Monday, December 31, 2007

Attitudes on Trade

Everyone knows that the French are by and large hostile to globalization while "Anglo-Saxon neo-liberals" are for it. But conventional wisdom will have a hard time explaining what has happened to the Anglo-Saxons according to these polling data.

This Year's Version


And here are Sarko's New Year's greetings. It was an echt Sarkozyan performance: pugnacious, delivered rapidly with consummate self-assurance, filled with signature formulas, in your face. The usual hallmarks of Henri Guaino's style were abundantly on display, especially the characteristic anaphora: Je pense à vous ..., À ceux qui ..., Urgence de .... (e. g. here). This technique of marking each point by insistent repetition of an introductory phrase seems molded to Sarkozy's personality: it's a punchy style, a way of establishing a firm rhythm, a pulse that raises the expectation of a point to come and thus slightly deflects attention from the point being made at the moment, as if to ensure that none of the glittering generalities--"a politics of civilization"--will come in for uncomfortably close scrutiny. There was a rather unpleasant smugness to the speech: if you think I didn't do enough, I nevertheless did everything it was possible to do; if you think I did too much, you've refused to face squarely the predicament we're in.

Le style, c'est l'homme même--Buffon (that's him in the picture, not Sarko)

Since Ségolène Royal claims that her bourdes were magnified by the press while Sarkozy's were played down, it should be noted that Sarko made one rather remarkable pataquès: "... pour que les mesures mise-t-en-oeuvre puissent ..." But this is merely the continuation of a long tradition:
Pour parler en littérature aristocratiquement des êtres et des choses, il ne connaît que Chateaubriand et moi, (...) les autres commettent à tout moment des pataquès effroyables (Goncourt, Journal, 1888, p.794).

The New Year's Greeting

In a couple of hours Nicolas Sarkozy will sacrifice to a peculiarly French presidential ritual: he will offer his New Year's greetings to the French. In an innovation intended to add a Sarkozyan fillip to this starchy annual rite, he will broadcast live. One can compare his performance with presidential greetings past on this site. Note, in particular, the long Giscard sequence, which shows the careful preparation of the shots and angles, the application of makeup to poor Anne-Aymone, who is clearly unaccustomed to the limelight, and the homely touch of Giscard's getting up to straighten the pictures on the mantelpiece. His first take is delivered as though he were reading to kindergarteners, at a painfully slow tempo. The final take is a little better. Surprisingly, of all the presidents pictured, Georges Pompidou seems most comfortable with the camera. Mitterrand, leaning forward toward the lens, tries to dominate rather than seduce. Chirac is of course hopeless--his discomfort in front of the camera was one of his liabilities as president. Like Lyndon Johnson, his political gifts, such as they were, were better suited to other settings.

Jealousy, the Green-Eyed Monster

André Santini, one of the right's more colorful rogues, proposes the novel theory that criticism from the left of Sarkozy's high-flying vacation with his high-style paramour is due entirely to "jealousy." After all, what's the beef? "The president took only a few days off, and his vacation was financed in part by the businessman Vincent Bolloré, so it didn't cost the taxpayers a cent."

This is the sort of fine ethical judgment one would expect from a politician who in 2006 was indicted along with Charles Pasqua in the Hamon Foundation Affair: wealthy sculpture collector Jean Hamon had a museum built to hold his collection in Issy-les-Moulineaux, the town of which Santini is mayor. Public funds went into the project, and Santini is charged with having acquired an "illegal interest" in a business connected with the construction. He also serves as secretary of state for civil service under the minister of the budget.

A chrestomathy of pungent quotes attributed to the Bard of Issy can be savored here. Sample: "The difference between a cuckold and a deputy is that the cuckold isn't obliged to attend the session."

Santini also enjoys the distinction of being the founder of a club of deputies fond of Havana cigars. He once boasted that he spent 1000 euros a month on cigars--a SMIC's worth of Havanas, if you will.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Euro as Reserve Currency

The FT reports that the euro made substantial gains against the dollar as a reserve currency over the past year. The long-term implications are significant--but in the long run, as has been said, we are, if not dead, likely to have forgotten the turbulence of transition that lies between now and then.

Cultural Realities

A certain amount of ink has been spilled in the tiresome and predictable debate sparked by Time magazine's screed on "the death of French culture." Writing well before the fact (in Le Débat of Nov.-Dec. 2006, pp. 153-157), Maryvonne de Saint-Pulgent, a maître des requêtes at the Conseil d'État, notes rather a remarkable stability in the relation of a large part of the French population to certain types of cultural production. For instance, 55 pct. of French adults have never been to the theater, and only 16 pct. go as often as once a year; 71 pct. never attend a concert (including rock and jazz concerts), and only 1 in 10 go as often as once a year; 76 pct. have never seen a ballet, and only 3 pct. attend the opera regularly. 38 pct. of adults never read a book (not even an "illustrated novel"), while 36 pct. never read the newspaper. These figures have remained more or less constant over the past quarter century.

The Left of the Left

In a conversation the other day, I casually dropped the phrase "Trotskyite students" in speaking of the anti-Pécresse Law agitation, and a colleague who studies Europe in general but not France in particular expressed astonishment that anything as archaic as Trotskyism could survive as a coherent political identity in 2007. This led to a more general discussion of the "left of the left" in France and whether France is exceptional in the tenacity of its extreme left and, if so, what might account for it. Then, while cleaning up my office, I came upon an old issue of Le Débat (no.l41, Nov.-Dec. 2006) that had somehow wound up at the bottom of a pile and gone unread. The issue contains several articles examining Philippe Raynaud's book Autour de l'extrême gauche plurielle. Marc Lazar explicitly takes up the questions I raise above and notes (p. 88) that despite the importance of the subject for the continued political debility of the broader left, the current sociology of the extreme left in France is "still not very well known." He cites some recent work suggesting that the cadres of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and ATTAC are generally young and well-educated and that many work in the public service sector. Those who vote for the extreme left comprise a shifting array of groups, but among Olivier Besancenot's 4.3 percent of the vote many were young and fairly well-educated, including many students, mid-level professionals, and primary- and secondary-school teachers (but which ones? what is their background? what differentiates them from others in the same occupational groups?). There is also some discussion, rather unsatisfactory, of the historical basis for Trotskyism's influence in France (including a reference to Pierre Grémion's interesting ideas about the unique French construction of the term "progressivism" and the various mutations it has undergone in the eras of anti-colonialism, tiers-mondisme, Maoism, anti-globalizationism, anti-American/imperial/ism, etc). But Lazar's article and the others on related themes raise more questions than they answer. The subject deserves further study. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Boosting French Growth

"The Levers of French Growth," a new report for the Conseil d'Analyse Économique by Philippe Aghion, Gilbert Cette, Élie Cohen, and Jean Pisani-Ferry, reviews the reasons why France has lagged its Scandinvian and British neighbors in economic growth over the period 2000-2006. If you're planning to stay home on New Year's Eve, this 230-page report might help you pass the time. If not, you can skip to the summary on p. 211, which suggests a long list of remedies that will sound familiar to anyone who has been reading this blog since the elections. The report can be read as a justification for some of the government's economic policies, although one major recommendation--an increase of investment in higher education of 1/3 to 1/2 pct. of GDP--together with reorganization of R&D support will require further attention.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Deportation Camp?

Some 80 inmates at the Centre du Mesnil-Amelot near CDG airport staged a hunger strike to protest the allegedly inhumane conditions in which they are being held. They contend that they are victims of a deportation quota established by immigration minister Hortefeux, who wanted to expel a set number of immigrants before the end of the year. His plans were thwarted, however, by the refusal of the countries of origin to accept the deportees. Hence they are stuck in the transit camp at Le Mesnil-Amelot. Some have now been dispersed to other sites.

Eurozone Growth Predictions ...

... are down, according to the WSJ. An earlier note in the same blog suggested that growth in Spain, France, and Italy in particular had been fueled by easy credit and was now threatened by the tightening of credit in the wake of the subprime crisis.

