Saturday, May 30, 2009

Patrice Higonnet


Today and tomorrow I will be participating in a colloquium in honor of French historian Patrice Higonnet. So blogging will be limited.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Eurozone Deflation?

Simon Johnson considers the risk of eurozone deflation.

Le Florentin

Ah, yes, the good old days when the Socialist Party held the presidency and wasn't the pack of squabbling schemers it has become. Gérard Grunberg reminds us that it wasn't quite so. Seeking to discredit Martine Aubry's claim that a score of 19% wouldn't be so bad compared with Michel Rocard's European election total of 14% in 1994, Grunberg notes that Mitterrand so detested Rocard that he mobilized Bernard Tapie and Jean-Pierre Chevènement to run competing lists, against his own party. That's why the PS did so abysmally in 1994. Receding to a score slightly above that level would hardly count as a triumph today.

They didn't call Mitterrand Le Florentin for nothing. The humiliating defeat finished off Rocard and delivered the Socialist Party to Jospin--and we know how well that worked out. Bien joué.

EU Bureaucracy Defended

And ably, too, here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vaisse on US-Israeli Relations

In Le Monde.

Ségo and Martine Meet, PS Sinks in Polls

The much-awaited joint appearance of Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal took place yesterday, but a new poll shows that the PS has sunk below 20 pct in the upcoming European elections. Perhaps voters feel that a party that requires weeks of negotiation to bring two of its top leaders together under one roof isn't going to do well by them in the European Parliament. The poor result comes despite the fact that 57 pct of those who intend to vote say that they do so in order to sanction the government currently in place. The beneficiaries seem to be MoDem, the Greens, and the Left Front, however, which jointly poll 32 pct. The Left Front is outstripping the NPA: so much for President Besancenot.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Méchanceté

As one who has mispronounced his share of French words, I blush for the president. Poor fellow can't catch a break. (And then there's this.)

Queen Miffed

Sarko can't seem to get it right with his English and American friends. He fawned over the queen when he visited last year, and the tabloids loved it. Now he's insulted the queen, or so the tabloids are playing it, by not inviting her to the D-Day commemoration with Obama, whom Sarko insulted a few weeks ago at the famous luncheon at which he had harsh words for Zapatero and Brown as well. But D-Day has been planned as an occasion to showcase the French president with the man of the hour, and it would be inconvenient, apparently, to have to bow and curtsey to royalty at the programmed lovefest between Sister Republics. The queen can come if she wants, says Luc Chatel, but it's not up to the French government to tell the Brits who should be in their "delegation."

If I were Liz, I'd stay away. Michelle Obama showed that it was possible to put one's arm around the queen with impunity. Thus licensed, Sarko would be likely to give her a shoulder massage, like the one Bush gave Merkel. This would definitely constitute lèse-majesté (or, in this case, lèse-Liz).

Interesting British comment here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Another Sarko-Bilan

From Charles Wyplosz.

An American TGV?

Ray LaHood, the American secretary of transportation, is in France to study the TGV. The US is preparing to invest $13 billion in high-speed rail. LaHood called the French system splendid. It's time for Sarkozy l'Américain, hyper-VRP, to revive his love of America, which seems to have waned somewhat since the election of Obama. Sarko didn't mind lavishing affection on George Bush: befriending the friendless W made Sarko look magnanimous. He finds it hard to conceal his jealousy of Obama's popularity, however. But French industry could use a boost right now. Let's hear three cheers for Franklin, La Fayette, les boys, and le hamburger and take another US summer vacation.

Socialists Cooperate!

Imagine! Une opération trans-courante, they're calling it. Socialists joining together to help out one of their own in trouble, in this case Benoît Hamon. This is such a rare thing in the Socialist Party that it's worth remarking. Also worthy of notice is the fact that this is apparently an initiative of younger Socialists. If les quadras discover that there's actually strength in unity, who knows? It might catch on, and the PS might begin to find a way out of its Prisoner's Dilemma. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Budget

Receipts are down, expenditures are not, and the resulting increased budget deficit is more a consequence of policy and its execution than of the crisis. Such is the conclusion of the Cour des Comptes report on the state budget. Sarkozy's experience thus reproduces the failure of other tax-cutting, state-paring reformers before him: it is easier to cut taxes (and thus gain votes) than to cut state services.

