Friday, February 29, 2008

Le Monde Chat

I will be changing hats on Wednesday to comment on American politics for a French audience, courtesy of Le Monde.

Delinquency to Insecurity

Luc Bonner has a very interesting review of Laurent Bonelli's La France a peur: Une histoire sociale de l'insécurité. In particular, he traces the inflection of political discourse about crime signaled by the shift from talk about "delinquency" to talk about "insecurity." There was no hint of "insecurity" in Mitterrand's "lettre à tous les Français" of 1988, but by 1995 "garantir la sécurité" had become a key plank in Lionel Jospin's platform.

Local Government in France has a special section devoted to local government in France.

Kouchner to UN?

Boz at Sarkozy the American reports the rumor that Bernard Kouchner will leave his post as foreign minister after the municipal elections in March and move to the UN, where he will replace Jean-Marie Guéhenno as head of peacekeeping operations.

Say It Ain't So

Marion Cotillard, who just won an Oscar for her portrayal of Piaf, seems to be an eager subscriber to conspiratorial explanations of 9/11, à la Thierry Meyssan. This celebrity gossip would hardly be worth reporting if it weren't a sign that the dumbfounding popularity of Meyssan's nonsense in France hasn't yet dissipated.

Literary Sociability in France

This is off the topic of French politics, but FP contributor and long-time reader Greg Brown has written a book entitled Literary Sociability and Literary Property in France, 1775-1793: Beaumarchais, the Société des Auteurs Dramatiques and the Comédie Française, of which an appreciative review appeared today. I thought it was worth a mention.

Clearstream Report

MediaPart has an extensive analysis of the police judiciaire report on the Clearstream affair. Although the report is very tough on Villepin, the article notes that "many ... in judicial circles" are skeptical of the logic of the case and do not believe that there is sufficient evidence to send the former prime minister to trial.

Purchasing Power

The French worry about pouvoir d'achat. The rest of the world worries about wages and prices. Check out the above graph of recent movements in commodity prices (courtesy James Hamilton, click to enlarge). The index is fixed at January 1 = 100. That's right: in under two months, prices on these basic commodities have jumped from 6.5 percent for zinc (annualized 39 pct.) to 46 percent for wheat (annualized you don't want to think about).

Meanwhile, Christine Lagarde has gone shopping at Carrefour, and inspectors are compiling lists of shelf prices. The French government wants people to believe that it's doing something about purchasing power, but in light of what's happening in the commodities markets, these steps are risible. Shouldn't someone be explaining this to the public? Someone besides bloggers, that is.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Il Est Interdit d'Interdire

Odd French laws.

Political Insults: A Historical View

An interesting Web site for students of political insults across the ages.

Speaking of Tocqueville

Speaking of Tocqueville, I came across an interesting remark of his this morning:

Impetuosity, or what one might call legislative light-headedness, is the leprosy of democracy, and impetuosity leads to oppression.

Substitute "executive" for "legislative" and you have an interesting comment on the ills of the Sarkozy presidency. "Leprosy" is a rather strong word for this particular malady. (The quote is from a speech Tocqueville delivered in the National Assembly on May 25, 1848, OC III.3, p. 84)

Underemployed Archicubes

After the "French social model," the "French educational model" is now under pressure. The École Normale Supérieure, once the country's most prestigious institution, seems increasingly maladapted to the job market both inside academia and out. Graduates with highly specialized training in philosophy or literature find themselves teaching in lycées, where their talents and preparation are underemployed. So argues an article in Le Nouvel Obs, which Richard Descoings, the head of Sciences Po, reproduces on his blog--a trifle disingenuously, since the article ends with this observation:

D'autres anciens avouent même rêver secrètement d'un Richard Descoings, du nom du directeur de Sciences-Po qui a su anticiper les évolutions en se lançant dans l'invention d'un nouveau modèle d'établissement supérieur.

I'm on fairly intimate terms with the dreams of many academics, and I don't know one who dreams about administrators. Is this Sarkozysme come to the world of universities? All hopes pinned on a single energetic reformer? Not a good idea, I would say, though I would be the first to congratulate Descoings on some of his initiatives at Sciences Po. Still, the article points to important undercurrents in the world of universities, undercurrents that have been slowly reshaping the landscape for many years now.

And, à propos, right on cue, has just published an article on university reform with a good bibliography of recent books on the subject.

It's Catching

Sarkozy's crude outburst at the Salon de l'Agriculture--"d'homme à homme, assez viril," in the words of Jean-Pierre Raffarin--has set an example for other elected officials to follow. Jacques Peyrat, the mayor of Nice (ex-Front National, then UMP, but officially disowned by the UMP, which is running its own list headed by Christian Estrosi), has also been caught on camera. Except in his case, the exchange, however virile, cannot be characterized as d'homme à homme, since he addresses his unseen interlocutor as pétasse. (And there is no doubt that Peyrat didn't need any lessons in crudeness from Sarkozy.)

Will the Internet change the behavior of a certain class of French politicians? Or do they speak this way, as Sarkozy once suggested in debate at the National Assembly, because they think that this is the way le peuple speaks and that one explanation for the continued victories of the Right is that the Left "has forgotten how to talk to le peuple--you're not like them, you don't speak like them," as Sarko put it after he was attacked for his famous racaille remark.

Adieu Françafrique?

France will renegotiate all its military treaties with African states, and the new treaties will be fully transparent, says Nicolas Sarkozy. According to the president, this renegotiation marks a "continuation" of the decolonization process.

Sarko VRP

Sarkozy continues to peddle power plants in his presidential peregrinations. Today he sealed a deal for a coal-fired plant, to be built by Alstom in South Africa. As usual, Anne Lauvergeon, the head of Areva, was part of the presidential delegation and pitched a nuclear power station to the South Africans as well. The role of the French state in these deals remains, as always, ambiguous. Is Lauvergeon accompanying Sarkozy or vice versa? With all the talk of the president's diminution of the sacred office by his écarts de langue et de lit, it's odd that no one has remarked on the rather undignified posture of the traveling salesman head of state. Perhaps the French are too habituated to the practice to care.

Tocqueville in the News

Lucien Jaume, a noted historian of French liberal thought, has just published a new book on Tocqueville. Le Figaro seizes the occasion to take brief note of the book and then to remind the French yet again of just who Tocqueville was, as though they have a hard time keeping his precise identity in mind. The various contributors to this special section seem to think that the best way to situate Tocqueville on the intellectual chessboard is to associate him mnemonically with certain other pieces. Thus Jacques de Saint-Victor is at pains to point out that "liberal" does not equal "neo-liberal," ergo Tocqueville is not to be confused with Hayek. Nicolas Baverez links Tocqueville yet again to Raymond Aron, both of whom he redefines--I was going to say in his own image, but perhaps it would be better to say, in relation to what he calls "political liberalism." Ran Halévi, a disciple of Furet, rings some changes on "the revolutionary spirit" vs. "the democratic spirt" yet somehow manages not to mention the name of the late Jean-Claude Lamberti, who made this theme his own. Philippe Raynaud looks at Democracy in America.

It would no doubt have served Jaume's book better if Le Figaro had seen fit to devote more space to it rather than roll out these usual suspects to deliver up these old chestnuts, but, still, it's good to see Tocqueville's name once again laid before the French public.

Thanks to MZ for the lead.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Sarkozy has done his predecessor a favor: Chirac's triumphal return to the Salon de l'Agriculture could hardly have offered such a striking contrast had Sarko not set out to make him look so good. Even stroking the head of a piglet can seem a majestic manifestation of statesmanship. To be sure, a woman can be heard on the clip saying "comment il a vieilli," but no one says "Ne me touche pas, tu me salis."

One wonders if George Bush's successor can do as much to magnify his presidency in retrospect.

Holocaust Memory in Kentucky

The teaching of the Holocaust and the Occupation is in the news again, but this time Sarkozy has nothing to do with it. It's not every day that one of my colleagues makes the Times, but today we have a nice picture of Jeremy Popkin, who teaches French history at the U. of Kentucky and is the president of the Society for French Historical Studies. It seems that Jeremy has been caught up in a hoax that is sweeping the Internet, in the form of a letter claiming that university courses on the Holocaust have been canceled owing to pressure from Muslims. The letter in question claimed, falsely, that Jeremy's course on Vichy, the Occupation, and the Holocaust had been canceled as a result of such pressure.

