Monday, June 30, 2008

Right-Wing Antimilitarism

Libé's defense correspondent, Jean-Dominique Merchet, wrote a while back about what he perceives to be a rising right-wing antimilitarism in France. He cites a number of possible reasons for this, most notably a growing divergence of values between a right that is increasingly liberal, internationalist, and antitraditional and a military that remains conservative, nationalist, and tradition-bound. He revives this comment today in the wake of what he takes to be antimilitary remarks by Sarkozy in the wake of the Carcassonne tragedy.

I don't know whether right-wing antimilitarism is real and, if so, how serious it might be, but I do think that Merchet exaggerates the significance of the president's remarks. To my mind, Sarkozy was simply expressing the civilian's flabbergasted astonishment that such a thing could happen. Is it so "violently antimilitary" to insist that someone be held responsible?

That said, I do wonder how it happened. On France2 tonight, a retired general explained that there are "strict controls" to ensure that live ammunition is always accounted for. Forgive me, general, but I served in an army once myself, a long time ago, so I know what such "strict controls" are worth. Despite being obliged to count magazines and spent brass after each session on the firing range, I can't tell you how many times a member of my platoon returned to the barracks with a full magazine of live rounds. And of course when that happened, the military being the military, one never turned in the ammunition. It was buried in one of the well-known holes reserved for such contraband, because to return it was to risk punishment. And it wasn't always buried. Some soldiers had their private stashes for who knows what purpose.

So I'm not surprised that the guilty trooper had live rounds in his possession. What does surprise me, though, is how he could have loaded them instead of blanks. A magazine of live ammo, in this case the standard 5.56 mm NATO round, weighs noticeably more than a magazine of blanks. Even if the soldier mistakenly put the live magazine in his bandolier, he should have noticed its weight when he changed magazines during the exercise. Of course there was a lot of action and noise, the adrenaline was running, and he might have been distracted. But you do have to wonder ...

President of Europe

Forgive me if what I am about to say is too familiar to bear repeating. Many readers of this blog will no doubt be more conversant with the institutions of the European Union than the average American. But to judge by the number of times I am asked about "Sarkozy as president of Europe, what does that mean?" many people don't really understand the structure of the EU executive. And who can blame them? It's hardly a model of clarity, and the executive really isn't an executive in the classic sense. In addition, Sarko's publicity flacks are doing their best to magnify the office, which Sarkozy assumes tomorrow. So what exactly is it?

On July 1, Nicolas Sarkozy, as head of the French state, becomes the president (it might be more accurate to say "chairperson") of the Council of the European Union (not to be confused with the Council of Europe, which has nothing to do with the EU). The former council--let's call it the EC1, for short--is collectively the "executive" of the European Union. Now, there is also another EU organ, the European Commission, which also has executive or administrative-executive functions, and its president is not Sarkozy but José-Manuel Barroso. Let's call this EC2.

The presidency of EC1 is a rotating affair with a term of six months. The president has no greater formal powers than any other member of the council, although the visibility of his office affords him a certain opportunity for maneuver and initiative. Some occupants of the office have been content to deal with matters as they arise; others have attempted to launch initiatives, insofar as that can be done in a brief six-month tenure.

Sarkozy assumes office at a moment of crisis, in the wake of Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. But the EU has really been in crisis since the French and Dutch no votes of 2005. This chronic crisis--to be oxymoronic--may alter Sarkozy's priorities, which, according to Le Monde, are agriculture, defense, immigration, and environment. Defense is likely to sink to the bottom of the pile, as little headway can be made on a common defense policy in the absence of the more unified foreign policy apparatus that was to have been midwifed by the Lisbon Treaty. Rescuing the treaty itself may become Sarko's primary goal, though he is in an awkward position to repair the democratic deficit, as a head of state who decided to ignore the failure of his own people to ratify the agreement.

Sarkozy allegedly confided to Yasmina Reza that he knew he had only about a year to make his mark in France before rigor mortis began to set in. The clock has now run out on that effort, and the score, according to the latest LH2 poll, is 66-34 against the president. The temptation will therefore be great to make the most of the fresh clock afforded by the European jaunt, but Sarko will have forfeited the home-field advantage. He has also changed his style, and it remains to be seen whether he will return to the frenetic pace of his early presidency with its daily announcements and frequent interventions under klieg lights here, there, and everywhere. This hasn't been the style of EC1 presidencies past, but then Sarko's manner was new for the Elysée as well.

So Europe waits. Or, rather, a thin stratum of Euro-watchers waits, while most of Europe goes about its business in sublime indifference. It probably doesn't help Sarko's cause that much of the continent will be in fermeture annuelle, albeit with fewer tourists than usual owing to the steadfastness (recalcitrance?) of that other echt-European institution, the European Central Bank, which, alas, the EC1 president is powerless to do anything about. Before anyone begins paying attention to the news out of Brussels again, it will be autumn and Sarko's presidency will be half over. In the meantime, he has twenty-six other heads of state watching his every move like hawks, outgoing president Angela Merkel first among them. The state of play is quite different from the state of play at home, where the opposition is in disarray and the majority in disgruntled beatitude. It will be a test of Sarkozy's skills to see how he handles this. I don't rule out surprises, but I don't expect miracles either.

For a more thorough exploration of the issues, see Judah Grunstein's blog.

Need(l)ing the Left

The M&M (Moscovici-Montebourg) faction of the Socialist Party, aka Socialisme et Démocratie or "les stauss-kahniens," submitted its position paper over the weekend. Reading these factional position papers is a special art. An innocent arriving from, say, the United States would probably have a hard time explaining, on the basis of these papers alone, why the various party factions disagree or even where on the political spectrum they stand. Are the Strauss-Kahnians on the right wing of the Socialist Party? Yes, but their paper attacks "financial speculation" with as much gusto as the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste and proposes an economic policy that smacks of the dirigisme of old, with nary even a nod to "the social market economy."

Speculation is of course today's antithesis of motherhood and apple pie, the Great Satan, and no one is for it, particularly since no one is required to define it or differentiate it from ordinary garden-variety capitalism, which "modern" socialists favor. Thus M&M insist that "we must respond to the challenge of growth and French competitiveness by rehabilitating economic voluntarism." They favor "sustainable development" while "resisting the primacy of the short term and the supremacy of the market." If this farrago of buzz words means anything, it suggests that M&M propose to invest scarce public money in new technology whose returns will be realized only in the long run.

To remark that such industrial policy ("economic voluntarism") is in fact tantamount to "speculation" even riskier than the speculation they denounce would perhaps be to expect more rigor of a position paper than is warranted--even if this is the paper of the faction of the PS reputed to embody the soundest economic thinking. Indeed, the purpose of the paper is not to propose an economic logic but to issue an emotional appeal to the left of the party, without whose support M&M have evidently concluded they are doomed: "In opposition to financial speculation, which diverts capital from indispensable investments, and in opposition to the politics of the Right, which in France promotes rent-seeking, the Left must encourage entrepreneurial risk-taking." It would be churlish, of course, to ask what "entrepreneurial risk-taking" in the absence of "financial speculation" amounts to: a sort of technological bungee-jumping, I imagine.

But if the economic side of M&M's program disappoints, we can always console ourselves with "the ecological revolution," which "necessitates planetary solidarity." Revolution, solidarity--the words hallowed by tradition are coupled with the new kid on the left-wing block, ecology.

Sigh. The Socialist Party might do well to forgo the position paper exercise and get on with the clash of éléphants that will decide this contest. Delanoë and Aubry seem to have concluded that neither is quite enough of a mastodon to tackle the nimble gazelle alone, so my guess is that they are in the process of working out a power-sharing arrangement. Aubry's Web site is still a bare-bones affair, however, and although Rue89 thinks she swiped it from Obama, they're mistaking the mere look-and-feel for the actual sophistication of the Obama Web operation, which gathers information, collects money, and links visitors in to a vast direct e-mail operation from which there is No Exit (as the dozens of daily missives from the Obama campaign in my inbox will attest). Not even Ségolène Royal, who has the most extensive Web presence of any Socialist contender, can compete. If the Socialist Party is indeed in the process of transforming itself into a flaccid umbrella party of the Left, akin to the American Democratic Party, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon alleges and fears, its marketing, polling, and image-shaping apparatus remains artisanal.

