Monday, March 31, 2008

Mission to Save the Semicolon

I don't know if you've been following the movement to save the semicolon. It has been gathering steam in the media these past few weeks. Now, Rue89 reveals the existence of an earth-shaking document--the smoking gun, as it were, the pièce à conviction that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the hyperpresident does indeed concern himself with everything that takes place in France. Super-Sarko has committed himself to saving the threatened punctuation mark; perhaps every child in France will be asked to write a sentence containing un point-virgule, lest we forget.

One word of caution: the letter from the Élysée published in Rue89 is dated April 1. In some respects, the semicolon resembles a fishhook: just the sign needed to reel in un poisson d'avril.

New Blog on American Politics in French

French Politics now has its counterpart in France: sociologist Eric Fassin has a new blog, which will cover the American political scene from a French point of view. Eric, who has taught at NYU, knows this country well.

Renaut on the Politicization of Universities

Alain Renaut is critical of the way in which elections of university presidents have proceeded under the university reform law of 2007. He sees an application of broad political labels--"liberal," "left"--to concrete situations in which these labels have no coherent meaning. For instance, he is responsible for a master's degree in philosophy and sociology. Of 500 students in the program, only one succeeded in obtaining the agrégation. Under such conditions, is it a "liberal" or "left" policy to consider curriculum revisions that take into account the extreme unlikelihood that graduates will find jobs in teaching? Isn't it the responsible and humane thing to do to add courses that prospective employers outside the university will find more relevant to their needs?

Blair Out

Jean-Pierre Jouyet reflects on the upcoming French presidency of the European Commission. Among other things, he reveals that the thought of Tony Blair's becoming president of the European Council, which Sarkozy earlier appeared to favor, is no longer on the table because "the majority of our partners do not want a representative from a country that enjoys the most exemptions. Tony Blair has a lot of charisma, but it doesn't seem to me that a consensus has emerged in his favor." He also suggests, in response to a question about whether Javier Solana will continue as diplomatic representative of the EU, that "one mustn't underestimate the expectations of our fellow citizens" that new faces will emerge in top EU posts. Let the speculation begin.

Zoenauts Pardoned

As predicted here and elsewhere some months back, the six members of L'Arche de Zoé convicted in Chad have now been pardoned by President Déby and will soon be released from the French prison in which they are currently held. If anyone can see the moral in this sad tale, let me know; I see only ironies. Perhaps one day one of the Zoénauts will turn out to be a new André Malraux. Malraux, as you may know, was imprisoned for stealing objets d'art from Angkor Wat and released after protests from metropolitan intellectuals swayed the French colonial administration. So we might view the latter-day episode as a passage from the "museum without walls" to the orphanage without walls. Somehow, though, I doubt that Eric Breteau aspires to fill Malraux's shoes. No doubt the Zoénauts will now sell their stories to the media, however.

Response on Attack Ad

You may recall that I was critical a while back of an ad produced by the Campaign for America's Future that bashed the French in order to attack John McCain. Here is the reply I received today to the message of protest I sent to the organization:

Dear Arthur,

Thank you for your email. The "Merci McCain" video was intended as a
light-hearted way to highlight the ridiculousness of the conservative
attacks on the French. More so (and the true intention of the video),
the real issue is whether John McCain's close ties to corporate
lobbyists has him shipping U.S. jobs to France.

We appreciate your comments and they have been sent to the appropriate
department within our organzation. We also apologize for any offense
that this video has caused.

Thank you for your continued support of Our Future.

All the best,


So I am asked to believe that the bashing of the French was simultaneously mockery of conservative attacks on the French and serious criticism of "shipping U.S. jobs to France." And I am thanked for my "continued support of Our Future." Do words have any meaning for these people? (And grammar? "More so ...", "... close ties ... has him shipping ...") Some days it's difficult to contemplate "our future," let alone support it.

Across the Aisle

Meanwhile, in the ranks of the UMP, Xavier Bertrand's rapid rise and obvious presidential favor have led others to sharpen their knives. With much talk about Bertrand as the next prime minister, François Fillon has begun to feel the heat. When Bertrand's franc-maçon credentials were evoked, the prime minister remarked, "Maçon, je savais, mais franc, je l'ignorais." And Jean-François Copé, le grand déçu de Sarkozysme, scheming quietly in the wings as always, has allegedly begun to refer to Bertrand sarcastically as "le meilleur d'entre nous," harking back to Chirac's famous description of Alain Juppé, which was not universally appreciated by Juppé's party comrades.

Moscovici Reacts

I see that Pierre Moscovici reacted to Claude Bartolone's remarks much as I did. Bartolone's transparent overture to Cambadélis in the DSK courant and Arnaud Montebourg (ex-NPS ex-Royaliste) to form an alliance/triumvirate to block both Royal and Delanoë from seizing the leadership in November pleases Moscovici in one sense--he doesn't want either of the rival présidentiables to become secretary general either--but displeases him in another: he would like to be leader himself, and, failing that, he would like to be recognized as leader of the Strauss-Kahniens and suspects his competitor Cambadélis of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Whence his rather prissy formulation of his position:

My approach is to be clear and direct, by stating plainly that the social democrats will have influence in the party and not by diluting our influence or choosing the party leader by lot.

It might have been more clear and direct to say, "Gotcha, Camba, don't think I was born yesterday."

Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Subterfuge and Dissimulation"

François Hollande has denounced the government's "subterfuges and dissimulations" on retirements and the deficit. No surprise there. That's his job. He's rather more reticent when it comes to putting forward his own proposals. His complaints about the deficit suggest that he favors an increase in taxes and social contributions, while his complaints about slowing growth suggest that he would prefer a fiscal stimulus policy. Of course if pressed, he would probably say that the government's TEPA package, passed last year, put the fiscal stimulus in the wrong place, with which I would agree, but we'd still be facing the problem of a deficit creeping up toward the 3 pct SGP limit and a debt around 64 pct of GDP, already over the 60 pct limit, so the EU reprimand that Hollande foresees would have been just as likely had Royal been elected.

One government dissimulation that Hollande avoids has to do with purchasing power and unemployment. The government has been quick to take credit for declining unemployment and equally quick to shirk blame for falling purchasing power. But falling purchasing power is just another way of saying declining real wages, and, other things equal, declining real wages encourage higher employment. The success and the failure may not be unrelated. It would be inexpedient for Hollande to make this point, however. It's one thing to say that increasing the retirement age will not increase the workforce participation rate of "seniors" (over-55: can I really be a senior?) absent new job creation; it's another thing, particularly for a Socialist, to say that declining real wages might lead to the creation of new jobs. Or then again, maybe this won't lead to new jobs, to the extent that higher prices are the result of adverse supply shocks rather than increased demand. But what does the PS propose in that case?

Without an interpretation of the conjuncture, it's impossible to tell from Hollande's remarks what he's thinking. All we know is that he doesn't like what the government is doing. But as I said, this is part of his job description, so his sniping conveys no information. Voters recognize this instinctively, which probably explains why there is so little interest in what Socialists are saying, and won't be, until they commit themsleves to a program and a candidate--or throw in the towel and search instead for a way to captivate the media, which was the formula that Sarkozy exploited with such success in his run for the presidency.

Sarkozy and Mandel

I've written before about Sarkozy's interest in the deputy and résistant Georges Mandel. Le Contre-Journal has an interview with the author of a book about Sarkozy's book on Mandel, which claims that Sarko is guilty of plagiarism, misrepresentation, and glorification of Mandel to the detriment of de Gaulle.

A Pattern

In recent days, all of the following statements have appeared in the press:

Claude Bartolone n'exclut pas d'être 1er secrétaire du Parti Socialiste.
Marie-George Buffet n'exclut pas de rester à la tête du Parti Communiste.
François Hollande n'exclut pas d'être le candidat du Parti Socialiste en 2012.

N'exclut pas: This is an interesting variant of the rhetorical figure known as litotes:

A diminution or softening of statement for the sake of
avoiding censure or increasing the effect by contrast with
the moderation shown in the form of expression; a form of
understatement; as, " a citizen of no mean city," that is, of
an illustrious city; or, "not bad", meaning "good".

