Saturday, May 31, 2008

Édouard Glissant

The poet Édouard Glissant advances his theory of diversity, according to which Europe exported its rationalism but not its heterodox heresies, which had to be rediscovered at the margins.

Séguy Recalls '68

It's a little startling to find Georges Séguy, who led the CGT at the time of the general strike in '68, speaking in a décor that might seem more appropriate to a leader of Chasse, Pêche, Nature, Tradition, but this short clip is of considerable historical interest. Séguy describes the night of the barricades on rue Gay-Lussac as a moment of prise de conscience. Until then the student movement was still something of an enigma to this representative of the working class, who explicitly repudiated what he took to be a group of upstarts attempting to seize control of a "workers' movement" whose leadership rightfully belonged to him, but after that night interpreting the exotic fauna of gauchisme no longer mattered (no doubt this retrospective view has been extensively edited by the passage of time). The plot was simplified to its essence: protesters on barricades, police sent to crush them by those in power. And thereafter, as if by divine intervention, the impossible became possible. "Eight million workers in the streets are more persuasive than the best arguments of a union leader."

The question is whether this dramaturgy of le grand soir still captures the imagination of large numbers of people, or whether May 11, 1968, was the last such conflagration.

Museum of the Absurd

I suppose every microcosm looks absurd from the outside. The academic microcosm in which I live often looks absurd from the inside, as does the political microcosm, which I follow closely. But then I look at the microcosm of collectors and gain a little perspective. A man named Gérard Lhéritier just paid 3.6 million euros for the original of the Surrealist manifesto. It will be housed henceforth in the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques-Doucet, which also holds manuscripts of Helen Churchill Candee, a Titanic survivor who inspired the James Cameron film, and some pages covered with calculations by Albert Einstein.

Surreal indeed. Who will be the first collector to apotheosize a blog, I wonder?

Friday, May 30, 2008

French TV recording via Internet

Of possible interest to some readers: TNT, the Télévision Numérique Terrestre, is distributing new software called Wizzgo that allows you to record TNT TV programs for later playback on your computer, iPod, or iPhone.

From CNN International

Dear Arthur Goldhammer



All next week on CNN International, we will be meeting the people rocking the
foundations of France, across politics, business and culture, in a special week
of dedicated live programming.



The Eye On France season, which starts on 2nd June, will see me being joined by
my colleagues Hala Gorani and Fionnuala Sweeney in Paris for seven days to
capture the colour, vitality and exuberance of all aspects of French life.
We'll be interviewing some key names across the areas of sport, film, politics,
fashion, food and business, including exclusives with writer, director and
producer Luc Besson; foreign minister Bernard Kouchner; former professional
footballer Zinedine Zidane; and president of Areva Anne Lauvergeon. Each day
we will be looking at a specific topic and while we are interested in the
French view on being French, we are very keen to capture the global view on
France and the French.



To encourage people to have their say, we've written five key questions for
discussion. Watch Hala presenting these questions on our dedicated Eye On
France website at www.cnn.com/france



The questions are:

- In his victory speech, President Sarkozy said France had turned "a new page"
in its history. Do you agree?

- What do you think most defines France's reputation around the world?

- Is French culture still alive today?

- Who are France's most influential people?

- What do you think is unique or distinctive about the French?



Thanks for your time and I hope you and your visitors find this interesting.



Kind regards,



Jim Bittermann

CNN International Paris correspondent

Should you have any questions please contact: CNN Press Office, Tel: +44 20
7693 0945 Email: cnninternationalpressoffice@turner.com

CNN International, Turner House, 16 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7HS



The answers.

Shocked, shocked

Christine Lagarde is shocked, shocked to learn that there is gambling in Rick's Bar. To be precise, what really shocks her is that the gamblers' winnings--the excessive compensation of CEOs in the form of generous distribution of stock options--have not been tied to their "performance."

Surely the former chairman of Baker McKenzie, having enjoyed a long and successful career in corporate law before joining the government, was not innocent of the knowledge that "just deserts" is not necessarily the rule of the marketplace. Indeed, at her own firm, Baker McKenzie, an international partner makes upward of $750,000, I gather. Perhaps one or two of them wasn't worth it, or shared a bonus for work done by others. Populist outrage is more credible in the mouths of some politicians than others. I don't think it's Ms. Lagarde's strong suit.

Meanwhile, Noël Forgeard, the former head of EADS, has been formally charged with insider trading and circulation of false or deceptive information to financial markets. The case is likely to reveal a good deal about the cozy relations among leading industrialists. Swollen executive compensation is a direct result of this coziness. Instead of calling for caps on executive pay packages, Lagarde would do better to call for revision of corporate governance regulations. If the public were represented on corporate boards, would the boards be so quick to ratify CEOs' inflated estimates of their own prowess?

On the Representation of Poverty

Serge Paugam on the representation of poverty and the idea of "solidarity" in France.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Challenge of University Reform

Alex Tabarrok reflects on the implications for the rest of the world of the rapid expansion of higher education in China. Unlike so many commentators, he stresses the welfare-enhancing aspects of Chinese progress rather than the competitive challenge. Still, China's ability to build a system of higher education virtually ex nihilo (from 1 million entering students in 1996 to 5 million ten years later) does cast a harsh light on France's failure to improve its performance over a comparable time span. The NBER working paper cited in the post (gated access) is full of interesting information. For instance, Chinese universities "generate significant support by engaging in commercial activities." "From 2001, private funding (tuition and fee payment) covers more than 50% of total educational expenditures." Chinese students commit extraordinary amounts of time to college preparation: "40% of junior middle school students work more than 12 hours a day, 7 days a week." Mechanisms are in place to enhance access to higher education for poorer students, although there are admitted "implementation difficulties." And there is much more. All in all, a fascinating document.

Valérie Pécresse should read it. The reform plan she has just announced will initially concentrate new funding on six universities: Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lyon, Montpellier, Strasbourg et Toulouse. It's a start, and clearly in a country like France, the immediate goal has to be qualitative improvement, not quantitative expansion. What is distinctive about the Chinese plan, though, is the central position the universities occupy in the government's vision of the country's future. The Chinese already foresee the day when cheap labor will no longer be enough to sustain growth and are planning accordingly.

The Vanished War

Some interesting thoughts from John Quiggin and Edward Lengel on the absence of World War I memory in American public discourse and why this might have something to do with differences in American and European attitudes toward war and the military.

Duh

François Hollande has headed the Socialist Party for 11 years. Now that he is about to leave the job, he has delivered himself of a list of 10 questions that the party needs to answer if it is to clarify where it stands on the pressing issues of the day. But it was because these very same questions have divided the party throughout the period of his leadership, and because he saw his mission as maintaining some semblance of unity at the cost of coherence, that so little was accomplished toward resolving the differences, which were simply allowed to fester. A more skillful party leader would have recognized the need for hard choices long ago--by 2002 at the latest.

Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Europeans are outstripping Americans, it seems.

The Way the World Works

When I wrote about Auchan the other day, a commenter pointed out a post on another blog critical of the article in Le Monde that I cited. I didn't respond at the time, because I thought the post on the other blog was too mistaken to warrant comment, and I didn't want to be impolite. But now the blog comment has been taken up by Marianne, and it seems worth taking a moment to refute the error.

Samuel, the author of the article, thinks that Auchan earns "fabulous profits" by obliging its customers to pay cash while enjoying, as a result of its market power, a grace period of 90 days before it is required to pay its suppliers. Auchan allegedly invests the cash for 90 days to reap the windfall. Alas, Samuel has forgotten that the cash taken in this quarter goes to pay suppliers from the previous quarter, so the only excess available for investment is, as in any commercial transaction, the margin between cost and selling price. (Samuel also forgets that few customers pay cash nowadays. By his logic, the consumer who pays with a credit card could become fabulously wealthy by investing the money he charges to his card each month at Auchan in a 1-month CD, then selling the CD at the end of the month to pay off his credit card debt. I don't recommend this as a get-rich-quick strategy unless you're getting an awfully good teaser rate on your credit card and know a bank desperate enough to pay some serious interest on a 30-day CD.)

