Sunday, February 28, 2010

Winner by Default

Through no virtue of their own, the Socialists appear poised to win big in the regionals: one poll gives them 31% vs. 27.5 for the UMP and 13 for Europe Ecologie. The Front de Gauche (6.5) is ahead of MoDem (4), and NPA has all but disappeared from the radar screen at 2. So it seems that the combined effects of the crisis, errors, overexposure, and the standard usure that afflicts all presidents has begun to extend beyond Sarkozy's personal approval rating to his party's standing. The realignment, still relatively modest, hasn't gone as I expected it would 18 months ago, when the NPA looked to be gaining and Bayrou had not yet entered into free fall. The "center" now seems to be located in Europe Ecologie. This is a very interesting development, which I don't claim to understand. I would appreciate pointers to studies of Europe Ecologie's demographics and electoral geography. Anyone?

There is talk now that Martine Aubry is hoping to score le grand chelem in the regionals, sweeping the board (which I suppose means counting Frêche as a Socialist even though he's been excluded), and if so she expects to walk away with the PS presidential nomination as her prize. I'm not at all sure that's the way things will play out, and I think that reading the new lay of the land will not be easy for any of the parties trying to maneuver in the presidential sweepstakes, including Sarkozy's. What the people want is much less easy to say than what they don't want, namely, what they have now. But if the PS does win big, I think Sarko will have to respond with a major shakeup, even if it means sacking Fillon, who is far more popular than the president himself and who was apparently assured that he would remain in place. And then what?

So Why Call It Normale Sup?

Normaliens no longer want to teach, according to Le Figaro. Business and journalism are attractive to growing numbers of students. (Journalism? Haven't they read the handwriting on the wall?)

L'école a dû s'organiser. Des conventions sont en cours avec le Cnam, HEC ou l'Essec, pour une dizaine d'élèves dans chaque cas. Deux normaliens sont admis d'office chaque année au CFJ (Centre de formation des journalistes) depuis 2008. Un autre partenariat vient d'être mis en place avec l'Isit (l'Institut supérieur d'interprétation et de traduction). Enfin, Normale Sup' a mis en place sa propre préparation interne à l'ENA où les élèves brillent. Longtemps, cette formation a été mal perçue : «On ne va quand même pas se laisser ravaler au rang de Sciences Po-pipeau» se disait-on près du «bassin aux Ernest», le nom donné aux poissons de l'école. Les temps ont bien changé.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Criminal Records in Politics

Interesting reading.

With the Peasants

Like le baron de Charlus, who moved with cunning ease among the Parisian salons yet could always strike a direct and unaffected manner with his peasants, Bruno Le Maire, once the right hand man of Dominique de Villepin, today charmed the farmers at the Salon de l'Agriculture--an art he may have learned by tailing Jacques Chirac but has been unable to impart to his current master Nicolas Sarkozy. There has been tension, to put it mildly, between the Elysée and le monde rural, but Le Maire, a Germanist by training and an énarque whose memoir Des hommes d'État is something of a tour de force in its presentation of politics as both a vocation and a crucifixion, has the knack, apparently, of shedding his urbanity convincingly enough to seem at home in the vast simulacrum of agricultural life that passes for "la plus grande ferme de France," to quote Le Figaro.

And à propos, Le Figaro, too, has shed its urbanity, committing the following delightful howler:
"Au grand damne parfois des organisateurs ..."

Yes, one can hear their "damns" from here.

"Virtuose du renvoi d'ascenseur"

I mentioned the other day Julien Gracq's delicious description of a certain Bernard-Henri Lévy: "virtuose du renvoi d'ascenseur, auteur d'un étrange borborygme historico-philosophique, La Barbarie à visage humain." As "un virtuose du renvoi d'ascenseur," he now has a rival, or accomplice: Ségolène Royal. Her paean in Le Monde is not to be missed. The strength of her piece derives from her absolute identification with her subject: like him, she is soi-disant persecuted and oppressed, and like him she was blessed with the favors of that eminently perceptive fisher of men and women, François Mitterrand. This is a piece of Royal rhetoric to treasure. Vladimir Nabokov had a word for this sort of writing: poshlost.

Vladimir Nabokov made it more widely known in his book on Gogol, where he romanized it as "poshlust" (punningly: "posh + lust"). Poshlust, Nabokov explained, "is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive"

"Prolétarisation du premier cycle"

Are professors abandoning the teaching of undergraduates to grad students? Yes, according to Christian Baudelot:

Présent, le sociologue Christian Baudelot (sur la photo) a dénoncé une "tendance gravissime" actuelle: "de plus en plus, le premier cycle est déserté par les enseignants titulaires et les vacataires font le boulot. On assiste ainsi à une prolétarisation du premier cycle, avec en haut des chaires d'excellence réservés aux meilleurs à qui on dit: "on va vous payer pour ne pas enseigner". Comme si cela devenait un sale  boulot". 

Meanwhile, in the same post, a doctoral student describes the difficulties of her daily life in a letter to Valérie Pécresse.

"Les Enfants de la République"

A review of a new book by Yvan Jablonka, which deals with the "education" of children taken in hand by the state: abandoned children, orphans, delinquents, "vagabonds," etc.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Only in France

Guy Eyerman, syndicaliste CGT, was only recently one of the strikers at New-Fabris, where angry workers had rigged up gas bottles and threatened to blow up the plant if their demands were not met. Now he's on Ségolène Royal's ticket in Poitou-Charentes, which also features candidates from MoDem. So Ségo has made good on her promise to create a rainbow coalition spanning the spectrum "from Besancenot to Bayrou," as she put it at Harvard more than a year ago. Eyerman, interviewed on France2 tonight, seemed a little surprised to find himself in position éligible alongside centrists, but he's a pragmatist for the moment, and so is SR.

Diversity as a Philosophical Concept

Alain Renaut's book is reviewed here.

Quick Affair Ends Quickly

The mayor of Roubaix has withdrawn his complaint against Quick. Apparently, the chain has decided to "consider" offering non-halal burgers alongside its bacon-free fare. Will this count as halal? Who knows? The moving hand has writ, and moves on.

Casse-toi, Monsieur le Président

Farmers have taken it amiss that Sarko will come only to the closing ceremony of the Salon de l'Agriculture rather than to the opening, as is customary. Maybe the president is afraid of another incident such as the notorious confrontation with a detractor a couple of years ago. But agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire is the man who knows this dossier. Good comment here:

Some officials believe that, just as the global financial crisis convinced Europeans to join the French drive against unbridled capitalism, the agricultural crisis will favour France's call for more regulation.
Bruno Le Maire, the French agriculture minister, this week sketched out what that might look like, in proposals to the Commission that try to address the price volatility that has crippled farmers. They include measures for more rapid intervention across sectors when prices collapse; public-private insurance; stronger producer groups to balance retailers' pricing power; tougher rules to curb commodities speculation; and finally an information gathering body to sound the alarm when supply and demand fall out of sync.
The proposals have quite sensibly shifted the early debate on CAP away from the controversial issue of funding to the question of what its priorities should be.
Yet if the partners agree to regulation à la française , they will have agreed implicitly to a big budget, as the measures would demand significant funding to be effective.

MRAP Looks at the Internet

Rue89 calls attention to a study of racism on the Internet published by the MRAP (Mouvement Contre le Racisme et Pour l'Amitié des Peuples). Now, the point of the Rue89 piece is to defend Causeur.fr, a site that Hugues Serraf says "can be annoying, not to say exasperating" but that can hardly be characterized as racist or even, as the MRAP calls it, "neo-conservative" (whatever that means in the French context). I agree. I was astonished to find Causeur, which I read fairly regularly for its droll*, sometimes acid, commentaries, listed alongside such sites as francoisdesouche. Indeed, the MRAP report lists "sites that link to Causeur," a group in which I might have found myself, since I have linked to it more than once (and even once linked to francoisdesouche).

