Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cards on the Table

The PS has had it both ways on retirement reform for more than a year, but time seems to have run out. The failure to meet budgetary targets has led to a call for action, and that action seems to be taking the form of a lengthening of the period of contributions required for full pension payouts from the current 41.5 years to 42 or even 43.
C'est l'ancien premier ministre Michel Rocard qui a dégainé le premier dans le JDD le 26 janvier, proposant d'allonger à 43 ans la durée de cotisation, contre 41,5 actuellement. L'ancien premier secrétaire du PS Henri Emmanuelli lui a emboîté le pas mardi en déclarant au micro de France Info que "la biologie fait qu'il faut se poser la question de la durée de cotisation" 
All this is a bit disingenuous, since there has always been consensus in this wing of the party. It was the left of the PS that refused to go along. Hollande, as candidate, adroitly straddled the divide by agreeing with the principle of the Fillon-Woerth-Sarkozy reforms, that increased life expectancy required a longer period of contributions, while continuing to support the symbolic "legal retirement age" of 60--but only for those who had contributed the necessary number of quarters, which in practice meant only those who began work very early in life and never missed a quarter from the age of 17 or 18 on.

Now, if the required contribution period is lengthened even more, no one will be able to retire at 60 who has not begun work at 17 or even 16. Somehow one always knew that it would come to this, but presumably Hollande's hope is that by now the waters are so muddied that no one can possible blame him for turning the screw the next notch, tightening even more than Sarkozy.

Rama Yade in Court for Fraud

Rama Yade, once one of the adornments of Sarkozy's government, is in court today in Nanterre to answer charges of fraud. The allegations stem from documents she signed to establish residence for electoral purposes in Colombes. You will recall that she quit the government when Jean-Louis Borloo left to found a new centrist party. But since then, she and Borloo have fallen out, and her political career has hit on hard times.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Feed Change

I've had to change the RSS feed on this site, so if your feed reader suddenly stops working, you may need to resubscribe using the new feed. Apologies for the inconvenience.

The Italian Elections in European Perspective

The results of the Italian elections, although not far from what polls had predicted, have shocked the world, and especially the world's financial markets. Set in a broader context, I take the Italian electorate's repudiation of Mario Monti and "the European consensus" as one sign among many that that consensus is coming apart at the seams. Consider the following:

1. Meanwhile, in the north, France has been rebuked for failing to reduce its deficit under Hollande, and another year of no growth is forecast, while the UK has been downgraded. Yet despite the failure of the austerity program to deliver the promised results anywhere, no one in power has yet dared to breathe word of an alternative. Last May, there was hopeful talk that Hollande would join with Monti to mount an anti-austerity offensive, but Monti's fate is now sealed, and Hollande, though now securely in power, barely even pays lip service to the pro-growth agenda that he dangled in front of voters as an alternative or companion to austerity. His response to Europe's scolding was simply to whimper that, given time, he would find a way to cut the budget.


2. Austerity has not failed to produce certain kinds of "adjustment." The unit labor cost gap between Germany and the rest has shrunk significantly, more because of higher wages in Germany (as Germans will insist to you at the drop of a hat) than because of wage cuts in the south. And yet this adjustment has improved the current account picture only marginally and placed such a drag on demand that growth seems even more out of reach now than it did a year ago.


3. None of this bad news is really news, nor have the monitory signs been invisible for quite some time now, yet the financial markets have treated the Italian elections, whose results were more or less accurately predicted, as a "shock" worthy of triggering major price movements world-wide. Conclusion: "Denial" is not confined within the borders of Egypt.


4. As comical as the conjunction may seem, the Italian elections plus the American "sequester" may suffice to awaken the complacent from their dogmatic slumbers to trigger a mini-panic. Hold on to your hats. I'm too old to relive October 2008, and it probably won't be that bad, but I foresee considerable carnage and a return to crisis-a-month Europanic.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sciences Po

The selection committee for the Sciences Po leadership post has chosen its short list, which includes 3 names: Frédéric Mion, Louis Vogel, and Andrew Wachtel. Interestingly, all three have US connections, and Wachtel is himself an American, who organized the Sciences Po exchange program with Northwestern.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Government Expects Constitutional Reform to Fail

Jean-Marc Ayrault has let it be known that his vote-counting has not gone well: the constitutional reform promised by candidate Hollande will not pass if put to a vote later this year. Hence it may be withdrawn.