So France isn't the only country where this issue is troublesome.

Besson Report on Flexicurity

Eric Besson has submitted to the prime minister a report on flexicurity measures in use around Europe. Les Échos describes the report as taking "a moderate position." That may be. I haven't yet read the report in its entirety (you can find it here). But what I have read suggests that it won't be easy to figure out what it says. The writing is hardly a model of clarity, or even grammaticality. Consider one passage:

Ajoutons que la France est loin d’être immobile ;
l’accord interprofessionnel du 21 janvier 2008 porte
une innovation importante, résidant dans le fait
d’avoir pris conscience et d’avoir tenu compte lors de
la négociation de deux enjeux nouveaux essentiels :

-- la sécurité dont les employeurs ont un besoin croissant
et n’expriment plus seulement des besoins de
flexibilité. Cette sécurité porte sur la stabilité de
l’emploi pour faire face aux tensions du marché et
sur la stabilité juridique pour éviter les recours, les
surcoûts et les incertitudes ;

--la flexibilité dont les salariés ont également besoin
pour autonomiser leur parcours professionnel et
n’expriment plus seulement des besoins de sécurité.

Would someone like to parse these paragraphs? One thing is clear: On ne veut plus seulement des besoins de sécurité (the phrase is repeated twice and seems to have been inserted by mistake in both sentences, since it doesn't fit grammatically in either). As for autonomiser leur parcours professionnel, I can already envision a cartoon by Plantu: boss faces crowd of angry workers hurling stones and missiles; Boss: "Hold on there, people! What's gotten into you? We're not firing you! We're autonomizing your professional itineraries. Haven't you gotten the message? Security needs are a thing of the past, so why are you expressing them so angrily?"

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Poitiers: Ville Fleury

A rather strange story is developing in Poitiers. Benoît Fleury, a 31-yr-old law student, finished first in the agrégation in history of law. Under French university rules, this entitles him to choose the faculty in which he wishes to teach, and he chose the University of Poitiers. But the university is up in arms and has made it known that it does not want him.

Why? Because M. Fleury has an interesting past. From 1995 to 2000 (when he was 18 to 23) he headed an extreme right-wing student group known as Groupe Union Défense. This group has a long history of violent activities and racist and xenophobic statements going back to 1968. In 1999 Fleury gave an interview to the magazine Echo des savanes in which he said:

  • Q : Quels sont vos maîtres à penser ?

R . Le premier, c’est Léon Degrelle (inventeur du rexisme, le national-socialisme version belge, chef de la division wallone durant la guerre, ndlr Des gens comme Nasser, Saddam Hussein, on s’en sent assez proche.

  • Q : Votre slogan favori, "A paris comme à Gaza, intifada ", ça veut dire quoi ?

R : C’est pour désigner l’ennemi, et l’ennemi aujourd’hui en France, c’est le même qu’en Palestine. On est contre l’occupation sioniste, avec un côté antisémite qu’il faut appliquer partout où les juifs peuvent être présents.

  • Q : Vous n’avez pas toujours été antisionistes et pro-arabes...

Avant, l’ennemi des nationalistes, c’était le Rouge. On considérait qu’Israël était une base du Moyen Orient contre l’ennemi rouge. Il y’avait même des juifs qui travaillaient avec le GUD ou Occident.

  • Q : Aujourd’hui, vous soutenez l’Islam et le Hamas...

On se retrouve dans les valeurs de la famille et de la tradition chères à l’Islam. Ce qui est paradoxal, c’est que l’Islam peut à la fois être un allié et un ennemi. Autant la Syrie et l’Irak sont des régimes nationalistes laïques et on les soutient, autant, l’Islam peut être un danger pour la civilisation européenne. Pour le Hamas, c’est le coté combat identitaire qui nous plaît.

Nevertheless, the jurist Philippe Bilger condemns the Poitiers protest in no uncertain terms: rules are rules, he says, in a preciously polished essay that makes a virtue of scrupulous avoidance of any mention of Fleury's past:

Je n'ai pas voulu écrire la phrase qu'on attendait de moi. Pour mon argumentation, j'ai refusé d'évoquer Benoît Fleury, le GUD, l'extrême-droite en les condamnant. Cette solution de facilité, auprès de certains, aurait donné plus de prix à ma dénonciation. A mon sens, c'est le contraire. Abriter le droit, la liberté d'expression sous la morale, c'est les démonétiser, violer leur essence. Ma position n'aurait pas varié d'un pouce si, par extraordinaire, une telle affaire avait concerné un ancien militant de l'extrême-gauche violente. Je préfère le roc des principes aux fluctuations des affinités dans ce domaine fondamental pour la démocratie.

Le roc des principes is of course a fine promontory on which to stand, far above the streets in which the younger Fleury fought his brawls and incurred a prison sentence of 3 months for assaulting other extremist students. At some point, however, his casier judiciaire was wiped clean; otherwise he would not have been permitted to sit for the agrégation.

The history of the GUD is an interesting one. Its former members include at least two men who are prominent political figures today: Claude Goasguen and Gérard Longuet. Of course its political trajectory over the years, like that of many radical student political organizations, by no means followed a straight line.

Douste Blazes a New Path for Himself

To judge by yesterday's news reports, Philippe Douste-Blazy, former minister of this and that, had found a new post for himself at the UN, as number 2 to Ban Ki Moon. It seems that the source of this story was Douste himself and that in fact the post of secrétaire général adjoint is rather less exalted than at first supposed. For one thing, Douste shares it with 80 other officials. Douste has always been a rich source of comic possibilities, as Nicolas Canteloup was the first to recognize. If you watch the clip, the Douste-Blazy segment begins at about 1:30.

Thanks to SM for the tip.

Revolt in Poitou-Charente

Ségolène Royal, presiding over the conseil général of Poitou-Charente, provoked a walkout by Jospinist vice-president Jean-François Fountaine, when she refused to grant him the floor to speak prior to a vote on a new debt issue by the region. Fountaine favored a tax increase to cover rising costs, while Royal ruled this out on the grounds that the purchasing power of the region's citizens had to be defended. You can hear an audio recording of the tumultuous session here.

Latour and Frankenstein at Columbia

The following guest post is from a new contributor to French Politics, Alex Gourevitch, who is a graduate student in political science at Columbia. Alex has his own blog, Gorby's Corner, to which you can find a link in the blogroll to the right. This post is a summary of a lecture by French sociologist Bruno Latour on environmentalism, anti-environmentalism, and Cartesian Reason.

It may be unfair, but when a speaker is introduced as zany and unconventional I steel myself for an unsystematic exploration of incomprehensible thoughts. (It is probably an American prejudice of mine that this is especially the case when the speaker is French.) So it was with special trepidation that I sat down for Bruno Latour's lecture on 'Ecology and Democracy' last night after hearing Michael Taussig introduce Latour as "a zany, a really zany, and original thinker." It was with even greater pleasure, however, that I then sat through one of the best lectures I have heard in a long time. Latour is on to some extremely interesting, absolutely reasonable, but quite original thoughts about the relationship between environmentalism and democracy.

Latour's premise is that awarding Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is proof positive that environmental ideas are mainstream. The question to be asking is not "whether environmental concern" but "how and what environmental concern." Using the "Death of Environmentalism" book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger as a springboard, Latour spent the hour giving an unconventional answer to the question. The puzzle, for Latour, is that there is a contradiction between the hopeful, future-oriented, emancipatory thrust of democratic politics and the doomsday, philosophy of limits, pessimistic cast of environmentalism. The rhetorical means by which environmentalism has won the day has undermined its ability to generate a democratic attitude towards nature. "It is strange," said Latour "that just at the point when we are about to achieve our dream [control of nature] we should be afraid of it."

