Thursday, May 31, 2007

On the Way to Extinction?

Ségolène Royal is in Digne to support the candidacy of her campaign director Jean-Louis Bianco. I know this town. Though short on charm itself, the surrounding hills are lovely. A few kilometers outside of town, off a small country road, is a trail that takes you, after a hike of an hour or two, to a site where a small dinosaur lies preserved in situ.

I wonder if les éléphants of the PS might now better be described as mammouths, on their way to extinction and a final resting place somewhere outside of Digne, or Indigne as the case may be.

The Long March to the Presidency

There is a book to be written about Nicolas Sarkozy's long march to the presidency. The meticulous planning of the campaign begins to emerge more fully in retrospect, and it's no wonder that he and Napoleon's biographer were drawn to each other (see previous post). It turns out that Max Gallo was not the only former comrade of Jean-Pierre Chevènement who joined Sarko. A forgotten Le Monde article published on June 22 of last year reported that several other participants in the Citizens' Movement (MRC) had their careers abetted by Sarko. Didier Leschi, the MRC's parliamentary advisor, was named head of the central office for religious worship when Sarko was interior minister. His deputy chief of staff, Michel Bart, became prefect of Hauts-de-Seine. Yannick Blanc joined the prefecture of police. And François Lucas, in charge of local government relations for the MRC, was appointed prefect delegate for security in Brittany.

One wonders what was left of the MRC after Sarkozy's serial seductions. Why Chevènement remained immune to the blandishments has yet to be explained. To have Chevènement so close to Ségolène while MRC co-founder Gallo and four lieutenants crossed over to Sarko must have created some interesting back channels in intercampaign communication.

Gallo: Sign of the Times

The election of Max Gallo to the Académie Française has just been announced. This is an interesting sign of the times. Gallo is yet another former Socialist who jumped ship to back Sarkozy. Of course the elective affinity here was irresistible. As a writer, Gallo's subject of predilection has always been French national identity. In this interview with John Vinocur, dating from 1998, he complains that Mitterrand, under whom he served for a time as government spokesman, had declared that France's future lay with "Europe," but "no one feels that in their heart." In 1992 he joined with another Socialist renegade, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, to found the Citizens' Movement, a left nationalist group. Although Chevènement returned to the fold sufficiently this year to become one of Ségolène Royal's closest advisors, Gallo turned instead to Sarkozy.

Now Sarko is president and Gallo is in the Académie, after handily defeating Claude Imbert, the journalist. Aamin Malouf had been a candidate for the same seat but withdrew (now his election would have been interesting). So France has a president who is reminiscent of Bonaparte, and not just for his small stature, and an Academician who is a biographer of Napoleon (Villepin, the former prime minister, was his rival in the marketplace with a book about "the Hundred Days"). Both are sons of immigrants.

Lawyers Good, Judges--Yawn

In an earlier post I remarked on Sarkozy's fondness for lawyers in his government. The good feeling doesn't extend to judges, apparently. For a deliciously ironic account of the "solemn inauguration" of the Cour de Cassation, which the writer compares to a royal lit de justice, see the blog of Pascale Robert-Diard, who chronicles every presidential yawn in response to the somniferic virtues of high judicial discourse.

The Mortgage Deduction

Ségolène Royal walked straight into a fist. She had accused Sarko of "lying" to the French because he had promised a tax deduction for mortgage interest, but his minister of the budget had announced that the deduction would apply only to mortgages incurred after the election date, May 6, and not to those for which applications were already under way.

She should have known better. Sarko promptly overruled his budget minister and turned the small contretemps into a ringing affirmation: "What I said, I will do." Did she think she was dealing with a political amateur or cheese-paring miser?

The cost to the treasury was hardly uppermost in Sarkozy's mind. A study has shown that 85 to 90 percent of the French who don't own property want to, and the home ownership rate in France is lower than in other European countries (52 percent in France compared with 80 in Spain, for example).

The Socialists opposed this measure on grounds of cost and justice: they claimed that the benefit would go mainly to the better off. But that depends in part on how it is formulated, as a tax credit or a tax deduction. In any case, the demand exists. In pure Keynesian terms, the proposal makes sense: it's likely to stimulate aggregate demand while contributing more to social welfare than, say, digging holes and filling them up again or building a nuclear aircraft carrier.

One wonders if the opposition to the measure doesn't have more to do with its symbolic than with its fiscal and distributive implications. Ownership equals bourgeoisification, and bourgeoisification equals a rightward shift in the electorate. Doesn't Karl Rove make the same calculation: in the current New Yorker (June 4, p. 42) he says "more market-oriented ... equals making you more center-right in your politics." But more home ownership also equals more expenditure on home maintenance, more employment in services and construction, more entry-level jobs for the currently unemployed. The symbolic interpretation may be looking at things the wrong way round.

The idea that a propertied citizen is a conservative citizen has a long pedigree in political theory, and the struggle to assert the rights of citizenship for the unpropertied was long a hallmark of progressive politics. But social democrats can't go on thinking this way.

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Politics?

With apologies to Raymond Carver for the title ...

A CEVIPOF survey concludes, unsurprisingly, that executives, managers, professionals, and the self-employed take a greater interest in politics, by a considerable margin, than do workers and clerks. More interesting, perhaps, are the findings on what political subjects different categories of people discuss. The authors of the report say that "we find that Politics with a capital P does arouse the interest of workers when it appears to have some direct bearing on their daily life and reality rather than being part of traditional political debate, which seems to have lost its audience, especially in this segment of the population."

How many working-class voters responded to the debate about whether supplementary hours should be exempt from payroll taxes, and how many to appeals to "the France that rises early and works hard, obeys the law, and is proud to be French?"

School Zones

School zones? Haven't we been talking about high politics, a presidential election, national issues? Why bring up school zones?

Well, incredible as it may seem to American readers, school zones were a major issue in this presidential election. Or, rather, eliminating them was a major issue. This was Sarkozy's idea. His reason: ostensibly to promote "social mixing." In cities where residential patterns are determined by class and race, the character of school districts is determined by class and race. That certainly won't surprise Americans. But the idea that free school choice is going to solve the problem without additional changes will appear shockingly naive--or astonishingly disingenuous.

Of course the free choice won't really be free, at least not immediately. Education minister Xavier Darcos acknowledges that enrollments for next fall are in the main already set. Only a small percentage of places will be set aside for new applicants in the short term. Parents may apply to place a child outside their present zone. And naturally all the complaints about the current system--favoritism, use of fake addresses, insider advantages (schoolteachers are said to be among the chief abusers of the current system)--will remain after the reform.

The "republican school" figures at the center of the debate about "French identity" that was so central to this election. If equality is a fundamental value of the Republic, then the school is the agent of equality, the vector of social mobility, the place where citizens are equal not just before the law but before such opportunities as the society has to offer. But the myth--powerfully reinforced by the institution of a "national education" in which, as everyone thinks he knows, a minister in Paris can look at his watch on any given day and say precisely what every child in France is studying at that moment--hinges not just on equal citizenship but on equal schools. As French cities have ceased to be socially mixed, French schools have ceased to be equal, and today's minister is less likely to look at his watch than at his map if he wants to know how things are going in a particular school. Hence the great fuss over la carte scolaire, the map of school zones. Its "suppression," as the French call the move to open choice, will not resolve the problem, any more than similar reforms have solved the problem in the United States, because deep social wounds cannot be healed by "teachers without borders." But the issue is fraught with raw emotion, as anyone who has dealt with local school politics in the US knows, so it is not surprising that in a country where education is national, school zones come in for presidential attention.