Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fountain of Youth

Ah, the good old days are back! I haven't read anything like this in Le Monde since I was in short pants:

Bien avant que Kurt Gödel ne formule son célèbre théorème, Rosa Luxemburg avait publié une étude sur l'accumulation du capital où elle exposait comment la survie du capitalisme dépend d'économies non-capitalistes. La logique capitaliste n'est viable qu'à condition de s'appliquer toujours à de nouvelles "terres vierges" ; mais en les exploitant, elle entame leur virginité précapitaliste et épuise par là même les ressources nécessaires à sa perpétuation.


The combination of pretentiousness (Gödel indeed!), certitude (la logique capitaliste), and "left-wing communism, an infantile disorder" (to borrow the title of a speech by Lenin) is breathtaking, and I would say quintessentially French, were it not for the awkward fact that this piece is traduit de l'anglais and signed Zygmunt Bauman.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hmmm .. what will Sarko say about this?

Ingrid Betancourt as seen by fellow hostages.

Perotti and Suarez Propose Tax on Financial Pollution

Enrico Perotti and Javier Suarez propose a Pigovian tax on financial pollution, similar to a carbon tax in its conception. The tax would create a liquidity insurance fund to prevent the kind of correlated runs on banks that precipitated the financial crisis. They also point out that some proposed regulatory reforms, such as higher bank capital ratio requirements, would be counterproductive. An interesting idea.

French Politics Is Child's Play

Via Mark Thoma:

Swiss adults unfamiliar with French politics were shown 57 pairs of photos of opponents from an old French parliamentary election and asked to pick which ones looked most competent. In a separate experiment, Swiss kids ages 5 to 13 played a computer game that enacted Odysseus' trip from Troy to Ithaca. Then, using the same pairs of photos, researchers asked the kids which candidate they'd choose to captain their ship. In both experiments, the adults and children tended to pick the winners of the election.

"Adults and children infer competence in precisely the same way, whether that [person] is six or seven — or 67. That is the shocking finding here," study co-author John Antonakis, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne, tells ScientificAmerican.com. "This stereotype is already formed in young childhood, which leads us to suggest this mechanism is innate or develops very, very rapidly at a young age."


So, let me get this straight: Sarko is Odysseus? Is Carla Penelope? And this was published in Science? For the record, the work was not done by the French research establishment, which a certain French leader has dismissed as "mediocre." It comes from Switzerland. How did the Swiss fare in the Shanghai rankings?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Guillotine Falls

Christine Lagarde was on France2 last night to respond to the news that France had added 90,200 to its unemployment rolls last month. She looked decidedly less confident than she did last December, when she also went on television to say that France was standing up to the economic storm better than its neighbors (the fall in French GDP was somewhat less than Germany's, for instance). The confidence seemed misplaced at the time, and now there can be no doubt that it was, for this is not a crisis that can be avoided by massaging the data, putting a bright face on things, or simply ignoring bad news.

The social tension is palpable. Although there has been no major explosion yet, no one will be surprised if the French descendent dans la rue before the year is out. It's in their moeurs, after all. The recent "general strike" will have been a mere dress rehearsal for a major showdown. Why do I think this may be coming? Because President Sarkozy has thus far shown no disposition to change course. He persists in thinking that the reform program he advocated during his campaign remains appropriate as a response to the crisis.

To be sure, politicians everywhere see crises not only as challenges but also as opportunities. As Rahm Emanuel put it, "a crisis is too important to waste." But in order to seize the opportunity, to advance an underlying political agenda, one has to appear to be responding to the immediate challenge. This is Sarkozy's error. He seems to be saying, "I have the solution, and it is the same solution I have had all along"--as if the detaxation of overtime, which may have made some sense in 2007, still makes sense in 2009, with offers of employment plummeting. To be sure, there are aspects of the original reforms that could easily be accommodated in a revamped crisis policy, but for some reason the president seems to be resisting all pressure to reformulate his goals. Instead, he is seeking international escape. He will press the G20 for "greater coordination" and "more stringent financial controls." These items do not constitute a political program; they're points 1 and 2 in every post-crisis leader's Boy Scout Oath.

Is the problem that there's nothing to be done, that France is in reality at the mercy of forces beyond its control? To some extent, yes, but there are always things to be done in the realm of framing the challenge. Communication had been Sarkozy's forte, but his skills as communicator seem to have abandoned him.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Latour Pokes the Hornets' Nest

Bruno Latour proposes to speak truth not only to power but also to les soi-disant contre-pouvoirs. Whether he will succeed in doing so is doubtful, however, given his rhetorical strategy: he compares striking university professors to taxi drivers blocking streets to defend their "corporatist" interests. Perhaps this is accurate; perhaps it isn't. But it is sure to provoke.

Nevertheless, Latour does perform a useful service by attempting to deconstruct the word "autonomy" and showing how both sides in the conflict abuse its vagueness. He asks, pertinently, why France, alone in the world, insists on maintaining a distinction between chercheurs and professeurs. He wonders about the confusion of dependency on the state with liberty and about the insistence that, because some critiques of the status quo are deliriously excessive, the status quo should therefore be defended tooth and nail. All of these criticisms are pertinent, as well as percutantes.

The rub is that Latour is really just as vague as those he criticizes about how power should be apportioned in the wake of reform, which is really the crux of the matter. Who will evaluate professors? On what grounds? Who will have the power to apportion their time among various activities and responsibilities? Who will make hiring decisions? How will some of the acknowledged deficiencies of the French system of recruitment be remedied? He doesn't really have answers. His questions are good, but they would be better if framed in a way that would encourage the adversaries to hear them. As it is, they are likely only to raise the decibel level and drown themselves out.

