Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reform as Revolution

De Gaulle once said that if you want the French to pay for building autoroutes, you have to give them poetry. That was then; this is now. Boileau is no longer the arbiter of elegance of French political prose. The style of the day is businesslike: declarative, energetic, apparently analytic but with the thumb placed firmly on one side of the balance.

This morning's speech is a fine example of the genre, and very effective in the "high motivational" mode. First, there were the crisp assertions of boldness and confidence:

Au risque de casser certains codes, j'ai décidé de vous parler sans détour

La vérité, c'est que ...

c'est un nouveau contrat social, profondément renouvelé, profondément différent, que nous devons élaborer ensemble.

Il y a aujourd'hui trois certitudes ...

The speaker assures us that his motives are pure:

Vous le savez, je ne suis pas un idéologue.

He expresses outrage and repeatedly reminds us that he is one who dares to say what others will not, who is prepared to violate taboos:

Promouvoir le travail, c'est aussi mettre fin au gâchis insensé ...

Cette situation, tout le monde le sait, est le résultat d'un raisonnement fallacieux
Qu'on me comprenne bien. Je ne cherche à stigmatiser personne.


Occasionally he lapses into empty hot air:

Ce qu'il faut faire, c'est jouer sur toutes les dimensions du problème.

There are neat symmetries that hide real asymmetries:

Le deuxième principe, c'est la conciliation de la mobilité et de la sécurité, pour les salariés comme pour les entreprises.

Le troisième principe, c'est de trouver le juste équilibre entre la responsabilité, qu'elle soit collective ou individuelle, et la solidarité.

On oppose trop souvent la responsabilité, qui serait de nature individualiste et potentiellement dangereuse pour la cohésion sociale, et la solidarité, qui serait chargée de toutes les valeurs positives. C'est une erreur.


There are ringing assertions of "values," reinforced by anaphora:

Ma conviction, c'est que nous avons besoin d'organisations fortes. ... Ma conviction ...

... and calls to action:

Mais si on veut donner plus de place au dialogue social, il faut là encore que chacun prenne ses responsabilités


Mockery is reserved for the stubbornest of taboos (the single labor contract):

Tout le monde sait que nous ne pouvons plus tenir sur cette ligne Maginot juridique. Tout le monde sait ...
In substance there was nothing that has not been heard time and time again: the French need to work longer hours and more years; they need to pay more out of pocket for medical care; they need to prepare themselves for less stability of employment; the "French social model," which a majority of voters thought they were defending when they voted "no" on the European constitutional referendum, cannot endure:

Pour ma part, ce que je veux fondamentalement vous dire, et dire aux Français par votre intermédiaire, c'est que l'ampleur des réformes que nous sommes en train d'engager trouvent leur justification dans la ferme conviction que notre organisation sociale produit aujourd'hui plus d'injustice que de justice, qu'il faut en changer et que c'est un nouveau contrat social, profondément renouvelé, profondément différent, que nous devons élaborer ensemble.

Ce contrat est fondé sur le travail, le mérite et l'égalité des chances, qui sont des valeurs sociales, des valeurs généreuses, dont nous ne devons pas rougir mais que nous devons au contraire assumer. Ce contrat suppose que notre système social renoue avec les principes de justice et d'efficacité. Il exige des changements profonds.

The key point was perhaps this:

On me dit que je prends tous les risques parce que je veux trouver des solutions à tous les problèmes à la fois dans un champ où, paraît-il, tout est " miné ", tout est compliqué. Je crois que c'est justement tout le contraire, que c'est la réforme par petits bouts, sans cohérence d'ensemble, qui serait vouée à l'échec.


But is this passage to be read as social and economic analysis or strategic calculation? Is it necessary to attack on all fronts at once so that the "enemy" cannot concentrate his defenses at a single point of attack? Or is it rather that systemic change is doomed unless the system changes as one, rather than element by element? Counterexamples to both propositions could be cited, but the exercise would be academic. We have heard from the man in charge. Now we shall see what ensues.



L'Autre Jacques

Cécilia Sarkozy will attend the funeral of TV entertainer Jacques Martin, to whom she was once married. Martin was an entertainer of the old school. Not everyone liked his work. But this bit on the imperfect of the subjunctive should bring a smile to the lips of any student who has slogged his way through to the end of French grammar 101.

Vite, vite, vite ...

Thanks to the Internet, I watched the speech. Thanks to the Internet, I have the instant summaries. Thanks to the Internet, I can tell you that Xavier Bertrand sucked his index finger during a portion of the talk; Martin Hirsch seemed a tad uncomfortable; and the gaggle of staffers standing in one corner of the room, to the president's right, made the scene look just like a White House press conference, no doubt by design. The production values were a bit off: the blank blue background matched too closely the blue of the bleu-blanc-rouge, the EU flag seemed to be hiding in Marianne's skirts, and the inexplicable failure of the French to discover the teleprompter ill-served the president, who otherwise works the invisible TV audience well, including a pause to straighten his tie just before launching into the section on the reform of the special retirement regimes--a rather stagy touch, so stagy, in fact, that the actor himself made a self-conscious little joke about the contrived nature of the gesture.

I will be writing about the rhetoric of the speech when I have a moment to read the text, because the rhetoric was its most striking feature. In substance there was really nothing new. We need to reform this, we need to reform that. "Everyone knows" that change is needed. "I want" this to happen. "I have asked" such-and-such a minister to make sure that it does happen. "I shall be keeping an eye" on the discussions. "Discussions there will be," because one doesn't reform without discussion, but one doesn't discuss without reforming, not on my watch. Et cetera. It was another campaign speech: long on will, short on specifics.

Which is as it should be, since the details must emerge from the discussions. So we wait again, assured again that the will to change is there, impressed again by the vigor of the performance, and wondering again exactly what will happen when, if ever. Except for the merger of UNEDIC and ANPE: we'll have a "report" on that in under two weeks. Promis. This is not exactly the stuff of the Appel du 18 juin, but it's not Sarkozy's fault that what needs to be done isn't as thrilling as the impresario in him might wish.

Quiet Before the Storm?

Strange. Sarkozy not only monopolizes the media when he speaks but also silences the media when he doesn't. Most mornings I wake up to find that the president has sparked a flurry of articles. But today, with a major speech scheduled for the afternoon, it's as if a mute had been dropped on the morning's news wire. Nothing but the leavings of yesterday's dispatches: Kouchner says he's not really a va-t-en-guerre, why would anyone thing that just because he said it was time to prepare for war with Iran. Manuel Valls said it really, really wasn't helpful to blame the candidate for her loss, but nevertheless he still had great respect for Lionel Jospin, whom he served as spokesman in 2002. Bertrand Delanoë denied having reserved the url "delanoe2012.com." And the Flemish and the Walloons still don't get along. Xavier Bertrand says that the French want to reform the special regimes, and François Chérèque says that he's willing to reform them too, as long as it's on a case-by-case basis.

Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. So I'll wait too.