The MRAP report offers an interesting map of a segment of French opinion that I, for one, don't know very well, but it should be used with caution, and I will continue to read Causeur despite the warning, just as I will continue to read Alain Finkielkraut and Pierre-André Taguieff, who also come in for criticism in the MRAP document. If one tuned out all opinion that was "annoying and sometimes exasperating," it would be difficult to call oneself well-informed.

* For an example of a droll commentary on a controversial theme, see this piece by Jérôme Leroy on the Roubaix Quick affair. As readers will know, I disagree with Leroy on the substance, but his opposition to what he calls "multiculturalism" is by no means out of bounds, and one learns about the dining habits of teachers in a provincial collège in the 1990s.

"Psychological Violence"

France's National Assembly approved Thursday night a proposal to add “psychological violence” to a law intended to help victims of physical violence and abuse, despite doubts that the law is specific enough to have much impact.

The proposed law says that to "act or repeatedly say things that could damage the victim's life conditions, affect his/her rights and his/her dignity or damage his/her physical or mental health'' is punishable by a jail term of up to three years and a fine of up to 75,000 euros, or about $103,000. Carefully covering both genders, the law applies to behavior toward a wife, husband, partner or concubine.(from the NY Times)

Another Strange French Libel Case

After yesterday's story of an editor being charged with criminal libel in France for publishing a negative book review, today brings the news that Patrick Devedjian is filing libel charges against Vincent Peillon for reading on the air a news item from 1965 reporting Devedjian's conviction following a fracas with police (h/t KirkMc). I guess I don't understand French libel law at all: if the conviction is true, how can mentioning it constitute libel? In any case, I've written to Maître Eolas to ask him to explain the law. I hope he does.

UPDATE: See here for a good explanation of the law.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Price of Paris Real Estate

Read it and weep. (h/t Polly-Vous Français) Hmm, let's see, I live in a loft here in Cambridge, MA, approximately 450 square meters. How much would it cost to duplicate that in Saint-Germain des Prés? As J. P. Morgan once said of his yacht, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

Plagiarism

Judge for yourself. Or is it just lack of imagination?

Walt's Take on Gates' Remarks

Many commenters decided, probably rightly, that I had taken leave of my senses when I (weakly) defended Robert Gates' comments about European free-riding on US defense spending. Here's Stephen Walt's view of the speech. For Walt it's just a given that Europe is free-riding, an inevitable consequence of US hegemony, and Gates is wasting his breath even to bring it up.

UPDATE: Here's Matt Yglesias's take.

Academic Freedom and the French Courts

A rather astonishing--indeed shocking--attack on academic freedom has come to my attention (h/t Alex, Chris). Karin Calvo-Goller, an Israeli professor of international law, has filed criminal libel charges in France against Joseph Weiler, the editor of the European Journal of International Law, who has refused to withdraw from circulation a  review of Calvo-Goller's book by Thomas Weigend, dean of the law school in Cologne. Calvo-Goller alleges that the review contains knowingly false statements that will damage her professional reputation. Under French law, an allegation of libel by a private party is enough, as the examining judge explained to Weiler, for the case to be referred to trial without any examination of its merits by any organ of the state. Hence any aggrieved author with standing to take legal action in France can force the editor who publishes an unfavorable review to answer criminal charges in a French court. Even if the allegations are ultimately found to be without merit, the editor must thus bear the expense and anguish of a criminal court appearance. The consequences for freedom of academic publishing are obvious.

Anyone who has ever received a negative book review has entertained fantasies of revenge, but that an author would go to these lengths to prevent the circulation of a bad review is truly shocking to the conscience. Weiler's very firm but remarkably temperate replies to the aggrieved author, along with her letters to him, can be read here (long, but well worth reading). Other comment on this case can be found here and here. The question for France, of course, is whether this case reveals a defect in its libel laws that calls for amendment.

Spain: The Next Battleground for the Euro

Discussed here.

Égratigné par Gracq

Julien Gracq, one of the great writers of the past century, avoided publicity, but some thoughts about his contemporaries have posthumously leaked into the public domain (via Pierre Assouline):

Pas moins de 110 lettres et cartes adressées à un ami écrivain, où il dit sa déception à la lecture de Cent ans de solitude ("dans cette saga villageoise, je ne vois guère que la faconde d'un conteur arabe. Ce serait peut-être amusant à écouter sur une place de Marrakech"), le peu d'estime pour Bernard-Henri Lévy ("virtuose du renvoi d'ascenseur, auteur d'un étrange borborygme historico-philosophique, La Barbarie à visage humain"), l'amusement à la lecture du Lac de Jean Echenoz ("mais si gratuit - et un peu étroit d'envergure"), l'admiration lucide pour Régis Debray ("intelligent, mais gâté par le culte de la formule")...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Clash of Civilizations

Robert Gates, US defense secretary, asserts that “the demilitarization of Europe — where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.” It was easy to question the "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus" thesis in 2003, when Robert Kagan published Of Paradise and Power and American swagger was at its peak. It is less easy now.

Although the immediate issue is the Afghan War, about which reasonable people can disagree, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Europeans have become free riders on the American military-industrial complex, with consequences that are good for neither side. It may be true that Obama has mismanaged the opportunity to work toward greater multilateralism. It may be true that Europe does not interest him. But it is also true that the lack of European coordination, and the unwillingness of European leaders to spend much if any political capital on defining, let alone paying for, defense needs, have become increasingly exasperating even to those American officials sympathetically disposed to Europe and aware of the cultural factors that shape European politics in this regard. Gates' words are a warning shot. Sarkozy, who saw himself as a bridge-builder in the Bush era, might want to find a constructive way to respond to them. Or he may be content to send Michel Drucker to a French air base in Afghanistan. It will no doubt reassure the French public to see Drucker on his comfortable red couch amid the fighter jets: how can anyone claim that France is not doing its part? The Pentagon is unlikely to tune in, however.

Sciences Humaines

Sciences humaines. Au-delà de la querelle immobilière en gestation, un autre thème de débat remonte cette semaine : la place des sciences humaines. Après un colloque organisé par le ministère de l'enseignement supérieur, que Le Monde et EducPros ont relaté, un professeur d'histoire contemporaine à l'université de Nancy-II, Didier Francfort (format PDF), pousse un "coup de gueule" contre l'évolution générale du système de recherche, notamment en sciences humaines : financement sur projet, évaluation, etc. "Nous ne demandons qu'à pouvoir travailler sereinement, sans obligation permanente, immédiate et continuelle non pas de résultats mais de justifications de résultats", conclut-il.

"Un Personnage Obscur"

Axel Poniatowski not only accuses Valérie Pécresse of being a party to the leak of Ali Soumaré's criminal record (3/5 of which was actually someone else's criminal record), he also admits to error but manages to turn his apology into a further smear by asserting that "il n'en reste pas moins que M. Soumaré est un personnage obscur." This statement belongs in the same category as Frêche's "tronche peu catholique."

UPDATE: Poniatowski denies Le Monde's account.

Wolf at the Door

Martin Wolf sees very little hope for the global economy. And he doesn't even consider the political ramifications of the likely economic scenarios. And Paul Krugman says he "might well be right."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ah, ça chauffe à droite

The Soumaré affair has occasioned some harsh words on the right. Éric Raoult, who distinguished himself not long ago by suggesting that Marie N'Diaye, as a winner of the Prix Goncourt, had a devoir de réserve that obliged her to say nothing disparaging about her president, now emerges as a sympathizer of M. Soumaré, whose youthful brush with the law "makes me like him" (ce type, ça me le rend sympathique). "If you want to create a reflex on the right against people of color, you couldn't do better" than to go after Soumaré as the UMP did. Of course Raoult also lets slip that Valérie Pécresse hasn't been speaking to him for a month, so one suspects that more is at work than sympathy for the rehabilitated.

