Friday, December 31, 2010

A Wooden Performance

Langue de bois, stiff delivery, stumbling over the teleprompter, verbiage dispensed with a haste and incomprehension bespeaking an utter lack of conviction--one of Sarkozy's worst speeches ever. And how about that thumb-twiddling and the tacky green-screen setting of the pres in front of an external shot of the Élysée, as if he were standing outside in the cold while giving his speech? Worst production values ever. The palace comm shop has lost its touch. They have to be hoping that no one was watching.

Those who were will, however, have discovered that the defense of the "most fundamental" principles of the Republic now includes enforcing "both the letter and the spirit" of the law against the burqa--a rather chilling statement when you think about it, since the "spirit" of such a law includes a pervasive distrust of whatever is unfamiliar, different, and "alien."

La Trêve des Confiseurs

We are of course in the period known as "la trêve des confiseurs," when nothing of importance ordinarily happens in politics. Check the link for the origin of the term. As for confiseries, you can't do better than this stand in the Cour Saleya in Nice. Happy New Year to all.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Can the Euro Become a Reserve Currency?

The euro is sometimes proposed as a plausible alternative or supplement to the dollar as a global reserve currency. Is this plausible? Not in the foreseeable future, according to Peter Kenen.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"The Most Irritiating" French Politicians

According to a VSD poll (via Thierry Desjardins):

Le président de la République n’arrive qu’en 4ème position. Il n’« agace » que 63% des Français. Loin derrière Ségolène Royal qui « agace » 73% de nos compatriotes et Brice Hortefeux, 70%, et juste derrière Marine Le Pen, 64%.
Ensuite, on trouve Martine Aubry, 54%, François Bayrou, 52%, Jean-François Copé, 47%, et, tout en bas du classement, François Fillon, 39%, et Dominique Strauss-Kahn avec un bien modeste 30%.

Was the Euro a Bad Idea?

The naysayers are enjoying their I-told-you-sos. Paul Krugman reminds us who they were. So much skepticism makes me skeptical. The Schadenfreude may be as premature as the preceding celebrations.

Criticism of French Arms Sale to Russia

Here. The deal, in the works for a long time, was announced on Christmas Eve, true to the spirit of the season. Not the peace on earth spirit, to be sure, but the commercial spirit, which conquers all.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bonnes Fêtes

Blogging will be light to nonexistent over the holiday. Have a good one!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hortefeux

Already found guilty of making a racist remark in the incident involving the "Auvergnat" and of violating the presumption of innocence in the case of David Sénat, the minister of the interior, Brice Hortefeux, is now charged (by a deputy of Europe Écologie) with "hindering the exercise of justice" for his criticism of the guilty verdict against a group of policemen in Bobigny. That's quite a few "missteps" for one minister.

"Coordination" without Loss of "Sovereignty"

Coordination: such a nice, unthreatening word. It may share a prefix with "coercion," but otherwise, nothing in common. So says Christine Lagarde:

"Je ne pense pas qu'il soit possible d'ôter aux Etats la souveraineté sur leurs budgets mais nous pourrions nous coordonner les uns avec les autres lorsque nous élaborons nos législations fiscales. C'est exactement ce que prévoient la France et l'Allemagne. De plus en plus, nous voulons nous coordonner lorsque nous préparons nos budgets pour les années à venir."

But surely Mme Lagarde is familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma, that favorite chestnut of political scientists, which demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining coordination when defection from the coordinated strategy promises to profit the erstwhile coordinators. What the minister of finance probably has in mind is something closer to the Dictator Game, in which the big economies--France, Germany, perhaps the UK--"coordinate" in deciding what the smaller economies can and cannot do. As for coordinating the French and German economies, well, good luck. Modell Deutschland and le modèle social français have not always played well together in the past, but crisis does tend to concentrate the mind, so perhaps there is hope for a better tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fitoussi's Bon Mot

Jean-Paul Fitoussi has come up with a fine sentence to describe where we are today in thinking about the global economic crisis:

Indeed, today the global economy’s arsonists have become prosecutors, and accuse the fire fighters of having provoked flooding.

Whither Germany?

Élie Cohen contemplates the evolution of German policy since the beginning of the crisis and sees a moment of truth ahead:

La pression d’une opinion publique de plus en plus gagnée par les thèses eurosceptiques et la vigilance sourcilleuse de la Cour de Karlsruhe limitent les progrès dans l’intégration européenne et le fédéralisme budgétaire. Les progrès de la solidarité européenne requièrent donc une grande inventivité dans le design institutionnel, la production de normes et les modalités de leur mise en œuvre. Dans ces conditions et compte tenu des développements prévisibles de la crise la solidité de la construction européenne sera testée dans les mois qui viennent. Cette crise a pourtant une vertu, celle de provoquer un débat fondamental en Allemagne sur l’avenir de l’Euro(pe). Face à une opinion publique travaillée par des forces isolationnistes et xénophobes comme en témoignent les ouvrages récents de deux éminents responsables économiques (Thilo Sarazin de la Buba et Hans Olaf Henkel, ex-patron des patrons) le SPD s’engage plus franchement dans une stratégie de renforcement de l’Europe.

Shoah

Tim Snyder, the author of Bloodlands, pays tribute to Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah":

A quarter century ago, the Holocaust was not as widely recognized as it is today as an unprecedented evil. Lanzmann did much to change that. In his expansive “fiction of the real,” as he calls it, he is like a French realist novelist of the nineteenth century, addressing an injustice by painstaking research: a decade of reading; hundreds of risky conversations with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders; thousands of hours of unused film. This is “J’accuse” six million times over. Lanzmann is quite visible in the film, and heroically so. In his conversations with Jews and Germans and Poles, he is the perfect image of a French intellectual seeker of truth, doing what the existentialists spoke about but rarely did: imposing his mind and his will on a great emptiness, forcing it to take shape, and so leaving a trace of himself in history.
The article is worth reading in full. (h/t Peter Gordon)

Les Neiges d'Antan

Où sont les neiges d'antan? On the runways of Europe, seems to be answer to Villon's question. The French authorities are no doubt glad that Heathrow, Brussels, Schiphol, and Frankfurt have been an even worse mess than CDG, because now they have an alibi. Le Monde points out that the Canadians have shown how the job ought to be done. The key seems to be organization, training, and alertness rather than investment in heavy equipment: the Montreal airport makes do with just seven large plows. And naturally, organization, training, and alertness are the things that tend to atrophy when not constantly tested. Since snow of the sort Europe has seen in the past month is relatively rare, it's not surprising that the result has been la pagaille totale, but still, it's inexcusable.

Given the enormous cost of paralysis of major travel hubs--hundreds of thousands of lost vacation and work days, hundreds of immobilized multimillion dollar aircraft, etc. etc.--one would think that there would be more interest in remedying these problems. And of course for the stranded passengers, the most vexing issue--aside from finding a place to sleep--is the absolute paucity of information available about their plight. This could easily be remedied if the airlines and airport authorities would devote a little thought to the problem: special Web sites with emergency information, instructions to passengers about what to do, advance notification of flight delays and cancellations, etc.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lost in translation

Apparently, the Confédération Générale du Travail no longer looks with favor on the word travailleur. The union now favors, not ouvrier, but salarié to describe the status of its members. This is bizarre in any number of ways, as the linked article points out. But the poor translator must now be on his guard: if travailleur becomes pejorative, can we translate salarié as "wage-earner," even though this has no especially pejorative connotation in English (though of course it's generally considered higher-status to receive a salary, which is not the same thing as un salaire (this is often a faux-ami, since English distinguishes between salary and wage: rémunération, appointements, émoluments might be better)? It rather grates on the ear in English. Economists distinguish between "hourly" workers (salariés) and "salaried" workers (whose pay is independent of the number of hours worked, and who are not exactly the same as cadres). Of course, in the United States, we have no "working class": everyone considers himself "middle class," so I suppose we have neither travailleurs, ouvriers, nor salariés but only bourgeois earning over $1m a year, which explains the otherwise puzzling support for tax cuts for the rich.

Perhaps the demise of travailleur began when il fallait travailler plus pour gagner plus. This was certainly a change from abolir le salariat. But the euphemisation of work has been going on for some time, at least since Auchan declared its clerks to be techniciens de surface. On the other hand, certain formerly despised professions sought to raise their status by claiming the privilege of labor: sex workers, intellectual workers. Or as non-commissioned officers used to tell me in the army when I mistakenly addressed one as "Sir," "Don't call me 'sir,' I work for a living." Work can be a badge of dignity and pride, except, it seems, chez la CGT.