Newsletter

For those who would rather receive their blogging via e-mail instead of visiting the site or using a news aggregator, I've added a newsletter feature. You'll find a subscription form at the bottom of the right-hand column of the blog, below the index and site statistics. Fill in your e-mail address, hit the subscribe button, and you'll receive a digest of each day's blogs.

Défense de fumer

Ce n'est pas une révolte, Sire, c'est une révolution. On. January 1, it will no longer be legal to smoke in France "dans les lieux de convivialité." Americans will have to revise their favorite French stereotype: the café inhabited by vaguely louche philosophers with their beret-coiffed heads shrouded by clouds of Gauloise smoke languidly coiling its way toward the empyrean (Aristophanes updated, if you will). Buralistes worry that they won't be able to handle the fistfights expected to break out between the pro- and anti-tabac factions. The fact that Italy has managed this transition without major incident apparently offers little reassurance to the fiercely contentious French.

Of course this revolution, like most revolutions, would not have been possible in law had it not already occurred in mores. The younger generation, whether brainwashed, as some say, by American propaganda concerning the ravages of secondhand smoke or persuaded by Alan Brandt's The Cigarette Century that tobacco companies are not their friends, no longer denounces the idea of banning smoking as "fascist." The next L'Être et le Néant will probably be written on a laptop in Starbuck's rather than in a Cartesian-ruled carnet in a smoke-filled Deux Magots (I sacrifice here to the myth, while fully aware of the reality--poetic license, I assure you). Ainsi va le monde. Personally, I won't miss the smoke, and I expect that café culture will survive, even if the old men in the back of the café-bar-tabac in the forlorn rural bourg must chew Nicorette as they contemplate their next discard in the perpetual game of belote.

Incidentally, buraliste is an interesting word. Its etymology reveals that its root is bureau, but its kin are journaliste, criminaliste, and naturaliste rather than bureaucrate. The buraliste merely occupies his office (dispensing tobacco en l'occurrence) rather than ruling from it. Perhaps that makes me un bloggiste rather than un bloggeur.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

For Wonks Only

Only true policy wonks will want to risk a look at the Lambert Report on "Relations between the State and Local Collectivities." Presiding over the effort to understand the Byzantine structure of the French state was Alain Lambert, a UMP senator and one of the right's more intelligent voices (his blog can be found here). Decentralization, once the watchword of all efforts to reform the French state, has now itself become the target of reform, since decentralized government has turned out to be a tangle of criss-crossing lines of authority, horizontal (intercommunal) committees glued together by "contracts" with central government entities that no longer command and control but rather exhort and encourage. A good deal of money is devolved from center to periphery, where it is soaked up by the functionaries of the territorial civil service.

The Lambert Report is hardly a model of clarity, nor could it be, given the wide range of services, from schools to security, from industrial sponsorship to traffic management, for which "local collectivities" are responsible. And the number and variety of "local collectivities" contributes to the impression of ungovernability. The very ambiguity of the term is an index of the regnant confusion. The report doesn't pretend to solve the problem but does remind people of its existence.

Discrimination and Wages

A new paper (via Tyler Cowen) tests Gary Becker's theoretical work on the effect of racial discrimination on wages in the United States and finds empirical confirmation. I mention this not because I want to hypothesize that a similar effect would be found in France (though I suspect it would), but rather to ask whether the recently-passed law banning the collection of racial statistics in France would preclude empirical research of this kind (again, I suspect it would). And if my suspicions are correct, might not those who defend the law in the name of a race-blind society want to reconsider their position, insofar as research like this might be used to combat racial discrimination politically? Just asking ...

CORRECTION: Instead of "recently-passed law," I should have said "recent decision by the Conseil Constitutionnel ..." Apologies for the error.

FP Becomes a Player

When a blog joins The Independent, The Sun, the New Zealand Herald, the IHT, The Daily Mail, Alsumaria, and Chugan Dong-a as a representative of "global opinion," one does feel that the world has changed a bit.

Financing and Flexibility

These days between Christmas and New Year's Day are known in France as la trève des confiseurs, The Confectioners' Truce, because the political guns fall silent and mouths are filled with candy rather than invective (or treacly promises). But while Sarko cavorts in Egypt ("Kozy and Girl Not in De Nile" headlined The Sun), Fillon is minding the confiserie, inviting the "social partners" (unions and employers) to negotiate on two of the touchiest matters on the political agenda, greater flexibility in working hours and financing of the unions. It seems that French union finances are covered only 20 to 60 percent by union dues, compared with 80 percent in other countries. The remainder comes from various sources, including fees for managing the retirement system, subsidies from employer groups, and--allegedly--under-the-table payments in return for "cooperation" on a variety of issues. Fillon wants to change this, but details are sketchy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Momentous Question of the Day

L'Express writes "top model" in one article, "top modèle" in another. Both are Reuters dispatches. Which shall it be? Of course if the Franglais actually followed its English model, it would be supermodel. Mais top, c'est super, même si un mannequin n'est pas un modèle.

The Polysemic Presidency

Greg Brown offers the following interesting comment to an earlier post:

I think the "racines chrétiennes de l'Europe" has been a theme that, during and since the campaign, has been both central to his public discourse and almost entirely ignored in the American press' discussion of Sarkozy.

I share your reaction and encourage you to pursue this further since some of the same who are been among the most avid promoters of Sarkozy as representing the "new France" with a new orientation towards the world, especially towards the US and towards the middle east, have lauded Sarkozy in part because he promised to reject the supposed "nouvelle judéophobie" that was supposedly a result of "left-wing intellectuals" (and more specifically the PS) tilting towards "anti-semitism" by not reacting strongly enough against the "Islamic menace" to the French tradition of laïcité.


This is an impeccable unpacking of one set of Sarkozyan religious references. The problem with interpreting Sarkozy as sign-maker is that he is such a prolific generator of symbols, and, if I may put it this way, he wears his symbolism so lightly, that it's hard to derive a univocal intention behind his polysemic presidency. What is one to make of the emphasis on "Christian roots" as a signal to those who feared the alleged "Islamic menace" to laïcité on the part of a Minister of the Interior and Religion who also pursued Chevènement's opening to the Muslim community, funding of Muslim projects, dialogue with Muslim leaders, etc? And if Sarkozy appealed to Alain Finkielkraut and the like with his defense of republicanism, Finkielkraut can hardly have been pleased with the evocation in Rome of France's special relationship to the Catholic Church or with the use of a phrase like racines chrétiennes, which obviously resonates with the Polish insistence that the European constitution include a reference to Europe as une civilisation chrétienne--a major stumbling block in the constitutional negotiations precisely because of the opposition of countries like France. Sarko no doubt preferred not to agitate the question of religious identity in European negotiations while perhaps sharing the Polish attitude that Turkey with its "racines musulmanes" would be an alien presence in Europe. Meanwhile, Finkielkraut has been critical of Sarkozy for his affronts to other republican traditions such as the quasi-sacred presidency, whose dignity Sarkozy is supposed to have compromised by his ubiquity (not to mention his jogging shorts, which caused Finkielkraut to groan--philosophically of course--on television).

Sarkozyan symbol-manipulation cannot be analyzed as if it were an element of rational and coherent enunciation of policy precisely because it operates at the level of the id. Sarko instinctively bobs and weaves with his signs, just as he instinctively bobs and weaves with his head as he speaks (his movements as a speaker have more in common with the movements of a boxer than with the gestures of an orator). It is hard to pin him down, because his symbolism is polysemic, and its analysis calls for Freudian cleverness. It seldom makes sense to confine attention to a single utterance. There is a complex corpus, to which new signs and gestures are added every day.

Today we shall be treated, no doubt, to images of the pharaoh and the goddess among the relics of a civilization without Christian roots, or Muslim roots either. Sarko's choice of America as a first vacation destination evoked abundant commentary, but his choice of Luxor as a second getaway is less easily interpreted.* Is it Tony Blair's presence that drew him, as George Bush's proximity to Wolfeboro was said to have drawn him there? Was it the prospect of a photo op among the antiquities and the opportunity to pay homage to an age of Middle Eastern hegemony sufficiently remote to be safe? Or was it simply the warm waters of the Nile as an appropriate and exotic backdrop to presumably steamy romance (if hand-holding may be taken as metonymy for the rest)?

