Friday, August 31, 2007

Powerful Women


Three French women come near the top of Forbes Magazine's list of the world 100 most powerful women: Michèle Alliot-Marie, minister of the interior, no. 11; Christine Lagarde, minister of the economy, no. 12; and Anne Lauvergeon, CEO of Areva, no. 14. The only other French woman on the list is no. 80, Maureen Chiquet, head of Chanel. Cécilia Sarkozy doesn't make it.

Suez-GDF


Le Point says that the Suez-GDF merger will be announced on Monday. Sarkozy will have gotten part of what he wanted, since Suez will cede 66 percent of its environmental operations--a condition agreed to by Suez CEO Mestrallet against the wishes of his board, which wanted to keep everything.

It will be interesting to see who buys what Suez sells. Will it be Veolia, whose CEO, Henri Proglio, is close to Sarkozy, a longtime UMP financier, and rumored to be involved romantically with justice minister Dati?

RIP, 35 Hours


Yesterday Sarkozy told the MEDEF that he wanted to "go much further in the direction of making the 35-hour week more flexible." François Hollande isn't going to give him any trouble: "Overall, the country has to work more. ... We can no longer say, 'We're going to restore the 35-hour week.'"

The new slogan on the left is "the freedom of flex time" (le temps choisi). "Work more" is now the national consensus. Whether it will be in order to "earn more" remains to be seen. The reduction from 39 to 35 hours was mandated to occur without loss of pay. That the return to longer hours is to be accomplished without increase of pay seems highly doubtful, since even Chirac termed the 35 hours an acquis social, and you don't ask people to give up what they've got without compensation unless you're looking for trouble. The very absence of specific proposals on the hard-core issues such as the single labor contract in Sarkozy's MEDEF speech suggests that he's not looking for trouble just yet. And all his talk of juicing "purchasing power" hardly suggests that what he has in mind for the economy is an exchange of wage restraint now in exchange for a larger share of anticipated growth in the future.*

The vague talk of purchasing power is going to have to eventuate in concrete proposals fairly soon, or people will begin to ask what cards Sarko is really holding. The MEDEF speech has already met with a muted reaction for its lack of substance. More had been expected. The first hundred days created the expectation that the second hundred would continue to translate campaign rhetoric into concrete legislation. Instead there was more campaign rhetoric, and more than one commentator compared the Jouy-en-Josas address to a standard Guaino-authored stump speech.

* Laurence Parisot claimed the other day that if you index "the cost of labor" in Germany and France in the year 2000 at 100, the German index now stands at 87, the French at 103, suggesting a significant loss of competitivity for French industry. A quick check with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that these figures are highly misleading, although Ms. Parisot doesn't say what she means by "cost of labor": is it "unit labor cost," "average hourly compensation," or something else? The proper measure is unit labor cost, a productivity measure, which decreased in France from 85.7 in 2000 to 84.1 in 2005, whereas Germany went from 103.3 in 2000 to 96.7 in 2005, according to the BLS. So Parisot is right that Germany did improve its competitive position, though not, I think, as much as she claims. German wage restraint is achieved through coordinated sector-level bargaining. Sarkozy has proposed that France move to firm-level bargaining, which would reduce coordination and likely lessen wage restraint.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Laurence Parisot


When leadership of the MEDEF passed from Ernest-Antoine Seillière de Laborde to Laurence Parisot in 2005, the change in style was undeniable, almost as dramatic as the change from CNPF to MEDEF. The former acronym stood for Conseil National du Patronat Français, the latter for Mouvement des Entreprises de France. Entreprises is so much more ... enterprising than patronat, which, after all, sounds rather "bossy." And the pixieish Parisot (pictured left) is altogether a softer personality than the crusty Seillière, whose career was in finance (CGIP, the Wendel holding company, later renamed Wendel Investissement). Parisot, by contrast, made her career in polling. She worked for Harris France, SOFRES, and then IFOP. She is a passionate amateur of surrealist art and an avid photographer. She regrets that in her current position as boss of French bosses she no longer has time for long walks in Paris, like the one on which she discovered a sign on the rue Jeanne-d'Arc in the 13th arrondissement a plaque that reads, "Jeanne d'Arc, patronne de la France." Seillière the financier backed Parisot the pollster for the position of head of MEDEF; the change of name occurred on his watch, and the selection of Parisot was no doubt intended further to soften the image of the organization. Her vocation in monitoring public opinion as well as her surrealist avocation no doubt taught her a thing or two about the importance of imagery. For instance: "There is a word about which public opinion has evolved over the past 25 years. It is 'reform.' It used to mean 'progress.' Today it means 'social regression.'"

"Creators" vs. "Predators"


President Sarkozy chose the Summer University of the business association MEDEF at Jouy-en-Josas to deliver a major speech on his future economic policy. The venue itself has been contested by union leaders Bernard Thibault of the CGT and François Chérèque of the CFDT, even though Chérèque is himself a guest of the MEDEF. This year's principal theme is the environment, and the MEDEF's brochures have green covers (pictured left, thanks to Versac) to reinforce the point, but this didn't stop Sarkozy from laying down his condition for a Suez-GDF merger, which has been in doubt since Suez apparently issued an ultimatum to the Elysée: he insists that Suez divest itself of its "environmental" arm to concentrate on its core business, the supply of energy. The strategy behind this maneuver may be to ensure that the state retains sufficient stock in the merged company to exercise a blocking vote and prevent "excess" layoffs, which would complicate life for the government. Some friends of Sarkozy are also in the environmental protection business and may be looking to make an interesting acquisition.

Of course this little maneuver isn't supposed to be the headline issue of the speech, which is so full of quotable tidbits that the media can choose which crowd-pleasing aspects of the speech to play up and which to play down. For those who like their economics replete with heroes and villains, for instance, there is the attack on "predators" and "speculators," to whom Sarkozy says he prefers "to oppose producers, inventors, and creators." Le Monde leads with this line, and goes on to mention the president's desire to "help small and medium enterprises to grow and export" and to encourage "a capitalism of entrepreneurs, not a capitalism of speculators." Of course this division of the world into white hats and black hats ignores the frequently heard lament that one source of weak French growth is the underdevelopment of French venture capital--the very "speculators" whom Sarkozy denounces--so that French "inventors" and "creators" with marketable ideas are forced to seek financing and in some cases even to relocate in the United States or Great Britain or Ireland.