Besoin de gauche is the title of the M&M position paper. "Needing the Left" is perhaps an accurate characterization of France's position today, but the actual performance of the Left makes "needling the Left" almost irresistible.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Divide et Impera

Could Nicolas Sarkozy be preparing to smite the Left with le coup de Jarnac* that Mitterrand (who was born in Jarnac) used against the Right back in the 80s? Le Monde reports that in the plane back from Beirut, there was discussion among France's political elite of the possibility that Sarkozy will institute a system of single-round proportional voting for the 2010 regional elections. This would provide an opening for the parties of the extreme left, especially Olivier Besancenot and the Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste, to capture seats from the PS. The Fondation Jean-Jaurès sees a real possibility that the Left will henceforth be irrevocably split between "social liberal" and "anticapitalist" factions.

*coup de Jarnac: see here. Mitterrand used proportional representation to enable the Front National to take seats away from the RPR. It was an effective but perfidious tactic that encouraged the growth of Le Pen's party. Language lawyers might argue that I should have used coup fourré or coup bas rather than coup de Jarnac, but the coincidence with Mitterrand's birthplace forced my hand.

CNRS Reform Modified

Protests against the proposed reform of the CNRS by the group Sauvons la Recherche among others have persuaded Valérie Pécresse to consider modifications to her proposal.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Another Position Paper

Another Socialist position paper has arrived: that of Gérard Collomb, mayor of Lyon, Manuel Valls, mayor of Evry, and Jean-Noël Guérini, president of the conseil général of Bouches-du-Rhône. They are joined by several other personalities representing the "decentralized" leadership of the PS as opposed to the "national" leadership. Hence it is not surprising to find that their statement borrows from the urbanist Jean Haëntjens, who has himself borrowed from Fernand Braudel's contrast between "city-hares" and "the tortoise state": "States have the power, cities have the creativity." It is an attractive thought that the renovation of the left should come, not from the bottom up, but from the middle out. The PS has flourished at the urban and regional levels of government while the national party has floundered. The PS did well in the recent municipal elections. Voters who are hard put to distinguish the parties at the national level discern clear differences in local management. The challenge for this courant of the party is to persuade militants that out of their experience it is possible to divine a new orientation for the party at the national level.

Media Mogul

Sarkozy's decision that the president of France Télévisions should henceforth be nominated by the chief of state is troubling, as I indicated in my previous post. Equally troubling is his rationale for the decision: "I do not see why the principal stockholder in France Télévisions, namely, the state, should not appoint its president." He also compared FT to any other state enterprise: EDF, GDF, SNCF, RATP. This refusal to grasp the distinction between the media--a fundamental organ of oversight and control in a liberal democracy--and other kinds of business is alarming. So is the implicit assertion of ownership. So is the confusion of agent with principal: if anyone owns the public media, it is the public--the People, not the president, who is merely their agent as well as a prime object of the media's attention, by the very nature of his office. Hence control of the agent by the principal is in this instance an even more sensitive issue than usual.

It is not too much to say that what is at stake is liberty. As for the ostensible check on the president's prerogative in the form of required approval by the parliament and CSA, Tocqueville already saw through this stratagem in regard to another assault on French liberties nearly three centuries ago, when an absolute monarch promised to compensate for his refusal to convoke the Estates General by feigning to enhance the powers of les parlements:

There was a need to appear to provide new guarantees in place of those that had been eliminated, because the French, who had put up rather patiently with absolute power as long as it was not oppressive, never liked the sight of it, and it was always wise to raise some apparent barriers in front of it, barriers that could not stop it but nevertheless hid it a little.
---L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, II.10.

Overreaction?

Commenting on the previous post, kirkmc wrote:

Regardless of what finally happens, this situation [the confusion surrounding changes in the reimbursement for certain drugs] points out a serious problem in France. There is such paranioia that whenever any reform is announced - especially when things aren't clear, which is the case here - the French go rampant with conspiracy theories, and you read and hear, in the media, tons of conflicting reports of what is going to happen. (The politicians - especially the "opposition" help fuel this fire.) It's like during the university reforms, the students were demonstrating because the state was going to "privatize" universities.

I think this kind of speculation is very dangerous....


I can agree with this observation up to a point. Suspicion and distrust pervade French political life, and this is not a healthy situation. But if a government wishes to reduce such suspicion, it has to explain what it is attempting to do. It has to provide a plausible rationale for reform and a credible financial logic. To that end, it needs to consult with a variety of interested parties. In the case in point, we see a policy conceived without consultation with a major player, the private insurers who are to pick up the cost of medications no longer supported by the government. Read the remarks of Jean-Pierre Davant, the head of the Fédération Nationale de la Mutualité Française, here: "There was no consultation with the various actors concerned with health policy." This is not a matter of distortion by "politicians" for self-interested reasons. Davant goes to the heart of the matter. It is true that, compared with other European countries, the French consume a lot of drugs and that these costs need to be brought under control, but there is nothing in the logic of the current proposal that would obviously contribute to that goal. Costs are simply being shifted from public to private funding. Unless, of course, the private funders ultimately deny reimbursement for some of the drugs. So it's reasonable--and not at all "paranoid"--to ask what the motive of the reform is. And it's not only the opposition that has raised the question. Deputies of the UMP and Nouveau Centre have also expressed puzzlement about what the government's real intention might be. The problem is not simply, as kirkmc suggests, a lack of clarity; it is rather a lack of plausibility in the aim of the reform, however generously its terms are construed. I am willing to grant a government, any government, the benefit of the doubt if I can make sense of its intentions. But if I can't, then I think it's not only reasonable but obligatory to ask what they're really up to.

The same reasonable suspicion attaches to yesterday's decision regarding the reorganization of public radio and television. At bottom I don't really care whether public broadcasting is paid for by advertising or public funding. I don't care whether this or that tax is 0.5 or 0.9 percent. But I do care that the person in charge of public broadcasting will henceforth be appointed by the president. The charade of advice and consent by a "majority" of parliament and the "concurrence" of the CSA is risible. We know how this system was abused in the past, in the bad old days of the ORTF, and we are within our rights to anticipate abuse in the future, since the reforms instituted to prevent them have been suddenly and stealthily overturned. And to compound the offense, we are told that the reason for the change is to promote "culture": in exchange for operas and plays uninterrupted by commercials after 8 in the evening, we are to accept direct presidential control of some of the most influential French media. Is it "paranoid" to object?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Reform by Obfuscation

The government apparently wants to do something to control drug reimbursement costs, but exactly what it is proposing isn't clear. It seems that the cost of some drugs won't be reimbursed. Which drugs? Some say it's long-term medications for cancer and diabetes patients. Others say it's only "auxiliary drugs" used in the treatment of such diseases. Roselyne Bachelot, the minister of health, says that no decision has been taken but that she wants to maintain full coverage for chronic disease patients. But some of that coverage may be provided by private insurance rather than the state. Will private insurance costs go up as a result? Eric Woerth says no, but he also says he hasn't yet discussed the issue with private insurers. The unions are up in arms, concerned--understandably--about the rupture of "solidarity" with chronic patients, which would be a major change in the philosophy of French medical insurance.

