Saturday, August 30, 2008
So in the end it comes down to power politics: the very mediagenic Ségolène Royal vs. the very dapper Delanoë vs. the dogged bulldozer Aubry and her henchmen, Les Pieds Nickelés, blood still dripping from their respective daggers and wounds. Two "personalities" vs. an unappetizing ideological bouillabaisse.
"Bouillabaisse" is a fish stew that one heats until it boils, at which point the heat is lowered, baissé, whence the name. Will this apparent règlement du feu lower the heat within the PS? That remains to be seen. But bouillabaisse was once a staple of the poor whose status has gradually risen, even as its contents have often been altered and adulterated, so that now it can be found on the menus of the finest restaurants, often at an exorbitant price. A comparison with the PS suggests itself: once a party that purported to defend the poor, it's now an unpredictable mix of less than choice ingredients whose flavor and composition vary from day to day.
A leader will eventually be chosen and set afloat like a crouton upon this porridge of boiled marine life. Perhaps if a good enough ideological rouille can be concocted, it will even become edible. But I sense that many on the left are ready to give up on bouillabaisse altogether. Leave it to the tourists, willing to pay the price, and look for lighter, more modern, more eclectic fare elsewhere.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Yves de Kerdrel, the author of this editorial, could hardly have done a more effective job of caricaturing the hardhearted skinflint Right if he'd been Siné himself. Of course he is driven not by greed but by what he no doubt sees as sound economic logic: "To tax labor is to encourage moving jobs offshore. To tax capital on the pretext that it already too well remunerated (!) is to encourage it, too, to shift to other uses." Impeccable. If neither labor nor capital can be taxed, ergo needed funds must be squeezed from stones, and ailing paupers can be left to die in the streets (or flown home if enough of them can be deprived of medical care to pay for the tickets of the rest). A staggering display of callousness. It's enough to make you weep.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
In any case, some economists argue that the French savings rate is too high. While Lambert is right that saving can be a good thing, there is an optimal balance of saving and consumption, and underconsumption is not a good thing. The transfer of funds from savers to spenders, which the RSA presumably would accomplish, may therefore provide a (small yet welcome) boost to aggregate demand. So Lambert's case is incomplete and, worse, biased by his dislike of "taxing capital." While it is true that the real incidence of a tax is not defined by who pays it, in this case it does appear at first sight that there would be a net transfer from savers to spenders. That does not mean that it is only "the rich" who would pay, as some on the left seem to believe, since many who are not wealthy own stocks, bonds, rental properties, etc. Retirees are numerous among small investors in France, and there is a regional imbalance as well, with far more small investors in the south of the country than in the north.
Nevertheless, few politicians are willing to say that the RSA should be scrapped, since it will remove some of the disincentives to work created by the current hodge-podge of welfare payments and job subsidies. If you want the RSA, you have to pay for it, and the new tax solves that problem in a way that does not, on its face, imply significant perverse effects. Lambert's and Parisot's criticisms therefore seem to be driven by ideology rather than analysis.
Bernard Girard notes that to adduce a political motive for Sarkozy's choice of the new tax is not sufficient to explain it. I quite agree. There is a clear economic rationale for this choice, as outlined above. Among the choices available for financing the RSA, however, the "tax on capital" has the attraction, for Sarkozy, of appealing to the Left while demonstrating to those in his own camp that he retains a certain autonomy.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
The lines are a little too sharply drawn for my taste, however. Multilateralism and bilateralism are not mutually exclusive categories. One way of looking at Sarkozy's innovations in foreign policy is to see him as engaged in changing the mix of multilateral and bilateral commitments in France's external relations. The need for such a change is a consequence of shifting priorities: scaling up the size of the domestic market and establishing a credible commitment to price stability have receded in importance, while securing a stable supply of energy, food, and other resources have moved to the fore.
Think of the press. Would this display of pseudo-private life, this wallowing in sentimentality, this transformation of autobiography into political argument have been characterized by a commentator in the following terms:
She both affirmed his promise and humanized him. You could actually imagine their relationship was a real thing–not a symbiotic power alliance, but a union of two different people with different goals who just happen, when they’re not bickering about the butter, to find each other pretty cool. (Katherine Marsh of The New Republic).
Or these (from Andrew Sullivan):
One of the best, most moving, intimate, rousing, humble, and beautiful speeches I’ve heard from a convention platform. Maybe she should be running for president.
Mind you, I offer this comment, this lament, as a committed supporter of Obama. Such blatant sentimentalizing may be--no doubt is--what has to be done to get elected in America. France is still different. Let's hope it stays that way.
ADDENDUM: Rue89's coverage is more sober and clear-eyed than most American accounts.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Of course it's not quite true that France failed to commemorate this event or, in Sarkozy's words, sought to "erase it from memory." The event has been remembered annually. A German officer was tried for war crimes in 1952 because of it. A German investigation was launched to identify other guilty soldiers. What is different, of course, is that this year the head of state chose to go to Maillé and raise the annual commemoration to national status. In this respect, Sarkozy's own action demonstrates that his policy of selective memory is by no means haphazard.