Justice Charasse

Nicolas Sarkozy will apparently name Michel Charasse to the Conseil Constitutionnel. A former Socialist, Charasse was the court jester at the Court of François Ier. He will bring to the CC a tolerant view of public funding of private education. Perhaps that's the reason for his appointment.

Rules Governing the Release of Criminal Records

Thanks to Eolas.

Le Bordel

Is the Socialist Party still a party? Gérard Collomb and Vincent Peillon have decided to speak out in support of Georges Frêche. Is it high principle--the party shouldn't exclude Frêche's supporters even if their principal has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth--or low politics--the Languedoc-Roussillon sections favor DSK in the presidential sweepstakes, and Aubry's move to exclude key elements is seen as a step toward bolstering her own candidacy?

Migaud to the Cour des Comptes

Didier Migaud, a Socialist who headed the parliamentary finance committee, has been named to replace Philippe Séguin at the Cour des Comptes. L'ouverture ain't what it used to be. Migaud has been discreet in his parliamentary role, which was initially touted as an important check on the presidency and enhancement of parliamentary power. Perhaps he will be a little less discreet in his new position, following his predecessor's example (or perhaps not). Who will replace Migaud as chair of the parliamentary committee, a post reserved for the opposition, remains to be decided.

Monday, February 22, 2010

For Italophones



For non-Italophones:

C'est une chanson qui buzze en Italie, et qui a pimenté le festival de la chanson italienne de San Remo. Meno Male Che c'e Carla Bruni ("Heureusement qu'il a Carla Bruni") a été interprétée par Simone Cristicchi, chanteur engagé qui raille le goût de l'Ialie pour la peopolisation. Pour les non-italophones, voilà le refrain:

«Mais heureusement qu'il y a Carla Bruni. Nous sommes faits comme ça, Sarko-no, Sarko-si... Que Carla Bruni est belle. Si l'on parle de toi, le problème n'existe pas.»

Dirty Pool

The regional election campaigns in a number of places have featured low blows, but the storm that has erupted in Ile-de-France over the candidacy of Ali Soumaré stands out. Soumaré heads the PS list in Val-d'Oise, and the UMP has somehow got hold of his alleged* criminal record and is attempting to use it to discredit him, along with a few choice remarks such as the characterization of Soumaré by UMP mayor Francis Delattre as "un joueur de réserve du PSG," a remark that the PS has called racist.



*Soumaré admits to one juvenile offense:
M. Soumaré dément, en privé, être l'auteur de certains des délits cités par M. Delattre. "Plusieurs des faits dont il est fait état par les auteurs des communiqués ne figurent pas dans le casier judiciaire d'Ali Soumaré", indique son avocat, Jean-Pierre Mignard. Ne figure dans son casier que la condamnation du 9 décembre 2002 pour "vol aggravé" commis en 1999 et pour lequel il y a "probablement prescription", affirme l'avocat.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Democracy in Iraq as Seen by a French Journalist

Pascal Riché writes of the difficulties of Iraqi journalists and in the process tell us about the nature of Iraqi democracy.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Social Democratic Tolerance as Appreciation

After a couple of weeks of squabbling about veiled Trotskyists and halal hamburgers, I was heartened to come across this eloquent description of tolerance in a multicultural society, which concisely captures my own attitude: "The idea of social democracy is an open society, which means a society in which alternative ways of life are not only tolerated but appreciated, even when regarded as partially mistaken." This is from Avishai Margalit's brilliant and important book, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. I recommend it to you all.

Why is it important not just to tolerate but also to appreciate ideas and ways of life that we regard as partially mistaken? Because appreciation connotes the recognition that we, too, may be and probably are partially mistaken in some or all of our beliefs and transforms tolerance from condescension into dialogue, both with oneself and others. For me, a secular atheist social democrat gourmet, veils, dietary laws, fast food, revolutionary vanguards, and hyper-republican zealotry are alternative ways of life, which I regard as partially mistaken but symbolic of important truths and indicators of lacunae and contradictions in my own thinking. I appreciate them for preventing me from falling into complacency.

Upcoming Lectures (apologia pro vita sua)

I will be giving the keynote speech at the Friday luncheon of this year's Society for French Historical Studies Conference in Tempe, AZ, on Friday, April 9. The full program for the event is here. I know that some of you readers are SFHS members, and I hope to see you there. My subject will be "Three Decades of French History in Translation."

I will also be speaking at the Collège de France in Paris on May 7 at 11 A.M. (on "Démocratie, égalité, et équité") and at the Tocqueville Review Conference ("Individualisme, populisme, et démocratie") in Nice (May 10-11; program not yet set).

Glücklich wie Gott im Frankreich

France is viewed favorably by 76% of Democrats but only 52% of Republicans (still a majority of Republicans, though--a bit of a surprise). The Republic is most popular among Americans 18-34, and popularity declines with age. (h/t Boris)

On the whole, la Grande Nation is not doing as badly in the US as one might have feared, ranking 7th on the overall hit parade. I guess Lafayette still hasn't exhausted his credit here.

Show Me the Figures

Louis Maurin has compiled statistics about French life from a variety of sources. According to this review, Maurin believes that much of the discourse about French society is at odds with the realities revealed by his statistics.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Larrouturou Report

The Larrouturou report on university reform in the Paris area can be consulted here. In some ways, French universities are in the enviable position of having a government that wants to spend more money on them rather than less: compare the UK. On the other hand, they need it more. But I wonder if France isn't missing an opportunity here.

The implicit model of French university reform seems to be the American model: residential campuses, lots of spending on science, laboratory buildings, etc. For a variety of reasons, I think this model may be reaching its limits. I have always found something appealing about the French model of a university more integrated into the fabric of urban life (perhaps because I went to MIT, which is hardly a cloister). But living conditions for students have become all but impossible in major French cities, and it is hard to build libraries, laboratories, etc.

Perhaps it is time to think of the problem in a different way. Students need to be able to learn from each other: this counts for at least as much as what they learn from their professors. But they don't need to be cloistered behind walls or surrounded by greensward and playing fields. Important resources (libraries, laboratories, supercomputers, large halls) can be pooled, and electronic sharing can multiply their effectiveness. The budgets devoted to physical plant should be reduced as much as possible, while the money supporting teaching and research positions (including staff support) should be increased. The logic behind combining existing institutions and physical plants seems to be, at least in part, to improve France's standing in the Shanghai rankings. This is a perverse incentive.

I am not proposing a strategy of du passé faisons table rase; that's not likely to work. But I am suggesting that there are different ways to think about what universities do, and about some of the unique strengths of the French setting. Paris vaut bien une messe, and studying in Paris is well worth a certain inconvenience. New thinking might also offer a way of finessing the problem of selection, which is a constant bugbear in French university reform proposals. Egalitarianism could be maintained by making expensive resources such as libraries available to all, while selectivity--necessary in my view for excellence--can be promoted by making admission to programs rather than institutions dependent on performance. Rather than sit for a concours to enter X, students would compete for places in a program of research on spintronics or the history of the welfare state or the economics of Antiquity.

The signals offered to prospective employers would become more diverse: rather than select graduates of X or Normale Sup, employers could interview candidates who'd completed programs in a range of skills relevant to their requirements. Performance in courses rather than institutional prestige and skill in passing concours would become the primary criterion of selection.

