Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Priceless

This video, starring the young Eric Besson, is priceless. At last one understands the man.

Une droite peut en cacher une autre

One thing you can say for the American Right: no matter how nonsensical its nostrums may seem, it believes them. When Republicans say, "Cutting taxes increases revenue," they would cut off their right (left?) arms sooner than admit they were wrong. Not so the French Right. They were all for the bouclier fiscal when it was a matter of "overcoming inhibitions about money" and "unleashing entrepreneurial energy" and "allowing creative people to keep the fruits of their genius"--and of course when these slogans seemed to promise more votes. But times have changed, the votes have evaporated, the word "solidarity" is back in vogue, the poor are really, not just relatively, suffering (in good times it's an article of faith on the right that the poor bring their relative deprivation on themselves by lacking the gumption needed to succeed). Compassion is what the Right thinks it needs to sell now, the whispers against the tax shield have now turned to shouts and howls, especially since only 19,000 people seem to be benefiting from it, and it's going to be tough to persuade voters, when anticipated tax increases arrive, that folks with fortunes above 15 million euros really need the tax break that will be denied to la France qui se lève tôt.

But Sarko has seemed to be drawing a line in the sand. If he now gives in, his defeat in the regionals will have turned to a rout. The symbolic import of the bouclier has always far surpassed its economic significance. If he now drops his shield, he will be exposed to slings and arrows from all sides. But if he doesn't drop it, he may find himself a general without an army, who needs more than a shield to save him from his enemies.

Culture Wars

Frédéric Martel has a new book, Mainstream, which argues that American "soft power" has swept the world and redefined the meaning of "culture":

La patrie de Disney est celle de Google, le plus puissant moteur de recherche du monde. Reste-elle dominante?
Absolument. Les Etats-Unis conservent le leadership parce qu’ils produisent une culture qui parle à tout le monde. Un produit mainstream, universel, qui s’exporte partout. Ils ont des atouts : l’anglais, la diversité culturelle et l’immigration. Ils le font à partir d’un écosystème très particulier. Il n’y a pas un grand plan régulateur. Leurs acteurs sont indépendants et interconnectés. Ils poursuivent des objectifs privés et concurrents. Pourtant il y a une cohérence dans tout cela. Et la culture des communautés véhiculée par les canaux puissants du Net que sont Google, Facebook ou Twitter est construite sur le même schéma et rayonne tout autant.

The Mighty Have Fallen

You can almost feel sorry for her:
Froisser le chef de l'Etat n'est vraiment pas une bonne idée en ce moment. Rachida Dati en aurait fait les frais récemment, Nicolas Sarkozy la privant du véhicule que lui fournit le ministère de l'Intérieur (une Peugeot 607), ainsi que son chauffeur et ses quatre officiers de sécurité, rapporte ce mercredi le Canard Enchaîné.
Motif? Le président de la République aurait été irrité par les propos de l'ex-garde des Sceaux qui, au soir du premier tour des élections régionales, prônait à la télévision un «retour aux fondamentaux» après les mauvais résultats de l'UMP. Sauf qu'elle n'était même pas candidate. «Mais qu'est-ce qu'elle fait là, celle-là? On ne l'a pas vue pendant la campagne, et la voilà devant les caméras», aurait déclamé Nicolas Sarkozy.

Plus de 607, mais il lui reste une Prius
Ce dernier a ainsi décidé de lui retirer sur le champ ses petits avantages qu'elle ne perd pas complètement puisqu'il lui reste une autre voiture de fonction (une Toyota Prius) grâce à son statut de maire du 7e arrondissement de Paris.

Tartuffes

The Conseil d'État may see a problem with any sweeping ban on the burqa, but some French legislators are nevertheless determined to display their unshakable faith in the rightness of a ban: on the Right, Copé, Leonetti, Balkany, and on the Left, Gérin, of course, and Valls. Balkany is characteristically blunt: "Le Conseil d'État donne des conseils. On n'est pas obligés de les suivre." This is of course true, but it would be pleasant to think that, where issues of human rights are concerned, legislators at least deigned to reflect on the conseils they receive.

The French Model

Greg Mankiw compares per capita taxation:

The most common metric for answering this question is taxes as a percentage of GDP.  However, high tax rates tend to depress GDP.  Looking at taxes as a percentage of GDP may mislead us into thinking we can increase tax revenue more than we actually can.  For some purposes, a better statistic may be taxes per person, which we can compute using this piece of advanced mathematics:

Taxes/GDP x GDP/Person = Taxes/Person

Here are the results for some of the largest developed nations:

France
.461 x 33,744 = 15,556

Germany
.406 x 34,219 = 13,893

UK
.390 x 35,165 = 13,714

US
.282 x 46,443 = 13,097

Matt Yglesias says that Mankiw probably doesn't believe that this analysis makes any sense, but he likes the conclusion.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Boiteux, bancal

Lame:

They chose five  -- tuning, buzz, talk, chat and newsletter. Alain Joyandet, the Minister for Overseas Cooperation and la Francophonie, announced the winners at a ceremony yesterday. The prize is a trip to spend time at one of the official French culture outposts around the world. The Minister started by deploring the fact that "the French language is not loved enough by our compatriots, especially by our young compatriots."
The prize-winning translations were: 
-- tuning (customizing cars) -- le bolidage (from bolide = roadster/race car)
-- buzz -- le ramdam (from Arabic, current in French, for the festivities after sunset during Ramadam)
-- talk (talk show) -- le débat-- chat -- l' e-blabla or la tchatche
-- newsletter -- l'infolettre

And of course this is the same Joyandet who got himself in hot water (l'eau chaude?) for paying 116,500 euros to charter a jet for a jaunt to Martinique. Official business, of course, not e-blabla or tchatche.

A Snooze

Sarkozy's Columbia speech attracted almost no U.S. press coverage. Here is the entire Times article.

Sounds Like He's Running Already

Alain Juppé, who only recently said that if Sarkozy doesn't run in 2012, he has his eye on the job, seems to have his hat in the ring already:

L'ex-premier ministre Alain Juppé a suggéré, mardi 30 mars, de revenir sur le bouclier fiscal, soulignant qu'il ne serait "pas choqué" qu'"on demande aux très riches de faire un effort de solidarité supplémentaire vis-à-vis de ceux qui souffrent dans la crise". "Il faut s'interroger sur ce qu'on appelle le bouclier fiscal parce que les choses ont changé, la crise est venue", a déclaré le maire UMP de Bordeaux sur France Info.

It's too bad American politicians can't come up with a phrase like "effort de solidarité supplémentaire" to describe a tax hike. You think you could get that past the Fox News radar?

Anyway, Juppé has plenty of support in the UMP.

Retirement Reform

So apparently the great assault on tous les conservatismes that Sarkozy promised in 2007 is all going to come down to retirement reform. Even the replacement of the juge d'instruction has dropped out of public discourse (h/t MYOS) and may soon follow the carbon tax into oblivion. Why retirement reform rather than, say, attacking unemployment? Perhaps because retirement reform is something that the government can achieve on its own before 2012, whereas success against unemployment depends on many imponderables. But the choice is not without risks, which Bernard Girard discusses here.

OECD Questions German Banking

Strange. We have countless Germans delivering stern lessons on fiscal probity to the rest of Europe, and yet we also have this from the OECD:

In its 2010 survey on Germany, published Friday, the O.E.C.D. said German banking practice “exposes German banks relatively more to unexpected shocks than banks in other countries.”
As part of the explanation, it wrote, “German banks exhibit one of the highest absolute leverage ratios as they carry large volumes of assets to which they attach low risk.” Extrapolated into everyday language, that points to an inadequate pricing of risk, which is no way to run a safe banking system.

Euroskepticism in the Heart of Europe

Chris Bickerton has a smart piece on the European crisis. Although there has been much talk of the need for new supranational institutions to manage an economy that can no longer be managed at the national level, there is little enthusiasm anywhere for actually building such institutions. Germany has increasingly become a Euroskeptic country. The idea of "European government" so spooked Gordon Brown that he suggested using the term "governance" instead. Bickerton comments: "The final declaration, in true European spirit of compromise, made reference to both terms: governance in the English text, gouvernement in the French."

For Chris,

The outcome of the crisis will be an expansion in the powers of EU in the matter of fiscal supervision. The European Commission is fighting hard at the moment to make sure that it wins the right to send its officials into the ministries of high-spending member states. When Sarkozy and Merkel speak of “economic government”, they mean greater powers of regulation and oversight drawn up by finance ministers and implemented by Commission officials.