Fissures

It's always interesting to watch the fissures develop in the Socialist Party. It's almost a geological process. Each aspirant is a tectonic plate moved by the immense pressure of his or her ambitions. For a time a couple of these plates may move in tandem, but then an opposing force impinges from some odd angle, subduction occurs, and one begins to witness surface changes: a ridge or wrinkle developing here, a fissure there.

No sooner did Martine Aubry open the party leadership to a dozen or so Royalistes than we witness the emergence of a first fissure: Manuel Valls, only recently among the most vociferous of the Royalistes, called on the ex-candidate to stop stirring the pot, eschew polemic and controversy, and show the world the face of a "cool leader" rather than pursue a career as "spokesperson for the suffering" as she is doing in Guadeloupe. Wasn't it only yesterday that Valls was pledging to take the PS to court to block the election of Aubry? Apparently the former hothead of Reims has now anointed himself the "cool leader" from Evry.

To continue the geological metaphor: Will this friction trigger a volcanic eruption in the tropics?

Political Football


Larguée, l'Amara? À la dérive? It's true that we haven't heard much from the secretary of state for urban affairs in recent months, and the celebrated Plan Banlieue seems to have been swallowed up by the crisis sinkhole. But here she is on the job: in partnership with the Fédération Française de Football hard at work on "le dispositif Permis, Sport, Emploi," whatever that is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

French Lesson

Dominique de Villepin offers Le Monde's proofreaders the chance to deliver a lesson in French and in history:

L’Antiquité romaine fournit à l’honnête homme une foule de références historiques dans lesquelles il lui suffit de piocher pour briller en société : roche Tarpéienne ; oies du Capitole ; passage du Rubicon ; Varrus, où sont tes légions ? ; délices de Capoue, et bien sûr les fourches caudines, citées par Villepin dimanche dernier sur Canal+ : “C’est véritablement la France qui passe sous les fourches caudines d’un autre pays” (à propos du retour au “commandement intégré” de l’Otan ; cité par Le Figaro).

“Passer sous les fourches caudines”, c’est subir l’humiliation du vaincu : en 321 avant notre ère, les Samnites, vainqueurs des Romains, obligèrent leurs guerriers survivants à passer sous une sorte de potence basse (les fourches) qui les forçait à se courber devant les emblèmes des vainqueurs. “Caudines” vient du lieu, Caudium, en Campanie, où ce funeste événement se déroula.

Les “fourches”, grand traumatisme des Romains, furent comme leur Dien Bien Phu. Nous sommes reconnaissants à Dominique de V., poète et historien, de nous avoir fourni l’occasion d’en parler. On remarquera, sur l’image, que les fourches sont très basses, pour qu’un homme même de petite taille soit obligé de se courber : que personne n’y voie d’allusion perfide.


But really, is joining NATO quite the same as being forced to bow to the symbols of an enemy's omnipotence? Or was the enemy Villepin had in mind "un certain homme ... de petite taille" rather than the United States?

French Diplomacy

Maurice Vaïsse, France's premier diplomatic historian, looks back on half a century of French diplomacy.

La "poutinisation" du charisme

Weber spoke of the "routinization of charisma." Jean-François Kahn speaks of "la poutinisation" du charisme ... de Sarkozy. Crony capitalism, in other words. The latest case in point is the appointment of Friend of Sarkozy François Pérol to head the merged bank to be formed from the Caisse d'Epargne and the Banques populaires:

Deuxième problème qui revient dans les critiques, la « poutinisation » rampante, comme le dénonce Jean-François Kahn, de la gouvernance de Nicolas Sarkozy. Ce dernier est fort proche de plusieurs dirigeants industriel de Martin Bouygues à Patrick Kron (Alstom) en passant par Vincent Bolloré, Bernard Arnault, Serge Dassault. Il est tout aussi amical avec nombre de grands patrons des médias (qui sont souvent les mêmes, singularité française). Et voici maintenant que la nomination de François Pérol va en faire de cet ami proche du Président le patron de la deuxième banque française !

PS: Healing Begins?

Is the PS finally patching up the wounds from the battle of Reims? It seems that various associates of Ségolène Royal will be admitted tomorrow to leadership positions in the Aubry regime. Ségo herself, from Guadeloupe, has reiterated her "availability."

OK. Et alors? On s'engage, puis on voit.

French Housing Market Way Off

Report here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hold the Presses: French Minister Drinks Wine


Reacting to the bad rap on wine from the "mediocre" (dixit Sarkozy) French research establishment, health minister Roselyne Bachelot says she drinks wine and the government has no intention of issuing any warning against doing so: "Roselyne Bachelot says that alcohol should be consumed in a 'reasonable, cultural and balanced' way."

Cultural?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

French Anomaly on Banking Profits

Take a look at the last graph in this article. To the question "How much would you support banks focusing on serving local communities and industries rather than making profits?" only 30 pct of the French answered "strongly support," compared with over 40 pct of Americans.

True, the polls show that people everywhere strongly blame bankers, including central bankers, for the crisis. But this relative French tolerance of profit over community service is surprising, to say the least, especially in view of the previous graph, which shows the French much more strongly in favor of compensation caps for bankers than the Americans.