Monday, May 25, 2009

EU: Some Like It Hot

From the ever-alert Judah Grunstein at WPR:

Couldn't help but chuckle over this, from an EU Observer wrap up of the EU-Russia summit. Apparently, prior to the summit, Czech President Vaclav Klaus got quoted as saying that, as a "big, strong and ambitious country," Russia deserved more attention than, say, Estonia and Lithuania. To which, in addition to summoning the Czech ambassador, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves replied:

I am surprised that such a regrettable phrase, which divides European countries into important and unimportant ones, were expressed by a Czech.

Translation from the Diplospeak: Who you calling a twerp, twerp?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

High School Confidential

President Sarkozy visited a high school and admitted mistakes--in the "presentation," at least--in his lycée reform program.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Signaling

It seems that Claude Allègre will soon enter the government in some unspecified capacity. The rumors have been flying for some time, and Pierre Moscovici claimed the other day to have had confirmation from the man himself. We know that Sarko finds the former Jospin education minister personally sympa, but what signal does he intend to send by appointing Allègre? He is a scientist who denies that global warming is a consequence of human activity--a message contrary to Sarko's stated desire to make Europe a leader in efforts to reverse global warming. Sarko even had the chutzpah to suggest that Obama wasn't up to speed on the issue and that he, Sarko, would be glad to educate him. Presumably Allègre isn't up for an environmental post. As for education, his desire to dégraisser le Mammouth hasn't made him popular in those quarters. So presumably Sarko has something else in mind: research czar, perhaps. But the headlines will be all about his other positions.

Lifted from Comments

Bert commented on the previous post:

How about what we’ve seen recently in France: the self-protective strikes by public sector and other favoured workers, in parallel with the far more self-destructive riots by the “racaille” in the banlieues. The first group are very much an insider class, and boast a string of prime ministerial scalps. The second are marginalised socially and geographically, with youth unemployment rates at or above one in four.

I’d argue that French labour laws show up in the figures whatever point of the cycle you’re at. Why else would you consistently find France at the top end of the productivity tables? It’s not because they’re worker ants – they’ll proudly tell you that themselves. It’s because French capitialism results in a mix of factors of production that’s comparatively light on labour.
In response Quiggin cuffed me with the back of his hand. Its possible that's deserved, for all kinds of reasons, some of them karmic. I don't know if you have a view.


Well, I do have many views, but they don't cohere into a single "position." I agree that the insider-outsider problem has persistently beleaguered France. I'm not sure, however, that countries with more liberal labor markets don't simply disguise the problem: precarious employment exists everywhere, and those who move more fluidly from one short-term service sector job to another in the US acquire an experience profile that makes them unsuitable for anything else. Hence they are soon permanently confined to a range of jobs without a career ladder and with low permanent income prospects. The period out of employment may be lower, but the prospects of advancement, which I would argue are a key to social happiness, are just as bleak as in countries where the dual structure is embedded in laws rather than what Tocqueville might have called "mores," as is the case in the US.

There is also the familiar quarrel over statistics and measurement. America's 2 million incarcerated are not counted among the unemployed. If they were, the youth unemployment figures would swell, though not, admittedly, to French levels.

I agree with Quiggin that labor-market liberalization probably reduces volatility of employment but not necessarily the average level. This, indeed, may turn out to be the leitmotiv of our retrospective reassessment of economic theory in light of the crisis. Volatility not only of employment but also of GDP growth fell with the advent of neoliberalism. The latter phenomenon, known as the Great Moderation, was the focal point of my talk on economic theory and the crisis. Without much argument reduced volatility--following the so-called "smooth growth path"--came to be considered better than uneven growth with its concomitant jagged unemployment curve. This smoothing, largely the result of handing economic management over to central bankers and curtailing the "government business cycle," may have encouraged risk-aversion to dwindle and therefore borrowing to increase to unprecedented levels--with disastrous consequences in the end. If so, smoothing is not a good thing. Volatility--economic fevers, frequent but relatively mild booms and busts--may be better for our economic health than we realized. This is not a position, however; it's an instinct, a gut feeling, that calls for further reflection. I give you my half-baked thought because it's all I have at the moment.

Unemployment

John Quiggin compares US and EU unemployment:

According to the latest data, the unemployment rate in the US was equal to that in the EU-15 in March, and is now likely to be higher. Writing in the NY Times, Floyd Norris refers to the conventional wisdom that flexibility inherent in the American system — it is easier to both hire and fire workers than in many European countries implies that unemployment should be lower (at any given point in the business cycle) in the US than in Europe.