So what is going on? Apparently an internal report on the reform leaked out before the government was ready, triggering an uproar and leaving the two ministers to cover the internal confusion with a temporary story. But the broad thrust of the proposal is clear enough: the government will stop covering some drugs, the costs will be transferred to private insurers, those without private insurance will continue to receive government coverage, and the private insurers--we are assured--will simply swallow the bitter pill. This is as incredible as it is nonsensical. It is reform by obfuscation, and even if the government somehow strong-arms insurers into accepting this plan for some period of time, obviously it will eventually result in increased premiums.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Party Ritual

The various Socialist courants are to submit their position papers to the consideration of party members this week in view of the upcoming Congress of Reims. Fabius is first out of the block. His summary statement can be read here. The document is an unconscious parody, a work of hucksterism rather than political thought or analysis. It is sort of an expanded bumper sticker of the genre that runs "think globally, act locally," but it would be more precise to describe it as "think grandiosely, act defensively." So we begin with a brisk--femtosecond brisk--overview of the global situation: China is big and getting bigger, oil is pricey and getting pricier, the West is no longer the center of the world, liberalism makes everything worse, and the Left has failed to appreciate the new lay of the land and the failure of liberalism (in case you missed it the first time). So much for the big ideas. Now come the various lines to be held: France needs more innovation and more small businesses, so let's invest in research and create a small business administration. Already the gap between the diagnosis and the remedy is beginning to seem, well, rather wide. And then we need more redistribution of wealth (always a good idea, but let's not dwell on the details). Protection and solidarity: more sine qua nons of la gauche de toujours. Ecology: check, we're modern as well as traditional in our idea of socialism. Republican equality, laïcité, and education: you can never go wrong with these. Euro-volontaires et internationalistes: sounds good, doesn't commit to anything controversial like an actual agreement among the 27. Nobody's against Europe, as long as they can have a Europe of their own. "We need a proud, aggressive, and open party." Check. "We propose a strategy of clear and winning alliances." Opponents presumably favor murky, losing alliances. Oh, and by the way, Fabius opposes the "presidentialization and peopolisation of the party."

If this whets your appetite for more, you can read the full document here.

Labor Mobility

It isn't only the unskilled worker who is migrating in search of better opportunities. The educated and skilled are also on the move. France is both a source of human capital for export and a favorite destination of talented individuals. Interactive map here.

Israel

All signs are that Sarkozy's speech to the Israeli Knesset was quite a success. The first part was such a dithyramb to the idea of a Jewish state that one Israeli MP proposed that it be distributed to all Israeli schools and read to schoolchildren (a gesture reminiscent of certain educational gestures of Sarkozy's). But then in the middle came the crucial modulation that rescued the speech from the one-sidedness to which it seemed to be doomed: "Mesdames et Messieurs,
On doit la vérité à ses amis, sinon on n’est pas un ami." The president went on to say that he represented a country that had had to forgive and reconcile with its neighbors. He defended the principle of a Palestinian state. And he said that there could be no peace without an immediate halt to the colonization of the West Bank and called for legislation to induce the departure of existing settlers. It was an unambiguous statement, and Sarkozy had the courage to make it before the Israeli parliament.

And, mirabile dictu, his speech earned the unequivocal approval of a contender for the Socialist leadership, Pierre Moscovici. There won't be many days as good as yesterday in Sarkozy's quinquennat.

Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste

Mouvements has published a series of articles on the possibility of launching a Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste. This is the proposed name of the party that is to unify the "left of the Left," the nebula of parties, groupuscules, social movements, affinity groups, and others who have given up hope that a Socialist will again unite the Left sufficiently to win a presidential election as Mitterrand did in 1981 and 1988. Olivier Besancenot's breakthrough into the front ranks of leftist politicians has aroused hope in some quarters that such a party is indeed viable. The Trotskyite postman has evidently hit on a successful formula for representing the revolutionary in a media age: affable, unflappable, and as indefatigably voluble as a sidewalk salesman on the rue de Rivoli, he now polls as well as or better than the Socialist heavyweights (43% "approve" of Besancenot and "would like to see him play an important role in the future," compared with 41% for Ségolène Royal and 45% for Dominique Strauss-Kahn).

One might question precisely what the words "important role" conceal, however. The revulsion from the Socialist présidentiables suggests a resignation, in a broad segment of the Left, to non-governing status. An "anticapitalist" party is a party unable to conceive of itself in compromise with the world as it is. It is a party that believes the most useful role it can play is extragovernmental. It is a party that sees itself as a "tribune of the people" rather than a manager of the economy or vanguard in some constructive project. It is a party that believes that politics in the present means temporizing until some fundamental change occurs to open a new way forward. It is, in short, a party of populist protest, with any number of predecessors in the recent French past.

But how strong is such a party? How much of the population does it represent? Is the 4.08% that Besancenot polled in the last presidential election more representative of its actual support than the 43% he received in the beauty contest poll cited above? I suspect so. To signal approval of Besancenot to a pollster is protest on the cheap; actually to vote for him is another matter. Still, the surveys should stand as a warning to leftists of all stripes: many on the left are still looking for a home, despite all the promises of "renovated" quarters ready to move into any day now. Leave them out in the cold much longer and they may well build a ramshackle shelter of their own.

The History of Trust

One of last year's notable books was Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc's La Société de défiance, a work that purported to show that French society was beset by a crisis of confidence stemming from a corporatist reaction to a dirigiste state. The seeds of this lack of trust were sown, allegedly, in the postwar compromise among social partners that created the welfare state.

Now, in a very interesting critique, Nicolas Delalande questions this thesis from two angles. First, he notes that the statistical evidence on which the case that France is an especially distrustful society rests looks less impressive when the Scandinavian countries are left out. Second, he questions the underlying historical premise of the work by the two economists. In Delalande's view, Algan and Cahuc see the Third Republic as a "golden age" of trust, which they claim came to an end in World War II and its aftermath. But what if this is not the case? It would certainly come as a surprise to many students of the history of France that "the contentious French" enjoyed a happy hiatus of mutual confidence in the years before the Second World War.

Although Delalande doesn't say so, his critique raises questions about a type of argumentation that has become popular in recent years. Algan and Cahuc rely heavily on survey data such as the General Social Survey and World Values Survey. Similarly, Thomas Philippon, in another much-praised book, also relied on data gathered by questionnaire. Econometric methods were then used to relate these soft data to "harder" statistics pertaining to economic performance. The sophisticated machinery yielded an air of solidity to conclusions that call for closer scrutiny. To put it bluntly: How trustworthy are the comparative data about trust? Do the questionnaires perhaps magnify cross-cultural differences? In view of the interest that Algan and Cahuc's work has attracted, their methods deserve careful study. Nicolas Delalande's essay has the merit of making a start in that direction.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Weekend Off

I took a weekend away from French politics and French Politics. On an island, without Internet access, without even a newspaper ... The world seems to have continued spinning on its axis. Carla Bruni did her best imitation of Jackie Kennedy for the editors of Libé, and readers were not amused. Jack Lang decided that Martine Aubry was his girl, because she is "firmly anchored on the left," unlike some other leading candidates for the PS leadership, but he wanted it to be known that his remarks were not directed against Bertrand Delanoë, which leaves little doubt about the person at whom they were directed, though he didn't mention her by name.

Both of these sagas--Bruni seeks to seduce the world, PS seeks a leader--have become rather wearisome, but I have to ease myself back into the blogging routine, so I begin by regaining my bearings with two overly familiar stories, about which, alas, I have nothing novel to say.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sarkozy and the Intellectuals

Nicolas Sarkozy possesses one attribute that should make him feel right at home at his luncheons for intellectuals, now a regular feature of his presidency: "An absolutely ferocious will to convince." An account published in Le Figaro suggests that he likes to play the role of provocateur with his guests, many of whom seem to appreciate his pointed banter and relaxed manner. Luc Ferry drew a frown, however, when he suggested that the reforms were unpleasant medicine that ought to be redeemed by artistic embellishments of daily life. This remark evidently displeased the apostle of reform.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Estro(s)[p]ié

Patrick Devedjian must feel like a prisoner on his way to execution. Xavier Bertrand and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet were previously dispatched to flank him en route to the stake, but they couldn't silence him. Now another Sarko loyalist, Christian Estrosi, has been added to the squad. But Bertrand and NKM wore kid gloves. Estrosi is a tough guy. But Devedjian, who brawled with extreme-right-wing groups in his youth, probably holds a few sharp jabs in reserve. The fight should be interesting.