Another major theme of the speech was Sarkozy's desire to improve the "purchasing power" of French households. As he did during the campaign, he arraigns the European Central Bank for indifference to this issue and says "I don't want people to go on thumbing their noses at the French with price indices that mean nothing, that don't measure the cost of living, that have nothing to do with the reality that households confront." It would be useful if the president were a little clearer about what he has in mind. Certainly indices can always be contested, but what exactly does he mean by "purchasing power?" If prices are too high--the always highly symbolic price of the baguette has just gone up--does he intend to impose some sort of medieval theory of the just price of things, or does he have in mind some market solution that will induce firms to reduce prices while maintaining wages and salaries and still finding the wherewithal to invest in the good ideas of the "inventors" and "creators" whose work he also extols? Because this seems to me a circle that can't be squared. If, on the other hand, the problem with purchasing power is that it is unequally distributed, with far too many French workers crowding the bottom of the wage ladder, between the SMIC and 1.5 times the SMIC, then why is his fiscal package tilted toward those whose purchasing power already exists?

To be sure, he does propose to achieve a reduction of prices by modifying the Galland Law, about which I have written previously. At the same time he proposes an increased tax credit for research and development. This is probably a wise move--R&D in France need to be encouraged--but the details will be important. Yet he also notes that "if you tax labor too much, you get outsourcing, and if you tax capital too much, it flees. In the world as it is, directly taxing the factors of production, directly taxing labor and capital, condemns you to lower employment, less production, lower growth, and less purchasing power." An impeccable analysis, but that leaves the option of indirect taxation on final consumption, the much-bruited "social VAT," which equally impacts "purchasing power."

The slipperiness of all this rhetoric will, I'm sure, not go unnoticed. Yet the man whom Sarkozy has put in charge of reflecting on "impediments to growth," Jacques Attali, delivered himself yesterday of a stupefying attack on the profession of economics, which hardly inspires confidence in the soundness of the advice the president will be receiving on economic policy. Attali's anti-intellectualism hardly becomes a mover-and-shaker who has at times professed a certain intellectual competence. His attack has not gone unanswered.

For La Tribune's roundup, see here. Versac's edgier take is here.

Vocabulary

Along with all the disobliging things that Claude Allègre had to say about Ségolène Royal, he did allow that she had "une niaque pas possible" (or "une gnaque pas possible" according to another transliteration). In case the word niaque is unknown to you, it means "will to win," or what American presidential commentators sometimes call "fire in the belly." See also here.

Laurent in Libé

I call your attention to an article in today's Libération by French economist and "French Politics" contributor Éloi Laurent on the contribution of globalization to inequality within nations and the strain that this is placing on "social contracts" around the world.

The Schemer, The Jackals and Hyenas, and the Active Sage


Claude Allègre, who is all over the press and airwaves today, has scarcely a kind word for anyone. François Hollande is a "schemer." He believed that "the more crocodiles in the creek, the better his chances of surviving." He was like Guy Mollet (the supreme curse among Socialists). Ségolène Royal behaved in an "unspeakable" manner. She had "no interest in the issues, only in promoting herself." The forty-year-old would-be renovators of the party, the Montebourgs and the Valls, are "young jackals and young hyenas."

Meanwhile, Laurent Fabius says that the "spectacle on the left is hardly appetizing." "Division, confusion, personal attacks--I don't like any of that." But he does see a role for himself in the renovation of the party: that of "active sage." He intends "to join in the debate on the issues ... but not to get involved in the internal preparations, because the aroma coming from the kitchen right now isn't very pleasant." He doesn't rule out a candidacy "in 2012, 2017, 2022, but it would be ridiculous to approach that subject today."

How does a political party get itself into such a deplorable condition? Sarkozy reportedly credits himself with having plunged the PS into turmoil with his policy of ouverture, but he's no doubt too cocky. Bertrand Delanoë was probably closer to the mark when he said the other day that it was time to echo François Furet and admit that "the French Revolution is over." Despite repeated experiences with power after 1981, and despite repeated protestations of adaptation to the realities of a market economy and the modern world, too many Socialists continued to believe that everything could change overnight, and would, if only they could once again gain the presidency. Hence they continually postponed the needed aggiornamento. Now it may be too late. There are too many ambitions and too few ideas. Manuel Valls and others have proposed changing the party's name. A change of name won't be enough to effect a change of identity. I think this crisis may well prove fatal.

For background on the damage wrought by the survival of the revolutionary ideal, see my contribution to a colloquium on Perry Anderson's critique of contemporary French politics.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Increased Uncertainty


Employers (see previous post) want reduced uncertainty. The unions, or at any rate, the CGT seem to want increased uncertainty. CGT head Bernard Thibault, never much given to subtlety, threatened to cause disruptions during the Rugby World Cup if things didn't go his way. But even the CGT concedes that the government is doing more consulting with unions than governments past.

Sarkozy will address the MEDEF Summer University tomorrow and is expected to unveil further economic reforms, including details of the single labor contract. Then the unions will begin to frame their strategies in response, and we will have a better idea of whether the fall will be confrontational or given over to negotiations. The government's strategy will very likely be one of divide-and-conquer, aimed at isolating the CGT as much as possible. And at bottom the CGT's position is weak.

Reduced Uncertainty


Laurence Parisot, the head of the employers' association MEDEF, gives Le Monde an interview today. On the move toward a single employment contract, she says that what employers want is less uncertainty as to the cost of potential layoffs. "We have to explain an apparent paradox," she said. "Employers will hire more if laying off is less complicated." To that end, the MEDEF proposal is to maintain existing job protections but add a new layoff procedure "by mutual consent." Workers who accept separation by this route will be entitled to unemployment insurance. Employers will gain by avoiding conflict and potential hearings of uncertain duration, giving the flexibility they desire.

Rocard's Report Card


Michel Rocard awards Sarkozy a pretty good report card, and the next day he is appointed by Sarko to a commission to consider ways to improve the status of teachers. Just a coincidence, I'm sure. His bottom line:

After the relative lifelessness of President Jacques Chirac’s final years office, dynamism has returned to French foreign policy. That is a welcome development, and not only for France, because Sarkozy’s activism also promises to boost Europe’s political influence around the world.
It's sobering to think that France labored for nearly two decades under a gerontocracy. Certainly Mitterrand's second septennat and both of Chirac's terms were conducted by men not at their peak. Rocard is no doubt right that part of l'effet Sarkozy is simply the shock of discovering a more vigorous leader at the helm. More and more, in fact, Sarkozy strikes me as rather cautious in his policy compared with the boldness of his self-presentation, not to say self-aggrandizement, which is largely a reflection of sheer energy.

Martine Aubry's report card is rather more reserved (thanks to commenter Fr. for the tip--I'd somehow missed this). She's a little unfair, I think, in arraigning Sarko for having missed the looming subprime crisis. Many anticipated it; no one did anything to prevent it; and Sarkozy was hardly in a position to influence the behavior of American mortgage lenders and hedge funds.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sortons de ce soap opera!


I take my title from Bertrand Delanoë's splendid text in today's Le Monde. Enfin! At last, a Socialist leader who has mustered the will to respond to Sarkozy on substance rather than form, who avoids sniping at his comrades, who recognizes the party's failure as above all intellectual, and who has begun to take stock of the world as it is.