Laurence Ferrari, who took over the TF1 news tonight following the ouster of PPDA, presented the day's news, including the Maillé events, with an indelible smile and crisp, rapid-fire delivery. For the rentrée, then, a smiling speakerine and a somber president set the tone for the new public relations strategy of Year II of the Sarkozyan revolution. Two pros. No false notes--and no doubt the Elysée hopes that this memorial will "erase the memory" of the unfortunate presidential chuckle at another memorial that has become something of a samizdat hit on the Internet.
Montebourg invited his current ally, Pierre Moscovici, as guest of honor. Moscovici promoted his candidacy for the leadership on the grounds that he is the only "disinterested" candidate--one without presidential ambitions and therefore unlikely to "presidentialize" the party, which Mosco regards as a bad thing. Yet he also says that he wants to mold the party into something more than "a shapeless mass." This would presumably mean clarifying its line, excluding or marginalizing dissenters, enforcing "message discipline" on squabbling factions, etc. A présidentiable as leader would presumably do the same thing.
There are advantages and disadvantages to leadership by the impending candidate. The most important advantage is that leadership keeps the candidate in the public eye, but that visibility has to be managed carefully lest it become a disadvantage. The well-known usure that afflicts those who inflict themselves too often on the public can be fatal to a prospective candidacy.
To run away from presidentialization, as Mosco is doing, might be seen as repudiation of the only winning formula the Socialists have yet found: Mitterrand's. Mitterrand knew how to maintain the necessary gravitas while keeping himself constantly in the public eye. No doubt Moscovici sees himself as rather rejecting the Sarkozyan anti-model, for Sarko also presidentialized his party and successfully managed the transition from attack dog de service to potential head of state. Moscovici apparently believes that none of the likely PS candidates has the wherewithal to follow the path of either Mitterrand or Sarkozy. The challenge for him, then, is to explain how he would go about establishing the image of the eventual candidate. Of course, if that candidate is to be Strauss-Kahn, whom Moscovici nominally backs, then he probably sees his own role as party chair as preparation for a future prime-ministership, in which case his characterization of his motives as "disinterested" would in fact be disingenuous.
Not that it matters much. He seems unlikely to win the impending contest no matter what he does. But a year has passed since the last weekend at Frangy, and the absence of palpable progress is a measure of the party's disorganization.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
The limits of Russia’s post-cold-war retreat have apparently been reached, and the reversal of the power equation has gone too far to be sustained. Today’s leaders in Moscow are determined to protect what they perceive as their vital interests. The task for American leaders is not to pretend that these interests do not exist or can be safely ignored. Rather, it is to work out a modus vivendi based not on wishful thinking or dreams of even greater glory, but on the sober facts of power realities.
What an astonishing amalgam! What mind-boggling syncretism! It's like the building of a Christian church atop a sacred paleolithic spring. The old runes--revolution! crisis of capitalism! overaccumulation of capital!--have been overlaid with new hymns: ecology! feminism! humanism! In the post-revolutionary paradise all goods are compatible, all evils have ceased to exist, and everyone rides the buses for free.
Anyone who cares about the Left should be concerned that this appears to be the only sign of life in its corner of the woods this summer. To be sure, there is talk of a unified Green front around Daniel Cohn-Bendit. But I for one would be hard put to describe a troika of Nicolas Hulot, José Bové, and DCB as a party of the Left. It would be sui generis, probably ineffective, and of dubious potency at the polls. The Left, as far as I can see, remains divided between Socialists still scrabbling like crabs in a basket (Delanoë up a point! Royal down a point! on s'en fout royalement!) and the NPA, still picking off the disaffected and expanding its media presence by way of Besancenot's cannily uncalculated blend of revolutionary gruel and politically correct pablum.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
I won't discuss the various concrete proposals because all have been mentioned in previous blog posts. Indeed, at this level, there is no dearth of ideas on the left. Ideas abound. What is lacking is a politician capable of picking and choosing among them, using them to shape a coherent message, articulating them in a form comprehensible to voters, defending them against the critiques of opponents on the right and rivals on the left. It is at this stage--the transition from ivory tower to stump and television studio--that the Left has fallen short.
Does the fault lie with the politicians, the intellectuals, or both? Or is it perhaps with the Left's own electoral base, socially divided and shaped by diverse traditions and sensibilities? However coherent in themselves, the ideas presented have been developed without strategic and tactical considerations in mind. Who will be the first to take this next step?
Friday, August 22, 2008
When I mocked his reportage from Georgia, some readers protested. They liked his style, even if it invariably put himself front and center. At least it made them feel as if they were there, standing alongside him, they said. But alas for Lévy, Rue89 saw fit to check his facts and found them wanting. Indeed, even Lévy's companions, who were standing alongside him, report that they didn't see what he pretends to have seen. For one thing, they never got inside Gori. For another, the city wasn't burning, even if some fields around it had been set ablaze, perhaps to smoke out snipers. For still another, the shakedown of UN observers by Russian troops at a checkpoint was not something the visitors saw with their own eyes; it was reported to them by Georgian police.
