Sunday, November 30, 2008

Housing Costs--A French Bubble?

According to a forthcoming CAE report by Jacques Mistral and Valérie Plagnol, the average cost of housing in France has risen by 40% since 2004. Construction of new social housing slowed between 1996 and 2006, while demand for new housing rose owing to steady population growth, easier financing (longer-term mortgages at lower interest rates). Sounds a bit like the US housing bubble, doesn't it? And without subprime mortgages. Patrice Lanco's comment on the report (see p. 4) emphasizes a "struggle for space," but this is also evident in the U.S., where price increases were highest in markets where land for new construction was scarce.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

French Public Debt

In preparation for next week's expected announcement of a major French stimulus package, Philippe Mills, who is in charge of managing France's public debt, launches a pre-emptive strike against critics who will worry about the cost of servicing a still larger debt (France pays a premium of 40 basis points over Germany, whose bonds are considered less risky) and about the increased flow of cash beyond France's borders to foreign creditors, who currently hold 62% of outstanding French bonds. Etienne Wasmer is less sanguine.

It should be noted, however, that French household debt is relatively low compared with other European countries, although it has risen sharply in recent years, owing mainly to rising housing prices.

Harassment of the Press

The details of this story are disturbing: a former CEO of Libération was arrested in a pre-dawn raid and subjected to various humiliations. The reason for the arrest was an allegation of slander against a commenter on the newspaper's Web site. It already seems bizarre that the CEO of a newspaper can be held responsible for something said by a person not in his employ or under his control and merely posted on a Web site. But that a journalist should be treated as if he were a criminal for such an offense is clearly harassment. If such an incident occurred in, say, Russia, President Sarkozy would be the first to condemn it as an abuse and an attempt to intimidate the press. Perhaps he will have the good grace to condemn the same kind of abuse in France, where his denunciation would actually have some force. After apologizing, maybe he could do something about changing the law that allows such apparent intimidation to be cloaked in legality.

ADDENDUM: Both the PS and the UMP have expressed indignation over the affair.

Mission Accomplished

Patrick Devedjian appears to be preparing his exit from the UMP's top post. His mission has been accomplished, he says. It might be more accurate to say that, having been cut off at the knees and stabbed in the back, he is now saving face. Xavier Bertrand, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, and Christian Estrosi have collectively surrounded Devedjian for months, second-guessing and overruling him when necessary. He hints that his job may go to Bertrand. No less interesting is the suggestion that Hortefeux will be promoted to a major "regalian" ministry. There is no shortage of possibilities. There's no particular reason to keep Morin on at Defense; Dati is wobbly at Justice, to put it mildly; MAM has not made herself indispensable at Interior; and Kouchner may be tiring of his role if Sarko is not tiring of Kouchner.

Hue and Cry

Robert Hue has quit the Communist Party's National Council. The former leader of the party promises a new initiative of his own, outside a party that has become "unreformable." Not that the PCF is any longer a major force on the left, but is there any left-wing party that is not fraying at the moment? The Socialists are divided in two and have suffered resignations (Mélenchon, for one, whose new Parti de Gauche launches this weekend). The Greens are permanently fissiparous. And now the PCF.

The NPA might seem to be an exception, but the party is still in the organizing stage, and the tension between the postmodern media savvy evident in the crafting of the Besancenot image that is the party's only public face and the paleo-soviet earnestness of its decentralized rank-and-file has yet to be tested.

Meanwhile, Besancenot told L'Express that Mélenchon is headed in the right direction but that differences remain between his effort to rally a new left and the NPA's: "Our objective is not to remake the left but to build a different left." Clear?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Sarko Wants Lower Housing Prices

Blunt as always, President Sarkozy says he'd like to do more in the housing realm, but he's waiting for prices to hit bottom. He doesn't want state purchases to contribute to maintaining the price bubble. If he made such a statement in the US, he'd likely be tarred and feathered by the millions whose property is now "under water," as they say in the mortgage business. Prices rise and prices fall: "That's what a market economy is," says the French president, impeccable in his logic. But wait: didn't Sarko guarantee a while back that the government would guarantee all bank loans? So when the state buys properties after the market bottoms, will it make the banks whole on their mortgage losses? Why wait until the market bottoms in that case? Perhaps it will go after the defaulting mortgagees? Perhaps someone can tell me if that is possible under French law. In many US states, mortgages are "no recourse" loans, meaning that the lender can recover only the collateral, in this case the house, but cannot sue the borrower or seize other property she may own. What is French law in this regard?

Party of European Socialists

The Party of European Socialists will adopt its manifesto for the 2009 European elections at a meeting in Madrid on Dec. 1. Martine Aubry will represent the French Socialist Party.

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

Le Figaro believes that the crisis has tarnished Angela Merkel's reputation and diminished her international stature, to the benefit of Nicolas Sarkozy:

La presse germanique loue le dynamisme du président français, Nicolas Sarkozy, qui «agit» alors que Mme Merkel «attend», comme le souligne la FAZ. «On dirait qu'An­gela Merkel veut combattre le monstre de la crise économique avec une tapette à mouches», brocarde le quotidien de centre gauche Süddeutsche Zeitung en ridiculisant les «mesurettes» annoncées jusqu'ici.

The Financial Times is rather less inclined to praise Sarkozy:

But privately, a UK official suggested Mr Sarkozy had fallen victim to needless grandstanding on the issue.

To be sure, Tibet and dealing with the financial crisis are different issues, but "needless grandstanding" has been a theme running through much British and American comment on Sarkozy in recent weeks. Le Figaro doesn't seem to have noticed.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Recess

It's Thanksgiving here in the United States, and the beleaguered staff at French Politics will be taking the rest of the day off and shifting attention from financial crisis to this.

No General VAT Reduction

Eric Woerth has let it be known that the government does not favor a general reduction of the VAT like the one announced earlier this week in Britain. Furthermore, the targeted reduction of the VAT to help certain industries, such as the troubled auto sector, cannot be implemented without approval of all EU member countries, and at this point it appears that Germany will not go along with the idea despite Christine Lagarde's insistence that it remains on the table.


Ségolène Royal told supporters yesterday that the objective was now 2012. But Vincent Peillon, who probably would have become de facto party leader if she had won her bid against Martine Aubry, thinks that the objective is now to rebuild the Socialist Party. Is this a mere difference of emphasis or a real difference of priorities? As we have seen repeatedly in recent months, there is no real solidity to intraparty alliances in the PS. Individuals calculate their own interests and correlate these were their perception of the party's interests. The results of Tuesday's elections have now precipitated a series of recalculations. In any case, Ségo needs more than the support of party caciques. In particular, she needs a brain trust to help her shape her positions on the issues, feed the press, and devise strategies to keep her in the public eye. Will Peillon want to be part of that operation? His best shot may now lie elsewhere, and Aubry, if she wants to isolate Ségo, as she undoubtedly does, will be reaching out to people like him, Julien Dray, Manuel Valls, and Aurélie Filipetti. Watch which way they jump to get an early read on Ségo's future.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prospects for Improvement

Matthew Yglesias sees prospects for imminent improvement in relations between the United States and Europe.

Elster Interview

A very interesting interview with Collège de France professor Jon Elster, which touches on many subjects, among others the distinction between rationality and reason and the fairness of chance. The interviewers are Florent Guénard and Hélène Landemore.

Photo of the Year

Yes, that's Paul Krugman with W. Tyler Cowen's holding another caption contest.

EC Stimulus Plan

Everybody has a stimulus plan, it seems. José Manuel Barroso, not wanting to be left out in the cold, has proposed a plan in the name of the European Commission, which of course lacks the means to carry it out. That hasn't stopped him from proposing a scheme more ambitious than either the announced British or leaked French plans, both of which come in at around 1% of GDP. Barroso is going for 1.5%: why not, when you're spending other people's money?

So European coordination, which had been touted a week ago as Sarkozy's great achievement in the unfolding crisis, seems to reside chiefly in the coordination of "every man for himself" announcements. Once again EU governance looks like the zebra that it is (Definition: zebra--a horse designed by a committee).

VAT May Be Cut

There may be VAT cuts targeted at certain sectors such as automobiles as part of a French stimulus package. This contradicts what was previously reported as an agreement between Sarko and Merkel not to go this route.