Multiculturalism Revisited

For a philosophical review of the issues raised by multicultural practices (of which the "Quick halal" controversy is just one example--see previous post), see this thoughtful paper by Will Kymlicka.

Barbier Joins Le Pen


For commentary on this amalgame, see here. Notice how the Islamophobic arguments are spinning out of control. The foulard was to be banned in schools, first, because of a tradition of laïque education (never mind that it applied to teachers, not pupils) and, second, because young women were being oppressed by their brothers and fathers (never mind that some chose to wear the scarf on their own). Then the burqa was to be banned everywhere, because republicanism requires equality between the sexes (though I have yet to see a female priest, political parties violate the parité law, men's and women's wages for equal work are not equal, etc.) and because unidentified "radicals" were "testing the Republic" by placing their female operatives in "ambulatory prisons." Now, a fast-food chain tries to pick off a little market share by recognizing that there are a lot of potential Muslim customers, and Christophe Barbier, defender of those two bastions of civilization, BHL and la République française, vows un baroud d'honneur: We shall stop them in Roubaix! But surely it isn't the Salafists who are urging the faithful to eat ... hamburgers!

An excellent editorial by Claude Weill can be found here:

Il est de bon ton de dire que le débat sur l’identité nationale a fait pschitt. Malheureusement, je ne le crois pas. Le mal est fait. Ce vaste défoulement collectif organisé sous l’égide du ministère de l’Immigration a produit son venin, qui ne cesse de diffuser au sein de la société française.

UPDATE: Charles Bremner's comment is here.

Business, Meet Literature

Someone thinks French businesses should hire French lit majors, and 94% of those with masters are finding jobs within 3 years (!) of graduating, only 1% less than graduates with other kinds of degrees, but les atomes crochus seem to be in scarce supply on both sides, with a guy from Price Waterhouse telling literary types that "we are not the devil" and a guy with a masters in philo who is today a financial manager assuring his comrades that "littéraires are not dreamers." And then there's the fellow from Rothschild's whose ambition is to "format" young poets before it's too late:

"Les entreprises fonctionnent à l’habitude, et quand 90 % des salariés sont issus d’HEC ou de l’ESSEC, ils vont embaucher ceux qui leur ressemblent. L’idéal est de recruter les littéraires juste après leur diplôme, quand ils sont encore des pages blanches sur lesquelles on peut écrire.

Perhaps he's forgotten that Mallarmé wrote of "la page blanche que sa blancheur défend." In finance, presumably, les blancs becs are defenseless before the dangled dreams of wealth to make Croesus blush, and il faut tenir la dragée haute.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Name and Shame

Travailler plus pour stresser plus ... Stress wasn't supposed to be the payoff for working harder, but, as the immortal Donald Rumsfeld observed, "stuff happens." So Xavier Darcos has decided to fight stress in the workplace by naming and shaming firms that don't shape up (as the government defines shaping up). Here's the list. Check to see if your employer is on it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The "Quick Halal" Affair

Oy vay iz mir. Now we've got a new national identity issue: can Quick serve only halal hamburgers? Which tenet of secular republicanism does this violate? And how did the Caisse des Dépôts and Marine Le Pen get mixed up in the affair? Read it and weep.

Sarkozy in Haiti

President Sarkozy is in Haiti for a few hours today, where he will receive the thanks of Haitians for French aid since the crisis. But here's an interesting statistic for Sarko to ponder during his visit: it has been estimated that with Haiti's current stock of trucks and heavy equipment, it will take three years just to remove the rubble from Port-au-Prince, let alone start rebuilding the country.

Catastrophes don't get any worse than this, short of nuclear war.

New Toy, New Political Landscape?

Eloi Laurent calls my attention to a new gadget: a TNS/SOFRES site that allows you to track the popularity of various political figures over time. Although all polls have their defects, tracking polls at least apply a consistent method over time, so that changes presumably have some significance. In this connection, it is interesting to note that although Sarkozy's popularity has declined dramatically since his election (as is the case with nearly all presidents), so has the popularity of his two principal opponents, Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou, whose decline has tracked his. Furthermore, although DSK is frequently cited as the most popular politician in France these days, his rating has held fairly steady since his IMF appointment. Le Pen is under 10 percent. Besancenot, still near 40%, is declining.

Cécile Duflot, a rising star, is unfortunately not tracked. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, her senior partner in Europe Ecologie, is rising slightly. The regionals could make EE the third political force in France, replacing the FN, which would certainly be a healthy development. Would this constitute a transformation of the French political landscape? What does EE represent? Most important, perhaps, it brings de la chair fraîche to the political scene, as Duflot disarmingly put it in a recent Rendez-vous des Politiques on France Culture. She is a not only a new face but has an energetic and winning personality. Cohn-Bendit is hardly new blood, nor is Eva Joly, the third member of the EE troika, but the two together represent two faces of a more positive populism than that associated with the FN or the far left: Joly stands for justice against corruption and Cohn-Bendit for franc-parler, pragmatist problem-solving, and a European approach. EE thus stands to profit from both anti-Sarkozysme and a general ras-le-bol on the left.

Bayrou, on the other hand, appears to have botched his opportunity. In a recent appearance on another RDV des Politiques, he seemed to me surprisingly maladroit for a politician who has been active on the national scene for so long. He appears to want to project gravitas, but his efforts to rise to lofty heights merely make him seem out of touch.

And Ségolène? How do we explain her decline? There are so many factors, but I would single out her failure to constitute a solid équipe since her loss. Many former advisors have turned away, and she seems to be surrounded now by a very young and unseasoned group. Rather than develop a solid program, she has tried to cultivate the media, but the media are now more bent on mocking her weaknesses than on highlighting her novelty.

Meanwhile, DSK bides his time in Washington. Even if EE does well in the regionals, it is hard to see it playing a significant role in the presidential elections, but any candidate of the left will have to figure out how to approach this new party's base, which holds the key to a winning coalition.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

NPR Hyperventilates

National Public Radio is a worthy organization, not quite our France Culture but at least a generally competent news organization with usually intelligent commentary on current events. Imagine my surprise, then, as I drove my wife and son to the bus this morning, when I heard this account of the "clash of titans" that is now "electrifying" the otherwise dull world of French politics. The titans in question are Villepin and Sarkozy, and the description of their clash beggars belief. Beyond the clichés and absurdities that riddle the piece, the hapless listener is given no deflating context that might help to gauge the level of hyperbole that vitiates the article from end to end. American reporting of French politics is generally unsatisfactory, but this, from one of our best broadcast news services, lacks all perspective and is simply indefensible. But I guess that's what you get when you take Marianne and Les Guignols de l'Info as your primary sources.

ECB and Goldman

To follow up yesterday's post on Greece and Goldman Sachs, Simon Johnson observes today that the ECB presidency is to change hands next year, and Mario Draghi, one of the two leading candidates for the job, is a former Goldman executive who may have had in the firm's dealings with Greece:

As controller of the euro, the European Central Bank (ECB) wields great power in Europe and has a wide global reach.  The race to become the ECB’s next president – with a term that starts next year – has been intense and hard fought.  The final selection is down to two men: the ultra hawkish Axel Weber, head of the Bundesbank, who sees inflation dangers at every turn; and the relatively more moderate Mario Draghi, head of the Bank of Italy, chair of the Financial Stability Board, and experienced international economic diplomat. 

Unfortunately for those hoping that Draghi could still prevail, he is also formerly senior management at Goldman Sachs and serious questions are emerging regarding what he knew and did during Goldman’s alleged “let’s help Greece circumvent EU budget rules” phase in the early 2000s.

