Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

Bernard Thibault, the head of the CGT, complains that the government isn't listening to the unions and is misleading transport users about the proposed minimum service law. If the government doesn't start listening, Thibault warns, it will be a tense autumn.

As for the minimum service law, "nos mises en garde sur l'inutilité voire la dangerosité du texte n'ont pas été entendues," says Thibault. Dangérosité: quelle bravitude de le dire! Attention! Danger de surenchère! Or should I say dangérosité de surenchère?

Meanwhile, as for surenchère, Fillon says he's considering extending the minimum service law to the schools as well. Was that before or after Thibault spoke? Tit for tat, point-counterpoint, body blows from two heavyweights feeling each other out as the decisive rounds of the bout approach?

To be continued ...

Badiou on the Death of the Leftist Intellectual (Guest Post: Chris Bickerton)

Here's another guest post from Chris Bickerton. This one concerns Alain Badiou.

In a recent interview with Le Monde, one of the last great thinkers in France, Alain Badiou, gives his opinion on the recent presidential elections. Badiou makes the interesting point that the election of Sarkozy signalled what he calls the end of "Gaullo-communism", and that Chirac was the Brezhnev of Gaullism. But in so far as Sarkozy has swept away these cobwebs on the political right, he has also done the same for the left. According to Badiou, we can hope that the old leftist intellectual in France is gone for good, leaving us instead with a starker choice between real radicalism on the left and a more unabashed defence of values and interests on the right. Already on the right, we see a more combative association with Sarkozy. Badiou notes that in the past right-wing intellectuals tended to be very coy; even Raymond Aron had some complexes. Today, we observe a right 'without complexes'.

Badiou also fulminates against the notion of 'memory', much discussed on this blog. According to Badiou, memory has come to replace history and political analysis, thus substituting unreflective emotionalism for rigorous historical analysis. It tends particularly towards a moralization of the past, which includes reading European history through the prism of empire and slavery. The debate in France over its own history, known most recently as la querelle des mémoires (the dispute of memories), is a good illustration of this.

-- Christopher Bickerton

Tax Matters

For Greg Mankiw's take on the shift from payroll taxes to VAT, see here. (Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under Bush.) Of particular interest is his point 3, regarding a shift in the tax burden from the young to the old. This is arguably a desirable effect in today's France, where the young have long borne the burden of a system that has favored postwar cohorts, as discussed in a previous post. Note, too, Mankiw's fourth point, regarding what he believes will be the medium-term neutral effect of the tax shift on real wages (or purchasing power, to use the term favored by the candidates). He does, however, anticipate a possible short-term reduction in real wages and consequent stimulus to employment.

In Case You Missed It ...

And while I'm on the subject of BHL. you may not have seen his review of the translation of Sarkozy's literary oeuvre in The New York Times, since it doesn't appear until next Sunday. It was called to my attention by Pierre Assouline's rather murderous notice. It's too easy to make fun of Lévy, so I'll leave that to Garrison Keillor. The more interesting question is why The Times should choose him to represent the intelligent Frenchman's view of their new president. Is it because BHL professes such love for Americans? It was Tocqueville who remarked that Americans could never get enough of hearing themselves praised, so if others refused to do it for them, they would do it themselves. Lévy, who might profit from emulating Tocqueville's reserve on this point, seems eager to tell us that Sarkozy loves Americans almost as much as he does: Sarkozy "declares an outright and unfeigned admiration if not love" for the sister republic. This is one of the good things about him. The bad things are cynicism, greed, etc. Nevertheless, he can't help but like the guy: "Why did I fight against this man, who seems so likable?" The answer is promised in a future publication. We can hardly wait.

Brass Tacks

I was somewhat intemperately dismissive yesterday when I discussed the faux accord between Sarkozy and Merkel on the euro and the ECB. As is often the case in diplomacy, the faux accord translated movement toward a still uncertain destination. Today's remarks by Jean-Pierre Jouyet, secretary of state for European affairs and one of the socialistes d'ouverture in Fillon's government, lift the veil a little. While it was clear that the two principals were engaging in parallel play with their bedrock principles--Merkel reaffirming the dogma of central bank independence, Sarko harking back to the classic French obsession with rates of exchange--it was also clear that between bedrock and the sinuous river of policy, the waters may change course with the seasons. As the season of France's EU presidency approaches, preparations are being made to reroute the river. Jouyet wants to reorganize and clarify the mission of the Eurogroup. "It should have greater international visibility," he said, noting that the Chinese have a hard time orienting themselves among the many interlocutors. (It seems that Henry Kissinger isn't the only person who doesn't know what phone number to call when the question of Europe arises.) The yen and the yuan are clearly undervalued, Jouyet adds, and of course the US Treasury would agree. Iran has told the Japanese that it wants to be paid for its oil in yen, not dollars, and says the move is more economic than political: the falling dollar is not what Iran prefers to hold. As positions on currency shift, the game becomes both more dynamic and more complex. A major step could be in the offing, and Jouyet appears to be alive to the opportunity.

I criticized Sarkozy for obfuscation, because he attempted to reduce the question of exchange rates to one of pure manipulation for commercial advantage and to divorce it from the question of interest rates and price stability. But to be fair, he is obliged to simplify, and he is right that, if divorce is impossible, a certain independence within matrimony is not only possible but desirable. Europe is in a strong position to benefit from the coming realignment, and with Jouyet working behind the scenes with the Eurogroup and Strauss-Kahn potentially at the IMF, some of the Socialists' best economic talent could be well placed to influence the constellation of global economic forces. An interesting outcome for an election won by the right.

Reason Not the Need

Following Ségolène Royal's day of reflection on the reasons for her loss, Libé today has a series of articles treating the question. Stéphane Rozès sees a defeat prepared in three stages, culminating in a collapse into anti-Sarkozysm, repeating Jospin's error of campaigning against Chirac rather than for a program of the left. Renaud Dély indicts the "obsolescence" of the left's understanding of French society. Royal herself says "I ran a grass-roots campaign. Result: my reactivity on the networks was less effective." But she continues, she says, to believe in "participatory democracy. This modern way of doing politics remains pertinent." Jacques Généreux, less généreux than his name might imply, blames the candidate for coming on like an "illuminated televangelist," but then he adds, "a little like Jeanne d'Arc," which makes you wonder to which of the three the critic has been most unjust, the candidate, televangelists, or La Pucelle. And finally there is BHL, who blames everyone but the candidate, alleging that many in the party "supported her as the rope supports the hanged man." Royal herself he finds to have been "courageous and skillful, aggressive and sincere, accommodating when she should have been, without concessions when she could." For him the problem lies in the party itself, a fractious menagerie of "contradictory ideologies and world views."

And this is the problem with self-criticism. They say that victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan. It might be truer to say that defeat has a thousand deadbeat dads, each with his own alibi. The reasons don't add up; they run off in a thousand different directions. But if one were to try to synthesize a lesson from this unpalatable mess of whines, whacks, and waspishness, it might be this: a successful candidate needs to wed an idea and not merely communicate the ideas of others, whether of a party, a participating people, or a voice in the night.