In the above examples, each politician is saying, "No one is giving me a snowball's chance in hell, but where there is ambition, there is hope." To be sure, Bartolone's statement can be distinguished slightly from the other two. Buffet and Hollande are both failed party leaders who blame their failures on circumstances rather than themselves and, seeing no greater talents in their immediate vicinity, hope that changed circumstances will somehow keep them afloat. Bartolone is an aspirant to leadership (if not a stalking horse for that other perennial aspirant, Laurent Fabius), who is throwing his hat into the ring without wishing to appear so ambitious as to arouse murderous envy (cf. "They say Caesar was an ambitious man"). He is not running because he wants to be primus inter pares, he tells us, but only to prevent the emergence of what he calls the "star sytem":

"Il faut que les socialistes évitent le star-system", ajoute-t-il. "Si nous devions tomber dans une compétition entre Ségolène Royal et Bertrand Delanoë, il n'y aurait pas de reconstruction possible, ni du PS ni de la gauche. De plus, je ne sais pas qui gagnerait mais l'un ferait 60 et l'autre 40, et on ne s'en sortirait pas. (...) Un tel scénario serait mortifère pour le PS".

Perhaps not as mortifère as the current system of collective misrule, in which any Socialist who sticks his or her neck out has it lopped off by the others. But that's not what Bartolone wants either. Rather, he looks forward to a conspiracy of starlets in which he, representing the Fabiusiens (remember, François Hollande estimated their strength at 10-15 pct of the party), joins forces with their nemeses the Strauss-Kahniens (another 10-15 pct) and the renegade ex-Royalistes of the NPS such as Arnaud Montebourg:

Lorsqu'on parle de cela avec Jean-Christophe Cambadélis (NDLR: proche de Dominique Strauss-Kahn) et Arnaud Montebourg (NDLR: supporter de Ségolène Royal en 2007), on se dit tous les trois en riant que rien ou presque ne nous sépare aujourd'hui et que, s'il fallait nous départager pour le poste de Premier secrétaire, on pourrait quasiment tirer entre nous à la courte-paille!

Nothing or next to nothing separates them other than their common ambition, that is.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Chinese Move to Euros

The Chinese are beginning to quote prices and invoice non-US transactions in euros and other currencies rather than the dollar.

Hollande Handicaps the PS Race

François Hollande runs down the strengths of the various PS courants: "The PS has not changed much since the Congrès du Mans. Roughly a third of the votes are cast in stone. Fabius? 10 to 15 pct. The Strauss-Kahnians? Also 10-15 pct. Hamon-Emanuelli? 10 tops. Mélenchon? 4 or 5." About "Ségolène" and "Bertrand" he is more reticent, but he claims 25 pct of the party for himself. Bottom line: nobody can win without forming a coalition with another courant. So Hollande remains the kingmaker--or so he hopes, unless in his heart of hearts he still dreams of becoming king.

Sarko's Speech to Parliament

Sarkozy's speech to the British Parliament went over well, and why not? He flattered the Brits no end. Without you, no parliamentary democracy. Without you, no shining European example of a successfully reformed liberal market economy. Without you, no European Union. Wait a minute? What was that last? Did he really say that "the European Union--I mean this because it is my deepest conviction--is our joint effort, yours and ours"? Did he really mean to insult Germany with this wet kiss planted on Euroskeptic Albion's stiff upper lip? Or by "ours" did he mean to say nous autres Européens du Continent who built Europe while you fiddled with your "special relationship" with the Yankee hegemon? Well, no matter. It was Albion who needed to be seduced, and though the shy lad seems to have been smitten more with Mme Sarkozy, her husband nevertheless laid on the soft soap: "The United Kingdom has shown that in the global economy there was a way to achieve strong growth, full employment, and solidarity. That way was the way of reform. ... For us the challenge is to take inspiration from a successful experience--your experience."

Really, the Brits must be awfully susceptible to Gallic charm to fall for this line of patter. And wasn't he only recently cooing the same sweet nothings in the ear of the American Congress, which fell just as hard? Well, no matter: the bloom is off the rose, le flagorneur continues on his merry way, but Lady Liberty has her memories and a promise of a thousand more French troops in Afghanistan to show for her fling.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

French Mathematician Wins Abel Prize

The French mathematician Jacques Tits will share the Abel Prize with an American. Tits is being honored for his work in algebra. He is the inventor of the concept of a "Tits building," an algebraic structure made up of simpler structures called, appropriately enough, "apartments." Although I have a Ph.D. in mathematics from long ago, I'm afraid my expertise is out of date. I am not familiar with the theory of buildings. But it is good to see French mathematics honored. In my day the French were among the world leaders in several branches of mathematics, and their work was distinguished by profound insight coupled with the utmost elegance in form and expression. These qualities were among the things that first attracted my attention to France.

EU Military Operations in Africa

Judah Grunstein has an interesting piece on EU military operations in Chad. It seems that the scarce resource is not boots on the ground but logistical support. European troop movement capabilities are limited. Transportation had to be leased from a Ukrainian contractor, although Russia did supply eight helicopters. Troop transport is a prosaic business. It doesn't have the glamor of nuclear submarines or nuclear weapons and doesn't get the headlines. But without it Europe (and France, to the extent that it uses Europe for projecting its own force) remains impotent while consoling itself with the hypothetical ability to destroy any city anywhere on earth at any time. Of course impotence is a good way to stay out of trouble, but sometimes it's best not to avoid trouble, and when the time comes it's best to be prepared, as the Boy Scouts like to say.

Patrick Weil on University Reform

Noted scholar (historian of immigration) Patrick Weil offers a pertinent critique of the Pécresse Law on university reform in Marianne. In particular he observes that the partial autonomy granted under the Pécresse law has reinforced "localism and clientelism in the recruitment of professors," because it has increased the powers of locally elected university presidents. Instead of "free and open competition, which is a good thing," he says, students are still funneled into local universities, which therefore do not need to search for the best professors in order to compete for top students.

Local Color

Had Elaine Sciolino wanted to give the real flavor of quotidian France, she might have written about the developing scandal in the Hauts-de-Seine instead of about her butcher in the 7th Arrondissement. The affair involves any number of important names: Rachida Dati, the minister of justice, André Santini, the civil service secretary, and one Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the Republic but previously president of the conseil général of Hauts-de-Seine. And only in France would alleged corruption in a public works project revolve around the donation of a major art collection. Now, that is local color, Ms. Sciolino. With a little reportorial shoe-leather, you might have come up with something worth writing about.

Bertrand's the Winner

Yesterday I described a putsch in the making at the UMP. I predicted that Christian Estrosi would replace Patrick Devedjian. I was wrong. That honor goes to Xavier Bertrand, and Devedjian will remain in place alongside him (though he can no doubt read the handwriting on the wall). Estrosi figures in the putsch but will get only a special "functional" post created expressly for him. The whole maneuver was orchestrated by Sarkozy, according to Le Figaro.

Incidentally, a glimpse of Bertrand in action can be found here. He appears on a France Culture program with French Politics contributor Éloi Laurent. Bertrand is a smooth talker (as befits a former insurance agent), intelligent, quick on his feet, and entirely unflappable, a politician in the buttoned-down, well-groomed mold of François Fillon, whom he might well replace should Sarkozy ever decide that he needs a new prime minister. His promotion to the post of party leader is evidence that his star is rising rapidly.

Le Monde adds that Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet will also become a deputy secretary general of the UMP and says that Sarko chose her as a "counterweight" to Bertrand's "appetite for media exposure"--an appetite that the president is well-placed to judge as a connoisseur. Fillon is also said to be "wary" of Bertrand, no doubt for the reason adumbrated above, and to have insisted on denying him an expansion of his ministry's powers to include responsibility for labor. Instead, Fillon's former spokesman Laurent Wauquiez was assigned to Christine Lagarde as a deputy for labor issues.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ghost of Jackie O. Meets Lady Di's Mother-in-Law

David Pujadas wasn't fooled for a minute. The real royalty at the palace today was the ghost of Jackie Kennedy. Carla Bruni, whom all the tabloids featured in the buff on page 1, was dressed up as the late Queen of Camelot, pillbox hat and all. She curtseyed nicely for the other queen, the dowdy one, while her prince consort, a good republican, confined himself to shaking ma'am's hand (later he could be seen caressing Carla's behind the queen's back). All protocol was observed: it was a performance sans faute, Pujadas purred. Petit Poucet has grown up. His tall, elegant wife has given him a regal gravitas to go with his regalian powers. Royalty receives him as a peer. He still has that odd gait, however, almost a limp, as if one leg were shorter than the other. It's a flaw that humanizes him, a false note in an otherwise flawless symphony of tawdry trumpery. Bernard Kouchner got to ride in an open carriage with the Duke of Edinburgh. One wonders what they talked about. A favorite claret, perhaps? And the queen chatted rather animatedly with Carla as Nicolas limped his way down the line of beefeaters. He doesn't really seem to enjoy these reviews of the troops. It's an endearing trait of Sarkozy's: unlike George Bush, he seems to know that he's a fraud, that it's all du toc. To him, the pretense is just part of the job. Bush is the more dangerous kind of charlatan: the one who believes he is whatever he says he is.

