Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Priorities

Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Tunisia has made his foreign policy priorities perfectly clear. He took with him 100 CEOs, the head of the MEDEF, and Rama Yade. Contracts were signed, the CEOs were praised for their "convictions," and Rama Yade canceled a scheduled meeting with the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women on the grounds of a "schedule conflict." This was after she was reprimanded by Sarkozy for refusing to shake the hand of her Tunisian counterpart. Having said that she would not go to Tunisia as mere ornament but would engage the repressive Ben Ali regime on the human rights issues that are her mandate, she acquiesced in the ornamental role after being told by Sarkozy, "Soit t'es d'accord avec moi, soit t'es pas en désaccord." C'est clair. (An apology for the cancellation came later from Yade's office but not from the secretary herself.) As for the president, he magnanimously invoked the horrors of Europe's past to justify his refusal to "teach lessons" to Tunisia. Strangely, he forgot the lesson he tried to teach last week about the failure of too many Europeans to concern themselves with human rights in Afghanistan. Apparently the horrors of Europe's past loom larger in some locales than others. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, Sarko seems bent on laying a king's ransom at virtue's door. In return, he expects the CEOs who accompany him on his travels to be rewarded handsomely.

I hope that Rama Yade draws the appropriate conclusion and resigns. Bernard Kouchner too.

ADDENDUM: Compounding the offense, Sarkozy evoked the need to combine French "intelligence" and "training" with Tunisian "labor."

History of the UIMM


La Vie des idées has a long but very interesting history of the UIMM, the peak association of metals industry manufacturers, which has been racked by scandal this year. Of particular interest in Danièle Friboulet's account is the discussion of the UIMM's historical role in stiffening the backbone of member firms by providing material support to head off any concessions to striking unions, as well as the history of covert support for unions perceived as more pliable than the intransigent CGT. Since the current scandal involves allegations of continued covert support of selected unions, this history is illuminating.

Charles Tilly


Charles Tilly, historian, sociologist, and political theorist, known to all students of France for "The Contentious French" and many other works, has died. He had just been awarded the second annual Albert Hirschman Prize.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Another Cultural Revolution


Not content with attacking May '68, Nicolas Sarkozy has opened another front in the French culture wars: against Madame de La Fayette, the author of La Princesse de Clèves. My late friend Roger Shattuck, the wry and sprightly cultural critic, who might have found Sarko's energetic conservatism politically appealing in certain respects, would have been appalled by such frank philistinism. He admired La Princesse de Clèves as one of the greatest works of the French language.

Disappointment

Laurent Bouvet is as disappointed with the Socialist Party's new statement of principles as I was. Can no one in the Party recognize how far "the renovation effort" is from meeting even minimal expectations? Apparently not: even Pierre Moscovici, who should know better, seems preoccupied with jockeying for position (here against Manuel Valls) rather than propounding a program.

Ageism

Now that I'm getting to be a certain age, a certain ageism that would once have passed me by looms increasingly large. Recently I've heard from two American colleagues that after being offered visiting professorships in France, they were obliged to turn down the offers when it emerged that they could not be paid. Apparently French university regulations prohibit paying anyone over the age of 65 to teach (barring a special dérogation). Now, doesn't this strike you as absurd? Not only are the French depriving themselves of the enlightenment to be had from mature scholars with a lifetime of thinking and research behind them. They are also discouraging productive labor by "seniors" at a time when the government is trying to persuade people that they need to prolong their working lives, that productivity does not end at 55 or 60, and that many people can usefully contribute to society well into later life. Why does this foolish regulation survive? Even if one argues that older professors should retire to make room for younger ones, that logic does not apply to foreign visitors, who are only temporary and do not take up any permanent post. Both of the cases I know about did not even involve filling in for absent professors. These were people who were to lecture for a few weeks during the summer so as to make their special expertise available to French students. It makes no sense to prohibit such potentially fruitful exchanges. I hope someone at the Ministry of Education will read this post and do something about it.

Order

What do we know about the societies in which we live, and how do we know it? Some prefer numerical measures such as can be derived from opinion surveys, while others favor introspection. It is easy to ridicule polls for their lack of subtlety. Leading questions elicit biased answers, ambiguous questions yield murky results and flabby interpretations. But introspection also has its flaws. What we know with most tenacious certainty may be our own prejudices. As Cartesian as we may pride ourselves on being, we take more on faith than we care to admit, if for nothing other than purely pragmatic reasons: life, as Tocqueville pointed out long ago, is simply too short to allow us to question all authority and work everything out for ourselves. There are many things we believe because other people believe them, people who are supposed to know.

A problem arises, however, when rival authorities contend and still we don't know enough to make up our own minds. It is in this light that I interpret the conflicting survey results that Gérard Grunberg analyzes in La Tribune. It seems that despite Nicolas Sarkozy's confidence that to attack May '68 would be an electorally profitable move, most French people look upon the legacy of '68 as a positive thing: 74 percent say that it had a "positive impact on French society." Yet when asked about the future, 57 percent preferred "a society with more order and authority" to "a society with more individual liberty."

Although these findings may seem contradictory on their face, I submit that they are not. If '68 "questioned authority," as the slogan went, it does not follow that the children of '68 reject all authority always and everywhere. It was a particular form of authority that was challenged, a particular set of assumptions about hierarchy, morality, justice, and "duties beyond borders." If some now deplore an absence of authority, it does not follow that they wish to restore the assumptions that were rejected 40 years ago. It may rather be that the useful dogmas, the pragmatic rules of thumb that guide daily behavior and political decisions and that Tocqueville thought to be particularly necessary in democracies, which systematically undermine--and happily so--the authority of tradition, have lately fragmented. Take just the economic realm. Whom are people to believe? The authorities who say that a rigorous monetary policy is the surest road to prosperity, or those who argue that a certain accommodation is essential? The authorities who believe that unregulated markets are most efficient, or those who maintain that regulation is essential if disaster is to be avoided? Those who argue that free trade is always and everywhere beneficial, or those who call for more nuanced argument?

Or is this too ethereal an interpretation of the polling results, one that reflects my own preoccupations? No doubt many people are more worried about everyday disorder--lack of discipline in the schools, crime in the streets, uncivil public discourse. But are such concerns really at odds with the massive approval of May '68? We veterans of the era are parents now, concerned with issues of authority vis-à-vis our own children but hardly calling for a restoration of parietal hours in dormitories. The contradiction elicited by the pollsters is an artifact, not a reality.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Law on the Archives


When I published the petition circulating among historians to protest the proposed law modifying the conditions governing access to French archives, several commenters suggested that there might be a link between the law and the "national security state" mentality that has been evident in Washington since 9/11. Today, nonfiction.fr has a piece on the law, which comes up for debate in the National Assembly tomorrow. The article points out that the objectionable clauses in the law were inserted as amendments in the Senate at the behest of notaires and against the desires of the government. I hope that this lays to rest the notion that Sarkozy or Jean-David Levitte were somehow doing the bidding of the U. S. government.

The Lagarde Plan


Christiane Lagarde has presented what is supposed to be the second chapter of the government's economic reform program, the first chapter being the TEPA tax cut package that was passed last year. Whereas Sarkozy was much in evidence in the passage of the TEPA, including a personal intervention when the Conseil Constitutionnel ruled part of the mortgage rebate unconstitutional, he hasn't had much to say about the Lagarde plan, which barely came up in his news conference the other day. To be sure, he has discussed pieces of the plan, such as permitting retailers greater latitude to negotiate discounts with their suppliers. But the whole has not been touted as a single package bearing the presidential seal of approval. This isn't simply because the president is less in evidence generally these days. It seems to me rather a calculated move, since many of the details of the Lagarde plan are hardly the stuff of rousing populist appeals: reducing the time a purchaser is allowed to delay payment of an invoice may be an important reform, but it isn't going to set a stadium on fire. It's easier to denounce May '68 or assert that schoolteachers will never replace priests. When even a member of the prime minister's Conseil d'Analyse Économique calls the reform "a policy of small steps," it is easy to understand why the president may think this isn't his road back to popularity.