Copinages

It looks as though the new government has wasted no time in distributing benefits to people close to various ministers. In Franche-Comté, Nacer Meddah is out as prefect after only 7 months on the job, replaced by Christian Decharrière, the former chief of staff of Eric Besson (h/t Anonymous commenter). And at Inaglobal, Frédéric Martel, the founder, has been ousted only two months after the launch of the site by Frédéric Mitterrand's protégé, Mathieu Gallet, whose meteoric rise at the culture ministry has tongues wagging. Martel's replacement: Gallet himself!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Self-Advertisement

The perfect Christmas/Chanukah gift for your anglophone Americanophile friends: the travel writings, diaries, letters, etc. of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont from their 1831 trip to America, selected by Olivier Zunz and published in my translation by the U. of Virginia Press. This is the stuff from which Democracy in America was made, now in English for the first time (mostly). See Tocqueville among the Quakers. Discover Detroit before automobiles and Eminem. Watch as Tocqueville nearly drowns in the Ohio River and nearly dies in the backwoods of Tennessee. Learn what he thought of American women and song (his thoughts on American wines, if any existed at the time, are not recorded, but you will find him being drunk under the table by the members of the New York City Council). Seriously, a great read.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ni pute ni soumise

So, Fadela Amara will also throw in her lot with Borloo. Could Sarkozy's renomination of Fillon turn out to be his greatest blunder? By casting Borloo out into the cold after raising him up as a potential prime minister, Sarko may have created a monster. Borloo is a popular politician (for reasons that escape me, to be sure--I've never quite penetrated the secret of his charm). He has wasted no time in building a party around himself and his cult of personality, and he has attracted a couple of the flashier embodiments of the ex-Sarkozyan ouverture. Lest anyone forget, Bayrou attracted a lot of votes in the first round of 2007 by being neither Sarkozy nor Ségolène. Borloo might well be positioned to do the same. The tout sauf Sarkozy vote could well be stronger in 2012 than it was in 2007, and that might be enough to propel Borloo past the candidate of the left, especially is she is Royal or Aubry. What is more, Sarkozy's first-round score is almost certain to be smaller, since the FN appears to be rising from the dead. So we could have a very interesting first-round scenario in 2012, a three-way race with a highly unpredictable outcome. Watch this space for further developments.

The PS Has Found Its Defining Issue!

Yes, the erasure of cigarettes from photos of French cultural icons is a travesty, but will it peel outraged yuppies away from the Greens as ineffectively as attacking Gypsies has peeled bigots away from the Front National? This is the great unanswered question of the 2012 presidential elections.

Le Grand Paris

This somewhat splenetic review of Bregjte van der Haak's documentary of Grand Paris sheds an interesting light on power, politics, people, and art. Annette Fierro writes:

All of these extravagant visions seem radically at odds with what van der Haak's film surmises at its outset, that Le Grand Paris was to address a Paris that is no longer the economic or political capital of Europe, in a France that has been downwardly spiraling in international and economic prominence since World War II. Even since the early 1990s, France’s economy has faltered and fallen far behind those of the UK and Germany, overwhelmed by its internal economic structures and the global strain upon them. Anyone at all familiar (who isn't?) with these daunting realities could not possibly expect that the most dazzling of visions given back to Sarkozy would be realized in any near or distant future. The film's conclusion is thus foreshadowed from the very beginning, seemingly anticipated by all but the architects involved. Despite all of the research and grand visions presented, at the symposium’s finale, Blanc announced that actual implementation would consist only of a fully automated new rail circuit connecting the banlieue, a foregone conclusion. Maas asked himself (somewhat petulantly) “Were we as architects used in this process?”

Certainly the architects were tantalized by adding their signature to the urban history of Haussmann and Le Notre as much as they were compelled legitimately by contemporary issues. It is hard to imagine, however, that architects of this stature, well-accustomed to the vicissitudes of realizing projects, especially enormously scaled ones, would be so deluded as to imagine that any one of their schemes would be built comprehensively. Certain also was the devastating effect of the sudden global collapse of credit halfway through the study, which dampened the initial enthusiasm of the government. The ambiguity of the intended outcome of the study is, however larger than these circumstances. Paris is, after all, a city that has demonstrated the will and resources to accomplish its own monumental reconstruction in the past.

In a sense, whatever the Grand Paris project may say about power and art, it can also serve as a metaphor for Sarkozy's presidency: occasionally soaring rhetoric, professedly grand ambitions, paltry or faulty realizations for which one can imagine a variety of explanations or alibis, and lingering latent possibilities.  And there is also the rivalry with one's predecessors, in Sarkozy's case not Haussmann and Napoleon III so much as Mitterrand and his Grands Travaux. It takes a historian or a journalist to compare le petit Sarko to Napoleon le petit; the principal himself thinks in terms of the more classically political categories of jealousy and revenge. And yet, and yet ... if some piece of the new subway line is built, eventually it will have important effects on life in greater Paris, long after the President and his architects are forgotten.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

And I wasn't invited ...

Shall I complain?

No Primaries for Sarkozy

Surprise, surprise.

Trouble ahead ...

43% of young males in "sensitive urban zones" (ZUS) were unemployed at the end of 2009. One would think that figures like this might have spurred the government to action. As the song says, "Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind."

Just Deserts

With remarkable efficiency, the French justice system has at last seized on a culprit in the Bettencourt-Woerth affair: David Sénat, whose crime is to have spoken (allegedly) too freely to the press. Meanwhile, the Bettencourts have patched up their little tiff, Woerth is dealing with the fallout from his sale of a racetrack, and we've stopped talking about tax fraud, islands in the tropics, Swiss bank accounts, fraudulent Légions d'honneur, et toute la ribambelle. Merry Christmas.

Yade-Borloo, même combat

Rama Yade joins the Parti radical and discovers the importance of "social cohesion."

French Lesson

Why learn French? Looks like English biz jargon can be substituted wherever necessary.

Educational Stats

What portion of each age cohort gets the bac? How has this changed over the years? How has the proportion of students with the bac général changed in relation to the other types of bac? Answers to all these questions can be found here, along with a comment on the current level of expressive skills among entering university students.

The Decline of Marriage

Tout le monde pacsé, according to Scott Sayare and Maïa de la Baume. A significant cultural shift?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Frêche - The Film

A film has been made of the late Georges Frêche in his everyday activities as political boss of Languedoc-Roussillon. I doubt that it will play in the US (unless TV5Monde picks it up), so I would be pleased to publish a review by any reader intrepid enough to take in this documentary of politics in the raw.

Du rififi chez les patrons des flics

Nothing like a catfight among ministers over the conviction of policemen for tampering with the wheels of justice. Hortefeux, predictably, rushed to defend the flics and condemn the magistrats; Mercier responded; and then Fillon, newly emboldened by his renomination, took out after Sarko's bosom buddy Hortefeux. Here is Thierry Desjardins's account:

Mais, surprise, Michel Mercier, l’inconnu que Sarkozy vient de caser place Vendôme pour consoler les centristes du départ de Borloo a réagi. Bravo ! Il a simplement rappelé qu’Hortefeux n’était pas ministre de la Justice et donc, en clair, qu’il aurait mieux fait de « fermer sa gueule ». On imagine déjà avec délectation l’ambiance qui va régner mercredi au Conseil des ministres.

Et puis –et c’est là tout le sel de l’histoire- Fillon est sorti du silence dans lequel, plus faussement modeste que jamais, il se terrait depuis sa re-nomination victorieuse à Matignon.
Le félin a d’abord semblé donner raison à Hortefeux (et à l’opinion publique) en rappelant : « La justice doit assurer la cohérence de la chaine pénale » et en poursuivant : « Le travail des policiers doit être suivi de jugements et les peines prononcées doivent être exécutées et prévenir la récidive » (ce même jour s’ouvrait le procès de l’assassin d’une jeune fille, récidiviste libéré avant d’avoir totalement purgé sa peine).