The Language Amendment

"Regional languages are part of the national patrimony." So reads a proposed amendment to the Constitution. Who could object to an anodyne statement of fact? Well, the Académie Française, for one, and, as of yesterday, the Senate. Because a statement of fact ceases to be a statement of fact when it is enshrined in the very preamble to the constitution as a defining feature of French national identity. This morning I received an interesting comment from an old friend of the blog, Steve Rendall:

Our local paper--the Depeche du Midi--had a screaming headline today suggesting that the Senate's rejection of an amendment to the constitution recognizing that regional languages are part of the country's patrimony meant a prohibition on using Occitan (that wasn't quite what the headline said, but I think that's what most readers will take it to say). Nowhere in the accompanying article was it said precisely what the implications of the amendment or its suppression would be. The amendment was sponsored by the government, but only tepidly; the main opposition to suppressing the amendment came from the Socialists and the Greens, who see things quite differently from the Revolutionary forbears, who were among the first to insist that regional languages had to be subordinated to French. But even the UMP was not unanimous in support; as one UMP senator put it, "Nos enfants parlent Texto, il faut renforcer le français et ce n'est pas en faisant appel aux langues régionales [qu'on le fera]." In any event, it seems pretty clear that the government is not going to forbid speaking, writing, or even teaching regional languages (my daughter studied Occitan in elementary school), and that the regional papers, as usual, are indulging in hysterical demagogy on this point.


It seems that regional language courses are quite popular in certain parts of the country. No one is proposing to shut them down. Let a thousand flowers bloom. I understand the urge to recover one's "roots," though I wish more people were inclined rather to develop "branches," to exfoliate new growth turned toward the light rather than burrow down into the dark earth in search of a seed that no longer exists. I wouldn't impose my preference on anyone, but I wouldn't want to see the preferences of others given special constitutional prominence. A constitution is a special kind of document. It should seek to express a spirit. The more encumbered it becomes with technicalities and special pleading, the more likely it is to collapse of its own weight. The Lisbon treaty exemplifies this error. The Fifth Republic shouldn't follow Europe down that wrong path.

Hirsch Defends the RSA

Martin Hirsch defends the Revenue de Solidarité Active.

Generals React

A group of general officers assesses the defense white paper and finds it wanting.

Bickerton on the Irish Problem

French Politics guest contributor Chris Bickerton has an article in the Guardian on the Irish no. His point is that those who argue that the Lisbon treaty must be ratified if the EU is to have a foreign policy do not reckon with the lack of "inner vitality" of which the Irish vote is a reflection. No matter what foreign policy institutions the EU equips itself with, its global influence ultimately depends on the support of its constituent peoples.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What's Wrong with the Unions?

One answer.

Competitivity Poles Evaluated

France's 71 competitivity poles (competitiveness poles? centers of competitiveness? competition foci? how to translate pôles de compétitivité?) have been evaluated, and 13 are found wanting. During the presidential campaign, both Sarkozy and Royal promised to pump more money and resources into these strategic partnerships linking industry and universities--sometimes characterized as "industrial policy lite."

Another Reading of Le Livre Blanc de la défense

Here is another reading of the defense white paper by Louis Gautier, who was a defense advisor to Jospin. His critique centers on the idea that the document reflects "a world order defined solely by western fears. ... A pernicious security-oriented, anxiety-generating discourse is palpable on every page." This is a tough indictment. It suggests that France has not so much accepted American leadership as adopted America's unfortunate tendency in recent years to allow its foreign policy to be dominated by domestic fears rather than a realistic assessment of the ambitions and capabilities of other countries and non-state actors.

Indeed, Sarkozy visited a military base yesterday and inspected a drone. He had one question for the general: How much does it cost? (Answer: 1.5 million euros.) The drone is the symbol of a certain type of warfare: high-tech, remote-control, low-risk to one's own forces. Small, nimble, compact, high-tech: Americans will recognize the Rumsfeldian approach. France, similarly, is downsizing its forces and upsizing its ambitions: it hopes to project force into the Middle East and beyond. It also hopes not only to gather intelligence but to "project" it: the new strategy of "anticipation" seems to be premised on the notion that we need to understand foreign cultures better if we are to defend against threats emanating from them.

French drones manned by cultural anthropologists hovering over Asian caves: this might be a facetious way of summing up certain changes suggested by the white paper. A caricature, to be sure, but a caricature that M. Gautier at any rate seems to worry is being taken seriously by French defense planners.

Health Policy

I don't often cite Marianne, a magazine whose parti pris I find grating. But occasionally they interrupt the usual drumbeat of denigration long enough to publish a really intelligent article, like this one by Élie Arié on health policy. Arié is critical of the Left's tacit opposition to the planned closing of small hospitals, which, as he points out, may be conveniently located close to home but offer substandard care because practitioners do not see enough cases to maintain their skills. Safety is therefore compromised. He also chides the Left for failing to recognize that some drugs are ineffective and therefore should not be subsidized by state reimbursement. Instead of such futile oppositioin, he argues, the Left should pursue different objectives, and he details several flaws in Sarkozy's approach to health policy on which the opposition's fire could be more usefully traine.

National Identity

Review of two books on immigration and national identity by Gérard Noiriel and Patrick Weil.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Best Defense Is ...

Judah Grunstein reviews France's livre blanc on defense.

Sometimes You Have to Be There

I try to follow the French news closely, but I'm not sure I would have noticed the strike of ambulance drivers had it not been for Polly-Vous Français. Polly, who is in Paris while I must follow the news via the Internet, stumbled on the 500 ambulances, many unoccupied but with their sirens blaring. The drivers are protesting the rise in fuel prices, which damages their livelihood. We feel their pain, as they, in better times, minister to ours.

Someone should write a book about the highly variegated French style of protest. The symbolic massing of tools of a particular trade--ambulances, in this case--in some highly visible location is one. I recall once stumbling upon a demonstration of sheep raisers on the Champ de Mars, which was filled for the occasion with bleating sheep. I don't think I would have known about it if I hadn't happened to be there. The papers barely mentioned it. Another time there was a strike of interns. I encountered hundreds of them in white jackets with stethoscopes around their necks, somewhere in the vicinity of the Ecole Militaire.

There is often something festive about these strikes. American picketers, by contrast, frequently seem bored, marching up and down with their signs proclaiming unfairness. Even when protesting there is a manifest need to "get the job done," even if the job for the moment is to close down the plant. French strikers need to be noticed, and first of all by le pouvoir, hence the frequent choice of Paris as stage. And often their need to express is directed, after the government, at the public at large, as though nothing good can come of private protest unless it is taken up by la volonté générale, the sole legitimating force. Even if the harangue is in the form of wailing sirens, it is le peuple that is exhorted to make the protesters' cause their own. The problem, of course, is that the sympathies of le peuple are fickle, easily bestowed and easily forgotten. It is almost as if the theatrical pleasures of French protest were intended to be their own reward. Often they have to be, since practical results do not follow.

Open Enrollment

La suppression de la carte scolaire is the rather inelegant French phrase for what Americans usually call "open enrollment": children are not required to attend the nearest public school but are permitted to enroll in any school in the city. Sarkozy campaigned for (conditional) open enrollment in his run for the presidency, and now he is making good on his promise. Le Monde today reports that two school inspectors prepared an internal report for the ministry showing that the effect is a reduction of mixité. France being France, there is a certain coyness about what is no longer being mixed: although the word once referred to the mixing of genders, now it refers to the mixing of classes, nationalities, ethnic groups, races. The coyness is compounded by the lack of precise statistics. The bureaucratic language of the report deplores the fact that "the objective of social diversity has generally not received priority attention." There is discussion of a "reinforcement of the logic of ethnic concentration."