In addition, it should be noted that the Lagarde plan strikes at certain key components of the UMP coalition, especially small retail businessmen, who must now face intensified competition from big chains, pay bills promptly, etc. "Corporatist" resistance scuttled the Attali report and may yet scuttle parts of the Lagarde plan. Sarkozy has left himself ample room to cut loose any portion of the proposal that encounters too much opposition. But if the president is looking for advice, I'll give him some gratis: he could revive his plan to allow more taxis in Paris by noting that if there were more legal taxis, there would be fewer illegal ones, and sexual predators like the one who allegedly killed the young Swedish tourist would be deprived of an instrument. A demagogic argument, I know--but recidivism and liberalism being two of Sarko's subjects of predilection, here is an opportunity to combine them. Attali meets Dati, one might say.

Cult of Personality


"Che without the hair"--a description that has been applied to Olivier Besancenot, postman, soccer player, and leader of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire -- will appear on the Sunday afternoon television program hosted by Michel Drucker, whose divan has been warmed by nearly all of France's most famous derrières. Is the LCR becoming pipolisée? Not to worry, says Alain Krivine, Besancenot's predecessor: "Drucker, c'est le public du dimanche." Others in the LCR, already worried about the cult of personality that Besancenot has created around himself, are not so sure: between le public and le peuple, not to say le prolétariat, they see a difference that is more than a nuance. But Krivine, who as a true pol covets Drucker's audience of 2 to 4 million as the mother of all Trotskyite meetings, is unflinching: "Olivier on Drucker? It will be very political. He'll say what he wants to say and put his themes -- immigration, trade unionism -- across. It won't be like Rocard on Ardisson, who asked if 'a blow job is cheating.'"

No, surely not: Drucker is for the salon after Sunday dinner with grandma and grandpa, so his guest of honor will be joined by a favorite singer, Charles Aznavour. He's omitting another favorite, the rapper Monsieur R, whose lyrics are unsuitable for a postprandial afternoon with la France profonde et son animateur préféré, aux vertus dormitives bien connues.

(
Americans of a certain age will no doubt be struck by the fact that Drucker, pictured above, bears an uncanny resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman, the icon of Mad Magazine--compare for yourself.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rationalization


One thing that students of French history are taught is that the Revolution, whatever else it may have done, had a powerful rationalizing effect on French government, culminating a rationalization that had been under way for many decades under the Ancien Régime: a welter of conflicting legal regimes, disparate weights and measures, regional customs, dialects, etc. gave way to a modern, logical, functional, streamlined state efficiently administered from the top down. One sometimes has the feeling that it would take a revolution of similar magnitude today to clear up the confusion created by layer upon layer of legislation, by the residues of welfare and stimulus programs put in place for reasons that have been forgotten but that are all but impossible to eliminate because, once established, they acquire constituencies of beneficiaries and bureaucrats who have an interest in maintaining them. Then one had pays d'États and pays d'élections, la lieue de Paris et la lieue des Postes, le pied du Roi et le pied de Pérou, le livre parisis et le livre tournois; now one has a retirement system so complicated that no one can calculate what he or she can expect to receive at the end of a working life (see the Bozio-Piketty critique), and one has the latest proposal to finance the RSA by reducing the ceiling on the PPE.

What is this alphabet soup? The RSA is the Revenu de Solidarité Active, which is intended to eliminate disincentives to work; the PPE is the Prime pour l'emploi, which was established years ago as an incentive to work. So the reduction in one incentive to work is to be used to pay for the creation of another incentive to work. The ingenious budgetary arithmetic is no doubt admirable, and a better connoisseur than I am of the intricacies of these two labor market interventions might be able to explain the rationale for decreasing spending on the one in order to increase spending on the other, beyond the obvious fact that the PPE was the work of previous governments, hence no feather in the cap of this one, whereas the RSA has the presidential imprimatur, hence action on this front redounds to the glory of the head of state. Perhaps there are gains in equity; perhaps the target population of the RSA is more in need of assistance than that of the PPE; perhaps the aim is ultimately to phase out the PPE (and other incentives such as the RMI) altogether and replace it with a rationalized and transparent RSA. But all of this needs to be explained more clearly. In the absence of explanation, the budgetary legerdemain looks like an expedient intended to save a presidential promise rather than a policy with a persuasive logic behind it. Or am I missing something?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

France-Bashing from Within and Without

The Internet is a strange place. In looking for additional information about Gen. Desportes (see previous post), I came upon two curious sites, this and this, which may interest readers of French Politics. The first is indicative of the depths to which the hatred of France can sink in some quarters of America--the depths, and the depravity. The second is a purely Franco-French curiosity.

Lyautey Lives


One French general seems to have been studying the American military's "lessons learned" file rather closely. In an interview published today in Le Monde, Gen. Vincent Desportes, commander of the Centre de doctrine des emplois de force, waxes lyrical about the military as an instrument for building "social contracts," the global right of intervention and "violence prevention," the humanitarian role of the military and the need for "reversibility" (between combat and nation-building roles) in military training. He gives a French twist to a program that would no doubt win the imprimatur of David Petraeus by invoking the ghosts of Lyautey and Gallieni as builders rather than destroyers (the imperial context of their construction is left out). Desportes makes his own the idea popular among American neoconservatives that World War II drained the martial spirit from Europe and sees this as a problem in maintaining support for defense spending in European democracies. That the obverse of this difficulty--the obsession with military solutions to the problem of "evil," which Tony Judt ponders here--does not similarly concern him is perhaps to be put down to the nature of his professional focus.

Nevertheless, I find Desportes' "Thomist" criterion for intervention rather chilling: "One has the right to intervene if one is almost persuaded in one's soul and conscience that the good to come is greater than the temporary evil one is going to create." This is a standard--even if one deletes the "almost" modifying moral certainty as an unfortunate slip of the tongue--that can be and has been used to justify anything.

Retrieving the "Other"


Reacting to my comments about Sarkozy's remarks on Afghanistan, Justin wrote:

And I don't think mentioning the nasty Taliban as the main reason of the fight was so smart. They are pretty nasty indeed, but they're not al Qaeda, they are a local political force which will not disappear, and linking them to al Qaeda makes any negotiation impossible - or at least uncomfortable. If we want to "win", we'll have to talk to them -- or, rather, Karzai will have to, and we'll have to somehow include them while preventing them from reimposing their rule. At this point Sarko would be in trouble.


Junco replied:
Justin,
Tactical negotiations with the Taliban have been a feature of British operations in OEF since the outset. The problem is that sometimes they choose the wrong guy to negotiate with. Either this representative has no real power or he proves to be treacherous. This is the problem with nonstate actors--there is no appreciable power structure with which to negotiate.


It's perhaps worth noting that Sarkozy's rhetorical strategy for "othering" the Taliban relies heavily not on their threat to the West but on their alleged threat to their own women. His two stated reasons for refusing to talk to "ces moyenâgeux" was that they refuse to educate their women and they stone adulteresses to death. Yesterday at Harvard, in a brilliant contribution to a symposium on "Sex, Politics, and Culture in Contemporary Europe," Éric Fassin (professor of sociology at the École Normale Supérieure) made the important point that sexual difference has increasingly become a preferred device for "othering" the enemy. "We" are sexually "modern" and enjoy what Fassin terms "sexual democracy" (equality between the sexes, "liberal" attitudes), while "they" are moyenâgeux, hence out of bounds for negotiation. They can only be eliminated.