Although these opening thoughts seemed exactly the right question, none of it sounded that original at first. Where Latour really shined was his refusal to propose a simple synthesis between environmentalism and democracy. Instead he wove a complex argument about the problem both with environmentalism and its critics. It went something like this: Nordhaus and Shellenberger have rightly identified a deep flaw in the pessimistic attitude towards technology that plagues environmentalism. However, the problem goes deeper. For Latour, environmentalism has introduced some very important ideas about the way in which we can have a democratic relationship with nature. Through the idea of the precautionary principle, environmentalists have introduced the idea that political decisions about new technology cannot be grounded on scientific guarantees of certainty. This explodes, for Latour, the specially French idea that Reason, in the form of science, can provide us with absolute guarantees of the rightness or wrongness of a policy. For Latour, the classic French attitude towards science is undemocratic; not only does it remove real choice from politics, and reduce disagreements over value to scientific questions of facts, it also deludes itself into thinking we do not need to confront the uncertain character of human action.

What the precautionary principle does, according to Latour, is reintroduce politics into our relationship with nature, because it makes uncertainty, rather than certainty, the defining issue. It demands, as Latour put it, that "we follow through our actions through all its consequences." (Latour made the interesting claim that it is only in France, where the religion of reason is so developed, that the counter-reaction has also been so developed – hence the adoption of the precautionary principle into the French Constitution.) However, the environmental right hand taketh away what the environmental left hand giveth. Environmentalists have also championed the idea that there are "natural limits" to what we can get from nature, that we have caused endless suffering in our quest for dominion over nature, and that the lesson of the past is that if we continue in this way we walk straight into catastrophe. Here is where Latour really got interesting.

First, he pointed out that this reintroduced the idea that science and nature impose limits on us – the very error of Reason turned on its head. Questions of value and possibility are transformed into the ineluctable fact of catastrophe. This is why, according to Latour, the precautionary principle is misinterpreted as an inescapably environmentalist tool for restraining technology, and never intervening in nature. Second, and even more interesting, Latour thought the proper position is not simply to reject his as unfounded pessimism, but rather to embrace the unknown: "we must bring emancipation and catastrophe together." Environmentalists have learned the wrong lesson from Frankenstein. In Latour's telling, the story of Frankenstein is not of creation gone wrong, but rather that Dr. Frankenstein repented for a sin he did not commit and failed to repent for the sin he actually committed. It was not creation that was the sin, but that he abandoned his creation: "why, why father have you abandoned me?" This, according to Latour, is what is wrong with the current environmentalist attitude. At the very moment when we have brought into view the unintended consequences of our intervention in nature; once we have become aware that our freedom entails not absolute, certain mastery, but a messy, risk-laden process of intervention and experimentation, we have suddenly run screaming from our powers of creation. In doing this, we simply run from ourselves, from our own freedom, and from democracy.

I took Latour's argument to be for a democratic appropriation of the precautionary principle. Instead of allowing decisions about science and technology to be decided either by technocrats or misanthropes, we should embrace risk and uncertainty, and see it as an opportunity rather than a danger. There was much more to Latour's presentation, and I will admit to not understanding all of it. But as far as I know, nobody has put the argument quite this way. It is, of course, indeterminate. Does this mean we should embrace stem-cell research and not worry so much about climate change? I don't know, and I don't think it was Latour's intention to give us anything so concrete. Instead, he performed a much more important service: navigating the Scylla of technocracy and the Charybdis of environmentalism in the name of democracy itself.

-- Alex Gourevitch

Hogs and Ham

"I see that food prices have gone up," says the president. "I don't understand. The price that breeders receive for hogs is going down, but the price of ham is skyrocketing. But it seems to me that there's a connection between hogs and ham. I may not be a country boy, but somehow that information has made it to my brain."

One doesn't have to be a country boy to learn a little more economics than the presidential brain seems to have absorbed. If hogs walked from their pens into grocery stores, he might have a point. But when they have to be transported using fuel whose price has risen sharply; when they have to be slaughtered, dressed, packaged, shipped, and retailed by enterprises using a variety of inputs whose prices have nothing to do with the price of hogs; then the matter of a "just price" for ham becomes a little more complicated than Sarko lets on.

Nevertheless, the threat to crack down on price gougers is always popular, so we have Fillon announcing une opération coup de poing and various advisors suggesting new labeling schemes that will require sellers to label goods with information about recent price variations in addition to the current price. Improved information always greases the cogs of the market machinery, but information about grocery prices, for instance, is useless if there is only one low-cost retail outlet in an area, as is the case in many parts of France owing to legal restrictions on market entry for grandes surfaces. Information is also useless if consumers don't believe it, and it is well-documented that consumer perceptions of inflation in France are at odds with official measures. Finally, information about recent price rises for a particular product won't convey any information about changes in the overall price and wage levels, nor will it take account of different consumption patterns by people of different income levels. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sarkozy and the government are trying to do something, anything, simply in order to meet the public clamor for action on the purchasing power front, when they know perfectly well that what they're doing is useless. Indeed, worse than useless, since it conveys disinformation about where the real problems are.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Found on the Web

This and this.

Nevertheless, while I will withhold judgment on these efforts at translation, this is my métier, after all, so I suppose I owe the world a bit of philosophical rumination on the translation of insults. The essence of the matter is of course to capture the right linguistic register, the precise tone of the invective. The literal meaning of the words is of no moment (and, indeed, one of the French words involved--a ubiquitous three-letter gem--is so "lexicalized" that its literal meaning is forgotten by the French commentator, who nevertheless tangles himself up in unrelated anatomical references). To be sure, it is hard to attach any precise register to the ubiquitous "pauvr' con," which has been in the public domain of quasi-polite company at least since the famous tube of Serge Gainsbourg. Hence its sting is rather drawn these days, I should say.

As for "casse-toi": well, English has pretty much seen the last of "scram." "F--- off" is too strong, "bugger off" too English for American ears, "buzz off" slightly passé. "Get lost" might do it, but I might be showing my age; I don't think my children would accept that translation. "Screw off," perhaps. "Sod off," apparently suggested by Collins' Dictionary, won't do at all in the U.S. A Tony Sopranoish "getouddaheah" would certainly be inappropriate. "Book it" has never seemed natural to me, though a complete dictionary would have to include it.

Definitely a tough one. "Buzz off, asshole" or "Get lost, jerk" probably bracket the target, though neither seems quite satisfactory. Clearly this is a matter that requires further contemplation. I'm sure that readers will have suggestions.

Judicial Confusion

The premier président of the Cour de Cassation, Vincent Lamanda, says that he will "reflect" on the question of security retention, as requested by President Sarkozy, but will not officially "review" the ruling of the Constitutional Council, since there is no authority for such review under Article 62 of the Constitution.* This only adds to the intellectual and juridical muddle of the decision, which I discussed yesterday. If I understand the implications of the Constitutional Council's decision correctly, some prisoners can indeed be adjudged too dangerous to release into the general population, but owing to non-retroactivity France will have to wait 15 years before this measure is applied, because the minimum penalty that must be judicially imposed before a prisoner can be considered for classification as "dangerous" is 15 years, and no one already sentenced can be considered because of the ban on ex post application. I'm not sure what President Lamanda's reflections can possibly yield other than that this decision is intellectually incoherent and humanly inexplicable, even if its legal basis is impeccable. Perhaps if this is pointed out forcefully enough, an appropriate constitutional amendment can be adopted to clarify the situation.

*Article 62
Une disposition déclarée inconstitutionnelle ne peut être promulguée ni mise en application.

Les décisions du Conseil constitutionnel ne sont susceptibles d'aucun recours. Elles s'imposent aux pouvoirs publics et à toutes les autorités administratives ou juridictionnelles.

De Gaulle the Incomparable

Nicolas Domenach reminds us how other presidents have handled insults:

Les plus anciens se rappelaient que, confrontés à des situations aussi difficiles, d'anciens présidents avaient observé un comportement plus majestueux. Tel Jacques Chirac, qui avait été traité « de connard » par un individu à la sortie de la messe à Bormes-les-Mimosas. « Enchanté, lui avait répondu l'ex-chef de l'Etat. Moi, c'est Jacques Chirac… » La réplique très Cyrano de Bergerac peut être comparée à celle du Général de Gaulle qui, à un vibrant « mort aux cons », avait opposé cette réponse très inspirée : « Vaste programme… ».