What does this mean? The proposed reform has several major features. It would end one form of le cumul des mandats by making a ministerial position at the national level incompatible with an executive position at the local or regional level. This is strenuously opposed by some major PS barons. The reform would also grant resident aliens the right to vote in certain elections. This is strenuously opposed by the Right and by many on the Left. Ex-officio appointments to the Constitutional Council (of ex-presidents of the Republic, for example) would also end. The legal status of the president would be modified, and there would be major changes in the judicial system.

In short, this is the sort of reform that might accomplish a few worthy goals, likely to please any number of political scientists, but unlikely to arouse any great enthusiasm for or against among the people at large--except for granting foreigners the right to vote, which will spark tremendous opposition, and tampering with le cumul, which will be fought doggedly behind the scenes by those who would stand to lose an important source of power.

Hollande has no leverage over the Right, which has made it clear that it will oppose the reform on general principles of orneriness. And he has little leverage over his opponents on the Left, who see threats to their own job security. He may therefore decide that it is better to beat a hasty retreat than to risk an embarrassing public loss. Right now, the public is indifferent. Better to bow out now than to risk much political capital on a turkey.

France Signs Agreement with Google

France has signed an agreement with Google, under which the search firm will set up a development fund to aid French publishers in creating digital content, in exchange for which the publishers will not attempt to charge Google for links to their on-line offerings. Everybody is happy--except the rest of Europe, which for some reason doesn't like the deal. When cooperation fails, is vigorous independence the answer? It depends. The arrangement with Google is a good idea, I think. By contrast, a French-capitalized investment bank in lieu of a satisfactory European one would not be. EU member states can go it alone only where they retain sufficient power to achieve decent results on their own.

Friday, February 15, 2013

And about those confiscatory taxes ...

The notion of tax flight “is almost entirely bogus — it’s a myth,” said Jon Shure, director of state fiscal studies at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group in Washington. “The anecdotal coverage makes it seem like people are leaving in droves because of high taxes. They’re not. There are a lot of low-tax states, and you don’t see millionaires flocking there.”

Despite the allure of low taxes, Mr. Depardieu hasn’t been seen in Russia since picking up his passport and seems to be hedging his bets by maintaining a residence in Belgium. Meanwhile, Russian billionaires are snapping up trophy properties in high-tax London, New York and Beverly Hills, Calif. “I don’t hear about many billionaires moving to Moscow,” said Robert Tannenwald, a lecturer in economic policy at Brandeis University and former Federal Reserve economist. Along with Nicholas Johnson, he and Mr. Shure are co-authors of “Tax Flight Is a Myth,” a 2011 research paper.

French Communists Dump Hammer and Sickle

The French Communist Party has dropped the hammer and sickle from its membership cards. Into the dustbin of history ... I always rather liked the hammer and sickle as symbols, because these tools, materially concrete manifestations of labor power, also symbolized a whole sociology and theory of history. But the sociology is increasingly remote from reality, the theory of history has proved wrong, and the very materiality of the symbolism has a certain archaic quality that suggests a party oriented toward a world gone by rather than toward les lendemains qui chantent. RIP, le marteau et la faucille.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

ArcelorMittal vs. EU

Should ArcelorMittal be required to operate plants that lose money? That is the crux of the issue that pitted the steel firm against France first and now the EU. To be sure, Mittal made mistakes when it expanded into Europe. It overestimated the size and robustness of the European market for steel, borrowed too much to prop up aging physical plant, and made promises to workers and politicians that it probably knew it couldn't keep in a business downturn. But those mistakes were ratified by desperate counterparties who had to choose between certain and immediate collapse then and contingent and deferred collapse now. They chose the latter, and here we are.

But how can a private firm now be obliged to make still more foolhardy investments? Is this the best use of European capital and political will? Are the unions and political powers pursuing the same desperate and ultimately doomed course that got them to this pass in the first place?

And the bad news in steel was only compounded by the disastrous and unprecedented bad news in the auto sector, a major consumer of steel products. PSA (Peugeot and Citroën) announced a record loss of €5 billion. On France2 last night, Philippe Varin, the head of PSA, sketched a plan to rescue the company that was none too convincing. Their new automobiles would be more appealing than the old ones, he said in essence; people will like them more, and therefore loosen up their pocketbooks. But those pocketbooks are even emptier now than they were last year. The proposed solution therefore makes little sense. What we see here is the cutting edge of European austerity slicing into the very backbone of European industrial strength.