Education minister Xavier Darcos has allegedly prevented publication of this report since October 2007. The issues it raises are nevertheless important. Open enrollment is a double-edged sword. It can be used to break down "ethnic concentration," especially where residential patterns tend to create segregation in neighborhood schools. It can also be used to promote separation, especially by social class. The government's intentions are therefore at issue. A policy may be well-intentioned but have perverse effects. Or it may be ill-intentioned. The report might help to clarify which is the case. Its suppression raises the suspicion that the government is unwilling to allow its true intentions to be scrutinized. A government that is deliberately promoting social, ethnic, and racial segregation is pursuing a policy that will come back to haunt the country in the long run. Darcos should make the report public so that people can assess what the actual effects of his policy are.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Prize!

It seems that this blog was award an E! for Excellent prize by the Progressive Historians' blog back in April. I just discovered this today. Thanks. It's nice to be appreciated. Check out the other prize winners. It seems that I share the honor with a blog about excrement. I don't know whether this says something about me or about France.

Desire and Suffering

"Can one desire without suffering?" This was one of the questions on this year's bac in philosophy. France for a long time made philosophy the center of its educational curriculum. The history, from the Napoleonic era to the present, is briefly recounted here, although the extremely important influence of Victor Cousin is omitted entirely (for that story, see Jan Goldstein's book). Lately, however, the bac en philo has come under increasing attack. For some, it makes no sense in the era of massification, as Le Monde puts it. Of course la massification de l'éducation is just another name for democratization, and I think that equating democratization with degradation and falling standards is a rather loaded way of putting the problem.

To be sure, if one watches the video of students at the Lycée Condorcet emerging from the test (scroll to bottom for video), it's hard to imagine any of these young people having much of interest to say on the question of desire and suffering. But the real story is not whether the "massified" student is more or less mature than those who sat for the bac in the 19th century. It was (I think) Tolstoy who wrote that "the aristocrat takes gratis from life what the commoner must spend his first thirty years acquiring." These young students may know more about desire and suffering in 10 years' time than they know now. But already the educational system is sending them the message that they need not bother their heads with such fluff: the "coefficient" of the philo grade may be 7 on the literary bac, but it is only 4 on the econ-soc bac and 3 on the scientific bac. The clear implication is that philosophy is a purely decorative subject, fit to be an ornament of the literary mind but no longer the "queen of sciences," ethical guide, beacon to the citizen, or any of a myriad other justificatory appellations that used to be bestowed on it. Students, not being fools even if their appreciation of the relation between desire and suffering, however existentially acute, may fail to pass philosophical muster, adjust their investment of time accordingly. Perhaps the schools need at last to admit that Victor Cousin is not much of a mentor to the 21st century.

Intelligence

Beefing up French intelligence is one of the priorities of the defense white paper that is to be issued tomorrow. On the white paper in general, see the excellent series of articles by Judah Grunstein on World Politics Review.

Overall, the army is to be reduced in size by 17 percent, the air force by 25 percent, and the navy by 11 percent. The decision about a second aircraft carrier has been postponed, even though the reason for it is that the one existing carrier is often out of service for longer periods of maintenance. Rejoining NATO seems to be central to maintaining France's military posture with reduced forces.

Report Card

Remember the grades that ministers were supposed to receive? They were all being watched by Eric Besson and the consulting firm Mars & Co. The first report card has now leaked out. Only 9 ministers have been evaluated so far. Top grades go to Dati, Morin, and Bachelot, and Barnier. Passing grades to the two Xaviers, Darcos and Bertrand. "Could do better" to Pécresse, Alliot-Marie, and Albanel. But the laggards are exonerated by the grader's comment: "Difficulties due essentially to conservatism in their area."

The prime minister characterizes the reports of a report card as des supputations.

Why Did the Irish Vote No?

Two views of why the Irish voted no on the Lisbon Treaty: Eloi Laurent and Kevin O'Rourke.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hatchet Buried?

Le Point is reporting without attribution that Sarkozy and Villepin have reached a deal. Villepin will head the UMP list in the European elections of June 2009. Sarko will see to it that the Clearstream affair goes no farther as far as Villepin is concerned. And Villepin in turn will help to heal the fissures in the UMP by cooling anti-Sarko sentiments among former Chiraquiens. Hervé Gattegno, the author of the piece, quotes Mazarin: "Magnanimity always follows from self-interest."

It's hard to conceive of a source for this story other than Villepin himself. Unless it was Sarkozy, which seems less likely. Villepin, who had a sword at his throat only a few months ago, is cast in the role of swashbuckler who has managed for now to avoid doom. And Sarko, if the report is true, would appear to be worried enough about the intraparty Fronde that he needs to spare his old enemy, against whom he had seemed to be waging a personal vendetta. Earlier reports had suggested that the prosecutors wanted to close the case against Villepin for lack of evidence but had been prevailed upon to reopen the investigation. The hint then was that the pressure had come from on high. If this new story is true, then Sarko has decided to relent, but since the investigation remains open, he has Villepin on a short leash.

Stay tuned. A duel between Sarkozy and Villepin promises to be infinitely more amusing than a duel with Devedjian or Copé. Quoting Mazarin seems apt. S and V may not be characters out of Corneille, but they do rise above Les Guignols de l'Info.

French Foreign Policy Under Sarkozy

I have a new article on French foreign policy under Sarkozy at e-International Relations, an interesting site created by students at Oxford, Leicester, and LSE.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Un ami, c'est un ami

What was that I was saying this morning about Montesquieu vs. Carl Schmitt? Politics is not about dividing the world between friends and enemies? Apparently the UMP hasn't received the message. Witness this exchange between Christine Boutin and Claude Goasguen.

Védrine on France's "Strategic Posture"

An interesting extended interview by Judah Grunstein with former foreign minister Hubert Védrine on France's "strategic posture" can be found here.

The Euro Ten Years On

Éloi Laurent reflects on the record of the euro since its introduction nearly ten years ago and concludes that ""to date, the bottom line is not flattering to the euro zone."

Le Contrat de Confiance

Looks like Darty and Sarkozy are about to merge.

Ireland Votes No, Apparently

According to Jean Quatremer, the Lisbon treaty is going to lose in Ireland by a significant margin, perhaps 55%, albeit with a participation rate of only 42%. As I said yesterday, this is a real dilemma for Europe, and it is a dilemma that Sarkozy will have to manage as France assumes the EU presidency next month.

Irish government concedes defeat.

Zarka Rejects Schmitt

Yves Charles Zarka, the editor of the journal Cités, prefers Montesquieu to Carl Schmitt:

Contrairement donc à ce qui est souvent dit et même ressassé aujourd'hui, ce n'est pas le couple ami/ennemi, mais le couple liberté/servitude qui est le critère déterminant du politique. Cela veut dire simplement que l'essence du politique ne doit pas être pensé en fonction de l'ennemi (intérieur ou extérieur), c'est-à-dire de la guerre, mais en fonction de la liberté et de la paix. La politique ne disparaît pas quand la guerre cesse, ce que pourtant certains s'ingénient à nous faire accroire. L'antilibéralisme politique (de droite ou de gauche) se définit le plus souvent négativement par opposition au libéralisme, mais il masque en général ce qu'il est réellement : une pensée politique qui a pour horizon indépassable la lutte, l'affrontement et la guerre. Sur ce point également Montesquieu définit l'esprit du libéralisme politique.

The RSA Formula

In case you were wondering, this is how the RSA (Revenu de solidarité active) is calculated:

La prestation du RSA s’écrirait selon l’équation suivante :

RSA = (MIN) - T1(RT) - T2 (RT-RTo)

RT est le Revenu du Travail

RTo est le point de départ de la deuxième décote (soit 0,7 SMIC pour une personne seule, 1 SMIC pour un couple), avec R-Ro toujours supérieur à 0.

Min est un minimum garanti.

T1 et T2 correspondent à des taux de prélèvement implictes évoluant selon le nombre d’enfants du ménage, et qui permettent d’évaluer les deux décotes successives. Additionnés, ils permettent d’aboutir à un point de sortie du complément de revenu désiré.

