Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reform as Revolution

De Gaulle once said that if you want the French to pay for building autoroutes, you have to give them poetry. That was then; this is now. Boileau is no longer the arbiter of elegance of French political prose. The style of the day is businesslike: declarative, energetic, apparently analytic but with the thumb placed firmly on one side of the balance.

This morning's speech is a fine example of the genre, and very effective in the "high motivational" mode. First, there were the crisp assertions of boldness and confidence:

Au risque de casser certains codes, j'ai décidé de vous parler sans détour

La vérité, c'est que ...

c'est un nouveau contrat social, profondément renouvelé, profondément différent, que nous devons élaborer ensemble.

Il y a aujourd'hui trois certitudes ...

The speaker assures us that his motives are pure:

Vous le savez, je ne suis pas un idéologue.

He expresses outrage and repeatedly reminds us that he is one who dares to say what others will not, who is prepared to violate taboos:

Promouvoir le travail, c'est aussi mettre fin au gâchis insensé ...

Cette situation, tout le monde le sait, est le résultat d'un raisonnement fallacieux
Qu'on me comprenne bien. Je ne cherche à stigmatiser personne.

Occasionally he lapses into empty hot air:

Ce qu'il faut faire, c'est jouer sur toutes les dimensions du problème.

There are neat symmetries that hide real asymmetries:

Le deuxième principe, c'est la conciliation de la mobilité et de la sécurité, pour les salariés comme pour les entreprises.

Le troisième principe, c'est de trouver le juste équilibre entre la responsabilité, qu'elle soit collective ou individuelle, et la solidarité.

On oppose trop souvent la responsabilité, qui serait de nature individualiste et potentiellement dangereuse pour la cohésion sociale, et la solidarité, qui serait chargée de toutes les valeurs positives. C'est une erreur.

There are ringing assertions of "values," reinforced by anaphora:

Ma conviction, c'est que nous avons besoin d'organisations fortes. ... Ma conviction ...

... and calls to action:

Mais si on veut donner plus de place au dialogue social, il faut là encore que chacun prenne ses responsabilités

Mockery is reserved for the stubbornest of taboos (the single labor contract):

Tout le monde sait que nous ne pouvons plus tenir sur cette ligne Maginot juridique. Tout le monde sait ...
In substance there was nothing that has not been heard time and time again: the French need to work longer hours and more years; they need to pay more out of pocket for medical care; they need to prepare themselves for less stability of employment; the "French social model," which a majority of voters thought they were defending when they voted "no" on the European constitutional referendum, cannot endure:

Pour ma part, ce que je veux fondamentalement vous dire, et dire aux Français par votre intermédiaire, c'est que l'ampleur des réformes que nous sommes en train d'engager trouvent leur justification dans la ferme conviction que notre organisation sociale produit aujourd'hui plus d'injustice que de justice, qu'il faut en changer et que c'est un nouveau contrat social, profondément renouvelé, profondément différent, que nous devons élaborer ensemble.

Ce contrat est fondé sur le travail, le mérite et l'égalité des chances, qui sont des valeurs sociales, des valeurs généreuses, dont nous ne devons pas rougir mais que nous devons au contraire assumer. Ce contrat suppose que notre système social renoue avec les principes de justice et d'efficacité. Il exige des changements profonds.

The key point was perhaps this:

On me dit que je prends tous les risques parce que je veux trouver des solutions à tous les problèmes à la fois dans un champ où, paraît-il, tout est " miné ", tout est compliqué. Je crois que c'est justement tout le contraire, que c'est la réforme par petits bouts, sans cohérence d'ensemble, qui serait vouée à l'échec.

But is this passage to be read as social and economic analysis or strategic calculation? Is it necessary to attack on all fronts at once so that the "enemy" cannot concentrate his defenses at a single point of attack? Or is it rather that systemic change is doomed unless the system changes as one, rather than element by element? Counterexamples to both propositions could be cited, but the exercise would be academic. We have heard from the man in charge. Now we shall see what ensues.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Art - Again, I think you've got it right: the alternative explanations are as you put them. My own thought is that this is a strategic calculation: attack on all fronts at once so that the enemy can't mass a defense at any one point. But there are two other points: It would seem that most of public opinion is in favor of most of what Sarkozy is proposing, at least in the sense of a general direction being taken if not on a specific number of this or that. Public opinion believes that the time has come, and can see that a lot of different groups are being asked to accept a lot of different sacrifices. Sarkozy has inherited a propitious situation (there's now a palpable sense, very strong in my own reaction, of just how little Chirac did in his time, how much at the end he was just enjoying his time, eating his cake and running the clock). And finally, much of what Sarkozy is proposing is just plausible on the substance. So - strategy, tactics and substance meet a public opinion that is willing to be convinced and led. The game plan is well thought through; Sarkozy has been preparing for a long time. Of course in time he'll run into big trouble and he'll screw up, more or less. For now I agree with you that devastating criticism and fears are not warranted.