protectionnisme atmosphérique, or Colbertist jawboning, might be dismissed as insignificant, given simultaneous efforts by the government to attract foreign capital. But to dismiss these well-covered media opportunities as mere eyewash would be to miss the deeper currents of economic patriotism that run through the French right. Villepin, in fact, borrowed the phrase from a report by Bernard Carayon, a UMP deputy with solid nationalist credentials. Through the Groupe Union Défense and its predecessor organization Occident, Carayon is linked to a number of other prominent figures of the right: Claude Goasguen, who was a Sarko spokesman during the campaign; Patrick Devedjian, now co-head of the UMP; Alain Madelin, Gérard Longuet, etc. The militant and muscular Cold War anticommunism and ultranationalism that formerly linked these men have morphed in the years since the fall of Communism into a neo-nationalism with a strong economic component. Rather than the "liberal economic patriotism" advocated by economists such as Elie Cohen, who believe that the best way for France to compete internationally is to attract as much foreign capital and talent to France as possible, these economic nationalists want to limit the influx of foreign capital, foreign management, and foreign labor.

How influential are they in Sarkozy's inner circle? I suspect less influential than they would like to think, despite the prominence of figures such as Goasguen and Devedjian. Two signs: Christine Lagarde, the minister of finance, is deeply hostile to this point of view, and Patrick Devedjian, who desperately wanted a ministry, did not get one and has been among the more outspoken critics of Sarkozy's ouverture to the left. Indeed, it is one of the ironies of Sarkozy's position that he has had to turn to Socialist economic talent--e.g., DSK, Jouyet, Besson, and now Attali, just named to head a commission to reflect on impediments to economic growth--precisely because the national/xenophobic line on social issues that helped him unify the right on his road to office is at odds on economic matters with the line that Sarko's most prominent appointments to date suggest he favors.

Still, as Sarkozy has stated on numerous occasions, he is no theorist, so don't expect him to hold to a consistent line on anything if the exigencies of political action dictate otherwise. He will need to find ways to mollify the economic patriots in his entourage, and he is no doubt resourceful enough to create his own opportunities.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Back to Economics


The last few posts have been about social issues. Now, while I'm eating lunch, let me get back to economics (on the theory that there is no such thing as a free lunch). In a number of posts I've alluded to Sarkozy's differences with Merkel and many Euroland finance ministers over the independence of the central bank. Sarko wants intervention on the matter of exchange rates. The others feel that any intervention in currency matters diminishes the ECB's credible commitment to price stability. I've said that this difference reflects in part a traditional split between Germany, which for historical reasons fears inflation above all else, and France, which for historical reasons of its own has a certain obsession with exchange rates (though traditionally the French wanted a "strong franc"; now they want a weaker euro) .

But the difference is more than one of ideology or psychology. Sarko's concern about the euro is twofold: against the yuan and other Asian currencies, and against the dollar. The concern about the Chinese is shared with the United States, but the concern about the United States is probably more intense in France than anywhere else--and, again, for structural, not ideological/psychological reasons.

Consider the following (I take the figures from a lecture by MIT economist Olivier Blanchard: pdf of PowerPoint here, see slide 13--but the whole lecture is worth perusing). The figures compare the composition of exports for Germany and France:

Share in high-tech exports (in percent):

Country

Chemicals

Household

Precision inst

Transport equipmt

France

11.3

6.5

7.4

69

Germany

18.5

20.6

17.0

24


Both countries are doing reasonably well in their production for export and enjoy a comfortable trade balance. But note the lack of diversification in the French export portfolio, the heavy reliance on transport equipment (such as high-speed trains and jet airliners). Germany exports a lot of high-quality goods for which there are no substitutes. France is heavily dependent on the export of, say, Airbuses, which compete directly with American products. The strong euro means higher prices for jet airplanes, and this is a direct threat to sales on which France relies for its trade balance. True, the strong euro also decreases energy costs, but the transport equipment manufacturers and their subcontractors employ large numbers of skilled workers, so Sarko is particularly sensitive to anything the threatens cutbacks in that sector. A weaker euro would lower Airbus prices relative to Boeing's prices and help to compensate for the sales lost through mismanagement at EADS.