Les ressources globales (RG) de la famille pourraient se formuler ainsi :

RG=RT + RSA + PF

RT= Revenu du Travail

RSA = Revenu de Solidarité Active

Personnel Change

Environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo, whose profile has been lower than I expected, is in the news today for attempting to hire Mogens Peter Carl, the chief of the EU environment directorate, to serve as his advisor during France's EU presidency. Carl backs a French plan to exempt certain heavy industries such as steel and chemicals from carbon emissions caps. That should raise some eyebrows.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Admiration

My admiration goes to Maître Eolas for rapidly distilling the essence of today's Supreme Court decision restoring the right of habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees. The words below, which have the clarity and force of The Federalist, are worth quoting, even though they have nothing immediately to do with French politics.

(…)Our basic charter cannot be contracted away like this. The Constitution grants Congress and the President the power to acquire, dispose of, and govern territory, not the power to decide when and where its terms apply. Even when the United States acts outside its borders, its powers are not “absolute and unlimited” but are subject “to such restrictions as are expressed in the Constitution.”

(…) Because our Nation’s past military conflicts have been of limited duration, it has been possible to leave the outer boundaries of war powers undefined. If, as some fear, terrorism continues to pose dangerous threats to us for years to come, the Court might not have this luxury. This result is not inevitable, however. The political branches, consistent with their independent obligations to interpret and uphold the Constitution, can engage in a genuine debate about how best to preserve constitutional values while protecting the Nation from terrorism. (…).

(…)We hold that petitioners may invoke the fundamental procedural protections of habeas corpus. The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, a part of that law.

The determination by the Court of Appeals that the Suspension Clause and its protections are inapplicable to petitioners was in error. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed. The cases are remanded to the Court of Appeals with instructions that it remand the cases to the District Court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Supreme Court Of The United States, 553 U. S. (2008), Boumediene v. Bush, 12 juin 2008. (PDF)

It's good to know that our national soul-searching is so closely followed in France. Thanks, Eolas.

Rocard Backs Delanoë

It's an odd statement from Michel Rocard: he will back Bertrand Delanoë for party leader but thinks it's a mistake for the party to choose a leader who is also a potential presidential candidate in 2012. This, he says, was a choice "imposed by the media," which insist on having a "star" for the JT de 20h. Rocard demonstrates the lack of political savvy and flair that has always distinguished his political practice. Does he believe that the choice of Delanoë will make the party's other "stars" less attractive to the media? The media love nothing more than a contest between heavyweights: witness Obama v. Clinton. Royal v. Delanoë will make for no less compelling television. The divisions in the PS will not go away simply because Michel Rocard has made his choice. And if he makes this choice à contrecoeur, why doesn't he go with Moscovici, who shares his view that the early focus on a single présidentiable is a mistake? No, it's just foolish to blame the media for this abdication of responsibility, which is entirely Rocard's.

Evaluating Universities

Managerial ideology rarely mixes well with the things of the spirit. I'm sure that the senators who were commissioned by Valérie Pécresse to come up with a way to evaluate university performance with an eye to funneling money to les plus performantes meant well. How could they not, when they named their system "Sympa": système de répartition des moyens à la performance et à l'activité. (The managerial ideology is inordinately fond of acronyms.) But their proposal is to measure university performance by ascertaining the employment rate of graduates at 6 months and 3 years post-graduation (correcting for post-graduate study). It's a short-sighted standard because it fails to control for many possible explanatory variables. If a temporary downturn in the electronics industry slows hiring of newly minted engineers, for example, a school with a high engineering enrollment will be penalized.

One understands the desire for objective criteria. But subjective judgments are essential in education. The objective measures should be designed as a control on subjectivity, to ensure fairness and comparability, but not as a mechanical substitute to compensate for a fundamental lack of trust. Le système Sympa n'est pas sympa.

As Ireland goes ...

Ireland votes today on the European constitution, and Europe waits with bated breath. Since Ireland has, by most accounts, benefited handsomely from EU largesse, a no vote would be astonishing--but not surprising. (I am reminded of the--doubtless apocryphal--story of the lexicographer Littré, whose wife one day caught him in bed with another woman. "Je suis surprise," said the wife. "Non, madame," replied Littré: "Vous, vous êtes étonnée. C'est moi qui suis surpris." If only all the nuances of French came with such delightful mnemonic anecdotes.)

As I was saying, the fear of a no vote once again has the chattering classes agitated. Of course, as with the French and Dutch no votes of 2005, Europe will limp on, though it is a valid question to ask how many such repudiations can be sustained before a politician in a major country is elected on a thumpingly anti-European platform, and real reform rather than just treaty-tinkering becomes the order of the day? (Answer: not long.) But national referenda are not the only tests Europe is facing at the moment. The latest oil shock, rising prices for food and other commodities, and other economic stresses are putting Europe to the test as well.

More immediately, these stresses are putting the Eurozone to the test: is it really an optimal currency area? If inflationary pressures provoke very different responses in different countries, with inflation rising very rapidly in some places and much less rapidly in others, the answer will be no. And what would be done then? No one wants to think about it. But let's see what happens in Ireland. A yes vote might postpone the need for such thinking indefinitely. A no vote, on the other hand, will be clear proof that economic rewards alone cannot generate sufficient loyalty to hold the Union together. Europe will need to invent a new rationale for itself.

What enormous power the Irish suddenly have! With just one percent of Europe's population, they may determine Europe's future. It's rather like the United States, where a handful of voters in Iowa have gained the power to launch or derail presidential juggernauts. Is this a democratic aberration, or the quintessence of democracy, in that power cannot be content with pleasing only itself but must please the humble voter as well?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Debré the Skeptic

Jean-Louis Debré warns that the institutional reforms currently under consideration could restore some of the features of the Third and Fourth Republics that were responsible for governmental instability. His words are veiled, because as a member of the Constitutional Council he cannot directly criticize the reform texts. But his principal concern is clear enough: he wants to make it as difficult as possible for ministers to further their personal ambitions at the expense of government solidarity. Any reform that encourages ministers to see themselves in solidarity with a parliamentary faction rather than with their colleagues in government would, in his eyes, be tantamount to constitutional regression.

In sampling some of the numerous television documentaries on May '68, I was amused to come across one in which various right-wing personalities remembered their experience of "the events." Debré was among them, and his memory was dominated by the contrast he experienced between the exuberance of his young friends at school and the morose atmosphere at home, where his father, the arch-Gaullist Michel Debré, could only lament the collapse of the General's vision of a state at last stabilized under the tutelage of a strong and hypothetically incontestable president: "All that work [to establish the Fifth Republic's constitution] for this," the younger Debré remembers his father saying ruefully. One can imagine his dismay. The son seems to have taken the lesson to heart, though he shows little appreciation of the institutional anomalies created by a constitution that provides for a government named by the president but responsible before the parliament. "Rebalancing" the constitution is the primary concern of the reform's chief architect, Edouard Balladur.

Thirty and Counting

Le Figaro really likes Carla Bruni's new album. The paper even finds a new dignified maturity in lines like these:

Je suis une enfant/Malgré mes quarante ans/Malgré mes trente amants/Une enfant

Tu es ma came/Plus mortel que l'héroïne afghane/Plus dangereux que la blanche colombienne


You see, what the singer is really singing about is her liberty. Therefore she is a liberal. What's not to like? And if anyone thinks that it's a trifle daring to compare the president of the Republic to a bolus of opiate, well, they're just not liberated. Or is Carla's came one of the 29 previous amants? Well, far be it from me to confuse private life with public life. I'll let the Times of London correspondent do it for me.

The Cost of Rejoining NATO

Jean-Dominique Merchet, Libé's defense correspondent, asserts that the cost in staff salaries alone of France's rejoining NATO would equal the annual cost of maintaining two regiments. Against these and other substantial costs, however, he is careful to note that the potential gain in influence might be significant. Un pari pascalien? That is the question.

