Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Trojan Horse Gallops Again


I guess some Republicans haven't gotten the word that France is back:

“We have fundamental philosophical differences. We’re in an era of unfunded liabilities,” said John Culberson , R-Texas. “This stimulus is really a Trojan horse. It’s part of a plan that would turn the United States into France.”


When "Birnam wood shall come to Dunsinane." Or Wisconsin cheddar turn into banon. (h/t Matt Yglesias)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Now What?

The president is going to "respond" to yesterday's strikers. "Je vous ai compris," he says in substance. The refrain is familiar. In my judgment, Sarkozy's judgment of the "social movement" is accurate: it's too "disparate" to develop into anything of alarming magnitude. The crowds in the streets were indeed impressive, but the range of complaints was dizzying. Hospital workers want this, engineers in the semiconductor industry want that, teachers want x, profs in this or that UFR want y, etc. Sarko, who likes to rail against the "conservatisms" in the plural that stand in the way of "reforms," faces the multitude of "corporatisms" that turn French politics into a Rubik's Cube: you twist things to solve problem X and you find that you've only created another problem Z.

Of course the trick for the president is to avoid becoming himself the factor that unifies the various corporatisms. The problem with la politique par manifestation is that it has often in the past led the opposition to overestimate its strength and coherence. There is something about the heady atmosphere of the streets (I know, I've been there) that persuades otherwise sober people that "c'est la lutte finale/Groupons-nous et demain/l'Internationale sera le genre humain."

There is of course no lutte finale, ever. History has no end. Politics is always with us. But presidential recalcitrance can turn la lutte du moment into a semblance of la lutte finale, and that is what Sarko has to avoid. Thus far, he's been superb at tactical retreat. I don't expect he will have lost his touch, nor do I expect the opposition suddenly to have found its center. So yesterday's carnival will have been yet another picturesque contribution to a French genre.

To say this is not to minimize the importance of periodic renewals of solidarity, of ces grandes messes thar are also a part of politics very different from the "long, slow boring of hard, dry boards" that Max Weber saw as the essence of the thing. But the long, slow boring remains.

Blanchard on the Crisis

Olivier Blanchard, chief economist of the IMF, on the crisis here. Discussion here.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Femme debout!

Charles Bremner accuses Ségolène Royal of "settling scores in an extraordinarily vindictive way" in her new book, Femme debout! which he says "confirms that France was lucky to have escaped the rule of a slightly deranged woman." Whoa! Talk about "extraordinarily vindictive!" Bremner hismelf seems slightly unhinged by Ségo. She does that to people. (I would add that Bremner's choice of photograph, intended to make the candidate look like la folle de Chaillot, is hardly a model of restrained journalism).

That said, I think that Ségo is ill-advised to make her persecution central to her political identity, no matter how painful that persecution was. Having claimed last week that she inspired Obama, she should now take inspiration from him in return and develop a little cool, or what the New York Times today calls "Aloha zen." In any case, the title of her book, Femme debout!, which Bremner translates as "Woman Standing!" is no doubt intended to convey an image of dignity and strength under attack, an image belied by the widely publicized excerpts from the text. I would be tempted to hazard a rather freer translation, borrowed from a recent film: "Dead Woman Walking!"

Strike Thread


So, how does the general strike look from where you are? Reply in comments. The image of the royal couple is from Marseille.

Sarko Booed and Shoed, Prefect Booted

The president's visit to Saint-Lô on Jan. 12 didn't quite go as planned: his motorcade was pummeled with hurled shoes, his supporters couldn't get through the police lines to reward him with accolades, and there were scuffles in the streets. Now the prefect of La Manche, Jean Charbonniaud, appointed just six months ago, has been sacked.

Which proves that the the wheels of government can be made to turn rapidly when urgency requires.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

Alas, no Marilyn Monroe for Sarko's 54th (via Polly-vous Français). But he has his live-in sex symbol and muse, I guess.

Strike!

The big news today is that there will be big news tomorrow, or so many people would like to think. Tomorrow will mark the first general strike of the Sarkozy presidency, and even Sarko seems a little worried, for hasn't he said, as Françoise Fressoz reminds us:

"la France n'est pas le pays le plus simple à gouverner du monde". Il rappelle que "les Français ont guillotiné le roi", qu'"au nom d'une mesure symbolique, ils peuvent renverser le pays". Il parle de la France comme d'un "pays régicide".


All strikes are to some degree unpredictable, so, indeed, there may be dérapages tomorrow, and the television cameras, hungry for images de choc, will make the most of them. But the image of a "general strike" itself derives its potency from another era, when a paternalist bourgeoisie, which liked to think of the working class as its dependents, could be sent into panic by the sight of organized batallions of workers whose message was that in fact les patrons were dependent on them.

At this moment, however, we're all dependent on economic forces we only dimly comprehend, so the organized batallions risk looking more like group therapy sessions than conquering armies. If they conquered, what would they do? File a motion of censure against the government, as the Socialists did on Monday? Et après? Turn to Washington, like everyone else, and wait to see what Larry Summers et al. have come up with.

Of course there's no harm in expressing ras-le-bol from time to time. It keeps the guardians on their toes. But the French bowl has been scraped so often that the wood is deeply scarred. The general strike has become one more spectacle in a society of spectacles, another lieu de mémoire for the political theme park, filled with monuments attesting to a certain nostalgic fondness for the grand gestures of the past, which may have failed in their own time but then at least carried the conviction of as yet untested possibility.

Intemperance

In a post the other day, I harshly criticized Guillaume Klossa, a former advisor to former secretary of state for European affairs Jean-Pierre Jouyet, for overstating the achievements of the French presidency. A person whose opinions I value observed that I had been rather less temperate than usual in my criticism of Klossa. I agreed that I had perhaps gone too far. But now comes Klossa himself with a piece in Le Monde in which he says this:

En d'autres mots, il n'est pas certain que Barack Obama ait été élu si les Européens n'avaient pas pris l'initiative sur ces différents sujets et n'avaient pas su faire résonner leurs singularités et leurs convictions : le seul combat qui vaille, c'est l'Homme, sa dignité.


Since, in another bout of intemperance, I nominated Christian Estrosi the other day for the position of roi des cons for attributing Obama's election to Sarkozy's inspired action, I guess I'll have to nominate Klossa for vice-roy. When Obamania combines with Euronarcissism, absurdity knows no limit, and my forbearance is sorely strained. So I become a recidivist with respect to M. Klossa, who must be running for something. My advice to him is to put a sock in it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Entre les Murs" Extra Muros

Just as the film "Entre les Murs" opens in the US (under the title "The Class") with an Oscar nomination for publicity, Maîtresse* skewers François Bégaudeau, the film's screenwriter and star: "If there is a brighter example of the pompous Frenchman than Bégaudeau, I would like to see it."

* Maîtresse is the pseudo of Lauren Elkin, an American expat who covers the Parisian literary and cultural scene with gusto and verve and a judicious soupçon of New York-style attitude.

Dog Bites Man

"Dog bites man" is not supposed to be news, but when the ex-president of France is bitten by his "depressed" dog Sumo, the tabloids make an exception. The news even made it into the NY Times, albeit in an erroneous note in Gail Collins' column to the effect that Sarko had been bitten by a "clinically depressed Maltese." Right breed and diagnosis, wrong president. Today the paper issued a retraction.

Immortality Isn't What It Used to Be

Who best embodies the Nord/Pas de Calais? The latest poll suggests that immortality isn't what it used to be:

A la question "qui incarne le mieux la région", 71% des sondés répondent Dany Boon, devant De Gaulle (42%) - né à Lille -, puis l'actrice Line Renaud (32%) et le footballeur boulonnais Franck Ribéry (23%), placé juste devant Pierre Mauroy (22%). Le succès du film "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" n'y est certainement pas pour rien puisqu'un sondage réalisé en 2003 plaçait à l'époque Charles De Gaulle (45%) devant Dany Boon (35%), Pierre Mauroy (29%) et Line Renaud (28%).