Meanwhile, he flew to Egypt on a Falcon provided by the same Vincent Bolloré who provided the yacht for his post-election idyll. The language of humility that came so easily to the president's lips at Saint John Lateran (like you, he said to the priests, I am but a humble servant called to an immense and transcendent task) was no longer needed to convey a story-book romance that can be captured sufficiently for political purposes in a series of still images: the descent hand-in-hand from the private jet, the ascent hand-in-hand to the nuptial bedroom of the grand hotel, and the stroll hand-in-hand along the ancient river, all of course in the strictest privacy, ensured by thirty carloads of barbouzes and the entire Egyptian army, which is apparently incapable of repulsing a platoon of paparazzi armed only with long lenses.

For François Bayrou's response to Sarkozy's conception of religion and the state, see here.

*Le Monde treats it as a presidential ritual: Mitterrand spent five Christmases in Egypt.

Veils

Caroline Ford has an interesting review of a book by Marni Reva Kessler, Sheer Presence: The Veil in Manet, which deals with the veiling and unveiling of women as an element in the construction of modernity in 19th-c. Paris. There is a chapter on the Muslim veil and the way it was perceived a century before it became the subject of contemporary controversy.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Social Legislation

La Vie des idées succinctly summarizes critiques published in Le Droit social of 3 pieces of social legislation by the current regime: the minimum service law in public transportation, the proposed legislation on Revenu de Solidarité Active sponsored by Martin Hirsch (and supported by Ségolène Royal in her campaign, hence as close to a bipartisan program as one can imagine), and welfare assistance to families with children.

Trichet is FT's Person of the Year

Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank, has been named the Financial Times' Person of the Year for his handling of the subprime crisis. Without taking anything away from M. Trichet's undoubted acumen and skill in marshaling the resources of the ECB, I suspect that this award reflects the FT's ideological commitments--the faith that central banks alone are enough to compensate for any failings of markets and the pious wish that the financial system can be rescued from the subprime debacle merely by infusions of liquidity--as much as anything else.

And speaking of ideological commitments, in La Tribune the "Person of the Year" is retrogressively altered to "homme de l'année."

Literature and Politics

The death of Julien Gracq at 97 has elicited the anticipated chorus of praise, including a tribute from that littérateur-come-lately, Nicolas Sarkozy. Pierre Assouline, a genuine admirer and not de la dernière heure, has contributed a fine appreciation that may do duty for the rest. But even he devotes too much space to Gracq's aura as opposed to his oeuvre. The aura, in Gracq's case, is composed largely of refusals and renunciations--this prize rejected, that honor warded off, the rigor of the writing, the aloofness from the world and the business of letters. Such descriptions inevitably carry a charge of hagiography. Their effect if not their intent is to embalm in an odor of sanctity, and sanctity, as everyone knows, is much more worthy though often far less interesting than turpitude. This division--this semiotic opposition--exists in all endeavors to tinker with the spiritual-temporal divide: literature is one, politics another.

It's best to remain ambivalent, I think. If there are two shores (one thinks of Herzen's From the Other Shore as well as Gracq's Le Rivage des Syrtes), the better sort are familiar with both and hug their edges closely. To plunge too far inland in either direction is to be lost--the choice is frank perdition or the eternal purgatory of excessive purity. Gracq to my mind comes close to the latter and will therefore remain eternally in the bosom of Abraham, in the tight embrace of those dazzled by the example of a writer who in all probability was never as tempted as they are by the rewards they believe it cost him so much to renounce, because they substitute their values for his.

Those who don't see the relevance of this necrology to politics may ignore it without loss. But I thought it was worth saying.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Politics as a Vocation

On Rue89 today, Philippe Corcuff analyzes the "erotics" of Sarkozyan power, borrowing most of his tropes from Emmanuel Levinas's analysis of the caress. It's a good piece, which contains the following interesting observation about the way in which Sarko the seducer likes to confirm his power by displaying what he has possessed:

On the one hand, he seeks to discomfit the official left (by borrowing some of its vocabulary, references, and people), while on the other he does not hesitate to appeal demagogically to the extreme right with subliminal xenophobia.


Corcuff's observations are clever, and they are typical of a spate of recent second-order high-brow decipherings of what any number of commentators have begun to refer to as the "TV serial presidency," in which Sarko renews his image week after week with yet another coup, adventure, or escapade. For instance, Le Monde yesterday featured an interview with a semiotician reflecting on Sarkozy's manipulation of signs and symbols. Yet I can't help feeling that all this cleverness--the latest round of which has clearly been inspired by the outing with Carla Bruni, about which everyone wants to find a way to talk while pretending to be above talking about such things--is somehow wide of the mark.

For me, the most significant touch that Sarko attempted to add to his image in the past week was not the Disneyland adventure but the quasi-ordination at Saint John Lateran. Although many in France have commented on the affront to laïcité, few have mentioned Sarko's attempt to sacralize the presidential function. Becoming president, he said, is like "entering religion," that is, taking holy orders. It is a calling for which one prepares oneself with all of one's life. This conceit of course recalls the unkept promise to retreat to a monastery in the days after the election to prepare himself, in a marathon of askesis, for the function he was about to assume. In the event, to be sure, he chose to prepare himself aboard a yacht rather than in a cloister. Yet the conviction that he was called to the office he now occupies, that it was his destiny to bear this burden (as he frequently calls it), is I think closer to his conception of himself than the child-at-Christmas delight with which he revels in his glittery array of expensive toys, airplanes, homes, yachts, friends, and other regalia of office. His deepest conviction is that he has the right fiber for the job. This fiber is compounded in his mind of audacity and will. It compensates in his own estimation for his admitted deficiencies ("Je ne suis pas un intellectuel, M. Poivre d'Arvor, mais ..."). It justifies his defiance of precedent and convention. It authorizes his more impudent moves (the congratulatory call to Putin, the invitation to Qaddafi). And of course it continues in the finest Gaullist tradition ("je me suis toujours fait une certaine idée de la France").

Ségolène Royal has been mocked for seeming to compare herself to Jeanne d'Arc, but the real Joan of Arc in contemporary French politics is Nicolas Sarkozy. Still, I recommend that he read Max Weber's Politik als Beruf.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Scooping Time

Looks like I scooped Time magazine, which has switched its epithets from "Sarko l'Américain" to "the bling-bling President" (blanc bonnet et bonnet blanc?).

Une République Une, Indivisible ... et Laïque?

Did we need this? It's not enough to have to deal with the problems of the 21st century? Do we have to refight the church-state battles of the 19th and 20th? As an American pluralist at heart, I've come to despair of ever persuading my French republican friends that, really, the citizen needn't come naked to the public square; democracy can tolerate differences; the salad bowl rather than the melting pot is the contemporary ideal. Indeed, as a good card-carrying pluralist, I accept their militant laïcité as an expression of their droit à la différence. But inwardly I think it would be better if it were otherwise ... until, that is, somebody like Sarkozy goes and pours gasoline on the fire by giving the speech he gave yesterday at Saint John Lateran. It's not that there's anything really terrible about the content of the speech, which was little more than a rather aggressive statement of the persistence of different attitudes on this issue. But did he have to make this point from a Catholic pulpit in Rome? Did he have to emphasize France's "Christian roots?" (One almost expected him to wax lyrical about France's position as "the eldest daughter of the Church.") Did he have to accuse secularists of "fanaticism?"

Are there really that many votes to be had in appeals to les talas (ceux qui vonT-A-LA-messe)? Sarko gave the Pope a copy of his book, which Ron Tiersky reviewed in this space a while ago. At Saint John Sarko repeated a thought he expressed in the book, that the well-spring of religion is hope. But hope is also the well-spring of politics, which looks for a better life here and now rather than in the hereafter, and as Sarko in the throes of spiritual transport may have forgotten, the deferred hope proffered by religion has often been used to encourage passivity and resignation here below. He would do better to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and leave otherworldly hope to the professionals. Indeed, France's latter-day Caesar has a surer hand when it comes to dispensing bread and circuses to the masses in the form of photo spreads in Match and Closer of his excursion to Disneyland in the company of a decidedly uncloistered Italian.

