Monday, September 10, 2007

More Special Regimes

Picking up Gregory Brown's comment that the only special regime that really seems to matter is the one pertaining to railway workers, I would take it a step farther. It is really a bit of a puzzle why this reform looms so large, since it affects no more than 7 percent of the work force. So I would suggest that what's really going on here is a monumental piece of political theater. Most people still remember the chaos that ensued after Juppé attacked the special regimes in 1995. That spectacle of public disorder has created an aura of great importance around the special regimes, which they do not deserve. Hence Sarkozy scores points for boldness in attacking the issue. The unions score points for defending the interests of their members by raising the ante. Both sides will probably push their posturing some distance before pulling back to compromise positions that are already fairly well understood: a general alignment of the special regimes with the general regime but with exceptions for the "arduousness" (pénibilité) of certain specific types of work. Royal recognized this principle in her campaign; the CFDT has accepted it. The CGT wants to go further, to establish some kind of equality between the retirement benefits of wage workers and those of salaried workers.

I think that in the end there will have been much snorting and pawing of the ground and very little actual goring. If I turn out to be wrong, I'll profit from the reminder of my non-infallibility. Perry Anderson likes to say of the French that ce peuple est encore dangereux. As I've told Perry in the past, I think that most peoples are dangerous now and then, but not necessarily in the way he imagines. I don't think that the special regimes will turn out to be the line in the sand that Sarkozy cannot cross.

Special Regimes

François Fillon went on TV over the weekend and announced that the reform of the special retirement regimes was all set and that the government was just awaiting word from the president to pull the trigger. He apparently believes that reform should be simple, since the eponymous Fillon Law of 2003 already set the terms. All that remains is to bring the remaining exceptions in line with the retirement regulations applicable to everyone else.

This was, to say the least, maladroit--almost as maladroit as Fillon's evocation of a possible new tax, the social VAT, before the legislative elections, which cost his party a substantial number of seats. In both cases his error was the same: his analysis of the financial exigencies led him to take for granted the solution he regarded as obvious, without allowing for political compromise. In this he seems to be repeating the error that Alain Juppé made in 1995. But Fillon should be a better politician than Juppé. He seems, on the surface at least, to be less arrogant; a lawyer by training, he lacks the peremptoriness of the quintessential énarque. Yet he seems to have a knack for getting people's hackles up. It simply doesn't make sense, as the unions have been quick to point out, to say that the reform is fully worked out, now let's have a consultation. On such a key reform, in the works now for so many years, I wouldn't have thought that such a gaffe was possible. If I were Sarkozy, I would be very concerned right now about my choice of Fillon as prime minister.

Sarko is to announce his decision on special regimes on Sept. 18.

More Words

It seems that Catherine Dolto, the daughter of well-known psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto, wrote an e-mail accusing Daniela Lumbroso, a TV personality and the author of an unauthorized biography of the elder Dolto, of being "une canaille prétentieuse." For that insult she has been sentenced to pay Lumbroso 38 euros in damages plus court costs. This, even though the e-mail was private and addressed to Lumbroso.

In another case, one of the desecrators of a Jewish cemetery in Herrlisheim was asked if he was a racist. "I am not a racist," he replied, "but I don't like scum" (la racaille). His attorney then asked: "If I say to you, 'I'm going to get rid of that scum for you,' what does that mean to you?" The defendant replied: "I guess, order needs to be restored." His lawyer's comment: "The example is set on high." The words he had quoted were of course those uttered by Sarkozy in Argenteuil.

Canaille, racaille, Kärcher, Sarkozytis (for the latter two words, see previous post): it's interesting that words associated with the president, and even a deformation of his name, have acquired such defamatory potency in recent months that they appear repeatedly in the courts. Of course, as Daniel Gordon noted in a comment some time ago, European law regulating speech is much more sensitive to attacks on the dignity of individuals than American speech law, which is more concerned with preserving the liberty of political speech. It is very difficult for a public person in the United States to win a slander case, so it is hard for us to understand how a private insult to Daniela Lumbroso can warrant a court judgment. Yet the fact that such judgments are rendered in France may indicate why the reaction to Sarkozy's use of the word racaille was as strong as it was, whatever the justification.

Nevertheless, anyone who has ever witnessed the exchange of insults between drivers in a Paris traffic altercation must wonder why the courts bother to try to enforce civility.


Two cases should interest students of free speech in France. Laure Adler, the former head of France Culture, won a judgment of 1000 euros for slander against an association of listeners of the network who claimed that her approach to managing it would reduce the French to "living and thinking like pigs." Though the formula may appear inelegant, not to say crude, it seems to have an intellectual pedigree, having been borrowed from the title of a book by philosopher Gilles Châtelet, described by Libé as a "vehement attack on market democracies."

In passing, the same article notes that the cartoonist Placid was convicted of portraying a policeman with a snout and sentenced to pay damages.

Meanwhile, in Brittany, the grocery chain Super U has filed a slander complaint against a Communist militant who has been distributing tracts accusing the employer of being afflicted with "acute Sarkozytis." The tracts allege that the employer is authoritarian, doesn't pay for overtime, and cleanses employees with "social Kärcher," but the slander complaint focuses on the comparison with Sarkozy, which the market's attorney deems an "insult in the social context of the period of crisis in the suburbs."