Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fabius Signs On Marshall McLuhan's Magical Mystery Tour


Laurent Fabius is the latest in a long line of Socialists who think that the president oughtn't to be on TV so often. In fact, Fabius wants a constitutional amendment to require time allotted to the president to be deducted from time allotted to the government.

I see an element of magical thinking here. The Socialists still cannot comprehend their loss of the presidency, so they are searching for occult theories. Sarkozy must exercise some wizardry by way of le petit écran, Fabius seems to be arguing, so we must amend the constitution to limit his use of it. Had it not been for Sarko's magic, Ségo's might have worked: Jospin accuses her of having sought to become the incarnation of the people, in the manner of Jeanne d'Arc or the king's sacred body, rather than its representation, in the democratic sense.

This is absurd. What is more, it is contemptuous of the people, who do not sit mesmerized before images of Sarkozy emanating from their screens. The problem lies with the message, not the medium. McLuhan is soooooo last-century.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Big Brother is Listening

So how many fonctionnaires have been assigned to troll the Web for comments on the environmental Grenelle? Seems that mine has not gone unnoticed. Will the government remain this attentive after 22,000 bureaucrats have been shown the door?

André Gorz Remembered

A program on France Culture dedicated to the memory of André Gorz, who died this week.

Busy


Yes, I've been quieter than usual this morning, but not because I'm enjoying the fine New England fall weather. I've been busy gathering statistics for a talk on Sarkozy's economic policy. For readers in the Boston area, I will be speaking as part of a panel on the new regime at Harvard's Center for European Studies, 27 Kirkland St., Cambridge, on November 1 at 4:15. The other speakers will be Stanley Hoffmann, Sophie Meunier, George Ross, and Justin Vaïsse. It should be an interesting occasion.

I will post the data for my talk after the event. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions about topics I ought to cover, please post a comment.

Restive Youth

It seems that younger Socialists feel that the time has come not only for the old éléphants to retire but also for some of the smaller fauna who traveled with the elephant herds to make way for the lean, hungry, and spry. In Paris, Lyne Cohen-Solal and Daniel Vaillant, longtime associates of Mayor Delanoë and the Jospin current, are facing challenges for places on the ticket. The municipals next spring promise to be quite interesting. The UMP is apparently nervous that the costs of the Sarkozy reforms will make themselves felt before the benefits, if any, emerge. Fillon was dispatched to Strasbourg, where the party is meeting, to reassure the faithful and to quell continuing rumblings about l'ouverture.

Friday, September 28, 2007

DSK Has Landed


I suppose I should mark the occasion of DSK's formal appointment to head the IMF, since I made such a fuss about it when the idea was first proposed. At the time it seemed to me a good move for DSK, who would escape the bare-knuckled brawl that the PS calls "renovation" while gaining sufficient stature abroad to return as the party's standard-bearer in 2012. I no longer believe this will happen. For one thing, DSK pledged to serve out a five-year term at IMF. I am not so naive as to believe that such pledges are engraved in stone, and in fact I suspect for a variety of reasons that DSK and IMF will tire of each other well before the time is up and come to an amicable parting of the ways. Today, though, it just seems implausible to me that DSK's road to the Elysée will pass by K Street. If the party is to revive, it's going to need a young warrior, not a tired economist/bureaucrat who has always allowed his eye to rove from the prize more than a présidentiable can afford to do.

He will in any case be busy in Washington, coping with the spreading, metamorphosing, metastasizing subprime fallout and the not unrelated announcement by China yesterday that it will be investing some $200 billion of its dollar reserves outside the United States. There's useful work to be done here, and it is to be hoped that DSK has his head in the game.

Védrine on Iran


Former foreign minister Hubert Védrine makes a number of good points about the Iranian situation in an article at the Telos site. His most interesting observation concerns the present course of American policy toward Iran, which he judges not to be optimal. But President Bush has so thoroughly earned his reputation for obstinacy, Védrine believes, that other international players are reluctant to propose strategies that would require an American initiative that they cannot imagine Bush taking. "Rather than resign themselves to fate," he concludes, "France and the Europeans should try to persuade the United States to adopt a bold strategy of movement."

I agree and am consequently disappointed that, thus far at least, Sarkozy seems precisely to have resigned himself to fate.

Correction on Carbon Tax

In the previous post, I said that the issue of carbon tax had been sidestepped in this round of negotiations. I was wrong:

Mettre en place une Contribution Climat-Energie. Une large majorité du groupe est favorable à la mise en place d’une taxe intérieure sur les émissions de carbone, pour les secteurs qui ne sont pas couverts par le marché de quotas européen de CO2. Parmi les participants favorables à une contribution, il n’y a pas de consensus sur l’élargissement de cette taxe à une assiette incluant, outre le carbone, la consommation d’énergie. Un tel élargissement est demandé par les associations environnementales. D’autres participants, notamment la CGT, souhaitent une assiette carbone."


From report of Group 6. Thanks to Éloi Laurent for the pertinent pointer.

Alliances Contre Nature

A commenter takes me to task for being too exigent on the "environmental Grenelle." My critic writes:

Read again !

There are a lot of very tough propositions in this report . Just one example : bring back the level of emission of greenhouse gases in 2020 at their...1990 level.

Suddenly, you're greener than Greenpeace who do not have chained themselves to the gates of the commission. Yet.


I have read again, and I come away unpersuaded. General goals about greenhouse gas reduction are of course laudable, but what do we find when we look for measures with teeth to ensure that the goals are met? Very little. Indeed, we find potent and in some respects surprising alliances contre nature to thwart these goals. For instance, the CGT and MEDEF joined forces in Section 1 on energy to oppose setting a goal of 25 percent renewable energy sources by 2020. The CGT fears loss of jobs; the MEDEF fears increased costs, loss of competitivity, etc. The same article informs us that the farmers' organization FNSEA opposed the MEDEF, NGOs, and government on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

These issues, where major economic interests are at stake, are far more significant, to my mind, than "costless" measures such as the decision to serve more "healthy food" in school cafeterias. Progress, to be sure, but only at the margin. Other major issues, such as nuclear power and incinerators, seem not to have progressed at all. What I'm looking for, incidentally, is not a Greenpeace agenda, but evidence of a new framework for resolving the clash of competing goods that these discussions must involve: the moralistic approach to ecology, without consideration for the economic costs, holds little promise. If there is to be progress, it must come by demonstrating that there are economic opportunities as well as costs in green production. That said, costs must be tackled head on, and externalities must be internalized, perhaps by the imposition of a carbon tax, a crucial issue which this round of negotiations seems to have sidestepped.

Testimony on Immigration

Jean Quatremer has posted an interesting letter from a couple of scientific researchers, a French man married to a Ukrainian woman, detailing the difficulties they encountered with the French administration, difficulties so persistent and debilitating that ultimately they chose to move to the United States, which they say welcomed them far more readily. This is particularly interesting because this couple clearly represents l'immigration choisie that Sarkozy wants to substitute for the current system. In this case the immigrant met all the criteria considered desirable: highly educated, possessed an economically useful skill, knowledge of language, married to a Frenchman.

To be sure, the anecdotal evidence given here is hardly comprehensive and perhaps quite atypical. Nevertheless, it does suggest that a mere change in the law or administrative regulations will not be enough to resolve problems faced by immigrants at deeper levels of the bureaucracy.