Specifically, Draghi joined Goldman Sachs in January 2002, after a distinguished public service career – including 10 years in a key position (Director General) at the Italian Treasury.  His formal titles were Managing Director, Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs International, and member of the “Group’s Commitment Committee”; his job, according to Goldman’s press release, was to “help the firm develop and execute business with major European corporations and with governments and government agencies worldwide.”
Did this involve Greece?


A German foreign affairs spokesman said yesterday, with regard to the Goldman-Greece transactions,
“Goldman Sachs broke the spirit of the Maastricht Treaty, though it is not certain it broke the law”
and
“What is certain is that we must never leave this kind of thing lurking in the shadows again.”
Presumably this means that Mr. Draghi will have to answer a series of embarrassing questions, should he wish to continue pursuing the presidency of the ECB, along the following lines.
  1. Was he aware of the Goldman-Greece deal(s)?  (Given that he was involved in management for Goldman – and that these deals reportedly made $300m for the firm – he surely knew what was going on.)
  2. Did he attempt to stop it or prevent further such deals?  If not, why not?
  3. Does he approve of such deals today?  It not, why did he approve earlier in the decade?
  4. Did he or his associates engage in any such transactions for Italy when he was at the Ministry of Finance?
  5. Are there are other Greece-type deals, involving other EU countries (or anyone else), that he would care to discuss in detail?
These questions and many more will be asked by the German authorities, at first quietly and if necessary then out loud – both because they are (with good reason) upset at the prospect of bailing out Greece, and also because they insist Mr. Weber should run the ECB.

You can pretty much count Mr. Draghi out of the running for the ECB job, and it would not be a surprise if he soon steps down from chairing the Financial Stability Board.

Being associated with Goldman Sachs is now beyond awkward.  For someone aiming high in the public sphere, work experience at the top levels of Goldman is fast becoming a toxic asset.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Carbon Tax: The State of the Question

Jacques Le Cacheux and Eloi Laurent offer the most thorough analysis I have seen of the decision of the Conseil Constitutionnel on the carbon tax and discuss what can be done to move policy forward on this important issue.

How to Inflame a Situation

Philips executives must not have taken Industrial Relations 101. After locking employees out of the firm's factory in Dreux, the company announced that they could have jobs in Hungary at 450 euros per month but only if they learned Hungarian. Le capitalisme au visage inhumain ...

Conseil Constitutionnel

Dominique Schnapper reflects on her tenure on the Conseil Constitutionnel. The discussion brings out some of the peculiarities of the CC: its composition ("club des notables"), nominating procedure, legal competence, political one-sidedness (in its present form). There is also one interesting gossipaceous tidbit: Schnapper reveals that Chirac attempted to appoint a person from the opposition, but she refused. Who might that have been?

Johnson: EU as Goldman Regulator of Last Resort

Simon Johnson rehearses the role of Goldman Sachs in helping Greece to conceal its debt and notes that the European Commission is now certain to launch an audit of the US bank. This is a welcome development, since Goldman is too deeply tied in to the US power structure and both political parties to expect an honest investigation on this side of the pond. Here is an opportunity for some enlightened European to play the role that Keynes once played: saving capitalism from itself--which seems, alas, to be a cyclical necessity. Populist anger at the arrogance of bankers is threatening to make the US ungovernable, and the consequences will not be pretty. Whatever Goldman has or has not done, it is rapidly becoming the symbol for many things that went wrong. It would be good if an honest broker could establish a credible record. I hope that there is someone in Europe prepared to play that role, now that the Commission has a reason to demand accountability.

Krugman: The Euro Was a Mistake

Here.

Barry Eichengreen disagrees:

All of this raises the obvious question: Was the real mistake creating the euro in the first place? Since I was one of the few Americans to advocate a single European currency, you would be justified in asking: Am I having second thoughts?

My answer is no, creating the euro was not a mistake, but it could still be a mistake in the making. The Greek crisis shows that Europe is still only halfway toward creating a viable monetary union. If it stays put, the next crisis will make this one look like a walk in the park.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Case for Higher Inflation

Paul Krugman discusses Olivier Blanchard's defense of a higher inflation target and adds some further fuel to the fire.

Ready for Some Real Pessimsim?

Yves Smith has been pessimistic at every turn in the financial crisis, but this post aims for new depths regarding the Greek situation (and Spain's much larger debt isn't even mentioned).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mitterrand Overrules the Censors

The Ecole des Beaux Arts took down work by Ko Siu Lan that mocked Sarkozy's campaign slogan "travailler plus pour gagner plus." Culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand ordered the work to be rehung after the artist complained to the media. Officials at the Ecole had invoked the obligation of public institutions to remain netural in political matters as grounds for taking the work down. Mitterrand correctly sensed that this interpretation of the "neutrality" of the state would be a public relations disaster and reversed the decision of the school authorities.

Since "neutrality" is also invoked as a justification for banning religious symbolism, perhaps the "identity" debate, now officially declared a failure, should be revived as a debate over the various possible interpretations of "neutrality." (See my argument in response to Laurent Bouvet in the comments to this previous post.)

Unbuzzed

In view of reader comments and negative press about Google Buzz, I've removed my blog and Google Reader feeds from Buzz. You can still follow the blog of course via the usual readers, Feedblitz subscription, etc., and I am still sharing items via Google Reader, but you have to opt in in the traditional way rather than being force-fed my choices via your Buzz box. Of course if there is a ground swell of pro-Buzz sentiment, I can change my mind again.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bouvet on the Veil and the NPA

Laurent Bouvet, with whom I often agree, here attacks the decision of the NPA to run a candidate who wears the veil, and I'm afraid that this time I can't agree with him or even make much sense of his argument, His first point is that parties should be doctrinally pure and therefore rule out "incompatible" allegiances. In his mind, it is absurd to think that a person can be "à la fois anticapitaliste, féministe, laïque et porter le voile." The problem is that "actually existing" human beings, like the "actually existing" socialist republics of yesteryear, are never as free of contradiction as theorists sometimes like to imagine. Socialists circa 1914 woke up to the rude shock that it was possible both to belong to the Workers' International and to support nationalist governments bent on making war on armies whose ranks were filled with one's comrades. Surely the set of commitments that Laurent ridicules here is less seriously contradictory than the jingoism of nationalist internationalists whose existence Marxist theory never satisfactorily explained. As I have explained in previous posts, I have no difficulty imagining a woman committed to anticapitalism and feminism, laïque in the sense of tolerating all forms of religious expression while according preference to none, and determined to wear the Islamic scarf as an assertion of her own identity (which may be simply a matter of ethnic belonging but may also signify religious belief, which Marx may have dismissed, as Laurent notes, as the opium of the people but which other socialists have found it possible to embrace).

Laurent's second point is that it's preposterous for a party like the NPA, predicated on antiliberalism and dedicated to the notion that freedom of choice is an illusion of "false consciousness" induced by capitalist ideology, to advocate the "ultraliberal" idea that what a woman chooses to wear can ever be truly a matter of "free choice." This is an adolescent exercise in polemical logic-chopping rather than a serious argument, but if the metaphysical point is pushed to its obvious conclusion, then there is no point to any so-called political choice: we are all merely the playthings of forces that surpass our understanding, and whatever happens will happen without human agency, as it has been foreordained. Only religious fundamentalists are so dogmatic in their metaphysics, and surely Laurent Bouvet wouldn't want to be taken for a fundamentalist: given his politics, that would be as bizarre as an NPA feminist wearing a veil.