UK Deficit Will Soar

Ceteris Paribus calls our attention to UK deficit projections for the years ahead, which rise above 8% of GDP in 2009-10. The interesting point is that 80% of this will be due to the operation of automatic stabilizers and only 20% to Brown's stimulus package. In particular, tax receipts from the financial and housing sectors will be way down. Since finance accounted until recently for an astonishing 1 in 5 British jobs, this sharp decrease is not altogether unexpected.

Paris Is Not Kansas

Brent Whelan discovers that Paris is not Kansas when he runs into a street demonstration of ... archeologists. It seems that they're upset by government plans to move them out of Paris.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lagarde Tips Hand

The French stimulus package will be about 1% of GDP, according to Christine Lagarde. This makes it comparable in size to Gordon Brown's package.

Calming the Game

So Ségolène has conceded, and Martine Aubry is now first secretary of a party whose national council reproduces all the divisions of the recent congress and the season of fruitless renovation that led up to it. My imagination ran away with me: I had thought that such a mass of contradictions could not be managed by a leader elected by a vanishingly small margin, with no real legitimacy since the coalition that elected her was held together by the least common denominator of Anybody But Ségolène. This was not to reckon with the nature of the PS, which has been a menagerie of contraries for decades. They have muddled through once again, and will continue to muddle through, because that is what this party does. Its differences will continue to erupt from time to time, but eventually it will choose a candidate, and eventually that candidate will lose to Sarkozy unless--as is equally likely--the political landscape is so utterly transformed between now and 2012 that nothing that seems certain today will even make sense in that unknowable future. Henceforth, in watching the Socialist Party, my motto will be, Du calme! even when the most improbable events--such as a dead heat in an election of 175,000 votes--come to pass.

Sarko and Merkel Publish Joint Statement

Sarkozy and Merkel have published a joint statement on the crisis. They agree that stimulus plans will have to be adapted to each country's situation but envision measures to support small and medium businesses, households, and infrastructure projects, as well as the transportation and energy sectors.

Aubry by 102

Martine Aubry a été élue premier secrétaire du Parti socialiste avec 67 451 voix contre 67 349 à Ségolène Royal, soit 102 voix de différence, a annoncé, mardi 25 novembre, Kader Arif, rapporteur de la commission chargée de statuer sur ce scrutin contesté. (AFP)

ORTF bis?

The personnel of France TV are on strike today. Charles Bremner ably runs down the history and the grievances.

EU Stimulus Plan: "Window-Dressing"

The EU stimulus plan is mere "window-dressing," according to Jean Quatremer--of necessity, because the EU has no adequate means to act on its own. What else is new? Except that in this case claims have been made for Sarkozy's uniquely active role in achieving "coordination" among the European powers. If so, this coordination was certainly not in evidence yesterday, when Angela Merkel came to Paris with une réponse romaine: Nein, as one says in the dialect of Latin spoken in Berlin. But the need for cooperation, particularly between France and Germany, has never been greater. Each has substantial trade with the other, so uncoordinated stimulus plans could be partly wasted effort. Never has the poor chemistry between Merkel and Sarkozy seemed quite so important. To be sure, the problem goes deeper than differences between the two leaders. There is a fundamental difference in economic strategy and history, as this Institut Montaigne note makes clear. It will be interesting to watch the evolution of this quarrel.

Bouvet on Ségo

Laurent Bouvet, in a very interesting comment on Ségolène Royal's remarkable success in countering the move to marginalize her within the PS, suggests that the Tout Sauf Ségo faction(s) might achieve their goal of denying her the candidacy in 2012 by letting her become party leader now. Something to read while awaiting the announcement from the PS National Council, which will decide later today who won the election.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Krugman Compares UK and US Stimulus Plans

Here's Paul Krugman on the UK plan vs. the US plan. See also Bernard's comments to this previous post. Bear all this in mind if and when a French stimulus plan is unveiled. See also Jim Hamilton on what Plan C should be in the US.

Oh, and don't forget Kazakhstan's stimulus package of $21 billion, or 20% of GDP. Now that's volontarisme, M. Sarkozy!

Miclo Encore

Another brilliant comment on the Socialist imbroglio by François Miclo. It ends with this delicious line about Martine Aubry:

Hier, ses qualités étaient louées par le grand patronat comme celle d’un Strauss-Kahn en jupons ; on la retrouve aujourd’hui dans la peau d’une Arlette Laguillier de rechange.

Mosco Proposes Collective Leadership

Yesterday I proposed Pierre Moscovici as a compromise leader for the PS. Today Mosco himself proposes another solution: a collective leadership. This is a politic solution, but is it a workable one? I think not, given the present state of relations among PS leaders. It may of course be that Moscovici himself recognizes this and is offering his proposal simply as a step toward putting himself forward as the obvious primus inter pares, since, as I noted yesterday, he is the only one among the elephants and calves not to have taken a public stand in the final round of voting. He's also a self-styled non-présidentiable.

But things may already have gone too far for a compromise. Tempers are running high. Still, we haven't heard much from the less mediagenic party bosses: the Collombs, Guérinis, Rebsamens, Frêches, etc. These "good ol' boys" are not going to let a national-level grudge match tear up the well-tended lawns in their cozy fiefs. Without them and their gros bataillons, Ségo has only her 20-euro adherents, Manuel Valls (who has stuck his neck way out by going so quickly to the courts), Vincent Peillon, and her pretorian guard. I suspect that the southern barons are already hard at work behind the scenes on a compromise candidate. Might Collomb himself step forward, or Rebsamen? Might they turn to Delanoë as a front man? Anything is possible, but I would give odds at this point that neither Aubry nor Royal will become party leader.

British Stimulus Package

Gordon Brown has announced a stimulus package of 24 billion euros, including a decrease of the VAT from 17.5 to 15 percent. Since the UK GDP is roughly comparable to the French, this gives an idea of the order of magnitude that France should be looking at if it plans to go the Keynesian route. The 6 billion euros to be injected into the new French sovereign wealth fund falls well short, and Sarkozy, for all his activism, has been very guarded in saying exactly what he intends to do. But time is pressing. The rumors from Washington suggest a US stimulus plan on the order of $500 to $700 billion. Since US GDP is 6 to 7 times as large as the British or French, this is a good deal more ambitious than the Brown plan (which is only 1% of GDP, compared to 3-5% for the US). It's time for Sarkozy and Lagarde to get down to brass tacks.

ADDENDUM: Rumor has it that there will be an announcement of a European stimulus plan of 130 billion euros, or about 1% of EU GDP, on Wednesday.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Is There a Way Out?

Is there a way out of the Socialist Party's impasse? A recount won't do it: the tally will be too close, the suspicions of fraud too great, to legitimate the outcome. There is no neutral body capable of fairly assessing the rival claims. Recourse to the courts will further damage the party's reputation. And no matter who "won," the even split would delegitimate her leadership.

A revote might produce a somewhat more decisive outcome, but clearly the message of the vote is that the party cannot unite when the only real issue is defined as it is now: whether or not to put Ségolène Royal before the public as the leader and probable candidate of the party.

To my mind, therefore, there is only one way out that will not split the party irrevocably: choose someone else. Both candidates could agree on a compromise choice, perhaps with an agreement to hold another special congress in a year to reconsider and to choose not only a permanent leader but a presidential candidate. In the meantime, the compromise choice as leader would commit him or herself to a process of internal reform acceptable to both candidates.

Who could the third party be? Hamon might seem to be a logical choice, but he clearly endorsed Aubry in the final round, so he probably wouldn't be acceptable to Royal. The only prominent leader I can think of who did not publicly choose sides in the end is Moscovici. He backed Delanoë in the first round but gave no consigne de vote in the second. He has been courted by both sides. Perhaps they can agree to let him have the helm for a year.

Short of such an agreement, I think the party will collapse.

Crisis, Smoking Ban, or Cultural Change?

French cafés are closing in record numbers. This Times article proposes two culprits: the economic crisis and the smoking ban, along with a third and more ominous one:

“The way of life has changed,” he said. “The French are no longer eating and drinking like the French. They are eating and drinking like the Anglo-Saxons,” the British and the Americans. “They eat less and spend less time at it,” Mr. Picolet said.

Horribile dictu!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

More Vote Challenges

Discussed here. This thing ain't over, and won't be until the thin lady sings.