French Bank Recapitalization

Elie Cohen asks whether there is a credit crunch in France and concludes, despite contradictory evidence, that the answer is yes. Bankers, who have been accepting money from the state, claim that they are using these supplements to their capital to increase lending, but many businesses and consumers claim that they can't get loans. Cohen points out that the banks are under contradictory mandates: on the one hand, to shore up their capital positions to meet the market's post-collapse expectation of higher capital ratios than in the past; on the other hand, to lend to a credit-starved economy to get the machine moving again. There is evidence of increased lending, Cohen says, but mostly in the form of draw-downs of previously existing lines of credit; new loans are scarce.

Should the banks be nationalized? Should they be forced to lend? Nationalization would presumably enforce greater transparency. One could see what was going on. It would also permit a revamping of incentive structures, so that the banks' interests and the public interest could, with luck, be brought into line. Cohen: "A perverse incentive structure, which has proved how damaging it could be, should be more on people's minds." Indeed. In the wake of yesterday's announcement of large losses by BNP-Paribas, the taboo against discussion of nationalization in France may have ended. Curiously, in a reversal of roles, nationalization is being actively debated in the US. To be sure, US banks are in worse shape than French banks--or so we have been led to believe. We don't really know, do we? because so much about the banking system remains veiled. Even if nationalization is ultimately rejected as a solution, there is a need for more discussion of how to achieve greater transparency when huge sums of public money are being invested in the banks.

Technical Barriers to Trade in the EU

Is the EU really a "common market?" Does the usual measure of trade openness--the trade-to-output ratio--accurately measure what it purports to? Natalie Chen and Dennis Novy develop a new measure of openness and apply it to 11 EU countries. Their finding:

We find that trade integration is indeed lower in countries and industries where technical barriers to trade are high. We also show that trade integration tends to be high for industries characterised by low transportation costs (captured by bilateral distance but also by the weight-to-value ratio of exports and the ratio between “cost, insurance, freight” and “free on board” trade values) and a high degree of transparency in public procurement. From a dynamic perspective, average trade integration has improved for most countries over the period 1999-2003, as well as individually for a large number of industries in our sample.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Suzanne Berger Honored


Today I attended a ceremony to honor Suzanne Berger, a political science professor at MIT who was awarded the Légion d'Honneur by French ambassador Pierre Vimont. Suzanne is an old friend and a most deserving recipient of this honor. Congratulations, Suzanne!

A Taste of Things to Come

It was only a matter of time before a bien-pensant mainstream outlet like Le Monde began to wonder if sector-specific stimuli and differential interest rates might be decorated with the polemical label "protectionist" for political ends as yet unspecified. Marianne applauds. I merely note the development. As has so often been the case in this crisis, I find it hard to applaud any response with more than one hand. (This stands on its head the remark attributed to Harry Truman, who, after hearing one too many economists offer him "on the one hand ... but on the other hand" advice, is supposed to have wished for a one-handed economist. That's what you get in a depression.)

If you're into keeping score of which one-handed economists stand where on the fiscal stimulus question, here's a handy scorecard (but the scorekeeper is biased in favor of the cons and excludes prominent "pros" who he believes don't qualify as macroeconomists under his rather narrow definition; he also limits his sample to economists who teach in the US).

Progress

Via Charles Bremner, on le coming-out of Roger Karoutchi, minister for parliamentary relations:

Karoutchi said he felt confident in going public because Sarkozy had behaved so well towards him, inviting his partner along with him to stay at his holiday house and to official dinners at the Elysée Palace. "If I had to dedicate to someone the fact that I am speaking out, it would be to the President of the Republic," he told le Monde.
...
As a footnote, Sarkozy's easy relations with homosexual friends mark a change. In 2001, Sarko attacked Delanoe in a book (Libre) for coming out in public. "What got into Bertrand Delanoë, wanting at all costs to reveal his homosexuality?" Sarko wrote.


Plus for Sarko, then, but minus for Karoutchi's cabinet colleague Valérie Pécresse:

Politics are behind Karoutchi's coming-out. He is running in a party primary election in March for the candidacy for the presidency of the Ile-de-France -- the Paris regional government. His opponent is a cabinet colleague, Valérie Pécresse, Minister for Higher Education. Karoutchi was stung by what looked like an attempt by Pécresse to score off his homosexuality. She was asked to describe the difference between her and Karoutchi. "I am a mother in a family," she replied. There was also a whispering campaign on the internet, said Karoutchi.

Hamas an "Interlocutor" for France?

Le Monde states flatly, though without clear attribution, that "French diplomacy" is pushing for the European Union to open talks with Hamas. According to the article, Bernard Kouchner is now referring to Hamas as "an interlocutor." The paper ascribes the change in attitude to a judgment that the Gaza war has "imposed new priorities" and also says that the Obama administration "might abandon the line of unconditional support for Israel."

That last assertion begs the questions, "According to whom? Based on what information?" If France is floating a trial balloon, the responses from around Europe seem less than enthusiastic, to judge by the reports mentioned in the same article. Something is clearly afoot here, but I'm not yet sure what. À suivre.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Challenge for the Canon

A challenge now confronts the honorary Canon of St. John Lateran, who is also the president of France. The Pope has just reinstated four schismatic bishops, including Richard Williamson, who denies the Holocaust and said in an interview that the US staged 9/11. All are disciples of the late Archbishop Lefebvre, whose Paris congregation has also been welcomed back into the Church.

Since Holocaust denial is again an issue in France after Dieudonné's recent "award" to Faurisson at the Zénith, the president needs to speak out on this false step by the Pope. The opportunity is ripe for him to demonstrate what kind of republican he is.

For the view of a thoughtful Catholic blogger, see here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

FP on the Radio

I have advance word that French Politics is mentioned in the France Culture program Le Rendez-vous des politiques that will air tomorrow between 11 AM and noon, Paris time. Here's the link. Readers not in France can listen via the Internet. The guest is Benoît Hamon.

Spectacular, If He Does Say So Himself

On nonfiction.fr, an interview with Guillaume Klossa, who was an advisor to Jean-Pierre Jouyet during the French presidency of the EU, reflects on that experience. The interview, conducted by Mathias Mégy, a member of EuroNova, of which Klossa is president and founder, is a pure exercise in self-puffery and would hardly be worth your attention if it weren't such a perfect specimen of the way in which the French presidency has been inflated to some sort of world-historical achievement that not only could not have been done without Sarkozy but also points the way to the future of the EU.

By Klossa's reckoning, France's performance was nothing less than "spectacular." Thank heaven, he seems to say, for the two crises that demonstrated the indispensability of an energetic executive. Of course not a word is uttered about the failure to address long-term issues plaguing the EU, issues that had been at the heart of the French agenda before Sarko's six-month term began. Agricultural imports? The Common Agricultural Policy? Rebalancing of structural funds? Democratic deficit? European defense capabilities? A strategy for the long term regarding aspirant nations to the east (Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey)? None of these things matter, we are asked to believe, because Sarko shuttled between Moscow and Tbilissi and between Berlin and Washington. This is nonsense on stilts, and it wouldn't alarm me if I thought Klossa were merely behaving as a publicity flack, but I think he might actually believe what he says, and that others in France might believe it as well.

That is not to say that the French presidency was a bust. Sarkozy did effectively demonstrate that an energetic president can galvanize the intergovernmental process. The problem is that the process needs to embrace an entire agenda, not just the issues that happen to command headlines during a single president's tenure. Europe's real problems are long-term and structural. (See today's earlier post about the propagation of the economic crisis for what it reveals about structural economic difficulties in Europe.) France was entitled to drink a New Year's toast to its reasonably successful EU presidency. But it's now time to empty the champagne glasses, sober up, and face the problems that were not dealt with between July and January. The Czech Republic isn't going to do it. Jouyet's resignation as soon as the party ended suggests that France isn't going to do it either. Klossa's backslapping is a sad reminder of what was left undone.