The Balladur Committee

The Balladur Committee is due to submit a report on an overhaul of France's regional and local government structure. With the Left currently in control of 20 of 22 regions, it's easy to say that the real intention of any reform proposal will be to alter the balance of power--and Jean-Paul Huchon, the président of Ile-de-France, has said just that. Of course it's also easy to insist that the "inefficiency" of the current system is glaring, so that reform is necessary. Finally, it's easy to claim that the reformers won't dare touch the "real" source of inefficiencies: the superfluous départements, the proliferation of tiny communes, the unnecessary duplication of structures and services.

Having made all of these "easy" observations, what is to be done? Politics at this level gets very sticky. "All politics is local," the late Tip O'Neill is supposed to have said, and "politics is property," according to the late Norman Mailer. In France, at any rate, local politics really is property in every sense: it's a source of revenue, a series of jealously guarded fiefs from which to launch national careers, an electoral base, and a recruiting ground for trusted henchmen. Every national pol needs a base behind the front lines to wage war successfully in Paris. Tinker with the base camps and you upset the balance of power. So the Balladur Committee's work is to be watched closely, but exactly what's going on and how the strings are being pulled, as well as what bargains are being struck, is impossible to judge.

Total in Yemen

The Times provides some excellent background.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

President Pats Cows Without Incident

President Sarkozy paid a courtesy call on 650 cattle, 550 sheep, and 140 horses and ponies without any incident of the sort that made last year's Salon de l'Agriculture famous around the world.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Little Levity

With the grim economic news (see previous posts), we need to pause for a little humor:

The Return of Capital Controls?

Willem Buiter thinks so.

"The Epicenter of Confusion"

Eloi Laurent takes a dark view of Europe's response to the crisis. Paul Krugman is equally bleak about the US. No hope in sight anywhere.

ADDENDUM: Simon Johnson backs up Laurent with data on CDS spreads for European banks--through the roof.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Foreign Press on Sarko's Speech

Rundown here.

UMP Rips Off MGMT

The UMP apparently used two songs of the American rock group MGMT (which I confess I had never heard of--I'm getting old, I guess) without permission and must now pay the group an indemnity. One critic says the group specializes in "shape-shifting psychedelic pop." Not a bad choice for the UMP, then, which specializes in shape-shifting hallucinogenic economic pap.

Sarko Convokes Les États Généraux

Uh-oh. They say that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it. President Sarkozy is convoking les États généraux ... in Guadeloupe. While he may have fared badly with La Princesse de Clèves in grammar school, surely at some point he read about what happened when the king convoked the Estates General. O! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira/les aristocrates on les pendra!

Rabat-joie

Oh, man, this is really too much:

"The consumption of alcohol, and especially wine, is discouraged," say guidelines that are drawn from the findings of the National Cancer Institute (INCA). A single glass of wine per day will raise your chance of contracting cancer by up to 168 percent, it says.


And these past few years I've been laboring under the pleasant illusion (?) that a glass or two of wine a day is good for the heart. Selective reception time. I'm just going to tune this warning out. Without wine and cheese, what is life?

My favorite French proverb: Est-ce que la vie vaut la peine? C'est une question de foi(e).
[Is life worth living? It's a question of the liver. -- The pun is different in English, but it still sort of works.]


A public service announcement:


Open A Bottle Of Wine Without Corkscrew - For more of the funniest videos, click here

Oral de rattrapage

The president last night announced a series of relief measures intended to ease the plight of those who live from paycheck to paycheck in this time of crisis. The total sum to be disbursed is estimated at 2.6 billion euros, which Benoît Hamon promptly denounced as "derisory, not a hundredth of what the Americans are spending." Well, I suppose if you add up the TARP funds here, the auto industry bailout there, the bank subsidies, the infrastructure spending, the tax cuts, yadda yadda, you might come somewhere close to the $3 trillion or so implied by Hamon's statement, but that would be comparing apples to oranges. Sarko did at least make a stab at showing that he had heard the pleas that he do something about le pouvoir d'achat.

Oddly, he made his decisions before holding the "social summit" that was supposed to discuss them. Of course this was just business as usual in the French style of governance. The government would not actually want to be seen responding to l'intérêt particulier de Machin ou Truc, so it pre-announces a plan that is soi-disant l'incarnation de l'intérêt général. And then all the representatives of l'intérêt particulier rush outside to announce their disappointment on le perron de l'Elysée.

It's always an affecting ritual, so monarchical in its mise en scène of supplicants beseeching the king to favor them with his largesse. But as Sarko sharply reminded Laurent Joffrin some months ago, "Je ne suis pas monarque, Monsieur Joffrin, j'ai été élu par le peuple de France." Indeed. And he is fond of reminding the French that "j'ai été élu pour faire X." It's an interesting twist on the logic of democracy. Sarko's reasoning is almost syllogistic in its simplicity: I was elected, I want to do X, ergo I was elected to do X. It is this conflation of the will of the people and the will of its agent that gives Sarko his autocratic air. Of course every agent of democracy will present himself as carrying out the will of the people, but there are less provocative ways to present the sleight of hand involved in substituting what a leader or party thinks is best for what the People in its mythical unity might think best. Sarko eschews such finesse.

But we must cut him some slack, since he is caught between a rock and a hard place: the European Union has warned France that it is in violation of its Maastricht budget obligations and that financial sanctions may follow. Europe's action is at once necessary and absurd. Necessary, because ignoring deficit limits "renders them inoperative," to borrow a phrase from the Nixon era. Absurd, because the economic emergency renders such limits ridiculous, and the European Commission's insistence on them irrelevant. It may be that we defend virtue by branding derogations from it vice, but when "vice" simply becomes the name for what everybody is doing--birds, bees, and finance ministers alike--then denouncing it becomes the affair of cranks and prudes.

