Thursday, March 20, 2008

McCain and Sarkozy

John McCain will be in Paris tomorrow and will call on Sarkozy. Various commentators have been quick to draw the obvious parallels: both men early established reputations as mavericks and at times hotheads; one was an aviator, the other affects aviator sunglasses; and both were linked to presidents whom they privately despised and whose legacies had to be overcome in order to win election to the supreme magistracy. There is some validity to the comparison, but the differences between the two men are equally glaring. I won't belabor them here, but Sarkozy and his advisors could do worse than read the excellent profile of McCain by Sylvie Laurent that has conveniently appeared on La Vie des Idées just in time for the visit.

France and Africa

Was Jean-Marie Bockel, the socialiste d'ouverture who was secretary of state for cooperation, transferred to veterans' affairs because he incurred the displeasure of Gabonese president Omar Bongo? Le Figaro thinks so. The paper, quoting unidentified ministerial sources, says that Bockel's mistake was to take Sarkozy's pronouncements of a new departure in Franco-African relations literally. A more subtle parsing of the Elysian message was apparently required--one that would have seen no contradiction, for instance, between a call for rupture and a judicious intervention to prevent France2 from broadcasting an exposé of Bongo's extensive real-estate holdings in France, which evidently incensed the African Donald Trump.

Keep on Truckin'

The reform of the special retirement regimes has come and gone, though no one can say exactly what happened: as far as I know, details are still being negotiated, and final agreements cover limited groups only (like the train drivers, whose union signed a separate agreement with the government). But now the municipal elections are over, and we are on to the next round: the extension from 40 to 41 years of the required period of contributions to qualify for full benefits. This is to apply to all regimes: special, general, and civil service. Of course the resolution of the special-regime reform, where it has been resolved, has already granted reductions from the 40-year period as compensation for concessions made by the unions, although these reductions are again limited to certain categories of workers. Getting unions to give back concessions on which the ink is hardly dry might well be a sticky wicket.

Luc Chatel, the government's new spokesman, squarely challenged the Socialist Party to propose an alternative: if you don't like the longer working life, then which do you want, higher contributions or lower benefits? The stark alternatives have the virtue of clarity, but as the reform of the special regimes demonstrates, what comes out in the end is often a little of this and a little of that with lots of tactical accommodations awarded to key actors and veto players. Better to look at the sausage after it's been neatly wrapped in skin and tied off at both ends.

The Purloined SMS

About Edgar Allan Poe's "Purloined Letter," Jacques Lacan once wrote:

C’est pourquoi Dupin va enfin tourner vers nous la face médusante de ce signifiant dont personne en dehors de la Reine n’a pu lire que l’envers.

Today, Libération seems to take itself for Lacan, explicating the true significance of Airy Routier's "purloined SMS," to which the Queen, quoting "The Barber of Seville," has added her own stunning gloss. Libé devotes no fewer than six articles to the subject (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). With an analytic subtlety to rival the ineffable Lacan, the newspaper emits the theory that Carla Bruni's op-ed in yesterday's Le Monde was a master stroke in Sarko's new "communications strategy," its intent being to portray Ms. Bruni as a calming influence on a president who, now cozily coupled to the learned bluestocking ex-supermodel and erstwhile dévoreuse d'homme, has at last exorcised le diable au corps and settled down to the "slow boring of hard boards" that was Max Weber's definition of politics. Thus the Élysée, we are asked to believe, has discovered le remède dans le mal, to borrow a phrase from Jean Starobinski (French Politics is clearly striving hard this morning to keep up with Mme Sarkozy's erudition). If the French blamed Carla for distracting Nicolas from his job, why, then, the image-makers will reposition Carla--Venus that was--as the benign Athena who not only recalls journalists to their ethical codes but inspires wisdom in the Prince and diligent devotion to his task.

I'm not sure who deserves the greater credit for imagination here: the Élysée's "comm" shop, which allegedly conceived this diabolically clever stratagem, or Libé, which with equal cunning lifted Scheherazade's veils. Yet I cannot escape the feeling that Freud would have been quick to remind these latter-day psychoanalysts that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a newspaper would do better to report the news rather than attempt to substitute for it.