Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Toulon Speech in Light of the Bailout Defeat

Sarkozy delivered his speech in Toulon on Sept. 25, between the advent of the Paulson rescue plan and its defeat in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday. The speech was not well received in France: the opposition was quick to say that the president was using the crisis as a convenient alibi for his own failures; the neoliberals in the president's own party regretted his concessions to the notion that market regulation was, if not a panacea, then at least an intelligent and inevitable response to serial market failures of spectacular proportions.

The criticisms were not altogether unjustified; the logic of Sarkozy's overly surgical distinction between "financial capitalism" and "market capitalism" will not really withstand scrutiny. But in light of the absolute debacle of political leadership in the United States, does not Sarkozy deserve at least some praise for taking note of the gravity of the crisis, attempting to explain it to his people, and frankly assuming responsibility for responding to it? To be sure, in the first few paragraphs he might almost be taken for a House Republican or talk-show populist. The bling-bling president has discovered the cardinal sins of gluttony and avarice; he brands as evildoers people whom he was courting only yesterday. But the vicissitudes of wealth bring out the hypocrite in us all, and Sarko can be forgiven for paying tribute to prudential virtues he discovered only after his bets turned sour. The important point is not that he has changed his tune but that he recognizes the futility of continuing to whistle the old one past the graveyard. Whereas the House Republicans want to save capitalism by cutting a corporate tax so riddled with loopholes that it goes mostly unpaid and by reducing the capital gains tax yet again, even though a capital gain has suddenly become a quaint historical artifact.

Sarkozy may not be anyone's ideal of a president, but to any French person who deplores his deficiencies, I say simply, Compare Sarko's Toulon speech with Bush's various speeches and news conferences of the past week. Then you'll understand what it means to have un président fainéant at the helm in a maelstrom.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Grunberg on State of PS

Gérard Grunberg points out the contradictions inherent in the "no présidentiable as leader of the PS" position, given the ambiguity of the term présidentiable.

Discrimination Positive

Who would have thought that mastery of English could do so much for your career in the French judiciary?

Quote of the day

La visite du Saint Père le pape en France, il y a quelques semaines, fut une sorte de vaste son et lumière gothique avec latin et habits extravagants (presque autant que ceux de la Gay pride).

-- Proofreaders of Le Monde

The same source also informs us that until the end of the Middle Ages the word pape was feminine in French and offers a rich lexicon of pape-related words (from which paperasse is omitted, however).

Tepid Blast from the Nord

Every candidate needs a book, it seems, and now Martine Aubry has hers. Aquilino Morelle, a former special advisor to Jospin, pretends to review it here, but the purported review might better be described as an extended press release. We learn, for example, that to be on the left today is "to pursue three goals: to allow each man and each woman to emancipate himself or herself; to master the world we live in while preparing for the future; and to construct a society that leaves its mark in the cultural sphere and creates bonds among citizens." Sheesh. As manifestoes go, I'd have to say that this falls somewhat short of "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains." But maybe carping is just my way of leaving my mark in the cultural sphere while emancipating myself and preparing for the future.

Moving on to brass tacks, we discover that Aubry is of the "flip-floppers can't win" school of politics. Thus the 35-hour week, the authorization for which bears her name, is defended by invoking a line of Joseph Stiglitz and some employment statistics from the year 2000. Alas, Stiglitz's remark about a shorter work week spurring a search for higher productivity can be developed into an argument about intensified discipline and substitution of capital for labor, and employment statistics post-2000 don't necessarily bear out Morelle's rosy assessment of the efficacy of the law. But however you feel about the 35-hour week--and in my estimation it deserves less praise than Morelle bestows and less blame than the Right would have you believe--we learn nothing from this review about either the politics that led to the reform or the politics of sticking with it today in a quite different economic context.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

From the Zenith, the Only Direction is Down

Ségolène Royal seems to have decided that she's going to star in the President Show. She has a new wardrobe consultant and a new style, and she's going to "faire de la politique autrement":

The critical reaction hasn't been slow in coming.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Rocard, Fauteur de Trouble

Ah, the luxury of being a post-ambitious politician! Witness the interview that Michel Rocard gave to Le Parisien, in which, bucking all the Socialist courants, he praised Sarkozy's Toulon speech (two cheers for "regulated capitalism") and called him an "openminded man of the right." It wasn't the most politically adroit move, and it has already prompted an outburst of sniper fire from the various camps.

Rocard once again demonstrates the political clumsiness that frustrated his once bright hopes. But I suppose that, as sober analysts, we ought to try to see this latest blunder in comparative terms. What Rocard seems to be groping for is some new ideological alignment that will break the depressing deadlock between what came to be called neoliberalism on the one hand and social liberalism on the other. The two positions had become increasingly difficult to distinguish at their core, so that peripheral issues (immigration, crime, religion, etc., declined in various ways in various national contexts) became decisive in narrow elections.

The disproportionate nastiness of political debate created a yearning for "postpartisan" politics, a yearning that, in the U.S., both Obama, outspokenly, and McCain, in his "maverick" excursions "across the aisle," as he likes to say, have attempted to satisfy. Sarkozy has demonstrated a similar instinct in France, with his ouverture to, or débauche of, Socialists, his references to Jaurès, etc.

The latest "crisis of capitalism" might provide an opening for a less decorative, more substantive search in this direction. Within a remarkably short period of time, attitudes toward market regulation and government intervention have changed dramatically. No politician has yet articulated a real grasp of the possibilities inherent in this suddenly altered political force field, but both Sarkozy and Rocard have shown that their antennae are quivering. When the sniping stops, other signs of change may well manifest themselves. We are on the cusp of real transformation, but no one yet dares to articulate what it might look like. This comprehensible fear of getting too far out in front was evident in last night's U.S. presidential debate, in which neither candidate would acknowledge the depth of the crisis for fear of looking doubtful and uncertain, when doubt and uncertainty would in fact be welcome signs of realism at this moment.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sarko Grows Third Leg

It seems that Match airbrushed (or is "photoshopped" the more current verb?) the head of a bodyguard out of a picture of Sarko with the Pope, but it forgot to eliminate the guard's leg, which remains in the picture as an apparent supernumerary presidential appendage. With the economy galloping along as though it were on three legs, perhaps the photo is appropriate.

On the subject of photographing the president, it has been hard to avoid noticing that wherever he goes, Carla is strategically placed to enhance the shot. She gives new meaning to the phrase "eye candy." The "trophy wife" phenomenon is not uncommon, but it's really rather unseemly to flaunt one's trophy everywhere. People may begin to ask whether you're worthy of the honor.

Who Went Where?

Now that the putative "courant Strauss-Kahnien" has fractured, who went where? We know that Cambadélis and Montebourg joined Fabius chez Aubry. It's therefore interesting to learn that the estimable strategist Alain Bergounioux, the principal author of the manifesto that tried to find common ground and coherence amid the party squabbles, went to Delanoë, as did Grenoble mayor Michel Destot (of "Rocardian" sensibility, as is Bergounioux) and former defense minister Alain Richard (a "Jospinian").

So? So, if I were to find myself in a dark alley some night, I'd rather meet up with these guys than with Fabius, Cambadélis, and Montebourg. The Aubry camp seems to embody the Florentine side of the Mitterrand legacy. The henchmen still have their daggers, and it is only a matter of time before they turn on one another. The Delanoë camp is altogether more sober, which, alas, may be a polite way of saying boring. Royal offers a mediagenic front to a phalanx of suits, and Valls runs her a close second as the most presentable of politicians, though what he says runs the risk of running counter to what she says. If I were a betting man, I guess I'd put my money on Royal at this point, and I think that if her faction wins, the party leadership will in fact go to Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Review of "Entre les Murs"

Entre les murs, the film that won a prize at Cannes for its portrayal of a Parisian school in what was presumably une zone urbaine sensible, is now in the theaters. I haven't seen it, but here is a very critical review by a writer from Clichy-sous-Bois, who presumably knows similar classrooms firsthand. I would be grateful for comments from readers who have seen the film, since it's not (yet) available here in the U.S.