The blogger Lancelot reports that Delanoë will hold a major rally on Sept. 4, but clearly he has ambitions that extend well beyond Paris. This is a manifesto for leadership of the Socialist Party. I haven't time to analyze the text in detail, but I'll surely get back to it. In the meantime, have a look. If you don't have a subscription, try Le Monde's open site. Note, too, that Delanoë is wisely avoiding not only bickering with his fellow Socialists but also mingling with them in endless hand-wringing meetings. He will approach the party via the media, as the party must be approached these days. He has a strong organization in Paris, but he will expand his influence by commanding national attention with statements on the issues, not on personalities. In short, he is following the trail blazed by Sarkozy. And he's off to a good start.

FT opposes DSK


The Financial Times has published an editorial opposing Europe's backing of Dominique Strauss-Kahn to head the International Monetary Fund. For the editorialist, DSK lacks the intellectual credentials as well as the necessary temperament, which the FT believes should be that of a central banker. Since Russia has already announced its opposition to DSK's candidacy and is backing a Czech banker, Joseph Tosovsky, and since Third World countries are growing restive about the European lock on the position, DSK's future is suddenly looking less certain. One wonders, of course, if the reported Yasmina Reza connection has anything to do with this surprising turn.

For the latest head count, see here.

More Foreign Policy (Response to Françoise)


Françoise posted the following comment to my previous post on Sarkozy's foreign policy speech yesterday:

Je découvre votre blog avec grand plaisir. Il est extrêmement intéressant d'avoir l'opinion d'amis "non-français" sur notre pays.

Je retiens votre petite remarque (sarcastique ?) : "Was the word "failure" mentioned in Kennebunkport?"

Je ne sais pas ce qui s'est dit (dans "l'intimité") à Kennebunkport, mais tout ce discours de politique étrangère m'apparaît plein de contradictions, dans le texte lui-même et par rapport à l'attitude du président français pendant son séjour aux États-Unis.

Quelle est votre analyse à ce sujet ?

Thanks for your comment, Françoise. Your question provokes a somewhat lengthy response, so I'm putting it here in the main thread. First, I agree that Sarkozy's speech is full of contradictions. Indeed, it's quite interesting to read the innumerable reactions it has provoked, since each of the many commentators seems to focus on a different aspect of the speech as the most important point, suggesting that the address is something of a Rorschach test, which tells us more about the reader's preoccupations than about the president's. The New York Times, for example, emphasized the threat of force against Iran. European commentators were far less interested in this aspect of the speech, and while several mentioned Sarkozy's "strong" statement on Iran, none saw a threat to use European force. Indeed, what Sarkozy said was that negotiation was the only way to escape from "a catastrophic alternative: the Iranian bomb or the bombardment of Iran." Was he thinking of an American bombardment of Iran? Of an Israeli bombardment of Iran? Or of a French/European bombardment of Iran? He didn't say. What he did say was only that an Iranian bomb was "unacceptable" to him, leaving the rest highly ambiguous. (For François Heisbourg's rather more appreciative take on the Iran statement, see here.)

Now, ambiguity is sometimes useful in diplomacy, but it can also be very dangerous, particularly when the ambiguity involves the use of force. Le Figaro characterizes Sarkozy's policy in a headline as "voluntarist" and draws a parallel with what is sees as his "voluntarism" in the domestic arena. I'm not quite sure what is intended by this adjective, unless it is to suggest that Sarko means to be an active presence in the foreign policy arena, seeking to anticipate and perhaps precipitate events rather than responding to them. So, for example, rather than wait for an opportunity to display lessened hostility to the United States, he chose to vacation in New Hampshire to make a point of the reorientation. But if this is voluntarism, he may be overdoing it. He could have indicated his willingness to help the United States out of its current impasse without fawning over a discredited president, to the point of rubbing his shoulder affectionately--I believe that the body language of the Kennebunkport encounter mattered more than the diplomatic language of the two leaders. Yet having thus aligned himself with Bush, he proceeded in his speech yesterday to describe the Bush policy as un échec, a failure, which is quite accurate, only to proceed to an ambiguous statement about Iran, leaving observers to wonder whether he is now aligning himself with Bush's increasingly bellicose pronouncements on the Iranian question or persisting in the previous Franco-European course of mounting sanctions coupled with negotiations. The ambiguity strikes me as deliberate, and insofar as it encourages the va-t-en-guerre faction in the United States, regrettable.

Much more interesting is the proposal for a Mediterranean Union, which came in for considerable attention in his speech. Sarkozy seems to have it in mind to foster a bloc of moderate Muslim states in North Africa as a counter to the "failed states" of Syria, Iraq, and Iran. He would like to join Turkey to this bloc as a substitute for Turkish membership in the European Union. And he sees Europe--but more importantly, France, with its longstanding cultural ties to the Maghreb--as the principal interlocutor with this new bloc, a stable regional counter-power to the turbulent Crescent. It's an interesting proposal, and one which I think will receive much development shortly under the leadership of Jean-David Levitte, who, far more than Kouchner, will I think be the key man in the emerging French foreign policy. Kouchner is the showman; Levitte is the strategist. Kouchner will figure in the splashier initiatives. Levitte will articulate the grand dessein. Kouchner's recent faux pas after his Baghdad visit demonstrates that he is still a neophyte in foreign policy, but it scarcely matters, since Sarkozy is in effect his own foreign minister.

That's all I have time for just now.

The Court Pronounces

Le Figaro reports that a court in Nanterre has awarded damages of 15,000 euros to a person whom it chastely identifies only as "the young woman appearing in photographs with François Hollande" on a beach in Malta. The court refused, however, to order the withdrawal of copies of the "people" magazine Closer containing the photograph and already in circulation.

One wonders if the story will be covered by Valérie Trierweiler, who reports on the Socialist Party for Match and who bears a certain resemblance to the aforesaid young woman. It might help boost the flagging fortunes of the Socialist Party and its leader. As the Telegraph, less chaste than Le Figaro, noted some time ago in an article about how bloggers revealed information that French newspapers cannot print:

But, according to a new book about sex and French politics, Sexus Politicus, internet revelations might even assist politicians.

"Far from being a flaw, to cast yourself in the role of seducer is without doubt an important quality in our political life," said its co-author, Christophe Deloire. A recent French opinion poll found 83 per cent of the electorate would still vote for a candidate if he had cheated on his wife.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Foreign Policy


It was the little things that counted in Sarko's speech to a meeting of ambassadors today in which he traced the broad outlines of his foreign policy. If anaphora is the defining trope of his (and speechwriter Henri Guaino's) rhetoric, it was abundantly on display today. Repeated introductory clauses included "Je suis de ceux qui pensent ..." and "Prévenir une confrontation entre l'Islam et l'Occident ..." The incantatory pulse served as effective camouflage for a certain number of telling petites phrases:

"In confronting international crises such as the one in Iraq, it is today established that unilateral action leads to failure ..."

