Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Response to a Reader: Labor

Reader Marcos Ancelovici wrote (full comment here):

"Prime Minister Fillon's announcement this morning that unions had until the end of the summer to make propositions on the reform of the right to strike in public services shows that the room for social dialogue is pretty small. The fact that the first negative reaction came from the CFDT, a union that has become quite open to dialogue with employers in the last twenty years, shows that unions will categorically refuse to legitimate Sarkozy's strategy. It remains to be seen whether the public will believe Sarkozy when he will blame it on unions and corporatism."
I've responded to some previous comments in the comments section, but from time to time I'll bring a particularly interesting comment up into the main section in order to make the dialog more readily accessible.

Marcos puts his finger on what will surely be a key area of conflict, but I would be a little more cautious in interpreting these early skirmishes (more details here). The unions will come to an agreement on the limitation of the right to strike in public services (or, to put it from the government's point of view, the assurance of minimum service during strikes), because they know that complete shutdowns create ill will in the public at large. But they'll want a quid pro quo, and making a fuss about Fillon's dates is a way of putting the government on notice that they're not going to roll over.

The real conflict will come over the "single labor contract." Since this has been in the background for quite some time, it hardly seems unreasonable of Fillon to propose a discussion of the issue in the fall and to suggest the Scandinavian "flexicurity" regime as a basis for negotiation. The current multiplicity of labor contracts--the CDI, or indeterminate duration contract, the CDD, or determinate duration contract, and all the rest--merely institutionalizes the dual labor market in France. The furor over Villepin's proposed CPE (first hire contract) served only to hide the ways in which the inferior contract, the CDD, is used as a signal for legal discrimination in non-work-related areas: with a CDD it's harder to rent an apartment, obtain a loan, buy on time, etc. The dual labor market thus extends to a dual social market. A single contract might help to remedy this and to narrow the gap between insiders and outsiders. The mission of the unions is to secure compensation for concessions on eased dismissal conditions. This compensation might come in the form of increased government investment in job retraining, continuing education, and job search assistance. From this distance it's difficult to see where the real maneuvering is going on, but I'm quite sure it isn't that the unions are miffed, as they pretend to be, that Fillon set his deadlines before their scheduled meeting with Sarkozy next week.

Visceral Democracy

Students of democratic theory (of whom I am one--I'm currently writing a book about democracy [small d] in America since Tocqueville) often exaggerate the rational element in democracy. Taken to an extreme, this exaggeration leads to the suggestion, put forward by proponents of the theory of so-called deliberative democracy, that the way to improve democratic outcomes is to promote better communication and debate, as though politics were a debating society that might be improved by banning sophism and substituting for Socratic cunning some sort of procedural elenchus to ensure that the best argument wins. The problem with this notion, as my colleague Glyn Morgan points out, is that what sometimes happens when you encourage people to talk with one another is that they discover they really, really have no use for those who think differently.

Working politicians are less susceptible to the philosopher's error. They know that democratic debate is a visceral thing, as much a matter of inuendo as of reason, of body language as of rhetorical finish, of feint and suggestion as of detailed fourteen-point program. In this light it's interesting to ponder the results of the latest beauty-contest poll of French public figures. Respondents were given a list of names and asked to state whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion. Topping the list as usual was Bernard Kouchner at 70 percent, up 9 points in a month (why? perhaps because he seemed rather less mean-spirited than, say, Dominique Strauss-Kahn in his election-night TV commentary, or perhaps because he's been elevated to a ministry). Borloo has shot up to no. 2 on the hit parade, perhaps because he's been on television a lot lately. The very chic Michèle Alliot-Marie finishes third at 65 (up 17). Are respondents pleased that this stern mother figure will be punishing criminals at Interior rather than ordering generals about at Defense? And the surprise of the latest poll is the breakthrough of Rachida Dati, who comes in fifth (after Bayrou at 64) at 61% in her first listing on the charts, aided no doubt by her inspiring biographical confirmation that the republican school still functions and upward mobility still is possible in France.

The Fillon government starts out with quite a good score, then. Compare the poor Socialists: Delanoë 54, DSK 51, Lang 50, Royal 49. Sure, everyone loves a winner, but I think that at the visceral level on which many voters operate, the Socialists have lost the power to seduce. Perhaps readers will want to speculate as to the reasons for this.

