Sunday, October 31, 2010

For Readers in the Boston Area

Come to a discussion of politics in 3 major European countries:

Thursday, November 4, 2010
"The Contemporary Political Situation in Three European Countries"
  • James Cronin, Professor and Chair of History at BC, will talk about the UK.
  • Charles Maier, Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History,  Harvard University, will talk about Germany.
  • Arthur Goldhammer, Affiliate, CES, will talk about France.
  • Laura Frader, Professor of History, Northeastern University, will chair
Location: Center for European Studies, Harvard University, 27 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA
Time: 4:15-6:00 PM

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Enfin!

At last, a French commentator who understands the real problem of retirement in France:

Le retard français tient, en premier lieu, à un âge effectif de sortie du marché du travail extrêmement précoce et notablement inférieur à l'âge d'ouverture du droit à retraite. Cette réalité persistante apporte la preuve que les freins à l'emploi ne sont pas principalement d'ordre légal. Ils relèvent de politiques de formation, du travail et de l'emploi inadaptées au contexte du vieillissement de la main-d'oeuvre. Il serait donc urgent de permettre aux seniors de durer en emploi en rendant le travail soutenable, et de convaincre les entreprises que les seniors peuvent être autre chose qu'une variable d'ajustement de leur masse salariale.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Absence

Blogging will be light for the next few days, because I will be in Baltimore for a colloquium honoring an old friend.

OMG!

This is unbelievable. 48 hours of garde à vue for a guy who sent Rachida Dati an e-mail asking for an "inflation." Tasteless, yes, but criminal ....? (h/t Kirk)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Moïsi on France

Here. On Facebook I see the comment from a French journalist that "he [Dominique Moïsi] is telling the Americans what they want to hear" about France. I don't think so. His story is one of fearful, demoralized masses and cynical elites. This is not the view of France held by most Americans of either the Right or the Left.

The second “unfortunate encounter” is between the fear of the people and the cynicism of the elites. When one sees young high school student representatives on French television explaining why they take to the streets (in order to defend their own future pensions), one is seized by a deep sense of fatalism.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hidden Benefit of Reform

Political scientist Christophe Bouillaud, in a rather bilious note on retirement reform, nevertheless sees a hidden benefit. The elimination of early retirement will, he believes, create greater solidarity between young and old workers and do away with the "divide-and-conquer" option of attempting to reduce youth unemployment by easing older workers out of the workplace:

Je vois toutefois un avantage paradoxal à ce recul de l’âge de la retraite. Plus les salariés voient ce seuil s’éloigner d’eux, plus l’espoir d’une échappatoire à leur condition actuelle leur échappe, plus cela tendra à réunifier les différents âges du salariat. Depuis je ne sais combien de temps, lorsqu’il est question en France de diminuer les effectifs, il est question de « mesures d’âge ». Avec une retraite qui s’éloigne dans les brumes de la vieillesse, cela ne sera plus possible, cette façon de diviser le salariat en tranches d’âge aux destins différenciés va devenir impossible.

Hourra pour/haro sur les dockers de Marseille

Yesterday, François Meunier, a professor of finance at ENSEA, published an interesting history of the organization of Marseille dockers on Telos. I learned from the piece but at the same time thought it curious that it came from a professor of finance. Cheers for trade unions aren't often heard from that quarter. Today a companion piece appeared, which reveals the logic of Meunier's position. Yesterday's article, it turned out, was an historical account of the origin of what economists call a "situational rent." Today's article explains how situational rents serve particular interests at the expense of the general interest and should therefore be eliminated, either by side payments to the beneficiaries or, as a last resort, by government action. Both articles are worth reading, even if one disagrees with the analysis, because, taken together, they expose with great clarity, and with the aid of a very concrete example, the way in which an influential body of political-economic thought views the world. Subtly but insistently, moreover, Meunier is suggesting that the debate about retirement reform be refocused from the insoluble question of fairness to the perhaps more tractable one of what will it take to compensate the losers for the situational rents that reform will force them to sacrifice. The passage of legislation has not resolved the issue, because the losers will continue to exact a price anyway in the form of work stoppages, which can be very costly to the economy as a whole while still satisfying the protesters only by gratifying their desire for vengeance even at the expense of their own material well-being. On this spiteful or "disinterested" form of vengeance, see Jon Elster, Le désinteressement, vol. 1 (currently available only in French but forthcoming in my English translation).

For a very different view of the world and an introduction to the concept of "raisonnement en équipe," see here.

Blog Notice

French Politics has been listed as a resource for students of online political science schools. See no. 25.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Guest Post: The Anniversary of the Riots

Below is a guest post by Eloi Laurent.

Urban riots in France: the question is "when?"


Today marks the 5th anniversary of the urban riots that erupted in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois (in the impoverished département of Seine-Saint-Denis) after the accidental electrocution of two young boys of African descent mistakenly chased by the police. The chaos then spread to dozens of zones urbaines sensibles (i.e., projects) all over France and lasted for three weeks of violence and destruction.

One way to reflect on those tragic events is to assess the situation of those disadvantaged French urban areas (zones urbaines sensibles or ZUS) five years down the road. The picture, still blurred and in need of sharpening by official data, appears to be both depressing and deeply concerning. There are different forward indicators of troubles in the French projects, but the most relevant one may be the unemployment rate among young people (URYP) living in those areas. We of course don't have that figure for 2010, actually we don't even have it yet for 2009 (we will in a month or so), but a little extrapolation can go some way in understanding the likely gravity of the situation.

First, the reliable data we do have, from 2003 to 2008, clearly show that the URYP in the ZUS peaked in 2005 at 37.4% or 16.6 points higher than for "non-ZUS neighborhoods in urban areas including a ZUS.". The relative gap between the two kinds of urban areas (ZUS and comparable non-ZUS) was then 1.8. Afterwards, youth unemployment decreased in both ZUS and non-ZUS until 2007, with the gap narrowing a bit to 1.7 (meaning unemployment was slightly more reduced in the ZUS in the two years after the riots). For 2008, which marks the beginning of social woes resulting from the global crisis, the story is brutally different: with overall unemployment in ZUS continuing to decline (a little) from its 2007 level, unemployment among ZUS youngsters jumped to 35.7% when it continued to fall in comparable urban areas, with the result that the relative gap between the two reached a peak: the youth unemployment rate in the ZUS was twice as high as in the rest of France in 2008 (for young men, the rate of unemployment was 42%, up 10 points from a year before and as high as in 2005).





Unemployment rate of young people in ZUS (top)
and in non-ZUS neighborhoods of urban areas including a ZUS (bottom), in %, 2003-2008



Data source: OZUS, IGAS.



http://lesrapports.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/BRP/094000570/0000.pdf

The gap visible in the graph above can be understood as a rate of social divergence: it measures the social distance between young people who, at the same age and in the same country, even in the same region, live in different urban environments, which define the different social opportunities they are given to start their adult life. It can therefore also represent a measure of urban riot risk: the risk of a revolt led by young people, triggered by the resentment against blatant inequality and often sparked by police brutality.