I do want to take issue with one line inserted by the commentator, Jean Quatremer, Libé's EU correspondent:

je ne parle même pas des tests ADN qui montrent à quel point la société hexagonale est travaillée par l'idéologie d'extrême droite

This seems to me excessive and ill-judged. As I've said before, the proposed DNA tests were to be voluntary and administered at the request of a family member attempting to prove kinship for the purpose of obtaining a family visa to enter France. One might choose to oppose such tests in any case on a variety of grounds, but it seems absurd to me to make the equation "DNA testing = extreme-right ideology." In what sense? Does Quatremer imply that the measure is racist? Presumably the racial affinity of the applicant is already apparent to the examiner; the relationship established by the DNA test is of a far more intimate kind. It proves that within races there are highly distinct individuals and among individuals a range of genetic variation. If anything, this is the opposite of the ideology of the extreme right. Quatremer seems to be saying that any attempt to link biology to citizenship is a step toward fascism. This is an ill-considered view, a knee-jerk reaction.

LATE ADDENDUM: On opposition by Catholics in the UMP and Charles Pasqua, see here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Environmental Grenelle

Six working groups of the so-called "Grenelle of the Environment" have presented their preliminary recommendations, and the results are at first sight not very impressive. Reduce the speed limit, insulate homes, search for alternatives to pesticides (but don't be too quick to accept the most promising alternative, genetically modified organisms), etc. The more controversial agendas--nuclear power, waste treatment, etc.--remain controversial. Would Juppé have succeeded where Borloo appears to have failed? Not at all sure--but Borloo seems to have been keeping a very low profile, whereas Juppé was supposed to have been a virtual co-prime minister.

Embezzlement or Bamboozlement?


Denis Gautier-Sauvagnac, the head of the UIMM (metal industry trade group), is accused of embezzling 5 million euros from his group's treasury over the past 5 years. But Arrêt sur Images smells a rat. Why, the editors ask, have media owned by Dassault and Lagardère given publicity to the suspicion that the money actually went to metal industry unions? Is the government using the investigation to establish a "hold" on the unions in order to ensure their docility in the face of the current reforms? Why has the response of the unions been so muted?

Well, this would be hardball politics indeed. Is @sI too suspicious? In Germany it has been established that large side-payments were made to unions at Siemens and VW to quell potential labor trouble. It's not impossible that similar tactics were employed in France. Nothing is proven. It's useful to be reminded, however, that any number of agendas may be involved in what one reads about this case.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: here and here.

Copé Under Fire


Jean-François Copé, the head of the UMP group at the National Assembly, whose extracurricular legal work for Gide Loyrette Nouel was previously reported on here, has come under fire from members of his own party, among others. In addition to his parliamentary job, his position as deputy, and his outside legal work, he is also a mayor and président d'agglomération. "Now there's a guy who really understood the president's message: travailler plus pour gagner plus," commented François Goulard, UMP deputy and former minister of research. Patrick Devedjian, the party head, said that "there is a need to be more rigorous regarding the combination of a mandate as deputy with outside professional activity."

Copé defended himself by saying that it was "useful for a deputy to maintain a certain number of ties to realities on the ground." To judge by the picture to the left, he's also a Marlboro Man in his spare time.

Some 100 deputies exercise outside professional activities, according to Copé, who testified before Édouard Balladur's constitutional reform commission.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Youth Unemployment and Education

Some interesting figures on the youth unemployment problem: 75 percent of young people with college degrees (bac + 4) find work within one year of finishing their studies. Surprisingly, graduates with degrees in physics, biology, and chemistry do worse than average: only 55 percent of them find work within a year. 54 percent of the jobs are in the service sector, and only 31 percent in industry.

China Inspires the Nationalist Right


Rightist deputy Claude Goasguen has been to China, and he finds inspiration in Chinese universities for two reasons: they are more open to partnerships between business and education than are French universities, and they are quicker to adapt to change.

All Too Quiet on the Eastern Front

The current upheaval in Burma might seem to have little or nothing to do with France, but the Burmese dictatorship is sustained by its dealings with China, as is the Cambodian dictatorship. If I may be permitted a bit of self-advertisement, the current New York Review of Books contains an article (not free, unfortunately: see NYROB, 54, 15, Oct. 11, p. 3) by Figaro journalist François Hauter, which I translated, entitled "Chinese Shadows." In it, Hauter reveals how the transformation of Cambodia into a source of raw materials fueling the Chinese growth machine has led to corruption and oppression on a colossal scale. The story in Burma is similar, as this article by Joshua Kurlantzick argues.

French finance minister Christine Lagarde has not been reticent when it comes to pressing the Chinese to allow their currency to appreciate. A little pressure from the French government regarding Chinese support for Asian tyrannies might also be in order. But the French are perhaps too intent on selling nuclear reactors to China to want to upset the applecart by raising unpleasant issues. The Germans, who have been lavishing attention on the Dalai Lama in recent days, seem less reluctant to goad the Chinese on human rights.

On Sarkozy and War

In the discussion that can be found in the comments to this post, Anonymous writes:

If your question is :" does unacceptable mean that Sarkozy is ready to participate in a war if sanctions fail ? " my answer is no.

He will not veto an American intervention, but no more...


In this connection, it is interesting to note that in the 2008 budget released today, one of the ministries hardest hit by the reduction in the number of civil servants is Defense, which will lose 6037 (of the total 22,000+ government jobs to be eliminated). This does not sound like a government that is heeding Kouchner's call to "prepare for the worst ... that is, war." Hence I agree with Anonymous.

I will have more to say about the budget in days to come.

CSI Miami Beats Human Bomb

It seems that most French téléspectateurs chose to watch "CSI Miami" last night on TF1 rather than France2's docufiction re-enacting the "Human Bomb" case that brought Nicolas Sarkozy to national attention in 1993, when he was mayor of Neuilly.

DNA Testing Eliminated from Immigration Bill

The provision of the immigration bill allowing voluntary DNA testing to prove kinship claimed for the purpose of obtaining a visa for a family member has been voted down by the Senate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Party Games

Jean-Marie Bockel has announced the formation of a party of "sarkozystes de gauche." Meanwhile, Olivier Besancenot opines that the united front of the left against Sarkozy--"les anti-sarkozystes de gauche?"--is off to a "bad start." Sigh. Maybe they should get together--they might annihilate like matter and anti-matter and create some energy, which is what the left sorely needs at this point.

Sarkozy at the UN

At the UN, Sarkozy said this:

The position of France is this: no nuclear weapon for Iran, the arsenal of sanctions to convince them, negotiation, discussion, firmness.

These are words that Chirac might have uttered in 2002-3 with respect to Iraq. Yet many people are convinced that there has been a fundamental shift in French foreign policy, an "alignment" with the United States. To be sure, the framing of the language of sanctions, negotiation, and firmness has changed, but what can we say beyond this? The ambiguity, I submit, is substantial, despite Kouchner's injudicious reference to preparations for war. Several regular commentators seem to discern a clearer picture than I do of Sarkozy's intentions. I hope they will expand their views in the comments. I look forward to being persuaded.

Jean Daniel on André Gorz

Jean Daniel writes about his friend and collaborator André Gorz.

The Slippery Slope Argument


My dialogue with Anonymous in the comments to this post suggests that the government has failed to get across a couple of key points about the new copayments for medication and other services. To reiterate, the poorest of the French (some 15 million people) are exempt from the copays, and the total additional copay per person per annum is capped at 50 euros (for details, see here).

This is a relatively modest burden to place on the remainder of the population, and it only begins to reduce the large and growing social security deficit. So why the outcry? One argument that is often heard is of the "slippery slope" variety: the reform is but a first step toward a more "individualized" or "Anglo-Saxon" model of health care, in which it's every man/woman for himself/herself, with no collective responsibility. This argument seems to me to caricature both the reform and the "Anglo-Saxon model," which is not "individual" but mutualized through private insurance; and note, too, that the French system of mutualization through the state is supplemented by private mutuelles as well. Mutualization through the state that is not fully funded, as in the French case, makes the actual incidence of the burden of health care costs difficult to locate. The cost is borne partly by employers, partly by workers, partly by consumers, and partly by taxpayers in general who must service the debt.