Dati, Fuite en Avant?

Charles Bremner takes the news that Rachida Dati will accept the no. 2 spot on the UMP Ile-de-France ticket for the European Parliament as proof that she is on her way out as justice minister. He's probably right. The only real question is why she's lasted this long. Perhaps it's true that her mission of reorganizing the justice system was one that would have brought down the wrath of the establishment on anyone who attempted it. Perhaps, for all the Sturm und Drang, she succeeded more fully than is evident to an outsider. Perhaps it was simply that Sarkozy thought he owed her something, or doesn't like to admit mistakes.

The fact remains that her tenure was singularly tempestuous. If it is true that Sarko is now pushing her into a political career--if running for the European Parliament and accepting some kind of consolation prize from the UMP really constitute an entry into politics rather than a fuite en avant--it is hard to see her thriving there. She did well enough as a party attack dog during the campaign, but her subsequent performance as minister ensures that she will be remembered for her fangs rather than her pettable coat(s) of fur. She rose by attaching herself to a series of powerful male patrons, and she has wrapped herself in the trappings of wealth and glitz with the instincts of a true vulgarian for alienating not only those without money but also those who have had it for a long time (resentful of the parvenue) as well as those as new to the manor as she is (who think that even for a parvenue she lays it on too thick). At Justice her tenure has been marked by a zeal for punishment and indifference to liberties.

The symbolism of her appointment--a Muslim woman in a regalian ministry--raised expectations that she has been unable to meet. But even if she is now on her way out and headed for the political backwater of the European Parliament, I don't expect her to disappear. She knows how to work the media, and her ambition undoubtedly remains intact. The only question is where she will next set her sights and what route she will choose to get there. Strasbourg is certainly only a temporary detour.

The EC and the EU

On the propagation of the Economic crisis from west to east in the European Union.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jouanno Replaces NKM

Chantal Jouanno, énarque, ecologist, ultra-Sarkozyste, and 12-time French karate champion, is Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet's replacement as secretary of state for ecology.

Morin: No Help for Barack from Sarko

As predicted here months ago, France will not respond favorably in the short term to any request from the Obama administration for increased troop levels in Afghanistan. (h/t Dan Drezner)

Gloves Off

It looks like the gloves are off in the war between Laurence Parisot and parties unknown who would like to see her ousted as head of the Medef. L'Express reveals that she pays her personal advisor, Rosine Lapresle, 300,000 euros a year, making her the highest paid employee of the Medef. Lapresle's name has been linked to Parisot's before, in particular in this article dated last June. Given the nature of French libel laws, both publications dance around their innuendo. The elephant has nevertheless been released into the room.

Yesterday it was Sarko and his personal trainer; today it's Parisot and her personal advisor.

No R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Of Aretha Franklin's rendition of My Country 'Tis of Thee at the inauguration Jean-Claude Narcy said this on TF1: “Vous avez vu, comme elle à interprété ça ! On devait chanter comme ça dans les champs de coton !” Rama Yade tried to correct him: “style incantation dans les églises." Guess there's no French word for Gospel-cum-Soul.

Not a "Crumb Sweeper"

The UMP is not a "crumb sweeper." Ramasse-miettes: it sounds better in French and puts one in mind of one of those fancy restaurants where the snooty waiter makes you uncomfortably conscious of what a messy eater you are by ostentatiously cleansing the table of the detritus of your meal. But in this case the term is being used metaphorically, by Axel Poniatowski, to describe Eric Besson, the Socialist turncoat who seems promis à un bel avenir in Sarko's UMP. Sarkozy likes the chap, for whatever reason, and it's no secret that he isn't all that keen on any number of the caciques of the party that served him so admirably as a vehicle to the presidency. So he's doing a makeover with young, fresh blood: Xavier Bertrand, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, and now Besson. Gone are the streetfighters who came in from the cold, abandoning the extreme right for the corridors of power. The new cadres are sleek, ambitious, telegenic--"modern," in a word.

It's an interesting maneuver. One would have thought Eric Besson, the economist, a better man to take charge of the stimulus plan than Devedjian, the brass-knuckled party enforcer, but Sarko has switched their roles. Besson is beholden to the president, sa créature as they used to say in the Ancien Régime; Devedjian was not, and wasn't altogether with the program. Perhaps that's why he's been kicked upstairs. Bertrand also owes his ascension to his principal.

But a strategy of noyauter de loyauté is no doubt too simple an explanation. There is also a change of rhetoric from harsh and combative to smooth and persuasive: le boniment, quoi! Bertrand used to sell insurance. Now, in a time of crisis, he will sell assurance, and Besson will help him out with statistics for the boys with the green eyeshades. The party's not a ramasse-miettes: it's a corporation, and the staff at human resources has sifted through the talent and put the people with the best front in the publicly visible posts. The guys with the brass knuckles can work in the bowels of the organization.

Socialist Stimulus Plan

Here it is. And it's got some good ideas.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Eurozone Tensions

Let me, following Barry Eichengreen, restate the question of the euro posed in a previous post in a way that left Bernard "bored." Yes, indeed, the cost of exiting the Eurozone would be prohibitive for a country like Greece. Nevertheless, there is also a very large cost for having opted into the system. Eichengreen reasons in terms of a symmetric economic shock and an asymmetric financial shock. Indeed, faced with a sharp reduction in growth ahead, capital is fleeing for safety. In the United States, that means buying short-term Treasury bonds: real interest rates on 3-month T-bills are now negative. In Europe, the flight to quality means abandoning the sovereign debt of countries perceived to have structural deficit problems or serious housing bubbles. The consequences will be harsh: austerity budgets, wage reductions, transfer payments (bailouts)--and then social unrest. How much longer before the troubling political consequences begin to manifest themselves? In Greece, perhaps we have already seen the beginning with the recent riots, which, far from a fait divers, may prove to have inaugurated a year (or years) of discontent. Will that galvanize the ECB at last to take the final step with the Fed?

If Bernard is still bored, I recommend this.

Negationism: Why France?

Henry Rousso attempts to answer the question of why France has been such fertile ground for Holocaust negationism. A summary of his article can be read here.

Tectonic Well-Being

It seems that Carla Bruni brought her president not only happiness and serenity but also a personal trainer, Julie Imperiali, who specializes in Tectonic Well-Being, with a special focus on the perineum:

Her method - focusing on the perineal muscles at the bottom of the pelvis - not only improves posture and delivers a healthier body and mind, but it also improves the sex lives of all her clients, Imperiali claims.


More here.

Jealous?

Libé depicts Sarko as sulking jealously in Paris while Obama is anointed in Washington. That may be, but Libé also says that one reason for the alleged jealousy is that "Obama enjoys an extraordinary popularity in his country, which has never been the case for his French counterpart." Polls put Obama's approval rating at 72 to 80 percent, which is indeed extraordinary, but Sarko, shortly after his assumption of office, enjoyed an approval of 72 percent, as high as any French president at the beginning of his term (and indeed, he remained at 65 percent two months into his term. Don't believe me? "You could look it up," as Casey Stengel used to say). To be sure, there is a special aura around Obama, in part because he is the first black president, in part because he comes to office in desperate times, and in part because he succeeds one of the worst presidents in American history, whose eviction from office was greeted by many as something of a deliverance. Sarko may yet have reason to be jealous, if Obama proves clever enough to avoid squandering the great élan that accompanies his accession to the presidency. But it's a little premature to be sulking on Inauguration Day, unless it's because Sarko is still miffed by Obama's refusal to meet with him during the transition period.

Le Roi des Cons ...

... est Christian Estrosi, who attributes the election of Barack Obama to the occult influence of Nicolas Sarkozy and ""l'impulsion qu'il a donnée ces dernières semaines aura sans doute quelque part pesé sur le comportement des Américains"." Something to remember on Inauguration Day.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Parisot and the UIMM's Secret Stash

Eco89 has the latest investigative reporting, long on inuendo, short on evidence.