Hérouville


I had high hopes when I learned this morning that Libé had gone into the suburbs and housing projects in the company of young journalists from a publication of the suburbs called Fumigène to take a look at Sarkozy's first two months from the point of view of the excluded. The articles proved disappointing, however. You can judge for yourself: here, here, here, and here.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to learn that in the Zone Urbain Sensible (ZUS) of Hérouville, a suburb of Caen, the unemployment rate is 30 percent and half the households fall below the poverty line. These are painful numbers to contemplate, and particularly painful to me as a translator of Tocqueville, because Hérouville is the family name of the current occupant of the Château Tocqueville, a great-nephew (I think) of Alexis (that's him in the photo--click to enlarge, on the right, standing inside the castle dovecote, at once not far yet worlds away from the ZUS of which he is the namesake). Alexis, I'm sure, would have been distressed to think that a place bearing the name of his kinsman had become so alienated from Parisian opinion that a leading newspaper would have to mount an expedition, as to some exotic isle, to inquire about what life might be like there; that it would have to ally itself with native informants in order to do so; and that it could return with so little insight into the mores of the inhabitants. He would have been distressed that the government of France should want to shield itself from the realities of life in such a place by resorting to an empty abstraction, a euphemistic acronym, to describe it. He would have noted the irony of that acronym, of the application of the name ZUS to a place incapable of hurling the least thunderbolt and about as far from Olympus as can be imagined.

But perhaps he would have taken heart from the story of the young delinquent who has found a new vocation as a Socialist militant. "The party is tired," says Kader. "We've got to commit ourselves to change it from within." The local party elected a deputy and is now setting its sights on city hall. A small ray of hope, perhaps, though it might be spoiled for Tocqueville by the degree of enmity toward the government and its chief evident in the young man's language. The conception of politics as a war between friend and foe, so congenial to Carl Schmitt, is not one that a civic republican can embrace, but Tocqueville, who was at heart as much a civic republican as an aristocrat, would have wondered whether a Republic can secrete in its bosom a place like Hérouville and still survive.

The Cuckoo Strategy


Can the Socialist Party find more ways to shoot itself in the foot? The Bulgarian nurses are released, all Europe is rejoicing, Cécilia, having gone toe-to-toe with Khadafi in negotiations her husband termed "tough," returns home in triumph, Sarko grandly declares "elles étaient françaises." And what do we hear from the PS? Benoît Hamon says that the Sarkozys "wanted to steal the success of the EU because Mme Sarkozy needed to be able to graze in the fields of the Republic," while Pierre Moscovici, ordinarily a serious, intelligent man, says, "Sarkozy, through his wife and Claude Guéant, is in the process of conducting what you might call the cuckoo strategy. You know, laying your egg in somebody else's nest."

OK, they said those things yesterday, before the release. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time to bitch and carp. But I said to myself, What if the coup d'éclat works? I almost blogged on it. And now it has worked. And what if Sarko did lay his egg in the EU's nest? He showed that he cared in a matter of grave injustice (and of course maximal publicity). What's more, it's a diplomatic success that is simple, clear, and takes no sophistication to understand. The PS comes off as curmudgeonly or worse. And its representatives seem to imply that there's something unfair about seizing an opportunity that was there for the taking. Does it matter that the EU laid the groundwork? Sarko engaged himself personally, deeply, and risked failure. For his troubles he was rewarded with success--disproportionately, perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. It seems that Sarko had been laying some groundwork of his own. But most of all his direct engagement--and that of his wife, whose credit card on the Republic and failure to vote for her husband will now be forever forgotten--showed that he understands what grabs voters in their hearts and guts. Hamon and Moscovici, by contrast, look heartless and gutless. So which is the cuckoo strategy?

There are times when the Socialists' ineptness at the art of politics drives me to despair.

LATE ADDENDUM: Read Jean Quatremer on the importance of Sarko's personal involvement.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Bouteldja on Dati and Amara


Houria Bouteldja reacts to the appointments of Rachida Dati and Fadela Amara. Watch the video.

Service Compris


Sarko will go to Brussels in September to plead for France's right to reduce the VAT on restaurant dinners and hotel stays from 19.6 to 5.5 percent, renewing a pledge already made by Jacques Chirac. This is an interesting case for those interested in the raison d'être of European regulatory regimes to contemplate. France is opposed on this by Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and other states.

With respect to the debate discussed in comments here, this would appear to be a case that falls into a different category. The French government is not using Europe as an alibi to impose a tax it actually wants while pretending not to want it, nor is it using a transnational agreement to remain committed to a tax in the face of democratic pressures to lower it. Rather, it wants to lower the tax but is constrained by an agreement with others whose economies are differently structured and which do fear democratic pressures. Why should a supposedly liberal Europe favor this rigidity?