Commission de Récolement

The PS will verify all the votes:

Daniel Vaillant, secrétaire national du PS, a indiqué samedi en début de soirée qu'une "commission de récolement" (vérification contradictoire) du parti se réunira lundi matin pour examiner les résultats du vote.

(h/t Boz) The word récolement is one I'd never encountered before:

Opération consistant à dénombrer un ensemble d'objets répertoriés dans un inventaire, ou à vérifier la conformité d'une opération, d'un objet à un ensemble de règlements ou de prescriptions contractuelles; p. méton., procès-verbal de cette opération. Récolement d'inventaire; récolement des meubles saisis, d'une coupe de bois; procès-verbal de récolement. Une commission est chargée de l'examen de la comptabilité des fonds administratifs (...). Elle fait un récolement général du mobilier appartenant à l'assemblée (Règlement Ass. nat., 1849, p. 36). La principale originalité de cette organisation consiste dans le classement des livres par ordre d'entrée (...) dans un registre qui sert à la fois de registre d'entrée, d'inventaire, de classement, et de récolement (Civilis. écr., 1939, p. 48-5).

Down to 18

It seems that the Socialist federation in Moselle miscounted its votes: Aubry's margin is now down to 18.

And then there's this.

Juppé Calls for Structure

Alain Juppé: one hadn't heard from him in some time, but here he is suggesting that Sarkozy's predilection for running in every direction at once perhaps isn't the best way to make forward progress. Yet he says he isn't interested in leaving Bordeaux himself to resume a career at the national level. Still, he's putting his name back in circulation just as thoughts begin to turn to remaniement with the end of the EU presidency, the beginning of a new year, and the deepening of the global economic crisis. I wouldn't rule out an important post for Juppé.

Rocard on the RMI

As the RMI (revenu minimum d'insertion) gives way to the RSA (revenu de solidarité active), Michel Rocard, who as prime minister secured passage of the RMI, reflects on its history. His ruminations prompt three comments. First, he seems to have been motivated by genuine compassion for the plight of the long-term unemployed, indeed by horror at the thought that there were people dying of starvation in the heart of France. Second, his weaknesses as a politician are highlighted by his response to the question about whether the RMI is the political achievement of which he is most proud. No, he says, because the RMI was a consensual policy; across the political spectrum everyone agreed that something needed to be done. His proudest achievement--in terms of pure governmental technique--was rather the CSG (contribution sociale généralisée), the tax that paid for it, which he says cost him ten percent of his support, but he got it through. It will come as no surprise that a politician who boasts of levying a new tax as his proudest achievement failed to win the presidency that he coveted.

But my third comment gets at a deeper reason for this failure. Rocard's compassion does him credit, as does his candor in recognizing that compassion has to be paid for, and paying for it is, politically, the tough part, which rarely commands consensus. What is puzzling, however, is that while he recognizes that the need for a compassionate measure like the RMI stemmed from the persistence of a high-level of unemployment, and in particular of long-term unemployment, the question of what caused that condition never comes up. It's as though Rocard simply accepted as an unalterable fact a structural unemployment rate above 10 percent, although he governed at a time when other economies were doing much better.

To be sure, the economic meltdown now has everyone questioning how much of this past divergence in economic performance was real and how much a product of unnoticed systemic flaws. But however illusory neoliberal gains will turn out to have been, the fact remains that the high-unemployment equilibrium of the French social model should have been attacked more vigorously than it was and not merely palliated with innovative welfare measures such as the RMI and its doppelgänger, the CSG. It is troubling that the deep economic issue does not even come up in Rocard's retrospective. True, the focus of the interview was the RMI, and this may have turned his thoughts in a certain direction, but still I would have thought that a man as attuned to economic thinking as Rocard would have been led naturally to a question that looms so large behind the entire discussion, especially since the reason for the RMI's replacement by the RSA is that the latter is supposed to eliminate a "structural rigidity" that has tended to turn the former into a poverty trap. Rocard cannot be unaware of all this, but his success with the RMI seems to have become a "screen memory" that shields him from the repressed horror of intolerable levels of long-term unemployment, which destroyed lives just as surely as the death by starvation that he evokes in his discussion.

Besancenot by Pingaud

A review of a book on the "Besancenot phenomenon" by Denis Pingaud can be found here. The curiosity here is that Pingaud is vice-president of OpinionWay, the polling firm that Ségolène Royal accused of a systematic tilt toward Sarkozy. Besancenot is presented as almost a creature of polling. It was because he polled well, we are told, that the LCR, of which he was a little-noticed adherent until the 2002 election, chose to make him its candidate, whereupon he made what Pascal Perrineau calls the delicate transition from "polling popularity" to "electoral popularity." But at the same time the 2002 vote for the LCR candidate is described as an "influence vote," that is, a message sent by disgruntled voters to the PS leadership that it was unhappy with the politics they had on offer.

I'm not sure whether the intention here is to inflate or deflate Besancenot. Are we supposed to infer that unhappy voters simply searched for the gauchiste with the best poll numbers in order to send the loudest possible message to Solférino? There was no dearth of options for expressing a protest vote in 2002. Or perhaps the book is simply a reminder that the PS had best take seriously the exit option that was exercised by so many of its potential supporters in 2002 and 2007. Besancenot is there to pick up the chips that the PS seems determined to leave on the table. Last night's debacle makes the warning all the more timely.

Of course it may also be that increasing numbers of Socialists are turning to Besancenot not simply as a protest or coup de semonce but as a genuine option: Sire, ce n'est pas une révolte, c'est une révolution. The times may well lend themselves to such a radicalization. Or then again--ultimate possibility--it may be that the vice-president of an allegedly right-wing polling firm sees an opportunity to deepen division on the left by magnifying le phénomène Besancenot that he himself argues polling and publicity helped to create. It has often been suggested that Sarkozy has an interest in building up Besancenot and has encouraged his sympathizers in the media to do just that. It's Mitterrand and the Front National in reverse--so goes the theory.

Yes, a conspiracy theory, some will scoff -- but what would politics be without a little conspiracy? Pingaud's book is reviewed, however, by Thierry Germain, the editor of Esprit critique, the journal of the Fondation Jean Jaurès, which can hardly be suspected of either Trotskyite or Sarkozyste sympathies, and the review is published as well by, of which the same can be said. Germain sees Pingaud's book as rather a plea addressed to the leaders of the PS: the "Besancenot effect" is real and must be seriously addressed or the party will suffer another defeat in 2012.

A timely warning indeed, although at the moment the PS seems well on the way to defeating itself in 2012 without any help from Besancenot.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Whither the PS?

About all that I can say now is that the PS leadership vote has ended in the worst possible outcome for the party: a nearly 50-50 split that could go either way, leaving whoever wins--and for now it seems to be Aubry--in command of a party split every which way. Aubry-Fabius is about as incoherent a line as you could wish for: Monsieur Non et Mme la Fille de Monsieur Europe. What sense does that make? Throw in the Jospinien wets, the lame-duck ex-Monsieur Royal, and le marquis de Hamon de la Gauche de la Gauche and you have a party that stands for nothing except a hollow promise not to ally with MoDem, though Aubry already has done so back home in Lille.

Against this motley crew, which threw everything it had at her, Ségo still got 50% + or - epsilon of the vote, a pretty remarkable showing for a supposed political incompetent against a determined TSS front. Say what you will about Ségo, she cut deals where she had to and showed pretty good gut political instincts. If it turns out that she's come up short for now, I wouldn't count her out just yet for 2012. The party will still have to deal with her -- if it remains a party. I wouldn't be surprised if she struck out on her own, consummating the divorce.

Pragmatist or Blunderbuss?

Judah Grunstein and Max Bergmann together try to make sense of Sarkozy's scrambling on the world stage.

Beaujolais Nouveau and Institutionalist Economics

Rationalité limitée has an interesting post this morning explaining the enthusiasm for beaujolais nouveau in terms of institutional factors shaping the market for wine. The example is extended to explain the influence of "reputational intermediaries" in shaping the market for complex financial products. In plain language, the wine lobby was able to persuade a lot of people that beaujolais nouveau is worth celebrating even though it isn't very good, and Lehman Brothers was able to persuade a lot of people that collateralized debt obligations were a valuable risk-dispersing innovation, even though they turn out to be a lot more toxic than this year's primeurs de Beaujolais.

