Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ségo at Harvard

A Crimson article on Ségolène Royal's upcoming visit to Harvard. I am going to be doing some interpreting for her in various meetings with students and the local press and will of course report on all these events in the blog, but the posts may be delayed a bit, as the whirl of events around her visit will take me away from my keyboard. The ransom of glory ...

The French Base in Abu Dhabi

One of the few tangible results of Sarkozy's recent foray into the Persian Gulf was an agreement to establish a French military base in Abu Dhabi. France will put 400 troops into the region, breaking the US monopoly on western military presence in the region (outside the "coalition of the willing," to be sure, and UN peacekeeping forces elsewhere). To what end? Well, in part to satisfy a desire on the part of countries that Sarkozy calls "France's friends" to send a signal to the US that, if necessary, wealthy oil emirates can acquire military hardware from other sources. So says Defense News. It seems that conservative Arab regimes regard French policy as "more moderate and rational" than American policy, with its rapid shifts of focus.

An analyst at the Gulf Research Center, Musa Al-Qallab, said that "the new base will boost the French defense industry, whose regional sales include the Mirage 2000-9 jet fighter, Leclerc main battle tanks and a large variety of Eurocopter helicopters.
' This military partnership will eventually give a strong momentum to the French defense companies competing with U.S. and Russia for the lucrative UAE and gulf markets,' he said."

Dallas vs. Chateauvallon

On Sunday, Ségolène Royal appeared on Michel Drucker's Vivement Dimanche and spoke of her breakup with François Hollande. "I was deceived," she said. I haven't seen this myself, since the TV5 rebroadcast of Drucker seems to be running a week behind. In any case, four other Socialist women have publicly criticized Royal for making a public spectacle of her private life. How can one take such a course and criticize Sarkozy for doing the same, they ask (naively, perhaps). "You have Dallas on one side, Chateauvallon on the other," said Michèle Sabban, a regional councilor for Ile-de-France. Other critics are Anne Hidalgo, a deputy mayor of Paris, Annick Lepetit, a deputy from Paris, and Elisabeth Guigou, the former justice minister.

Yet it seems to me that Royal knows perfectly well what she's doing. She aims to "presidentialize" the party by becoming its leader and making it the vehicle of her presidential ambitions. To carry this off, she has to become the focal point of all attention, not one voice among others in a debate. If her private life can rivet the audience, then her private life, or at least a carefully tailored public narrative encompassing known facts about her private life, must be put to use.

Toujours de l'audace

I don't want to belabor the Société Générale affair, about which I'm sure we still have a lot to learn. But what we know already boggles the mind. Rue89 describes several alerts issued by Eurex to the bank as early as November of last year. These alerts allegedly triggered internal investigations, but investigators were put off the scent, they say, by e-mails fabricated by Kerviel. I don't think it takes an especially skeptical mind to wonder why the bank's investigators were fobbed off so easily. Presumably Eurex issued its queries because Kerviel had taken unusually large positions that seemed not to be covered by corresponding counter-positions. Presumably the e-mails he fabricated were intended to give the impression that counter-positions existed. Presumably there were counter-parties to those counter-positions who could have been contacted. After all, that is how his scheme was eventually unraveled. Presumably the effort to take this extra step was quite minimal. So why was it not taken, particularly after repeated warnings from Eurex? This story is close to impossible to believe, and in fact we know now that the bank itself doesn't believe it, because it fired five of Kerviel's superiors, presumably because they failed to follow up these warnings. Why is there not more clamor about this in France? It's all well and good to denounce "finance capitalism," that faceless bogeyman. It's a little more difficult when it comes to taking on old friends and colleagues. Pierre Moscovici alluded in his blog the other day to the fact that Daniel Bouton is an old acquaintance and teacher. Bouton may well be a perfectly decent gentleman and a victim in this affair, like so many others, but the fact remains that he is the man in charge and that thus far his answers have been infuriatingly vague for a man universally described as possessing a brilliant mind.

And then there is the matter of potential insider trading by Robert Day, also mentioned by Rue89. Day, an SG board member, heads the Trust Company of the West and is one of the "world's richest people." He is a "Bush Pioneer," having raised over $100,000 for W, as well as a friend of Warren Christopher's, and he once entertained Bill Clinton on his yacht. A well-connected individual indeed.

Popularity

It's no secret that Nicolas Sarkozy's approval ratings have been declining. Two recent polls suggest that 52-55% percent now think that France is "headed in the wrong direction." Fillon now scores higher ratings than Sarko.

Two explanations are generally advanced for this decline: the Bruni/bling-bling argument and the pouvoir d'achat/puissance de la présidence argument.

The Bruni/bling-bling argument holds that the president's exploitation of his private life, meretricious tastes, and lavish self-indulgence have offended some voters, particularly elder voters, and destroyed the alternative image that Sarko had, with some success, attempted to create for himself, namely, that of a hard-working, even ascetic, statesman who had made a gift of his person to France. As François Hollande neatly encapsulates the case, "Sarkozy is paying dearly for his vacations."

The pouvoir d'achat/puissance de la présidence argument holds that Sarkozy's candid press-conference statement that there is really very little that the president can do to increase purchasing power undermined his effort to portray himself as a wizard capable of effecting change merely by willing it. Libé compares this misstep to Mitterrand's statement that "we've tried everything" to remedy the unemployment situation and to Jospin's statement that the state could do nothing to prevent Michelin from closing a plant. These moments of accidental candor puncture the illusion of presidential power, which, according to this theory, a president must do everything to maintain.

There are two problems with these arguments. The first is that presidents nearly always decline sharply in popularity once the "state of grace" is over. In retrospect it's always easy to find the "missteps" that explain the inevitable. The second is that the people are taken for gullible dupes, who fall time and again for the illusion of presidential omnipotence, as though intoxicated by the wine of promises that flows freely in campaigns, only to wake up with a hangover the morning after.

Perhaps what the polls actually reflect is a failure of pedagogy. One of the roles of a president is to be a teacher. Sarkozy as campaigner was actually a pretty good teacher, better, at any rate, than his opponents. He set forth a plausible view of certain genuine problems with the French economy. The French work fewer annual hours per capita than their neighbors, for instance. Voters found his lecture series interesting and elected him. He made a few changes. Certain promised results have yet to appear. People therefore expect another series of lectures: now that you've taken some steps and seen the results, how has your assessment of the situation changed? What steps do you plan to take next? An admission of non-omnipotence is actually a first, and healthy, step. But nothing further has been heard.

We know that Sarkozy's campaign lecture series was swotted up with the help of Emmanuelle Mignon and the various intellectuals she enlisted to prepare the candidate on a range of issues. But now that he is in office, he finds himself too busy, too solicited on all sides, to continue his education. And having crammed himself for the exam without acquiring the capacity to think through the issues for himself, he finds himself without ready answers, and therefore is testy when pressed. Anyone who has taught can recognize the bright student who falls back on answers learned by rote, who has excelled in an introductory course but who is likely to hit a wall in a more advanced and demanding setting.