Copé Wants to Referee

There is tension, it seems, between Roger Karaoutchi and Valérie Pécresse. Both want to head the UMP list in the next regional elections in Ile-de-France. Jean-François Copé wants to referee the contest. Anything to give himself a little authority. When one wants to be president, any opportunity to assert oneself as primus inter pares is welcome.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"La République des Tartuffes"

"La République des Tartuffes vient, encore une fois, de se faire taper sur les doigts."

This is Eolas's description of a decision by the Europe Court for Human Rights, which has vindicated the editorial staff of PLON for publishing the memoirs of General Aussaresses, in which the general acknowledged the official use of torture by the French army in Algeria. The Tartuffes of the Republic had tried to suppress the book, ostensibly on the grounds that it was an "apology for war crimes" but in reality because the powers-that-be felt that it would be better if that dark chapter in France's history were not revisited.

This decision is not without interest for the vigorous debate that is now taking place in the United States about what to do about torture ordered by the Bush administration. Eric Holder, the attorney general-designate, testified in Congress that he believes waterboarding is torture. Susan Crawford, who is in charge of military commission at Guantanamo, has said that she believes that at least one inmate there was tortured. The incoming administration now faces the problem of what to do about these acts. Will it prosecute them, or will it prefer to jouer les Tartuffes de la République?

The A400

Europe is a long way from a unified foreign policy. It is also a long way from possessing a unified military capability that could act beyond its borders independent of the US. Arguably, without the capability to project force, the need to come to agreement about policy is diminished. Everybody is entitled to an opinion, but action invariably selects one opinion from among many.

Europe's hope of developing an independent force-projection capability hinged on a new airplane: the Airbus A400M, a heavy-lifting turboprop transport of new design. But the plane is in serious trouble. The technical difficulties have proved far greater than Airbus envisioned. And there is talk of abandoning the project altogether.

Food Fight

The Bush administration, in a parting shot, retaliated against the EU ban on hormone-treated beef imports by imposing a 300% tariff on roquefort. Why roquefort? Why a French cheese? Why the refusal to accept that some safety-related bans may stem from honest disagreements about what is safe rather than devious designs to protect home producers? Compromise has never been the way of the Bush administration. You're either with us or against us (especially if you're French, Sarko the American notwithstanding).

Well, at least it wasn't Mont d'Or or Époisses. There are acceptable substitutes for roquefort.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to a pointer from reader Leo, I see that my friend Jacques Mistral has weighed in (entirely appropriately) on this crisis:

Jacques Mistral, head of economic research at the French Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris says Thursday's move reflects a last-gasp provocation by the Bush administration, which has never forgotten France's emphatic non before the invasion of Iraq. Mistral — who was economic adviser at the French Embassy in Washington during the stormy period from 2001 to 2006 — says the current swipe at Roquefort will prove less economically threatening than the Iraq-triggered American public boycott of France's wines in 2003 — and shorter-lived than the deportation of French fries from Congress' menu. "Even from this administration, I was astounded by such a grotesque, petty and inefficient gesture in its last hours in office," Mistral says. "No U.S. sector benefits from this, and there's no way the E.U. will reverse its ban on hormone-raised beef that consumers here don't want. I suspect we'll see this move reversed by the new administration as both obnoxious and futile."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Eurozone Interest-Rate Spreads



Jean Quatremer calls attention to increasing interest-rate spreads on Eurozone sovereign debt (with the German 10-year bond as a benchmark). France is paying a small risk premium of 38 basis points relative to Germany but has improved its position relative to the Eurozone average (see graph). More surprisingly, so has Spain (which has suffered from a severe housing bubble). Greece and Italy are in the biggest trouble in the eyes of bond traders. Quatremer wonders whether the euro will survive the pressure. At this point I think the fears are exaggerated, but let's see what the fallout from the latest round of US bank troubles will be.

Rocard

Michel Rocard has announced his retirement from politics at the age of 78. I have had some critical things to say about some of his rather bizarre recent statements, but his career as a whole deserves more serious consideration, which I don't have time to give it right now. In the meantime, there is this from Pierre Moscovici, one of the few Socialists to acknowledge Rocard's contribution to the evolution of the Left. It's worth a look, though I think it's time to get beyond the conventional dichotomy between virtuousness and realism: to set les sulfureux machiavélique--Defferre, Mitterrand--against les anges spirituels mais conspués--Mendès France, Rocard--is to indulge in a narrative strategy that reduces the art of high politics to bathetic melodrama.

Unions

Yesterday, à propos the wildcat strike at la Gare Saint-Lazare, I alluded to a difference of opinion between the CGT and SUD-Rail. At Telos today there's an interesting article by Guy Groux on the relative support for various unions in the recent élections prudhommales. Perhaps the most significant figure is the abstention rate: close to 75%. So it can't be said that any union is doing well. But Groux's main point is that there is no evidence that more "militant" labor tendencies such as SUD are gaining noticeable new support despite the crisis and discontent with the Sarkozy regime.

Growth Revised Downward


When Christine Lagarde boasted a while ago that France was doing better than its neighbors because its economy was estimated to have shrunk only 0.7% in the 4th quarter of 2008, I said that it was only a matter of time before the estimate would be revised downward. Now it has been, by 0.4 points, to -1.1%. Growth for 2008 overall now stands at just 0.7%. And there is worse to come, as the adjacent graph of industrial capacity utilization shows.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

La Main de Moscou?

Back in the good old days of Eurocommunism, the spokesmen for the right used to drop dark hints about la main de Moscou and the hold that it had on les Socialo-Communistes and their Programme Commun. Now comes word that the son of a Russian oligarch is about to take control of France Soir. I guess Moscow has a right hand as well as a left. It's enough to make you long for Hersant and Dassault.

An Untimely Article

Sylvester Eijffinger argues that Europe's inflation risk is much higher than its deflation risk and that the ECB should therefore postpone further interest-rate cuts. The ECB evidently thinks otherwise: it cut its rate to 2 percent today (Trichet statement here). It was announced yesterday that the consumer price index in France declined for the fourth consecutive month (this is headline and not core inflation and is thus influenced by the sharp drop in energy prices, but still ...).

Quality of French Medical Care Questioned

How good is French health care? Anecdotal reports of major medical errors have been widely publicized of late, but do these reflect a decline of standards? The Institut Montaigne has published a new report by Denise Silber, who claims to have applied quantitative measurement techniques to medical outcomes and found serious deficiencies in the French system. The report is available here.

Immigration

As Hortefeux moves on to greener pastures, Patrick Weil looks back at his record as minister of immigration and finds his figures suspect. And Le Monde reminds us that Sarko has been in charge of immigration policy for six years. Whatever happened to those ministerial audits that were supposed to measure performance and ensure that ministers did not inflate their achievements?

Mini-Remaniement

As expected, Brice Hortefeux has become minister of labor, replacing Xavier Bertrand, who becomes head of the UMP. Ex-Socialist Eric Besson takes over at Immigration and National Identity--I will omit comment on the ironies. The surprise: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet takes over Besson's job, and it seems that the appointment of a souverainiste as digital czar, rumors of which I mentioned yesterday, did not happen: NKM conserves that portion of Besson's portfolio. Christine Boutin is minister of housing but no longer of cities.

In short, all's quiet on the western front, and the ship of state sails calmly on as if everything were going as planned.

Dada Lives

This is unbelievable. I'm speechless, but others aren't (see here and here).

No one has commented, however, on the representation of France as a crude sign reading "Grève!" This is an injustice! The frequency of strikes in France is way down. No longer are these "the contentious French" immortalized by Charles Tilly.

