Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Back to Lochner

Alain Lambert, a UMP senator, takes note of Sarko's repudiation of the 35-hour week and proposes a simple way to achieve the desired result. He wants a new law to read as follows: "Freedom of labor is restored in France. Any legislative or regulatory measure that might contradict this principle is hereby declared null and void." (italics mine)

Students of American labor law will recognize that this peremptory call for a supposed restoration of freedom of labor is nothing less than a return to what we know as "the Lochner era," when in the name of freedom of contract vulnerable workers were prevented from seeking the state's protection from the rigors of the unfettered market. Surely this cannot be what Lambert, a normally intelligent and economically literate conservative, really wants?

Incoherence

Suppose Sarko were evaluated by the private consultants Mars & Co., as his ministers will be. What might his "measurable criteria for success" have been, and how well has he met them? He had announced that he would be the "purchasing power president," so one might have expected him to boast of an increase in mean wages, a decrease in inflation, or something of the sort. Instead, he conceded today what has been obvious all along, that his powers to affect these things are limited. "What do you expect me to do?" he asked. "The coffers are empty." But they weren't quite so empty before he enacted 14 billion euros worth of tax reductions. "What about the 35 hour week," he was asked. "Is it over?" His answer: "If you want me to say what I think, the answer is yes." But if he intends to dismantle the 35-hour week, he has reduced to naught one of his central policy measures, the elimination of taxes and social charges on overtime hours--overtime above the 35-hr. legal work week. Why bother with that charade if the true goal was to return to 39 or 40 hours?

So, on the chiffrable goals, his performance looks pretty dismal. By contrast, his rhetoric continues to soar. But a successful president needs to be a pedagogue as well as a rhetorician. He needs to change what people think, to alter attitudes and preferences. He can't appear to be selling a bill of goods and papering it over with poetry. Has Sarko taken de Gaulle for his model, or Lamartine?

Moscovici Throws Hat in Ring


Pierre Moscovici has thrown his hat in the ring for the leadership of the PS. A disciple of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, under whom he studied economics at ENA, he has served as PS spokesman, minister for European affairs, and expert on foreign policy. Interestingly, he was a member of the Trotskyite LCR as recently as 1984 but has since become a fixture of the centrist DSK wing of the PS. Here's his blog on Sarko's press conference.

He is the son of social psychologist Serge Moscovici.

The Flat of His Saber

The cutting remark is more valued in French politics than in American. American politicians reserve their stilettos for use in private. They lack the French fondness for verbal fencing with unblunted swords. Sarkozy, when not reading the lofty lines Guaino has penned for him, often falls to slashing, not with the tip of an épée but with the flat of his saber. He came down hard on "Laurent Joffrin de Libération," who, it must be said, led with his chin (a good summary of the entire news conference, including the questions, provocative and otherwise, can be found here). Joffrin asked if Sarkozy's "personalization" of presidential power had not made him an "elective monarch." Sarko responded by pretending to take Joffrin's self-identification as "Joffrin de Libération" as a sort of aristocratic pretension, as though he were falsely claiming a noble particule: "Vous étiez Monsieur Joffrin avant d'être Monsieur Joffrin de Libération." Score one for Sarko. Then he reminded Joffrin that he had been elected and was not Jacques Chirac's illegitimate son (forgetting, perhaps, that monarchs sometimes are elected, that monarchy need not be hereditary, but still garnering half a point for the pointed evocation of his troubled relationship with his predecessor). Finally, he riffed on the often authoritarian ways of his predecessors and on the semi-regal conception of the presidency embodied in the constitution of the 5th Republic. The tone throughout was derisive, even bullying, and by the end one almost felt sympathy for Joffrin de Libération. Almost--but his provocation was so sophomoric and pointless, such a smirking waste of an opportunity to probe in public the president's thinking, that it was hard to commiserate. "M'sieur Joffrin est en pleine forme," quipped Sarkozy, and unfortunately it was true: this paltry provocation seems to be the best the opposition press can muster. It's no wonder Sarkozy has been asking for journalists avec du répondant. He suggests that he wouldn't be tempted to trespass into nastiness if the questions posed to him were less petty. There is reason to doubt this. He seems to revel in the putdown. But one would like to see what the Little Knight could do in a joust in which his opponent was also mounted and armed with a lance.