Curiously, in dealing with the question of Tibet, the president's imagery was quite the reverse. A rebellion led by monks--what could be more moyenâgeux? But the Tibetan rebels were wrapped instead in the thoroughly modern garb of national liberation. The education of women and punishment of adultery were no longer relevant to the discussion. Here the language was narrowly confined to les droits de l'homme, not further specified, and friends of human rights were chastised for their selective support of Tibet while neglecting the women of Afghanistan (in this rhetorical foreshortening, those who protested the passing of the Olympic torch were conveniently identified with those who object to France's involvement in Afghanistan).

Fassin noted that "sexual modernity" has become such an integral part of Sarkozy's version of France's national identity that in one speech he even claimed the right to abortion as one of its defining characteristics--an interesting move for a president who prides himself on being an honorary canon of Saint John Lateran and whose government includes Christine Boutin (but who, it is true, also enjoys the support--most of the time--of Simone Veil). But Éric went on to say that such rhetorical maneuvers, which are inevitable in political discourse, should not be dismissed as hypocrisy but rather used as political instruments to force action on other fronts. If Sarkozy is so concerned with the oppression of Afghan women, for example, he can be challenged on the fate of women deported back to their countries of origin by his Ministry of Immigration and National Identity.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Le Pen Recidivist

Jean-Marie Le Pen has repeated his notorious remark about the gas chambers having been a mere "detail" of World War II, first heard in 1987. With his party sinking into debt and--if we're lucky--oblivion, he may feel compelled to revisit past battlefields. The din and hubbub he stirs up will remind him of more exciting times.

Talking Turkey

Sarkozy yesterday reiterated his rejection of Turkey as a candidate for EU membership on the familiar grounds that Turkey is not European. Today, Rue89 begins a series of four articles answering the objections of people who think as Sarkozy does.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sarko: Misinformation

Corrected here.

Sarko: La Forme

In the previous post, I wrote about the substance of Sarkozy's televised interview tonight. But the substance, as is often the case, was intimately intertwined with the form. Sarkozy a une certaine idée de la présidence, and he is at pains to project himself into it. But he also has une certaine idée de lui-même, as a man who will brook no criticism from anyone, who makes standing his ground a point of honor, and who appears not to recognize that the bully pulpit of the presidency can make him seem like a bully tout court when he uses it to silence interlocutors who are not at liberty to take as aggressive a tone with him as he takes with them.

First, the setting. It was an odd arrangement: a triangular get-up suitable for a TV studio plunked down in the middle of a palatial room of gilded columns, coruscating chandeliers, and plush carpeting. Off to one side sat a select but silent audience, like bishops attending a mass, gathered beyond the rood screen in their narrow pews while a cardinal officiated at the high altar. Or perhaps it was a lit de justice, with the president in a swivel-chair throne, two premiers présidents du Parlement de Paris serving as intermediaries, and three journalists called one by one as supplicants before the monarch to plead their cases and hear the royal decrees for or against their constituents.

In the background, visible through the windows, were the grounds of the Élysée, or was it a painting of the grounds by Monet, all in blues and greens and purples, an exquisitely restricted palette that communicated not nature but art, taste, and infinite refinement? Evening slowly enveloped the canvas, muting the colors and artfully blurring the details.

The camera movement, discreet and well-calculated, showed just enough of the room and audience to establish the desired subtext: grandeur, tradition, venerability, du sérieux. The president wore a dark suit and dazzlingly white shirt (not the best choice for television) but as usual left his tie just a tad too loose and slightly skewed to one side, conveying an impression of personal fecklessness at odds with the professionally set scene. He wore a patriotic lapel pin (copied from Bush, perhaps?--OK, it was Comm. de la LdH, but just think if he'd worn an American flag, what a sensation!) and thus would have escaped the treatment that Obama received at the hands of Stephanopoulos and Gibson. Oddly, Sarko kept tugging at the wings of his jacket, as though afraid of exposing too much belly, or perhaps a director was whispering to him through an earpiece that the excess white was a problem for the cameraman.

The president began in a philosophical mood, hoping to seem imperturbable and therefore presidential despite the accusations of failure, despite the best efforts of the newsmen to give him the répondant he had found lacking in his previous encounter with the press. But soon enough the philosopher gave way to the pugilist. Sarko is more comfortable in the latter role. He has developed a whole series of gestures and tics of language to make the point that he is not a man to be trifled with. There is the habit of bringing thumb and index finger together in a downbeat motion to enumerate a series of points, beat after beat. There is the device of insisting that no choice but his makes the slightest sense by turning any attempt to question his decisions back on the questioner: "Qu'est-ce que vous voulez que je fasse? Vous voulez que la France ne fasse rien?" Note the identification of self with France. Observe the slicing of the air with the lower edge of an open palm. Watch the opening of the arms with palms up, as if to say, "Have I not already thought of everything?"

But above all there is the device of addressing each interlocutor by name, in order to reduce the question to an expression of personal animus rather than a matter on the mind of the nation, posed abstractly in the name of all, of Public Opinion, and therefore every bit as legitimate as the president who is himself nothing more than an emanation of the same public as the journalist. Thus we hear repeatedly locutions of the following form: Je vais vous dire pourquoi, M. Pujadas. Je regarde votre émission, M. Calvi, je vous vois tempêter quand la loi est tournée ... Attendez, M. Poivre-d'Arvor, je vous dirai le fond de ma pensée, mais il faudrait quand même un peu de patience. And then there is the habit, mentioned in the previous post, of avoiding debate about the logic of a policy by shifting the ground from generalities to examples: Je vais vous donner un exemple, M. Calvi. ... Autre exemple ... Et puis cet autre exemple ... Thus the viewer is treated to an impressive recital of memorized facts and figures, to a rich reportoire of specifics and details, but never to the rationale of a reform, to the intricate way in which one policy is supposed to intertwine with all the others, since we have already been admonished that toutes les réformes se tiennent. Sarko, with thirty years of experience of browbeating interviewers and interlocutors, is a past master at this game. But each time he plays it, a little of the presidential sheen erodes, and in the mind of the viewer he slips back into the role of the brash partisan attack dog known to all.

Sarko: Le Fond

It's not always easy to separate le fond from la forme in Sarkozy's televised appearances. He relishes the appearance of give-and-take and has mastered a series of devices that allow him to control the flow of the conversation in such a way as to give an impression of mastery of the details of government without allowing room for any real probing of his justifications for making the choices he makes. But let me defer discussion of la forme to the next post and try to deal here only with the more substantive issues that were raised in his two hours with five journalists.

The president was immediately confronted with the judgment that his presidency had failed. He was asked what he thought hadn't worked, and why. He took exactly the tack that I said in an earlier post today would make him look "weak and self-repudiating": circumstances were to blame, he said, not the fundamentals of his approach. Oil prices had doubled; the subprime crisis hit; the euro rose to an all-time high. Yet France had "resisted better than other countries," he added, and had achieved its lowest unemployment rate in a quarter of a century. Later, when challenged about the inequities of the tax reform package, he went so far as to suggest that it had been a wise choice because it had anticipated the demand stimulus policies that other countries would later adopt in response to the subprime crisis. None of the reporters challenged this bizarre claim.

Asked if he had not failed because he had attempted too much, and would it not be better to prioritize the reforms, he said that previous reform efforts had failed because they did not recognize the systemic interrelations among the changes needed. "Toutes les réformes se tiennent," he said, echoing Jacques Attali. He had undertaken 55 reforms--mercifully, he didn't list them all--and all were necessary, none could stand without the others. No one pressed him either on this bizarre claim--manifestly false, since there clearly has been a prioritization of reforms as resistance has developed more rapidly in certain areas than others.

