Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Slippage

The latest TNS-Sofres poll shows Sarkozy's approval rating slipping to 53 percent, Fillon's to 44. States of grace never last, but I think it's a sign of serious trouble when a president rises as high as Sarko did so rapidly and then subsides to a rating equivalent to his electoral score. It means that his effort to broaden his base through ouverture, omnipresence, and all-fronts offensive has now alienated as many people as it may initially have enticed. Six of the eight rail unions have announced a strike for Nov. 13 that could tie up transport for quite some time, since the strike notice is renewable. We are therefore at a testing point. Up to now, Sarkozy has been adroit in dealing with serious resistance. He gave ground when university presidents and student unions resisted his university reforms, saving appearances by postponing the most difficult issues, such as selection at the master's level, until later. He chose a similar tactic at the Grenelle of the environment: the carbon tax and insecticide issues were finessed, not resolved. On the matter of the special regimes, his rhetoric has been firm, his iconography firmer: the finger poking the chest of the shop steward seemed to say "they shall not pass," yet his words implied a major concession. The bewildering array of compromises now under discussion (despite denials by the unions that discussions are taking place) may allow another face-saving "victory" on principles modified by accommodation on details. If so, the hyperpresidency may prove to be something of a wet firecracker. Pierre Moscovici made the point the other night on À vous de juger: overexposure dissipates mystery. Charles Péguy once said, Tout commence en mystique, to which Paul Valéry replied, Oui, et tout finit en politique. At 53 percent approval, we have returned to the realm of politics.

French Competitiveness

The World Economic Forum ranks countries on competitiveness in the global economy. The methods used are controversial and rely heavily on the opinions of CEOs rather than more objective data, though of course the opinions and expectations of CEOs are certainly not without influence on the evolution of the system. In any case, France ranks 18th this year: a respectable position and certainly no comfort for "declinists" who argue that France has fallen by the wayside and can no longer compete. The United States, which returns to the number 1 position after being eclipsed last year by Switzerland, is rated high primarily because of its "capacity for innovation," prowess in research and development, and remarkable institutions of higher education. Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Finland, and Singapore also score well. An earlier post, in which I note that several of these countries outspend France by a considerable margin in higher education, suggests one area where additional French investment might yield a good dividend.

Open Thread, Suggestions Welcome

A reader's e-mail suggested that he would have liked to suggest topics for future discussion but found no way to do so on the site. So I am offering this open thread as a place to post suggestions (use the "comments" link below this message). Other comments are as always welcome.

As you can see from the stat counter in the lower right column, we're now over 30,000 page views. Curiously, the recent flap with Lesley Stahl led to a temporary surge of traffic, almost three times the normal volume. This has now begun to subside. It seems likely that many people who know nothing else about Sarkozy will know that he can be abrupt and peremptory when pushed to discuss matters he doesn't want to discuss. And many like him for it, perhaps because they see a flash of temper as a mark of authenticity.

Allocation of Education Funding

The CAS report I mentioned in the previous post has some interesting data on France's allocation of its education expenditures (see pp. 37-44). Total spending on education, at nearly 6 percent of GDP, is toward the high end among European countries, but spending on primary education is below the EU27 average. By contrast, spending on secondary education is among the highest, whereas spending on higher education is above average but well below what Finland, Sweden, and Denmark (models of flexicurity, modern services, and high-tech economies) spend. The dropout rate is fairly high, and while 2/3 of the French graduate from high school, the graduation level is over 80 percent in many countries.

The low spending on primary education is particularly troubling, since many studies have shown that poor preparation at this level makes success at higher levels much more difficult to achieve.