Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tactical Withdrawal or Rout?

No sooner does Sarko return from Moscow than he orders a hasty retreat on EDVIGE, the much-contested database of "personalities" likely to have an influence on the public. MAM has been told to "consult with qualified individuals" and then "take decisions to protect liberties." Swift. Decisive. Only it follows a couple of days of chaos in which, first, Hervé Morin, the defense minister, said he had qualms about EDVIGE, only to be called to order by Fillon, who in his bland way attempted to reassure everyone by saying a) the old RG had been collecting the same kind of information for years and b) the Socialists were hypocrites, because the data they collected when they were in power were just as serious a violation of privacy. This wasn't exactly a calming approach to the already volatile situation. So now Sarko has had to put out the fire, and the government looks almost as chaotic as it did back during the GMO debate. So who will get the blame for this little cockup? And in the end what information will be collected on whom? À suivre.

ADDENDUM: I call your attention to Louis's comment below and to the blog post by Frédéric Rolin that he recommends.

LHC

Officially the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) goes on line tomorrow. Actually, the gigantic machine, which spans the Franco-Swiss border, has been undergoing tests for some time. But tomorrow the quest for the elusive Higgs boson is officially on. Physics was one of the passions of my youth, so the "God particle" may be more an object of veneration for me than for most of you, but it's probably worth noting in this political blog that this remarkable project is the fruit of European cooperation. For a layman's introduction to what it all means, and to what it might mean if we don't find what we think we're looking for, there's no better place to begin than Frank Wilczek's new (and cleverly titled) book, The Lightness of Being. Oh, and in case you're worried, the LHC won't spawn a black hole that will eat the world, as some fear. At least not if the calculations are right. If they're wrong, well, at least we won't have to worry about global warming.

Imagery

In the early days of his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to place a high priority on remaking not only his personal image but the image of the French presidency itself. He tried to embody energy and youthful vigor by jogging, baring the presidential knees to the consternation of Alain Finkielkraut; he turned his eyes heavenward in Rome and pondered the spiritual dimension of leadership; he had Camus read to him while he contemplated the Mediterranean from its southern shore; he poked shop stewards in the chest and challenged fishermen to fisticuffs.

But it all got away from him. He insulted citizens and reporters; he seemed inebriated (or winded, depending on your point of view) after a meeting with Putin. PPDA likened him to a child with a new toy at his first G8. The remark may have cost PPDA his job and his pedestal, but the accumulation of criticisms seems to have given the president pause. He didn't have as much control over as his image as he thought. His efforts often appeared to be counter-productive. So he pulled back. He remarried and, in what may be his most important imagineering effort to date, portrayed himself as newly settled, centered, and calmed. Contemplation of Carla was now said to be enough to assuage his spiritual and cultural yearnings, and for the rest he could concentrate on doing his job, the scope of which seemed to shrink as the problems became more intractable and the permanent campaign mode revealed itself to be a poor method of government.

Lately the imagineering has been left to Carla herself. A précis of her appearance on Drucker's show can be read on Bernard Girard's blog (I haven't seen the program myself). What began as a macho presidency (remember the buddy bonding with Fillon, who also ran in shorts and sweated in public) has been feminized. The rakish president, who told Yasmina Reza that "nous [les hommes politiques] sommes des bêtes sexuelles," has been upstaged by his justice minister, who has invented a female machismo all her own. Meanwhile, the bête sexuelle has been taken in hand by the woman whom Bernard Girard calls "Madame Nunuche." Infantilized? Carla had said that what she wanted was a man with a nuclear bomb. Instead she has a teddy bear who plays with the Russian bear.

One might usefully compare this with the transvaluation of symbols that has taken place in the Republican Party in the United States. Sarah Palin, the self-described pit bull with lipstick and hockey stick, seems to arouse the men who read mercenary magazines in their spare time more than the war hero himself does. And the war hero--at least to judge by the biopic projected at the Republican Convention--has chosen to portray himself as a Christ-like figure, the man who suffered for our sins. Rambo is now a cross-dresser, while jet-jockey Maverick shows himself laid out on a stretcher, incapacitated, at the mercy of the enemy--a long way from the days when polio-stricken FDR would not allow himself to be photographed on crutches, and public appearances were contrived so that he could be propped up behind a podium and hustled on and off stage out of public view.

I draw no conclusions yet from these observations. Perhaps they signify nothing more than that power remains an elusive thing, as it has always been. "Ike was a general," Harry Truman supposedly said. "He thinks that when he gives an order, everyone will hop to it. When he's president, one thing will surprise him: he'll give an order, and nothing will happen." So power is a will-o'-the-wisp, which changes its shape as easily and as often as those who pursue it. And it's a fickle thing. One minute it's in your grasp, the next it's run off with someone else and produced a love child.

The Answer!

French Newspapers, which have lost circulation to the Internet, have come up with an answer, and it's not high tech: they're going to send hawkers into the subway stations. I don't think it will work. Now, maybe if they set up charging stations where you could recharge your iPod while downloading the day's edition of Le Monde--that might make a difference. Better yet: a wireless blast into your iPhone as you pass through the Monde turnstile, with the money deducted from your Navigo. Les Guignols de l'Info included free of charge.

Le Monde Howler

Le Monde accuses Sarah Palin of trying to fire a "bookseller" while mayor of "Saint George." But she was mayor of Wasilla, and the libraire was in fact a bibliothécaire. I guess Mayor Giuliani (of Staten Island?) is correct: those "elite liberal media" will stoop to anything, even mistranslation, to discredit a fine, upstanding "pit bull with lipstick." Thanks to Causeur for spotting this one.

Annals of Crime


Check out the Helen of Troy whose abduction by Leca, the king of the Apaches of Belleville, triggered a war with the Orteaux gang, led by Manda de la Courtille. And other photos from the new book Présumés coupables, a photographic history of crime in France.

Is this you, Valérie Pécresse?

Some sceptics about the value of mass university education also argue that graduates earn more not because they have learnt many economically useful things, but because by finishing university they are signalling to employers that they are likely to be the cleverest and most motivated workers. This theory sees university more as a recruitment fair than as a place of useful learning.


The FT worries about cheapening the product.

Wyplosz Agrees

As I predicted the other day, the old consensus is fraying badly, and rapidly, and a new one in favor of good old-fashioned Keynesian stimulus is starting to build, as exemplified by this article by Charles Wyplosz. Indeed, when the former chairman of Goldman Sachs nationalizes* a $5 trillion chunk of the US financial sector, you know that all the old orthodoxies are in jeopardy. Trichet seems to be the last person in the world to get the word. He's still trying to persuade the Germans that he's tough on inflation.

ADDENDUM: Pisani-Ferry is more reserved.

* Paul Krugman dislikes the use of the word "nationalize" in connection with the Freddie Mac-Fannie Mae operation. He prefers "deprivatization," because these government-sponsored entities (to use the jargon) always enjoyed a strange in-between existence, not entirely private but certainly, since 1968, not entirely public when it came to the appropriation of profits. This seems to me overly fastidious, and I think that the word "nationalize" is preferable because it brings home the gravity of the situation, particularly in the United States, where socialism is still the bogeyman and nationalization conjures up images of armed men seizing steel mills in wartime in order to force striking workers back on the job. Of course there is always the delightful Britishism "quango," for quasi-nongovernmental organization, the sort of outfit to which one devolves power in order to tie the hands of public officials who would otherwise be incorrigible in their use of it to bolster their own position. In any case, it remains an open question whether the nationalized GSEs will be run in the national interest or in the interest of the bankers among whom Henry Paulson used to be primus inter pares.