What is our best estimate of where the youth unemployment rate in the ZUS stands at the moment in France, five years after the 2005 riots? We know for a fact that the recession has hit French young people very hard: in the fourth quarter of 2009, unemployment among all French youth – a lingering problem of the hexagonal labor market, whose recent degradation is not unrelated to youth demonstrations against the pension system reform – was at 24.2%, with a peak at 25.3% for young men. This rate has since then receded a bit: it was 23% in the first quarter of 2010. If we assume that the rate of social divergence observed in 2008 has persisted, it means that unemployment for young people in ZUS might currently be somewhere near 45% (possibly near 50% for young men). We can only hope that these figures are grossly mistaken, because if they are anywhere near the truth, the question to be asked regarding the next urban riot in France is not if, but when. And it makes this anniversary even sadder.

Lefort Memorial Event

Readers in the New York area might be interested in an upcoming memorial event in honor of Claude Lefort. The program is here.

Reforming the Reform

A CGT spokesman concedes that even with full employment, only 50% of the retirement deficit would be covered. So what does the CGT propose to cover the other half? A change of subject:

Etes-vous favorable à la proposition de François Chérèque de négocier avec le Medef sur l'emploi ?
A la CGT, nous avons mis la question de l'emploi au cœur du dossier des retraites depuis le début. Car il y a besoin de nouveaux financements pour assurer la pérennité de celui des retraites. Et nous avons considéré que 50 % de ce besoin pourrait être rempli si l'on revenait à une situation de plein emploi. Nous avons donc demandé qu'on puisse, dans le dossier des retraites, discuter d'une nouvelle politique de l'emploi, différente de celle menée depuis des années : exonérer de cotisations sociales les entreprises.
En quoi consisterait cette "nouvelle" politique ?
Nous proposons notamment que la politique de l'emploi soit prise en compte dans la règle de calcul des cotisations sociales, et donc que ces dernières soient modulées en fonction des critères d'emploi et de salaires dans l'entreprise : le taux de discrimination entre les hommes et les femmes, le rapport entre la masse salariale et la valeur ajoutée...

This is rather baffling. It would indeed be nice to have more gender equality in the workplace, but how will that solve the retirement problem? As for the ratio of wages to value-added ... perhaps someone can enlighten me what the goal here is. M. Aubin adds: "Dans ce pays, on voit bien que pour avoir une négociation, il faut un conflit social. La situation de blocage actuel est liée au manque de dialogue social, notamment de la part de l'Elysée et du gouvernement." Well, perhaps, but I've always found it useful, when I want to have a dialogue, to stick to one subject, at least for a while.

Russia, EU Foreign Policy, and the US

See Judah Grunstein's very judicious commentary on John Vinocur's rather overheated interpretation of a recent Franco-German-Russian meeting in Deauville.

The Polder Model

For a very interesting comparison of the Netherlands with France along a number of dimensions, see here. On the specific issue of retirement reform, this paragraph is interesting:

Le débat sur les carrières longues et la prise en compte de la pénibilité dans les retraites traduisent bien les limites de la solidarité entre les salariés. Aux Pays-Bas, le dernier accord sur les retraites prévoit de faire dépendre l’âge de la retraite de l’espérance de vie, mais celle-ci est très différente selon les catégories de salariés. Il semble qu’on a conclu qu’il n’était pas nécessaire de prévoir une réglementation spécifique pour les carrières longues et les métiers pénibles. Les salariés effectuant des travaux pénibles garderont la possibilité en 2020 de partir à la retraite à 65 ans au lieu de 66 ans, mais en subissant une décote de 6,5 %. On a laissé à des accords de branche et d’entreprise le soin de conclure des règles spécifiques pour les carrières longues et/ou pénibles. Mais dans quelle mesure y aura-t-il des accords ? De ce point de vue, il y a peu de différences avec la réforme française.

Le Quai de Ouistreham

Florence Aubenas (yes, that Florence Aubenas) spent six months in Normandy pretending to search for work and discovering that finding it isn't easy. The book she wrote about her experience is reviewed here.

Unions Wavering?

So far the CFDT has maintained its solidarity with the CGT, accepting two more "days of mobilization" over the coming weeks. But there are signs that the coalition is fraying. In addition to the indications mentioned in the Times piece, I would also point to the interview on France2 last night with the head of the oil and chemical workers union. When asked why blockages had been ended at several refineries and storage facilities, he wanted to put across the idea that this was a "democratic decision" by les gars, who had chosen to move the vanguard of the "social movement" elsewhere. But he looked for all the world like an apparatchik sent out unprepared to explain to the masses the latest twist in the party line.

Les gars at the refineries that remain closed may not know it yet, but their union is about to capitulate. Drivers have had it with the gas shortages, and the government has shown that it will use force to end them. Polls show that public support for the blockages has rapidly waned. The "social movement" is about to go behind closed doors to rethink its strategy. After all, the refinery workers are only a small part of the CFDT, and all those public sector employees who swell the rank-and-file of the same union need their cars to get to work, or even to drive to the next protest demonstration. The contradictions of capitalism.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The End of TEPA

The cornerstone of Sarkozy's rupture, the TEPA, is dead. A post-mortem analysis here. Is it any wonder that he has now shifted the focus of his administration to retirement reform and, for next year, a second go at tax reform?

Q & A

A question from a commenter, TexExile:

Finally, a question for you, Art: on what basis do you conclude that the provisions made for people who start to work early, interrupted careers, etc etc, are insufficient?

A fair question. My primary concern is with people who lose their jobs toward the end of their career. As older workers, their likelihood of being hired is reduced. The reform steepens the rate of benefit decrease for failing to work the requisite number of quarters. Thus a worker willing to work but unable to find a job to round out his 41.5 years of service will pay a price that extends over the entirety of his post-employment life-span. This seems unfair. And one might draw an analogy here with the perverse incentives you note in your comment in regard to medical disabilities. Employers are not forced to internalize the true social cost of their decisions resulting in the dismissal of older workers. For example, the decision to consolidate production or to outsource to a low-wage country is influenced by the age structure of the work force. Older workers are more expensive than younger ones. But the plant closing, justified by this economic logic, shifts the entire burden onto the older worker, and the penalty inflicted bears no relation to either her ability or her willingness to work. If one can cite perverse externalities in favor of the reform, one can also cite them in opposition. I think this is one provision of the bill that falls short and needs to be redressed.

The Bettencourt Affair, encore et toujours

The Bettencourt Affair is back in the news. The prosecutor and the investigating magistrate have been quarreling in public, and the former is investigating the latter for leaks to the press, while the press is suing the government, alleging that the law was violated. Recently I was interviewed by the US correspondent of a major French daily. I don't think a published story came of it, but I found the line of questioning interesting. I was asked what an American found most shocking in the story. My answer was the lack of independence of the judiciary. In the US, I said, a case touching a government minister would probably lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor.