Putsch in the Making

It looks as though Christian Estrosi has taken himself out of the government not just to devote himself to the city of Nice, of which he has just been elected mayor, but also to attempt a take-over of the UMP. His blast today at UMP secretary general Patrick Devedjian is the opening shot. Stay tuned. The former Grand Prix motorcycle racer demonstrated his devotion to Sarkozy by renting a private jet to fly him back from an official visit to Washington in time for supper with the president. The trip cost the taxpayers 138,000 euros. He has also been convicted of tax fraud and various charges growing out of his business dealings.

CFDT Will Oppose 41 Years

The government's proposal to extend the required (general regime) period of retirement contributions from 40 to 41 years for full benefits has met with opposition from the CFDT. This is not a good sign for the government, because the CFDT has long been supportive of retirement reform.

The ground for the union's opposition is that employment opportunities for people above the age of 55 are limited: the participation rate in this segment of the work force is 37.8 percent, the lowest in the EU. Hence the CFDT argues that the reform will not produce additional revenue unless new jobs for seniors can be created.

The debate on this issue could be interesting, because real clashes of value lie just beneath the surface. Some people are eager to continue working as they age. These fall into two groups: those whose work is not physically arduous and who derive much of their identity from work (managers, intellectuals, scientists, technicians), and those who have not saved enough for retirement. The former group includes many who have fared rather well in the existing division of labor and rewards, the latter many who have not. It might be reasonable to expect the latter to work longer and thus transfer some of their rewards from work to the less fortunate, but to discriminate in this way would violate the tenets of equality and solidarity that underlie the retirement system generally. The latter would prefer not to work but feel compelled to; in order to encourage the creation of jobs to accommodate their needs, the government might envision exempting them from further payment into the retirement fund. This would obviously do nothing to fund the system but might diminish pressure to increase minimum retirement benefits. Some would object to such an outcome as unfair, however.

As the unity of the right begins to fray on redistributive issues (as I discussed yesterday), this reform may not muster the kind of support that backed last year's reform of the special regimes.

Le Monde on Obama

Patrick Jarreau refers to Barack Obama as a "globalized" candidate for the American presidency. He describes Obama's mixed racial background and complex understanding of his own identity. It is one of Obama's strengths, I think, that he can see the United States as both insider and outsider. But his gift stems from more than his racial makeup and years of residence abroad. His experience as a community organizer in Chicago, working with the urban underclass, taught him about what Michael Harrington once described as "the other America," the America whose discovery came as a shock to some Americans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, various urban riots, and the sermons of Rev. Wright.

But what I want to comment on particularly in Jarreau's article is the use of the French métissage to translate the English word "miscegenation" (which Jarreau misspells as "misgenation"). Jarreau quotes Obama's remark that his parents' marriage would have been a crime in certain American states, the crime of "miscegenation." And this is the problem with the translation of métissage. The French journalist is evidently unaware of the history of the word in the United States, where it has always been associated with racist attitudes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was "coined by David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman in an anonymously published hoax pamphlet circulated in 1863, which implied that the American Republican party favoured mixed-race relationships." The word found its way into the law of various southern states during the post-Reconstruction period, when racial barriers were heightened. It therefore has an offensive sting that the French métis lacks. If French has a word with comparably offensive overtones, I'm not aware of it. But French speakers should refrain from describing anyone in English as a "half-breed" or product of "miscegenation" unless they mean to be offensive. The terms are not neutrally descriptive. "Mixed racial background" is less harsh because not associated with racist law and speech.

Other words denoting mixed racial origins such as "mulatto," "octaroon," and "high-yellow" can still be found in Faulkner but have dropped out of everyday American use.

More on the U.S. Election Campaign

So, to continue the discussion of the U.S. election campaign as seen in France, you're no doubt aware that the delegate math is heavily against Hillary, despite her likely victory in Pennsylvania next month. Pressure is mounting on her to get out of the race so that Democrats can concentrate on battling McCain, who has made progress in the polls. Is this discussed in France? Several of you reported that people around you are hoping for an Obama victory. Do they feel that a continuation of Hillary's quest for the nomination will hurt his chances if he is the candidate in November?

See this article in Le Figaro.

Kouchner, Sarko, and Tibet

Bernard Kouchner's old friends are not happy with him. Jean-Marc Ayrault says that he's "stiff in his official costume." Jack Lang asks "what has become of your just and impassioned words?" The language with which "the French doctor" turned French diplomat defends himself is indeed less than impassioned: "We have called 'the attention of the Chinese authorities to human rights with the approach of the Olympics.'" Wan words, diplomatic words, forlorn words--anything, to be sure, but impassioned.

But what would the critics have Kouchner do? The chorus of denunciation already has a full range of voices. Kouchner could resign and unleash his rich baritone, but would his addition to the choir move the Chinese? Kouchner is no longer a private citizen. His words engage France. He has to be circumspect (and has been rightly criticized in the past when he exceeded his proper limits, on Iran, for example). It is no doubt embarrassing for him personally that the tough cop role in this case has been assumed (characteristically) by Sarkozy, who has held open the possibility that France might boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics (a position that drew a mild rebuke, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say a demurrer, from a U.S. State Department spokesman).

Critics ask what purpose Kouchner's presence in the government serves. But this is unfair. He no doubt remains the man he was before he voluntarily donned the "stiff official costume," and in internal councils, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, he undoubtedly makes his views known. That's why his friends should be glad he's there. And why they should ask what they would do in his position, knowing that the possibility of influencing the Chinese is limited. Denunciation is a luxury that can be enjoyed by those of us without power. Those whose words can have undesired consequences have to be more careful. If Kouchner seems awkward in the role, perhaps it's because carefulness has never been his forte. If the strain becomes too great, he can quit. But as long as he stays, he is right to recognize that he's no longer a free man but a prisoner of his position, condemned to voluntary servitude.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Insecurity has a review of a book by Laurent Bonelli, La France a peur: une histoire sociale de l'insécurité, which explores the question of how the theme of insecurity came to occupy such a prominent place in French political discourse. The destabilization of once-stable working-class neighborhoods is one factor. Another is a change in the attitude of the Socialist Party, circa 1997, under Lionel Jospin (the Villepinte colloquium is mentioned). Jospin began to denounce social explanations of the causes of delinquency as "sociological excuses," thus joining the discourse of the right on the subject. Various elected officials also distinguished themselves from the pack by emphasizing the security theme. Among them were Julien Dray, Bruno Le Roux, Jean-Marie Bockel, and Jean-François Copé.

Death of Hazel Barnes

Hazel Barnes, the philosopher and translator of Sartre's L'Être et le Néant, died on March 18.


Vol. 28, no. 2 (2007) of The Tocqueville Review contains a paper of mine entitled "Falsehoods Not Intended to Deceive: Popular Sovereignty and Higher Law," which is an interpretation and critique of Bruce Ackerman's reading of United States constitutional history. Despite the 2007 date, this issue is hot off the press. I received my copy yesterday. Non-gated version here.

Nouvel Obs FNACkered

Denis Olivennes, the CEO of the FNAC, will become the new director of Le Nouvel Observateur. Claude Perdriel, his predecesor at NO, said that Olivennes is "at once [sic] a social democrat respectful of the market economy but on the left." It would be easy to comment ironically on this rather maladroit characterization of la gauche caviar, but since I hover somewhere in this neighborhood of the political spectrum myself, I will be gentle. I am also--to the chagrin of many of my friends--an habitué of the FNAC. What the stores lack in charm, they make up in efficiency: the bibliophile with but a short time in Paris or Nice or wherever can fill his trunks and spend his limit in the FNAC's well-stocked aisles. I trust that M. Olivennes will prove equally efficient and modern in his communication of the news.