Caciques Socialistes

Bernard G. has used Google to investigate whether the word cacique is used more frequently in connection with the PS than with other parties, and the answer is a resounding yes. Now, this is interesting, in part because, as Bernard notes, the PS probably has more "prétendants à la chefferie" than other parties. The word cacique comes, after all, from cacichi, the word for "king" among certain South American tribes. But it also has a secondary meaning in French, slang for "premier d'une section à l'École Normale," a usage attested as far back as 1907 according to one dictionary. This definition does not fit the current crop of prétendants à la chefferie particularly well. To take just the two premières, while both are énarques, neither is a normalienne, and more to the point, neither is particularly notable for her braininess. A curious comparison crops up just this morning, because David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, has been struck by the academic accomplishments of Obama's first round of appointees. It seems that America is headed for a government of caciques in the second sense, and Brooks, despite his political proclivities, seems positively relieved, after eight years of government by dunces, to welcome this "valedictocracy," as he calls it. (But Dani Rodrik bemoans the prevalence of law school graduates and the dearth of representatives of his own institution, the Kennedy School of Government--about as close as we come to an American ENA, I guess).

For Bernard's interpretation of Ségo's good showing in round one, see here. I concur.

French SWF

So how are we to think of the French sovereign wealth fund? President Sarkozy said that it would be a fund of 20 billion euros, but 14 billion of that consists of shares in companies in which the state already participates. The remaining 6 billion are to be borrowed. Money will be spent to protect "strategic" firms in danger of foreign takeover, firms with promising technologies for the future, firms engaged in "durable development," etc. One could justify each of these types of investment in a variety of ways. But the SWF is also being proposed as an "anti-crisis" measure. Is it credible as such? The only stimulus involved here is the borrowed 6 billion, which amounts to roughly 0.25 pct of GDP. Not much in the way of stimulus. And stimulus is needed now. What spending targets have been identified? Other than Daher, the firm where Sarkozy made the announcement, nothing has been revealed.

As so often in the past, we have an announcement, great fanfare, vague promises of imminent action, and a dearth of details. Patience was permissible in normal times, but the crisis demands more decisive commitment.

Round One to Royal

Ségo 43, Martine 34, Benoît 22, 60% turnout. As divided as ever, in short. If Aubry does manage to make up her deficit in the second round, her election would hardly constitute a ringing endorsement of whatever mushy compromise her candidacy is supposed to represent. If Royal wins, well, I suppose we can look forward to a few further defections among the Old Guard. But what can you say about this contest? A confirmation of chaos? A mandate for muddle?

My guess? Royal 51.5, Aubry 48.5.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dati Photo Doctored

This is incredible. The excuse that "deadline pressures" resulted in the doctoring of the photo is even more so. Surely it takes less time to leave a picture alone than to tamper with it. Now "the rock" will be the talk of the town. 15,600 euros. Financial collapse. Vulgarity or political tone-deafness? Shocking in any case.

Guardian Profiles Dati

The Guardian publishes a gossipy but interesting profile of embattled justice minister Rachida Dati. The money quote, however, comes not from Dati but from Fadela Amara:

Fadela Amara, another woman of Algerian parentage whom Sarkozy appointed as a junior minister, says an Obama would have got nowhere in France. "It couldn't happen in France unless Sarkozy turned emperor and appointed a black president himself," she says.

Hat tip to Vertigo.

Porte de la Chapelle-Mairie d'Issy

Ségolène Royal likes the idea of selling PS HQ rue de Solférino and moving the party seat into un quartier plus populaire, provided it's on a line with direct access by Métro to the National Assembly. François Miclo studies the maps and decides it's got to be Ligne No 12, Porte de la Chapelle-Mairie d'Issy. If property values along the line spike suddenly today, we'll know that the fix is in and the voting for party leader has been rigged.

Syrian Confusion

An interesting note from Boz on the growing confusion surrounding overtures to Syria, with the UK now getting into the act.

Politics of Civilization Bis

It seems that Sarko's summit-that-is-not-a-summit, his little étrenne to himself and Tony Blair (co-host of the meeting), will be in a way the reincarnation of his seemingly forgotten "politics of civilization" idea, now recast to suit the crisis atmosphere of the moment. You will recall that, earlier this year, when optimism was still the watchword in Paris and growth was still being sought with the teeth, Sarko launched the idea of a politics of civilization that was supposed to reconcile matter and spirit, or, on a more mundane level, two of Sarko's not altogether compatible obsessions, GDP and religion. He was under assault at the time for failing to increase the purchasing power of the French, so he seized on the notion that cold numerical gauges such as GDP were no guide to either true happiness in this world or eternal bliss in the next. To help him in his reflections, he enlisted Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. We haven't heard much about the results of their reflections in the interim, but these two economists are on the guest list for the Sarko-Blair post-New Year's fest. Bush is not, presumably because, at the time of the meeting (scheduled for Jan. 8-9), he'll be busy packing his trunks in his last fortnight in the White House. In current circumstances, of course, it would be unseemly to tell us that we're really happier than our declining stock market indices (and soon-to-be declining GDP) tell us, so Stiglitz and Sen will no doubt be put to other purposes. But the point of this meeting remains somewhat obscure.

Why the European Sovereign Wealth Fund Is a Bad Idea (or Maybe Not)

Kavaljit Singh dismantles Sarkozy's idea of a European sovereign wealth fund. Unlike the developing countries that have established SWFs, Europe does not have a large trade or budget surplus. Other SWFs invest primarily outside the territory of the states that run them. Their purpose is not to protect against foreign takeovers but to diversify investment portfolios, recycle trade surpluses, and perhaps--a point not mentioned by Singh--to obtain access to foreign technologies. Indeed, Singh may be rather too sanguine in concluding that SWFs have not been used for political or strategic purposes to date or that, even where this is the case, they cannot or will not be used for such purposes in the future. Nevertheless, he is quite correct to point out that the French have released no details about what their SWF will look like, how it is funded, what its investment strategy will be, or how it differs from the existing Caisse des Dépôts.*

Singh sees a certain European "paranoia" about SWFs. This is probably a bit harsh. As with other forms of "economic patriotism," the European SWF idea is simply the expression, or exploitation, of generalized fears about decline and failure. Sarkozy's gift as a politician is an ability to repackage fear as optimism. He takes a fashionable buzz word--"sovereign wealth funds" were all the rage in the financial press earlier this year--and puts it to a new and characteristically voluntarist purpose: Europe will not stand idly by as foreign money pours in, it will emulate with its own money (the source of which is left mysteriously shrouded) what the frightening foreigner is doing with his. De l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace. Well, why not? It worked for Danton -- for a while.

* Whoops: spoke too soon. Here are the first details.

ADDENDUM: Dani Rodrik offers a possible defense of the French SWF and economic patriotism as a reasonable response to a stock-market overshoot on the down side, the opposite of irrational exuberance: irrational cafardisme, perhaps?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

European Stimulus Package Takes Shape

The EU appears to be preparing a stimulus package of around 130 billion euros, or 1% of GDP for all member states. This was announced by Michael Glos, the German minister of the economy, even though the Merkel government is still divided on the question. Glos appears to have the backing of Paris and may be trying to win a point inside his own government.

“We are not like France, where [President Nicolas] Sarkozy can decide whatever he likes and it goes through parliament the next day,” says one senior civil servant.

Meanwhile, eyebrows are being raised at Sarkozy's headline-hogging in the wake of the G20.

Where Jobs Are Being Lost

A useful map of layoffs, plant closings, and workforce reductions here.

Kouchner on Iran

Le Monde quotes Bernard Kouchner: "Washington can either help find a way out of the current impasse [in negotiations with Iran] or ruin the two-track approach." He is nervous, in short, about direct negotiations between Iran and the US. The Europeans, he says, have learned some things about Iran's negotiating tactics, and the US, if it blunders in naively, could upset the applecart.

Well, sure. But the implicit image here is the tired one of naive Americans lunging in and spoiling things where the wily and sophisticated methods of the Europeans have brought them to the brink of success. I'm not as confident that old-world subtleties have achieved that much, but if there has been progress, surely the next step can only be helped by the comprehensive change in the American approach to the region that everyone expects. The emphasis on talks with Iran was an artifact of the primary season, when Hillary Clinton seized on a remark of Obama's to highlight, or manufacture, a difference between them. But the real change, one hopes, is that the United States will now be willing to talk to everyone: Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, non-state actors, etc. Too little noticed as well is a change in the Israeli attitude, clues to which can be gleaned from the comments of former prime minister Ehud Olmert in this interview:

Iran is a major power that constitutes a serious threat to the international community. And it is the international community that is most responsible for dealing with the Iranian situation. One senses a megalomania and a loss of proportion in the things said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of scale.