Mais ce que chacun retiendra c’est que le premier ministre a surtout donné raison à la justice en qualifiant lui-même « d’injustifiables » les faits reprochés aux sept policiers et en ajoutant : « L’honneur de la police exige un comportement exemplaire »

Avant de conclure : « J’appelle chacun à la raison, à la modération et au sens des responsabilités » ce qui visait évidemment beaucoup plus Hortefeux que Mercier.
And Philippe Bilger, another commentator on the right and himself a magistrate, tries to put this and other recent events in perspective in the larger security-and-immigration-as-campaign-themes picture:

Cet affrontement qui met aux prises un Pouvoir qui fait ce qu'il peut et une opposition populiste et jusqu'au boutiste parce qu'elle n'est en charge de rien est d'autant plus dangereux qu'en permanence le gouvernement est assailli sur sa droite par une surenchère dont il doit tenir compte. Elle l'oblige donc à la fois à résister au FN mais aussi à lui complaire pour une part non négligeable, faute de quoi celui-ci engrangerait des gains trop évidents. Et d'abord devant l'inéluctable dégradation des promesses sur la sécurité face aux imprévisibles aléas du réel, où que ce soit, dans les cités sensibles ou les quartiers cossus. Le FN met son épée dans les reins du Pouvoir et ce dernier tente de s'en défaire mais sans trop regimber. Pas de pire situation que celle qui interdit de se battre par une familiarité qui continue d'exister et vous lie. Même si on persiste à la nier en théorie.

Ockrent in Trouble

Bernard Kouchner has been out for some weeks, and now may be the turn of sa compagne Christine Ockrent to be shown the door at France24. Of course there may be no relation between the two events. Ockrent is allegedly involved in an internal espionage scheme at the station. Spying on your boss's computer will get you fired nearly anywhere (but of course the allegations are "not proven," as they say in Scotland). Still, the drama at France24 seems to be mirroring the drama in Les Reporters, the Canal+ journothriller. Who would have thought? Since my entire TV career to date is limited to a few appearances on France24, naturally I'm on the edge of my seat.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Front National

It's been a while since I've written about the Front National, but Marine Le Pen has put the party she hopes to inherit from her father back on the front pages. Hers is a double discourse: on the one hand, she wants to know why, if Michel Drucker can invite Olivier Besancenot and Jean-Luc Mélenchon to join him on the red couch, she can't be invited too. Not that she really wants to exchange banalities with M. Drucker, but it seems that the perennial host has become the touchstone of legitimacy in French political life: if Drucker can invite you, you're not beyond the pale. Firebrands can demonstrate their charm and receive anointment from the unctuous Drucker.

But on the other hand, Marine wants to demonstrate to the party faithful that she has taken from her father his knack for provocation, so she has raised the issue of Muslim "prayer in the streets" and zones in which shari'a has allegedly supplanted the laws of the Republic. (Perhaps Mlle Le Pen would be interested to know that the state of Oklahoma, gripped by similar fantasies, has outlawed the enforcement of shari'a within its borders.)

For a lucid commentary on all this, see Romain Pigenel's blog.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Paris Real Estate Bubble?

The city may not be able to clear the snow, but that isn't stopping Saudi princes and Russian mafiosi from driving up real estate prices. If I were you, I'd look into which banks are lending the money for these purchases and put my savings elsewhere. Hasn't anyone learned anything from the past few years? A 20% annual increase in real estate prices is not normal, people. It's not a good sign. It suggests a disturbance in the flow of capital as severe as the atmospheric disturbance that has sent chill air, ice, and snow over France this past week. Watch out! Bubbles burst. And don't listen to any economist who tells you we don't know how to identify bubbles. They're like pornography according to the US Supreme Court (the bubbles, I mean, not the economists--we have other choice words for them). If you're a decent person (i.e., not a loan officer or a real estate broker), you know it when you see it.

Snow Fun at All

Watching the France2 news last night--a half hour devoted almost entirely to mammoth traffic jams in and around Paris caused by a 10cm snowfall--I wondered if there would be any political consequences. Among American mayors in the northeastern United States, it is an article of faith that if you don't get the snow off the streets, you won't be re-elected. But who is responsible for snow removal in France? (Sorry to ask such a mundane question. I know I'm supposed to be an "expert," but "expert" knowledge sometimes fails to burrow down to the nitty gritty of daily life, and I live 3,000 miles away, in a New England enjoying a remarkably balmy December.) Is it the city, the region, le Département de Chasse-Neige auprès du Ministère de la Ville et de l'Urbanisme, ou je ne sais quoi encore? Will someone be blamed for this? I mean, a region of 12 million people that can be paralyzed by 10cm of snow and freezing rain looks like a political, not a natural, disaster from where I sit. What about it, Parisians? Is the blood boiling over there sufficiently to melt ice, or are you just accepting this as one of the inconveniences of modern life?

Il parle bien

A very interesting comment by Bernard Girard on the nature of Sarkozy's appeal to certain observers.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

eBooks in France

French publishers have been slow to adapt to the evolving world of eBooks. Nonfiction.fr attempts to explain why.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ecological Catastrophe

Or something. A pal of Nicolas Hulot's resigns from Europe Écologie and issues a public letter of "warning," and suddenly the Greens are turning all green and looking as discombobulated as Socialists. Just as Daniel Cohn-Bendit was about to extend an invitation to ecologists of the center and right to join the nebulous ecological party, which, like a low pressure system hovering above the ocean, keeps threatening to blow inland and wreak major havoc in French politics but always seems to dissipate before achieving hurricane force.

New Web Site

La Vie des Idées has been publishing book reviews for 3 years now. The site, sponsored by the Collège de France, now has an English-language offshoot, Books and Ideas. Worth checking out.

When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Bigga PISA Pie

The PISA scores are out, and the news isn't good for either France or the USA. Of course the Chinese results reflect only the students of Shanghai, a select group, but other Asian countries, Finland, Switzerland, etc., all overachieve. Anticipate a mini-brouhaha concerning the failure of the schools. But before getting your knickers in a twist, you might do well to re-read Baudelot and Establet, L'Élitisme républicaine, which peers behind the league tables to give a more accurate picture of results like these. The short answer is that if you compare the cream of the French educational system with the students of Shanghai (the cream of China's crop), the results would look rather different. French (and American) schools fail at the bottom of the distribution, not the top. And then there's this paradox: Chinese college graduates can't find jobs, earn little more than less educated workers, and excel on tests but disappoint in the workplace.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hey, If It Works, Don't Knock It

Nicolas Sarkozy's latest moves--remaniement, marathon news conference--were nearly universally panned by the commentariat, but here he is, up five points in the polls. Random fluctuation or meaningful uptick? Beats me. As Sarko is fond of saying, commentators comment, deciders decide. And let the chips fall where they may.

"Unable to Cope"

Wolfgang Munchau finds the European Union "unable to cope" with the continuing economic crisis. The third of his six points is worth noting:

The third is a breakdown of communication. The EU has a tendency to hype whatever it agrees. The markets first react with euphoria to the announcement, then with disappointment once they have read the small print.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sur le pont d'Avignon, on n'y danse plus ...

Brent Whelan reports on the sad end of the saga of Ilham Moussaïd, the NPA militante who ignited a firestorm by wearing a headscarf while campaigning for office.


It's official: Ilham Moussaïd and 11 of her colleagues have resigned from the NPA's Vaucluse chapter, after eight months of fruitless negotiation with the central party. 

Things aren't going well for the NPA, it seems:
 
While Ilham is at best a footnote, her story I feel is devastating for the NPA (which is hemorrhaging members for a variety of reasons), and for the immediate future of the far-left.

O'Rourke on the Euro

Here:
The reaction to the news that Irish taxpayers are to be squeezed while foreign bondholders escape scot-free has been one of outraged disbelief and anger. At the start of last week, it was possible to make the argument that ‘burning the bondholders’ was irresponsible, since it would inevitably lead to contagion, and the spread of the crisis to Iberia. That argument has at this stage lost all validity, since contagion has happened anyway. Besides, the correct response to the possibility of contagion was never to engage in make-believe, but to extend taxpayer protection to other Eurozone members as required. Swapping debt for equity in a coordinated fashion across Europe would show ordinary people that Europe is on their side; but like the PLO of old, the European Union never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It could have provided a means of kick-starting a new post-crisis growth strategy based on investment in the infrastructures we will need in the future; instead it has transformed itself into a mechanism for forcing pro-cyclical adjustment onto countries that are already sinking. It could have led the way in reining in an out-of-control financial sector; instead it now embodies the discredited principle that banks must never, ever, default on their creditors, no matter how insolvent they may be. (h/t Henry Farrell)

And for more gloom, see Ken Rogoff.

