Friday, October 12, 2007

Ségolène Royal's Karl Rove

According to Frédéric Martel's deliciously ironic review, Patrick Mennucci describes himself as the Karl Rove of Ségolène Royal's campaign--a rather masochistic self-description, since Rove's only discernable virtue is to have elected an incompetent twice, whereas Mennucci can claim only to have failed to elect an incompetent once. Lest you find the description of the candidate as "incompetent" harsh, I leave the responsibility to Mennucci himself: "The French deemed our proposals not to be credible--quite simply because they weren't." Of this Martel dryly remarks: "But Patrick Mennucci is Marseillais. He is likable. He always exaggerates."

There are revelations. Mennucci directly contradicts Lionel Jospin's claim not to have attempted to block the Royal candidacy. It was not for lack of trying that he failed, according to Mennucci, whose flair for the devastating vignette may owe more to his ghost writer's talent than to his own: at dinner after a meeting in Marseilles, Jospin broached only three subjects: "The quality of Maussane olive oil in the Alpilles, the temperature of the Mediterranean, and the Château-Simone appellation Palette, which he rightly regards as the best wine of the Bouches-du-Rhône."

As for the failure of the campaign, Mennucci avers that Royal's strategy was "not complex": she expected that Sarkozy would be defeated by his own personality, a belief her manager claims was shared by all the Socialist leaders. Coming from the self-styled Karl Rove of the campaign, this is a rather damaging admission. Rove would not have left it to an opponent to blacken his own name. He would have found ways to assist the self-destruction. He also says that the Royalistes expected that Sarko would be held accountable for the failures of the Chirac regime in which he served. Again, one wants to ask why the Socialist candidate didn't do more to hold him accountable, rather than count on the maladroitness of a rival who in the event proved more nimble than his detractors imagined.

Martel's review seems to extract the marrow from the book and obviate the need for actually reading it, a prospect that is made less than enticing by this nugget of southern French wisdom:

Le livre s’éternise et il devient tellement long qu’on aurait le temps, le lisant, de tuer un âne à coups de figues (autre expression du sud).

I will remember the expression tuer un âne à coups de figues , I suspect, longer than I will remember the Royal campaign.

L'écrit et l'écran

Roger Chartier reflects on the advent of digital media and its significance for the future of written communication in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France. For my translation of his "Inscription and Erasure: Literature and Written Culture from the Eleventh to the Eighteenth Century," see here.

Books on the PS reviews six books on the current misfortunes of the Socialist Party.

Global Governance

Sophie Meunier and Rawi Abdelal have an interesting piece on Telos about the long-standing prominence of Frenchmen in institutions of global governance such as the IMF. This might seem somewhat surprising, given the persistent hostility of French majorities to globalization. Meunier and Abdelal explore French thinking about ways to bring a globalized economy under greater international control.

Precautionary Principle

The Attali Commission on growth has submitted its first recommendations. The proposal to abrogate the Royer, Raffarin, and Galland laws to promote competition in retail distribution is hardly a surprise (I've already discussed previous moves in this direction). The commission also wants to rescind Chirac's proposal to include the "precautionary principle" in the Constitution. This is a provision about which I might get exercised if I thought the precautionary principle had any teeth. But I don't. Here is a statement:

l'absence de certitudes, compte tenu des connaissances scientifiques et techniques du moment, ne doit pas retarder l'adoption de mesures effectives et proportionnées visant à prévenir un risque de dommages graves et irréversibles […] à un coût économiquement acceptable

Exactly what does this "principle" imply? That one ought to do something to prevent "grave and irreversible damage." Who could object to that? But wait--one ought to do something to prevent the "risk" of such damage. How much risk is acceptable? The "principle" does not give us a standard by which to judge. Worse, it enshrines ignorance of both norm and measure as if it were reason itself: "the absence of certainty ... should not delay" action. But only if the action is "proportionate," though to what we have no way of knowing, given the uncertainty. And then, too, we should act only if the "cost is economically acceptable." To call this muddle a "principle" is an affront to logic. It is a salve to conscience and a meaningless phrase to be wielded in high moral dudgeon by the uncompromising partisans of the good--until it is picked apart in court by hard-headed lawyers, who are left plenty of room for maneuver by the flimsy high-mindedness of the cautiously righteous.

Secretary of State for Ecology Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet naturally labels the Attali Commission's proposal "reactionary."

For an informed discussion of "precautionary" reasoning in the face of uncertainty, see this paper.