Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Slippage

The latest TNS-Sofres poll shows Sarkozy's approval rating slipping to 53 percent, Fillon's to 44. States of grace never last, but I think it's a sign of serious trouble when a president rises as high as Sarko did so rapidly and then subsides to a rating equivalent to his electoral score. It means that his effort to broaden his base through ouverture, omnipresence, and all-fronts offensive has now alienated as many people as it may initially have enticed. Six of the eight rail unions have announced a strike for Nov. 13 that could tie up transport for quite some time, since the strike notice is renewable. We are therefore at a testing point. Up to now, Sarkozy has been adroit in dealing with serious resistance. He gave ground when university presidents and student unions resisted his university reforms, saving appearances by postponing the most difficult issues, such as selection at the master's level, until later. He chose a similar tactic at the Grenelle of the environment: the carbon tax and insecticide issues were finessed, not resolved. On the matter of the special regimes, his rhetoric has been firm, his iconography firmer: the finger poking the chest of the shop steward seemed to say "they shall not pass," yet his words implied a major concession. The bewildering array of compromises now under discussion (despite denials by the unions that discussions are taking place) may allow another face-saving "victory" on principles modified by accommodation on details. If so, the hyperpresidency may prove to be something of a wet firecracker. Pierre Moscovici made the point the other night on À vous de juger: overexposure dissipates mystery. Charles Péguy once said, Tout commence en mystique, to which Paul Valéry replied, Oui, et tout finit en politique. At 53 percent approval, we have returned to the realm of politics.

French Competitiveness

The World Economic Forum ranks countries on competitiveness in the global economy. The methods used are controversial and rely heavily on the opinions of CEOs rather than more objective data, though of course the opinions and expectations of CEOs are certainly not without influence on the evolution of the system. In any case, France ranks 18th this year: a respectable position and certainly no comfort for "declinists" who argue that France has fallen by the wayside and can no longer compete. The United States, which returns to the number 1 position after being eclipsed last year by Switzerland, is rated high primarily because of its "capacity for innovation," prowess in research and development, and remarkable institutions of higher education. Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Finland, and Singapore also score well. An earlier post, in which I note that several of these countries outspend France by a considerable margin in higher education, suggests one area where additional French investment might yield a good dividend.

Open Thread, Suggestions Welcome

A reader's e-mail suggested that he would have liked to suggest topics for future discussion but found no way to do so on the site. So I am offering this open thread as a place to post suggestions (use the "comments" link below this message). Other comments are as always welcome.

As you can see from the stat counter in the lower right column, we're now over 30,000 page views. Curiously, the recent flap with Lesley Stahl led to a temporary surge of traffic, almost three times the normal volume. This has now begun to subside. It seems likely that many people who know nothing else about Sarkozy will know that he can be abrupt and peremptory when pushed to discuss matters he doesn't want to discuss. And many like him for it, perhaps because they see a flash of temper as a mark of authenticity.

Allocation of Education Funding

The CAS report I mentioned in the previous post has some interesting data on France's allocation of its education expenditures (see pp. 37-44). Total spending on education, at nearly 6 percent of GDP, is toward the high end among European countries, but spending on primary education is below the EU27 average. By contrast, spending on secondary education is among the highest, whereas spending on higher education is above average but well below what Finland, Sweden, and Denmark (models of flexicurity, modern services, and high-tech economies) spend. The dropout rate is fairly high, and while 2/3 of the French graduate from high school, the graduation level is over 80 percent in many countries.

The low spending on primary education is particularly troubling, since many studies have shown that poor preparation at this level makes success at higher levels much more difficult to achieve.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New Report

A new report from the Centre d'Analyse Stratégique on French "social realities" compared to the rest of Europe contains a wealth of statistical data. I will be commenting on various aspects of this report in the weeks to come. One thing is clear: the overwhelming majority of the French report themselves to be "happy" but "anxious." Objectively, France isn't doing badly. Subjectively, the French are of two minds.

I've fixed the link. Thanks to francofou for pointing out the error.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Spectator Discovers "French Politics"

Welcome, Spectator readers.

Rebsamen Book

François Rebsamen, co-manager of Royal's campaign, has published a book. Le Nouvel Obs has an excerpt about preparations for the final presidential debate. The strategy was to win over Bayrou voters, whom polls showed split evenly between Royal and Sarkozy. The subjects chosen to do this were the 35-hour week, retirement, and nuclear power. On the subject of retirement, Rebsamen recommended a simple proposal: forty years of contributions for everyone, public and private. Which sounds quite a bit like the Sarkozy reform, doesn't it? Without details, of course. Yet I haven't heard Rebsamen suggest to the unions currently protesting the reform that their protest is misguided, that the result would have been the same had the Socialists won the election.

One other diverting detail: the Sarkozy campaign had evidently arranged to refrigerate their candidate by having his chair placed over an air conditioner duct delivering air at 17 degrees C. Royal's team felt that she would be at a disadvantage because she would be wearing a skirt, and the cold air from below would be uncomfortable (we are not told why her chair also had to be over a duct). The solution: Sarko's air was raised to 21 degrees. It seems that he sweats easily, and his handlers hadn't wanted him to seem to break out in flop sweat as Nixon did in 1960 in his debate with Kennedy. For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost. But Sarko seems to have kept his sweat ducts under control even at 21 degrees.

Rebsamen still doesn't know why his candidate lost. He says that on the subject of nuclear power, she was prepared, she knew how to argue. Apparently he has forgotten that she made a huge error in trying to corner Sarkozy on the subject. She asked him what percentage of French electricity came from nuclear power. He gave an incorrect answer of 50 percent. "No, Monsieur Sarkozy, it's 17 percent," she triumphantly countered. But it wasn't. Seventeen percent is the percentage of nuclear power in total French energy consumption. The percentage of electricity derived from nuclear is much higher, and Sarkozy's answer was not only closer to the mark but also closer to the heart of the matter, which is that France is dependent on nuclear power for most of its electricity. Royal had failed to grasp this elementary point in attemtping to snare her opponent with a debater's trick.

Harvard in Aubervilliers or Gulag 93?

The BibliObs has a story on the transfer of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales to Aubervilliers. Some see a plot to banish critics of the new regime from the center of Paris--and influence. Others see a vast new American-style campus arising in a neglected suburb, a vibrant center of intellectual life that could revitalize both the humanities and the neighborhood. Still others see only a need to remove the abestos from the school's current building and therefore a temporary dislocation. Opponents of the move have a Web site. This matter will no doubt agitate the chattering classes for months to come.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sixty Minutes Interview

I've just watched the Sixty Minutes interview with Sarko, and I must say that the characterization of him as having "stormed out" of the meeting in outrage was pure hype. He simply ended the interview abruptly when asked about Cécilia (this was two weeks before the divorce, but rumors were already flying). The "quel imbécile" remark in the promo clip was taken from the beginning of the interview, not the end, and was directed at his press secretary for scheduling the encounter at a time when he didn't want to have it. When he walked out, he shook Stahl's hand and thanked her for the interview. He did not lose his temper.

The Stahl piece was a tissue of banalities and clichés, as one would expect from a reporter so ill-informed about France (see previous post). Too often, the coverage of France in the United States is of such appalling simple-mindedness--cartoonish, really--that one can only sympathize with Sarko and Levitte as they attempt to put across to the American viewer a message that they know in advance will be deprived of all subtlety and nuance by the crudeness of the instrument with which they are obliged to work. What a depressing spectacle.

Anyone in the Boston area who would like to learn more about France under Sarkozy could do worse than come to Center for European Studies at Harvard on Nov. 1 at 4:15 P.M. for a panel discussion on "Le régime Sarkozy":
Announcement here.