C'mon

The DSK watch continues. The haurspices minutely examine the entrails. Their interpretations are contradictory and inconclusive. And one has to assume that that's just the way DSK likes it. Because, really, folks, it wouldn't be all that difficult to put up a more persuasive picture of an active candidacy if one really wanted to. This business of IMF-enforced neutrality is nonsense. The game isn't really that hard to play. You form a political action committee, or whatever the French equivalent might be. You put in charge someone known to be close to the prospective candidate. Of course the principal himself officially disavows any connection with the efforts made on his behalf, but the fiction is transparent. The spokesman parries the attacks and maneuvers of the rival candidates. Meanwhile, an organization is constructed, and private assurances are given to prospective affiliates. When the moment is right, the candidate resigns from his international post and enters the fray with an organization already in place, well-honed, and ready to roll.

So why isn't DSK doing this? Either he's not a terribly competent politician--a possibility I don't rule out--or he'd rather not take positions on the issues of the day, because as a nonaligned potential candidate he's likely to remain a lot more popular for a lot longer than as a declared candidate favoring one line over another. But this is a mug's game. This has been the problem of the Socialist Party for nearly a generation now. It is more comfortable with the vagueness of "opposition" than with the definiteness of commitment. Its poll numbers rise as the situation of the government worsens. But then when it comes time to stake out a position in the campaign, its platform seems hollow, because it hasn't really established an identity over the long term. Voters feel they're being sold a bill of goods by a flim-flam artist. Whatever else you can say about Sarkozy in 2007, you have to concede that he had successfully crafted an identity for himself. Like it or loathe it, voters had a sense of a man who was precommitted, who wouldn't simply blow in the wind. When it comes to DSK, the left of the left already knows that it doesn't like what it's likely to get, but the volatile voters in the center, who will decide the election, want definition that the Strauss-Kahnians, whoever they may be, have been loath to provide, lest those buoyant poll numbers start to tumble back to more realistic levels.

Simon Johnson on Eurozone Debt Crisis

Here:

In other words, any one member of the euro zone can veto a country from being determined merely illiquid, thus cutting it off from cheap and endless credit (from the European Central Bank or European Stability Mechanism or any window to be named later). So now Germany effectively has a veto, as do other fiscally austere countries including Estonia (from Jan. 1, when it becomes the 17th member of the euro zone).

Most likely we will witness the creation of an Austere Coalition (actually a modified Hanseatic League) of Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Estonia and a few of the smaller countries. Ending forever what is charmingly known as moral hazard — the prospect of soft bailout money — is an admirable goal. But getting there under current conditions is going to be rocky, because that new regime implies that prominent countries need to have less total debt and a longer maturity on their debt than they do now.

Head Fake

Well, we do learn something from WikiLeaks after all: namely, that the Americans believed that the French deliberately played up Bashar al-Assad's (nonexistent) role in the release of Clotilde Reiss in order to validate Sarkozy's earlier "opening" to Assad, of which the Americans disapproved.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I surmised that Sarkozy was pushing the opening to Assad in order to give himself, and France, a more central role in the Mideast diplomatic game. I even thought that the US might be cooperating in a double game, rejecting talks with Syria for itself but encouraging France as an intermediary. Apparently I was wrong. Or at least wrong at the low level of secrecy penetrated by WikiLeaks. As Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a thing or two about official secrets, recently said, the leaked database was easily penetrated because it was considered to contain such unimportant material (viz., Sarko chasing Louis's rabbit) that it wasn't held very closely; it was the kind of material he wouldn't have bothered to look at back in his time as a RAND intelligence analyst. So there may still be another part of the story.

But while we're on the subject of WikiLeaks, it seems that I may be endangering my future security clearances by even talking about it. See James Fallows' astonished report. I don't know if Fallows has ever worked for an intelligence service, but he might be less astonished if he had. Of the Obama administration's executive order he asks, "Why not just stamp 'Secret' across the front page of The New York Times?" When I was in the US Army, that's essentially what we did: "intelligence" would be gleaned from newspaper reports, typed up on official letterhead, and stamped "Secret." So, in theory, one could have been sent to jail for disclosing what one read in The New York Times. But of course you have to be on the inside to know that a secret is a secret. To the average Joe, it looks like common knowledge. You'd be amazed at how the transformation of common knowledge into secret knowledge inflates one's sense of self-importance. This is one of Ellsberg's fundamental points in a book I recommend, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Barry Eichengreen Lets Loose

Here:

The Irish “rescue package” finalized over the weekend is a disaster. You can say one thing for the European Commission, the ECB and the German government: they never miss an opportunity to make things worse.

It pains me to say this. I’m probably the most pro-euro economist on my side of the Atlantic. Not because I think the euro area is the perfect monetary union, but because I have always thought that a Europe of scores of national currencies would be even less stable. I’m also a believer in the larger European project. But given this abject failure of European and German leadership, I am going to have to rethink my position.
...
As John Maynard Keynes – who knew about matters like reparations – once said, leadership involves “ruthless truth telling.” In Europe today, recent events make clear, leadership is in short supply.

Immigration and National Identity

A review of Patrick Weil's latest book, Liberté, Égalité, Discriminations: L’«Identité Nationale» au regard de l’histoire.

The Incomprehension of the Socialist Party

Le Monde's editorial is correct:

Hormis leur refondateur des années 1970, François Mitterrand, les socialistes n'ont toujours pas compris la nature de l'élection présidentielle française : la rencontre d'un homme - ou d'une femme - et du pays. Plus exactement, s'ils l'ont compris, ils n'assument pas pleinement cette monarchie républicaine instaurée en 1962 et l'aventure singulière, l'ambition individuelle, la détermination sans faille qu'elle suppose.

But the editorial does not pursue this analysis any further. The obvious question to ask is why the Socialists have not grasped the fundamental nature of presidential politics. Mitterrand, who learned the political art in the Fourth Republic, was also schooled by the weaknesses of that regime in the importance of a gravitational center, without which the satellites veer from their orbits and quickly reduce order to chaos. He may have polemicized against the coup d'État permanent, but he knew what needed to be done to govern "le pays de 350 fromages."

But a certain presidential tropism was not the only legacy of the Fourth Republic: technocracy was perhaps its finest product. For most of les Trente Glorieuses, France was in fact ruled by technocrats. The legitimacy derived, after the advent of the Fifth Republic, from the election of a supreme magistrate by universal suffrage only added to the legitimacy of competence that the technocrats derived from their own training and ostensible commitment to the general interest. Mitterrand, recognizing this, surrounded himself with young énarques, who continue to dominate the Socialist Party today. But he squashed the Rocardians, who might have infused technocracy with a bit of political savvy, had they been allowed to develop as a movement, and then Jospin, the best of the remaining lot (with Fabius sidelined by the blood scandal and rightly distrusted for his sinuous political line), was in turn squashed by the Front National, a movement that Mitterrand had covertly encouraged (through his sanction of proportional representation in local elections) in order to divide the right. This left only the small fry among politicized technocrats to run the PS at the national level, while the local federations were ceded to barons who might have been at home in the Fourth Republic: the Collombs, Frêches, and Rebsamens, among others.

There is of course a younger generation of Socialists schooled in a variety of political arts unknown to the énarques. Harlem Désir, another Mitterrand product, came up by way of racial politics. Manuel Valls has been searching for a third way in downtown Evry for years. Arnaud Montebourg, who has studied the secrets of Sarkozy's rise and Ségolène's surprising appeal, would like to be a media darling as well, but he hasn't quite found the trick of it. So the party limps along with out-of-touch énarques at its head, struggling youngsters searching for another way, pollsters endlessly touting Hamlet Strauss-Kahn, who can't decide whether to be or not to be, and the mercurial Ségolène, who alone among the lot has grasped the fact that a president must be the incarnation of something.

And incarnation is precisely what Ségolène has mastered: she has undeniable presence. It's the "something" that eludes her. Exactly what she intends to incarnate has never been clear and becomes less clear with each reinvention of herself. By turns Blairite, gauchiste, 68arde attardée, femme fatale, attack dog, Marianne redux, and Mother of all the French, she retains her spontaneity by avoiding identification with any particular line of policy and her vivacity by refusing to closet herself away with the many dossiers she needs to master if she wants to make her next candidacy more credible than her last one.