Ah, de Gaulle. There is a certain majesty of character that cannot be feigned, born as it is of superb contempt for the common run of humanity. It follows that Sarkozy's flaw is a consequence of what once constituted his strength: he puts himself on the same plane as everyone else.

Sister Republics

Roger Cohen, who but for Bill Kristol would probably be the top contender for the title of New York Times' least interesting columnist, opines that the French have become prudish while Americans have "grown up (or at least, that's the way the French might put it)" in their tolerance of high hanky-panky and executive misdemeanors. Schadenfreude hasn't enjoyed such a field day since the 2005 riots in the banlieues afforded American opiniators an irresistible opportunity to pay French opiniators back for their transformation of Katrina into a morality tale. "So that's where neoliberalism leads," said the latter, only to be answered by the former with gleeful variations on the theme of, "High taxes and a bloated welfare state give you social exclusion that ends in flames." Now we have moved on from the economic to the psychoanalytic, which leads Cohen to deliver himself of this gem of depth psychology:

As for Americans, the experience of eight years with a teetotaler president, consistent only in his disciplined mediocrity, has apparently filled them with a thirst for humanity above all.

Forgive me for not subscribing immediately to the Cohen thesis. Before running the regression, I'd like to control for such confounding variables as "divorce in the White House" and "precipitous remarriage to a bewitching vixen whose nude photos embellish the Internet." I suspect that the coefficient on the "thirst for humanity" variable might decrease considerably if these elementary precautions were observed.

But since Franco-American comparisons are in the air and always diverting, let me venture one of my own. It used to be said that the left and the right in the United States were tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee, whereas an abyss divided the left and the right in France. But look at where we are today: on economic matters the French left and right have converged (if we confine our attention to the mainstream parties grouped to either side of center), with the only difference being that the left is reluctant to admit it. There is broad agreement on the need to reduce payroll taxes, liberalize and activate the labor market, reform pensions, control medical costs, increase retail competition, invest more in education and research, etc. Hence les frasques présidentielles assume a greater importance in differentiating the parties than might otherwise be the case. Meanwhile, in the United States, tweedle-dum has so far divorced itself from tweedle-dee--with permanent tax cuts, permanent warfare, permanent shrinkage of government coupled with permanent expansion of the national security state, and permanent denunciation of the sin but not the sinner (or, more accurately, of certain sins but not certain [other] sinners)--that we now have red states and blue states and live in Two Americas, divided not as John Edwards would have it by economics but rather by politics.

Yes, I know, the comparison is perhaps a little glib, but I'm setting aside my scholarly hat this morning and pretending to be a New York Times columnist--a job that apparently requires no more preparation than a strong cup of coffee.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Intellectual Fraud: The McNamara Syndrome

Bertrand Dautzenberg, a lung specialist, reported to health minister Roselyne Bachelot that in the month and a half since the ban on smoking in public places went into effect, emergency admissions for heart attacks have dropped fifteen percent. The reporting of this fact--if it is a fact--is meant to induce readers to make an inference against which students of Statistics 101 are cautioned on the first day of class: correlation is not causation. Newspapers should be ashamed of publishing this story. Dr. Dautzenberg should be ashamed of submitting such a report. Mme Bachelot should be ashamed of commissioning it.

The only worthwhile reporting I've seen on this can be found here, on the blog Blogizmo, which mentions a few of the confounding factors one might want to take into account. I realize that ministers will probably be evaluated soon after the upcoming municipal elections, but is Bachelot really so desperate to put a number on the record that she would resort to a subterfuge of this sort? One problem with evaluating ministers by means of quantifiable metrics is that it encourages this kind of blatant nonsense. Believe me: having served as an unwilling conscript in the U. S. military in the McNamara era, when quantified evaluation was all the rage, I can tell you many stories of the bizarre deceptions and misrepresentations to which it can give rise ("body counts" were only the most notorious). This report is the first evidence that the French government will not be exempt from the McNamara Syndrome.

Circumventing the Constitutional Council

I've said my piece on the merits of the security retention proposal, on which the Constitutional Council has just ruled. Although the CC in essence approved the Dati law, which allows repeat offenders deemed under specified procedures "unrehabilitated and incurable" to be held beyond the expiration of their legal sentences, it refused to allow retroactive application to offenders convicted before the law was passed. Sarkozy wants to circumvent this ruling by appealing to the Cour de Cassation. Critics say that this maneuver is not allowed by the Constitution.

I am not by any means an expert in French constitutional law, but the appeal does seem to contradict the popular (though perhaps erroneous) notion that the CC plays a role analogous to that of supreme constitutional courts in other countries. It will be interesting, in any case, to see how this institutional ambiguity is resolved. I recall the somewhat ominous words of Carl Schmitt: "The sovereign is he who decides on the exception." Sarkozy, by raising the specter of an impending emergency if currently held dangerous offenders are released, is bidding to make himself the Schmittian sovereign. In a democracy, of course, the people are supposed to be sovereign, but since the voice of the people is always open to interpretation, and since the people speak at any given moment with the many tongues defined by the existing institutional structure, it remains to be seen who in this case will speak the loudest, and which proxy for the people will prevail.

Of course, in fairness to Sarkozy, it should be said that there is something disturbingly inconsistent in the ruling of the Constitutional Council. Once the principle of security retention is admitted on the grounds that some repeat offenders are too dangerous to release back into the population, and that this dangerousness can be ascertained objectively by competent authorities, then it is hard to understand why the ex post facto determination should become an obstacle to enforcement. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the CC is motivated mainly by the wish to save appearances, to establish itself as an independent entity rather than a rubber stamp for the executive, but unwilling to articulate a principled ground for its mild and very partial dissent. It has conceded the major point but quibbled about a minor one. Its decision is hardly a monument of constitutional jurisprudence.

A real dissent could have been built around the Badinter position: that punishment is reserved for acts, not conditions, and that confinement for a condition is an invitation to tyranny. But the CC was not willing to go that far. My feeling is that it was right not to do so but that the distinction it invokes utterly fails to draw the kind of bright line between permissible and impermissible confinement necessary to meet the concerns properly though hyperbolically raised by Badinter. To do that would have required some examination of the actual procedures envisioned for evaluation of the "dangerousness" of prisoners. If the CC had imposed procedural safeguards not currently required by the Dati law, it might have served a positive purpose with its dissent, but perhaps it lacked, or thought it lacked, the power to do so. Since the CC has so little history, however, it is still in the process of staking out its territory. The powers of the US Supreme Court were not only given in the Constitution; they were also won in combative practice. But Jean-Louis Debré is no John Marshall, and Jacques Chirac is not Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

More on the Salon de l'Agriculture

No, I'm not going to talk about the incident; commenters to yesterday's post have already done that. What is there to say? Sarko was rude to a rude heckler. We already knew that he is blunt, confrontational, and crude. He didn't hide his goujaterie before the election; voters elected him anyway. He has four more years in office. Get used to it.

Instead, I want to talk about the Common Agricultural Policy. Sarko wants to reform it. He has said so before, as I discussed in posts on Sept. 12 and Oct. 11 of 2007. I said at the time that the contours of any reform proposal remained vague and that France and the European Commission and EU partners did not appear to see eye to eye. These statements remain true, despite the passage of many months. Sarkozy added no detail at all to his express desire for a "complete reworking" of the CAP. Indeed, he may be setting the stage for a repeat of the disappointment he provoked with his failure to make good on a promise to increase purchasing power.