Although this is the conventional wisdom, the research on which it was based (by Lazear and others) has long since been qualified or refuted. I looked at this in the context of the Australian debate about unfair dismissal laws a few years back. Although the early research supported the simple view that more flexibility = more jobs, later research yielded the conclusion that employment protection laws lower the variance of employment and unemployment but have no clear effect on the average levels.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Two Years

The blog marked its second birthday yesterday. It's grown a lot: about 50 people read the first posts, compared with about 800 hits a day now (and a daily average of more than 1,200 "views" via Feedburner). Ironically, the interest of French politics seems to me to have diminished. In May of 2007 major changes seemed imminent. A new president and a new generation had taken power; Sarkozy had made overtures to the opposition; and, like it or not, a large majority, over 70 percent, either endorsed or accepted the need for substantial changes in the French economic and social model.

Two years later, we have The Economist featuring a cover in which the French model, essentially unreformed, is depicted as the survivor in the world financial meltdown. Sarkozy has (more or less) enacted his reforms, but the changes seem more incremental than far-reaching. 70 percent approval has turned into 70 percent disapproval (though a recent bounce has reduced this to something closer to 60 percent). France's problems seem to transcend the powers of its government, so that the day-to-day political often seems strangely irrelevant to what's on people's minds. The Socialist Party, whose reconstruction I had expected to be one of the major stories of the past two years, remains pretty much where it was immediately after the defeat: rudderless, divided, and unheard.

Some days it seems almost pointless to write about French politics.

Effectiveness of RSA

The Revenu de Solidarité Active (RSA), France's experiment with improving welfare-to-work incentives, appears to have a slight positive effect on getting the assisted into gainful employment, according to a new study.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Rape of Europa


Daniel Cohn-Bendit knows his mythology. He deplores the effect of what he calls the "presidentialization" of French institutions on the European elections, which have become, for some, a "sanction vote" against Sarkozy, for others, a training ground for a future presidential campaign and chance to buff their personal images as présidentiables.

It may well be that the French presidential regime has become "the disease of which it purports to be the cure" (as Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis). It was intended to substitute order and authority for chaotic party bickering and pettiness, but it has drained the legislative process of substance, turned parties into baskets of crabs seeking to put a piece of the presidency in their pincers, and made it impossible to debate any issue without reference to its bearing on the current presidency and potential to define the race for succession.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Do You Plead?

The Léger Committee, which is considering reform of the penal code, will recommend allowing guilty pleas to more serious crimes (they are already allowed for the lesser crimes heard by le tribunal correctionnel as opposed to la cour des assises). The objective is to shorten trials (which will still be required, unlike in the U.S.) and thus alleviate pressure on the criminal courts.

To American eyes, it's almost impossible to imagine how a judicial system functions without the possibility of guilty pleas--and the plea bargaining that goes along with them. Curiously, I have yet to see a discussion of plea bargaining in any of the press articles concerning the committee's recommendation. Plea bargaining is an essential tool of prosecutors. A defendant is allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for cooperation needed to pursue confederates in crime. Surely the French watch enough American TV crime shows to appreciate how the system works--and is sometimes abused.

Commentary by a noted jurist here.

Eichengreen on the Euro

Thanks to Bernard for pointing out this paper, which I'd somehow missed. Essential reading for students of the crisis.

What We Don't Publish

This is a serious blog, so we don't publish this sort of nonsense:


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Housing Bubble


Germany, it seems, had no housing bubble of its own, but German banks partook heavily of credit derivatives built on housing bubbles elsewhere. By contrast, France experienced a fairly substantial increase in housing prices, but its banks, as far as we know to date, were much warier of exotic derivatives. I haven't yet seen any good explanation for the differences in bank behavior. The difference in housing prices is partly a matter of demographics and partly due to the size and composition of the housing stock.

Health Care Around the World

Paid sick days and sick leave in various countries (h/t James Kwak and Ezra Klein).

Sarko at 2 in World Politics Review

After saying that I found the spate of "two-year anniversary" reviews of Sarkozy's presidency somewhat tiresome, I was commissioned to write one by World Politics Review. Regular readers of this blog won't find anything new, but I thought I'd let you know that it's out there and give the link to WPR, which in my mind stands out as one of the best of the new Web news sources.

Movement?

The other day a group of academics published a manifesto in Le Monde concerning the university reform and the reasons for the impasse. It is an interesting document. Among the most important points is this observation:

Une des principales raisons du marasme de l'Université française est qu'elle se trouve en situation de concurrence déloyale avec tout le reste du système d'enseignement supérieur (classes préparatoires et de BTS, IUT, écoles de tous types et de tous niveaux), toutes institutions en général mieux dotées per capita et davantage maîtresses du recrutement de leur public.