In retrospect, one has to admire the genius of Mitterrand, who was able to mold this nébuleux into a vehicle of victory. If only he had been able to pass some of his Florentine subtlety on to his protégés, the party might be in a better position to win an election that would seem, if Sarkozy's unpopularity is any gauge, to be eminently winnable.

More on the French Brain Drain

The story continues to attract attention in the US but, curiously, in France, not so much:

Ben Wildavsky, a senior scholar in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of The Great Brain Race, appeared with Kohler at the French Embassy. In his book, Wildavsky argues that academic excellence is not a zero sum game and that it's a good thing that there is more competition for academic talent. Still, he said Tuesday that "without being alarmist," there is good reason for a country like France to worry about its loss of talent.

He argued -- to the visible discomfort of some of the French academics in the audience -- that the "culture of egalitarianism" and a "culture of mediocrity" have eroded the quality of French universities. (He later said he "withdrew" the word "mediocrity" and that he should have referred instead to a culture of "insufficient excellence.") Some of those who were challenging the report, he said, showed "elements of denial."

"Insufficient excellence?" C'mon, Ben, do you think anybody's gonna believe a weasel-word like that conveys your true thoughts on the matter? But I think you're being rather unfair, even with your waffle. French academics receive too little money and virtually no support of the sort that American academics take for granted: libraries, computers, secretaries, travel grants, research funding, etc. Mediocrity is a product of policy, not of  "culture." As for egalitarianism, you're neglecting the Grandes Écoles, which might lead you to the opposite conclusion about the French system. It would be more accurate to say that the stratification inherent in any system of higher education needs to be spread over a somewhat wider base than is presently the case in France.

More WikiLeaks

Notice how much better a job the Times does in summarizing these cables than the French press has managed to date. Our diplomats may lack flair, but our journalists are tops when it comes to collecting and regurgitating the diplomatic mush.

I think I'll spend the afternoon re-reading Isaiah Berlin's wartime dispatches from Washington and George Kennan's letters from Moscow. Longing for the good old days. I guess this is a sure sign I've become an old man.

Here Are the Secrets

OK, I take it back. US diplomats did know something that they couldn't have read on this blog: that DSK regarded Ségolène Royal's popularity as a "collective hallucination." As for Ségo herself, she confessed that she watches "Desperate Housewives" (hmmmmm), but that didn't prevent our crackerjack diplomatic corps from recognizing her allegedly "traditional leftist preconceptions, not to say prejudices" against the US. Oh, yes: and they also knew about Sarko chasing little Louis's dog and rabbit around the Élysée.

I mean, like, you know, Good grief! (Or WTF, in today's parlance.) So, sure, we negotiate with an impostor in Afghanistan, but what do we know about Afghanistan? We've only been at war there since 2001. France--our oldest ally, and this is the best we can do? Twaddle and tittle-tattle?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Where Are the Secrets?

So, this is what Wikileaks reveals about Franco-American relations. Humbly, I would suggest to my rulers that they could learn a lot more about France by reading this blog than by perusing their own diplomatic cables. And really, which American diplomat wrote this: "L'engagement international de la France" est "magnifié par Kouchner"? Washington, if you want my number, I'm in the book.

Nota Bene

Now here's an interesting tidbit on the elevation of Denis Olivennes to no. 2 in the Lagardère organization (see previous post "Musical Chairs"):

Avec cette nomination, le groupe Lagardère semble se préparer de plus en plus à une éventuelle victoire de Dominique Strauss-Kahn en 2012, comme l'illustre un sondage du JDD du 27 novembre. Est-ce Ramzy Khiroun, proche conseiller du directeur du FMI et homme de confiance d'Arnaud Lagardère, qui prépare le terrain ?

Et tu, Arnaud? Didn't you once say that Sarkozy was "like a brother?"

"European Integration Is Dead"

From Henry Farrell:

I’m a bit surprised not to have seen anyone making this point, but one obvious consequence of the current situation in Ireland is that European integration (to the extent that it is driven by Treaty change) is dead for the foreseeable future. New Treaties – if they are to be passed, not only require unanimity, but have to pass through two veto points.

First, they have to get a majority vote in a referendum in Ireland. This is thanks to a legal ruling (the Crotty ruling) that Treaty texts which have constitutional implications (which any Treaty involving significant further integration obviously would have) require popular assent in a referendum. Given popular anger at the way that the bailout has been structured, I imagine that the chances of Ireland voting ‘yes’ to any new European initiative are close to zero.

Yet even if somehow the Irish people could be persuaded to say yes to some initiative – perhaps because it put in place a more equitable system of fiscal transfers in the case of crisis – it would have to pass through the second veto point – the German Constitutional Court. The Court has made it clear in recent rulings that it is not prepared to countenance major new initiatives that might e.g. shift responsibility for decisions over fiscal policy to the EU level. In other words – any more equitable system of economic governance is likely to be vetoed.

It is extremely hard to envisage Treaty changes that could get a yes vote in Ireland. It is next to impossible to imagine any new Treaty that could both get a yes vote in Ireland, and survive scrutiny in Karlsruhe. Hence – the process of ‘ever closer union’ through Treaty change is effectively dead. One can imagine other mechanisms of change (drift, policy incrementalism, ECJ rulings) coming into play, but they are unlikely to result in any very obvious changes except over the very long run.

Very true. And then of course the question is whether the euro can survive without further integration, which seems increasingly doubtful, and whether the EU can survive without the euro. Consider, for example, Paul Krugman:

I still don’t see a wide euro breakup. But I guess it’s worth posting, for future reference, one thought I have here: namely, that a rump eurozone, without the southern Europeans, doesn’t look workable to me. It’s not about economics per se; it’s about political economy.
One thing that’s really essential for the euro to work as a political matter is for Germany not to be too dominant. We can’t really have a North American Monetary Union, because the US is too dominant: either it’s just American monetary hegemony, or America takes an unacceptable loss of sovereignty to minor partners. Europe, by contrast, has four and a half big economies; Britain chose not to be in, but that still left France, Italy, and Spain to share the running of the thing. But France, Germany, and a few Flemings and Walloons doesn’t make for anything that even looks like an equal partnership.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't, I guess. Not a very hopeful picture.

Musical Chairs

OK, Alexandre Bompard quits Europe1 to take over the FNAC. Denis Olivennes, who used to head the FNAC before moving to Le Nouvel obs, quits the latter to take over Europe1. Meanwhile, Jacques Julliard, as reported earlier, has left Le Nouvel obs to take on the no. 2 editorial spot at Marianne.

Something seems to be happening in the media stratosphere, but I don't have any idea what it is, and so far I haven't heard anyone blame it on Sarkozy. Meanwhile, on TV5Monde, I have been following the feuilleton called Les Reporters, which first ran on Canal+ in 2007-9. The screenwriters have scrambled various aspects of reality (faux listings, rétrocomissions, journalists held hostage, coups tordus among government ministers, connivance between politicians and industrialists, crisis of the press) to produce a simulacrum in which the bad guys seem to be winning.

Ethnography of Barbès

Reviewed here.

What Is Laïcité?

Canadians Charles Taylor and Jocelyne Maclure reflect on the question.

Who's the Fairest of Them All?

For a woman whose intellectual and political acumen have often been criticized by other Socialists, Ségolène Royal has emerged from the latest scuffle looking like the only one of the lot with the slightest flair for political tactics. In retrospect, it's hard to see Martine Aubry's announcement of a "pact" among the Big Three as anything other than a gaffe of the first order. And Royal, recognizing her opportunity, pounced. Was there a betrayal involved? It seems unlikely that Aubry would have gone public with her "pact" if she hadn't had some sort of understanding with Royal, but a politician who fails to foresee the possibility of a reversal of alliances, and who doesn't have the wherewithal to sanction such a defection, is ill-advised to lay her head on the chopping block, as Aubry did. And since she, of all people, had every reason to expect that Royal would want vengeance for past wrongs, she was doubly foolish to do so. It's hard to see how she will recover from this, but then it was hard to see how Royal would recover from her loss in 2007 to Sarkozy and then her "loss" of the party leadership to Aubry, so I'm not ruling anything out.