It's not unusual to find fundamental misunderstandings of this sort in the media. The recent flurry of proposals in both the US and France to cut gasoline taxes is another case in point. Paul Krugman and Greg Mankiw have written about this in recent weeks, and today Noblabla and Petitsuix take up the issue in response to Sarkozy's populist proposal earlier this week.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Energy

The price of oil has been in the headlines now for weeks, and protests have erupted not only in France but elsewhere. A useful primer on the oil market is this paper by James Hamilton. Complementary sources of energy--electricity and gas--are taken up in a report for the Conseil d'Analyse Économique (no. 74), which can be found here. In the latter, see especially Elie Cohen's comments on problems of institutional design in energy market regulation, beginning on p. 99.

Sarko Is Losing His Mind

President Sarkozy is soon to lose his mind, or at any rate the brains of his operation: Emmanuelle Mignon, the top-ranked énarque who played a key role in preparing the candidate for the campaign, is said to be leaving her job in the fall. Her replacement is reportedly Christian Frémont.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Howard on 1968

Dick Howard, a regular reader of French Politics, has published a piece on 1968 that may be of interest to many of you. Dick is a professor of philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and was a participant-observer in the events he writes about.

Blog Visitors-Top 10 Countries

Visitors during the blog's first year came from 168 different countries. Top ten:

Sharing the Wealth

The latest government plan to juice purchasing power involves intéressement and participation. Both are forms of profit sharing, but as far as I know there are no precise American equivalents, so the terms are perhaps best left untranslated. In France, participation is mandatory in firms with more than 50 employees. A share of any profits earned by the firms is distributed to employees, but distributions had been "blocked" for five years, meaning that they could not be converted to cash until a five-year waiting period had elapsed. Sarkozy is eliminating this waiting period, so accrued bonuses can be spent immediately.

Intéressement is a voluntary form of profit-sharing established by agreement between a firm and its employees. No waiting period is associated with it. Sarkozy is offering small firms that have not created such plans a tax credit to encourage them to do so now.

A firm can implement both types of profit-sharing if it wishes.

"Entre les Murs"

The feel-good story of the week is the award of the Palme d'Or at Cannes to Entre les murs, a film about an 8th-grade class in a collège filled with students of color (it was filmed at the collège Françoise Dolto in the 20th arrdt. of Paris). The students who participated in the film lived the dream of stardom on the red carpet at Cannes and returned home yesterday to a hero's welcome at school. Students kissed; pupils hugged teachers; parents cried. Having celebrated les Ch'tis, France can now rejoice in the equally magical transformation of a still less appreciated minority.

I look forward to seeing the film, which has been well reviewed, and I don't for a moment begrudge the students their moment of delirium. More than one is now contemplating a career in film, and perhaps one or two of them will make it. But most will probably find the ever-widening gap between the momentary apotheosis and everyday reality increasingly difficult to bear. There might even be in the descent from the heights of irreality material for François Bégaudeau and Laurent Cantet to make a second film.

Question of the Day

Here's a question to which I would seriously like to know the answer. This morning Sarkozy said:
"Comment voulez-vous que les gens achètent leurs journaux en kiosque s'il est gratuit sur Internet ?" Notice that in this sentence he consecrated the accepted French usage of "Internet" as a noun that must not be used with the definite article. Why is this the case? In English we would say, "Why would people buy their newspapers at the newsstand when they can get them for free on the Internet?" Since "we" invented the Internet any way you look at it (whether you think it was Vinton Cerf or Al Gore or DARPA or Tim Berners-Lee who deserves the credit), shouldn't English usage be decisive here? How did "Internet" lose the "le" in France? Speculation welcome.

I will pass over in silence the fact that the president used the singular pronoun "il" to refer to the plural noun "leurs journaux." It is the solecism of a nation that concerns me this morning, not the solecism of the individual who incarnates the nation.

Après Disneyland, Rungis


The Sarko show is back. No one will admit it, but people had begun to miss it. It was like a TV sitcom: sort of cheesy, but good for a laugh when you were tired at the end of the day. The last few months have been like a summer of reruns and second-rate replacements. But today the president got up early to go marketing at Rungis and brought Carla with him. Then he went for breakfast at RTL so that la France qui se lève tôt could listen to his table talk as they drove to work. He demonstrated the requisite concern this time around with le pouvoir d'achat. He would ask Brussels for permission to reduce the VAT on petroleum products--something for the fishermen, farmers, truckers, commuters, etc.--and on CDs and DVDs--something for the kids. There would be no austerity, because austerity doesn't work: others "more brilliant" than he had tried it and failed. He mentioned Barre, Delors, Bérégovoy--prime ministers all. Subtext: prime ministers focused on the bottom line may appear to be models of probity, but reviving the animal spirits of the Keynesian entrepreneur requires a more openhanded, Micawberesque assurance that something will turn up.

It was a change from Disneyland and Luxor. In recent days the president has visited factories, markets, provincial town halls. He's campaigning again, greeting the sunrise, jutting his jaw, letting folks know that their lives will be better tomorrow. He's getting his groove back. Campaigning, after all, is what he does best.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Quote of the Day

"From the point of view of politics, truth has a despotic character."
-- Hannah Arendt, "Truth in Politics"

Quoted in David Estlund's extremely interesting book Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework.

Auchan Speaks

I confess to a certain weakness for Auchan. In one of the places I frequently vacation in France, it has become the retail outlet of choice, blowing away the aging Leclerc that had pioneered the penetration of la grande distribution in the area. Incidentally, contrary to widespread belief, there are lots of grandes surfaces in France, but relatively few in the Paris region, and in any given locality there tends to be less competition among large retailers than one finds in other countries where the overall density of large chains may be lower. There are hopes that the law on the modernization of the economy will change some of these patterns to introduce greater competition and therefore lower prices to end consumers.

Arnaud Mulliez, the head of Auchan, isn't so sure. Of course it would be foolish to take his word for Gospel, since he's an interested party, but what he says is worth paying attention to. For one thing, he insists that retail prices aren't on average lower in Germany than in France. For another, he's not convinced that changes in the law that will ease market entry for stores in the 300 to 1,000 square meter range will benefit the consumer as much as they will benefit so-called "hard discounters," mostly German firms. Why favor a type of store rather than general competition? Finally, he talks about the jockeying for influence between large and small or medium industrial firms and about Auchan's relationships with the latter. He doesn't, of course, get into details about who dominates these relationships and about the important consideration of control of the supply chain as a means of cutting prices and gaining market share. But he says enough to demonstrate that the relation between competition and retail prices is far more complex and cuts much deeper into the economic fabric than can be addressed by reforms of the Royer, Raffarin, and Galland laws that are at the center of the current reform.

Of course this is a very controversial subject, and whenever I raise it, commenters are quick to point out the many aspects of the question that brief posts must inevitably ignore. Working conditions, product quality, aesthetic blight, environmental damage, quality of life--I'm aware of all these things. I may shop at Auchan when I'm in Burgundy, but I wish I didn't have to pass it on the way from one lovely valley to the next. Still, I'm an incorrigible homo economicus when it comes to economizing on money or time. So, it seems, are most of the French, whose patronage accounts for the robust growth of the chains.

The Fifth Republic at Fifty

TexExile commented on a previous post:

I take everything you say in this latest post, which I think is spot on. Still, I still number myself among those who roll their eyes to the heavens when the veteran 68ers get started. It's not that what happened in 1968 was not a significant historical turning point; it was. It's worth remembering, no doubt, and worth reflecting on. The trouble is that that is not normally what happens when the subject comes up in the media. It's the romanticisation of 1968 that gets on the nerves. I could go on about that for pages but actually I am posting to ask if you've had any reflections on the other May anniversary -- no, not "Les Pieds Nickelés" but the anniversary of May 1958. Perhaps you've posted on this and I missed it... What do you make of the 5th Republic at 50?


Thanks for forcing my hand on this. I have been struck by the relative inattention to the other anniversary, that of the Fifth Republic. I'll get to that in a moment. But first, let me say that I agree with your comments on the mediatization of '68. Of course, one could apply them mutatis mutandis to the mediatization of just about anything. Indeed, I think that the media's capacity to induce disgust with reflection on certain topics is an environmental poison that ought to be taken seriously. The ability to reflect historically is an important component of maturity, and the way in which we are dissuaded from doing so by cloying and emetic media saturation contributes to our social infantilization. But that is a topic for another time.