Entre Quatre Valls

Another bilingual pun in a post title: the suggestion is that the ubiquitous Valls has us surrounded. And another media opportunity for Manuel Valls, this time on RMC, faithfully echoed by Libé. Valls criticizes the RSA promoted earlier today by Fillon and Hirsch. Only 25 million euros have been allocated to this program, compared with a tax reduction package of 13 billion.

Yes, the contrasting figures are striking, and polemically useful. I've used the same contrast myself, and it is a rhetorically convenient way of emphasizing that even if Sarkozy's economic package succeeds in inducing growth, it may also exacerbate inequality. But since the purposes of the two programs are so different, the strict numerical comparison isn't precisely fair. The RSA is intended only as a measure to reduce a perverse incentive not to work, since under existing programs it was possible for a recipient of public assistance covered by a so-called "social minimum" to receive more than the same person would earn if employed at the SMIC. The RSA removes this economic incentive to remain unemployed. If 25 million is enough to accomplish that goal, the program will have achieved its modest purpose.

Hence it's really not quite kosher to say that Sarko is handing out 13 billion to the fat cats and only 25 million to the poor. But it makes for a good sound bite.

Hesitation Valls

Manuel Valls appears to have learned from Sarkozy the usefulness of keeping one's name constantly in the news. Libé seems willing to be his enabler in this regard. The article adds nothing of note to what already came out of the mini-meeting of party renovators he organized last weekend, but it does contain a rather sharp jab at the 35-hour week (if I were Jon Stewart, I'd be digging up some tapes of Valls from back when he was Jospin's press secretary to run against his current statements). Valls is afraid that too many of his compatriots view the measure as a limitation on their ability "to work more in order to earn more." Catchy slogan, that. Might come in handy in a presidential campaign.

P.S. The title of this post is a Hollandesque pun. Having criticized Hollande for this kind of humor, for its cruelty and injustice, I should apologize to M. Valls, whom I rather like as a prospective party renovator and potential candidate. (For the benefit of French speakers, the pun is on the English "hesitation waltz." M. Valls' hesitation, it seems to me, is about how far to go in repudiating a party line with which he has been intimately associated for more than a decade. I, for one, hope he goes farther.)

La Dalle, Universal Symbol


Prime Minister Fillon and High Commissioner for Active Solidarities Hirsch went to Argenteuil today to announce (yet again) the Revenu de Solidarité Active. As Cindy Skach pointed out in a guest post, La Dalle in Argenteuil has become the universal (and contested) symbol of the problem of "the excluded" in France and what to do about them ever since Sarkozy made his (in)famous remark about cleansing the place au Kärcher. I understand that the Kärcher company was not pleased, but the free publicity must have been an enormous boon. The name has now become almost as ubiquitous and as French as le Coca. (Existerait-il un Kärcher lite pour des voyous et loubards qui ne seraient pas tout à fait racaille?)

Argenteuil, né Argentoialum, used to evoke names like Pierre Abélard and Claude Monet before it became indelibly linked to la racaille and le Kärcher. T. J. Clark, in his fine book The Painting of Modern Life, observed how the painters of the late 19th-c. registered the intrusion of industrial civilization on the formerly pastoral landscapes visible beneath the arches of the bridge at Argenteuil in the painting above by Monet. I wonder what artists are registering the transformations occurring in Argenteuil today. In retrospect the balance between nature and industry at which Monet seems to hint appears to have been overly optimistic. Does optimism survive in today's art, or are the visions from Argenteuil generally bleak or even apocalyptic? If so, they may be no more accurately prophetic than Monet, but it would be good to know more about them in any case. If there are readers in a position to know, I'd like to hear from them.

Fillon's Vocabulary, Hollande's Bon Mot

Eloi Laurent pointed out the importance of political language. This fascinating blog by a French linguist will be a useful resource. For example, note this comment on Fillon's lexicon, dominated by the words France, république, travail, and président.

Or have a look at this post on Sarkozy's fondness for anaphora, here attributed (perhaps) to Henri Guaino. Americans of a certain age will note that Martin Luther King often relied on the same figure, most memorably in the "I have a dream ..." speech.