Asked how he had changed personally in his first year on the job, he fell back on one of the standard numbers from his repertory: "the presidency is such a heavy responsibility" that anyone who takes on the job must change. He avoided saying how.

These questions were from the generalists, the news anchors PPDA and Pujadas. At this point the specialists stepped in, and Sarkozy immediately became more aggressive in his answers, which turned now not on philosophical generalities but on "examples" (I will say more about this tactic when I talk about the form of the session). On purchasing power he gave no purchase: "La réforme des heures supplémentaires, ça marche." He also mentioned the re-indexing of rents to the general rather than the construction price index. When pressed on the price of gas and other fuels, he came up with a better formula to justify his inaction than "les caisses sont vides": "Either the taxpayer pays," he said, "or the user pays." True enough, but perhaps not the answer expected from le président du pouvoir d'achat, and sure to add to the disappointment. He invoked the need for more competition in retail sales, but he has been in power for a year and yet, as he himself pointed out, French prices and inflation are higher than in neighboring countries.

The idea of sharing profits with workers and giving workers an ownership interest in their employers--a favorite hobby horse--was broached again, yet there was also the now-familiar attack on "finance capital" and "pension funds." If employees are to own stock and save for their own retirement, it would behoove them to diversify rather than put all their eggs in the basket of their employer, and thus they would enter the realm of finance capital and pension funds and acquire an interest in the kind of return-enhancing leverage that contributed to the subprime crisis. The contradiction went unnoticed.

When challenged to explain why firms were not raising wages despite rising profits, Sarkozy rather incongruously blamed the 35 hr. week. To pay for this perk, he said, real wages had to fall, hence profits had to rise. But labor is supposed to be paid its marginal product, and productivity has risen since the 35-hr. week was introduced. It's interesting that Sarko's argument is that the reduction in the work week has led to increased profits but not increased investment. By this logic, the Socialists were the party of capital.

His presidency would be in trouble if it were to become a presidency that favored some rather than all, he said, prompting PPDA to ask whether the paquet fiscal hadn't indeed favored some--the wealthy--rather than all. But the only error to which Sarko would admit was an "error of communciation."

On the revenu de solidarité active, he said, "Le RSA se fera," but there were wrinkles to be ironed out. We will see what remains when the ironing is done.

As for reduction of the deficit to 0 by 2012 despite the failure to make progress on the deficit in the first year, he said that he would be judged at the end of his quinquennat and stuck to his promise.

Turning to social issues, he was adamant on immigration choisie and rejected mass regularizations. He dismissed the current pressure from employers, about which I wrote earlier today, as the result of un coup médiatique and said that since unemployment was high--22%--among legal immigrants, there was no need for anyone to hire illegal ones. He cast his policy as a middle course between the extreme right's characterization of immigration as a "menace and malady" and the extreme left's equation of "control" with "racism."

On the schools, he parried a question about whether there were too many teachers by saying that expenditures were not matched by results. Enrollments were down, hence the schools should be able to make do with fewer teachers.

Did he stand by his statement that the teacher could not replace the priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, etc? Indeed he did. Was this incompatible with republican values and laïcité. Not in his mind.

Could he continue to call for 41 years of contributions for full retirement benefits when even the reformist unions (the CFDT) had turned against it? It was the job of the head of state to demonstrate courage, to make the hard decisions no one else wanted to make. Whatever he did, someone would be unhappy. So be it.

What was his personal position on genetically modified organisms? Favorable to research but insistent on caution when it came to use.

On Tibet: were the followers of the Dalai Lama terrorists, as China insisted, resisters, as many in the West believe, or something else indicative of the need for caution before intervening in the internal affairs of another sovereign power? He sidestepped this question by suggesting that he was working to establish a dialog between the Chinese and the Tibetans. The journalists were incredulous. France? By itself? Were there any signs that this effort might bear fruit? An enigmatic smile. "Signs, yes." Four months remained to achieve progress, and when the time for decision came, France would have the EU presidency. Clearly Sarkozy hoped to lend weight to his démarche toward China by invoking the EU. If these efforts were to succeed, he said, it would be necessary to reduce the number of "blessures d'amour-propre," a very interesting formula and a clue to his thinking about the Chinese leadership.

On Afghanistan he resorted to the clever ploy of linking the French commitment there to the struggle for human rights: "If you back the Tibetans, then why don't you support the effort to allow little girls to go to school in Afghanistan." But it wasn't only a matter of protecting little girls: there was Pakistan next door, with its nuclear bomb, and if Afghanistan fell, Pakistan would be next--a curious domino theory, in which the strong are propped up by the weak.

In conclusion, "je sais où je vais," he insisted, and he had four more years to get there. Did the municipal elections constitute a rejection of his policy? All across Europe, he replied, incumbent parties had lost in municipal elections. It was a setback, but he would continue on his course, unperturbed.

Did he put doubts to rest? I don't think so. Did he help himself? A little perhaps. Did he clarify his intentions, lay out any new programs or directions, or indicate innovative responses to changed circumstances? No. It was not one of his better performances.

Peillon's Take

Reader myos calls my attention to this interview (video) with Vincent Peillon. It is indeed interesting, not least for Peillon's repeated reference to a phenomenon that has received far too little attention, in my view: the volatility of the French electorate. Peillon draws from this observation a warning to his own party: do not make the mistake of thinking that Sarkozy's current abysmal approval rating indicates that the next election is already won or that the PS has successfully reestablished itself in the eyes of voters.

Les Gracques Evaluate Sarko

Sarkozy has proposed quantitative evaluations of the performance of his ministers. Les Gracques have proposed a qualitative evaluation of Sarkozy's first year in office. They find him guilty of three sins: against economic reason (focusing on demand stimulus rather than supply-side reform), social justice (redistributing to the rich through such measures as reform of the estate tax, wealth tax, and fiscal shield), and squandering of the clear electoral mandate for reform (despite some acknowledged successes). They conclude with an examination of France as an exception in relation to other European nations, on four counts: high social expenditure with low social redistribution; excessive reliance on regressive taxation such as the VAT; high expenditure on education with relatively poor results; and an employment security system based on the protection of jobs rather than workers, to the detriment of economic dynamism.

Presidential Style


Annick Bonnet reviews a book by Nicolas Mariot, Ils se présidentialisent, which analyzes the way in which presidents of France have "inhabited" their functions since 1848. To judge from the review, the book concentrates on the various instruments by which presidents have sought to establish and project power over institutions and civil society. These instruments include trips, local visits, ceremonies, speeches, etc. Mariot attempts to diminish the contrast that other commentators have established between the presidency of the Fifth Republic and earlier presidencies. Readers may appreciate the accompanying photo gallery.

Students of comparative politics may wish to compare Mariot's approach with the very different one of Stephen Skowronek in The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Skowronek is interested not so much in the instruments of leadership as in relationships between leaders, their predecessors, and the political context. His complex argument, which is very difficult to summarize, hinges on the observation that some leaders define themselves as fulfilling a promise initiated by others while others define themselves as reversing or undoing a predecessor's program that has allegedly ended in impasse or disaster.

The notice of these two books is particularly pertinent as we await President Sarkozy's confrontation with the press later today. Sarko will be availing himself, in Mariot's terms, of an instrument he has made his own: the conversation with selected media stars in an august Elysian setting. In Skowronek's terms, however, he will be attempting a difficult maneuver: having defined himself initially as both the opposite of his predecessor (Chirac) in terms of style and energy and the continuator in terms of fundamental policy orientation (a cautious liberalization of the French social model in order to preserve its overall structure while removing supposed fetters to growth), he will now be redefining himself, I imagine, in opposition/continuation of himself. He has already said in a myriad of ways, "I have changed, and yet I remain the same." The question now is how he will rearticulate this basic message.