Lesley Stahl Does France


Sarko apparently stormed out of his interview with Lesley Stahl because she asked him a question about Cécilia, but he should have refused to meet with her because she is so utterly ignorant of France, as this "reporter's notebook" makes clear (click on the "Lesley Stahl's notebook" link). She states that France "used to be anti-American but is now pro-American and pro-Israel" and that the French are "prohibited by law" from working more than 35 hours per week. This misunderstanding may make it difficult for her to comprehend Sarkozy's reform of the tax on overtime work.

Regular blog readers will be interested to learn that they have been joined today by hundreds of newcomers who are discovering "French Politics" for the first time, apparently because the news that Sarko walked out on CBS is spreading around the United States like wildfire. Today will set a record for hits on this site, most coming from people searching Google for "French president storms out of CBS interview." With one impulsive action, Sarko may have wiped out much of his carefully planned seduction of America. Or maybe not. Although Stahl opines that the French may like their politicians on the macho side, she seems to have forgotten what mileage Bush got in the good old days with lines like "Bring 'em on."

School of Tall Studies



Note the translation of Hautes Études. In related news, the school in question is moving to Aubervilliers, which may make it a tall order for some of its students to get there.

Sarko Storms Out of CBS Interview

Nicolas Sarkozy storms out of an interview with CBS. Tonight on 60 Minutes.

Controversy in Comments

In case you missed it, there is some controversy in the comments to a previous post. There I reported the remarks of various present and former MEDEF officials to the effect that the now-exposed UIMM slush fund was used in part to finance the unions. Greg Brown noted that François Chérèque of the CFDT denied that his union had received any employer funds that it had not disclosed publicly and suggested that the MEDEF had circulated the story to discredit union leadership. Indeed, I had reported this same theory, advanced weeks ago when the Gautier-Sauvagnac story first broke by Daniel Schneidermann of Arrêt sur Images among others. Alain Q. pointed out, however, that the unions are not required to publish their full accounts and disparaged what he called "the MEDEF conspiracy theory" by saying that 600 million was a lot to spend on such a purpose.

Of course we don't actually know that MEDEF, UIMM, Gautier-Sauvagnac or anyone else funneled any precise number of euros to any particular union's accounts. The various employer slush funds are no more transparent than the union accounts, and the fact that large sums of cash were withdrawn from UIMM accounts and avowedly used for purposes not recorded in any books doesn't prove that any or all of the money went to any or all of the unions.

Furthermore, side payments can exist even where accountability laws are nominally stricter. In Germany, for instance, it has been established in court that VW paid large sums to a union leader, and the disbursements were disguised in its audited corporate accounts. So a change in the law alone will not be enough to remedy the situation.

One problem in France is surely the fact that neither employer associations nor trade union leadership is effectively monitored by members. Most workers do not belong to unions and have neither incentives nor means to monitor, while union insiders, who might monitor their leaders, are often paid staff who stand to share in any occult benefits. Employer associations seem to operate largely unmonitored by the firms that contribute to them and are ultimately the depositors to their slush funds. Corporate boards might thus be expected to have an interest in knowing what happens to the money. So might shareholders, if any, and shareholders might be on less intimate terms with association heads than board members. But the structure of French capitalism is still relatively archaic, as Thomas Philippon has pointed out in his book Le capitalisme des héritiers. For example, the proportion of family-dominated firms is 64.8 percent, compared with 19.3 for the US (though Germany, at 64.6 is no more modern than France in this regard and family control remains fairly common in much of Europe). Closely held firms are presumably free to operate in move cavalier fashion than firms with a wider variety of stakeholders.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sarko Chez les Cheminots

If you watched the TV news last night, you saw President Sarkozy in a heated exchange with workers at a railway repair facility. What you didn't see was a statement that Sarko made that went well beyond the current negotiating position of his minister: he pledged that benefit reductions for workers not contributing the full forty years required under the new regime would apply only to new hires, not existing workers. The workers surrounding Sarkozy reacted with immediate astonishment. They knew the dossier better than he, or else he was putting a new offer on the table without having let anyone know in advance.

The unedited clip including the remarkable Sarkozy statement can be viewed here. You'll enjoy the president's jutting chin and finger-to-the-sternum dialog with his hard-hatted interlocutors.

Europe? What Europe?


The question of whether to ratify the Lisbon treaty will not be addressed at today's meeting of the PS National Council. "Everyone has agreed not to talk about it," said Stéphane Le Foll, Hollande's no. 2. Pierre Moscovici, who favors a "critical yes," is nevertheless willing to back Benoît Hamon's "constructive abstention." But he's not going to talk about it either. Everyone's goal is to "make sure that the party comes down on a position that doesn't increase tensions," Le Foll said.

While thus avoiding the major issue of Europe, the National Council will nevertheless find time to hear the reports of no fewer than three "committees on renovation." Evidently the "renovation" of the party does not require taking positions on major issues even if they do increase tensions. American Democrats are familiar with the syndrome. They are also familiar with the result: repeated losses. Of course the PS doesn't need the American example to learn that lesson. But it doesn't seem able to profit from its failures.

Friday, October 26, 2007

French Unions

French labor relations are indeed peculiar. The rate of unionization is extremely low, under 8 percent. The frequency of strikes has been diminishing steadily. Yet workers have every reason to be unhappy. Wage compression in France is also extreme. The ratio between the wages of the first and fifth income deciles is significantly lower than in most other industrial countries. In other words, wages are unusually concentrated at the low end of the scale. Compensating somewhat for this is a relatively high minimum wage (SMIC).

Might France's skewed wage structure have something to do with its system of labor relations? A Le Monde op-ed today raises the question of occult financing of the unions by employers. Denis Gautier-Sauvagnac has admitted the existence of a secret slush fund at UIMM, to be used for "lubricating social relations." Yves Gattaz, former head of UIMM, has said that the system has a long history. Laurence Parisot, the head of the MEDEF, has spoken of the revelation of "family secrets." The Hadas-Lebel Report documents the opacity of union financing. The question thus arises: What are employers getting for their money (the sums involved at UIMM appear to be colossal)? Might the answer be wage compression?

ATTAC noyauté?

ATTAC, which has been hamstrung by internal turmoil for some time, has just lost four more of its top leaders, "convinced that they no longer have a place" in the organization, which, according to them, has been taken over by a mixture of "indigènes de la République, SUD, members or sympathizers of LCR, and a few trade unionists from the CGT and FSU." Quite an assortment of infiltrators!

The Poverty Map

Le Nord, Bouches-du-Rhône, and Seine-Saint-Denis are centers of poverty in France according to a new INSEE study. For a map of poverty, see here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Special Regime: For Lawyers?

BernardG reports that the government has discovered a category of workers so overtaxed that they do after all need a special retirement regime: lawyers who are about to be deprived of courts to practice in by the reform of la carte judiciaire. Incredible.

Carbon Tax: Sarko Punts

I haven't had time to read the whole speech, but here's the somewhat disappointing passage on the carbon tax:

Je ne veux pas refermer ce dossier au prétexte qu'il serait compliqué. Nous le traiterons au niveau communautaire. Il faut, Monsieur le Président de la Commission européenne, étudier très rapidement la possibilité de taxer les produits importés de pays qui ne respectent pas le Protocole de Kyoto. Nous avons imposé des normes environnementales à nos producteurs. Il n'est pas normal que leurs concurrents puissent en être totalement exemptés. Je vous propose que ce sujet soit débattu au sein de l'Union européenne dans les six mois.


Bottom line: Pass the buck to the EU. Study the question some more. Tax imports from non-Kyoto countries.