On touche là à un des non-dits récurrents de toutes les réformes qui se sont succédé en France. Cette situation est d'autant plus délétère que la gestion de l'enseignement supérieur dans son ensemble dépend d'autorités ministérielles et administratives distinctes (l'enseignement secondaire pour les classes préparatoires et les STS, les ministères sectoriels pour les écoles professionnelles diverses), voire échappe à tout contrôle politique. Imagine-t-on un ministère de la santé qui n'ait que la tutelle des hôpitaux publics !

Valérie Pécresse responded to this manifesto yesterday. She made a point of noting "convergences" between the government's position and that of the refondateurs and seemed to indicate that she was prepared for "constructive" dialogue. But consider her response to the point raised above:

L'université, c'est vrai, subit durement la concurrence de filières de formation et d'écoles sélectives. Alors est-ce une faiblesse irrémédiable pour notre service public d'enseignement supérieur ? Je ne le crois pas. C'est notre héritage. A nous de savoir en faire une force. Construire, pour les étudiants, des passerelles entre écoles et universités, permettre aux universités de mettre en place des classes préparatoires en leur sein, développer les cohabilitations de diplômes, créer des écoles doctorales communes : voilà ce que les universités et les écoles sont en train de bâtir, voilà ce que je souhaite et ce que j'encourage.

In the courts this would be called a "nonresponsive" answer. It is a good example, I think, of why the government's interlocutors claim that there is no dialogue while the government insists, or pretends, that there is.

Today, three of the refondateurs reject the notion of "convergence" as a transparent attempt at récupération:

Ces trois universitaires, impliqués dans le mouvement et désireux que le problème de l'université soit posé autrement dans la société, ajoutent que "pour dissiper tout équivoque, comptant parmi les initiateurs de ce manifeste, nous croyons pouvoir dire au minimum qu'il n'aurait pas recueilli 3 500 signatures à ce jour si nos collègues s'étaient aperçus de telles convergences

Le Maire and Moscovici Debate Europe

Here. These are two able debaters, but it's more amusing than enlightening to see them attempt to wield the names "Sarkozy" and "Barroso" as symbolic markers of deep differences of political philosophy.

Ironies

Le Figaro today fairly licks its chops at the prospect of a serious reversal for the Socialists in the European elections. Ironies abound. Benoît Hamon, who is one of the few baby elephants to have bulked up under the Aubry regime, risks being the only major figure to be knocked out if things don't go well (he is no. 3 on the Francilienne list led by Harlem Désir). The PS could lose in Aubry's home region, largely owing to opposition from other left parties as well as MoDem. The dissident left is driven in part by opposition to Europe, and Hamon of course owes his rise in PS ranks to the persistence of anti-European sentiment there and the need to mollify and reassure that the party hasn't sold out to Eurocrats. So Jacques Delors's daughter has the less than Euro-enthusiastic Hamon as her spokesman. Among those voters who aren't sitting out the election altogether (and turnout is expected to be quite low), some may well look for more forthright alternatives.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Universities: Summing Up

Les Echos offers a comprehensive scorecard of the university reform battle.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bloqueuses

An interesting note in Les Echos suggests that the blocked universities are mainly those where the study of literature, law, and human sciences is dominant and that in these disciplines 60 to 70 pct of students are women. The suggestion is that many women in these fields will go on to teach at the primary and secondary levels and are therefore especially affected by the "masterization" requirement for teachers. I can't confirm any of these claims, but the hypothesis is more interesting than the allegation (by the government and some Socialists) that the blockages are the result of manipulation by the extreme left.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

European Elections

Following the European elections? Here are some recommendations of sites to help you keep tabs on the trends.

Eh, what?

Le Monde Diplomatique criticizes what it calls les politologues du prince. Alain Garrigou is annoyed by two things: some political scientists appear frequently in the media, and they don't analyze electoral results exactly as he would. The charges seem awfully flimsy to me.

Friday, May 15, 2009

France Hangs On

GDP growth figures are out today, and France is doing slightly better than its neighbors, down only -1.2 points compared with the U.K.'s -1.9 and the U.S.'s -1.5. But caution is in order: these figures are subject to revision, and France has erred on the optimistic side in the past. (h/t Éloi)

More here. And on the depressing German plunge, see here.