Leadership as Simulacrum

One does feel for Sarko: like a blindsided quarterback, he has to pick himself up off the turf and rally his forces, even if the shock of concussion has made it impossible for him to see the field clearly. In this respect he's no different from other heads of state, starting with George Bush, who managed in a news conference to look perfectly clueless about the financial crisis ("You see, all these markets are interlinked," he said, as though he'd just found out, and "his instincts" had told him to "trust the free market" until he was briefed by "the experts," who'd told him that he'd better not.) But if you compare Bush's White House speech last night with Sarko's Toulon speech today, you'd have to say that Sarko looks more like a convincing field general, even though he's not even playing in the right league. Sarko picked up on the theme of retribution: those outsized golden parachutes and executive compensation packages are guaranteed to get up the ire of Joe Sixpack and Jean Vache-qui-rit, so they're an obvious thing to go after. Too bad Sarko couldn't call for the firing of Chris Cox, as McCain did. (To be sure, he did call for the firing of Daniel Bouton in the midst of another crisis--and nothing happened. So much for jawboning from the Elysée.)

If you're a guy, of course, it's a good thing to be tough, to be able to take the hits, roll with the punches, and come back fighting. But if you're a head of state, or even a quarterback, for that matter, it's better to anticipate the hits and evade them, or call a draw play. Angela Merkel played this opposition better than any of the guys: she was calling for banking regulation and reduction of the US deficit before the guys were. True, she didn't need to curry favor with Bush and wasn't trying to entice part of the derivatives trade from London to her own capital. And she was unsuccessful, but not for lack of trying.

A Strange Career

One vows never to write another word about Bernard-Henri Lévy, and then events conspire to force one's hand. I can think of few other intellectual careers that have been built on consummate masochism, but Lévy seems to exist to write new books worse than the last, inviting critics to whip, lash, and scorn him yet again, Oh please! One more time! The ritual has become tiresome even for Proustian voyeurs who fancy the spectacle of a brainy dominatrix dripping hot ink all over BHL's permanently bared breast. (Scott McLemee inflicts some deep cuts with a finely honed pen, h/t Henry at Crooked Timber.)

The nagging question, however, is why does this go on, and the evident answer is that, inexplicably, people are willing to pay to put their eyes once more to the peephole. Indeed, the venal aspect of Lévyness, not to be confused with Lévinas, has lately been put in startlingly stark relief by the revelation that none other than BHL is the Monsieur X who will team up with another writer whom good people everywhere love to hate, Michel Houellebecq, in a slily promoted production to be released by Flammarion on October 8. At home Lévy has mastered the art of keeping himself perpetually in the public eye, while more recently he has stretched his tentacles around corpulent America, which can't seem to shake him off. Americans may no longer be able to stomach French wine, food, theory, or film (unless it's animated or about Piaf or penguins), but we seem to need an "intellectual," however ersatz, if only as an object of derision.

Clearly there will be no end to this foolishness until we collectively conclude that Lévy is too trivial to loathe and unworthy of our finer sadistic instincts. But as Augustine said in the fleshpots of Antiquity, "Lord, help me never to sin again, but not just now, please." Repentance is fine, but it can wait until tomorrow.

Michael Moore Take Note

Rationing by cost has begun to affect health care in France, widely regarded as possessing one of the world's best systems of medical insurance. Not everything is covered, however, and according to a new survey, nearly 40 percent of the French have decided not to seek some health-related service or item (such as a dental implant or eyeglasses) because of cost.

Tics de langage

Mais, voyons! There's a new book, apparently, on tics de langage: Pierre Merle, Panorama aussi raisonné que possible de nos tics de langage (Editions Fetjaine, 12,90 euros). This is a subject that has always fascinated me, because it's one of the more difficult aspects of a foreign tongue to get right. One tends to overuse those tics that one picks up, or to use them in the wrong register or the wrong social context. In reading Bruno Lemaire's book on his years as Villepin's chief of staff, I was struck by the deft way he used tics of the tongue to characterize Sarkozy, who was (and presumably still is) in the habit, for example, of prefacing every remark with je vais vous dire ..., a phrase with a sort of oracular pugnacity, suggesting an assertion that will brook no contradiction. When I was living in France in 1977, I found myself among people who frequently answered questions Oui, effectivement ..., a phrase that, if I'm not mistaken, has since dropped out of fashion but was once the nec plus ultra of crisp technocratic mastery of one's dossiers. Satirists have noted Sarko's overuse of the adjective remarquable, which in his mouth has the value of casual, noncommittal approval: Je vais vous dire une chose, M. Poivre d'Arvor, Valérie Pécresse a fait un travail tout à fait remarquable, je dis bien remarquable ..., which means about as much as an adolescent saying to a pal, Ouais, j'ai vu c'film, c'était vachement bien.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Moscovici's Surrender

Pierre Moscovici has published a surrender declaration on his blog. It can't have been much fun to write. He has to explain that he was not only deserted by his putative allies but forced in the end to back a présidentiable, a move that he had consistently maintained would be the death of the party.

Why Delanoë? Because Aubry's alliance with Fabius was, in Mosco's eyes, unnatural, half woman, half goat; and because the "political culture" of Royal and her "friends" was too different from that of Mosco and his "friends." We had best not inquire too closely into what "political culture" means in this context. Nothing very lofty, I suspect. Mosco also has the elegance to inform us that Royal at the last minute proposed to make him "first signature" on her group's motion, an honor now left to Gérard Collomb.

Ségo seems to be fond of this sort of gesture: the overture to Mosco was like the overture to Bayrou between the two rounds of the presidential elections. I'm not sure in the present case what she would have gained, though she is apparently convinced that if Bayrou had accepted her other offer, she would be president of the Republic today. Perhaps that thought was enough to induce her to try the same ploy again. Paris vaut bien une messe, la présidence vaut bien une mésalliance, but I'm not sure that the leadership of the Socialist Party is worth throwing a life jacket to a man you'd previously thrown overboard. Still, the gesture couldn't have muddied the waters any more than they already are, and it does at least demonstrate that Royal is by no means resting on her laurels and expecting the crown to descend of its own accord upon her head, simply because it had rested there once before. She's throwing elbows with the rest of them. In politics as in basketball, winning depends in part on knowing what you can get away with.

French Export Performance

Lionel Fontagné and Guillaume Gaulier attempt to explain why French export performance has suffered in comparison with Germany. They find that German and French exporters are highly likely (80% probability) to find themselves in competition for the same markets and that German firms have been more successful in holding down wages and outsourcing the manufacture of components to reduce costs. They note, however, that Germany's better performance has manifested itself only over the past few years, and they do not consider the long-term implications of their findings.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Reminder

French politics hasn't exactly been riveting these past few weeks, so I want to remind readers that they can keep abreast of a variety of views of the evolving financial crisis in the US by referring to my shared page, which links to articles I've read on the subject and found interesting. Consider this value added, a sort of credit default swap on the principal subject of this blog. If French politics defaults, you can hedge against the loss by reading about the American debacle. Chances are you'll learn as much as Sarko learned from Tim Geithner in New York.

Sarko Mistakes UN for Vatican

President Sarkozy, speaking to the UN, delivered a homily that would have been more appropriate if pronounced at Saint John Lateran, of which he is honorary canon. He said that it was time to "make financial capitalism moral." He wants it to be régulier et régulé, predictable and regulated, instead of fou. Gone from his discourse are the homages to initiative, innovation, the spirit of risk and adventure, and the need to offer incentives to effort in the form of untrammeled, untaxed, and unredistributed rewards. After AIG, Lehman, and Bear, the crisis has claimed another casualty: Sarkozy the American is sounding more French every day. And who can blame him? The chase after the greenback has lost its allure, and the desire to se mettre au vert in a country where people work less, save more, and savor their 350 cheeses in a vinous fog of ungovernability seems more attractive by the minute.

Mosco Signs on with Delanoë

Pierre Moscovici has thrown in the towel. He is joining the Delanoë camp, though distinctly without enthusiasm: "That's not where renovation lies." But of course he couldn't go with Aubry, where those whom he considers traitors to his own cause (esp. J.-C. Cambadélis) went, and he wouldn't join Royal, in part because he doesn't want her to win and in part because he also feels betrayed by Collomb et al. of Ligne Claire. So Delanoë and Hollande are faute de mieux.