But I also said that the origin of the scandal was itself shocking: the invasion of privacy, the publication of recordings of private conversations, etc. (To be sure, we had the publication of the Lewinsky-Tripp recordings here.) And so was the continuing stream of leaks from investigators. It seemed that no part of this investigation could be conducted out of the public eye. Witnesses, lawyers, investigators, possibly judges and prosecutors, and high government officials all fed the insatiable curiosity about the story. This seems to have shocked the new president of the Tribunal de Nanterre as much as it did me. (For additional comment, see the always pungent Philipe Bilger.)

I am curious about one thing. I had assumed that Sarkozy refused to part with Eric Woerth because he needed him to handle the retirement reform. But it's hard to see now how his role was essential. Perhaps it was better to keep the former treasurer of the UMP "inside the tent pissing out," as Lyndon Johnson used to say, rather than "outside the tent pissing in."

Extending the Working Life

Sun Life conducts regular surveys in the US to find out why people continue to work past retirement age. Recently, there has been a shift in attitudes: it is now more common for people to work because of economic hardship than for more positive reasons:

The survey found that more than half of working respondents — 52 percent — expect to work at least three years longer than originally planned and just as many respondents expect to retire at age 70 as age 65. These delays, according to the Sun Life spokesman, “are driven by economic conditions, a lack of confidence in government benefits in the future and dwindling retirement savings.”
In two earlier surveys in 2008 and 2009, the most common reason given by those who said they planned to work at 67 was “to stay mentally engaged.” Now, “to earn enough money to live well” is just as popular an answer. In addition, in this year’s survey, “to earn enough money to live well” was most often identified as the top reason respondents said they would continue to work past the traditional retirement age of 65. Sun Life also found that fewer respondents this year than in the past were continuing to work because they “love their career.”

Undoubtedly people forced to work longer than they wish for economic reasons are not happy about being compelled to do so. And no doubt their unhappiness would be directed, if they lived in France, against the state, because in France there is an expectation that the state will take care of the elderly. In the US, which has a mixed retirement system (PAYGO social security plus capitalization in the form of IRAs, 401Ks, private pensions), the burden does not fall entirely on the state. The recent eruption in France is of course due in part to France's distinctive political culture, but it is also due in part to France's institutional arrangements. When we have difficulty understanding each other's attitudes, these differences must be kept in mind.

Bernard Girard Responds

Bernard Girard continues our debate over retirement reform here. I don't have time today, unfortunately, to do justice to Bernard's thoughtful reply, so I'll content myself with two quick points. Bernard contends that the reform will increase inequalities, because some employers are in a better position than others to compensate workers for losses to their state retirement income, and some unions will obtain such compensation while others won't. Indeed, but the retirement system itself remains redistributive. Neither the existing system nor the reformed system was ever intended to redress all inequalities in the economy, and it's not the best instrument for doing so. On this point I agree with the comment of TexExile to one of my previous posts:

[T]he pension system is in many respects the wrong instrument to address the inequities generated by other economic conditions. These can and should be tackled directly.

To take but one example, early retirement as a solution to the problems of people whose conditions of work are damaging to their health and/or serve to reduce their life expectancies is perverse. It amounts to using public pensions to relieve employers of the true costs of employing people for long periods in such conditions. If working conditions cannot be improved and the jobs in question are deemed essential, then either the employers should pay the costs of shorter careers or else career structures should be altered to protect workers' well being. Otherwise, employers have no incentive to address these problems -- the costs are shifted onto the taxpayer.
The one other point I would make addresses Bernard's lengthy remarks on the subject of growth policies. Nowhere in his discussion does he consider the disincentive to private investment imposed by high taxes and labor market frictions. To say this is not to declare myself a neoliberal or neoconservative. There are public goods that should be state-financed, and there are market failures that need correction. But money that the spend spends to cover shortfalls in the retirement fund, which was intended to be self-financing, or to employ unemployed youths (to take another of Bernard's examples, l'Emploi jeunes program) is money not available to finance education or research and development, investments on which the return in the form of economic growth is much greater.

I apologize for not being able to carry on this discussion at greater length.

I see that Thierry Desjardins also replies to my earlier post, but there is less to respond to in his message, because he mistakes the point of mine. I understand perfectly well that he dislikes Sarkozy because promises have not been kept and outcomes have not matched rhetoric--in short because his policies are bad. But my point is that the particular policy at issue--retirement reform--is not bad, as other policies (reform of the bouclier fiscal, detaxation of overtime, expulsion of Roma, banning of burqa, etc.) are. I think that discussion of retirement reform should focus on the text, not on its putative author.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Georges Frêche Is Dead

I will not use this occasion to remind you of his errors but simply to point out that this development is potentially of great significance in the race for the position of candidate of the PS in the next presidential elections. Frêche was at odds with Aubry and Fabius and supported, if only for reasons of tactics and revenge, Ségolène Royal. His Montpellier federation, previously expelled, will presumably now rejoin the party and weigh on the choice of candidate, without Frêche to manipulate the action for obscure purposes of his own.

Style Police



(h/t PVF)

La gauche, est-elle morale?

That is the title of a new book by Christophe Prochasson, who argues that an obsession with "technocratic" criteria of governance has alienated the Left from the moral core that ought to be at the heart of its politics.

I could not help thinking, as I read this review, of the debate between me and my critics over retirement reform. Which of us are taking the "moral" side and which the "technocratic?" At first glance, I might seem to exemplify the "technocratic" left, along with Strauss-Kahn, Rocard, and others who worry (too much?) about making sure that budgetary arithmetic is correct and that promises, when translated into numbers, add up. But perhaps it's too easy to indict us on that score. After all, there was a time when Mendès France embodied the moral conscience of the Left, and for Mendès, candor about fiscal realities was an essential part of left-wing morality. Indeed, Prochasson's distinction between the "moral" and the "technocratic" needs to be supplemented by another, between the "sentimental" and the "realistic." Sentiment is always against injustice, for example, even when its remedies seem likely to end in future injustices perhaps worse than the present ones.

To be sure, "realism" can be an alibi for conservatism, as the two great Alberts, Hirschman and Camus, pointed out long ago (Camus in his wartime editorials for Combat), Hirschman in a book somewhat overshadowed by his better-known works, The Rhetoric of Reaction.

Rejoinders to My Previous Post

Bernard Girard takes issue with my critique of Thierry Desjardins' comments on retirement reform. In Bernard's view, I exemplify the way in which the reform is misunderstood by people outside France. He rejoins that the reform is profoundly unjust, that it makes short shrift of consultation with the unions and continues Sarkozy's practice of presidential intervention in domains where the president has no business, that it ignores the central question of slow, jobless growth that is at the heart of the pension deficit, and that it represents "social regression," a giveback of un droit acquis. His pushback is joined by Brent (see comments on yesterday's post) but implicitly challenged on point 2 by TexExile (also in comments), who notes that employer-labor consultation on this type of issue generally fails without strong state leadership. On the other hand, FrédéricLN, another commenter, notes that words like "consultation" and "concertation" often mean, in French government parlance, "We listened politely to your complaints and then did what we intended to do anyway."