The good news is that Greece is not, in Chris's view, on the verge of civil war: "Public opposition to the government’s austerity measures is vastly out-weighed by public support for the cuts," he writes.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sarko on the Upper West Side

Every once in a while, one really should watch a Sarkozy speech in its entirety. Today he spoke at Columbia University. The other day, when he spoke to the French after the elections, I said that he seemed to be scolding misbehaving children. Today he condescended to another group of children. These were not his own, so he tried to conceal his annoyance with them. He came across as something between an insufferable uncle and an amateur rendering of Polonius in a high-school version of Hamlet. His gestures seemed to have been practiced before a mirror; his lines, to have been written in a simplified French, as if to make it easier for his audience to understand him. He flattered Joe Stiglitz in the audience but in the question and answer session made clear his contempt for economic theory, about which he confessed to know nothing. But then again, he said he didn't need Mr. Smith (Adam, that is), because his job was to turn "information" into "decisions." He takes a great deal of satisfaction in his self-confidence. May it never desert him. What a pitiful spectacle he would make if it did.

And I might add that he made quite a point of speaking without a text. The text kills the creativity, he said, although he seemed to have memorized his speech, not to improvise it. Why bother to travel if one is going to read one's text? Mail the text instead. Was this a barb at Obama and his teleprompter?  Has Sarko been watching Fox News?

Hulot Is Out

Nicolas Hulot will no longer participate in the "Grenelle de l'Environnement." Yet another sign that lines are hardening in the wake of the last elections. Unlike many commentators, I don't greet this development with glee. The consensus seems to be that l'ouverture was nothing but an electoralist maneuver and that the reversion to type--a hard and fast distinction between left and right, with ecologists on the left--is natural and desirable. I don't agree. A recomposition of the center is necessary if France is to progress on any number of issues. Whatever Sarkozy's motives, he seemed to recognize this and to be prepared to help bring about it. But now he has either recoiled because of the latest setback or had his hand forced by his own base.

A Striking Figure

From Charles Bremner:

More than eight out of 10 of this year's intake at the National School for Judges (Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature) are women. Men represent only 23 percent of the whole student body at the Bordeaux-based institution which trains all French trial judges, investigating magistrates, prosecutors and so on.

A British View of le Mal français

The world doesn't need so many psychologists. (h/t TexExile) Has psychology become the new sociology? And anyway, would France really be any better off if all the psych majors took up le marketing instead?

A Sign of Discontent

Alain Lambert, a UMP Senator from the Orne and budgetary expert, is usually quite reserved in his criticisms of the government. But he seems to have caught fronde fever along with many of his colleagues. This is not only outspoken but dripping with bitter sarcasm:

Vu d’ici, je subodore que le séminaire de la majorité présidentielle va consister à catéchiser les parlementaires sur les thèmes : « ce n’est pas le moment de se diviser », « les élus n’ont pas envie de grogner mais de construire » ! A diffuser une petite musique douce invitant à laisser passer l’orage comme si les régionales n’avaient délivré aucun message et que tout peut continuer comme avant. Peut-être, à les culpabiliser en les désignant comme premiers et seuls responsables de l’échec, avec les candidats et ceux qui les ont soutenus. Bref, s’ils avaient eu ce génie incommensurable de nos plus hauts dirigeants que le monde nous envie, nous n’en serions pas là. Ce soir, nos électeurs apprendront qu’ils se sont sans doute trompés, lors des élections, puisque rien ne doit changer. La 5ème République a inventé le fait majoritaire, avec les années il s’est transformé en « mouvement brownien » : je suis dans la majorité donc j’écoute et je fais ce que l’on me dit. Les chefs ont toujours raison et réfléchir c’est déjà trahir. Circulez, il n’y a rien à voir. Puisqu’on vous le dit ! Pour l’avenir, on verra demain.

I think I have been underestimating the degree of anti-Sarkozism on the right. Now that Caesar is bleeding, everyone seems to want to get in on the act.

The Euro and Its Enemies

Who knew the euro had so many enemies? They're everywhere now, not only in Germany. Two more surfaced today, here and here. Of course, all sorts of agendas are being mixed together in these critiques. Is the real target the policy of the European Central Bank, the theory of inflation targeting, monetary economics more broadly, the north-south cleavage in Europe, the peculiarities of EU institutions, the fecklessness of southerners, the (self-)righteousness of northerners, the evils of real-estate speculation, currency manipulators, the absence of currencies to be manipulated, etc. etc. Journalism is of course not the place to look for analytic clarity (nor are blogs, usually). But the moment really calls for a historian of applied ideas to follow the remaking of conventional wisdom among the "serious people" who stroke their chins and ultimately make decisions with the stroke of a pen that will affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It's really rather appalling to see recommendations of such sweeping magnitude made with so little basis in theory and no substantiation by data.

One can, however, smile at the suggestion of  "neuro" and "sudo" as the names for two future European currencies, one for the northern tier and the other for the southern. One other point that few commentators have made: Turkish membership of the EU will now be postponed indefinitely. If the southern tier can't hack it because economies there are so differently constituted from the northern economies, then Turkey, whose GDP per capita makes it a real outlier, would be even more differentially affected by any future crisis. To be sure, it wouldn't have to join the Euro zone. But Europe itself is now so fractured that there is little enthusiasm for further expansion, especially to the east. The implications for tomorrow's geopolitics will need careful analysis.

Truffles

For some reason, food items top today's news.

"A Cosmopolitan Fifth Column"

Speaking of chowing down, it seems that changes are afoot in France:
 
Le Fooding is in part a move to épater la bourgeoisie—it was at a Fooding event that the young chef Petter Nilsson famously assembled a plate of vegetables that symbolized the world’s religions, with a giant frite in the shape of a cross on top—but it has also been accused, by left-wing journalists, of representing the bourgeoisie; the populist left-wing magazine Marianne charged that it was a kind of cosmopolitan fifth column in the continuing modern assault on French values, and Emmanuel Rubin left the movement last year, disillusioned by what he considered its loss of moral mission.


Le fooding, evidently. is to the Michelin Guide what le footing is to the 1500-meter Olympic run.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chowing Down with the Obamas

Barack Obama wouldn't break bread with Benjamin Netanyahu--a symbol whose importance shouldn't be underestimated. The political courage it took to make this calculated gesture of retaliation for the insult inflicted on Joe Biden and the U.S. by Israel was considerable. But Obama is about to make another carefully calibrated dining decision: he's going to sit down with Sarkozy:

After a year of frostiness, Barack Obama is finally granting Nicolas Sarkozy the gesture that he craved. The French President and Carla Bruni are to sup on Tuesday night in the White House family dining room.

Of course this was planned some time ago, but it couldn't come at a better time for Sarkozy: Obama is once again the man of the hour, and Sarko is badly in need of a boost after taking "a thumping" (to borrow a word from George W. Bush) in the regionals.

Justin Vaïsse offers a few thoughts on the president formerly known as "Sarkozy the American" in JDD. If I were Sarkozy, I'd want to know more about the American arms deal with the Russians. And I'd want to know what Obama is thinking about the revelation that the Iranians are building two hardened uranium enrichment sites inside mountains. And what about the Israeli tension? Beyond "dinnergate," what about Petraeus' comments regarding Israeli intransigence? These are issues in which French vital interests are at stake. The past imbroglios over Copenhagen and perceived personal slights are water under the bridge. The future involves issues of the greatest magnitude. That should be challenge enough to get Sarkozy's head back in the game. For the past week, since the election, he has seemed unusually subdued, not to say irritable, and at times almost bewildered, like a stunned prizefighter. But he can still pick himself up off the mat.

Guillon on "Masse Critique"

Given the controversy surrounding Stéphane Guillon, this could be interesting:

Ce soir, dimanche, à 19h00, Stéphane Guillon est l'invité de Frédéric Martel dans "Masse Critique" sur France Culture.

Cette émission a été exceptionnellement enregistrée hier en public au salon du livre.

Stéphane Guillon se désolidarise vivement d'Eric Zemmour ; il dit ne pas avoir été approché par Europe 1 et RTL ; il parle de Sarkozy, de son spectacle, de sa manière de travailler ; et salue tous les humoristes et caricaturistes qui l'ont défendus cette semaine. "Comment tout ça va finir ?", demande Frédéric Martel. La réponse de Guillon mérite d'être écoutée.

Ce soir à 19h00 sur France Culture ou en podcast.