I've added Prof. Véronis's blog to the blogroll in the right-hand column and will no doubt be referring to it frequently. Since he was a contributor to the TV documentary on François Hollande, "Anatomie d'un échec," in which he noted Hollande's fondness for caustic humor, I expect he may have something to say about Hollande's barb in this morning's interview with Le Monde, excoriating Sarkozy's coup d'éclat permanent. I admit to a weakness for clever puns, and at first this seemed rather clever, because it established a link between the PS today in opposition to Sarkozy and the epic struggle between Mitterrand and de Gaulle, which defined French politics for a generation. But after a few seconds the impression of cleverness dissipated, and what remained was a sense of history repeating itself as farce: the comparison elevated Sarkozy to the plane of de Gaulle but left Hollande in the position of a comedian armed with no more than a pun rather than a serious rival for power.

Indeed, clever but cruel and caustic humor may be a liability in a politician. In the quest for l'éclat permanent, such humor sacrifices long-term trust for short-term opportunity. It aims for easy targets with arms of small-bore rather than amassing the arsenal of heavy weaponry needed to attack big objectives. In other words, there is un coût d'éclat permanent, and Hollande is now confronted with the bill.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Interesting Survey Results

Who favors globalization more, the average American or the average Frenchman? Check your answer against this survey (or here for more details).

Memoryology


Memory politics is sometimes reminiscent of Kremlinology. In the heyday of the Evil Empire, analysts scrutinized photographs of the leadership gathered atop Lenin's tomb to see who had moved closer and who farther away from the First Secretary. Speeches were scoured for every nuance and inflection.

French memorialists now face similarly minute attention on certain fixed dates. Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup (which actually began on July 16, 1942). So in advance of the event Sarkozy visited the Holocaust Memorial--"which I did not know." His words were carefully calibrated: "We cannot, we must not, forget," but he spoke as an individual, not in the name of the state of which he is chief. As for Chirac's decision to take the opposite tack, he said what had to be said, according to his successor: "There is nothing to take away," but, too, "there is nothing to add." Lest this reticence disturb anyone, Sarko had taken the precaution to visit the memorial in the company of Simone Veil, the unimpeachable witness. She had allowed some daylight to appear between her and the then candidate over the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, but now, on the eve of the great memorial event, she was back at his side. Who could dare to say the President had not said enough if the Survivor was at his side?

And now today François Fillon has spoken at a memorial service. The prime minister, not the president: memoryologists will take note of the nuance. They will also note his words: "Sixty-five years ago, officials of Vichy, functionaries, collaborators, incurred the indelible stain of an awful crime." Memoryologists will take note of the inflection: the crime was not that of "l'Etat français" but of culpable individuals, officials of Vichy, functionaries, collaborators. A distance is insinuated. "Sixty-five years," he went on, "time has passed, relegating the historically culpable to the obscurity of death, and with them the need to expiate." Hence "an obligation to protest, to practice the exercise of memory and vigilance." A little more distance is opened up between the here and now and the obscurity of death, from whose bourne no traveler returns, but only to introduce the ritual invocation of the duty to remember--nay, more than remember, to protest. But to protest what? The hijacking of the state by the other--those culpable officials, functionaries, collaborators who have nothing to do with us.

For some memoryologists, therefore, Sarkozy and Fillon will not have done enough. The defensive connotations of their language and gestures will be heard as the dominant note, linked to statements made in other contexts, and used to cast dark suspicions on their intentions. Chirac, by contrast, will have been exemplary in this one respect. It is easy to engage in this kind of analysis, as the foregoing close reading demonstrates. But does it really tell us anything about the bedrock principles, if any, to which the various memorializers are committed? I think not.

Fishy Propaganda


If you've been watching the France2 evening news over the past few days, you will have seen a lot of fish: first anchovies, then tuna. And you will have seen a lot of angry fishermen denouncing the gnomes of Brussels who are out to steal their livelihood and hand it over to the Bulgarians or the Japanese.

If so, you must be sure to wash off the fishy smell by reading Jean Quatremer's blog this morning. I haven't always appreciated Quatremer's writing in recent weeks (he's among the journalists who've been spreading rumors about the wandering eye and hands of a certain politician, and he "sexed up" a behind-the-scenes report from the Eurogroup meeting), but this piece is first-rate. He explains the scientific basis of the anchovy decision and demonstrates Michel Barnier's hypocrisy. Barnier, so soft-spoken, so distinguished, so diplomatic, is not the sort of politician you'd associate with a brazen disregard of science worthy of the Bush administration: "I think the scientific committee goes too far in its analysis." So he asked that the quota for the fishermen he represents as France's minister of agriculture and fisheries be increased--even to the detriment of other European fishermen and most likely to the ultimate harm of his own constituents.