Le Nouvel Obs has a circulation of 535,000+ weekly, and its Web site receives 10 million hits per month. Olivennes was appointed by Sarkozy to head a commission looking into illegal downloads via the Internet. He also played a role in Sarko's proposal to eliminate advertising from France2.

ADDENDUM: And what does Le Nouvel Obs empire rest upon? With a discretion worthy of Henry James, I shall refer to it only by its French name, le sanibroyeur SFA. When one reports the often melancholy news, I suppose il faut broyer du noir.

Collomb Speaks Frankly

Gérard Collomb, the newly re-elected mayor of Lyon, is not a man to mince words. When asked whether a PS proposal to increase purchasing power by raising the SMIC and the minimum retirement benefit was a good idea, he said: "Purchasing power will increase only if our businesses prosper. We must therefore invest in research and universities. To put it bluntly, it's pointless to pile promise upon promise with the idea of pleasing as many categories of voters as possible. The 101 propositions in our 2007 Presidential Pact were a mistake. It's better to offer a credible program than to spout nonsense."

The Senate

The French Senate is a most peculiar institution. It exists on sufferance, with diminished real power, because bicameralism has always suffered from an association of the upper chamber with aristocracy, despite Tocqueville's heroic if disingenuous effort to persuade his compatriots that it was merely a different and more refined emanation of the general will. The Fifth Republic has a Senate that has indeed been "aristocratic" in the sense of embodying changeless continuity: it has never been controlled by the Left. Its members are indirectly elected by some 150,000 local élus known as grands électeurs. Yet despite the fact that the Left is now clearly in command at the local level, control of the Senate will not change hands. To be sure, it would not matter much if it did, since the government can always choose to break a deadlock by granting the National Assembly the power to pass a bill without Senate approval. But the symbolic significance of genuine alternance in the Senate would be worth something, as Jean-Pierre Bel writes in Le Monde. The Balladur Commission has recommended a reform of the way in which senators are chosen. What will come of it remains to be seen.

The Right Frays

The Right managed to maintain a fair semblance of unity through the first round of reforms. It had the wind in its sails and the coast of the Promised Land in sight. So it passed the TEPA act (which cut taxes here and there to the tune of 14 billion euros) with nary a dissenting voice. Suddenly, however, in the wake of what the prematurely disgruntled Jean-François Copé has called a "thrashing" (un dérouillé) in the municipals, others have found their voice. In retrospect, the problem with the TEPA suddenly looms large: it was too generous to the rich, with its tax shield and estate tax reform. "Justice" is the watchword of the new dissidents of the center-right. As one of them, Charles de Courson of Nouveau Centre, puts it, "Le thème de la justice, c'est bien un truc de centriste, non?"

Well, I would have thought that "justice" merited somewhat more full-throated praise than un truc de centriste, but it's a start. Twenty deputies signed a petition in which they pledged in regard to future legislation that "Nous resterons très vigilants vis-à-vis du contenu des réformes, qui ne peuvent se faire sans esprit de justice." One member of the group offered a blunter assessment: "Les 15 milliards pour les riches, on se l’est pris dans la gueule pendant toutes les municipales. Maintenant, il faudrait enfin comprendre qu’on ne travaille pas que pour ceux qui payent un ISF." ("The 15 billion for the rich hit us smack in the face in the municipals. It's finally time to understand that we're not working only for those who pay the tax on large fortunes.") The Socialists could use un truc de centriste like that.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sarkozy's New Model Army

Sarko did more than promise to reduce the number of French nuclear warheads the other day. He also repudiated Chirac's plans to beef up the military. These date from 1996, when Chirac put forward a plan for a new and much-enhanced French army by 2015. But Sarkozy said that these plans were "unrealistic" and "obsolete." He also claimed that this was well-known, but that "no one told the French" people. Finally, he blamed his predecessor for saddling him with an unsound financial situation, which made it possible to meet the cost of building the new army, which he put at 6 billion euros a year.

All in all, it was a rather devastating critique of the Chirac regime and might have made a good campaign speech--for the Socialists, since Sarko was part of the regime he has now lambasted. He had little to say, however, about what sort of army modernization he envisions instead. It might be a good idea if he "told the French" a little more about this, since John McCain has also inadvertently leaked the news that Sarko plans to send 1,000 additional French troops to Afghanistan. Chirac planned to build up the army but mostly kept it home. Sarko is sending troops to Abu Dhabi and Afghanistan while ostensibly cutting the budget.

The president may have been reticent about discussing military details, yet his usual arsenal of offensive rhetorical weapons was fully deployed:

Chacun sait qu'au surplus ce modèle était irréaliste, on ne l'a pas dit aux Français, eh bien je le leur dis. Je me refuse à partir de ce modèle d'armée, pour simplement constater des renoncements. Il est vain de poursuivre indéfiniment des modèles hors d'atteinte".

The assertiveness, perseveration, and cocky certainty of bringing light to the blind are hallmarks of the Sarkozyan style.

Le Parti Socialiste bis

The Socialist Party now controls 20 of 22 conseils régionaux, 55 of 101 conseils généraux, and three-quarters of France's large cities. This has led some local elected officials to envision a national coordinating council of some sort, a structure that would bring these local powers together and give them a voice on the national stage. Several, including Lyon mayor Gérard Collomb and Toulouse mayor Pierre Cohen, mention their alienation from the PS's national bureau.

National coordination might indeed be a good thing, but not if it were simply a forum for powerful local officials to create still more courants around themselves. The Socialist Party suffers from a surfeit of ambitions and a dearth of ideas. This might be a good time to practice the participatory democracy that Ségolène Royal preached in her campaign. What the party needs is to avail itself of its strength at the grass roots to cultivate new ideas, to attend to what is really stirring at the base, and to develop a generation of young militants, particularly from underrepresented groups, who can begin to shape a new message for the 2012 elections. Local socialism may yet serve as a midwife to a new Socialist Party, but it is not yet ready to become one. Arnaud Montebourg, who knows a thing or two about the difficulty of conceiving a Nouveau Parti Socialiste, acknowledges the danger: the party, he says, needs "to open itself up to society rather than fall back on its bastions."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The American Elections

A regular reader has written with an interesting suggestion. The U.S. presidential election campaign is being followed closely in France. My appearance on Le Monde as a "live chatter" about the race drew hundreds of questions. The writer thought it would be interesting to hear from those of you who live in France about your views on the campaign as it evolves. But he also thought it would be good to try to focus the comments a little by raising specific questions. Please feel free to post comments either in your own name or anonymously.

I'd like to start off the discussion by asking how you reacted to Obama's speech this week on race. Oddly, this speech has not attracted as much attention in France as in the United States, although the French often bring up racial issues when discussing American politics. As far as I know, the only published translation can be found here. If you speak English, you can of course find it on YouTube, and the speech really should be listened to in its entirety to appreciate the range of Obama's oratorical skills. To my mind, it was the best American political speech of my lifetime--better than Kennedy's speech on religion and Fulbright's speech against the Vietnam War, and better even, because more substantive, than Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. Yet the immediate effect has been negative: Obama's popularity has dropped, and polls now say that he would lose to McCain. This is probably because many people who had not heard of Obama's pastor Rev. Wright and his fulminations against America have now had their attention focused on Obama's relationship to "black liberation theology" and militant black power rhetoric. In any case, the complexion--I choose the word advisedly--of the presidential race has been altered. I would like to invite comment on this particularly from people living in France, though of course if Americans and others want to jump in, please feel free. Are you aware of the speech? How was it covered in the French media? How do you and the people around you react to it? Has anyone attempted to relate Obama's discussion of the complexity of American race relations to the complexity of racial and ethnic relations in France? What other questions occur to you?

Subprefect Dismissed for Attack on Israel

Bruno Guigue, a subprefect in Charente-Maritime, has been dismissed for publishing an opinion piece on in which he attacked Israel as "the only state in the world that employs snipers to shoot little girls as they leave school." He was dismissed for violating his devoir de réserve. His vitriolic attack was prompted, he said, by a petition published in Le Monde and signed by people who in his eyes represent the "organic intellectuals of what has become familiar to us as the pro-Israel lobby."

A long list of previous publications on follows M. Guigue's article. The devoir de réserve evidently weighed rather lightly in the past. He is a normalien and énarque.

ADDENDUM: Historian Esther Benbassa examines the case here.