EU Will Adopt Financial Transactions Tax

The story is here. My eyes are drawn to the discussion of what is called in Eurospeak "enhanced cooperation." 
What is enhanced cooperation?
Enhanced cooperation is when a group of at least 9 Member States decide to move ahead with an initiative proposed by the Commission, once it proves impossible to reach unanimous agreement on it within a reasonable period. It is only relevant to policy areas which require unanimity, and it aims to overcome the situation whereby certain Member States are prevented from advancing with a common approach due to the reluctance and non-agreement of others.
Only the European Union could come up with the phrase "enhanced cooperation" to cover a situation in which a failure of consensus leads to deadlock under rules requiring unanimous consent. In order to prevent this, 9 or more states are authorized to act in concert but in defiance of the veto blockers. As much as I deplore the Newspeak, I applaud the concept and hope that the US Senate will adopt its own form of enhanced cooperation, which with characteristic Yankee candor we will call the "f... you option."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Three Percent Deficit Goal Will Not Be Achieved

Prime Minister Ayrault conceded today for the first time in public that France would not meet its 3% deficit target for 2013. If he had been reading this blog, he would have known more than a year ago that he would be making this announcement now. So was the government's posture a strategy, a bluff, or a lie? A little of all three, I would say.

Of course, when the opposition, in the form of J.-F. Copé, threatens to censure the government for its failure to keep a promise that the opposition would, with equal contempt for the facts, have made its own had it been elected, we are through the looking glass, and no one will pay the slightest attention to what any of these jaw-flappers are saying.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gay Marriage Passes

It was a foregone conclusion, but still, the vote was impressive. Hollande's presidency will be remembered for this if nothing else.

Lagarde to Testify in Tapie Case

Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, will be called to testify in court in the matter of whether a generous payment to Bernard Tapie involved any irregularities on the part of government officials.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

No Joy on the Seine

Nathalie Dubois and Jean Quatremer pull no punches: at the EU summit, David Cameron was the "winner by a knockout," and François Hollande, fresh from his "victory" in Mali, found himself face to the mat. This is hardly good news for "Europe," if there are any "good Europeans" left to care. And in any case the agreement may be short-lived because of opposition in the Parliament, as I reported yesterday:
Mais l’accord péniblement arraché vendredi est peut-être mort-né. Car le président du Parlement européen, le socialiste allemand Matin Schulz, a immédiatement annoncé que l’accord serait rejeté par les eurodéputés. C’est en juillet que, pour la première fois, le Parlement aura un droit de veto sur le budget pluriannuel de l’UE, en vertu du traité de Lisbonne. Face aux égoïsmes nationaux, l’hémicycle européen se présente comme ultime rempart de l’intérêt général européen, le président de la Commission, José Manuel Barroso, ayant abdiqué face aux gouvernements. Dans un communiqué commun, les leaders des quatre groupes politiques PPE (conservateurs), PSE (socialistes), ALDE (libéraux) et Verts ont donc annoncé leur rejet de ce budget d’austérité.
The joke has long been that Europe had no telephone number to call in case of emergency. Henceforth it will have no telephone, because the member states are unwilling to foot the bill.

"The Problem in Europe Is That We Are Not Alone"

“The problem in Europe is that we are not alone, so this is not the agreement I wanted,” Mr. Hollande said. But he described the deal as “the best possible under current constraints and circumstances.”
Yes, that about says it all. François Hollande would have liked a deal in which France agreed with itself about the future of Europe. After all, that is the way it used to be. Or occasionally there would be some historic compromise with Germany. But as long as the two major European powers had it their way, Paris had no problem with "integration" or "cooperation." Now, however, our European statesmen have discovered that they "are not alone," and François Hollande in particular has discovered that he is not alone, although he predicated his campaign on the notion that everything could be renegotiated once he was in power. At last, the truth has struck home. We are not alone, we must somehow make do with the death grip that austerity ideology has on too many European policy makers, and if there is a way out of this crisis, it is going to have to be found not with but in spite of the European Uniion.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The EU Parliament Rebels

The European Council finally approved an austerity budget after lengthy negotiations, only to have the four main parliamentary groups announce shortly thereafter that they would not vote to approve it. Now what? I don't know. But there's a blizzard here in New England, so I'm going to hunker down for the weekend and ponder the matter by the side of the fire. Somehow this just doesn't have the feel of a real crisis compared to, say, bond defaults or the exit of a member state. This is just the usual Eurosquabble continued by other means.

Hints

Yesterday I asked what attitudes toward the EU were likely to be adopted by two different types of firm, the true multinational actor vs. the nationally organized enterprise selling its wares into a transnational market. Some intriguing hints about possible answers to my questions can be found in this article, which I don't have time to summarize. Although it addresses a rather different subject, it offers a useful portrait of the emerging post-globalization structure of industry.