I urge anyone who relies on BHL for information to read the Rue89 piece. Why Le Monde would feature his account as the gospel on the situation in Georgia boggles the mind. The rumor has reached my ears that The New York Times will publish a translation of this piece. If anyone from the Times is reading this, I hope that the editors will read the Rue89 article and reconsider their decision.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
International : Michel Bole-Richard (correspondant en Israël), Mouna Naïm (Liban,), en , Fabienne Pompey (Afrique du Sud), Françoise Chipaux (Inde et Pakistan), Francis Deron (Asie du Sud-Est), Thomas Ferenczi, Henri de Bresson et Henri Tincq.
Rubrique Et Vous : Florence Amalou, Michaela Bobasch, Bruno Caussé, Françoise Chirot et Christophe de Chenay.
Le «Monde 2»: Claire Blandin, Michèle Champenois, Dominique Frétard, Cédric Kervice, Sophie Malexis.
Direction de la rédaction et éditorialistes : Jacques Buob, Daniel Vernet, Patrick Jarreau, Eric Le Boucher Jean-Louis Andreani, et Dominique Dhombres.
Supplément radio-télévision : Catherine Bédarida, Valérie Cadet, Francis Cornu et Jacques Siclier.
Service Culture et le supplément littéraire : Grégoire Allix, Patrick Kéchichian, Emmanuel de Roux et Martine Silber.
Service France : Christiane Chombeau, Michel Samson, Michel Alberganti, Christiane Galus, Jean-Yves Nau.
Service économie : Eric Leser.`
Dessinateurs : Pancho et Pessin.
Edition du journal : Bruno Bovani, Christine Clessi, Séverine Fromont, Denis Hautin-Guiraut, Hugues Hénique, François Mégard, Cécile Urbain et Hélène Viala.
Service Infographie : Graziella Boutet, Patricia Coyac, Jean-Pierre Gosselin et Mireille Morfin.
Correction : Josette Rolinat.
Divers : Nadine Avelange, Béatrice Malaussena, Didier Rioux, Marie-Hélène Barut, Evelyne Besrest et François Rippe, Hélène Mazella, Jean-Claude Harmignies, Anne Chaussebourg.
Le Monde de l'éducation : Diane Galbaud et Boris Guillaud.
In the world as it is, however, party pedagogy is often perverse. Take the storming of the Bastille--today's storming of the Bastille, not that of 1789. It seems that the Communist Party (yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus) swooped down on the legendary site with grocery carts full of fruits and vegetables--17 tons of fruits and vegetables--which it sold at "farmers' prices." This educational effort was intended to alert consumers to what many already believe, that the high cost of food is due to "abusive margins by big retail chains." Buyers delighted by low prices turned out in droves. In its zeal to denounce the big retailers--one could almost hear the revolutionary cries of sangsues!--the workers' party conveniently neglected to remind its customers that the labor power of its militants was being donated gratis, that the party treasury had been tapped to pay for transportation, handling, and storage, and that the impromptu sales floor of the place de la Bastille charged no rent and required no outlay for maintenance. Thus the complexity of the real economy was hidden behind the screen of ideology.
But wasn't this the function of commodity exchange as described by Marx? It seems that money is not the only veil alienating consumer from producer, that the cash nexus is not the only generator of myth. How simple life would be if only all human relations were face-à-face. Pity the poor middleman, who has been denounced since time immemorial by those on either end of the food chain. Le grand racket! screams the headline in L'Humanité.
If the Socialist Party weren't consumed with its search for a new leader among its old leaders, it might seize the opportunity to explain to that portion of the electorate that it most desperately needs to reach--the drifting electorate of the left of the Left, nostalgic for the old nostrums yet skeptical that they have any purchase on today's reality--that the workings of the market are rather more complex than either the PCF or Olivier Besancenot allows, and that if anything is to be done about prices and wages, it must begin with a proper understanding of what's actually happening.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
BHL is dispirited, however, by the absence of Georgian troops from the "front." On the side of the angels, as always, the intrepid crusader would be happier if plucky Georgian Minutemen, muskets in hand, were facing down Russian tanks and helicopter gunships. (Even the generals have been faster to learn the lessons of asymmetrical warfare than certain intellectuals.) Lévy has no doubts about the validity of the Munich analogy. Saakashvili admirers will be pleased to read the reporter's breathless portrait of the embattled president laying out his vision of a vast Iranian empire linking the former Armenian Socialist Republic, Moscow, and Teheran in a northern epicycle on the Axis of Evil.
What? Hitler, the Gulag, and Islamofascism all rolled into one, and nothing but Georgia to stand in the way of world domination?
Given the situation as BHL sees it, how can the West refuse to die for Tbilisi? Where is the promised support? he demands to know. Why did Sarkozy put it to his friend "Micha" that he must sign the cease-fire agreement? How could he have failed to rush headlong into the breach? One can almost hear the reporter without borders (or shame) speaking Prince Hal's Saint Crispin's day speech: "We happy few," BHL and a couple of companions, are there as witnesses to freedom's suicide. When nothing else remains, those who dare to dream of what might have been can still savor Lévy's precious témoignage. In the first person--is there any other?