So where does that leave the PS? Not quite leaderless but definitely pactless. There will be a real primary, and that might not be a bad thing, as Bernard Girard suggests. What I surmise, however, is that Dominique Strauss-Kahn may now be more reluctant than ever to enter it. He remembers his last encounter with Royal and his inability to counter her popularity. He recognizes the antipathy that the left wing of the party has toward him and realizes that his position on retirement reform leaves him entirely vulnerable to Hamon, Mélenchon, et cie. Although he might win the battle, I suspect that he has little taste for it. He could continue to temporize, choosing to enter his own stalking horse, Moscovici perhaps, in the hope that the party will in the end be so badly divided that it will appeal to him as a deus ex machina in its hour of need.

But this would be a dangerous strategy. He has basically three options. He could announce soon that he will leave the IMF at a specified date to return to France in order to rally his troops. He could remain silent, leaving his options open but his supporters in a quandary. Or he could announce that he has no interest in the presidency, throwing the race wide open.

I suspect that he will choose silence, the worst of his options, in my opinion. Although I think that DSK might well make a decent president, I also think that he's an inept politician--overly cautious, lacking a common touch, a technocrat by instinct and conviction, and fundamentally uninterested in what it takes to move people either individually or en masse. It's not that he would rather be right than president, but rather that he thinks being right is enough to make him president.

Monday, November 29, 2010

High School Confidential

There are days when the petty rivalries among would-be chieftains reminds me of high school hijinks:

Tout au long du discours de François Fillon, mercredi à l'Assemblée nationale, le député-maire de Meaux [Jean-François Copé, newly minted head of the UMP] avait en effet ostensiblement bavardé avec ses voisins, lu ou paraphé des documents qu'il avait apportés dans l'hémicycle, semblant porter une attention toute relative au discours du chef du gouvernement.

And what do you really think of our president?

Some unflattering remarks by Nicolas Sarkozy concerning Barack Obama appeared in the press a while back. Now it's tit for tat, thanks to WikiLeaks (although the tittle-tattle does not come from the mouth of the US president). According to a US diplomat, Sarko "has a thin-skinned and authoritarian personal style" and is "an emperor with no clothes." Hmm. I guess someone will no longer be invited to consume petits fours and champagne at Quai d'Orsay cocktail parties.

For the record, Sarkozy, however imperial he may be, is always impeccably dressed.

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You ..

... a Sarkozy biopic. Can't get enough of him? This one's for you.

On Aubry's Deteriorating Position

Thanks to an anonymous commenter, see analyses here and here.

More on the Brain Drain

Here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Crabs

Just when it seemed that the Socialists had achieved unity of a sort--an authoritarian, "democratic centralist" sort--it all falls apart, and they are back to bickering like crabs in a basket. The new party line--from Harlem Désir rather than Aubry--is that the now defunct pact among the Big Three was a pact only to give the party's full backing to the winner of the primaries. But I saw Aubry on France2: that isn't what she said, no matter what gloss is placed on it now. Or, if it is what she meant, she expressed herself so clumsily that not only I but most of the press misinterpreted her. Not a good move for a supposedly seasoned party leader who has supposedly been improving her game of late. So the stab at unity has in fact revealed the party's utter disunity and its perhaps fatal flaw: it is no longer a party but a chorus of prima donnas.The primaries should be a hoot.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sarkozy le Tocquevillien

When Nicolas Sarkozy praises local democracy, he sounds a bit like Tocqueville:

« Je n'ai jamais été de ceux qui pensent qu'il y a trop de communes. Parce qu'au fond, ces 500 000 conseillers municipaux, ces 36 500 communes, c'est peut être aussi pour ça qu'en France il fait si bon vivre. On a autant de communes que tous les autres pays d'Europe... Mais au fond, y a un savoir-vivre à la Française qui est peut être aussi la conclusion, l'héritage d'une démocratie locale extrêmement vivante.»


And he's not wrong. But he is perhaps allowing his rhetoric to obscure certain parts of the larger picture, a faulg from which Tocqueville, too, was not always immune.

Sarkozy n'est pas à un paradoxe près. Son éloge de la simplification s'arrête aux départements et aux régions. Les élections cantonales, puis sénatoriales partielles, sont prévues l'an prochain. On est jamais trop prudent. Tout juste se permet-il de critiquer le nombre de structures intercommunales.

The Grand Bargain

So Martine Aubry, Ségolène Royal, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn have agreed, it seems, among themselves that one of them will be the presidential candidate of the PS. What the other two get in exchange has not been revealed.

I wonder if any of the three reads American history. Perhaps they have heard of the 1824 pact that gave John Q. Adams the presidency and made Henry Clay Secretary of State (if it actually existed). In the end it didn't work out so well: its enemies labeled it "the Corrupt Bargain," and partly on the strength of that label Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828 and destroyed Adams' National Republican Party once and for all. Just sayin' ...

Clarification: This bargain does not mean that there will be no other candidates in the primary! It means that  the "big three" have agreeed that ONLY ONE of them will be a candidate. Their assumption is that only one of them can possibly win. They may, of course, be wrong. But Holland, Valls, and Montebourg are almost sure to be candidates unless something changes. And something could very well change. The PS could decide that it wants to present a united front, for example, and the other ambitious proto-candidates could be bought off in one way or another. The more interesting question is what the Big Three have decided among themselves. Any guesses?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Copé Moves In

Jean-François Copé is wasting no time in taking over the UMP. Although he judges his predecessor's bilan to have been globalement positif (ou mieux, "excellent"), he clearly believes that the UMP has been led about as well as Marchais believed Communism had been led, that is, to the abyss. So he will begin talking to "his" deputies in weekly meetings. At least until he, in turn, achieves the control Sarkozy once enjoyed, at which time he will no doubt recognize the advantages of the Sarkozyan method. Unless Fillon gets there first.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Managing the Press

Read Bernard Girard's commentary linked in the previous post, listen to Sarkozy's off-the-record remarks to the press in Lisbon (a link to which can be found in Bernard's post), and then read this comment on Sarkozy's management of the press. It seems that Sarkozy, unlike other heads of state, has formalized the off-the-record briefing as a tool of press management. His impromptu appearances are virtually scheduled. He seems to want to use these occasions to develop a sort of complicity with the reporters who cover him, as if the formality of the office were somehow an impediment to his natural style, which is to try to inveigle those who should be monitoring his actions to see things from his point of view. This is what he was attempting to do when he called upon reporters to imagine what it would be like if he were to accuse one of them of being a pedophile on the basis of unnamed secret documents.

He has a point, of course, and one can indeed appreciate and even sympathize with the difficulty of his position. But what he does not see is that a chief of state cannot behave this way. Unfair coverage is part of the job. He pretends to be unfazed by what mere "commentators" say about him, but clearly, somewhere deep in his personality, it rankles. But heads of state are supposed to dismiss their merely personal travails. Try for a moment to imagine de Gaulle blubbering in front of the press as Sarkozy did in Lisbon.

When Sarkozy was first elected, I thought that his efforts to ingratiate himself with the public and the press were legitimate. He wanted to change the style of the presidency, to reduce its august majesty, to create an aura of proximity in the wielding of power that would bring it closer to the people. This might not have been a bad thing, given the abuses of presidential majesty by past presidents. A less regal, more popular and democratic presidency might have marked a certain progress. But Sarkozy, evidently frustrated by his inability to connect with the public, has been unable to strike a proper balance. At times, as in his televised discussion with 3 journalists the other day, he tries desperately to put himself back on the pedestal that he earlier smashed, referring to himself in the third person as the chef de l'État, challenging his interlocutors to imagine his solitary burdens, etc. But at other times, as in Lisbon, he cannot prevent himself from displaying his wounded ego and from pouring out his woes like a tedious passenger in the next airplane seat or a woebegone drinker on the next barstool.

It's unseemly, yes, but worse, it's counterproductive. Such demonstrations of weakness, of ego, of sniveling sensitivity, only invite further attack. And the alarming thing is that Sarkozy surely knows this but cannot help himself. I am increasingly reminded of Richard Nixon and moved to wonder whether Sarko has begun talking to the paintings on the wall in the Élysée, as Nixon reportedly soliloquized to the paintings in the White House. Where is Yasmina Reza when we need her?