Sciolino's Farewell

Elaine Sciolino is leaving her post as Times Paris bureau chief. Her swan song reminds us why she will not be missed. For our national newspaper's chief correspondent, France means above all sexy underwear, friendly butchers, nasty haberdashers, handkissing, and other quaintnesses. La grande Nation is a dotty old aunt best captured in droll anecdotes. To be sure, the French can sometimes write about America with similar superficiality: we are obese, arrogant, uncouth, fanatically religious, and of course puritanical, and our idea of a restaurant is McDonald's. Let us hope that the next Paris correspondent will be cut of a different cloth.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

France-Bashing from the American Left

I have to join Boz at Sarkozy the American in condemning a new ad by Campaign for America's Future that makes a whipping boy of France in order to attack John McCain for his role in the award of the aerial tanker contract to EADS. What a deplorable thing for a "progressive" political action group to do--straight out of the Karl Rove playbook. And what a lousy ad--couldn't they at least have found an authentic French speaker? Shocking (video at the first link above).

CAF's directors include Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, AFL-CIO pres. George Sweeney, and LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

To register your protest, go here. I have.

Mme Collomb n'est pas une colombe

Caroline Collomb, the wife of newly re-elected Lyon mayor Gérard Collomb, slapped a journalist Friday in the cour d'honneur of the Lyon city hall. Raphaël Ruffier, the editor of Lyon Capitale, had apparently written some disobliging things about the awarding of city contracts and about comments the mayoral couple allegedly made in private about certain subordinates. Mme Collomb and M. Ruffier have known each other since both were militants in the leftist student organization UNEF. Libé reports that the lady approached the editor and slapped him without saying a word. She subsequently apologized.

Shades of Henriette Caillaux, who shot Figaro editor Gaston Calmette back in 1914. The student of comparative politics will want to note, of course, the striking difference between the wives of American politicians and the wives of French politicians. Eliot Spitzer's wife had to stand silently beside him while he confessed his sins, while his replacement David Paterson's wife not only had to do the same but was also required to accept the blame for his infidelity, which he claimed was prompted by jealousy over hers. Whereas in France, we have Carla Bruni denouncing journalistic calumny with a pen dipped in acid and Caroline Collomb taking more direct action in defense of her man.

The Typical Basket

Commenter MY, responding to kirkmc, wrote:

I've heard purchasing power complaints since September - much before it became an issue in the media. It mostly came from working women who could not afford to buy fruit and meat for their children. Overall, the cost of a supermarket cart has risen sharply - in my case, from about 90 euros a week to 130 euros a week.

The ministry of the economy has now released the results of an official survey showing that an index of food prices rose 4.69 percent between Feb 2007 and Feb 2008. This is higher than the overall inflation rate of 2.8 percent for the same period, though nothing like the 45 percent reported by MY. One has to be skeptical of any price index, which is of course sensitive to what items are included and how they are weighted. The wording of the Le Monde article cited above suggests a simple average of the prices of 100,000 food items, which would be a perfectly meaningless figure. What matters is the price of a typical basket of goods. And the composition of that typical basket changes over time. There was a time when a typical family ate meat only once a week and when a chicken in every pot could count as a royal miracle. Today, this level of consumption would count as privation, while a change in relative prices that obliged a typical family to substitute pasta for meat one day a week would be felt as hardship.

The question is whether the typical family's typical basket has increased in price as much as MY's basket, which would have a serious impact on most family budgets, or whether the typical family could remain within its budget constraint despite the rise in food prices by forgoing that new iPod or pair of glitzy sneakers, as kirkmc suggests. And there, what comes into play, obviously, is the image one has of the "typical family," which is a social construct, and which varies from observer to observer, regardless of the hypothetical basket that the gnomes at INSEE have concocted for the typical consumer.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Lionel Jospin, hoping perhaps to plant subliminally the notion that France is ruled by an "unbalanced" president, makes "imbalance" the leitmotif of his op-ed in today's Le Monde. It's an insipid exercise: on "economic imbalances," for example, we learn that "the best solution would be for the government to change its economic orientations," while "the opposition must develop ... the broad outline of an alternative economic policy." Is it worth putting pen to paper to deliver oneself of such banalities?

When we come, three-quarters of the way through this morass, to the "imbalances on the left," however, there is a flicker of interest. The Socialist Party "is dominant [on the left] and no longer has powerful allies." It would have been quicker to say that the PCF is dead as a doornail, but bluntness is not Jospin's forte. Yet he does manage in the next sentence to stick a finger in the eye of his former Trotskyite comrades: the PS "remains confronted with an extreme left without a 'culture of government' (sans culture du pouvoir) that sterilizes its electorate." Sterilizes: an interesting choice of word. How are we meant to take it? Does the extreme left kill the germs of gauchisme and render them inocuous? Or does it geld the working class and prevent it from reproducing itself? But Jospin does not develop the point. He proceeds to pronounce a pox on this sterilized electorate, whose votes he could have used in 2002. His next subject is the imbalance between the success of the PS locally and its repeated failure nationally. "Some say that certain party leaders are pleased with this disparity, because their oppositional status with respect to the central government seems to help them when it comes to winning locally." Interesting. One wonders whom he has in mind. He doesn't say of course. That wouldn't be his style. He prefers to drop another thumping banality: the party "must regain a national destiny."

So it must. To make a start on the project, perhaps its leaders could begin to say something, anything, rather than this nothing.

Keep 'Em Guessing

Before meeting with John McCain, Sarkozy will launch Le Terrible, a new nuclear submarine, in Cherbourg and deliver a speech on French nuclear doctrine. Instead of listing French vital interests that might justify the recourse to nuclear weapons, as Chirac did, Sarko is returning to the traditional ambiguity. Yet he will also indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, la fuite en avant, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say la surenchère (though one doesn't like to think of "escalation" and nuclear weapons in the same breath): dissuasion is soooooo 1950s, whereas "total planetary disarmament" does "the vision thing" in spades and is sufficiently utopian that the failure to deliver is a foregone conclusion rather than a potential disappointment, unlike the failure to deliver on, say, the reduction in the size of the bureaucracy or the increase in purchasing power. So the speech will emphasize what Le Figaro calls the "pacific" aspect of things. It's always best, when launching a vessel with the potential to obliterate 16 cities, to divert attention to more cheerful things.

For Econ Geeks

I have a friend--she and I are the last remaining American Francophiles, she says--who tells me, "I love your blog, Art, except for all those posts about economics. Is that stuff really important?" Well, who knows what's really important? In the long run, we're all dead. But in the short run we watch our portfolios wax and wane, and governments, when they're not diverting themselves with such lofty matters as "civilization," spend a lot of their effort trying to influence the direction of the economy. Yet even Paul Krugman warns the readers of his blog off some of his posts by attaching the label "seriously wonkish." Non-geeks may therefore wish to tune out at this point.

The topic of the day is interest rates, since the Fed has once again reduced its Fed funds rate, while the European Central Bank holds its key rate steady, and the exchange rate at this instant is 1.5694 (according to Google). Citgroup economists predict that the Fed funds rate will continue to fall from the current 2.25 to 1 percent by mid-year, while even the ECB will be obliged to cut from the current 4 to 3 by early next year. Meanwhile, the Fed has adopted a number of emergency policies that involve swapping Treasury debt for mortgage-backed securities (MBS), expanding the Fed portfolio by a considerable amount and altering its composition in terms of debt quality and maturity. The reason for this is not simply that adjustment of the very short-term interest rate may be ineffective in the current situation. The MBS market has frozen up, freezing much of the rest of the credit market, and the Fed wants to loosen things up. But there is a literature on manipulation of the central bank's balance sheet as a policy tool, and it is a particularly pertinent literature because Ben Bernanke is prominent among its authors. So we can gain an idea of how Bernanke thinks about the problem and what analytical tools he brings to bear by looking at his papers, even if they evolved in a rather different context (when the fear was of deflation). A catalog of relevant papers can be found here. The first one is particularly interesting for its analysis of the term structure of the central bank portfolio, which Bernanke et al. see as a useful tool when overnight rates are at or near the zero lower bound (we're not there yet, but there are reasons--beyond the emergency reasons--to initiate the cb portfolio policy now because long-term rates are not responding as desired to the reduction of short-term rates).