Feeds

Some of you read the blog via a feed aggregator. One reader complained that I recently changed the settings to send only partial rather than full feeds. This was to encourage more readers to click through the feed to the blog page itself, so that I could get more accurate statistics and hopefully encourage a few of you to notice the ads of our esteemed sponsors and click on them, a Pareto-optimal strategy for enhancing the well-being of all. But in fact I have noticed only a small increase in traffic and apparently inconvenienced some of you, so I have restored full feeds as of today.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Something to look forward to

Tired of today's political debate? Just wait until you hear tomorrow's ...

French-Bashing in New Hampshire

What passes for wit in the U.S. Republican Party:

"The other day I went to look at their platform for the Democratic Party for our nation. I couldn't understand any of it.  I don't speak any French," - Gov. Tim Pawlenty in New Hampshire Friday.

Europe is not a DMZ

Matt Yglesias makes a good point graphically:

Europe is not a demilitarized zone.

Speaking Truth to Power

Chantal Jouanno, only recently linked romantically (and no doubt fancifully) to the French president, was yesterday the subject of his rebuke. He "did not appreciate" her outspoken opposition to the shelving of the carbon tax, said a particularly dour and petulant Sarkozy. Meanwhile, Alain Juppé, who used to enjoy a reputation for being dour and petulant, leapt to Jouanno's defense:

De son côté, l'ex-Premier ministre, Alain Juppé, adresse, sur son blog, un "coup de chapeau à Chantal Jouanno". Estimant que la France "ne doit pas renoncer" à la mise en place d'une taxe carbone. Il partage l'analyse de la secrétaire d'Etat, sur l'"éco-scepticisme ambiant depuis l'échec de Copenhague".
Bravo, Alain! You may yet win the hearts and minds of your countrymen. One might see here the outlines of an interesting cleavage on the Right: on one side, Juppé, Borloo, Jouanno, Lemaire, Kosciusko-Morizet, Morin, Villepin, etc.; on the other, Copé, Estrosi, Mariani, Devedjian, Longuet, Hortefeux, etc. The party of the fréquentable versus the party of the infréquentable.

The Wisdom of Solon

According to Le Figaro, the Conseil d'État has argued in a still-secret report commissioned by François Fillon that any attempt to outlaw the burqa in general would constitute an atteinte à la dignité humaine. They rely on the concept of "consent," as elucidated by Simone Veil in a report on the preamble to the Constitution: "No one can decide a priori what is valuable (digne) for an adult." This principle would not, however, preclude banning the burqa in specific situations for specific reasons, such as security.

It is courageous of the CE to propose this view in the face of President Sarkozy's declaration just a few days ago, in the wake of the disastrous election results, that the burqa would be "outlawed," pure and simple, a surenchère on his previous declaration that it was "not welcome" in France. The CE further notes, as I have pointed out here before, that any law against the burqa would be subject to review by the European Court of Justice, which would probably disapprove.

Perhaps the most interesting comment comes at the end of the article, where one of the "Sages" speculates on a change in the government's position: "«Lorsqu'ils nous ont sollicités, ils voulaient enterrer l'interdiction générale», croit savoir un Sage. Or, depuis, Nicolas Sarkozy a annoncé qu'il déposerait un projet de loi."

Indeed.

Friday, March 26, 2010

From Papa Sarko

“When people ask me what I felt on the birth of Nicolas, I reply that he was the logical conclusion of a very good night spent with my wife,” he writes.

If, after reading this, you still want to know more about the sire of the Sarkozy "dynasty," as Charles Bremner calls it, you can read it here. With further background here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

US-Russia Accord, and Nobody Cares

A nuclear arms deal between Russia and the US ought to attract some attention in Europe, but it doesn't seem to have done. Nothing in on-line Le Monde, for example. Bizarre, no? And no reaction from the President formerly known as Hyper? Not like him. Is he in a funk, or what? Maybe the French have no faith in the Republicans in the US Senate to ratify the thing.

Sarkozy and Merkel Save the Euro, For Now

The tough talk is over for the moment: European governments will kick in 2/3 of what the Greeks need to cover their losses, the IMF the other third. Merkel insisted on steps toward tightening fiscal discipline in Europe, with a report to be submitted by the end of the year about how this might be done. À suivre.

Jean Quatremer's comment: un accord en trompe-l'oeil

Panic on the Right

The voters have really shaken things up with their sanction vote. Some in the UMP are even thinking of challenging Sarkozy on one of his flagship measures: le bouclier fiscal. Tax breaks for the rich just don't sit well when you're cutting back on civil service jobs, schoolteachers, nurses, and firemen and bailing out Greece.

Follow-Up on the Zemmour Affair

Le Figaro has decided not to fire Zemmour; Philippe Bilger, avocat général, has defended him; and Eolas here offers an interesting argument in rebuttal. And a rebuttal to the rebuttal from Bilger here. And now Bilger has been summoned by his hierarchy to explain his public statements on this issue.

Laurent on the European Summit and the Euro Crisis

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the name of Éloi Laurent, a brilliant young economist at the OFCE, who has only recently returned to Europe after a semester at Harvard, where he was a valued presence at the Center for European Studies. Here he discusses today's European summit and the Greek crisis.

Villepin on the March

It's a neat trick to lead a political movement while hanging from a butcher's hook, but Dominique de Villepin is giving it the old college try--yet again. Today he held a press conference to announce the launching of a movement on June 19 (l'Appel du 18 juin + 1, en quelque sorte). Why he didn't just launch the movement today and get it over with ... well, I suppose these things take planning -- balloons, dancing girls, musicians, trained bears -- and then, too, it might look unseemly to seize the opportunity of the supreme leader's supreme setback to throw acid in his face. But DdV couldn't resist a little Schadenfreude:

"J'ai le sentiment qu'au lendemain des élections, ce n'est pas un changement de politique qui a été choisi alors qu'il s'impose", a regretté l'ancien chef du gouvernement. "Le débat sur l'identité nationale a montré qu'on pouvait jouer avec tout, on ne joue pas avec la nation", a estimé M. Villepin, qui a parlé de "politique de réformes éparpillées". Il a également dénoncé le non-remplacement d'un fonctionnaire sur deux comme une politique "pas efficace"

Ouf!  Whose "politique de réformes éparpillées" could he have had in mind, I wonder? And the announcement comes on the very day when Carla Bruni expressed the wish that she and her hubby be allowed to live out "the time left to them" in relative peace, hoping that he decides to call it quits after one term. (She has no doubt taken note of Chantal Jouanno's split with Sarkozy -- on the matter of the carbon tax, s'entend. What did you think I meant? I'm not one of those "irresponsible journalists" to whom Bruni refers in the interview, who take their cues from bloggers named Mickey or Superman.) Villepin will no doubt derive encouragement from this. He'll have to, because he's unlikely to be welcomed with open arms by what he refers to as his "famille politique," where Jean-François Copé has organized a meeting for next Monday of potential frondeurs, now emboldened to dictate their terms to the enfeebled king in his Elysian redoubt. The triangulaire on the Right could well prove as diverting as the free-for-all on the Left. Meanwhile, I suppose Claude Guéant is running the country, along with the socialo-ecologists who now have a lock on everything this side of Strasbourg. (h/t TexExile)

Jouanno: The MEDEF Did It

Chantal Jouanno:

"C'est clair, c'est le Medef qui a planté la taxe carbone. Au nom de la compétitivité. Est-ce que le Medef s'est ému des 2 milliards de bonus distribués aux banquiers ?", s'agace Mme Jouanno dans le quotidien, mettant aussi en cause les "céréaliers intensifs".

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Je comprends votre impatience"

I have two reactions to Sarkozy's post-election address to the nation. First, the tone: Sarkozy's is that of an exasperated parent attempting to explain to a petulant child why strict discipline is actually something for which the child will be grateful in later life. He may well be right, but you can be sure that the lecture isn't going to go over well with the child, who has just discovered the power to make life difficult for the scold. What's more, the president isn't very good at this mode. He's a boxer by nature, who likes to throw punches in his speeches. But you can't punch a child.

Second, the substance: essentially Sarkozy patted himself on the back. He's done all the right things, the things that "you" (the French) elected him to do. "You" may not yet have seen the effects in your daily life, but we're not going to change a thing. Even the things we are going to change, the like carbon tax, aren't really a change: we're just waiting for our partners to realize how right we were.