Of course it would have been hard to prove that at the Gare Saint-Lazare the other day. As everyone knows, this major Paris railway station, which handles 500,000 travelers a day, was shut down by a wildcat strike after an assault on a conductor. To ensure the safety of the public, the SNCF ordered a complete shutdown of the station. Sarkozy insisted on an apology from the state-owned railroad, whose president had anticipated him by hotfooting it down to the station platform at six in the morning to offer his personal amende honorable to harried commuters. The CGT blamed it all on the more militant SUD-Rail union, which it accused of "exploiting" the assault incident to press demands that had been simmering for some time, and which received partial satisfaction in the wake of the turmoil. SUD-Rail claimed a victory for the working class. The public was not amused, and, as usual, the national TV network served up any number of men and women in the street who denounced the cosseted public-sector workers who "enjoy privileges we don't have yet take their grievances out on us." This is rich, when you know that the person behind the camera is also a cosseted public-sector worker, but it keeps the president's ire directed at the SNCF rather than France Télévisions. And so it goes. Maybe the French are still contentious, even if they aren't as likely to go out on strike as poetic license would have it.

One thing is clear. The "minimum service" law, one of the vaunted achievements of Sarko's Hundred Days, isn't working as intended. The "social dialogue" at the SNCF is no less sour than it used to be, and when the lads are in the mood to strike, no obligation of préavis is going to stop them. What's more, the walkout was merely the culmination of a series of 59-minute strikes over the previous month. Why 59 minutes? Because SNCF work rules specify that unauthorized absences of an hour or more result in loss of a full day's pay, but the price of a 59-minute coffee break is much more affordable. The railroad president now wants this rule changed. Will Sarko oblige, or will he sack the boss instead?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Economic Freedom?

Well, the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation have no use for France, which ranks just 64th in the measure of "commitment to free-market capitalism" preferred by those august institutions. Thus France lags behind Albania and Uganda. Of course the stalwarts of bien-pensant capitalism urge upon us Hong Kong and Singapore as the examples to emulate. As Matt Yglesias observes, "Long story short, they think we should become a dictatorial East Asian city state."

Yglesias continues:

Or think about the Employee Free Choice Act. Conservatives claim that making it easier for workers to form unions will cripple the economy. But consider these union density stats:

  1. Hong Kong — 22.1 percent
  2. Singapore — 18.5
  3. Australia — 20.0
  4. Ireland — 35.0
  5. New Zealand — 21.1
  6. United States — 12.0
  7. Canada — 29.7
  8. Denmark — 80.0
  9. Switzerland — 25.0
  10. United Kingdom — 28.4

Long story short, by conservatives’ own lights these major elements of progressive social policy are completely compatible with sound overall economic policy. But health care reform and a stronger voice for labor would help ensure that the gains of economic growth are shared broadly rather than leaving us stuck in the Bushonomics trap of debt-financed middle class consumption growth. And I would argue that egalitarian measures like a stronger health care system and the better wages that come from higher union density help forestall political demand for the kind of labor market regulations that you see in the southern European countries that this Heritage/WSJ study frowns upon.

Right.

La Légion d'Honneur and the Media

Two journalists, Françoise Fressoz and Marie-Eve Malouines, upon learning that they had been designated to receive the Légion d'honneur, demanded that their names be removed from the list. They had not solicited the award, they said, and presumably did not wish, as journalists, to appear beholden to the government. But Rue89 points out that, contrary to widespread belief, one does not have to solicit the honor to receive it.

As it happens, I will soon be attending a ceremony in which the Légion d'honneur will be awarded by the French ambassador to an eminently deserving American scholar, and one who has frequently been critical of French policy. Is there something compromising about receiving a government award when one is in a position--as journalists and critics are--to criticize the government?

I don't think so, but at least one commenter on this site quite some time ago accused me of being "soft on France" because the wily Frogs had had the foresight to make me a chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in anticipation of my becoming a political blogger (and indeed years before blogs existed). Not to put too fine a point on it, he (or she) accused me of taking a dive for France because I had been bribed with a Republican bauble (actually it's a rather nice little medallion, but really nothing to compare with the hefty metal disk minted at La Monnaie and handed out by the Académie Française). Frankly, it would take more than a lapel pin to turn my head, though I'm sure there are some who covet a cross enough to offer a quid pro quo (Proust was certainly able to imagine it). But then there is Paul Krugman, who did not refuse to be honored by George Bush after receiving his Nobel. Has he taken a softer line on Bush since then? Not that I've noticed. We may all have a price, but we don't all want to be paid in the same currency.

As one friend said to me about French awards, "ça ne se demande pas, ça ne se refuse pas, ça ne se porte pas." This is the puritanical leftist view. It works for me.

L'Ouverture, Encore de l'Ouverture, Toujours de l'Ouverture

L'ouverture was all the rage at the beginning of the Sarkozy regime. One simply had no idea that there were so many on the left so eager to serve France that they were willing to overlook their publicly professed loathing for opposition to Sarkozy to join him in government. With time the novelty faded, though on occasion the name of this or that personnalité disgusted with his comrades and ripe for débauchage surfaced in the press. Jack Lang--will he or won't he? He won't, it seems. Claude Allègre? Does anyone care?

But now Sarko seems to have decided that the left vein is tapped out and is preparing to turn to the souverainiste right. Bruno Retailleau, a close ally of Philippe de Villiers, is rumored to be in line to replace Eric Besson, the Socialist transfuge, in the post of digital czar.

What does it mean? Not much. Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister raised hopes that President Sarkozy might not be quite the same man as lean-and-hungry Sarkozy. Bruno Retailleau raises no hopes at all. Not even fears. At most a yawn to be stifled.

France, Its Own Museum



Pierre Assouline has a little fun with Sarko's latest brainchild, a Museum of the History of France. The opportunities for irony are numerous: ”L’identité n’est pas une pathologie,” for instance. And the cartoons of Descartes and Spinoza will curl the corners of your mouth.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

France-Bashing Is Back at Bloomberg

Boz has the story. Here's the Bloomberg editorial. Michael Sesit, the author, allows the much-discussed irritants of Sarkozy's personality to color his judgment of French foreign policy under Sarkozy. He fails to appreciate how problematic the Euro-skepticism, to put it mildly, of the current Czech leadership makes the Czech presidency of the EU. He refuses to see that Sarkozy's very flaws can sometimes play a useful role: his egotism encourages him to run risks that others might avoid, and he seems to be undeterred by the prospect of losing face. This can be helpful when other actors are too cautious and unwilling to take chances and explore remote possibilities. Yet while he can be as brash and overbearing as Bush, he has never been as reckless. Thus Sesit's closing advice, that investors had better be "wary about owning European assets" until Sarkozy sends the Foreign Legion into Gaza--well, it quite takes the breath away. We are back, it seems, to the depressing days of 2003, when the French were wimps and men were men (as well as American). This is foolishness (as is this Post editorial).

Trust

Last year, Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc attracted a good deal of attention by diagnosing France as a "society of distrust." An endemic lack of trust, which they claimed to have measured empirically, was, in their view, blocking progress toward necessary reform of the French social model. Now Eloi Laurent has produced an important and persuasive critique of the Algan-Cahuc thesis. You can read his analysis here. Highly recommended. (For additional comment on the Algan-Cahuc thesis, see these earlier posts.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Vallini Resigns

Reader MYOS calls my attention to an interesting little kerfuffle in the PS. Martine Aubry tried to discipline André Vallini, the PS national secretary for justice, because he expressed his views on the proposal to eliminate the juge d'instruction without her authorization, although she was careful to say she didn't disagree with him on the substance. Vallini then resigned in a huff.

Now, you can look at this in two ways. Aubry is behaving like an autocrat--a Sarkozy of the left, if you will. Or, if you're more sympathetic, you can say that Aubry is trying to impose some message discipline on a notoriously undisciplined party--which, one might argue, is long overdue. Still, there are right and wrong ways to impose discipline--or, rather, productive and counter-productive ways. Brusqueness is a leadership style, and Aubry may be able to make it work for her. Then again, she may wreak havoc.

No Remaniement, but One Demotion

So, Claude Guéant let it be known that there would be no remaniement announced at this week's meeting of the council of ministers, but Sarko has moved Martin Hirsch from Solidarité Actives (does this mean that the RSA needs no further attention?) to Youth, which used to be under the aegis of Sports and Youth, the responsibility of Bernard Laporte, who has not been in favor at the palace.

