Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Sarkothon

Nicolas Sarkozy gave a bravura performance tonight on all the TV networks, but, as J.-L. Mélenchon sardonically observed, it was a performance in which he seemed to be running for the German chancellorship rather than the French presidency. He raised the VAT to 21.2%, and he relieved employers of the obligation to pay social security taxes on their lowest-paid employees. Most significant of all, he decreed that henceforth negotiations over wages and hours would take place at the firm level, not at the branch or national level. When asked if this meant the end of the 35-hour week, he said that this was long overdue. When asked if he didn't expect opposition on this measure, which sharply reduces the bargaining power of workers, he said that it was his role as president to do the unpopular thing, for who else would?

And the justification of all this was supposedly to restore competitiveness to French industry following the German model. Yet the president ignored key features of the German model: the statutory role of the unions, the legal injunction requiring employers to open their books, the greater importance of exports in the German economy, and the centralization of wage bargaining, as opposed to the dispersion he will now impose on the French.

There was much talk of "courage" in this hour of confrontation with the press, and it seems clear that this will be the centerpiece of Sarkozy's campaign. There is perhaps a recklessness that vanity might mistake for courage in announcing a substantial tax increase and a frontal attack on the working class on the eve of a presidential election. The calculation is evidently that if one takes such drastic steps at the end of one's term, people will assume that the situation is truly dire and admire the "lucidity" of the decision-maker--"lucidity" being another word that Sarkozy favored in this interview.

The décor, I must say, was impressive: what a grand room, lit to perfection to show off the gilt moldings and regal drapery. Sarkozy articulated his unpleasant news with verve and was aided, for once, by journalists with a certain répondant -- excepting, of course, Claire Chazal, who was a lamentable, smirking, incoherent caricature of herself.