Le revisionnisme hollandais

The French incursion in Mali has thrown commentators for a loop. Only a few weeks ago, the pundits were unanimous in declaring the Hollande presidency a failure and the president himself a well-meaning but hapless apparatchik not up to the challenges of a leadership role. Then came the "historic" and "decisive" intervention in Mali, which proved once and for all that the president was not hapless at all but rather dynamic, committed, and unafraid of doing battle wherever liberty, equality, and fraternity were at stake. So said my critics.

The revisionist history continues. Rather than a useless tactician, unable to plot a political agenda two days ahead, the president is now being hailed as a master strategist who has cleverly used the gay marriage issue to divert the Right from the social and economic terrain on which it could mount a much stronger attack. Before Mali, this good fortune might have been attributed to the benighted blindness of the homophobic right or to accidents of the legislative and movement calendars. After Mali, however, it is clear, some pundits say, that nothing less than Hollande's genius can explain his success, as measured by a splendid (!) 3-point boost in his approval rating (which, however, is markedly lower than Sarkozy's at a comparable point in his presidency).

Suffice it to say that I remain reserved. The sheer number of announced layoffs, plant closings, failed labor talks, and French industries with collapsing market share is staggering, and anger on the picket lines is rising. The unions are divided about what to do, as reflected in recent negotiations among the social partners. So it seems to me that the pundits who are now crediting Hollande with a social vision they denied him a few months ago cannot read the handwriting on the wall. There will be a warm social spring at home. Meanwhile, the Arab spring of yore is turning into a major foreign policy challenge on the shores of the Mediterranean (for which the Sarkozyan idea of "union" now seems forlorn indeed), a challenge that will soon overshadow the Malian situation that it helped to create in the first place. Indeed, it is hard to see how France can maintain a unified foreign policy toward this region of the world given the deep contrasts among the countries involved and the problematic role played by one of the major factors of unity, namely, Islam. Crafting a French response to the dissipation of the Arab spring would be a major challenge for a president more interested in playing a global policy role than Hollande strikes me as being, though he may of course evolve in this respect. But how much time will he have to devote to Africa and to the Middle East with social unrest looming in his own northwest, north, northeast, southeast, southwest, and center?

Indeed, the only thing that is going right for the moment is the euro, which has bounced back against the dollar and removed itself, thanks to Mario Draghi, from the daily list of crisis reports. But this, too, is a false dawn. So, unlike the several commentators who agree in chiding me for my pessimism because at long last, they argue, some things are going well in France, I see very little that is going well. And I say this not because I dislike Hollande or think that he is less competent for the job than anyone else I could name. It's rather that the challenges are tremendous and the constraints, as I read them, nearly insuperable.            

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Bounce?

So after all the hoopla about the miracles that Mali was working on François Hollande's countrymen, who overnight ceased to think of him as Flanby and began comparing him to de Gaulle, Napoleon, and Louis XIV, CSA finds that his approval rating in fact bounced from 35% in January to .... 38% in February.

I feel retrospectively justified in my skepticism.

The EU Budget

EU budget discussions are always depressing affairs. The total EU budget amounts to something like the rounding error in the US budget, even though Europe produces more than the US, so the idea that the European budget is a useful macroeconomic instrument is silly. On the other hand, specific items within the budget--Britain's "rebate," France's disproportionate share of the "Common" Agricultural Policy, etc.--mean a lot to certain domestic political players in various countries and can therefore be counted on to generate bitter polemics. This year, with the specter of crisis and even breakup haunting the discussions, the atmosphere is even darker than usual.

But so is the sense of unreality. Because while no one is sure that the EU will survive this crisis, no one believes it's going to break up over its annual budget squabbles either. David Cameron is posturing for the folks back home, and his partners are willing to humor him up to a point: they, too, preside over unruly coalitions.

When I think of the future of Europe, I look to the generation or two after mine. Their attitude toward Europe is, I suspect, quite different from my generation's. The memory of World War II matters less; economic judgments matter more. As a postwar baby boomer, I'm in something of an in-between position. I don't have firsthand memories of Europe's devolution into catastrophic hypernationalism, but my sense of history is dominated by the history of the 1930s.

