Friday, September 19, 2008

The Contenders

OK, here's the way the factions line up going into the Socialist Party congress. In one corner Martine Aubry, who has managed somehow to contrive an unnatural alliance with the Fabiusiens, led by Claude Bartolone, and much of the DSK/Reconstructeur group, including J.-C. Cambadelis. In another Bertrand Delanoë and François Hollande, with the Jospinien rump. In a third corner, Ségolène Royal and the mayors of Ligne Claire (Collomb, Valls, et al.). In a fourth corner, the "left" of the party: Emmanuelli, Hamon, etc. Turning around in circles in the middle of the ring, Pierre Moscovici, who has been abandoned by his troops. On his blog today he describes himself as "perplexed."

What will happen? If Aubry and Delanoë work out a compromise and join forces to stop Royal, they could win. Otherwise, she wins. But none of these leaders really control their troops, so no matter who wins, nobody wins. The whole thing remains as much in flux as ever. Clear?

Attali Makes Sense

Une fois n'est pas coutume: for once Jacques Attali makes sense. He notes that the ruckus over Georgia and NATO will soon repeat itself in magnified form with Ukraine. He remarks, rightly, on the influence of Polish and Ukrainian organizations in the US in pushing both presidential candidates into ill-considered positions on the issue. And he raises the pertinent question of what NATO's function is in the post-Soviet world. If it is an international antiterrorist police force, then it should be reorganized on that basis, and Russia should be invited to join; its good offices are essential. If it is to be an instrument of American interests vis-à-vis third parties such as Russia and Iran, then European nations should rethink their participation.

Unfortunately, Attali also neglects the internal divisions in the EU that would render his specific proposals unworkable. Still, his basic proposition is correct. NATO's mission has become impossibly confused. US-European cooperation should be organized around new organizations with clearer missions. Europe can then choose which aspects of US policy it wishes to support and which to reject rather than being enlisted in the crusade to "defend the Free World," the definition of which is sufficiently plastic to subsume a host of ulterior motives.

From Picnic Tax to Global Panic

Where lies political advantage in this moment of crisis? French politicians facing this question have offered different responses, ranging from the parochial to the universal. Sarkozy has been cautious in approaching the financial crisis. He seems--uncharacteristically?--to want to educate himself before plunging in. So he will meet in New York with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, and Henry Paulson, the US Treasury secretary. In the meantime his comments have been sensible, if modest. So much for the universal. On the parochial front, he has ordered a hasty retreat on the "picnic tax." Such was the unfortunate moniker attached to Jean-Louis Borloo's quite reasonable proposal to tax disposables for which more durable goods could easily be substituted: paper plates and plastic cups, for example, hence the name "picnic tax." Oops: a perfectly predictable levée de boucliers. One can't with impunity attack a national institution such as the French picnic. The TV stations, with their usual thoughtful delicacy, were all over this one, interviewing shoppers and eliciting horrified reactions at the thought that a paper plate might cost a nickel more.

Actually, I was rather surprised at the hue and cry. I have long marveled at the assiduousness of French picknickers, who seem to be able to pack a banquet in a wicker basket and set the old family quilt with a china service for 20 complete with crystal for the wine and silver couverts. Why should such resourceful diners care about a tax on plastic cups? What Frenchman would drink his Petrus from a plastic cup? But I digress.

As for the opposition, Ségolène Royal seems to have seized on the same contradiction between the parochial and the universal. But rather than praise Sarko for his prudence, she has berated him for his inaction, and in rather picturesque terms: there he stands, she says, "arms dangling in the face of the crisis," doing nothing beyond slapping a picnic tax on his hapless countrymen. It's an image that will stick in the mind longer than anything Ségo might have said about responding to the crisis. Her avoidance of the issue she pretended to address--the global financial meltdown--might seem even more parochial than the picnic tax. But she's still electioneering, even though her opponent at long last seems to have left the permanent campaign behind as he tries to wrap his mind around a problem that neither presidential candidate foresaw and no one knows how to deal with.

One thing is certain: this won't be a picnic.