The assumption that if America, Russia, China, England, and Germany don't know how to deal with the Iranians, but we, the Israelis, will know, and that we'll do something, we'll act, is an example of this loss of proportions.

This all but concedes that the Iranian nuclear problem will not be "solved" by an Israeli attack. Hence the only "stick" that European negotiators can now couple with their "carrots" is the prospect of movement toward a settlement in Palestine and an accommodation with the Syrians that will deprive Iran of its influence. For that, American engagement is indispensable. The French could well have a major role to play in such negotiations, but it will be first and foremost in Syria and Lebanon, not in Iran.

The Polish Plumber

Jean Quatremer cites several studies purporting to show that unrestricted trade in services within the EU did not have adverse effects on host countries.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nicolas Bling

They say that this is an Internet hit. Doesn't do much for me.

The Barons in the Trees

Luc Rosenzweig presents the defeat of Bertrand Delanoë as the work of three local barons of the PS--Collomb in Lyon, Guérini in Marseille, Frêche (excluded from the party) in Languedoc-Roussillon--who believe, dixit Rosenzweig, that their interest lies in ensuring that the Socialists do not elect a president in 2012. A theory sure to please cynics of all stripes.

Laurent Bouvet more plausibly ascribes Delanoë's failure to his own errors rather than to the machinations of others, however.

Monday, November 17, 2008


A new estimate of the 2008 deficit: 51.4 billion euros, or 2.9% of GDP, which I think is probably based on an estimate of GDP that is too optimistic. So it's quite likely that France will exceed the 3% SGP limit--not that it matters much in the crisis, since the emergency clause is surely operative. Indeed, this estimate ignores any possible stimulus initiatives, to which France is presumably now committed along with other G20 powers. It seems odd even to offer a deficit estimate until a stimulus package has been decided upon, but we've heard little in the way of concrete proposals from the ministry of finance or the president.

Replacing Jouyet

Jean Quatremer praises outgoing Secretary of State for Europe J.-P. Jouyet but finds fault with Sarkozy's remaining advisors, who, if they are not hostile to Europe, in Quatremer's opinion, lack either the taste for it or the influence to make their ideas count.


Delanoë throws his support to Aubry.

Dernière minute, lundi 17 novembre 2008

Direction du Parti socialiste : Bertrand Delanoë appelle à voter Martine Aubry

Le maire PS de Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, a finalement appelé à voter pour Martine Aubry lors du vote interne des socialistes jeudi 20 novembre pour le poste de premier secrétaire, dans une lettre aux militants rendue publique lundi. (AFP)


Yes, coordination, concertation, cooperation -- these are the watchwords of the day in the wake of the G20, whose final communiqué fairly dripped with praise for the virtues of a global approach to a global problem. But then we get down to brass tacks:

Christine Lagarde: support for the auto industry must "be prescribed first of all from the European level. ... I believe that the European Investment Bank will mobilize in support of the sector."

Peer Steinbrück: "A short-term fix for the auto industry as a whole makes no sense. ... The state cannot compensate for the loss of private purchasing power and is not responsible for the errors of the manufacturers." And his "alter ego," the conservative Michael Glos, also opposed an auto industry rescue plan.

Meanwhile, in the US, it seems increasingly likely that the Obama administration will favor an auto industry bailout.

So everyone praises cooperation and opposes protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbor, go-it-alone solutions, but it seems that the US will bail (protectionism by another name), Germany will not, and France -- ever the maverick -- will punt to the European level and hope that rain falls on its side of the border.

Show Me the "Culture"

"What if culture were seen ... as a full-fledged sector of the economy, generating income for the country. To reconcile 'culture and money,' 'culture and growth' -- these were the ideas that pervaded the first Avignon Forum, which it is hoped will grow into the 'Davos of Culture' in years to come." So says Le Point. To judge by the guest list, money rather outweighed culture:

Parmi les participants : l'architecte Jean Nouvel, le designer Philippe Stark, les réalisateurs Luc Besson, Claude Lelouch, Souleymane Cisse, l'écrivain Paulo Coelho, Laurent Dassault (vice-président du groupe Marcel Dassault), Louis Schweitzer (président de la Halde), l'écrivain Erik Orsenna, Mathias Döpfner (président du groupe Springer), Jean-Bernard Lévy (pdg de Vivendi), Klaus Wowereit (maire de Berlin), Iris Knobloch (pdg de Warner Bros France), Mats Carduner (responsable de Google France et Europe du Sud), l'éditeur Antoine Gallimard, Guillaume Cerruti (pdg de Sotheby's France)...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Le Style Ségo

With Ségolène Royal again threatening to overwhelm the resistance of party apparatchiks and take control, old knives are being sharpened and weapons mothballed since the presidential election pressed into service again. Exhibit number 1, from L'Express:

C'est une carte postale déposée dans la salle de presse du congrès par un anonyme qui susurrait: "C'est le sourire de l'ange de Reims". Au verso, une photo en noir et blanc de l'ex-candidate à l'Elysée. Un témoignage parmi d'autres du culte que suscite celle que les médias ont surnommée "la Madone", ou "la Dame en blanc".

But Ségo didn't appear in white at Reims. She wore a simple gray sweater over a white blouse and could have been a schoolteacher or a secretary. Her apotheosis was in the eye of the beholder. When she went "folksy" at Le Zénith, she was derided not as a madonna but rather as a would-be adolescent or over-the-hill rock star. Nor was there anything particularly religious about her Reims speech. Her rhetoric involved a call for "healing" of a party wounded by months of division and still bleeding, an extended though unremarkable metaphor under the circumstances:

"Il nous faut prendre soin de notre parti. Il va falloir nous guérir, il faut nous soigner de toutes ces petites et grandes blessures que nous nous sommes infligées, de tous ces chagrins, parfois de ces offenses. Il va falloir les oublier, les effacer, un jour nous les pardonner", a-t-elle déclaré.

Of course it's her ability to tap the register of emotions that upsets some Socialists. Her core competences are education and family policy, and this led some observers to dismiss her for her lack of experience with the "regalian powers." Her expertise lay in what some were pleased to describe as "women's issues." Economics, foreign policy, the military: no place for a woman, those battlefields, except perhaps as a nurse prepared to "heal" -- hence the quickness to seize on the passage quoted above with its expressions of solace and empathy (guérir, soigner, chagrins, offenses, oublier, pardonner).

Aubry, also a woman, brings a very different image to the contest. "Madame les 35 heures" hails from the heartland of social democracy: the wage bargain. Unlike her German counterparts, she represents not an exchange of wage restraint for a share of future profits and the benefits of growth but rather a new dispensation in the reckoning of the social wage, a trade between work and leisure. If Ségo represents a leap into the political unknown, into the post-modern politics of caring for the damage inflicted by the post-modern world, Aubry offers a politics more familiar to an older generation of party members. So we may well see a generational divide in the vote. I followed Reims only on television from 3,000 miles away, but still I saw remarkably few young faces in the crowd or among those interviewed by the media. I suspect that younger members of the party are the more enthusiastic Ségolènistes. They're responding not to Madonna (old or new) or Joan of Arc but rather to a woman who recognizes that left-wing politics in 2008 is about more than just the workplace.

Cui bono?

Who benefits from the various routes to admission to Sciences Po? An interesting note from ScPo head Richard Descoings gives an answer. There are 3 ways to get in to Sciences Po: 1. selection based on school record (mention très bien) without exam; 2. traditional written exam; 3. special admission under "priority" selection rules (what we would call affirmative action). Descoings asks how the social backgrounds of students admitted via each path differ and offers statistics on the proportion of scholarship students in each group and the mean tuition fees paid.* The answers are revealing: 10, 22, and 62% and 3,000, 2,370, and 600 euros respectively. The number of students admitted under each regime was 374, 371, and 103 respectively.

*Tuition fees reflect the income of parents (or of the student if recognized independent).