The steadfastness is admirable in a way, but it fails to take account of the change in the country's temperament. Sarkozy's formula for reform was--I have said this before--at least coherent and in some respects plausible, but it was never universally accepted. He did, however, persuade an important group of swing voters to give it a try. He now appears to have lost that group. To win it back, he needs to show some understanding of how their confidence in the likelihood of success has changed even if his hasn't. But he didn't even attempt this. He seems to believe that the case is self-evident, that it has always been so, and that the advent of a major economic crisis has in no way changed this.

I hasten to add that he may be right on the merits, at least on some issues. I believe that he is right on the need to extend the working life of most French people. I think that he's wrong in his refusal to contemplate tax increases of any kind, including on the wealthy. I think he's wrong to believe that everything that can be done to alleviate unemployment has been done. I think he's wrong to make sweeping (and impossible) promises to farmers while neglecting industrial workers and state employees, who are also in difficult situations. His generalizations are divisive in an unhelpful way: "reform" is presented as something monolithic, which one must either take or leave ("you're either with us or against us"). In practice, of course, he has been much more pragmatic, often willing to compromise in detail (as he did in the first round of retirement reforms). But he has difficulty, apparently, in modifying his discourse accordingly. Hence his tone of exasperation. Still, he has shown himself to be adaptable in his style before. He may yet find a new voice. But he is now weakened to the point where other voices on the Right are beginning to make themselves heard. The Omnipresident is no more.

After the Carbon Tax Debacle

Éloi Laurent reflects on the way forward for ecological politics in the wake of the repudiation of the carbon tax:

La différence entre l’enthousiasme qui a entouré le « Grenelle » et l’amertume du débat sur la taxe carbone tient sans doute à la nature différente des instruments économiques qui étaient en jeu - dans un cas la régulation, et dans l’autre l’instrument fiscal, l’un et l’autre ne reposant pas du tout sur la même économie politique. Mais derrière la logique de ces instruments économiques se cache une différence plus profonde, entre, d’un côté, un processus perçu comme juste parce qu’il associait sous le regard de l’opinion dans une véritable négociation diverses parties sur un pied d’égalité, et, de l’autre côté, une mesure qui a été comprise comme décidée à huis clos par un comité d’experts et dont les ultimes arbitrages ont finalement été rendus sans concertation par l’appareil techno-politique.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Geographical Analysis of the Regionals

A number of interesting points in this analysis of the regionals, culminating in this observation:

Bien sûr, l’analyse demanderait à être (r)affinée – et je ne doute pas qu’elle le soit par l’un ou l’autre collègue-, mais la majorité de l’homme qui a fait le « bouclier fiscal » semble bien avoir une géographie des plus rationnelles. Celle-ci correspond en bonne partie à celle des contribuables soumis à l’ISF (à l’exclusion des deux départements alsaciens et du Cantal). Bref, N. Sarkozy peut se féliciter que le cœur de sa base électorale, la plus aisée  à tout prendre, ait eu  tout de même de la reconnaissance à l’égard de la politique menée depuis 2007. Il est alors assez logique que le remaniement ministériel donne des satisfactions à celui qui incarne au gouvernement une ligne résolument libérale, Eric Woerth, à charge pour lui de finir le travail entre autres sur le dossier des retraites.

On Woerth, see here.

Moderation in All Things

I used to bridle when a French friend derided what he took to be American political correctness. Some of our verbal contortions were indeed absurd, but on the whole the effort to châtier notre langue reflected a healthy awareness of the manifold ways in which, in a multicultural society, one can give offense without meaning to. France seems to be discovering this as well. First, Le Figaro has sacked Eric Zemmour for saying that most French drug dealers are black or Arab, and second, Stéphane Guillon's latest excess--mocking Eric Besson's physical appearance by way of animal similes that harked back to the bad old days of Je suis partout! and other publications of that ilk--has made many people uncomfortable, even if it has also drawn support from others who believe that satire has the right to do as it pleases.

Of course it would be unfortunate if the government forced Guillon off the air. The offense here is against taste rather than truth. Perhaps Guillon will learn that satire is an art that requires knowing "jusqu'où on peut aller trop loin," to quote Jean Cocteau, who also crossed certain lines of propriety in his day. Taste is a delicate thing, but so is free speech, and there is inevitably tension between the two. I have to contend with it even here on the blog. I don't censor comments, even those I consider mean-spirited, ill-informed, or racist. Fortunately, offensive comments are relatively rare. I wish they didn't exist, but I agree with Justice Holmes that when it comes to offensive ideas, it's best to expose them to the air and allow them to deflate.

Carbon Tax Abandoned

François Fillon has announced the abandonment of the carbon tax. RIP. It was always a risk for Sarkozy. He took it, perhaps because he believed in it, perhaps because he thought it would divide the opposition. In the end, it divided his own party, and the success of Europe Écologie could not be allowed to go unpunished. And he got nothing for it internationally, either. Copenhagen was the handwriting on the wall. In the current mood of non-cooperation, the tax became an easy target for its enemies. A shame.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Not good at resisting temptation

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as we know, is not good at resisting temptations of many kinds. It looks as though yesterday's election results just created another one:

Now, however, the rumor mill is heating up with gossip that the Fund’s managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, will leave in order to oppose Nikolas Sarkozy in the 2012 French presidential elections. Sarkozy’s popularity is hitting new lows, and Strauss-Kahn’s friends say that he has never made a secret of his political ambitions.

French Politics on New York Talk Radio

I'm scheduled to do an interview on the regional elections tomorrow morning on WWRL, a talk radio station in New York (1600 on your AM dial if you happen to be in the Big Apple). The interviewer is Errol Louis (pictured): "Talkers Magazine recently named him one of the 'Heavy 100,' the top talk show hosts in America." If you're in NYC, tune in!

"Je ne vous ai pas compris!"

Well, Sarko rejected my advice to make a bold move and instead shuffled a few minor cards in his deck. Poor Xavier Darcos. He always gave the impression of being an earnest fellow. François Baroin takes over the budget, while Woerth replaces Darcos. Georges Tron joins Bruno Le Maire as the second Villepiniste in the lion's den. Martin Hirsch has been sacrified to the baying rightist hounds. Copé wants to burn the carbon tax. Oh, and Besson stays where he is. Heck of a job, Brownie. Apparently Fadela Amara stays too, although she was rumored to be on the chopping block, having accomplished nothing in 3 years. But then again, if she went, to whom would Sarko point when he wanted to remind people that he once had a "Marshall Plan for the suburbs?" Is there any discernible strategy in all this?

And the Socialists? They apparently want the "territorial reform" withdrawn. And who can blame them? The status quo seems to be working just fine for them, and the more money diverted from national to regional governments, the better off they are.

More Euro-Pessimism

Earlier I cited Wolfgang Munchau, a Euro-pessimist on the economic front (along with many others). Here is Dominique Moïsi with some Euro-pessimism on the energy and security front:

What is clear is that any ambition to define a common European energy and security policy toward Russia is slowly disappearing. From Berlin to Paris, and from Paris to Rome, European leaders may ultimately be doing the same thing, but they are all doing it separately, as competitors vying for Russian favor rather than as partners within a supposedly tight-knit Union.

Not so Nice

I love Nice, one of my favorite cities. I'll be there in May. But going to PACA after Jean-Marie Le Pen racks up 22.87% of the vote there feels a bit like going to Spain during the Franco era. You start to look at people in the street and wonder: Is he or she one of them.

Grunberg: Une nouvelle dynamique à gauche

The fire in the belly argument, translated into French.

Apocalypse Now

Wolfgang Munchau in the FT:

But either outcome will mark the beginning of the end of Europe’s economic and monetary union as we know it. This is the true historical significance of Ms Merkel’s decision.

From Movement to (Anti-?)Party

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, with an ironic nod, perhaps, to General de Gaulle, has issued "l'Appel du 22 mars" calling upon those who voted for Europe Écologie to -- do what? Transform a social movement into a political party? That would be the classic institutionalizing move of a movement leader who has moved from the sphere of critique into the realm of power. Or is he rather calling for the movement to resist becoming a political party, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that the movement's success has both capitalized on and laid bare the bankruptcy of the traditional parties, their "isolation" from an active, dynamic, and unhappy civil society, and their preoccupation with the ambitions of their own leaders? Instead of this, he is calling upon the social movement to make itself perennial, to perpetuate its "social and cultural biodiversity," and thus to exalt the collectivity ("une forme politique largement inédite") over any potential leadership.