What about the Fifth Republic? I think the question to be asked here is why its fiftieth anniversary has received relatively less attention than the fortieth anniversary of May '68. Perhaps the answer is that the inception of the Fifth Republic is attended by a certain mauvaise conscience. It was of course denounced at the time as a putsch, and it was only de Gaulle's subsequent (relatively) good behavior that redeemed it. I wrote previously about the general's vindictiveness toward the media after May '68 and used the word "totalitarian." There is no doubt that there was an authoritarian--a very authoritarian--side to the regime that de Gaulle founded, but he was also deeply, profoundly, democratic in that he derived his authoritarian powers from his reading of the people's will and was willing to relinquish them when he concluded that he had lost their consent.

Of course that abdication left France to soldier on with the regime he had created in his own image. In many respects it was and remains a regime not very well suited to anyone else. Only a president invested with the charismatic legitimacy that fell to de Gaulle not as the founder but as the (two-fold) savior of the nation could really hope to function as le Dieu caché that the Constitution of the Fifth Republic makes of the president. When Le Canard enchaîné referred to Mitterrand as "Dieu," the reference was ironic if not bathetic. By degrees the regime has inched toward normalcy, particularly with the reduction of the presidential mandate to five years. One thing for which I credit Sarkozy is his de-divinization of the presidency. To some degree, of course, this has been involuntary: he just can't help himself; grandeur is not in his nature. But to some degree it has been conscious: witness his desire to "collaborate" with his prime minister, to appear before the Parliament, to apply legislative checks to certain presidential appointments, to expand the power of the Constitutional Council. All of this makes sense. The Gaullian presidency is simply too large for anyone who is not de Gaulle.

But there is a problem. The presidential system has transformed France into a bipolar state. De Gaulle wanted, needed, to transcend the parties that had paralyzed the Fourth Republic: the bickering, contentious, faction-prone, overly cautious parties of parochial interest and resolute small-mindedness. Presidentialism has in a curious way magnified the importance of parties, of creating a bimodal distribution in the electorate out of which two heavyweight contenders for the supreme office must somehow emerge. It hasn't eliminated the multiplicity of political opinion in France, which is to the good, but it has also failed to define a clear and legible mechanism for the selection of a candidate, which is not so good. Much of the confusion of French politics stems from this latter failure. The two-round presidential election and the present party system make it difficult to read a mandate in any presidential election. Instead of moving to the center to capture the median voter, candidates tend to appeal to the extremes in their respective camps in order to maximize their first-round vote, then to move back to the center between the first and second rounds. So the candidate of the Left is usually obliged to indulge the revolutionary illusions of the Left's left wing, while the candidate of the Right appeals to the xenophobic instincts of its right wing. Yet much of the electorate falls closer to the center, and there is a broader consensus in the political class than this election-induced polarization would lead one to believe.

That is where the Fifth Republic stands today, and it is a long way from where it began, in division over Algeria and fear of a takeover by the generals.

Two Views of "Liberal Socialism"

It would seem that Bertrand Delanoë scored an instant tactical success with his frank declaration that liberalism and socialism are not only compatible but in essence identical This remark might put us in mind of Tocqueville's declaration that liberty and equality--the two terms of an antithesis that defines Democracy in America--are at bottom different aspects of the same thing--"les extrêmes se touchent"--which Tocqueville in turn borrowed of course from Pascal, who held that true understanding was precisely the ability to embrace antitheses in a single thought, a precursor of die Aufhebung dear to Hegel and Marx. But of course political philosophy is one thing, politicking is another, so Delanoë's antithesis, rather than developing into a delectable soufflé, swiftly collapsed into an identity--"our" identity as opposed to "theirs," as Lionel Jospin promptly redefined "liberalism" to mean "political liberalism" (ours) as opposed to "market liberalism" (theirs), thus short-circuiting any temptation to do any real thinking about the relation of the one to the other.

Ségolène Royal then drove the wedge home by insisting that even this trivialization of antithesis into shibboleth was too much, that there was only one "liberalism" (theirs), and that all true Socialists must reject it. This was a silly thing for a candidate who had once identified with Blairism to do, but her fighting instincts overcame any intellectual scruples. Her opponent had run a banner up his pole so she would take potshots at it.

The result has been predictable, as we can see from the remarks of two commentators. The blogger versac believes that Royal has thus revealed her true colors, her antiliberal, "Jacobin" instincts. Meanwhile, Nicolas Domenach at Marianne attacks the "Jospinisme relooké" being retailed by "Libération, le journal libéral boboïsant de gauche" under the banner of "liberal socialism" (Delanoë's statement was co-written by Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libération). Domenach associates Michel Rocard with the formula as well, driving yet another well-beaten nail into the well-sealed coffin with the well-used hammer.

Versac pertinently cites Monique Canto-Sperber's pre-emptive refutation of this ploy:

Ce qui est haï dans le libéralisme, c’est l’idée de libertés capables de maîtriser leurs propres excès. En ce sens, l’attaque radicale contre le libéralisme entretient l’intolérance – attitude quasi spontanée dans une mouvance dont le folklore présent ne peut faire oublier que ses références historiques portent avec elles un lourd passé de totalitarisme et d’exclusions. L’attitude anti-libérale, qui est aujourd’hui la seule pensée de l’extrême-gauche, exige des engagements tout d’une pièce. Elle se grise de mots, de slogans, de mots d’ordre qu’elle n’explicite ni ne justifie jamais. Elle refuse la complexité, voire l’ambivalence du réel. Elle est cléricale, archaïque et paranoïaque, car sa tendance naturelle est de voir des complots et des manipulations dans les volontés de réformes les mieux intentionnées. Elle adopte en permanence une posture intellectuelle de minorité assiégée, défensive et accusatrice.


Lucid as this denunciation is, it is of no use in giving content to the synthesis that ought to arise out of the conjunction of socialism and liberalism. That step still awaits its political philosopher, who will need the skills of a Tocqueville or Hegel as well as the irony of a Pascal and no doubt some of the faith.

P.S. Pierre Moscovici notes the same signs I do.

Why the Exasperation?

I haven't written directly about May '68 because it's a vast subject, I don't as a rule like anniversaries, and so many other people are talking about it anyway. It's perhaps the glut of talk that accounts for the exasperation of some, like the commenter to a previous post who said, "Enough is enough." But I have to disagree with the commenter "anonymous" when (s)he says that "nobody cares anymore." This is patently untrue in the literal and trivial sense that quite obviously some people do care, or "anonymous" would not have been able to make the first remark about the surfeit of commentary on the events. Of course (s)he goes on to align himself--as is also commonplace in the abundance of commentary--with those whose interest in the event is negative. This negativity is rather facilely linked to a generational and class resentment ("skinny bourgeois students," "grandmothers' apartments on the boulevard Saint-Michel"). The refrain is well-known: those self-styled revolutionaries became the establishment, and in any case they were privileged héritiers all along, merely shamming revolution and borrowing radicalism's robes to elbow their way into the limelight.

This is a trivialization of the event that I can't follow. There are many reasons why. It's partly true--but also partly false--that the general strike of '68--the largest strike of the 20th century bar none, incidentally--had little in common with the student uprising. Little, that is, except the essential thing, a generalized spirit of insubordination. Moments when the authority structures of a society are openly contested, even ridiculed, are rare enough that they arrest the attention, and deserve to.

Historiography has yet to come to grips with either the general significance of 1968--which, after all, was a worldwide and not simply a hexagonal event--or the specifically French significance (because there was a French peculiarity of the moment), but I think two aspects have begun to come into focus. First, the date marks the end of the recovery from World War II, which took a generation. The distribution of social authority after World War II had a certain inevitability about it and had therefore been taken for granted for two decades: it was an inevitability that stemmed in part from physical necessities; in part from its origins in the outcome of a war that had its winners and losers and distributed its spoils accordingly, as wars have always done; and in part from habits of duty and patriotism that had carried over from a very different era. Second, 1968 marks the advent of abundance. More people had more stuff than ever before. The baby boom was a generation large in numbers but even richer in capabilities in Amartya Sen's sense. Its sense of possibility was therefore wider than its field of opportunity. I think it was that mismatch that found ludic expression in the spring of 1968.

