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.