"Soliloque pitoyable"

Bernard Girard on Sarkozy's outburst against a journalist questioning him about Karachigate:

Dans son ressassement qui n'en finit pas, cette espèce de geignardise violente sonne bizarrement juste. On a l'impression qu'il s'est toute sa vie comporté comme cela face à l'adversité, que c'est sa nature profonde qui parle.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Copé vs. Fillon

Thierry Desjardins has an interesting analysis of the impending duel between Fillon and Copé, both of whom hope to pick up the pieces if Sarkozy loses in 2012. Copé made his first move today, selecting one of his loyalists, Christian Jacob, to replace him as head of the UMP group in the National Assembly. But as Desjardins notes, many UMP deputies are wary of Copé's splashy ambition and prefer Fillon's discretion.

"Le Mythe gaullien"

A review of Sudhir Hazareesingh's book.

Egalité Réelle

I have been rather critical of Benoît Hamon's "Égalité réelle" proposal for the PS. Here is a more positive assessment of the "youth" aspect of the plan. The kicker is the cost:

Ce programme a été chiffré par le think tank Terra Nova à environ 50 milliards d’euros (12 milliards pour l’allocation d’autonomie, qui s’articule à des prêts étudiants) qui dégage des pistes de financement : la suppression de la plupart des transferts liés à l’entrée dans l’âge adulte et qui sont actuellement versés à la famille ; la suppression du quotient familial, donc des allègements d’impôt pour les familles; l’alignement de la fiscalité des retraités aisés sur celle des actifs ; l’augmentation de la CRDS, impôt affecté au remboursement de la dette sociale.
50 billion euros! Surely they jest. Such a figure makes it clear that this is a plank in a campaign platform, not a serious program for governing. Still, the thinking behind the figure is not without interest: that the post high school student years are crucial for orienting the young in the adult world and that insuperable inequalities develop in this period between those who are free to pursue their studies full-time and those who must juggle work and education. Of course one might ask if these inequalities aren't overdetermined by all the accumulated inequalities of the years through high school. But a little utopian leavening is rather refreshing in these times of austerity.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Karachigate

"Que la justice fasse son travail," said the president yesterday. All necessary documents would be made available to investigators, he indicated. Yet today François Fillon refused to allow Judge Van Ruymbeke to search the DGSE for relevant material. And Sarkozy seems to have lost his temper with journalists who are trying to link him to the affair. It is indeed exasperating to be called upon to prove a negative, but the Law of Scandal suggests that transparency is the best way to dispel rumors. Open the lid and false rumors go "pschitt," to quote Jacques Chirac. Keep the lid on and the pressure builds until something blows. The next weeks should be interesting.

ADDENDUM: A presidential moment:


Sarkozy: affaire Karachi
Uploaded by gill68. - News videos from around the world.

Vidange des cerveaux

The Institut Montaigne claims that French academics are abandoning a sinking ship:
The report, by the Institut Montaigne, a leading independent research group in Paris, found that academics constitute a much larger percentage of French émigrés to the United States today than 30 years ago. According to the report, between 1971 and 1980, academics represented just 8 percent of the departing population; between 1996 and 2006, they represented 27 percent of the departing population. 

But some parts of the ship seem to sinking faster than others:

“Biology and economics are poorly recognized in France,” said Thomas Philippon, a French economist who began teaching finance at New York University Stern School of Business in 2003. “But the problem also comes from the fact that the French labor market doesn’t value Ph.D. theses.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dynastic Affairs

Patrick Devedjian isn't happy and accuses Sarkozy of preparing the succession even as the crown rests uneasy on his own head:

Vous n'avez pas été renouvelé à la fonction de président de la fédération UMP des Hauts-de-Seine. Comment expliquez-vous votre défaite ?
Je vais vous raconter la véritable histoire. Le 15octobre, j'ai été convoqué en urgence par Nicolas Sarkozy à l'Elysée. Il s'est ému que cinq candidats se présentent contre son fils Jean aux élections internes de l'UMP à Neuilly. Il m'en a rendu responsable. J'ai dit que c'était faux. Il ne m'a pas cru et, très mécontent, m'a dit que j'aurais bientôt "une surprise". Quelque temps après, j'ai appris qu'Olivier Biancarelli, attaché parlementaire de l'Elysée, et Eric Cesari, directeur général de l'UMP, téléphonaient aux principaux responsables politiques des Hauts-de-Seine pour leur dire de voter pour Jean-Jacques Guillet [député et maire de Chaville] qui venait –oh surprise!– de se déclarer candidat contre moi à la présidence de la fédération.
 ...
Restez-vous fidèle à Nicolas Sarkozy ?
Je suis admiratif de ses réformes mais comme la plupart des Français, je suis un peu plus réservé sur le style. Il est notre meilleur candidat pour 2012.

Copé Quits Gide and Other Legal News

All good (and lucrative) things must come to an end: Jean-François Copé, recently anointed head of the UMP by Nicolas Sarkozy, has quit his affiliation with the law firm Gide-Loyrette-Nouel, which seemed to many people, including me, to constitute a conflict of interest with his political role (though, to be sure, such conflicts are neither rare nor illegal in France). He will continue to act as an unaffiliated private attorney, however--a role that bears watching. Frédéric Lefebvre has also quit his lawyering.

Perhaps a sudden and sobering wave of virtue has suddenly swept the UMP, but it looks to me more like an edict from on high. Caesar's wife is above suspicion, it goes without saying--although she is an "intelligent" woman, dixit Caesar himself, as though there were something oxymoronic about this--but Caesar's cronies are to be scrubbed with the savonnette à vilain that will retroactively wipe away any past sins as the election campaign approaches. And those who can't be scrubbed can be jettisoned: ask M. Woerth.

Meanwhile, David Sénat, the former MAM aide who has now been "reassigned" to Cayenne (O! the cruelty of the postmodern state! instead of imprisoning its enemies in a penal colony, it assigns them to work in the penal colony's bureaucracy!), has himself assigné Brice Hortefeux (if I may indulge in a bilingual pun) for atteinte à la présomption d'innocence, a lovely legal concept, which I suppose might apply to anyone who so much as hinted that Copé's or Lefebvre's legal activities might in any way have constituted a conflict of interest that was anything but legal. So let me make it clear that I believe that both are, if not as pure as the driven snow, then at least as slick as a Parisian gutter after its morning wash by the éboueurs de la Ville.

There remains, however, the troubling business of the Karachi rétrocommissions: Charles Millon, former defense minister, has confirmed their existence (un secret de Polichinelle, bien sûr), and now we wait for the next shoe to drop. The lifting of the secret défense in this case--now called for by various aggrieved parties--would no doubt prove embarrassing to all sorts of people formerly or still in high places. And what a made-for-TV movie that would make!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bitter End of the Old Nouvel Obs'

Jacques Julliard has quit after 32 years at Le Nouvel Obs' and gone over to Marianne.

Haski: Humiliation in Sarkozistan

Pierre Haski:

Cela tient de la cérémonie religieuse et de l'humiliation publique. Quand il lui plaît, l'Homme Fort s'invite à la télévision. Il choisit ses chaînes, chaînes d'Etat, ou chaînes d'oligarques. Il choisit la date. Il choisit la durée. Il choisit les « journalistes » locaux qui auront le privilège de se faire humilier et ridiculiser par ses bons mots, ses mensonges effrontés ou ses colères étudiées.
Alors que l'Homme Fort du petit Etat voyou est aujourd'hui dépossédé de la plupart de ses pouvoirs réels par les grandes banques internationales, alors que le Numéro Deux vient de mener contre lui une révolution de palais feutrée mais impitoyable, ce pouvoir de venir pérorer quand bon lui chante (dans la langue de bois des médias officiels, on appelle cela une « intervention présidentielle ») est peut-être le dernier auquel il s'accrochera.
Toute « intervention présidentielle » devient immédiatement, pour 24 heures, le sujet unique des médias du pays. Auparavant, on suppute sur ce qu'il va dire. Le lendemain matin, on glose. Non pas sur les paroles, mais sur le motif musical.

Rom ou Français

Jean Véronis:

Je parlais il y a quelques semaines de l'amalgame insidieux que l'on a senti monter depuis cet été en France (et auparavant en Italie) entre Roms et Roumains... Grande a été ma stupéfaction d'entendre cette opposition dans la bouche du chef de l'Etat ce soir :

"Qu'on soit Rom ou Français, il faut respecter les lois de la République".

Et si l'on est Rom et Français, ce qui est le cas de nombreux compatriotes ?
Comment un président de la République Française peut-il mélanger ainsi ethnies et nationalités, et afficher une telle méconnaissance des fondamentaux d'un des dossiers les plus médiatisés de l'année, y compris sur la scène internationale ?