To be slightly waspish about it, one might see this as a sort of Green Trotskyism. If it were anyone but Cohn-Bendit making the call, one might worry about the assertion of charismatic authority in the name of, or as substitute for, a formal structure capable of preserving the freedom it rather too generously distributes to the "masses." But Dany the Green retains all of the boyish boisterousness of Dany the Red. This is May '68 asserting its rights against the president who ran in part on an anti-May platform. At the end, however, there is talk of "une structuration du mouvement" and of the construction of regional Collectives (Soviets?) that will eventually give way to a "Cooperative" (Supreme Soviet?) that they will have "helped to construct." Students of the institutionalization of charisma will want to pay close attention to how this all plays out in practice. So will Cécile Duflot, whose name, unless I've missed it, doesn't figure in Dany's appel. (h/t Éloi)

Back to Basics?

Which basics? asks Bernard Girard.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Tale of Two Presidencies

It is an irony of fate, I suppose, that tonight's low point in Sarkozy's presidency coincides with Obama's resurrection. Sarkozy's first year was a triumph of the will (n'en déplaise à Leni Riefenstahl). He had his majority, he passed his reforms, he made himself ubiquitous. Obama took office in a moment of such heightened expectations and disastrous calamities that disappointments were inevitable. He faced a vituperative and obdurate opposition and an uncontrollable majority. And yet he persevered. Victory will, for a time, reorient the narratives on both sides of the ocean. The same qualities that had been cast as weakness and indecisiveness in the American president will now be taken as signs of steadfast resolve and tactical genius. By the same token, Sarkozy's confidence and dynamism will be recast (if they were not already portrayed as) arrogance and psychological instability. Too much political writing fits the structuralist image of the overdetermined text, which purports to describe but in fact merely externalizes the structure in which it is embedded. Sub specie aeternitatis, there are better ways to describe what has happened today in France and what will happen tonight in the United States. But there is perhaps a human need to provide the French narrative with an anti-hero and the American with a hero. I'm not really pleased with the French outcome, which the Socialists are already trying to present as an Answer when it is in fact merely a restatement of all the Questions that have gone unanswered since 2002. I am pleased with the American outcome, for all the bill's shortcomings, because, to coin a phrase, it keeps hope alive--hope that for a time had been made to seem a naive illusion by the Republicans, the ugly mobs, the appalling Fox network, and the indiscipline of the Democrats.

The Second Round

Forgive me if I barely take notice of the Left's resounding victory in the second round of the regional elections. It's just been announced here in the U.S. that the Stupak 10 -- the small band of Democrats who threatened to hold health care reform hostage to their views on abortion -- have at last been persuaded to vote for the bill. Obama is therefore on the verge of an historic achievement, which makes the claque delivered to Sarkozy seem insignificant by comparison.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

National Identity

« Vous n’avez toujours pas compris ? ... Vous n’avez pas besoin d’un certificat de nationalité pour vous, mais pour vos enfants, si ».

C'est comme ça, la France.  Joan of Arc, the Eiffel Tower, infuriating bureaucrats ... la France éternelle.

Europe Frays

Depressing news out of Berlin: the German government would apparently now prefer to let the IMF deal with Greece. The IMF has less money available for Greece and can impose tougher conditions, it seems, than the EU. And German voters are simply refusing solidarity with their Greek counterparts. Angela Merkel has even said that if Greece must abandon the euro, that is preferable to a bailout.

The ratification of the constitutional treaty--an achievement of which Sarkozy used to boast--is all but forgotten. In a crisis, it is now clear, European governments will go their own way, and there is not even a pretense of central leadership, unless you count Brussels' warning the other day to a number of countries, including France, that their deficits are way out of line. In short, Germany is proposing deflation and austerity for its neighbors in order to maintain social peace at home. Will social unrest now spread from Greece to the rest of the southern tier?

Meanwhile, Sarko is keeping his criticism of Merkel (relatively) muted. In private, however, he reportedly said of the Germans: "They haven't changed." In private--yet it's published in Le Monde, which is not likely to warm the heart of Europe, of which France and Germany are the systole and diastole.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

On the Policy of Evaluating University Teaching

Here.

Quel bordel!

Houses of ill repute are not in such ill repute in France: 70% of men want them back, and 49% of women. And then there's this political angle:

Au niveau politique, ce sont les Verts qui sont les plus favorables à la réouverture de ces maisons avec 69%.

Good for the environment, I guess.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Simone Veil Inducted into the Académie Française

A worthy choice.

Lepage Quits MoDem

Corinne Lepage has quit MoDem, citing "considerable ... dysfunctions" in the "internal democracy" of the movement. En clair: Bayrou is a tyrant. And nothing seems to be working for the party. This is a significant blow, possibly a coup de grâce.

Le système français expliqué aux nuls

Ici. (h/t TexExile)

This Is Sick

Outsourced to Charles Bremner.

The Role of the Regions in Education

Discussed here and here. (h/t Le Monde Toile de l'Éducation, for subscribers only)

Gouverner, C'est communiquer

"Gouverner, c'est choisircommuniquer." Yes, the rules of the game have changed since the glory days of PMF. You can find the ranking of French politicians as communicators here, in a report of a recent survey of journalists who cover them day in and day out. There are a few anomalies: Ségolène Royal makes both the top 5 and the bottom 5 (some like her, some detest her). Jean-François Copé gives a drubbing to Xavier Bertrand among contenders on the right, but I myself can't listen to either man for more than two minutes, and Copé makes my skin crawl with his unctuous insincerity and barely contained contempt.

Wayward Sons

Christine Lagarde manages to smile--once--for Apathie, but of course she thought of herself as doing a radio interview. She is as fluent as always but contrives to let drop that her sons abstained on Sunday and that she turned to them as authorities to help her understand why 50 percent of the French failed to grasp how magnificently the government had performed in the crisis. "Oh, ya know, ma, the regions--who understands what they're all about?" So the problem, she concludes, is one of communication, explanation, education. Which leaves open the question of why the sons of the minister of finance are so indifferent to politics. Perhaps it has something to do with the lawyerly, technocratic discourse that seems never to leave her. She could serve a government of the right or left with equally brisk confidence and competence. So why bother to vote? Everything said on the hustings and reported in the papers is just noise, right? In the end, all is well if people like Christine Lagarde are put in place to repair the damage and navigate cleanly between Scylla and Charybdis. That, at any rate, is the vibe she gives off. The room must be chilly when she and Tim Geithner meet.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Carbon Tax an Election Casualty?

The UMP may have lost its appetite for imposing the unpopular carbon tax now that the adoption of ecopolitics has not only failed to win the party additional support but seemingly strengthened Europe Écologie by giving credibility and publicity to its central issues.

What's Up in Brittany?

So the PS and EE have an agreement everywhere except in Brittany. Why? According to EE, it's a matter of looking out for the peasants and the consequences of fertilizer runoff: Speaking of René Louail, a former official of a farmer's group, EE's Christian Guynovarc'h said:

Et nous demandions que lui soit confiée la vice-présidence car nous estimions capital de lutter contre ces fléaux des algues vertes et de la pollution aux nitrates. Mais le PS ne voulait pas en entendre parler". Côté PS, c'est ce qu'on appelle, sans plus de précision, "les exigences insurmontables d'EE.

Hmm. I guess I need a little context here. I would think that farmers might find it difficult to give up their nitrogen-rich fertilizers. But I'm a city guy. Anybody know the story?

The UMP Is Starting to Look Like the PS

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  Tolstoy may have been right about human families, but with political families it's different: each unhappy family resembles all the others.

A Lesson for France

Tocqueville believed that the future of democracy could be divined by studying the United States and that France could profit from the lesson. If so, the French may want to pay attention to the candidacy of Murray Hill, a public relations firm in Silver Spring, Maryland. Corporations have long been "moral persons" in the United States, and the Supreme Court has now ruled that they have the same rights as real persons when it comes to funding political campaigns. Murray Hill has taken the next step: le don de sa personne (morale) à la nation, to borrow a phrase from Pétain.

Until now, corporate interests had to rely on campaign contributions and influence-peddling to achieve their goals in Washington," the candidate, who was unavailable for an interview, said in a statement. "But thanks to an enlightened Supreme Court, now we can eliminate the middle-man and run for office ourselves. (h/t TexExile)

David Martinon

Remember David Martinon, the Sarkozy flack who got in the way of young Jean Sarkozy and had to be dispatched to the antipodes, en l'occurrence Tinseltown, USA? Well, it seems that he's landed on his feet, even if he can't get any ministers of note to travel to LA for fear of finding themselves pilloried in Le Canard enchaîné for squandering taxpayer euros on sunshine and non-Perrier bottled water. He's even thinking of making a career in the film business. Despite the suggestion in the article that Martinon was once considered a possible successor to Sarkozy (by whom? lui-même en se rasant le matin?), it's nice to know that there's life after Neuilly, and that a guy who looked totally clueless as a candidate can grow into a fellow who dazzles Hollywood gallery owners with his "charisma."