Of course the nay-sayers are right that if these were the forces at work, their significance is much larger than anything that happened in the streets of Paris forty years ago this May. That's no doubt true, but often we don't realize what's happened to us, as individuals or societies, until some event arrives to clarify our thoughts or at least crystallize our feeling that the past can no longer be our primary guide. If we subsequently return obsessively to these moments, it's probably to measure the distance traveled, to recall the illusions we may have entertained, and to recognize that change is rarely as complete as we tend to assume in moments of flowering or deflowering.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Île Seguin


Polly-vous français? has a nice post on the Île Seguin, once the site of a Renault plant. Aficionados of May '68 will recall Sartre's famous barrelhead harangue at the factory gates.

For another angle in a copyrighted photo, see here.

Obsessives

It's no surprise that the French aren't working or earning more, according to The New York Times. All their time is consumed by two obsessions, Sarkozy and May '68.

N'importe quoi.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Another Anniversary


May '68 isn't the only anniversary being celebrated this spring. It's the 100th anniversary of Les Pieds Nickelés, the bumbling but lovable smalltime criminals who were the flagship product of the early years of what has since become a major component of the French culture industry, la BD. "Comparative comics" is not my field, but I am always struck by the throngs that crowd the BD section of my favorite FNAC. There is a comic subculture in the United States, but it seems to me less mainstream, more furtive and sad, than the robust and unabashed French trade. Having heard the eminent historians David Bell, Ann Blair, and Orest Ranum discourse learnedly on Astérix at a recent French Historical Studies conference, I would not dare say a word about the content of Louis Forton's creation; I'm far too ignorant. But I once saw the Woody Allen film "Small Time Crooks" with a French friend who found it a lot funnier than I did; perhaps he was brought up on LPN. A character in a Wim Wenders film says, "The Yanks have colonized our subconscious." Maybe, but it seems that it was the Yanks who grew up on Superman and Batman who believed their own myths and have repeatedly had to pay the price of their fantasies of invincibility, while readers of Tintin, Astérix, Bécassine, and Les Pieds Nickelés, weaned on human fallibility and finitude, have settled for less lethal ways to amuse themselves.

The Control of Information


Change can seem glacial, yet sometimes when we look back to our own youth we are shocked to discover another world. I've mentioned before that I first visited France in 1968, and in some ways I have no difficulty recognizing the country I discovered then in the country that subsists today. But when I look at the book Mai '68 à l'ORTF: une radio-télévision en résistance by Jean-Pierre Filiu I'm stunned by the distance that has been traveled. The initials ORTF stood for Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française. Parisians will recognize the round building above left as the Maison de la Radio. Back in the day it was the Maison de l'ORTF. In May '68 ORTF employees eventually joined the general strike, and France was without its "official" organs for a month, so that many people received their news of the "events" via peripheral radio stations such as Europe 1 and Radio Monte-Carlo. But reporting that ORTF journalists did manage to broadcast was enough to incur the wrath of General de Gaulle personally, and Filiu has been able to document the vindictiveness with which de Gaulle pursued some of them, ordering police investigations, demanding the heads of reporters he particularly disliked, and making sure that their careers were ruined and stayed ruined. As late as 1972 de Gaulle's successor Pompidou delivered a speech in which he stated his position that "television journalists are not like other journalists" because they are "the voice of France," granted a monopoly by the state and obliged to serve its purposes. The mentality was frankly totalitarian, and those who like to recall de Gaulle's genial liberalism by citing his famous remark, à propos de Sartre, that "on ne met pas Voltaire en prison," should also remember that not every critic of the regime was Sartre and that 1 in 2 strikers at the ORTF lost their jobs in the wake of May '68. "Repressive tolerance" was not just an idle concept invented by Herbert Marcuse; it was a reality in 1968, and the uprising, now a venerable lieu de mémoire covered with the abundant guano of commemoration, had its raison d'être.

Mitterrand had many flaws, and when it came to control of the media he was hardly above reproach: think of the surveillance of Edwy Plenel, for example. But the liberation of the airwaves made decisive progress under Mitterrand, and however subservient to power the broadcast media may seem today, the story that Filiu tells should serve as a reminder that not so long ago things were a good deal worse than they are today.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Europe on nonfiction.fr

nonfiction.fr has introduced a new feature: a page on European affairs, which will feature reports from correspondents across the continent during the French presidency

Lagarde on Trichet

Count Christine Lagarde among those who are less impressed than Jean Quatremer and Le Monde by the wisdom and genius of Jean-Claude Trichet:

While Ms. Lagarde said that the bank’s president, Jean-Claude Trichet, was right to be concerned about inflation, she said he was “overly focused” on it.

Of course Lagarde may be wrong about currency misalignment, the underlying theme of her critique of Trichet.

Alain Rousset


I have a new MP3 player (Sansa Clip--highly recommended!), so when I walk my dog I can listen to the backlog of podcasts that have accumulated in my volumes of storage of "things French." And so it was that I listened yesterday to an old interview with Alain Rousset on Le Rendez-vous des politiques (this may not be everyone's idea of fun, but call me un obsédé). Rousset has been the president of the Conseil Général de l'Aquitaine for 10 years. Earlier this year he ran for mayor of Bordeaux against Alain Juppé and lost--but he got 34% of the vote in a city that has been held by the Right since 1947. Rousset is a Socialist, but his name may not be familiar to most people even in France. This is in part because he seems to be one of the few Socialists of any distinction without national ambitions. In any case, what struck me in the interview was the way in which this lack of national ambition transformed his discourse and altered his policy focus. This is not to say that he is a "local pol" of the "fill their potholes and make 'em happy" school. There is a genuine strategic dimension to his thinking, a macroeconomic dimension, but it's different from what one hears at the national level.

Two points struck me in particular. First, he says that for him the real problem of the French economy is not France's relation to work but its relation to business (l'entreprise). France can work more hours per year per capita and extend the mean working life, but nothing will really change until the adversarial workplace relationship changes. He doesn't discuss this relationship in terms of the currently fashionable academic literature on "distrust." I got the sense that for him the root of the problem lies deeper. It has to do with a pervasive cultural attitude, common among employers as well as workers, that la vraie vie est ailleurs, that what one does for a living is a pis aller rather than a vocation (and perhaps the religious overtones of the word "vocation" are a clue to the nature of the problem).

Second, I was struck by Rousset's observation that many well-intentioned reforms founder because the central authorities are insufficiently aware of details of implementation that crop up at the local level as obstacles to success. He mentioned, for instance, apprenticeship programs that required trainees to show up with their own toolboxes ready to work. But the necessary tools were too expensive for many prospective applicants. Had the region not stepped in and used its discretionary funds to buy tools, the program would have failed, but the ministry in Paris would have concluded that it failed because of lack of interest rather than lack of appropriate funding. Sometimes, he said, policies go wrong for reasons that are "bêtes."

He was also quite critical of the lois de Robien et Borloo (tax breaks on investments in rental property), which he said had led to speculation in real estate and a diversion of savings from more productive investment opportunities.

Salade de Crudités

Le Nouvel Observateur yesterday accused Sarkozy of another crude outburst, this time in front of journalists. But according to Jean Quatremer, it never happened and no journalist from the NO was present. Perhaps this latest slander (remember the SMS affair, another stain on the NO's reputation) will begin to restore some sobriety to the coverage of Sarkozy, which had become surreal.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fish Story


The fishermen who have been blocking ports, fuel facilities, and autoroute exits have been urged by their leaders to get back to fishing after the government promised emergency aid of 110 million euros over two years to compensate for rising fuel prices. The details of this arrangement are a little murky at this point. On France2 tonight, Michel Barnier said that Brussels had approved the plan, but François Fillon said that the EU authorities had signed off only on a "restructuring plan" and that France had acted "unilaterally" to aid an industry that is an a "unique" structural position, squeezed by both rising fuel prices and intense price competition from imports. Demand for fish has increased by 50 percent over the past several years, but prices have fallen by 5 percent owing to foreign competition.