Is this an ecological measure or a protectionist measure? A little of both, of course, like most fair-trade proposals, and none the worse for that. It's by no means a preposterous idea. But it avoids the heart of the issue, which the carbon tax is meant to address: force firms to internalize the externality of greenhouse gas emission; use the market mechanism in all its microeconomic splendor to alter the incentives facing economic actors. The carbon duty as opposed to the carbon tax does not accomplish this. Perhaps Sarkozy looked closely at the costs of "ecologism in one country" and decided that they were too high; that may even be a correct judgment. But I can't help feeling that there was a certain failure of nerve, despite the many laudable achievements of the environmental Grenelle, which are addressed in the remainder of the speech.

On the Origins of French Anti-Liberalism

See this interesting blog.

Scandal Brewing?

L'Express alleges that Rachida Dati was admitted to the École de la Magistrature on the basis of a dossier claiming a degree she had not been awarded from HEC. Dati concedes that her diploma was "not validated" owing to a dispute with the school.

DNA to Constitutional Council

The DNA testing provision of the Hortefeux Law will be submitted to the Conseil Constitutionnel by the PS and MoDem. For those who may have missed the debate in the comments to a previous post, my colleagues Mary and Judith take issue with my position here. I've said my piece on this amendment and will confine myself to only one further remark: all of my arguments are directed at defending the amendment against the charge made by The New York Times that the legislation is a form of "high-tech bigotry" and akin to the Nürnberg Laws. On that point I remain unconvinced by my critics.

The appeal to the CC alleges that the legislation is a "violation of republican principles" in that it distinguishes between two classes of family, biological and non-biological, and treats the two unequally. I concede that it does these things but ask how that flaw might be remedied so as to provide equal protection of the law. If proof of kinship is to be required of all families seeking reunification, then perforce the nature of the proof must be different in each instance, since the origin of kinship is different. I rest my case there.

Whether the law is good public policy or not is another matter. Legislation can be ill-conceived or ill-motivated without being evil or "unrepublican." I think the DNA amendment is probably unnecessary and tactically maladroit. But I don't think it will do any harm and might do some good. I suspect it will be ruled unconstitutional, leaving me even more uncomfortable than I already feel standing with MM. Mariani and Hortefeux and against my learned colleagues and much of the French left, as well as M. Charles Pasqua, as I learned from one of my critics. This seems to be one of those issues that make strange bedfellows.

Hamon on the European Treaty


Benoît Hamon missed his calling: he should have been a seventeenth-century Jesuit. No jesuitical casuistry was ever more sinuous than Hamon's position on the European Treaty. He is "faithful to [socialism's] historical commitment to Europe," but the treaty is a "mediocre text" and "so far from what is needed to relaunch Europe that it does not allow us to accept it." Yet the PS is part of the "European social-democratic family," which has decided to do just that: accept a not fully satisfactory text. Nevertheless, a similar text having been rejected by the French in a 2005 referendum, it would be "disrespectful" to the French people to ratify such a text "behind its back." To square this circle, there is no choice for the Socialists but to abstain.

Clear? A latter-day Pascal may well be pondering even now a Lettre provinciale on the Socialists' position regarding Europe.

Stirrings in Lyon


Libé has an interesting piece this morning on the constitution of the Socialist list for the municipals in Lyon. As I've noted in previous posts, "visible minorities" are beginning to organize at the local level and are agitating to have their leaders given places on the ticket. The party wants to appeal to this electorate but is reluctant to cede power to the movements. It wants to name its own candidates--those who, according to the mayor, "have proven themselves on the ground or in associations"--read, loyalists to the existing power structure, not upstarts with independent bases. The confrontation is classic, but no less interesting for that. Like the national elections this year, the municipal elections are going to reflect sharp changes in generational perceptions and agendas.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

First Environmental Accords

The so-called Grenelle of the Environment has produced its first results: an accord on higher building insulation standards and a promise to freeze new road and airport construction.

Bergsten on Euro

C. Fred Bergsten agrees with Sarkozy that Europe needs to pay more heed to its exchange rate with China. His thinking is also reflected at the IMF, as this blog by IMF research director Simon Johnson makes clear.

Fert on Research in France

Nobel physicist Albert Fert makes the point I made in an earlier post. France does good research but is slow to capitalize on promising new discoveries by translating them into working technologies. He contrasts the responsiveness of American industry to scientific research by relating an anecdote: within a month of his first lectures on giant magnetoresistance, he had been visited by a delegation from IBM.

Simone Veil Opposes DNA Testing

Simone Veil says that she opposes DNA testing of applicants for family reunification because there are "a thousand other ways of identifying people." She adds that it's "a question of image" and that the method is "too heavy." I confess that the logic of these statements is not very clear to me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More On Vanishing Socialists

Here are some varied opinions about what became of the new Socialists who joined the party via Internet for a 20-euro subscription fee. For background, see this earlier post. From Lille we have three basic theories: 1. the attachment of militant to party is looser than in the past, and people come and go; 2. new members quit in disgust after the elections, when party leaders fell to bickering; 3. new subscribers were interested only in choosing the candidate and didn't even participate actively in the campaign. One person suggests that there has been a second wave of subscriptions, of people frightened by Sarkozy. Unfortunately they don't seem to show up in party membership statistics, so the wish may be father to the thought.

Le Monde to Curtail Its Book Section

According to nonfiction.fr, Le Monde plans to reduce its book section Le Mondes des livres from 12 to 8 pages as of December 1.

Hortefeux Law

The Hortefeux Law on immigration has been adopted. The controversial provision for DNA testing is to remain experimental until 2009. Testing is to be done only at the request of the visa applicant, paid for by the French government, and limited to countries where birth records are deficient (a list of which is to be established by decree). Only kinship with the mother will be tested, to preclude surprises as to paternity. A court in Nantes is to approve all requests for tests and to designate authorized testing agencies.

One might still object to such testing for a variety of reasons but not, I think, on the grounds specified in a New York Times editorial last Sunday, which bore the rather overheated title "Pseudoscientific Bigotry in France." The Times admonished the French that "they should also be aware of the cautionary lessons of modern French history. Under the Nazi occupiers and their Vichy collaborators, pseudoscientific notions of pure descent were introduced into French law with tragic consequences." I am unable to see how the Hortefeux Law relates to the Nürnberg Laws. The Times must have been misled as to the content of the law to have written such an editorial.

Travailler plus?

As everyone knows, France has a problem when it comes to employing the young and the old. Unemployment among the young is high; workforce participation among the old (over 55) is low, among the lowest of the OECD countries. The Villepin government attempted to respond to the first problem with the Contrat Première Embauche, or CPE, and we know what happened to that: it went down in flames when the young rose up in large numbers against it. In a less well-known move, the Villepin government tried to respond to the second problem with a special senior limited-duration contract, or CDD spécial senior, dubbed the "Contrat Dernière Embauche" by some wag at the CGT. This did not bring the gray heads into the street, but it did not bring them into the workforce either: only about 20 CDDSS were signed. Another astonishing statistic: only three percent of managers hired in the last year were over 45 years old. Age discrimination in France seems to be openly practiced, even avowed: at the MEDEF, "no one is working on senior employment." An official at the CGPME representing smaller firms says flatly that seniors must "make an effort to justify their salaries by bringing their skills up to date."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Television and the Voters

Who watched the candidates on TV? Not the young, apparently. A new survey shows that on April 20, the last day of the campaign, more than 40 percent of seniors saw at least one of the leading candidates on TV, while younger voters were less than 1/4 as likely to have caught a televised glimpse of a candidate.

Signs of Change

The vocabulary hasn't quite caught up yet, but the signs of change are there. Is it une géneration issue de l'immigration that is beginning to assert itself, or des représentants de la diversité? Le Monde uses both phrases. What the article makes clear, however, is that the second, third, and fourth generations are no longer content to be represented by those who purport to speak for them. They are offended, as Bagdad Ghezal was, to be told that their presence at the top of the ticket would risk driving away voters. And so they are running not merely to be counted but to gain and wield power. If successful, they will begin the needed reform of the Socialist Party from the bottom up. The municipal elections will be very interesting to watch in this regard.