As it turns out, it might have been better if Sarko had kept Martinon in Neuilly and allowed Jean time to finish law school before pushing him into the public arena, because one of the things that voters repeatedly mentioned to pollsters as a reason for disillusionment with Sarkozy was the ill-fated nomination of Jean to head EPAD. A job for which an énarque like Martinon would have been perfect.

The "Bradley Effect"

In the United States pollsters refer to a so-called Bradley effect to explain why polls are (allegedly) often wrong in contests that pit a white candidate against a black. The theory is that people are reluctant to say that they're voting against the black, for fear of being tagged "racist," so they say that they are undecided or even that they will vote for the black candidate. If there ever was a Bradley effect, it seems to have diminished in recent years. But now Le Monde is adapting the theory to the French case to explain why pollsters underestimated the Front National vote in Sunday's election. But as Le Monde also explains, pollsters are aware of all sorts of biases in their surveys and do not predict results based on raw data. They always apply correctives based on past experience, and not just to correct for Bradley-type effects.

So the real question here is why the corrections applied in this case were wrong. One possibility is that a certain portion of the FN vote varies from election to election precisely because it is a protest vote rather than a pro-FN vote. The FN has its core supporters, to be sure, but it is also a convenient place to express a general ras-le-bol. Voters of this type may have preferences that swing dramatically from election to election. For example, suppose you have 3 percent of the electorate that is really disgusted with all the parties. One time they might vote for the LCR because they caught Olivier Besancenot on TV and liked what he was saying (and LCR's vote share rises sharply, leading to all sorts of wild speculation and even, perhaps, to a restructuring of the party). Then they hear that the NPA (LCR's successor) is running a veiled candidate, so they switch from Trotskyism to anti-Islamism and vote FN because they've seen the FN minaret poster. But maybe they don't want to say they're voting FN. When the pollster tries to correct for this by asking for opinions about a series of personalities, the answers don't necessarily offer the portrait of a confirmed Lepenist: they like Besancenot and Mélenchon, say, and are indifferent to Marine Le Pen. Or maybe, because the whole political process fills them with disgust, they just hang up on the pollster. The numbers involved here are relatively small, and the people involved are motivated by volatile political emotions rather than fixed preferences.

All Is Not Quiet in the East


The electoral geography of the Front National (from Le Monde).

Monday, March 15, 2010

As If He Hasn't Got Enough Trouble

There's no snark quite like British snark. It's naughty of me even to post this link, but one can't be high-minded all the time.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Statistics

And about the PS ...

About that triumph for the PS yesterday: Aubry might be in the catbird seat, but she has two hungry cats grinning at her. Georges Frêche won handily in Languedoc-Roussillon, despite being expelled from the party (so I guess Socialist voters don't care about having a former prime minister with une tronche peu catholique--a lot of them don't trust Fabius for reasons having nothing to do with his religious origins). And Ségo won even more handily in Poitou-Charentes. So nobody is about to roll over and hand the nomination to Aubry. François Hollande was sounding pretty much like a candidate on TV last night, and I wouldn't count out his strategic sense of how to put together a majority now that he's out for himself and no longer trying to herd cats, including the two mentioned above. His langue de bois was at least a little less wooden than Xavier Bertrand's, which was positively petrified (in both the literal and figurative senses).

A Challenge

Electoral sociologists and party strategists will now pore over the numbers looking for the key to the 2012 presidential elections, but their task won't be easy. How much of the vote for each party represents real support and how much a "sanction" vote against le pouvoir? And I mean of course le pouvoir central, not the incumbent regional governments, since the Socialists are in and will remain in in most regions. And how much of the vote against le pouvoir is a vote against Sarkozy? Impossible to say.

One possible interpretation of the voting pattern is that voters are throwing down a gauntlet. We are not happy with our situation, they are saying. We weren't happy in 2007, and we asked to be shown ways in which the power of government might be used more effectively than it had been by le président fainéant, Chirac. At that time, a majority of us found Sarkozy's proposals more persuasive. He was, in a sense, following the recommendations of the OECD for maintaining the welfare state to which we are attached: make us work more, tax us less, free up our labor markets. But he proposed to do so without capitulating entirely to neoliberalism. Conditions have changed since then, however. Something else is needed. We haven't yet heard what we would like to hear from anyone.

Both the PS and the UMP therefore face a challenge. They must develop persuasive new policy packages. The Right's message has been rendered incoherent by the crisis. The Left's remains as incoherent as it has been for a decade. MoDem's is inaudible, and Europe Écologie's still hasn't grappled with the central issues of economic management. Its "vision thing" is too lofty and remote: sustainable development is a philosophy, not a policy.

As for the FN, some of its buoyancy undoubtedly reflects a protest against Sarkozy's governance, but what is being protested? The fact that he is not the racist xenophobe that he occasionally pretended to be? Or the way he has managed the economy, foreign policy, European affairs, etc.? It was always something of a stretch to say, as I occasionally said myself, that Sarkozy's greatest accomplishment was to have weakened the FN. Does one really weaken a nativist party by pandering to its themes? And as Cohn-Bendit pointed out last night, Eric Besson (whom he confused with Patrick!) only proved how inept the UMP is at playing the FN. Le Pen showed how it is done by holding up his party's anti-Islam poster, filched from the Swiss, with a "censured" label pasted over it. The aggressor as victim: a patented FN tactic.

On the left, the Front de Gauche is just the old left wing of the PS by another name; Mélenchon now has a bigger platform, but he will fall into line. And voters sanctioned the NPA for its decision to remain what its members want it to be: an extra-governmental party. This is a perfectly consistent position for a party that calls itself "anticapitalist," since to govern today means to participate centrally in the operation of the capitalist system. NPA is consistent with itself, and the voters are consistent with themselves: this is not the position they want the Left to take, no matter how appealing they find Olivier Besancenot.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Staying Home

Abstention seems to be the winner in the regional elections: a record 52% stayed home and sat on their hands. Europe Écologie didn't do quite as well as predicted, and the Front National did slightly better. The two parties are about equal in strength. Nationally, the Socialists topped the UMP by enough to comfort Aubry in her leadership, but I think it would be a serious mistake to think that this relative success indicates that the party's internal problems have been resolved.

Sarkozy is now faced with a thorny political problem, however. His electorate is demobilized and apparently disappointed with what he has achieved. Some voters that he had peeled away from the FN have apparently drifted back again. His management of the press no longer seems to yield results, and the periodic announcements of renewed reform elicit only yawns. The bloom is off the rose, and even off the romance with Madame. His has been the fate predicted for Obama in the United States, even though Sarko controls his legislature and has been able to do what he wanted to do, albeit within the limits imposed by the crisis. He has ruled out a remaniement, which is the usual response to rebukes of this sort. But will he stick to this decision? The loss is clearly his, no matter how much the UMP will point to abstention, local issues, etc.

Bernard Girard, in a response to my post yesterday on the elections, argues that I'm wrong to see the lack of "presidentialism" in Europe Écologie as a problem. In Bernard's view, it's rather an opportunity, because the French are irritated by the devastating effects of presidential politicking on the leadership of the major parties. Indeed, this is one explanation for the high abstention rate. I accept this criticism. Bernard nevertheless concedes that EE will have to find a presidential standard-bearer between now and 2012. He also points out that it will need to add some intellectual heft, develop new ideas, and answer criticisms that have begun to emerge of the ecological platform. Indeed, it will, and it will be interesting to see what develops in the regions such as Ile-de-France, where the PS and EE will have to merge their lists. Will EE try to use its leverage to influence the internal politics of the PS? If there is to be any hope of a victory for the Left in 2012, it will have to come out of this nexus. This is where the renovation of the Left will happen, if it happens at all.

