Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Iowa Primary Viewed from France

The Iowa primary results have been extensively covered in the French press. Many Americans would be surprised by the degree of attention paid to their politics in France. Of course there are errors and approximations at times, as when France2 described John McCain as a "moderate," presumably because he doesn't advocate teaching creationism or rounding up all Mexicans. Would that it were so. Versac, the leading French political blogger, featured the election in several posts and even surveyed some of the American political blogs. Naturally, as a practitioner of the art, I can only applaud the effort to unravel the internal politics of foreign countries. I think political life everywhere could be enriched if there were better understanding of the constraints and pressures driving politics elsewhere. To be sure, the French no doubt feel, rightly, that what happens in America impinges on them more directly than what happens in France impinges on Americans. Still, I cannot help feeling that the almost total American ignorance of French politics, even among those in the government and the media, makes a sad contrast to the lively French interest in the United States.

Bureaucrats or Politicians?

Etienne Wasmer has a pointer to a paper by Alberto Alesina and Guido Tabellini that may have a bearing on the comments regarding my post on the "absurdity" of attempting to grade ministerial performance. Alesina and Tabellini organize their analysis around a contrast between the "re-election objective" of politicians and the "career objective" of bureaucrats. Ministers are of course a little of both. Perhaps a better way of formulating my objection to the application of "managerial ideology" to the performance of ministers would be to say that it measures ministerial performance in terms so narrow that it obscures the dual nature of the ministerial role. As I indicated in my comments to the previous post, I do not object to attempts to use statistical tools to measure the effectiveness of policy. But ministers need to be evaluated more on the quality of the objectives they establish for their ministries to meet rather than solely on the efficiency with which their subordinates implement their directives. Are the minister's objectives the right ones? Are they solving the problems they were intended to solve? What unintended consequences might they be generating? The consultants hired by the government appeared to me to have such a narrow focus that they reduced ministers to bureaucrats. Without going so far as to endorse the Alesina-Tabellini distinction, which seems to me in many ways problematic, it is nevertheless useful to be clear about two things: the political role of a minister is not purely bureaucratic, and the bureaucratic function can be performed efficiently but unwisely. Government action should be monitored, but efficiency mustn't become the sole criterion of evaluation.

See also Le Monde's editorial.

Which Side Are You On?

"Which side are you on?" goes the old union song. In France the line increasingly conjures up thoughts of divisions between unions rather than between unions and employers. In the recent strikes against the SNCF and RATP, inter-union dissension was plain to see. And now we have François Chérèque, the head of the CFDT, walking out of a meeting to the boos and jeers of other trade unionists. Of course the Libé article plays to the gallery, its lead sentence casting the CFDT in the reprehensible role of collabo because the union, in its function as head of UNEDIC, the unemployment agency, signed agreements with the MEDEF, the principal employers' association. This led to protests by a group called Agir ensemble contre le Chômage (AC, Act together against Unemployment), along with representatives of part-time theatrical workers, a cyber-journalist, and actors from the troupe Jolie Môme. The protests included occupation of CFDT headquarters and insults to union employees. The CFDT called the cops. The bad blood from that incident remains.

Childish though these events may seem, they point to a contradiction at the heart of French trade unionism. The major unions continue to exist despite low participation rates because they play an oficial role as "social partners," in this case managing the UNEDIC, an institution that serves all workers. This necessarily involves cooperation with employers and government. But for some workers, organized labor is primarily a vehicle of theatricalized confrontation and ludic self-expression, not an organic labor-market institution. And so we have Jolie Môme (Pretty Kid) thumbing its nose at François Chérèque, the big bad bear, who often wears a scowl and looks like anything but a Jolie Môme.