Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sarko: Le Fond

It's not always easy to separate le fond from la forme in Sarkozy's televised appearances. He relishes the appearance of give-and-take and has mastered a series of devices that allow him to control the flow of the conversation in such a way as to give an impression of mastery of the details of government without allowing room for any real probing of his justifications for making the choices he makes. But let me defer discussion of la forme to the next post and try to deal here only with the more substantive issues that were raised in his two hours with five journalists.

The president was immediately confronted with the judgment that his presidency had failed. He was asked what he thought hadn't worked, and why. He took exactly the tack that I said in an earlier post today would make him look "weak and self-repudiating": circumstances were to blame, he said, not the fundamentals of his approach. Oil prices had doubled; the subprime crisis hit; the euro rose to an all-time high. Yet France had "resisted better than other countries," he added, and had achieved its lowest unemployment rate in a quarter of a century. Later, when challenged about the inequities of the tax reform package, he went so far as to suggest that it had been a wise choice because it had anticipated the demand stimulus policies that other countries would later adopt in response to the subprime crisis. None of the reporters challenged this bizarre claim.

Asked if he had not failed because he had attempted too much, and would it not be better to prioritize the reforms, he said that previous reform efforts had failed because they did not recognize the systemic interrelations among the changes needed. "Toutes les réformes se tiennent," he said, echoing Jacques Attali. He had undertaken 55 reforms--mercifully, he didn't list them all--and all were necessary, none could stand without the others. No one pressed him either on this bizarre claim--manifestly false, since there clearly has been a prioritization of reforms as resistance has developed more rapidly in certain areas than others.

Asked how he had changed personally in his first year on the job, he fell back on one of the standard numbers from his repertory: "the presidency is such a heavy responsibility" that anyone who takes on the job must change. He avoided saying how.

These questions were from the generalists, the news anchors PPDA and Pujadas. At this point the specialists stepped in, and Sarkozy immediately became more aggressive in his answers, which turned now not on philosophical generalities but on "examples" (I will say more about this tactic when I talk about the form of the session). On purchasing power he gave no purchase: "La réforme des heures supplémentaires, ça marche." He also mentioned the re-indexing of rents to the general rather than the construction price index. When pressed on the price of gas and other fuels, he came up with a better formula to justify his inaction than "les caisses sont vides": "Either the taxpayer pays," he said, "or the user pays." True enough, but perhaps not the answer expected from le président du pouvoir d'achat, and sure to add to the disappointment. He invoked the need for more competition in retail sales, but he has been in power for a year and yet, as he himself pointed out, French prices and inflation are higher than in neighboring countries.

The idea of sharing profits with workers and giving workers an ownership interest in their employers--a favorite hobby horse--was broached again, yet there was also the now-familiar attack on "finance capital" and "pension funds." If employees are to own stock and save for their own retirement, it would behoove them to diversify rather than put all their eggs in the basket of their employer, and thus they would enter the realm of finance capital and pension funds and acquire an interest in the kind of return-enhancing leverage that contributed to the subprime crisis. The contradiction went unnoticed.

When challenged to explain why firms were not raising wages despite rising profits, Sarkozy rather incongruously blamed the 35 hr. week. To pay for this perk, he said, real wages had to fall, hence profits had to rise. But labor is supposed to be paid its marginal product, and productivity has risen since the 35-hr. week was introduced. It's interesting that Sarko's argument is that the reduction in the work week has led to increased profits but not increased investment. By this logic, the Socialists were the party of capital.

His presidency would be in trouble if it were to become a presidency that favored some rather than all, he said, prompting PPDA to ask whether the paquet fiscal hadn't indeed favored some--the wealthy--rather than all. But the only error to which Sarko would admit was an "error of communciation."

On the revenu de solidarité active, he said, "Le RSA se fera," but there were wrinkles to be ironed out. We will see what remains when the ironing is done.

As for reduction of the deficit to 0 by 2012 despite the failure to make progress on the deficit in the first year, he said that he would be judged at the end of his quinquennat and stuck to his promise.

