Friday, September 19, 2008

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.

4 comments:

kirkmc said...

Sarkozy might just be doing the smartest thing he could. This crisis does not concern France (directly), and there's absolutely nothing he could do about it. Anything to be done has to come from the US (and the ECB). And as the US spends trillions shoring up Wall Street, in oddly socialst "investor welfare", it will still have little to do with France.

Kirk

Unknown said...

Kirk,
While it is true that Sarko can do nothing about the immediate problems in the financial sector, the real difficulties lie ahead. The absence of credit and reversal of capital inflows to the US will lead to a sharp contraction over the next year or so, and this in turn will have a strong impact on Europe. The time for countercyclical action is now, before unemployment gets out of hand. French economic policy needs to be rethought sooner rather than later. I think Sarkozy knows this, but he isn't sure what to do and is gathering opinions from people he trusts. When he speaks on the subject later this month, we will know better whose advice he is following.

kirkmc said...

That's for sure. This is certainly going to annul the effects of any stimulus package that has been used or may be used in the near future. Sigh... More taxes, more problems to come.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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