Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Clearstream

The judges investigating the Clearstream affair have recovered notes that had been erased from the computer of General Rondot, a key figure in the affair. The notes appear to contradict the testimony given by Dominique de Villepin. Chirac is less directly implicated as well. But the evidence consists solely of statements made by Jean-Louis Gergorin, another key figure, to Rondot, so how much of a threat this new development will be to Villepin and Chirac depends on how credible Gergorin is judged to be. See also here.

The Racial Barrier

An article in L'Express looks at the success (or lack of it) of minorities in politics, the administration, and business in France.

Universities--The Opposition Speaks


For some, a picture is a worth a thousand words and a moving picture is worth a million. L'Autre Campagne, which produced anti-Sarkozy videos during the presidential campaign, is now producing videos aimed at specific reforms. For a series on the university, see here. Number 1 in the series deserves particular attention, since it features Christophe Charle, the leading historian of the French university. Charle's view is that the proposed "autonomy" for the universities will diminish the autonomy that currently exists, as he sees it, owing to the influence of corps intermédiaires, namely, the councils of enseignants et chercheurs at each university. By strengthening the hand of university presidents vis-à-vis these councils, the reform will decentralize power away from Paris but at the same time concentrate it in the executive office of each university, Charle argues. This is plausible, although critics will respond that it is the expected "corporatist" reaction of the corporation of enseignants et chercheurs, of which Charle is a member. Note that the representatives of this group did not assent to last week's bargain between the ministry and the university presidents on the one hand and student unions on the other.

"We're not all idiots"

Sarkozy's ouverture to the left has provoked consternation on both sides of the aisle. On the right, UMP deputy for Alpes-Maritimes Lionel Luca spoke for many in his camp when he said, "If all the competent people are on the other side, there comes a point when you have to ask if it wouldn't have been better if they had won the election. We're not all idiots on this side of the aisle."

His disappointment is comprehensible. So is the anger on the left at seeing their ranks decimated by the president's poaching (and even telephone calls to people who aren't likely to join his government, such as key Royal advisor Julien Dray). Old-timer Pierre Mauroy says, "This is no longer an opposition, it's a routed army." Louis Mermaz comments that "if we're not careful, Sarkozy is going to take care of our refoundation for us."

"The Synthesis of Yes and No"

I haven't yet commented on Sarkozy's July 2 speech in Strasbourg. It was an extraordinary performance: passionate, forceful, resolute.

But was it coherent? Sarko spoke of a "common will" expressed by the June 23 mini-treaty agreement, a common will "stronger than any national egoism." He announced in no uncertain terms that "France is back in Europe" and that its return heralded an end to the "depoliticization" that had resulted in the "no" vote on the referendum, an end to the substitution of "technical expertise for political power." (That last assertion could serve as a motto for the Sarkozy presidency, incidentally).

Yet there were also irrepressible outbursts of the supposedly banished "national egoism," and these have begun to draw fire. For instance, Sarkozy asserted that "one can't apply to the four or five countries that assure the defense of all the rest the same deficit rules that apply to others, since we don't have the same defense budget." The next day his finance minister announced that France was giving itself until 2012 to return to the budget discipline to which all member states have agreed. Since the big-ticket budget items* contributing to France's continuing violation of the EU deficit ceiling have nothing to do with defense and everything to do with Sarkozy's substitution of political voluntarism for technical expertise, this invocation of a certain feudal droit du seigneur--we defend you, hence a part of what you produce belongs to us--has been greeted with raised eyebrows in other European capitals.

Sarko's voluntarism did not end there, moreover. He called for an "end to naiveté," by which he meant an end to the notion that "real, actually existing" markets are "free and undistorted." Having had those words removed from the mini-treaty, he was quick to drive the point home. There are all sorts of ways of distorting competition without resorting to open protectionism, he indicated, and France would be having none of it. But Alistair Darling, the new chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK, was having none of Sarkozy:

In his first press interview, the new chancellor also made clear his determination to join the battle against the economic strategy for Europe espoused by Nicholas Sarkozy, the new French president, who questioned the value of open competition. Mr Darling said: “I do not believe in economic patriotism. I think it is nonsense. Economic patriotism is protectionism and there is no other name for it.”


Meanwhile, Lorenzo Bini Smaghi of the European Central Bank board also let it be known that he was not as speechless in Sarkozy's presence as his domestic opponents appear to be:

The European Central Bank launched a stiff defence of eurozone exchange rate policy-making on Tuesday in an apparent rebuff to Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president. ...

Mr Bini Smaghi's comments are likely to be echoed next week by Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, at a meeting of European finance ministers, which Mr Sarkozy will also attend. The French president argued last month that the eurozone "should not be the only area in the world where the currency is not put at the service of growth".**

So it is ironic that Sarkozy, decried at home as a "neo-liberal" and exponent of la pensée unique, meets his first real opposition in the wake of an initial encounter with outsiders who recognize at once that he is anything but. Optimistically, Sarkozy described the mini-treaty as a "synthesis of the yes and the no" in the referendum vote but added that this was not a return to the "juste-milieu" but a "transcending of contradictions." A very Hegelian reading of a treaty that might have been thought to be less a Phenomenology of the European Spirit than a veiling of dissension that is far from aufgehoben.

* Just after completing this post, I turned to Le Monde, whose lead this morning is an article reporting that the social security deficit for 2007 will be 12 billion euros, rather than the forecast 8 billion.

** It is by no means obvious that the central bankers are right and Sarkozy is wrong. Indeed, controversy on this point is one of many reasons to find the phrase pensée unique such a lamentable mental shorthand. Nevertheless, for a broad defense of central banking as an agent of stability (the importance of which Sarko glosses over by extolling growth to the exclusion of all else), see this piece by Brad De Long.

Be Careful What You Wish For


François Hollande delivered the opposition's reply to François Fillon's statement of his government's program before the National Assembly. He must have been dispirited by the sight of former comrades on the ministers' bench applauding the prime minister's speech, because he didn't have much of substance to say. It seemed to him enough to disparage his opposite number as the mere errand boy of a president he described as "omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresident." Playing hedgehog rather than fox, Hollande presented not an omnivorous omnibus critique but an ominously obsessed diatribe omniconsumed by the ominous absence présente, the "one big thing" he seemed to consider worthy of comment. Mesmerized by the presidential cult of personality, he succeeded only in reinforcing it. Later, on France2, he called for a strengthening of the parliament as a check on the aggrandized presidency. "We want a real parliament facing a real executive," he said, and cited the example of the United States.

Be careful what you wish for, mon cher François. Here in the United States, we celebrate on Independence Day the independence of our real executive from the rule of law, while our real parliament distinguishes itself by its omni-impotence. "Structural reform" is not the panacea that the opposition seems to hope for. The transfer of power to the executive and evacuation of the legislative function are common characteristics of all democratic polities in this era of mass mediation. If Hollande failed to provide a persuasive remedy, the fault is not entirely his. Rebalancing government will require the insight of some Montesquieu of the Media Age, not a beleaguered lame-duck party man.