Fillon might well want to make this argument a little more forcefully, since truckers lost no time in demanding a government subsidy to help them cope with rising fuel costs; farmers are also grumbling; and then there are the airlines, etc. So the government had better come up with a principled argument to distinguish between the deserving beleaguered and the undeserving. Fillon, after detailing the structural weakness of the French fishing industry, fell back on sentimental arguments to distinguish fishermen from truckers: fuel costs hit fishermen directly, he said, because they share in the boat's expenses, and fishing is the most dangerous occupation in France and Navarre. Truckers are unlikely to be impressed by the first distinction and may well remark that fishing doesn't get any more dangerous when the price of fuel goes up, so why should danger be the criterion for who gets state aid.

"Compensate the losers" is a mantra that is often touted as a recipe for dealing with globalization's fallout, but compensation can be a politically tricky business.

Maneuvering


I said the other day that pretty much the whole Jospin wing of the PS had rallied behind Bertrand Delanoë. I forgot Michel Sapin, who served as a minister under Jospin but who has been a backer of Ségolène Royal. But now he has left her, disappointed that she ignored his advice not to "presidentialize" the party. That means he won't go to Delanoë either. Indeed, his statements suggest that he might support Pierre Moscovici.

Meanwhile, Delanoë is coming out with a book of interviews with Laurent Joffrin in which he describes himself as both "socialist" and "liberal" while insisting that the party "must choose" and asserting that "the time for owning up to differences has arrived." OK, we'll wait and see how that line develops. Of his rivale, he offers the familiar criticism that she was neither "credible" nor "coherent."

Dany 24/7

Can't get enough of Daniel Cohn-Bendit? He now has his own Web-based TV network. He chats with politicians, comments on the news, reviews books, etc. A video blog, in short--in French, German, and English. Some will be delighted, others no doubt irritated. But if it were otherwise it wouldn't be Cohn-Bendit, now, would it?

CNRS

Valérie Pécresse, after a long absence from the headlines, is back with a plan to reform the CNRS. A lot of attention is paid to the organization chart, rather less to the budget--in public, at least. In private, of course, who sits where has a lot to do with who gets what. And who gets what is the heart of the matter, as the watchdog group Sauvons la Recherche has begun to elucidate in a series of articles entitled "Le budget de la recherche raconté à Sarkozy." It would be hard to overstate how much is at stake in this reform. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that France's competitive position in the future will depend on the quality of its efforts in higher education and R&D. Society's self-knowledge, and therefore its ability to govern itself wisely, depends on the quality of its research in the historical and social sciences. This isn't a left-right issue, although Left and Right have different approaches and priorities, not to say instincts, about various subsidiary questions. Nevertheless, broad areas of compromise should be possible.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The CAP

The EU's farm chief Mariann Fischer Boel has rolled out a proposal to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, of which France is the greatest beneficiary. Rural development and environmental measures would be emphasized and price supports and production caps phased out.
The existing policy is defended here.

It will be interesting to see how Sarkozy handles this dossier when France assumes the EU presidency. If past patterns are any guide, he would like to take credit for work done by others (think of the Libyan hostages, the Lisbon treaty, and the Union for the Mediterranean). But in this case the work done by the EU bureaucracy will stir up powerful opposition among farm groups that are a key element in the UMP coalition. With the party already divided over GMOs, institutional reform, and the 35-hr week, Sarko would no doubt like to avoid another major blow-up. But how? Large subsidies are at stake. Does he have an alternative proposal ready to go? We shall see.

Central Bank Idolatry

What is it about central bankers that inspires idolatry in certain observers? Hier encore Alan Greenspan's genius was being extolled alongside Einstein's and Newton's. That idol has fallen, but now it's the turn, apparently, of Jean-Claude Trichet--at least in the eyes of Jean Quatremer. There ought to be a convenient filter--a sort of verbal equivalent of the Hodrick-Prescott filter--that could be applied to economic journalism to filter out the hype. By some still unstudied law of nature, noise in the economic statistics seems to generate still greater noise in the journalistic representations. So for Quatremer, Trichet's tight-money policies are responsible for everything good in the world: European growth more robust than anticipated, European insulation from the American subprime crisis, German export growth in defiance of the strong euro, etc. It takes a true believer to deliver hosannas of this sort, and Quatremer seems even more Catholic than the Pope in this particular church. Trichet certainly does not believe that he has insulated Europe from the credit crisis. He reiterated just the other day a warning that the worst was yet to come.

Wherever there is belief, desire to believe precedes it. Quatremer's position is symptomatic of a certain form of such desire: the conviction that because democratic polities reflect contradictory interests and wishes, stability depends on the imposition from without of a "superior rationality" impervious to the irrational instincts of the masses. Central banking is endowed with all the distinguishing attributes of this superior rationality: it calculates, it is "calm even in catastrophe" (to borrow a phrase from van Gogh), it thinks not in terms of the velleities of the moment but sub specie aeternitatis.

Until the next turn of the screw.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dissension in the Ranks

Patrick Devedjian might have been a happy man. As the most anti-Turk of the UMP's Young Turks, he should have been pleased that Sarkozy had decided to maintain the requirement of a referendum for any future Turkish accession to the EU. But he had also suffered the recent rebuke of having Xavier Bertrand and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet dispatched to keep an eye on his faltering party leadership. So he decided to issue another provocation. Today he announced that the party would attempt to undo the 35-hour week. This was a direct assault on Sarko, who immediately sent Bertrand into the field to cut Devedjian down to size. There would be no change in the legal work week, Bertrand announced, and Sarkozy then declared that Bertrand, as always, spoke words of wisdom.

So the breach, already apparent for many weeks, is now open and probably irreparable. Devedjian will be shown the door, and in his own mind he may well see himself in the role that Sarkozy once played vis-à-vis Chirac: the treacherous lieutenant bold enough to endure une traversée du désert in the hope of some day reaching the Promised Land. If, as has been rumored, the charges against Villepin in the Clearstream Affair are soon dismissed, then Villepin may emerge as Devedjian's Balladur. From Bordeaux Alain Juppé is no doubt observing these developments with avid eyes. "I have no friends," Sarkozy is supposed to have said. His erstwhile allies seem to be intent on proving him right.

S&D

S&D: No, it isn't some new form of kinkiness to set alongside S&M. It's Pierre Moscovici's folksy way of referring to his courant, "Socialisme et Démocratie," within the Socialist Party. It's also a way of avoiding the name of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the absent-present leader of this faction. Moscovici tiptoes around this delicate point:

De plus, nous étions, nous sommes un peu orphelins de DSK, fidèles à ce que nous avons fait ensemble, contraints d’avance sans lui aussi. Cela nous avait affaiblis, rendus peu lisibles : il fallait trancher.


I think that's a typo for "contraints d'avancer sans lui aussi," but the lapse is rather eloquent: S&D is indeed "constrained in advance without him." It lacks a candidate with the heft of the Royal and Delanoë factions. Moscovici is more than a little cagey about whether he's a temporary stand-in for DSK or a permanent replacement--which is evidently not the understanding of either DSK or Moscovici's principal ally Arnaud Montebourg, who declared over the weekend that he liked the idea of a DSK candidacy. Meanwhile, Moscovici is keen to let us know that he has won the intrafactional battle for supremacy. His principal rival J.-C. Cambadélis has capitulated:

Jean-Christophe Cambadélis m’a proposé, avec beaucoup d’élégance, d’être le premier signataire de cette contribution.

So now it's up to Mosco to figure out how to keep S&D from being crushed between R&D (by which I mean not Research and Development but Royal and Delanoë). A little R&D in the former sense might be helpful, though. If Royal has her smile and Delanoë his suavité, S&D will need a good deal of substance if it is to make itself heard. We will see if Moscovici is up to the job.