O, tempora! O, mores! French journalism, rest in peace.
Monday, August 18, 2008
But now France's peers, including the most "liberal" of them, the United States, aren't doing well either. The Bush administration and Congress have already approved several stimulus measures, and the Federal Reserve has endeavored mightily to keep credit channels from freezing.
The French, meanwhile, have been slow to react. That now seems to be changing. The slowdown has finally focused the government's mind. Unfortunately, the chorus that once sang in unison has now devolved into cacophony. Christian de Boissieu, the head of the Conseil d'Analyse Economique, is calling for stimulus. Eric Woerth, the minister of the budget, still makes the case for long-term structural reform, yet even he seems to be scrambling to free up money for immediate stimulus, while remaining mindful of the limited room for maneuver owing to Europe-imposed deficit and debt limits. Christine Lagarde, meanwhile, evinces, publicly at least, a Micawber-like belief in the imminence of cost-free salvation: the worst of the crisis is over, she says, pointing to the recent decline in oil prices as a sign that the markets will stabilize themselves.
But is there any intellectual coherence to all this? James Galbraith, whose lament on the decline of Keynesianism I cited the other day, continues (in French) with a rather cheerful coda on the decline of monetarism, whose doom he believes the current financial crisis has sealed. No doubt there is a great deal of truth in this, but the failure of the Monetarist Revolution does not mean that a Keynesian Restoration is imminent. Too many weaknesses of the old regime were exposed in the interim to permit a return pure and simple to the way things were. Worse, current policymakers are left to fly blind, without instruments, in a conjuncture of pea soup. The disarray visible in France suggests that in such conditions, the once-anticipated "soft landing" is unlikely.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Friday, August 15, 2008
I was therefore too optimistic the other day when I said that Sarkozy's role in negotiating a cease-fire in the Georgia conflict indicated that Europe now had a foreign policy. The Georgia crisis will abate, but the Russia problem will remain. Europe has no solution to it, and the United States seems happy to keep it unresolved, indeed to work assiduously to widen the fissures in the European Union. Sarkozy's statement that there is near-identity of views with United States on the Georgia question may be true in the ultra-short term, but in the medium and long run there are significant differences, and it will be a test of Sarkozy's maturity as a maker of foreign policy whether he can find a constructive way to articulate them.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Reactions of economists here.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
But in the long run Sarkozy may indeed have achieved something of importance, though not in regard to the rapport des forces between Russia and Georgia, which is what it is and will remain so despite the wishful thinking that transformed Georgia into a beachhead of democracy in the Caucasus. For one thing, he engaged in his shuttle diplomacy as the representative of Europe as well as France. So Europe now has a foreign policy of sorts, even if it still has no foreign minister, and when Henry Kissinger wants to call Europe, he can dial the Elysée (for the next few months, at any rate). For another, and more important, Sarkozy further established his independence from the United States. Indeed, he harked back in certain ways to the halcyon days of Gaullism, for the General was never one to underestimate the potency of Russian nationalism or the reality of Russian anxieties about its borders. Nor was he likely to be beguiled by the idealism of a forty-year-old Georgian lawyer so Americanized in his ways that he wears a flag on his lapel as a token of his patriotism.
Realpolitik is not always a pretty thing, but in foreign policy Wilsonian idealism is a sham unless backed by a readiness for sacrifice that even Wilson was not able to extract from his war-weary nation. I have consistently said that Sarkozy's primary foreign policy concern is securing Europe's supply of energy. Russia looms large in his strategy. If he joins NATO, it will not be to associate France with efforts to poke thorns in the Russian underbelly. He will continue to oppose NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, as he should. Democracy can be encouraged in those countries without making them part of a western military shield whose mission ought not to be to antagonize Russia, however critical one may be of Russia's internal evolution. Antagonism will only exacerbate the situation. Constructive engagement at least holds out the hope of modifying it.
For Judah Grunstein's take on the war, see here.
I have not written about this affair because it seemed so trivial, and all too familiar as an example of how enormous quantities of ink can be spilled over very little. Yet its persistence and virulence suggest something else. Oddly enough, since it was Askolovitch of Le Nouvel Obs who initiated the affair, the magazine's Web site has become something of a rallying point for pro-Siné forces, publishing a cartoon a day in his support (nearly all are as unfunny as today's). There have been letters and petitions on both sides, an endless string of op-eds, and of course the inevitable pronunciamento from BHL (who has no doubt that Siné is a scoundrel). For instance, here is a piece attacking the editor Val, here is another, and here is yet another indictment of Siné.
What accounts for this orgy of vitriol and vituperation, irony and insinuation? Certainly not Siné's remark about Jean Sarkozy--merely one more nasty inuendo in a long career of similar sallies in every direction, this being among the milder. The underlying issue is rather the status of "the Jew" in French public discourse, particularly on the Left (and this is a quarrel that has roiled the Parisian Left exclusively). The very amorphous nature of the discussion of the Siné affair suggests a compulsive need to discuss "difference," of which, alas, "the Jew" remains the symbol. The republican ideal of absolute assimilation (within the boundaries of public space) leaves no room for this discussion, but the need for it is all the more acute because of the glaring persistence of obvious differences (ethnic, racial, religious) in everyday life. What are the limits of assimilation? What differences can a state tolerate without risk to its integrity? These are the questions that France would like to resolve. The obsessive discussion of Siné is merely a symptom of this need, which France cannot get out of its mind.
