Thursday, December 20, 2007

Municipal Elections

A while back I asked for people living in France to send reports of the municipal elections in their localities. Jeff Steiner is the first to answer the call. He has a report of the contest in La Roche-sur-Foron, a town of 12,000 in Haute-Savoie. I hope others will contribute similar reports.


Sarkozy, named honorary canon of Saint John Lateran by the pope, visited the Vatican today. Although the Swiss Guards were apparently hoping for a glimpse of Carla Bruni, Sarkozy instead invited the humorist Jean-Marie Bigard, much to the consternation of two observers of the French president, Robert Solé and Bernard Girard. Both see in this gesture further proof, if proof were needed, of the president's "vulgarity." Rolex watches, yachts, speedboats, supermodels, dime-store novelists (see Yasmina Reza's account of the meeting with Marc Lévy), Fouquet's. I would add the staged reading of Camus's Noces in Tipaza, while Sarko stared pensively at the sea in a shocking display of aesthetic obtuseness.

I have no intention of disputing the characterization of the president's tastes as "vulgar." Indeed, I think his vulgarity is one of the secrets of his success. Time magazine's recent piece on the "death of French culture" naturally provoked a good deal of comment in France, but of course this putative death is a regularly recurring event. The mistake, common to outsiders, is to suppose that the high culture of any country is its culture tout court. This is never true, but France had been more successful than many other countries in accrediting among foreigners, and especially Americans, the idea that its high culture simply was its culture. Of course no insider would make this mistake, and a few hours watching French television would be enough to convince one otherwise, but the Élysée is not Michel Drucker's sofa or Laurent Ruquier's platform. A certain decorum was expected of presidents, and if Jacques Chirac, representative of the Corrèze, was comfortable patting the behinds of cows, he also collected Japanese art, and François Mitterrand sought refuge from the tumult of Socialist meetings with the novels of Ernst Jünger.

Sarkozy is a different breed of president. His vulgarity is authentic, and people who share his tastes sense this and are delighted by it. Those who don't share his tastes are repelled by them, but they shouldn't on that account dismiss his political instincts. It is one of the challenges of democracy that people of different tastes must temper their judgments. There is a tendency among cultivated elites to underestimate the politically gifted vulgarian. The classic case is Andrew Jackson, a president whose election horrified his self-styled betters but whose political shrewdness remade American politics. It is too early to say whether Sarkozy's presidency will mark a similar watershed in French politics, but it is not out of the question. And if it does, his predilection for flashy watches and flashier women will not have been the least of it.

Le Monde Crisis

David Bell the other day was kind enough to cite this blog as "a good example of how the Internet has been transforming the news media." There is no doubt that the Internet is a powerful solvent, but is it also corrosive? The question is raised by Daniel Schneidermann's comment on the latest crisis at Le Monde. As I mentioned yesterday, the paper's on-line unit is making money while the traditional paper is losing money. But of course this is an accounting fiction created by corporations and contracts, even if it does result in real flows of cash (in the case of Le Monde Interactif into the pockets of Arnaud Lagardère). The "interactive" paper (which is scarcely more interactive than the paper version, unless you're among the handful of people who comment on articles) depends entirely on the staff of the traditional paper for its distinctive content. The rest is wire-service dispatches and fluff. There is no "value added," and in some respects there is value taken away. So it would be a shame if the apparent profitability of the new formula were to decimate the staff of the old paper because the profits from the on-line operation are not appropriately shared.

I say this as a consumer of the on-line version. Obviously I could not maintain this blog without the many electronic sources, including Le Monde, that have made it possible for an observer in the US to be on top of breaking news in France. I remember the days when I had to trudge down to Harvard Square to buy my Le Monde 3 days late; I remember subscribing to the édition hébdomadaire, printed on flimsy onion skin and shorn of 3/4 of the news; and I am still usually a day or two ahead of some of my colleagues at the Center for European Studies, who, as men of their generation, read the stale printed news in the paper edition still displayed in the building's lobby. Nevertheless, I am acutely aware that the news that is now so rapidly disseminated still requires journalists to compile and make sense of it.

The recent proliferation of on-line sources in France, and the continuing financial crises at several major papers, suggest that we are in the midst of a change whose end point is not at all clear to me. I have already expressed my doubts about Edwy Plenel's launch of a new paid on-line-only news outlet, MediaPart. Its staff, though made up of distinguished journalists, is small, and its focus has been described as both "generalist" and "investigative," which are hardly the same thing. It seems unlikely that MediaPart can replace Le Monde. Nor can Le Monde replace itself with an on-line-only operation.

So who will pay for the news? Because if no one pays, we are likely to be reading a good deal more about presidential outings to Disneyland and audiences with the pope and a good deal less about decisions of the European Court like the one in the Laval Case (which, as the previous post makes clear, I should have read more carefully than I did--but then, as David Bell pointed out, my labor is bénévole, so I relied imprudently on someone who was paid to do the job, whose biases I failed to take into account).

Laval Decision Revisited

Éloi Laurent disagrees with Jean Quatremer's analysis of the Laval decision, which I cited yesterday, and suggests this source instead. There you will find a much more pessimistic reading of the decision, which is taken as a blow to "social Europe":

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) expressed its disappointment on the "challenge" that the judgement "poses to the very successful flexible Swedish system of collective bargaining and those of certain other Nordic countries – the models for flexicurity currently being promoted by the European Commission".

ETUC added: "It will necessitate reviews in those countries of the implementation of the posted workers directive. There could be negative implications for other countries' systems from this narrow interpretation of the posted workers' directive. There could also be implications for unions' ability to promote equal treatment and protection of workers regardless of nationality and there will also be concern that unions' ability to guarantee these objectives is threatened by the free movement of services principle."

Thanks to Éloi for the pointer and the instruction.