Monday, September 24, 2007

An Unusual Labor Conflict

Workers at Conforama are protesting a decision by a court in Pontoise that has forced the chain to close on Sundays. The decision came in response to a suit filed by Force Ouvrière, which represents a minority of the workers. The majority want to work, including many members of FO, but the union rep is adamant about enforcing the Labor Code provision against Sunday work. Other stores located near Conforama outlets remain open on Sundays.

Travailler plus pour gagner plus. One wonders how long the president can bear to stay out of this fight. Conforama management has joined workers to protest the court's decision.

Financing la Sécu

The government presented its proposal today for decreasing the social security deficit: 50-cent co-pays on prescriptions and "paramedical" services, 2 euro copay on medical transport. Figures low enough to make Americans green with envy, even if some French will groan in misery. Plus a tax on dividends paid by firms to stockholders.

Still, the expected reduction amounts to only one-third of the deficit, about 4 billion euros (can that be right? How many prescriptions are written annually in France? Anybody know offhand? TO ANSWER MY own question: in 2003, nearly 1.9 billion prescriptions were reimbursed by la Sécu. That's an astounding number! More than 30 scrips for every man, woman, and child in France, which is known to be the heaviest drug-consumer in Europe.)

As for the tax on dividends--hardly a "neo-liberal" measure, that. There will also be new taxes on early retirement and forced retirement, to be paid by firms. There, the supply-side logic is clearer: extending the working life is one of the government's structural reform goals. Of course, to the extent the strategy succeeds, the expected tax receipts decline.

Sarko Seduces the American Left

American Prospect's Ezra Klein; Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias.

André Gorz Suicide

Readers of a certain age will know the name of André Gorz, a major figure in what was called "the second left," co-founder of Le Nouvel Observateur, collaborator of Sartre's at Les Temps modernes, which he edited for a time .... for more on his life, see here. He died yesterday, a suicide, along with his wife, who was suffering from a degenerative disease.

I learned from him.

Convergences and Divergences

Philippe Séguin last week proposed taxing stock options offered in lieu of salary as a way of reducing the social security deficit, which, at 11.7 billion euros, is more than 46 percent higher than projected. Now, François Fillon has agreed with him, and Socialist Stéphane Le Foll seems receptive to the idea. Convergence?

At the same time, Le Monde is reporting "divergences" within the cabinet over whether the new deficit figures, coupled with reduced growth estimates, require greater austerity. Lagarde and Fillon are said to be "deficit hawks" who insist on greater fiscal rigor. Jean-Claude Trichet threw his weight behind them yesterday. Eric Woerth, minister of the budget, is also in the hawk camp. LATE ADDITION: Jean Arthuis, UMP senator and former finance minister.

On the other side, the Elysée: Claude Guéant, who has publicly reprimanded the hawk ministers; Henri Guaino, who wants concessions from the ECB; and the president himself, who shows no sign of concern with the deficit numbers.

In between, the UMP: Patrick Devedjian calls Lagarde's use of the word rigueur "inappropriate," but he also says, "We mustn't be alarmist, because the economy is also a matter of psychology. What message should we transmit to the country, one of encouragement or discouragement? We need both a supply-side policy and an austerity policy. We must use both the accelerator and the brake pedal." Not at the same time, one hopes. Devedjian also mistakes the nature of the policy package: it's demand stimulus through tax cuts coupled with rigor in the form of a reduction in the number of government employees. The supply-side measures taken thus far are modest: detaxing of overtime might be construed as supply-side as well as demand-side. The ideology of the Laffer curve doesn't seem to have found its way to France, but in some respects Sarkozy has gravitated instinctively to the fallacious notion that tax cuts pay for themselves. It's a convenient idea for a campaigning politician. It remains to be seen how deeply Sarkozy believes it, congenial as it is to his politics of the will.


The New York Times today published an interview with Sarkozy, in which he seems to have failed to impress his interviewers as the maître du verbe so much in evidence in the French media last week. He was "brusque," the two journalists write, and greeted them with "unadorned hellos." His "jaw muscles twitched. His gait was awkward. He cut his interviewers off in midsentence." They wondered if he might have been suffering from a migraine but were assured by the staff that he was not.

These debilities are put down in the end to "tension" the president may have been feeling about broaching the delicate matter of war with Iran. One wonders, however, if the problem may not have been more linguistic than strategic. We are not told how the interview was conducted. In French, in English and French with interpretation, in French punctuated by English (those "unadorned hellos"?), or what have you? (CORRECTION: it was conducted in French and translated by the Times. I still suspect that Sarkozy attempted pleasantries in English and that awkwardness and discomfort were the result.) Jean-David Levitte was present--as an advisor or a high-level interpreter? I raise these questions because so much of Sarkozy's power seems to me linguistic. His mixture of plain-speaking, mastery of details, logical concision, and subtle insinuations of superiority recall Bill Clinton. Sciolino and Smale describe a speaker who is tight rather than fluent, awkward (stumbling over the pronunciation of "multilateralism") rather than assured, and almost daunted by the challenge of presenting himself to the representatives of American opinion, as if the hyperprésident feared only one thing, the hyperpuissance. Did they invent this president, or did Sarkozy follow the performance lapses of his ministers (rigueur, faillite, guerre)?

As for Iran, the least that can be said is that Sarkozy has muddied the waters still further. Having said that an Iranian bomb is unacceptable, he now says that he doesn't "use the word war." He thus rebukes Kouchner for this threat, having already rebuked him for his trip to Baghdad and his pledge to go to Teheran. Kouchner has not been a quick study as foreign minister. He continues to behave as though his choice of words were weightless, despite the gravity of his position, and it is only the fact that the rest of the world ignores him, on the assumption that Sarko is really his own foreign minister, that makes his on-the-job learning seem tolerable. One wonders nevertheless how long Sarkozy will put up with such ineptitude. Perhaps that is why he was feeling so tense.

One astonishing passage from the interview:

It has been more than 20 years, 21 years maybe, since the United States Secretary of State has not been an American, or rather, has been an American from outside: Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condi [Condoleezza] Rice — a great example to follow. There are other things that I like less, but I feel very close to the values that are conveyed.

Americans of color are from "outside" or "not American"? Does this tell us something about how Sarkozy views French issus de l'immigration? And why does he leave out Zbig and Henry K--far more "from outside" than "Condi," to whom he refers so familiarly?