On University Reform and Sarkozyan Governance

A very illuminating note by Bernard Girard on what the attempt to measure academic productivity says about Sarkozy's style of governance and its likelihood of success.

France, According to the Ad Men

The New York Times looks at French advertising this morning. Some choice quotes:

“That’s because we have always had a very unhealthy relationship to money,” explained Jacques Séguéla, chief creative officer for Havas, the country’s second-biggest advertising agency. ...“To us money implies corruption, and moreover, because we consider ourselves the inventors of freedom, never mind if that’s not true, we still consider advertising as a kind of manipulation,” Mr. Séguéla said. “This explains why television commercials started so late here — essentially because leftist opposition saw ads as corrupting the soul.”


“We’re not a Protestant culture,” said Stéphane Martin, director of the French union for television advertisements. “So we have difficulty accepting successful people and embracing advertising as a means of selling. And there has always been such a strong sense that the state should be responsible for public services, like television.”


“We stress sex and wit in our ads because that’s our culture,” Mr. Martin, the union chief, said. “Advertising is about presenting an idealized view of its audience. And this is who we would like to think we are.”



I can't wait for the French version of "Mad Men" (an American TV series about advertising men in the 1950s.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Autres temps, autres moeurs!

Is private life no longer taboo in France? Are the French becoming--horrors!--more American? More juvenile? One might think so upon learning that IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was mocked by humorist Stéphane Guillon immediately before DSK's appearance on RTL. Guillon's piece isn't particularly funny. Its humor derives exclusively from its amplification of DSK's randiness to Don Juanesque, not to say Gargantuan, proportions.

The subject of French political humor deserves a post unto itself. I may return to the subject. If only I could persuade someone with the funds to organize a colloquium at Harvard in which Jon Stewart and Nicolas Canteloup would discuss jusqu'où on peut aller trop loin (to borrow a phrase from Cocteau). From such a confrontation we might learn something important about the inner constraints and hidden sensitivities of the political cultures of our two sister republics.

Listen to Guillon (here) and tell me what you think. (Radical lampoon or alibi--discussion here.)

Three Economists Look at University Reform

Piketty, Paulré, and Laurent (who focuses on US universities in the crisis).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Danny Asks a Good Question

Daniel Cohen-Bendit asks why more of Total's 14 billion euro profit is not taxed to finance the development of renewable energy sources. More generally, why is the stimulus plan not more focused on advancing the environmental agenda?

Car nous l'avons tant aimée, la Princesse

There will always be a France. Sarko doesn't like La Princesse de Clèves, so, hop, thousands of his concitoyens have suddenly discovered that they do, un peu, beaucoup, à la folie. There is a marathon reading of Mme de La Fayette's ouvrage at the gates of the Panthéon.

My old haunts--not the Panthéon but the neighborhood. In 1978 I was an habitué of the Café Soufflot, just down the street, and lived at 214, rue St. Jacques, just around the corner. I can't say that I was struck at the time by a passion for 17th-c. literature--none that was evident in the streets, at any rate, or in the bookstalls, where one was more likely to find a beat-up copy of L'Ecume des jours with its cover torn off, or the latest Barthes in paperback.

But with characteristic genius for illuminating forgotten corners of French history (Georges Mandel, anyone?), Sarko has put the forgotten Princesse back on the map by making an example of her (see the clip at the first link above). If you want to take the exam to be a cop, you shouldn't have to memorize La Princesse de Clèves, the president argues. Seems reasonable enough, no? I mean, did you really have to memorize La Princesse, that model of exquisite delicacy and finesse, to qualify to swing a billy club or nab turnstile jumpers in the Métro?

In any case, the president chose to make an example of the princess. He was speaking off the cuff, joking--bullshitting, we might say in English (pardon my French)--and offhandedly committed a crime that innumerable guardians of the flame of French culture evidently regard as lèse-majesté. His joke was taken as a revelation of his supposed deep antipathy to things literary.

And no doubt it may have been, but his point remains a valid one, open to reasonable debate. Is it perhaps the case that a literary or at any rate verbal competence has been overemphasized in the French meritocracy, selecting for the wrong attributes in a world in which any exception to strict egalitarianism must be licensed by some demonstrated merit deemed to be in the public interest? Is it not the case, in fact, that literary merits have already been deemphasized in many areas of the meritocracy? Isn't the math-science filière (rather than the literary) the one most likely to lead to the grandes écoles these days? Perhaps nonverbal cops deserve the same break as nonverbal financiers and physical chemists--a different sort of examination.

I don't know. Maybe Sarko is just dredging up some childhood trauma of his own that has nothing to do with the realities of civil service examinations in France. Maybe his franc-parler populaire et populiste is entirely beside the point and is making him only enemies, eager to line up outside the Panthéon to read Mme de La Fayette in the winter cold. But his political instincts are usually pretty good. Maybe he's not the only person in France who prefers Marc Lévy to La Princesse de Clèves. But nobody stands on a soapbox outside the Panthéon to read Lévy. You don't win points as un ami de la culture française for doing that.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Confession

Anne-Marie Affret, Jean Tiberi's assistant in the 5th Arrdt., has confessed to registering fake voters, something she had previously denied.

More here.

DNA Testing Buried?

The controversial DNA tests for family reunification have been quietly set aside by Eric Besson, the new minister of immigration, according to this report. All that sound and fury for nothing? Was DNA testing always nothing more than a bone to be thrown to the far right to attract votes?