Bouton on France2

Daniel Bouton, the head of Société Générale, appeared on the 8 PM news on France2 last night to do damage control. Metaphor continues to run riot. As I mentioned yesterday, the image of the ship in a storm requiring a seasoned captain to remain at the helm continues to be popular. Bouton used it. But then he compared Jérôme Kerviel's feat in circumventing the bank's controls to that of a daredevil leaping from a speeding car in flames to another alongside it. This seemed a less than inspired choice, since it portrayed the bank as a blazing automobile careening out of control--which may well be accurate but hardly an image that a crackerjack PR firm would have chosen, suggesting that SG may be in such dire straits that it has had to cut the public relations budget drastically. When David Pujadas pushed the banker to comment on Kerviel's testimony that circumventing the bank's safeguards had been child's play and required no sophisticated knowledge, Bouton's answer was classic: How can you believe a man guilty of such a colossal fraud? Again, any competent advisor would have counseled against such a non sequitur.

Bouton also emphasized repeatedly that SG employs 130,000 people. The rest, we are asked to believe, are not only as honest as the day is long but deeply committed to the bank and its present management. So we were meant to gather, as well, from the brief segments of employees demonstrating in favor of management outside SG headquarters in La Défense and of employees at a branch office in Montpellier offering their support. These manifestations of solidarity touched Bouton deeply, he said, and he brought his hands to his chest to emphasize his emotion.

I hope he's better at finance than he is at la com.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Prisa and Le Monde

Juan Luis Cebrian, the head of the Prisa group that publishes El Pais in Spain, offers his views on the financial situation of Le Monde, in which his group has an interest. He and Arnaud Lagardère have met with Le Monde's society of journalists (SRM) to try to work out a new management structure. Cebrian's view is that the journalists should indeed have the editorial independence they insist upon, but in return the stockholders should enjoy "managerial independence" to restructure and allocate resources as they see fit. Of course the idea that managerial decisions are neatly separable from editorial orientations is a fantasy and the root of the problem, but Cebrian evidently sees himself as a mediator of sorts, not being tainted, as Lagardère is, by a friendship with Sarkozy.

More from Philippe Cohen here.

Obama on Sarko

Here.

SR on SG

Ségolène Royal wants Société Générale to "reimburse families buried in debt" in the amount of 7 billion euros, the 5 billion it lost in the Kerviel speculation and the 2 billion it lost on subprimes. She doesn't explain how the bank is supposed to lay hold of the 7 billion it lost in order to rescue its debtors. Is she serious? Apparently she thinks that when a bank "loses" money, it goes into the pockets of the bank's directors.

Such empty verbiage is apparently intended to reinforce Royal's image as a compassionate friend of the little guy. Unfortunately it simultaneously undermines her claim to be a serious steward of the economy.

Vive la différence

Why writing books can be hazardous to your sanity: could two book reviews be more different than this and this? For the record, I agree with Laborde: Joan Scott has written an excellent book.

Financial Franglais

Surprisingly, I haven't seen any comment on the fact that the jargon of options trading seems to be entirely franglais, indeed a sort of financial pidgin all its own: le trader, le middle-office, le back-office, les stock-options. Surely the eternal pourfendeurs of Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism will want to seize on this linguistic proof that the barbarians are inside the walls. Curiously, however, the word for a financial debacle is krach, pronounced "crack" and obviously derived from German rather than from the English "crash," though the onomatopoeic origin is the same in all three languages:

OED: An onomatop{oe}ic word having the same relation to crack that clash has to clack and clap: see CLASH, DASH. There are possible associations also with crase, craze (though here the a has been long, and the s pronounced as z prob. from the 14th c.). The mod.Scandinavian langs. show Icel. krassa ‘perfricare, dilacerare’ (Haldors.), Sw. krasa, Da. krase to crackle, and the phrases Sw. slå i kras, Da. gå i kras to dash in pieces, break to shivers; but these are app. only analogous formations.


On the caste system that exists in the world des traders, see here.

Shades of Difference

It has been interesting to watch fissures already evident in the Sarkozy team widening as the Société Générale affair evolves. Two days ago we had the president's own reaction, that such a colossal failure of oversight must not go "without consequences." Of course, the president, despite his past as finance minister and well-known affinity for billionaires and "bling-bling," is not, as I have several times had occasion to remark, a part of the elite business establishment, of the restricted group of énarques (for the most part) who shuffle back and forth between ministerial cabinets and corporate boardrooms in the venerable practice known in French as pantouflage. His friends are from a less discreet and staid group, the press barons, media moguls, construction tycoons, and corporate raiders, which may to some degree explain their taste for the flashy, tawdry m'as-tu vu style that Sarko has adopted and that seems no longer to be working its seductive magic on French voters, to judge by the polls.

Within his government, however, and within the UMP, there are others closer to the more buttoned-up business establishment. Christine Lagarde, a former corporate lawyer, is the most prominent of these. She has strayed off the reservation a number of times in the past: for instance, when she said that a policy of "austerity" would be required to remedy France's budget woes and was immediately rebuked by Sarkozy. Yesterday she said that, despite the president's call for "consequences," it didn't make sense to replace the "captain" of the ship (SG head Daniel Bouton) in the midst of a storm. Today, as the SG's board meets to consider Bouton's fate, Patrick Ollier, a UMP deputy and chair of the economic affairs committee, used the same metaphor, while Philippe Pruvost, a member of the board, gave it a more dire twist by saying that "when the ship is sinking, you don't throw the captain overboard."

Meanwhile, journalists Laurent Joffrin and Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette debate the issue in similar terms, although now the suggestion is that Lagarde is the one to be thrown overboard: though not the captain, she is, for Joffrin, at least, the first mate who fell asleep on watch and allowed the ship of state to run aground, as it were.

Inconsequential debate of this sort is common when large systems go awry. The initial instinct is to find a culprit, as if eliminating the rotten apple will make the rest of the basket fresh again. More sober students of these kinds of crises are rightly suspicious of these simplifying metaphors, whether they involve storm-tossed schooners or putrifying fruit. I suggest that all French commentators read Peter Temin's study of the panic of 1837 in the United States. Writing a century and a half after the fact, Temin explains why all contemporary observers, misled by the protracted struggle between another president and another bank, got the story seriously wrong. A century and a half from now, we may understand more fully how the 1990s boom in high tech, the housing bubble, Fed policy under Greenspan, the American subprime crisis, the Asian miracle, the Maastricht treaty, and the securitization of everything initiated the decline of the West that Spengler thought he saw happening decades earlier. Or not. But make no mistake: the tectonic plates are in motion (to use yet another simplifying metaphor), and each new upheaval is but a manifestation of a situation still in flux and likely to remain so for quite some time to come.

Yet some contemporary observers seem to me to have a fairly lucid picture of at least the immediate changes ahead. For instance, there is this interesting analysis of the way in which global savings imbalances will work themselves out by a massive infusion of Asian reserves into western banks, which find themselves unable to "securitize" long-term debt in the wake of the subprime crisis and must therefore bring their loan portfolios back onto their balance sheets, which requires large amounts of new equity. And large amounts of new equity can no longer be raised at home.