Des Passerelles

Jimmy Carter met with an official of Hamas. Nicolas Sarkozy said he would not presume to judge what others did, that des passerelles might someday prove useful. A retired French diplomat, it has now been revealed, has also met with officials of Hamas. So it seems that passerelles are being constructed right and left, perhaps even faster than George Bush can blow them up, as he attempted to do with his speech to the Israeli Knesset the other day. If countenancing talks with Hamas, even from a considerable distance (and Sarkozy has been especially careful to maintain his distance), becomes the contemporary equivalent of "soft on Communism," which seems to be Bush's notion of how the idea should be handled in the context of an American political campaign, the likelihood of progress will be even smaller than it has been. But the importance of these developments should not be underestimated. They indicate that the old game has ended in a stalemate with which no one can be happy, as Judah Grunstein notes. We await the official American reaction to the Figaro report. I expect it will be mild. The firewalls have been carefully enough constructed that Bush (and McCain) can go on fulminating about "negotiating with terrorists" while the diplomatic pawns continue to advance. The state of play will not change materially until after the American elections. But whichever side wins, the need to know what might and might not be possible remains.

Books on May '68

A review essay covering recent books on May '68 can be found here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Journalism

A friend from Paris brought me a copy of Philippe Ridet's Le Président et moi, which I mentioned here a while back. I said then that the book might be worth reading. It isn't--not really, but it does stimulate one's thinking about why so much reporting on politics seems to miss the essence of the matter.

I should say first that if I criticize journalism, I am not simply returning Ridet's uncomplimentary remarks about bloggers. He calls us (p. 63) "the new ayatollahs of journalism, who imagine that journalists always write less than they know." This is something of an obsession with Ridet, who argues that of course journalists know many things about the people they cover that they don't write about, not because they're complicit with their subjects, subservient to their bosses, or tools of power but because some matters are publicly relevant and others not. He's certainly right about that, although he seems eager to undermine his own principles by revealing ex post in his book what he asserts it would have been unscrupulous to expose ex ante in his articles for Le Monde. So we have his eyewitness account of Sarkozy, while still interior minister and during the period of Cécilia's fugue, caressing the not unwilling hands of a female journalist from Le Figaro. The scene takes place in public, in a café frequented by the political class. It is an odd tryst, since Sarko is surrounded by his fawning staff and frequently absents himself to take cell phone calls regarding child care arrangements for little Louis; he has, moreover, invited Ridet, apparently to witness the fact that, despite his wife's having decamped, he is not deprived of female companionship.

Fine. Ayatollah or not, I can readily agree that none of this needed to be part of the public record at the time. Indeed, I would go farther than Ridet and say that none of it needs to be part of the public record now. That he chooses to make it so reflects, I think, a certain bitterness on his part at having allowed Sarkozy to exploit his, Ridet's, sense of professional duty to turn him into an involuntary voyeur. "I had indeed become a specialist in Sarkozy," he writes (p. 127). He is able, he says, to anticipate Sarko's reactions to events, to judge his responses, to predict his thoughts. He had come, in the course of ten years of covering the man, to know him better than he knew many of his own friends. He was an expert in Sarkozyan psychology, he claims, but it takes another journalist to ask him the key question that he seems never to have posed to himself: "Why, with Sarkozy, does everything come down to psychology?" His answers are not very persuasive: because Sarko links everything to himself; because he is not good at masking his emotions; because he mixes public and private; because he incites those who follow him to become close observers of his personality.

What is curious about these answers is that they transform journalistic objectivity into intellectual passivity. Ridet never asks himself why Sarko is allowed to define the way in which Le Monde covers him. He never asks himself why the subject of his coverage is "the minister of the interior" or "the head of the UMP" rather than, say, police policy in troubled suburbs or the social base of the French Center-Right. Having been assigned to cover Sarkozy apparently because Sarkozy is clearly a man to watch, Ridet, being a scrupulous reporter, naturally learns a great deal about his man, but there is little evidence in his book that he learned about anything else. He can judge how Sarkozy will react to events, but his understanding of his mission has given him no independent base of knowledge to judge whether those reactions are well-founded or not. It is as if his notion of journalistic objectivity itself precluded even an interest in such knowledge; he must not presume to know better than, or differently from, his subject but must confine himself simply to reporting what his subject does and says. In this he argues--rightly--that there is no complicity with power but only transparency. His job is to give us an undistorted window onto what power does.

Yet through his writing there creeps a certain bitterness and, even worse, an overpowering sense of boredom. The intellectual passivity to which his understanding of his job and its ethical requirements condemned him leaves him feeling underemployed. He has loitered in too many airport lounges and hotel bars (his descriptions of these places, intended to lend verisimilitude to his tale, convey a lassitude bordering on self-loathing). He applies to himself a version of the famous formula of Swann, that he has devoted the best years of his life to a politician who wasn't really his type, but he seems not to recognize that Swann's tragedy becomes in his case farce: Swann was at least the dupe of a passion, whereas Ridet has been a dupe of his lack of passion. Sarkozy's trop-plein has become his scribe's weary vide. Reading him, I feel not like an ayatollah bent on excommunication and damnation but like a bartender obliged to listen to the wan maunderings of a burnt-out hack.

Ridet is no longer covering Sarkozy. I hope he finds rejuvenation in his new assignment.

Ads

A reader informs me that one of the Google ads on the site recently offered "francophone girls" as "escorts." I have no control over the ads that appear, which are selected by Google on the basis of an analysis of the site's content, the location of the reader, and other unspecified factors. In fact, the ads you see are not always the same as the ads I see when I view the site, nor are they the same as the ads seen by any other reader. The ads do generate a modest (very modest) amount of revenue, which is some compensation for the time I invest in keeping things going, so I'm reluctant to remove them, but if I hear enough reports of offensive advertising, I will be forced to. In any case, I apologize for Google's apparent lapses.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Contest

Ségolène Royal has officially announced her candidacy; Bertrand Delanoë "sort son jeu," reads the headline in Le Monde. So both heavyweights are in the ring. Behind Delanoë is Jospin: the Jospiniste courant has more or less entirely swung into line behind the mayor of Paris. The animosity between Jospin and Royal is palpable and apparently of long standing. The Strauss-Kahnian Cambadélis and Jack Lang have both voiced their displeasure at the way the race for the party leadership is developing. For the former, the party has become une pétaudière (bedlam):

Quelles pétaudières sont les démocraties! On ne sait à qui s'en prendre (Sainte-Beuve, Corresp., t.3, 1839, p.93).

En mille factions nous sommes morcelés,
Et tout ce gâchis bout dans la même chaudière,
Chaos indébrouillable, étrange pétaudière
(Pommier, Colères, 1844, p.108).


With the eyes of a hungry buzzard, Laurent Fabius watches on the sidelines, awaiting his chance. The Moscovici-Montebourg tandem works feverishly around the edges. Manuel Valls has begun to raise his profile a bit as he attempts to push the party a little farther toward the right. Julien Dray offers yet another option. If Jospin's influence remains palpable, Michel Rocard's appears to have evaporated, and there is less talk these days of a Strauss-Kahn return from Washington (but he seems to be worried that he may be about to lose his opportunity and is trying to repair his lines of communication). And so the Socialist Party continues to wallow in self-obsession, failing to capitalize on the opportunity offered by bickering in the ranks of the right. The party congress does not take place until November, and over the summer France assumes the EU presidency, which will probably enable Sarkozy to regain his monopoly of the headlines for a while anyway. The first half of 2008 was an opportunity for the PS to assert itself in the wake of its victory in the municipals. It has failed to do so, and what the party stands for remains as murky in the minds of voters as it was a year ago. A chance has been squandered.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Piketty Interview

In Le Monde.

Central Banking

Lately there seems to be a certain amount of turmoil around the question of what central bankers have done and ought to be doing. Even before the subprime crisis there was no real consensus, even though there was a tendency to credit what has been called "the Great Moderation"--the lessening of the severity and frequency of recessions--to central bank vigilance and success not only in quelling inflation but in shaping inflationary expectations. But in recent days we have had Joseph Stiglitz launching a broadside on "inflation targeting," one of the tools used by some central banks to achieve these goals, and now another heavyweight economist, Alan Blinder, along with collaborators, raising questions about central bank communications strategies, following Michael Woodford, who asks similar questions. And this is to say nothing about the vociferous criticism of central bank actions in connection with the subprime crisis, with many critics alleging that lack of oversight encouraged risky behavior and that bailouts have only exacerbated moral hazard in financial markets.