Was the word "failure" mentioned in Kennebunkport?

On Turkey, "France will not oppose the opening of new chapters in the negotiations," though it still prefers a different kind of association and hopes to persuade its partners.

"I want today to stress the importance of a Europe of Defense. Setting the Union in opposition to NATO makes no sense. We need both. More than that, I am convinced that it is in the self-interest properly understood of the United States that the European Union should gather its forces, rationalize its capacities, and, in short, organize its defense."

Se non è vero, è ben' trovato ...

Who is "G"? The burning question of the hour, for those who have been following the Yasmina Reza hoopla ... Her book on Sarkozy, she tells us, was inspired by her affair with another politician, whom she calls "G." Of course this left everyone wondering who G might be. Now, via Pierre Assouline, we learn that the Sunday Times of London has outed G, and he is (allegedly) none other than DSK. But the Times attributes its story to Le Point and doesn't seem to have it quite nailed down.

So let's get this straight: Sarko's amanuensis was having an affair with a man who might have been his opponent even as she was admitted into the most intimate councils of his campaign. No sooner is he elected than he contrives to push DSK into a candidacy for the IMF.

It's no wonder that the late Raymond Barre liked to keep his distance from what he called the microcosme. And the story does rather put the distance between Royal and at least one Socialist éléphant in a somewhat new light ...

Frangy, Pas Frangins, Encore Moins Camarades


Some of the younger Socialists gathered over the weekend in Frangy at the invitation of Arnaud Montebourg. They're trying to figure out how to play the rénovation game and see which one is top dog. The scene must have resembled the scene at the dog park where I walk my Siberian husky every morning. A lot of sniffing around, posturing, feeling out, pawing of the ground, and a skirmish or two. Besides Montebourg, the cast of characters included (cutting and pasting from Libé) "le fabiusien Philippe Martin, la strauss-kahnienne Sandrine Mazetier, la royaliste Aurélie Filipetti, et les «rénovateurs» Manuel Valls et Gaëtan Gorce." Royal wanted to join them, but Montebourg reportedly disinvited her on the pretext that the "tradition" of his Fête de la Rose does not permit inviting the same guest of honor twice in a row. But a picture of her was placed on a windowsill where it couldn't be missed. Solidarity forever!

On substance we get a few snippets:

Valls said it was time for the party to shed its "leftist trappings." This has been a very slow striptease, since the party has been shedding its leftist trappings since 1983, but perhaps it needs the encouragement of the young guys in the front row to keep going. More significantly, on the subject of immigration, he said that it was time for the party to abandon its "militant and compassionate discourse, which smacks of irresponsibility." And once again he was hyping "work, merit, order, authority" as left-wing values hijacked by the right.

Montebourg took after l'Éducation Nationale for being "bureaucratic and centralized." Now there's news! A startling discovery. He also called for a "reconciliation with enterprise." More news!

Gorce said the young leaders of the party shouldn't line up behind anyone but shouldn't marginalize anyone either. Ségolène Royal "doesn't have to conduct the renovation of the party by herself. It ought to be collective." Let's keep those options open.

It would have been nice to hear what the women had to say, but Libé chose to leave us in the dark as to any contributions that Filipetti and Mazetier might have made.

... Meanwhile, back in Paris, at La Villette, Les Gracques met. Again quoting Libé:

les écrivains Jorge Semprun et Erik Orsenna, Philippe Val ( Charlie Hebdo), Anthony Giddens (professeur à la London School of Economics) et Peter Mandelson (commissaire européen), architectes du New Labour blairiste, Walter Veltroni (maire social-démocrate de Rome), Michel Rocard (ex-Premier ministre) et, en clôture François Cherèque, secrétaire général de la CFDT. Et dans la salle ? Il y a Denis Olivennes, le PDG de la Fnac, mais pas Jean-Pierre Jouyet, l’ami de Hollande qui «a dû quitter les Gracques lorsqu’il a décidé d’entrer dans le gouvernement», précise Bernard Spitz, président des Gracques et patron d’une boîte de conseil, passé par le cabinet de Strauss-Khan.


"They're mainly guys in their fifties," said one of the few younger people in the audience. "Et ils sont un peu tight ass (cul serrés, ndlr) », regrette David (militant socialiste), 19 ans" Henri Weber, the ex-Trotskyite current Fabiusien, eschewed the crude Anglicism in favor of the ironic epithet "extreme center," which is evidently a politer way of saying the same thing. He noted the coolness of the audience to a poll showing that a heavy majority of left voters favor retirement at age 60, an increase in the minimum wage to 1500 euros per month, and no reduction in civil service personnel. The assembled wise men regarded all these things as "absolutely of another era."

So there you have it. Attempting a synthesis, one is led to the conclusion that what the party needs is a candidate who can triangulate the space between Sarko, Frangy, and La Villette, be less tight-assed, find a way to reconcile with enterprise while raising the minimum wage 50 percent, rehabilitate the leftist watchwords "order" and "authority" while stripping off any remaining leftist trappings, yet without being sucked into the vortex of the "extreme center" from whose bourne no candidate returns. Bonne chance.

P.S.
For the trade union contribution, from Chérèque of the CFDT, see here. For a report by a blogger who attended the meeting of Les Gracques, see here. He reports the startling news that Jean-Louis Gergorin, the mole in the Clearstream Affair, was an invited guest!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Wine Politics


The NY Times has an interesting piece on the state of the French wine industry by the novelist William Boyd.

Candid Camera on Dati

As a supplement to Éloi Laurent's guest post on Rachida Dati, I offer the following video:



Note that this was shot on February 28, 2007, well before the election. It shows Bruno Julliard in conversation with Rachida Dati at the Hôtel Lutétia. Julliard is of course the president of the student union UNEF. It seems that his cordial relations with the Sarkozy camp predated the previously mentioned lunch with Sarkozy at which differences over university reform were ironed out. In this clip he is shown jocularly addressing Mme Dati as Madame la Ministre, indicating that he was in little doubt as to the outcome of the election. A third person, unknown to me, asks, "Minister of what?" Mme Dati, in a lighthearted mood, responds by suggesting, "Ministre de la rénovation urbaine à coup de Kärcher" Then she notices the camera.

I had stumbled on this video some time ago but hesitated to post it. I'm of two minds about the YouTube-DailyMotion phenomenon. It is hardly an inducement to political candor. Yet Sarkozy invited Yasmina Reza to chronicle his quasi-private moments and record his boutades. I leave it to readers to analyze Dati's. Does it reveal, in Freudian manner, a certain aggressivity toward her boss? A certain insensitivity to the objects of the coup de Kärcher? A discomfort with a past she has left behind? Or something else? And what are we to make of the apparent connivance between a young leader of the student opposition and a lieutenant of the candidate he was strenuously opposing at the time? An interesting vignette of la vie politique.