Cosmétovigilance

Amateurs of neologism will find this sentence delectable:
le système de cosmétovigilance mis en place en 2004 rapporte 8 déclarations d’effets indésirables survenus avec des tatouages éphémères à base de henné en 2004, 9 en 2005 et 16 en 2006.


It seems that a chemical has been added to some henna dyes used for temporary summer tatoos and that some people are allergic to it. Hence the need for cosmétovigilance. This is not a French version of Reagan's Star Wars, which exhorted the U.S. to cosmovigilance. In this era of dégraissage de l'administration, it's good to know that there's still room in the budget for les cosmétovigiles. Knowledge of this foresighted staffing may reduce the volume of the howls when the public learns that although thousands of schoolteachers have to go, the president appears to be in the process of acquiring a personal Airbus.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

L'Ami Qaddafi

Sarkozy may have thought he'd done enough favors to earn a little consideration from Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, but the latter said today he wouldn't allow the proposed Union for the Mediterranean to wreck "the unity of the Arab League." He perfidiously added that France's partners had already refused to allow the idea to wreck the unity of the European Union, which is why the proposal has already been scaled back from the original Mediterranean Union to the current Union of the Mediterranean. Let Europe deal with the Arab League and the African Union, Qaddafi said, if they want to establish a dialogue.

The Price of Diesel

An excellent Econ 101 lesson from Éconoclaste: why has the price of diesel fuel gone up faster than the price of gasoline.

La Condition noire

La Condition noire is the title of a new book by Pap Ndiaye. Rue 89 notes that there are more books published on American blacks in France than on French blacks. Ndiaye tries to shed some light on this relatively neglected component of France's "visible minorities." If there is to be a French Skip Gates, it is surely Pap Ndiaye.

Revealed Preferences

Travailler plus pour gagner plus: that's what the French voted for, we have been told, hence that is what they want. But not according to a new poll, which shows that 79 percent do not want to exchange their RTT (comp time for work above 35 hours per week) for cash.

La pensée anti-68

Samuel Moyn, an amazingly versatile young intellectual historian, reviews Serge Audier's Pensée anti-68, a work that argues that if Ferry and Renaut imagined a supposed "pensée '68" that never existed, it is nevertheless possible to see a certain unity in the reaction that developed against the revolt, which Audier would like to describe as "an intellectual restoration." Among the figures discussed in the review and Pierre Manent and Marcel Gauchet. A thoughtful review of a provocative book.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The French EU Presidency ...

... as seen by Justin Vaïsse.

The CFCM

Justin Vaïsse and Jonathan Laurence defend the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman against its critics. They make good sense.

Livre Blanc de la Défense

World Politics Review today begins a series of articles examining the defense white paper reviewing France's strategic posture, which Sarkozy is to release next week. Have a look.

Lacorne prize

Denis Lacorne has won the Senate's history prize for 2008 for his book De la religion en Amérique, which I reviewed here.

Beauty and the Beast

PPDA is out. Laurence Ferrari, the ravishing speakerine whose chemistry with Sarkozy in a bare-shouldered interview led to rumors that she would replace Cécilia, is instead to replace the French Walter Cronkite, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, who had seemed to be a permanent fixture of TF1. The advent of a "news babe" in the most visible post in telejournalism may add fuel to the fire reported here. I've seen too little of Ferrari to know if such criticism is warranted. On the other hand, I've seen too much of PPDA to worry unduly about his demise.

The gossip now comes full circle. It was rumored that Ferrari left TF1 when her then husband, Thomas Hugues, was passed over as PPDA's heir-apparent in favor of Harry Roselmack, the station's first black anchor. Then Hugues and Ferrari divorced, fueling speculation that she was the object of Sarkozy's affections, a rumor scotched by his marriage to Carla Bruni. Now, presumably, it's Roselmack's turn to feel miffed and Claire Chazal's to feel threatened. Ah, quel monde! Et si petit.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Power Couple

Le Monde has a decidedly downbeat piece on the Sarkozy-Merkel relationship. The sourcing of this article is pretty sketchy, so it's difficult to know how the chilliness of Franco-German relations has been measured. At the end, though, we're told that Sarko's wish to name a "strong personality of the left" such as Tony Blair as president of the European Council was a continuation of Chirac's wish to strengthen the council, which Merkel opposes. She allegedly wants a "less flamboyant" personality to head the EC, preferably a member of the European People's Party, the transnational party of the right that she believes can become the nucleus of a majority in the European Parliament that will be aligned with her interests. Which are not necessarily the same as Germany's interests: see the remark on the exclusion of Steinmeier (a potential Merkel rival for chancellor) from the meeting with Sarko (who similarly left out Kouchner and Jouyet, presumably for different reasons).

Overtime

It's no wonder the unions are upset about the Right's mixed signals concerning the 35-hour week. Devedjian wants to get rid of it. Copé tentatively backed him after he was rebuked by Xavier Bertrand, backed by Sarkozy. Fillon, who has said on various occasions that the ultimate goal is to eliminate the 35-hour week, now seems to be backing a proposal to introduce "flexibility" on the work week by allowing overtime bonus pay to be negotiated firm-by-firm. Instead of the 25 percent bonus for all overtime sanctioned by the TEPA, bonuses could range from 10 to 25 percent under the new proposal. There is lack of clarity about the real goal of all this maneuvering. Is it part of a "flexicurity" plan? Is it intended to reduce labor costs? Is its ultimate intention to change the legal work week, despite Sarkozy's denials? It's hard to build trust without a clear statement of purpose, and the divisions within the majority, whether real or feigned, do not help matters.

Further evidence of confusion on the issue.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Brain Trust

What the new "progressive think tank" Terra Nova will produce in the way of ideas to rejuvenate the Left remains to be seen, but it has already generated a prodigious amount of publicity, suggesting at the very least a certain media savvy that can't hurt the left wing of the political spectrum either. The president of the organization is Olivier Ferrand, a Strauss-Kahnian, who is interviewed here by the blogger versac. Ferrand claims to derive inspiration from the Center for American Progress, the brainchild of John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff. Among his competitors on the left he sees Vincent Peillon's Institut Edgar Quinet (close to Royal), Manuel Valls "hypothetical" Cercle 21 (on the right end of the PS), and Benoît Hamon's La Forge, founded with green Noël Mamère, as well as Les Gracques and the Institut Montaigne in the center (but the latter's budget is 3 million euros a year compared to only 1 million for Terra Nova). A formidable advisory committee of experts has been assembled. The idea is to serve as an intermediary between academia and practical politics by preparing policy papers on a range of issues, intervening in public debate with op-eds and think pieces, etc.

On the Other Hand ...

French unemployment is down again; U.S. unemployment is up. In the first linked article, Bénédicte Constans of the Institut Montaigne argues that the French figures probably paint too rosy a picture of the actual situation; in the second article Paul Krugman argues that the U.S. figures probably paint too bleak a picture. Both emphasize a need to look at the participation rate and to worry about anomalies in the counting of the unemployed. I think it was Harry Truman who is supposed to have said "Get me a one-handed economist!" after hearing too often the familiar refrain, "On the one hand ... but on the other hand ..." Still, it seems clear that it's too soon to pop the corks on the champagne bottles in France, while Americans are probably well-advised to follow Hillary's lead and stow the champagne bottles for now in favor of a beer and a bracing shot of cheap whiskey.