What is the relevance of all this to French politics? It's no secret that Sarkozy has been unhappy with the European Central Bank. Central bankers, who like to think of themselves as virtuous vestal virgins, may have secretly delighted in the fact that their most outspoken critic seemed to go out of his way to publicize the character flaws that are supposed to afflict pandering political sinners: he spent lavishly both in public (cutting taxes on wealth as well as on overtime) and in private (yachts, jets, bling). The ECB, being a relatively young institution, has struggled mightily to establish its "credible commitment" to combating inflation, letting the chips (unemployment, slow growth) fall where they may. Like stern disciplinarians everywhere, they have insisted that the punishment is for the profligate child's own good. But the articles cited above are perhaps a sign that the "spare the rod and spoil the child" mentality of central bankers may be about to change. The new parenting style has yet to find its Dr. Spock. The critique of the puritanical martinet is still couched mainly in the language of mild internal dissent rather than outright apostasy (with the possible exception of Stiglitz). But internal dissent, coupled with more vociferous extramural denunciation and real changes in global markets (when food and oil are in short supply, is "inflation always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon"?), signal impending changes in central bank practice, on which political actors will want to capitalize.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

National Accounts

GDP is up 2.1 percent (2.2 in raw data uncorrected for number of working days), revised upward from the previous 1.9. Christine Lagarde is ecstatic, because the figure is now above the lower bound of her predicted bracket (2.0-2.5). But not so fast: the actual INSEE figures show that an amount equal to 0.1 pct of GDP went into inventories, not consumption. There are some other "perverse" revelations in the data. Part of the consumption increase went to a spike in automobile sales at the end of last year (+4.4%), as customers snapped up large sedans in advance of the penalty to be imposed under the Environmental Grenelle accord on high-consumption vehicles. And export growth has slowed.

Meanwhile, the figures continue to show an increase in purchasing power (+3.3%). Rents are up 7.2%, however, and food costs are also up (1.3%). Yet discretionary household income is said to be up 5%. Could there be some inconsistency in the numbers?

The public deficit was 2.7%, under the SGP limit of 3, but public debt is 63.9% of GDP, above the limit of 60.

On the whole, not a bad performance given the poor conjuncture. Various commentaries.

Ouf!

It might not have seemed possible for a political party to appear more dysfunctional than the PS, but the UMP is giving the Socialists a run for their money. The Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday rejected the bill on proposed institutional reform, prompting Hervé de Charette to denounce the "Brezhnevian" leadership of the UMP (now there's an adjective that hasn't been heard for a while!), while Christian Estrosi said that there was a "real problem of organization." Claude Goasguen was blunter still: he denounced the "connards" who "shoot off their mouths from across the Seine" (Sarko's counselors, in other words).

Charette thinks there should be "courants" inside the party. Yes, of course, they've worked such wonders for the PS. I find the use of the word courant interesting. "Factions" being anathema in Jacobin France, one has courants, which are supposed to flow tranquilly into one great stream. But the metaphor is a tricky one: currents divide as well as unite, and sometimes they cause sparks to fly.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Le Monde Reorganization Plan

Le Monde's reorganization plan has leaked to the press--the rest of the press, that is. The paper will attempt to reduce its size by 1,000 pages per year. This is to be achieved by a drastic cut in the book section, among other things. The paper lost 20 million euros last year.

Attali's FART

Jacques Attali, who likes to think big, is proposing a new international grouping consisting of France, Germany, Russia, and Turkey. He sees an ideal marriage: the former two countries need markets and fuel, the latter two need modernization and a tether to the West. The EU won't accomplish this goal, says Attali, because it will be a thousand years before a majority in the West accepts Russia and Turkey. Better, then, to fob them off with a will o' the wisp than to reject them outright. Attali has a name for this figment of his imagination, cobbled together out of the initial letters of the four countries' names in French: FART. But surely Attali speaks English well enough to know that this is an unfortunate choice if he wants to ensure that his proposal doesn't faire pschitt on first exposure. It's a little suspicious, in any case, that France should come first. Why not RAFT? (Does it risk reminding people of Le radeau de la Méduse?) Or ARFT? (The dogs arft, the carvans passed.) No matter. The idea will dissipate as quickly as its namesake. It's perhaps uncouth of me even to notice it. In polite company the passing of gas is ignored, and Jacques Attali is a potent usine à gaz unto himself.

Party Games

The GMO screw-up, which may well have been a carefully orchestrated screw-up, may also prove to have been just the warm-up for the coming fracas over the Law on the Modernization of the Economy (LME). With this the government will at last attack the famous purchasing power question by, among other things, liberalizing competition in the retail sector. But the UMP is divided on this question, as it was on the GMO issue. Many deputies are sensitive to the strenuous opposition of local merchants to modifications of the Royer, Galland, and Raffarin Laws. And once again, Jean-François Copé will be trying to thread a needle. He can't allow chaos in the voting, for that makes him look weak. He can't enforce discipline, because he needs the support of members who aren't on board with the new law. But above all he doesn't want to make things too easy for the government, because Fillon is his rival and he covets a ministry, if not the prime ministry, for himself. His ultimate goal is to prove to Sarkozy that he can be a real thorn in the president's side unless he gets what he wants. And of course to punish Sarko for not having given him what he wanted a year ago.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Who's Playing What Game?

So the GMO law failed by one vote to gain a majority on a procedural question and is temporarily sidelined. The Left was jubilant: Arnaud Montebourg could be seen in the hemicycle rubbing his hands together with pleasure and nearly jumping for joy. The ever-smarmy Jean-François Copé appeared first in the corridors of the Assembly and then on France2 to accept responsibility: j'assume, accident de parcours, etc. But he was so gleeful in accepting responsibility for what might have looked like a serious embarrassment to the majority that one had to ask what his game was. There is plenty of sentiment in the UMP both for and against this bill, so perhaps Copé contrived the "tactical glitch" to soothe hurt feelings or even to make way for further amendments. He didn't seem embarrassed, and no one was issuing any reprimands or censures. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was notably silent: no further accusations of cowardice or fecklessness were forthcoming. Whether the bill will be watered down to appease pro-GMO farm groups or watered up to appease eco-conservatives remains to be seen. Probably there will be a little of both, and it will take a genetically modified organism to grow in the arid muck that results.

My Review of Lucien Jaume

My review of Lucien Jaume's new book Tocqueville: Les sources aristocratiques de la liberté can be read on nonfiction.fr.

Media Independence

François Bayrou wants to amend the constitution to guarantee (or is it require?) the independence of the media. The impulse is comprehensible, perhaps, but the content of such a guarantee is difficult to imagine. The media are subject to influence by way of financial dependence, but if the state promises subsidies to maintain pluralism, they become dependent on the state and potentially subject to its control. The content of coverage is already regulated: for instance, there are equal-time requirements for the coverage of political campaigns. Whether these actually promote fair coverage or hinder it is a matter of debate. The immediate issue of contention is criticism of the media by government officials, including Sarkozy and culture minister Christine Albanel, both of whom attacked the AFP for failing to give more play to Ségolène Royal's conviction in a case involving illegal termination of two of her employees. If the intent of Bayrou's proposed amendment is to muzzle such criticism, I think it's a bad idea. Let such matters be fought out in the open rather than regulated and muffled.

Fair and intelligent journalism would no doubt be a national asset, but it can't be achieved by fiat.

Historical Memory

President Sarkozy wants the schools to emphasize selective memories of World War II, including the story of resistance hero Guy Môquet and the deportation of Jewish children. To judge by this exercise in video journalism, he has a more fundamental problem to solve first. World War II itself has been forgotten. May 8, V-E Day, has been celebrated in France for generations, but the meaning of the event is evidently lost on many Parisians. When asked why the day was a holiday, they gave answers ranging from commemoration of May '68 to welcoming the sunshine.

Of course Americans would do no better on this quiz. And in the interest of full disclosure, let me tell a tale on myself. The first time I was in France on a May 8 was in 1977. I happened to pass a spot where some politician was giving a speech from a flag-bedecked podium. Many uniformed old soldiers were in the crowd. I walked on to a café, ordered a coffee, and asked the waiter what the fuss was about. He answered that it was a celebration of the victory over the Germans in World War II. So, two lessons: even the educated need educating about specific events, and it's never easy to measure a population's actual depth of historical knowledge. Was the well-informed waiter who educated me about May 8 more or less representative of the French population than the sun-baskers singled out for ridicule in the video? Or have the intervening thirty years caused historical memories to fade? I have no idea.