On emmerde tout le monde ...

François Chérèque says that the strike, which continues to disrupt rail traffic, especially in the Île-de-France, ought to be called off:

Aujourd'hui, excusez-moi l'expression, mais on emmerde tout le monde pour pas grand-chose, on rend désagréable la vie de dizaines de milliers de personnes qui vont travailler, alors qu'en restant plus unis on est plus forts.


The difference in tactics and general assessment of the situation that separates the CFDT and CGT could not be more succinctly expressed.

LATE ADDITION: SUD-RATP will lift its strike notice as of 7 AM Wednesday. The union notes that the mobilization, initially quite strong, has dwindled to the point where it is no longer effective. Its demands have not been met, however.

The Art Market

I owe this item to a reader and fellow blogger--thanks, Polly. It seems that the same "declinist" rhetoric that has been applied to the economy at large is now being applied to the art market as well. In the globalized business of selling art, France is down, down, down--losing ground to the United States, of course, whose superiority is écrasant (the word appears three times in the interview with sociologist of art Alain Quemin), but also to hereditary enemy Germany, "the only serious challenger" to Yankee hegemony. Drouot, which once rivaled Christie's and Sotheby's, now commands only a tiny market share.

This is an old story, earlier stages of which are recounted in books by Serge Guilbaut and Raymonde Moulin, both of which I translated.

Export Makes the Hartz Growth Fonder

Economist Michael Burda links the recent German growth spurt directly to the "painful labor market reforms" known as the Hartz Laws. He notes what appears to be a "confidence effect." As soon as the Hartz Laws were announced, the German DAX stock market index started to rise, and increased foreign and domestic investment followed. This was unlike previous German recoveries, in which consumption, not stock prices, led investment. The implication is that the labor market reforms raised investor expectations of future profits and revived flagging investment. If so, the news for France is not good. Sarkozy's proposed labor market forms in many respects resemble Hartz I-IV and follow conventional wisdom about what is wrong with the French economy. But compare the performance of the French CAC40 index with the DAX over the past year. The CAC did respond to Sarkozy's election with a strong uptick, but it plunged in the subprime crisis more than the DAX and has since recovered only to pre-election levels. If Sarkozy's election did briefly enhance investor expectations, the gloomier post-crisis outlook for the global economy seems to have made them cautious again. Labor market reforms do no good in the absence of investor confidence, and the political backlash against reduced unemployment benefits can then be expected to be even worse than in Germany, where the SPD is currently split on the issue despite the improved performance of the Germany economy.

Trust the Students

As I said yesterday, young minds are not as easily manipulated as old heads sometimes fear, or desire. After Xavier Darcos, education minister, read the Guy Môquet letter at a lycée in Périgueux, a student rose to ask, "Don't you think that the president's wish both to put an end to repentance for the past and to have this letter read in all the lycées of France--don't you think there's a strange paradox there?"

Darcos's response: "The president wanted to perpetuate the values of the Resistance, but he didn't want it to be a political occasion."

Trust the young.

Darcos received a chilly greeting from some teachers and Communist militants outside the school. A special edition of Humanité was handed out, and demonstrators told Darcos that his "values" were not those of Guy Môquet. No doubt true, but neither are Sarkozy's values those of Pétain. It seems to me that both sides want to wrap themselves in the mantle of the Resistance, to which neither side has a rightful claim. The "Vichy syndrome" continues.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

How to Teach

An intelligent response to the question of the Guy Môquet letter: a teacher proposes a lesson plan.

Meritocracy


The excellent historian Olivier Ihl, author of La Fête républicaine, has a new book on the history of republican meritocracy, Le Mérite et la République: Essai sur la société des émules. He traces the way in which the Republic has used rewards of various kinds to motivate its servants and mold the ambitions of its citizens. Not everyone was delighted with this system. Some saw the prizes, medals, and other trinkets handed out by the state as manipulative tools to inculcate obedience and foster a culture of self-satisfied dupes (a criticism echoed in some of the complaints about tomorrow's enforced reading of the letter of Guy Môquet, as discussed in previous posts).

The review does not mention the way in which republican rewards were intended as an alternative to the rewards of mere lucre that presumably less selfless zeal might yield. Not having read Ihl's book yet, I can't say whether he takes up this theme, but it strikes me as an interesting one, insofar as criticism of Sarkozy often fastens on signs of his respect for self-interested wealth rather than the ostensibly selfless "honor" that the Republic, in this respect emulating the aristocracy (at least in the aristocracy's self-understanding), sought to encourage. Thus we hear about his Breitling watch (Yasmina Reza portrays him as distracted by advertisements for such arriviste bling-bling) and his wealthy cronies, his expensive vacations, and his post-election celebration at Fouquet's. Temperate republican virtues are thought to have become vieux jeu in the new regime, even if Cécilia, who has never struck me as abstemious, appeared to revert to them in describing herself recently as sick of public display and eager to resume a private life in the shadows and to enjoy no greater luxury than the freedom to run to the corner store for groceries with her child in tow. For that she could receive the Légion d'honneur along with another photo spread in Paris Match.

The Other Letters

Letters written by some of the other hostages who were executed along with Guy Môquet can be read here. They were collected by Florence Aubenas, herself a hostage for many months in Iraq.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Où sont les adhérents d'antan?

Much was made of the fact that the Socialist Party had thrown open its doors to bring new and younger voters into the process of choosing its presidential candidate. For 20 euros, anyone could join and vote in the internal primary, with no obligation to attend meetings or distribute tracts. Without these "20-euro members," the choice of candidate might have been different. But now that the renewal of the party failed to produce a victory, many of these new members seem to have disappeared. Estimates differ, and the data seem extremely dubious, but Rue89 reports that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the 20-euro contingent has disappeared. Yet another unhappy sign for the PS.

Strike Politics



Sous le pavé, la plage: this May '68 slogan springs to mind as I read about the negotiations now under way between the SNCF and the CFDT and the autonomous FGAAC representing agents de conduite about ending the strike against the SNCF. It was inevitable that the government would seek to divide and conquer, and it was clear before the strikes that some unions were prepared to get what they could out of the situation, accepting the reform of the special retirement regimes, at least in the long run, as a fait accompli. One has only to glance at the demands of the FGAAC to see that there are many areas in which compensation can be sought for the retirement concessions: wages, the volume of new hires, and detailed rules for computing retirement benefits, for example.

The street theater of a French strike is often fun, a form of historical pageantry. But these days, the real action is almost always elsewhere. It's not for nothing that the term "Grenelle" has become ubiquitous to describe the discussions around a table that settle the outlines of future policy in some important domain of governance. Because it was after May '68 left the streets and moved indoors on the rue de Grenelle (Hôtel du Châtelet, pictured above) that the real business was transacted. François Chérèque of the CFDT didn't even bother to take to the streets this time. He was already at the negotiating table.

Sollers on Mitterrand


Philippe Sollers, l'ancien enfant terrible of French letters, now in his 70s, narrates his second meeting with Mitterrand in his new memoirs. Mitterrand had read his Femmes, "much of which is set in Venice in an atmosphere of revived Casanovism." One is meant to understand the source of the book's appeal to Mitterrand. "The president looked pleased. He pounced on me, saying, 'So you're the terrifying M. Sollers!', sat me down on a couch, took my left arm, and said straight out, 'I hope you're taking care of your health.' It took me a second to understand that he thought a true libertine risked his life nowadays with AIDS. Was he about to offer me a condom? No, he told me how much he loved Venice and talked about his discovery of Casanova."