Creative Destruction

Le Monde has a lengthy article today on the creation and destruction of jobs. Unfortunately, that is not the title of the article, which is "Délocalisations: le temps des réponses" (Outsourcing/offshoring: The Time for Answers). The article claims that France is losing jobs at the rate of 15,000 a year to low-wage countries. But it also states that France is creating 90,000 jobs a year as a result of foreign direct investment and gains from trade. I haven't verified either figure, but the precise numbers are not the issue, which is rather how to present to readers the nature of the flux in the economy. Threat or promise? Well, why not both, since this is clearly the reality of the situation?

It is odd that the leading theorist of "Schumpeterian growth," Philippe Aghion, who is French, is not cited in an article that might have been entitled "creative destruction," to borrow Schumpeter's phrase, instead of "Délocalisations." A small change of emphasis connotes an important difference of outlook. A number of economists are cited in the article. Pierre Cahuc emphasizes the importance of career-long job training. Nicolas Véron points to the value of France's human capital as its trump card in international competition. The headline belies their measured judgments.

On the other hand, see this post by Paul Krugman, implying negative effect of trade on US wages. His forthcoming paper should be interesting and spark some controversy.

Selective Immigration

Sarkozy's "selective immigration" policy--employment-based national quotas--will favor higher-skilled immigrants from Africa and Asia and lower-skilled immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today Le Figaro reminds its readers that there are already European countries (UK, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany) with substantial numbers of low-skilled immigrants from the east that have not found their labor-shortage problems miraculously solved. In France, "immigration from East Europe" is coded to mean "people who will do what we need to have done for less money and not cause trouble or alter our national identity." In England, the code is different: it means "people who will do our jobs for half what we make." Hence Gordon Brown, that well-meaning preacher's son, has been obliged to sound like a British version of Le Pen: "British jobs for British workers." Yesterday's expansion of the Schengen region in which European citizens may travel freely without passports should have made clear the need for reflection on the implications of the massive shifts in Europe's populations that can be expected over the coming decade.

Cohen on Le Monde Crisis

Adding abundant detail to the story I sketched yesterday, Philippe Cohen explains the background of the continuing crisis at Le Monde.

Billancourt


"Il ne faut pas désespérer Billancourt." For those younger than I, this sentence may not carry quite the same nostalgic weight, but in case you're curious about its origin and significance, Le Monde's proofreaders recall the history in a post today on their blog. There's also a nice picture of Sartre standing on a "55-gal drum," as we call it in the US (what is the French equivalent?), to make his famous harangue outside the factory gates in his later gauchiste incarnation.

I once took a trip out to Billancourt to view the Renault victory just because of this sentence. It had already closed, but the buildings still loomed, low and forbidding, on their island. Somehow the factory and its setting reminded me of Alcatraz. That this should be the center of French capitalism seemed an important clue to the nature of French attitudes. More recently, François Pinault planned to turn the island into an arts complex. I'm sure Marx would have savored the irony of such a transformation, but the plans fell through, alas, and the museum will now be built in Venice.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Municipal Elections

A while back I asked for people living in France to send reports of the municipal elections in their localities. Jeff Steiner is the first to answer the call. He has a report of the contest in La Roche-sur-Foron, a town of 12,000 in Haute-Savoie. I hope others will contribute similar reports.

Vulgarity

Sarkozy, named honorary canon of Saint John Lateran by the pope, visited the Vatican today. Although the Swiss Guards were apparently hoping for a glimpse of Carla Bruni, Sarkozy instead invited the humorist Jean-Marie Bigard, much to the consternation of two observers of the French president, Robert Solé and Bernard Girard. Both see in this gesture further proof, if proof were needed, of the president's "vulgarity." Rolex watches, yachts, speedboats, supermodels, dime-store novelists (see Yasmina Reza's account of the meeting with Marc Lévy), Fouquet's. I would add the staged reading of Camus's Noces in Tipaza, while Sarko stared pensively at the sea in a shocking display of aesthetic obtuseness.

I have no intention of disputing the characterization of the president's tastes as "vulgar." Indeed, I think his vulgarity is one of the secrets of his success. Time magazine's recent piece on the "death of French culture" naturally provoked a good deal of comment in France, but of course this putative death is a regularly recurring event. The mistake, common to outsiders, is to suppose that the high culture of any country is its culture tout court. This is never true, but France had been more successful than many other countries in accrediting among foreigners, and especially Americans, the idea that its high culture simply was its culture. Of course no insider would make this mistake, and a few hours watching French television would be enough to convince one otherwise, but the Élysée is not Michel Drucker's sofa or Laurent Ruquier's platform. A certain decorum was expected of presidents, and if Jacques Chirac, representative of the Corrèze, was comfortable patting the behinds of cows, he also collected Japanese art, and François Mitterrand sought refuge from the tumult of Socialist meetings with the novels of Ernst Jünger.

Sarkozy is a different breed of president. His vulgarity is authentic, and people who share his tastes sense this and are delighted by it. Those who don't share his tastes are repelled by them, but they shouldn't on that account dismiss his political instincts. It is one of the challenges of democracy that people of different tastes must temper their judgments. There is a tendency among cultivated elites to underestimate the politically gifted vulgarian. The classic case is Andrew Jackson, a president whose election horrified his self-styled betters but whose political shrewdness remade American politics. It is too early to say whether Sarkozy's presidency will mark a similar watershed in French politics, but it is not out of the question. And if it does, his predilection for flashy watches and flashier women will not have been the least of it.

Le Monde Crisis

David Bell the other day was kind enough to cite this blog as "a good example of how the Internet has been transforming the news media." There is no doubt that the Internet is a powerful solvent, but is it also corrosive? The question is raised by Daniel Schneidermann's comment on the latest crisis at Le Monde. As I mentioned yesterday, the paper's on-line unit is making money while the traditional paper is losing money. But of course this is an accounting fiction created by corporations and contracts, even if it does result in real flows of cash (in the case of Le Monde Interactif into the pockets of Arnaud Lagardère). The "interactive" paper (which is scarcely more interactive than the paper version, unless you're among the handful of people who comment on articles) depends entirely on the staff of the traditional paper for its distinctive content. The rest is wire-service dispatches and fluff. There is no "value added," and in some respects there is value taken away. So it would be a shame if the apparent profitability of the new formula were to decimate the staff of the old paper because the profits from the on-line operation are not appropriately shared.

I say this as a consumer of the on-line version. Obviously I could not maintain this blog without the many electronic sources, including Le Monde, that have made it possible for an observer in the US to be on top of breaking news in France. I remember the days when I had to trudge down to Harvard Square to buy my Le Monde 3 days late; I remember subscribing to the édition hébdomadaire, printed on flimsy onion skin and shorn of 3/4 of the news; and I am still usually a day or two ahead of some of my colleagues at the Center for European Studies, who, as men of their generation, read the stale printed news in the paper edition still displayed in the building's lobby. Nevertheless, I am acutely aware that the news that is now so rapidly disseminated still requires journalists to compile and make sense of it.

The recent proliferation of on-line sources in France, and the continuing financial crises at several major papers, suggest that we are in the midst of a change whose end point is not at all clear to me. I have already expressed my doubts about Edwy Plenel's launch of a new paid on-line-only news outlet, MediaPart. Its staff, though made up of distinguished journalists, is small, and its focus has been described as both "generalist" and "investigative," which are hardly the same thing. It seems unlikely that MediaPart can replace Le Monde. Nor can Le Monde replace itself with an on-line-only operation.

So who will pay for the news? Because if no one pays, we are likely to be reading a good deal more about presidential outings to Disneyland and audiences with the pope and a good deal less about decisions of the European Court like the one in the Laval Case (which, as the previous post makes clear, I should have read more carefully than I did--but then, as David Bell pointed out, my labor is bénévole, so I relied imprudently on someone who was paid to do the job, whose biases I failed to take into account).

