Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Press Conference

There will of course be many things to say about Sarkozy's press conference, which is still going on as I write. But since I'm up at this ungodly hour listening to him, and have listened patiently for an hour and a half already, I feel the itch to make a few observations. There can be no doubt that Sarko is a remarkable performer. Like any great actor, he fascinates, he rivets the attention, in part because of his complex repertoire of tics and gesticulations and grimaces, but most of all because he is so fully concentrated in his performance. One has the sense that he needs to fascinate in order to exist, that his audience confirms him in his sense that he is a man of destiny.

Second, the "politics of civilization" was not an idle phrase to be forgotten after the New Year's greetings. Now the borrowing from Edgar Morin is openly affirmed. The intention is to infuse politics with poetry, to eschew the pallid practice of "governance," that wan neologism, in favor of what de Gaulle would have called grandeur. Sarko's grandeur partakes not of glory, however, but of the affective. The words "love" and "value" loom large.

Third, the transcendence of mere "governance" might seem to be a form of escape from reality, une fuite en avant, as the French say, but Sarkozy attempted to give the idea a certain solidity. One proposal that aroused my interest was the idea that we need new measures of what we want to achieve in, say, the realm of economic policy. The obsession with growth, as measured by GDP or per-capita GDP, leads to neglect of "human values." And to that end, he has asked Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz to reflect on the question. It may not be easy to perceive the results of their reflection in the short term. But the ambition strikes me as worthy and novel, and the choice of Sen and Stiglitz is inspired.*

Another proposal that may not yield immediate results is the idea of expanding the G8 to G13. The significance of this idea lay in the way Sarkozy justified it. With reason he finds it unjust that one should presume to govern the global economy while excluding half of humanity. He wants to include China and India as representatives of Asia, Brazil and Mexico as representatives of Latin America, and South Africa as the representative of Africa--the excluded continents. Of course the idea of representing excluded humanity by way of regional hegemons might be regarded as peculiarly French for its statist assumptions about the nature of representation. But it has at least the virtue of practicality. And, I might add, the appearance of inevitability once stated.

When asked about his errors, the president, unlike Bush, who famously couldn't think of any, mentioned, among others, the famous social VAT. This was a mistake, he said, because, first, there was nothing "social" about it. It should have been described instead as a transfer of the tax burden from production to consumption. And it was a mistake to talk about it before being prepared to act on it. If you discuss it, you'd better be prepared to implement it.

Finally, I was struck by Sarkozy's diagnosis of the reason for the failings of his predecessors. He drew a contrast between the will to endure and the will to act. I want to act, he said; they wanted to endure. And once you make the choice to endure, you hamstring your action.

*Amartya Sen seems to have been inspired as well. He calls the idea "brilliant." Jean-Paul Fitoussi apparently served as intermediary between Sarkozy and Sen.

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