Thanks, Mary

Thanks to Mary Lewis, who publicized this blog on the Internet group H-France. Readers will be interested in Mary's new book, The Boundaries of Republic: Migrant Rights and the Limits of Universalism in France, 1918-1940.

Incidentally, publicity is indeed useful. This blog attracted over 400 readers on its second day of existence thanks to David Bell's mention in The New Republic. One begins to understand why politicians are so keen to control the media, whose usefulness, as Tocqueville remarked, is to "plant a thought in a thousand minds at one time."

Improvised Legitimacy

The Fifth Republic is what political scientist Cindy Skach has called a "semi-presidential regime," offering a "third way" between parliamentarism and presidentialism. The president is supposed to stand above the parties and derive his legitimacy from elsewhere. The myth may on occasion graze reality when the president is a world-historical figure of the stature of de Gaulle or able to claim legitimacy as the incarnation of an historical alternative to the status quo (Mitterrand).

A transcendent presidency like France's really requires a source of legitimacy beyond a mere electoral majority. During the campaign there was talk that a Socialist victory might be the first step toward a Sixth Republic, an idea championed by Arnaud Montebourg. This would have bestowed greater importance on the legislative branch and increased checks on the power of the head of state.

With the election of Sarkozy, that obviously is not going to happen, nor are the upcoming legislative elections likely to check the power of the presidency in any way. With unchecked one-party rule, the problem of legitimacy becomes acute, since a majority of 53 percent, though substantial, is hardly an overwhelming mandate. The inclusion of a prominent though notably independent opposition figure such as Kouchner in the new government can be seen in this light. It is a bid for super-legitimacy, a wooing of that will-o'-the-wisp, the general will.

On a less metaphysical plane, Fillon, too, has recognized the need for a legitimacy inoculation by announcing that any minister who is defeated in the upcoming legislative elections will be obliged to resign. He does not except himself, knowing, of course, that his seat is quite safe: "I would not have sufficient legitimacy to lead the government of France if I did not have the support of my own voters." (His opponent, incidentally, is François Hollande's chief of staff, Stéphane Le Foll, who doesn't stand a chance.)

This, it must be said, is a rather improvised notion of legitimacy, a constitutional reform by bricolage, as it were. Not only is it a meaningless gesture toward popular sovereignty, since a circumscription in the Sarthe is hardly France, but it is quite arbitrary in another sense as well, since no minister is required to stand for election, and some will not.

Yet such is the Fifth Republic: a regime created for a figure larger than life to which a diminutive successor must now try to accommodate himself. And it seems that the new president, while glad to assume the Gaullian mantle and even to express regret at the "duty" imposed on him by his election to resign from the leadership of the party that served him so well as the carefully crafted vehicle of his ambition, nevertheless does not feel that duty precludes his campaigning as president on behalf of the party from which duty obliged him to resign.

The Media

No sooner does Sarko's deputy campaign manager move into a top job at TF1 (previous post) than Béatrice Schönberg resigns as anchor of FR2's weekend news. Schönberg, who is the wife of economy, finance, and employment minister Jean-Louis Borloo, had taken a leave of absence during the campaign, although she had previously presented the news while her husband sat as a minister in the Villepin government. The unions and editorial staff of the public network had protested the appearance of partiality.

Christine Ockrent, the wife of foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, remains for the time being as host of a news magazine on the same network. (Late breaking news: Ockrent will move to a new program when the current season ends in June. She will cover "the economy," rather than "politics"--a distinction of analytical precision whose precise practical contours remain to be defined.)

Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Colombani, the director of Le Monde and head of the Monde Groupe, was rejected yesterday by the paper's Society of Journalists. He needed more than 60 percent of the votes to continue in his job for another six years but got only 48. This creates a crisis at the paper, since Alain Minc, who heads the board and represents the paper's financial backers, has said that it would be "Colombani or nothing." Minc's influence and open partisanship (he backed Sarkozy) were among the issues in the internal election. Le Monde endorsed Royal in the final days of the presidential campaign in an editorial signed by Colombani that can only be described as tepid.

Clearly, relations between the government and the media will be an item to watch in the Sarkozy regime. But what else is new? The Fifth Republic is a creation of Charles de Gaulle, whose ascendancy began with a radio speech that few people heard when it was broadcast (the famous "appel du 18 juin") and who, knowing the power of the broadcast media, maintained tight control of the state television and radio network throughout his tenure.