So European unity maters to me in a visceral way. It also matters to me from the standpoint of cold economic analysis. I think a large single market for goods and unified but well-regulated financial markets are Europe's best shot at maintaining global competitiveness and preserving the social-democratic welfare state, which I think is Europe's singular contribution to contemporary political thought and human well-being. Yet I also recognized that the disequilibrium of those same markets has become the greatest risk of renewed hypernationalism and political collapse.

Oddly, I was lamenting the other day the results of French polling that showed strong majorities in favor of "vigorous," not to say authoritarian, leadership to restore order at the national level. And yet when I think about Europe, I have to recognize that some of my own complaints about the EU's present leadership reflect a similar belief that lack of coordination is the root of all evil. Of course, I'm careful to say "lack of coordination" rather than "political bickering and ideological chaos," but really these contrasting formulas point to a similar impatience with existing mechanisms of governance, multiple veto points, fundamental disagreement over economic doctrine, etc.

I wonder if the next ten years won't see a new phenomenon emerging as an increasingly important determinant of Europe's future. Some firms, it seems to me, have made good use of the past 20 years in taking advantage of the single market to position themselves as truly international producers, while others have simply used the expanded market to increase their sales while remaining fundamentally nationally oriented in organizing the productive process. These two types of firms will have very different political interests in the evolution of European institutions. But how will those differences play out? Will the truly multinational firms favor a Europe that looks more like a superstate, because a superstate is what is required to impose order on a supermarket? Or will they rather favor a weakened Europe in order to enhance the scope of their own supremacy?

Conversely, will the nationally organized firms want a strengthened superstate in order to level the playing field and redress imbalances due to different state burdens on each firm's competitiveness? Or will they prefer a more intergovernmental European process in order to press their own interests through their national governments?

Answers, anyone?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Prestige of Arms

I thank Anonymous for this link concerning the gain in Hollande's popularity since the French incursion into Mali:
Et un sondage de popularité, publié hier, et indiquant un regain de popularité, emballe l'ensemble. C'est donc parce que l'Armée française a libéré Tombouctou, que Merkel et Cameron sont présumés, par les journalistes français, devenus impressionnables par la parole de la France. La crédibilité, la popularité, engrangées par la campagne, pour l'instant victorieuse, de l'Armée française, sont présumées transposables sur le champ de bataille de la guerre économique.
...
Absurde, mais instructif, tant cet emballement irraisonné a le mérite de rappeler, à ceux des Français qui n'ont pas connu personnellement Bonaparte, Pétain ou Boulanger, les mécanismes inconscients du prestige des armes, et de l'illusion, étrangement toujours vivace en ce nouveau millénaire, selon laquelle les chefs de guerre prestigieux font les meilleurs dirigeants politiques.
Yes, the "unconscious mechanisms of the prestige of arms" seem to have given President Hollande a needed boost and revived hopes in his presidency. I don't expect it to last long, however. Nor do I believe that Hollande decided to resort to force because he thought it would give his presidency such a boost.

The test of his leadership will be to see whether he can figure out how to capitalize on the opportunity to assert himself as a more active president. His speech yesterday in Strasbourg was an opportunity not seized. To be sure, he did remind his European partners of the need for solidarity in a time of crisis. But the bolder accents of his presidential campaign were missing. There was no mention of such concrete manifestations of solidarity as Eurobonds or massive investment in a European Investment Bank.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit is not everyone's cup of tea as a politician, but I generally find his readiness to speak truth to power refreshing. As always, Dany rose to the occasion: "François, je t'ai compris." How compactly, with this parodic choice of diction and rhythm, did he signal the distance between François Hollande and another French president who knew the prestige of arms and who had once uttered the memorable phrase "je vous ai compris" in Algiers. And who had then maneuvered for five years to give the crowd not what it thought it wanted but what it in fact needed.

"The European budget needs to be increased," Cohn-Bendit reminded the French president, who still thinks he can finesse the difference between himself and Merkel and Cameron in this regard. Maneuver if you must, Cohn-Bendit seemed to be saying, but know where you want to end up, and be sure that you've made the right choice. If you cannot renounce austerity forthrightly, then at least be sure you renounce it subtly and have not drunk of the poisoned chalice.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Fervor Reborn

Nothing has surprised me more, since I began doing this blog, than the reaction to what I thought was a relatively mild comment the other day on the "liberator" of Timbuktu and the French military intervention in Mali. To be sure, my post gave in to the vice of cynicism, which I try, not always successfully, to guard against. I did not rehearse the series of posts in which I'd tried to look at the intervention from various angles. I credited my readers with having divined my ambivalence about the military action, which I deemed necessary as an emergency step in a confused and rapidly deteriorating situation but which I thought--and still think--likely to degenerate from the exhilaration of a too-easy victory to the disillusionment that invariably ensues when the brutal injustice of religious-ethnic domination gives way to the rough justice of military occupation and its various pathologies.