LATE WORD: The "captain" has been asked to remain with the ship. Interestingly, Bouton, as well-connected an énarque as one can find in France, was the author of a report on corporate governance for the government.

Additional references: on public relations by SG, on committee to manage losses.

Life in the Sixteenth Becomes Intolerable

The financial system is crashing down, the president's approval rating is plummeting, the IMF has reduced its estimate of global economic growth by 20 percent for next year, but UMP deputy and Paris city councilor Claude Goasguen has bigger problems on his mind: the dog poop on the sidewalks of the 16th Arrondissement of Paris. In a stinging letter to deputy mayor Yves Contassot, Goasguen reveals the parlous state of life that reigns in les quartiers huppés, apparently reduced to a standard of living hitherto associated with the less developed nations of Africa or Latin America. Here is Goasguen's "J'accuse!"

The situation is becoming intolerable. The garbage is not picked up at regular times and in some cases remains on the sidewalk for a day or two, shedding quantities of detritus. Trash and cast-off items accumulate in certain places, and our streets are transformed into public dumps. The sidewalks are not cleaned regularly, and canine waste impedes pedestrians, at times causing unfortunate accidents. All this filth is insalubrious and may result in risks to health.


Imagine that. Insalubrious and may result in risks to health!! A double whammy.

Municipal elections ahead! Time to do some constituent service. "All politics is local." -- Tip O'Neill

A Third Way Avant la Lettre

La Vie des idées has a very interesting review-essay by Nicolas Delalande of Serge Audier's book on Léon Bourgeois, the founder of the social-liberal reformist movement known as Solidarism. His credo was, "The isolated individual does not exist." Bourgeois held several ministerial portfolios in the Third Republic and was the first president of the League of Nations. Audier's book is one of a number of recent works by French scholars exploring a reformist tradition in French politics that had previously been neglected. There are links to on-line versions of Bourgeois's works.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Back to School for Attali

The Attali report says:
"Find ways to ensure that by the end of the sixth grade every pupil will have mastered reading, writing, arithmetic, working in groups, and computer literacy"

Jacques Attali, on his blog, writes:
"... ce sont des hommes qui, presque à mains nus, ont fait vacillé un pouvoir infiniment puissant : David tuant Goliath et gagnant la guerre ..."

To quote Captain Renault of Casablanca, I am shocked, shocked, to discover that Jacques Attali is the beneficiary of a social promotion and needs to return to the sixth grade. Two mistakes in one sentence ...

Of course he'll probably correct these errors when he sees this post, but I swear this is copied straight from his Web page at 19:16 EST, 1/29/2008.

Kerviel's Story

"It is impossible to generate such [huge] profits with small positions. Which leads me to say that when I was in the black, my superiors closed their eyes." Libé summary here, Le Monde here, full testimony here.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Left of the Left

La Forge describes itself as an "independent think tank" of intellectuals, academics, bureaucrats, and activists who "analyze and decipher society and advocate solutions." Its founders include Benoît Hamon, a left-wing Socialist, and Noël Mamère, a Green. It is close to the anti-globalization movement, as indicated by the presence of the economist Liem Hoang-Ngoc, who is also a member of the scientific committee of ATTAC.

La Forge has released what it calls a "contre-expertise" critical of the Attali Report on numerous counts. I don't want to take the time to examine this document in detail, but I do want to call attention to a quote from (former no. 2 at MEDEF) Denis Kessler that appears in the report and that has been cited numerous times in the press in recent weeks. Kessler said that "the French social model is a pure product of the Conseil National de Résistance. It is the result of compromise between Gaullists and Communists. The time has come to reform it, and the government has set itself to the task." For La Forge, the Attali Report is the blueprint for reversing this "model inherited from the postwar years."

One could write a book about the implications of this rhetoric as employed by both the right (Kessler) and the left (La Forge). I must avoid the temptation to turn this blog post into a first chapter. Nevertheless, I think it is worth calling attention to this latest avatar of the Vichy syndrome. The Sarkozyan policy, we are given indirectly to understand, is nothing less than an attack on the Resistance. It is the return of foreign Occupation, a reversion to the Dark Years. This is not the first attempt to link Sarkozy to Pétain. Alain Badiou explicitly makes the connection in his book De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?

Is French political thought particularly prone to this sort of mythologization of memory? Is it possible to approach the present directly in France, without recourse to specious historicization and paranoid lieux(-communs) de mémoire? I sometimes wonder.

Insider Trading at SG?

Bakchich reports that in the days before the scandal broke, trading in shares of Société Générale increased nearly fourfold. Since the scandal erupted, the shares have declined 20 percent in value.

LATER: See also here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Kervielology 2

versac has some lucid thoughts on why Société Générale's explanation isn't playing well in Poitiers. Back in the Nixon days, the type of explanation that SG has put out would have been called a "modified limited hangout." It raises more questions than it answers. Pierre Moscovici thinks so too. And Bakchich.

ADDED LATER: On the blog of Alain Lambert, UMP senator and former budget minister, A. B. Galiani explains the controls on options trading and offers his opinion that these controls could not have been circumvented by one person acting alone.

HERE is SG's explanation.

And here are more doubts.

And more technical information.

Kervielology

Francisco suggests:

I think you should devote some attention to the growth industry in Kervielogy...a fascinating phenomenon that is.


And he gives this link. Indeed, Francisco has an excellent point. The speculation about Jérôme Kerviel, the alleged perpetrator of the Société Générale fraud, is fascinating from many points of view. In the article Francisco cites, the Communist Party is said to have compared Kerviel to Alfred Dreyfus. That certainly races ahead of the evidence, though it does reflect the widespread belief that Kerviel has been made a scapegoat for the crimes or misdemeanors of others.

The aspect of Kervielology that has most interested me has to do with the frequency of comment on his relatively humble status at SG. He may have been making more than 100,000 euros a year, but he was "not a Golden Boy." Why? Because he hadn't attended a Grande École. He was not part of the old boy network of X or Normale Sup' or even HEC, but merely a graduate of a modest program in Financial Engineering in Lyon. How, then, could he have been admitted to the inner sanctum of the bank? The implication is that he wasn't admitted but hacked his way in, owing to his skills as a "computer genius." As is well known, hackers, unlike Golden Boys, can be self-taught. The necessary skills are often linked to a socially awkward personality, and Kerviel has been described variously as "reserved," "isolated," "given to working on his own." Although the bank's safeguards, designed by Golden Boys, should have rendered the treasure safe, there is no telling what a malevolent "genius" can accomplish in secret and by stealth.

Yet there is also a counter-narrative. Kerviel was "bright," some say, but "no genius." If he circumvented the bank's safeguards, it was indeed because of his antisocial nature and humble stature, which forced him to work late at night, when no one was around, and presumably thus to gain access to the secrets that reveal themselves only to surreptitious creatures of the night.