Rachida Dati (Guest Post--Éloi Laurent)



[This guest post by Éloi Laurent is another in his series of biographical sketches of "visible minorities" in positions of power in France.]

“I’m French of French origin: I was born in the heart of Burgundy”. Thus speaks Rachida Dati, 41, the new French Minister of Justice, whose father was born in Morocco and mother was born in Algeria, the highest-ranked politician of North-African descent in France’s history, the first member of a visible minority ever to hold a “ministère régalien” (formerly royal, now part of the night-watch state as opposed to the welfare state: interior, justice, defense, foreign affairs). By these standards alone, Dati has already made history: with her, diversity has finally found its way to the very core of French power.


Actually, the Minister of Justice is also, and even primarily, the “Garde des Sceaux” (keeper of the seals), an office that can be traced to the 14th century. As such, from her office in the beautiful Hôtel de Bourvallais, Place Vendôme, Dati, after Michel de l'Hospital, René-Charles de Maupeou, Georges-Jacques Danton, Aristide Briand, René Capitant and Robert Badinter, holds the power to grant authenticity to laws. In 2007, French genuineness is being sealed by Rachida Dati. Who knew?


Dati was born in November 1965 in an HLM near Châlon-sur-Saône, (Saône et Loire), the second of twelve children. Her mother was Illiterate and her father, a mason, learned to speak and read French with his children. Starting to work as soon as she legally could to support herself and her family, she made it to college, first at the University of Burgundy and then in Paris, graduating in economics and public law.


What followed was a labyrinthic journey of masterful networking into France’s most secretive and sulphurous companies of the 1980s and 1990s, begun when she wowed the Minister of Justice Albin Chalandon at a party at the Algerian embassy to which she had not been invited (on her way to her first day of office as Minister of Justice, she would stop to pick Chalandon up and take possession of her office with him at her side).


In 1987, she joined Elf-Aquitaine, in 1990, she went to work for Matra, in 1994, she was hired by the Lyonnaise des Eaux. During those years, she also collected powerful protectors, such as Jean-Luc Lagardère, Jacques Attali, Marceau Long, Simone Veil and even Bernard Kouchner, who offered her a spot on a list for the European elections of 1994 (which she declined).


She entered public service in 1995, as a technical adviser for the judiciary division of the Minister of National Education and was admitted in 1997 to the Ecole nationale de la magistrature, from which she graduated in 1999. She had become so close to Simone Veil by that time that she took her judicial oath in the robe of the former Minister of Health.


She started her judicial career at the Court of Bobigny, the second most important in France and probably one of the most difficult, as it is in charge of Seine-Saint-Denis (ironically enough, its judges were attacked in November 2006 by the then Minister of Interior Sarkozy for their alleged “desertion” on the frontline of crime punishment). Dati moved in 2001 to the Court of Evry, becoming an assistant to the Procureur de la République.


In June 2002, with her characteristic chutzpah, she wrote to Sarkozy asking to work for him. With his characteristic instinct, he asked her to come on board. An adviser for integration, prevention of delinquency and social cohesion Place Beauvau, she followed Sarkozy everywhere he went in the Republic from 2002 to 2007. In the process, Dati not only became a prominent figure of the first political circle of the future President, but also an intimate of his wife, Cécilia. Wasn’t Dati in Malta after the victory and in Wolfeboro this summer?


Actually, according to Dati, it was Cécilia herself who decided she would become one of the two spokespersons for the candidate Sarkozy, despite the fact that she has never been elected to any office and only became a member of the UMP in December 2006, a mere month before her nomination.


But anyone doubting her political skills and mistaking her for an incompetent “favorite” should watch the way she rhetorically defeats Arnaud Montebourg, a lawyer and her counterpart in the Royal campaign. To the aggressive TF1 journalist who insisted in another interview that, in her life, she has seized opportunities instead of waiting for them, she simply answers: “Did I have a choice ?”


She quickly became a media icon during and right after the campaign, but the sour soon began to emerge from under the sweet, The Nouvel Observateur for instance perniciously portrayed her as a “Rastignac aux yeux de biche” (a doe-eyed Rastignac, after the scheming, ambitious Balzac anti-hero). This media ambivalence culminated when Dati, now a Minister, faced two serious hurdles right in the middle of the passing of her inaugural law on recidivism promised by the candidate Sarkozy.


Out of the blue, her chief of staff (directeur de cabinet) of a few weeks resigned, invoking the coded “personal motives,” and three advisers soon followed, It turned out that Dati’s first collaborator had had “enough of being insulted every day”. The idea that Dati could have “mistreated her staff” to the point of no-return verges on the ridiculous. Non-difficult persons in tense political periods are unheard of in ministerial cabinets, the harshest being…chiefs of staff.. More importantly, resigning in the middle of the first parliamentary debate by a new Minister looks at best unprofessional and at worst dereliction of duty. If anything, the behavior of Dati’s former collaborators reflected the classic power struggle between a new Minister and her ministry staff over substance, not style.


The other affair was even more destabilizing. One of Dati’s brothers, Jamal, faced court for the second time for drug trafficking at the very moment his sister was defending her law increasing penalties for recidivists (he was later sentenced to one year in jail). Overall, the trouble was serious enough that Sarkozy felt obliged to attend Dati’s Garden Party on July 14th to support her, while reminding everyone how important it was that she succeeded.


The press chronicle of this difficult start was so harsh it prompted reactions by two major left-leaning civic rights associations, the LICRA and SOS Racisme, which claimed Dati had received an unfair treatment due to her origin. As for her law, it was finally passed on July 27 and deemed constitutional on August 9, but not without strong criticism by some judges and a fine connoisseur of the French judicial system.


This is just the beginning of Dati’s tenure, but it is already obvious that her road is going to be bumpy. First, because France has yet to come to terms with the fact that Justice has a new face. Second, because friendship and politics rarely mix well and Dati is probably too close to Sarkozy in this regard. Finally, because the French public opinion has a hard time accepting that Dati is not a poor little thing humbled by her disadvantaged background nor a cruel “intriguante” crashing anyone standing between her and absolute power. Yes, she knows the elite codes, yes she knows her way around, yes she is quite ambitious and determined, yes she is unapologetic. A gifted politician. Nothing more and nothing less.


-- contributed by Éloi Laurent

Royal Entry


Ségolène Royal kicked off the era of Socialist renovation with an event yesterday in Melle. She spoke for an hour and a half, although it's difficult to reconstruct from news dispatches (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) how she filled that ample expanse of time. She did, however, make at least two important points, which indicate how she intends to approach the next few months--months that will very likely be crucial in determining who emerges as the new Socialist leader.