Public Television

In his news conference this morning, Pres. Sarkozy proposed abolishing all advertising on the public TV network, which in his view should become a gateway to culture financed by a tax on the advertising revenues of privately owned networks, Internet advertisers, and cell-phone advertisers. Hervé Bourges, the former head of TF1, has already criticized the proposal. Bourges argues that eliminating advertising makes it possible to schedule programs that "no one" will watch (perhaps that is the meaning of "culture" in a world of "media" and "communication") and makes the whole operation dangerously dependent on the state.

Here in the paradisaical market state, of course, we worry more about dangerous dependence on the market and would be reluctant to trade NPR for Fox News. Scylla and Charybdis, surely: there are dangers whichever way one sails. Of course there's no doubt that Sarko's proposal will be a boon to the private networks. The stock market certainly reads it that way. Shares in TF1 and M6 soared: take a look at this graph. And the president is no doubt pleased, since he argued, in response to a question about the press, that information in a free society depends on a healthy return on investment and that the problem with the press in France is not concentration of ownership but undercapitalization together with an archaic system of distribution.

The Press Conference

There will of course be many things to say about Sarkozy's press conference, which is still going on as I write. But since I'm up at this ungodly hour listening to him, and have listened patiently for an hour and a half already, I feel the itch to make a few observations. There can be no doubt that Sarko is a remarkable performer. Like any great actor, he fascinates, he rivets the attention, in part because of his complex repertoire of tics and gesticulations and grimaces, but most of all because he is so fully concentrated in his performance. One has the sense that he needs to fascinate in order to exist, that his audience confirms him in his sense that he is a man of destiny.

Second, the "politics of civilization" was not an idle phrase to be forgotten after the New Year's greetings. Now the borrowing from Edgar Morin is openly affirmed. The intention is to infuse politics with poetry, to eschew the pallid practice of "governance," that wan neologism, in favor of what de Gaulle would have called grandeur. Sarko's grandeur partakes not of glory, however, but of the affective. The words "love" and "value" loom large.

Third, the transcendence of mere "governance" might seem to be a form of escape from reality, une fuite en avant, as the French say, but Sarkozy attempted to give the idea a certain solidity. One proposal that aroused my interest was the idea that we need new measures of what we want to achieve in, say, the realm of economic policy. The obsession with growth, as measured by GDP or per-capita GDP, leads to neglect of "human values." And to that end, he has asked Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz to reflect on the question. It may not be easy to perceive the results of their reflection in the short term. But the ambition strikes me as worthy and novel, and the choice of Sen and Stiglitz is inspired.*

Another proposal that may not yield immediate results is the idea of expanding the G8 to G13. The significance of this idea lay in the way Sarkozy justified it. With reason he finds it unjust that one should presume to govern the global economy while excluding half of humanity. He wants to include China and India as representatives of Asia, Brazil and Mexico as representatives of Latin America, and South Africa as the representative of Africa--the excluded continents. Of course the idea of representing excluded humanity by way of regional hegemons might be regarded as peculiarly French for its statist assumptions about the nature of representation. But it has at least the virtue of practicality. And, I might add, the appearance of inevitability once stated.

When asked about his errors, the president, unlike Bush, who famously couldn't think of any, mentioned, among others, the famous social VAT. This was a mistake, he said, because, first, there was nothing "social" about it. It should have been described instead as a transfer of the tax burden from production to consumption. And it was a mistake to talk about it before being prepared to act on it. If you discuss it, you'd better be prepared to implement it.

Finally, I was struck by Sarkozy's diagnosis of the reason for the failings of his predecessors. He drew a contrast between the will to endure and the will to act. I want to act, he said; they wanted to endure. And once you make the choice to endure, you hamstring your action.

*Amartya Sen seems to have been inspired as well. He calls the idea "brilliant." Jean-Paul Fitoussi apparently served as intermediary between Sarkozy and Sen.