And now it's a question of counting up the votes. But the result will be anticlimactic. The pre-congress maneuvers have only highlighted the insurmountable fissures in the party. In a year or two, however, it will all be forgotten, and this period will look like ancient history, because the impending economic crisis will, I am fairly certain, change the contours of political debate not only in the United States but across Europe.

Schain on French Unions

Martin Schain rehearses the conventional wisdom on why weak French unions are nevertheless effective. Nothing new here for experts but a useful primer for those in need of an introduction.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Locker Room Talk

If the Carla Bruni video didn't ruin your day, you can try this one of PPDA and Thomas Hugues discussing the performance of Laurence Ferrari, the replacement of the former and ex-wife of the latter. Save it for the locker room, fellas.

French Repercussions of the Financial Crisis

From the FT: France, a beacon of progressive reform:

The economics team at one (surviving) US investment bank recently concluded that France now boasted the most pro-reform government of the G7. Even if he is opposed to “liberal” trade and competition policies at a European Union level, Mr Sarkozy supports further market liberalisation within France.

And this:

Christian de Boissieu, chairman of the Council of Economic Analysis, the government’s economic think-tank, argues the EU should press for the redesigning of the global financial institutions established by the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944. In particular, he suggests the International Monetary Fund should switch its focus from dealing with monetary issues to global financial market challenges.

“My personal view is that France – and the EU – should push forward the idea of a financial Bretton Woods,” Mr de Boissieu says. “The IMF has no more customers today and we should reinvent its role.”

This repurposed IMF, he says, could develop smarter rules governing the transparency and operation of credit ratings agencies, accounting standards, and liquidity requirements for global financial institutions. “But to be fully credible on the global stage the EU must make better progress in improving our own economic and political governance,” he says.

Marcel Gauchet on French Elite


No Comment

Let Them Eat Bagels!

Interesting note from Boz on Sarko's indefatigable support from certain elements of the American Jewish community. Note, however, that I am careful to write "certain elements of the American Jewish community" rather than "the American Jewish community" tout court, because I have no idea how representative these organizations are. The American Jewish community is certainly not as unified on American policy in the Middle East as it is sometimes made out to be, and I suspect the same is true of American Jews' assessments of Sarkozy--to the extent that they are aware of him at all, or any more aware of him than their non-Jewish compatriots. Indeed, I imagine that Sarkozy's main contribution in this area is to have restored the status quo ante, prior to the surge in anti-French sentiment that accompanied the run-up to the war in Iraq. That anti-French sentiment was particularly powerful among conservative Jews, who see in Sarkozy a more "reliable" ally in Middle Eastern affairs. I doubt, however, that he has dented their underlying--and incorrect--belief that France is a particularly anti-Semitic country.

Senate Elections

Yes, there were senatorial elections in France yesterday, and the left picked up 23 seats, more than the 15 it was expecting. There will be a new president of the Senate, one of three UMP candidates: Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Gérard Larcher, or Philippe Marini.

Why, then, did this election attract so little attention? For one thing, the UMP's control of the institution was never in doubt, owing to the (unfair) way in which Senators are chosen. For another, the legislative branch in France, of which the Senate is the less significant part, is not really a legislative branch but a sort of electoral college and glorified watchdog agency. It doesn't really legislate: projets de loi begin with the government and ministries. It rather influences the choice of government and tinkers with the legislation laid before it. Ambitious men become députés, a job with so little responsibility that they have plenty of time to pursue their ambitions by becoming mayors, presidents of regions, or even working as lawyers: Jean-François Copé, whose middle name is I-Want-to-be-President, practices law on the weekends. Men who used to have ambitions become senators, a job with even less responsibility than the député's, which leaves them plenty of time to write their memoirs or entertain their constituents with blogs.

Why are things done this way in France? Many learned tomes have been written about the subject, but I would single out several factors. Things were different in the Third and Fourth Republics, and the legislative branch did not cover itself with glory. Corruption was rampant, much as it is in the U. S. Congress. The parliament of the Third Republic voted les pleins pouvoirs to Pétain. To be sure, the parliament of the Fourth Republic muddled through the early stages of postwar recovery, largely by abdicating much power to a superbly competent civil service, but it could not cope with war in Algeria. When de Gaulle returned to power, he brought with him a contempt for quotidian politics, bickering parties, and the horse-trading that is the stuff of legislative business. The Constitution of the Fifth Republic expresses this contempt, and the Senate suffers not only from it but also from the distrust of an "upper house" or "aristocratic chamber" that has run through all French history since the Revolution.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How the PS Leader Is Chosen

Greg Brown asks how the Socialists actually choose a leader. This is the best information I've been able to find so far (the PS Web site, interestingly enough, hangs when you try to read the statutes of the Party).

L’Article 7.14 est modifié comme suit :

Désignation du(de la) Premier(e) Secrétaire du Parti

Le(la) Premier(e) Secrétaire du Parti est désigné par tirage au sort

L’ensemble des adhérents du Parti, réunis en Assemblées générales de section, après le Congrès national, votent pour composer une liste d’aptitude.

Sont retenus sur la liste d’aptitude les candidats ayant obtenu 10% du collège electoral.

Un tirage au sort est alors effectué parmi les candidats aux fonctions de Premier(e) Secrétaire du Parti figurant sur la liste d’aptitude.

En cas de vacance du poste de Premier(e) Secrétaire du Parti, il est procédé à son remplacement dans les mêmes conditions.

Finally got through to the official statutes, which gives art. 7.14 as follows:

Article 7.14 :

élection du(de la) Premier(e) Secrétaire du Parti
Le(la) Premier(e) Secrétaire du Parti est élu(e) à bulletin secret par l’ensemble des adhérents du Parti, réunis en Assemblées générales de section, après le Congrès national. La majorité absolue des suffrages exprimés est requise pour être déclaré élu au premier tour. Seul(e)s peuvent se présenter au deuxième tour -organisé dans les mêmes conditions que le premier - les deux candidat(e)s arrivé(e)s en tête au premier tour. En cas de vacance du poste de Premier(e) Secrétaire du Parti, il est procédé à son remplacement dans les mêmes conditions.

I don't know if this has been amended as above or not.

US Financial Crisis

If I were to blog on the US financial crisis, I'm afraid French politics would be submerged for years to come. Nevertheless, the implications for France are too enormous to ignore. As a compromise, interested readers can refer to my shared Google Reader page, where I will have links to the debate now raging the United States about the wisdom of the proposed bailout, which would transfer enormous power and resources to the Secretary of the Treasury, with a specific provision to prohibit congressional or judicial review. Interesting reading for political theorists as well as economists.

How Sound Are European Banks?

Here's an alarming view. Note that French banks are less leveraged than their German and British counterparts. (via Matt Yglesias)

Is the RSA Bad for Foreign Workers?

The proposed Revenue de Solidarité Active, which has already run into trouble on the right because it is to be financed by a new tax on interest and dividends, may be running into trouble on the left as well, where some argue that it penalizes foreign workers in France. Access to the existing RMI is easier for foreigners, according to critics, and 15 percent of recipients of the RMI are said to be foreign, even though non-citizens represent only 7 percent of the population.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Contenders

OK, here's the way the factions line up going into the Socialist Party congress. In one corner Martine Aubry, who has managed somehow to contrive an unnatural alliance with the Fabiusiens, led by Claude Bartolone, and much of the DSK/Reconstructeur group, including J.-C. Cambadelis. In another Bertrand Delanoë and François Hollande, with the Jospinien rump. In a third corner, Ségolène Royal and the mayors of Ligne Claire (Collomb, Valls, et al.). In a fourth corner, the "left" of the party: Emmanuelli, Hamon, etc. Turning around in circles in the middle of the ring, Pierre Moscovici, who has been abandoned by his troops. On his blog today he describes himself as "perplexed."

What will happen? If Aubry and Delanoë work out a compromise and join forces to stop Royal, they could win. Otherwise, she wins. But none of these leaders really control their troops, so no matter who wins, nobody wins. The whole thing remains as much in flux as ever. Clear?