Laval Decision Revisited

Éloi Laurent disagrees with Jean Quatremer's analysis of the Laval decision, which I cited yesterday, and suggests this source instead. There you will find a much more pessimistic reading of the decision, which is taken as a blow to "social Europe":

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) expressed its disappointment on the "challenge" that the judgement "poses to the very successful flexible Swedish system of collective bargaining and those of certain other Nordic countries – the models for flexicurity currently being promoted by the European Commission".


ETUC added: "It will necessitate reviews in those countries of the implementation of the posted workers directive. There could be negative implications for other countries' systems from this narrow interpretation of the posted workers' directive. There could also be implications for unions' ability to promote equal treatment and protection of workers regardless of nationality and there will also be concern that unions' ability to guarantee these objectives is threatened by the free movement of services principle."


Thanks to Éloi for the pointer and the instruction.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Le Monde Directorate Resigns

The three members of Le Monde's directorate resigned after failing to reach agreement on a budget with the Société des Rédacteurs du Monde. At the heart of the dispute seems to be the question of the Web version of the paper, which is making money, while the paper version is losing.

Chabrol on Sarko

I don't have the time to translate this, but for those who read French, Claude Chabrol's take on Sarko's auto-mise-en-scène is priceless. Thanks to Justin for the tip.

Important European Court Decision (Laval Case)

The European Court of Justice has issued an important and much-awaited decision in the Laval case. The court's decision strengthens the right of labor unions to oppose "social dumping," that is, the use of workers on foreign jobs but paid at lower home-country rates. The details of the complicated decision are well-analyzed by Jean Quatremer here. In short, minimum wages are to be set by host-country law and must apply equally throughout the country (this specifically rules out minimums set by collective bargaining in specific industries), but in return unions may blockade work sites to protest non-compliance with local law.

Petit Poucet et la Dévoreuse d'homme

This being a serious blog, I'm going to outsource the scandal sheet stuff to the reliable Paris correspondent for the Times of London, who is paid by Rupert Murdoch to run it all down. Be sure to watch Closer's video of the happy couple at Disneyland after savoring la Bruni's disapproving remarks on monogamy.

Reality Check: Pensions

France's continuing struggle to keep its pension system solvent rarely makes the news in the United States, and when it does, it is usually to elicit a word of condescension or schadenfreude. If only those French spent less time in cafés and more time in the salt mines, freedom-fry-eating Americans are likely to gloat, they wouldn't be running constantly in the red. So it is good to be reminded that while Americans may spend more hours au charbon, they don't always take care of business as well as they think they do. The federalization (read: Balkanization) of our retirement funding problems keeps their magnitude well hidden. This morning's Times reveals that state pension funds across the US have promised to pay over $2.7 trillion over the next 30 years, and only a fraction of this debt is funded.

Constitutional Reform

François Fillon speaks to Le Monde this morning about constitutional reform. Given the desire to proceed by consensus, it's hardly surprising that the result can't be described as revolutionary. To employ the usual cliché--"it looks like it was designed by a committee"--would be both accurate and unfair to the more inspired committee that designed the U. S. Constitution. All of the more noteworthy proposals have been dropped: there will be no ban on the cumul des mandats (holding of multiple elective offices), no dose of proportional representation in the election of deputies, and no formal redistribution of responsibilities between president and prime minister. Parliament's role will be "strengthened," ostensibly, in "preparation" for a future "presidentialization" of the regime, which Fillon sees as "ineluctable." But for now the prime minister remains the nominal head of government, and the legislature's power to check the executive remains largely hypothetical. There will of course be a great mock battle over the provision to permit the president to address the Assembly directly, as if this measure had one gram of practical import. But this wan "reform" will nevertheless be racked up as one more victory by a president who needs, apparently, to proceed from battle to battle, all banners flying.

There is progress, however. The judiciary would become more independent, as the Superior Council of the Magistracy, now presided over by the president of the Republic, would be taken over by the premier président of the Cour de Cassation, and the minister of justice would no longer have an ex officio seat. And Parliament's powers would be increased somewhat, most significantly by an explicit requirement for legislative approval of any troop intervention lasting more than six months.

Of course it's obvious that the cumul des mandats would cease to be an issue if deputies had enough to do, and sufficient power and influence, that they didn't feel the need to acquire actual power, money, and staff by running for local office. On the other hand, they might discover the time-honored American device of the "local earmark" and quickly drain the French treasury of its remaining sous.

Follow the Money


The Gautier-Sauvagnac affair may be entering interesting territory. The "financial police" conducted a search yesterday at Tracfin, the "money laundering police" arm of the Finance Ministry. Financial police? Money laundering police? Well, never mind the arcana of the French bureaucracy. The point is to follow the money, quite a bit of it, which, as you will recall, Denis Gautier-Sauvagnac, until recently the head of the metals industry association UIMM, withdrew from the group's slush fund for still unexplained purposes over a period of many years. It seems that the financial police suspect that Tracfin had been alerted to these withdrawals by the banks involved but that its investigation into the affair went nowhere until recently, when Tracfin finally transmitted its information to prosecutors. The Canard enchaîné reports that it was Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was finance minister, who ordered Tracfin to put a lid on the inquiry. Initial reports had suggested that Gautier-Sauvagnac was funneling cash to the trade unions, but, in the referenced article, Le Point, of all sources, hints darkly that "investigators are considering all possible avenues, including payments to political parties." More info here. À suivre ....

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Snowball Effect

David Bell's comment on this blog has been picked up by others. Clive Davis at The Spectator remarks:

Goldhammer's style can be a bit dry, but let's face it, there's more than enough blood and guts and manic speculation flying around elsewhere on the Web.


A bit dry? Isn't that a compliment in British English? Well, indeed, let's face it, a little sobriety is in order when you're writing about a country run by a guy who's sleeping with an ex of Mick Jagger's. Anybody can play to the gallery with that kind of material. It takes a real wonk to keep his eye on the policy ball.

And then the Washington Monthly's excellent Kevin Drum was also kind enough to relay the Bell plug. As a regular reader of Drum's "Political Animal," I am particularly pleased to have been noticed there.

That Awful Mess at the Palais Bourbon

Le Monde has a headline this morning that reminds me of the title of a novel by Carlo Emilio Gadda, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana. "Payment of comp time turns into an awful mess," says the newspaper. Here's the story. It has been convenient for the right to pretend that nearly everything that is wrong with the French economy stems from the Socialists' decision years ago to cut the work week from 39 hours to 35 (with no corresponding cut in pay). But no right-wing government has been willing to take the risk of restoring the 39-hour week, since voters are believed to be inordinately fond of the shorter regimen (as Giscard drily observed in a speech at Harvard, "If I told you that you could take four hours a week off and be paid as if you were working, wouldn't you be pleased too?"). Instead, they've been nibbling away at the edges with a variety of schemes. Since Sarkozy's election, two tacks have been taken. The first, detaxing of overtime, passed in August. The second, allowing employers to buy back comp time (RTT--réduction du temps de travail awarded to employees who for one reason or another are required to work more than the legal work week), went into effect more recently.

The problem is that the two schemes are essentially both incentives to employers to offer work time beyond 35 hours per week, but the incentives are different in the two cases, and the RTT buyback is much more favorable to employers than the overtime tax exemption--anywhere from 16 to 50 percent cheaper per hour. I'll spare you the details of this calculation, which would require a spreadsheet and a tax attorney in any case. Suffice it to say that the result is perplexity, complexity, and a dawning sense that maybe these reforms haven't been thought through all that clearly in the haste to do something, anything, to prove that this government, unlike previous governments of the right, isn't simply fiddling while the MEDEF does a slow burn.

"The Sarkozyan method has reached its limit," Le Monde editorializes.

Monday, December 17, 2007

No Liberty at Libération

It seems that Jean Quatremer, Libération's European Union correspondent, was censored by another journalist working for the same paper when he attempted to post a comment to an article in Libé's Contre-Journal by one Anne-Marie Le Pourhiet, professor of law at the University of Rennes I, who vehemently opposes Sarkozy's decision not to submit the Lisbon Treaty to another referendum. She regards this as an act of treason punishable by death. Quatremer in turn reacted with equal vehemence, in terms that his colleague Karl Laske found "insulting" to the author.