First, she broke sharply with Hollande's strategy of lambasting everything Sarkozy has done. Evidently recognizing the president's high standing in the polls, she credited him with having undertaken genuine "reform." But if she approved the overall direction, she chose to attack on the means. Would his actions deliver the promised results? And had not similar promises been made in the past, without effect? Avoiding a frontal assault is a smart tactic when the enemy is still fresh and holds the high ground.

Second, she invited the Socialists who have joined the government to participate in the renovation of the PS. This was again a rebuke to Hollande, who has effectively excommunicated the "turncoats." It was also a recognition of Sarkozy's shrewdness, since l'ouverture has met with the overwhelming approval of voters. Royal is thus offering an ouverture in reverse, or at least a non-fermeture, recognizing that for now, at least, strict partisanship is unpopular.

Beyond that, there was the usual boilerplate about building a "great modern party" and accepting the market: "The market is as natural as the air we breathe or the water we drink." In point of fact it isn't, but perhaps going too far is better than not going far enough, although I am reminded of Jean Cocteau's quip that "il faut savoir jusqu'où on peut aller trop loin." She attacked Sarko on the paragraph in his Dakar speech that has so rankled Africans and on the "injustice" of his tax package. She announced that she "is not in competition with anyone," although manifestly she is. And she emphasized repeatedly that she is a "new woman" and "serene."

Indeed, on the subject of her serenity, she protested rather too much. On the France2 news last night, she responded with clumsy sarcasm to Laurent Delahousse's question about her "state of mind" after such a long and "fatiguing" campaign. It was as if she were accusing the network of seeking to plant an image of her as a distraught women in a state of depression over her loss. She rambled quite a bit and had a hard time staying on message, but it was the end of a long day, and maybe she was in speechifying mode and unprepared for sound bite discipline. Delahousse did not ask her what she thought of Sarkozy's description of her as a nullité (as reported by Yasmina Reza). Surely someone will ask that question one day, however, and I hope she's ready with the obvious answer, that in the same breath Sarko allegedly said "it's not certain that being a nothing is a disadvantage with the French," rather an insulting view of le peuple for the supreme leader of la grande Nation to take.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Victims' Rights


Rue89 today attacks Pres. Sarkozy's recent call for trials of individuals who are deemed "not responsible for their actions" under French law. The headline puts the matter in rather lurid terms: "Sarkozy wants to try madmen, magistrates rise up." I think the issue deserves more sober consideration. "As chief of state," Sarkozy says, "I must see to it that victims have the right to a trial in which the criminal, the experts, and everyone will be obliged to state his beliefs."

One might respond to Sarkozy by saying that victims may have rights, but not necessarily to a trial. Victims forgo private vengeance because the state acts in their behalf, but it is up to the state to determine the procedures under which it does so. The trial is a device to protect the rights of the accused, who may be deprived of life or liberty. Its purpose is to determine facts and pronounce applicable laws. If the facts are uncontested and the only question is the technical one of the accused's responsibility for his actions, French law allows for exceptions to the right of trial. Sarkozy does not question the competence of the courts to determine "irresponsibility" without a trial, but he finds that the recourse to this procedure may fail to satisfy the victims emotionally: "The trial makes mourning possible." Rue89 calls this "judicial theatricalization" (la scénarisation judiciaire).

But of course there is an element of the theatrical in any trial, and one might respond in turn to Rue89's critique by saying that the "technocratization of justice" enshrined in the present procedure has just as little to recommend it. In the United States, "victims' statements" have become an increasingly common feature of the sentencing phase of criminal and even some civil trials. Such statements respond to the same emotional need that Sarkozy's declaration evokes. Those who prefer a more rational, more disembodied, more blind justice may find the intrusion of the raw emotion often conveyed by such victims' statements distasteful, yet it must be granted that allowing victims a "voice" in the proceedings does take account of a fundamental feature of state justice, that it exists as a substitute for private vengeance, and that the willingness of aggrieved parties to defer to the blind justice of the state cannot be taken for granted and may require some compensatory sacrifice of purer principle. Why the need for such compensation should be greater now than in the past is an interesting question. Whether it should be indulged or resisted or gently corrected can certainly be discussed. But I do think it's somewhat hasty to dismiss Sarkozy's proposal out of hand, as though it were illegitimate even to raise the issue.

Raymond Barre


Raymond Barre is dead at 83. I met him once. I've had brief encounters with any number of French politicians. When they come to Harvard, I've noticed, they generally put on a rather different face from the one they wear in the political arena. Usually they want to seem a little smarter, edgier, wittier, and more spontaneous than when in the bull ring, where the business is more serious and a slip can mean a bloody goring. But there's an element of sham in their performance, as there is when a matador practices with a wooden bull--no duende.

Barre was different. He seemed exactly the same in the seminar room as on the television screen, perhaps because, being a professor himself, he knew the kind of bull he was likely to face. He was as ponderous as he often appeared on television, delivering himself of grand generalities leavened, rather endearingly, by impish and sometimes donnish asides. Giscard may have called him "France's best economist," but I think he was under no illusion as to his professional standing. Translating Hayek had not transformed him into Robert Solow. He had entered the 1988 presidential race as the tortoise to Chirac's hare, but in the end it was the hare who proved more persistent as well as more nimble, and the tortoise lumbered across the finish line with 16.5 percent--a score representing a centrist strength almost exactly the same as Bayrou's this year. In fact, when you look at the 1988 first-round numbers for the right, it is rather startling to find that Barre's 16+ plus Chirac's 23 plus Le Pen's 14 add up to 53+, which equals Sarkozy's strength in round 2 of 2007. (I take the figures from Julius Friend's The Long Presidency, an excellent compendium of l'histoire événémentielle of the Mitterrand years). Change in France comes very slowly--so slowly that sometimes one wonders if it ever really changes at all. Plus ça change ... [CORRECTION: These numbers are wrong. The correct figures are Chirac 19.94, Barre 16.56, Le Pen 14.39 -- which spoils the nice comparison. Trop beau pour être vrai. Thanks to Arun for the correction. The error is mine, not Julius Friend's, by the way: I misread his book; see comments.]

It is hard to square the unflappable, affable, somewhat ponderous Raymond Barre I met in Cambridge with the Barre who this year defended his Lyon colleague and FN leader Bruno Gollnisch as "un homme bien," who rallied to the defense of Maurice Papon, and who came to believe that he had been hounded mercilessly by "the Jewish lobby" for the remark he made after the bombing of the synagogue on rue Copernic in 1980: the bombers had meant to attack Jews, he said, but had killed "innocent Frenchmen" outside the synagogue.

It was probably one of those unfortunate slips that people obliged to speak in public make from time to time, and whether it should have received all the attention and incurred all the opprobrium that it did can be debated. Perhaps it is the French pride in their language that sometimes magnifies these verbal mistakes beyond all measure. No doubt the attacks on his honor wounded Barre and persuaded him that he was the victim of an organized assault on his character. Perhaps it was what Michèle Alliot-Marie called his "intellectual intransigeance" (one suspects this wasn't intended solely as a compliment). No matter. The damage was done, and he had done it to himself.