Thanks to Scott Guye for the tip.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Racial Discourse in France Today

Eric Fassin argues that "antiracism must focus its attention not just on racists but also on victims of racial discrimination," whose consciousness of themselves as a group has been heightened by years of unequal treatment. "Let's not speak in the name of our 'potes'. On the contrary, let's make their voices heard, in the plural. ... Our commitment should be against discrimination, not surveys."

Equality Multiplier

Erling Barth and Karl Moene have written an interesting paper entitled "The Equality Multiplier." They argue that states with less wage inequality (before transfers) generate political support for more generous social insurance while states with high wage inequality do not. They also show that states with more generous social insurance strengthen the position of low wage earners in wage negotiations and therefore generate more compressed wage distributions (i.e., less wage inequality). Together, these two mechanisms reinforce each other to generate what they call an equality multiplier. They test their theoretical model against OECD data. Very interesting work.

Reza Thin

Yasmina Reza's book on Sarkozy, which Éloi Laurent reviewed on this blog many months ago, has now been translated into English, and Adam Gopnik interviews Reza for the New Yorker. He doesn't get much. The book was thin gruel to begin with, but it was thickened by the immense expectation that attaches to any newly elected president, compounded in Sarkozy's case by a hint, an intimation, that whatever he had done to get himself elected was now water under the bridge; that he had been secretly preparing himself, steeling himself, for a moult into a new man equal to the position to which he had been elevated; and that Reza, who had observed him throughout the chrysalis phase, was in a unique position to sketch the butterfly that would emerge where once there had been only a creepy caterpillar.

Events have not been kind to either Sarkozy or his scribe. His transformation was short-lived. Reza's text proved more enigmatic than revelatory, an elaborate tease, rather like the tease of Sarkozy's election night promise that he would retreat to a monastery to prepare himself for the presidency in three days of rigorous ascesis. The monastery was almost immediately abandoned in favor of a yacht, however, and the tone of the new presidency was set. Gopnik, who attends to French matters only intermittently these days, seems, or pretends to be, unaware of all this.

In any case, Reza's book will surely vanish almost immediately. Whatever publisher might have imagined there would be a market for such a book in translation is probably rueing the day. Even in France it has had no staying power. It was a flash in the pan, the product of a fleeting moment that never existed in the United States. The New Yorker may think that by noticing the book it is evincing a continuing interest in France, but in fact it is demonstrating that its curiosity does not extend beyond the tinsel and glitz of second-degree celebrity. So we have Reza commenting on Bruni, just as in some other go-round we will surely have Bernard-Henri Lévy commenting on Bernard Kouchner or some such coupling. But these are the small potatoes, inexpensive enough to fill the pages of glossy magazines. When we have Luc Besson presenting a biopic of Eric Besson or Jay-Z sharing the stage with Diam's, we will know that France has truly arrived in the firmament of American media.

The Revolution on Television

In my youth, self-dramatizing revolutionaries stood on chairs at meetings and waved the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao. Yesterday, Olivier Besancenot sat on the Big Red Couch of Michel Drucker and laughed in complicity when a comedian mockingly implied that his appearance neatly and completely deconstructed every word he spoke. Since I didn't see the show, I will refer you to the interesting analysis by Jean-Baptiste Thoret on Bakchich: "If one can say anything on television--and one can say anything even, or especially, on Drucker's program [with its resolutely nonpartisan, consensual, bluff, unthreatening, unanlytical, and unintellectual tone]--it is as if one said nothing."

In other words, Besancenot can appear on television because no one is threatened by the revolutionary sensibility he claims to represent. Anyone can sympathize--at a safe distance--with a whole litany of good causes: the undocumented, the oppressed, the underpaid, the overworked; for two hours, no one in the implied audience is a racist, a capitalist, a financier, or an overprivileged beneficiary of an increasingly unequal, unbalanced, and uncorrectable set of social arrangements. But who could possibly want to overthrow a system that so cheerfully tolerates the exposure of its worst flaws? Isn't it wonderful that we listen to their denunciation as raptly as we delight in the culinary preferences of Thierry Lhermitte or Rachida Dati's choice of couturier? Then the program ends, and it's on to the football match, the evening film, or the news in which a histrionic Bernard Kouchner all but promises to commandeer a landing craft and lead a commando raid on Burma, dagger in teeth, to bring food and medicine to yet another group of victims with whom we sympathize cathodiquement for 7 minutes and 30 seconds.

For a contrary though not altogether perspicuous view of Besancenot and the media, see Philippe Bilger.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cultural Revolution

The United States will become the number 1 wine-consuming country in 2008. France falls to third place, behind Italy.

Divide and Rule

François Mitterrand destabilized the Right by introducing a modicum of proportional representation in 1985. This helped the Front National at the expense of the "republican Right." It was a dangerous game, and the price was paid in 2002, when Le Pen edged out Jospin in the first round of the presidential elections.

Might Sarkozy be tempted to play a similar game in reverse, by encouraging the rise of Olivier Besancenot on the left of the Left? Some left-wing Socialists, such as Jean-Luc Melenchon, have openly raised the possibility of bolting the party to join an "anticapitalist umbrella party" of the Left, although Melenchon has also been outspokenly suspicious of Besancenot's tactics and goals. In any case, Sarkozy might try in one way or another to promote the fraying of the Left. That, at any rate, is the speculation of Luc Mandret, who describes himself as belonging to the left of MoDem. With a friend he has created a "movement" (or at least an Internet-based embryo of one) called "Left and Center Citizens" (the choice of an English name may be the group's first tactical error).

The first question that such a movement will have to answer is why its proposition should not be viewed as an attempt to promote a fraying of the Left on its right rather than its left wing. In any case, what seems clear is that the Socialist Party is fraying everywhere: on its left, on its right, and in its heart.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Ségo's Gotta Go

We already knew that Michel Rocard really dislikes Ségolène Royal, that he proposed himself as a last-minute replacement for her during the campaign, and that he believes she's incompetent. Now he says that she shouldn't become leader of the party because the 17 million votes she claims as her mandate would have gone to any Socialist candidate. That's probably true, but it's also unfair, since there is no doubt that Royal, whatever her deficiencies, did generate real enthusiasm in certain quarters and demonstrated a greater capacity to attract young voters--the future of the party--than any of her rivals.

In any case, she currently leads all contenders among PS sympathizers by 54 to 50 for Delanoë, with Valls garnering 16 percent and Moscovici 14. She has slipped in recent months, however, and both of the younger contenders are coming on strong, which indicates genuine discontent in party ranks.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dela-No-Way

Say it ain't so: Bertrand Delanoë has put up his pre-Congress Web site, and if anything it's even more vapid than Ségolène Royal's. "Let us take the full measure of the work to be done ..." "The first principle is to cast a lucid eye on the difficulties ..." "The second principle is to advocate political solutions that truly respond to the diagnosis we come up with ..." Etc. etc.

It's enough to make you long for a little American-style pandering. How about a gasoline tax rebate? At least it's a concrete proposal.

Discours de la méthode florentine


A delicious story in Bakchich today. It seems that Anne Pingeot, Mitterrand's mistress, played a highly influential role in the Grand Louvre project, which has bequeathed to Paris among other things I. M. Pei's Grande Pyramide. I recall one memorable dinner at a posh apartment in the faubourg Saint-Germain during which a table of Mitterrand revilers, including one illustrious art historian who shall remain nameless, vied to outdo one another with contempt for la Grande Pyramide, while I, who have always found the thing delightful and who passed in this company for a wild-eyed gauchiste, sat in pained silence. But none of us knew that Pingeot, who was also a museum conservator, had a hand in the inception. Bakchich also reports that it was she who presided over the inauguration of the Musée d'Orsay, an event to which Mitterrand as president, Giscard as originator of the project, and Chirac as prime minister were all invited. Wives were not welcome, however, and Bernadette Chirac was turned away at the door. Apparently this unusual arrangement was devised to ensure that Mme Mitterrand would not be placed in the position of having to shake Mme Pingeot's hand. Such delicacy of feeling. To be sure, the two women were not spared the ordeal of having to mourn side by side at Mitterrand's graveside.