Buiter: Does the ECB Have Enough Capital?

Here.

Grenoble Recordings

You can listen to recordings of many of the sessions of the Grenoble forum "Réinventer la démocratie" here. The controversies and debates will be rebroadcast later on France Culture.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

An Ingenious Plan for Economic Recovery

Here.

The University Reforms

I talked to a lot of professors in Grenoble, but not many students, so my impression of the status of the university reform and the strike is incomplete. The general feeling seems to be one of despair. Many had hoped that the reforms would succeed in one way or another, because something needs to be done, but no one is happy with the way things have gone. Many think the government blundered badly. Sarkozy's insulting speech was a disaster: even people relatively well-disposed to giving more power to university presidents found the president's crude criticisms of the professoriate difficult to swallow. An equal number find fault with the many ambiguities in the texts, the lack of details about evaluation procedures, etc. There is a widespread belief that the universities are going to be left to wither, with all serious effort directed to the Grandes Écoles.

One of the most interesting panels in Grenoble featured educational sociologist Christian Baudelot, who presented the results of his study of the PISA surveys comparing educational systems in a range of countries (see his Elitisme républicain, written with Roger Establet). His belief is that the countries that do best do a good job of educating everyone to a decent level of competence. France does well by the best students and very badly by those at the bottom of the distribution. For Baudelot, it is scandalous that the number of students receiving the bac has multiplied 70-fold over the last century while the number of students admitted by Polytechnique has only doubled. There should be a push, he thinks, to expand the Grandes Écoles, but this is strongly resisted by those whose elite status stems from their exclusive educational credentials.

Today's Monde has a petition signed by a number of intellectuals that advocates a sweeping reform of the entire higher educational system.

Dead in the Water

Martine Aubry's Socialist Party is dead in the water as far as the European elections are concerned. Two polls show the UMP outstripping the PS by more than 5 points. Bernard Kouchner, after initially attempting to pretend he isn't nominally in charge of the government's European policy, was whipped into confessing that he will vote for the UMP (though consistency, for Kouchner as for Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds: in '94, as a member of Rocard's ticket, he announced that he was voting for another slate). Meanwhile, the Left is fragmented as always among Greens, the Left Front (Communists plus Mélenchon's French Linke), the NPA (which polls at a realistic 7%, well below the fanciful 40+% likability ratings of Besancenot).

In short, the PS has receded from its position in the last EU elections and is running behind the UMP. Not an auspicious beginning for Aubry.

Wolf on Obama's Conservatism

I post this link to Martin Wolf's column on Obama's conservatism. Although this concerns American politics, not French, I think that the implications extend to Europe, and Wolf's conclusion is absolutely essential for policymakers everywhere to understand:

The more the crisis unfolds, the more evident it is that incentives in the financial system were (and are) badly distorted. I sympathise with the conservative approach to crises, but not if it leaves in place the plethora of perverse incentives that created them.

Juppé, A Latter-Day Wilberforce

Alain Juppé is opposed to slavery. And he's not against remembering Bordeaux's part in the slave trade. Does this mean he's become an abject apologizer, a Ségolène of the Right? No:

S’agit-il, pour nous, de faire repentance ? Je préfère parler de manifestation de la vérité.


Still, one might detect in this speech, which mentions Chirac's role in the commemoration of the uglier parts of France's past, a mild rebuke to Sarkozy. One of those small chinks in the otherwise smooth armor of the Right that is worth mentioning from time to time.

Sylvie Laurent

One of the best of the talks I heard at Grenoble was Sylvie Laurent's comparison of Marx and Tocqueville on the United States. Sylvie's book, Homérique Amérique, is a must read, and you can consult some of her articles for La Vie des idées here. She will be a W.E.B. DuBois Fellow at Harvard next year.

Führerprinzip

Alain Caillé, whom I met in Grenoble, is the founder of the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste en Sciences Sociales (MAUSS) and editor of its review. He has an article in Marianne on Sarkozy's reforms that makes two main points: the reforms, whether of the universities, the hospitals, or the courts, are designed to place decisive executive power in the hands of one person in each key institution, and decisions are to be based on "objective" criteria in keeping with the doctrines of the "new public management."