It's odd that Giscard's reaction at the time of Copernic has been largely forgotten, while Barre's, perhaps because of his recent contretemps, has been revived. Giscard was on vacation at the time of the bombing and declined to return to Paris. I am reminded of this when I see Sarkozy accused--when I accuse him myself--of hogging the headlines and governing from fait divers to fait divers. Sometimes it's culpable for a president not to hog the headlines, not to wear his heart on his sleeve (if he has one), not to share the public's emotion and outrage. The Copernic bombing was one of those times, and Giscard's sin of omission was arguably worse that Barre's sin (or slip) of commission. But the court of public opinion can be as harsh as it is unfair, and there is no appeal.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Another Renovation on the Left


For a succinct statement of the current state of play on the anti-liberal left, one can turn to an interview with ATTAC's co-presidents Jean-Marie Harribey and Aurélie Trouvé. Harribey: "In the past we may have been mistaken in our characterization of neoliberal policies. These involve not a dismantling of the state but, much more clever, a takeover of the state by the ownership classes, whom it is made to serve directly. Much more than in the old days, when there were compromises among social groups and their representatives. Neoliberalism is nothing other than the quasi-exclusive use of the instruments of the state to serve the ownership classes. That is Sarkozy's policy."

If I close my eyes very tight, I can almost transport myself back to the late 1960s, when vulgar Marxism of this sort was shouted down with cries of "relative autonomy of the state" and the young Marx was enlisted as David against the Goliath of his elder Doppelgänger. "Get back to where you once belonged," as the Beatles had it in a contemporaneous melody. It's no wonder that Olivier Besancenot is planning to dissolve the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in favor of a rejectionist front. ATTAC seems to have been noyauté.

Rue89 on Les Gracques


If you haven't discovered Rue89 yet, you should. This Web-only news outlet, run by ex-staffers of Libération, combines well-written articles with innovative video and audio reportage. Today's piece on Les Gracques, a group of technocrats and former ministerial staff members who lean left of center and hope to influence the shape of whatever new force emerges on the left, is well worth a look. Bernard Spitz, the current leader of the group, compares the situation of the PS to that of British Labour under Thatcher, with a "supply" of ideas unsuited to society's "demand."

Jean-Pierre Jouÿet, who is now secretary of state for European affairs in the Fillon government, used to head this group. Le Nouvel Obs seems to be backing it as a source of ideas for PS renovation.

Lift Not the Painted Veil


The excellent blog "Hémicycle" reports today that there has been a discussion of the eminent American political philosopher, the late John Rawls, in the National Assembly. His name was first evoked by the perennial Pierre Méhaignerie, only to be answered by Christine Lagarde, who delivered herself of this observation:

M. Méhaignerie, you've cited the name of John Rawls. I for my part would call your attention to his theory of justice and his principle of the veil of ignorance, in order to lift it ...

(italics added)
As any reader of Rawls will know, the "veil of ignorance" in A Theory of Justice is there to ensure equity; lifting it confronts you straightaway with the warts and blemishes of the real beneath the gossamer ideal. I am reminded of Shelley's poem:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread, --- behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.

I knew one who had lifted it --- he sought,

For his lost heart was tender, things to love,

But found them not, alas ! nor was there aught

The world contains, the which he could approve.

Through the unheeding many he did move,

A splendour among shadows, a bright blot

Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Images d'Épinal


A president is, among other things, a teacher, and among his subjects of predilection is civic morality. One can't fault Nicolas Sarkozy for attempting to inculcate the lesson that racist speech is not to be tolerated in the Republic. In case you haven't been following the story, here it is in a nutshell. Dominique Berger, a teacher of mathematics in a lycée in Épinal, referred in class to one of his students, Chouaib Lusikama, of Angolan descent, as bamboula. Now, bamboula is the French equivalent of "Sambo," and Lusikama's classmates took it as a racist slur and filed a complaint, in which other alleged racist remarks of Berger's were also cited. Berger, described by his attorney as a "gruff" man, denied the other remarks but admitted to bamboula, although he claims that he used the word not with racist intent but in allusion to his student's happy-go-lucky personality (faire la bamboula means "to live it up," "have a wild time"). The teacher was tried and convicted of racist speech and sentenced to six months in jail (suspended). Lusikama and his father were invited to the Elysée to hear the president say that racist language was "unacceptable" in a republic of laws. The father said he was "honored" by the invitation; the son declined to speak to journalists.

Now, it's no doubt a good thing that the nation receive a lesson in the evils of racist speech from the president. Of course if the president had been a teacher of mathematics in an Épinal lycée and had made the remarks about slaughtering sheep in bathtubs that he made when he was an elbow-throwing politician and not "the president of all the French," he might have given offense to the students and found himself hauled up on charges of his own. Still, atonement is to be encouraged, and the ascent to the presidency seems to have enlarged the president's views. One might still be troubled by the criminal penalty meted out to the teacher when administrative sanction would have sufficed, but we know that the French, and more generally Europeans, take a more aggressive view of certain speech acts than do Americans.

One might also be troubled by the fact that this exercise of the presidential bully pulpit culminated a series of lessons predicated on the headlines of the moment: the condemnation of pedophiles in connection with the case of le petit Énis, the presidential mourning of the drowned sailors in the Sokélique affair, etc. Sarkozy as teacher of the nation seems convinced that the best classroom method is to seize the teachable moment. Throughout his career he has made effective use of the media by hitching his star to the headlines. As president, however, he makes his own headlines, and the practice that served him so well in the past may well become wearisome if he continues to make daily use of it. He needs to pace himself, decide which lessons really need to be taught, and aim for depth rather than breadth. But it remains to be seen what depths he has within him. Does the educator himself need educating, and, if so, who will do it?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ouf!

Two months flat out, two weeks vacation, and now the tough slog begins. Of the leading measures taken by Sarkozy in the first 100 days, only one met with disapproval in the polls: the proposed elimination of 27,000 civil servants. Now come the first details. 11,000 posts will go in National Education, 8,000 of them teachers, mainly in the junior high and high schools, already beset with problems of discipline in many places. This will be a very unpopular measure, especially in view of the harsh report on the primary schools just submitted to the government. The teachers' union SNES-FSU denounces the reductions as an "attack" on education.

Sarko has also swallowed his first reversal. Having vowed at first to find a way around the Constitutional Council's decision against the retroactive mortgage tax credit, he has now thrown in the towel. "Blame the Constitutional Council," he says to those who accuse him of failing to make good on a campaign promise.