Royal Opposes Rejoining NATO

Ségolène Royal opposes Sarkozy's proposal for France to rejoin the NATO command structure. She sees the move as a "fallback onto the Western sphere," a forfeit of French independence, and a defensive move that harks back to the mentality of the Cold War and may, by implication, antagonize the Russians. France can best engage Obama's new American multilateralism by remaining independent rather than by signaling subservience (she does not use the word, but the idea runs as a thread throughout her text).

In other words, the Socialist Royal is espousing a frankly Gaullist foreign policy that the putative Gaullist Sarkozy deems outmoded.

Groux on Strikes

Guy Groux analyzes the evolution of French strikes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Trouble in Europe

From the excellent Baseline Scenario blog:

Europe is in bigger trouble than the U.S.

This is a theme that Simon in particularly has been sounding. Now, according to the Telegraph, a confidential European Commission memo confirms this. To review, the basic problems, relative to the U.S., are:

  • Disproportionately large banking sectors (the Iceland problem) in some countries, such as the U.K.
  • High exposure to U.S.-originated toxic assets (up to 50% of those assets, I have heard estimated).
  • Major exposure to emerging markets, primarily Eastern Europe and secondarily Latin America, which have been harder hit by this crisis than anyone else.
  • Higher pre-crisis national debt levels (for many but not all countries).
  • For countries that use the euro, no control over monetary policy.

Le Vieux Chef

Sarko has moved so far to the left, says Jean-Marie Le Pen, un brin provocateur, that he might just vote for Aubry in 2012 if it came down to a contest between the two of them. And though he might be old, France has a hankering in hard times for old leaders: just think, he says, of de Gaulle and ... Pétain. The guy may be old, but he still knows where to stick the knife in, and how to twist it to cause maximum pain.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

"Atavistic Instincts"

The New York Times this morning features an article on strains within the European Union, but the focus is almost entirely on criticism of France by other countries, most notably the Czechs. Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech foreign minister, sees "atavistic instincts" emerging in the midst of economic crisis--and the only atavistic instincts on display are the protectionist gestures of Nicolas Sarkozy: his subsidies to the French auto industry and verbal pressure on French firms to repatriate jobs exported to the Czech Republic. The Czechs were already miffed, of course, by Sarkozy's attempt to exclude them from talks on Gaza. It seems that Angela Merkel was also put out by Sarkozy's attempt to do an end run on the official EU representation, so she offered Topolanek a ride to Jerusalem on her plane, a detail I'd not heard before.

Perhaps it's time for a little fence-mending.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Une révolte? Non, sire, une révolution.

No resolution in sight in Guadeloupe, but Sarko has yet to board his jet for the island. Instead, rumors circulate that Yves Jégo, the man in charge of pesky little overseas territories, is on his way out for having allowed things to get so far out of control. M. Jégo seems a little exasperated with "les organisations patronales" in Guadeloupe--a polite term for the white overlords who rule the black population, which has been demonstrating in massive numbers: "A crowd of 20,000 in Pointe-à-Pitre ... is the equivalent of two and a half million in metropolitan France." That calculus may be a bit dodgy, but the implication that the upheaval in the Caribbean is but the first sign of the social fallout from the economic crisis and will soon spread from periphery to center is to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, the opposition is speaking out where the president has remained silent. Olivier Besancenot sees "grounds for inspiration" in the uprising and a model for "what ought to be done in the coming weeks in France." And Opinionway now has Besancenot outstripping both Ségo and Martine as the Left's best shot against Sarko in 2012 (but hasn't Opinionway been accused of instrumental polling in the past, and what better way to sink the Left than to panic the PS into emulating Besancenot's revolutionary saber-rattling?) (h/t Boz, Éloi).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Pro-Reform Prof

Here.

Coup de foudre?

Ségolène Royal called her former rival un m'as-tu vu. She didn't know the half of it. It's all in Jacques Séguéla's book, more vulgar than life. For my taste, anyway. But you won't read it in the French press. (Correction: Actually, you will.)

I don't think the phrase coup de foudre really applies to what Charles Bremner describes as a "rather cheesy chat-up." More like a tonnerre de breast (with apologies to Capt. Haddock for stealing his thunder).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A reader asks ...

A reader tried to post this comment but couldn't:

"Art, What's your take on Jean Quatremer's hypothesis that Sarko mentioned the Czech Republic specifically to send a signal to Topolanek to get serious about a special EU summit that Sarko wanted?

See last paragraph of this.

My answer:

Mmm, wonder what's wrong with Blogger? I saw Quatremer's post yesterday. How does he know? To my mind, Sarko's sally served any number of purposes, and prodding toward the summit was the least of them. The problem is that he's now created an expectation in the unions that he really is going to prevent outsourcing. And look at Volvo's response to his attempt to impose conditions on hiring and firing in Volvo plants in France. "No, thanks, we don't want your aid." Quatremer's view is Eurocentric, and I think Sarko spoke mainly for domestic consumption.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sarko and the Banks

If The New York Times is right about Tim Geithner's bank bailout plan bis, it will be interesting to have President Sarkozy's reaction. Geithner has come down squarely against punitive actions against the banks and their officials, even those whose decisions he acknowledges were major precipitants of the crisis. Sarkozy in recent weeks has taken a much harsher line toward banks, at least verbally and to some extent pragmatically, in limiting executive compensation. To be sure, Europe's banking system seems to be less dysfunctional than the American system, and Geithner appears to have taken the position that the emergency is too dire to indulge in the pleasure of punishing the guilty, whose technical knowhow he says is needed at the moment. Sarkozy is not so constrained, and is free to harass riskophilic financiers to his heart's content.

