Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ghost of Jackie O. Meets Lady Di's Mother-in-Law

David Pujadas wasn't fooled for a minute. The real royalty at the palace today was the ghost of Jackie Kennedy. Carla Bruni, whom all the tabloids featured in the buff on page 1, was dressed up as the late Queen of Camelot, pillbox hat and all. She curtseyed nicely for the other queen, the dowdy one, while her prince consort, a good republican, confined himself to shaking ma'am's hand (later he could be seen caressing Carla's behind the queen's back). All protocol was observed: it was a performance sans faute, Pujadas purred. Petit Poucet has grown up. His tall, elegant wife has given him a regal gravitas to go with his regalian powers. Royalty receives him as a peer. He still has that odd gait, however, almost a limp, as if one leg were shorter than the other. It's a flaw that humanizes him, a false note in an otherwise flawless symphony of tawdry trumpery. Bernard Kouchner got to ride in an open carriage with the Duke of Edinburgh. One wonders what they talked about. A favorite claret, perhaps? And the queen chatted rather animatedly with Carla as Nicolas limped his way down the line of beefeaters. He doesn't really seem to enjoy these reviews of the troops. It's an endearing trait of Sarkozy's: unlike George Bush, he seems to know that he's a fraud, that it's all du toc. To him, the pretense is just part of the job. Bush is the more dangerous kind of charlatan: the one who believes he is whatever he says he is.

Putsch in the Making

It looks as though Christian Estrosi has taken himself out of the government not just to devote himself to the city of Nice, of which he has just been elected mayor, but also to attempt a take-over of the UMP. His blast today at UMP secretary general Patrick Devedjian is the opening shot. Stay tuned. The former Grand Prix motorcycle racer demonstrated his devotion to Sarkozy by renting a private jet to fly him back from an official visit to Washington in time for supper with the president. The trip cost the taxpayers 138,000 euros. He has also been convicted of tax fraud and various charges growing out of his business dealings.

CFDT Will Oppose 41 Years

The government's proposal to extend the required (general regime) period of retirement contributions from 40 to 41 years for full benefits has met with opposition from the CFDT. This is not a good sign for the government, because the CFDT has long been supportive of retirement reform.

The ground for the union's opposition is that employment opportunities for people above the age of 55 are limited: the participation rate in this segment of the work force is 37.8 percent, the lowest in the EU. Hence the CFDT argues that the reform will not produce additional revenue unless new jobs for seniors can be created.

The debate on this issue could be interesting, because real clashes of value lie just beneath the surface. Some people are eager to continue working as they age. These fall into two groups: those whose work is not physically arduous and who derive much of their identity from work (managers, intellectuals, scientists, technicians), and those who have not saved enough for retirement. The former group includes many who have fared rather well in the existing division of labor and rewards, the latter many who have not. It might be reasonable to expect the latter to work longer and thus transfer some of their rewards from work to the less fortunate, but to discriminate in this way would violate the tenets of equality and solidarity that underlie the retirement system generally. The latter would prefer not to work but feel compelled to; in order to encourage the creation of jobs to accommodate their needs, the government might envision exempting them from further payment into the retirement fund. This would obviously do nothing to fund the system but might diminish pressure to increase minimum retirement benefits. Some would object to such an outcome as unfair, however.

As the unity of the right begins to fray on redistributive issues (as I discussed yesterday), this reform may not muster the kind of support that backed last year's reform of the special regimes.

Le Monde on Obama

Patrick Jarreau refers to Barack Obama as a "globalized" candidate for the American presidency. He describes Obama's mixed racial background and complex understanding of his own identity. It is one of Obama's strengths, I think, that he can see the United States as both insider and outsider. But his gift stems from more than his racial makeup and years of residence abroad. His experience as a community organizer in Chicago, working with the urban underclass, taught him about what Michael Harrington once described as "the other America," the America whose discovery came as a shock to some Americans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, various urban riots, and the sermons of Rev. Wright.

But what I want to comment on particularly in Jarreau's article is the use of the French métissage to translate the English word "miscegenation" (which Jarreau misspells as "misgenation"). Jarreau quotes Obama's remark that his parents' marriage would have been a crime in certain American states, the crime of "miscegenation." And this is the problem with the translation of métissage. The French journalist is evidently unaware of the history of the word in the United States, where it has always been associated with racist attitudes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was "coined by David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman in an anonymously published hoax pamphlet circulated in 1863, which implied that the American Republican party favoured mixed-race relationships." The word found its way into the law of various southern states during the post-Reconstruction period, when racial barriers were heightened. It therefore has an offensive sting that the French métis lacks. If French has a word with comparably offensive overtones, I'm not aware of it. But French speakers should refrain from describing anyone in English as a "half-breed" or product of "miscegenation" unless they mean to be offensive. The terms are not neutrally descriptive. "Mixed racial background" is less harsh because not associated with racist law and speech.

Other words denoting mixed racial origins such as "mulatto," "octaroon," and "high-yellow" can still be found in Faulkner but have dropped out of everyday American use.

More on the U.S. Election Campaign

So, to continue the discussion of the U.S. election campaign as seen in France, you're no doubt aware that the delegate math is heavily against Hillary, despite her likely victory in Pennsylvania next month. Pressure is mounting on her to get out of the race so that Democrats can concentrate on battling McCain, who has made progress in the polls. Is this discussed in France? Several of you reported that people around you are hoping for an Obama victory. Do they feel that a continuation of Hillary's quest for the nomination will hurt his chances if he is the candidate in November?

See this article in Le Figaro.

Kouchner, Sarko, and Tibet

Bernard Kouchner's old friends are not happy with him. Jean-Marc Ayrault says that he's "stiff in his official costume." Jack Lang asks "what has become of your just and impassioned words?" The language with which "the French doctor" turned French diplomat defends himself is indeed less than impassioned: "We have called 'the attention of the Chinese authorities to human rights with the approach of the Olympics.'" Wan words, diplomatic words, forlorn words--anything, to be sure, but impassioned.

But what would the critics have Kouchner do? The chorus of denunciation already has a full range of voices. Kouchner could resign and unleash his rich baritone, but would his addition to the choir move the Chinese? Kouchner is no longer a private citizen. His words engage France. He has to be circumspect (and has been rightly criticized in the past when he exceeded his proper limits, on Iran, for example). It is no doubt embarrassing for him personally that the tough cop role in this case has been assumed (characteristically) by Sarkozy, who has held open the possibility that France might boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics (a position that drew a mild rebuke, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say a demurrer, from a U.S. State Department spokesman).

Critics ask what purpose Kouchner's presence in the government serves. But this is unfair. He no doubt remains the man he was before he voluntarily donned the "stiff official costume," and in internal councils, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, he undoubtedly makes his views known. That's why his friends should be glad he's there. And why they should ask what they would do in his position, knowing that the possibility of influencing the Chinese is limited. Denunciation is a luxury that can be enjoyed by those of us without power. Those whose words can have undesired consequences have to be more careful. If Kouchner seems awkward in the role, perhaps it's because carefulness has never been his forte. If the strain becomes too great, he can quit. But as long as he stays, he is right to recognize that he's no longer a free man but a prisoner of his position, condemned to voluntary servitude.