Buzz

As you may know, Google Mail has introduced a new "feature" (annoyance?) called Buzz, which allows you to follow the Internet tracks of selected gmail users. It can be linked to Blogger and to the Google Reader "shared" page. I've done this, so you can follow via Buzz all posts on French Politics, all the items from other blogs that I choose to share via Google Reader, and anything else that strikes my fancy, simply by following me (my Google user name is art.goldhammer ). Now, for some of you, this may be a bit too much garbage in your Buzz box.

Let me know if you like or hate this new linking possibility, and I may modify my behavior accordingly.

EU Blogosphere

Students of EU affairs will be interested in this rundown of EU bloggers on nonfiction.fr.

Lagarde vs. Roubini

Nouriel Roubini thinks that the solution to the Greek debt dilemma (and the larger problem of bailing out the PIIGS, the weak sisters of the Eurozone) is to call in the IMF. Christine Lagarde categorically replies, "When PIIGS fly!" (and J.-C. Juncker agrees):

La ministre des Finances Christine Lagarde a expliqué vendredi sur RMC Info et BFM TV que «nous ne sommes pas aujourd'hui, au sein de la zone euro, les seize pays de la zone euro, en situation de faire appel au Fonds monétaire international» (FMI), ajoutant, «on en est pas là du tout». Déjà lors du G7 qui s'est tenu le 5 et 6 février, Jean-Claude Junker [sic], le président de l'Eurogroupe, avait formellement démenti l'idée d'avoir besoin de l'argent du Fonds.

Sen's Justice

A translation of Amartya Sen's Idea of Justice has just come out in France, remarkably soon after its appearance in English. The book is well reviewed here by Emmanuelle Bénicourt, who admirably draws out the key arguments: a critique of John Rawls' Theory of Justice based on Sen's contention, backed by his Nobel prize-winning work on social choice theory, that what Rawls calls "the original position" will not lead to agreement about principles of justice, as Rawls believed; and, second, that judgments about what is just are comparative rather than absolute.

I mention this review and this book not only for their intrinsic interest but also because I will be touching on Sen's critique of Rawls when I lecture later this year at the Collège de France on the subject of  "Fairness in Democracy" (May 7, 11 AM, for those of you who may be in Paris at the time).

Charity Shootout

The French foundation to combat muscular diseases (AFM) has filed suit for slander against Pierre Bergé, France's wealthiest myopathe, who accused the charity of misusing its wealth and urged people not to contribute to its recent telethon. When it comes to misusing wealth, Bergé knows a thing or two: he was convicted of insider trading for selling shares of Yves Saint-Laurent in 1992, just before the company issued a poor financial report. Once the mécène of Ségolène Royal, he has lately changed his mind about the former presidential candidate and reduced her to la portion congrue.

TGV Misses Station

In the US we recently had an airliner that overflew its airport while its two pilots claim to have been preoccupied with their personal computers in the cockpit. Now, in France, a TGV has missed its station. The Paris-Rennes was supposed to stop in Le Mans but didn't. The SNCF calls the incident "extremely rare." The inconvenienced passengers were returned to Le Mans by another TGV headed in the opposite direction. The engineer responsible for the "faute grave" will presumably be hung from a butcher's hook.

By the Numbers ... Buy the Numbers?

French GDP fell 2.2% last year--the worst performance since WWII. Of course this puts it in the same category as most other major economies. The bright spot was growth of 0.6% in the last quarter of 2009, but this was dimmed by the large positive contribution to GDP of inventory replenishment, which suggests that the economy may not yet be around the bend. On the other hand, household consumption was up 0.9% in the last quarter, but investment by firms was down and investment in housing was way down. Exports were also off, and government investment has decreased for the past two quarters despite the stimulus spending.

So, on the whole, a very mixed picture, which does not look like robust economic recovery.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

NPNS contre NPA

Ni Putes ni Soumises is filing suit against the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste for running a candidate who wears a scarf over her head. In the estimation of NPNS, this is "antisecular, antifeminist, and antirepublican." Certain commenters think that I'm "naive" for failing to recognize that Ilham Moussaïd is the thin edge of the jihadist wedge. Du calme, mes amis. My grandmother also wore a scarf over her head. The American Republic survived. So will the French.

NPNS really ought to reflect on its own name: Mme Moussaïd is certainly "neither a whore nor a doormat." To run as a candidate for a militantly secular party while bravely wearing a symbol of Muslim identity is about as frank a declaration as one could wish that she is her own woman and nobody's doormat. Give her a break.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Greek Debt

Goldman Sachs helped Greece hide its debt, according to this article. "Beware of Greeksinvestment bankers bearing gifts." (with apologies to Virgil)

By the way, Harvard University was also burned by rate swaps promoted by its former president--Larry Summers.

And here's Paul Krugman on the real problem--Spain.

"From Revolution to Ethics"

H-France hosts a forum on Julian Bourg's book From Revolution to Ethics, about May '68 and its aftermath, with contributions from Rosemary Wakeman, Michael Scott Christofferson, Xavier Vigna, and Jonathan Judaken.

Food for thought: “The twentieth century began with Vladimir Lenin’s observation that
making an omelet meant breaking eggs; it ended with the assertion of the rights of chickens” (Bourg, quoted by Judaken).

Another "Petite Phrase" from the Uninhibited Right

Valérie Pécresse visited the 93 yesterday. A man in the audience of African descent asked her about enforcing a law on anonymous CVs in order to eliminate discrimination against candidates with "foreign-sounding" last names. Pécresse told him that spelling errors did more damage to a candidate's prospects than a photo--as if, in her mind, the correlation between "foreignness" and "inability to spell" were perfect. I should send her some of the e-mail I receive from Français de souche ...

A un homme d’origine africaine qui lui demande l’application de la loi sur les CV anonymes, la ministre répond en le renvoyant sur les bancs de l’école. Selon cette native de Neuilly-sur-Seine, “une lettre de motivation avec une faute d’orthographe a plus d’impact” sur un recrutement qu’une photo…

Monday, February 8, 2010

Riding to Hounds with Nicolas le Petit

This is precious (h/t MYOS):

Les chasses présidentielles! On avait oublié que ça existait. Ou plutôt on pensait que ça ne pouvait plus exister. D'ailleurs, un président du XXIe siècle qui avait dit, je cite... «Je veux changer la pratique de la république: plus de simplicité plus de proximité, plus d'authenticité» (spot de campagne, avril 2007) ne pouvait pas réactiver cette institution caricaturale de notre république aux accents monarchiques que sont les chasses présidentielles.
...
Sont invités des préfets, des ministres, surtout des partons du CAC40 et des grands flics aussi. On dit que Martin Bouygues, Serge Dassault, l'ancien procureur Yves Bot, le sans doute futur membre du Conseil constitutionnel Michel Charasse y ont tiré quelques gibiers récemment. Le but avoué est de créer des «obligés de l'Elysée». On se promet des rosettes, des pistons, des prébendes, des marchés... On y fomente des trahisons, des alliances... après avoir descendu un vieux faisan qui n'avait sans doute jamais volé avant d'être lâché fort opportunément devant les calibres de cette nouvelle noblesse bling bling.

Euro

From Calculated Risk:

"Europe has become a huge game of chicken, whereby the Greeks are waiting for help from the outside and donors are waiting for Greece to take a step forward."
Mohamed El-Erian, Pimco, Feb 8, 2010

And from Simon Johnson:

Some financial market participants cling to the hope that the stronger eurozone countries, particularly Germany, will soon help out the weaker countries in a generous manner.   But this view completely misreads the situation.
The German authorities are happy to have the euro depreciate this far, and probably would not mind if it moves another 10-20 percent.  They are convinced that they must – in fact, should – export their way back to acceptable growth levels.
Competitive depreciation is of course a no-no in international policy circles.  But if your dissolute neighbors – with whom you happen to share a credit union – threaten to implode their debt rollovers, and makets react negatively, how can you be held responsible?
Germany and France have no objection to euro depreciation – they are confident that the European Central Bank can prevent this from turning into inflation.
It’s the US that should be concerned about the effect on its exports (and imports; goods from the eurozone become cheaper as the euro falls in value) if the euro moves too far and too fast.  But the US failed to raise the issue with sufficient force at the G7 finance ministers conclave in Canada and the course is now set – at least until Thursday.
The euro depreciates, the dollar strengthens, and our path to recovery starts to run more uphill.
And if these European troubles start to be reflected in difficulties for leading global banks over the next few days or weeks, the negative impact will be much greater.