Eyewitness

My son is in Paris for a few weeks, and he's been to a couple of MoDem rallies in the suburbs, because his host is active in the party. The younger Goldhammer was a little taken aback at one of these rallies when Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" was played to herald the appearance of candidate Alain Dolium. As my son observed to his host, it's disconcerting for an American, used to the sensitivities of our racial politics, to hear the words "Who's the black private dick/that's a sex machine to all the chicks" greeting a black candidate, whose nomination to head the list in Ile-de-France triggered a certain controversy inside the party. Of course foreignness dulls the sting of certain words and images, but still, one wonders ...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Regional Elections

Perhaps this little essay should wait until the results are in, but what would be the fun of that? Official pundits are already interpreting. The most significant trends revealed by the polls are, in my opinion, the rise of Europe Écologie and the decline of MoDem and NPA as potential "third forces." I see two points of significance here. First, MoDem and NPA were essentially vehicles of their leaders, which were propelled by the perception that the best way to stop an hyperprésident was to find an hyperopposant: a strong personality with a potent media presence capable of giving voice to voter discontent. I'm not sure that either Bayrou or Besancenot ever really filled that role. Both emerged faute de mieux. Bayrou became the choice of desperate voters convinced at the last minute that Royal was not going to be able to stop Sarkozy. Besancenot expanded briefly into the vacuum left by the Socialist collapse and was further inflated by the media. Neither has proved persuasive in the longer run.

Europe Écologie may similarly be filling a void rather than developing an independent existence, but it is less dependent than the previous third forces on the cult of anti-Sarkozysme. It is, however, served by a cult of personality, or, rather, a cult of two personalities: Duflot and Cohn-Bendit, the good cop/bad cop routine of contemporary French politics. Duflot appeals to voters in some of the ways that Royal did (and I hope I don't incur a charge of sexism for saying this): she incarnates a softer approach to politics, speaks to the daily travails of voters' lives, and introduces a range of issues that elude other candidates. But she also articulates some comprehensive understanding of contemporary dilemmas in a way that Royal never made credible (Duflot seems sharper). Cohn-Bendit complements her maternal image with his unique mix of jolly aggressivity. If she's the mom, he's the favorite son: boisterous, disheveled, indulged, but loved (by some).

Of course neither is un présidentiable (though Duflot might become one), and that is the problem for Europe Écologie in the longer run. The Fifth Republic is, like it or not, a presidential system, and a third force means little at the national level unless it can contend in the presidential arena.

The big question marks for Sunday are the Parti de Gauche and the Front National. Either could do better than expected or worse than expected, and the performance of each will have implications for the strategies of all parties in the presidential race.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Glenn Beck: Villepin Is a Fascist

For Glenn Beck, Europe is headed for extremism of the left or right. Sarkozy (a "center-rightist") is going down, and Villepin, whom Beck sees as the leader of the "extreme right," is headed for power. A curious fantasy. I wonder who concocted it. At the end of the clip, Beck calls upon the legions of Fox viewers to keep an eye on European "fringe groups" like Villepin's, because Fox doesn't have the staff. Good thing Beck's on the job. No passaran!

Europe may have its "fringe groups," but as you can see, in the United States the lunatic fringe is in control of the most popular of our cable news networks.

Reducing Tensions

Figaro Magazine advanced its publication date to Friday in order to allow this special interview with Nicolas Sarkozy time to soak in before Sunday's regional elections. In it, Sarko reflects on his role as president:

En revanche, le sentiment que le président de la République oublie les considérations partisanes au moment où il choisit les personnes qu'il doit nommer, qu'il le fait avec l'exclusive préoccupation de leur compétence contribue à apaiser les tensions toujours à l'œuvre dans un pays comme la France, où les mouvements sociaux peuvent être violents, parce qu'il y existe une tradition de luttes sociales et idéologiques forte. Mon rôle est d'apaiser les tensions pour pouvoir engager les réformes trop longtemps différées.  

This is an interesting rationale, and one that we haven't heard before, as far as I know. Sarkozy used to speak of himself as an actor--the actor--who could effect reform by sheer energy and force of will. Now he describes himself rather as a pacifier, who creates the conditions for reform by preventing the French from giving into their tradition of contentiousness and even violence. He defines success down:

Est-ce un hasard si, depuis trois ans, il n'y a pas eu de drames ni de violence ?

This is reminiscent of shifting American goals in various foreign wars. Maybe we didn't achieve what we wanted, but at least the level of violence is down. But I don't recall violence or even strong ideological difference as the problem with Chirac's presidency, which Sarkozy promised to resolve. It was rather stalemated structural reform, with key interest groups at loggerheads. They still are, although there has been movement around the edges.  And if Sarko has avoided 2005-style urban riots, well, I think we have to credit luck rather than policy, since the great Marshall Plan for the Suburbs hasn't yielded much in the way of results.

The Nicolas and Gordon Show

Nicolas Sarkozy would like to see Gordon Brown remain prime minister, and he'd also like to take credit for resolving the dispute between the US and the EU over the regulation of hedge funds. So he and Brown met today and put on a good show of solidarity without actually announcing any accord beyond agreement about "how to move forward together." What will Washington and Berlin think of this performance? One might see it as two unpopular leaders trying to throw each other lifelines in advance of pending elections. But voters are unlikely to be much impressed on either side of the Channel. This just isn't the kind of issue that matters, except to the players.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Boone and Johnson on Greek Debt Ponzi Schemes

Here.

Blog Readers Self-Segregate

"Blog readers gravitate toward blogs that accord with their political beliefs." So say these guys, and no doubt they're right in general about American political blogs, although I suspect that in the case of French Politics the draw is France rather than a particular political line. But I could be wrong. How do you readers see yourselves? Are you here to deliberate, gather factual information, and compare different points of view, or to suck up the party line of the Party of Moi?

I can say this about my own participation in the blog: I had more of a party line before I started writing it. I supported the Socialists because I think of myself, broadly speaking, as a social democrat. But following Socialist activities day-to-day has been such a depressing experience that, while I remain a social democrat, I have no desire to take a party card, not even for 10 euros. I had expected the blog to be a chronicle of the Socialists' response to successive defeats and of their efforts to regroup and rebuild. Instead it has become a record of un déraciné idéologique à la recherche d'un engagement impossible.

Geithner Warns

Europe is accusing the US of protectionism over the EADS affair, while the US, in the person of Tim Geithner, is accusing Europe of protectionism in the matter of hedge fund and private equity regulation. Both sides are right, of course, but the question is how much damage this latest spat over the conventional hypocrisies that inevitably accompany "liberal" market ideology will do to other areas of mutual interest.

Probably not much. Although Dr. Johnson said that "hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue," to accord the epithet "virtuous" to the "free market" is to do it too much honor. Free markets generally require a certain amount of cheating around the edges in order to remain viable. It's always an issue to decide how much cheating is tolerable and to know when the dissimulation becomes a threat to the system itself. The indirect subsidization of the aircraft industry is never going to go away, but the blatant rule-rigging and political meddling that have led to the latest flap over EADS exemplify the sort of thing that shouldn't be permitted--not that the military procurement process in any country is likely to pass muster as a paragon of virtue. But this kind of cheating seems relatively easy to understand.

Financial regulation is another matter. The dispute is as much cognitive as it is ideological. We don't really know what kinds of regulations of capital are likely to prove effective, and we have learned from the crisis that regulation not only distorts markets, as neoliberals have always claimed; it also provides incentives for "malefactors of great wealth" to bring all their evil genius to bear on the search for safe harbors and artful dodges. Geithner's objections may not be intended solely to protect the interests of American money-men. After all, he's seen the lengths to which they'll go to get to where the money is. So he may simply be telling the Europeans not to waste their powder.

Chartier-Bourdieu Dialogue

Reviewed here. I never could warm to the late Bourdieu, but Les Héritiers, which he wrote with J.-C. Passeron, was a book from which I learned a lot. See also here.

"Le corps français traditionnel"

The name of Malek Boutih has been mentioned as a possible successor to Louis Schweitzer as head of the Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l'Égalité (HALDE). Gérard Longuet thinks this is a poor idea, even though he thinks Boutih is a "man of great quality." Unfortunately, he is not, in Longuet's eyes, a representative of "le corps français traditionnel," a rather elastic group, in Longuet's definition, since it includes "old Bretons and old Lorrains--who are generally speaking Italians and Moroccans" but does not include the likes of Boutih, who is, besides being of Algerian extraction, a Socialist. In Longuet's view, the mission of HALDE is not, despite the name, to fight against discrimination and for equality, but rather to welcome relative newcomers to France (down to, say, the second, third, fourth, who knows how many generations?) who aren't part of the "corps traditionnel."

Longuet is of course a senator, énarque, former regional president, and member of the "reformers" group within the UMP. Une grosse huile, quoi! He was also, in his youth, co-founder of the extreme right group Occident, and in 1972, the year in which the Front National was founded, he drafted its economic platform. But that flirtation with the devil is all in the past, of course: « J'assume avoir été d'extrême droite. On s'est simplement trompés sur le modèle colonial, qui ne pouvait perdurer[3]. » (Remember, this is 1972 when he made this mistake about the colonial model, not 1954!)