It will be useful to recall this episode the next time a "friend of Sarkozy" with newspaper connections is accused of spiking an article unfavorable to the "Hyper-President." As Sarkozy himself has not been loath to point out, meddling with the media in France is a sport that everyone plays. Indeed, I would say that it is as French as jogging, if the New York Times had not already seen fit to attribute to me the opinion that "jogging is un-French." It's a good idea to remember that the media are not at all like the mirror to which Stendhal likened the novel.

Montebourg Will Run


"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Arnaud Montebourg, to whom I recently had the opportunity to recount a bit of New England history during a stroll about Beacon Hill, will no doubt appreciate this remark by the great Transcendentalist, now that he has decided to contradict his own denunciation of le cumul des mandats, the great bane of the Republic, to run for a seat on the conseil général of Saône-et-Loire. The decision is "an act of resistance against Sarkozyst absolutism," no less. Indeed, "the National Assembly has been emasculated by Sarkozysm," he says, and he cannot imagine an existence as a "pure tribune" of the people. "The organization of a new opposition" will require the Socialists "to concentrate our territorial forces."

The provinces organize against Parisian tyranny. This narrative will have a familiar ring to students of French history. M. Montebourg represents, among other things, Bourg-en-Bresse, the center of the French poultry industry and home to the famous poulet de Bresse (pictured above). How will le coq gaulois de Neuilly respond?

Thank You

Praise is sweet. Thank you, David. And true, I have not yet figured out a way to make money from this blog, though, to be sure, it has not been without rewards of other kinds.

My friends at nonfiction.fr seem to read The New Republic. They think I've become a bit "Sarko-centré." One does in fact face a dilemma in writing topical commentary on politics when one's instincts and training suggest that what matters is deep structures and long-term trends. I try to pay attention to those things in the blog as well, but the medium of instant commentary is also an opportunity to ponder the more ephemeral factors of personality, energy, the ebb and flow of popular interest--the passionate side of politics, which will always be a matter of the heart and gut as well as the head.

Sardoodledom

The sixth of Merriam-Webster's "words of the year" is sardoodledom, defined as follows:

sardoodledom


Main Entry: sar·doo·dle·dom
Pronunciation: sär-ˈdü-dəl-dəm
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): sar·doo·dle·doms
Etymology: sardoodle- (blend of Victorien Sardou died 1908 French playwright criticized by G. B. Shaw died 1950 English playwright for the supposed staginess of his plays and English doodle) + -dom

: mechanically contrived plot structure and stereotyped or unrealistic characterization in drama : STAGINESS, MELODRAMA Sardoodledom -- John Mason Brown>


It strikes me that this word is not altogether inapt to describe Sarkozy's presidential style. The simplification of France's economic problems to the slogan travailler plus pour gagner plus might well be characterized as a "mechanically contrived plot structure," and the proposed remedies, as outlined in the previous post, are certainly stereotyped and may yet prove to have been unrealistic. Perhaps, in keeping with other recent neologisms associated with the French presidency, the word should be revised to "sarkodoodledom."

The Limits of Pragmatism

The rhythm of the Sarkozy presidency has slowed noticeably in recent weeks, and it is not just a pause for the holidays. Sarkozy's plan was worked out well in advance of his election, and he has executed it essentially as he envisioned. He attacked on all fronts at once: tax reductions, retirement reforms, detaxation of overtime, reform of the universities, reform of the judicial map, European treaty, etc. He weathered opposition from unions, students, judges, and European bankers. He repaired relations with the United States. And now he is waiting to reap the rewards of his supposed audacity.

But the reforms are less audacious than they appear. The end of the special regimes, which is not yet fully negotiated, merely takes the overhaul of the French retirement system one small step further. The process has been under way since Juppé first proposed the blueprints in 1995. Detaxing of overtime is really a less ambitious incentive to employers to increase the supply of work than countless previous incentives targeted at more needy categories of workers such as the young, the long-term unemployed, and the relatively unskilled. The university reforms merely mark the beginning of a long process. The Lisbon Treaty patches up European institutions for the moment but hardly redeems the promise of the original constitutional idea.

So what if the condition of the patient doesn't respond quickly to these mild doses of medicine? Will Sarkozy lose support? In this respect, the municipal elections loom large as a referendum on Sarko's first year, which is precisely the way François Hollande described them this weekend. Sarkozy, he said, will be the candidate of the right in every city in France.

Ouverture

Bernard Girard analyzes the Sarkozyan ouverture on his blog this morning. For those who don't read French, here is a summary of his argument. Why, Girard asks, has Sarkozy's ouverture succeeded where others have failed? The usual explanations--personal ambition of Socialists wanting to enter government, crisis of Socialist Party, tactical skill of Sarkozy--are all unsatisfactory, because politicians are always ambitious, the PS with 47 percent of the vote is not as terminally ill as some think, and Mitterrand was no less skilled than Sarkozy but failed at the same game. Instead, he proposes a diminution of the difference between left and right, so that crossing the boundary is no longer as unthinkable an act of treachery as it once would have been. So the question then becomes, Why has the boundary been blurred?

For Girard, the left is not defined, as BHL would have it, simply as "republican, laïc, anti-racist, and anti-colonialist." It also has to be "on the side of the popular classes, those who work, suffer, are exploited and alienated." What has changed therefore has to be sought in the popular classes themselves.

Girard begins this part of his analysis by asking why a significant fraction of the popular classes voted for the Front National. He prefers a "rational voter" explanation and finds it in a protectionist reading of the FN slogan "Les Français d'abord," which he reads not as a racist rejection but as a protest against outsourcing, capital outflows, etc. He then offers a tripartite typology of the popular classes: those who benefit from globalization, those who suffer from it, and immigrant workers (an increasingly large share of this social category), whose chief problem is not globalization but discrimination. Because of this fragmentation of the popular classes, Girard believes that the left has had difficulty formulating a unified message that makes sense to all three constituencies.

Sarko Trades the Ferrari for Another Italian Model

Sorry, folks, I've failed you as a gossip columnist. I didn't see this one coming at all. You couldn't make this stuff up. The president presents his new conquest to the press at Disneyland? She previously ran off with the husband of BHL's daughter, Raphaël Enthoven, after having lived with his father, the publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven? And just when there seemed to be a lull in hard news coming out of the administration. Just when the reforms seemed to be settling into a dull routine, with neither excitement nor results. Just as the campaign for the municipals gets rolling. Great timing.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The PS and the Market; Le Monde Diplo

The Socialists, continuing with the renovation of the house of cards that the party has become, held a second forum on the subject today in Paris. Harlem Désir, now a member of the European Parliament, presented a text acknowledging that the PS has had a good deal of trouble defining its position in relation to the market despite what is described as a turn toward "economic realism" in 1983. What the PS needs to recognize, according to the text, is that "we are not confronting globalization but in globalization."

The formula might have pleased me more had I not recently heard Arnaud Montebourg speak at MIT during his visit to the United States. There, Montebourg compared globalization to a medieval torture in which a prisoner is placed in a cell too short to stand up in and too narrow to lie down. This, he said, is the situation of France with respect to globalization: permanent pain no matter what you do. If this is the gloss to be placed on the phrase "in globalization," I doubt that the PS will have advanced very much farther toward "economic realism" than it did in 1983.