It is easy to imagine a similar reform in copays being carried out by a Socialist president. The name of the payment would most likely be different: instead of franchise médicale we might have contribution à la santé collective généralisée. So, again, the question is, why the outcry? Is there any reason to believe that Sarkozy is out to dismantle the social security system? None that I can see. The opposition speaks vaguely of "other ways of financing the social security deficit," but the choice between an actual policy and an unspecified but allegedly better one is always easy for the hopeful and gullible. The debate, then, is not about the particulars of policy but about trust. The outcry expresses the distrust that Sarkozy inspires in a good many people. But distrust is an emotion, not a political program or even an effective critique.

For additional information about French consumption of prescription drugs relative to other European countries, see here. (Thanks once again to Éloi Laurent for the pointer.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

An Unusual Labor Conflict


Workers at Conforama are protesting a decision by a court in Pontoise that has forced the chain to close on Sundays. The decision came in response to a suit filed by Force Ouvrière, which represents a minority of the workers. The majority want to work, including many members of FO, but the union rep is adamant about enforcing the Labor Code provision against Sunday work. Other stores located near Conforama outlets remain open on Sundays.

Travailler plus pour gagner plus. One wonders how long the president can bear to stay out of this fight. Conforama management has joined workers to protest the court's decision.

Financing la Sécu


The government presented its proposal today for decreasing the social security deficit: 50-cent co-pays on prescriptions and "paramedical" services, 2 euro copay on medical transport. Figures low enough to make Americans green with envy, even if some French will groan in misery. Plus a tax on dividends paid by firms to stockholders.

Still, the expected reduction amounts to only one-third of the deficit, about 4 billion euros (can that be right? How many prescriptions are written annually in France? Anybody know offhand? TO ANSWER MY own question: in 2003, nearly 1.9 billion prescriptions were reimbursed by la Sécu. That's an astounding number! More than 30 scrips for every man, woman, and child in France, which is known to be the heaviest drug-consumer in Europe.)

As for the tax on dividends--hardly a "neo-liberal" measure, that. There will also be new taxes on early retirement and forced retirement, to be paid by firms. There, the supply-side logic is clearer: extending the working life is one of the government's structural reform goals. Of course, to the extent the strategy succeeds, the expected tax receipts decline.

Sarko Seduces the American Left

American Prospect's Ezra Klein; Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias.

André Gorz Suicide


Readers of a certain age will know the name of André Gorz, a major figure in what was called "the second left," co-founder of Le Nouvel Observateur, collaborator of Sartre's at Les Temps modernes, which he edited for a time .... for more on his life, see here. He died yesterday, a suicide, along with his wife, who was suffering from a degenerative disease.

I learned from him.

Convergences and Divergences


Philippe Séguin last week proposed taxing stock options offered in lieu of salary as a way of reducing the social security deficit, which, at 11.7 billion euros, is more than 46 percent higher than projected. Now, François Fillon has agreed with him, and Socialist Stéphane Le Foll seems receptive to the idea. Convergence?

At the same time, Le Monde is reporting "divergences" within the cabinet over whether the new deficit figures, coupled with reduced growth estimates, require greater austerity. Lagarde and Fillon are said to be "deficit hawks" who insist on greater fiscal rigor. Jean-Claude Trichet threw his weight behind them yesterday. Eric Woerth, minister of the budget, is also in the hawk camp. LATE ADDITION: Jean Arthuis, UMP senator and former finance minister.

On the other side, the Elysée: Claude Guéant, who has publicly reprimanded the hawk ministers; Henri Guaino, who wants concessions from the ECB; and the president himself, who shows no sign of concern with the deficit numbers.

In between, the UMP: Patrick Devedjian calls Lagarde's use of the word rigueur "inappropriate," but he also says, "We mustn't be alarmist, because the economy is also a matter of psychology. What message should we transmit to the country, one of encouragement or discouragement? We need both a supply-side policy and an austerity policy. We must use both the accelerator and the brake pedal." Not at the same time, one hopes. Devedjian also mistakes the nature of the policy package: it's demand stimulus through tax cuts coupled with rigor in the form of a reduction in the number of government employees. The supply-side measures taken thus far are modest: detaxing of overtime might be construed as supply-side as well as demand-side. The ideology of the Laffer curve doesn't seem to have found its way to France, but in some respects Sarkozy has gravitated instinctively to the fallacious notion that tax cuts pay for themselves. It's a convenient idea for a campaigning politician. It remains to be seen how deeply Sarkozy believes it, congenial as it is to his politics of the will.

Migraine?

The New York Times today published an interview with Sarkozy, in which he seems to have failed to impress his interviewers as the maître du verbe so much in evidence in the French media last week. He was "brusque," the two journalists write, and greeted them with "unadorned hellos." His "jaw muscles twitched. His gait was awkward. He cut his interviewers off in midsentence." They wondered if he might have been suffering from a migraine but were assured by the staff that he was not.

These debilities are put down in the end to "tension" the president may have been feeling about broaching the delicate matter of war with Iran. One wonders, however, if the problem may not have been more linguistic than strategic. We are not told how the interview was conducted. In French, in English and French with interpretation, in French punctuated by English (those "unadorned hellos"?), or what have you? (CORRECTION: it was conducted in French and translated by the Times. I still suspect that Sarkozy attempted pleasantries in English and that awkwardness and discomfort were the result.) Jean-David Levitte was present--as an advisor or a high-level interpreter? I raise these questions because so much of Sarkozy's power seems to me linguistic. His mixture of plain-speaking, mastery of details, logical concision, and subtle insinuations of superiority recall Bill Clinton. Sciolino and Smale describe a speaker who is tight rather than fluent, awkward (stumbling over the pronunciation of "multilateralism") rather than assured, and almost daunted by the challenge of presenting himself to the representatives of American opinion, as if the hyperprésident feared only one thing, the hyperpuissance. Did they invent this president, or did Sarkozy follow the performance lapses of his ministers (rigueur, faillite, guerre)?

As for Iran, the least that can be said is that Sarkozy has muddied the waters still further. Having said that an Iranian bomb is unacceptable, he now says that he doesn't "use the word war." He thus rebukes Kouchner for this threat, having already rebuked him for his trip to Baghdad and his pledge to go to Teheran. Kouchner has not been a quick study as foreign minister. He continues to behave as though his choice of words were weightless, despite the gravity of his position, and it is only the fact that the rest of the world ignores him, on the assumption that Sarko is really his own foreign minister, that makes his on-the-job learning seem tolerable. One wonders nevertheless how long Sarkozy will put up with such ineptitude. Perhaps that is why he was feeling so tense.

One astonishing passage from the interview:

It has been more than 20 years, 21 years maybe, since the United States Secretary of State has not been an American, or rather, has been an American from outside: Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condi [Condoleezza] Rice — a great example to follow. There are other things that I like less, but I feel very close to the values that are conveyed.


Americans of color are from "outside" or "not American"? Does this tell us something about how Sarkozy views French issus de l'immigration? And why does he leave out Zbig and Henry K--far more "from outside" than "Condi," to whom he refers so familiarly?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Trichet, Villepin, Euro, the Right


Was it my imagination, or did Jean-Claude Trichet seem a trifle irritated by Jean-Pierre Elkabbach's incessant needling about his non-responsiveness on the subject of the euro-dollar exchange rate (on Le Grand Rendez-vous d'Europe1)? Trichet tried to remind Elkabbach that the words of a central banker, unlike those of a journalist--or a politician--can have real consequences: "No person in a position of responsibility would answer your question," he said. Apart from this inconsequential skirmishing, Trichet came with one message he wanted to get across to France: public spending is too high, a point he made by comparing French public expenditure (national + local + social security) to that of the Scandinavian countries as a percentage of GDP. "There is no aspect of the French personality that makes this a matter of fate," Trichet said; 25 years ago the French still had their state and their social model, but their government consumption was lower than that of the Scandinavians; now it is higher. He refused to be drawn into the question of what should be done to remedy the situation. He simply wanted to lay the fact on the table.