The two failures are not unrelated. What has changed since September is a sharp spike in inflation, and in food prices in particular. The rise in food prices is believed to be structural, as worldwide demand for food rises faster than global supply. Logically, this should mean greater pressure to reduce EU subsidies and to reduce prices through intensified competition. Sarkozy has said that he favors reduced subsidies and that French farmers agree with him, but at the same time he promises to resist any attempt to diminish or eliminate the "EU preference" in an effort to increase competition among suppliers. Yet he does want to intensify competition in the retail sector in order to lower prices to the consumer, and this could put additional pressure on farmers. To date he has given no clue to how he intends to resolve these tensions and continues to speak in wholly "voluntarist" terms about the coming French presidency of the European Commission, as if assuming that role will give him carte blanche to reform the CAP in line with whatever he decides the interests of French farmers are (he said not a word about the interests of other farmers or of the disproportionate share of EU farm subsidies that goes to France). This is clearly another case of promising too much in appearance while promising nothing at all concrete in reality. He is raising expectations beyond what he can deliver, ignoring the need to compromise with partners, and emphasizing the powers of the executive (in this case at the EU level) to the exclusion of the rest.

Has he failed to learn from past mistakes? It's too soon to tell, but the signs are worrisome. For an expert view of the CAP, this blog is useful. For instance, note the startling figure in this post (pertaining to UK only, I believe?).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

"The French Chernobyl"

While France congratulates itself on the success of the Environmental Grenelle and the banning of genetically modified corn in the name of the precautionary principle, the Rhône is so badly contaminated with PCB from industrial waste that consumption of fish from the river has had to be banned.

A Few More Thoughts on Religion

The subject of laïcité sparked a lively thread. Many different issues have been raised, and I can't respond to them all, but it might be useful to collect here a few random thoughts stimulated by one or another of the commenters.

The first thing that strikes me is that several commenters are able to discern a clearer pattern in Sarkozy's interventions in this realm, both before and after his election, than I can. Is he trying to respond to "numerous social indicators?" Is he attempting to arouse hostility against a minority in order to appeal to a segment of the electorate? Is he developing an alibi for the failure to integrate a minority economically and socially? Is he responding to a "crisis of individualism"? Is he attempting to allay fears of loss of national identity? Is he cynically reactivating a settled issue in order to put himself at the center of controversy and divert attention from his diminishing popularity? Is he expressing a deeply held conviction about moral decay and social degeneration? Is he a Machiavellian master of inflammatory rhetoric or a rather clumsy politician who has blundered in ways that threaten established republican principles? Do his three divorces mean that his professed attachment to religious values is patently insincere? These remarks do not begin to exhaust the implications of the many comments.

Because there is no satisfactory way of answering these questions, I think that there is little point in pursuing the question of what Sarkozy's "true intentions" are. As Christine says, this can only yield un procès d'intention. To be sure, it is hard to avoid this habitual vice of political commentary altogether, and much of the art of politics consists in accurately gauging the intentions of rivals and adversaries. I would be less reluctant to speculate about Sarkozy's intention in, say, detaxing overtime or overhauling the special retirement regimes than I am to speculate about the intention of his pronouncements in the religious realm, in part because he is more explicit about his economic goals and in part because the aims of economic policy are more clearly delimited than the aims of symbolic interventions.

So when I look at symbolic pronouncements, I am interested mainly in their value as an index to latent cultural tensions. Of course Sarkozy's diagnosis of those tensions may be inaccurate. His choice to emphasize one thing rather than another may itself distort the phenomenon to which it is supposed to be an index. Intense debate may erupt at points selected for emphasis by the president, whereas other simmering tensions may in fact be more significant. If I were not writing a blog on French politics, responding to events day by day, my focal points would surely be different (though perhaps no more accurate a gauge to "social reality" than the quotidian barometer, since my attention would then be guided by intellectual fashion, the academic and literary marketplace, and personal idiosyncrasy).

Some commenters seem to feel that any attention paid to the cultural rather than the economic realm is a diversion from the real. Without denying the extreme importance of economic exclusion, discrimination, and exploitation, I resist the hard and fast distinction. Ethnic markers are at the very least a "signal" in the labor market, so controversy over symbols may have economic consequences by changing the nature of the information conveyed--or at any rate presumed by prospective employers to be conveyed--by those symbols. John Bowen, for example, describes the perception by some of his respondents that headscarves worn in private workplaces, where they are not forbidden by law, are a mark of "aggression" or an expression of "superiority." It is no great leap to hypothesize that such perceptions, if widespread, may well influence hiring decisions.

Some commenters remarked on generational variations in outward religious expression and suggested that this might have something to do with outside influences. Yes, perhaps, but it might also reflect a heightened consciousness of difference in response to laws intended to suppress a difference that was previously assumed rather than expressed. African-Americans adopted the hyphenated designation, donned African dress, and changed the way they wore their hair even as barriers to the full expression of their citizenship were lowered. Assimilation and differentiation are not opposed processes; in some circumstances they may be complementary.

I'll leave it there for now.

At the Salon de l'Agriculture

For Jacques Chirac, the annual Salon de l'Agriculture was always a highlight of the presidential year, an opportunity to pat rumps, part cowlips, caress muzzles, and mingle with the salt of the earth. Sarkozy, who never had a constituency to cultivate in Corrèze, is generally thought to be less fond of la crotte and le purin. But he did make an obligatory appearance at the Salon today and in his own way offered a paean to the world of agriculture: it was the basis, he said, of French gastronomic superiority: "We have the best gastronomy in the world," he asserted with characteristic pugnacity, and "we want it to be recognized as part of the world's patrimony." It was a clever way for the "bling-bling president" to domesticate the barnyard, as it were, and bring le boeuf, le porc, et la poule back to the more familiar turf of top-drawer Parisian eateries. It wasn't immediately clear whether the world's patrimony was to be enriched only by the highest refinements of French cuisine or to include such humbler offerings as Henri IV's poule au pot and Mama Sarkozy's boeuf au gros sel.

Of course French gastronomy has many challengers these days, and many foodies I know would be prepared to challenge the president's confident assertion of superiority. I had a dessert last night in a Cambridge hotel, for instance, that rivaled anything I've ever eaten under the benediction of Michelin's three stars--a blessing I may never again enjoy if the euro remains as high as it is. If Sarko wants the world to enjoy its patrimony, let him manage the economy so that those of us in the dollar zone are not priced out of the market and deprived of our heritage.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Laïcité: No Taboos

Henri Guaino says that in a democracy it should be possible to discuss any subject "without taboos." As is his wont, he expects to disarm--or is it to provoke?--opposition by stealing a line from ceux d'en face: "To utter the word 'God' does not frighten me," dixit Jean Jaurès.

Let us therefore discuss laïcité without taboos. Joan Scott, in her book on the politics of the veil, rejects the insistence of many French writers that the word is untranslatable because it is so uniquely bound up with the history of France. This insistence on French uniqueness, on French exceptionalism, is therefore a first taboo that needs to be broken. All modern polities have had to cope with the need to regulate, confine, constrain, and legislate with regard to religion. All modern polities have had to contend with the conflict between faith and reason. Many countries besides France have experienced strife and even violent conflict between religious groups. The Wars of Religion may have been bloody, but no bloodier than the Revolution of Saints, or than strife between Catholics and Protestants in the United States in the 19th c. Hence it makes no sense for France to claim that the particular way in which it dealt with these problems makes comparison impossible.

Second, there is a tendency in France to exalt particular historical moments as definitive resolutions of problems that may in fact change in nature over time. Thus one repeatedly hears that the "Law of 1905" resolved the religious question once and for all; that this law is a cornerstone of the Republic, hence that any question as to its adequacy poses a threat to the existence of France's political system; and that the effect of the law was essentially to bracket religion, to relegate it from the public domain to the realm of purely private devotion. Never mind what the law actually did; never mind the accretion of subsequent accommodations of state and religion in both law and practice. As a matter of "political philosophy," one might say, the discussion is supposed to have ended in 1905.

Consider, then, the fact that the demographics of France have changed considerably since 1905. Consider that a substantial proportion of the population now consists of people from the former colonies, where religious issues were regulated in ways quite different from the metropolis. Consider that the historical experience of these people is therefore quite different from that of the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews resident in France during one or more of the periods of heightened religious and philosophical controversy in the metropolis. Consider, therefore, that to this new population laws concerning the role of Catholic religious orders in the public schools or state funding of organized religion may have little relevance to their concerns about where the prerogatives of the state and the claims of religion come into conflict. Consider that for them an historical debate that draws on the long and contentious relationship between an Enlightenment that "dared to know" and a faith that, even with knowledge, conceived of man as but a "thinking reed" is not part of their cultural baggage. In light of all these considerations, it does seem that Guaino has a point, that there is room for a fresh discussion without taboos.