Môquet Replaces Mandel

On Monday, the letter that Guy Môquet addressed to his family shortly before he was executed by the Germans is supposed to be read in all French schools. A lively polemic has erupted, with historians on one side denouncing the manipulation of history by the government for propagandistic purposes and Sarkozy's amanuensis Henri Guaino on the other side expressing astonishment at such niggardliness of patriotic emotion. A woman who as a young Communist militant was imprisoned with Môquet reminisces about their mutual coup de foudre in prison: at 17, she says, a young woman's eye seeks out the good-looking guys, even in prison--a clue, no doubt, to the state of mind in which the purported lesson in patriotism will be received by its intended audience. To the retort that the officially mandated reading of the letter might serve as a useful occasion to teach a new generation of students about the facts of the Occupation and Resistance, the historians reply that the order of ceremonies stipulated in the ministerial directive doesn't make room for critical examination, but this response seems to give teachers little credit for resourcefulness. The concern with manipulation is comprehensible but perhaps exaggerated. As the testimony of Môquet's comrade reminds us, young minds, preoccupied with concerns of their own, are harder to manipulate than old heads imagine. (Incidentally, the word "comrade" was changed to "companion" in a reference to Môquet in the official directive; Guaino says that someone might have thought that "comrade" sounded too "square" [ringard)] and that the emendation was as stupid as the retouching of old films to remove cigarettes from the mouths of the characters.)

As for the memory of the Resistance, it's interesting to note that this has long figured in Sarkozy's discourse, though the adoption of Môquet and the Communist side of the Resistance seems to be a late addition to his repertoire and very likely a contribution of Guaino, who also brought references to Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum into Sarkozy's speeches. Many years ago, Sarkozy wrote a book about another martyr of the Resistance: Georges Mandel, le moine de la République. Mandel, an Alsatian Jew, was a close collaborator of Georges Clemenceau and played an important role in Clemenceau's repression of trade union militancy. In the 30s he became interior minister, a post in which he preceded Sarkozy, and developed a reputation as a tough conservative, a nationalist, and a premature anti-fascist. De Gaulle acknowledged Mandel's influence on his thinking. He was one of the deputies who fled France on the Massilia and was subsequently arrested and deported to Buchenwald. In 1944 he was shot in the forest of Fontainebleau.

Mandel was thus once Sarkozy's privileged Resistance reference, but he was more convenient as a reference for a law-and-order minister of the interior than for a president of the Republic. Mandel was a partisan, a politician, a patron of les flics. Môquet, though the child of a Communist deputy and a member of the party's militant youth wing, can nevertheless be remembered as an innocent who dreamed on the eve of his death of roller-skating with his girl and who wrote a touching letter to his family that raises no inconvenient issues of prior political responsibility. The Sarkozy who devoted a book to Mandel might not have been elected president, as he likes to say, of all the French. His discovery of Môquet was one of the instruments of his metamorphosis. As such, the reading of the Môquet letter can serve not only to stimulate a discussion of les années noires but also to instruct the young about the realities of contemporary political communication.

For more on Môquet, see here.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Past Is Prologue?

Which president of France is described in the following passage?

During the electoral campaign X had promised "profound change" and "a break with the past." ... As press accounts emphasized, X seemed to possess the institutional power necessary for the introduction of substantial change. ... X and his conservative coalition controlled [most] of the seats in the National Assembly. ... X assembled his cabinet and began attempting to deliver on his campaign promises. ... X's extraordinary "voluntarism"--what Americans might call his "can-do" style--aroused a variety of expectations ...


Of course you recognized Jacques Chirac, in the description of John Keeler and Martin Schain in the introduction to Chirac's Challenge, published in 1996. They went on:

After a year in office, the expectations aroused by the president's voluntarist style

.
.. would prove difficult to fulfill. ... [He] ignored the need for sacrifice and jeopardized the chances for economic growth. ... It rapidly became clear that, as president, Chirac would have a dfficult time retaining the breadth or depth of support he was able to generate as a candidate. Detached analysts stressed that his economic program was contrary in the extreme. ... The early conflicts within the new government [soon] came to a head. ...

Language Politics

Lexicographer Alain Rey takes after linguistic purists and deriders of a supposed "decline in standards" in his new book, L'amour du français: Contre les puristes et autres censeurs de la langue. French as it exists today is, for Rey, the product of a vast "métissage." He remarks that "the lexicon of any language spoken over a long period of time and in many places is un mille-feuilles." Which in English we call "a Napoleon," reminding us that, while language is often a treat, it also follows empire and is imposed by force. I swerve myself between being a purist, sometimes more Catholic than the pope, and a partisan of the pungent and piquant language of the moment and the streets. And of course in either mood I look to Alain Rey, the editor-in-chief of Le Robert, as a fount of wisdom on the subject.

The Lisbon Treaty

The new European Treaty has been adopted by the Lisbon summit, and Sarkozy wants it to be ratified by the French parliament before the end of the year. Some Socialists have announced their opposition to the procedure. The most prominent of these, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, was of course also a leader of the "no" vote on the referendum. He'd like to have another go. It would be a pity if the Socialist Party as a whole were to be drawn into this impasse by the logic of confrontation with Sarkozy. It will no doubt be tempting to make an issue of the whole Sarkozyan style of governing by claiming that opposition to the ratification procedure is not opposition to the treaty as such. But another referendum defeat would be disastrous for Europe. Some will no doubt tell me that I'm no democrat for saying so, and I plead guilty to the charge, if to be a "democrat" means always to prefer the direct democracy of referenda to the representative democracy of parliamentary debate. I can only hope that pro-Europe Socialists will have the backbone to resist the calls for a popular vote and to use the opportunity afforded by the parliamentary procedure to make the case that the European Union, for all its flaws, is preferable to European disunion.

To see where referendum fever leads, one has only to look across the channel. Meanwhile, VoxEU today begins a series of columns on how the EU can enhance its influence in global economic policymaking and help member states to confront economic challenges.

Stock Options

Economist Élie Cohen analyzes the issue of taxing deferred salary in the form of stock options and Louis Gallois's proposal to eliminate stock options in favor of payment in company shares distributed gratis.

Private Life


The principle that the private life of public men has no business in the newspapers has evidently been "rendered inoperative," to borrow a phrase from the Nixon era. Le Monde, which had maintained a discreet silence as the Sarkozy marriage drew to a close, today offers a detailed account, not only of Cécilia's affair with M. Attias but of Nicolas's simultaneous affair with "a journalist from Le Figaro." Cécilia is said to have more in common "with Mme Bovary than with Mme de Maintenon." The piece, which reads like the report of a private detective ("She tells her husband she is leaving him and heads for the airport. He follows in an official automobile, siren screaming, in vain. She joins Richard Attias in Petra, Jordan ..."), is signed by Raphaëlle Bacqué and Philippe Ridet. The former has been busy in this genre, since she was involved in digging up the dirt on the Hollande-Royal couple as well. Who needs Choc and Closer when we have Le Monde pipolisé?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Effects of the Euro

The move to the euro has not boosted trade as much as expected: only 5 to 10 percent, according to recent economic research. But the common currency has been a greater stimulus to sales of euro-denominated financial assets, especially bonds.

Montebourg Mocks

Arnaud Montebourg had this to say about the Sarkozy divorce: "La France se moque comme d'une guigne des peines de coeur de ses dirigeants politiques." France doesn't give a fig about the heartaches of its political leaders, we might say in English. Except that in this case the fig is a cherry and might lend itself to some unfortunate double entendre, as explained here. Montebourg's reaction is not atypical of the Socialists, who seem to want to make three points: the important issue of the day is the strike, not the divorce; private life is none of our business, but Sarko has it coming to him for putting his private life in our faces; and le salaud deliberately timed the announcement of the divorce to coincide with the strike, on the theory of un malheur en cache un autre. You can almost here them saying, "Le malin! Putain, il est fort!"

And that's final!