In Skowronek's analysis, the president most gifted at this delicate operation was Franklin D. Roosevelt: when the initial thrust of the New Deal encountered major obstacles, FDR used failure and defeat (particularly the rejection of the NRA by the Supreme Court) to remobilize the forces that had brought him to power in the first place. Sarkozy's challenge is greater: he is perceived to have failed despite the absence of opposition as formidable as that posed by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also a continuator rather than a renovater (despite his rhetoric to the contrary) when he first came to power. Hence he cannot blame the forces of reaction and must rather explain the inadequacies of his initial analysis of the situation he faced. He can of course plausibly blame an unfavorable global economic conjuncture, but having defined himself as a voluntarist whose will is equal to any circumstantial challenge, to take that tack would be to appear weak and self-repudiating.

It will be interesting to see how he rises to the challenge.

Les Mots et les Choses

During the presidential campaign, the Right criticized the Left for its angélisme on the immigration question. Realism was the watchword of the Right. France would select its immigrants on the basis of its needs. The problem was a question of management, not morality.

How fascinating, then, to see a powerful center of opposition to the government's immigration policy developing among employers, particularly small to medium enterprises in the construction, restaurant, and hotel sectors, which employ large numbers of immigrant workers and which have become impatient with the foot-dragging, case-by-case approach to regularization still defended by the minister of immigration and national identity, Brice Hortefeux.

Thus the Right finds itself hoist by its own petard. Management is indeed the crux of the matter, and it's the managers of small businesses that rely on immigrant labor who are forcefully making the point to the government that efficient management cannot tolerate the uncertainty that your policies are causing to hover over our labor force and cannot tolerate the disruptiveness of your police tactics, searches, deportations, etc. The government is thus caught in a bind. It must choose between the rhetoric of management and the winks and nods to the extreme right, whose support at the polls remains an integral part of the equation of power. It was a day of reckoning that had to come. It's interesting that it has come through the combined pressure exerted by employers, unions, and immigrant workers themselves. It's always heartening to see civil society asserting the demands of reality in the face of distortionary state rhetoric.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More Disgruntlement

Count another disgruntled deputy of the Right who has decided that this is as good a time as any to settle scores. Pierre Lellouche's post-election remark about Sarkozy's ouverture and the consequent need for vaseline has not been forgotten. Lellouche evidently believes that he may at last get the portfolio he covets by throwing the ministers who were shoved up his cul back in the president's frimousse.

I'm not sure that this is a wise strategy. In any case, the lack of, shall we say, diplomacy in Lellouche's graceless comments suggests that he would not be a good choice for the Quai d'Orsay.

Unemployment

At VoxEU, Tito Boeri takes note of improvements in the European employment picture. He attributes the decreased unemployment, increased employment rate, decrease in long-term unemployment, etc., to labor-market reforms that have reduced the cost to firms of dismissal and therefore encouraged hiring on new short-term contracts. Yet he also observes a paradoxical result of these changes: the governments that instituted them lost elections because, he argues, more precarious employment was not greeted by voters as a net improvement in their situation.

Oddly, however, Boeri doesn't discuss the case of France, where the employment picture has also improved but which has not by and large made the kinds of labor-market reforms that he credits with the improvement elsewhere. This raises two questions: first, is it correct to attribute all or must of the improved European employment picture to labor-market reform? If so, how does one explain the improvement in France? Second, France has begun to take tentative steps toward the kind of labor-contract revisions that Boeri thinks are an important ingredient in the improved employment picture. Will the French government that has pushed for these reforms--namely, Sarkozy's--suffer the same fate as the governments about which Boeri writes?

My hunch--and it is only a hunch--is that Boeri imputes too much of the improvement to labor-market reform and neglects other important factors such as productivity increases due to organizational changes and technological improvements (e.g., Europe has been slower to adapt to the information revolution than the U.S., but the benefits of belated adaptation are beginning to make themselves felt).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gliberal Internationalism

My friend Tony Smith has written an important book entitled A Pact with the Devil, in which he shows how a certain insouciance about armed intervention, common among some liberal internationalists in the 1990s, helped to bulldoze the garde-fous that once made American governments at least hesitate, if not always refrain, from ill-conceived overseas ventures. France lacks the means to get itself in as much trouble as the United States, but it has developed its own form of verbal rather than military adventurism, what might be called "gliberal internationalism."

Sarkozy is now hastily trying to make amends for the damage done to France's reputation in China, where nationalist feeling runs high (as Pierre Haski reports from Peking). To be sure, the Chinese government whipped up nationalist passions by selectively showing footage of the handicapped Chinese athlete being attacked by pro-Tibet demonstrators. But then what are we to say of the images of the Tibet violence broadcast in France? It's probably not a good idea to draw sweeping conclusions about the nature of justice in any society on the basis of televised images of police repression (what would one have concluded about France if one's only knowledge of its politics came from an event of the sort I described in the previous post?).

The Dalai Lama is now an honorary citizen of Paris, while Carrefour outlets in China are the object of boycotts. Sarkozy has sent his apologies to the athlete and "the people of China," carefully omitting from his letter any mention of the Chinese government, but the government has nevertheless "accepted" his apology on behalf of its people. A healthy number of deputies may have praised Tibetan resistance outside the National Assembly, but their voice has been offset by the equally healthy number of agents Sarkozy has dispatched to make amends to the Chinese (Poncelet, Raffarin, Levitte). Les droits de l'homme are the bread and circuses of today's high politics. When convenient they can be deployed to divert the crowd, but serious people occupy themselves with serious interests and don't confuse gliberal intervention with foreign policy. China and Tibet have a long history about which most of us in the West know very little. If we really care about the rights of Tibetans, it would behoove us to learn more and find better instruments than the Olympic torch follies (a "tradition" invented by the Nazis in 1936, by the way) to make our point to the Chinese.

À la recherche du temps perdu

A reader, noticing that I say I've been observing French politics since 1968, asks if I plan to remember May '68. Well, I certainly can't give a firsthand account: I didn't set foot on French soil for the first time until August of '68, at the tender age of 21. Paris still bore the scars of the May events. The hotel in which I stayed--Le National on rue Gay-Lussac, where rooms could be had at a price that two footloose American students could afford--had had the plate glass of its breakfast room smashed by a cobblestone (the streets of the Latin Quarter were still cobblestoned back then). My twin first impressions of Paris remain with me to this day: a city of overwhelming beauty and overwhelming anxiety. The patent sign of that anxiety was the massive police presence. There were police and CRS vans everywhere, and each one contained its small arsenal of light automatic weapons. The streets were actively patrolled by police with bloused trousers and combat boots and armed with assault weapons. America was not exactly innocent of riot police in those days, but they appeared only when violence threatened. What struck me about France was the omnipresence of this quasi-military force despite the apparent tranquility of daily life.

The city belonged to the young, or so it seemed to me--but of course I was one of them. Having come straight from Cambridge, Mass., which also belonged to the young but in a very different way, I was nevertheless struck by what seemed to me profound differences between the two youth cultures. The French were at once more earnest, more intense, and more carefree. They gathered in cafés or around park benches or on the steps of public buildings and argued passionately, I gathered through the haze of my rudimentary French. Politics was everywhere, and "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" were less in evidence, at least to an outsider, as the defining hallmarks of what Time magazine was pleased to call the "global youth movement." (It was generational rebellion that was "global" in those days rather than the economy.)