Recidivist

Try as I might to avoid being drawn into the publicity machine of France's ubiquitous bare-breasted philosophotaster (a neologism I base on the analogy with "poetaster"), his sins continue to grow increasingly outrageous with age, so that I cannot avoid commenting on them, if only as a member of the Committee for the Promotion of Intellectual Virtue and the Eradication of Intellectual Vice. I shall avoid enlistment as an unpaid PR flack by refraining from mention of the sinner's name, or even his regrettably familiar initials, and refer you for further details only to this article, where it is revealed that our recidivist has this time launched an attack on one Immanuel Kant, no less, bolstered by the arguments of a non-existent Kant scholar who, under another pseudonym, authors "Le Journal de Carla B." for Le Canard enchaîné. Writing as Jean-Baptiste Botul, this prolific satirist produced a book that sits on my shelves, La vie sexuelle d'Emmanuel Kant, which is as amusing as it is fraudulent, from end to end. But apparently our learned ex-Normalien, ex-nouveau philosophe, gravedigger of the cadaver of the left, intrepid war correspondent, and ubiquitous man about town was not let in on the joke and fell for the ruse hook, line, and sinker.

Will this be enough to kill his kudzu reputation once and for all? Alas, probably not.

Lingua Non Franca

French has found its defender in the person of Jean-Pierre Raffarin:

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the former prime minister who is President Nicolas Sarkozy’s special envoy to promote French, was in New York at the end of last week to insist that its status as one of the two working languages at the UN must be respected.

...
French sensitivities about the declining role of the language were emphasised mid-week when Gérard Araud, France’s multilingual ambassador to the UN, declined to outline the programme for his country’s presidency of the UN Security Council in English, even as aides scurried to set up translation facilities. “I don’t speak English. Point [full stop]!” Mr Araud told the UN’s mostly English-speaking press corps. “It’s unacceptable,” he said.

Blame Lady Ashton for this latest crisis of French confidence:

Her faltering French, once unthinkable in a senior EU official, has been seized upon by the French media, reflecting concerns in Paris that the diplomatic machinery she is building will be Anglophone.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Trouble Ahead

Back in 1831, as cholera was sweeping across Europe, French authorities confidently announced that France, with its advanced medical knowledge and modern public health system, was safe, and indeed the crisis seemed to strike all around while leaving France unscathed. But the next year the epidemic came to France and killed, among many others, the prime minister, Casimir Périer. Now it is 2010, and we have all heard how France has avoided the worst effects of another crisis. But here is a warning from a former chief economist of the IMF, Simon Johnson:

What are the stronger European countries, specifically Germany and France, doing to contain the self-fulfilling fear that weaker eurozone countries may not be able to pay their debt – this panic that pushes up interest rates and makes it harder for beleaguered governments to actually pay?

The Europeans with deep-pockets are doing nothing – except insist that all countries under pressure cut their budgets quickly and in ways that are probably politically infeasible.  This kind of precipitate fiscal austerity contributed directly to the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
...
As this pressure mounts, we’ll see cracks appear also in the private sector.  Significant banks and large hedge funds have been selling insurance against default by European sovereigns.  As countries lose creditworthiness – and, under sufficient pressure, very few government credit ratings will hold up – these financial institutions will need to come up with cash to post increasing amounts of collateral against their derivative obligations (yes, the same credit default swaps that triggered the collapse last time).

Remember that none of the opaqueness of the credit default swap market has been addressed since the crisis of September 2008.  And generalized counter-party risk – the fear that your insurer will fail and this will bring down all connected banks – raises its ugly head again.
In such a situation, investors scramble for the safest assets available – “cash”, which actually (and ironically, given our budget woes) means short-term US government securities.  It’s not that the US is in good shape or even has anything approaching a credible medium-term fiscal framework, it’s just that everyone else is in much worse shape.

Another Lehman/AIG-type situation lurks somewhere on the European continent, and again our purported G7 (or even G20) leaders are slow to see the risk.  And this time, given that they already used almost all their fiscal bullets, it will be considerably more difficult for governments to respond effectively when they do wake up.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review of Edelstein

An interesting review of Dan Edelstein's book The Terror of Natural Right by Annie Jourdan.

Professor of Durable Development

The Collège de France now has a chair of "durablesustainable development," and its first occupant is Nicholas Stern, who gave his inaugural lecture last week.

Report on Ethnic Statistics

The report of the Héran Commission on the Measurement of Diversity and the Evaluation of Discrimination has been submitted to Yazid Sabeg. Unlike most commission reports, it is written in firm, eloquent prose, as these two excerpts will attest:

Autant de questions en suspens que le comité se devait de prendre à bras-lecorps,
tout en sachant qu’il ne suffit pas d’y apporter des réponses purement scientifiques
ou techniques. Car le comité en a pleinement conscience : dans une matière
aussi sensible, les opérations statistiques les plus fiables ont beau être validées
légalement, offrir de solides garanties pour la protection des libertés individuelles et
s’orienter résolument vers la lutte contre les discriminations et pour l’égalité des
chances, encore faut-il au préalable gagner la confiance de toutes les parties prenantes.
Or la confiance ne se décrète pas ; elle doit émaner d’une large concertation
citoyenne et reposer sur la qualité du dialogue social au sein des administrations et
des entreprises.
...
Commençons par les inégalités sociales. C’est un secret que la statistique ne cesse
d’éventer : s’il est vrai que « les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits »,
la société est ainsi faite qu’ils naissent en réalité fort inégaux, tant sont inégalement
distribués les atouts qui, dès le départ, marquent durablement les destinées : héritage
économique, références culturelles, capital de relations, résidence dans les quartiers
huppés, accès à la « bonne école », bon niveau d’information sur le système de santé,
considération, etc. Le débat qui agite les spécialistes de la mobilité sociale en France
n’est pas de savoir si la société française est ouverte ou fermée mais si l’ouverture à
peine perceptible observable des années 1970 au début des années 1990 est en train
de se refermer et dans quelle mesure elle empêche le déclassement. Dès la ligne de
départ et les premières foulées, l’inégalité des chances est flagrante. Qu’on ne dise
pas que ce constat est déterministe : il est seulement probabiliste. Mais il rappelle que
l’univers des possibles, largement ouvert pour les uns, est fortement rétréci pour
d’autres, avec toute une gamme de degrés intermédiaires.

Long, but worth reading.

The Euro Crisis

From the Times:

A policy of muddling through may be comfortable in political terms, but experts warn it can have dire economic consequences. Jean-Paul Fitoussi, professor of economics at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, said that European leaders had “handled this crisis very badly,” feeding market speculation and greed.
 ...
Jacques Mistral, an economist at the French Institute for International Relations, said that the main actors now were Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, and the leaders and finance ministers of Germany and France.
“That’s the troika, and they’re leading the process to explore different ways and compromises,” Mr. Mistral said. “When there is a will there is a path.”

Obama's Favor to Europe

Justin Vaïsee argues that President Obama did Europe a favor by refusing to attend the May summit in Spain.

