Saturday, January 19, 2008

Sarko and Shinzo

It seems that le style Sarko had a precursor in Japan in the rhetoric of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. That is the opinion, at least, of Tobias Harris, who writes the Observing Japan blog. Since I am ignorant of Mr. Abe's gifts, I can't confirm this, but Harris quotes me as an authority on France, so obviously he's a man of discernment. (I dislike those little smiley gadgets, or I'd put one here.) He adds that "M. Sarkozy is obviously a much more adept politician than the hapless Mr. Abe," but it should be noted that Sarkozy's recourse to the "politics of civilization" has thus far been dismissed by the chattering classes as an affront to a nation awaiting a remedy to its loss of "purchasing power."

Of course, the pundits who regard the "politics of civilization" as mere drapery have no problem with the ubiquitous use of the phrase pouvoir d' achat, which I find more problematic. There is in fact a serious idea behind the "politics of civilization," though it's not at all clear to what extent Sarkozy has grasped it. Pouvoir d'achat, on the other hand, seems expressly designed to convey the impression that that to which it refers is a "power" that can be granted or denied by political fiat. It avoids mention of the two realities that it enfolds, wages and prices. Perhaps that is because each of those words has a clear political valence that pouvoir d'achat camouflages. To call for higher wages, after all, is to court the left, whereas price stability has monetarist connotations that pull toward the right. Pouvoir d'achat thus straddles the divide; it is a sort of ouverture in a phrase, one of those signifiers that Tocqueville compared to a valise with a false bottom, which makes it impossible to detect what has been put in or left out.

We have been endlessly reminded that, during the campaign, Sarkozy said "je serai le président du pouvoir d'achat." Perhaps the mistake was to assume that this meant that he intended to do something about either wages or prices rather than claim yet another presidential prerogative for himself, only to concede later, when it suited him, that of course he had no such power.

To be sure, he has enormously increased his own pouvoir d'achat by raising his salary while cutting his costs for items like jet travel to zero. But it would be cynical to point that out, and in any case, the media, supposedly the president's lackeys, have had good sport with it. How curious that Vincent Bolloré lends his plane so that his minions can sell magazines by lambasting the president for borrowing it. What diabolical cleverness! As Steve Rendall noted in a comment to a previous post, too many on the left console themselves with the belief that no one would find anything persuasive in Sarkozy's policies were it not for his alleged control of the media. Can anyone who has been reading the French press over the past month really believe that?

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