But is that discussion best guided by a presidential speechwriter and a president who, by the very nature of his functions, cannot debate but can only pronounce, and then only in symbolic settings that color and perhaps distort the limited content of his words, be it at Saint John Lateran or in Riyadh or on a factory floor evoking the need for "firmness" against cults while defending his aide's call for tolerance of religious associations whose beliefs may seem peculiar or even offensive but that break no laws? France does need to reflect anew on the proper limits of religion and on the state's role in defining those limits, but it needs to do so in greater calm, and--if I may put it this way--in a more meditative or "spiritual" setting, than the Sarkozyan circus allows.

And it must establish priorities: the fundamental problem is the relation to Islam, on which the assimilation of much of the former colonial population depends. Guaino, Mignon, and Sarkozy seem to want to confuse this issue with other matters, such as the rekindling of fervor among Christians said to have been "separated" from their roots by the militant secularism of French republicanism (which, by the way, ignores the role of religion in the emergence of the French state: see David Bell's The Cult of the Nation in France). That is their prerogative, and no doubt they expected their approach to the issue to arouse the opposition that it has. Theirs is surely a minority agenda, whereas the state's accommodation of Islam is a matter of vital interest to both a substantial minority and the nation as a whole. This is where the discussion of laïcité needs to be focused, not on the religious velleities of the president and a couple of his close advisors.

Interest Rates

French Politics contributor Éloi Laurent renews the attack that he and Jérôme Créel launched on the European Central Bank's hawkish monetary policy. He is especially critical of the ECB's threat to raise interest rates punitively if wage settlements are too "generous," a threat that leaves him incredulous since real wages in the Eurozone have lagged behind productivity increases for a decade. Labor's share in GDP has fallen over the past two decades.

Evaluation of Ministers Evaluated

From Le nouvel économiste, an interesting document on the evaluation of ministers. Among other observations: "The individual evaluation procedure overlooks a fundamental feature of government: collegiality." And from UMP senator Alain Lambert: "The French system of governance is highly chaotic, to a degree unparalleled anywhere else."

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Thomas Philippon and Nicolas Véron make a simple but striking comparison between Europe on the one hand and US and Asia on the other: Europe has a much higher proportion of older firms among its large industrial companies. They suggest a number of possible reasons for this lack of dynamism and suggest remedies.

Choses Wues

Here we have Félix Wu, who pronounces his name "vu," just as Charlus insisted on pronouncing Swann's name "svann," except that for Charlus the point was to insist on a tinge of foreignness, whereas in the case of Wu, one suspects, the point is to connote full assimilation. M. Wu is heading a "diversity" list in the 12th Arrondissement. He describes himself as neither right nor left and says he dislikes the immigration quotas of the one and the 35-hr week of the other (he is a restaurateur, and the short week is impossible, he says). Nevertheless, he has been approached by the UMP. In any case, he does not see himself as a "communitarist" candidate but rather as a pure republican, representing the general interest, even if he appeals to voters as a candidate in sympathy with their particular interests as issus de l'immigration. He distinguishes himself and his co-listiers from "communitarist" associations because these pursue only the "well-defined interests" of a community, whereas he aspires to the broader view expected of a republican legislator. He says that he is the first "Asian" candidate to head a list in Paris and that some people are "shocked" by this.

Grunberg Says No to Front Républicain

Gérard Grunberg has a fine piece on Telos in which he demonstrates the political folly of the habitual recourse to "republican" rhetoric against supposed tyranny. His final sentence, which pungently encapsulates a point I have made several times in the past few days, is worth quoting:

"Reciprocal demonization paves the way for escape from the real world."

France Monde

The announcement yesterday of the creation of France Monde, a holding company charged with managing all French foreign broadcasting interests, was dominated by the usual clucking about nepotism: doesn't Christine Ockrent's companion have a government job? Hasn't she made a mess of other media ventures? What about her other conflicts of interest? Overlooked in all this fuss was the curious fact that Alain de Pouzilhac, who is actually to head France Monde, has no degree higher than the bac. This certainly gives him an unusual profile in the French elite (are you listening, New York Times?). The son of a "penniless aristocrat" turned public-relations man, Pouzilhac made his mark in the world of advertising.

Moscovici's Cambridge Speech

Pierre Moscovici gave a speech at the University of Cambridge in which he reflected on the causes of Sarkozy's sudden decline in popularity. Note that first and foremost he blames "the credit crunch and global economic slowdown" and concedes that Sarkozy is a victim, not a culprit. Second, he mentions the failure to deliver on campaign promises, in particular the promise to increase purchasing power. Only in third place comes Sarkozy's leadership style, overexposure in the press, personal turmoil, etc. Yet this third point has been stressed in recent interviews with Moscovici in the French press.

Moscovici's lucidity does him credit, as does his recognition that Sarko's difficulties will not go very far toward restoring the fortunes of the left, particularly since the prime cause of difficulty is beyond Sarko's control. "It's the economy, stupid," to borrow a phrase--and the economic shock would have undermined a Royal presidency as quickly as it has undermined Sarkozy's. Over the past two days we have learned that the IMF has revised its projection of French growth downward to 1.5 percent for the next year, and last year inflation rose to 3.2 percent. Caught in these pincers, no government is likely to do much to increase purchasing power.

For Sarkozy to improve his fortunes, he must demonstrate that his is not a one-act presidency. The global economic situation has changed dramatically since the election, and he must demonstrate that he is not at a loss for a policy. He must respond to facts as they develop. So must the Socialists, and for all the lucidity of Moscovici's analysis, he offers nothing in the way of policy prescriptions, only one more call for a "thorough, comprehensive renovation."

SocGen Internal Investigation Report

Here is the report of SocGen's internal investigation to date in the Kerviel affair. It makes frequent use of an abbreviation I don't see often: GEUR, or gigaeuros, an appropriate unit for Kerviel's trading. All of his transactions are detailed, and there is a running chronological tally of his real and "official" profits and losses, as well as of the various queries raised in connection with his dealings. The investigators conclude that he acted alone, with the important caveat that they offer no conclusions as to his relations with his hierarchical superiors in the "front office," whom they were unable to interview because of the ongoing criminal investigation.

No Joy On Overtime Tax Relief

Tax relief on overtime hours has not produced a surge in hours worked.

Are There No Happy Marseillais?

Jean-Claude Gaudin, the mayor of Marseille, who is up for re-election, has been embarrassed by a campaign poster featuring the faces of happy citizens pleased with way he runs his city. The problem is that the faces are those of Americans, taken from Getty Images by his ad agency. You can see some of them in the banner of this Gaudin Web site. We are the world!

Nettoyé au Kärcher

It was more than two years ago that Nicolas Sarkozy promised to cleanse la dalle d'Argenteuil au Kärcher. Today, it seems that what has been cleared out of the area is not les voyous but les commerçants.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Blog

French Politics contributor Judah Grunstein has a new blog at World Policy Review. Want to know what France's deputy trade minister is doing in Ankara? Judah has the answer. Now that is detailed coverage of French foreign affairs!

Sarkozy and Cruise

I was afraid of this: when I joked in a previous post about the Sarkozy-Tom Cruise-Scientology connection, a small voice in my head said, "But what if there is one?" There is: see here and here. Thanks to Éloi for the tip.

Sects, Cults, Religions, Public Order

Sarkozy may believe that all civilization is based on religion, but "sects" are another matter. Or are they? His chief of staff. Emmanuelle Mignon, who has already been in the news recently for her role in the Holocaust education proposal, gave VSD an interview in which she was quoted as saying that "sects are not a problem in France." She says that she was misquoted and said rather that sects are to be investigated to determine whether they pose a "threat to public order." The case of Scientology remains open in her mind.