Meanwhile, in what might be seen as a related development, Pierre Jeantet, the president of the Le Monde Group, suggested that Le Monde Diplomatique, which is in financial difficulties, might want to consider taking its distance from altermondialisme and reorienting its editorial line to appeal more to the "plural left." Le Monde Diplo, which played a role in the founding of the altermondialiste group ATTAC, has apparently suffered from the disarray in the leadership of that organization and in the anti-globalization movement more generally. Jeantet insists that his advice is offered "on a purely personal basis" and is not intended to weigh on the choice of a new president of the paper's "directorate."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Rama Yade Falls into Line

Rama Yade, who at the beginning of the week referred to Kadhafi's presence in Paris as the "kiss of death," said today that "the president of the Republic has consistently and successfully sought assurances in the realm" of human rights from the Libyan guide. One has to think back to the Moscow Trials to recall anything like such a speedy and complete repudiation of private convictions for the sake of the party line. Yade's reversal is all the more surprising in light of Kadhafi's denial, in an interview with David Pujadas on France2, that the subject of human rights had ever been broached in his discussions with the French president. To be sure, we have the assurance of Claude Guéant that the subject did indeed come up twice, once in a business session and again over dinner. The impression made on Kadhafi seems to have been limited, however.

I should perhaps make it clear that I think Sarkozy was right to receive Kadhafi in France. Kadhafi's evolution is to be encouraged, and it is usually a mistake to humiliate an adversary. But I also thought it was right for Yade and Kouchner to voice a protest against the decision, and I thought it was a mark of maturity that the French government was capable of tolerating such open dissension within its ranks. The war between morality and raison d'État is perpetual, inevitable, and may as well be conducted in the open. It's a step backward, I believe, that the whip has been cracked over Rama Yade and unfortunate that she thought her job sufficiently worth clinging to that she renounced her principles to keep it.

Rama Yade is a very popular subject of searches on this blog. Other articles can be found by clicking here.

The French ARE Different

It's hard to imagine an American government official stripping down to his undershorts to plant a coral in waters off Bali, but Jean-Louis Borloo, the French minister of the environment, was willing to show that he takes the Kyoto protocol very seriously indeed. Here is a politician who not only presses the flesh but exposes it. He is not likely to replace Ségolène Royal as France's leading political pinup, however.

Sarko Has a Friend in Washington

Not the friend you think. Eric Dupin points out that the IMF under Dominique Strauss-Kahn has become a big booster of the policies and reform strategy of ... Nicolas Sarkozy.

ADDED LATER: This post has not gone unnoticed--from the blog log:

134.113.7.99 (International Monetary Fund) imf
Virginia, Vienna, United States,
0 returning visit

DateTimeWebPage
13th December 200710:58:37No referring link
French Politics: Sarko Has a Friend in Washington
13th December 200711:01:07No referring link
French Politics: Sarko Has a Friend in Washington
13th December 200711:04:33No referring link
French Politics: Sarko Has a Friend in Washington
13th December 200711:05:38No referring link
French Politics: Sarko Has a Friend in Washington

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!

Vaïsse on NIE

Justin Vaïsse has a very thorough and interesting analysis of the recent US National Intelligence Estimate concerning the Iranian nuclear program on Rue89. His piece is presented as a series of 7 short questions about the NIE, together with lengthy answers. Following this lead, I present several more questions raised but not answered by Justin's analysis:

1. What does the release of the NIE tell us about the internal workings of the Bush administration?

It is really quite an extraordinary thing for an intelligence estimate to transform so suddenly and completely the tenor of debate on a major issue of US foreign policy. Nevertheless, as Justin lucidly explains, considerable ambiguity remains about Iranian practices and motives, ambiguity deliberately soft-pedaled by an intelligence estimate that seems to have been designed precisely to take the war option off the table. Yet as Justin remarks in his answer to his own question 3, ambiguity has its uses in this kind of situation. So one has to ask why the intelligence community would take such consequential action on its own. Justin mentions the need to redorer le blason of the intelligence community after the Iraq fiasco, as well as a history of veering from pessimism to optimism in its assessments. But one has to ask whether unstated judgments might also be involved. High intelligence officials privy to internal debates are in a position to know when their own doubts and caveats are being ignored by policymakers. Was it alarm that an administration noted for its rashness was about to sin again? Note, too, that the CIA revealed its destruction of interrogation videotapes shortly after the release of the NIE, in effect (if not in intention) availing itself of the positive reaction to its reversal on Iran to soften the anticipated negative reaction to its destruction of self-incriminating evidence.

2. Why did the US intelligence community apparently reveal sources and methods in the latest NIE?

On the day after the release of the NIE, The New York Times published a front page article detailing some of the reasoning on which the stark change of view since the 2005 NIE was based. The article included a discussion of specific sources and methods, including interception of internal Iranian military communications, information that could only have come from US intelligence officials. Yet when questioned about such matters, intelligence officials usually give a ritual answer: "We never discuss sources and methods." Why, in this case (as in Colin Powell's presentation to the UN), were specific sources and methods apparently revealed? Was this done to bolster the credibility of the NIE? Was it disinformation intended to throw Iranian counter-intelligence off the track or to conceal other sources, including a reported defector who fled to Turkey? Or was it to answer critics who have contended that US intelligence has failed to develop necessary capabilities? This follow-up release was at least as extraordinary as the release of the NIE itself.

3. How does Sarkozy interpret the NIE?

In an earlier post I raised the question of Sarkozy's reaction to the release of the NIE. Did Bush tell him it was in the works when they met in August? If not, did he feel misled by Bush? What effect has the release had on his thinking about Iran? In an interview published yesterday in Le Nouvel Obs, Sarkozy made an interesting statement: "I was never for war. The problem for us is not so much the risk that the Americans might undertake a military intervention but rather that the Israelis will consider their security truly threatened." Does he believe that the Israelis have the military capacity to strike Iran on their own? How is France characterizing the NIE in its discussions with European partners about what to do next? Sarkozy's statement here, like his previous statements, can be read as a declaration that both an Iranian bomb and a bombing of Iran, whether by Israel or the US, would be catastrophic for Europe. If so, how does he intend to maintain European pressure on Iran in the face of the NIE, which complicates the effort for the reasons Justin sets forth?

For a few game-theoretic twists on the scenario, see here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Productivity

The estimable Ecopublix has a very intelligent discussion of comparative productivity figures, from which you will learn why France's high hourly productivity rate needs to be interpreted with a skeptical eye.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Tirole on University Reform

The eminent economist Jean Tirole, who teaches in both France and the United States, makes a powerful plea for reform of the French university system.

Current fantasies about the "privatization of the universities" are based on ignorance of existing practice and refusal to compare and evaluate. They will perpetuate an undemocratic, underfinanced system that offers students substandard training and the nation a level of research below what it could potentially achieve. They will further increase inequalities among students and increase the gap between the universities and the Grandes Ecoles and between French and foreign institutions. Future employment and growth are at stake. Let's have the courage to break the taboo.


I couldn't agree more.

Rumor Made Scientific

I have said nothing thus far about the lively rumors regarding the beautiful Laurence Ferrari and the recently divorced president of the Republic. The gossip has now been raised to the level of science, however, and thus made worthy of notice in this "influential blog." Here, thanks to the ever-resourceful Jean Véronis, we can witness the propagation of the rumor over the course of the past several weeks. Of course we also know that Sarko's mom has let it be known that she hopes he won't marry again, though it must be said that the thought of making a royal couple of the French president and France's loveliest speakerine would somehow be the perfect symbol of the extraordinary symbiosis of press and politics in la Grande Nation, which already features any number of morganatic media marriages: Borloo-Schönberg, DSK-Sinclair, and Kouchner-Ockrent, to name only the most prominent. And that's not even counting extramarital affairs, beginning with Hollande's ...

An "Official" Visit

Kadhafi is in Paris, Élysée spokesman David Martinon has made clear, on an "official visit" but not a "state visit." If you're fuzzy about the difference, see this lucid explanation. At the Quai d'Orsay, however, the nice distinction doesn't seem to have allayed qualms about the presence of the Libyan "guide" in Paris at all. Both Bernard Kouchner and Rama Yade have protested, and Yade is particularly upset that the visit coincides with International Human Rights Day. "France is not a doormat," she said, for the dictator to wipe his "bloody feet."