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The labor ministry has released final figures for wages in 2007, showing an average increase over the year of 2.8 percent. The price index increased by 2.5 percent over the same period. So, if you believe the statistics, purchasing power increased in France last year. Note, however, that in the last quarter of 2007, wages increased only 0.3 percent, while prices rose 1.2 percent. So is all the clamor about falling purchasing power a matter of "what have you done for me lately?" Or are the statistics failing to capture the lived reality of many people? Perhaps a bit of both.

Autonomy, or Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny?

Today's Libé has been turned over to students in France's universities in honor of the March 22 Movement, named for the day on which the University of Nanterre was occupied, inaugurating the "events" collectively referred to as "May '68" (it was a long month, which began in March and ended sometime in the mid-1970s). Several students conduct an interview with higher-ed secretary Valérie Pécresse. She is asked about the proposal by the board of the University of Paris-Dauphine to charge a "registration fee" of 800 euros--something one would have thought the board entitled to do as an autonomous entity under the new university reform law (LRU, also known as the Loi Pécresse). Apparently, "autonomy" doesn't mean actual autonomy, however. Listen to Pécresse:

Dauphine is not subject to the LRU. It is a major institution of higher education subsidized by the state. It must award a majority of national diplomas, or else it will not receive its state subsidy. At the time the law was voted on, I pledged that registration fees would continue to be set by the state within the framework of autonomy.

But that's not how the president of Dauphine understands "autonomy." Read his editorial on the subject. As befits a university dedicated to, among other things, instruction in business management, he acknowledges the virtues of "diversity" and assumes that universities will compete to attract students on the basis of their course offerings and the rewards to be expected from investment in a particular area of study. If Dauphine's business majors expect their future earnings to be enhanced, they will find it worth their while to pay the registration fee, the proceeds of which Dauphine can then use as it sees fit, but presumably to make its program even more attractive to students. If students prefer not to pay the registration fee, Dauphine's enrollment will decline, and its board will have to revise its decision. One may approve or disapprove of the fee, but it would seem well within the prerogative of a truly "autonomous" university.

But apparently I misunderstand the LRU, or, as Pécresse puts it, the LRU does not apply to Dauphine. But why? I'm sure someone can enlighten me on this point. Because if autonomous universities are actually tightly controlled by the ministry of education, I don't understand what the LRU is supposed to have changed, and if the concept of "national diploma" remains as a weapon with which to beat university boards into submission, then the true power to run the universities remains with the ministry, despite the façade of "autonomy." So where is la rupture?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

McCain and Sarkozy

John McCain will be in Paris tomorrow and will call on Sarkozy. Various commentators have been quick to draw the obvious parallels: both men early established reputations as mavericks and at times hotheads; one was an aviator, the other affects aviator sunglasses; and both were linked to presidents whom they privately despised and whose legacies had to be overcome in order to win election to the supreme magistracy. There is some validity to the comparison, but the differences between the two men are equally glaring. I won't belabor them here, but Sarkozy and his advisors could do worse than read the excellent profile of McCain by Sylvie Laurent that has conveniently appeared on La Vie des Idées just in time for the visit.

France and Africa

Was Jean-Marie Bockel, the socialiste d'ouverture who was secretary of state for cooperation, transferred to veterans' affairs because he incurred the displeasure of Gabonese president Omar Bongo? Le Figaro thinks so. The paper, quoting unidentified ministerial sources, says that Bockel's mistake was to take Sarkozy's pronouncements of a new departure in Franco-African relations literally. A more subtle parsing of the Elysian message was apparently required--one that would have seen no contradiction, for instance, between a call for rupture and a judicious intervention to prevent France2 from broadcasting an exposé of Bongo's extensive real-estate holdings in France, which evidently incensed the African Donald Trump.

Keep on Truckin'

The reform of the special retirement regimes has come and gone, though no one can say exactly what happened: as far as I know, details are still being negotiated, and final agreements cover limited groups only (like the train drivers, whose union signed a separate agreement with the government). But now the municipal elections are over, and we are on to the next round: the extension from 40 to 41 years of the required period of contributions to qualify for full benefits. This is to apply to all regimes: special, general, and civil service. Of course the resolution of the special-regime reform, where it has been resolved, has already granted reductions from the 40-year period as compensation for concessions made by the unions, although these reductions are again limited to certain categories of workers. Getting unions to give back concessions on which the ink is hardly dry might well be a sticky wicket.

Luc Chatel, the government's new spokesman, squarely challenged the Socialist Party to propose an alternative: if you don't like the longer working life, then which do you want, higher contributions or lower benefits? The stark alternatives have the virtue of clarity, but as the reform of the special regimes demonstrates, what comes out in the end is often a little of this and a little of that with lots of tactical accommodations awarded to key actors and veto players. Better to look at the sausage after it's been neatly wrapped in skin and tied off at both ends.

The Purloined SMS

About Edgar Allan Poe's "Purloined Letter," Jacques Lacan once wrote:

C’est pourquoi Dupin va enfin tourner vers nous la face médusante de ce signifiant dont personne en dehors de la Reine n’a pu lire que l’envers.

Today, Libération seems to take itself for Lacan, explicating the true significance of Airy Routier's "purloined SMS," to which the Queen, quoting "The Barber of Seville," has added her own stunning gloss. Libé devotes no fewer than six articles to the subject (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). With an analytic subtlety to rival the ineffable Lacan, the newspaper emits the theory that Carla Bruni's op-ed in yesterday's Le Monde was a master stroke in Sarko's new "communications strategy," its intent being to portray Ms. Bruni as a calming influence on a president who, now cozily coupled to the learned bluestocking ex-supermodel and erstwhile dévoreuse d'homme, has at last exorcised le diable au corps and settled down to the "slow boring of hard boards" that was Max Weber's definition of politics. Thus the Élysée, we are asked to believe, has discovered le remède dans le mal, to borrow a phrase from Jean Starobinski (French Politics is clearly striving hard this morning to keep up with Mme Sarkozy's erudition). If the French blamed Carla for distracting Nicolas from his job, why, then, the image-makers will reposition Carla--Venus that was--as the benign Athena who not only recalls journalists to their ethical codes but inspires wisdom in the Prince and diligent devotion to his task.

I'm not sure who deserves the greater credit for imagination here: the Élysée's "comm" shop, which allegedly conceived this diabolically clever stratagem, or Libé, which with equal cunning lifted Scheherazade's veils. Yet I cannot escape the feeling that Freud would have been quick to remind these latter-day psychoanalysts that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a newspaper would do better to report the news rather than attempt to substitute for it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Little Brother Is Watching

The Élysée will be monitoring the blogosphere, according to JDD. A 24-year-old normalien named Nicolas Princen has been hired "to monitor everything that is said on the Web." Vaste programme, aurait dit de Gaulle. He is to "track false rumors and counter disinformation aimed at the president."

Well, why not? Perhaps he'll learn something. There are indeed false rumors and disinformation everywhere, but then again, there's a good deal of intelligent political commentary. I hope M. Princen reads English. I would hate to have my false rumors and disinformation go unchecked.

EU-Level Banking Regulation

Guido Tabellini reflects on the causes of the credit crunch and among them finds regulatory competition leading to relaxation of supervisory regimes in order to prevent financial institutions from seeking a more favorable regulatory environment elsewhere. He thinks that the time has come to prevent this kind of unhealthy competition in Europe by moving to banking regulation at the EU level.

The Republic Is Saved!

The hyperventilation can stop. The Republic is safe. Carla Bruni's husband has withdrawn his criminal complaint against Le Nouvel Observateur, according to Ms. Bruni herself. The lady has apparently received the personal apology of the offending journalist, Airy Routier, for any offense he might have caused by reporting which he still maintains was accurate but for which he can produce no corroborating evidence. So it seems that the aggrieved husband was interested only in saving his damsel's honor, besmirched by the errant journalist's suggestion that her man might have been willing to take back his former woman and toss the new one to the paparazzi. Ms. Bruni defends herself ably with quotations from Beaumarchais and Gad Elmaleh, as well as the charter signed by the jounalists of the Nouvel Obs. Caesar's wife is cultivated as well as spotless. Knowing this, the citizens of the Hexagon will no doubt sleep easier tonight.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Today I attended a lunch at Brandeis University in honor of Daniel Cohn-Bendit. For those of us in the room of roughly the same age, it was still possible to recognize, behind the pouched eyes of the sexagenarian, Danny the Red of May '68, and the moment he opened his mouth, any lingering doubt was removed. He enlivens any subject he touches with a passion that is never merely histrionic but always tinged around the edges with a melancholy awareness that passion probably isn't going to be enough. He gave two talks, one after lunch about global warming and the European Union, the other a more formal colloquium entitled "Forget '68."

