Monday, May 21, 2007

La Parvenue et l'Héritier

If a latter-day Plutarch were to chronicle the lives of the new generation that has acceded to power with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, he might be tempted by the contrasting careers of Rachida Dati and Martin Hirsch.

Dati, 41 years old, is the second of twelve children of a Moroccan father, employed as a mason, and an illiterate Algerian mother. She grew up in a housing project in Chalon-sur-Saône and eventually earned degrees in law and ecological science and certification as a magistrate, supporting herself while in school by working as a nurse’s aide. Ambitious, she attached herself early on to a series of mentors well-connected in right-wing political circles: Albin Chalandon, Marceau Long, Simone Weil, Jean-Luc Lagardère. Sarkozy chose her as one of two spokespersons for his presidential campaign. With his election she became minister of justice.

Martin Hirsch, 43, is the son of Bernard Hirsch, former director of the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, and the grandson of Etienne Hirsch, former commissioner of planning. Martin, a graduate of the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure, holds an advanced degree in neurobiology. He is also a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, although the Fillon government, breaking with the habits of the recent past, draws a relatively small proportion of its members from among ENA alumni. Hirsch made his political debut in 1997 as staff director for then health minister Bernard Kouchner, who, like Hirsch, is among the Socialists who have joined Sarkozy. A classic héritier (heir), Hirsch reportedly declined the title of minister, preferring that of “high commissioner for solidarity,” as a mark of his independence from the political orientations of the government he serves. In his first day on the job, he further asserted his independence by dismissing candidate Sarkozy’s proposed deductible on health insurance as a “bad idea.”

Two Frances, then: the one struggling to rise, keen for recognition, and now charged with the administration of justice; the other long since arrived yet responsible for healing what Jacques Chirac called “the social fracture,” which remains unreduced after twelve years of Chiraquien rule.

Perfidious Albion's Mole at Matignon

It turns out that Mme François Fillon, the wife of the prime minister, is just a simple "country peasant," as she describes herself, from the Welsh village of Llanover. A guileless woman, to judge by this videotaped interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Mme Fillon contrasts her simple tastes with those of the very Parisian Mme Sarkozy. She also confesses that she had a "son who cried when I spoke English."

Kouchner, Sarko, and the Memory of May '68

In the final days of the presidential campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy launched an attack on the memory of May '68. He asserted that "the heirs of May '68 accredited the idea ... that there is no difference between good and evil." The result: astonishment and consternation on the left.

A few days later, Sarko made Bernard Kouchner his Minister of Foreign Affairs. The result: astonishment and consternation in some quarters of the left, astonishment and jubilation in others.

The connection: In May '68 Bernard Kouchner was a militant in the Union des Etudiants Communistes. But in 1988 he, too, arraigned the memory of May '68 in a television program entitled "Le procès de Mai" (The Trial of May), which, as the title suggests, was cast in the form of a trial, with none other than Bernard Kouchner as host. As Kristin Ross has pointed out in her book "May '68 and Its Afterlives," Kouchner appeared as witness for both the prosecution and the defense. Ross writes (p. 156) that Kouchner, having just

"praised the '68 generation's 'daring to dream' ... switches abruptly to a posture of self-criticism. 'But we were navel-gazing, we forgot the outside world, we didn't see what was happening in the rest of the world, we were folded in on our ourselves.' He continues ... 'We didn't know what we would discover only in the following years: the third world misery.' In one fell swoop, Kouchner assumes the power to clear away an entire dimension of the movement: its relation to anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles in places like Vietnam, Algeria, Palestine, and Cuba."

Ross's analysis of the convergence of the humanitarian left and the neoliberal right, which I confess struck me as hyperbolic when I first read it in 2002, begins to look prophetic. Kouchner, who would no doubt reject the charge of having failed to distinguish between good and evil, nevertheless pleaded guilty to several counts of having waged war against the wrong evil. Bear this in mind in watching him develop his approach to foreign policy.

The Return of Alain Juppé

Much of the commentary on the composition of François Fillon's cabinet has understandably concentrated on the appointment of Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister. This "divine surprise" has diverted attention from the other cabinet heavyweight, Alain Juppé. Like the Kouchner nomination, Juppé's appointment suggests that Fillon and the whirling dervish of a president under whom he serves suffer from no lack of self-confidence. Juppé, as the only "minister of state" in the new government, might well be regarded as not merely the government's Number Two but almost a co-prime minister. His portfolio, "l'Ecologie, le Développement et l'Aménagement Durables," may in retrospect come to be seen as a marvel of linguistic concision, for it is a title that hints at both a policy and a stratagem.

The promotion of ecology to a place of such prominence in the Sarkozy regime comes as something of a second divine surprise, since this did not figure among Sarko's themes of predilection during the campaign. Although he signed Nicolas Hulot's "ecology pact," he did so with little enthusiasm, and in an ecological rating of the candidates by one Green organization, he scored only 8.5/20, compared with Sego's 16/20. Yet one of his first moves as president was to put ecology on the front burner with his appointment of a former prime minister who, during a long Canadian exile in the wake of a felony conviction for official corruption, viewed "An Inconvenient Truth," experienced a blinding conversion on the road back to Bordeaux's city hall, and has now reinvented himself as "the Al Gore of France."

Green fundamentalists may view the coupling of "ecology" with "development" in Juppé's title as an ominous sign, but Juppé has never suffered from a deficiency of realism. The only question is whether he has learned something about the need for tact and compromise since 1995, when he attempted to push through a dramatic and arguably necessary reform of "special retirement regimes," only to frighten the countless beneficiaries of privilèges of one sort or another with the thought that the next reform might be aimed at them. Le Monde today reports that he will meet with Green NGOs to try to work out a "Grenelle for the environment." The allusion of course is to the "Grenelle accords" between the government and the unions after May '68. When the ebullition of the enthusiasts of the streets had subsided, hardheaded men dealt with the nitty-gritty of the workplace in private negotiations. If Juppé can make progress on some of the many dossiers the NGOs have said they want to lay on the table--nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, agricultural and industrial pollution, transportation policy, construction, etc.--he may set an example for other governments, even as Angela Merkel is using Germany's EU presidency to put ecological issues at the center of the European agenda.

It remains to be seen what will emerge from the attempt by conservative governors to achieve a workable compromise with a powerful social movement represented by a diversity of well-organized and well-informed single-interest advocacy groups. Nevertheless, the promise of movement on this front is a welcome change in what had settled into a war of position, not to say a war of postures.