Tribunal révolutionnaire et culturiste


Well, this might be a hoot: La Princesse de Clèves goes on trial. Philippe Sollers has been released on his own recognizance. If I were in Paris, I would surely attend.

New News Site

A new international news site, GlobalPost, launches today. I mentioned this because I've agreed to allow them to repost articles from French Politics. They have feeds from many other global news blogs as well. Check it out.

Lycée Reform

After success retreats on the issue of lycée reform, President Sarkozy is trying to regain the initiative. He has assigned Sciences Po head Richard Descoings to embark on a fact-finding mission, or, as the Elysée rather more effusively puts it, "une mission "d'analyse, de compréhension, d'écoute et de proposition" sur la réforme du lycée."Although this has the feel of the time-honored practice of assigning a thorny and intractable issue to a "blue-ribbon commision" that will lay it safely to rest for another few years, it may turn out to be more than that, since Descoings is no neophyte at the political and media game. But don't expect action anytime soon.

Liberal Blogs Become Hack Target in US

Discussed here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sarkozy's Impatience

An interesting comment from Bernard Girard this morning on Sarkozy's recently renewed zest for reform. Unlike many commentators, including myself, Bernard thinks that Sarko's motive is not to enhance presidential power (he's no different in that respect from his predecessors) but rather "to eliminate anything that might stand in the way of rapid execution of his instructions." His impatience is structural as well as characterological: the short duration of the quinquennat makes it essential for a president who intends to run for reelection on a platform of "reform" to get rid of procedural obstacles to getting things done. When it was possible to donner du temps au temps, one could temporize, dicker, negotiate, or simply outwait one's opponents. Now one has to steamroller them.

Procedural bottlenecks are not merely impediments to impetuosity, however. They are also checks on autocratic temperaments. An obstacle removed today in the name of efficiency is a potential point of resistance absent tomorrow when it may be needed. This is not an argument for government by quagmire, in which the headlong rush to disaster is prevented by ensuring that every attempt to move forward ends up to its axles in the muck of soggy opposition. It is, however, a brief on behalf of dialogue. When obstacles are eliminated and carefully prepared reforms rush ahead to conclusion, there is little opportunity to take account of the voices of those affected, whose resistance to change, while sometimes narrowly self-interested, may at other times afford an opportunity to impart useful information to would-be reformers, without which their project, however efficiently executed, is doomed.

Stimulus to Date

Libé attempts an accurate accounting of French bailout and stimulus measures to date and reduces Patrick Devedjian's incredible figure of 428 billion euros to a more plausible 50-60 billion, including both loans to banks and new investment.

Which is still a lot of money--3 percent of GDP--but it's not all "stimulus," a point that Libé fails to make clearly. Sarkozy himself seems intent on obfuscating this point. He has been extolling the state for making "a good investment" by lending to banks at 9 pct. "Is there anyone here whose savings are invested today at 9%?" he taunted his audience.* Well, on the one hand, he's counting his chickens a bit soon: the loans haven't been repaid, and in the nature of things the risk of default is not insignificant. On the other hand, banks borrowing from the state at 9 pct must need the money pretty badly, and they're not likely to be lending it on at a higher rate. This is a backstop in the form of emergency bridge loans, not a stimulus.

*Mais surtout, c’est 10,5 milliards placés à 9%. Je demande : y-a-t’il un seul d’entre vous qui aujourd’hui a placé ses économies à 9%?

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Contradictions of Anti-Capitalism

Olivier Besancenot may not head the NPA list in the upcoming European elections because he is afraid of winning (which would take just 6.5% of the vote in Ile-de-France) and thus being forced to become an MEP--O! cruelty of democratic institutions--or else resign in favor of a comrade, an expedient he would prefer to avoid. He is also troubled that subscriptions to the NPA are falling short of expectations.

More on les Petits Juges

I expressed concern yesterday about the proposal to replace the juge d'instruction with the juge de l'instruction, which may reduce the independence of the justice system. An anonymous commenter calls attention to four interesting articles on this theme, here, here, here, and here. Two of these articles also indicate why one needs to worry about the independence of state television networks, another point I raised yesterday. Thanks to Anonymous for the leads.

STILL MORE from Eolas here.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gaston Lenôtre, a Parable

I suppose one might see the life of Gaston Lenôtre, which ended today, as a parable of recent French history. Born in l'Eure in 1920, he was rooted in the great tradition of Norman cuisine. His parents were cooks. He was an innovator who prospered during les Trente Glorieuses by throwing off the shackles of the tradition that simultaneously nurtured him:

«Mes collègues pataugeaient dans le conformisme», dit-il. Lui veut rompre avec les codes traditionnels de la pâtisserie et conçoit des gourmandises plus légères et aux saveurs nouvelles. Il invente des gâteaux tels que «Succès», à base de pâte de macaron et de crème de nougatine, au nom prédestiné.


And with succès came notoriety and the lure of expansion, incorporation, multiplication. With Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé he opened the Pavillon de France at Disneyworld (!). He operated the Restaurant Panoramique at the Stade de France. He sold his name to the Accor hotel chain, a global conglomerate. His passing drew comment from Nicolas Sarkozy, who said that he had raised pastry-making to an art. One is reminded of Yasmina Réza's snarky description of Sarko swallowing mouthfuls of bonbons at a reception somewhere in the fin fond of France.

Le coeur d'une civilisation change plus vite, hélas, que le coeur d'un mortel.

On Dati and Dad

The Dati saga continues: she is now at the center of a maelstrom about whether it is heroic or contemptible for a working woman to forgo the three months of maternity leave to which she is entitled. Charles Bremner also drops a strong hint as to the identity of the father. Follow the link if you desire enlightenment.

New World, New Capitalism

Those interested in the "Nouveau Monde, Nouveau Capitalisme" conference can follow it here on video. Sarko's speech is interesting for the number of times he addresses "chère Angela" by her first name but also, more seriously, for the rather aggressive distinction he draws between "old Europe"--still young in its head, he says--and the prodigal son, America, the root of all (present) evil. In Roundtable 1, Jean-Paul Fitoussi is particularly worth listening to on "the regulation of states and the deregulation of the market ... rules versus discretion."

The Gas War

Russia's annual winter dispute with Ukraine over the price of gas is interesting from a game-theoretic point of view. Russia's intent seems to be to signal to all its trading partners, not only the Ukrainians, that it holds over their heads a sword of Damocles.* But of course the maneuver also reminds said partners of the utility of moving their heads from time to time. In particular, they can see how wise they would be to diversify their gas supply.

France drew this conclusion early on, and while Sarkozy has actively pursued bilateral deals with Russia, he has also been active in seeking long-term contracts with other suppliers. And France has been successful at this game: it is more diversified in its gas supply than any other European country and least threatened by the current imbroglio. To be sure, geography helps: there is gas in North Africa, and transport of LNG by ship across the Mediterranean is more feasible for France than for north European countries. But as I've noted before, France has also been positioning itself and its GDF-Suez enterprise to become a gas broker for all of Europe. This is a good example of the "entrepreneurial state" that Sarkozy spoke of this morning (see previous post), but it is hardly a response to the crisis. It is a long-term strategy that began long before Sarko's arrival in power and that was never threatened by any neo-liberal vicissitudes of policy. Energy policy is a strategic national security matter. France has always known that, and the frigid winter, the strained electricity grid (nuclear-powered though it is), and the rumblings from the East serve only to drive the point home.

* I don't wish to be a party to the ideologicization of this crisis. The "gas weapon" is being wielded by Ukraine as well as by Russia. Ukraine is in dire straits economically and cannot afford to pay more for energy. It is hoping that international pressure--and loss of revenue to a Russia already suffering from falling world energy prices--will force Russia to moderate its terms. For an immoderate anti-Russian view, one can reliably turn, of course, to The Corner, which, while recognizing that "government-connected oligarchs on both sides maneuver to profit," nevertheless manages to interpret the situation as one in which "Russia ... is pressuring Ukraine to submit to its will."