Make that a divorce by mutual consent, rather than a separation. So much for the constitutional lawyers who argued, however implausibly, that a divorce would be unconstitutional. Neither candidate's relationship survived the election. Michelet, who personified France as a woman, never said that she was a jealous mistress who could brook no rival for the affections of her président(e).

I believe that Mme de Gaulle refused to invite divorced colleagues of the General to her dinner table. Imagine the protocol problems if such mores still prevailed today. M. Sarkozy, who denounced the spirit of '68, must nevertheless acknowledge that in at least one respect he is the beneficiary of the laxity he otherwise deplores.

Strike News

UNSA and SUD have voted to continue the strike on Friday for the RATP and RER. The rate of participation among transport workers appears to be higher than at the height of the 1995 strike.

Questions

The now quasi-official (late word: now official) Sarkozy separation raises a number of questions. Some constitutional experts insist that a sitting president cannot divorce or be divorced. Le Monde, which writes partly in the conditional and partly in the indicative, maintains that the divorce agreement was prepared "several months" ago, "during the presidential campaign." Since then, the president's wife has served as an emissary to Libya and vacationed with him in New Hampshire in a house ostensibly rented by friends of hers. We are also told that the first lady, now back in Paris, posed tout spécialement for Paris Match, and France2 news last night reported that information about Cécilia's appearance before a judge in Nanterre came from "a person close to her" and "almost en direct." In other words, in contrast to the official silence being maintained by the Élysée, Cécilia seems to be chafing at the bit to tell her story, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, to shape the story that will be told about her. "La suite restera comme un cas de communication politique," writes Le Monde, but it seems that Cécilia has her own ideas about political communication and is thus far upstaging her husband with careful dispensations of information to selected relays.

So How Is It?

For those of you in the midst of the strike, how's it going? What's the atmosphere? What's the word in the street?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Financing the Unions

In the wake of the Gautier-Sauvagnac scandal (the head of the metals industry trade association UIMM is accused of withdrawing large sums of cash from his association's treasury), there has been much talk of possible occult financing of unions. France Démocrate has an extremely interesting post on the subject, along with a link to the Hadas-Lebel report, which is discussed in the text.

As it happens, I met M. Hadas-Lebel yesterday, when he gave an interesting talk on Sarkozy's first months in power at Harvard. I wish I had read this post yesterday so that I could have questioned him more closely about his report.

French Medicine: The Other Strike

Tim King has a very interesting post about the strike of French interns and the very uneven distribution of doctors in France.

The Times Remembers that France Exists


Americans with no particular interest in French politics would have a hard time piecing things together from the coverage provided by our newspaper of record, The New York Times. The Gray Lady often forgets France for weeks on end. Today, however, the country is favored with two articles, no less, though neither does much to situate its reportage in any comprehensible context. Elaine Sciolino's piece on Sarkozy attempts to reduce politics to mood music. She leads with the refusal of a Socialist mayor to hang Sarko's portrait in his town hall. His splenetic characterization of the president as "imperial and egotistical" is supposed to epitomize a gathering resentment in the country against a "flood" of "inititiatives" that "raise questions" about whether "a coherent strategy" lies behind them. This by way of preparing Times readers for the possibility that trouble may erupt in France tomorrow when workers go out on strike. Since images of unruly Frenchmen in the streets are sure to make the TV news, the Times doesn't want its readers to be taken by surprise, and many of them are no doubt still laboring under the illusion that Sarko, whom they take to be an adopted brother of American neoconservatism, has restored France to sanity, economic health, and the comity of nations.

A second article, by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, features the National Center for the History of Immigration. The tone is decidedly tart: with the "slightly ramshackle, melancholy air of a temporary installation," the museum, "sparsely devised with charts, graphs, interactive gadgets and odds and ends of memorabilia meant to humanize what is a fairly dry, lifeless display, ... is a well-meaning dud." Sarkozy's failure to attend the opening is duly noted. The difference between the hyphenated hybrid ideal of American multiculturalism and the unhyphenated assimilationist ideal of French republicanism is briefly evoked, but in a faintly condescending way, remarking an "obvious reluctance to dwell on touchy subjects." Clearly we handle things so much better here, with an immigration museum on Ellis Island to which the children of immigrants flock in large numbers in search of genealogical traces before returning to the mainland to vote in favor of large appropriations for a fence along the border with Mexico. Hence we are entitled to condescend to the French.

On en parlera

Is it now official because Le Nouvel Obs has written about it, even though the Élysée continues to say "no comment?" I leave it to les fins connaisseurs of the elusive French distinction between public and private and the rules of decorum governing what can be said in the one realm about the other. It remains to be seen if the president will drop his objection to the grilling of his Libyan emissary by a parliamentary commission. Mauvaises langues awaiting their opportunity will now be unleashed. Will Patrick Devedjian soon be denouncing another salope for spoiling the harmony of a party united behind its president? Or will the moving hand, having writ, now move on?

Jour G

Tomorrow is Jour G: le jour de grève. What will happen? Millions of people will be inconvenienced, for sure. The unions will show their strength. But will the show of strength crystallize anti-government sentiment as in 1995, or will it evaporate in acquiescence to the inevitable? Polls show some softening of support for the reform of the special regimes: a Figaro/BVA poll indicates 55 percent in favor, whereas a poll published in Humanité finds 54 percent opposed.

Bernard G offers an intelligent defense of the special regimes on his blog. His case is framed from the point of view of management: how to manage a business in which the activities of the bulk of the work force cannot easily be continued beyond a certain age. If suitable jobs do not exist within the firm, workers cannot be reclassified to other posts. To be sure, the government's insistence on the need for "equality" in retirement regulations does fly in the face of the obvious inequalities and complexities of work organization. Even if the government prevails, as I believe it will, some degree of flexibility will have to be negotiated ex post within the putatively egalitarian framework. The abolition of the special regimes will not be the end of retirement reform, and indeed one rationale for abolition is to simplify the task of further reform: once a degree of uniformity is established across the work force--private sector, civil servants, "special" employees of public enterprises--further revision can proceed in less piecemeal fashion, with perhaps a general framework covering all the regimes and suitable modifications for particular subgroups.

In monetary terms, the stakes in the special regime reform are relatively small. The symbolic content seems more important. Two different mentalities are about to come to blows: the union mentality, which sees a privileged retirement benefit as a prize won in battle, to be held if possible against a counter-attacking enemy; and the state mentality, which sees retirement obligations as a stream of future promises to pay whose net present cost exceeds the net present value of the revenue streams intended to support it. The confrontation is not a dialogue of the deaf, but a dialogue of mutually incomprehensible languages.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why 2007 Is Different from 1995

For a summary of the differences between the Juppé reforms, which provoked a crisis and ended in a government retreat, and the Sarkozy reforms, see this Telos article by Laurence Boone. One key difference mentioned in the text but not in the summary table is that, this time around, the unions are not being asked to relinquish their role in managing the retirement system. With union membership shrunk to about 7 percent of the work force, the lowest unionization rate in the EU, the system of gestion paritaire is essential to the survival (and financing) of the unions.

Television, the Internet, and Politics

Some interesting observations and data here.

Two More Useful Web Sites

Thanks to versac, here are two more useful Web sites for students of France:

La Vie des idées: This is from the République des idées people. The journal is going to cease publication, with the Web site now the public outlet for this carrefour of reflection on contemporary political and social issues.

France démocrate the news source for Démocratie en mouvement, launched by a militant of MoDem.

Comparative Immigration Policy

The Migrant Immigration Policy Index Web site is a useful tool for comparing immigration policies across EU countries in many different areas: labor market access, family reunification, residency requirements, naturalization, political participation--more than a hundred dimensions in all.

Here is the overview for France.