Darcos Chahuté

Education minister Xavier Darcos faced tough questioning from lycéens summoned from across France to the Ecole Polytechnique. He denied that curriculum reform was being used to eliminate teaching posts, although large numbers are being eliminated. Some of the students attending the session came away satisfied, however.

Right vs. Left or North vs. South?

So it comes down to a battle between Aubry and Royal, with Hamon as spoiler. How best to describe the evolving contest? Is it going to be about an opening to the center or its refusal, as I discussed yesterday? This is of course the sort of red herring that often distorts primary battles. As Royal pointed out, Aubry already has an alliance with MoDem on her home turf, so her alignment with those who reject an opening to the center in the current battle seems like the most hypocritical of tactical maneuvers, and a "commitment" that can be jettisoned whenever necessary.

Is it a face-off between the party's right and its left? It's hard to read that way, since the left is really behind Hamon rather than either of the front-runners. Is it pro-Europe vs. anti-Europe? Not clearly so. North vs. South? More plausible, perhaps, since Aubry's big battalions are in the Nord, whereas Royal's primary strength is in the Bouches-du-Rhône and Lyon. But are there any deep reasons for that geographical divide, or is it simply a matter of the location of powerful party leaders: Aubry in the Nord, Collomb in Lyon, Guérini in Marseille? Or is it just TSS, Tout Sauf Ségo?

In any case, it's a mess, and no synthesis emerged from last night's negotiations, characterized by Marianne as la nuit des petits canifs (as opposed to la nuit des longs couteaux). Could this be the end of the Socialist Party? It seems unlikely, since a split would not resolve anything. No faction has a clear enough line or identity to form the nucleus of a new party, and there are plenty of ego rivalries within each camp, so nothing would be gained in that respect either. The story seems to be that les élus locaux are content enough to muddle on through at the local level as they have been doing, and whether or not their party wins the presidency doesn't terribly affect them in their bastions. So there isn't enough incentive to compromise in order to win the big prize. Each therefore clings to his or her preferences based on the likes and dislikes, the balms and bruises, of a generation of party infighting. Unlike Sarkozy, they don't want the presidency badly enough to impose discipline or swallow the compromises necessary to get it.

Sarko Backs Off on Missiles

President Sarkozy now says that an American missile defense system in Eastern Europe might not be such a bad idea after all as a "supplement" to other defenses against ... Iran. In other words, Sarko and Bush are now back on the same page. So ... who got to him in Washington?

Sarkozy's independence on this issue was to me a healthy sign of a vigorous multilateralism. He correctly perceived the way in which Washington's provocation was empowering hard-liners in Russia. He therefore offered Russian soft-liners support: withdraw your countermove against the American threat, do not redeploy your offensive weapons systems, and I will do what I can to persuade the Americans that this is a bad idea. If I fail, you can resume your symbolic gesture (and that's all it is, really: moving truck- and rail-mounted offensive missiles closer to a NATO border is hardly a serious military move, since such systems can always be deployed on short notice if tensions rise; to move them now rather than later is a political quid pro quo for the anticipated construction of American radar sites and antimissile launch pads, which, by contrast, is a serious move, since it involves new fixed bases).

Of course Sarkozy can still be playing this game behind the scenes, but by seeming to fall in with today's American line, he weakens his hand and heightens Russian suspicions, since he reneges on a position he took only days ago after meeting Medvedev in Nice.

The really worrisome thing is that he has backtracked because he heard from someone in Washington that Obama would be sticking to Bush's line on the missiles. Now, who might that have been? Madeline Albright was one of Obama's two representatives at the G20, and Albright, with her well-known anti-Russian views, would likely be on board with Bush's thinking. But is this really Obama's position? The Poles indeed said that it was after a five-minute phone call between Obama and the Polish premier last week, but the Obama transition team rapidly denied that the subject had been discussed. Still, when you add up the various maneuvers, and credit Sarkozy with a certain savvy in this kind of game, it certainly looks as though he's been tipped that there will be no change in American policy on the missiles in the near term despite the change of administration.

I don't like the signs, although it may be that the "defensive" missiles are merely a ploy to persuade the Russians to join in sanctions against Iran, as Dennis Ross has suggested according to this article in the Times of London (h/t Boz). But is such a threat really necessary to move the Russians? Wouldn't a withdrawal of the threat coupled with a promise to undertake a comprehensive review of US and European policy toward Russia once a new American administration is in place be a better ploy?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Havel Surprised and Worried

Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has said that he's "surprised and worried" by Sarkozy's recent statements on the stationing of American missile defense systems in Europe. Havel says he doesn't understand the French president's objection to a defensive missile system.


Today mark's this blog's 200,000th page view (see counter to right). Thanks to all of you for continuing to read.

Let's Make It Unanimous

Yes, ça y est: they're going to make it unanimous. Laurent Fabius says that "a congress is meant to choose a political line, and a political line is inseparable from the question of alliances. ... We refuse any alliance with the center." But Ségo is having none of it: if they--the emerging Anybody But Ségo coalition--want to make alliances the issue, she'll take it to the militants:

"Bertrand, je t'ai entendu tout à l'heure, je ne doute pas de ta sincérité. J'aimerai te répondre devant tous.

Voilà la proposition que nous ferons: il y aurait une consultation directe des militants sur la question des alliances. Dès lors, cette question ne pourra plus servir de prétexte."

Better still, she'll make herself over into a new Popular Front: "un nouveau front populaire, ça ne vous tente pas?"A rhetorical surenchère worthy of Mitterrand. Do you want to "choose a political line," as Fabius says, or win an election? That is the question.

Sigh ...

Bertrand Delanoë, stung by the perception that he is the "big loser" in the vote of Socialist militants, took the podium today and tried to magnify François Bayrou, that armyless captain, into a scourge of the Left on a par with Nicolas Sarkozy. The ploy was transparent: Ségolène Royal "pals around with" rightists, to borrow the Palinesque idiom, and is therefore unacceptable as a leader of the Left. The crowd, which had greeted the mayor of Paris with lukewarm applause (according to Le Figaro, not necessarily the best source for such an appreciation), responded to this stirring call to arms with thunderous applause, it seems. It is hard to fathom why the innocuous Bayrou inspires such fear and loathing. The Socialists are like teenagers in a perpetual identity crisis, afraid that if they associate with the wrong people they'll lose their bearings. They fail to notice that to define Left as not-Right leaves the Left empty of all content.

Bayrou must be pleased, though. This magical magnification of his meager figure makes him loom almost as large in the Socialist imagination as he does in his own.

Drezner on G20

Only fans of The Sopranos will understand the allusion in all its nuances, but Dan Drezner here compares George Bush to Uncle Junior and puts Nicolas Sarkozy in the role of Tony. Drezner doesn't mention that Junior eventually shoots Tony in the gut. But time is running out for W, whose abandonment of the reality-based community didn't await the onset of senility. He may want to shoot Sarko for his remark to Putin that "you don't want to end up like Bush," but the G20 isn't the place to whack a critic, and opportunities for revenge will probably remain slim through the Christmas season, right through to January 20.

Friday, November 14, 2008

PS: The Intellectuals Grumble


NPA: The Base Grumbles

Brent Whelan, a Bostonian who has become "un membre un peu provisoire" of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, reports that Besancenot's rather curt dismissal of the possibility of an alliance with Mélenchon met with disapproval by local party members. Here is Brent's analysis:

This gesture was first gently, then roundly criticized by a clear majority of the 30 or so members of NPA 14e for two reasons: 1) they want a much more flexible and open system of alliances within the far-left, rather than the old sectarianism of the LCR, and 2) (most interestingly) they don't know on what authority Besancenot can make NPA policy on this sensitive issue: no one has elected him to any NPA office, there are no mechanisms to do so, and in short he seems to have spoken out of turn. A motion to this effect was deferred, for lack of time, to the next meeting, but in a week's time the NPA 14e will almost surely send what amounts to a motion of censure to the CAN (temporary central committee), enjoining Besancenot from making unilateral pronouncements.

I draw three conclusions from this:
1) the media perception that NPA is a vehicle for Besancenot and/or a continuation of the LCR's highly centralized structure are completely at variance with NPA 14e's view of its role;
2) the local or 'federal' basis of power in the NPA is already a fact for this local group; and
3) both of the preceding ideas will be put to the test if and when CAN responds to NPA 14e's motion.

