Thursday, June 28, 2007

DSK Is Not Amused

Like Laurent Fabius, Dominique Strauss-Kahn wants to make way for the young at the Bureau Politique of the PS. He hardly makes the job sound enticing, though: "Taking two hours to figure out where to put a comma in a communiqué that nobody will read no longer amuses me. I did it for two years. It's better to make room for younger members so that they can gain some political experience and prepare themselves to represent the PS tomorrow."

The combination of langue de bois, condescension, and contempt would be hard to match. So the way to prepare yourself to represent the PS tomorrow is to take on meaningless drudgery and hack work today? With such meticulous preparation, the Socialists will no doubt continue to do as well in the future as they've done in the recent past.

Soyons sérieux. Fabius and DSK are quitting the BP because that's no longer where the action is. Royal's circumvention of the party apparatus has persuaded the éléphants that the only route to power is to build a movement around their own persons. The battle is on.

Appel du 28 juin

Readership of this blog has been developing nicely. Less encouraging is the small number of comments. What comments have been made have been interesting and cogent, but it would be pleasant to hear from more of you--and I know from the statistical summaries (and private e-mails) that there are far more regular readers than there are regular commenters. The bashful can always avail themselves of the option to comment anonymously. But it would be far more interesting to know who you are and to learn something of your interests, judgments, and opinions, even if they disagree with mine. So, please, make yourselves known and heard.

On-Line with Patrick Weil

For the views of Patrick Weil, one of France's leading students of immigration, on the current state of the immigration issue in France, see this on-line chat at Le Nouvel Obs.

A Tocquevillean Reflection on the Media

Tocqueville had high hopes for the press under democracy. He believed that newspapers offered a remedy to what he feared most about democratic society, its atomization, its isolation of individuals in their separate private spheres. Newspapers, "by planting the same idea in a thousand minds at the same time," created solidarities and allowed individuals otherwise lost in the lonely crowd to recognize common interests. Thus the press, by countering the centrifugal tendencies of democracy, prevented the withering of the public sphere or its usurpation by a "soft despot" prepared to dispense bread and circuses in exchange for votes.

Tocqueville also imagined a natural affinity of political parties and the press. Although he deplored the "petty parties" that thrived on patronage, he believed that "great parties," organized around shared ideas, were indispensable for collective action. The requisite sharing of ideas was to be effected by the press. And mass democratic parties and mass-circulation newspapers did indeed rise in tandem.

The modern media continue in some respects to fulfill the function of maintaining a public sphere, as Tocqueville envisioned. But in other respects they serve the centrifugal tendencies that worried him. Television, in particular, by creating an ersatz intimacy between individual citizens and a necessarily small number of leaders--far smaller than the political class as a whole, leaves the citizen isolated while creating the illusion that he or she is at the center of political action. What is planted in a thousand minds at once is not an idea, ripe for criticism, discussion, modification, and elaboration, but a feeling, a sentiment--be it of identification or revulsion--that can only be reinforced by repetition and intensified by manipulation of the iconological rhetoric that the visual media have developed and refined over the past century. The need for this kind of emotion seems to grow more intense as more immediate forms of solidarity and sociability--in the neighborhood, the tavern, the cafe, the workplace, the family, the theater, the novel, the public meeting--wane. The politics of mediated intimacy creates a feeling of commitment without exacting a commensurate price in actual time or effort. "The problem with socialism," Oscar Wilde quipped, "is that it consumes too many evenings." Indeed. But one can watch a televised exercise in participatory democracy by proxy and feel that one's duty to the collectivity has been discharged. No more than an hour or two need be invested. This leveraging of the participatory investment slashes the opportunity cost and multiplies the return to the individual, if not to the society.

One striking thing about the recent presidential campaign in France is that both candidates were naturals at establishing the intimacy at a distance that democratic politics now seems to require. They worked in different registers, to be sure, but at a deeper level their two approaches had much in common. Neither sought the kind of differentiation from the common that has distinguished French presidential candidates in the past, whether in grandeur, cultivation, elegance, or strategic shrewdness. To be seen to be of the people now counts more than to be judged to be for the people if one wants to be elected by the people.

The Media, the Message, and the Management of Both

Libération today devotes considerable space (here, here, here, and here) to the question of interference in the media by Sarkozy. There is nothing new in the inuendo, in which I confess I have indulged at times myself (see the index under the head "media" for some examples). On the whole, I agree that it's better to be hypersensitive on this score than complacent. Yet there is a certain tiresome sameness to the charges. The president has cultivated friendships among media moguls and journalists. Certain articles have been spiked. Certain pressures have been brought to bear.