Earlier, Villepin had continued his harassment of Sarko, calling upon the president to "tame himself" and adopt a less "frenetic" style. He was also critical of the Sarko-Guaino attack on the ECB. The problem is not with the bank, he said, but with the states, which need to agree on a policy. In this he anticipated Trichet's line.

It's interesting that Guaino, who used to be close to Philippe Séguin, may be speaking more for the nationalist right of which Séguin was the champion in the Maastricht days, than for Sarkozy, who has the problem of reconciling the nationalists with the "Orleanists," to use a distinction proposed by the late René Rémond. One of Sarko's great talents has been his ability to unify these two currents of the right, keep their tensions under control, and at the same time draw in the xenophobic and populist element, without which (as he allegedly told Yasmina Réza) victory would have been impossible. The attacks on the ECB humor the nationalists while irritating the Orleanists. Villepin, with his Napoleonic predilections, might be thought to be more at home among the former than the latter, but la tête a ses raisons, que le coeur ne connaît pas, to stand the old adage on its head.

Vichy and Rugby

I know nothing about rugby, but I thought I knew something about Vichy. This morning, however, I came across this interesting historical sidelight, which brings politics and sports together in a surprising way.

Guaino on Euro

Henri Guaino, Sarko's chief speechwriter and alter ego, says that the euro is at an absurd level compared with the dollar and even more absurd compared with the yuan. "This can't go on," he says. "We can't just stand here with our arms folded." The high euro is ruining our efforts to improve our competitiveness and productivity.

As an American who has traveled in Europe recently, I have to agree that the euro feels absurdly high. Yet I've seen calculations by economists based on one set of hypotheses or another that suggest it isn't high enough. In any case, if France is determined to drive the euro down, it's time to move from "jawboning" to a more concrete proposal for how this might be done. The current French strategy seems to be to drop dark hints that it's all the fault of the European Central Bank. But how much does Sarkozy really think that a drop in the ECB rate of 1/4 or even 1/2 point would change the exchange rate? How does he propose to approach China on the subject? Would it be wise to encourage a more rapid diversification out of US government debt than is already under way, given the shaky state of the credit markets? The questions go on and on, and Sarkozy's posturing looks not so much like a "rupture" with traditional French policy as a continuation of the "blame Europe" approach to explaining why things are not right with France.

Jean-Claude Trichet will be on Le Grand Rendez-vous d'Europe1 today, and though I swore after last week's program that I would give this one a pass, I just may tune in for a response to Guaino. Trichet will also be coming to Harvard soon. It will be interesting to hear his views about Sarkozy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Infotainment

Arrêt sur Images effectively exposes the way the brave new media work. In this piece, Maja Neskovic shows how the network France2 recycled previously-aired testimony by a member of the police SWAT team in the "Human Bomb" case that first brought Nicolas Sarkozy, then mayor of Neuilly, to national attention. The first time around, the policeman, Daniel B, was not identified. The second time around, Daniel B became Daniel Boulanger, who just happens to be promoting a new book, while France2 just happens to be promoting a "docufiction" on the Human Bomb.

And in this article, Judith Bernard cruelly but not inaccurately picks apart Sarkozy's performance in his recent television interview, jointly broadcast by TF1 and France2. Nevertheless, 76 percent of viewers found the president "convincing."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Villepin Interprets the Constitution

Dominique de Villepin has offered unsolicited support to François Fillon: the prime minister was right to have "marked his territory," says the former PM (the image might be thought rather demeaning for the present PM, whom one pictures with one leg lifted against the fence of Matignon). He should be the decision-maker, not the secretary-general of the Elysée, Claude Guéant, whom Le Point characterizes on its cover this week as "the most powerful man in France." Guéant is a "mere emanation of the president of the Republic ... his advisor, his collaborator," says Villepin, using the word that Sarkozy used to describe--and in the eyes of some, diminish--the prime minister. One can almost hear him calling Guéant la créature du président, so determined is he to imply that Sarkozy is reigning as a monarch rather than governing as a president.

What one doesn't hear Villepin saying, however, is that Fillon owes his legitimacy to universal suffrage. Might that be because Villepin was an unelected prime minister? Une pure créature of the president he served? As illegitimate in his way as he implies Guéant is in his.

Villepin's waspish and perfidious commentaries on the present government are of course part of his determination to appear uncowed and defiant in the wake of his mise en examen in the Clearstream affair. He was no doubt stung himself by Sarkozy's pugnacity on the subject in last night's interview. I find his behavior as undignified as it is unwise, even if Sarkozy did perhaps exaggerate the indignity to which he was subjected. As for Villepin, il a manqué une bonne occasion de se taire.

Jean Tirole


Two nice portraits of the outstanding French economist Jean Tirole in Le Monde and Le Figaro. His "Financial Crises, Liquidity, and the International Monetary System," published in 2002, could hardly be more topical. He was just awarded the CNRS Gold Medal and is only the second economist to receive that award (after Maurice Allais).

Tirole teaches at my alma mater, MIT. In fact, a remarkably high proportion of the best French economists are right here in Cambridge, Mass.

A propos, there's an interesting comparison at Bruegel (thanks to Éloi Laurent for the pointer). If you look into this document, you'll find on p. 3 a comparison of the educational performance of various countries and states in the U.S. using an index calculated by the authors from the Shanghai university rankings. In this comparison, Germany, with a population of 83 million, scores 0 (looking at the "Top 50" column in the table); France, with a population of 60 million, scores 3 ; the UK, with a population of 60 million, scores 72; and the state of Massachusetts, with a population of 6 million, scores 449 (the US as a whole, with population 294 million, is taken as the basis of comparison, with index 100).

Yes, I know, a slightly absurd ranking, and if you broke it down by zip code, I have to wonder how 02139 (MIT) would do against 02138 (Harvard). But the Cambridge chauvinist in me can't resist the opportunity to relay these findings.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sarko/Sartre

Ron Tiersky wrote: "Sarkozy, like him or hate him, is no intellectual but he has the talent and could have become one." In tonight's prime-time news interview with Arlette Chabot and Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, Sarko had this to say when PPDA pressed him about his differences with Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank: I would recommend that he look at what other countries are doing, he said in regard to the Fed's decision to lower the Fed funds rate to 4.75%. "L'enfer, ce n'est pas toujours les autres." Bien joué, Monsieur le Président.

He was equally sharp on every subject that came up, from Iran to Cécilia and the Bulgarian nurses, from his relationship with François Fillon to Kouchner's evocation of war with Iran. I have a young friend who doesn't care for M. Sarkozy at all but who nevertheless says of him, Putain, il est fort. I can only concur. When it comes to giving interviews, he has few equals.

One criticism, though: he really needs to come up with an adjective other than remarquable to describe the work of his "collaborateurs."

Counterpunch


Philippe Bilger, reputed to be one of the most brilliant of French prosecutors, has struck back at Rachida Dati after her much-criticized efforts to bring French magistrates to heel. She was "not chosen for her competence," says Bilger, who is generally counted as a supporter of the right, but rather "because she is a woman, a symbol, and the darling of the presidential couple."