Make no mistake: I do not think that the United States, with its very different attitude toward assimilation, has definitively resolved these issues. The equally obsessive debate last year about the Mearsheimer-Walt paper on the influence of "the Israel lobby" is a case in point. But there at least the argument struck closer to what I think is the heart of the matter than does the squabble about Siné. Incidentally, for comparison, one might want to compare Siné's offense with that of Ben Stiller (himself Jewish) as described in this Times film review:
What’s most notable about the film’s use of blackface is how much softer it is compared with the rather more vulgar and far less loving exploitation of what you might call Jewface. Hands down the most noxious character in “Tropic Thunder” is Les Grossman, the producer of the movie-within-a-movie, who’s played by an almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise under a thick scum of makeup and latex. Heavily and heavy-handedly coded as Jewish, the character is murderous, repellent and fascinating, a grotesque from his swollen fingers to the heavy gold dollar sign nestled on his yeti-furred chest.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Monday, August 11, 2008
Sciences Po 2008 c’est :
- une université sélective qui accueille et mène au succès les élites populaires ;
- une université sélective qui forme des élites européennes, performantes dans la mondialisation mais socialement responsables ;
- un laboratoire d’expérimentation des futures réformes universitaires.
Note the unabashed embrace of the words "selective" and "elite," as well as the shrewd coupling of "elite" with both "populaire" and "European." Descoings knows where he wants to take Sciences Po, and there is no question that he has succeeded in moving it in the direction he wants it to go. He fleshes out his vision in a series of posts on his blog. It's worth reading whether you agree with his idea of the future of the French university or not, because, unlike many of his competitors, he is forthright about what he wants and capable of demonstrating that he knows how to achieve it. A model that works is bound to be attractive to a government in search of a viable method of reform.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Ce qui m'inquiète dans votre truc, c'est la tuyauterie. Je peux vous l'assurer, pas un Français ne comprendra. ... Du haut de mon incompétence, et elle est incontestable dans ce domaine, je vous dis que vous faites ce que vous voulez, mais vous faites une connerie.
Vous faites ce que vous voulez, mais vous faites une connerie: this is the regime that those who criticize the hyperprésidence sarkozyenne presumably prefer, in which the president, elected by the universal suffrage of the French, concludes that his unelected prime minister is about to make the blunder of a lifetime but tells him to go right ahead and make a hash of things.
And that's not all. On reduction of the size of the bureaucracy, Chirac says, "ça aussi c'est une connerie." He continues:
C'est vraiment le genre de sujet sur lequel il faut faire, mais ne rien dire. Mais nous, à droite, nous sommes les champions pour faire comme, comment il s'appelle déjà? Avec Charlemagne? -- Roland? -- C'est ça, Roland, qui souffle tellement dans l'olifant qu'il crève.
Ah ... the lucidity of the fin de règne. Reading between the lines of Le Maire's account, which buries the essential beneath a profusion of exquisitely drawn detail, one gets the impression that Chirac's stroke detached him from his office and left him with only one wish, that someone other than Nicolas Sarkozy succeed him. Villepin being the only palatable and plausible alternative, Chirac decided to allow his prime minister to take whatever gamble he wished to wrest the prize from Sarkozy's grip. Villepin, believing that his only hope was an audacious coup, decided to bet everything on the CPE and lost.
I like the image of the Right blowing its own horn so hard that it blows itself to death. And I like the attribution of the image to Chirac, as well as his transfer of the chanson de Roland to the custody of Charlemagne--a Lemairian touch, perhaps, to portray the president as simultaneously clairvoyant and befuddled.
Suggested title for a recent history of the French Right: De l'olifant au tube de Bruni.
Bernard Kouchner appeared last night on France2 to register French concern about the rapidly escalating war between Georgia and Russia. He was oddly belligerent himself, repeatedly cutting off his interviewer, chiding him for carelessly worded questions, and managing to look rather disheveled and nonplussed for a diplomat. To be sure, Kouchner is an unusual diplomat, and he did not achieve his position by a long apprenticeship in the art of saying nothing in portentous and pompous language.
France can be forgiven for having no settled policy in regard to this conflict. It was not alone in failing to anticipate the explosion. But it was a mistake for Kouchner to make the frantic effort to improvise so plain and to rap the knuckles of other European countries such as the Netherlands, which are equally reduced to improvisation. "Let's not go into the details" of who attacked whom, Kouchner loudly insisted. Indeed, this conflict has a long history. But it will also have long-term consequences involving Europe's energy supply, and dealing with Russia over energy has been a central focus of Sarkozy's maneuvering. And Sarkozy opposed Georgia's bid for NATO membership--a move that in retrospect appears prescient, for it would be awkward indeed for NATO now to be facing an invasion of a member state by Russia.