What the EU Might Accomplish in the Middle East

Outsourced to Judah Grunstein.

The Entrepreneurial State

"The most important fact about this crisis is that the state is back." So said Nicolas Sarkozy at the sommet de secours that began in Paris today.

What a long way we have come from the early days of the Sarkozy regime. Then the watchword was "France is back!" Meaning that Sarkozy's realignment of French foreign policy and reconciliation with the United States had lifted la grande nation out of the pariah status to which it had been consigned by a hegemonic America piqued by French opposition to its supreme status in the world. And of course one basis of that reconciliation was Sarkozy's supposed acceptance--nay, enthusiastic embrace--of "Anglo-American neo-liberalism."

And now, with the mere substitution of "l'État" for "France"--"l'État est de retour"--we leap from Sarkozysme I to Sarkozysme II. Of course both constructs are rather mythical. Sarko I was hardly the neo-liberal he sometimes pretended to be; state capitalism was never far from his heart. And Sarko II is hardly the commissaire au Plan that his rhetorical formula might suggest. He hasn't the means, for one thing, and there is no Plan,* for another--and there's no plan, either. For all this talk of state intervention, there's been precious little action and even less in the way of a comprehensive blueprint.

But Sarko is the consummate surfer. He likes to hang ten on the edge of his board and let the wave of the Zeitgeist carry him triumphantly to shore, while he cuts an impressive figure against the azure of sky and surf. Let's see how confident he looks another six months into the Great Depression of the 21st century. But by then, of course, he'll be riding another wave: Obama spoke yesterday of the need to take a fresh look at entitlement programs. How long before Sarko follows suit and launches an attack on les conservatismes that stand in the way of necessary reform of la sécu?

* i.e., The Commissariat général du Plan no longer exists.

ADDENDUM: Maybe Sarko would like to compare his glittering generality--"entrepreneurial state"--with Obama's list of specific state-financed entrepreneurial ventures: alternative energy, building renovation, computerization of medical records, equipment of schools and libraries, teacher training, etc.

Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba


Le Point compares Sarko to Napoleon. Nadine Morano goes them one better: "Qui lui arrive à la cheville ? Pour l’instant, personne. Pour moi, il y a Napoléon, De Gaulle et Sarkozy. Entre, c’est peanuts." What could possibly be the basis of such hyperbole? Alain Duhamel sees "chez Nicolas Sarkozy un Premier consul contemporain, à ses débuts, un Bonaparte en frac." And then there is this bit of purple prose, that can only be ironic: "Campagnes d’Egypte. L’un emmène ses généraux, l’autre sa nouvelle compagne. Les deux partagent la même passion pour cet Orient compliqué qu’ils veulent démêler, par les armes pour Bonaparte, par le verbe pour Sarkozy."

If I were to compare Sarkozy to Napoleon--which, Lord knows, I would do only under duress or in response to foolishness like Le Point's, which must have come out of a bibulous New Year's Eve party--I would focus on the slow but steady reinforcement of executive prerogatives: the arrogation to the president of the power to appoint the head of France Télévisions, for instance. Or the move to diminish the independence of the juge d'instruction and bring her under the direct control of the administration.

But perhaps Le Point had the big picture in mind: Napoleon conquered Europe, Sarkozy assumed its rotating presidency for six months. Même combat, n'est-ce pas? The difference, as Nadine Morano might say, is "peanuts."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Copé Takes It on the Chin

Last night marked the end of advertising on French public TV networks. The question of how to finance these stations is now real. Jean-François Copé promised not long ago that there would be no increase of the broadcast tax during his lifetime. His colleagues in the UMP evidently don't wish him well: they voted to increase the tax.

The End Is Nigh

Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who is said in passing to have "arrived at the Parti Socialiste with Das Kapital in one hand and a crowbar in the other," has written a book, Le Génie du Socialisme. The reviewer feels the need to remind us in a footnote that the title is "probably" borrowed from Chateaubriand's Le Génie du Christianisme. If la culture générale has withered to the point where readers need to be reminded of the title of Chateaubriand's opus, it is probably worth reminding these same readers that the work heralded the death, agonizing and slow to be sure yet ultimately irrevocable, of Christianity in France. To claim that Cambadélis' work will do the same for socialism is not only premature but no doubt gives Camba too much stature by treating his calque of Chateaubriand's title as something more than a joke. Still, ça donne à penser ....

Sarko Storms the Holy Land

Nicolas Sarkozy was all over the Middle East yesterday, "occupying the terrain," according to L'Express (a role that a more realistic analyst might have thought reserved for the Israeli Defense Force) and speaking truth to anyone who would listen. It was as though he were still president of the European Union, much to the annoyance of Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini, who said that "when everyone conducts his own mission, it weakens the strategic position [of Europe]."

Judah Grunstein offers a robust defense of Sarkozy's zeal for the role of mediator here.

Reform by Definite Article

A major reform of the French system of justice is in the works: le juge d'instruction will be replaced by le juge de l'instruction. Beyond that, Le Monde, in its wisdom, chooses to tell us nothing about the proposed reform except that "Sarkozy envisage de supprimer le juge d'instruction pour confier l'ensemble des enquêtes judiciaires au parquet, sous le contrôle d'un magistrat du siège, appelé juge de l'instruction." I, for one, am not enlightened. I hope that Maître Eolas will see fit to explain the change with his usual acumen. In the meantime, I note that this reform is uncharacteristically discreet for Sarko: instead of the usual esbroufe, we have reform by definite article.

Slightly more information here. Still more here (am I the only one who thinks that Rue89 may well be the best "newspaper" in France, even though it exists only on the Web?).

Lamy Will Stay at WTO


Pascal Lamy will stay on as head of the World Trade Organization, according to the Financial Times. Two explanations are offered:

“Lamy is the best head that the WTO has had in terms of understanding the detail of the negotiations and recognising the disparate views of all parties concerned,” said Ngaire Woods, professor of international political economy at Oxford University.

“But the fact that no one is standing against him is a depressing sign. If countries thought that the organisation really mattered, someone else would stand.”


Sarkozy won't be happy. Although Lamy isn't quite as much of a bête noire of the French president as former EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, he's not Sarko's favorite international bureaucrat. Yet it seems as though agricultural trade policy, which was to have been a focal point of the French EU presidency, somehow fell through the cracks, what with the flareup in Georgia and the collapse of the global economy. Haggling over imports of wheat and frozen fish got lost in the shuffle. So the latent tensions with Lamy never came to a boil.

Monday, January 5, 2009

French Provincialism?

Is the study of history in France particularly nationalistic or "provincial"? Caroline Douki and Philippe Minard make the case in a special issue of Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, reviewed. here:

The image that Caroline Douki and Philippe Minard paint of France is much more pessimistic. They use their introduction to fairly virulently criticise French university institutions, questioning the “provincialism of French universities, the fundamental conservativism of an institution stubbornly resistant to international openings in comparison to other countries.”


I'm not at all sure that their assessment is correct, even if their frustration is understandable. Perhaps they should attend a meeting of the American Historical Association or Organization of American Historians and weigh the nationalist bias of American history against the French.

To be sure, globalizing histories are fashionable of late and "area studies" are an artifact of the past. The practice of history would be a lifeless thing if it were not perpetually attempting to redefine itself. But "the global" is only the latest of frames that have been proposed to supplant the nation-state. On en a vu d'autres. If the nation persists as a center of historical gravity, it may have something to do with the nature of historiography as practice embedded in a particular cultural universe. The nation-state need not be the most pertinent frame for every historiographic theme, but for some purposes it is, and for better or worse the national/cultural frame remains a key element in history's ability to resist subsumption in the imperial disciplines of economics and sciences humaines. For that alone it deserves perhaps two cheers.