The proposed social VAT promises to be another sticking point. Copé continues to make threatening noises, no doubt reflecting the worries of other UMP deputies that the price hikes will be far more evident than any highly hypothetical price reductions resulting from the elimination of taxes on overtime.

Downward revisions of expected growth will also upset budget deficit calculations and lead to renewed friction with other EU countries.

So the honeymoon appears to be over. The intoxication of ouverture has worn off. The realities of governing have returned. The rentrée is not yet chaude. Worse for Sarkozy, it is tepid. He thrives on speed, sweat, and show. Emotion is but a temporary substitute, and the affairs of petit Enis and the Sokalique will soon fade from memory. The next big enchilada is to be unveiled on August 31 before the big bosses at the MEDEF's summer university. Then the rentrée can begin in earnest, and it may indeed turn chaude.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Gopnik on Sarkozy


Adam Gopnik's portrait of Sarkozy. On y trouve tout. He indulges in outrageous generalization: "He adores her [Cécilia] the way short, ambitious men adore beautiful women who are taller than they are but tolerate their advances." He skates lightly over surfaces, substituting paradox for analysis: "Some suspect that Sarkozy’s secret strength in resolving the French economic 'crisis' may be that there is no crisis." Pas bête quand même. He stretches the "human bomb" story to universal metaphor (and makes it the title of his piece): "Sarkozy ... spent his first two months engineering a series of audacious tactical coups that were of exactly the human-bomb type: walking up to dangerous men and defusing them." ... "Sarkozy’s decision to spend his summer vacation in New Hampshire and have lunch with George W. Bush in Maine was widely regarded in France not as obsequiousness but as pure human-bombism: walk right up to the man considered dangerous and disarm him by talking calmly over a hot dog." He ends with a thumping bit of punditry gone wild: "But it is also possible that the election of Nicolas Sarkozy may be seen not as the start of a new pro-American moment in Europe but as a marker of the beginning of the post-American era." He manages to compare Sarko to Brigitte Bardot: "This makes his aura in France very different from his aura in America, where no French personality since Brigitte Bardot has been such a projection screen for wishful dreams and onanistic fantasies." He wonders about anti-Sarkozysm: "Lying in wait is a strident, powerful opposition that, with an intensity that seems to an outsider disproportionate to any offense, hates him, really hates him, and is waiting for a chance to get even."

Still, you'll find the piece diverting, I wager. In order to serve France up for the American palate, the dish has to be tarted up with a certain amount of Cajun spice rub, I guess.

More Retouching

It seems that photos of Sarko are not the only things being retouched (see previous post). The Elysée has reportedly posted an edulcorated version of one of his public statements.

Attention to Detail

Le Nouvel Obs claims that a photo of Sarkozy paddling a canoe was retouched for publication in Match in order to eliminate an unsightly love handle from the presidential torso. Such attention to detail. The president can take pride in the fact that minor retouching is enough to make him presentable to his constituents. How many men his age can claim as much?

Pétanque


Le Monde reports some cheering news this morning: the popularity of pétanque seems to be on the rise. Although Paris Plages had a mediocre summer owing to the bad weather, the number of boules players was up sharply, from 27,000 in 2006 to 37,000 this year. And the game seems to be in favor among bobos in the gentrifying quarters of Paris--à la mode, in other words, and not confined to an aging clientèle in the sunny south.

I wouldn't have guessed this. I'm not very good at pétanque myself, but I am an aficionado of the sport as practiced in dusty parks and squares around France. I like the rituals, the gestures, the bravado, the myriad forms of male sociability, the accompanying language games, the quality of the light filtering through the leaves of oaks and chestnut trees, the sheer skill often displayed, the postgame conversations in the nearby café, the dilation of time that seems to occur wherever the game is played. There is an immemorial quality to it all. So I was surprised to learn that pétanque was not invented until 1907, in La Ciotat, by Jules Hughes. Of course it derives from bowling games that are indeed ancient.

Reza Excerpts

I mentioned the other day that Yasmina Reza would be publishing a book about Sarkozy. Le Nouvel Obs has just published excerpts, along with a review by Jérôme Garcin. The review is dithyrambic; the excerpts leave one wondering why. But judgment will have to await an opportunity to read the work, which apparently has drawn praise from Milan Kundera, no mean judge.

Interview with the author here.

Prisons


On the France2 news last night, Véronique Vasseur, former chief physician of La Santé prison, made the startling assertion that 22 percent of the inmates of French prisons are sex offenders. Yet the means available to manage this population and prepare inmates for an eventual return to society are, by her description, woefully inadequate. Meanwhile, President Sarkozy, pursuing his habitual tactic of riding the waves of public emotion, has used the most muscular language in calling for tougher penalties, longer incarcerations, etc. Yet the reaction of the opposition has been muted. A good opportunity to point out the shortcomings of the right in power has been missed. Would it not be smart politics to point out that the party in power for the past 12 years might bear significant responsibility for the state of the prisons? Instead of deploring the president's ubiquity in the media, wouldn't a smart opposition use the issues to which he chooses to give salience against him whenever possible? Wouldn't a party truly concerned with its renovation stop sniping at itself and focus on the techniques that have been used to reduce it to impotence?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Valls Speaks


Le Figaro gives Manuel Valls an opportunity to set forth his views on the renovation of the Socialist Party. He makes three points:

1. It's time to admit that we live in a market economy.
2. The PS must recognize the value of work:
a. The PS must evaluate the consequences of the 35-hour week.
b. The PS must be clear about its position on retirement reform.
c. The party has lost part of the working-class vote, which finds Sarko's line attractive.
3. Authority is in crisis. "Republican authority" is a left-wing value, essential to "preserve the social bond."

The vagueness of this program is rivaled only by its blandness, but of course Valls is speaking in a strange code here rather than presenting an analysis. He's staking out a position that might be described as left-Sarkozysm. The emptiness of acknowledging "the market economy" passes for boldness in some Socialist circles, since it appears to embrace a reality that "anti-liberals" reject. But how does Valls see the market? What does accepting it entail? We're not told. The "value of work" is of course filched straight from Sarkozy. The three subpoints included under this head sum up what is fast becoming conventional wisdom among Socialists: we went wrong with the shortened work week, we should have taken the lead on retirement reform, and we forgot how to talk to workers. The crisis of authority is again nicked from Sarkozy. Yet Valls sees a new Socialist leader emerging from the generation of 40-somethings to which he belongs. No doubt he sees such a leader emerging even when he isn't shaving in the morning. But he'll have to do better than this, and soon.

A poll this morning shows Royal's leadership of the left faltering; DSK is up somewhat, but this is mainly a rebound effect, I think. Delanoë has fallen off the pace into the number four spot, allowing himself to be passed by Besancenot. None of the PS forty-year-olds is mentioned. Valls needs to generate name recognition quickly if he wants to seize the moment. He'll need a firmer commitment than he showed in this interview.