Bilger is an interesting figure, not only because he is one of the most mediagenic of French lawyers but also because he has been critical of certain "excesses" of French political humor (see the previous post about caricatures of French politicians). He and Bruno Gaccio published a book of dialogues on the subject. Gaccio is of course the creator of the satirical TV show Les Guignols de l'Info, which skewers politicians. Bilger is critical of the way in which political humor can short-circuit reflection and regiment thought. Gaccio, a populist uninhibited by such scruples, is critical of the influence of money in politics.

Note, in this interview with L'Express, that Bilger is highly critical of the French consensus on speech law: he does not believe that negationist speech should be illegal, for instance. Bilger's blog is worth reading--and, soit dit en passant, his analysis of the Sarkozyan style and its effect on the media's coverage of the presidency is as lucid as it is stylish.

Why Sarko Won the Election

For more insight into Sarkozy's political gifts than you'll get from Yasmina Reza, try this video:


laurent gerra et sarkozy - The funniest videos are a click away

Here you'll see Sarko critique the performance of Laurent Gerra, the gifted impressionist, who today attended the funeral of Cécilia Sarkozy's ex-husband, the humorist Jacques Martin. Watch Sarko laugh--at himself, at "Jack Lang," at "Roselyne Bachelot," etc. See the care with which he observes himself through the art of the caricaturist who has studied and exaggerated his style. Note his identification with le petit écran, and in particular his utter lack of disdain for the vulgar, for l'art populaire, for the democratic leveling inherent in the art of caricature. Caricature was the anti-royal art par excellence.* One has to appreciate the irony of fate, which led Cécilia from the television comedian to the television president, from Monsieur Dimanche to Monsieur Tous les Jours, y compris les jours fériés.

*On the history of political caricature in France, see here and here.

Other political impressions by another artist, Nicolas Canteloup:





Sarko's Penmen

The excellent Jean Véronis, whom I've cited before, has conducted a linguistic analysis of Sarkozy's speeches. The results are displayed in graphic form here. The graph shows that the speeches fall into four different groups on the basis of lexical and stylistic analysis. The speeches written by Henri Guaino, who formerly wrote for Chirac and whom Sarko has called a "genius," stand out clearly. Of course Sarko has also referred to Guaino as un fêlé, according to Yasmina Reza (for Éloi Laurent's portrait of her, see here). Un fêlé: cracked, deranged. "I don't like to be surrounded by people who are all smooth," Sarko is supposed to have said. Reza doesn't elaborate on the adjective, so we're left wondering. But Guaino was asked about it in an interview. Here is his response: "If 'cracked' means not accepting la pensée unique, preconceived ideas, the politically correct, intellectual conformism, then I claim the name with pride."

Guaino is the son of a housecleaner. He never knew his father. Jospin fired him for publishing a report on unemployment inconsistent with the official government analysis. In the past he was close politically to Philippe Séguin. Sarkozy has said that he owes his victory more to Guaino than to anyone else.

DNA

The amendment permitting DNA testing in cases involving the regrouping of immigrant families has passed the Assembly by a vote of 91-45. Note that the amendment does not require testing. Rather, it allows a family to request testing when a member has been denied a visa because the authorities suspect that there is in fact no blood tie. As the geneticist Axel Kahn pointed out, however, it is inconsistent to insist on a biological basis of the family in an immigration law when the rest of French law recognizes non-biological family ties. Of course recognizing adoptive kinship for purposes of immigration would pose a huge administrative problem and create opportunities for fraud. Eleven other EU countries allow DNA testing for proof of kinship, but the administration of these claims has proved to be complex and expensive as well. Despite the example of these other countries, and despite the fact that DNA testing was introduced into British immigration law almost unnoticed and without major protest, Le Monde regards the testing provision as a "shocking" break with "the spirit of republican law." It should be noted that France deals with about 23,000 requests for family grouping visas annually, and only a small fraction of these are contested.

Nevertheless, the DNA testing proposal aroused fierce and outspoken opposition. The blogger Versac pertinently notes, however, that the final vote on the amendment elicited only 45 opposition votes, whereas there are 186 deputies in the PS group. The small vote in a case that aroused vociferous and self-proclaimed "moral" opposition (for minutes, see here) makes one wonder why the Socialist leadership is more concerned with scheduling summer universities, congresses, forums, and meetings than with making the votes of Socialist deputies count in opposition to policies they profess to detest.

Greenspan on Euro

Alan Greenspan says that the euro could replace the dollar as the world's primary reserve currency. Signs of early diversification out of the dollar are analyzed here. Sarkozy may consequently find it easier to enlist allies in his pressure on the European Central Bank to reduce interest rates.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Special Regime for Railway Workers

Five railway unions, including the CGT and FO, are now calling for a strike on October 17 to protest the reform of the railway workers' special retirement regime. Three unions, including the CFDT, have not committed themselves.

Here are some facts relevant to the claims of a special status for railway workers. In 2005, the SNCF employed 168,000 workers, of whom 17 percent were women. The average age was 40. The frequency of workplace accidents of all levels of severity was just under 33 per thousand workers.

By contrast, in the private sector, for workers of all types covered by the general regime, the frequency of workplace accidents was just under 27 per thousand workers. For workers in construction and public works, however, the rate was more than twice as high, at 56 per thousand, considerably higher than the injury rate for railway workers as well.

The SNCF employs workers in more than 150 different trade specialties. Many are in clerical positions, work indoors, and have no contact with heavy equipment or rolling stock. The railroads have changed a good deal since Zola wrote La Bête humaine (and since Renoir filmed it).

Hypocrisy?

Bernard Kouchner says that now that he's foreign minister, a "diplomacy of truth" has replaced a "diplomacy of hypocrisy." This by way of defending his remark, which he says was misinterpreted, that it's time to prepare for war with Iran. He's in Washington today, after visiting Moscow yesterday, where he paid a call on the offices of the Novaïa Gazeta and paused before the shrine in memory of Anna Politkovskaïa, the anti-Putin journalist who was murdered last year. The diplomacy of truth apparently does not exclude theatrical touches from the amply stocked repertoire of the founder of Médecins sans Frontières. I trust that his commitment to the truth will continue to be as forthright in Washington as it was in Moscow.

The Reactions

The reactions to Sarkozy's speech yesterday to the AJIS have been predictable. Le Monde says that the Sarkozyan "method" has left the unions "disoriented," yet it also says, correctly, that the goals he enunciated were the ones he had set forth in the campaign. The CFDT, which declares its readiness to engage on all the issues raised by Sarkozy, isn't disoriented; it merely insists on more time for negotiations. The CGT isn't disoriented: it has called for a "day of mobilization" against the reforms on Oct. 13, and who would have expected anything else? The CGT-Cheminots aren't disoriented: they say that Sarkozy has their federation "in his sights." And they're right, if you take "harmonization" of the special retirement regime that is so much more indulgent toward railway workers than the general regime is to other workers to be a punitive measure, as the workers do, rather than a measure to restore "equality" and substitute "justice for injustice," as the president describes it.

The unions are defending their acquis sociaux, which some would describe as hard-won benefits and others as unjustified privileges or "situational rents." It is perfectly understandable that they would react defensively, but since the "attack" was heralded by trumpets long in advance, one might have expected a more comprehensive response. Sarkozy does offer a coherent argument for his package of reforms. Fabius sees an "alignment" with the position of the MEDEF, but it would be equally possible to describe the package as an alignment with any number of respectable if debatable analyses of France's economic difficulties. The problem with the union response is that it ignores those analyses. If the unions refuted the arguments rather than simply wishing them away, there might be room for debate. In public, however, they prefer to repeat, "This shall not pass." And yet it might. I would venture to say it probably will. Sarko has attempted to soften the blow by offering the unions various institutional roles in the implementation of the new regime. Le Monde goes so far as to call his proposal a move toward a model more like the German, in which the unions are a central structural element in what political scientists like to call a "coordinated market economy."

