Sunday, September 23, 2007

Trichet, Villepin, Euro, the Right

Was it my imagination, or did Jean-Claude Trichet seem a trifle irritated by Jean-Pierre Elkabbach's incessant needling about his non-responsiveness on the subject of the euro-dollar exchange rate (on Le Grand Rendez-vous d'Europe1)? Trichet tried to remind Elkabbach that the words of a central banker, unlike those of a journalist--or a politician--can have real consequences: "No person in a position of responsibility would answer your question," he said. Apart from this inconsequential skirmishing, Trichet came with one message he wanted to get across to France: public spending is too high, a point he made by comparing French public expenditure (national + local + social security) to that of the Scandinavian countries as a percentage of GDP. "There is no aspect of the French personality that makes this a matter of fate," Trichet said; 25 years ago the French still had their state and their social model, but their government consumption was lower than that of the Scandinavians; now it is higher. He refused to be drawn into the question of what should be done to remedy the situation. He simply wanted to lay the fact on the table.

Earlier, Villepin had continued his harassment of Sarko, calling upon the president to "tame himself" and adopt a less "frenetic" style. He was also critical of the Sarko-Guaino attack on the ECB. The problem is not with the bank, he said, but with the states, which need to agree on a policy. In this he anticipated Trichet's line.

It's interesting that Guaino, who used to be close to Philippe Séguin, may be speaking more for the nationalist right of which Séguin was the champion in the Maastricht days, than for Sarkozy, who has the problem of reconciling the nationalists with the "Orleanists," to use a distinction proposed by the late René Rémond. One of Sarko's great talents has been his ability to unify these two currents of the right, keep their tensions under control, and at the same time draw in the xenophobic and populist element, without which (as he allegedly told Yasmina Réza) victory would have been impossible. The attacks on the ECB humor the nationalists while irritating the Orleanists. Villepin, with his Napoleonic predilections, might be thought to be more at home among the former than the latter, but la tête a ses raisons, que le coeur ne connaît pas, to stand the old adage on its head.

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