Thursday, July 19, 2007

Daniel on Sarko in Algeria

On July 9 I was critical of Jean Daniel for allowing the Elysée to announce that he would "accompany" President Sarkozy to Algeria. I thought it was unseemly for any journalist, but especially for the dean of opposition journalists, to allow himself to be co-opted in this way, inducted into the presidential entourage as an honorary member of the delegation. How could he maintain his critical distance?

I am now hoist by my own petard. I have read what Daniel has to say about his trip, and indeed it does lack critical distance, yet I find myself nodding in approval. I can't post a link to his editorial, because it isn't up on Le Nouvel Obs Web site yet; I received excerpts from a friend in France (thanks Steve!), and my comments will reflect what I've read, not the entire text.

Daniel touches on the question of memory and repentance, which has come up numerous times on this blog. His suggestion is that Sarkozy may have done something more important than repent for past wrongs; he may have shown a former colonial state the respect it has longed for and deserves: "It's the first time," Daniel writes, "that I've heard a representative of France abandon the usual attitude toward Algeria of neurotic paternalism and guilt-ridden protectiveness and treat it rather as having a potential equal to that of France, with a vast territory and considerable resources coveted by all the powers of the globe." Thus Daniel emphasizes not just Sarkozy's orientation toward the future rather than the past, as I did in my earlier comment on the trip, but also the French president's change in tone from patronizing protector to respectful partner. According to the reporter, moreover, the change in tone was favorably received: he quotes "several Algerian officials" who told him that if Sarkozy follows up on his promise to engage personally in the promotion of trans-Mediterranean and pan-Maghrébin cooperation and development, an "historic agreement" might be in the offing when the president returns to Algeria in December.

So I hope that I was wrong when I suggested that Daniel would be compromised by his induction into the presidential entourage; I hope he kept his reporter's wits about him even as he was being spun by his traveling companion and by his Algerian hosts. I hope he's right in discerning progress in the relationship between an important Muslim state and a European power with which relations have never been easy.

A Brief Excursus

Yesterday I hinted that there was much more to be said about the widening gap between rich and poor in countries with very different tax regimes--too much to say in a blog post. "Francofou" wasn't satisfied: a blog "is the best place for those who might not otherwise benefit, for one reason or another," he said in his comment.

As much as I hate to disappoint, I really can't take the time to go into this right now, but I will come back to it when the pressure of other work subsides (I do in fact have other work, though some of you may be wondering how I get it done, and I've begun to ask myself that question as well). In the meantime, let me leave you with two thoughts.

First, by "gap between rich and poor," I do not mean the gap between the super-rich and the rest of us. That is also a matter of concern, but one that as it happens is dealt with rather thoroughly in an essay by Brad DeLong, which, as luck would have it, Mark Thoma posted on his blog just this morning: you can read it here.

The gap I have in mind is rather that between the comfortable and relatively "unprecariously" employed--people like you and me--and the more vulnerable hourly worker, be he or she blue-collar ouvrier(ère) or white-collar employé(e) (the latter somewhat worse off in France today than the former). Say, for instance, the 25 percent of the French work force that earns less than 72 percent of the median income (according to Louis Chauvel's Les classes moyennes à la dérive). The gap between this group and the "comfortable" group--managers, professionals, academics, for example, even excluding the super-rich, the cosseted CEO, the golden-parachute beneficiary, the hedge-fund partner--is widening everywhere, so tax policy cannot be the sole explanation. The factor often invoked is increasing returns to education. The highly educated are supposed to be more productive, the argument goes, so nothing is amiss here: inputs to the production process are still rewarded with their marginal product. But what if the marginal product of this educated labor is largely a matter of organizational restructuring? What if one of the functions of the educated manager is to minimize the number of people like himself in any given organization? What if one of the enhancements to productivity made possible by the new technologies that require further education for proper utilization is in fact the possibility to expand production not by replicating an existing process of production but rather by continually innovating in organization in such a way as to increase the ratio of the precarious to the comfortable?

What we would see then would be what we have seen in France: expansion of the higher educational system in response to user demand for access to the comfortable positions; large numbers of disappointed graduates, unable to find comfortable positions, whose number has not increased commensurately with the number of aspirants; and a growing gap between the remuneration of managers, who reap the rewards of what might be called an "organizational" rather than a "technological" residual in the growth equation (if the latter concept is unfamiliar to you, find a textbook in macroeconomics and read about the work of Robert Solow).

Now, I really do have to get work, and I still have to write something about Jean Daniel and Algeria. Next coffee break.

Chirac--La Chute

It isn't going to be a soft landing for Jacques Chirac. Only two months out of office and already un témoin assisté. It would appear that he's been preparing his mea culpa for some time. He's right, of course: they all did it, everyone's guilty. Whether that means that no one should be punished for what we are asked to believe was a tribal ethos rather than an ethical lapse is a judgment I'll leave to those with a better knowledge of the facts. It does sadden me, though, to see the institution tarnished and the political class as a whole brought into discredit, even deserved discredit, because I think that the belief that they are tous pourris becomes dangerous when it becomes pervasive. Because even when they are tous pourris, they are also usually more than that, and the more is too easily forgotten in the flood of righteous indignation. A less-than-spotless New York City politician once said that the trouble with his persecutor/prosecutor was that "he doesn't know the difference between honest graft and real corruption." I've always found that a useful maxim for confronting the sublunary world.

Now, the Clearstream Affair is another matter, and we haven't yet heard either Chirac or Villepin on that. If Gergorin's purported story is true, it will be difficult to characterize the crime as anything less than real corruption. I can imagine Sarkozy magnanimously pardoning his former nemesis for the party financing irregularities; he, too, knows how sausages are made. But the Clearstream conspiracy seems to have been aimed directly at him. As a master of the political art, Sarko knows that gratuitous acts of benevolence can make power seem magnanimous, but it takes a great deal of magnanimity to forgive an attempted assassination.

Did Fillon Misspeak Again?

François Fillon squirmed in his seat yesterday when Sarkozy, announcing the mission of the constitutional reform commission, said that it would consider the elimination of the prime minister, "but not [enigmatic smile] of Monsieur Fillon." One can understand why Fillon might be feeling uncomfortable and why Sarko might be wishing he could be eliminated. When Fillon slipped and spoke of a TVA increase between the two rounds of the legislative elections, it cost his party seats. When he raised the possibility of "minimum service" in education, he aroused the ire of the teachers unions.

It's already odd to apply to the schools the same criterion that one applies to railroads, hospitals, and air traffic control. All are essential public services, but they are not all essential in the same way. It is hard to think of a school walkout as creating a public emergency rather than a serious inconvenience, and the Conseil d'Etat has taken a dim view of strike restrictions where no public emergency is involved. Fillon's remark suggests that he thinks of teachers as providing an essential service, but that the service is babysitting, not education.

I suggested yesterday that the push for minimum service is in part a tactical maneuver by a government expecting labor unrest and eager to equip itself with tools to minimize the secondary effects of strikes if they materialize. It's a little hard to imagine how this will work, however. The government is proposing to eliminate 17,000 posts in education. Suppose the teachers strike. If non-striking teachers can't babysit all the children of France, what then? They can come to work, sit in their classrooms, and legally not receive any children, because it has been ruled unsafe for schools to operate understaffed if the personnel determine that there is a security risk.

There is an old maxim of French politics which says that only the right can reform the schools because the left depends on the support of teachers. Fillon may be licking his chops a bit too soon. He really should learn better manners.