But coordination implies willing acceptance by the unions of their role, and the French unions are not there yet, not by a long shot. Their rhetoric, at least in public, suggests that they are not ready to move very far in that direction (except for the CFDT, whose leadership may be ahead of its rank-and-file on this score). Sarkozy has shown signs of flexibility, however. He no longer speaks of a "single labor contract" but rather of "several avenues" of modification of the current system. He says that various reforms will be "articulated on a firm-by-firm" basis, allowing for special circumstances (pénibilité, for example) to be taken into account. The question is whether the unions' distrust of him will prevent these negotiations from being constructive. If the CGT spends the next month trying to line up support for its railway federation instead of trying to work out concrete modifications of the retirement plan for specific categories of railway workers (not all of whom are still subject to the same harsh and dangerous working conditions that led to the creation of their special regime in the first place), a full month of the available three months will have been wasted. I do not think they can win this fight, so they ought to take what they can get. My guess is that the government would be prepared to be fairly generous in order to head off escalation; a slow transition, easy on current employees, gradually phasing in changes for new hires, could be worked out. Why not seize the opportunity?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reform as Revolution

De Gaulle once said that if you want the French to pay for building autoroutes, you have to give them poetry. That was then; this is now. Boileau is no longer the arbiter of elegance of French political prose. The style of the day is businesslike: declarative, energetic, apparently analytic but with the thumb placed firmly on one side of the balance.

This morning's speech is a fine example of the genre, and very effective in the "high motivational" mode. First, there were the crisp assertions of boldness and confidence:

Au risque de casser certains codes, j'ai décidé de vous parler sans détour

La vérité, c'est que ...

c'est un nouveau contrat social, profondément renouvelé, profondément différent, que nous devons élaborer ensemble.

Il y a aujourd'hui trois certitudes ...

The speaker assures us that his motives are pure:

Vous le savez, je ne suis pas un idéologue.

He expresses outrage and repeatedly reminds us that he is one who dares to say what others will not, who is prepared to violate taboos:

Promouvoir le travail, c'est aussi mettre fin au gâchis insensé ...

Cette situation, tout le monde le sait, est le résultat d'un raisonnement fallacieux
Qu'on me comprenne bien. Je ne cherche à stigmatiser personne.


Occasionally he lapses into empty hot air:

Ce qu'il faut faire, c'est jouer sur toutes les dimensions du problème.

There are neat symmetries that hide real asymmetries:

Le deuxième principe, c'est la conciliation de la mobilité et de la sécurité, pour les salariés comme pour les entreprises.

Le troisième principe, c'est de trouver le juste équilibre entre la responsabilité, qu'elle soit collective ou individuelle, et la solidarité.

On oppose trop souvent la responsabilité, qui serait de nature individualiste et potentiellement dangereuse pour la cohésion sociale, et la solidarité, qui serait chargée de toutes les valeurs positives. C'est une erreur.


There are ringing assertions of "values," reinforced by anaphora:

Ma conviction, c'est que nous avons besoin d'organisations fortes. ... Ma conviction ...

... and calls to action:

Mais si on veut donner plus de place au dialogue social, il faut là encore que chacun prenne ses responsabilités


Mockery is reserved for the stubbornest of taboos (the single labor contract):

Tout le monde sait que nous ne pouvons plus tenir sur cette ligne Maginot juridique. Tout le monde sait ...
In substance there was nothing that has not been heard time and time again: the French need to work longer hours and more years; they need to pay more out of pocket for medical care; they need to prepare themselves for less stability of employment; the "French social model," which a majority of voters thought they were defending when they voted "no" on the European constitutional referendum, cannot endure:

Pour ma part, ce que je veux fondamentalement vous dire, et dire aux Français par votre intermédiaire, c'est que l'ampleur des réformes que nous sommes en train d'engager trouvent leur justification dans la ferme conviction que notre organisation sociale produit aujourd'hui plus d'injustice que de justice, qu'il faut en changer et que c'est un nouveau contrat social, profondément renouvelé, profondément différent, que nous devons élaborer ensemble.

Ce contrat est fondé sur le travail, le mérite et l'égalité des chances, qui sont des valeurs sociales, des valeurs généreuses, dont nous ne devons pas rougir mais que nous devons au contraire assumer. Ce contrat suppose que notre système social renoue avec les principes de justice et d'efficacité. Il exige des changements profonds.

The key point was perhaps this:

On me dit que je prends tous les risques parce que je veux trouver des solutions à tous les problèmes à la fois dans un champ où, paraît-il, tout est " miné ", tout est compliqué. Je crois que c'est justement tout le contraire, que c'est la réforme par petits bouts, sans cohérence d'ensemble, qui serait vouée à l'échec.


But is this passage to be read as social and economic analysis or strategic calculation? Is it necessary to attack on all fronts at once so that the "enemy" cannot concentrate his defenses at a single point of attack? Or is it rather that systemic change is doomed unless the system changes as one, rather than element by element? Counterexamples to both propositions could be cited, but the exercise would be academic. We have heard from the man in charge. Now we shall see what ensues.



L'Autre Jacques

Cécilia Sarkozy will attend the funeral of TV entertainer Jacques Martin, to whom she was once married. Martin was an entertainer of the old school. Not everyone liked his work. But this bit on the imperfect of the subjunctive should bring a smile to the lips of any student who has slogged his way through to the end of French grammar 101.

Vite, vite, vite ...

Thanks to the Internet, I watched the speech. Thanks to the Internet, I have the instant summaries. Thanks to the Internet, I can tell you that Xavier Bertrand sucked his index finger during a portion of the talk; Martin Hirsch seemed a tad uncomfortable; and the gaggle of staffers standing in one corner of the room, to the president's right, made the scene look just like a White House press conference, no doubt by design. The production values were a bit off: the blank blue background matched too closely the blue of the bleu-blanc-rouge, the EU flag seemed to be hiding in Marianne's skirts, and the inexplicable failure of the French to discover the teleprompter ill-served the president, who otherwise works the invisible TV audience well, including a pause to straighten his tie just before launching into the section on the reform of the special retirement regimes--a rather stagy touch, so stagy, in fact, that the actor himself made a self-conscious little joke about the contrived nature of the gesture.

I will be writing about the rhetoric of the speech when I have a moment to read the text, because the rhetoric was its most striking feature. In substance there was really nothing new. We need to reform this, we need to reform that. "Everyone knows" that change is needed. "I want" this to happen. "I have asked" such-and-such a minister to make sure that it does happen. "I shall be keeping an eye" on the discussions. "Discussions there will be," because one doesn't reform without discussion, but one doesn't discuss without reforming, not on my watch. Et cetera. It was another campaign speech: long on will, short on specifics.

Which is as it should be, since the details must emerge from the discussions. So we wait again, assured again that the will to change is there, impressed again by the vigor of the performance, and wondering again exactly what will happen when, if ever. Except for the merger of UNEDIC and ANPE: we'll have a "report" on that in under two weeks. Promis. This is not exactly the stuff of the Appel du 18 juin, but it's not Sarkozy's fault that what needs to be done isn't as thrilling as the impresario in him might wish.

Quiet Before the Storm?

