Sunday, September 4, 2011

Calling a Spade a Heart

I find myself increasingly disenchanted with my own political camps both at home and abroad. Why can't they call a spade a spade? The règle d'or is a foolish idea, a meaningless gesture that will impose no real constraint on what the government does in the future, as I argued the other day. Yet here we have Hollande and Royal hemming and hawing about the proposal, which after all comes from the right, as if they were afraid that frankly criticizing the idea will make them vulnerable to charges of profligacy and irresponsibility. But of course they will be charged with these things anyway. Why not simply say what they think? Perhaps they really do thing that a balanced-budget amendment is a good idea. If so, let them explain why. It would be more interesting to know their reasoning than to be told that they really can't make up their minds.

Education Polices of the Various Candidates

A rundown here.

"La vieillesse est un naufrage"

So, Jacques Chirac is afflicted with anosognosie, which, if my scientific Latin serves, means that he doesn't know what he's afflicted with. It's a sad end to an impressive career and one that will no doubt deprive us of the final spectacle of a former president having to defend a corrupt system in court. Whatever one thought of Chirac's politics, one had to admire the political animal, and Chirac's animal instincts in the political jungle were unrivaled. Although Mitterrand earned the epithet "le Florentin," it might equally well have applied to his perennial rival and sometime confederate.

I never met Chirac, but I know many people who have and who assure me that he was far more impressive in private than in public. He never quite mastered the television cameras, before which he always struck me as a bit artificial, cabotin, uncertain of his power to persuade. But persuasion is not really the métier of the pure politician, whose element is power, not reason, and Chirac knew the manifold arts of power as well as anyone. He could neutralize a superior force by playing it off against another, almost equal--and to himself equally hostile--force: witness his use of Mitterrand against Giscard.

This pure politics isn't, of course, the politics that armchair intellectuals like myself usually gravitate toward, but, perhaps chastened by disappointment with Obama's inability to outmaneuver his enemies, we sometimes feel a sneaking admiration for wizened old warriors, even--or perhaps especially--those whose cunning defeated our side more than once.

The trial will probably go on, but what will we learn that we don't already know? That among the ways of power that Chirac mastered was of course the way of money, and that one of the ways of securing the loyalty of henchmen and even potential enemies is to fund them through sinecures hidden in the recesses of this or that governmental budget. So Chirac allegedly created fictitious jobs for which the city of Paris paid when he was mayor. His henchmen have already taken the fall for some of these offenses, and Juppé, after his years in the desert, is even back in power and glory comme si de rien n'était. In short, the law may sanction the ways of power, but nobody really cares about what everyone knew was a system governed by the rules of a now bygone era. The rules have changed, but corruption remains, and the only corruption that truly shocks is that which goes beyond the unwritten rules of each political epoch. How far did Chirac stray? We'll probably never know, although reporters like Franz-Olivier Giesbert like to embellish their books with stories of suitcases full of cash disbursed from safes hidden behind pictures in the office of the mayor of Paris, and no one bats an eyelash. This is just accepted as the folklore of French government. No proof or corroboration is necessary to print such items.

For a lucid and thoughtful appreciation of Chirac's career, see the forthcoming review of his memoirs by my friend and colleague George Ross, who was actually once a student of Chirac's at Sciences Po. It will appear in French Politics, Culture, & Society.

Hollande, Social Liberal?

Laurent Mauduit has an interesting analysis of François Hollande's positioning in Mediapart. It's a long article, whose richness I will diminish by summing it up brutally as a complaint that Hollande is in the process of "Strauss-Kahnizing" himself. That is, he is taking increasingly "social liberal" (and Mauduit sometimes uses the terms "conservative" and "reactionary," not to mention "third way," as if these were all synonymous with "social liberal") positions on key economic issues such as taxation, deficit reduction, the wisdom of a balanced budget, and the role of the state. Indeed, Hollande's use of the mantra "l'État ne peut pas tout" leads Mauduit to compare him to the Jospin of 2002 and to conclude that Holland is making the same error as Jospin: running in the second round of the presidential election before securing solid support from his left in the first.

I have noted some of these points of Hollande's program in previous blog posts, and one in particular, the idea of enshrining decentralized wage negotiations in a constitutional amendment, led me to wonder if Hollande wasn't attempting the very strategy that Mauduit lays out. Bernard Girard alludes to this point in his post today on Mauduit's article.

That said, I share many of Bernard's questions about Mauduit's analysis. I have already noted the amalgame of "social liberal," "conservative," and "reactionary." Being something of a social liberal myself, I recognize genuine political differences on matters such as the proper role of the state and the advice of economists, whose influence on Hollande is, I think, more difficult to evaluate than Mauduit allows. Nor am I sure that his method of inferring their politics is the right one. He notes, for example, that Jean-Paul Fitoussi has advised Sarkozy and that therefore his presence at Hollande's side connotes une droitisation of the candidate. But Fitoussi's advice to Sarkozy has generally been on the side of more stimulus, opposition to the ECB, etc. I think it's unfair to characterize him as "a reactionary."

Still, in spite of all of my real differences of opinion with Mauduit, the core of his analysis remains: Hollande is trying to occupy the space left vacant by DSK's fall; he has increasingly emphasized the need for "rigor" in his economic discourse; and he is neglecting to appeal to "the people of the left" and instead tilting his campaign rhetoric in the direction of a more centrist electorate.

Now, I believe that the presidential election will ultimately be won in the center, as I have said a number of times, but I'm not at all sure that that is where the Socialist primary will be won. The polls seem to contradict me, since Hollande currently enjoys a comfortable lead. And perhaps the voters to whom his new positioning will appeal are precisely the ones who will turn out to vote in the primary. But maybe not. There may be an October surprise in store only slightly less stunning than the surprise of 2002, and traceable to similar roots: the isolation of the political class from its base, and a consequent tendency to organize a candidate's message around policy positions that may seem coherent and correct to advisors yet remain unappealing to the party's traditional base of support.