To the question of global warming he brings the concern with participation that has always animated him. He views the issue as one that admits of no local or hegemonic solution: any answer must be global, multilateral, and cooperative if it is not to be meaningless. He understands the EU as a model of the kind of international cooperation, of participatory governance, that needs to be replicated on a global scale. There is a redemptive dimension to his European vision of green politics: Europe in the 20th century gave the world two totalitarianisms, he said, yet he retains hope that Europe in the 21st century might give the world a new cooperative model for approaching global problems.

After delivering this little speech, he initiated a discussion of American presidential politics, asking particularly whether we thought any of the candidates likely to move the United States away from its unilateralism of recent years and towards a more multilateral approach to international relations. I had just listened to Obama's fantastic speech on race while driving to lunch, so I offered a few reflections on what he had said by way of introduction of my argument that Obama was the most likely of the three candidates to achieve what Danny would like to see.

The talk entitled "Forget '68" was of course all about remembering it, but in the right way, shorn of mythologization and restored to its full complexity. He told an anecdote about his first meeting with Sartre, who called him about two weeks into the May events and asked to see him. Never in his life had he been more nervous before an encounter, he said, except with two or three women, but to his surprise he found that Sartre was even more wound up. He told this story not to drop a famous name or to amuse his listeners but to give full context to his comment that what Sartre wrote in his preface to Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" must be at once included as part of any genuine remembrance of '68 and yet firmly and unequivocally rejected as a glorification of violence that was an inextricable aspect of the time.


So Sarko has chosen to tinker with his cabinet rather than rework it, perhaps so as not to give the impression of panic or regret in the face of the setback in the municipals. Six new secretaries of state, and Eric Besson becomes "digital economy" czar while keeping his existing function as official grader and martinet. Nobody was fired: not Lagarde, not Albanel, not Kouchner--these being the three most prominently discussed as on the outs with Sarko. Nor was Rachida Dati shifted from justice to another ministry, as had also been rumored. If this is Sarko's way of saying "je vous ai compris," he evidently believes what his proxies were saying on TV on election night, that the election was a mandate for more of the same, faster. But as previously reported here, his communications operation has been shaken up, and Catherine Pégard has been promoted to official stroker of UMP deputies. If she does her job well, they may even nurse the illusion that their complaints are being heard in high places. But the changes made today will not spread that impression anywhere else.

Peillon Backs Ségo for Party Leader

Vincent Peillon, who was one of the founders of the Nouveau Parti Socialiste, says, alluding to Kant, that he thinks that Ségolène Royal "ought to" and therefore "can" lead the Socialist Party in its renovation and that other Socialists ought to help her do so rather than attempt to ambush her with tart comments to the press. To my ear, which may be a bit hypersensitive in this regard, it sounds as though Peillon has concluded that resistance is futile, it is too soon for the younger generation to make its move, there is no other potential candidate who can rally as much support as Royal, and he wants to place himself as close to the center of the action as possible.

Meanwhile, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, a Strauss-Kahnian, is pushing Delanoë for a national role (and not his fellow Strauss-Kahnian Pierre Moscovici, who would also like to become premier secrétaire). The state of play in this corner of the field is complex. The DSK lieutenants have to pretend that their holding a place for DSK, but my hunch is that they're not at all certain he'll be a candidate in 2012, so they also have to think of themselves. A temporary alliance with Delanoë in order to fend off Royal, who has a much stronger national presence than any of them, would leave future options open. Delanoë could be pushed aside when the time comes in favor of DSK, one of the lieutenants, or a new alliance with another current. For the time being, it's a question of shoring up defenses against Royal while attempting to shift the balance of power within the DSK contingent.

Meanwhile, Martine Aubry has let it be known that she did not favor the systematic alliance with MoDem advocated by Royal--an indirect way of throwing her hat in the ring.

The race for the Socialist leadership is now under way in earnest.

Labor Market Improvement

Over the course of 2007, the number of recipients of the Revenu Minimum d'Insertion (RMI) decreased by 8 percent. This is said to be due to two factors: an improvement in the overall employment picture and a change in the law permitting individuals who accept jobs to combine income from work with a reduced RMI allocation. This provision applies to some 78,000 workers. The proposed Revenu de Solidarité Active (RSA), currently being tried out in pilot programs in several départements, would similarly combine wages with welfare.

The Euro as Potential Reserve Currency

According to Jeff Frankel, it could happen within ten years.

La Grogne

The knives are out in the UMP. The silence that had prevailed during the state of grace but for a few exceptional cries and whispers--a Villepin lashing out against his persecution, a Copé inconsolable for want of un maroquin, a Lellouche bemoaning the need for vaseline to ease the pain--has given way to a more general grumbling, led by the normally avuncular Jean-Pierre Raffarin. "When I see the number of cities we lost with 49 percent, I say that the Attali Report was one of the reasons why we lost." How fitting that Raffarin, whose name adorns the Raffarin Law, which, along with the Galland and Royer Laws, is among the principal targets of the report, should be the one to remind his colleagues that while a "modernized right" may please the MEDEF, the economists, and the OECD, it doesn't win the votes of Main Street merchants, cab drivers, or hairdressers. The corporatist right may be limping, but it can still kick. Meanwhile, in Paris, Lellouche, the perpetual malcontent, is refusing to sit with colleagues who backed his rival in the 8th, Philippe Lebel, while Claude Goasguen, one of Lellouche's enemies, is threatening to cut himself off from the national party leadership. Victory, they say, has a thousand fathers, while defeat ...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Brownian Motion

So I've read the press and the comments on the blog, consulted the map, and perused the tables. The Left picked up 38 large cities and wants to read this as a national mandate; the Right lost Toulouse and Périgueux and Amiens and Metz and Caen yet wants to read this as a national mandate to accelerate its reforms, and the Wall Street Journal agrees.

As an erstwhile physicist, I see random fluctuations. It's like the quantum theory of magnetism. In various places the temperature has risen a little, and spins once aligned to the right have come unstuck. In other places a minor fluctuation in the ambient field has flipped the spin alignment to the left. Averaging over the entire hexagonal domain there's been a slight leftward drift.

Did government personalities fare particularly badly? Darcos, Lagarde, Yade and a few others lost; Dati, Estrosi, and Wauquiez won.

The other day someone mentioned the "pothole" effect in local elections: mayors who fill potholes and ensure that the garbage is collected get re-elected, other things equal. Combine this with a few velleities about the way things are going nationally, and you get the sort of mixed picture that emerges from this election. When the noise dies down, not much will have changed. Sarko is a bit chastened--but the approval polls had chastened him already. His party troops are restless, and he has stroked them appropriately in the hope of restoring calm. The Socialists are bucked up a bit, and they surely needed some bucking up. The Communists and the Frontists continue to dwindle together. And the Bourse collapses, which will ensure that this election will be forgotten even more quickly than most.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Seeing What You Want to See

Here's how the Wall Street Journal plays the municipal results:

PARIS -- The ruling center-right UMP party of Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in local elections Sunday, putting even more pressure on the French president to forge ahead with his promised overhaul of the country's sluggish economy.

Well, that's one interpretation, I guess.

A Dispiriting Victory for the Left

The Left took Toulouse but lost Marseille. It knocked out Xavier Darcos in Périgueux and put down François Bayrou in Pau. But it failed to mobilize voters--the abstention rate was the highest in decades.

This dispiriting victory may nevertheless be a blessing in disguise. A more robust sanction vote against the Right would have induced a false sense of security. This lackluster win should remind all Socialists that the need for a thorough renovation of the party remains its first challenge.