I would not deny that the reform represents une régression sociale, to borrow the words of Benoist Apparu, the secretary of state for housing, who then had to accuse himself of a gaffe for stating the obvious. The question is whether such regression was unavoidable or could have been done in a less unjust manner. I believe that it is unavoidable, and I don't think that either Bernard or Brent fundamentally disagrees. Bernard does say that a more effective pro-growth policy would have improved matters. No doubt. I wish I knew what such a policy looked like. Brent argues that reform would not be necessary if the flow of wealth from the poor to the rich, characteristic of the neoliberal global regime of the past 30 years, were reversed. I agree that growing inequality threatens to destroy liberal democracy, but in the meantime the deficit of the retirement system needs to be attended to. Tackling inequality is a goal for the longer term.

In the end, the criticism to which I am most sensitive is the contention that the reform is profoundly unjust. Bernard singles out injustices to those who start their working lives early, women, people with interrupted careers, those who lose their jobs late in their careers, and those who work in small firms or declining sectors. He details his case here. These injustices are real--real enough to have been addresssed, in part, both by existing legislation and by the reform. There are special provisions for those who begin work before the age of 18, for interruptions due to pregnancy and parental leave, and periods of unemployment. They do not go far enough. But sometimes a major reform can be achieved only by overlooking certain flaws and leaving them to be attended to later. This was the case with health care reform in the US.

Once again, I think that the fundamental objection to the Sarkozy reform is not that it is flawed but that critics do not trust Sarkozy to attend to fixing those flaws later on.* Perhaps the critics are right. But I think they ought to concentrate their fire on the flaws rather than on denying in toto the need for change, even if that change can be characterized as une régression sociale. For while a longer working life may be regression, a longer life expectancy is not. To be sure, the government has exaggerated the actual increase in life expectancy as its fundamental justification for reform. But the fact remains that generous social insurance, which is an undoubted public good, requires that not only the benefits but also the burdens be shared by all. About the equality of burden-sharing there will always be arguments, but are the burdens that young workers, women, small-business employees, and victims of globalization are being asked to bear under the reform worse than they are already bearing under the pre-reform system? Of that I'm not so sure. I'd like to hear Bernard's reply, since he is more familiar with the details of both regimes than I am.

* And why assume that Sarkozy will be the one doing the fixing? If the Left comes to power, it will be able to thank the ex-president for having taken the heat of moving the retirement system closer to solvency and still move to repair remaining injustices or to overhaul the system entirely, but starting with a smaller deficit than would otherwise be the case.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Debate Announcement

At the request of a reader, I post this announcement:

Wednesday, October 27th at 7pm

Democrats Abroad France and Republicans Abroad France 
Debate 
only 6 days before crucial U.S. Congressional Elections

Which party best addresses challenges 
 on American economic, social and foreign policy?  
1st Debate by the Juniors :   Young Democrats versus Young Republicans
     
              2nd Debate by the Seniors: Thomas McGrath versus Joseph Smallhoover

ESCP Europe, 79 ave. de la Republique, 75011 Paris, Metro St. Maur
                                                        10 euro admission, students free, refreshments provided

Gouverner, c'est choisir; manifester, c'est esquiver

Nicolas Sarkozy is not a popular president at the moment. His diminished personal stature is no doubt part of the motivation of the protesters: sensing weakness, they hope to cripple permanently a president whom they dislike. I'm not particularly fond of the president either, but I think that critics of government have a duty to put themselves in the government's place. In a good deal of the commentary on the present crisis, I find, however, that delight in Sarkozy's discomfiture takes the place of responsible evaluation of the policy as opposed to the person.

Take, for instance, this comment from Thierry Desjardins, always a lucid and well-informed observer:

Mais, d’une part, tout le monde sait que cette réforme est insuffisante et qu’il faudra rouvrir le chantier avant longtemps et, d’autre part et surtout, on ne pas peut dire que la chose ait été menée de main de maître.

Il est évident qu’il aurait fallu lancer cette réforme (comme celle de la fiscalité, plus ou moins promise pour l’année prochaine) dès le début du quinquennat, avant que Sarkozy ne sombre dans tous les sondages. Mais il est vrai que Sarkozy s’était bêtement engagé, pendant sa campagne, à ne pas toucher aux 60 ans.

Il est d’ailleurs évident qu’il était maladroit de s’attaquer à ce mythe des 60 ans. Il aurait suffi d’augmenter, avec une certaine hypocrisie, le nombre d’années de cotisation nécessaires pour avoir une retraite à taux plein et le tour était joué.

Il est évident qu’il aurait fallu prendre mieux en compte la « pénibilité » (ne pas la confondre avec l’« invalidité »), le cas des carrières longues et des carrières interrompues. On aurait ainsi donné un os à ronger aux syndicats.

Il est évident enfin qu’il aurait fallu virer Eric Woerth aux premiers jours du scandale qui allait le discréditer totalement aussi bien aux yeux de ses interlocuteurs syndicalistes qu’aux yeux des Français et lui interdire de porter cette réforme difficile.
There is in this analysis a mixture of candor, cynicism, and Schadenfreude that I find disturbing, not to say flabbergasting. Unlike many who are in the streets, Desjardins concedes that reform is necessary. He criticizes Sarkozy first for promising not to touch the 60-year retirement age and then for clumsiness in attacking it. He does not allow for the possibility that at the time of the campaign it may have seemed possible to preserve that much of the status quo but that conditions have since changed. Rather, he charges Sarkozy with insufficiency of hypocrisy. It would have been better, says Desjardins, to pretend that the age limit can remain unchanged while adjusting the rules of the retirement system to make its preservation little more than a hollow promise (which is essentially the policy prescription of Martine Aubry). It is perhaps refreshing to hear a politician denounced for telling the truth rather than prevaricating. Desjardins, as a shrewd political observer, seems to wish for a leader whose Machiavellianism he can admire. But this seems just a little unfair to the current president.

He then faults Sarkozy for failing to dicker over the definition of pénibilité, thus "throwing a bone for the unions to gnaw on." And he wishes Sarkozy had begun this reform earlier in his presidency, when his popularity was still high. Perhaps he has forgotten that there was a previous round of retirement reform, ending the special regimes and aligning the public sector system on the private sector. Perhaps he has forgotten that at that time Sarkozy did dicker with the unions and was widely criticized, not unjustly, for offering special deals to certain of them in order to buy off opposition. In any case, the notion that the unions have not been "consulted"--one of the cries of the protesters--is ludicrous. Retirement reform has been a central issue of French politics since 1995, if not before. There has been abundant consultation. But at some point decisions have to be made.

