Thursday, August 16, 2007

Constitutional Council Rules

The Conseil Constitutionnel today ruled on two Sarkozy reforms. The minimum service law was found to be constitutional; specifically, the requirement that certain employees notify management of their intent to strike 48 hours in advance was found not to constitute a limitation of the right to strike, since only "essential personnel" are subject to the requirement. The tax package was also declared constitutional, except for the provision granting retroactive tax credit for loans contracted before Sarkozy took office. This is rather convenient for Sarkozy, since it reduces the cost of the measure without obliging him to renege on a campaign promise.

Texts of the two decisions can be found here and here.

Social VAT: Opposition within the Majority

Jean-François Copé, an ambitious man not altogether happy with his fate under Sarkozysm (president of the UMP group in the Assembly in lieu of a ministry), is baring his teeth. In advance of a report expected from Eric Besson, secretary of state for prospective planning, on the social VAT, Copé has let it be known that, as far as he's concerned, the proposed new tax is up for discussion. He worries that it might cause inflation if firms don't lower their prices to reflect reduced charges under the detaxation of overtime. The concern is legitimate, but one suspects that Copé is at least as concerned to demonstrate that he still exists and that his support for any presidential initiatives will have to be compensated. He notes that the social VAT wasn't part of Sarkozy's platform, hence he doesn't feel bound to support it. As for the substance of the case, he thinks that parliamentarians should avail themselves "of public and private expertise to monitor the work of government." To pay for such consultations, he proposes "abolishing a bunch of useless agencies such as the Center for Strategic Analysis ... and the Council of Economic Analysis" to free up funds that the Assembly can use to buy its own experts. I suppose it's too much to hope that experts could offer independent advice and that everyone--government and parties--would see the advantages of soliciting the best contrasting opinions and sifting among them, rather than buying the advice one wants to hear.

National Identity

La République laïque recently asked a Frenchwoman to prove that she was Jewish in order to renew her carte d'identité. The ostensible reason for this unusual request for proof of a citizen's religious affiliation was to verify that the woman, Brigitte Abitbol, who was born in Algeria, was entitled to French nationality because her parents had been rendered full-fledged citizens of France by the Loi Crémieux (named for Adolphe Crémieux, pictured left). The bureaucrat making the request said that he required the additional documentation because the woman had "a Jewish-sounding name" (un nom à consonance israélite--the translation doesn't render adequately the ineffable haughtiness of the official pretext, apparently sanctioned by instructions given to responsible officials by the Ecole Nationale des Greffes, which trains those empowered to issue identity cards). The whole tangled history of the definition of French nationality, which, despite pretensions to the contrary is anything but universel, is epitomized by this case, which touches on such matters as different qualities of citizenship for various categories of Algerian residents, Vichy, pieds-noirs, etc. (For a follow-up story, see here.)

Horse Gone, Time to Close Barn Door

Nicolas Sarkozy took time out from his vacation to write Angela Merkel a letter, but he didn't say "having a wonderful time, wish you were here." The sudden worldwide financial crisis is making a mockery of the best-laid plans (for vacations,* economic reforms, rapid growth, etc.). The news must be particularly bitter to Sarko, whose first three months had seemed to go so well. But the horse has now escaped from the barn, and the French president, man of ceaseless action that he is, is the first to remind his fellow G7 leaders that they should have closed the barn door years ago, back before he was president--and only, say, finance minister, with direct responsibility for overseeing this sort of thing. He is particularly worried about the titrisation--as the French translate the English "securitization," and securitization is very definitely an invention of that hydra-headed monster, "Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism"--of risky loans (Charles Wyplosz offers thoughtful commentary on the matter here; Marco Onado weighs in here). The worry is not misplaced, merely belated, and Sarko's errors of omission are no worse than those of others on this score. We've all heard the warnings for years and waited for someone to do something, while continuing to trust our money to markets and institutions we didn't fully understand.

So it's cold comfort to know that the crisis has got Sarkozy's full attention, and I would imagine that his G7 colleagues might be rather miffed when they read the scolding missive from Wolfeboro. Shouldn't he get credit for at least doing something rather than just standing by with that deer-in-the-headlights look that George Bush has made almost synonymous with "presidential"? Not necessarily. The midst of panic is perhaps not the best time to let people know that the folks supposedly in charge really have no idea how bad things might be.

But Sarko hasn't lost his touch altogether: he made some young French camp counselors very happy by accepting the cookies they baked for him, and for them the experience, which included gifts of key rings bearing the presidential seal (yet another Americanization of the French presidency?), was "unforgettable."

Ah, well. What is virtù unless tested by fortuna?

* Sarkozy reportedly ordered Christine Lagarde to cut her vacation short and return to Paris to oversee the response to the liquidity crisis; he is remaining in New Hampshire, however.