Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Lawyers' Republic

David Bell wrote:

Have you noticed just how many of the cabinet are either avocats or magistrats, or have some sort of formal training in droit. Far larger than the number of Enarques. I wonder if this has something to do with the preference for more direct, legislative sovereignty. It is reminiscent of that great "republique des avocats," the Third.
Yes, indeed, I had noticed, though it's good to have this point made by the author of Lawyers and Citizens: The Making of a Political Elite in Old Regime France.

Take, for example, the new defense minister, Hervé Morin. Like Sarkozy, he was trained as a lawyer but had little if any practical legal experience before obtaining his first electoral post. By contrast, Rachida Dati, the new justice minister, served as a magistrate and actually took her oath of office in the judicial robes of her mentor Simone Weil, so the affinity among magistrates would seem to have played a part in her rise.

The return of the lawyer might well prove to be, as David suggests, a fruitful avenue for research in the contemporary history of France. A few thoughts. One might want to consider changes in the methods of selection for advanced education in France. Once upon a time, excellence in literary studies was the royal road to the Grandes Ecoles, the select group of elite institutions from which national leaders in both business and politics were drawn. But some years ago, mathematics replaced literature as the crucial discipline, and economics replaced literature and history as the queen of sciences in the Grandes Ecoles. Specialists--those who know everything about nothing, as the wag said--replaced generalists, masters of la culture générale--who conversely know nothing about everything.

Might we see the return of the lawyers as the revenge of the generalists, the non-matheux, the excluded from the new system of elite recruitment? Curiously, these non-nerds (as a lapsed mathematician, I license myself to use the pejorative) have knitted close alliances with some of the more successful nerds in the French business community: Jean-Luc Lagardère, one of Dati's patrons, started out as an engineer, as did Francis Bouygues, the founder of the Bouygues Group and father of its current head Martin Bouygues, who was witness to Sarkozy's second marriage and godfather to one of his sons. By contrast, Vincent Bolloré, the financier who paid for Sarkozy's post-election sojourn on the yacht Christina (which rents for 193,000 euros a week), began with a law degree from Nanterre.

"Crony capitalism," a descriptive epithet that has been applied to France for some decades now, and which has persisted through the eras of alternance and cohabitation, is not likely to end anytime soon, but the relations among the cronies will be different, since the tycoons no longer owe their positions to their relations with the governors, and the governors have trained as "advocates," specialists of the word only and supple in adapting language as needed to the case at hand.

Which Republic Is This Again?

As I mentioned in a previous post, François Fillon hopes to bolster the legitimacy of his government and reinforce its mandate by inviting ministers who fail to win election as deputies to leave their posts. His latest remarks evidence a certain confusion about the nature of the Fifth Republic, however. He says that "but for rare exceptions, members of the government should be elected by the people. ... That's how democracy functions in all modern countries."

That's certainly an odd statement coming from the head of a government of the Fifth Republic, whose core principle has been that governments should enjoy a considerable measure of autonomy from politics. One wonders if Fillon has a particular faiblesse for Britain's cabinet government (his wife is English); whether he knows anything about the government of the United States (perhaps he doesn't count it as one of the "modern countries"); or if what seems to be an error of appreciation is actually an adumbration of constitutional reform.

Fillon, like Sarkozy, is not a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. Perhaps his rather hasty remarks on the nature of the regime have a deeper significance. Might he share with Sarkozy a sense that French governments of the recent past, along with political parties, have been too dominated by technocrats, whose narrow education and structural isolation from the swirling eddies at the base of the political edifice increased distrust of the political class and made France, always difficult to govern, as "ungovernable" as critics have alleged? Might they think that what the ministries need most is a more direct comprehension of the needs and wants of the base? Might he be proposing to ministers that they alight occasionally from their ministerial limousines to offer themselves, as the French say, un bain de foule, a crowd bath?

In old France, one purchased an office as une savonnette à vilain, a cleanser of commonness. In the Fifth Republic Bis, will holders of high office be required rather to scrap a bit in the democratic dirt (la poussière was Tocqueville's metaphor for the atomized people)?

Soul Savor

Jean-Marie Le Pen believes that Nicolas Sarkozy breathed soul into the right: "On the right there were successful politicians, networks, and money, but there was no soul. Clearly ... Sarkozy figured out how to be an animator. ... He was fairly inventive and performed well. He ran an exemplary American-style campaign. It was even a model that they'll be able to study at Sciences-Po some day. ... What's more, in personal contacts I can attest that the man has charm. And develops it naturally."

Rubbing One's Eyes

Every presidency begins in a "state of grace," but Sarkozy must be feeling--to use a word lately become all too common in American political parlance--positively blessed. His approval rating after 3 weeks stands at 65 percent, a level topped among Fifth Republic presidents only by de Gaulle's 67 in 1958.

In the circumstances, Ségolène Royal's comments seem less than artful. With another election looming, she tells the French that they've been dupes, that they're not clever enough to recognize Sarkozy's "lies," that he's already reneging on his promise to end EU negotiations with Turkey because "he has no power," and that the public sector minimum service reform he's promised has already turned out to be "impossible." Yesterday I credited Royal with being a better politician than Strauss-Kahn, another contestant for party leadership. Yet these comments evoke adjectives that might equally well apply to Strauss-Kahn's post-election remarks about Royal: petulant, whining, and unhelpful. As for the art of politics, Strauss-Kahn's wet firecrackers were tossed at a candidate who had just lost, whereas Royal's are aimed at a president who, for the moment, is walking on water. The best one can say is that the strategy is ill-chosen.

Is there any Socialist who isn't shell-shocked? It's time to stop muttering and start thinking.