Devedjian Reflects

Intellectuals who regret their lack of influence on the world may enjoy Patrick Devedjian's reflections on Braudel, Weber, and Marx. More surprising, perhaps, is that in the midst of a global economic crisis, Christine Lagarde has the time to sit at the feet of the great philosopher and absorb these pearls of wisdom. I can't quite see Henry Paulson in this forum.


A new issue of Histoire@Politique focuses on May '68.

Tout Sauf Ségo Gets Going?

Hamon, Aubry, and Delanoë are meeting in Paris today. Sure looks a lot like a Tout Sauf Ségo cabal, though of course nobody's saying so, least of all Delanoë, who protests that he is "in a constructive state of mind, clarity and coherence are what's needed." Right--clarity and coherence: that's why Delanoë, who made a splash earlier this year by asserting that socialism and liberalism are so compatible that they're practically the same thing, is sitting down with Hamon, who we can be fairly confident disagrees. "I only talk about substance, I only discuss ideas with everybody," says the mayor of Paris. "I am the only one who makes no claim for power, who asks for nothing for myself." Such charitable sentiments will no doubt help him to pass through the eye of the needle on the way to his eternal reward, but they won't get him the party leadership.


FP reader Dick Howard has two articles in Ouest France assessing Obama's campaign and the significance of his election, here and here. An interview with Dick will also appear in December's Esprit.

Times Profiles Lagarde

The New York Times profiles Christine Lagarde. The piece may not do her any good with her boss, since it not so subtly paints Lagarde as cool and competent and the president as something of a hothead whose half-baked idea of a European sovereign wealth fund the minister of finance can bring herself to defend only du bout des lèvres.

But ask her about Mr. Sarkozy’s proposal to establish a French “sovereign wealth fund” to protect companies in France from “foreign predators,” and she seems uncomfortable.

Governments have been protecting industry in other countries, she said, adding: “It’s been going on everywhere.”

There is also a memorable quote:

Ms. Lagarde prefers to make light of any attacks on her, reciting one of her favorite quotes, from Eleanor Roosevelt.

“A woman is like a tea bag: You never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”

Jouyet To AMF

As expected, Jean-Pierre Jouyet will leave his post as secretary of state for European affairs at the end of the year. The surprise, just announced in a bulletin from Le Monde, is that he will become head of the Autorité des Marchés financiers, the French equivalent of the American Securities and Exchange Commission. Earlier reports had indicated that Jouyet was seeking to withdraw from public life, but this new job will put him on the hot seat in the drive for reinforced regulation of the financial system -- definitely not a tranquil place of retirement.

Of course the move will coincide with the end of France's presidency of the EU council. Does this personnel change signify decreased French interest in the EU? Not that there aren't other EU experts in France, but Jouyet has been closely associated with EU policy for decades.

The Sarkozy Paradox

Eloi Laurent points to the paradoxical nature of Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to position himself as a global leader in the midst of financial crisis:

The president wants to impose a global budget plan when nothing has been done at the national level. Furthermore, he wants to coordinate budget policies globally, although he hasn't succeeded in coordinating them at the European level.

Laurent's criticism isn't reserved for Sarkozy. Elsewhere he chastises Jean-Claude Trichet for his tardiness in cutting interest rates. But he gives good marks to the IMF for "being one of the rare institutions to clearly recognize the gravity of the crisis as early as last spring."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Map of Socialist Party

This is cool.

Copé Counterpunches

Jean-François Copé is a restless politician who never misses an opportunity to differentiate himself from his party's leader. Most recently, he went out of his way to voice his disagreement with the president's son on the issue of allowing immigrants to vote in local elections. On this point the father agrees with the son "intellectually" but acknowledges that his party is not behind him. It's interesting to watch Copé attempt to follow the path that Sarkozy himself took to power: appealing to his own party's right wing with not-so-discreet reminders that he's sensitive to its darkest fears.

Bush Backs Off Sarko?

Yves Smith notes a distinct and growing American coolness to the G20 meeting. She says that "the most convincing explanation" of Bush's "out-of-character gesture" to go multilateral is "that it was in response to a request by Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been very keen to strengthen international regulation, and has also been particularly helpful to the US president." But now Bush is having second thoughts, and Obama, by refusing to attend himself and sending only second-tier representatives, has issued a clear signal that he is not ready to be rushed into any major commitments before he has full control of the federal apparatus. The situation is rather reminiscent of the 1932 interregnum, when the lame duck Hoover attempted to enlist the support of the newly elected FDR for a program he, Hoover, had set in motion only to be told by the new president, in effect, to go to hell.

Whatever is going on on the American side, the outcome may well prove to be an embarrassment for Sarkozy. Addicted to the adrenaline rush of the effet d'annonce and basking in his newfound glory (and domestic popularity) as an international power broker, he risks becoming the fall guy if the talks prove to be an embarrassment or, worse, fizzle in such a way as to send global markets reeling in yet another downward spiral. At home it's possible to dangle reforms in front of the public with impunity, but messing with the guts of international finance might well turn out to be a more dangerous game.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Vanneste Verdict Overturned

Christian Vanneste, the UMP deputy whose conviction for allegedly homophobic speech I discussed previously as an example of the divergence between French and American understandings of free speech guarantees, has had the verdict in his case overturned on appeal.

A French Obama?

Laurent Bouvet ponders the possibility. A key point of blockage in the French system is the political parties. For Bouvet, a French Obama will become possible only

lorsque les partis auront changé de nature, lorsqu’ils ne se contenteront plus d’être des clubs d’élus cumulards qui cooptent au compte-goutte leurs successeurs pour devenir de larges mouvements en prise avec la société qu’ils prétendent représenter.

There is some truth to this and to other points that Bouvet makes in developing his argument. I think, nevertheless, that he underestimates the magnitude of Obama's achievement. It's true, as he argues, that American political parties are decentralized and that local and state parties are relatively open to newcomers and serve to nurture political talent. It's also true that the national party created an important opening for Obama when it made him the keynote speaker at its 2004 convention. But party leaders were not intentionally creating an African-American présidentiable for the next election. They were pursuing politics as usual in a multiethnic society, showcasing a black man of talent as one way of honing their appeal to important constituencies. It was the man himself who recognized the opportunity when the odds against success were still very long.

Bouvet's analysis to my way of reading smacks of a wish, common among Socialists, that some tinkering at the grass roots might somehow galvanize a moribund party of élus cumulards into a movement party united by a new face. I think that's a misreading of what happened in the United States. There was no change in the nature of the Democratic Party that made Obama possible. After the 2004 elections, there were many opinions about what the party needed to do in order to become competitive again: it needed a network of think tanks to compete with the conservative think tanks, talk shows to compete with right-wing talk radio, links to evangelical churches to mobilize values voters, a better system of voter identification to turn out the vote on election day, etc. Obama did mount a good ground game, but in the end none of the other factors was essential. In the media age, a candidate with the right talents can compensate for a host of party deficiencies.

Socialist Geography

This map of the geographical distribution of votes by PS militants for the various motions shows a surprising number of départements in which Benoît Hamon came out on top. If anyone can explain the inner logic of this highly variegated map, I'd be glad to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Coquille géniale!


Ségo Will Go For It

Well, scratch my speculations of the past few days. Ségolène Royal will herself be a candidate for the leadership of the PS. La lutte finale is here, and it's do or die for le courant Tout Sauf Ségo. Too bad: I think we'd have had better sound bites from a Dray or a Peillon, though neither warms le petit écran quite as nicely as Ségo does.

The real question, though, is how Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon and champion of municipal socialism, feels about the decision. It was his support that really carried the day for Ségo, and he told her at the outset that he preferred a leader who was not also a candidate for the presidency. That was why she initially put her quest for the leadership in "le frigidaire." Will the thaw leave the proponents of a less centralized leadership feeling betrayed? The marriage of municipal socialism with a presidentializer of the party was always an awkward fit. If la présidente de Poitou-Charentes becomes une cumularde occupying rue Solférino as well, there could be grumbling in the ranks.