Attali Makes Sense

Une fois n'est pas coutume: for once Jacques Attali makes sense. He notes that the ruckus over Georgia and NATO will soon repeat itself in magnified form with Ukraine. He remarks, rightly, on the influence of Polish and Ukrainian organizations in the US in pushing both presidential candidates into ill-considered positions on the issue. And he raises the pertinent question of what NATO's function is in the post-Soviet world. If it is an international antiterrorist police force, then it should be reorganized on that basis, and Russia should be invited to join; its good offices are essential. If it is to be an instrument of American interests vis-à-vis third parties such as Russia and Iran, then European nations should rethink their participation.

Unfortunately, Attali also neglects the internal divisions in the EU that would render his specific proposals unworkable. Still, his basic proposition is correct. NATO's mission has become impossibly confused. US-European cooperation should be organized around new organizations with clearer missions. Europe can then choose which aspects of US policy it wishes to support and which to reject rather than being enlisted in the crusade to "defend the Free World," the definition of which is sufficiently plastic to subsume a host of ulterior motives.

From Picnic Tax to Global Panic

Where lies political advantage in this moment of crisis? French politicians facing this question have offered different responses, ranging from the parochial to the universal. Sarkozy has been cautious in approaching the financial crisis. He seems--uncharacteristically?--to want to educate himself before plunging in. So he will meet in New York with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, and Henry Paulson, the US Treasury secretary. In the meantime his comments have been sensible, if modest. So much for the universal. On the parochial front, he has ordered a hasty retreat on the "picnic tax." Such was the unfortunate moniker attached to Jean-Louis Borloo's quite reasonable proposal to tax disposables for which more durable goods could easily be substituted: paper plates and plastic cups, for example, hence the name "picnic tax." Oops: a perfectly predictable levée de boucliers. One can't with impunity attack a national institution such as the French picnic. The TV stations, with their usual thoughtful delicacy, were all over this one, interviewing shoppers and eliciting horrified reactions at the thought that a paper plate might cost a nickel more.

Actually, I was rather surprised at the hue and cry. I have long marveled at the assiduousness of French picknickers, who seem to be able to pack a banquet in a wicker basket and set the old family quilt with a china service for 20 complete with crystal for the wine and silver couverts. Why should such resourceful diners care about a tax on plastic cups? What Frenchman would drink his Petrus from a plastic cup? But I digress.

As for the opposition, Ségolène Royal seems to have seized on the same contradiction between the parochial and the universal. But rather than praise Sarko for his prudence, she has berated him for his inaction, and in rather picturesque terms: there he stands, she says, "arms dangling in the face of the crisis," doing nothing beyond slapping a picnic tax on his hapless countrymen. It's an image that will stick in the mind longer than anything Ségo might have said about responding to the crisis. Her avoidance of the issue she pretended to address--the global financial meltdown--might seem even more parochial than the picnic tax. But she's still electioneering, even though her opponent at long last seems to have left the permanent campaign behind as he tries to wrap his mind around a problem that neither presidential candidate foresaw and no one knows how to deal with.

One thing is certain: this won't be a picnic.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

FP Goes to College

It seems as though we've become assigned reading at Oberlin.

Edvige Revisited

So Edvige, the spiffy new high-tech database cooked up to replace the dusty old files of les Renseignements Généraux, has received a quick makeover. Data on sexual behavior will not be collected. Minors may still be included, but information on them will be deleted, supposedly, if they reach 18 without an offense. The whole thing will be submitted to the CNIL for closer scrutiny.

But you have to wonder: how does a major undertaking like this get so far without scrutiny, only to be completely overhauled in a week after a political firestorm forces the president's hand? The government, apparently, would rather appear incompetent than sinister. Surely there must have been internal debates in which some officials argued for the inclusion of what they knew would be controversial information. They carried the day then. The minister who now so eagerly announces the revised plan must have signed off on the original . Was she convinced then that it was well-founded? Or was she simply not paying attention?

She seems to want us to believe the latter. This strains credulity. And until we know why she previously thought it was a good idea to collect more data, can we really be confident that she isn't looking for a surreptitious way to circumvent the decision to collect less? Other databases more hush-hush than Edvige are known to be in the works (Cristina, for one). What's in them? Why are they needed? There's something awfully unconvincing about the quick turnaround on Edvige.

Let Them Eat Cookies!

Now that socialism from above* has come to the United States, Wall Street is substituting a representative of the real economy for the fallen representative of the paper economy: LU cookies, purchased from Danone by Kraft Foods, is as of today officially a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Index, replacing AIG. As Marie-Antoinette might have said, "Let them eat cookies!"

* Perhaps "financial socialism" would be a more descriptive term if it didn't border on oxymoron. Incidentally, I thought I had coined this phrase when I posted it a moment ago, but I see that others are using it as well.

Tough Talk

Apparently John McCain doesn't think Spanish PM Zapatero is friendly enough to the U.S. or a strong enough supporter of democracy to meet with him in the White House. This is rather remarkable, as Matt Yglesias points out, since Spain is a NATO member that the US is obligated by treaty to defend, as well as a demonstrated target of the terrorists whom McCain claims to know how to defeat.

McCain's notion of NATO is quite flexible, it seems: the organization should stretch to accommodate Georgia but shrink to exclude Spain, or at least punish Spain by not inviting its PM to dinner. McCain also seems to be rather unclear about where Spain is located. In his mind it seems to be inextricably associated with Latin America, even though the interviewer tries to remind him that the country is in Europe.

Sarkozy will no doubt want to examine the McCain doctrine ("You're either with us or against, and only if you're with us can we talk") closely. His idea of closer cooperation with America was good enough for Bush, but it might not be good enough for John McCain. But of course the word is that Sarko is backing Obama. Some enterprising French reporter might want to sound the Straight Talker out about whether he'd be willing to invite Sarko to the White House.

Le Monde has noticed.

The ECB May Be Getting the Message

So says the Wall Street Journal. You heard it here first.

This Could Work

So, as the dust settles after Ségolène Royal's declaration that she no longer considers her candidacy for leadership of the PS a "prerequisite" ("prerequisite for what?" as J.-C. Cambadélis pertinently remarked), the contours of a new faction begin to emerge. Ligne Claire, the alliance of Socialist mayors including Gérard Collomb of Lyon and Manuel Valls of Evry, will throw in its lot with Ségo's crowd, and there will be a compromise choice as leader, perhaps Collomb, who is less of a présidentiable than Valls. Over the next several years, Valls, the young challenger, will duke it out with Ségo to see which one eventually runs for president. Valls is pleased with the prospect. Of course he says nothing about his own ambitions, though he does mention that he's also meeting with the Aubry-Delanoë faction. It makes no sense to foreclose options at this point.

So what does all this maneuvering imply about the evolution of the party line? The big loser seems to be Strauss-Kahn, whose stalking horse-protégé-rival Moscovici finds himself out in the cold (he has been grumbling of late about lack of support from DSK). I think it's pretty plain that DSK has decided that he either doesn't want to be president or won't make it and has cut Mosco adrift. In any case, DSK will have his hands full at IMF with the crumbling global economy. The "economists" are out; the politicians have taken over, and since the strength of the PS is in the cities, it is the big-city mayors who are in the driver's seat. And as Europe slides into recession (as I think it inevitably will on account of the impending US contraction), there will be plenty of action at the urban level, plenty of social discontent to mobilize. The whole complexion of political debate will change over the next few years. The prominence of deficit-reduction, tax and labor-market reform, ecological issues, and European integration will diminish, and the importance of finding ways to mobilize the unemployed (perhaps in infrastructure projects) will rise. Local pilot programs can be plausibly advanced as national models and made the basis of a "new socialism." Meanwhile, fissures in the right will widen, as "economic patriots" square off against the dwindling number of "neoliberals."

It's a ray of hope for the Left. A pity that it will have taken a catastrophe to make it happen--and of course I'm being far too optimistic in suggesting that the catastrophe will unfold in anything like such an orderly fashion. My true thoughts are pessimistic in the extreme, but for the moment I'll confine my comment to the day's political news while turning a deaf ear to the crashing sounds emanating from the large city to the south of where I write.