So what are we to make of this statement of Longuet's, which he retrospectively characterizes as maladroit? Has he all these years been practicing a form of entrisme equivalent to that of Trotskyists who allegedly chose to make the "long march through the institutions" without abandoning their initial objective? Or has he simply never been able to get beyond that youthful "mistake" of believing that the "colonial model" would endure forever? For it seems that he still thinks of France's demographics in colonial terms: there is le corps français traditionnel, which lives relatively well and is cooled by servants with punkahs, and then there are the nativesimmigrants and their children, who can eventually prove themselves worthy of welcome if they behave themselves and conform to the traditions taught to them by those already inside. Indeed, a "Protestant"--"a bourgeois Protestant"--like Louis Schweitzer was perfect for the purpose. For Longuet, he was the very symbol of republican tolerance and diversity and, even without being Catholic, an ideal representative of le corps français traditionnel--not to mention chairman of Renault. In other words, not a guy the cops are likely to mistake for a nativenon-traditional Frenchman. Which is apparently Boutih's problem--one that he might like to consider if he becomes the chairman of le HALDE. As it now appears he will not.

UPDATE: Bruno Gollnisch, who heads the FN list in Rhône-Alpes, supports Longuet.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

America-Bashing

When even Pierre Lellouche starts talking about "grave" consequences for US-French relations (in the wake of EADS's decision to pull out of the aerial tanker competition), you know things are getting serious. It's unlikely that the Sarkozys will be vacationing in New Hampshire this summer. Alabama's a possibility though:  Senator Shelby is a great friend of EADS.

Puff Journalism

This is the kind of journalism that can get a minister in trouble for upstaging her boss. But it looks like the offender her is the journalist, who writes like a smitten teenager, rather than the minister, who's been around the block once or twice.

The Great Communicator

Fifty French journalists have elected Daniel Cohn-Bendit the best political "communicant" in France. Whatever that means. When Sarko "communicates," it's a pejorative. When DCB does it, he's demonstrating "son franc-parler, son art consommé de la provocation." Whatever. I take it that this has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Mass. In any case, Xavier Bertrand seems to exemplify what one should not do. But someone should tell the proofreaders at L'Express that Cécile's last name is Duflot, not Duplot (unless they're trying to suggest that she's party to some sort of conspiration with DCB).

The Euro Crisis

Martin Wolf here. And a minor dissent here.

School Reforms

About some issues I feel that I have enough sources of information that, despite my distance from the scene, I still have a pretty good feel for what's going on. The schools are different. Even here at home, what happens inside the schools is to a large degree opaque to outsiders, and the reports from inside are often wildly contradictory and predictably correlated with the reporter's position, politics, etc. The right and wrong of contending positions are not always easy to sort out. So I preface my mention of these two reports on reform in the French schools, here and here, with the caveat that I haven't the slightest idea whether what they report is accurate or not. For example, Luc Cédelle, Le Monde's educational correspondent, acidly reports:

Mais le cœur de la réforme est sauf : les précieuses suppressions de postes, cette aune à laquelle est jugée l’efficacité des ministres, sont intactes et le « pédagogisme » est blessé à mort à travers la suppression dès la rentrée 2010 de l’année de formation en alternance à l’IUFM.

Finis ces lieux délétères où, selon l’efficace mythologie en vigueur, reprise dans les discours du candidat Sarkozy lors de la campagne présidentielle, des soixante-huitards attardés et à la mise négligée proclament que l’élève est l’égal du maître et que des paroles de rap valent bien autant que du Rimbaud…

Well, I suppose that in many ways I'm one of those  "soixante-huitards attardés et à la mise négligée," but I tend to be rather more conservative on educational issues than on other matters of public policy and would be the last to say that the pupil is the equal of the teacher when it comes to transmitting knowledge. Still, I have my doubts, based on various things I've heard, about whether le pédagogisme ought to be given a reprieve and have to wonder why France's educational establishment employs so many people and yet contrives to have relatively large class sizes compared to other countries. Which is not to say that I believe that reform is being managed well: I really have no idea. But when criticism simply dismisses the premises of reform as risible without argument, my skeptical hackles are raised. Is it really true that any attempt to change the way in which teachers are trained means that "les nouveaux enseignants qui arrivent sont donc une génération sacrifiée sur l’autel des économies budgétaires et à rebours des évolutions souhaitables de l’école et de la réforme du lycée?" I would be glad to hear from readers who have a better feel for what's going on in the schools.

Ahem!

Some months ago, I proposed a facetious test of  "Frenchness" which included the ability to identify the singer Benjamin Biolay as one criterion. There were howls of protest from you readers. You were French, you insisted, yet had never heard of Benjamin Biolay. I guess I can then claim credit for having broken a major story, for today we read this earth-shaking "news":

It's rumored that the French President has Chantal Jouanno - a right-wing cabinet member - on the side, while the First Lady is seeing musician Benjamin Biolay.

"The presidential marriage is breathing its last breaths," French paper Journal Du Dimanche reports. "Carla Bruni is in love with Benjamin Biolay, and the president has found solace with Chantal Jouanno."

An online French publication, suchablog.com, reported shortly thereafter that Bruni had been a close friend of the 37-year-old musician for many years and is now "unofficially living with him at his flat in Paris."

Those aren't the only outlets that have Carla and Nicolas saying a joint "mon Dieu!" Tuesday, Yahoo News France, Le Post and the Global Post, as well as European TV news channel iTele, gave the allegations substantial coverage.

Times on France

France gets no respect here:

In the run-up to the common currency’s debut in 1999, the air was thick with talk about harnessing Germany’s economic power, then enshrined in the mark. A failure to move toward monetary union would lead only to “a preponderant influence of Germany,” Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France, said in a 1997 interview in the French daily Le Monde.
Now, as the European Union thrashes out a possible rescue plan for debt-stricken Greece, the importance of Germany has been thrown back into relief. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France can come out and pledge all the support to Greece he wants, but in the end, it’s Germany that matters. 

or here:

Greece has been placed under E.U. fiscal tutelage, but no such intrusion has been imposed on France, for example, which has a deficit of more than twice the E.U. ceiling of 3 percent of gross domestic product.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

WPR on EU

The excellent on-line journal World Politics Review has just published a special issue on the European Union. Well worth your attention, though it does cost money to subscribe.

Here is a sample, from Eloi Laurent's article on the EU's crisis management:

At the very core of the "Greek tragedy" thus lies a cooperation deficit. If Germany ends up bailing out Greece, it will in truth be paying the price of its own turpitudes, disguised as economic virtue. At present, the eurozone resembles a collection of small economies competing with each other, whereas it should be one large competitive economy fostering cohesion. The eurozone's difficulty in developing a consistent, coordinated and adequate response to the crisis can be read as a symptom of this non-cooperative pathology.

Once again under the pressure of circumstances, European countries now seem willing to help the Greek government, but their Feb. 11 statement starts with a renewed commitment to European toxic rules and ends with a brief mention of solidarity, while it should be the other way around: "All euro area members must conduct sound national policies in line with the agreed rules. They have a shared responsibility for the economic and financial stability in the area . . . Euro area member states will take determined and coordinated action, if needed, to safeguard financial stability in the euro area as a whole. The Greek government has not requested any financial support."

Even more shocking, European institutions have expressed relief at the counterproductive Greek shock therapy, which might end up hurting the Greek economy so badly that it could aggravate further public deficit and debt, not to mention the possibility of a civil and political breakdown. Political responsibility, it seems, is understood nowadays as the ability to inflict social pain at the worse conceivable moment. But so long as financial markets are happy, it is taken as a sign that something good is coming.

Contrast this with Hubert Védrine's comment in Judah Grunstein's interview with him:

The indebtedness wasn't the same, and the public financing wasn't the same, so we couldn't implement the same plan everywhere. The people who say, "It's shameful, there was a German response, a French response, an Italian response, and we needed a European plan," that's nonsense. It doesn't make economic sense.

Where we could have done better, perhaps, is if every country in Europe had come up with its own plan, and then gotten together to harmonize them, so that the plans reinforced each other. But I don't think we could have asked the commission to come up with a general plan, in the place of the governments. That would have been an economic error. We could have combined the two better, but there's no reason to be too critical. The response was good in the face of urgency.