The problem with this kind of criticism is that it takes the place of serious analysis of the symbiotic relationship between media and politicians. Furthermore, its selectiveness is self-discrediting. Is Sarkozy too close to Elkabbach or Minc? Surely the Libé editorialists cannot be unaware that Mitterrand often used journalists who were covering him to write campaign speeches. That a well-known TV reporter was an intimate of Royal and Hollande. Or that the vie sentimentale that the former asked the latter to conduct henceforth outside the couple's domicile involved a journalist covering Socialist Party affairs for a major magazine. Did Rachida Dati threaten to sue if magazines published her baby pictures? Yes, but did not Hollande and Royal file suit for invasion of privacy against journalists who reported what one of them later acknowledged to be true and that is arguably not without a public dimension?

All of this would be too trivial and gossipaceous to recount were it not the staple of media self-reflection in France. Tony Blair, who is not without his faults, Lord knows, has nevertheless contributed a far more worthy piece to the debate. Blair is perfectly candid about the symbiosis of which I speak:

I first acknowledge my own complicity. We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media. In our defence, after 18 years of opposition and the at times ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative. But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends that I am about to question.

"Courting, assuaging, and persuading": Blair pleads no contest to all the charges leveled against Sarkozy. He shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, "What else did you think politics was about?" But he then goes on to consider transformations in the media wrought by technology during his time in office. He notes the ways in which these changes complicated the business of governing, diminished time for internal reflection and thought, and, by threatening the financial viability of the media, heightened competition in ways that affected the content and tone of reporting. These are important points, and it would be good if the French media turned their attention away from the trivialities of the politico-media universe and addressed the more serious long-term issues.

Generation Gap

As the old warrior captains of the PS have succumbed to intestine warfare, young legionnaires are leaping to their feet and buckling on their shields all across France. A generational reckoning is on the agenda. Although Laurent Fabius yesterday declared himself an "active sage," sounding more philosophical than arthritic, today he announced his resignation from the Bureau Politique of the party in order to make way for the young. And the young have not been shy about declaring that it is time for the elder generation, who came into power as Mitterrand staffers as long ago as 1981, to go. As a member of the elder generation myself, I naturally have mixed feelings about this all too comprehensible announcement that the time for a certain "circulation of elites" is overdue. But one thing is perfectly clear: Royal did much better among younger voters than among older ones, yet the younger generation--and I don't mean the Drays and Montebourgs--is virtually absent from the front ranks of PS leadership. That has to change.

Shadow Cabinet

From now on, when Tony Blair vacations in France, he should feel more at home. La Grande Nation now has a Shadow Cabinet, just like the nation of shopkeepers. The men and women named by PS Assembly group leader Jean-Marc Ayrault are for the most part not well-known to the public. Some of them have expertise in particular policy areas, which should help to organize the opposition so as to be more "responsive" to the very active and energetic as well as fast-moving Sarkozy government. This is to the good, as so far the PS has been mainly responsive to itself, to the dismay of its voters. Nevertheless, the move has not gone uncriticized. Henri Emmanuelli, for one, thinks the party and not Ayrault should have chosen the shadow ministers. An anonymous PS deputy sees the long arm of Royal at work. The Shadow Cabinet is dominated by Royalistes, says this critic, and the nomination of Arnaud Montebourg as the SC's no. 2, a sort of non-minister without portfolio, would seem to confirm this suspicion.

Emmanuelli, Mitterrandiste de toujours, leading nay-sayer on the European constitutional referendum, and éminence grisonnante of the PS, was nevertheless formerly an associate of Montebourg's Nouveau Parti Socialiste. So we have eddies within the courants, perhaps. Ayrault appears to have responded to the criticisms and done a little rebalancing. At the very least he's given the first sign of some organization within the PS. This is much needed, as Sarkozy, seemingly in ceaseless motion, has thus far faced only scattered resistance from civil-society guerrillas. Of course Sarkozy's idea of governing depends greatly on the appearance of perpetual motion. His is a war of maneuver, not a war of position. His tactical retreats don't matter, so long as the army doesn't get bogged down.The danger of this kind of warfare is that at the end of the day one winds up having moved a great deal but advanced very little. But it is far too early to make that judgment about Sarkozy.