Turning to social issues, he was adamant on immigration choisie and rejected mass regularizations. He dismissed the current pressure from employers, about which I wrote earlier today, as the result of un coup médiatique and said that since unemployment was high--22%--among legal immigrants, there was no need for anyone to hire illegal ones. He cast his policy as a middle course between the extreme right's characterization of immigration as a "menace and malady" and the extreme left's equation of "control" with "racism."

On the schools, he parried a question about whether there were too many teachers by saying that expenditures were not matched by results. Enrollments were down, hence the schools should be able to make do with fewer teachers.

Did he stand by his statement that the teacher could not replace the priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, etc? Indeed he did. Was this incompatible with republican values and laïcité. Not in his mind.

Could he continue to call for 41 years of contributions for full retirement benefits when even the reformist unions (the CFDT) had turned against it? It was the job of the head of state to demonstrate courage, to make the hard decisions no one else wanted to make. Whatever he did, someone would be unhappy. So be it.

What was his personal position on genetically modified organisms? Favorable to research but insistent on caution when it came to use.

On Tibet: were the followers of the Dalai Lama terrorists, as China insisted, resisters, as many in the West believe, or something else indicative of the need for caution before intervening in the internal affairs of another sovereign power? He sidestepped this question by suggesting that he was working to establish a dialog between the Chinese and the Tibetans. The journalists were incredulous. France? By itself? Were there any signs that this effort might bear fruit? An enigmatic smile. "Signs, yes." Four months remained to achieve progress, and when the time for decision came, France would have the EU presidency. Clearly Sarkozy hoped to lend weight to his démarche toward China by invoking the EU. If these efforts were to succeed, he said, it would be necessary to reduce the number of "blessures d'amour-propre," a very interesting formula and a clue to his thinking about the Chinese leadership.

On Afghanistan he resorted to the clever ploy of linking the French commitment there to the struggle for human rights: "If you back the Tibetans, then why don't you support the effort to allow little girls to go to school in Afghanistan." But it wasn't only a matter of protecting little girls: there was Pakistan next door, with its nuclear bomb, and if Afghanistan fell, Pakistan would be next--a curious domino theory, in which the strong are propped up by the weak.

In conclusion, "je sais où je vais," he insisted, and he had four more years to get there. Did the municipal elections constitute a rejection of his policy? All across Europe, he replied, incumbent parties had lost in municipal elections. It was a setback, but he would continue on his course, unperturbed.

Did he put doubts to rest? I don't think so. Did he help himself? A little perhaps. Did he clarify his intentions, lay out any new programs or directions, or indicate innovative responses to changed circumstances? No. It was not one of his better performances.


Boz said...

I'm assuming he meant that if the Taliban came back to power that could further destabilize the frontier regions of Pakistan, which already cause enough problems for Islamabad. Of course, the Pakistanis got along fine with the Taliban when they were in power...

Unknown said...

And I don't think mentioning the nasty Talibans as the main reason of the fight was so smart. They are pretty nasty indeed, but they're not al Qaeda, they are a local political force which will not disappear, and linking them to al Qaeda makes any negotiation impossible - or at least uncomfortable. If we want to "win", we'll have to talk to them -- or, rather, Karzai will have to, and we'll have to somehow include them while preventing them from reimposing their rule. At this point Sarko would be in trouble.

Durando said...

I had had some secret hope that Sarko would really pursue meaningful reform and I had no fear that he had been seduced by Bush. Now, I see he is as mad as a hatter and has inherited from his American counterpart a talent for waving about his magic wand. If France wanted proof of its lack of prestige and general governmental mediocrity it could have done no worse than this dangerous fool.

Tactical negotiations with the Taliban have been a feature of British operations in OEF since the outset. The problem is that sometimes they choose the wrong guy to negotiate with. Either this representative has no real power or he proves to be treacherous. This is the problem with nonstate actors--there is no appreciable power structure with which to negotiate. In any case, the only real role that coallition forces want France to play is to supply combat battalions to the US-UK-CAN mission. Sarko cuts little ice with the UK defense establishment, less with the American, and absolutely none with the Canadians. Afghanistan is not a real enjeu for Sarko. It can only be a problem.

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