The application of objective evaluation criteria is indeed one of the main sticking points in several of the reform efforts, and it's easy to understand why. Writing a paper, performing surgery, and judging a case are complex activities, and one "intervention" is not the same as another, so simply counting up numbers can be a highly misleading indicator of productivity. Everyone agrees that evaluation is necessary, but who does the evaluation, and how it is performed, should be the real issues. In the French universities, the problem seems to be that trust has broken down completely. The "managers" of the system do not trust academics to do peer review because "mandarins" take care of their own, entrenched local coteries do the same, and the result, in the managers' eyes, is stagnation. The academics do not trust the managers and their "international business consultants," because these outsiders have no understanding of what academics do. Hence the result is stalemate, bitterness, and endless recrimination.

Interestingly, in the session in which Caillé participated in Grenoble, one of the other speakers mentioned a survey that showed that when people are asked if they approve of democracy, some large percentage reply "yes" (I've forgotten the exact number), but when asked if they want "a strong leader who can make things run efficiently and silence petty dissent," they also answer "yes" by a very large majority. So, yes, as Caillé suggests, there may be a Führerprinzip behind the Sarkozy reforms, but such a principle is not necessarily a misinterpretation of the wishes of the majority. Sometimes the will of the majority must be resisted if there is to be a genuinely democratic outcome.

Home, and the Absurdities of Travel

I am back home, and sick with something I hope (actually am confident ) isn't the swine flu.

Travel always points up its share of absurdities. For example, there are French ticket machines. To purchase an RER ticket from CDG to Paris, you use a machine. Unlike most such machines in the US, you don't insert your credit card and then withdraw it in one motion. This doesn't work. You have to leave your card in the slot. But nowhere on the machine is this explained. Since most people using the machines have just arrived from some other country, this causes enormous frustration and leads to long lines. Fortunately, on one machine, someone has taped a piece of paper that says to leave the card in the slot. In French. As people decipher this message, the information passes to travelers standing in line at other machines, and gradually the stalled system begins to move again. Until a new generation of line-standers accumulates, and the whole hesitation waltz begins again. This might be taken as a metaphor for France. Some economist ought to propose a model. The paper could be called "Information Bottlenecks, Wasted Time, and Economic Stagnation."

At a borne électronique in an SNCF station, you can withdraw reserved tickets by entering a reservation number. The machine gives you the choice of withdrawing either the aller or the retour of a round-trip reservation, or both. Being a clever sort, I thought, Why withdraw both, I may want to change the return ticket and anyway I might lose it. But when I later went to pick up my return ticket, it turned out that taking only the aller meant that I could no longer get the retour from the machine. I had to stand in line for a guichet. When I finally reached an agent, I explained what happened, and he gave me that look that people at ticket windows reserve for the benighted and dull-witted: Ah, monsieur, ça risque de vous coûter cher. But he was just having me on. A few button presses and he had my ticket. I asked why, if there was a problem with taking only one ticket, the machine gave me that option. His answer: "Why, monsieur, these are very bad machines, the government didn't pay much for the software." This struck me as the sort of answer Tocqueville would have loved. Here was a cog in the bureaucratic machine who knew that a problem existed in the system but did nothing about it, preferring to blame that vague but ominpotent tyrant, "the government." So who knows how many agents in how many stations spend how many hours rectifying an error that could be changed by a simple modification of the software, if only there were some way to get the bureaucratic machine engaged. (Or perhaps the window agents are protecting their jobs; if the machines worked, fewer of them would be needed. Le Phénomène bureaucratique indeed.)

Last but not least, there are machines that take credit cards but don't have any indication of which way they should be inserted. At a place like the Louvre, where dozens of people line up at every machine, this simple oversight wastes countless hours. Of course it's better than the RER station at the Luxembourg, where the machines accept some credit cards but not others, with no explanation at all of why the cards are "non lue." Since there are four possible ways to insert the card, and the entire menu has to be repeated for each insertion -- well, you get the picture ... And of course the ticket window is under construction, and there is no sign to tell you that there is a temporary window across the street, by the Jardin.

But lest I be accused of French-bashing, the US takes the cake for bureaucratic absurdity: a new card for visitors without US passports asks the following question: "Are you a terrorist, or are you engaged in espionage against the United States?" I feel quite protected knowing that all foreigners who enter the US have answered these questions in the negative.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Papers in Honor of Suzanne Berger

A conference at MIT honored Suzanne Berger, a longtime student of French politics and political economy. You can find the papers here. Because I was in France, I wasn't able to attend, but Suzanne turned up in Paris yesterday, and I was able to add my congratulations to the chorus.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Daniel on Sarkozy

Jean Daniel gives us a Nicolas Sarkozy of his own confection. Which shows us both that writers create their characters and that political figures have more than one dimension, Sarko especially so. Note particularly the comment on Bernard Thibault.