It was of course a "political" time in the United States too, but in France it was different. Perhaps it was the revolutionary tradition; perhaps it was the multiplicity of political parties, some of which were available to amplify the voice of the student movement; perhaps it was the fact that de Gaulle's grip on power had clearly been shaken by the May events. In any event, politics seemed more serious, even if the French had no Vietnam War to stop and no civil rights movement to empower. But these were moral aims, as it were, and already it seemed to me that the young in France were interested not just in recalling their elders to the straight and narrow but in seizing and exercising power. This was an exhilarating thought but also a frightening one, because of the sullenness, even hatred, that seemed to mark some of the opposition. If de Gaulle remained in power, he was not yet the consensus icon that he has since become. I recall sitting in a movie theater and being stunned, when an image of de Gaulle appeared on the screen in a newsreel, by a spontaneous outburst of catcalls and a barrage of strange oaths such as "le patron du SAC," which in my naïveté I took to be the Strategic Air Command and wondered what de Gaulle had to do with that. Only later did I learn that the reference was to the Service d'Action Civique, a band of marshals--some would call them thugs--who maintained order when Gaullists were on the march.

And then there were the Communists. It was one of the distinctive features of France for a young American that it sustained a large and seemingly vibrant Communist Party. How daring! So it came as something of a surprise when I discovered that to French students whom I met, all of whom described themselves as de gauche or even gauchiste, the PCF was not only ringard (a new word to me) but "the enemy"--not, however, in the sense in which Communists were the enemy of the United States. For my friends, the PCF was the conservative party, the antirevolutionary party, the party of the status quo. The Gaullists, on the other hand, were the party of the bourgeoisie. This was another word whose meaning had to be acquired slowly by being savored in a variety of contexts, like sampling a wine with different foods. To me, a young mathematician still innocent of Marxism, "bourgeois" was a term of cultural opprobrium: "bourgeois" taste was opposed to the "hip" taste of the young. Middle-class American youth, in rebellion against the mores of their middle-class American parents, turned up their noses at such "bourgeois" insignia as suburban tract homes (we listened to Pete Seeger singing "Little boxes made of ticky-tacky"), station wagons, and whiskey sours. We abandoned these "bourgeois" habits in favor of communal apartments, motorcycles, and joints. But we had no class enemy called "the bourgeoisie." There was an Establishment, but that was different, and while we may have turned our backs on our elders, with whom we quarreled bitterly, few of us would have been capable of saying, as Gide said long before the Sixties, "Familles, je vous hais." Clearly the French ressentiment against the patriarchal spirit was a thing more deeply rooted than the velleities of American baby-boomers in their college years. But it would take a long time to sort out that difference.

A few days into my first sojourn in Paris these latent oppositions burst into the open. The first inkling I had of trouble was a dull roar from somewhere to the west down the boulevard Saint-Germain. Soon busloads of CRS arrived, and police began to line the boulevard along which I was walking with my girlfriend. We had reached the musée de Cluny when the police received an order to stop all pedestrians. They linked arms and pressed us back against the fence protecting the museum grounds. There we remained pinned as demonstrators approached carrying banners denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had taken place the day before (Aug. 20: not having read the newspaper that day, this was the first I had heard of it). It was a fairly small demonstration, perhaps 300 or 400 people marching down the boulevard and chanting anti-Soviet slogans. When the group had passed, the police released the pressure that was pinning all of us bystanders against the fence, and we assumed it was all over. We continued our stroll eastward along the boulevard, as the police returned to their vans, which began to roll slowly down the street in the direction the protesters had gone. A short while later, however, the buses stopped; the police disembarked again, and this time they formed up in ranks across the wide boulevard. A signal was given, and suddenly they attacked the demonstrators from behind, swinging clubs, launching tear gas, and in the meantime preventing onlookers from approaching any closer. They had waited until the demonstration had moved out of the more touristy areas west of the rue Saint-Jacques and had attacked somewhere in the vicinity of Maubert-Mutualité.

So that night I learned a number of things about France: I saw that a right-wing government nervous about "disorder" of any kind was prepared to unleash its police on anti-Soviet demonstrators; I discovered that the police were no novices when it came to dealing with manifestants; and I learned that in France politics was a blood sport. Yet the cafés remained full, and the marvelous bookstores never emptied. Later that night I went to several of the big ones on the boul' Mich. At Gibert the aisles in the Marxism section were full even at that late hour, and young people were sitting on the floor reading serious tomes. I was smitten by a culture that still seemed quite exotic to me, exotic and incomprehensible. If I'm nowadays tempted at times to echo Swann, who said of Odette that he had given the best years of his life to a woman who wasn't really his type, I nevertheless try to resist. Really, we had some very good times together.

Enough for today. I may have more to say if these personal reminiscences don't turn off too many of you.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The World Turned Upside-Down

Deputies of the Left give a standing ovation to Chantal Brunel, a UMP deputy, as she attacks the government on its tax shelters for the rich. Will wonders never cease:

Négritude

Only four French writers have been honored with obsèques nationales: Victor Hugo (hélas, said André Gide), Paul Valéry, Colette (!), and now Aimé Césaire. Not only the president but toute une ribambelle de Socialistes made the trek to Martinique to honor the poet of négritude. So it's interesting to discover that 3 days ago La Vie des idées published a terrific piece by Sylvie Laurent on Barack Obama and Africa, which begins as follows:

Barack Obama connaît les subtilités du débat sur la race et les limites du discours sur l’identité noire. Il sait, depuis qu’il a découvert l’Afrique, terre de son père, que la « négritude », conscience et culture qui uniraient les Noirs d’Amérique et d’Afrique, peut n’être qu’une posture dans les ghettos de Chicago.


And further:

[Kwame Anthony] Appiah [a leading American philosopher of mixed African and English descent] ne croit ni en la « race » ni en une « négritude » essentialiste rassemblant par delà les continents des gens n’ayant en commun que leur couleur de peau. L’afro-centrisme est donc pour lui une aporie mais elle n’interdit pas aux Noirs d’Amérique de penser leurs origines africaines.


The article is excellent and a true tour d'horizon of African-American thinking about Africa. I recommend it to you highly.

The New Socialist Party

No, not le Nouveau Parti Socialiste--that's dead, and Arnaud Montebourg has thrown in his lot with Pierre Moscovici, while Vincent Peillon is going with Ségolène Royal. I'm speaking, rather, of the new "consensus" position paper that the PS has adopted in advance of its upcoming "renovation congress." As one might expect of a consensus "declaration of principles" approved by "98 percent" of the party, the style is purest langue de bois, and the document is more notable for what it doesn't say than for what it does. Although "revolution" has been banished at last from the party canon, there is a fallback on the word "revolt": "To be a socialist is not to be content with the world as it is. The socialist idea partakes of both a revolt against injustice and hope for a better life." The "social market economy" has become the "social and ecological market economy," and the "goal of socialist action" is no longer merely "complete emancipation of the human person" but also "the preservation of the planet." Vaste programme, aurait dit de Gaulle. "Progress, synonymous with improvement of human life, is a fundamental value for socialists." Etc.

I could go on in this vein, but it is difficult to raise an ironic eyebrow via the Internet, so I'll stop. One thing is certain: if the PS sticks to this bland mush in its Congress, it will indeed have the "serene and useful" meeting that Ségolène Royal looks forward to on her Web site, but it will be the serenity of lobotomy. Is it really necessary to engage in embarrassing rituals of this sort?

Le Monde finds--or pretends to find--something in this document that eludes my grasp.

America Lands in Clichy-sous-Bois

It seems that the U.S. government is taking a serious interest in the French suburbs: the official reason is that "Americans are interested in diversity and want to share the experience of minorities." But according to Ali Laïdi, a researcher at IRIS, the real goal is "to understand what happened in 2001." In other words, the embassy appears to have been assigned the task of understanding the radicalization of Muslims in Europe, of building bridges to the Muslim community, and of keeping tabs on developments among European Muslims.

If Cold War experience is any guide, that is only the most visible aspect of the project. As has been abundantly documented, American intelligence tried to influence European opinion in many ways during the Cold War, including the financing of journals, art shows, conferences, etc. And of course information-gathering never stops. Between "hard power" and "soft power" there is "malleable power": the use of abundant resources to entice, cajole, seduce, and co-opt.