Bayrou's Loss

François Bayrou has lost his bid to remain mayor of Pau. It is hard to see where he goes from here. His strength of a year ago came from his being neither Nicolas Sarkozy nor Ségolène Royal, a ni-ni that seemed to please nearly a fifth of the electorate. But how much real positive sentiment was there for Bayrou? Quite a lot, he flattered himself, but since then his presidential ambitions and rejectionist stance have alienated many in his own party and, now, apparently, many voters in his home town. He has not been an effective critic of Sarkozy and has not put forward a distinctive centrist position on major national issues. Like Sarkozy, he tried to build his ambition around a cult of personality, but cults of personality are not really the stuff of centrist movements. The center needs to renovate itself almost as badly as the Socialist Party does. Ségolène Royal may still be entertaining some version of the morganatic marriage she proposed to Bayrou between the two rounds of the presidential election: Wed the two parties from the top down, she seemed to suggest, take the main prize, and then divide power according to the respective contributions of each partner. With Bayrou deflated, she will have to refashion her appeal to the center and offer something compelling to the rank-and-file of MoDem rather than a mere prize to the party's now vulnerable leader.

Areva Privatization

According to MediaPart, one of the major reforms that is to distinguish Phase II of the Sarkozy regime will be the privatization of Areva, which I have discussed here on numerous occasions. This will be controversial for any number of reasons, but especially controversial if "friend-of-Sarko" (FOS) Martin Bouygues, the godfather of Sarko's son, acquires the firm. Nuclear technology and energy policy are of course both sensitive national-security-related subjects, so Sarkozy's maneuvering on this dossier will be subject to the closest scrutiny both inside and outside France.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Correcting a Rumor

A reader sent me a link to an LCR Web site, where it was claimed that deputies who lose their seats are entitled to 5 years of indemnities at 6.952 euros per year. It seems that the claim, which has resurfaced in this election season, is greatly exaggerated, however. Here is a more accurate accounting.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ségo on the Go

Marianne waxes ironic at Ségolène Royal's expense, having a bit of fun with the vapidness of the message of support she has offered to Socialist lists in dozens of cities around the country. But Marianne misses the point. No other personality of the left has managed to represent the national stakes of the municipal elections with equal effectiveness. Sure, there has been plenty of talk of a sanction vote against the government, but no one else has carried that message on his or her shoulders. Certainly not François Hollande. And the other national leaders of the PS have either been too busy tending their own fiefs or too wary of courting ridicule of the sort that Marianne is dishing out. Landerneau is a place that people make fun of, but you can't win elections without going to Landerneau.

The right hasn't had a national standard-bearer either. True, Sarko went to Toulon, and Juppé and Fillon tried to shore up Darcos's sagging fortunes in Périgueux, but no one has been on the road every day. Patrick Devedjian has begun to catch flak for failing to mobilize his troops. Ségo a fait le don de sa personne, and as in the past she continues to be mocked for it: la madone, the journalist calls her. So perhaps it is worth recalling that in days of yore, people who had no use for the ecclesiastical hierarchical nevertheless worshiped the Madonna.

The Union for the Mediterranean

So, Sarko has won another of the (pseudo) "victories" that have become a sort of hallmark of his presidency: he wanted a Mediterranean Union but will get a Union for the Mediterranean that bears little resemblance to the original project and will fulfill none of its goals, which were in any case never really made explicit and always left in a state of vague indetermination. But, since it wasn't a defeat, it will count as a victory, another "promise kept." In fact, the UM is little more than a rebaptism of the old Barcelona Process, which, like many EU "processes," seemed to proceed only by fits and starts. And after Angela Merkel apparently threw a bit of a fit in Berlin, in Brussels yesterday we got a fresh start.

Sarko Corrige le Tir

What might at first seem a minor change seems to me to signal a new conception of the presidency, given the fundamental role that Sarkozy has always attached to "communications." David Martinon, who has been the press secretary but whose fortunes have been plummeting since his fiasco in Neuilly, is to be shunted aside. There will be no more daily press briefings à la the White House. Sarko the American will revert to a more French style, with occasional briefings on domestic affairs from a new figure, Franck Louvrier. But the real news is that the role of presidential spokesman will no longer be entrusted to flunkies but divided between two heavyweights, Claude Guéant, secretary general of the Élysée, and Jean-David Levitte, diplomatic advisor (who will have primary responsibility for international affairs).

These moves are I assume expected to accomplish two things. First, the confusion created by the frequent statements of a range of presidential advisors will presumably be checked by the appointment of two "official" senior spokesmen. Second, Sarko will be able to step back from center stage when he chooses to by allowing his top advisors to speak authoritatively but impersonally in his place. Policy will no longer seem like a personal caprice of the president, to be "corrected" the next day by his more careful and sober advisors, but rather the result of a deliberate process. Of course the president will need to collaborate with his "collaborators" if this screen strategy is to work. On verra s'il a cette capacité dans ses cordes.

As for David Martinon, he may soon find himself in New York, as consul. Not good enough for Neuilly, but just right to conquer the Big Apple.

Phelps on Uncertainty

Ned Phelps, Nobel laureate in economics, has some wise words about the nature of uncertainty in economic thinking and about rule-based monetary policy. "The claim for rule-based monetary policy is weak on its face," he argues, because it is based on concepts such as the natural rates of interest and inflation--concepts that Phelps invented--that "are anything but certain." And yet the European Central Bank relies on rule-based monetary policy--relying largely on a variant of the so-called Taylor rule (named for John Taylor), according to which the bank sets its basic rate by computing a "reaction function" in which the key independent variables are the deviation of output and inflation from their natural rates.

The virtue of rule-based monetary policy is supposed to be that it removes the policy process from undue political influence and therefore makes the central bank's commitment to controlling inflation more credible by making its response more mechanical, even if the result is a "politically unpalatable" level of unemployment.

Sitting It Out

Eric Dupin makes several important points in this discussion of the municipals:

1. The abstention rate was unusually high, rising to 38.9 pct in communes with populations above 3,500, a new record.

2. 32 pct of the abstainers voted for Sarko in the first round of the presidentials, compared with 15 for Bayrou and only 9 for Royal.

3. The most marked abstention of UMP voters was in the "popular" classes, but the turnout of left-wing voters in this group was also low. In other words, there was no massive "sanction" vote against the government.

4. In cities with populations greater than 30,000, there are 55 triangular runoffs and 13 quandrangulars.

From (4) one can infer that the turbulence in the center of the political spectrum, already attested to by Bayrou's good showing in the first round of the presidentials, continues. But neither Bayrou himself nor MoDem has been able to capitalize on this. The bipolar logic of the system is strong, and a centrist party has no choice but to tilt one way or the other, leading to incoherence at the national level. What centrist voters seem to want is a "third way," a vision clearly distinct from what is on offer from both Left and Right.

(5) Incoherence is not limited to the center. The PS has rejected alliances with the LCR while accepting alliances with the other Trotskyite party, Lutte Ouvrière.

ADDENDUM: Justin (see comments) points out an interesting discussion of the abstention rate here. For Ceteris Paribus, it was the enthusiasm aroused by the 2007 presidential campaign, which both swelled the voting lists and ensured a high turnout then, that can be blamed for the diminished turnout now, as new voters abstained in disproportionate numbers.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Flaubert's Parrot

Politics is not the whole of life, so I will allow myself another off-topic link to Julian Barnes' diverting review of the last volume of Flaubert's correspondence. Here is the first paragraph:

The instrument case of Eugène Delamare, a health officer based in the Normandy village of Ry in the 1840s, was doubtless of standard issue: so was Delamare himself. An inept if conscientious fellow, he failed his medical exams, and only attained his modest professional status through the benign intervention of the Rouen surgeon under whom he trained. Two things, however, distinguished him, both unfortunate. The first was his wife Delphine. She had dreams above her status: her range of lovers and expensive tastes – yellow-and-black striped curtains were particularly remarked upon – led in 1848 to financial and social catastrophe; her exit strategy was suicide. Delamare himself, imprisoned by grief, killed himself the following year. His second misfortune lay in the name of the surgeon who had trained him: Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, father of a literary son. Thus Delphine Delamare became Emma Bovary, a local fait divers became a great novel, and by the law of unintended consequence Delamare’s instrument case – that is to say, a real item whose only value lay in its theoretical connection to a fictional character – was offered for sale in November 2007 by a Parisian bookseller for ¤6,500. A sum which, had it been available to Mme Delamare, might have saved her from shame and thus obliged Gustave Flaubert to look elsewhere for the subject of his first novel.


Off topic, but ... since it's Montaigne's image (upper right corner) that presides over this blog, I feel obliged to point out the interview with the literary scholar Antoine Compagnon in Le Monde, where he talks about his long relationship with the writer of Les Essais. As Nietzsche said, "The joy of living on this earth is greater because a man such as he chose to write."