I do not claim that the reform on the table is without flaws, and Desjardins is surely right to state, as Le Monde did in its editorial yesterday, that this reform will not definitively resolve the issue. Indeed, an amendment was introduced in the Senate promising a fresh look at the issue in 2012 and a more thorough overhaul at that time. This may prove to be an empty promise. But when you add up all of Desjardins' charges, what are you left with? The conclusion that a) the retirement system needs reform; b) the increase of the age for minimum benefits to 62 was a necessary measure that might have been better camouflaged but couldn't really be avoided; c) the system still won't be solvent even after retrenchment. Henri Guaino might well want to weave these points into Sarko's speech next week. They actually constitute a rather persuasive defense of the reform, whose chief flaw in Desjardins' eyes is that it didn't go far enough. And, of course, that it will have been promulgated by a president whom he detests.

About that cabinet reshuffle ...

So now we're beginning to hear more chatter about that promised remaniement. Fadela Amara says she likes Borloo. It's nice to hear from Fadela after all this years. I hadn't realized she was still in the government. Meanwhile, Fillon is said to want to stay in his job, after giving many signs that he was preparing to leave it. I wouldn't be surprised if Sarkozy moves next week. The reshuffle was initially announced for October, and time is running out. In addition, a reshuffle would push the protests off the front page for two or three days, as learned commentators, myself included, will be obliged to decide What It All Means. In the end, no doubt, it won't mean much. It's becoming difficult even to remember the previous reshuffles. Who was Minister of Education in Gov't Fillon 1 anyway?

Friday, October 22, 2010

OFCE Fears Deflation in Europe

Here. Summary here.

French Artist Wins Prize

AFP - A mysterious French artist who uses bleak streets in cities around the world as frames for his photos has won a TED Prize of 100,000 dollars and help in changing the world for the better.

Showdown

So, we seem to be headed for a showdown in the current crisis, albeit a protracted one. The Senate will vote to approve the reform under the single-vote special procedure. The unions have already scheduled two further days of mobilization, the first next week and the second on Nov. 6. If Sarkozy thought that the opposition would melt after the vote and allow him to get on with his ministerial shakeup, he miscalculated, but I suspect that he rather relishes the fight, since it allows him to display "resolve," and disorder generally strengthens the "party of order."

The unions have maintained solidarity for the moment. Many details remain to be negotiated even after passage of the legislation, so leaders may see the mobilization as a way of strengthening their bargaining position and as a warning to the government that there are limits to what can be tolerated. The risk is that more radical elements, having flexed their muscles with some success to date, will want to test their strength still further.

Flaubert on the Roma

Here, thanks to Pierre Assouline.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

History

While watching the strikes on TV, you may want to look back at '68. Here's a review of recent books on the subject by Xavier Vigna.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thankless Task

Sometimes governing is a thankless task. I feel for Dominique Bussereau. His role required him to keep repeating that "there is no gasoline shortage in France, there will be no gasoline shortage in France," even though the very news programs on which he appeared featured clips of closed service stations and long lines at the pumps of open ones just before he spoke. But it was job to jouer les cons, lest hoarding of the available gas make the situation worse. Still, he might have handled the job better, since the flat denial of reality only reinforces fear.

Nevertheless, fuel supplies have proved to be a choke point in this crisis. In 1995, it was public transport, but this time, for reasons I don't fully understand, more trains are running than one might expect. But fuel is short, people can't get to work, and this is a problem for the economy larger than the disruptions due to striking workers per se. Sarko today ordered the fuel storage facilities unblocked, and Hortefeux has dutifully sent in the CRS. So we'll wait to see what happens next.

Mélenchon: Victory Is Nigh!

How does he know? Simple. He's the cynosure of all eyes:

En témoigne à sa façon la vente de mon livre « Qu’il s’en aillent tous, vite la révolution citoyenne » qui vient d’être dans la liste des meilleures ventes d’essais de « l’Express » dès son cinquième jour de présence en librairie. En témoigne aussi le succès du meeting parisien au théâtre Dejazet lundi soir. Si j’évoque tout cela, ce n’est pas pour faire ici un compte rendu d’activité du parti car ce n’en est pas le lieu. Je le fais parce que cela modifie ma propre perception de ma place dans les évènements qui vont leur chemin. Il en est ainsi car les circonstances et quelques campagnes de dénigrements à contre emploi m’ont catapulté dans l’estime de toute sorte de gens qui viennent me le dire à moi et à mes camarades. La haine dont je suis dorénavant entouré chez les belles personnes est un symptôme de cela. Je suis frappé de voir comment des gens que je ne connais pas, qui ne m’ont pas lu, ni cette fois ci ni aucune autre, qui ne savent rien de mon action passé ni même actuelle, peuvent me traiter dans leur commentaires. Pour n’en citer qu’un, bien dans le ton des perruches indignées l’autre jour sur Canal, je vous livre ces lignes de monsieur Renaud Revel sur l’express.fr ...

Well, I wouldn't want to be mistaken for une perruche indignée, so I will refrain from commenting on this delightfully narcissistic passage. Some find the whiff of grapeshot (or tear gas) intoxicating, but I suspect that a greater number do not.

Strategery

President Sarkozy said yesterday that he isn't staring down the demonstrators "de gaïeté de coeur," but one suspects he isn't entirely displeased with the opportunity to hang tough. And then there's another benefit to taking a firm stand: it exposes the divisions in the opposition. It's no secret that the likely candidate of the Left, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, does not agree with the official Socialist Party position on the age of retirement. And now the left wing of the party is pressing Martine Aubry "not to cut the party off from the social movement." In other words, give them bread and circuses. Responsibility is for people in government. The opposition can say anything, unconstrained by the mundane worries of budgets, demographics, and capital markets. So far Aubry isn't taking the bait, but the primaries lie ahead, and the current rumbling on the PS left augurs a bitter free-for-all. Sarkozy no doubt couldn't be more pleased.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Quake, Sarko!

Now Sarkozy really has something to worry about: a Brigitte Bardot presidential candidacy. What's her position on expelling Roma? (h/t PVF)

European Foreign Policy

There is now something called the European External Action Service, sort of a foreign service of the European Union. Does it matter? Maybe:

Justin Vaïsse, a Brookings Institution expert and French national, has allowed that American diplomats are “more likely to feel the change [brought by the EEAS] when they are sent abroad,” especially outside the European sphere. He also observes that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has shown consistent favor toward the EEAS, which could smooth its first dealings with the United States. 

But Vaïsse hastens to note that the effectiveness of the new service hinges not on its own capacity, but the respect it is given by foreign governments. Nowhere is this truer than in Washington.

Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, recently came to Harvard and made the same point: relations with Hillary Clinton are good. But I wonder if underscoring good relations with America's Secretary of State isn't a way of sidestepping questions about lack of interest in other quarters of the US government (president, NSC, Dept. of Defense). In any case, a comment to the blog post linked to above draws attention to the persistence of an old problem. The commenter writes:

Thanks for publicising this and bringing greater attention to the issue. Just one issue, the EEAS is not a branch of the Commission. It will be independent and separate from (and yet somewhat answerable to) the Commission and Council (which represents Member States). THe official legal status is as a "sui generis" institution with its own section in the EU budget. You can see more informaiton here: http://euobserver.com/9/28878

 Just listen to that phraseology: "independent and separate from (and yet somewhat answerable to)." Oy, oy, oy. The art of government is difficult enough without making a theological mystery of it. Discussing the EU is like discussing the Trinity. There are emanations and separations and consubstantiations enough to keep the learned commentators busy for all time. What is needed is somebody to give all these ectoplasms a little backbone.