Though I hold no brief for Scientology,* I have never quite understood the German animus toward the group, but of course I live in a country full of religious cranks and other minor cultish annoyances. To be sure, the French put a rather different construction on the word culte: for them le culte is the good form of religion, controlled, disciplined, and above all subordinated to a state that has even created a ministry to oversee them. La secte, on the other hand, encapsulates the shadowy side of religion, its unpoliced and amorphous id, which may fasten upon children as an incubus in the night. About les sectes the state worries from time to time, though Mignon's on the whole moderate and reasonable statement suggests that it isn't worrying too much at present, even if it hasn't quite settled on which manifestations of Islam are to be regarded as cultes and which as sectes (Wahhabi, Salafi, Tariq Ramadan, etc., have been proposed at one time or another for the latter category).

* I've heard it said that Dominique de Villepin used to refer to Sarkozy as "Tom Cruise" because of his fondness for aviator sunglasses. Perhaps this explains Mignon's interest in investigating Scientology.

The New Primary School Curriculum ...

... can be consulted here (pdf). My eyes glaze over when I read educational mission statements, but if some reader wanted to summarize the salient points, I'd be glad to post. Newspaper summaries suggest the classic conservative "return to the three R's" (or whatever the French equivalent of 'reading, 'ritin', and 'rithmetic might be). No wonder Sarko wanted to throw in a little Holocaust controversy. Otherwise the announcement might have elicited only yawns.

The Dignity of the Office

As everyone knows, Sarkozy now stands lower in the polls than Chirac did after the '95 strikes. And many excellent observers think they know why: he has damaged the dignity of his office, says Pierre Moscovici, and adopted a style that is "sometimes vulgar--let's be blunt." IFRI deputy director Dominique Moïsi says:

Sarkozy may want to be a combination of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, but in symbolic terms he is also the Queen. And, in his quest for modernity and transparency, he has de-legitimised the symbolic dimension of his function by mixing his private and public lives.

(Full disclosure: Dominique is a friend.) This is certainly true, but is it an explanation? A few short months ago, the innovations in presidential style were cited with equal assurance to explain Sarkozy's extraordinarily high ratings. American presidents, too, mix the functions of incarnation and representation, hence might be viewed from certain angles as "elective monarchs," yet "vulgarity" often serves them well enough. George W. Bush was no less vulgar when his approval was in the 70s than he is now when it is in the 30s. Bill Clinton, who discussed his underwear styles in public while campaigning, certainly damaged the dignity of his office: even his admirers, among whom I count myself a moderate, would concede that. Yet his approval soared when he came under attack for his scandalous private behavior.

Now, to belabor the obvious, France is not the United States, as several commenters frequently remind me. I need no reminding: comparison is my business. I'm not sure yet where I want to take this counter-vulgarity argument. But I did want to put the question out there, because I think it bears some thinking about. Sarkozy's sudden fall from grace does call for explanation, but I think we shouldn't be too quick to settle for the first explanations that come to mind.

The Forgotten Minister

Q: Who is the minister of Government Fillon II who is the least discussed in the press? Hint: he is not really a minister.

A: Martin Hirsch, who rejected the title of minister in favor of High Commissioner for Active Solidarities, has, I would wager, maintained a lower profile than any other minister. His very title suggests that his entire mission is oriented toward the implementation of one policy: the Revenu de Solidarités Actives. The basic idea is to supplement other social minima (such as the Revenu Minimum d'Insertion, or RMI) to ensure that there is no disincentive to take available work. Under existing programs, an RMI recipient might actually see a decrease in income as a result of accepting a paid job. The RSA is supposed to prevent this. Hence it is similar to measures in the US generally referred to as "workfare": incentives to those receiving social assistance to work rather than not. The RSA is currently in an experimental phase: various départements have signed on to try out the program (how Girondin and "unrepublican"!). It is to be expanded to the entire country before the end of 2008.

The slow implementation is rather puzzling. Hirsch is not a politician by trade, and he seems to prefer to work in the shadows. But the political contours of the measure are not clear to me. Is there active opposition? From whom? Have the parameters of the program been modified as a result of political inputs? I haven't seen much about this in the news. But I wouldn't be surprised to hear more about it after the municipal elections. It may be that Sarkozy is reluctant to be seen handing out "sweeteners" to those at the bottom of the ladder when he is emphasizing law enforcement (the Villiers-le-Bel raid) and visionary but underfunded ambitions (the Amara plan for the désenclavement of the banlieues, the creation of 40,000 jobs, new educational and training opportunities, etc.).

ADDENDUM: Bad timing: Hirsch just raised his profile with a rebuke to François Bayrou.

La Guerre du SMS n'aura pas lieu

According to Bakchich, the Paris prosecutor's office is refusing to search the premises of Le Nouvel Obs for evidence regarding the famous texto that Sarkozy is alleged to have sent his ex-wife agreeing to forgive all if she returned. The article asserts, moreover, that Sarko's lawyer won't make a fuss about this, because he wants to accredit the idea that there is no original message, that the reporter, Airy Routier, merely printed a rumor, that Sarkozy knows where the rumor originated, and that the whole point of the exercise is to expose the left-wing weekly as a scandal sheet.

Who knows how much of all this is true? Certainly not I. But look at the picture of French institutions that it paints: a president whose private life has invited scandalmongers; a respectable news magazine that has reduced itself to flogging tawdry rumors; a justice system that is instrumentalized by the president to attack a hostile press organ; a prosecutor whose independence is nonexistent; a prosecutorial staff that engages in a fronde not to defend the law but to thwart the allegedly vindictive will of a president it dislikes; and a readiness to wrap all this politique de basse cour in an endless series of high principles: the sanctity of private life; a government of laws, not men; freedom of the press; independence of the judiciary; republican resistance to elective monarchy, etc.

True or not, the picture is plausible because it is a calque of so many previous entanglements of presidency, press, and police. The scandals of the Mitterrand and Chirac administrations have accustomed the public to the pattern of charges and counter-charges, parries and thrusts, manipulation and "resistance," provocation and retaliation. Of course I'm not about to hold up the United States and its subservient Justice Department as a counterexample. The serious question that arises transcends boundaries: democracy in the media age is increasingly mediacracy (not to be confused with mediocrity), by which I mean not that the media rule but rather that government is effected through a symbiotic relationship of elected officials and the media through whom the public is informed (or inflamed). This relationship has developed any number of pathological characteristics, of which the case of Sarko's SMS is but the latest example. Hence it is a relationship that needs to be regulated by some sort of "counter-power," to borrow a term from Pierre Rosanvallon's Contre-démocratie. And it needs to be regulated on both sides--on the side of the government and on the side of the media. How is this to be done if the justice system cannot be counted on to be independent, or if its independence cannot always be counted on to serve the cause of justice? The "liberal" answer is regulation through competition, but as the present case demonstrates, competition for the big scoop may be as much a cause of excess as a cure.

Kafka in France

Brice Hortefeux appears to be working hard to meet his expulsion quota in order to get a good grade from the ministerial evaluators before the coming cabinet shuffle. This article details the rather Kafkaesque adventures of a man from the Ivory Coast who was arrested in Italy and returned to France, where his visa had expired, so that French authorities could officially expel him, even though he had an airplane ticket in his pocket and was on his way back home to be married in the Ivory Coast.

As my children say in their text messages, WTF? If you don't know what it means, don't look it up.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Leisure Preference

The graph shows the percentage of respondents (in the active work force) who preferred "greater purchasing power" (upper curve) to "more leisure time" (lower curve). What do you think accounts for the reversal of trend circa 2000? Source: CAE Report 73, "Mesurer le pouvoir d'achat," p. 10.

Kerviel's Profits

As I have speculated in past posts, Jérôme Kerviel did in fact earn profits--spectacular profits--for SocGen. And these were realized profits, not paper profits, so they had to have been credited to his trading account at the bank, which means that his superiors had to have known the large volumes of his trades. The one detail about which I was wrong was the timing: he made losses in 2007 and began to turn a profit only in the weeks before he was discovered. So in part this detail, if true, tends to diminish the responsibility of his superiors, since they may not have recognized his profits until rather late in the game, but we still do not know whether any of his losses were real rather than virtual. Real losses would certainly have gotten the attention of his bosses.