Strange. Sarkozy not only monopolizes the media when he speaks but also silences the media when he doesn't. Most mornings I wake up to find that the president has sparked a flurry of articles. But today, with a major speech scheduled for the afternoon, it's as if a mute had been dropped on the morning's news wire. Nothing but the leavings of yesterday's dispatches: Kouchner says he's not really a va-t-en-guerre, why would anyone thing that just because he said it was time to prepare for war with Iran. Manuel Valls said it really, really wasn't helpful to blame the candidate for her loss, but nevertheless he still had great respect for Lionel Jospin, whom he served as spokesman in 2002. Bertrand Delanoë denied having reserved the url "delanoe2012.com." And the Flemish and the Walloons still don't get along. Xavier Bertrand says that the French want to reform the special regimes, and François Chérèque says that he's willing to reform them too, as long as it's on a case-by-case basis.

Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. So I'll wait too.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Austrian FM, IAEA, Respond to Kouchner

After Bernard Kouchner's bellicose remarks on Sunday, the Austrian foreign minister has reacted: "My colleague Kouchner is the only one who can explain what he meant. It is incomprehensible to me why he should have resorted to martial rhetoric at this time." Meanwhile, Mohammed El Baradei of the IAEA said that he "would ask everyone to stay calm until we have completed our verification procedures" in November or December.

Interestingly enough, the NY Times today published a somewhat disparaging story about El Baradei. Déjà vu, anyone?

Tough Workout


Yesterday I thought I'd make my daily workout a little tougher than usual, so I dragged the TV in front of the weight machine and exercise bike and switched on Jean-Pierre Elkabbach on Le Grand Rendez-vous d'Europe 1 (sometimes called la télé de Sarko). His guest was Jean-Claude Mailly of Force Ouvrière, which back in the day used to be known as le syndicat des patrons. But times have changed. Mailly was talking a tough line. Bernard Thibault of the CGT has promised some "sport" if Sarkozy tries to push through retirement reforms without consultation. Of course Thibault is built like a rugbyman, whereas Mailly looks more like the accountant he once was, yet he too was making ominous noises, even if he refused to go quite as far as Elkabbach tried to goad him to go: he would not endorse Thibault's threat of "sport." Instead he kept coming back to the need for consultation and the unwisdom of a passage en force.

Weight-lifting is a good thing to be doing while listening to this langue de bois, which was rendered particularly wooden by the fact that Mailly had met with Sarkozy the day before, so we may assume that he had a pretty good idea what Sarko intends to say tomorrow and Wednesday. François Chérèque, who also met with Sarkozy, more or less confirms that Sarko's words were reassuring, but evidently the union leaders promised not to tip the president's hand, and Mailly was merely keeping his word. Elkabbach had probably also been let in on the secret, so it was only those of us foolish enough to watch this shadow-boxing who remained in the dark.

What to do in such a situation but pump iron? It's the only way to let off the steam that builds when one is taken for an imbecile. It was of course pointed out that the devoutly to be wished "consultation" with the unions about the special regimes has been going on for two years now and that eventually a decision will have to be made. But Mailly kept a straight face as he continued to insist on consultation, while Elkabbach could hardly veil his wish that Tuesday were already upon his so that he could unveil the next phase of the Sarkozyan reform, whose talking points he undoubtedly had already in his pocket. I could stand it for ten sets of 20 reps before finally shutting the thing off.

Gog and Magog


Thomas Römer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne, has revealed that Jacques Chirac made inquiries about the meaning of Gog and Magog after George Bush, attempting to persuade him to join the invasion of Iraq, told him that the pair were at work in the Middle East.

Bush's apocalyptic proclivities of 2003 and Chirac's biblical innocence would matter little now if End Time rumblings were not again in the news. Bernard Kouchner made headlines yesterday when he said that, with respect to Iran, "we must prepare for the worst," and when pressed to say what he meant, he indicated: "War." Sarkozy had previously indicated that an Iranian bomb would be unacceptable to France and that the alternative was "an Iranian bomb or the bombardment of Iran." And the rumor from diplomatic circles is that Sarko, on his return from his Kennebunkport meeting with Bush, let it be known in Europe that Washington is serious about "preventing" Iran from obtaining the bomb. Whether this saber-rattling is intended to rally Europeans into supporting sanctions against Iran or to prepare the public to brace for a decision that Bush has already taken, as was the case in 2002-3, remains to be seen. But Paris is not the only place where the rumor of (expanded) war is growing louder:

See here and here and here, for example.

A Sad Day for Socialism


Libération has published excerpts from Lionel Jospin's book L'Impasse in advance of publication. It is hard to know what tone to take in speaking of the Jospinian onslaught. I've been critical enough of Ségolène Royal's political skills to have earned rebukes from one or two readers, who take a more favorable view of her. But I criticize from a distance, as an outside observer. Jospin's attack is vicious and personal and steeped in acid: having offered her his nominal support during the campaign, he tells us now that he was certain she could not win, "not because she was [sic] a woman but because I had been able to form a fairly precise idea of her well-known qualities and her very real inadequacies." He goes on: "Having made an error in nominating her in no way justifies repeating that error" by allowing her to lead the party.

I have met Lionel Jospin, sat across a table from him, chatted with him, listened to him speak, watched him debate over lunch his own political errors and defend the 35-hour week against the criticisms of two renowned economists, Nobel prizewinner Robert Solow and Olivier Blanchard. My impression was that he is a rather melancholy man, too reserved to make a good politician but thoughtful enough to have made a good professor. I wouldn't have thought him capable of such a personal attack. Who knows what slights and indignities and humiliations may have prompted it. In private terms it may even be justified, but in public and political terms I cannot think of it as anything but a monumental error. Jospin, along with Rocard, is the elder statesman of the party. He was Mitterrand's designated heir and a presidential candidate. He has a reputation for stolid probity. Yet now, with his own words, he denounces the party's representation of itself to the people of France as a fraud. He indicts himself as a party to that fraud and a man unscrupulous enough to have endorsed, however tepidly, a woman he considered to be incompetent and, reading between the lines, morally unfit for the presidency. Yet he begs us to believe that his endorsement of a future leader of the party should matter.

I can't believe that this book will help Jospin, the Jospinists, or the Socialist Party. In fact, I'm not sure that the Socialist Party can or should survive this profession de manque de foi. I had somehow been persuaded that the mauvais caractère in this past election was Sarkozy. I see now that I was wrong. Les mauvais caractères abounded. It's a sad day for the Socialist Party and a sad day for France.

Libé's editorial comment is here, slightly more measured than mine.

Other reactions:
Hollande: It's time for the PS "to put an end to the settling of scores." The party's failure "cannot be reduced to a question of personalities."
Gilles Savary: The book "dishonors" Jospin and "insults the 16.7 million French men and women" who voted for Royal.
Arnaud Montebourg: "What's the use of this permanent venting?" Jospin's own poor performance in 2002 "should have encouraged somewhat more modesty in his criticisms. We could turn some of the criticism back on Jospin, who is one of our great wise men."
Still more:
Jean-Marc Ayrault: "Polemics do not facilitate the work of the Socialist Party." "Renovation is not just settling of scores among friends and endless rehashing of old bitterness."
Benoît Hamon: "If we put another euro in the machine every month, this is never going to end."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Guest Post: Éloi Laurent on Yasmina Reza


The following is a review contributed by Éloi Laurent:


Yasmina REZA / L'aube le soir ou la nuit (Dawn Evening or Night)


Choosing a portraitist is one of the most political acts a queen, an emperor or an aspiring President can accomplish, for a portrait always conveys sentiments, authority, melancholy, beyond anyone’s intent.


One reason why Nicolas Sarkozy might have chosen to have his portrait done so early in his presidency is that he wanted to give the French a clear picture of him, so when the time of his re-election comes in five years from now, they can see how much he’s changed, or not.


