Monday, May 28, 2007

Why am I doing this?

Francisco wrote:
Anyway, I'm not really sure who your blog's intended audience is - though my first impression was that you were writing very much for people like me: interested, curious, but frustrated by the superficiality of what we see in the English language press.
The blog was suggested to me by someone very much like you, a graduate student in politics who was not a specialist in France. I had been corresponding with a small group of people during the election campaign, and some found my comments useful. My friend, who had had some experience with a blog of his own, suggested that I try this new medium, and since, along with my other obsessions, I'm a bit of a computer nut, I thought I'd give it a try. France seems to be headed for important changes, and I want to follow developments as closely as I can, given my other commitments.

So this is an experiment. If the time invested seems incommensurate with the interest aroused or the quality of the dialogue with readers, I'll abandon it. I hope to hear more from those who find it useful. Without encouragement I'm likely to flag before too long.

Government structure

To an American observer, an interesting feature of the French polity is the fluidity of government structure. To create a new department of government in the United States is a major gambit: witness the politics around the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. In France, by contrast, ministries come and go from regime to regime and government to government.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that ministers come and go. The administration (in the French sense) remains, and bureaucrats go on doing what they do in the great fixed establishments of the government on the Quai Bercy, the Quai d'Orsay, and elsewhere around town. But the facility to create, destroy, combine, and reorder portfolios is one of the tools of the French president and prime minister. And a useful tool it is. It can be used to reward loyalty and punish misbehavior, signal priorities, accelerate or retard action in certain policy areas, reach out to the opposition and social actors, and alter relations between the government and civil society.

Hence the structure of government at any given moment is a clue to the thinking of its leaders, a point on which I was questioned the other day. So what does the structure of the first Fillon cabinet tell us?

First, it's much smaller than the last Villepin government. Instead of more than 30 ministers and minister-delegates, there are only 15 ministers and a handful of lesser cabinet members.

Second, the most significant restructuring affects the economic pole of the government's action. The vast area of economy, finance, industry, budget, and civil service has been broken up. Under Villepin, budget was a lesser function, assigned to J.-F. Copé, who doubled as government spokesman; he is now out. In his place, Eric Woerth is in charge of the budget and civil service (the two are closely related, since civil service salaries consume so much of the French budget) and has full ministerial rank. But the more important job goes to J.-L. Borloo, who is in charge of economy, finance, and employment. Note the change from the previous government, when this post covered economy, finance, and industry. The intention, I think, is to indicate that the government will take a more hands-off attitude toward industry, focusing on reform of labor contracts and stimulating job growth. The personnel change is also significant: Thierry Breton, who held the comparable job under Villepin, was an engineer and industrialist, former CEO of Thomson. Borloo is a lawyer and had responsibility for "social cohesion" under Villepin. Along with Xavier Bertrand, he will be responsible for selling the new labor contract to the unions.

Kouchner has already been commented on in other posts. Joining him in the core cabinet, I believe, are two of Sarkozy/Fillon's more interesting appointments, Rachida Dati (also commented on in previous posts) and Valerie Pécresse, who is in charge of higher education and research. She is the daughter of Dominique Roux, the head of Bolloré Telecom, and one of the relatively rare énarques and Grande Ecole graduates in the Fillon cabinet (she did HEC); she also served the Sarkozy campaign as an able debater. I look for higher education and research to be an important policy area over the next few years.

Then we have the outer circle, where bones are thrown to various elements of the majority coalition. The pairing of Christine Boutin, minister of housing and the city, and Roselyne Bachelot, minister of health and sports, can be understood in this light. Boutin distinguished herself by opposing the PACS, the civil union law, tear in eye and Bible in hand, while Bachelot was the only deputy of the right to vote for the PACS. Sarkozy thus covers both le pair et l'impair in the next spin of the electoral roulette wheel. Health under Villepin was combined with "solidarities" and handled by Bertrand, who has now been promoted to the inner circle of the cabinet, while health has been combined with sports and I think decreased in priority.