Politically, Sarkozy is surely wise to put himself at the head of the angry crowd. Obama is taking a huge risk in choosing to reward, or at least refrain from punishing, vice. Even if the maneuver is successful, he may suffer for it. The misdeeds of the bankers are too palpable, and their continuing self-indulgence is plain in a way that the workings of the credit system are not.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Trouble in Utopia

Initial signs are that the Leftist Front for which some who situate themselves to the left of the PS were hoping n'aura pas lieu. Here is Jean-Luc Mélenchon's account of his disappointment with the launch of the NPA.

Mubarak Joins Sarkozy

A coup for Sarko: President Mubarak of Egypt has invited him to co-chair a conference on the reconstruction of Gaza. This gives Sarko a major role in another crisis, the sort of international action he craves, and which is his form of escape from intractable domestic difficulties.

Brown and Topolanek Miffed

Britain has frittered away its industrial plant, Sarko suggested in his televised meeting with the press last week. Gordon Brown is not amused. Downing Street has telephoned Paris to remind the French president that industry accounts for 14% of British GDP, not far below the French figure of 16%. Meanwhile, Czech prime minister Topolanek is fuming about Sarko's implicit threat to punish French auto companies that outsource to the Czech Republic, demonstrating the difference between an honest-to-God neoliberal and a neoliberal in sheep's clothing like Sarkozy.

Felix Salmon Defends the ECB ...

... on its incrementalist approach to rate cuts, here.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sarko-Pander

Jean Quatremer makes a good point: Nicolas Sarkozy's crisis discourse is internally contradictory. On the one hand he calls for a coordinated global response. On the other hand he excoriates the idea that a French car company might want to cut costs by outsourcing some of its manufacturing operations to the Czech Republic. It's OK for Renault to build an auto plant in India to sell to Indians, but to build in another EU country to sell to Europeans is not "economically patriotic."

Of course Sarko is not alone in being of two minds about liberalized trade, especially in these times of crisis. Just witness the flap in the US over "Buy American" provisions in the stimulus bill. But it's one of the frustrations of Sarko's style of "communication." He loves the didactic mode, in which hand-picked interviewers toss him softball questions that he can twist as he pleases, and he allows himself to say one thing and then another to put the questioner in his place without bothering overmuch about possible contradictions between this and that. No one is going to challenge him to reconcile X and not-X, not as long as he occupies the bully pulpit. His ability to maintain this pose through an hour and a half of questioning is impressive in its way, but wouldn't you really like to see him go for just 15 minutes with a couple of well-chosen economists rather than 90 with Pujadas, Ferrari, Lagache, and Duhamel?

Are the U-Strikers Winning?

Axel Kahn, president of the U. de Paris-Descartes, who had supported the university reforms and whose name was invoked by Pres. Sarkozy as a left-wing backer of the plan, now says that the reform effort cannot succeed if the present course is followed. He has called on Sarko to go back to the negotiating table. This is a major defection, and I predict a tactical withdrawal by Sarko and Pécresse in the next few days. (h/t Laurent Bouvet)

The Guardian on University Strike Issues

See here. (h/t Maîtresse, who includes her own participant/observer's account of events.)

Mon Dieu!

What is France coming to? Un coco can't sell l'Huma on the streets without "prior authorization?" (h/t Bernard G.)

An Efficient Market?


Paul de Grauwe rightly points out that the market for European sovereign debt has gone nuts. So much for the efficient markets hypothesis. Interestingly, there seems to be a "racial" component to the bias (blond bonds carry lower risk premia):

It is difficult to understand, however, why the market (and the rating agencies) forecast a default of the Spanish government debt, while they do not forecast trouble for the UK, which has a debt build up similar to Spain’s and a more serious banking problem.

Friday, February 6, 2009

One American's View of the University Strike


A fellow American blogger is in France for a semester of study and takes a dim view of the university strike: "Evidently these days, $20,000 does not ensure that the service purchased will be delivered." The comment, which to some French ears may seem peremptorily and quintessentially American, does point to an important issue of incentives. When education is provided as a purely public good, there is a tendency for resources to be overused and undermaintained: the "tragedy of the commons" can be seen at work in many places in the French university system. When education becomes a costly private good offering the potential for substantial private gains, the system's "customers" demand more, and "providers" will compete among themselves to meet the demand. Neither incentive structure is without perverse effects, even leaving aside the question of equal access. Paying customers may demand football stadiums rather than chemistry laboratories. They may prefer showmen to scholars in the classroom.

That said, I think that the disgruntled customer quoted above is wrong to dismiss the concerns of his professor about his status as "the infantile whining of a middle aged man." Indeed, the strike itself is a learning opportunity perhaps more valuable than what would have been covered in the missed lecture. A careful reading of Olivier Beaud's explanation of the attitudes of teachers, to which I posted a link yesterday, can serve as a useful introduction to the "bureaucratic phenomenon" as it applies to the French university. Indeed, the issue is not that professors are exempt from "the standards faced by millions of private sector workers every day," by which Boz presumably means evaluation by hierarchical superiors. The question is rather a shift in the locus of evaluation, and whether that will produce a better or a worse result. It is also how the evaluations will be used to apportion responsibilities between research and what the ministerial document interestingly calls "service" (i.e., teaching). To be sure, there is no doubt a strong element of corporatist self-defense in the resistance to change, but there is also genuine disagreement about how best to meld the university's dual mission of advancing knowledge and providing a "service." The paying customer may have a right to expect prompt service in exchange for his fee, but the university is also a public good whose mission needs to be publicly debated if the balance between private gain and public benefit--another kind of "service"--is to be made right.

ADDENDUM: A professor defends the professoriate.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Still Punching


I didn't watch the whole Sarkoshow. I'm not sure whether he's lost his touch or I've just tired of his style, but he seems to have lost the capacity to surprise. He's like an old actor--a Nicholson or a de Niro--who has ceased to act and simply parodies himself. When he's on the defensive, as he was tonight, he loses his playfulness. He becomes a counterpuncher, as when he insisted that the loans to the banks were moneymakers and that the proceeds would be put to use "exclusively for social programs." Clearly he's gathered that people are upset that banks are being bailed out while working people can't make ends meet. He was clever enough to defend the rescue of the banking system by invoking the Capra film, "It's a Wonderful Life," though I wonder how many people in France have seen it.

And a bit of free media counsel: if you're going to do Meet the Press in the Elysée, lose the ultra-contempo modular office furniture that looks as though it was ordered from an Ikea catalog. It just doesn't go with the sumptuous backdrop, or with the equally sumptuous Laurence Ferrari, whose blouse put me in mind of the haute couture lovingly described by Zola in La Curée.

From a Reader

On university reform:

Dear Art,
to "balance" the post from Le Figaro":

As an introduction to the debate the video of Sarkozy's discourse (and some data) that has been read as a provocation from right to left (his contempt is palpable...)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyBXfmrVhrk

(Sorry ... this link no longer works, but I leave the comment as is.)

More importantly, Olivier Beaud's (law professor at Paris II) view -- the best presentation of the reform project-- technical, serious and opiniated:
http://www.sauvonsluniversite.com/IMG/pdf/QSF_note_Beaud_statut.pdf

The Sarkoshow

So, I'm watching the Sarkoshow live, and I will reserve serious comment until later, but a couple of things for now. Don't Pujadas and Ferrari look like Ken and Barbie seated side by side? Doesn't Sarko sound like he's campaigning again: "Le coeur de ma campagne était la réhabilitation du travail, M. Pujadas!" And why is it "Monsieur Pujadas" and "Laurence?" A little égalité, Monsieur le Président! Or would you rather be called Nicolas?

Le Torchon Péan

Pierre Péan, the investigative journalist who revealed that Mitterrand had received a medal from Pétain, has a new book attacking foreign minister Bernard Kouchner. There has been a good deal of noise about the book's discussion of Kouchner's work as a consultant to dictatorial regimes in Africa. Less attention has been paid to Péan's own biases and to the questionable techniques he uses to blacken Kouchner's name. He recounts a scene in a restaurant in which Kouchner allegedly stood, hand over heart, while the English national anthem was played at a televised soccer match, while he sat, indifferent, during La Marseillaise. This anecdote supports an allegation that Kouchner is motivated by "le cosmopolitisme Anglo-Saxon," a phrase that harks back to the use of the same word, cosmopolitisme, in the 1930s to accuse Jews of nursing extra-national loyalties. The cover depicts Kouchner arm-in-arm with George W. Bush.

These tactics are not subtle, and Jean-Michel Aphatie exposes them on his blog. Charles Bremner is also worth reading on the subject. Le Monde takes it up in an editorial. Kouchner has defended himself in public, not always to good effect. On France2 last night, he answered David Pujadas' questions with an odd mix of theatricality, belligerence, and self-aggrandizement. But whatever one thinks of Kouchner's flair for self-dramatization or of his political choices, nothing excuses an attack as base and scurrilous as Péan's.

University Reforms

A correspondent responded to my call for academic views of the university strike movement by sending an article by Chantal Delsol, which is to appear in today's Figaro, although I can't yet find it on line. It's written with an acerbic pen and worth reading. Here is the conclusion:

Il est probable qu'au moins dans un premier temps, les universités renâcleront à appliquer ce décret, sous la pression du mécontentement interne. Mais l'inusable bon sens est le maître de l'histoire. Peu à peu, on se fatiguera de l'égalitarisme imbécile qui impose d'appliquer à la lettre, dans la société civile, la parabole des ouvriers de la onzième heure. Les universitaires jouissent d'une liberté entière quant au contenu de leur enseignement et aux thèmes de leur recherche. Ils sont protégés par leur statut de tout licenciement ou écart de salaire. C'est bien le moins, qu'on leur demande quelque compte sur l'étendue du travail fourni. Quant à l'argument selon lequel personne ne saurait les évaluer, parce qu'ils ne sont en aucun cas des salariés ordinaires... n'y a-t-il pas là une jactance patricienne, marouflée sur le discours égalitaire ?


Now there's a blast that should provoke some response. Let's hear from some strikers or sympathizers!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bickerton on Badiou on Sarko

Christopher Bickerton, who has contributed to French Politics, has a new article on Alain Badiou's book on Sarkozy. Two noteworthy paragraphs:

Sarkozy’s love of crisis management – exemplified in the French presidency of the European Union, which was transformed into a permanent crisis-management machine, from Ireland’s no to the Lisbon Treaty, the Russo-Georgian war, and the global financial meltdown – is another symptom of his relative powerlessness. Resolving crises, especially diplomatic crises, substitutes for a longer term political programme; urgency has its own meaning and logic, like war, which absolves those involved from providing any meaning of their own for what they do and why.
...
Badiou decodes Sarkozy, but in a way that exaggerates his power and his purpose. Sarkozy’s boundless energy and forceful obsession should alert us to the vacuity of his political project. Far from being a neo-liberal demagogue or a state terrorist in the making, Sarkozy’s politics are pragmatic, short-termist and opportunistic. This corresponds to the underlying social disorientation and it is typical of both the left and the right. Sarkozy’s rise has signified not only the decomposition of the French left, but also of the French right.