Yasmina Reza, 48, claims she chose Sarkozy as the main character of her new book L'aube le soir ou la nuit (Dawn Evening or Night), after having hesitated between him and the mysterious “G.” to whom the book is dedicated. Her mind made up, she went to Place Beauvau to ask the minister-candidate if she might follow his campaign. Already impatient, he cut her short: “I get it”, “you want to be there”.


Yasmina Reza is arguably one of the best and certainly the most famous and acclaimed living French playwrights, although, as often in France, her talent is more recognized internationally than nationally. She was born on May 1959 in Paris, to a Hungarian violinist mother and a Jewish engineer father, part-Russian, part-Iranian. Although she did not grow up poor, her family was of modest means. But when she became famous in the mid-1990s and started to give interviews, she regularly lied about her social background, claiming she had been born into a wealthy cosmopolitan family. To a journalist taken aback by her dishonesty and insisting that she not to lie to his questions, she mischievously answered: “Promised”.


She went on to pursue unimaginative studies, passing the holy “Bac” exam in 1975 and studying sociology in Paris X, from where she graduated in 1978. That was when she decided to become first an actress and very soon after that a writer, collaborating on the scenario of her first play in 1983.


In 1984, she failed in the Conservatory concours and instead attended the Jacques Lecoq school, setting to work almost right away on her first play, which she completed at the age of 25. Conversations après un enterrement (Conversations after a Burial) made its début at the Théâtre Paris-Villette in 1987 to instant success, wining prizes and fame for its author.


Of her style, she says : “I don’t think I write like a French writer: I use shortcuts, ellipses. They come from the strange language that surrounded me when I grew up, this way of saying things indirectly, and the wit”. In Conversations après un enterrement, she displays plenty of her characteristic stichomythic style:


Alex: Pourquoi tu rentres ?(Why are you going home ?)

Élisa: Parce que je ne vais pas dormir ici…(Because I’m not going to sleep here…)

Alex: Pourquoi ? (Why?)

Élisa: Parce que…(Because…)

Alex: Parce que quoi ?(Because why?)

Élisa: Parce qu’il faut que je rentre…(Because I have to go home…)

Alex: On t’attend ?(Someone’s waiting for you ?)

Élisa: Non…(Non…)

Alex : Alors ? (So?)

Léger temps (beat)


After La Traversée de l’hiver (Winter Crossing) in 1990, she went on to write her masterpiece, apparently with the trio of actors that would for months illuminate the stage of the Comédie des Champs-ElyséesPierre Vaneck, Fabrice Luchini and Pierre Arditi – already in mind. Art was more than a very successful play, it was an international sensation, triumphing on Broadway and London and winning both a Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony Award in 1998.


The now classic scène d’ouverture of Art culminates when Marc/Vaneck apostrophizes Serge/Luchini about the white on white “ANTRIOS”: “Tu as acheté cette merde deux cent mille francs ?” (“you really paid 200 000 francs for this piece of shit?”). Reza touches here touched skillfully on the very subject that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explored in Distinction: the politics of taste in French society.


The bourgeois milieu, Parisian de préférence, would be a constant object of fascination and mockery for Reza, obsessed with the vanity, superficiality and depression of the French intellectual. In Trois versions de la vie (Life X 3, 2000), Hubert says to Henri: « il vous manque une portion d’envergure »… « On vous sent filandreux et égaré, vous devriez prendre des leçons chez votre femme » (You’re a bit of an empty suit…you seem beaten down and bewildered, you should learn from your wife). At that time (2000), Sarkozy, having been forced out of the RPR Presidency after the disastrous European elections of 1999, had withdrawn from politics and was contemplating a career in law.


So, what secret d’Etat did Reza reveal in L'aube le soir ou la nuit (Dawn Evening or Night) that convinced The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Economist and The Persian Mirror to write (pretty good) reviews of her book before it was even translated?


First of all, the title is strange, since the commas are left out, which may be meant to signal the pace at which the main character is going to run through the pages before our eyes. It comes from the top of page 126 : « Il n'y a pas de lieux dans la tragédie. Et il n'y pas d'heures non plus. C'est l'aube, le soir ou la nuit. » (There are no places in tragedy. Nor is there time. It’s dawn, evening or night). The disappearance of the commas from the title signals the disappearance of daylight, victim of the speed of politics.


There are at least two books in L'aube le soir ou la nuit. For the sake of the argument, let’s call the first “L’Aube”. “L’Aube” is a book about French politics at the height of its drama: the presidential election. It is almost empty and pretty boring. Reza does little to hide that she does not share her subject’s passion for politics. Primary Colors, a book written from a much greater distance, is a candidate’s textbook compared to Reza’s “insights” about one of the most successful campaigns in French contemporary history. Some advisers of the President have even anonymously complained that Reza “spoiled” the unique material she was given when she was granted full-time exclusive access to Sarkozy. The regret is shared by the reader when Reza accidentally reveals her political eye in a merciless description of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s hairdo.


In the only written interview so far for this book, she tells Jérôme Garcin from Le Nouvel Observateur that she is not interested in “politics but in political destiny” and adds : “même s’il a eu la courtoisie de ne jamais me poser la question, il a toujours eu la conviction que j’étais de gauche” (“even if he was gentleman enough not to ask, he always knew I was of the left”). The central character here is without a doubt speechwriter Henri Guaino who, besides telling Reza at one point “tu ne comprends rien à la politique” (you don’t understand the first thing about politics”), works tirelessly at night in a surreal communion with Sarkozy. The fact that the President-elect chose to keep “genius” Guaino so close to him in the Elysée Palace, speaks volumes about the difficulty he may be experiencing in moving away from the poetry of the campaign to the prose of government. But in that subject lies another book.


Le Soir ou la nuit” is a play where Reza, who often performed in her own plays, impersonates the loving mother of Nicolas, her agitated child. When Reza marvels at Sarkozy’s superb proclamation “Oui, je suis un enfant d’immigré” (“yes, I’m an immigrant’s son”), she seems to hear only “Oui, je suis un enfant” (“yes, I’m a child”). In this much better book, there is a poignant moment when the face of Sarkozy’s son Louis appears on the welcome screen of the candidate’s cell phone/mirror. About Sarkozy, Reza tells host Nicolas Demorand on France Inter: “ Cynique ? Il n’a pas cette qualité” (“Cynical?, No, that’s not a trait of his character.”).


Writer and subject are both undeniably at the top of their art, him playing stupid to make her laugh ; or playing seductive to make her blush; her, never far behind or even listening behind his back as a mother might to her son’s phone call to his girlfriend. But she is not listening: she is working, catching the bits of her character that he would not give away. This book is about role-playing and both actors know exactly when the play has ended. They have nothing to say to each other anymore in the “real” final conversation asked by Reza of the newly elected President. Curtain.


Out of this year-long voyage into smoke and mirrors, oddly described in some reviews as conveying “honesty”, only two things can be taken for granted. A) The book is a mega-hit. B) It will not receive the Goncourt, the short list revealed on September 12th including Marie Darrieussecq, Amélie Nothomb and even Olivier and Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, but not Reza.


Yasmina Reza and Nicolas Sarkozy share two traits unusual in the French elites: Hungarian and Jewish roots and contempt for and by high-brow culture. They might have met. But as Yvan puts it tortuously in Art : "Si je suis moi parce que je suis moi, et si tu es toi parce que tu es toi, je suis moi et tu es toi. Si, en revanche, je suis moi parce que tu es toi, et si tu es toi parce que je suis moi, alors je ne suis pas moi et tu n'es pas toi." (If I am me because I am me, and you are you because you are you, then I am me and you are you. But, if I am me because you are you, and you are you because I am me, then I am not me and you are not you.)


-- contributed by Éloi Laurent