Of course we have no idea yet what actually happened, or what kind of person Kerviel is. There have been indications, however, that the bank's vaunted risk managers never indicated a problem and that the first sign of trouble came from counterparties to some of his option deals, who called for cash to be put up to cover margins when the market began to fall. It has begun to dawn on the financial press just how frightening this scenario is: who knows how many other Kerviels there are on the planet, trading desperately on behalf of their employers in the hope of getting ahead and attracting no attention at all until things go disastrously awry.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Municipals: Electoral Geography

Those following the municipal elections will be interested in this interactive map from Le Monde. Note the east-west divide: if one draws a line from Lille to Montpellier, all but three of the cities likely to swing left are located west of the line. The strength of the UMP in the east was also apparent in the presidential elections, as I discussed in May and June of last year. I also discussed the correlation with immigration patterns.

Fottorino at Le Monde

Éric Fottorino is the new chief at Le Monde, where the power struggle more than ever resembles the bad old days in the Kremlin. It seems that there was a secret agreement between Alain Minc and Fottorino on Wednesday that Jean-Michel Dumay, the contentious head of the SRM (association of Le Monde journalists), would go as a condition of Fottorino's acceptance by the external stockholders. Then Fottorino allegedly failed to disclose this agreement at a meeting with journalists on Thursday. I cannot make out what really happened. Perhaps sometime in the next ten years someone will write a book or a good piece of investigative journalism telling us what is really going on at the paper and how it is influencing the news we read in France's newspaper of record. Meanwhile, there is no choice but to read as widely as possible, and fortunately the Internet makes that quite easy.

For a short biography of Fottorino, see here.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Note on the Société Générale Affair

À propos the Société Générale scandal, it's interesting to note that Daniel Bouton, the head of the bank, long ago served as Alain Juppé's chief of staff when Juppé was minister of the budget. Later, in 1996, after Juppé, then prime minister, had been destabilized by the winter strikes of 1995, Bouton, by then number two at SG, wrote a private note for Jacques Chirac assessing the political situation. In it he said:

Despite the recent improvement, the Prime Minister remains abnormally unpopular. This is certainly not a problem of public relations; it is a problem of strategic positioning. The presidential campaign was won on an illusion. ... The illusion lasted until the fall of 1995. .... The Maastricht discourse cannot mobilize anyone; talk about debt ratios and deficits doesn't make anyone dream. .... In short, la fracture sociale divides the people from the elite, not the excluded from the rest of the people. If this analysis is correct, the solution is political and institutional; it does not lie in public relations.


One hopes that his analysis of his own problems is as lucid as his analysis of Chirac's, but evidence to date suggests that it isn't.

The foregoing is taken from Philippe Madelin's biography of Chirac, p. 636; the note was published in Libération on July 10, 1997.

The Presidentialization of the PS

"I am not in favor of the presidentialization of the party," writes Pierre Moscovici. It doesn't make sense, he argues, to combat the "hyperpresidentialism" of Sarkozy on the one hand while attempting to introduce a "culture of presidentialism" into the party on the other. He wants to maintain the party's diversity (speaking euphemistically) while establishing a "majoritarian coherence" that he hopes will be "reformist, European, and firmly anchored on the left."

This clearly puts him at odds with Ségolène Royal, who obviously does want to "presidentialize" the party with herself in the starring role. In this way she envisions a route to power in 2012 similar to that by which Sarkozy traveled from leadership of the UMP to power in 2007.

Temperamentally, I prefer Moscovici's more open approach and reluctance to embrace the cult of personality. Yet I'm currently reading James Cronin's excellent New Labour's Pasts, which tells the story of the Labour Party's attempts to reform itself in the wake of repeated losses to Mrs. Thatcher. With the PS now in something of the same disarray as Labour in the mid-80s, Cronin's account is a cautionary tale to any Socialist leader tempted to follow Moscovici. For instance (p. 286): "It would be necessary ... to deal with the fact that ... there were '... too many worrying skeletons in the Labour Party cupboard deterring voters ...' ... Defense, taxes, and the role of the 'loony left'and the perception that Labour was still a divided and fissiparous party were the main 'skeletons,'and getting rid of them would require more than deft handling by the party's press officers. It would also require the development of a new set of policies that would assure the electorate that Labour had truly and permanently changed ..."

Moscovici no doubt favors "the development of a new set of policies," but it is hard to see how his vision of the party as a collegial association of debating partners will persuade the electorate that the Socialists have "truly and permanently changed." Under the conditions imposed by a presidential regime in the media age, a party must find a way to craft a message and an image that extend beyond the relatively small number of activists eager to participate in internal debate and weigh the virtues of competing programs. If the purpose of the party is to take power (and not all parties have that aim), then it must equip itself with the means to do so. A political party in 2008 cannot be a seminar at Sciences Po. One can deplore this fact, but one shouldn't avert one's eyes from it. (ADDED LATER: Laurent Bouvet makes a similar point here and notes that a victory in the municipals may serve only to slow the hard choices that the PS needs to make.)

À propos, Ségolène Royal is coming to Harvard next week, and I should have the opportunity to learn more about what her vision of the Socialist future is.

Goasguen Drops the Mask

In an interview published in France Soir, UMP deputy Claude Goasguen is refreshingly candid:

Q. Are you disappointed that [Sarkozy] entrusted this mission to Jacques Attali rather than to UMP deputies?

A. The mission was part of the post-electoral period when Nicolas Sarkozy was trying to sow discord in the Socialist camp. In that he was completely successful. Now that period is behind us. It's time for parliament to resume its place, to be a partner in the elaboration of laws and reforms.


No comment necessary.

The Attali Report in Toto

If you care to read the Attali Report, it can be found here.

An article on nonfiction.fr calls attention to the report's emphasis on promoting information technology and singles out articles 53, 54, and 58 for special attention. Article 58 advocates promoting open source software as a competitor to proprietary software and specifically calls for greater use of open source software in the public sector. "A goal of 20 percent of newly developed or installed open-source applications for the benefit of the public sector could be set for the year 2012."

The Attali Report has been characterized as "liberal," but this can hardly be called a liberal measure. It sets a fixed quota for the use (or is it the new development--the wording is hardly a model of clarity) of open-source software, which would oblige public sector organizations to procure from a specific source without regard to the competitive quality. To be sure, the subsidization of open source (envisioned in the same article in the form of a tax subsidy) could be interpreted as a blow against the "evil empire" of Microsoft, which in French eyes combines the sins of monopoly and American nationality. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that it's a wise idea to enforce by fiat the choice of a software regime, and I say this en toute connaissance de cause: I am sitting between a Windows machine and a Linux machine, and there is a Mac in the other room. These peacefully coexist in my household, but I have a Ph.D. from MIT (honest). Others should proceed with caution and certainly avoid the mistake of deciding that within 4 years, "twenty percent of the software" in this or that office will be open source. What does that formulation even mean? If I have an (open source) Apache Web server installed on one machine and Microsoft Word on 4 others, do I meet the 20 percent requirement? Is it OK if I execute a gazillion instructions a year under (open source) Linux and 4 gazillion on Mac OS X?