University Presidents Unhappy

France's university presidents have sent an open letter to President Sarkozy questioning whether he is really committed to university reform. They cite a failure to make good on promises to provide new funding commensurate with the supposed autonomy of the universities under the Loi Pécresse, as well as a reduction of personnel in higher education, as evidence of a lack of commitment to excellence in research and teaching, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Stimulus spending could well be directed to this sector, where its long-term effect could be significant.

Esther Duflo

Speaking of exceptionally talented economists, Esther Duflo, who teaches at MIT, has been awarded the chair in "knowledge against poverty" at the Collège de France. Her inaugural lecture is Jan. 8, for those of you who are in Paris.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why the French Can't Compete ...

... in the upper reaches of academic economics, at any rate. Except of course for those exceptional few who do. But Etienne Wasmer explains how the deck is stacked against the rest. A quite illuminating look behind the scenes of academic recruitment.

Rockefeller Center No Place for Books

Pierre Assouline takes a hard line on the closure of the Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center. You don't find bookstores on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris either, do you? asks Assouline. He's right of course, economically speaking. Naive New Jerseyan that I was, it had never occurred to me, when I visited the librairie as a youthful student of French, that it was there in the "temple of wealth," as Assouline calls it, only because the Rockefeller family wanted a "European presence" in its Gotham seat.

Bibliophile that I am, I confess that over the years I bought only one or two things at the Librairie. The prices were always high, and the store, with its higgledy-piggledy arrangement and steep stairway, was hardly a model of organization. Here in Cambridge, Mass., we still have Schoenhof's, which, despite the name, is (or was at one point?) owned by Gallimard and features a fair selection of French books. But with Amazon.ca and Amazon.fr only a click away, the foreign bookstore-as-cultural-bridgehead survives, I think, chiefly as a purveyor of textbooks and syllabus-reading for foreign-language courses at nearby universities. So I'm afraid that I've been contributing in recent years to the decline of the French bookstore in the United States, even as I support beyond my means the publishing industry in France. I will survive the demise of the Librairie de France and would survive even the demise of Schoenhof's, as long as the Internet and international postal service continue to thrive.

Centre Malcolm X

This could be interesting:

Banlieues : sous le feu des médias
il y a des journalistes politiques, économiques, etc… Il n'y a pas de journalistes spécialistes des banlieues.

Fin octobre 2005, la mort dramatique de Bouna et Zyed à Clichy-sous-bois est le point de départ d'un embrasement des banlieues françaises.

Pendant trois semaines, la télévision a consacré des heures d'antenne à ces événements, les banlieues et leurs habitants se retrouvant sous le feu des médias . Choix des mots, choix des images, choix des journalistes envoyés sur le terrain – reporters de guerre de TF1 - , choix des invités « bons clients » censés représenter les jeunes, discours dominant abondamment relayé, amalgames, stigmatisation des quartiers et des jeunes, absence d'autocritique des journalistes.

Avec quel impact sur la vision de la société pour le citoyen téléspectateur?

La première partie de ce film confronte des images issues de journaux télévisés et d'émissions, toutes chaînes confondues. Avec un principe : pas de commentaires de spécialistes des médias, uniquement des extraits, avec des images arrêtées, commentées et décryptées.

Ensuite, la parole est donnée à la banlieue, à des jeunes d'Aulnay-sous-Bois, qui reviennent sur leur rapport aux médias, à l'image donnée de leur quartier. Samir Mihi, éducateur sportif à Clichy-sous-Bois revient sur sa médiatisation. Une mère de famille raconte ce qu'elle a vécu après un passage au 20H de TF1. Enfin, un journaliste témoigne de son travail en banlieue et des choix rédactionnels.

(h/t G. Randow)

Q&A

Q. On what top-50 hit parade does Michel Drucker rank no. 14 and Nicolas Sarkozy no. 42?

A. This one.

What does it mean? You tell me.

Europe: The Coming Thaw?

In the old days of the Cold War, it was common to speak of a "thaw" whenever relations between the United States and the Soviet Union temporarily brightened. A new kind of thaw may be imminent in relations between the United States and the European Union. Europe may help Obama close Guantanamo, as he has promised to do, by taking some prisoners off American hands. In return, Europe wants the US to "soothe" the Russians over the provocative placement of missiles in Eastern Europe.

The Times article leaves considerable ambiguity, however. Europe itself is divided on the Russia question, the missiles and radars and whatnot. Have these divisions been resolved? And does credit for the thaw, if it comes, really belong to Condi Rice, as a State Dept. spokesman claims? One suspects that the Bush legacy rewriting team may be at work here, going so far as to hand out plaudits to Portugal (Portugal?) while scrupulously omitting any mention of Sarkozy, who is reportedly out-of-favor with the outgoing administration that lionized him only a short while ago. Even on Afghanistan, where Europe will be asked to pony up troops and material support but wants American assistance, we are told, as quid pro quo, the shift is attributed to Robert Gates, incoming as well as outgoing Defense secretary, and, again, Sarkozy is not mentioned, even though he took a political risk at home by increasing the French presence in Afghanistan, where French troops have suffered significant losses and where they fight with inadequate equipment--a case in point that the article might have emphasized.

I have often criticized Sarko for his penchant to take more credit than he deserves, but by the same token I don't think he should be denied credit where merited (which is not to say that I necessarily think he's right on Afghanistan, but he has taken the lead on the issue and in touting the move as a step toward reconciliation with the United States; and he has certainly worked to maintain European unity on the Russia question and to tone down American belligerence).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Shuttle Diplomacy

It looks like Sarko will be embarking on an intense round of shuttle diplomacy next week, with stops in Ramallah and Cairo before his scheduled visit to Israel, which will be followed by a visit to Damascus. Since Israel has now launched a ground invasion of Gaza, the moment doesn't seem propitious for negotiating a cease-fire. But Sarko has little to lose: if the situation changes, he stands to reap the credit, and Israel would probably not be averse to doing him a favor if it decides to call a quick halt to the incursion. The EU president--now Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic, not Sarko, called the invasion "defensive, not offensive." But it is Sarko, not Klaus, who will be shuttling among Middle East capitals on Monday and Tuesday, and there is always the possibility in this kind of operation that things can go quickly wrong.

FP Now on Twitter

Twitter users can now tune in to French Politics on their mobile devices by following "artgoldhammer".

Friday, January 2, 2009

Pap Ndiaye, the anti-Dieudonné

Le Monde today recounts the story of how Pap Ndiaye, the brilliant historian and author of La Condition noire, essai sur une minorité française, discovered "the black condition" that became his most recent subject while studying in the United States, first at the University of Virginia and later at the University of Pennsylvania. While in the US, he witnessed the Million Man March, which fascinated him but also alerted him to the brand of black anti-Semitism promoted by Louis Farrakhan. Thus he was among the first to notice when another French-born black, Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a son of Fontenay-aux-Roses, just as Ndiaye was of Antony (Hauts-de-Seine), adapted Farrakhan's rhetoric to France's distinctive set of racial conditions.

Ndiaye has been attacked both by followers of Dieudonné and by ultra-republicans, who reject his "Americanizing" vision of distinctive minority "conditions" and "communities" within a republic of formally equal citizens.

As for Dieudonné, his latest exercise in agit-prop provocotainment--a "comedy" sketch in which he had a stagehand dressed as a Jewish deportee deliver an award of "unfrequentability and insolence" to Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson--unleashed a chorus of denunciation. Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was in the audience for the occasion, pronounced himself "maybe a little shocked" by the brazenness of his erstwhile friend, who has now upstaged him as France's most notorious anti-Semite. Dieudonné confessed that he felt compelled to turn to Faurisson because palling around with Le Pen had become too tame to draw the attention of the media. Curiously, the fading leader of the Front National thus found himself in a crowd of 5,000 young blacks et beurs* at the Zénith, where only recently Ségolène Royal appeared as earth mother to what she hoped would become the core of a new socialist youth movement.

Two visions, then, of la condition noire in France. One can only hope that Ndiaye's will prevail over Dieudonné's.

* According to Libé; I wasn't there to verify this characterization of the audience that Dieudonné attracts.