Thanks to Éloi Laurent for the tip.

The Second Aircraft Carrier

As a candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy promised that France would have a second aircraft carrier. As President, it seems, he has discovered that aircraft carriers are horribly expensive, the army and air force don't think France needs one, and even the navy isn't so sure it wants to sacrifice other types of ships in order to enjoy the privilege of operating a floating pot of gold. Hervé Morin has noted the obvious budgetary constraints but, having been admonished by the president not to speak out of turn, says that it is up to the head of state to arbitrate. The Élysée says that the president remains "attached" to the project.

A personal side-note: the porte-hélicoptère Jeanne-d'Arc that took part in the recent operation against the "pirates of Ponant" once visited Boston, and I was invited to visit the ship. The captain received us wearing a sword strapped to his side and looking most impressive in his dress uniform. My children were quite taken with the idea that the captain of a modern naval vessel would wear a sword. They staged a mock duel between the captain and attacking pirates on the deck of the ship while my wife and I enjoyed the view of Old Ironsides, which was anchored nearby.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Pits

I don't as a rule care much for political commentary that simply points to opinion polls and then declares, "There, you see!" There are enough forces that would reduce democracy to plebiscite of the thumbs up-thumbs down variety (even Siskel and Ebert always offered thoughts to accompany their pointing thumbs). Still, an IFOP poll that indicates 79 percent disapproval of Sarkozy's "action" after almost a year in office makes you sit up and take notice. But other numbers tend to confuse the picture. The chief executant of the reforms, François Fillon, still enjoys a 52 percent approval rating--down 6 percent since the previous poll, but still a majority. Sarko himself is at 36, down 1, but faring better than his policy, if we believe the numbers. How can that be? It was the policy that 53 percent of France voted for last May, was it not?

Well, let's look at what IFOP actually asked, rather than at Libé's characterization. The question was, "One year after the election, would you say that the action of the president and of his government has allowed an improvement of the situation of France and the French?" (and not, as the headline puts it, "Has Sarkozy's reform failed?") Now, an objective observer would have to grant that France's economic situation has not improved (nor has improvement been "allowed," in IFOP's curiously indirect and passive formulation), though, to be sure, unemployment is down, and reduced unemployment has been a primary goal of economic policy for 2 decades. One has no way of knowing whether people have taken the pollster's question to focus primarily on the situation--a global context that is less favorable than it was last may owing to the credit crisis, soaring commodity prices, and probable recession in the US--or the policies. To be sure, the policies were conceived in a very different context and do not address what might be considered the more urgent immediate problems. But "mismatch" is not the same as "failure."

The question was so ill conceived that the detailed breakdown of responses is of no help in interpreting how people read it. At most one can conclude that the French are not happy with their situation, but then who is? It would be a sign of irrationality to pronounce oneself happy with the way things stand now anywhere in the world, and to link that question to Sarkozy's name is bound to produce a meaningless result.

Mentoring


Édouard Balladur, Sarkozy's mentor in neo-liberalism, congratulates him for having accomplished so much--"rarely has so much been done in so little time"--only to admonish him for creating "a certain feeling of overabundance." The French need to have a clearer idea of where he thinks he's going. "I hope, for example, that the government will quickly make known its action plan for 2008."

Indeed, the chaos of the last few weeks, for which journalists seem unable to find any descriptive terms other than couacs and cafouillages, might have seemed less chaotic if there were anything like the roadmap Sarkozy laid out in his presidential campaign. Whatever one thinks of what he did, he made no secret that he was going to do it. After a year in office, he has lost his forthrightness. Balladur issues a veiled warning against chiraquisation: "All too often over the past thirty years, the duration of effort has been too short. Some have sought to assure the French that acquired rights were untouchable, that open-handed spending could continue, that the state would take care of everything. The people were deceived. A year ago, things changed, the need for an overhaul was clearly spelled out. It remains to find the proper rhythm of change and to explain things to the French. I am certain that Nicolas Sarkozy will do this on Thursday" (when the president is scheduled to meet the press).

Yet no sooner has he said that than he adds, in response to a question about changes in family allocations and the controversy over the SNCF "family card," that "family policy should be modified only with the utmost caution."

Sarkozy must feel that his erstwhile mentor has offered him an "overabundance" of advice: on the one hand, "full speed ahead against nervous conservatives and hidebound corporatist resistance," on the other hand "utmost caution" in dealing with potentially explosive issues. Clearly the controversy is about priorities. For Balladur, family policy is a distraction from the central economic issues. But for Sarkozy, who needs quick results, who is in danger of disappearing into the void if he cannot announce new legislation week after week, small accomplishments may be better than none. Ultimately, Balladur's counsel is that Sarkozy should become Balladur. But Balladur is the mentor who failed to become president. Chirac was also once a mentor of Sarkozy's, and Sarko may at last be learning the ultimate lesson that Chirac had to teach: things look different from the top, and not quite so simple as they appear to lean and hungry lieutenants.

Friday, April 18, 2008

AubryCadabrantesque


I've been hearing rumors for some time now that Martine Aubry would make a move in the national arena. Apparently her consolidating her hold over the communauté urbaine de Lille is as good a pretext as any. Today's trial balloon in Le Monde portrays Aubry as the "anti-Ségolène"--a convenient image to have if the race shapes up as Ségo versus the rest of the field. The article is signed by Raphaëlle Bacqué, against whom Ségo had a lawsuit for a while for invasion of privacy (subsequently withdrawn).

Bacqué points out that Aubry's biggest handicap is that her name is attached to the laws instituting the 35-hour week, which are quite unpopular in certain quarters. On verra. I would put her down as a dark horse, who has waited until rather late in the day to make her move.

Opinionating

Le Figaro commissioned a poll about unemployment. It used its favorite polling firm, OpinionWay. Marianne quickly responded that the poll was meaningless, because "everyone knows" that OpinionWay is biased toward the Right. Business as usual, no? Well, yes, but the problem with denouncing the messenger is that it dispenses with considering what the message was supposed to have been. And even if one grants that OpinionWay isn't reliable, the results of its poll are curious, and even more so if the firm is supposed to favor the government. Because what the poll shows is that the respondents do not trust the government to set conditions concerning when the unemployed must accept offers of employment or lose unemployment benefits. Only 23 percent of those polled believe that the government should fulfill this function. A large majority would prefer to see these conditions set by "the social partners," that is, unions and employers, rather than by the government. Is this what a biased poll would be expected to show? And what does it mean?

One possible interpretation is that most people, whether they regard the long-term unemployed as shirkers (which Marianne sees as the bias of the Right) or as victims vulnerable to being pressed into involuntary servitude by a heartless system, do not trust the state because they view politicians as vulnerable to pressure from both employers and unemployed. The social partners, respondents apparently assume, can at least be trusted to defend their own interests, whereas the politicians will pander to whichever group is most troublesome at the moment. This image of the state is a far cry from the august tradition of the public servant as neutral arbiter between contending social forces. This rejection of the state does not seem to be the exclusive province of either Left or Right, however. Both sides are distrustful, and both seem to believe that a bargain struck between adversaries is preferable to the decision of a supposedly neutral but in fact unreliable arbiter. If the poll is biased, it may exaggerate the degree to which the French believe that the unemployed are refusing "acceptable" offers of work, but it nevertheless reflects a disaffection from the state that seems to transcend the partisan divide.

Eurozone Deficit Down


The Eurozone deficit is down to its lowest level in seven years, but France is near the bottom of the class. The ECB might use this evidence of good fiscal discipline to justify a little monetary loosening if it weren't so concerned about high inflation.