That's enough for now on the composition of the government. Although it's Pentecôte in France--a so-called "day of solidarity" in which people can choose to work for no pay to support the welfare of others--here in the US it is Memorial Day and time for a picnic.

Minimum service

Francisco asks for links regarding the attitudes of the unions after their meeting with Sarkozy. Here's one.

A more recent article suggests new rumblings on minimum service from the CGT Railway Workers Union, however. The head of that group sees an attack on the right to strike. It may be that there is internal disagreement within the CGT leadership about how best to confront the government on the range of issues currently up for negotiation. (Some readers undoubtedly know more than I do about the internal politics of the unions.) Francisco, you mention the popularity of "two-stage games" among your fellow graduate students. Far be it from me to denigrate rigorous models in political science, but let me suggest that the game you're witnessing here has far more than two stages and who knows how many dimensions.

Reply to Francisco on Unions

Francisco wrote (for full comment see previous post):

I wanted first to thank you for the blog. It's so clearly and stylishly written, and it really fills a niche for accessible, sophisticated commentary about France in English.

I'm a bit perplexed that more of a commenting community hasn't grown up around it. I think there's a kind of blogospheric Gresham's Law at work here: it's hard for a blog to attract an audience unless it's dominated by 2-line posts full of snark and irony. It's sad, but it's the way it is.


Many thanks, Francisco. I, too, am hoping to read more comments. I know from the logs that many people are reading, more than 1,500 to date, and quite a few are returning. So perhaps the replies will start coming.

Francisco continued:

One aspect I'm hoping you'll have lots more to say about is the Labor Union's dilemma between negotiating and manifesting. If I'm understanding correctly, Sarko/Fillon's whole plan is to guarantee minimum service during strikes precisely in order to declaw the unions and tilt their incentive structure away from the street and into the negotiating room. (Right?) The goal here is to avoid getting Juppéd, I think.

Now there's a lot to go over here, a whole complex of questions I'm unsure about. The first seems to be about identity: labor's self-image in France seems to be so strongly centered on the mythology of the street, it's difficult for me to imagine they'll forego that route entirely. And Sarko himself seems to want some sort of "baptism of fire" - he seems to cherish a win in a symbolically charged battle with an epic opponent in order to mark a break with the past. So isn't this "minimum service" skirmish ultimately more about ensuring the government's eventual success in a perfectly foretold confrontation than about avoiding that confrontation in the first place? Would Sarko/Fillon really be gratified by a kind of bureaucratic path to the reforms that doesn't even throw up any usable street footage for the TV cameras?
I'm not sure that any of these premises is correct, except that Sarkozy certainly doesn't want to be Juppéd. He already has a tough-guy image, so he doesn't need to break the Air Traffic Controllers as Reagan did or demonstrate that he's an Iron Gentleman in the Thatcher image. I think he'd rather demonstrate that, having arrived at the Elysée, he has other dimensions as well. The unions went into their meeting the other day loaded for bear, having been miffed, or pretending to be miffed, by Fillon's deadlines, but they emerged in a far more docile mood, suggesting they liked what they heard. You mention the mythology of the streets, but the unions by themselves haven't achieved much in the streets in decades, and on minimum service I'm not sure they want to count on others to go to the mat for them. The single labor contract is a another matter, and a far more complex negotiation.

Le Pen conceded the other day that he had underestimated Sarkozy. I think one way to underestimate him is to assume that "usable street footage" is what he's after. Confrontation suited his purposes when he was minister of the interior, but a president has many ways to keep his image before the public and doesn't need to appear with his jaw jutting on every occasion lest he be mistaken for weak. Sarkozy shed a tear at the Resistance memorial. He's seized any number of opportunities to soften his image. And I think he's a crafty enough commander to know that you win battles by engaging the enemy where he doesn't expect to find you.