Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Good Intentions Meet Reality

As of Jan. 1, the Dalo Law went into effect. The law makes le droit de logement, or right to shelter, un droit opposable, that is, a right that any citizen can petition the state to enforce. Le droit de logement is not to be confused with le droit d'hébergement, according to this document, though I'm not sure I can explain the difference. As you may recall, the law was passed last March in the wake of demonstrations by Les Enfants de Don Quichotte, who established a tent city along the Canal Saint-Martin. Yet it seems that it is not only the homeless who are availing themselves of the right to petition the state for a roof. This article describes a student who is living in Paris on 500 euros a month, not enough to rent a studio, so that he is forced to "live with friends." Yet he too went down to the prefecture to claim his right to housing, only to be driven away by the long lines. Now the bureaucrats will have to sort and presumably prioritize the various claims, since there is not enough housing to meet the demand (although the law also provides incentives for the construction of new low-cost housing units).

Here we have a paradigm of contemporary governance and its woes. A complex social problem is ignored until a media-savvy movement raises its profile by staging a protest designed to generate pathos via televised images. Legislation is hastily cobbled together to prove that the government cares. The complications emerge the moment implementation begins. A substantial bureaucracy will have to be put in place to handle them. The unforeseen costs of the program mount, while the visibility of the problem recedes. The potential for "working the system" is obvious, and abuses will tend to discredit the worthy efforts of sincere civil servants. In five years we'll see the first reform proposals, perhaps une loi Dalo bis.

"Ça va pas être la loi Dalo, ça va être la loi que dalle," says one prospective client. "This isn't going to be the Dalo law, it's going to be the nothing law" (to give a not entirely satisfactory translation). He's perhaps a little harsh, but one understands where he's coming from.

Arche de Zoé Upends Law and Language

The transfer of the humanitarian buccaneers who manned Zoé's Ark until it ran aground in Chad has caused a bit of a ruckus in France, where the specialized term transfèrement was used to describe the procedure. The word is perfectly correct and found in all dictionaries, though it was unknown to me before this affair. Apparently it was also unknown to many native speakers of French, as this article and this one make clear. The more usual term for a transfer is of course transfert, which, as Le Monde's proofreaders note, is also the French word for transference, in the Freudian sense, which in English is differentiated from "transfer." In German "transference" is die Überträgung, which is indeed "transfer" in the ordinary sense, so maybe this is another of those instances where Strachey betrayed Freud by overrefining his language. This discussion may be of more interest to students of translation than of politics, and of course "translation" (Übersetzung, traduction) is but another sense of "transfer."

The more difficult matter in the Arche de Zoé affair is how to translate the Chadian punishment, 8 years at hard labor, into French penal law, which no longer recognizes such a penalty. The translation is complicated by the fact that the French appreciation of the perpetrators' crimes is no doubt different from the Chadian view. I suspect that most Frenchmen regard the crew as guilty of bungling and callousness rather than malevolence. The roles of the various participants seem to have been more varied than the summary judgment of the Chadian court allowed, and now that they are back on French soil, the Zoénauts are turning on one another, as was only to be expected. Quite a mess--and since the liberty of several people is involved, and relations with Chad must be considered, the problem of translation is more delicate than that which ordinary translators face. I'm glad this job is someone else's responsibility.

"Post-Messianic Depression"

Laurent Baumel, a Strauss-Kahnian Socialist and head of the party's study bureau, has published a scathing critique of the party's inability to reform itself over the past 2 decades. He blames a "Marxist superego" that has led many of his comrades to let the arrows launched by the extreme left penetrate straight to their heart of hearts, delivering a toxin that has induced a "post-messianic depression." In this state of stupor, the party "retreated to local bastions," enticed to do so by the brimming pots of gold made available by decentralizing reforms.

Deciphering Jouyet

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Fed, was known in his day for "Greenspeak," the oracular language that emanated from the mouth of the all-seeing economic sibyl whose body had previously absorbed the effusions of the economy. Jean-Pierre Jouyet, one of France's oldest European hands and currently secretary of state for European affairs, bids fair to become the French Greenspan. His article in today's Le Monde, entitled "For a 'diplomacy of the euro,'" exemplifies Greenspeak à la française--la paroleverte, one might call it. Much wind whirls without disturbing so much as a blade of grass, but attentive readers are rewarded with this oracle near the end:

Our governments too often continue to view economic policy with the spectacles of small open economies whose first priority is to secure the external position of the national currency. That era is over. The nominal exchange rate of the euro vis-à-vis other major currencies is no longer as central an objective, given the size of the euro zone and its new global status.

The euro zone must also recognize that its considerable economic weight will enable it to influence global economic equilibria to the same extent as the United States, Japan, and China, provided it gives itself the means to do so. Just as there is a dollar diplomacy, so we must have a euro diplomacy.

As with Greenspeak, the implications of this delphic pronouncement are potentially many and varied. But I take the reference to seeing with "the spectacles of small open economies" to be first and foremost a challenge to the conventional wisdom of the post-Keynesian era, that fiscal deficits bring inflation and trade imbalances that eventually lead to devaluation. The discipline thus imposed on national economies has been a brake on the use of fiscal policy as economic stimulus. In contrast, the United States, for all its vaunted embrace of the free market, has been able to run huge budget and current-account deficits whenever it pleases, unconstrained by anything like the European Stability and Growth Pact. Jouyet appears to be saying that Europe is now in a position to do the same thing, to throw off the shackles of the SGP and use this new freedom to attack its persistent unemployment problem. Read against fellow Socialist's Eric Besson's insistence that a new social VAT is "inevitable" because of the SGP and the need for budget discipline (see previous post), Jouyet's declaration may signal a dissension on the fundamentals of economic policy within the government. If so, I would expect Sarkozy to favor Jouyet's side of the argument, which would give more tools to his voluntarist instincts. But the rest of Europe will have to be convinced first, starting with Germany, and that will take a more forthright statement of the position than Jouyet gives here.

The Social VAT Returns

Eric Besson, the Socialist Judas who jumped ship in the midst of Ségolène Royal's campaign, turned his coat, and joined the other side in time to denounce his erstwhile championne in a much-publicized and quickly forgotten book, may no longer appear to be such an opportune acquisition to his new comrades. Today he revived the social value-added tax, or social VAT, which has been rebaptized the "anti-delocalization tax" to make it more palatable to beleaguered consumers at a time when the government is emphasizing purchasing power rather than tax reform--the demand side rather than the supply side, if you will. To Besson, the social VAT seems "inevitable"--and indeed, some form of tax increase is inevitable if France is to meet the terms of the EU Stability and Growth Pact while maintaining the Sarkozy tax reform package known as TEPA (Travail, Emploi, et Pouvoir d'Achat). Besson's candor is noteworthy, but his timing could not be worse for the majority, with municipal elections looming on the horizon. After all, it was François Fillon's (correction: Jean-Louis Borloo's--see Justin's comment) inopportune mention of the social VAT that many believe cost the majority 50 or more seats in the last legislative elections. Besson's statement is a gift to his former party, the Socialists. Some in the UMP may be asking whether Besson was a fifth-columnist, or simply un misanthrope so devoted to inexpedient truth-telling that he can't see where his interest lies. If there is a rejiggering of the cabinet anytime soon, expect Besson to be shown the door.