AP Plans to Close French Bureau

The Associated Press will very likely close its French bureau after its employees set conditions deemed impossible by potential buyers Bertrand Eveno and the Bolloré Group. This will leave many American papers even more in the dark about France than they already are.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

New Feature

In preparing this blog, I take in a lot more information than I can possibly write about. Some of it is relevant to French politics, some not. It occurred to me that some of you might be interested in some of the items that strike me as particularly noteworthy, so I've created a shared page via Google Reader where you will find links to articles I've flagged from the Web. I hope you find it useful. There is also an RSS feed on that page for those who use aggregators.

Reform of the Senate

The PS wants to reform the Senate. The Senate is supposed to represent "local collectivities." The PS controls 20 of 22 regions, 58 of 102 départements, and 57 percent of cities and towns with population greater than 10,000 (in which reside 60 percent of the population), yet it is still in the minority in the Senate because the mode of election favors towns with populations below 1,500, where the Right remains in the majority. "Here is proof that there is a flaw in our system that every democrat must have at heart to remedy," says Robert Badinter. Unfortunately, the mode of election is determined by statute rather than by the constitution and is therefore impossible to change as long as the Right has a lock on the upper chamber. Hence the strategy of the PS is to make reform of the Senate a precondition for discussions with the majority on the constitutional reforms it wants. Since those consitutional reforms require a 3/5 majority, the PS has more leverage.

Here we get down to political trench warfare. Which constitutional reforms does the Right want so badly that it would sacrifice the Senate to get them? Would Sarkozy trade the upper house for the right to deliver a "state of the Republic" address to Parliament once a year? Asked and answered.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sarko Gets Up the Irish of the Irish

A British diplomat wrote in an e-mail after a meeting with Irish foreign minister Dan Mulhall that the Irish viewed Sarkozy as "completely unpredictable" and were worried about France's impending EU presidency and its possible impact on an Irish referendum vote.

La faim du monde

A pun to make Nabokov proud.

Sarko--et après?

If you're an ambitious politician, it's never too early to begin laying the groundwork for future runs. The UMP has lately seemed almost as much of a foire des égos as the PS. Jean-François Copé, who can't hide his ambition under a bushel basket, has been even more agitated than usual. Jean-Pierre Raffarin has shown that he has claws behind the mild exterior. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet showed some spunk and some spleen. Xavier Bertrand has been making the media rounds. François Fillon enjoyed his solo flight in Japan. And now it is the turn of Christian Estrosi, who has proposed that the UMP leader be elected by party activists. This makes him the UMP's Ségolène Royal.

Licking his wounds offstage is Patrick Devedjian, while Jean-Louis Borloo continues to play his cards close to his chest, biding his time. Michèle Alliot-Marie may have concluded that her time is past.

Next week Sarko will reclaim center stage when he meets the press, which is squabbling over the choice of interviewers. It seems that Arlette Chabot is out; PPDA will be joined instead by David Pujadas and three "issue specialists." No reason has been given, but I recall that Sarko complained after his last appearance that the interviewers lacked du répondant, which threw him off his game. He sees himself as hardball hitter, I guess. One hardball he'll surely have to swing at this time is the report that the government expects slower growth in purchasing power for 2008.

Firms Cool to Detaxation of Overtime

A survey of firms concerning their attitude toward the reduction of taxes on overtime pay suggests that most do not view the TEPA law as an opportunity and 79% have no desire to increase overtime hours unless economic conditions change.

The Newspaper Crisis

Le Monde reviews a history of the news business in France and contemplates the reasons for its own decline. The newspaper yesterday laid off 69 journalists. It continues to lose money.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Lycée Protests

It's spring, so the fancy of young French men and women turns to ... les manifs. Having seen too many springs come and go, I have a nasty sense of déjà-vu, as they don't say in French:


Manifestation des lycéens et des enseignants à Paris
Uploaded by rue89

Vincent Peillon, when challenged to explain why the PS had had so little to say about the lycée movement, conceded that reform of the schools was necessary, but that it had to be "useful and effective" and "part of a plan," not "just an ideological proposition." A breathtaking idea.

More on the Minimum Wage

Following up on a post earlier today on the minimum wage, here is a draft of the forthcoming CAE report on revision of the SMIC by Cahuc, Cette, and Zylberberg, and here is a rather bilious critique.

The Devil Is in the Details

I don't go out of my way looking for Sarkozyana to fill this blog, but occasionally I stumble across a tidbit that just insists on being shouted from the rooftops:

Last month, the music played to callers on hold at the Élysée switchboard was changed: Asturias, a famous piece by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, Cécilia's great-grandfather, was replaced by Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, the most French of the Romantics.


And The New York Times thinks that Sarko listens only to Lionel Ritchie!

The Minimum Wage

Philippe Askenazy refutes the idea that there is an "optimum level of wage inequality" and hence that a high minimum wage (such as the French SMIC) is a disincentive to work. His article is full of interesting information. For instance, he offers these data to show that the French are not particularly egalitarian compared to their European neighbors (though they are, of course, compared to the US, as I discussed yesterday). The Finns, the Danes, and the Swedes have the most egalitarian wage scales:

Tableau 1 : Ratios de dispersion des rémunérations brutes dans les entreprises de plus de 10 salariés de l’industrie et les services de NACE C-K en 2002.


D5/D1D9/D5
Allemagne1,81,8
Irlande1,82,2
Luxembourg1,82
France1,62
Belgique1,61,6
UK1,62
Espagne1,62
Pays-Bas1,61,8
Autriche1,52
Grèce1,51,8
Italie1,41,8
Danemark1,31,6
Finlande1,31,5
Suède1,31,6

Source : European Commission, Employment in Europe 2005 (pdf)
D1, D5 et D9 désignent les premier, cinquième (ou médian) et dernier déciles des rémunérations annuelles.


For comparison, the American ratios are 2.1 and 2.31 (for data on changes over time, see article).

Ch'ti Coattails

Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis has now surpassed La grande Vadrouille as the most popular French film on French soil and may soon surpass Titanic as well to become the most popular film period. Sarkozy therefore hopes to ride its coattails. The New York Times, which for reasons best known to itself has decided to play middlebrow cultural scold, will no doubt find in the decision to screen the film at the Élysée confirmation of its condescending opinion of the president's taste. The paper, which reaches outre-tombe to quote Chateaubriand on the matter ("Taste is the good sense of genius"), might look to the sad decline of its own Sunday book review section before giving lessons to poor, beleaguered Sarkozy, whose "Kennedy-like vigor and refreshing informality" it was praising only a few months ago. But perhaps the Camelot fantasy still obtains, since the same article opines that Carla may yet do a Jackie and persuade her man to sit still for some Casals-like savonnette à vilain. But first she will have to join her husband and 60 million Frenchman in smiling with the Ch'tis.

Employment and Productivity

Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon report on recent work of theirs which suggests that recent employment growth in Europe may be linked to declining productivity. This linkage is said to be the effect of including marginal new workers. There are important policy implications:

The most important innovation of our approach is to change the current focus of European policy discussions. Our analysis suggests that some of the policy reforms that are at the top of the European reform agenda may raise employment per capita but may also reduce productivity. We find that some reforms, such as lowering labour taxes, may only have small short-run effects on output per capita after their effects on productivity are taken into account.

We find that the revival of European employment growth can help explain why European productivity slowed. But we do not explain why European productivity growth did not accelerate as occurred in the US. US productivity took off after 1995, growing at 0.7 percent faster per year, but in Europe a literal reading of the productivity growth data leads to doubt that the internet revolution ever occurred in Europe. Some of Europe’s poor recent performance can be explained by reforms that will enhance growth in the long run, but not all of it. Our findings should lead EU policymakers to think about the two-edged effects of policy reforms on employment and productivity, but they should also worry about how to encourage innovation and the adoption of new technologies.