This ambiguity is typical of the Attali report (or at any rate, as much of it as I have read). Its recommendations suffer from being neither general nor particular. They create a false impression of specificity by recourse to arbitrary numerical quotas and technical jargon (viz., art. 53: "establish a European mechanism of digital identification allowing a mutual recognition of means of authentication by requiring root certificates issued by European certification authorities for the entire suite of communication software [messaging, browser, etc.] sold in Europe"). This is not the level at which such a commission should be operating. The pseudo-specificity is just eyewash. It may enable Jacques Attali to pose as an expert on everything, but in reality he is just an expert poseur.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Société Générale Fraud

I haven't written yet about the Société Générale fraud, astounding as it is, because the details are sketchy and I have no idea what actually happened. But here are some reports from Bloomberg, Kevin Drum, FT, and more FT. And economist Élie Cohen. I'd be glad to hear from anyone who knows more about banking than I do and who might be able to explain how a 31-yr-old trader, "computer genius" though he may have been, could have established an options position of 40 to 50 billion euros without anyone above him noticing. And if his bet had turned out well, would he have profited himself, or was he taking this enormous risk solely on behalf of the bank?

Curiously enough, it seems that Nick Leeson, the trader who similarly bankrupted Barings Bank a few years back, has been paid $700,000 for the rights to his story, which has been made into a film. Who said crime doesn't pay?

Business Week has picked up this article. Readers coming from there should see this later note as well.

Debray on Laïcité

Régis Debray, who begins by quoting Sarkozy:

"The schoolteacher will never be able to replace the pastor or priest, because he will always lack the radical readiness to sacrifice his life and the charisma of a commitment driven by hope." What would Jean Cavaillès, Marc Bloch, Jean Prévost, and Léo Lagrange have made of this [statement by the president of the Republic] as they faced the firing squad?


So much for that argument of Sarkozy's. Debray of course omits to mention that he, too, faced a firing squad, believing that he was about to be shot because of his radical readiness to sacrifice his life and the charisma of a commitment driven by hope. And he has also written in recent years about religion. Hence his thoughts on the subject are doubly worth attending to.

Parity in the Cities

Seven years after the passage of the parity law, 47 percent of municipal councilors in France are women, but only 11 percent of mayors are, according to political scientist Mariette Sineau.

See also Le Monde's editorial.

La Vie C'Est Pas de Glander

A delightful article appears this morning in the blog of Le Monde's proofreaders. It explains the origin and varied uses of the verb glander, which has become a staple of the Elysian vocabulary since Fadela Amara blamed the problems of the suburbs on la glandouille, or loafing, hanging out (Americans will be reminded of William Foote Whyte's classic Street Corner Society). Of course the French word sets up interesting resonances because of its sexual connotations. Le gland is the male sex organ as well as the fruit of the oak tree. The dictionary provides a memorable example of this usage, taken from a novel by Sartre:

Latex sortit son sexe de sa braguette : − Regarde! dit-il, et tire ton chapeau : j'en ai fait six avec. − Six quoi? − Six lards. Et des beaux, t'sais, qui pesaient à chaque coup dans les vingt livres; je sais pas qui va les nourrir à présent. Mais vous nous en ferez d'autres, dit-il, tendrement penché sur son gland.


So when Sarkozy visits the fortuitously named suburb Sartrouville (!!) and tells the youths lolling about streetcorners there that "la vie, c'est pas de glander," it's as if the president of the United States were to go to Watts and tell a group of young idlers that "life is not about standing around and scratching your balls."

And how did the youths respond? One of them, apparently referring to Sarkozy, said "Oui, ça craint!" in what the proofreaders refer to as "a remarkable intransitive use of a traditionally transitive verb." Because of this and the use of the impersonal subject ça, this beautifully succinct judgment of the president and his entourage is virtually untranslatable, but one might venture this: "Yeah, they be afraid." Afraid no doubt that the exhortation to work more in order to earn more isn't going to be enough to get anyone to stop scratching his balls absent the 45,000 new jobs that Fadela Amara has pledged to create out of thin air.

The French Model

When the words "French model" appear in a US newspaper, it's usually to highlight yet another supposed inefficiency, friction, rigidity, or failure of the welfare state. But in this morning's New York Times, Roger Cohen looks to France as a model for the future of nuclear power: "It’s time to look to the French. They’ve got their heads in the right place, with nuclear power enjoying a 70 percent approval rating."

If the subprime crisis continues to shake orthodox thinking about the American economy, moreover, the European welfare state may begin to look almost as good to followers of fashion like Cohen as the Evolutionary Power Reactor, formerly known as the European Pressurized Reactor (note that Cohen mixes up the two names).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Another Slander Case

Yesterday I commented on what I regard as a frivolous slander suit against a man who referred to three journalists as "militant groupies" for Ségolène Royal. Today we have the story of a man who faces a fine of 750 euros for the crime of outrage à personne dépositaire de l'autorité publique," insulting a public official, in this case Nicolas Sarkozy, whom the defendant compared to Pétain. I regard this prosecution as an outrage and an affront to anyone who believes in free speech.

As Rue89 points out, it was Nicolas Sarkozy who said at the time of the Danish cartoon affair: "I prefer excess of caricature to absence of caricature."

The law of outrage is an archaic relic, a translation of the crime of lèse-majesté. But Sarkozy is not un roi thaumaturge, and as he forcefully pointed out to Laurent Joffrin, he is not a monarch at all. He has not two bodies but one, and since it must be shared with Carla Bruni, it cannot qualify as sacred, hence does not deserve the special protection of the law.

The Attali Report

It would be easy to poke fun at the report of the Attali Commission on Growth. For instance, "Find ways to ensure that by the end of the sixth grade every pupil will have mastered reading, writing, arithmetic, working in groups, and computer literacy" (my italics). Indeed. And why not pick up the Holy Grail and the Golden Fleece while you're at it. Ditto for the ten "major centers of higher education and research" and the ten "Ecopolises." Why only ten? Why not go for all 50 top places in the Shanghai rankings? But there are a few good ideas in there, I'm sure. Removing the precautionary principle from the constitution, for one, and eliminating the départements, for another--but of course Sarkozy has already shot those two down.

Nevertheless, Attali has his idolators. If you can stand to watch one of the ambulatory editorials of the insufferable Christophe Barbier, the editor of L'Express, you'll hear a choice paean to Son Eminence Grise, ou Grisaille. Others are less enthusiastic.

Where's the Beef?

Fadela Amara's blog this morning has a post entitled "Présentation du Plan Espoir Banlieues." But there is no presentation. If you click on the picture of Fadela Amara, you get a larger picture of Fadela Amara.

I guess this is what the French call la comm, and nous autres Amerloques call a "con."