Note to the ECB

Frederic Mishkin, a former member of the Fed's Board of Governors, justifies the Fed's "accommodative" interest-rate policy. Jean-Claude Trichet could profit from reading this piece. (Via Mark Thoma.)

Philo-Semitic France

Enfin, presque. But what's up with Spain?


A lawyer is being prosecuted for slander because, in the course of defending a client accused of fraud, he alluded to the allegation made by L'Express that the minister of justice claimed to have an MBA that she never received.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Blogger Adds "Following" Feature

Blogger has added a new feature. You can indicate blogs you follow by going to Dashboard (link in upper right corner of your screen) and clicking the add button under "following." You can become an anonymous follower or a named follower, and your selections can be integrated with Google Reader. One of the frustrations of blogging is not knowing who is reading. The new Facebook group has introduced me to 38 of you, but there are over 400 Feedburner subscribers and many more regular readers. If you sign up for following, I'll have a better sense of who you are, and it's the idea of actual flesh-and-blood readers that keeps me going. So I hope you'll sign up.

P.S. Mathieu points out that if you don't have a Google mail or Blogger account, you won't have a dashboard link. He nevertheless became a follower by going to the bottom of the lower right-hand column of the blog and clicking the link there. Sorry that this is such a complicated business, and thanks to those who've taken the trouble to satisfy my curiosity about who's reading.

P.P.S. At the suggestion of Vertigo, I have moved the Followers gadget up near the top of the right column.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Rationalité limitée recommends this interview with Michel Aglietta on the current financial crisis but expresses doubts about Aglietta's call for new regulation to ensure that "institutional investors can correctly evaluate the risks" involved in the purchase of certain financial instruments. But "is this really possible?" asks the young economist who writes the blog. This question will be at the heart of political debate in coming months, so it will be important to get beyond the sterile confrontation of "regulation good" vs. "regulation bad." Indeed, there will be new regulation galore, whether good or bad, because the demand for it will become politically irresistible as the crisis widens and deepens.

Yet desire, when it grows strong enough, is endlessly resourceful, and capable of circumventing any and all regulation via recourse to the ruse of reason. Ulysses may have bound himself to the mast in order to resist the sirens' call, to which he knew in advance he would succumb, but though we may be aware of the problem, we never seem to make the bonds strong enough to contain us in our next bout of lust. Since our only defense against the tumescence of greed is appreciation of the potential for subsequent disaster, regulation should focus on heightening awareness of the risk of debacle and of the deceitful wiles of the concupiscence that wraps itself in the chaste disguises of "rationality."

The mad market for credit default swaps is a case in point. No one knows how large it is ($60 trillion, $100 trillion, $150 trillion--that's trillion, with a t), because there is no central repository of information. CDS's are supposed to provide insurance against credit defaults, but it seems that many of the insurers were glad to take the premiums even though they had far too little capital to make good on their promise to pay in case of default. No matter: default was assumed to be rare enough that it was still "rational" to make, and accept, a promise that both parties were (vaguely) aware could not be kept. One party could then assure its "regulators" (whether internal or external) that it was protected, while the other could earn an apparently cost-free supplement to its income. The Lehman bankruptcy and potential failure of AIG will soon reveal just how deluded the masters of the universe were.

In retrospect such arrangements seem irrational to the point of daftness; in prospect they seemed the quintessence of modern financial engineering with its mantra of "risk management." Regulation needs to step back from rationality, even the "bounded" rationality advocated by Rationalité limitée, to the more primitive stage of prudence, which stemmed from a healthy fear of the unknown that no one yet presumed to measure. The attempt to turn all uncertainty into quantifiable risk is the contemporary hubris responsible for the rebirth of tragedy.

Ségo Backs Off

When Ségolène Royal visited Harvard last winter, a dinner was held in her honor. After dinner, she answered questions. I was the first to speak. I began by noting that she had said in a session with undergraduates that her plan at that time was to try to organize a broad-based coalition of the Left ("Besancenot to Bayrou" was the way she put it!) in which the Socialists would join with other parties in a national primary to choose and then unite behind a presidential candidate. I noted that unity was such a good idea that it had spawned a dozen or so rivals all promising to deliver it by taking control of the PS, and then I asked how she planned to get rid of them. Laughter in the audience. A smile from Ségolène. And then her answer, or, rather, her evasion: "I will present my ideas to les militants, and they will decide."

It seems that not enough of them have decided in her favor, so that she is backing off her insistence that the party must unify early behind a presidential candidate and then proceed to designate a candidate of the left via a national primary. Her failure to persuade enough of les militants seems to be responsible for this change of tactic. What remains of the national primary idea in her new strategic vision is unclear at this point. She does not seem to be able to command the party's internal mechanisms, but in the meantime her strength in the population at large is also declining, to judge by recent polls. If she can't impose herself internally and can't impose herself externally, her moment will have passed. It may well have passed already.

Republican Parochialism

I have frequently been critical on this blog of what I take to be outbursts of dogmatic republicanism that have recurred of late in a variety of contexts. At times it seemed that all criticism of dogmatic republicanism was simply rejected out of hand in France, but lately I have begun to hear French voices here and there questioning whether the consensus is as solid, and as firmly grounded, as this reaction might suggest. Now, Cécile Laborde has published a thoughtful piece setting forth what she takes to be the principles underlying the republican consensus and exposing some of the contradictions inherent in those principles. Essential reading.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Krugman on French Health Care

Paul Krugman writes about ...

... tendency of Americans to assume that we’re by definition the best — the kind of attitude which lets people get away with warning –warning! — Americans that the likes of Hillary would give us French health care. (If only.)

The Socialists and Immigration

The PS apparently will not back regularization of the status of undocumented aliens in the future. None of the major position statements calls for regularization. Only the left of the party is willing to go as far as Jospin did in 1997.

Whipped by the Fat Tail

Statisticians speak of probability distributions with a relatively high likelihood of states far from the mean as having "fat tails." It seems that many of the distributions used to estimate risk in the financial world had fatter tails than the estimators assumed. The CAC40 is down 5.6% today, Lehman is bankrupt, Merrill Lynch has been eaten by Bank of America, and AIG is teetering. As we wait to see just how black this Monday will be on the U.S. stock exchanges, one thing is clear: there is no point in carrying on with the old economic debate. It no longer matters whether France will meet its Stability and Growth Pact targets or whether Trichet thinks he must keep interest rates high forever. We are now in an emergency, and the premium will be on innovative ideas, not eloquent defenses of orthodoxy. Perhaps it's fitting that the curse "May you live in interesting times" is attributed to a Chinese philosopher. We are living in interesting times, and the Chinese, pragmatists as well as philosophers, are sitting on a mountain of cash and in a position to pick up a lot of assets at bargain prices.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Demise of Open University

The New Republic's "Open University" blog has apparently shut down. I'm sorry to see it go. It published interesting pieces from time to time. On a more personal note, the French Politics blog really took off after David Bell was kind enough to mention it in an Open University post.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hell Hath No Fury

Cécilia Attias, who used to be married to Carla Bruni's husband, now lives in Dubai with her new spouse. "Why not Geneva?" she was asked by La Tribune de Genève, since Mr. Attias once had his offices there. Cécilia feigns a moment's hesitation, then says, "All right, what has to be said has to be said." She goes on to assert that her husband, who had for thirteen years organized the Davos world economic forum for Klaus Schwab, was told by the latter that he was out of a job because it wouldn't do to create tension with the French government. "Since then," Mme Attias adds, a trifle perfidiously, "I have learned that the French president will probably attend the next Davos although he has never attended before."

Actually, her twisting of the knife is a little more subtle in French, with a nuance that is awkward to translate. She says: "Depuis, j'ai appris que le président français se rendrait probablement à Davos ..." The combination of the conditional with probablement leaves one wondering just what Mme Attias learned about her ex's intentions: the French president allegedly will probably attend, it is said that the French president will probably attend, etc. Maybe he'll be there. Maybe not. Never mind. The dagger is planted. Her ex allegedly probably in her opinion had her current hubby fired from his job.

After all, everybody allegedly probably knows already that this is the sort of thing "le président français" does. Well done, Cécilia. You should be working for the McCain campaign. You've mastered the art of character assassination, and there is no way that your ex can escape the charge: if he goes, he's keeping his part of the alleged bargain with Schwab; if he doesn't go, it's because you've exposed his machinations. Bien joué. And what a blackguard: his woman leaves him, so he banishes her and her lover to the farthest corner of Arabia, where contre mauvaise fortune ils font bon coeur: after all, it's only "two hours from India, from China; you can go there for the weekend," even if you have to give up the Parisian pleasures of nightly theater and opera.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Another Useful Word

Réseaucratie: where "networking" is not just a yuppie buzzword but a system of governance. Endogamy in les grandes écoles, recruitment through old-boy networks, pantouflage, "crony capitalism." It's easy to find Ancien Régime parallels for all these contemporary vices.

A Nicety of French

Here's a subtle French distinction of which I was unaware: laïc and laïque.

Pape, Paris, Pap

The Pope has been met at Orly by Nick and Carla. He will "address artists, intellectuals, and scientists" at the Elysée. Cardinal Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris (and no relation to the late John XXIII, despite the name), said that the Pope was "not coming to deliver a pep talk" to the French, even though only 7 percent of nominal French Catholics practice their religion regularly. There will be the usual hyperventilation about threats to laïcité, the Pope's willingness to consort with a twice-divorced politician, etc. And then the Pope will be off to Lourdes, that Disneyland of faith, to commemorate the miracle that allegedly occurred there when that part of France that still believed in miracles needed one to counter that part of France that didn't. Now most would settle for GDP growth above 2 percent, which neither the Pope nor Christine Lagarde can deliver.

Quite apart from this circus, the decay of Catholicism over the course of the 20th c. in France is a subject that deserves more serious thought than it is often given. One has a tendency to accept Tocqueville's judgment that the Church was so intimately entwined with the Ancien Régime that it suffered a near-fatal blow with the fall of the latter:

Ecclesiastical lords enjoyed the same advantages, because the Church, which had a different origin, destination, and nature from feudalism, ultimately became intimately involved with it. Although the Church remained an alien body in the feudal system and was never fully incorporated into it, it penetrated so deeply that it remained encrusted within. (AR II.1)

Then, in a belated attempt to apply Tocqueville's dictum that religion can survive only if not tainted by temporal power, the separation of church and state in 1905 killed it off--an iatrogenic demise consequent upon a surgery delayed too long. But this is far too simple a tale, and as so many other countries endure fitful revivals and seem to find religion difficult to do without, France remains proudly aloof, despite the best efforts of its president to sell opium to a people that prefers, if not lucidity, then at least derision. La gouaille aura eu raison de la religion.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Industrial Policy by Any Other Name

Economist Élie Cohen considers Sarkozy's recently announced industrial policy regarding the Chantiers de l'Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire and finds it "inadapted, inefficient, illusory, and dangerous."

A Rose by Many Other Names

When the controversy first erupted, it was over le foulard islamique. Then it was le voile. The vocabulary then proliferated, and lately the Conseil d'État took the burqa to be a sign of insufficient assimilation to qualify for French citizenship. But if the burqa was beyond the pale (the irony of this term is not lost on me), what about the hijab, niqab, abaya, jilbab, and chador? And what if these words, bandied about in learned French legal discussion, no longer had any clear meaning or relation to their (diverse) cultures of origin? How can anyone, and especially a French jurist reasoning abstractly and with no special knowledge of these vestimentary signs, know with any confidence what the wearing of them signifies? These are among the questions raised by this morning's post by the proofreaders of Le Monde.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More BHL Vetting

The most extensive examination of BHL's reportage from Georgia that I have seen.

Ignorance, the Two Cultures, and the Meaning of Life

All right, this post isn't about politics, so sue me. I have to attend a meeting today, so I won't have time to read the papers. But in my morning scan of the news, I came upon this item in the Financial Times about the LHC: "CERN atom smasher set in motion." Now, one comes to expect an almost universal ignorance of science among journalists and even among my university colleagues in non-scientific fields. People who would be surprised to learn that a colleague did not know about the assassination of a certain archduke in a certain Sarajevo are almost proud to profess that they haven't the foggiest idea what Schrödinger's equation is. This docta ignorantia always astonishes me. I recognize that I'm that rare bird who has migrated across the boundary between the sciences and the humanities, but still I think it's not unreasonable to expect a minimum of scientific literacy in a world in which the mundane realities of production and power are so heavily dependent on scientific knowledge. So I find it truly appalling that a journalist for a newspaper as excellent as the FT, assigned to write an article about the LHC, is capable of calling it an "atom smasher." As Wikipedia (or etymology) could have told the writer, the LHC is a "hadron collider": hadrons are heavy subatomic particles (as opposed to leptons, light subatomic particles), in this case protons. Two counter-rotating beams of protons crash into each other--"collide"--hence the name. This is 2008; the FT seems to think it's still 1930.

You can follow progress at LHC on this blog. You can brush up on the Higgs mechanism here. For a complete rundown of quantum field theory and the standard model of elementary particles, try Steven Weinberg's remarkable trilogy, if you happen to have a spare decade to set aside for reading. Or you can simply admire the screen shot above: the LHC works!

Possible Perverse Effects of University Reform

Discussed here.


More on the LHC, set to music:

Sarko, Soon on the Big Screen?

Marina Zenovich says she wants to shoot a documentary about Sarkozy. "As an American woman, I am fascinated by French men." Or "by the French." A certain possible ambiguity in the translation. I leave it to you to choose.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tactical Withdrawal or Rout?

No sooner does Sarko return from Moscow than he orders a hasty retreat on EDVIGE, the much-contested database of "personalities" likely to have an influence on the public. MAM has been told to "consult with qualified individuals" and then "take decisions to protect liberties." Swift. Decisive. Only it follows a couple of days of chaos in which, first, Hervé Morin, the defense minister, said he had qualms about EDVIGE, only to be called to order by Fillon, who in his bland way attempted to reassure everyone by saying a) the old RG had been collecting the same kind of information for years and b) the Socialists were hypocrites, because the data they collected when they were in power were just as serious a violation of privacy. This wasn't exactly a calming approach to the already volatile situation. So now Sarko has had to put out the fire, and the government looks almost as chaotic as it did back during the GMO debate. So who will get the blame for this little cockup? And in the end what information will be collected on whom? À suivre.

ADDENDUM: I call your attention to Louis's comment below and to the blog post by Frédéric Rolin that he recommends.


Officially the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) goes on line tomorrow. Actually, the gigantic machine, which spans the Franco-Swiss border, has been undergoing tests for some time. But tomorrow the quest for the elusive Higgs boson is officially on. Physics was one of the passions of my youth, so the "God particle" may be more an object of veneration for me than for most of you, but it's probably worth noting in this political blog that this remarkable project is the fruit of European cooperation. For a layman's introduction to what it all means, and to what it might mean if we don't find what we think we're looking for, there's no better place to begin than Frank Wilczek's new (and cleverly titled) book, The Lightness of Being. Oh, and in case you're worried, the LHC won't spawn a black hole that will eat the world, as some fear. At least not if the calculations are right. If they're wrong, well, at least we won't have to worry about global warming.


In the early days of his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to place a high priority on remaking not only his personal image but the image of the French presidency itself. He tried to embody energy and youthful vigor by jogging, baring the presidential knees to the consternation of Alain Finkielkraut; he turned his eyes heavenward in Rome and pondered the spiritual dimension of leadership; he had Camus read to him while he contemplated the Mediterranean from its southern shore; he poked shop stewards in the chest and challenged fishermen to fisticuffs.

But it all got away from him. He insulted citizens and reporters; he seemed inebriated (or winded, depending on your point of view) after a meeting with Putin. PPDA likened him to a child with a new toy at his first G8. The remark may have cost PPDA his job and his pedestal, but the accumulation of criticisms seems to have given the president pause. He didn't have as much control over as his image as he thought. His efforts often appeared to be counter-productive. So he pulled back. He remarried and, in what may be his most important imagineering effort to date, portrayed himself as newly settled, centered, and calmed. Contemplation of Carla was now said to be enough to assuage his spiritual and cultural yearnings, and for the rest he could concentrate on doing his job, the scope of which seemed to shrink as the problems became more intractable and the permanent campaign mode revealed itself to be a poor method of government.

Lately the imagineering has been left to Carla herself. A précis of her appearance on Drucker's show can be read on Bernard Girard's blog (I haven't seen the program myself). What began as a macho presidency (remember the buddy bonding with Fillon, who also ran in shorts and sweated in public) has been feminized. The rakish president, who told Yasmina Reza that "nous [les hommes politiques] sommes des bêtes sexuelles," has been upstaged by his justice minister, who has invented a female machismo all her own. Meanwhile, the bête sexuelle has been taken in hand by the woman whom Bernard Girard calls "Madame Nunuche." Infantilized? Carla had said that what she wanted was a man with a nuclear bomb. Instead she has a teddy bear who plays with the Russian bear.

One might usefully compare this with the transvaluation of symbols that has taken place in the Republican Party in the United States. Sarah Palin, the self-described pit bull with lipstick and hockey stick, seems to arouse the men who read mercenary magazines in their spare time more than the war hero himself does. And the war hero--at least to judge by the biopic projected at the Republican Convention--has chosen to portray himself as a Christ-like figure, the man who suffered for our sins. Rambo is now a cross-dresser, while jet-jockey Maverick shows himself laid out on a stretcher, incapacitated, at the mercy of the enemy--a long way from the days when polio-stricken FDR would not allow himself to be photographed on crutches, and public appearances were contrived so that he could be propped up behind a podium and hustled on and off stage out of public view.

I draw no conclusions yet from these observations. Perhaps they signify nothing more than that power remains an elusive thing, as it has always been. "Ike was a general," Harry Truman supposedly said. "He thinks that when he gives an order, everyone will hop to it. When he's president, one thing will surprise him: he'll give an order, and nothing will happen." So power is a will-o'-the-wisp, which changes its shape as easily and as often as those who pursue it. And it's a fickle thing. One minute it's in your grasp, the next it's run off with someone else and produced a love child.

The Answer!

French Newspapers, which have lost circulation to the Internet, have come up with an answer, and it's not high tech: they're going to send hawkers into the subway stations. I don't think it will work. Now, maybe if they set up charging stations where you could recharge your iPod while downloading the day's edition of Le Monde--that might make a difference. Better yet: a wireless blast into your iPhone as you pass through the Monde turnstile, with the money deducted from your Navigo. Les Guignols de l'Info included free of charge.

Le Monde Howler

Le Monde accuses Sarah Palin of trying to fire a "bookseller" while mayor of "Saint George." But she was mayor of Wasilla, and the libraire was in fact a bibliothécaire. I guess Mayor Giuliani (of Staten Island?) is correct: those "elite liberal media" will stoop to anything, even mistranslation, to discredit a fine, upstanding "pit bull with lipstick." Thanks to Causeur for spotting this one.

Annals of Crime

Check out the Helen of Troy whose abduction by Leca, the king of the Apaches of Belleville, triggered a war with the Orteaux gang, led by Manda de la Courtille. And other photos from the new book Présumés coupables, a photographic history of crime in France.

Is this you, Valérie Pécresse?

Some sceptics about the value of mass university education also argue that graduates earn more not because they have learnt many economically useful things, but because by finishing university they are signalling to employers that they are likely to be the cleverest and most motivated workers. This theory sees university more as a recruitment fair than as a place of useful learning.

The FT worries about cheapening the product.

Wyplosz Agrees

As I predicted the other day, the old consensus is fraying badly, and rapidly, and a new one in favor of good old-fashioned Keynesian stimulus is starting to build, as exemplified by this article by Charles Wyplosz. Indeed, when the former chairman of Goldman Sachs nationalizes* a $5 trillion chunk of the US financial sector, you know that all the old orthodoxies are in jeopardy. Trichet seems to be the last person in the world to get the word. He's still trying to persuade the Germans that he's tough on inflation.

ADDENDUM: Pisani-Ferry is more reserved.

* Paul Krugman dislikes the use of the word "nationalize" in connection with the Freddie Mac-Fannie Mae operation. He prefers "deprivatization," because these government-sponsored entities (to use the jargon) always enjoyed a strange in-between existence, not entirely private but certainly, since 1968, not entirely public when it came to the appropriation of profits. This seems to me overly fastidious, and I think that the word "nationalize" is preferable because it brings home the gravity of the situation, particularly in the United States, where socialism is still the bogeyman and nationalization conjures up images of armed men seizing steel mills in wartime in order to force striking workers back on the job. Of course there is always the delightful Britishism "quango," for quasi-nongovernmental organization, the sort of outfit to which one devolves power in order to tie the hands of public officials who would otherwise be incorrigible in their use of it to bolster their own position. In any case, it remains an open question whether the nationalized GSEs will be run in the national interest or in the interest of the bankers among whom Henry Paulson used to be primus inter pares.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Facebook Group

I've created a group on Facebook, "Friends of French Politics Blog," where you can discuss topics that come up on the blog or anything else that seems pertinent. It's a closed group, so I guess your request to join will come to me for approval, but I'm not quite sure how this works. Let me know if you have any problems. I don't promise to join any discussions that may arise on Facebook, but I thought it would be useful for readers to have a way of launching their own discussions without having to accept my judgment about the news of the day. This is an experiment, so we'll see what happens.

To join, search "Groups" for "Friends of French Politics Blog." The link I gave previously didn't work. But this one might.

Sarko in Moscow

Sarkozy is in Moscow trying to negotiate a deal to allow EU observers to monitor Russian behavior toward Georgia. The Russians have rejected his initial proposal, calling instead for a policing arrangement under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. There also seems to be a dispute over the translation of the initial agreement and whether it called for guarantees of the security OF South Ossetia and Abkhazia or IN South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The commenter signing himself "F-Town," my principal contradictor on matters Georgian, recommends reading this article by BHL in The New Republic. I read it. It combines défauts et qualités in the patented BHL manner: a vigorous, energetic style, high moral dudgeon, a tendentious recital of recent history, a speculative assessment of Russian motives and goals presented as absolute certitude, a liberal use of emotive phrases such as "mass murder," an a priori rejection of attempts to examine the errors and misdeeds of the side he considers to be in the right, and a readiness to characterize anyone who would disagree with him as a cowardly appeaser. "Only by openly acknowledging the possibility of blackmail or an interruption in oil or gas supplies can we be realistic and pragmatic," he writes. Indeed--but who would deny that? And he fails to mention that it was one of the "young democracies" he champions--Ukraine--that attempted to use the interruption of gas supplies to Western Europe to strengthen its hand in market negotiations with Russia. And of course he places himself at the center of world history: if only the West had heeded him and his "friend, the writer André Glucksmann," all this unfortunate mess could have been avoided.

So, F-Town, I am not persuaded, and in the end I am not even clear what Lévy is proposing that would go beyond what Sarkozy is attempting to do. Lévy writes:

In the end, people say, "But even if we admit that they [the Georgians] are right, what can we do about it? What great country wants to go and die for Tbilisi?" The truth is that it is not about dying, but about being firm and conditioning our relationship with Russia on its minimal respect for the rules in its dealings with its neighbors. And the truth is that in this particular situation, it is not only about those neighbors but about us, we Europeans. Why? Because what is at stake are Europe's energy needs.

Indeed. Who would say otherwise? And the stentorian denunciation of the "mass murderer" ends with this wet squib:

That Russia is a great country, no one can deny. That it is inevitably a partner is obvious. But a partner can sometimes be an adversary. And maintaining normal relations with Russia does not exclude speaking clearly to it about truth and principles.

Absolutely. I'm all for speaking clearly about truth and principles. I'm not all for building up the Georgian military, inserting U.S. antimissile systems into Eastern Europe, setting up Ukraine and Georgia as NATO-protected pinch points for squeezing supplies of energy from Russia, or countering separatist movements with Western military support. So if we're going to speak clearly to the Russians, let Lévy speak clearly about exactly what he proposes, if dying for Tbilisi isn't it.