EU Resumes Talks with Russians

The EU has resumed talks with Russia about a strategic partnership. The discussions were halted in August, when hostilities erupted between Russia and Georgia. The resumption of the talks so soon after the war, and with Russian fulfillment of all the conditions of the truce still not certain according to Bernard Kouchner, reinforces the point I made the other day: Russia and Europe need each other too much to jeopardize the relationship. That's why Russia refrained from toppling Saakashvili, and that's why Europe has now chosen to set aside its displeasure with Russia's muscular response to Georgia's rash provocation.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Professional Blogging in France

Le Monde today describes the blogosphere as a "flourishing sector" and says that a number of French bloggers are doing well enough to "go pro," living on their ad revenues. Enviable colleagues! Perhaps readers will be reminded of the benefits that accrue from an occasional visit to one or more of our ever-changing cast of sponsors (conveniently arrayed in the right column).

Recommendations for G20

Economists offer recommendations for the G20 in a new e-book, whose contents are summarized here. I note that the first essay, by Alesina and Tabellini, stresses the need for swift action and states bluntly that "the ECB is behind the curve" on interest rate reductions. This on the same day that Le Monde is foolishly extolling "the revenge of super-Trichet."

Sarko of Arabia

Is Sarkozy pushing the EU into Iraq to help the US execute its exit strategy and thus curry favor with President Obama? Judah Grunstein thinks this may be the case.

A propos Sarkozy's eagerness to switch his notoriously eager affections from Bush to Obama, see this cartoon, signaled by Boz.

Two Scenarios for the PS

Gérard Grunberg sees the fate of the French left hanging on the decisions Ségolène Royal makes in the next few days. He envisions two scenarios: an "Epinay" scenario, in which she turns to the left, runs on an anticapitalist, "hexagonal" common program, and hopes that by 2012 the broader electorate will be ready to support such a line; or else she turns openly to the center, recognizes that "anticapitalism" is no more promising as a theme today than it was yesterday, and runs on a platform of restoring the health and fairness of the market economy.

This analysis is fine as far as it goes, I think, but it avoids the question of what kind of party is to emerge from this congress. This, in turn, is a function of a decision about how the eventual presidential candidate will be chosen--a decision that need not be taken now but ought to be taken soon. What Royal wants at bottom is a broad-based presidential party à la Sarko's UMP. She would like its candidate to be chosen in a national primary with broad eligibility for voting. But to make this a condition now of coalition with motion E would be divisive. It seems to me that this calculation is guiding her choices at the moment. If she is to become a candidate in an eventual party primary, it's better if she isn't designated the party leader now. The party leader will have to organize the primary and negotiate the conditions under which it is held. It would be better to have a neutral, or at any rate a less partial, figure in that role. Hence Peillon or Dray (though I'm not sure how credible Dray would be as a neutral arbiter). Although Grunberg presents the "Epinay" option as the more probable, I think--and I suspect he thinks--that the other option is the one Royal has chosen and that its consequences are being played out at this moment in the discussions of which surrogate will become party leader. That is why Mélenchon has quit the party and why other diehard supporters of the Epinay option, such as Emmanuelli, are desperately trying to organize an "anyone but Ségo" blocking force.

Du Concret

Here's an interesting development: the first coordinated naval operation in EU history, directed against Somalian pirates. The absurdity of unchecked piracy in these waters has at last elicited a genuine and concerted military response. The commander is British, and France, German, the UK, and Spain are participating.

Playing well in Poitiers

Nicolas Sarkozy's makeover as a state capitalist seems to be playing well in one constituency: the left. His approval rating among left-wing sympathizers is now 29%, up 10 since the last survey. The center likes him too: 46% of Modem supporters approve, up 11 percent. Overall, his approval stands at 48%, up 8.

It's tough to be a politician in a democracy. Folks are so fickle.

Hmmm ...

A correspondent informs me that Yazid Sabeg, whom Charles Bremner mentioned (with misspelled name) in the post I quoted yesterday, is a former advisor to Jean-Louis Borloo, and that Carla Bruni's well-publicized support of his "call for real equality of opportunity" suggests a well-orchestrated effort to catch the wave of enthusiasm for Obama in the banlieues. Nevertheless, anything that focuses attention on the suburbs is welcome. Let's hope the effort is sustained and not limited to one news cycle.

A Useful Corrective

Judah Grunstein defends Sarkozy's foreign-policy achievements against my critique.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Boz at Sarkozy the American responds to my query about irrational anti-Ségolisme by asserting that she could not have accomplished what Sarkozy has allegedly accomplished, "especially on the international stage." Explicitly, he cites Sarkozy's role in halting the Russia-Georgia War, "leadership (albeit haphazard) in the financial crisis," and "getting the greatest foreign access to the next American administration." Domestically, he mentions university, pension, and minimum service reforms.

My views on these achievements are probably already known to readers of this blog, but perhaps it's worth rehearsing them here. The Russia-Georgia War ended because Russia knew that it could not oust Saakashvili without damaging its long-term interest in a cooperative economic relationship with the West. It ended when the Russians were good and ready to end it, and the limits to their incursion were self-imposed. Sarkozy merely showed up with a piece of paper on which he had hastily scrawled some conditions that ratified the situation on the ground and were consistent with intentions Russia had already formed.

Sarkozy's leadership in the financial crisis has been erratic. Gordon Brown's has been quieter but more consistent. As I explained the other day, I think Brown will become the primary European interlocutor after the G20. He understands the technicalities of finance; Sarkozy doesn't, and Sarkozy doesn't have the confidence of central bankers.

Boz's evidence for Sarkozy's "access" to Obama is the fact that the French president's telephone call with the newly elected president is said to have lasted 30 minutes, compared with at most 15 for other foreign heads of state. Sarkozy may well have struck up a close relationship with Obama, for all I know, but I am not persuaded that these extra fifteen minutes of fame catapult Sarko into the role he aspires to play. More important, Sarkozy had sought with Bush to position France as a privileged intermediary, with Europe, especially Eastern Europe, and with parts of North Africa and the Middle East to which France has historical ties. He pushed for talks with Syria. This strategy, which Obama might well find congenial in his quest for renewed multilateralism, could serve France well, but I doubt that Obama would want to invest too heavily in any privileged interlocutor. It makes sense to welcome France's support but not to tie US policy too closely to French mediation. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that Sarkozy's supposed relationship with Bush served French or European interests. We still do not know whether the Bush administration encouraged or tacitly approved Georgia's provocation of Russia, which France certainly did not want. And Sarkozy was unable to prevent Bush from pushing ahead with missiles in Poland, provoking another Russian response, which France cannot welcome.

In short: Sarkozy seems to have wanted France to replace the UK as the US's partner in a "special relationship." There are benefits to such a strategy but also clear limits.

Would Ségo have fared any better or worse in these situations? I don't know. In Georgia the outcome would have been the same, however. She might have antagonized China over the Tibet situation, something that Sarko avoided. Boz omits the Lisbon treaty from his list of Sarko-accomplishments. Would she have pushed it through? No, that wouldn't have been her style, but pending a reversal of the Irish vote, I'm not sure that Europe would have been any the worse.

On domestic issues, I disagree with Boz. Ségo would have attempted university reforms along the lines suggested by her advisors Philippe Aghion and Sauvons la Recherche. She would have promoted retirement reforms, perhaps along the lines suggested by her advisor Thomas Piketty (in conjunction with Antoine Bozio). She would not, it is true, have instituted the minimum service requirement, and what difference would that have made? Nor would she have promoted the paquet fiscal, and France might have been better off for that.

I would agree with Boz that Ségolène's campaign was erratic, that she lurched from idea to idea. I said as much yesterday. I still don't think that that accounts for the unprecedented scorn of her candidacy by so many prominent Socialists. Michel Rocard said that he asked her to step aside in his favor in the midst of the campaign. Lionel Jospin has similarly disobliging things to say. My question is why she arouses such hostility, and that is quite separate from asking whether she would have launched initiatives equivalent in ambition to, even if different in substance from, Sarkozy's. Still, I see nothing in Sarkozy's record to justify Boz's title, "Thank God for Sarkozy," as though he were somehow the providential leader that France needed in 2007 and still needs today. He is a politician, with his qualities, some of which have surprised me, and his defects, most of which have not.

As for Ségolène, she, too, has her defects, as does her party (I've abundantly commented on the latter in recent days). But she doesn't seem to me unique in that regard. Some of her critics speak as though her presence on a national ticket were an affront to decency. I would reserve that honor for Sarah Palin. Ségolène Royal is a politician of average skills who was certainly less well prepared than her opponent for the presidential campaign of 2007. But with more time to prepare, a more unified party, and more carefully thought out platform, she might prove more impressive in a rematch. I reserve judgment.