Book Sales

For what it's worth, books by and about Ségolène Royal are selling well. And who would have thought that Lionel Jospin would sell more copies than Bernard-Henri Lévy (28,400 to 26,800)? But true publishing success lies in the center of the political spectrum: Simone Veil sold 302,000 copies of her autobiography. Curiously, we're not told how many copies of Yasmina Reza's book about Sarkozy were sold after one of the most memorable campaigns of hype in recent French publishing annals (matched only by BHL's, and we see what all the hype did for him--I think the French may be developing an immune reaction from BHL overexposure).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Where the Readers Are

Where readers of French Politics are located:

Country/Territory Visits Avg. Time on Site
United States 23912 145.3459351
France 10645 129.6762799
United Kingdom 3013 78.03186193
Canada 1679 91.33948779
Australia 653 84.01378254
Netherlands 500 76.682
Germany 389 52.75064267
Belgium 288 96.04513889
Portugal 220 120.5681818
Japan 214 92.84579439
Ireland 210 104.9619048
Czech Republic 200 48.58
Switzerland 193 94.12953368
Spain 188 71.02659574
Jordan 179 1388.385475
Italy 168 99.83333333
India 133 64.95488722
Sweden 111 57.91891892
Greece 108 85.67592593
Brazil 105 69.61904762
Norway 99 71.36363636
Israel 91 57.14285714
Luxembourg 85 38.29411765
Turkey 84 126.547619
Finland 81 154.7283951
Singapore 77 46.88311688
Thailand 69 166.8405797
Denmark 61 7.950819672
South Korea 59 39.33898305
Malaysia 59 37.18644068
Poland 58 37.24137931
Philippines 58 51.12068966
Hong Kong 57 143.8947368
Egypt 52 27.34615385
New Zealand 51 150.6470588
South Africa 51 62.19607843
Austria 50 34.92
Mexico 40 90.8
Russia 37 86.67567568
Morocco 36 101.6388889
Taiwan 36 199.9722222
Romania 35 115.5142857
Kenya 29 32.82758621
Argentina 27 31.37037037
Iran 27 109.962963
Slovenia 26 11.15384615
Indonesia 25 43.64
United Arab Emirates 25 14.12
Hungary 24 19.20833333
Lithuania 23 170.1304348
Malta 23 23.13043478
Serbia and Montenegro 22 102.8181818
Saudi Arabia 22 15.68181818
Lebanon 21 13.66666667
Venezuela 21 172.7619048
(not set) 20 176.85
Chile 18 10.44444444
Bulgaria 18 82.11111111
Monaco 17 122.9411765
Slovakia 17 0
Estonia 17 1.764705882
Mauritius 15 0.733333333
Ukraine 14 155.4285714
Sudan 14 173.8571429
Mali 14 37.64285714
Algeria 12 4.75
China 11 34.09090909
Panama 11 380
Senegal 11 425.1818182
Sri Lanka 10 16.8
Pakistan 10 39.5
Colombia 10 2.6
Qatar 10 115.5
Iceland 9 0
Croatia 9 308.4444444
Kuwait 9 0
Vietnam 9 47.22222222
Cambodia 8 71.125
Cyprus 8 91.75
Rwanda 8 0
Reunion 7 6.285714286
Haiti 7 241.7142857
Tunisia 6 56
Latvia 6 151.5
Puerto Rico 6 0
Costa Rica 6 5.5
Tanzania 6 167.6666667
Nigeria 5 321.6
Ghana 5 124.2
Bolivia 5 27.6
Burkina Faso 5 48.4
Afghanistan 5 0
U.S. Virgin Islands 4 0
Ivory Coast 4 0
Macedonia 4 0
Bermuda 4 168.5
Bosnia and Herzegovina 4 0.75
Uruguay 4 0
Guatemala 4 0
Dominican Republic 4 0
Iraq 4 0
Trinidad and Tobago 4 9
Mozambique 4 71
Cameroon 4 285
Nepal 4 0
Bahamas 4 60.75
Bangladesh 4 0
Benin 3 0
Peru 3 2.333333333
El Salvador 3 602.3333333
Jamaica 3 26
Barbados 3 0
Andorra 3 24.66666667
Turks and Caicos Islands 3 0
Georgia 3 0
Fiji 3 38.33333333
French Guiana 3 33
Gambia 3 463
Botswana 3 0
Guam 2 69.5
Dominica 2 179.5
Zimbabwe 2 0
Palestinian Territory 2 0
Mongolia 2 0
Yemen 2 23
Libya 2 0
Brunei 2 0
Bahrain 2 0
Suriname 2 250.5
Armenia 2 0
Uganda 2 0
French Polynesia 2 246
Netherlands Antilles 2 86.5
Chad 2 0
Martinique 2 0
Togo 2 0
Kyrgyzstan 2 0
Honduras 1 82
Guadeloupe 1 31
Saint Kitts and Nevis 1 0
Paraguay 1 0
Cayman Islands 1 587
Gibraltar 1 28
Aruba 1 0
Cape Verde 1 0
Laos 1 0
Nicaragua 1 0
New Caledonia 1 0
Macao 1 0
Zambia 1 0
Uzbekistan 1 0
Ecuador 1 284
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 1 1188
Kazakhstan 1 1218
Congo - Kinshasa 1 0
Oman 1 37
Antigua and Barbuda 1 0
Moldova 1 0
Maldives 1 0
Gabon 1 0

DSK contra IMF, QED

François Bonnet points out that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who attended a Socialist renovation forum this weekend, broke his pledge to the IMF not to participate in partisan activities and observed that "the government has good reasons [sic] to be sanctioned by the French people." Yet DSK's IMF issued the same government a good report card just over two months ago: "France is moving again. The election of a new president and the nomination of an avowedly reformist government offers France an historic opportunity to resume its growth ..."

A Scandalous Lawsuit

Daniel Carton referred to three journalists covering Ségolène Royal's campaign as, among other things, "militant groupies." As "embedded journalists" (journalistes embarqués, in Philippe Cohen's phrase) accompanying the campaign, they became sympathizers of the candidate, Carton contends. As a result, the three journalists have sued him for slander.

Though I am familiar with the difference between French and American libel laws, I find this suit scandalous. M. Carton is entitled to his opinion, and if he wants to call a journalist a militant groupie or worse, by what right does the law prevent him? If the press is to be free to judge the competence of public officials, why shouldn't public officials, other journalists, and ordinary citizens be free to judge the competence and independence of the press? If M. Carton can't attack reporters, must reporters stop asserting that this or that press baron is suppressing negative stories about Sarkozy or photoshopping his love handles out of existence? The suit is scandalous and should be dismissed.

The Marshall Plan for the Suburbs

The "Marshall Plan for the Suburbs" that candidate Sarkozy promised has been rebaptized "Suburban Hope." It was announced today, sort of, by Fadela Amara and Christine Boutin, Amara's hierarchical superior at the Ministry of Housing and Cities. As far as I can tell from the early press dispatches, Amara is promising 45,000 new jobs for the most seriously depressed urban zones. Her timing couldn't have been worse, as the CAC40 dropped another 5 points today for a total of nearly 20 over the past week. Job creation does not seem to be on the horizon, and, as Sarko said two weeks ago in regard to purchasing power, "the coffers are empty," so what can the state do about any of these woes? Meanwhile, we have the spectacle of the minister bickering with her secretary of state and attempting to steal her thunder by making her own announcement first. Yet of course both are to be upstaged next week by the president, when he unveils the real plan for the suburbs.