See also Renaud Dehousse.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

Debt got you down? Tired of reading about Greece and Spain? Watching the euro slide? Then don't read Carmen Reinhart's interview with the WSJ. Pessimism abounds. But at bottom, Reinhart's position is not so very different from Paul Krugman's:

WSJ: Policy makers have to make a hard choice, between addressing deficits and trying to support growth and jobs.
REINHART: This economy is still frail. One thing that scared me in looking at the Japanese experience was that they declared victory too soon and withdrew stimulus very soon, and wound up with a bigger debt and bigger deficits as a consequence because things rolled over and died and you wound up with the worst outcome. So when I talk about fiscal discipline, it is not that we go out and implement belt tightening tomorrow. But we plan to, and develop a plan that puts the deficit and debt on a sustainable path. That is necessary today. I would attach a higher weight to getting the recovery going first. You stay the course on the fiscal side but you come up with a plan that puts fiscal footing on a sustainable path. That is easy for me to say, but hell for anybody to implement. You’ll have politicians from every angle, whose time horizon not what happens in five years, but what happens five weeks from now.

Krugman:
Many economists take a much calmer view of budget deficits than anything you’ll see on TV. ... So why the sudden ubiquity of deficit scare stories? It isn’t being driven by any actual news. It has been obvious for at least a year that the U.S. government would face an extended period of large deficits, and projections of those deficits haven’t changed much since last summer. Yet the drumbeat of dire fiscal warnings has grown vastly louder.

To me — and I’m not alone in this — the sudden outbreak of deficit hysteria brings back memories of the groupthink that took hold during the run-up to the Iraq war. Now, as then, dubious allegations, not backed by hard evidence, are being reported as if they have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, as then, much of the political and media establishments have bought into the notion that we must take drastic action quickly, even though there hasn’t been any new information to justify this sudden urgency. Now, as then, those who challenge the prevailing narrative, no matter how strong their case and no matter how solid their background, are being marginalized.
...
The trouble, however, is that it’s apparently hard for many people to tell the difference between cynical posturing and serious economic argument. And that is having tragic consequences.

But then there's this final word from Reinhart:

WSJ: You and Ken Rogoff have been working together for nine years on these issues. What are the areas where you disagree most?
REINHART: I think Ken may have a little more faith in markets than I do. Unfortunately, I don’t have faith in the government either.

Alas.

Camembert Dethroned

Camembert is no longer France's favorite cheese. Some blame the fall on agroalimentary capitalists such as Lactalis. Speaking for myself, as a Francophile/cheeseophile for whom cheese is one of life's great pleasures, despite the implications for one's cholesterol level, camembert has never ranked at the top of my personal list: to get my heart racing (or its arteries clogging), serve Époisses, Mont d'or, or Banon, to name this week's favorites.

Homophobia in the PS?

It is alleged that Socialists in Ariège are attempting to remove an openly gay candidate from the party's list for the upcoming regional elections.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Un Faux Ami

From Charles Bremner:

Hillary Clinton was in town last week. She denied in a speech that there was any coolness and reassured Europe of the administration's undying commitment.  There was an amusing moment when she dropped in to visit Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace, according to le Canard Enchaîné.  Super-Sarko, always eager to try out his English, tried to apologise to the Secretary of State about the miserable Paris weather. What he said was: "I am sorry for the bad time" (Time -- [temps ] --  and weather are the same word in French).

A Useful Provocation

The NPA has on its ticket in the Vaucluse one Ilham Moussaïd, a Muslim woman who wears a veil. This is an excellent move, I think. It points up the hypocrisy of defending discrimination against Muslims in the name of equality between the sexes, which has lately been erected into the "republican" value par excellence by parties that routinely ignore the parity law that is supposed to work toward equality between the sexes in the political sphere. There can be no question that Mme Moussaïd is wearing her veil voluntarily. Nor can it be alleged that, as a candidate for a party of the extreme left, she is promoting Islamist attacks on the Republic. Bien joué, Besancenot et cie.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

EU Troubles

Le Monde's editorial today ostensibly laments Obama's snub of the upcoming EU summit, but its real lament is directed at the confusion that continues to reign within the EU. The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to have made things better but, for the time being, seems to have compounded the confusion by creating an executive without real power and then filling it with a non-entity:

La concurrence entre la présidence tournante de l'Union européenne (M. Zapatero) et la présidence stable du Conseil européen exercée par le Belge Hermann Van Rompuy est déjà patente. La Commission présidée par José Manuel Barroso n'en finit pas d'être investie par le Parlement européen. La haute représentante pour les affaires extérieures peine à trouver ses marques.

The inability to coordinate economic policy is another concern:

Quant à la grave crise budgétaire de la Grèce, elle témoigne à nouveau de l'absence cruelle d'un minimum de coordination des politiques des pays membres de la zone euro, sans même parler de "gouvernement économique"
 And Sarko in all this? He has been strangely silent on European issues of late. He was instrumental in obtaining ratification of the Lisbon Treaty but seems strangely uninterested in making the new structure work.

Citizenship and the Burqa

Eric Besson announced yesterday, with much fanfare, that he was refusing French citizenship to a man whose wife, already a citizen, wears the burqa. Eolas here separates fact from fiction regarding the legal basis for this decision.

Gardes à vue

Bernard Girard has two very interesting posts on a subject that has been much discussed in recent days: the increase in the number of gardes à vue and the treatment of detainees. The first deals with the way in which police union spokespersons are delegated to answer all charges in this domain, and the second, which dates from a year ago, describes a specific incident, with a very interesting comment from a police officer.

Berlusconi Picks a Fight with Mme. Sarkozy?

So says Marianne. And we know how protective the president of the Republic is when it comes to his First Lady. A cage match between Berlusconi and Sarkozy would be something to watch, no?

Poujadism, The Tea Party of 1950s France?

Robert Zaretsky's clever analogy. Sarah Palin = Pierre Poujade made over for TV. The "Kenyan" in the White House = the Jew at Matignon. Etc. etc. Let's hope that the Tea Party movement fizzles as quickly as Poujadism did--even if the latter did occasion the first book by Stanley Hoffmann.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Was Copenhagen Sabotaged?

David King, former chief scientific advisor to Tony Blair, thinks so. Le Monde has relayed the story. Of course the conference probably would have failed anyway: the political basis for an agreement just wasn't there. But the stolen e-mails didn't help matters and probably set back the argument in the United States by quite a bit.

The Concorde Trial

Charles Bremner, who is a pilot as well as a journalist, offers this observation about the Concorde trial:

There is a feeling in the flying world that the real culprits were the French and British governments which drove the extraordinary but financially disastrous project from the 1960s. Olivier Metzner, the lawyer for Continental, is openly charging cover-up. "They wanted to protect the Concorde and the image of France that it presented," Metzner said at the start of the trial today. Concorde's flaws had been known for two decades before the crash and nothing had been done to rectify them, he said (Metzner, you may recall, is the legal ace who won the acquittal of Dominique de Villepin last week).

Paul Krugman: Words to Live By

Paul Krugman laments the power of conventional wisdom:

Meanwhile, the Times has an editorial on the troubles of the euro, which is perfectly fine as far as it goes. But by focusing on Greece, it might lead readers to believe that the euro’s woes are essentially fiscal — that the problem is spendthrift governments that never lived within their means.


Not so. The biggest trouble spot isn’t Greece, it’s Spain — which was running budget surpluses just a few years ago. True, Spain is running big deficits now — but that’s because of its economic collapse. And underlying that collapse is the real problem with the euro: one-size-fits-all monetary policy, which offers no relief to countries that suffer adverse shocks.

Against conventional wisdom, the gods themselves …