For Marianne's take, go here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Grenoble Talk

You can read the text of the talk I gave in Grenoble here. Be forewarned: it's about US politics, not French politics, although the underlying theme has some validity in both countries.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Back in Paris

I must apologize for the hiatus in blogging while I was in Grenoble: the days were too full and the connections too short. The colloquium on "Reinventing Democracy" was a great success, with more than ten thousand entries recorded over three days. I will have more to say about some of the sessions when I get back to the States. For now the only point I want to make is that it was extraordinary to see such a large public turn out to hear a series of lectures about politics. This morning, at the final session, I made room for an elderly couple to take the end seats so that the woman, who is afflicted with phlebitis, could keep her leg elevated. Her husband proceeded to tell me his life story, w"hich included two years in the maquis, as he put it, and a large debt to the French educational system, which had trained him in "micromechanics." He regretted what he perceived as a decline he perceived as a decline in the schooling available to a boy like him, the son of a peasant.

One other point: Tocqueville was struck, when he visited America, by the invisibility of the state, which in the France of his day was omnipresent in daily life. It still is. The colloquium took place in Grenoble's MC2, a vast cultural complex built with state funds (distributed through the region, I believe). There was also a reception in the splendid Musée de Grenoble, another state project, at which the mayor and a regional councillor spoke. We traveled to and from the hotel in the very efficient and modern tramway built by the city, and of course between Paris and Grenoble on the state-run railroad. Perhaps the public was passionate about a colloquium on democracy because the evidence of the state's activity is so clear.

The cover of the latest Economist depicts the French model as the current champion of Europe, though the article inside predicts that it won't last long. It's one of the magazine's more jaundiced and predictable pieces, but you might read it if you're in the mood for a bit of British conservative cheek.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pécresse's Rhetoric

Valérie Pécresse turned up the volume and the heat in the university strike yesterday. The minister's wish to be done with the strike is understandable, but her rhetoric is not. She accused strikers of holding the vast majority of students "hostage" and of neglecting parents who "bled themselves from four veins" to send their children to college. Who would have thought that university reform would lead to such extremity of language, while retirement reform proceeded at a much lower decibel level?

Walking past the Sorbonne yesterday, I saw a handful of strikers gathered around a leader with a megaphone. Unfortunately, he hadn't switched the megaphone on, so I couldn't hear what he was saying, despite being only a few feet away. Pécresse, on the other hand, seemed inflamed with rage--though perhaps she was only mugging for the TV cameras in the chamber. Time, perhaps, for Sarko to step in and calm things down--though of course it was he who poured oil on the university fires several months ago with his insulting speech. But he has shown a knack for tactical retreat in the past, and this might be a good time to try another flanking maneuver.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Europrofiler

Evaluate your position on the European political spectrum with Europrofiler.

I learned about this from an interesting new news Web site call Boulevard Extérieur, which was founded by, among others, former Le Monde journalist Daniel Vernet. Registration is free.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Travel Time

I fly to Paris later today and then on to Grenoble on Thursday for a conference on "Reinventing Democracy." I may blog from France, but I'll be very busy, so the posts may be sparse. It's perhaps fitting that I'll be in France for the second anniversary of Sarkozy's accession to power. I began the blog a couple of weeks later, partly in response to the event. I see that the French media are engaged in the tedious exercise of anniversary evaluation. I don't feel the need to indulge, since I have been providing running commentary on this presidency since it began, and this doesn't seem to me a particularly propitious moment to take stock. Perhaps I'll change my mind when I set foot on French soil. It's a little less than a year since I was last in France. Much has changed in external circumstances (the crisis had not yet spread to the real economy last July), but not much has changed in my assessment of either Sarkozy or the opposition. So I will let this anniversary pass in silence.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Change That Slogan


Travailler Roupiller plus pour gagner plus?

Prison Guards vs. Riot Police

This must have had the inmates scratching their heads.

Can the Green Get Us out of the Red?

A discussion of the role of environmental politics in the current crisis with economists Éloi Laurent and Christian de Pertuis.

Free Speech Movement

With Jean-Marie Le Pen in the role of Mario Savio: read about it here.

Laïdi on Sarkozy

Here.

Programme Commun bis ou Front Impopulaire?