Foreign Press Roundup

One can almost feel sorry for Sarkozy on reading the mauling he has been receiving from the foreign press.

Thank You

French Politics is pleased to have been noticed by La Vie des Idées.

"Historic" Labor Accord

Francis Kramarz gives a balanced assessment of the recent labor accord, yet his final assessment is "disappointed but not surprised." Among his reasons for disappointment: the report is full of good intentions about assisting job-seekers with training and employment counseling, but nothing is said about financing. The new provisions for termination by mutual consent of employer and employee provide for unemployment benefits in such cases, but the burden is to be born by the state, not the firm. It is expected that 20 percent of terminations will be converted to this procedure. Nothing is done about reform of union financing, which creates certain perverse incentives. Nothing is done about the rules governing layoffs for economic reasons or the manner in which such cases are judged if appealed. The report, Kramarz believes, "acts as a smokescreen."

Good additional comments here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Berezina

Attack on all fronts simultaneously. Fire to all azimuths. Advance rapidly, before the defense has a chance to organize. These are the hallmarks of the Sarkozyan style. Yet it has begun to be obvious to nearly all observers that the attacks are often followed by rapid retreats, that the fire is often more sound than grapeshot, and that the advances do not actually move the front forward but leave the troops scattered in confusion.

A minor but telling example of this unfolded over the past few days. First, there was Sarko's visit to Boulogne-sur-Mer to calm the grumbling fishermen (see my previous post on how the image of that encounter drew on classical iconography of the forceful, generous, and beneficent ruler). At that time, Sarko said, "The first thing [to help fishermen] is this quota business. We've got to get out of it, and we have an opportunity to get rid of it, because France is going to preside over the European Union from July 1 to December 31." Yes, but Europe is not ruled by fiat, any more than France is, so today Michel Barnier was obliged to issue a dispatch explaining the hasty retreat: "France does not intend to advocate an abandonment of the [quota] system. It does, however, want to initiate ... a reconsideration of how the system is managed in order to overcome the current difficulties and correct certain of its weaknesses."

How many times have we seen this same scene repeated? To give just one almost identical example: Sarko confronting the railway shop steward and making a concession on the special regimes that his own negotiators had not made and were unwilling to make.

Firmness can be a quality in a leader, as can willingness to compromise. But faking firmness is as counterproductive as faking a willingness to compromise.

For an excellent discussion of the quota issue, see here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Smoke and Mirrors

The other day, Fadela Amara said that her plan for the suburbs would devote 1 billion euros to knocking down the barriers between suburbs and city centers. Yesterday, her special advisor, Mohammed Abdi, said that this amount would be "reserved" from the 4 billion over 10 years promised for transportation under the "Environmental Grenelle" accord. But that money was meant to get people out of their cars and into mass transportation in order to reduce emissions. The money for the suburbs is presumably intended to provide additional mass transportation for people who currently don't travel into the center city at all, either by car or mass transport. Laudable as this measure might be in itself, it isn't going to reduce emissions, hence to take the money out of the sum set aside under the environmental accord is robbing Peter to pay Paul--pure smoke and mirrors.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Socialist Party Membership Declines Sharply

At its recent peak, the PS had 218,000 members, but over the past year the membership has declined to somewhere between 160,000 and 180,000.

CFDT Explains Its Signature

Marcel Grignard, a high official of the CFDT, explains why the union signed the agreement for reform of the labor market.

Culture Clash

It is often said that the ferocity of the left-right clash has diminished in France over the past two decades. What remains intense, however, is the hostility between héritiers and boursiers, those born to rule, at least in their own minds, and those who have had to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. Political conflict can become bitter when un héritier confronts un boursier, as is the case in Lyon, where Dominique Perben is trying to oust incumbent mayor Gérard Collomb. According to Le Monde, neither man will deign to mention his opponent's name.

Sometimes, though, the culture clash divides members of the government. In an extraordinary piece broadcast last night on France2's 8 PM news, we saw Christine Boutin and Fadela Amara ostensibly together on a visit to one of the suburbs to be targeted by the so-called Amara plan for urban revitalization--a plan that Boutin has already described as misconceived. It seems that Amara had arranged for a buffet dinner, with guests to eat standing up in order to encourage contact between the locals and the visiting delegation from the ministry. But Boutin and her équipe evidently regarded standing and eating out of paper plates as uncivilized and therefore waged their own form of the "politics of civilization": they ordered a table, chairs, and a catered dinner for themselves and sat in a corner eating off china while the locals milled around with Amara. The cameras caught Amara shrugging in Boutin's direction and saying, "Incredible, I've never seen anything like it." Indeed. Needless to say, Boutin and Amara belong to two different worlds: the BCBG Catho and the ever so branchée ministre issue de l'immigration. "Bonjour les garçons, je suis Fadela," Amara greeted one group of young men hanging out on a streetcorner. It would be hard to imagine Boutin uttering the words, "Salut les gars, je m'appelle Christine," even to a group of choir boys, which these young men certainly were not.

Image Management


Speaking of image management, have a look at this one (it's copyrighted, so I can't reproduce it here). Then compare it with Charles Le Brun's Alexander and Porus here (reproduced in miniature at left). To be sure, Sarkozy isn't mounted, but notice the expansive gesture with the hand, similar to Alexander's. Notice the hapless spear carrier attending on the ruler (agriculture and fishing minister Michel Barnier in the modern setting). Notice the anxious crowd gathered around the wounded prince, hanging on the emperor's every word. The only thing present in the painting but missing from the photo is the casualty: the wounded King Porus. In the modern setting, that would be the fishing industry, which might have been represented symbolically by a squirming fish at Sarko's feet, but that would have spoiled the effect, otherwise entirely classical, of the leader, erect and calm in the center of catastrophe. As it happens, though, the defeat of Porus was a Pyrrhic victory for Alexander, because it cost him so much that his troops mutinied. Porus, however, became a loyal imperial satrap after being spared by the Great. When Alexander asked Porus how he wished to be treated, Porus replied, "Like a king!" By the same token, Sarko has told the fishermen that he will free them from the yoke of Europe and restore them to power in their own satrapy. Are they pleased enough to back him in further conquests, as Porus did Alexander? Or will Sarko's concessions to the disgruntled weaken his position as he attempts to press further east? Time will tell.

Sarko and Shinzo

It seems that le style Sarko had a precursor in Japan in the rhetoric of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. That is the opinion, at least, of Tobias Harris, who writes the Observing Japan blog. Since I am ignorant of Mr. Abe's gifts, I can't confirm this, but Harris quotes me as an authority on France, so obviously he's a man of discernment. (I dislike those little smiley gadgets, or I'd put one here.) He adds that "M. Sarkozy is obviously a much more adept politician than the hapless Mr. Abe," but it should be noted that Sarkozy's recourse to the "politics of civilization" has thus far been dismissed by the chattering classes as an affront to a nation awaiting a remedy to its loss of "purchasing power."