Another Pauv' Con

This time the pauv' con is un ami du Président. Sarko even took him to visit the pope. But Jean-Marie Bigard believes that the Pentagon was not struck by an airplane on Sept. 11, 2001; it was rather hit by an American missile, he says. And the World Trade Center was destroyed by "controlled demolition." "All the experts of the earth agree on this." And to think that this loudmouth is a presidential pal. Casse-toi, pauv' con.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The One-Percent Solution

Christine Lagarde, who not so long ago was looking forward to a growth figure above 2 percent for 2008, and who later revised her estimate slightly downward, has now backpedaled all the way to 1 percent. This is no surprise to most observers outside the government, but it is an awkward admission for the Minister of Finance at a time when the UMP is in open rebellion over the proposed new tax to finance the RSA. The reduced growth estimate means that the projected deficit must be revised upward, raising the possibility of still other new taxes as the deficit pushes beyond the 3 percent SGP limit. When Sarkozy finally does get around to appointing a new government, his moves in the economic arena will be closely watched. If he opts for austerity and a policy of contraction, as the neoliberal faction would have him do, he will be going against all his politician's instincts. If he doesn't, he will preside over a sharp rise in the deficit and have to face criticism from the opposition, the ECB, and some EU officials. Forthcoming unemployment figures probably won't look too rosy, either, so it will be hard to argue as he did after the last round that his TEPA tax package is working. Even if he concludes that it was the wrong medicine in the wrong dose at the wrong time, it's too late to administer an antidote. The patient has already metabolized the drug, and the unintended effects can at this point only be managed, not forestalled. Many will find the doctor in retrospect guilty of malpractice, even if the treatment he administered was well within "community standards" (the European community, s'entend). What to do? The response will be a test--perhaps the test--of Sarko's political skills.

Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Trichet seems bent on defying my prediction of yesterday that he would be forced to bow before the reality of recession and unemployment. I may yet turn out to be right--indeed, I stand by my prediction--but for now Trichet is determined to be more Catholic than Pope, or at any rate more German than the Germans, on the issue of credible commitment to price stability. Will this lead, as Le Monde suggests, to the patient dying of good health? On verra.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

No comment ...

... on this.

Vernet on the Caucasus and Kosovo

Daniel Vernet, Le Monde's foreign policy editor, tries to distinguish between Kosovo and Georgia's two separatist provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His argument is rather tortuous. It culminates with this passage: "The parallel between Kosovo and the Caucasus reveals two opposing conceptions of the international system. On the Western side, you have a clumsy, at times hypocritical attempt to accommodate an evolution of international law to move beyond the principle of national sovereignty and territorial integrity on the one hand and the right of ethnic self-determination on the other. On the Russian side you have power politics predicated on the creation of faits accomplis."

As it stands, this is hardly a ringing endorsement, on clear moral grounds or even in terms of international law, of the supposed alternative to power politics, an alternative for which Vernet finds no better adjectives than "clumsy and hypocritical." Before reaching this conclusion, Vernet fairly recounts the tortured history of Georgia's breakaway provinces. "Georgia's responsibility in the outbreak of hostilities in 1991 is undeniable," he writes, but the subsequent ethnic cleansing led to the elimination of most ethnic Georgians from both provinces. These are the faits accomplis of which the Russians now presume to take advantage. An ugly thing, to be sure, but would it be less ugly to seek to reverse by military means a situation for which Georgia bears part of the "responsibility" in order to restore Georgian "territorial integrity," its territory being already an artificial construct of an earlier era of power politics, and "sovereignty" over provinces now largely devoid of Georgians? I am hard put to see who would gain here, what lofty principles would be preserved, or how such a move would be any less an exercise in "power politics" dedicated to the "creation of faits accomplis" than what the Russians are doing.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Prediction

Allow me to venture a prediction: the European Central Bank will not adhere much longer to its policy of rigor. U.S. unemployment has hit 6.1 pct. German industrial production was off 1.8 pct. last month. The collapse of global demand is accelerating, as is the decimation of Keynes' "animal spirits" among investors. Similarly, the supposed bras de fer between Sarkozy and Fillon, between rigor and voluntarism, deficit reduction and relance, will end in stimulus, and deficits be damned. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to see a formal repudiation of the Stability and Growth Pact and its 3 pct. /60 pct. targets for deficit and debt. The accommodation of the past 20 years, otherwise known as la pensée unique, is over. The emergency has broken the logjam--I would like to say not a moment too soon, but I fear that the truth is rather closer to several years too late.

Now, Wouldn't That Be Special?

As Ségolène Royal's poll numbers decline relative to her rivals Aubry and Delanoë, some of her allies appear to be contemplating bold tactical maneuvers. One suggestion is that she not file a motion in her own name at the upcoming party congress. Another, apparently backed by Royal loyalist François Rebsamen and le cavalier seul Julien Dray, is a Royal-Hollande alliance. Now, wouldn't that be special? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so perhaps this time they will deign to appear on the same platform, as they did only once throughout the 2007 campaign, when their couple was still (nominally) intact.

The Politics of Resentment

Paul Krugman's note this morning got me thinking about the politics of resentment in the United States and what counterpart it might have in France. One had only to watch a few minutes of the Republican convention to feel hated--to feel hated, that is, if one happens to admire "European ideas" (denounced by Huckabee and Giuliani), to aspire to a cosmopolitan rather than a chauvinistic ideal (Giuliani denounced Obama's supposed "cosmopolitanism," no doubt quite unaware that "rootless cosmopolitans" was a phrase commonly used by French anti-Semites in the 1930s to denounce Jews), to live in a large city (authenticity, for Republicans, is evidently to be found only in small-town Gemeinschaft, not urban Gesellschaft--and, yes, I'm well aware that my use of such words, as well as the pronoun "one," makes me unfit to kiss Sarah Palin's hem), to take pride in one's education, to prefer swimming (or, God forbid, wind-surfing) on the Côte d'Azur to ice hockey in Alaska, or to be a member of the "Eastern elites" (denounced by Romney, a founding partner of Bain Capital, former governor of Massachusetts, and owner of a large mansion in that hyper-huppé Eastern enclave of wealth, Belmont Hill, à deux pas de chez moi).

What about France? Sarkozy, of course, has played artfully on any number of strings in the harp of social ressentiment. For instance, his attacks on May '68 could have been translated directly from the American Republican idiom of denunciation of "the angry Left," "the feminazis and bra-burners," etc. His animadversions on la racaille and les égorgeurs de moutons dans leur baignoire demonstrated a pith and pungency in the articulation of unavowable prejudice that an American Republican might envy (although the application of the adjective "uppity" to Obama is in an identical register).

Yet for all the parallels one might draw, I think that France is still a long way from descending into the pit of mindless animosity that right-wing politics has become in the United States. The mobilization of resentment has yet to become a full substitute for political thought, policy prescriptions, and economic debate. In a sense, France is moving in the opposite direction. It has known the politics of resentment in the past, known it in spades, as my example from the 1930s shows. The demise of the revolutionary ideal has moved the core of political debate in France closer to the civil discussion that Americans claim to want for themselves, closer than it has been at many points in the past. The decline of French jingoism has also diminished the virulence of social resentment, which thrives on the idea that, for whatever reason, some who pretend to be one's fellow citizens don't share one's nonpareil love of country or patriotic frenzy. Hence appeals to resentment in France are marginal rather than central, even though they may be decisive in close elections and may indeed have been crucial in 2007.

By contrast, the United States has been moving in the opposite direction: the electorate is so deeply and so closely divided that resentment has become an essential tool for prying the marginal voter from the other side, and the perverse effects of the Electoral College make it logical to claw and gouge one's way to victory by appealing to the basest common denominator in states that may be far from the center of cultural gravity but nevertheless central to the assembling of a majority of 270 electors.

So, still smarting from my wounds and shaking my head in disbelief after four days of Republican invective against me and my kind, I can only say, Vive la différence!