The Euro and the Chinese

Thomas Palley examines the euro's appreciation against the renminbi and explains why it may be difficult to do anything about it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Self-Criticism


When I wrote about the Nobel Prize in physics awarded to Albert Fert, I was critical of France's lack of intermediary research facilities capable of moving laboratory discoveries into industrial production. I should have waited. The October issue of Photonics Spectra arrived today with an article about the "Route des Lasers" around Bordeaux and the active partnership of a number of industrial laser firms and universities on the Megajoule Laser project. This is part of un pôle de compétitivité and is a good example of the kind of development that can be fostered by well-planned partnerships of government, universities, and industry.

The PS Looks at Germany


The German Social Democrats are soon to convene, and when they do, they will find themselves in disarray akin to that of the Socialist Party in France. This is in many respects odd, since the SPD had been in power for years, is part of the current Grand Coalition with the CSU and CDU, and, under Schröder, initiated the reforms, known as Hartz I-IV, which conventional wisdom credits with achieving a rather impressive economic recovery over the past year. The party is down in the polls and losing support to the Linke party on its left. Its new leader, Kurt Beck (pictured), is at odds with its leading government minister, Franz Müntefering, over unemployment insurance, the duration of which was decreased under the Hartz reforms as a labor market activation measure (a similar reform is no doubt in the offing for France). This poses a dilemma for French Socialists who want to move toward the center. The German example seems to show that this can be a risky course even if your own party can take credit for an economic recovery. The Socialists won't even enjoy that advantage: if there is recovery, the credit will go to Sarkozy. Yet to the extent that workers feel disadvantaged by the reform measures taken in the interim, any attempt by the PS to associate itself with those measures may work against it at the polls. What to do? Henri Weber opines that reform cannot be undertaken by fiat, that there must be a "lengthy preparation of public opinion, unions, and, a fortiori, the party." How lengthy? For 2012, it may already be too late.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Libé Stoops to Stupidity to Blast Attali

One of my fellow academic bloggers, Brad De Long, has a regular feature entitled "Why, Oh Why, Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?" I was tempted to use that query as the title of this post. The reason for my consternation is an article in Libération. The writer, Catherine Maussion, is so intent on branding the work of the Attali Commission as "ultraliberal" that, in discussing the commission's proposal to intensify competition in retail commerce in order to lower prices to consumers, she invokes criticism from Olivier Desforges, president of the Institut de Liaisons et d'études de consommation (ILEC). M. Desforges says that if the Royer, Galland, and Raffarin Laws are repealed, industrial firms will come under pressure to lower prices to big distributors. "We don't want an ultraliberal system where distributors would get whatever they want."

Mme Maussion seems to be unaware that the position represented by M. Desforges, who claims to be the enemy of "ultraliberalism" and therefore the friend of the common man, is hardly innocent of the original sin of liberals everywhere, self-interest. If she turned to Victoria DeGrazia's book "Irresistible Empire: America's Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe," p. 451, which can be viewed through that other tool of American imperialism, Google Books, here, she would learn that ILEC, the Institut de liaison et d'études de consommation, was "organized at the initiative of US multinationals in 1960 to prevent price-cutting by local outlets." In other words, ILEC's mission is to sustain the market power of manufacturers by limiting competition in retail commerce. This is precisely what the Royer, Galland, and Raffarin laws accomplish.

So the question is not, as Libé seems to believe, how to throw the invading ultralibéraux back into the sea, but rather what sort of regulation best serves the interests one wants to serve. Does one want to award "economic rents" to manufacturers and small store owners, or does one want to reduce retail prices? To be sure, the debate is not cut-and-dried. There may well be perverse consequences to greater retail competition: domination of the market by large chain outlets ("the Wal-Martization of the world"), harsh working conditions for store employees, shift of supply to low-wage countries, relaxation of product safety standards, unconscionable pressure on suppliers to produce at ever lower costs resulting in squeezes on labor, etc. One shouldn't be naive about the possible negative consequences, but neither should one be dishonest about the negative consequences of the current restraints on trade. Such trucage of the debate, such mindless use of empty scare words such as ultralibéral, is not a contribution to intelligent politics. Whatever course is taken, there will be trade-offs and perverse consequences. The art of politics is to decide whose interests one wants to serve and how best to serve them while minimizing the unwanted side-effects. This is what Libération ought to be discussing, rather than collecting press handouts from an interested party in the debate: ILEC.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Constitutional Reform

Le Monde has revealed the preliminary recommendations of the Balladur Commission on constitutional reform. There is some nebulous language about changing the president's role from that of "determining" the nation's policy to "defining" it. I would suggest that the commission apply a Popperian falsifiability test to this idea: how might a citizen, or a constitutional court if there were one, decide whether this provision of the constitution had been violated? Is there some action that might be construed as "defining" that would not also be "determining?" Is there any clear statement of the difference between the two words? Will the constitutional commission share with the public the thinking behind this recommendation, or is to be taken simply as an oracle, to be interpreted by the high priests currently occupying the temples gathered around the Elysian Omphalos?

Other proposals suffer from no such ambiguity. Senators and deputies would be barred from le cumul des mandats. This would indeed be a significant and healthy reform. A two-term limit would be imposed on the president. Presidential nominations would be subject to the advice and consent of parliament. The scope of Article 49-3, which permits rule by presidential fiat, would be strictly limited. And a small degree of proportional representation would be introduced.

If adopted, these would be significant reforms. It will be interesting to see how the debate evolves.

Trop d'Allégresse Climatique


I am somewhat dismayed to find my estimable colleague François Mitterrand (reincarnated), a reader of this blog and a self-described "left-wing Sarkozyste" of generally sound views, denouncing the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore as a lamentable exercise in political correctness. Tonton is evidently skeptical about global warming, and in expressing his skepticism he is entirely within his rights, but the authorities he cites in his post as "les vrais scientifiques de cette planète," namely, Claude Allègre and a certain Web site, do not represent the full range of sober scientific opinion on the issue. I heartily recommend that M. Mitterrand acquire and read the recent book by Kerry Emanuel, the eminent MIT expert on the subject. It might well enlarge his views. Or he might want to look at some of the papers listed in this review of the career of Princeton climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer.

Les Thibault


Charles Bremner, French correspondent for the Times of London, interviews Bernard Thibault and comes away with the impression that Thibault is as much an impresario of image as his nemesis Sarkozy. The showdown comes this week, and we shall see whether or not Thibault's stern game face proves to be as ineffective as the war dance of the All Blacks.

L'Origine du Monde


A curious coincidence brings together in this morning's news roundup a fine article by Antoine de Baecque on the Courbet show currently at the Grand Palais and several ruminations on the rumors of a Sarkozy divorce. De Baecque remarks that the Courbet exhibition is organized around "L'Origine du Monde," the painter's unadorned representation of the female genitalia, "a shocking fragment and image of pure provocation, a form of truth that cannot be escaped when faced." If "undisguised by the usual allegories associated with this genre," what was once pornography commissioned by the "erotomaniac Khalil Bey" has now donned the guise of art so successfully that museumgoers can gaze upon it in the company of perfect strangers without undue discomfort, and the image can be displayed on the Web without the warnings to minors or requests for credit cards that accompany the display of similar images on other sites.

Such sophistication does not extend, apparently, to discussion of the Sarkozy divorce. Arrêt sur Images feels compelled to justify its interest in "un sujet people" by publishing its own readership statistics: although readers complain about such subjects, they come in double the normal numbers when the topic is broached. Libération continues its coy denunciation of other sources in Web and print for scurrilous rumor-mongering and invasion of privacy, but after asserting, wrongly, that L'Est républicain had eaten its words, the paper added this:

Que les choses aillent mal ­entre les époux Sarkozy est une évidence que même les conseillers du Président (hors micro) ou de pseudo-intimes de Cécilia finissent par admettre. D’où la course au (faux) scoop, à la rumeur relayée à la va-vite sur le Net.

