Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sarkozy's Collapse

It's a cold, gray day here in Cambridge, which puts me in a contrarian mood. I therefore want to question the conventional wisdom that the stunning collapse of Nicolas Sarkozy's support, even on the right, is nothing more than he deserves. He was a gifted campaigner, the argument goes, but has been a disastrous president. The job of head of state is one for which he is unsuited by intellect, temperament, and style. Hence his patent failure, and his rejection, according to recent polls, by as many as half of those who voted for him in 2007.

I acknowledge the strong points of this case. If the job of a president is to set long-range goals and stick to them, then the style that Sarkozy cultivated over the years, based on a need to generate constant headlines, may be counterproductive. In pursuit of publicity, Sarkozy diverted a great deal of energy into splashy but inconsequential efforts: the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, constitutional reform, the fleeting EU presidency. Some of his vaunted reforms have made little difference to the daily lives of most of the French: who now remembers the battles of the first months over the service minimum or the régimes spéciaux (especially now that we have moved to a new phase of retirement policy reform). The merger of the ANPE and ASSEDIC hardly amounted to the major overhaul of the labor market that some had expected. The RSA has been a disappointment. The detaxation of overtime hours is but a finger in the dike given the flood of unemployment triggered by the crisis. The tax shield has become an embarrassment as the national debt has risen to alarming levels. He needlessly offended academics and has done nothing about problems in the suburbs, unless it was to exacerbate them with useless gestures on symbolic and security issues. I could go on.

But what political program conceived in the very different economic climate of 2007 wouldn't be looking rather tattered right now? A better way to approach the problem would be to ask how Sarkozy's flaws of style, intellect, and temperament have prevented him from responding creatively to the new circumstances? But when I try to answer that question, I don't see his defects adding up to enough to account for the precipitous drop in his popularity. Sure, he's been stubborn on the tax shield, but he's retreated on numerous other fronts. Although he's caved to pressure from his own party on l'ouverture, he's resisted on territorial and local governance reform--an important matter with little obvious political payoff.

The best answer I can come up with is that people are afraid, and Sarkozy's alternately frenetic and pugnacious manner isn't what frightened people want. They're looking for a reassuring presence, and it's hard to imagine Sarko sitting down for a Rooseveltian fireside chat. But none of his potential opponents offers such a presence either. France chose in 2007 to transfer its allegiance to a new generation. The two leading candidates were still in their teens in the 1960s. They rose to leadership during a period that placed a premium on openness to change, youth, dynamism, and versatility. Neither had been tested in a deep crisis. Sarkozy had shown that he had the balls to rescue a child from the clutches of a man wired to blow himself to kingdom come, but in the kind of crisis that France faces today, what is wanted is not Captain Marvel but Captain Sullenberger, the pilot who brought his jumbo jet to a deadstick landing in the Hudson: in other words, someone with technical knowhow, practical skills, and the capacity to remain "calm even in catastrophe" (Van Gogh's definition of a masterpiece).

And there is a second problem: with control of both the legislative (at least until the recent intraparty revolt) and the executive, Sarkozy owned his reforms. And some of the better ones (such as local governance reform or reduction of the size of the bureaucracy) are intended either to achieve results over the long term but nothing (or even less than nothing) in the short run, or else to shore up existing programs (such as retirement security) by demanding new sacrifices without offering new benefits.

Being in full control of the government, Sarkozy is not seen to be winning victories over a divided political class (as Obama did, for example, in finally securing passage of health care reform). The battles that count are mostly fought out of sight, within his staff, in party councils, and with major political backers. The public views (non-cohabiting) French presidents as coming into office with programs, which either succeed or fail. It therefore judges presidents on the visible results of those programs. When the expected results are long-term, the immediate disappointment may be disproportionate. Voters are impatient.

And there are no short-term victories over powerful political opponents to fill the front pages. If Obama outmaneuvers Boehner and McConnell, that is news, but when Sarkozy outmaneuvers Copé, no one cares except political junkies. There hasn't been any news in a long time to suggest that Sarkozy has won any battles, so people have begun to ask how what has been accomplished since 2007 has affected them, and the answer seems to be that their futures look bleaker. One can argue about the extent to which Sarkozy deserves the blame for that, but since there is no one else to blame, all the grievances are directed at him. Whereas in the US, Obama's approval may have fallen sharply from near 70% (where both he and Sarkozy began) to somewhere in the 40s, but not as sharply as the approval of Congress, which was dismal to begin with and is now au ras des paquerettes. Sarko has no safety valve, not even a prime minister. So the buck stops with him.

Honesty Is the Best Policy

We are used to finance ministers telling us that things are better than they are, or appear to be. How refreshing, then, to find Christina Romer (not a finance minister, to be sure, but chair of the US Council of Economic Advisors) telling us that things are actually worse than they appear, and explaining why. In France, I'm sure that another powerful woman with a similar first name is reading this paper with great interest.

Benbassa on Le Repli Communautaire

Historian Esther Benbassa thinks that ethnic communities in France have indeed turned inward, but for her the fault lies with French elites. The long-term trend, as shown by any number of statistical markers, is toward greater integration, but elite stigmatization of various groups has triggered a range of defensive reactions.