Wednesday, July 25, 2007


With his usual political realism, acumen, and flair, it seems that Michel Rocard asked Ségolène Royal in March to step aside as candidate and hand the role over to him, since it was plain as day that she was going to lose. It's a little difficult to imagine the conversation. How might he have put it? Sure, he could have pointed out that the polls were trending downward, but how exactly would he have persuaded her that he, Michel Rocard, age 77, having failed to make the case for his candidacy in all those years, should now step forward and be embraced by his compatriots as the inevitable man on the white horse come to save France from the Black Knight? Would it really have helped matters to expose the party's internal chaos even more fully than was already the case? If she had accepted his proposal, would he have scored even 47 percent? I doubt it.

And by the way, Rocard says that Royal told him that if she did step aside, it would be for François Hollande. On croit rêver.

The Future of France

I spent two hours this morning with the future of France. At 18, this young man has already founded an association that brought about a change in French law. At 18, he has already served as an advisor to a presidential campaign. At 18, about to begin his studies at a French university, he has already discussed with his friends whether it is best to try first for success in politics and then business, or the other way around. As we walked through Harvard Square, I didn't see anyone I knew, because most of my colleagues vanish for the summer, but he was warmly greeted by someone he had met on his previous visit to the United States, for a gathering of young Internet entrepreneurs.

And did I mention that this young man was un beur? No, because it didn't seem to loom large in his mind. His identity, like the identity of any 18-year-old, is a much more complicated, much more subjective, much more fraught matter than his ethnicity, which is merely an objective fact about him. He has so much else on his mind.

Clearly, this is an atypical young man. But still a hopeful sign of change.

Economic Patriotism

A lull in the news cycle affords me the leisure to begin a discussion of "economic patriotism," in response to a request made a few days ago.

What is "economic patriotism?" Taken in its most general sense, of course, the phrase is by no means peculiarly French. Even the freest of free traders is occasionally tempted by the venial, and often-times venal, sin of hypocrisy: witness George Bush's protectionist measures in favor of the steel industry after the United Steel Workers contributed handsomely to his campaign, or in favor of the furniture industry when North Carolina's electoral votes proved to be a prize too tempting to pass up. Old-timers will recall the "Buy Britain" signs that loomed above the greenswards of Merrie Olde England in the Sixties, to say nothing of the smashing of windshields of imported cars in the parking lots of American auto plants.

In France, however, the phrase patriotisme économique has several more specific associations. It came into prominence on July 27, 2005, when Dominique de Villepin used it in a press conference to denounce Danone's plan to close a French plant. Protests by plant workers had drawn a considerable amount of publicity, and since Danone was not in the red at the time and had made the move to consolidate operations in a way that the company deemed rational but that cost French jobs, the media found it convenient to portray the episode as an instance of the purported ravages of the unfettered market and international capital. Since the government was still reeling from the No vote on the European Constitution referendum, Villepin seems to have seized the opportunity in yet another of Chirac's fitful efforts to prove that he was not a stalking horse for neo-liberalism and had thoroughly recovered from his brief flirtation with Thatcherism-Hayekism of circa 1995. Villepin later continued on this line when he successfully blocked an attempted takeover of GDF by the Italian firm Enel SpA in February 2006. (He accomplished this by arranging a merger of GDF with Suez, which Sarkozy is now reconsidering and may scotch.) All of this of course drew negative comment from numerous angles, as outlined here and here.

These fits and starts of what might be called le protectionnisme atmosphérique, or Colbertist jawboning, might be dismissed as insignificant, given simultaneous efforts by the government to attract foreign capital. But to dismiss these well-covered media opportunities as mere eyewash would be to miss the deeper currents of economic patriotism that run through the French right. Villepin, in fact, borrowed the phrase from a report by Bernard Carayon, a UMP deputy with solid nationalist credentials. Through the Groupe Union Défense and its predecessor organization Occident, Carayon is linked to a number of other prominent figures of the right: Claude Goasguen, who was a Sarko spokesman during the campaign; Patrick Devedjian, now co-head of the UMP; Alain Madelin, Gérard Longuet, etc. The militant and muscular Cold War anticommunism and ultranationalism that formerly linked these men have morphed in the years since the fall of Communism into a neo-nationalism with a strong economic component. Rather than the "liberal economic patriotism" advocated by economists such as Elie Cohen, who believe that the best way for France to compete internationally is to attract as much foreign capital and talent to France as possible, these economic nationalists want to limit the influx of foreign capital, foreign management, and foreign labor.

How influential are they in Sarkozy's inner circle? I suspect less influential than they would like to think, despite the prominence of figures such as Goasguen and Devedjian. Two signs: Christine Lagarde, the minister of finance, is deeply hostile to this point of view, and Patrick Devedjian, who desperately wanted a ministry, did not get one and has been among the more outspoken critics of Sarkozy's ouverture to the left. Indeed, it is one of the ironies of Sarkozy's position that he has had to turn to Socialist economic talent--e.g., DSK, Jouyet, Besson, and now Attali, just named to head a commission to reflect on impediments to economic growth--precisely because the national/xenophobic line on social issues that helped him unify the right on his road to office is at odds on economic matters with the line that Sarko's most prominent appointments to date suggest he favors.

Still, as Sarkozy has stated on numerous occasions, he is no theorist, so don't expect him to hold to a consistent line on anything if the exigencies of political action dictate otherwise. He will need to find ways to mollify the economic patriots in his entourage, and he is no doubt resourceful enough to create his own opportunities.