Will Sarkozy be able to unite the EU to take a common position on the war? No doubt everyone can deplore its existence, but what then? Pipelines passing through Georgia make the stakes vital for the EU, but ultimately the oil and gas are controlled by Russia. The conflict is extremely messy, so perhaps Kouchner's disarray was merely an accurate reflection of the consternation prevailing at the Quai d'Orsay.
Forgive me for straying off topic, but there are several items on the Web today that may reward a moment of your attention even if they have little or nothing to do with French politics. The first is an article by Nina Khrushcheva, who writes about the link between the 2008 Olympic Games and the 1936 edition. The parallels are eerie: not only have the games been appropriated for purposes of national self-glorification; not only has the aestheticization of the political been carried to extremes by a talented filmmaker turned impresario of the spectacular; but also, and more surprisingly, Albert Speer Jr., the son of Hitler's architect, was employed by the Chinese to design the master plan for the 2008 Games. "Of course the sins of the father should never be visited on the son," Khrushcheva adds--and, as the granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, she knows whereof she speaks. A fascinating piece.
The second item is a collection of photos from the Paris photo agency Roger-Viollet. The Roger-Viollet shop has always fascinated me, as you can see from the picture above, which I took through the shop's front window two weeks ago in Paris. It shows the ancient file folders in which the hundreds of thousands of photos in the R-V collection are classified, folders with titles of Borgesian incongruity that jump from "Accidents de Route" to "Allégories," for example. You can view a breathtaking sample of R-V photos here. For those who are in Paris, the shop is located behind the Institut, next to the statues of Voltaire and Montesquieu on the rue de Seine.
Finally, I was encouraged to write about Roger-Viollet by Polly Lyman's notes on another favorite Paris shop, Deyrolle, which recently suffered a fire. A friend told me that the neighbors have taken up a collection to help restore the Deyrolle collections.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
As for Sarkozy, it was interesting to discover that there was no consensus among these various left-wingers about why exactly his popularity had plummeted. I had expected the tax package to be cited most often as the fundamental mistake, but actually it came up relatively rarely except in conversations with the more economically literate. Among the rank-and-file it was more common to hear about faults of taste and style.
Curiously, I heard from one connoisseur of politics a similar story about right-wing voters in the small southern town from which he sprang (he is now a well-connected Parisian). There, he says, the "solid middle class" of small businessmen and professionals voted enthusiastically for Sarkozy and supported him through the summer of 2007, but these people were profoundly disturbed by the divorce and quick remarriage, the verbal dérapages, and the gaudy lifestyle. There is in la France profonde a persistent yearning for a man of probity and discipline, whether mounted on a white horse or not, to "restore" a moral order honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is a yearning that cannot be satisfied, however, by a president whose behavior is perceived as adolescent. If the Socialists have alienated their base by bickering and dithering, Sarkozy would thus seem to have alienated (part of) his base by dalliance and buffoonery.
Friday, August 8, 2008
The majority's Tuesday breakfasts in the Prime Minister's office gathered everyone who was anyone on the Right, people who were sometimes jealous of one another, sometimes detested one another, and quite often mistrusted one another. Politics is rather like a religious exercise, which obliges the faithful to set aside their rancor, boredom, fatigue, and irritation in order to frequent the same congregants year after year while affording no opportunity for extended refuge in solitude.
Remember, as you read this, that the people thus described are still running the country. Of course the description applies equally well, if not better, to the opposition.
Two Frances? Perhaps the image of une fracture sociale is too simple. Perhaps there are not just two Frances, but many. Perhaps there is not just one fracture sociale but several. Which contrast is the most important? The one in the picture? That between the secure and the precarious? The educated and the uneducated? Between les Français de souche and ceux issus de l'immigration? Management and workers? Héritiers and sans patrimoine? Right and Left?
Take employment patterns. In Cambridge, Mass., if I get on a bus, ride a subway, or take a train, the odds are better than even that the driver or conductor will be a member of a minority group. This is not true in France, where these quasi-public sector jobs are relatively privileged. They confer un statut. Minorities don't get them. Just as minorities in Cambridge, Mass., don't get to be plumbers, electricians, or, by and large, carpenters. The mechanisms by which these patterns are enforced are subtle. They do not block social mobility altogether. Paths of advancement do exist, just not these. Conversely, in a high-end hotel in the south of France, the staff--and I mean the desk staff, the maître-d', the waiters--were Maghrébin, while the chambermaids were native French. At the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, minorities make the beds and work in the kitchen; the clientele are served directly by people who resemble them more closely, in skin tone if not in pocketbook.
