Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sarkolatry

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.

9 comments:

Alain Q. said...

Art, you insist once more on Brown's financial skills vs. Sarkozy's.

You may be right on an academic point of view, but this is not the point. We are not looking here for the best technocrat to solve the crisis, but for a leader who can certainly make use of the best
minds, but is also capable of setting a pace of urgency, getting people to work together , maybe twist a few arms and tread on a few toes, but getting things done finally.

Remember what the sceptics said : the US is very reluctant for a world meeting, it will not happen . But it is happening next week. Or that the EU would never be able to achieve a common position before the G20, but they did.

I don't think it is Sarkolatry to admit that Brown who is a very very lame duck in his own country could have demonstrated such drive and stamina.

In fact, it would be close to Sorkophobia to deny it...

Boz said...

All excellent points - though you must know if you've read some of my previous posts, they don't constitute a shrine for Sarkozy. I've heavily criticized him on style and substance over the whole financial summit, but I still can't imagine Royal having near the ability to set this process in motion that will continue in Washington next week and then have a 100-day followup.

I've criticized his (and Kouchner's) claims to have stopped the tanks before Tbilissi, but someone had to iron out an agreement, and with the EU divided and the US rather hostile to talks behind the scenes, it was Sarkozy and Kouchner who put in the legwork.

The "access" is obviously a superficial measure, but Royal showed little interest during the campaign in changing the overall tone of the relationship with the US. As someone who finds instinctive anti-Americanism on the part of some Europeans rather ignorant on their part, I welcome Sarkozy's more open approach. I don't think Sarko wants a "special relationship" à la Blair, but he recognizes that there are benefits in having a close cooperative relationship with Washington, and that instinctive anti-Americanism is as misguided as it always has been.

You are much more knowledgeable than I on domestic issues, so I readily concede on the details. That being the case, considering even you were criticizing her the other day on declaring social democracy "an obsolete mode," I find it hard to imagine how France would be better off under someone who cannot bring herself to believe in the benefits of capitalism (yes, I know Sarko's rhetoric's been off recently). Are the French really better off not getting to work because transport unions are on strike every other week? I generally support Obama's tax proposals, but even I would find it unpalatable for anyone's taxes to exceed 50%. Should the government really force people not to work on Sunday's?

All in all, I agree with your conclusion on Royal - an average pol who was unprepared for a national race and proceeded to run a bad campaign, most importantly in the media arena. I agree that she could come back better, no doubt. Her flirting with Bayrou was encouraging.

But that doesn't negate the fact that on balance, I think it's hard to say France would have been better off with her (2007) than with Sarko. And in terms of global standing and perception, which do count for something, I seriously cannot imagine how Royal would have achieved nearly as much as Sarkozy. Hillary Clinton didn't even want to meet with her!

All the best,
Josh

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Alain,
The need for coordination is obvious. The point is the same as in the Georgia-Russia conflict: the outcome would have been the same with or without Sarkozy, he moved to fill an obvious need and to take credit for what would have happened somehow or other without him. Boz, I know that you haven't erected a shrine to Sarko. What Ségo says about "capitalism," and she has said everything at one time or another, has to be read with a skeptical eye: she is trying to find the magical formula to bridge the gap between the left of the left and the center-left, to unify the left once again. Did Mitterrand believe anything he said about economics? Did he understand more than Ségo? I think not. He was just a better dissimulator. Piketty and Aghion are no fools, and she would have plenty more like them around her as president. Would she have been constrained by her party and electoral pledges to do foolish things? Probably. But so was Sarkozy.

bernard said...

Boz,

you clearly don't live in France.

Let's take your statement "Are the French really better off not getting to work because transport unions are on strike every other week?". You see, I live in the Paris area and have to use mass transit - the kind you think is on strike every week -, so I have a very good viewpoint on how much strike there really is. Year in, year out, I am usually unable to use my express "metro" (RER A) maybe once or twice a year. There is one year over the past twenty that remains etched in my mind: 1995. It did see massive strike action and transport was paralyzed for several weeks (the thing is that most French approved and the government was voted out at the first opportunity).

You might be thinking for instance that there is again a transport strike at this very moment. Well there is and it is only lightly disrupting transport in actual fact.

I am not quite sure where you get your information from. If by any chance it is from a TV channel like TF1, you need to know that it is a little bit akin to learning about Mr Obama exclusively from Ms Palin.

As for Pres. Sarkozy, it is good to know that he has made such a good impression on you. We will see a bit later if he has made an equally good impression on Pres. Obama and how influential he is in reality on the international agenda.

Boz said...

You're right Bernard, I don't live in France. I also trust that you are capable of understand a bit of light-hearted exaggeration. But once a year or once a week doesn't make minimum service a bad idea, including in schools, which I believe Royal also agreed with in principle.

I repeat again that I am not enamored by Sarkozy, but I do think that he has done a decent job. And nearly half the French think are confident in him according to at least one recent poll.

Art, I do indeed hope Royal comes up with the magic formula for an effective opposition. But eventually someone's going to have to teach supply and demand to the far left, and lying doesn't help in that regard, just like Obama's talk on NAFTA didn't help any Ohioans.

bernard said...

Boz,

I am glad to know that you are simply practicing light hearted humor, that just happens to match widely circulating stereotypes.

Now, you are absolutely right that Sarkozy was excellent news for the French: their real income will decline half a percentage point in 2008. This is good because as you probably know, the French were making too much money working too little. The good news are of course that 2009 will likely see a lot more of the same thanks to the financial crisis that Sarkozy is so brilliantly dealing with. By the way, did you check the French German 10Y spreads since his election ? They are doing just great.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Re the G20, Alain, I think it's a rather francocentric view to see Sarkozy's role as essential in bringing the coming meeting about. See, e.g., http://preview.tinyurl.com/5j8ml8

Boz said...

Bernard, stereotypes can be funny, and can be used to prove a point if they contain a grain of truth. If you're going to get technical on them, then "the French were making too much money working too little" should be "the French were complaining about needing more money and working too little", hence "travailler plus pour gagner plus."

My sole assertion was that Sarkozy performed better than Royal would have. Since nobody knows how she would have actually performed, it's naturally an opinion with which you can disagree.

BTW, Please don't compare TF1 and Sarah Palin - Ferrari wins hands down and last time I checked they described Africa correctly as a continent.

Leo said...

Boy,
this is unusually contentious on Art's blog.
Let me bring back some composure here:
The reason Sarko got 30 minutes with Obama compared with all others is that with an interpreter it takes twice the time :)
Strange that nobody picked that up.