What I had not reckoned with was the intensity of feeling on the part of any number of blog readers who seemed to believe above all else that France had scored a just victory in a just war. She had for once "done the right thing," as one commenter noted, and for that had been rewarded.

This is a euphoric interpretation that I cannot share. Another reader insisted that it was my inveterate dislike of François Hollande had led me astray. This rather took me back. If anything I feel that I'm too easy on Hollande because I broadly identify with the socialist "family" that his brand of politics is supposed to represent. I certainly saw nothing to dislike in Hollande's military decision, since it was a decision in which I believed he had no choice. Mali would obviously be better off under the occupation of some pan-African military force, the Malian government forces (as flawed as they no doubt are), and French troops than under total rule by the thugs and warlords who had imposed their domination in the north with the aid of mercenaries unleashed by the toppling of Qaddafi in Libya.

I recall no similar outburst of French patriotism when Sarkozy rescued the government of Alessandre Outtara, the democratically elected leader of Côte d'Ivoire. Surely that was a more clear-cut example of "doing the right thing," but few on the French left hailed Sarkozy's move as a blow for "liberty, equality, and fraternity." The intervention in Mali has more in common, I think, with the intervention in Libya: a dire situation was deteriorating, beleaguered internal forces had called for help, but the aftermath was far from predictable and unlikely to lead in any simple way to liberty, equality, or fraternity. Still, one might reasonably conclude that the reasons to act outweighed the reasons not to act. That was my judgment in Libya as it was in Mali, but about the Libya decision one heard a good deal of cynical commentary in France exposing any number of possible ulterior motives for Sarkozy's action, including the need to improve his standing in the polls and his image as a leader. But the merest hint of such criticism in this latest intervention seems to have triggered a rattling of sabers I can't recall having elicited with any other blog post.

Perhaps the comparison of Hollande's Timbuktu speech with George W. Bush's 2003 "mission accomplished" speech on the decks of the Lincoln had something to do with this reaction. Low blow! Well, I will confess to having shot from the hip. The comparison was ill-chosen and no doubt concealed more than it revealed. But I persist, since I believe that Hollande's speech was at the very least premature. The hard part of this war is only just beginning, although any further action in Mali is likely to be of such low intensity that it will go unnoticed in the French media for months on end. The north of Mali will be returned to the benign neglect it is used to, and there will be no news compelling enough to force the French to draw up a final balance sheet on their action. In any case, the initial entry in the ledger, "saved from collapse," will probably be enough to outweigh all the subsequent entries of extortion, murder, kidnapping, smuggling, bribery, and warlordism--the stuff of business as usual in a tribal region not generally of much interest to the rest of the world or even the former colonial powers, outside of a few enclaves rich in minerals of one sort or another. Analysts used to looking at international politics in terms of interests will note that France, in rescuing northern Mali, protected one approach to its uranium supply in nearby Niger. When a powerful interest is at stake, it can become remarkably easier to do the right thing.

I would simply ask my French critics to ask themselves whether they don't themselves often rail against "American exceptionalism" and America's refusal to examine how cleverly it contrives to make its self-interest coincide with its idea of doing the right thing in any particular situation. France is no less immune from this vice than the United States. Indeed, there is no better analyst of the way in which such self-deception works than La Rochefoucauld, whose works I commend to my critics.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"The Hero of 'Liberated' Timbuktu"

Who would have thought back in May that the victory of the left in the French elections would be consecrated on Feb. 2 by a victory parade in Mali in which François Hollande was hailed as the liberator of Timbuktu? To an American who watched the joyous street demonstrations in Baghdad back in 2001, followed by George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard an aircraft carrier, in which he complimented his troops, as Hollande did, on completing "a splendid operation," there is an eerie sense of history caught in an endless treadmill.

Which is not to say that I expect the Islamist rebels in Mali to make a comeback. They may, or they may decide that the game is not worth the candle, that the profits of smuggling and the occasional kidnapping are still there for the taking with far less risk than imposing sharia law and thus risking (mis?)identification by skittish Western powers with Islamist rebels elsewhere. The whole thing is at once comical and tragic, but one thing is certain: the boost to Hollande's reputation as a leader will be short-lived. The reality of a deteriorating economy awaits, and this momentary diversion in Mali has not changed a thing back home.