Why do these differences in patterns of relative privilege arise? I'm not sure I have a fully adequate answer.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
People everywhere, not just in France, are willing to believe many things that cannot possibly be proved. Sometimes these stories are pernicious, as when they pertain to the alleged behavior of minority groups, reported third-hand but taken as gospel. Sometimes they are merely amusing. Often they involve gossip about public figures. Did you know, for instance, the story of how Sarko wound up on Bolloré's yacht immediately after his election? I have it from someone who purports to know someone who purports to know someone who knows somebody else who allegedly witnessed the scene at Fouquet's on the night of the election, when Sarko announced to Cécilia that he wasn't going to a monastery after all but rather to the villa of his buddy Christian Clavier, the actor. Now, my informant claimed to know from her informant, etc. etc., that at this point Cécilia threw a fit, because it was at Clavier's, supposedly, that Sarko had initiated another affair ... So Bolloré offered up his yacht to put an end to the first couple's spat.
Well, you know, it could have happened like that. It's one of those stories too good to go untold, even if it happens to be untrue. Such are the hazards of public life. Everyone is willing to speculate about the reasons for your behavior, and may the best story win. At a certain point the boundary between fact and fiction dissolves as fully as the boundary between liquid and gas in the phase known as critical opalescence. In the end, all that remains is a blur, a misty glow that reveals more about the speaker's state of mind more than about the person who is the story's object. I would like to know whether some of the things I was told are true or not, but the nature of Sarkozy's relationship to Christian Clavier or his ex-wife is not one of them.
In the United States we have "edge cities," the agglomerations that begin as suburbs or exurbs of a major city and then develop into metropolitan centers in their own right. In France I discern a somewhat different pattern of new urban development, the "egg city." Historic city centers--places of beauty touched by the grace of a bygone era--retain their attractiveness but become increasingly impractical as vital centers of a modern economy. The costs of maintenance and new infrastructure in these ancient places become prohibitive, but their attractiveness remains--such is the centripetal potency of the French model. So new growth surrounds old beauty. Paris is the locus classicus of the egg city, but it has now been joined by every other important French urban center. In Paris the development of the area outside the périphérique over the last 25 years has been prodigious. A place like Neuilly, once a relatively tranquil seat of old money, looks like a boom town of glass-and-steel high-rises. No wonder the opportunities for corruption in the Hauts-de-Seine proved irresistible: land development is the nexus where the world of politics meets the world of cash (see Zola's La Curée for an earlier instance, though beware of the element of fantasy in his wild imaginings--a warning that we should beware of fantasy in our own deliriums).
The egg city represents a triumph of political will over market forces. The market, left to its own devices, would develop dense networks of lateral transportation in the outer ring of the egg. But politics funnels the flow of vital nourishment to the center. Try to get from Vincennes to Montreuil by public transportation: a short distance as the crow flies, but the crow doesn't fly that way. The result is that the suburbs are fragmented, compartmentalized, dependent on the center for the good things of life just as the center is dependent on the periphery for the stuff that makes the good life possible: labor, services, commodities.
In Paris, the center is beginning to show its age. The tone of the town was set in the Belle Epoque, which was not yet a century old when I began visiting Paris but which is now well over the century mark. And the remarkable growth of the periphery has meant that much of what is spent in Paris has gone to the maintenance of the old rather than the creation of the new. One enjoys the immense beauty of the place, of course, but a nagging sense of museumification remains. Paris is still a long way from Venice, but it is the yolk that risks being crushed by the pressure of its ever-swelling white (large sections of which are of course distinguished precisely for being "non-white"). The consequences of this developmental pattern are visible everywhere: in real-estate prices, residential patterns, commuter flows, traffic jams, youth culture (see the suburban youths gather until past midnight around hot spots such as the Place de la Contrescarpe or the Gare du Nord)--and, of course, la fracture sociale. It's a problem that seems oddly underdiscussed in France. The country that pioneered urban planning (witness the Place des Vosges) seems to be giving little thought to the perverse effects of its current planning model.
I admire the French way with puns. My two favorites from this trip: Le Sarkophage--un journal consacré à tous les anti-Sarkozysmes, which I saw in Bollène and still kick myself for not buying, and a bookshop in Paris named "Mona lisait" (see photo).
President Sarkozy won't meet the Dalai Lama after all, but Mme Sarkozy will stand in for "Mon Mari," as Le Canard Enchaîné has her referring to him in its consistently amusing feature, "Carla Bruni's Diary." We thus have a shrewd dosage of symbolic gestures: Tibet ("How many divisions has the Dalai Lama?") reaps according to its capabilities, while China ("How many nuclear power plants can the world's fastest-growing economy absorb?) is rewarded in proportion to its wherewithal. Even George Bush, finding that old Republican strings are still available to be plucked, managed a somewhat more robust denunciation of Chinese human-rights abuses than has thus far been heard from France, which has been princely in its compliments for China's "accomplishments." In the end, I suppose, it hardly matters whether a country adopts a policy of fainthearted realpolitik or dilute moralism. Still, Sarko had made his freedom to meet with the Dalai Lama if he so chose an issue of manhood ("Who are the Chinese to tell the president of France what he can or cannot do?"), so it is particularly ironic that he has chosen to use his wife as his proxy. This of course leaves him free to go to the Games--surely the most politicized in recent memory--and mingle with the discus throwers and speed swimmers.