And alas, this is all too typical of the way Europe is blamed in France for difficult but necessary and rational policy decisions. Europe? Science? The general interest? Why explain any of that, when there are angry constituents to please, a little electoral hay to be made, and a convenient scapegoat to be found in the homeland of the Belgian joke and the mannekin pis?

Now, I ask you, is this because Europe is an apolitical concoction of "disembodied rules," as Henri Guaino suggests, while France is a spotless exemplar of "politics incarnate?" Or is it rather because incarnate politicians are given to the thousand little deceptions that flesh is heir to?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Dolce far niente non più

In a development that may well influence the course of future negotiations on retirement reforms in France, the Prodi government in Italy has obtained from the unions an important concession: an increase in the retirement age and number of years of contribution required for full benefits.

Ideas Made Flesh


"Incarnation"--it seems to be on everybody's mind these days. Guaino sees it as the secret of Sarkozy's success. And now Malek Boutih has brought it up in a gathering of ambitious young cubs ready to challenge François Hollande for leadership of the pride and drive him off into the jungle to die. Arnaud Montebourg wanted to put across the idea that this wasn't just a revival of the Nouveau Parti Socialiste. That didn't work. Time for something new. But Boutih wanted assurances that this new effort wouldn't be just another "font of ideas not promoted by people." Incarnation, you see: politics in the Sarkozyan era needs bodies. Thinking isn't enough; you have to jog and cycle. L'homme est un coureur pensant (n'en déplaise à Pascal).

It would appear that there is no shortage of eager (self-)promoters ready to mount their vélos (and Bertrand Delanoë has made it easy for them, having stationed vélibs, bikes free for the temporary taking, at convenient spots around Paris). Manuel Valls was there, getting himself looked over as a présidentiable, no doubt to the consternation of Montebourg. But everybody made the right noises for now: this was a time for "collective ambition," not "personal ambition." The last thing these forty-somethings want is to reproduce the system of courants, which were less like streams than scavenging packs hunting in the tracks of the éléphants. Or so they say. Libé's metaphor for the quadragénaires today is lionceaux, but in the right light they look more like éléphanteaux.

See also here.

The Blog

This blog has now been in existence for exactly two months. In that time I (with some help from my collaborators) have posted some 72,000 words (I just counted them), enough to fill a short book. I don't know how many of you have read all of them, but I hope you've found at least some educational, entertaining, and/or provocative. Do let me know what you like, what you don't like, and what you'd like to see more or less of. Thanks for your support.

Guaino Speaks


Henri Guaino, President Sarkozy's plume and now special advisor, has spoken to Le Monde. It's a fascinating interview, full of things to comment on, of which I'll single out just one. I've been speaking in recent days about the presidential function of incarnation. Guaino takes up this same theme and proposes it as a fundamental feature of the Sarkozyan ideology: power, if it is to be responsible before the people, he argues, must be visible and incarnate. "Disembodied" rules are unsatisfactory. He draws a contrast in this respect between the European Union, which for him is precisely an apolitical institution of disembodied rules, and the Fifth Republic, which under Sarkozy will become again a state in which the incarnation of the Republic is the president. When asked what the most effective counter-power to the presidency is at the present time, he answered, the European Union.

This is a startling, almost shocking suggestion. It neglects the influence of states on the "disembodied rules" of the Union. It dismisses the role of domestic opposition. It implies that Europe is a concert of nations conceived as unitary actors with no voice other than that of the chief executive, the distillation of national sentiment in all its diversity. One would like to see Guaino expound this theory at greater length. It is worth recalling, incidentally, that Guaino directed Philippe Séguin's campaign against the Maastricht Treaty back in 1992. Ultra-Gaullist souverainisme appears to be alive and well and thriving close to the throne. Note, too, that Guaino was long associated with opposition to the franc fort, and that today Sarkozy is leading the charge against the euro fort.

In any case, read the interview. It will repay close attention. (Note in particular Guaino's stress on the complementarity of politics and markets, as well as his subtle justification of reduced inheritance tax on the grounds that it is more difficult for young people to establish themselves financially today than it was in the 60s and 70s, when jobs were more stable and inflation reduced the cost of borrowing.)

Enough of That Face


Didier Mathus, a Socialist deputy from Saône-et-Loire who handles audio-visual matters for the opposition, has filed a complaint with the Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel. His beef? There's just too damn much of Sarko on TV. He invokes a "rule of thirds," according to which television news time is supposed to be divided equally between the majority, the opposition, and the government. The time allotted to the president of the Republic is not counted, because he is supposed to be an "arbiter" and not "speak in the name of a party or political group." Sarko, Mathus claims, has demonstrated a "media presence and volubility" that render the "rule of thirds" inoperative.

What to think of this maneuver? I tend to see it as evidence for the tension I spoke of yesterday between party system and republican spirit in France. The rule of thirds seems to embody an implicit interpretation of the constitution along the following lines. Majority and opposition represent the "party system." This is the lower order of politics, the arena of competing particular interests. The government, emerging from this lower order of competition, is partially purged of the taint of particularity. It has achieved a higher stage in the ascent toward the general interest. Hence it is entitled to a share of time equal to each of the competing party blocs. The president of the Republic marks the highest stage in this progressive purification. He is supposed to represent the general interest, the republican spirit incarnate. Hence his time is not counted.

Sarkozy's "omnipresence" has somehow disrupted this mythology. It seems to me questionable, to say the least, that Sarkozy is any more (or less) the head of a party than Mitterrand was. Yet Mitterrand's reserve, aloofness, and hauteur apparently rendered his participation in the party system compatible with his incarnation of the Republic, while Sarkozy's "volubility," "omnipresence," and in-your-face pugnacity do not, at least in the eyes of M. Mathus.

See also here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Baker on Bloggers

Russell Baker (New York Review of Books, Aug. 16, p. 10) writes:

What is indisputable is that practically every blogger can now be a columnist. With vast armies of columnists now blogging away, it seems inevitable that a few may eventually produce something original, arresting, and refreshing and so breathe new life into this worn-out journalistic form.

Sort of like an army of chimpanzees some day producing Hamlet, I guess. I'm not sure that Baker intends his remark as a compliment, but I do think there may be some value in the circulation of a wider range of opinion, formed by a wider variety of experience and expertise, than any newspaper can accommodate.

Hall of Mirrors


Straying a bit from the straight and narrow of politics, I can't pass up the opportunity to comment on another subject of predilection, intellectuals. This is a minor thing, but it comes up with some frequency, so I thought I'd mention it to see if anyone else finds this particular bit of Franco-American convergence as amusing as I do.

It was pure coincidence, of course, that a commentator on a guest post here about Alain Badiou remarked that Badiou is "now more studied and revered in the US than he is in France" on the same day that Le Nouvel Obs ran a piece intended to mark "the immense renown" allegedly enjoyed by Jean Baudrillard "across the Atlantic"--"far greater even the attention he attracted in France." The supposed American consecration of the French intellectual can thus be used either to raise up or to knock down. "Woe unto my benighted countrymen," says the French acolyte, "who failed to recognize the prophet in his own land." Or, conversely, the French critic dispatches the false hero to Valhalla-in-Vegas, that gimcrack simulacrum: only the gullible Amerloques could fall for such a charlatan, but here in the homeland we have his number, we've seen his type before (and, by the way, we speak his language).

The trope is a bit tired whether employed in a positive or negative sense, having been tried now on a long series of would-be culture heroes going back several decades. News flash to the offices of Le Nouvel Obs: "immense renown" in the United States requires more than mention in the pages of Sémiotext(e). (Half the testimonials to Baudrillard seem to come from people affiliated with that journal.) I know how these things work, because I'm in the Rolodexes of the journalists who write these pieces. The phone rings. "Would you agree that Derrida [Foucault, Bourdieu, ...) is more (less) revered (reviled, read, regurgitated ...) in the United States (France) than he is in France (the United States)?" Depending on which of your friends you want to make angry that day, you choose a couple of answers from column A and a couple from column B, and, presto, you've made (broken) a reputation.

It's sort of like the question of whether Rousseau caused the French Revolution. For some, the answer would require a lifetime's work and reflection. For others, it's just a matter of taking samples from the brains of dead revolutionaries and toting up the mass of Rousseauoid particles in micrograms. Basta!

Intransigence


As if to illustrate the point in my previous post about factional blockage, Noël Mamère appears on cue, calling upon environmental NGOs to pull out of the talks with the government known as the "environmental Grenelle." They should withdraw from this "farce" (pantalonnade), Mamère says, because "additional moral persons" have been included in the discussions. This is his coy way of saying that Borloo plans to hear the views of nuclear power advocates, agrobusiness, manufacturers and users of genetically modified seeds, etc. The idea seems to be that on environmental issues there are only two schools, one of virtue, the other of vice; government, of course, should always be on the side of virtue, should eschew the counsel of the vicious, and should act only by imposition of its undefiled will, never in concert with the evil-doers. Perhaps Mamère should apply for a job with the Bush administration. He has the requisite Manichaean world-view.

Realignment à la française


In the United States, there is a large literature on what is called "party realignment," a concept associated most prominently with the name of Walter Dean Burnham. The central idea is that not all presidential elections are alike. Some, like the elections of 1896 and 1932 in the United States, represent a seismic shift, a slippage of the tectonic plates of the society that undergird the political system.

I know of no similar literature for France. Nevertheless, it is often argued that not all French presidencies are alike. A good example of this sort of argument appears in this morning's Libération. But before I get to that argument, which is provided by Jean d'Ormesson, I have to explain why a columnist of the right like d'Ormesson is appearing in a paper of the left, Libé.

Libé
's editor, Laurent Joffrin, has had an idea. Mimicking Sarkozy's ouverture to the left, he has decided to invite writers of the right to air their views in the normally left-leaning columns of his newspaper. His intention seems partly ironic: to expose l'ouverture as un gadget, a feint: "In short, Libération's ouverture shows the limitations of Sarkozy's." The left remains the left, he says, and the right the right. In other words, there has been no party realignment, no movement in the depths of society, no rethinking of old positions--and, moreover, Joffrin would seem to imply, that is as it should be. Political integrity depends on firmness of principle, Joffrin insists. And the Socialist Manuel Valls, who refused an overture from Sarkozy, puts the point even more emphatically: "To cover your tracks [as Sarkozy is doing] is to endanger democracy."

D'Ormesson takes a very different tack. Like the realignment theorists, he distinguishes between major presidencies and minor presidencies. Major presidencies effect significant and durable changes in the political landscape. But for d'Ormesson, these changes are not the manifestation of underlying changes in the electorate; rather, they are tributes to the skill, nay, the cunning, of the great presidents--read de Gaulle and Mitterrand--who in a sense betrayed their electorates--de Gaulle by cutting Algeria loose, Mitterrand by embracing social democracy--out of a shrewd and realistic appreciation of the need for profound realignment, which, d'Ormesson would argue if he knew the vocabulary of realignment theory, followed rather than preceded their election.

Sarkozy, d'Ormesson implies, aspires to be a great president and is in the process, in order to become one, of betraying the forces that elected him. His ouverture is not only popular but also deeply republican in spirit. Even Joffrin concedes that point: ""In a republic it is natural to listen to those who don't think as you do." One is reminded of the "republican" animus against parties--against factionalism--which followed the revolutions in both France and the United States (for France, see Pierre Rosanvallon's Le modèle politique français; for the United States, see Richard Hofstadter's The Idea of a Party System). Yet "the idea of a party system" now seems to have such a firm grip that the older idea that parties ought to be viewed with suspicion, that there was something illegitimate about organized factionalism, that the partisan spirit was a distortion of the general will, has itself become disreputable in the eyes of even as shrewd a political observer as Laurent Joffrin, who can see Sarkozy's move only as a tactic for partisan advantage and not, perhaps, just possibly, a tactic in the service of the general interest.

D'Ormesson may have the better of this argument. There are times when factional blockage must be overcome, and the hope of drawing on the best talent regardless of prior allegiances makes sense. I think d'Ormesson overestimates, however, the degree to which such moments are created by sheer political cunning. I think that realignment begins, as Burnham would have it, deeper down in the society, though the wit to take advantage of the altered constellation of forces must come from above. That the French political parties have been en décalage, out of alignment, with the underlying political geology has been apparent for some time. The double discourse of the Socialists--pretending to resist changes that in fact they were actively abetting--was one (for them) debilitating and, I think, ultimately fatal consequence of this. If Sarkozy can capitalize on that change, he will have performed a great service not only for himself and those who think as he does but also for those who don't, who will at last be able to construct an opposition that stands on something more solid than a crumbling ideology.

P.S. Sarko may be causing greater consternation in the ranks of the UMP than among the Socialists.