By the way, when Ashton lectured at Harvard, I didn't attend. Perhaps my agenda priorities mirror those of the US government, toutes proportions gardées.

Europe v. France

The score is 1-1. The Cour de Cassation has ruled that French garde à vue rules allowing detainees to be questioned without a lawyer present are contrary to European law, but Brussels meanwhile has decided to accept French assurances that the expulsions of Roma will henceforth conform to European law and will not pursue France further.

Rerun?

The Revolution begat Napoleon, 1848 begat Napoleon le Petit. First time tragedy, second time farce, said Karl Marx. Then May '68--a psychodrama rather than a revolution, according to Raymond Aron--drove de Gaulle to a refuge in Germany for a brief moment before restoring him to power and even glory when sobriety set in. And now we have the great bras de fer of 2010, pitting Napoleon le Minuscule against le Peuple.

The film seems to have been sped up a bit, even compared with the mini-événements of 1995 (which dragged on for about 3 weeks) and 2005 (which lasted a little over 2). The bonhomie of the initial moments begins to give way to exasperation as trains don't run and gas runs short. The adrenaline rush of mixing it up with the cops brings some youths into the street but causes (some of) their elders to stay home and fret about where all this is leading. Some who enjoyed thumbing their nose at the arrogance of power for the first few days begin to ask whether this is any way to run a country. Small groups of workers (how many people do the oil refineries employ?) are electrified by their discovery of their power to bring the system to a halt and begin to wonder if their union leaders haven't been too timid all these years. Opposition politicians ask whether this is a wave they can ride or one that will eventually crush them or sweep them away.

Even normally sober commentators allow the excess of the moment to creep into their language: this is a reform that nobody wants, say some, while others begin to see parallels with the tragedies and farces of bygone times. The tendency, bred in the bone of all children of the Revolution, to confuse la rue with le Peuple waxes briefly. Perhaps the Senate vote tomorrow will be salt in this newly opened wound in the body politic, or perhaps it will be a signal that the current sequence has reached its climax. I expect the latter but would not be utterly surprised by the former. In any case, in the aftermath we can expect two narratives to emerge: one in which Sarkozy tries to rebuild his image by portraying himself as the first leader of the Right in recent memory to stand up to la foule and press ahead with needed reform, and another in which the opposition paints the president as an autocrat who stops his ears against the cries of an oppressed People. Ainsi va la France. Tragedy, farce, psychodrama, reality TV. It's depressing, really.

Another Priceless Parapraxis

After Rachida Dati's famous slip of the tongue concerning "le taux de fellation," now we have Brice Hortefeux remarking on "les empreintes génitales." (h/t TexExile) A randy lot at the UMP, eh?

Veuillez installer Flash Player pour lire la vidéo

Monday, October 18, 2010

European Banks

European banks still have problems, according to Nicolas Véron.

A Splendid Takedown of Jacques Attali

I confess to a certain schadenfreude in reading this nice demolition job on France's expert-without-portfolio Jacques Attali. (h/t JV)

Portrait of Eva Joly

I'm told that Eva Joly is a rising star, the person to watch on the French political scene. She has apparently surrounded herself with a group of clever advisors at Europe Écologie and is preparing an active campaign for the presidency. Here is a portrait of her. Here is a dissenting view, which seems to be more of a hunch than an argument.

So what does Joly have to say about the issue of the hour, retirement reform? Here is what she said last April. Basically, her argument is that the state offers tax credits that subsidize "l'assurance-vie" and other capitalization-based retirement savings programs and that the billions in revenue lost as a result would go a long way toward restoring the equilibrium of the state retirement system. The figures in her blog post are a little sketchy, and the political viability of the proposal has not been tested, but still, it's a concrete suggestion. I'm surprised that it hasn't received more discussion. A more detailed plan is proposed here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Benoît Mandelbrot Is Dead

Another major French mathematician, Benoît Mandelbrot, has died.

New Web Site

"La France et la crise."

"We are very happy to announce the launch of the website La France et la Crise ( http://lafranceetlacrise.com) which aims to be a focus for discussion, debate and information exchange about French responses to the crisis. The site will include videos, texts, blogs and recommended links and readings ..."

From Nottingham Trent University.

Another Comment on Retirement Reform

This from Éconoclaste. This is what I call a punt rather than an argument:

Or, pour mettre à plat le système actuel et le refonder sur de telles bases, il aurait fallu du temps, des années. Hélas, comme l'ont montré Pierre Cahuc et André Zylberberg dans un ouvrage récent, Nicolas Sarkozy a choisi une méthode générique de réforme qui est à mille lieux de pouvoir accoucher d'autre chose que de poudre aux yeux et d'arrangements entre amis ou ennemis. Eh oui, je ne peux pas en vouloir aux gens qui manifestent de ne pas faire confiance à la majorité. Et si je suis bien loin de partager la plupart des arguments avancés pour me traîner dans la rue, je comprends très bien leur angoisse. Peut-être que seule une forme de cynisme (ou de stoïcisme, je ne sais pas) et un peu plus de compréhension des phénomènes sous-jacents m'évite de sombrer dans la phobie de la réforme des retraites...
Cette réforme est mauvaise. Il faudra autre chose. (Italics added)

Note the italicized sentence. Translation: the protesting side hasn't really grasped either the nature of the problem or the nettle, but the people in the streets are more sympa than Sarkozy. What's really needed, Éconoclaste argues, is a complete overhaul of the system. One such plan has been proposed by economists Bozio and Piketty. Bravo. But no one in the opposition has given any thought to how such a proposal might be translated into a plan of political action. "This reform is bad. We need something else." Indeed. But we have needed "something else" for more than a decade now, and neither Left nor Right seems capable of managing it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

About Those Numbers ...