Of course there is probably no choice but to greet Kadhafi with this high political version of the "good cop-bad cop" routine. The effort is under way to lure him back into the comity of nations by treating him as a dictator like any other rather than a demonized pariah, so the usual contradictions are in order. If one wants to sell airplanes and nuclear reactors and free hostages, one has to shake unclean hands. But whose hands are clean in these days of extraordinary renditions and videotaped "harsh" interrogations? So absolutes become relativized. Hence the usefulness of protests like Kouchner's and Yade's, however ineffective or even hypocritical they may seem.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

New UNEF Leader


The student union UNEF has a new leader. Bruno Julliard, who earned his stripes in the anti-CPE demonstration but has been a moderating influence in the student movement since Sarkozy's election, has quit to run for municipal office in the 13th Arrondissement of Paris. His replacement, the only candidate for the post, is Jean-Baptiste Prévost, 23, a history student at the master's level at Paris I and in his 5th year at Sciences Po.

"Influential Blog"

You are reading what The New York Times calls "the influential blog French Politics." The ways of influence are curious to observe. An intelligent, alert reporter gets wind of the fact that Alain Finkielkraut has said that Sarkozy's jogging poses a threat to western civilization. He decides to make this a story for his magazine's annual "Ideas" issue. He begins investigating further, to flesh out the piece. He stumbles on this blog and tracks down its originator. Flattered to have the attention of the nation's newspaper of record, the blogger chats amiably with the reporter for half an hour about this and that. Some time later, a fact-checker calls to ascertain in a general way whether what the reporter has taken from this conversation is accurate. In a general way, yes--but no actual quotes are read back. The story is written and published, and the blogger discovers, not for the first time, that the quotation mark has a different value in journalism than in scholarship. In journalism, the quotation mark indicates that the story has some basis in a dialogue with a person other than the journalist who wrote it. This other person may not have uttered the words attributed to him. He may not even agree with what he is supposed to have said. For instance: "Running is seen as a symbol of non-Frenchness." This was actually a statement made by the reporter and contradicted by the interviewee. "Thousands of Frenchmen run every day," would have been a more accurate quote. With l'esprit de l'escalier, I wish I had said something about Adidas sneakers and Bernard Tapie. But the conversation had already covered quite a bit of ground. The details in the lead about the confrontations with the Breton fisherman and the shop steward came from the interviewee, who even provided URLs, gleaned from his blog. But no quotation marks distinguish this part of the piece, which exemplifies leg work, not mere opinionating.

As always, it is interesting to see how sausage is made. And remember, most of what we know about the quotidian comes from eating this sort of sausage.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Montebourg in Cambridge, Afterward

As promised, I attended the lecture by Arnaud Montebourg. I found him charming but unconvincing on a range of topics from globalization to the renovation of the Socialist Party. He believes that the party has lost contact with the people and proposes to reestablish that contact by "listening" more attentively (taking a leaf from Ségolène Royal's failed playbook). Concretely, he wants to organize a primary election two years from now in which anyone who subscribes to party membership for a fee of 2 euros will be allowed to vote. The party secretary would not be allowed to be a candidate in this primary, because he or she would be expected to be "the guarantor of objectivity," whatever that means.

When I suggested that "listening to the people" was hardly a formula for arriving at a coherent policy when the people in general, and the people of the left in particular, are confused about where they want to go and do not speak with a single voice, and that a primary would surely reveal deep divisions in the left rather than do anything to heal the gashes, he said that "first we must listen, then we must decide." But what elements or principles might guide that decision did not emerge clearly from his talk. He does not like "neo-liberalism" or "globalization" but seems unconcerned with defining alternatives, perhaps because he also thinks that globalization will soon come to an end, defeated by its internal contradictions. He seemed sanguine about this prospect, which others might regard as catastrophic. In short, he offered an amiable account of the Socialist Party's current confusion. Indeed, he seems confused about where he stands himself, since, after years of railing against the cumul des mandats, which he would ban under the constitution of the 6th Republic that he has proposed, he is contemplating a run for the position of conseiller général in addition to the seat of deputy that he already holds.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Montebourg in Cambridge

Arnaud Montebourg is in Cambridge today. I will be attending his lecture and a dinner afterwards, so if any of you have questions for him, please post as comments and I will try to get answers.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Merkel Skeptical about Mediterranean Union

Angela Merkel is worried that Sarkozy's plan to construct a Mediterranean Union on the basis of what he called "the Franco-Algerian friendship," analogous to the "Franco-German friendship" on which the EU was constructed, will lead to separate spheres of influence, with Germany looking to the east and France to the south. This could become a source of conflict in the future, which she believes would best be avoided by taking another approach.

Sarko Disappoints Glucksmann

It was the congratulatory phone call to Putin that did it for the Nouveau Philosophe, beacon of the anti-totalitarian, pro-Sarkozyan mi-figue mi-raisin left.

L'Étranger

It has to be seen to be believed. The clip is here. Sarkozy stands gazing pensively at the coruscating azure of the Mediterranean as a passage from Camus's Les Noces is read to him. Camus, who would have been a most unwilling conscript in this sham, you can be sure, is extolled by the president as the most French of Algerians or the most Algerian of the French, it hardly matters which. The subtext of the preferred presidential symbolism is reinforced: we are two peoples, all but identical, who share a painful past, which we readily acknowledge, while resolutely setting our sights on a better future. I have nothing against this chronological tropism, which is proper to a politician, for whom tomorrow should eclipse yesterday, unlike the writer, for whom the remembrance of things past may well loom larger than the present. L'écriture, c'est la trace. But there is something particularly unseemly about this violation of Camus, the purist of stylists, who suffered so much in his lifetime for his dual allegiance. Indeed, his situation was precisely the opposite of the role in which Sarko would cast him: he was not Algerian enough for the Algerians yet too Algerian for the French, particularly his comrades on the left, who never forgave him for placing his mother before History.

I wish I had not seen Sarkozy in Tipaza. It would have been easier to tolerate his readiness to deplore colonialism without apologizing for it had I not seen his desecration of Camus, whose writings on postwar famine and brutality in the colony might have served to show the president why an apology might be expected. You can read Camus's text in my translation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Prescience

I said the other day that the FARC had "instrumentalized" Sarko by allowing the release of the Betancourt video and letter. Now the Élysée says that Sarko is aware of the danger of instrumentalization and wants to reflect on the best course of action.

A Legible Lisbon Treaty

The National Assembly has done citizens the service of deciphering the Lisbon Treaty, which was cast largely in the form of amendments to earlier treaties that were themselves amendments to still earlier treaties, etc., and reconstituting the whole text in legible form. It can be read here in http or downloaded as a pdf (link at top left--warning: the text is 281 pages, 1.23 megabytes).

The NIE and Sarko

The release of a new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stating that Iran ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 raises questions about Sarkozy's support for the Bush administration position on Iran. After meeting with Bush in August, Sarko returned to Europe and said that the alternative was between an Iranian bomb and the bombardment of Iran. His foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, intimated that the next step, if diplomatic pressure failed, was war. And there were rumors that Sarkozy was privately telling other European governments that Bush had decided to take military action against Iranian nuclear facilities unless there was real progress on the diplomatic front.

So what did Sarko know? Did Bush tell him about the then-secret NIE? Did he share other classified information with his newfound European friend? Although there is much speculation in Washington about the timing of the NIE release and whether or not there was new information that prompted it, it is quite clear that the US intelligence community had raised doubts about Iran's nuclear intentions before the Bush-Sarkozy meeting in Maine. If Sarkozy knew of this intelligence, why did he stick his neck out so far to support Bush? If he didn't know, will the possibility that Bush deceived him alter his attitude toward the current US administration? Thus far, the French reaction has been to continue to insist on the need for diplomatic pressure. But an alert opposition (if there is one) might want to ask for an account of information the US may or may not have shared with France.

Fitoussi Calls for Lower Rates

Jean-Paul Fitoussi, the head of the Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Économiques, has called on the European Central Bank to lower its rates at its next meeting. Fitoussi makes it clear that he believes there is no threat of core inflation (as distinct from inflation related to the increase in the price of oil) and that the threat to growth of high interest rates must be given priority. The OFCE thus throws its weight behind Sarkozy's position that ECB rates must come down.

Paul Krugman is less certain about what the Fed's next move ought to be--but of course the Fed has already lowered its Fed funds rate.