Le Figaro today has a series of articles and an editorial exploring the possibility of a PS-MoDem alliance of some sort. In Lille, Grenoble, and Dijon there are already local alliances between the parties, and Bayrou, with the publication of his screed against Sarkozy is trying to outbid Ségo as the leader of the anti-Sarko forces.

The question is what common ground the two parties might find to stand on beyond their detestation of Sarkozy. Of course fundamental disagreements didn't prevent the Common Program from coming into being in 1977, and Le Figaro expressly looks back to Mitterrand's tactical maneuvering as an example. But François Bayrou is no Mitterrand. Nor is Ségolène Royal.

I frankly think the whole idea is far-fetched, although I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Bayrou could make it to round 2 in 2012 if the left remains in its current state of disarray. But voting for Bayrou as a fallback is a very different matter from committing one's fate to Bayrou as a strategic maneuver. Indeed, one might suspect Le Figaro of making its wish the father to its thought, because if the Socialists were to resign themselves to Bayrou as the sole viable candidate, they would essentially be giving up all hope of defining themselves as a party.

And here is Libé's version of the same idea. With this rather mind-boggling description of Bayrou:

De même Bayrou, solitaire, improbable, centriste reconverti dans l’insolence, ancien bègue maniant le verbe comme une épée, sorte de Démosthène des campagnes, est un franc-tireur qui a coupé les ponts avec l’establishment. Il pourrait devenir l’ennemi principal de l’Elysée en 2012. Il plaît surtout à gauche : notre sondage Libération-Viavoice (1) montre que les deux tiers de l’électorat du PS souhaitent un rapprochement avec le Modem. «Il veut prendre notre place», gémit le PS. Raison de plus pour se rapprocher de ses électeurs, idiot !


Does Joffrin really believe what he writes, or is he trying to persuade himself?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

La Révolution n'aura pas lieu

A bizarre headline in Libé this morning: "Less historic than hoped." The referent is yesterday's May Day demonstration, which brought fewer people into the streets than the March 19 day of protest. Explanations run the gamut: May 1 fell on a Friday, and the weather was good, so a lot of people chose to take the weekend rather than bring down the government; May 1 is a day for "labor," so the bourgeoisie stayed home; it was just too much trouble to march yet again, and so soon after the last time; etc.

The causal reasoning doesn't seem quite up to the label "historic," either. If the ras-le-bol goes no deeper than this, there's a good deal more gruel to be scraped before the bowl is truly empty. Perhaps now talk of a general strike will abate.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day and the Contradictions of Capitalism

How different this May Day looks on the two sides of the Atlantic. In France, for the first time since the election of Sarkozy, all the unions are marching arm-in-arm. But it is a unity of façade only, which evolves in a void masked by the convenient amplification of Sarkozy's image into a symbol of everything that is wrong. The convenience of this symbol is that it obviates discourse, which would only reveal the depths of the disunity in which not only the trade unions but the entire opposition is mired. Naturally, the Socialists are drawn to this tawdry spectacle as moths to a flame. They can march in "solidarity" (albeit with Ségo self-exiled to Heuliez, though she is, as Benoît Hamon grudgingly observed, technically "with the workers" and therefore toeing the party line). Alain Badiou wrote a book entitled De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? Now we know: "Sarkozy" is the name of the void that the opposition in France has become, a mere reproduction en creux of the only game in town.

Meanwhile, in the US, Chrysler went bankrupt on Mayday eve, and the union, the much-maligned UAW, is now, in the person of its pension fund, among the directors of the company. Ironically, this turning of the tables pits retired workers against active workers. To turn the company around, the retirees on the board must draw upon the standard bag of tricks of creative destroyers everywhere: they will need to shed jobs, cut costs, eliminate product lines, close plants, downsize.

So French unions march for a boost to the "purchasing power" of workers, citing the consumption stimulus in the US as an example of what ought to be done, and Ségo marches shoulder-to-shoulder with beleaguered auto subcontract workers at Heuliez. Meanwhile, in the US, auto workers may not be taking much encouragement from any temporary stimulus to their purchasing power as their futures turn bleak before their eyes, and the union itself has become the capitalist ogre--for it must now, literally, devour its own children.

This may be the bleakest May Day in living memory, but in France the festive banners and lusty denunciations of the hyperpresident put all that out of mind for a bit, while in the US the loudest howls are coming from Chrysler's bondholders, and the mood among workers is too grim for parades. A May Day parade of Wall Street bond traders denouncing President Obama for "politicizing" the markets -- now there would be an interesting visual for the French TV news this evening. Something to talk about other than Sarkozy.