Counting demonstrators is not easy, and discrepancies between estimates are usually laid to bias. Thus in a recent Paris demo, the police counted 89,000 and the unions 330,000. But according to two independent studies, both were wrong, and both were too high: a Spanish software developer came up with a figure of 80,000, and Mediapart (!), hardly a Sarko-patsy, estimated 76,000 using a less high-tech method. See the video at minute 16 (h/t JV)

Rosanvallon Interviews Lefort

Pierre Rosanvallon remembers the late Claude Lefort. A recording of his interview of Lefort in Grenoble is also included.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Juppé on Aubry's TV Appearance

Here:

En revanche, sur les retraites, quel flou, que d’approximations!
“La réforme des retraites est nécessaire”, affirme-t-elle. Bien . Mais laquelle? Mystère. Question assassine de Nicolas Beytout: ” Pour un jeune qui commence à travailler et à cotiser à 20 ans, l’âge de la retraite à taux plein viendra à 62 ans dans la réforme Sarkozy et à 61,5 ans dans la vôtre. La différence justifie-t-elle l’ébullition actuelle?” Martine Aubry ne conteste pas les chiffres … et reste coite.
Autre moment critique: la première secrétaire du parti socialiste annonce que ses amis, s’ils reviennent au pouvoir, prendront des mesures pour permettre aux seniors de rester plus longtemps dans le marché du travail. Bien. Mais alors pourquoi ne pas expliquer aux étudiants et aux lycéens que, contrairement à ce que clament leurs porte-parole dans les rues, ce n’est pas en empêchant les seniors de travailler plus longtemps qu’on donnera des emplois aux jeunes?
L’émission a bien mis en évidence la gêne du parti socialiste dont beaucoup de responsables (à commencer par DSK qui l’écrit dans les rapports du FMI)  sont convaincus de la nécessité de repousse l’âge légal à 62 ans … mais qui n’ose pas l’assumer.

He's right, alas.

Dan Edelstein Compares European and American Universities

An interesting perspective and a novel argument -- to paraphrase, Europe offers students little of what American universities call "support" but in exchange provides what one might call the "freedom to flounder" and thus to find themselves -- from the always stimulating Dan Edelstein.

French Military Success ...

... in Afghanistan? Or perhaps a French Gen. Petraeus, who knows a thing or two about handling the press.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Taxes: The New Frontier

The Left has seized on the retirement issue, which has momentum at the moment, but on the Right, the feeling is that it's better to change the subject. So suddenly we have a fair amount of high-level talk about doing something. Sarkozy wants the tax reform bill of 2011 to be a popular measure he can ride into the 2012 campaign, and that means doing something about the bouclier fiscal, which even François Baroin now concedes has become "a symbol of injustice." Meanwhile, two Socialist deputies, Valls and Le Guen, have revived the idea of a "social VAT," earlier touted by the UMP, as a substitute for payroll taxes that are allegedly hurting French competitiveness in certain sectors (h/t KirkMc). Of course, this kind of issue lends itself well to demagogic electioneering, which will soon be the order of the day. One sees it already in the rebranding of the social VAT as an "anti-outsourcing tax" that will prove that Socialists are "open to the world," "enemies of tariffs," and naturally friends of free trade.

Change Is in the Air

It's a subtle thing, but one feels it nonetheless. There were demonstrations early in Sarkozy's presidency, and large ones too, but the general feeling surrounding them was one of resignation. The Left had lost the election of 2007 decisively, despite deep disappointment with Chirac's 12 years in power, so no one could deny that the Right had a certain mandate.

How it lost that legitimacy is the story of the past 3 years (if you're in the Boston area, come to the Center for European Studies at Harvard on Nov. 4, 4:15 PM, to hear my take on this). But the mood has certainly changed. One senses this in all the commentary on yesterday's events. The quarrel over numbers is irrelevant (though not uninteresting: see Eric Fassin's illuminating history). What matters is the qualitative change, the sense that amorphous discontent has at last crystallized into something like a nascent political will. Nascent but not yet coherent, organized, or articulate.

For that, the Left will need to discover some leadership. And here we immediately run into a problem. It is widely assumed that the candidate of the Left in 2012 will be Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But DSK remains hors de combat. Until now this absent presence may have been a shrewd strategy. Just as Sarkozy trivialized la parole présidentielle by overexposure, DSK might have reduced himself to a François Hollande-bis had he felt compelled to comment with a quotable one-line quip on every fleeting blip of the news cycle. But at some point the would-be leader of the Left must, well, lead. And since we know that DSK isn't exactly whole-heartedly behind Martine Aubry's (second-thought) insistence that the legal age of retirement must never change, we would like to hear from him on the issue of the day. If we did, however, I suspect that what we would hear would not be much different from what Sarkozy has proposed. And then what would become of that nascent but not yet coherent or articulate political will that was evident in the streets yesterday?

Anti-Sarkozysm failed as a strategy in 2007. It could fail again in 2012. And if it does, the newly hopeful mood that one detects in the atmosphere could rapidly turn dark and ugly.

Slogans of the Left

For a lucid commentary, see Bernard Girard.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Record Participation

Participation in the latest round of anti-reform demonstrations was up. Strikes will continue tomorrow. Sarkozy's move.

Hedge Fund Regulation

France has taken a tough line on regulating hedge funds, but Christine Lagarde has signaled the possibility of a compromise:

But in the face of growing pressure, Ms. Lagarde, a former lawyer, signaled her readiness to retreat on this issue, saying she would allow foreign funds qualify for a pan-European license but only if the system were phased in and if the new permits were issued by an E.U. watchdog agency.

May in October?

Thierry Desjardins sees  all the ingredients for a new May '68:

Un nouveau mai 68 ? Les Français sont des gens curieux. Petits bourgeois impénitents accrochés à leurs droits acquis, il leur faut, à espaces réguliers, exploser et faire une révolution. 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1936, 1968. Aucun peuple n’a autant construit de barricades dans ses rues. Si l’on tient compte des guerres, peu propices aux révolutions, on s’aperçoit que tous les vingt ou trente ans, les Français ont fait exploser leur colère.

En mai 68, la France était heureuse. Il n’y avait pas de chômage, pas de problèmes d’immigration ou de délinquance mais les Français « s’ennuyaient » et trouvaient que dix ans de Gaullisme « çà suffisait ». Le monôme des étudiants a dégénéré.

Aujourd’hui, la France n’est pas heureuse. Elle est rongée par le chômage, la précarité, l’immigration mal gérée, la délinquance en recrudescence, l’angoisse devant un avenir de décadence. Les Français ne supportent plus Sarkozy, « trois ans, çà suffit ! » et ne voient pas d’espoir ailleurs. Tous les ingrédients d’une explosion sont réunis.
Le baril de poudre est là, il suffirait d’une allumette.

Well, it never hurts to predict an uprising, because if you turn out to be right, you're golden, and if you turn out to be wrong, no one will remember.  I do think that France faces serious disruption in the weeks ahead, perhaps even on the scale of 1995. But I think that Desjardins neglects some important differences between now and 1968. "France" may have been "happy" then, but important segments of French society were not. Indeed, "unhappy" seems a mild word to describe those who, for one reason or another, believed that only a revolution could bring about needed change, and in 1968 their numbers were, if not legion, then at least substantial. Groupuscules were everywhere, and political violence was commonplace. Extreme opinions enjoyed the support of intellectuals and other public figures.

Disgruntlement with Sarkozy is not quite the same thing as rejection of the established order of things. And when it comes right down to it, how many people would be willing to take to the barricades to keep the legal age of retirement at 60 (or, for that matter, to defend the change to 62)? As Desjardins himself notes, it's largely empty symbolism either way. A poker player like Bernard Thibault might want to call the presidential bluff on this issue in order to force a next move, but would he go all in, knowing that if he does, there are more aggressive players at his back ready to cast him aside and take his place at the table? Of course they may decide to break up the game before the hand is played out, but this is the point where everybody gets nervous and asks whether it might not be best to protect what's been won thus far. What I see coming out of the next few weeks is a host of small shifts of power within important institutions: parties, unions, business organizations. Not May in October. If I'm wrong, my compliments to Thierry Desjardins.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review of Nonna Mayer

See here for a review of Nonna Mayer's new book, Sociologie des comportements politiques.

