Friday, June 22, 2007

Cabinets, Diversity, Independence

Having returned from Greece a few hours ago, I face the daunting prospect of choosing a point at which to dive into the abundance of French political news of the past 11 days. But first let me thank the guest bloggers and readers who kept the faith during my absence. Indeed, I was pleased to discover that the readership had actually increased while I was away, but this was largely an artifact of a favorable mention on Commonweal magazine's Web site, which pointed readers to various posts on Christine Boutin and the Catholic vote. One interesting byproduct of keeping a blog is that one discovers the strange and unpredictable webs that are woven in the universe of information.

Now, to the subject of the title. We have a second Fillon government, which confirms the remarkable ouverture, diversity, and parity of the first. We have the spectacular departure of Juppé, the rebuke-promotion of Borloo, the unambiguous promotion of Lagarde. And we have various skeptical comments by guest posters and readers that all of this is to be viewed with a jaundiced eye, that in a "presidentialized" regime like Sarkozy's* the complexion of the cabinet scarcely matters, and that really it amounts to nothing more than a "dog-and-pony show."

Let me say at once that I am skeptical of the skepticism, not to say the cynicism. Of course one is always well-advised to maintain a robustly skeptical attitude in approaching politics, which brims with good intentions while rife with subterfuge and ulterior motive. But the rush to judgment strikes me as premature, though perfectly comprehensible. Intellectuals pride themselves on their ability to penetrate the surface of things, to perceive the reality behind the appearance. Everyone is an armchair Machiavelli, deciphering the petty stratagems of les grands and thus cutting them down to size. And yet it's always possible to read things two ways. Perhaps Caligula is really fond of dogs and ponies, or thinks the Romans are and will be ungovernable unless they have them. Doris Kearns Goodwin recently wrote a popular history proposing that Lincoln's greatness lay precisely in his readiness to compose a cabinet of his most powerful rivals, men with whom he disagreed profoundly about many fundamental issues of the day. Contemporaries denounced his cynicism; posterity praises his shrewdness.

I have not taken leave of my senses to the point where I am prepared to compare Sarkozy to Lincoln. I am nevertheless brought up short by the charge that his appointments are purely cynical. I don't think that a pure cynic would have appointed personalities as formidable as Bernard Kouchner and Martin Hirsch. And I don't see why their comrades of yesterday should regard them as traitors for seizing the opportunity to see if it might just be possible, even under a government of the right, to do something for the suffering victims of Darfur or the excluded poor of France. I don't see why Fadéla Amara should be accused of succumbing to personal ambition because she is prepared to test Christine Boutin's profession of Christian charity toward humble Muslims. Is party loyalty to a party in total disarray worth more than the personal integrity of maintaining a consistent commitment to universal and humanitarian goals? One would have to hate Sarkozy and "the right" more than I do or can to answer that question in the affirmative. If his opening is a sham, it will soon be clear enough, and the experiment can be declared a failure. But for now, why not seize the chance?

As for the core of the new government, it seems that I was premature in noting the return of Alain Juppé, as I did in this blog's very first post. To prove that I can be as much of an armchair Machiavelli as anyone else, let me suggest that this outcome might not be altogether disagreeable to Sarkozy. By bringing Juppé in and making him environmental czar, virtually a co-prime minister, he had hoped to domesticate a politician who is potentially his most formidable rival on the right. Now the voters have clipped Juppé's wings for him, and the deposed minister's bitter--almost Nixonianly bitter--snarl at the press suggests that Juppé, whose mastery of the dossiers always exceeded his political shrewdness and tact, will never climb all the way back, though he may well remain a force to be reckoned with on the right.

And what a divine surprise Juppé's fall proved to be for Christine Lagarde, who, as I mentioned earlier, was once chosen by Forbes as "one of the 50 most powerful women in the world," a qualification suggesting that the post of agriculture minister was hardly the final destination for which she was intended, even in a country that still--happily--makes a romance of its millennial campagne and stalwart peasantry, that peau de chagrin that, no matter how much it dwindles in size, looms ever larger in the imagination. Now Lagarde--a woman!!--will preside over that most masculine bastion Bercy, over the finances and economy of France. A remarkable step. And Borloo--more of a courtroom showman, one feels, than Lagarde, the former administrative head of Baker and McKenzie--will conceivably find his effets de manche of greater use at the Ministry of the Environment, where he will need them to placate the many environmentally interested constituencies.

These are the comments on the government I want to make for now. Over the next few days I will turn my attention to the Socialist Party, which comes out of the legislatives somewhat better placed than it seemed it would be only a fortnight ago. I'm not so sure that this is a good thing for the PS. A devastating defeat might have been healthier in the long run. In fact, I think the defeat came at an opportune moment for Sarkozy, who might have been feeling the kind of hubris that George Bush felt after his election, when he announced that he now had political capital and was preparing to spend it. Political capital, like capital tout court, can suffer a drastic decline in value overnight, as Bush learned soon enough. The chastening of the right, which some blame on Borloo's inopportune allusion to la TVA sociale,** has conceivably induced a healthy caution that might otherwise have been absent. By contrast, the PS feels that it squeaked by rather honorably after all, and this may blunt the knives of the reformers just when they need to be sharpest. But let me defer discussion of the "refoundation" of the PS to future posts.

* I'm not sure why Sarkozy's government should be viewed as more "presidentialized" than other Fifth Republican governments. Remember that it was Chirac who said of Sarko when the latter was interior minister, "Je décide, il exécute."

** In the comments to one of the guest posts, there is a discussion of la TVA sociale (note that the noun is feminine, by the way). I don't want to belabor the blog with technical discussions of public finance, but the key difference between a value-added tax and a sales tax has to do not with the point of collection but with what economists call the "incidence" of the tax and its relation to various "elasticities" within the economic machine. A TVA is a more flexible instrument than a sales tax and, combined with various tax credits, can in principle be used by an activist government to fine-tune the economy. It has the advantage over a payroll tax that its incidence does not fall on labor and therefore does not encourage firms to substitute capital for labor. Like a sales tax, however, it has the disadvantage of being regressive, although this defect can be compensated by tax credits if a government so chooses. It is certainly a reasonable tool for any government to consider among its various instruments of economic management and need not be more or less "anti-labor" than any other type of tax. Everything depends on the way in which the instrument is used. And Socialists have used the TVA, and proposed modifications in its structure, in the past, so it was rather disingenuous of them to jump on Borloo's gaffe (or was it candor?) as they did. But politics is politics. To be sure, Sarkozy has made no secret of his intention to shift the incidence of the tax burden away from firms and onto consumers in the hope of encouraging job creation. One can quarrel with the details of the theory, but at least one knows what he intends to do. What the PS intended was and is less clear.