Of course, the pundits who regard the "politics of civilization" as mere drapery have no problem with the ubiquitous use of the phrase pouvoir d' achat, which I find more problematic. There is in fact a serious idea behind the "politics of civilization," though it's not at all clear to what extent Sarkozy has grasped it. Pouvoir d'achat, on the other hand, seems expressly designed to convey the impression that that to which it refers is a "power" that can be granted or denied by political fiat. It avoids mention of the two realities that it enfolds, wages and prices. Perhaps that is because each of those words has a clear political valence that pouvoir d'achat camouflages. To call for higher wages, after all, is to court the left, whereas price stability has monetarist connotations that pull toward the right. Pouvoir d'achat thus straddles the divide; it is a sort of ouverture in a phrase, one of those signifiers that Tocqueville compared to a valise with a false bottom, which makes it impossible to detect what has been put in or left out.

We have been endlessly reminded that, during the campaign, Sarkozy said "je serai le président du pouvoir d'achat." Perhaps the mistake was to assume that this meant that he intended to do something about either wages or prices rather than claim yet another presidential prerogative for himself, only to concede later, when it suited him, that of course he had no such power.

To be sure, he has enormously increased his own pouvoir d'achat by raising his salary while cutting his costs for items like jet travel to zero. But it would be cynical to point that out, and in any case, the media, supposedly the president's lackeys, have had good sport with it. How curious that Vincent Bolloré lends his plane so that his minions can sell magazines by lambasting the president for borrowing it. What diabolical cleverness! As Steve Rendall noted in a comment to a previous post, too many on the left console themselves with the belief that no one would find anything persuasive in Sarkozy's policies were it not for his alleged control of the media. Can anyone who has been reading the French press over the past month really believe that?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Moscovici Speaks Frankly

Pierre Moscovici calls upon his comrades to forget personalities and reflect upon the true condition of the left. He is blunt: "In reality, the left enjoyed no 'popular base' in the presidential election, in any case not a sufficient one; to believe otherwise is pure fantasy. The 'popular' classes did not see us as their representatives in 2007. Why deny it and tell ourselves pretty stories?" As further evidence of the shifting political landscape in France, he notes that his own district, which had been firmly left since 1980, voted 31 pct. for Le Pen in 2002 and 65 pct against the European constitution in 2005 after having been 53 pct in favor of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

His comments on Ségolène Royal, condemning both the vicious denigration and the "childish" idolatry, are also worth attending to.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Guest Post: Sarko's Speech

Here is a special exclusive report direct from the Élysée. It comes from Judah Grunstein, a freelance journalist based in Paris. His news and opinion blog is Headline Junky. Many thanks, Judah.

Nicolas Sarkozy is such a creature of the media that it didn’t surprise me, upon entering the large hall of Elysée Palace where he would soon give a televised address, to find two enormous HD TV screens mounted before the press benches. As if, in the same way that a play-by-play announcer at a sporting event watches the television screen and not the game before him, what matters most when it comes to Sarkozy is not what occurs on the podium little more than twenty feet away, but what “les téléspectateurs” see.

By a twist of fate I was at Elysee Palace not as press but as the guest of an invitee, so we continued past the TV screens into the main hall, and made our way as close to the front of the crowd as possible. We were almost an hour early, and already it took some jostling, but before long we were within fifteen feet of the podium, where a television technician tested the lighting and camera angles.

Around us were gathered “les Forces vives” of France: the captains of industry and union leaders, artists and intellectuals, celebrities and athletes, that drive France. Bernard Thibault and François Chérèque were already there, towards the back of the crowd but directly in line with the podium. Rafaël Ibanez, the captain of this year’s World Cup rugby team, had entered the room ahead of us, and I overheard a rumor that Zidane had arrived through a reserved entrance. There were faces that I recognized from television appearances (journalists and politicians, although the names escaped me) along with loads of military personnel in dress uniforms.

Slowly the Ministers of the Government started trickling in. “Oh, là. Il est coiffé, Borloo,” one of the important men gathered behind me remarked. “C’est du sérieux.” Christine Lagarde and Michel Alliot-Marie shook hands with the roped off audience as they took their places to the side of the podium; Fillon and Bertrand walked by without a glance. Rachida Dati seemed surprisingly small and fragile as she glided by with her eyes glued to the carpet; Bernard LaPorte had such a spring in his step that he almost bounced past, his back straighter than a rule. Soon they were all gathered in an awkward group, like a bunch of honor roll students in front of a school assembly, waiting for the principal.

“Ils auront leurs notes aujourd’hui?” another of the important men joked.

A distinguished older gentleman to my right replied, “Et lui? On lui donne des notes?”

“Tous les cinq ans,” I ventured.

“Tant qu’on a ça, ça ira,” he replied more seriously.

A charming young woman in a military dress uniform, francophone but obviously not French, held out her camera. “Vous pouvez me faire une photo de ces politiciens?”

“Ce ne sont pas des hommes politiques, Madame,” a journalist whose name escapes me corrected her, tongue in cheek. “C’est le gouvernement de la France.”

“Pour l’instant,” I pointed out, to general laughter.

The speech was scheduled to start at 11am. At ten past, the distinguished gentleman to my right brandished his watch. “Ce n’est jamais arrivé avec Monsieur Chirac. En plus, on était assis.” It occurred to me that Monsieur Chirac did not have Carla Bruni sending him text messages, but thought better of mentioning it out loud.

Moments later, the huissier announced “Mesdames et messieurs, le Président de la République,” and Sarkozy took the podium.

The speech itself was one that we’d all heard in one form or another over the past year. He began by rejecting the idea of “des forces vives de la France”, because it implies “des forces mortes”, setting the successful few gathered before him in opposition to all those who simply work hard across the country. The real opposition, as he proceeded to make clear in defending his reform program, is between those who want to work and those who don’t. Between those who want to help people work more and those who want to force them to work less. Between those who want to move forward and those who want to remain stuck in place.

It was a long speech, in a crowded room with no air circulation. Fillon barely bothered to stifle a yawn. Halfway through, someone in the crowd fainted. Sarkozy glanced up but didn’t even pause. When he referred to the group of wheelchair-bound invitees gathered in the front of the audience, expressing his commitment to providing access to education and job opportunities for the handicapped, it was hard not to think of Ségolène Royal’s moment of “colère saine” during their debate, and to wonder what the event might have been like had she managed to win the election.

Significantly it was Borloo, and not Fillon, who was at his side as he worked the crowd on his way out, mimicking Sarkozy’s every nod of the head, every knit brow, every sympathetic frown and every wide smile. Within minutes the crowd, too, had largely wandered out to the reception. Before long there was nothing left but a pocket or two of stragglers, the cameras and the podium. One by one, people stepped up and, using their cell phones, had their picture taken where Sarkozy had addressed “le paysage audio-visuel”. The latest episode of the Sarko Show had come to a close.

--

The speech can be viewed here.