Saturday, October 4, 2008

Fillon Paddles While Rome Burns

Asked if he was miffed not to be included in today's summit meeting in Paris, Fillon noted--rightly--that it was not the place of the prime minister to attend this sort of meeting. But then he added, incredibly enough, that "of course I wouldn't have missed this event, the inauguration of a water sports center in Sablé [the town of which he used to be mayor], for anything in the world."

Really, Monsieur le Premier Ministre? Why undermine the perfect reasonableness of the first part of your statement with such a preposterous fib?

The Constitution Is 50

The Consitution of the Fifth Republic is fifty years old. Today, Le Monde publishes an interview with Jean-Louis Debré, the head of the Conseil Constitutionnel and son of the father of the Constitution, Michel Debré (does that make Jean-Louis the half-brother as well as the steward of the Constitution?).

Debré ponders the vexed question of the elusive balance of powers between the executive and the legislative branches. Except that he doesn't put it in quite those terms. He refers, rather, to the "government" and "le parlement." "Bear in mind," he says, "that the law is the means available to the government to translate its political priorities into juridical terms."

This formulation provokes a number of reflections on the peculiarity of the French system. First, note the implicit hierarchy. In French constitutional thought, the "state" is such an abstract category that it barely appears, or appears, rather, only in its metaphysical coupling with the "head" of the national body, le chef de l'État. In practical matters we have only the government, which is an entity separate from the Parlement, and the administration, which is strictly subordinate to the government. It is the government that governs, according to Debré, whereas the Parlement merely "translates" the will of the government--personified in ministers who command departments of the administration--into "juridical terms." The Parlement does not deliberate or initiate or execute. Its function is one of legitimation, according to Debré: its members are there not to represent their districts, he says, and he goes on to deplore what he sees as an unfortunate evolution of Parlement in this sense, so that its members become representatives not even of their districts but of mere "cantons," and therefore subject to the influence of "special interests," such as lobbies, which also weigh upon the actions of the "administration." In Debré's mind, only the "government" is exempt from such influences. It is the repository of the "general interest," as opposed to "particular interests."

It is of course easy to detect in this portrait the influence of a hyper-Jacobin reading of French history, but it is rare to see it spelled out in quite such stark and uncompromising terms. Compare, if you will, the American Constitution, in which executive, legislative, and judiciary are three co-equal branches, which together constitute the government of the United States. It is interesting, perhaps, that when the French wish to refer to the collection of entities that constitute the political life of the nation, they speak not of "l'État" but of "le pouvoir." In English, "government" is often the best translation of le pouvoir, yet the term "government" connotes a constitutional legitimacy that the bald evocation of le pouvoir does not. For the French, there is always something starkly de facto and therefore temporary about le pouvoir, whereas "government" in English carries a connotation of de jure constitutional legitimacy, of contractual consent under a covenant binding on the people.

"The risks for price stability have diminished ..."

"The risks for price stability have diminished but not disappeared." So says Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the ECB. This statement, in the oracular style cultivated by central bankers, is widely taken to presage an impending rate cut, which could come at any time, despite the fact that the ink on the ECB decision to hold its basic rate steady at 4.5 is not yet dry. The crisis is evolving quickly. And when the cut does come, I will refrain from reminding you that I predicted it weeks ago (though I think George Soros and his hedge fund were there with their checkbook well before me).

What other prognostications might one make with some confidence? No doubt there will be sweeping political changes. And I don't just mean throwing the bums out. True, incumbents haven't been doing well in recent elections. The Christian Social Union just suffered a heavy loss in Bavaria, the extreme right is on the march again in Austria, Gordon Brown's fortunes are sinking in Britain, and Obama has surged in the polls in the United States. To be sure, there are local factors at work in each of these cases, but there is also--to my mind, at least--a distinct sense that the old orthodoxies are breaking up. What is to replace them remains murky, however. We are, I think, in a phase of tâtonnement. When the New Deal came to power in 1933, it didn't have a doctrine so much as an attitude. Its political persona was forged in action, and an opposition was forged in reaction. I think that's what we will see in Europe in the dawning post-neoliberal era.

In a sense it has become easier to defend the European welfare state. The need for it becomes less abstract with each passing day, and the argument that the market imperfections it introduced need to be swept away in the name of efficiency has suddenly lost much of the persuasiveness it had acquired in certain quarters. Yet what this transformation of the ideological landscape means in terms of practical politics is hard to predict, as a glance at the French left shows. The crisis has fueled the anger of the nongovernmental left without enhancing its lucidity, but it has also weakened the presumption that the center-left, the social liberal left, to which I myself belong, has a more realistic grasp of the dynamics of global capitalism.

Some of us saw trouble coming, but I don't think anyone saw how pervasive and ferocious the trouble would be. Humility would be in order, yet urgency seems to require boldness, which assorts ill with humility. Hence we can anticipate action on a grand scale, and therefore the possbility, if not the likelihood, of colossal mistakes, with colossally bad consequences.