The traveler is a fox as well as a hedgehog. He notices not only the one big thing (see previous post) but also many small things. Take the petty inefficiencies of French life. At Carrefour gas stations, for example, there is one entry and one exit, both gated, with the gates controlled by a single cashier, who has too many other responsibilities, such as resetting the pumps, which consequently sit idle for precious seconds when she is too busy to monitor them all. When entering, drivers must fan out from the choke point into, say, a dozen lanes to refuel. But only half of the lanes have diesel fuel, and when the service station is crowded, it's impossible to see which ones these are. Confusion ensues. Then the twelve lanes must converge again into one at the cashier's station, and when there is a crowd, the delay backs up into the pumps, so that some stand idle when they could be pumping. On a high-traffic day, the waste--in time and fuel consumed by idling engines--is considerable. Does it never occur to anyone to change such practices?
Or, again, take the national phobia concerning the supposedly lethal courant d'air. As a result, everything is underventilated. The heat in the Métro is unbearable even on cool days. On Tuesday it was 65 in Paris but in the RER B to the airport it must have been 110, even though the woefully small movable window panels in the car were open.
Even the TGV, admirable as it is, has too little air circulation, but even worse is the inadequate space provided for luggage. Admittedly, I was traveling by train on the weekend that Bison futé tagged as the worst of the year, but surely one designs a railroad car to accommodate a full load of passengers with luggage. Or so one would think. And the SNCF seems to have adopted le service minimum as its full-time labor-saving standard. Agents on the trains are scarce, and nowhere to be found at boarding time, so that inevitably TGV passengers end up in the wrong car or the wrong seat. I had to displace a bewildered foreigner who spoke no French (or English) and had no idea what the writing on his reservation meant (he was in car 15 rather than car 7). Even worse, I also had to displace a Frenchman whose ticket read "car 16" and who refused to admit that he was actually in car 15. Since there was no conductor in sight to adjudicate this dispute, it became a collective altercation, with other passengers chiming in to insist that it was indeed the fifteenth car, while entering passengers, dragging suitcases down narrow aisles because the luggage rack was full, fumed that the aisle was blocked.
Still, the rail system is a marvel that the US ought to envy. Even with the drastically undervalued dollar, I was able to travel from Paris to Lyon at 1/3 the cost and in 1/3 the time of a trip from Boston to New York, and Avignon to Paris was almost as good a bargain even on the year's peak travel day.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
I am always suspicious of visitors who, after a short stay in a country, presume to diagnose its hidden maladies. But just as we see aging most clearly in those whom we know well but revisit at infrequent intervals, it is perhaps the occasional visitor who is the first to notice the premonitory signs of crisis. It is hardly the case that the presence of France's "visible minorities" has gone unnoticed, but it is striking just how much more visible they have become over the past decade. It is only in recent years that the numerals "93" have come to signify a zone of foreignness within the ring of greater Paris. I knew that, but still it was a shock when I emerged from Robespierre Station in the suburb of Bagnolet and walked down the avenue to Montreuil. Robespierre certainly would not have recognized the place, in which I felt as conspicuous as I would in Harlem. The Parisian bourgeois who commutes to his country house via the TGV or the périphérique would barely glimpse the magnitude of the change, but the pedestrian is awed by it.
Elsewhere the contrast is more compact but more acute. In a beau quartier of Lyon at high noon on a working day one sees a group of young men and women sitting in a circle on the sidewalk in front of a bank, drinking, playing cards, ignoring the bustle of busy people scurrying by. They have nothing to do but drink from jugs. Their presence seems not to bother anyone, as though they were invisible, but this is an illusion, because in fact they are the implicit Other in political slogans directed at la France qui se lève tôt and at those who allegedly want to travailler plus pour gagner plus. There is nothing immediately menacing about these idle youths, but their difference is apparent even if the males wear warm-up pants rather than robes and the females show no interest in veils and no sign of being oppressed by fraternal patriarchs. In the 19th century these were les classes laborieuses, les classes dangereuses, the terrifying brawn of a society increasingly ruled by brain, but now they are les classes fainéantes et donc dangereuses in a society in which the function of labor is to discipline as well as produce. It is the visibility of this indisciplined mass that makes it frightening, and it is ethnic and racial difference that makes it visible. France hasn't figured out how to deal with this yet. In this respect it is no worse off than most other societies, yet its republican ideology of absolute assimilation seems to amplify the resultant strains. My sense is that pressure is rapidly building. Sarkozy, who was elected by the bourgeoisie of affairs, which wanted to believe that everyone can be brought to heel by the discipline of work, and the nativist proletariat, which wanted to believe that there would be enough work to go around if only the foreign element were expelled, has given no hint of an answer other than le nettoyage au Kärcher. If the water hose fails, though, it will be the fire next time.
I'm back, though not quite back in blogging form. It is tempting to try to sum up my observations on France in a short, pithy post, but I will resist the temptation for the moment. On the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, however, I offer you two images of France today. The mammoth stands outside the Museum of Natural History and in front of McDonald's. The photo exhibiting some of France's "visible minorities" behind the Coca-Cola slate was taken from a café near the Censier-Daubenton métro. Much additional visual documentation of my travels can be found in the following Web albums: