Thursday, April 30, 2009

Leaks and Intrigue at the Quai d'Orsay

According to Vincent Jauvert of Le Nouvel Obs, the U.S. State Dept. is concerned about the leak of a confidential document from the Quai d'Orsay, while French foreign ministry officials believe that the leak was a concerted in-house operation to paint French diplomacy as "excessively pro-Israeli."

Hmm. We have the makings of a rather obscure plot for a thriller. I can't wait to find out whodunit.

Greater Paris

What could be the most important decision of Sarkozy's presidency was announced yesterday at la Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine. We have nothing like that ubiquitous French word patrimoine in English. Patrimony, heritage, legacy don't capture the resonance of the ages in the French word, the sense of a common wealth of public goods combining, in the best of cases, utility and beauty, and transmitted through time.

The new train route, all 35 billion euros worth of it, will circumnavigate Paris, but, more than that, it will, if the planners are right, alleviate the centripetal pressure on the historic core and animate the burgeoning periphery, whose vast extent most tourists never grasp. Paris is a huge bassin of humanity, a complex ecosystem of new and old growth, and every so often the future of the agglomeration is altered by some ambitious new plan to modulate and reshape the chaos that every vital city encompasses and disciplines as best it can.

I recall some of the early battles over the RER, a project at once radical and conservative. The conservativism is evident in the convergence of lines in the cavernous station at Châtelet, as if it were impossible to conceive of a Parisian circulatory system that did not have its heart somewhere close to the city's historic center. The new line purports to have no center, yet its circumference certainly implies one. Still, it will move people tangentially, not centripetally, in recognition of the fact that the region has become a congeries of edge cities rather than a single historic city with suburbs. In that it marks a real new departure.

This is the new growth pattern everywhere, but it has been easier for other cities to adapt because they don't generally have the root-and-branch identification with centralism that Paris has. Le Grand Paris marks a revolution in mentalities as much as in motion. I don't imagine I'll live long enough to see its ultimate effect on my favorite city in all the world, but no doubt it will be as great as that of le mur murant Paris qui rend Paris murmurant.

Macho Diplomacy

Judah Grunstein is impressed by Bernard Kouchner's brass balls:

Mr Kouchner then requested that the UN be given access to the civilians trapped with the Tigers.

When the Defence Secretary responded that it was not safe for anyone to enter the area, Mr Kouchner volunteered to go himself.

"A smiling Rajapaksa told the French Foreign Minister that the LTTE was so desperate that he, too, would be taken hostage," the report said.

"I don't mind that risk," said Mr Kouchner, who co-founded the medical aid agency, Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders).

The Sri Lankan defense minister was not amused, however:

“My problem is not what the LTTE will do to you,” he was quoted as saying. “Instead it is that should such a thing happen, we would not be able to take Prabhakaran as planned!”



Wednesday, April 29, 2009

National Security Threat

Uh-oh. Big trouble for France:

Hundreds of 'highly intimate' images of the French president's wife and her former lover have been stolen during a burglary.

The photographs and videos of Carla Bruni, who is on an official trip to Spain with Nicolas Sarkozy, date from the 41-year- old's affair with philosopher Raphael Enthoven.

Thieves broke into the Paris flat of his brother, 27-year-old actor Julien Enthoven, where the prints and videos were being kept, and stole them.

Police believe the images could be posted on the web, serving to embarrass Nicolas Sarkozy or be sold for a sizeable sum, thanks to his third wife's status.

And then there's this:

A week earlier £500,000 worth of jewellery was taken from the Neuilly apartment of Cecilia Attias, Mr Sarkozy's second wife.

£500,000? Really? That's a lot of bling for the ex-wife of a politician and current wife of a publicity man.


Saez Influence in High Places

Peter Orszag, Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget, is a friend and co-author of French-born Clark Medal winner Emmanuel Saez. Here he details Saez's influence on the thinking of the Obama administration. (h/t Matt Yglesias)

Pyramid is 20


The Louvre's Pyramid is 20 years old. How odd that it has become timeless. I remember the shocked reactions of architectural conservatives at the time. Indeed, I attended one memorable dinner party at which a distinguished art historian held forth for quite some time about the unconscionable damage that was being done to the heart of Paris by the unspeakable president (as with FDR, there were some who could not bring themselves to pronounce the name of the loathed Mitterrand -- at least the wine was very good). Well, the shock has abated, and Paris has survived the Pyramid as it survived le Centre Pompidou, another scandal that has now become part of the landscape.

Today Sarko will announced his plans for Greater Paris. There is life outside the Périphérique, and it insists on being taken seriously.

Bungled Reforms

Nathalie Georges reviews Les Réformes ratées du Président Sarkozy by Pierre Cahuc and André Zylberberg. Of particular interest are her comments on the general principles on which the "bungled" reforms were based:

Trois grands principes sont à retenir, et leurs ambitions ne sont pas des moindres.

Le premier consiste à changer notre démocratie sociale, en réformant en profondeur le fonctionnement (rôle et représentativité) des syndicats, afin de promouvoir un syndicalisme de services sur le modèle des pays nordiques. Il faudrait ainsi adapter au cas français le "système de Gand", où l’adhésion à un syndicat est la condition d’obtention de certaines protections (comme par exemple l’assurance chômage). L’objectif affiché est d’échapper à la "tragédie des communs", les salariés non syndiqués se comportant en passagers clandestins dans un système où les conventions collectives signées sont automatiquement étendues à l’ensemble des salariés. Cette proposition (avec au passage une pique de plus contre le SMIC, accusé de jouer contre le syndicalisme puisque bénéficiant à tous, sans parler du frein qu’il constituerait pour l’emploi des non qualifiés) s’accompagne d’une condamnation de l’opacité des financements des partenaires sociaux, qui jouerait contre la confiance, principe abstrait à l’origine d’un cercle vertueux de croissance et d’emploi, si l’on en croit les études de la Banque Mondiale sur la qualité des institutions et la bonne gouvernance, et l’analyse de nos auteurs eux-mêmes . La question du rôle des syndicats dans un pays où seulement 5% des salariés du privé et 8% des fonctionnaires sont syndiqués n’est certes pas nouvelle, et sans conteste importante. Mais le rôle et la légitimité des syndicats ne peuvent se résumer au seul chiffre du taux de syndicalisation, quand on voit que 3 millions de salariés sont descendu dans la rue le 19 mars à l’appel de ces mêmes organisations.

Le second concerne notre démocratie politique, les parlementaires étant accusés de dénaturer les réformes en oubliant l’intérêt général au profit de leur réélection locale. Le progrès passerait ainsi par l’interdiction du cumul des mandats et le renforcement constitutionnel des pouvoirs du Parlement. Les auteurs en appellent ainsi à une nouvelle nuit du 4 août, abolissant les privilèges des groupes d’intérêt particuliers au bénéfice de Parlementaires éclairés, soudain capables de favoriser le réformisme au détriment des logiques corporatistes (alors même qu’ils sont accusés du contraire dans l’ensemble de l’ouvrage). Ces propositions sont certes louables, mais ne sont-elles pas un peu trop générales et abstraites quand on a besoin de mesures à effet immédiat avec 80 000 chômeurs de plus par mois ?

Le troisième est justement plus concret, et touche directement à la frange de la population privée d’emploi. Il s’agit de l’activation des dépenses d’assurance chômage, incitant les bénéficiaires à une réinsertion rapide sur le marché du travail (au prix parfois de sacrifices en termes de qualité de l’emploi), en leur garantissant en retour un accompagnement renforcé. Les réformes récentes de la fusion ANPE-Unedic avec Pôle Emploi, et la mise en place du rSa étaient censées participer de cette logique de lutte contre les "trappes" à inactivité, mais la faiblesse des budgets accordés aux projets fait douter de leur efficacité. Si l’idée d’un accompagnement de qualité fait l’unanimité, l’analyse en creux de la rationalité purement économique des chômeurs, pour lesquels il faudrait "rendre le travail payant", reste sujette à débats entre les spécialistes de la question. De même, les auteurs plaident pour une externalisation des prestations d’accompagnement des demandeurs d'emploi, alors même que les expériences étrangères dans ce domaine restent peu concluantes quant à leur efficacité. Si ces exemples viennent illustrer l’échec des réformes du président Sarkozy dénoncé par P.Cahuc et A.Zylberberg de manière étayée, ils soulignent aussi l’urgence du débat autour des analyses économiques à l’origine des projets de réforme, systématiquement présentés comme allant dans la bonne direction, ce qui n’est pas si sûr ; sans parler de l’économie politique des réformes qui n’est pas abordée ici, comme si il n’y avait qu’à pour que ça fonctionne. Depuis le temps, ça se saurait…

The Ségo Problem

Gérard Grunberg analyzes the Socialist Party's "Ségo Problem."

And then there's the Bayrou problem.

Eurozone Confidence Up

Eurozone confidence is up (the EC's economic sentiment index rose from 64.7 to 67.2 this month). Yet European banks are not as far along in the process of cleaning up their balance sheets as Amerian ones. And according to the IMF, European banks are not, as many believe, in a better position than US banks to begin with:

Another statistic from the IMF report: to recapitalise the banking system to reach capital ratios that prevailed in the mid-1990s, capital injections of $275bn would be required for US banks, and a whopping $500bn for European banks.

You get the picture. All these data tell us that Europe has both the biggest problem and has made the least progress. And since recessions associated with financial crises last longer than ordinary recessions, as the economic literature on financial crises suggests, the eurozone has a big problem. The IMF says that even if the right policies are implemented at the right time the recovery will be slow and painful, because deleveraging takes its time. But if the right policies are not implemented, the recovery will take much longer.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On Emmanuel Saez

On the recent French-born John Bates Clark Medalist, Emmanuel Saez: here and here.

Program of "Réinventer la démocratie"

Here is the program of the colloquium for which I will be in Grenoble May 8-10. And here is Pierre Rosanvallon's introductory essay.

Lagarde on "Daily Show"

Christine Lagarde made an appearance on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" last night. She handled herself well, even if she (understandably) allowed Stewart's mistaken impression that France is doing a better job at stimulating the economy than the US to stand. French speakers may have a little difficulty with some of Stewart's more esoteric references. Even Lagarde missed one or two cues. But remember that Stewart is our "Guignols de l'info," Nicolas Canteloup, Laurent Gerra, and Stéphane Guillon rolled into one (which is to say that, although he's sometimes adolescent or trite or vulgar or ill-informed, at his best he's indispensable).


The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Intro - French Finance Minister
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

But They Could Read "French Politics" for Free!

Via Polly-Vous Français, word of a new English-language newspaper in France.

Ethnic Stats on Ethnic Stats

65% of the French favor the collection of ethnic statistics, according to a CSA poll. Among members of "visible minorities," 74% are in favor. And there you have an "ethnic statistic."

Paradoxically, some opponents of collection claim to do so on the grounds that collection poses a potential threat to the security of minority groups. Minorities appear not to share this fear to the same degree as those who would protect them.

A Ph.D. Thesis for Sure

I can see a few Ph.D. theses ahead. The proposed reduction of the VAT on restaurant meals from 19.6 to 5.5 percent will take effect on July 1. This provides what economists like to call a "natural experiment," even though it's entirely Menschenwerk.* Statistical ingenuity will be required to determine the price elasticity of restaurant food consumption (especially given the decline in disposable income of households due to the crisis); restaurateurs will be scrutinized to see if they keep their pledge to reduce the final price to consumers by 11.8 percentage points (after a tax reduction of 14.1 points, thus increasing their own margins by 2.3 points) and to hire 40,000 additional employees (which may eat into that increased margin). And what will be the revenue loss to the state, and the cost per job created? How many tourists who would not otherwise have come to France will be attracted by the reduced cost of restaurant meals? You can see why the problem will be worthy of a Ph.D., and why the impact of tax policy is not always easy to gauge.


* "Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk." -- Kronecker

Geithner le Bourdivin

James Kwak thinks Pierre Bourdieu provides the key to understanding the behavior of Tim Geithner.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cheaper Eats

Unless it's at Taillevent or the Bristol (Sarko's favorite lunchcounter, where lunch for 2 comes to 560 euros).

Crisis Epistemology

The PowerPoint of one of my Montreal talks on "L'Epistémologie de la crise" (in French) is available here, along with several other presentations. If you read the notes as well as the slides, you may be able to reconstruct most of the talk. Don't be misled by the title of the session: my subject was macroeconomic theory, not the euro (which Jacques Le Cacheux and Lionel Jospin ably handled).

Jospin's speech and various press reviews can be found here.

L'Etat Spectacle

Guy Debord denounced La Société du spectacle. Michel Rocard and Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg attack L'État spectacle. The argument is familiar: "The image," says Rocard, "is hostile to complexity; it demands conflict, emotion, and drama but certainly not complexity, sociological depth, or explanatory power."

There is of course truth to this, but it's a complaint against democracy that goes back much farther than the invention of television, where Rocard seems to situate it. Good-government reformers have always deplored the emotionalism of voters, their lack of knowledge of the issues, and the superficial basis of their judgment. Splenetic attacks don't get us very far. It's time for Rocard to take down his volume of Aristotle's Politics and Plato's Republic. These will help him while away his time in retirement.

Radicalization?

Two expressions of doubt about the alleged "radicalization" of social conflict in France in recent months: sociologist Sophie Béroud and management consultant Bernard Girard.

"La France qui se lève tôt ..."

... ferait mieux de faire la grasse matinée, dit-on ici.

"While Doing Her Makeup in the Morning"

Le Figaro is in a wry mood this morning: the paper wonders whether Valérie Pécresse thinks about becoming president in 2017 "while doing her makeup in the morning." After suggesting that she is a potential rival to the dynamic duo of ambitieux, Xavier Bertrand and Jean-François Copé, it goes on to compare her "feminine" style of politics to that of Ségolène Royal. Well, I suppose that such speculation does distract from the rather unfortunate imbroglio of university reform, which is Pécresse's job when she's not contemplating herself in the mirror. On that subject, it seems that the only problem is the "deafening silence" of the Socialists on the matter of the strikes. If only the hapless opposition party would sign on to the reform effort, it is implied, the protesters would pack up and go back to class.

On a related (?) note, we have the petite phrase of Dominique de Villepin last week: asked whether it was true that he had a crush on Ségolène back when both were students at the ENA, the dashing pol said, "Oui, et pourquoi pas, elle le mérite, elle était belle et elle le reste." Most galant. Perhaps Ségo's next apology will be to M. de Villepin for having had the "merit" of attracting his roving eye.

Europe's In Trouble


European complacency--I don't think the word is too strong--in the face of the crisis is one of its more perplexing aspects. As this VoxEU column points out, there is good reason for concern about the level of debt that "emerging Europe" owes to Western European banks. Perhaps the reason for the complacency is that the most troubled banks are not in France and Germany but in Austria. But the French and German governments should show a greater sense of urgency, as should the ECB.

Ridgway, Come Back!

At least some in France are nostalgic for the days of GI Joe in Châteauroux.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Krugman, Euroskeptic?

Paul Krugman notes that the British have been getting some good mileage out of their abstention from the European monetary system: "In addition, the fall in the pound has made British products a lot more competitive. ... So I’m actually fairly hopeful about Britain; right now, the fact that it’s not on the euro is serving it well."

But isn't this "beggar-thy-neighbor" economics? Protectionism through devaluation? Of course, Krugman thinks, rightly, that the ECB is culpable for not lowering interest rates and expanding the money supply more aggressively, so he no doubt thinks Britain's enhanced competitive position is only the just reward of a recalcitrant central bank. But British abuse of regulatory and rate competition is one reason why the ECB has been so conservative. To my mind, progress toward cooperation would be a much more positive sign than clever exploitation of competitive advantages made possible by being outside the Eurozone.

"You Say You Want a Revolution ..."

Charles Bremner takes up the "revolutionary situation" remark of Dominique de Villepin and finds reason to doubt that it reflects reality. As May approaches, of course, thoughts habitually turn to the street. JDD considers the parallels with May '68 and notes the radicalization of the student (and faculty) movement after four months of agitation in the universities and several months of sequestrations in the factories.

I think the revolution watchers are getting ahead of themselves. If there is to be a spring upheaval in France, it will happen next year. If the crisis deepens, if there are more layoffs, if the government response remains weak, and if the Socialists continue to dither, diminishing the likelihood of any political relief in the foreseeable future, then large numbers of people might be willing to take the risk. For now, I think there is still too much uncertainty about where things are headed. To be sure, the mood in the universities is turning increasingly angry, and students, who have less to lose than workers, are often the catalyst for wider disruption. But, unless I miss my guess, the mood among students is far less buoyant and far less radical than it was in '68. The complaints remain limited, small-bore, and, pour tout dire, corporatist.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Raffarin vs. Bachelot

Jean-Pierre Raffarin says that the proposed Bachelot Law on hospital reform is "too confused" and that the Senate will modify it. One of his complaints is that the hospital governance model is unsatisfactory: "A hospital director cannot be viewed as a CEO. Responsibilities must be balanced between administration and medecine in running a hospital." An interesting thought. So one wonders why Raffarin doesn't apply it as well to the universities, where responsibilities ought to be balanced between administration and faculty. Yet the Sarkozy reform has run into trouble on just that point: too much power going to university presidents, too little to faculty and departments.

One begins to see a pattern here: hyperpresident at the top, hypopresidents everywhere else, but in each institution a single point of control.

Friday, April 24, 2009

For the Record


Jospin listens to my question.

Saez Wins Clark Medal


Emmanuel Saez, who is French, has won the John Bates Clark Medal, which is awarded to the "most promising economist under 40." He is best known for his joint work with Thomas Piketty on high incomes.

Kouchner's About-Face on Turkey

Ron Tiersky calls my attention to a story I had missed: Bernard Kouchner has changed his position on Turkish membership of the EU. Apparently, Kouchner was "shocked" by Turkish opposition to the appointment of Anders Rasmussen to the post of NATO secretary general. The Turks objected to Rasmussen because he is Danish, on the grounds that the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons deemed offensive by some Muslims should be reason enough to exclude a Dane from the top NATO post.

Indeed, the Turkish amalgame is an excellent example of how foreign policy should not be made. It was petulant, illiberal, and profoundly irrelevant to both NATO's mission and the question of Rasmussen's competence to serve. But I'm not sure that Kouchner's response is an exemplary countermeasure, either. It seems equally petulant and equally irrelevant to the deeper arguments both for and against Turkish membership.

Unless of course Kouchner is extrapolating from this incident of symbolic politics to draw deeper conclusions about the nature of Turkish society and the character of the Turkish government. If so, he ought to spell out his thinking, given the importance of the change. I grant, however, that an improvised response to an unanticipated question prompted by an off-the-cuff use of the imperfect tense was probably not the ideal occasion to embark on such a reflection.

Disaffected Dati

Rachida Dati is not terribly impressed by the European responsibilities she aspires (or, rather, has been assigned) to take on:


An Interesting Témoignage

Hear Manuel Valls's account of the job offer that Sarkozy made him in 2007:

No-Fly Zone

An Air France flight from Paris to Mexico was forced to alter its flight plan en route when US authorities denied permission to enter US airspace because the passenger list included a Franco-Colombian journalist who is on the US "no-fly list." I find this cavalier use of sovereign authority shocking and wonder if American authorities considered the risk to passengers of obliging the aircraft to make an unscheduled stop at an airport in Martinique at which the pilots had not prepared to land. Paranoïa in a great power can lead to dangerously stupid actions.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

It's been an interesting week, spent mostly at two colloquia in Montreal, where I met and exchanged ideas about politics and the crisis with colleagues from Canada, France, Senegal, and Belgium. I also met dignitaries: three former prime ministers (one of France, Jospin, and two of Quebec, Parizeau and Bouchard) and the current, and remarkably young and well-spoken, French ambassador to Canada, François Delattre. It is always somewhat sobering to confront in the flesh the people about whom it is so easy to be critical, flippant, or ironic in a blog. They turn out, at least in this case, to be thoughtful, intelligent, often clever, very well-informed, and remarkably captivating.

But now that I'm back at my keyboard and in the privacy and anonymity of my boudoir, I will have to balance my sympathies against my blogospheric duty to thrust unwanted truth upon unseen power.

I also had a moment to reflect on the fleeting nature of power and glory. True, Jospin did fill an auditorium with 500 people in a foreign country 7 years after leaving office. But the next morning I found myself sitting alone with him in a student cafeteria at the UMontreal business school, and students came and went without noticing that a former prime minister was among them. And when we were joined by Jacques Parizeau, a former prime minister of the very province in which we were sitting, he attracted no more notice.

Juppé: Think About Modifying the Tax Shield

Rumblings on the right: Alain Juppé says that it's time to think about reconsidering the tax shield revision that was a centerpiece of the Sarko program. "Fairness and justice" need to be considered--or, rather, more precisely, a "signal" of fairness and justice needs to be sent. Interesting formulation, that. In any case, with a ministerial shakeup expected soon, this is an interesting move on Juppé's part. It, too, is a "signal"--to Sarko, that his party is restive and that if he, the president, decides that he, too, wants to start signaling, one way to do it would be to choose Juppé for a major post, say at Finance, or even perhaps PM. Of course Juppé would be a rather large couleuvre for the president to swallow. He's no pushover, and he lacks Fillon's discretion. In power he could become a thorn in Sarko's side. But Sarko seems to be out of ideas and short even on tactics and images, normally his strong suits. Juppé is offering him the latter and perhaps even the former: in the post-neoliberal age, conservatism needs to stress its "humanist" compassion rather than its now suspect commitment to the logic of economic incentives.

Two French Economists on the Crisis

Thomas Piketty looks at the Irish dilemma and proposes that the EU condition aid to smaller countries in trouble on a pledge to ban "fiscal dumping," i.e., the use of low corporate taxes to lure business.

And Etienne Wasmer examines the effects of the crisis on employment and speculates about possible social and political consequences.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jospin Speech

Lionel Jospin gavea brilliant speech last night at the University of Montreal: lucid, impassioned, well-organized, and without langue de bois. In it he gave his analysis of the origins of the economic crisis. I don't have time to go into detail, but one point that he made struck me as particularly noteworthy. In comparing the current crisis with that of '29, he noted that the earlier collapse emerged out of disequilibria created by a destructive world war, whereas today's debacle is the result of disequilibria generated by the economic system itself.

I must say that the former prime minister was also quite witty. I had always thought of him as an intelligent man, but wit never seemed uppermost among his qualities. But when a questioner tried to draw him out on a point by suggesting that he was close to Ségolène Royal, a "member of the same political family," Jospin observed that the young man, who had previously identified himself as "un concitoyen," clearly was French and not Canadian, as evidenced by his intimate knowledge of French politics and thoroughly Gallic "subtlety."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Jospin Recommends Discretion

Well, here I sit in Montreal, awaiting tonight's speech by Jospin and tomorrow's and Wednesday's colloquia with him, and I see that he's mixed up in the polemic back in France about what Sarkozy did or did not say about Zapatero. And well he might be, since Sarko was either being ironic about Zapatero in order to mock Jospin or sincerely asserting that Zapatero is a dunce compared to Jospin yet wins elections, while Jospin doesn't. The subtle exegesis of this nice point of presidential apologetics doesn't interest me, but Jospin's advice that a politician must always be on his guard does, since one naturally hopes that among academics what a politician might do is let his guard down for once and say what he thinks. On verra.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Northern Exposure

I will be in Montreal from tomorrow until Thursday for a two-day conference on the economic crisis, Europe, and the left. Among those in attendance will be Lionel Jospin. I will be giving two talks, one a version of the talk on the crisis that I gave at Harvard a while back, the other a response to a question posed by the organizers: Might Obama serve as an example for the European left?

Blogging will probably be slow for a few days.

Laurent's Critique of Algan and Cahuc

Éloi Laurent reviews Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc, La société de défiance.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ceci n'est pas une pipe

And the French think the Americans are crazy with political correctness ... catch this!!!

Loose Lips Sink Ships

Sarko was apparently particularly unbuttoned at a bipartisan lunch for legislators yesterday, and eyebrows have been raised around the world, but especially in Washington, Berlin, and Madrid. Is it really wise for a president to "resemble his own caricature?" Or to remark of the prime minister of a neighboring state that "he is perhaps not very intelligent," only to compare him to a former French prime minister who was "very intelligent" but failed to make it to the second round of the presidential election? All while tapping out text messages on his cell phone.

And haven't the French ever heard of "off the record" or "Chatham House rules?" Really, this is no way to run a state, and if Sarkozy doesn't know it, perhaps some wise old head--a Guéant or a Levitte--ought to whisper it in his ear. Perhaps they have, and he is deaf.

British reactions here and here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

RSA, RIP?

Has the Revenu de Solidarité Active (RSA), the reform that Sarkozy stole from the left along with its chief sponsor, Martin Hirsch, failed? A report by the Direction de la recherche, des études, de l'évaluation, et des statistiques (DREES), says it has. I haven't been able to obtain a copy, however.

Who Are Today's Intellectuals?

When I first became interested in French politics in the 1960s, part of the attraction was the participation of intellectuals in the political arena. L'intellectuel engagé was a French particularity, not to say peculiarity, and the quality of political debate in France seemed to benefit as a result. Today, I think, the comparative advantage would run in the opposite direction: American English-speaking intellectuals may not be engagés in the classic sense of the word but they are more consistently engaging (see, e.g., the blog Crooked Timber) than French public intellectuals today. Be that as it may, a special issue of Actes de la Recherche en Sciences sociales is devoted to the changing role of the intellectual in French politics. Interestingly, attention is paid to the role of translators and translation--about time, I might add--and in particular to the translations of two American English-speaking political intellectuals, John Rawls and Amartya Sen, into French.

Maurice Druon

Maurice Druon, the honorary perpetual secretary of the Académie Française, died yesterday. I met him once, sous la coupole, when I received a medal from the Académie. He looked rather comical in his academician's garb, seated at the high podium with his two co-officiants. I shook his hand after the ceremony.

His death has earned him a murderous obituary from Libération, which blasts him as "a young resister turned old reactionary." The piece ends thus:

Pour la génération qui l’a connu homme politique, il symbolisait une certaine forme de réaction culturelle. Il a résisté avec acharnement à la modernité et au changement social. Mais il avait auparavant résisté avec panache à la pire barbarie. Certains font des erreurs de jeunesse. Il a surtout fait des erreurs de vieillesse. Voilà qui mérite l’indulgence…

He will be remembered for Le Chant des partisans and for his resistance to the feminization of certain words such as le ministre. No doubt Madame la ministre de la Culture, who now holds the portfolio that was once Druon's, will speak at his funeral. Perhaps he would have savored the irony.

Le Monde reminds me of another thing for which Druon will be remembered: his opposition to Giscard d'Estaing's admission to the Académie. Not because Giscard is an execrable writer but because, in Druon's opinion, he stabbed de Gaulle in the back. And on Druon's resurrection of the word sébile, see here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Another Perspective on Hard Times

An interesting témoignage from Clichy-sous-Bois.

Time for a Shakeup

One begins to have that itching in the palms that can connote only one thing: the imminence of a ministerial shakeup. French politics (and its doppelgänger French Politics) has been in the doldrums for some time now. Inaction has emerged as the chosen response to the crisis. The international scene is quiet, and the big summits are history. No elections loom, save the European, in which participation is predicted to hit historic lows. The loyal opposition is a circular firing squad.

So as we come up on the regime's second anniversary, the time seems ripe for un remaniement. Claude Guéant has said that there would be one at the midpoint in the presidency, but the midpoint of un quinquennat is really at the two-year mark, since the last year is consumed by preparations for the next presidential election. So it's time, and it's known that Dati will be going soon. Cashiering her will look less vindictive if her exit is accompanied by the swan songs of others. We don't know the results of the vaunted "ministerial evaluations," but we know that the displeasure of the palace has been mounting lately. The magazines are beginning to speculate about who covets what. The more interesting question is what mid-course correction the captain might choose to make, and I confess that Sarko's desires have become opaque of late, at least to me. The erstwhile omnipresident has for some time seemed content with less exposure, even before the Conseil d'Etat ruled that his media time must be counted, at least in part, in partisan totals. Has he settled in as un président fainéant, rather like the late Chirac, of whom he was so critical? Or is he just gathering his forces for another blitz? Does he have any idea where he wants to go, or where it might be possible to go in France's straitened circumstances? Or will he just play it by ear? Within the next month or two we should have a better idea.

For now, there's nothing to write about but small beer, but I refuse to follow the example of Marianne and wring my hands over the prospect of Morano at l'Education Nationale. Je m'en fous comme de l'an quarante.

P.S. Another way to fill the vacuum: with hot air about Sarkozy's supposed jealousy of Obama.

N'Importe Quoi from Perfidious Albion

The Independent, always cheeky but sometimes relevant, wildly misses the mark with its story on Rama Yade, which seems to be composed in equal measure of fantasies inspired by the "belle et rebelle" secretary of state, quips about her, unattributed waspishness, and moonstruck "philosophy":

The philosopher Pascal Bruckner also points out that the French, perhaps more than other nations, are easily seduced by physical beauty. "Her looks are certainly a big plus," he said. "She has come to stand for a rebellion of youth and beauty against the establishment ... She is hated for precisely the same reasons within the government. And that makes her allure all the greater."


If the establishment has nothing more to fear than this "rebellion of youth and beauty," it will stand for a thousand years. We do get this choice tidbit, however:

Mme Yade was invited to accompany M. Sarkozy on a trip to West Africa two weeks ago. Another minister, Brice Hortefeux – a friend of M. Sarkozy's for 30 years – is reported by Le Figaro to have "half-jokingly" told her: "You're coming with us. That's good. But we don't have to bring you back again." Considering her African origins and that M. Hortefeux used to be the immigration minister, Mme Yade is said to have found the remark offensive.


Could Hortefeux really have been that maladroit? If Le Figaro is the source, it must be true. (h/t World Politics Review)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Things Are Looking Up

Via Political Animal:

Research 2000 conducted a poll for Daily Kos gauging public attitudes about San Francisco, New York City, France, and Europe in general. Both San Francisco and New York both enjoy broad favorable numbers, but I was especially interested in the other parts of the poll.

* "Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the country of France?"

Overall, 61% of Americans have a favorable impression of the U.S. ally, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The favorable impression was strong in the Northeast, West, and Midwest, and the only constituency with an unfavorable opinion of France was Southerners.

Regretting the Good Old Days ...

French license plates will soon lose their geographic referent. Provincials will no longer be able to sneer at les sales Parisiens simply on the basis of their plates (no doubt other distinguishing traits will remain). Children will have to find a new way to while away the time on long journeys. What's next? Pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon instead of estate names? Regretting the good old days is surely a sign of aging, but there was a certain undeniable romance in the old plates, no?

Obamans Educate French Minorities

Obama campaign aides went to Paris under the auspices of the French-American Foundation to give tips to French minority politicians on how to make headway. But the pupils were pessimistic, and "diversity czar" (dixit The Times) Yazid Sabeg singled out le cumul des mandats as the single greatest reason for the lack of hope. The reasoning is that no space opens up at the local level for young minority politicians to make their mark and move onto the national stage because local posts are monopolized by an older generation that already holds power at the national level.

I think it's correct that minorities organize first at the local level before commanding power nationally. Still, Sabeg's argument connotes a strange passivity on the part of French minorities. It's as if they're waiting for power to be bestowed on them. Then they'll organize, using the state resources that become available to officeholders. This has things backwards. Power is rarely bestowed unless the bestowers have some reason to give up part of what they already have in order to preserve the rest. Minorities need to organize first outside the system if they expect to gain a foothold within it. But I'm sure the Obama representatives didn't omit that part of the lesson, even if it didn't come through clearly to all in attendance.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Secret Visit

When Obama visits Baghdad, the plans are kept secret for obvious reasons. It seems that Sarko has adopted the same strategy for visiting lycées in France. The need is less obvious.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hesitation Valls

Manuel Valls all but throws his hat in the ring for 2012 but ends by saying, "La présidentielle, c'est une question de destin et de circonstances. Il ne faut jamais s'autoproclamer."On the substance he sounds rather sensible, however.

Ségo By a Nose

In what has to be one of the stupidest opinion polls ever conducted, OpinionWay outdoes itself by naming Ségolène Royal the "best opponent" of Sarkozy. Of course, the polling firm didn't actually poll to see which possible opponent would fare best against Sarko in a head-to-head contest. It rather asked, quite literally, who would make the "best opponent," thus ensuring that the result would be a measure of name recognition and recent appearance in the press rather than of any kind of political strength. So we have Ségo beating Besancenot by a nose, followed by Aubry and Villepin. Aubry and Villepin. Really. No kidding.

France needs the equivalent of a Nate Silver: somebody who can authoritatively tell the pollsters why they've got their heads up their ...

Sarko Is Furious

Sarko was not amused by the defeat of the HADOPI legislation. He blames the "amateurism" of Copé et cie. Not without reason. LBJ is turning over in his grave. This kind of error isn't permitted on major votes. The first attribute of legislative leadership is knowing how to count.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Groux on Strikes

Guy Groux considers the reasons for the particularities of the French strike.

A Rarity

The law "Création and Internet" (HADOPI) has failed to pass the National Assembly. Legislative recalcitrance is rare enough in France (so different in this respect from the US!) that it's worth noting when it occurs. Yet another failure for Jean-François Copé, who is no Sarkozy when it comes to keeping his troops in line.

And then the EU may take care of it altogether:

Pendant les vacances parlementaires en France, les députés européens doivent se prononcer le 22 avril sur le paquet télécom, un ensemble de directives qui régiront les télécommunications dans l'Union européenne. Un amendement défendu par la socialiste Catherine Trautmann, ancienne ministre de la Culture, pourrait rendre la loi antipiratage française contraire au droit européen, s'il est adopté. Son vote ne fait guère de doute, puisque les eurodéputés se sont déjà prononcés par deux fois en faveur d'un amendement similaire, à la quasi-unanimité.

Temptation

L'Action directe: those of a certain age will remember the extremist group of the 1980s. It seems that there is a permanent temptation to resort to "direct action," though the sense in which the recourse to illegality and violence is more "direct" than other forms of political action is hardly perspicuous and needs to be unpacked. In recent times, surely, direct action has rarely yielded the desired result, so its "directness" should not be confused with efficacy. Direct action does generally substitute deeds (of a certain kind) for words, and that is no doubt one of its attractions to practitioners. It also involves an element of risk, which is perhaps taken as a sign of authentic commitment and readiness to sacrifice rather than serve oneself (as politicians who favor "indirect" action are invariably suspected of doing).

Back when he was a candidate, Sarkozy professed to "understand" the recourse to "direct action" by certain groups, such as fishermen, whom he described as "threatened with economic death." The defense was thus one of legitimate self-defense: who cannot countenance violence in such circumstances? Sarkozy implicitly asked. Now that he is president, he prefers to emphasize the existence of a "society of laws" and to call for the "most extreme severity" in dealing with demonstrators who break those laws. Olivier Besancenot has taken the opposite line: "Il est légitime et cohérent que cela dérape," he said, speaking of the destruction that took place in Strasbourg. Never mind that many of the demonstrators did not endorse the violence, or that much of the damage was confined to one of the poorer quarters of the city. And Besancenot's sentiments have been echoed, in less forthright terms, on both the left (Royal) and right (Villepin)--for an analysis, see Koztoujours.

The "legitimate self-defense" justification is one that I am prepared to countenance, but only in the most extreme circumstances. Neither a NATO summit nor layoffs at Caterpillar qualify. "Que cela dérape" is perhaps more "normal" in France than it ought to be, but "legitimate?" I don't think so, and the political class ought to remember the Chinese proverb: "He who mounts the tiger will end up inside." (I am aware of the proverbial riposte to this ancient wisdom: "The monkey rules the mountain when there is no tiger." Alas, after the tigers have eaten all the monkeys and each other, it is the hyenas who rule the mountain.)

Crudeness and hypocrisy in high places

Bernard G. says all that needs to be said. Watch the video as well.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cowen on Geopolitical Fallout of Crisis

Tyler Cowen has an interesting speculative piece on the geopolitical consequences of the crisis in the Wilson Quarterly. His comments on Europe may be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

Paxton Gets the Légion d'Honneur

Bob Paxton, the eminent historian of the Occupation, has been awarded the Légion d'Honneur. Enfin.

Guest Post: Kapil on Villepin

Below is a guest post from Arun Kapil, commenting on my earlier post on Villepin's ambitions:


The chances of Dominique de Villepin making a credible run for the presidency in 2012 are close to nil and for the following reasons.

  1. Even if Sarkozy stumbles between now and then, i.e., does not significantly better his current poll numbers (or even drops into the 20s), he will still run for re-election. One may be sure of that. And whenever an incumbent, however weakened, is challenged by a candidate within his own camp in a re-election campaign (first round in France, primaries in the US), the incumbent always wins.
  2. Sarkozy will be the candidate of the UMP and with all its formidable resources (militants, élus, money, etc). This is a certainty. An insurgent candidate – which is what Villepin would be – cannot mount a serious presidential campaign in France without the backing of a political party.
  3. In the unlikely event Sarkozy were to decide not to run for re-election Villepin would still not be the UMP’s candidate, for the simple reason that he has practically no base in the party. The villepiniste current in the UMP is comprised of a handful of seconds couteaux who carry no weight within the party and are unknown to the public. And if one remembers, Villepin as Prime Minister was deeply unpopular among UMP deputies – and particularly after the CPE fiasco –, who he treated with disdain (and privately as connards). UMP élus for their part simply could not warm up to a PM who had not only never run for elective office – who had never once undertaken the laborious task of building up a local constituency – but made it clear he considered such an exercise to be beneath him. In this respect, DDV has not changed one iota.
  4. Not only was there no love lost between PM Villepin and the UMP élus but he was/is not particularly popular among the party barons either. If Sarkozy is hors course in 2012, there is no way the party leadership will pass the standard to DDV or sit passively if he tries to seize it. Juppé will in likelihood be the man (and all the more so as he remains popular among UMP militants). Who knows, maybe even Fillon, once he’s replaced as PM (by next March at the latest), will come into his own and pose a credible alternative to Sarko within the party.
  5. Villepin has never had strong numbers in public opinion polls. Sure, he was greatly appreciated for his February 2003 performance at the UNSC but this never translated into support for his political ambitions. Even during his first several months as PM he never polled outside the single digits in the category of tout à fait favorable (as opposed to merely plutôt favorable), i.e., his support was soft even in the best of times and without a partisan hard core. After the CPE fiasco his numbers went south and stayed there. His name does not even figure in the IPSOS "Palmarès des leaders politiques" nowadays. And it should be noted that he was relatively popular as much – if not more – with voters of the left as of the UMP. But in 2012 those left voters will be looking toward the PS candidate and not a DDV on a white horse.
So forget about Villepin’s political ambitions. He’s a mouche de coche out to settle scores with Sarkozy. Even if he survives Clearstream, politically he’s not going anywhere.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Great Depression and Great Recession Compared

By Eichengreen and O'Rourke, two leading economic historians, who say that the plunge now is worse worldwide than in the 1930s but the policy response is better.

La-men-ta-ble

This exchange would be crude even by the standards of American TV shoutfests. Mélenchon may confuse Article 2 of the NATO treaty with Article 5, but he's right on the merits, and Lellouche's willful confusion of the issue, substituting voluntary participation in Afghanistan with the ostensibly obligatory treaty response to an attack on a member state, is shocking for someone who aspires to foreign policy responsibility. Of course, in reality, every member state can opt out of responding as required by the treaty, but the whole point of collective defense is to induce in the mind of a potential enemy substantial doubt as to the wisdom of attempting a strike on an isolated member.

Lellouche's challenge to Mélenchon to fight a duel brings the absurdity to a pinnacle.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Identity Checks

Ever wonder what your rights are in case of an identity check by the French police? I know that I've been contrôlé far more often in France than in the US, despite the fact that I've spent perhaps 3 years of my life in France vs. 59 in the US. Such is life. Anyway, here's a rundown, with practical advice: don't make waves, you'll lose. It doesn't say much about when a contrôle is legal and when it isn't, since the author's position is that it doesn't matter, you'd best comply in either case.

DSK's Future

Sarkozy's petulance got the headlines, but the biggest effect of the G20 as far as French domestic politics is concerned may be the boost to DSK's fortunes. The IMF was the big winner at the G20. Its resources were tripled, and this was not a foregone conclusion. How much of this was due to DSK's influence and how much simply to the situation, the palpable need to help once-emerging economies around the world, remains to be deciphered. But some of the credit must belong to Strauss-Kahn, and he has discreetly sought to capitalize on it. Now, if only he can figure out a way to get the Socialist Party to line up behind him ...

Maybe that's what Cambadélis is supposed to be doing at Aubry's side ... but if I were DSK, I wouldn't trust my fate to Cambadélis. I'd love to know what other bridges DSK maintains with the party back home, but I haven't seen much about this in the press.

Strikes and Streets vs. the Lobby

On why European labor takes to the streets so readily, while American workers seem more reluctant to do so:


Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, said there were smarter things to do than demonstrating against layoffs — for instance, pushing Congress and the states to make sure the stimulus plan creates the maximum number of jobs in the United States.


I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world,” Mr. Gerard said. He said large labor demonstrations are often warranted in Canada and European countries to pressure parliamentary leaders. Demonstrations are less needed in the United States, he said, because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a half-dozen senators.


This, mind you, from a union that got protectionist legislation out of the adamantly free-trade Bush II administration. This is a man who, by "politics," definitely means "the art of the possible" and not the construction of utopian ideals or ideological dreams--or even democratic majorities. It's getting done what the members need to get done.

Villepin Multiplies His Criticisms

Has there ever been a politician in a stranger position than Dominique de Villepin? Facing trial later this year in the Clearstream affair, he nevertheless continues to pursue his ambitions--ultimately presidential--as if no sword hung over his head, and as if the president, whom he attacks relentlessly, were not both his mortal enemy and the leader of the party whose support he will need if he wants to make a run for it. Clearly he is banking on a collapse of Sarkozy's credibility before 2012--a distinct possibility, to be sure. In adversity, other politicians of his stature--Jospin, Juppé--have chosen to withdraw from the scene for a time. Villepin seems to have chosen the opposite course: provocation as a means to continual publicity. It may well work for him. But a political trial is always an unpredictable thing. He still has to survive the judicial ordeal. If he does, however, he may not be so badly placed to pick up the standard if Sarko stumbles. Better placed, in any case, than Jean-François Copé, his potential rival, who seems unable to decide whether he is a loyal lieutenant or a scheming corporal.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Le jour de gloire est arrivé


A prize for the best caption. Here's Charles Bremner's take on the occasion.

Thesis Topic

A puzzle for an enterprising student to explain:

“This happens elsewhere, but to my knowledge, taking the boss hostage is typically French,” Olivier Labarre, director of BTI, a human resources consulting firm, said in an interview with the newspaper Libération. “It’s the nature of the social dialogue in our country.”

Two Orators

A very interesting comparison of the speaking styles of Obama and Sarkozy by Denis Bertrand (h/t Steve).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

À vous de juger ...

Le Figaro:
Au sommet de Londres, où Berlin et Paris ont obtenu gain de cause sur la régulation des marchés financiers, le président français a redécouvert la force de frappe du couple franco-allemand.

The New York Times:

While the United States was determined to resist European efforts to create regulatory authorities with crossborder authority, officials said the two sides worked out policies on transparency and early risk warnings for banks that would placate France and Germany.


“There’s not going to be a ceding of sovereignty to a global regulator,” said a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were confidential.

Not Nothing

750 gigabucks for the IMF: ça valait le détour. Sarko got enough, I guess, that he didn't pick up his marbles and head home. And the queen got a pat on the back from Michelle Obama, leaving defenders of royalty and protocol clucking about lèse-majesté, but the queen seemed unfazed enough to put her arm around Michelle's waist. Maybe she profited from seeing the film about herself and learning that one stoops to conquer. Michelle and Barack with Liz and Phil looked like Brobdingnagians among Lilliputians; Sarko would have fit right in on the royals' side, but he wasn't invited. He may be regretting all the flattery he lavished on the Brits and the Yanks. The special relationship remains special, and France and Germany, soeurs ennemies, remain stuck with each other.

Financial Regulation

Since Sarkozy and Merkel are now plumping for tighter financial regulation, it may be interesting to look at the thoughts of the experts on whose work they are likely to draw. Here's a post summarizing the suggestions to come out of a conference held at the Toulouse School of Economics.

Tax Havens

Nicolas Sarkozy wasn't always the fierce critic of tax havens that he claims to be today. As a young lawyer, he helped his wealthy clients make use of them:

Elu député en 1988, Nicolas Sarkozy continue sa carrière d'avocat. En accompagnant parfois ses riches clients vers des cieux fiscalement plus cléments.

The article contains other interesting information about Sarkozy's legal career, which merits further investigation.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sarko's New BFF

Well, who would have thunk, a few short months ago, when Nico and Angela were feuding about everything from the Mediterranean Union to the Georgia crisis to the Siemens stake in Areva, that today they would be whispering together in London and overlooking the summit from a perch in Never-Never Land, proclaiming, "À nous deux Paris le monde!"

Reinventing Democracy

La République des Idées is organizing a colloquium on the theme "Réinventer la Démocratie," which will take place in Grenoble on May 8, 9, and 10. I'll be there for all three days and will speak (about democracy in America) on Saturday morning May 9. It would be a pleasure to meet any of you readers who may be able to make it to Grenoble for what promises to be a very interesting event, about which I'm sure I'll have occasion to blog for the benefit of those who can't make it.

I note that executives of the Caterpillar plant in Grenoble, who had been held hostage by workers upset about their severance package, have been released, and negotiations with the company have resumed. A conference about the future of democracy in this morose social climate should be very interesting indeed.

Pope Gets Rejection Slip

The publishing world has sent a rejection slip to the Pope.