An Unusual Greeting

Sarkozy is in Lebanon today, and he arranged for himself to be greeted on the ground by representatives of all the French political parties with representation in the Assembly. So Copé and Hollande and Bayrou are there, to say nothing of Marie-George Buffet for the PCF and Jean-Michel Baylet for the PRG (who knew it still existed?). One can readily imagine the wisecracks being exchanged in le peloton as the head of state emerged from his plane. The goal, presumably, was to mark Lebanon as the object of special French attention. I'm not sure that the Lebanese will be sensible of the honor being done them, but it was shrewd of Sarkozy to choose a place where the political situation is so sensitive that none of the assembled dignitaries is likely to feel free to criticize the president for treating that nation's representatives as if they were a royal retinue.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Les Grands Frères

During her (apparently premeditated) meltdown in front of the National Assembly, Rachida Dati referred ominously to la politique des grands frères allegedly instituted by the Left to deal with les banlieues. She didn't explain exactly what she meant by this phrase, although it was possible to divine from her remarks that it referred to a devolution of authority from the state to certain males living in the troubled neighborhoods. Ultimately, she implied, they abused this authority to victimize others, especially women, among whom she included herself.

Rue89 has published an article explaining the use of the phrase and the reality of the approach, which was "neither left nor right," according to the author, but rather a policy implemented by mayors desperate to find some way to reach people in their unsettled quarters. She cites the experience of Serge Dassault in Corbeil. No one would accuse Dassault of belonging to the Left.

Assises du Roman, Villa Gilet, Lyon

Not political, but since I translated a few pieces for the Assises du Roman at the Villa Gilet in Lyon, I thought I'd mention it. Here's the program.

Villepin Attacks the Media

Dominique de Villepin has compared the French press to "cat food." He also likens its abjection during the presidential campaign to the abjection of the American media in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Finally, he claims that the press between the two World Wars was "infinitely more venomous, infinitely more courageous" than the press today.

That odd paratactic construction leaves it unclear whether Villepin considers venom to be the cause of courage, the consequence, or simply the accompaniment, the sauce to lend piquancy to the main dish. I wouldn't have thought the interwar French press could be held up as a model of anything other than corruption, venality, and vituperation. Think of the Stavisky Affair and its attendant revelations of journalists bought and paid for. Think of Albert Camus's wartime editorials lambasting the wretched newspapers for which he wrote before WW II.

That said, there is cause for concern about the state of the French press today. Many people would argue that it is biased. I think, rather, that the problem is superficiality. As far as one can judge from his own superficial critique, Villepin agrees: "After five minutes, there's nothing to read." If there were a culture of more thorough exploration and critique, bias could not thrive as readily as it does. I'm not sure that the financial crisis of the media is the whole story. The decline of the daily press seems to me to have deeper roots. As government became more technocratic and less literary, the technical competence of the press as of the public failed to keep up. The advent of television altered the affective relationship between political leaders and their constituents. The Internet provides space for more ample development at relatively low cost, but it also allows readers to tailor what they read to their tastes and therefore never to confront opposing views.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

French EU Presidency


Well, they've got the logo (left) and the (non-functional) Web site. Now all they need is policies.

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Congratulations

Congratulations to Ecopublix, the excellent economics blog, which has just been awarded a "golden blog" by Challenges magazine.

"J'ai changé"

"Approval ratings" are of course meaningless, and reporting them is the "degree zero" of blogging, so normally I avoid doing so. Nevertheless, it's probably worth noting two things about the latest SOFRES-Figaro Magazine barometer. First, Sarko is back (+5). Second, Besancenot's appearance chez Drucker seems to have been a smart move, at least if you think that the revolution is going to be made in bourgeois living rooms on a Sunday afternoon: he gained 7 points (up to 43% positive, or 6 points ahead of Sarkozy). This might be an astonishing result if it meant anything other than that Besancenot passe à la télé comme une lettre à la poste. So Sarko seems to have benefited from his relative sobriety plus Carla's charm offensive, while Besancenot has found the formulae to make le grand soir as unthreatening as a friendly soccer game among drinking buddies.

And yet a substantial majority of the French (77%, up from 73) worry about "social conflicts" to come. If and when they do come, you can bet that Sarko's soft support will solidify very quickly. Just as people who saw de Gaulle as usé in early May of '68 were rallying around him by the end of the month, many who mocked Sarkozy as a buffoon will be the first to close ranks in a crunch. Yet lurching from cynicism to reaction is not a sign of political good health, even when leavened by velleities of revolutionary bonhomie

Finance Committee Report

One of Sarkozy's innovations when he first came to power was to place the National Assembly's finance committee under the chairmanship of the opposition as a check on government spending. That committee has now produced a very interesting report on the dramatic increase in tax credits, rebates, and shelters over the period 2003-2008--a period of undivided right-wing control. The increase amounts to nearly 50 percent over 5 years, from 50 to 73 billion euros. Of course there are legitimate governmental uses of tax credits, but Migaud claims that the efficacy of the new programs is "poorly evaluated." Furthermore, the system is "opaque," which only complicates the problem of reform.

You Say Tomato, I Say Liberal

Pierre Moscovici has some sport with Ségolène Royal, who responded to Delanoë's raising of the "liberal socialist" banner by saying that it was impossible to be both socialist and liberal. But she had previously written in her book Maintenant: "Nous, socialistes, nous sommes des libéraux au sens du libéralisme politique originel."

And so the Socialists continue in their petty squabbles. If they really want to see full-blown liberalism in the European sense, they of course need to turn their attention to the United States (where the word is used differently, but the thing itself flourishes). A case in point (via Marginal Revolution):

A small number of California jails have begun to offer pay to stay programs. These programs allow inmates in for minor crimes to "upgrade" to a private or public jail with better facilities. Evidently the fees are profitable to the jails. Take a look at how Santa Ana county advertises it's hotel jail.

The Santa Ana Jail is pleased to host a full range of alternatives to traditional incarceration. Our offerings include weekends in jail, non-linear jail sentences, and a variety of work release options. Our philosophy is designed to allow our clients (!, AT) to serve their obligations to the court in a manner that respects them as human beings and permits them to continue to provide for themselves and their families....

  • Programs that include 2-day or 3-day weekends with minimal impact on the client’s professional life. Work on Saturday and Sunday? No problem...
  • Programs that permit jail sentences to be served in multiple parts. Perfect for clients that live out of the area or clients with frequent business travel.
  • Programs that permit the client to leave jail for work everyday. We have helped everyone from 9 to 5 business people to oil-rig workers, so no work schedule is out of the question.

The Santa Ana Jail is the most modern and comfortable facility in the region. Our housing areas are a world away from cement and steel bars....

Most clients can be approved immediately, over the phone. We can also provide same-day acceptance letters for the court.

The Annulment Debate

A debate on the judicial decision to annul a marriage on the grounds that the wife's concealment of her non-virginity represented a deception as to the "essential qualities" of one of the parties can be heard here. Here is the account of one of the participants in the debate, the legal blogger "Maître Eolas." Eolas is of the opinion that this affair marks the eruption of yet another "defense of the Republic" by republican ultras, who were "lying in wait for the first symptom of [judicial] recognition of le fait communautariste." In short, we have here another case with all the ingredients that allowed the controversy over the Islamic veil to défrayer la chronique for more than a decade: a potent mix of sex, religion, law, history, and symbolism.

The fate of the two individuals at the heart of the matter is of course buried beneath the avalanche of passions. In an interesting aside, Eolas remarks that he believes the reason the couple did not seek divorce by mutual consent is that the law requires both parties to appear together before a judge before such a divorce can be granted, and neither party wished to be in the presence of the other. If the defense of the Republic requires that a court insist that such a marriage remain legally intact, then one might be tempted to conclude that there is something wrong with the idea of a Republic that requires such a defense. The ultras are unlikely to find such an argument persuasive, however.

ADDENDUM: The flood of readers coming here from Andrew Sullivan's site may want to look at this earlier post on the subject. I think commenter ejm gets it about right.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Blanchard to IMF


Olivier Blanchard, a French-born professor of economics at MIT, has been appointed chief economist of the IMF. This is a great choice: Olivier is not only a leading macroeconomist, the author (with S. Fischer) of an excellent textbook on the subject (not for the faint of heart, however), and an expert on unemployment. He is also a reader of French Politics. So how can the IMF go wrong? Congratulations, Olivier.