Exactly right.

Leibniz Meets Voltaire

"Il y aura bientôt trois siècles, Leibniz et Voltaire, un Allemand et un Français, ont réfléchi à ce que pourrait être le meilleur des mondes." So begins the joint statement of Sarkozy and Merkel on European security. The ironies here are multiple. Surely the aide who penned this phrase for the two leaders knew that Voltaire's Candide was a send-up of Leibniz's all-too-sanguine rationalism. And surely a French president who likes to highlight his role as honorary canon of Saint John Lateran ought to squirm a bit at the implied analogy with the author of "Écrasez l'infâme!"

But leave aside these quibbles with this ill-conceived stab at historical literacy and consider the substance of the statement. It is remarkable for its robust reaffirmation of Franco-German cooperation on security matters as the heart of the European project, which it is. It is also remarkable for its emphasis on cooperation with the United States. And finally, it is remarkable for its blunt statement that EU-NATO cooperation is not what it should be.

The ball has now been firmly smashed into Obama's court. The two European leaders are saying that they want and need to do more on the joint security front. Is the United States prepared to respond constructively to their bid? We shall see. If I were Hillary Clinton, I'd be on a plane to Europe soon.

Finally, Sarkozy and Merkel stress the importance of a new "partnership" with Europe. Thus there is an overture to the east as well. Putin will no doubt be studying the communiqué as carefully as Clinton. It will be interesting to see what comes of it. At the very least, Leibniz and Voltaire deserve good marks for attempting to overcome their differences and look to the future.

Coup de Semonce

An IFOP poll has Sarko's approval rating down to 41 percent. In itself that figure would be neither surprising nor alarming, given the economic downturn. What should have Sarko concerned, however, is that the coalition he so laboriously assembled to win the presidency is coming apart at the seams. His support among FN sympathizers has declined by 30 percent; among Bayrou sympathizers, by 20 percent; and among PS sympathizers, 7 percent. It was his ability to draw from each of these groups that made him more than the representative of a party. If he is reduced to the UMP president, his legitimacy will shrink, and he will have a harder time maintaining control even within the UMP, where the frondeurs periodically rear their heads.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Justice at the Elysée

Le Monde thinks we ought to know about Patrick Ouart, Sarkozy's legal counsel. Il tutoie le président. He is "feared." He is "in command, perfectly sure of himself and his influence. His enemies hold their tongues." The man "loves the shadows." He "doesn't much care to be talked about."

OK, already, we get the picture. L'éminence grise. The heavyweight behind the scenes. Referred to by his friends as "monsieur le Garde des Sceaux" at the "8:30 meeting of favored advisors at the Elysée." Right. We get it. He has the "horsepower" that Rachida Dati lacked. This is the guy who will get the job done. Whatever that job might be. A man to watch, clearly. To watch very closely indeed, since he "has a stranglehold on everything pertaining to justice at the Elysée": for instance, he "oversees all the twists and turns of the Clearstream affair." Oh, really? Justice, you say? Or is it rather "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord?" He also "manages all cases in which M. Sarkozy deems himself to have been injured." Yes, justice indeed. Justice must be done.

Thy Will as well, My Lord. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ah, bon?

UMP spokesman Frédéric Lefebvre claims that it was not presidential ire but a complaint from CGT head Bernard Thibault that led to the transfer of the prefect of La Manche. We are asked to believe that it was because CGT demonstrators were mistreated that the official's performance was found wanting. À la bonne heure!

Ségo Tries Her Own "Ouverture à gauche"

If Sarko can take Socialists under his wing, Ségo, who has previously expressed her appreciation of Tony Blair and François Bayrou, yesterday turned to her left, even her extreme left, saying that there were "no unbreachable barriers" between her and "what is called in France the extreme left." At the anti-Davos summit in Brazil, she said that representatives of parties of government found it possible to enter into constructive dialogue with altermondialistes, social movements, and even anti-governmental parties of the extreme.

This is merely a continuation of the view that Royal has defended since her defeat, that victory for the left depends on building a broad coalition ranging "from Besancenot to Bayrou." But Besancenot is meanwhile being wooed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a recent defector from the Socialist Party, and has shown no interest in responding to Royal's overtures.

University Strikes

Academics throughout France will be going on strike this week, suspending courses, withholding grades, and taking other actions to protest the Pécresse reforms. I am not so foolhardy as to attempt to evaluate the competing claims as to whether the proposed reforms will help the university to "adapt" to society's changing requirements or, on the contrary, destroy a system that, despite its flaws, is functioning, according to its supporters, tolerably well given the intolerable failure of the government to support it with all necessary means. Here is a manifesto from the protesters. Here is a critique of the reforms by Nobel physicist Albert Fert and other distinguished colleagues. And here is a defense of the reforms by several university presidents.

I would appreciate hearing the points of view of French academics who know the system from inside. Comments can of course be posted anonymously by those who prefer. It is of course one thing to say that the system is clearly in need of reform, which I believe is the case. It is another to say that this reform will do more good than harm. I invite comment on either assertion.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Uh-Oh!

This trouble spot has been brewing for some time. Germany and France have been bickering over the participation of Siemens in Areva's nuclear operations. After attempting to increase its equity position in order to gain more control over Areva's management, Siemens has now thrown in the towel and is looking instead toward greater cooperation with ... Russia. The switch has implications beyond the world of industry. Here is yet another obstacle to the emergence of a common EU foreign and defense policy. To say nothing of energy policy.