Friday, November 30, 2007

Encore de l'audace

Sarkozy had another one of his marathon chats with les tribunes du peuple, or what passes for such in the media age: telejournalists. It was an odd performance. The Élysée doesn't really suit its current incumbent. Its rococo excess makes a strange contrast with his blunt language. He cannot bring himself to sit up straight, despite chairs that would seem to require it. He slouches and squirms, and one keeps expecting to hear the voice of an admonishing parent: "Sit up straight, Nicolas!" His tie was not knotted comme il faut, leaving him looking slightly bedraggled, despite the dazzling white shirt (wrong for television), expensive if rather somber suit, and bling-bling timepiece (I think he may have bought the Breitling he was seen ogling in the pages of Yasmina Reza's book). Formality and tradition cannot repress his pugnacity. Ocassionally, a reaction shot seemed to catch the inevitable M. Poivre d'Arvor with a quizzical look on his face, as if to ask, Why are you pummeling me with aggressive words when all I did was ask a straightforward question? Sarko spoke as if he were still confronting the shop steward in the SNCF Maintenance Center at Saint-Denis. "Écoutez, Mme Chabot ..." This time, the poke in the chest was verbal rather than physical.

As for the substance, the audacity was a thing of wonder. The president had been expected to speak about le pouvoir d'achat, purchasing power, that marvelously elastic term that makes it unclear whether the subject is the price of goods, the wages to purchase them, or some supposed "consumer power" that is supposed to compensate for the diminished political influence of the putative popular sovereign, who has no purchase on central banks or global markets. And indeed he did speak about purchasing power, mainly to assure people that, unlike some others, he accepted that the problem was "real, not mere sentiment." This despite the fact that existing measures of inflation and wages indicate relatively little erosion of purchasing power over the past several years. "We need a new measure of inflation, which reflects what people actually consume," Sarko said. This crowd-pleasing jibe at the hard-working gnomes of the INSEE, whose inflation gauges he dismissed as "claptrap" (fariboles), served to introduce the red meat of the evening: a proposal that would allow firms, with the approval of a majority of workers, to jettison the 35-hour week in return for a wage increase. He also proposed "monetization" of RTT, or "comp time" awarded to workers under the 35-hour regime when required for administrative reasons to work longer hours in a given period. In plain English, workers could cash in their comp time for money rather than take days off. (This could be a huge problem for the state, which owes hospital workers billions of euros worth of comp time, but Sarko, who found time to denounce François Hollande for demagogy, did not address that issue.)

The real audacity here was to present these proposals, which are not without merit, as a solution to the perceived purchasing power problem. Any way you slice these measures, their intent is clear: to get people to work more by paying them to do so. Economics 101. What is mind-boggling is that such an idea should be portrayed as a veritable revolution. To be sure, Sarkozy said that his proposal was meant to overcome the "sluggishness" (atonie) of current wage bargaining. But what accounts for the lifelessness of the labor market? Why should the initiative have to come from the state?

And then there was another clever linkage of ideas: striking students are demanding greater state investment in the universities. All right, then, says Sarkozy: I'll sell off 3 percent of the state's stake in EDF to raise 5 billion euros for the universities. Students see the Pécresse Law as a step toward privatization of the university, do they? Well, I'll give them the étatisation they say they want, but in exchange they will have to accept a partial privatisation of EDF. The Trotskyists manning the remaining university barricades will therefore have to choose: is it really money for the universities they want, and will they swallow a denationalization to get it?

Of course the injection of an actual number into the debate over the universities makes clear the magnitude of the obstacle to be overcome. Sarkozy has said that he wants to make the French universities the equal of any in the world. He has put on the table an offer to sell 3 percent of the national electric company to increase university funding by 5 billion. There are 85 universities in France. Five billion is less than the amount of the increase in the endowment of just one American university, Harvard, in the past year.


Anonymous said...

Sarkozy does indeed have trouble in fulfilling his Presidential role, "il n'arrive à prendre de la hauteur". The first subject was on the incidents in Villiers-le-Bel. I expected him to begin with a statement about the tragic "accident de la route" that took the lives of those two children, the necessity to have a fair judicial enquiry; instead he launched right into the issues of law and order. Disappointing and shocking.

Anonymous said...

There is something fishy about Sarkozy's obsession with the 35 hour work week.

Let's be realistic about what really happens in the French workplace: people still work 40 hours per week and even more in unpaid overtime, for the usual reasons: boss's pressure, huge workloads, competition with colleagues for preferment, etc. Anyone who "works to rule" and limited their work to exactly 35 hours per week would fall quickly into disfavor and risk getting bad job reviews, no raises, and contract termination.

France needs laws that guarantee workers get paid for all work done, regardless of legal weekly maximums and minimums. It would be great if Sarkozy implemented this. But his pro-business agenda and friendship with the oligarchs is reason enough to worry about what's behind his drive to "liberalize" French labor laws. I've posted a few articles on this at:

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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