"Company with Holocaust Ties"

American politics would be comic if it weren't so tragic. Witness the attempt of Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fl.), who represents Boca Raton, to derail the SNCF's bid to build a high-speed rail line in Florida on the grounds that the French company's participation in the bidding is a "direct insult to Holocaust survivors and their families." This is because SNCF trains transported Jews to death camps during World War II.

Rep. Klein might want to consider the roster of American companies that did business with the Nazis between 1932 and 1941. But then again, the Boca Raton area, which Klein represents, is one where anti-French feeling runs high, much of it irrational, so his move is no doubt carefully calculated.

Times on French Higher Ed

Here.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sciences Po Discovers Gender Studies

Très "tendance," tout ça.

Krugman on Lagarde

Paul Krugman questions Christine Lagarde's numbers (but gets her name wrong):

OK, that’s weird. I just taped This Week, which included an interview with Christine Lagard, the French finance minister. In her defense of austerity, she asserted that unemployment in France is down from 9.6 to 9.3. But I looked it up on Eurostat (pdf), which has French unemployment in August at 10.1, up from 9.6 a year ago.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

DSK, the IMF, and Reform

When you read this interview with Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Le Monde, you may want to keep in mind this critique of IMF reform by Mark Copelovitch.

Showdown?

With the announcement that unions in various sectors will launch extensible strikes starting on Oct. 12, the stage is a set for a final test of strength between Sarkozy and labor. This has been expected since 2007 but had thus far been avoided by more or less adroit backpedaling, side-dealmaking, and sheer luck. But a line has been drawn in the sand, and one side or the other will have to give way. The Elysée is banking on the prospect that the strikes will prove unpopular and that there won't be a repeat of 1995, when strikers enlisted the sympathy rather than the resentment of the rest of the population. In these hard times, the financial burden on striking workers may also limit the length of walkouts. Sarko offered a few concessions today for women with 3 or more children and mothers of the handicapped, but the core reforms remain in place. Polls indicate that a majority does not want them, but other polls also suggest that the fundamental rationale for reform--France's very low workforce participation rate for people over 55--is broadly accepted. How much will the French be willing to sacrifice to get a different policy that will inevitably require other concessions? It's hard to say. This is where distance from the terrain becomes a real handicap. I don't have much of a feel for what people are grumbling around the water cooler. From various conversations a mixed picture emerges. Some feistiness mixed with some resignation. If I had to guess, I'd say that Sarko wins on reform but sinks further in the polls as a result of the strikes. And the ministerial shakeup also expected this month will contribute to a picture of lost control and lack of strategic vision.

Cashing In

Seems that the punishment of other ministers for abusing their frequent flier privileges did not deter Dominique Bussereau from commandeering a flight to visit his daughter in Lausanne on her birthday (touching, but the "child" is 30 years old). No matter. He's on his way out anyway.

Dr. Kouchner and Mr. Hyde

Apparently there are two Bernard Kouchners: the one who swears fealty and allegiance to Nicolas Sarkozy, and the one who gives interviews to Le Nouvel Observateur denouncing "l'inflexion sécuritaire" of Sarkozy's policy and complaining of repeated "humiliations" at the hands of Sarko's underlings. Peu importe. He'll soon be ex-foreign minister and free once again to assume the high moral ground, where his contradictions add relief to his character rather than paralyze his action.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Parties and Primaries

Does the advent of the primary election spell the end of political parties as France has known them? That is the thesis of this article.

Kerviel Did It

So, yesterday we hung the Holocaust on Pétain, today we hang the heist of the millennium on Jérôme Kerviel. But let's face it: neither of these guys could have pulled it off alone. Good luck to the state on collecting on that €5 billion fine, though.

Claude Lefort Dies

The philosopher Claude Lefort has died. His influence on two generations of historians and political thinkers, including François Furet and Pierre Rosanvallon, is inestimable. With Cornelius Castoriadis he was the founder of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, which began the exodus of French intellectuals from the Marxist marshes. At a lunch before he spoke at Harvard some years ago, he noted with some amusement that many people are confused about the name of the journal, which they mistake to be Socialisme et Barbarie. The person who introduced his lecture then went on to make just that mistake. I last saw him in Grenoble two years ago, when he was the honored keynote speaker at a mammoth colloquium organized by Rosanvallon.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pétain Did It

Serge Klarsfeld has unearthed a document that, if confirmed, shows that Pétain was personally responsible for hardening the terms of Vichy's infamous Jewish Statute. Robert Paxton sees this as a potentially major discovery. Specifically, Pétain wanted all Jews removed from teaching positions and the courts.

Le Point Bamboozled

Le Point recently published an article about polygamy in Clichy-sous-Bois that included excerpts from a purported face-to-face interview with a woman who had given birth to 8 children and described herself as a "prisoner of her situation." But the interview was in fact conducted by telephone, according to Arrêt sur images, and the polygamous family was a figment of the imagination of a young man who had deliberately set out to prove that journalists writing about the suburbs don't know the terrain and are easily misled by informants eager to feed their preconceptions. (h/t SH)

Eric Fassin adds considerable depth to the story here.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lagarde vs. Baroin

Thomas Bronnec, who blogs about Bercy, reports that all is not sweetness and light between the ministers of the economy and budget since Eric Woerth departed from the latter job to take up his post at labor and tumble into scandal. François Baroin is a more political animal than Christine Lagarde, but Lagarde seems to be learning fast and amplifying her media presence in anticipation of the coming cabinet shakeup. Her denial of any ambition to move to Matignon has been taken in some quarters to be an avowal of the same. Moving Lagarde to Matignon might make sense from Sarkozy's point of view. It would put an essentially apolitical manager in charge of the government, a lieutenant who could be trusted to put the best face on things and keep the wheels on the bus while the Élysée goes into full political attack mode, firing salvos in every direction as dictated by the needs of the campaign but without relevance to the actual business of governing. Since Fillon no longer seems keen to efface himself behind Sarkozy, Lagarde might be the person to carry on at Matignon in the manner that Sarkozy seems to prefer: efficient, loyal, and above all silent.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sen on Quality of Life

Since Bernard Girard's post (linked in my previous post) takes us back to the days of the Sen-Stiglitz-Fitoussi Commission report, some of you may be interested in Amartya Sen's reflections on this and other issues related to the quality of life and its measurement. These can be seen here in an interview with Ingrid Robeyns (h/t Crooked Timber; N.B.: the video didn't work for me in Firefox and was distorted in aspect ratio in Internet Explorer but [barely] tolerable to watch in full-screen mode).

A Year Is a Long Time in Politics

Bernard Girard looks back.