Le candidat Nicolas Sarkozy disait pourtant :

Je veux être le Président qui réconcilie les Français entre eux, quelles que soient leurs origines, leur couleur de peau, leur religion... (discours du 11/02/2007 à la Mutualité).
Belle promesse.

J'ai également été consterné de ne voir aucun commentaire sur les différents sites d'information, qui sont pourtant prompts à transcrire les fragments du débat. Nul n'a relevé.

Et si l'on s'amusait à remplacer ?

"Qu'on soit Juif ou Français..."
"Qu'on soit Musulman ou Français..."

etc. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sarkozy's Press Conference

I didn't see all of it, but in what I did see he came off as more disagreeable than usual, blaming the media for "forcing" him to make an issue of the Roma by playing up the supposed climate of insecurity; challenging his interlocutors to credit him with "at least average intelligence" in order to sidestep a question about spying on journalists; exalting himself ("You can ask that question only because you've never been head of state, have you?") and diminishing them ("Do you really think, David Pujadas, that the head of state should become involved when one of your colleagues loses his laptop?"); and, in general, showing off his alpha dog traits--to the point of baring his teeth at one moment--and absence of humor.

But just to make him look good, I guess, he was followed more or less immediately (if you ignore the banalities uttered by Alain Duhamel) by Ségolène Royal, who rattled on at interminable length to the great annoyance of Arlette Chabot. Ségo did her best to remind voters of what they found irritating about her: repetitiveness, lack of focus, illogic, and simply not knowing when to stop. And then the attack dogs--Baroin and Moscovici--went after each other. I suppose it's no wonder that France winds up with an alpha dog for president when the training ground for politicians is this variety of snarling in front of the cameras. Baroin and Mosco are perhaps the sleekest of the brood, capable of drawing blood with quick snaps and without breaking a sweat.

In contrast, Bayrou seemed calm and collected and might have passed for thoughtful, ensconced as he was in an office filled with books, except that he couldn't refrain from dismissing his would-be centrist rivals as Johnny-come-latelies who, unlike himself, had failed to shun the Sarkozyan virus at the beginning of the plague. On the whole it was a dispiriting evening, though I did enjoy Marine Le Pen's pose in front of some handsome antiques, as well as her blouse, which coruscated nicely under the TV lighting. She was not quite as pointlessly garrulous as Ségolène but she did go on, without, alas, her father's pungent way with the language--a gift that got him in trouble as often as not but at least made him occasionally interesting to watch.

Oh, yes, almost forgot: the substance. So, we're going to get rid of the wealth tax and the tax shield and replace the whole shebang with some kind of capital gains and capital income tax. The devil, as they say, is in the details. And by now we've learned that 'twixt the Sarkozyan  announcement and the final legislation, "stuff happens." For instance, just today, the Assembly voted to retain advertising during the day on the state TV networks. Scrapping part of another presidential initiative. So why try to read the tea leaves? Just wait and see what comes out of the eventual bargaining with the various forces within the UMP.

A Centrist Primary?

Jean Arthuis is calling for a centrist primary. Morin, Borloo, Bayrou: all see themselves as présidentiables du centre. Even Villepin might declare himself a centrist. Arthuis suggests that there is no "natural" leader of the center, any more than of the left or right. Election rather than self-proclamation should prevail. But who will organize such a primary? Under what rules? The details will very likely determine the outcome, so they matter.

Flash!

Le "repas gastronomique des Français" a été inscrit au patrimoine immatériel de l'humanité

Les experts de l'Unesco réunis à Nairobi, au Kenya, ont estimé que le repas gastronomique à la française, avec ses rituels et sa présentation, remplissait les conditions pour rejoindre la "liste du patrimoine culturel immatériel de l'humanité". (AFP)

Hmmm. This is worthy of a news flash? 

The Euro

Last week at Harvard, I listened to a number of experts debate the future of the euro. The panel was generally upbeat. This morning's headline, not so much:

Europe Fears That Debt Crisis Is Ready to Spread


Spain is the big enchilada here: 20% unemployment, 9% deficit. And French banks are believed to hold a lot of Spanish debt. Fasten your seatbelts.

Van Rompuy's comment on the situation here.

That Didn't Take Long

Eric Woerth, out of the government for one day, has a new headache:

Eric Woerth cité devant la Cour de justice de la République

Le procureur général près la Cour de cassation a demandé à la Cour de justice de la République d'ouvrir une enquête sur Eric Woerth pour favoritisme et prise illégale d'intérêts. M. Woerth était intervenu en qualité de ministre du budget pour que l'Etat vende une parcelle de la forêt de Compiègne (Oise) à la Société des courses de Compiègne. (AFP et Reuters)
Interesting. I had thought that the racetrack affair was the least of his problems. No doubt this explains why he was dismissed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Job One

Job One for the new Juppé-Alliot-Marie tandem in French foreign policy: explaining France's position vis-à-vis the new US get-out-of-Afghanistan date: 2014 instead of 2011. This is inconvenient for two presidents up for re-election in 2012. One of them is French.

The Foreign Policy Shop

Incoming and outgoing.

Employment of Graduates

Survey results contested.

War Machine?

So, one line of interpretation of the government shakeup runs this way: Sarko has circled the wagons, drawn all the UMP heavyweights into a tight formation, and assembled not a government but a campaign staff (see Grunberg's analysis in the previous post and the comments of FrédéricLN to the post before that). Maybe, but the UMP has a problem similar to that of the Socialists: it needs une force d'appoint in order to win.

Has Sarkozy's move helped on that score? Not if you believe that he has driven the centrists into opposition by sacking Borloo and Morin. And not if you believe that he has given up on wooing back FN voters who have been deserting him for the Le Pens--a surrender marked by the disappearance of the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity and the reassignment of Eric Besson. To be sure, the new government includes not only Chiraquiens but also Villepinistes, but this is an all-UMP affair. And the party itself has been turned over to IagoJean-François Copé, who may not be playing Sarko's game at all. Copé might not be entirely disconsolate if Sarko lost in 2012. This would leave him in the position of leader of the opposition and head of the party, an excellent place from which to launch his own bid for the presidency in 2017.

And Sarkozy knows from experience that putting rivals inside the government doesn't prevent them from taking potshots at the head man if the latter is perceived as weak, tottering, and discredited: remember how he treated Chirac between 2004 and 2007. Sarko is now in the position of Chirac bis, and he can expect any number of petites phrases launched in his direction from the likes of Copé and Baroin. Juppé remains his own man. Bertrand and Lefebvre are now inside the government and perhaps therefore constrained from playing the part of attack dogs if their master is assaulted by one of their cabinet colleagues.

My guess is that Sarkozy has decided to play the international card, to try to lift himself above the squabbles of the barons by availing himself of the bully pulpit afforded him by the French presidency of the G20. In this light, the appointment of MAM as foreign minister makes perfect sense. She has no foreign policy credibility whatsoever and will be even more of a nonentity than Kouchner was. Sarko will be his own foreign minister more or less full time. In any case, there's nothing to be done on the home front. The retirement fight is over, the security front proved unrewarding, and austerity offers no room for maneuver. So it's off to foreign climes--unless, of course, the suburbs erupt. Since Sarkozy has done nothing to improve their plight since 2005, this would be a fitting verdict on his presidency.

ADDENDUM: Bernard Girard agrees with me. I swear, folks, I wrote this post before reading Bernard, even the Iago reference!

Grunberg on the end of the Hyperpresidency

Gérard Grunberg thinks that Sarkozy's retreat, however unwilling, will make him a stronger candidate:

D’une certaine manière, les difficultés rencontrées par le président pour remanier le gouvernement l’ont paradoxalement aidé. Elles l’ont conduit, pour une part bon gré mal gré, à faire ce qui était le meilleur pour lui, c'est-à-dire à mettre fin à l’hyper-présidence. Désormais, il devra compter davantage sur son Premier ministre, ses groupes parlementaires et son parti. Il pourra ainsi retrouver une position qu’il avait à tort abandonnée, celle d’un chef d’équipe et pas d’un chef tout court. Ce qui ne signifie en aucune façon qu’il perdra le leadership réel du pouvoir exécutif. Mais il pourra se concentrer davantage sur les grandes questions et sur sa future candidature, si toutefois son tempérament le lui permet !