The Times and France

Nick wrote:

On a related subject, could you post your thoughts on Elaine Sciolino's coverage of France in the Times? Ever since she's gotten the France beat something about her writing makes me grit my teeth, and at this point my dentist is concerned. Shallow sterotypes of French pompousness? Deliberately awkward translations to make the French seem silly? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

I had the privilege once of listening to a previous Times correspondent explain the difficulties he faced in trying to cover France for the paper. He presented a remarkable statistic, the percentage of column-inches devoted to all foreign countries and then to France: both were impossibly small (I can't remember the precise numbers). He detailed some of the battles he had fought to persuade his editors to cover matters he considered important, to establish some continuity of coverage so that news could be placed in a meaningful context, etc. All for naught. And he showed us drafts of some of the many articles he had written that had been spiked or trimmed back in New York.

There was considerable resistance to the idea of expanded foreign coverage, he said, and that was at a time when the newspaper had substantially more resources to put into play than it has today. The usual refrain was that readers weren't interested. And no doubt the editors who made this reply had some basis for their opinion.

So I wouldn't want to level a finger of accusation at Sciolino without knowing more about what she is up against. Like you, I have been dismayed repeatedly by the coverage of France, but I don't know whom to blame. As for the lame translations, yes, I agree that the renderings are often flat-footed, but I also know that editors sometimes insist on excessive literalism because they are afraid of "misrepresenting" what some important figure said. Literalism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. It is a way of playing it safe, so that if haled into court and asked to swear on the Bible, the editor can always ask to swear on the dictionary instead. Perhaps you're right that the intention is to ridicule the French, but more likely it is to cover the ass of someone in the newsroom (pardon my French).

As for the use of cultural stereotypes, I think that newspaper correspondents are often posted to a country too briefly and with too little background to get beyond the stereotypes, but that judgment may in itself be a stereotype. I'd rather limit my criticisms to specific articles and instances, as I did in this post, than go too far with generalizations. The Times has done some good reporting on the Société Générale affair, for example. (Is that perhaps because reporters on the financial beat acquire expertise in the subject matter, whereas political reporters all too often rely on cultivating contacts with privileged sources, a method that surely works less well for foreign correspondents, who don't have the same usefulness to politicians as domestic reporters do?)

We could also discuss the coverage of the United States by the French media, but I think I'll reserve that for another occasion. Thanks for your question.

Une et indivisible?

La République une et indivisible has recently been sounding a lot like the multi-culti bedlam that is the United States. First, we have the Left's knickers in a twist over the alleged failure of candidate Jean-Marie Cavada (ex-MoDem, now backed by the UMP) to react when a speaker at a meeting at which he was present accused Bertrand Delanoë of courting "the Jewish vote." Imagine the chutzpah! The Jewish vote--when all good republicans know that there is no such thing as a Jewish vote because there is no such thing as a Jewish community. Didn't Clermont-Tonnerre say, "Tout pour les Juifs comme individus, rien pour les Juifs comme nation"?

Well, yes, he did, but that was 1791. There has been a lot of water over the dam since then, and perhaps if Cavada didn't hear the incriminated statement at the meeting, as he rather plausibly claims, it was simply because it is so much a part of the mental furniture of every politician to appeal to this or that part of his constituency that it simply didn't strike him as an offense against the Republic (one can't say "federal offense" in this context, because the Americanism would make nonsense of the republican ideal).

Might the attack on Cavada have something to do with his split with François Bayrou, whom he had initially joined in forming the MoDem as an anti-Sarkozyst party of the center-right? Cavada later left MoDem, accusing Bayrou of having created the party solely to serve his own presidential ambitions.

And then we have Rama Yade accusing the Left of attacking her because she is black--"playing the race card," as we would say in American English. To which the response of the Left is--incredibly enough--to threaten to take her to court for slander if she doesn't issue a public apology. As I remarked the other day, the French have become awfully litigious lately: politicians suing newspapers and journalists when not suing one another. As de Gaulle once said in a rather different context, "Quelle mascarade!"

"Trop Baba Cool"

"Trop baba cool" are not the first words that would come to my mind to describe the campaign of Françoise de Panafieu for mayor of Paris, but I'm not Claude Goasguen. His was only one of many coups de griffe exchanged among UMP candidates in recent days. Goasguen, Pierre Lellouche, who heads the UMP list in the 8th, and François Lebel, the incumbent UMP mayor of the 8th who is heading a dissident list (and who, by the way, married Nicolas and Carla), have been at each other's throats.

Even Sarkozy has gotten into the act, criticizing Panafieu for failing to take up his suggestion that she make "architecture and city planning a right-wing issue." Indeed, British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and American conservative educator and sometime gubernatorial candidate John Silber have both recently taken to attacking architects who treat their charge as an "art" rather than a "craft" and therefore allegedly indulge individualistic genius at the expense of collective welfare. It does the heart good to hear conservatives discovering the virtues of "collectivism," but one might prefer them to be a tad less contemptuous of the likes of Frank Gehry and Louis Kahn. Could it be that Sarko, having enlisted Tony Blair into the UMP, is now going after bigger game: the noted architecture critic and Prince of Wales, Charles Windsor?

For the flavor of the Panafieu campaign, watch this.

Intellectuals and Others

I am an intellectual by trade and predilection, but there are days when I think the chattering classes should be gagged, for a few hours at any rate, and the floor turned over to people who don't make their living trading on opinions. I didn't bother reporting yesterday on Libération's feature on the "crisis of democracy," because I found the comments of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek on "formal democracy," popular violence, and the dictatorship of the proletariat just too depressing to bother with. We have passed this way before, and if certain of my confrères want to palliate the woes of middle age by retailing creaky revolutionary romances to the young, I haven't the energy to stop them. Marcel Gauchet apparently thinks this is a fight worth fighting, but his arms are purely theoretical. If he were more of an Anglo-Saxon empiricist, he might prefer to turn to the often interesting blog "Jours tranquilles à Clichy-sous-Bois." In the latest post, by David Da Silva, recounting an awful but not extraordinary week in les banlieues, one finds an excellent demonstration of the realities of the "popular violence" that Slavoj Zizek "recommends ... so that disadvantaged classes may make themselves heard" and a fine illustration of the emptiness of the "communist hypothesis" proposed by Badiou. I recommend that Badiou, Zizek, and Gauchet all read Da Silva. If they did, their well-oiled intellectual machinery might be less likely to tourner à vide.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Rundown on Municipals

I can't possibly cover the municipals in all the communes or even all the larger towns of France, but here's a rundown of the current situation in a few notable races.

Veil Rejoins Sarko

Say what you will, the man has a way of getting things moving. Simone Veil, who had said that hearing Sarkozy's words about teaching the Holocaust had made her "blood run cold," today said she would join a group to "reflect on the implementation" of the presidential directive. And who can blame her? However impetuous the president may have been, no one can deny that he laid an important issue on the table: How to transmit the memory of the Holocaust as the last remaining survivors disappear, as living memory of World War II fades, as the shock of discovery declines into the routine of the textbooks. His methods are contestable--and should be contested--but sometimes it's useful to be shameless.

Geographic Shift

In recent weeks there has been a marked geographic shift in visitors to this site. In the past there were roughly twice as many Americans reading as French, with Brits and Canadians following, as you can see here. Over the past month, there have been approximately as many readers located in France as in the United States. In part this is because of Ségolène Royal's visit. Some of my posts were republished in France and brought new readers to the site. Many of them appear to have stayed. There have also been links to the blog from important French sites such as La Vie des Idées,, Le Post, Twenty Minutes, MediaPart, and various blogs.

In any case, I hope that French readers will publicize the site to their friends and acquaintances. If you want to post comments in French, that's fine with me, and I will answer in French, assuming that this doesn't exasperate too many English-only readers (I have no way of determining how many of my readers are comfortable in both languages). At times I've thought that I ought to have started this blog in French. The potential audience would certainly have been larger, but it would have taken me five times as long to write, and I already invest too much time in this activity. Anyway, I'm glad to have a French audience and will switch languages in the comments section as seems warranted.

Thanks as always for your kind words, support, corrections, and criticisms. I'm particularly grateful for corrections of mistranslations--a professionally useful reward.