Having one's cake and eating it too. Meanwhile, Le Nouvel Obs gleans comments from editors and reporters working for other publications: "According to a Swiss journalist, 'newsrooms are in the starting blocks. French journalists are just waiting for a communiqué from the Élysée or an announcement from Cécilia to run their headlines." One marvels at such crackerjack reporting: a French journalist, probably staked out in front of the Geneva hotel in which Cécilia Sarkozy is believed to be staying, takes the word of a Swiss colleague for news about what French journalists are up to.

Jacques Lacan once owned "L'Origine du Monde," a fact I already knew, but what I learned from De Baecque was that he kept it hidden behind another Courbet. Some truths cannot be faced. Or perhaps the psychoanalyst did not wish to reveal to all comers that he shared the id of a Turkish erotomaniac, just as "French journalists" seem to believe that the ethics of their profession require them to deny what they have in common with the rest of humanity, a perverse and prurient fascination with the private lives of public men.

Perhaps the Sarkozys will tire of this dance of the seven veils and either announce their divorce or appear on the palace perron holding hands, at which point we will know precisely as much about the state of their marital relations as we know about the marriages of our closest friends, which is to say, not much.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ségolène Royal's Karl Rove


According to Frédéric Martel's deliciously ironic review, Patrick Mennucci describes himself as the Karl Rove of Ségolène Royal's campaign--a rather masochistic self-description, since Rove's only discernable virtue is to have elected an incompetent twice, whereas Mennucci can claim only to have failed to elect an incompetent once. Lest you find the description of the candidate as "incompetent" harsh, I leave the responsibility to Mennucci himself: "The French deemed our proposals not to be credible--quite simply because they weren't." Of this Martel dryly remarks: "But Patrick Mennucci is Marseillais. He is likable. He always exaggerates."

There are revelations. Mennucci directly contradicts Lionel Jospin's claim not to have attempted to block the Royal candidacy. It was not for lack of trying that he failed, according to Mennucci, whose flair for the devastating vignette may owe more to his ghost writer's talent than to his own: at dinner after a meeting in Marseilles, Jospin broached only three subjects: "The quality of Maussane olive oil in the Alpilles, the temperature of the Mediterranean, and the Château-Simone appellation Palette, which he rightly regards as the best wine of the Bouches-du-Rhône."

As for the failure of the campaign, Mennucci avers that Royal's strategy was "not complex": she expected that Sarkozy would be defeated by his own personality, a belief her manager claims was shared by all the Socialist leaders. Coming from the self-styled Karl Rove of the campaign, this is a rather damaging admission. Rove would not have left it to an opponent to blacken his own name. He would have found ways to assist the self-destruction. He also says that the Royalistes expected that Sarko would be held accountable for the failures of the Chirac regime in which he served. Again, one wants to ask why the Socialist candidate didn't do more to hold him accountable, rather than count on the maladroitness of a rival who in the event proved more nimble than his detractors imagined.

Martel's review seems to extract the marrow from the book and obviate the need for actually reading it, a prospect that is made less than enticing by this nugget of southern French wisdom:

Le livre s’éternise et il devient tellement long qu’on aurait le temps, le lisant, de tuer un âne à coups de figues (autre expression du sud).


I will remember the expression tuer un âne à coups de figues , I suspect, longer than I will remember the Royal campaign.

L'écrit et l'écran


Roger Chartier reflects on the advent of digital media and its significance for the future of written communication in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France. For my translation of his "Inscription and Erasure: Literature and Written Culture from the Eleventh to the Eighteenth Century," see here.

Books on the PS

Nonfiction.fr reviews six books on the current misfortunes of the Socialist Party.

Global Governance

Sophie Meunier and Rawi Abdelal have an interesting piece on Telos about the long-standing prominence of Frenchmen in institutions of global governance such as the IMF. This might seem somewhat surprising, given the persistent hostility of French majorities to globalization. Meunier and Abdelal explore French thinking about ways to bring a globalized economy under greater international control.

Precautionary Principle

The Attali Commission on growth has submitted its first recommendations. The proposal to abrogate the Royer, Raffarin, and Galland laws to promote competition in retail distribution is hardly a surprise (I've already discussed previous moves in this direction). The commission also wants to rescind Chirac's proposal to include the "precautionary principle" in the Constitution. This is a provision about which I might get exercised if I thought the precautionary principle had any teeth. But I don't. Here is a statement:

l'absence de certitudes, compte tenu des connaissances scientifiques et techniques du moment, ne doit pas retarder l'adoption de mesures effectives et proportionnées visant à prévenir un risque de dommages graves et irréversibles […] à un coût économiquement acceptable


Exactly what does this "principle" imply? That one ought to do something to prevent "grave and irreversible damage." Who could object to that? But wait--one ought to do something to prevent the "risk" of such damage. How much risk is acceptable? The "principle" does not give us a standard by which to judge. Worse, it enshrines ignorance of both norm and measure as if it were reason itself: "the absence of certainty ... should not delay" action. But only if the action is "proportionate," though to what we have no way of knowing, given the uncertainty. And then, too, we should act only if the "cost is economically acceptable." To call this muddle a "principle" is an affront to logic. It is a salve to conscience and a meaningless phrase to be wielded in high moral dudgeon by the uncompromising partisans of the good--until it is picked apart in court by hard-headed lawyers, who are left plenty of room for maneuver by the flimsy high-mindedness of the cautiously righteous.

Secretary of State for Ecology Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet naturally labels the Attali Commission's proposal "reactionary."

For an informed discussion of "precautionary" reasoning in the face of uncertainty, see this paper.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Jon Stewart Rumor Mill

The title of this post may puzzle French readers. Jon Stewart is our national comedian of the news, a sort of combination of Laurent Ruquier in his political satirist mode, Les Guignols de l'Info, and impressionist Nicolas Canteloup. I was just wondering what Jon Stewart would do with stories like these, concerning the alleged separation of Nicolas and Cécilia.

The pun on John Stuart Mill is also intentional. The cerebral Mill, who took a high view of political discourse, nevertheless had a robust appreciation of the role of psychic undercurrents in political and even philosophical life.

Changer la vie!

Changer la vie! This was the slogan of the Communist Party some years back, and the kind of change it called to mind was that associated with le grand soir, change of anything and everything, du passé faisons table rase ... always an exhilarating thought. But the world has sobered up considerably since then, and I find myself looking elsewhere for signs of hope. Today I found one in one of my favorite blogs, which I've cited here several times, Jours Tranquilles à Clichy-sous-Bois. The writer, David Da Silva, describes the improvement in his daily life as a student due to the addition of some new bus routes and new buses serving his daily commute to class--another way to changer la vie. He also describes his dismay at finding a new bus shelter smashed by vandals only a few days after its installation. He then reflects that in his younger days, he was one of a gang vandals who amused themselves in the same way. He tells himself that he should therefore feel greater indulgence toward his successors, but he can't. He has crossed the line from alienation to civic responsibility: "It's sort of the story of Clichy, of opportunities missed and unfortunate episodes, when it takes hardly anything to hop a bus for a better future."

CAP

It was one month ago that Sarkozy discussed the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. Today it seems that the European Commission does not quite see eye-to-eye with the French president. The Commission's main concern is to reduce food prices to consumers, and to that end it wants to open European markets to food from abroad, where production costs are lower. Sarkozy prefers to maintain "an absolute EU preference." On the other hand, he also wants to wean European farmers from dependency on EU subsidies. He hopes to achieve this by encouraging the production of biofuels, for which prices are rising (and are contributing to the rise in food prices worldwide, since grain and corn otherwise employed in the food chain are diverted to fuel products). This fundamental difference in outlook is likely to come to a head when France assumes the EU presidency next year.