Friday, January 11, 2008

Tampering with Science

We are used to this sort of thing in the United States. Twelve scientists and two non-scientists from the commission charged with monitoring genetically modified organisms have protested that Jean-François Le Grand, the chairman of the commission, deliberately misrepresented their report by announcing that the group had found reason for "serious doubt" about the safety of Monsanto's MON 810. "Serious doubt" is of course the magic phrase required to authorize the government to intervene to block use of the product in the name of the "precautionary principle."

It seems that, just as genetically modified organisms (GMO) can be used to control pests, politically modified organizations (PMO) can be used to control pesky protests, such as the hunger strike staged by José Bové and his confederates. So the question is, Why buy off Bové? What does Sarko l'Américain owe José the mustachioed marauder of McDonald's and the very symbol of a certain French anti-American populism?

Critique of Badiou

Le Monde this morning chose to notice Alain Badiou's book De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?, but only to dismiss it contemptuously as a screed "imbued with a Marxism-Leninism drawing on orthodox sources ('Mao-Stal,' as one might have said in the 1970s)." For those who prefer intelligent, indeed brilliant, critical analysis to such dismissal by labeling, I recommend this essay by Bernard Girard, who stands Badiou on his head and gets to the heart of what is wrong with his anti-parliamentary politics, while adding a useful typology of anti-parliamentary political theories as an extra bonus. Chapeau, Bernard!

Ministerial Evaluations

Rue89 has decided not to wait for Mars & Co. to deliver its grades on the ministers in Fillon's Government. The Rue89 ranking system is two-dimensional, with visibility on one axis and independence on the other. The only serious disagreement I have involves Fadela Amara, who is ranked high in both visibility and independence. Visible she is, but her independence hasn't amounted to much that I can see. Of course the plan for the cities hasn't yet been presented, and has now been postponed until February (by the president's staff, which didn't bother to notify Amara), but my gut tells me that she hasn't had much influence on its content. She's the public face of a policy that hasn't thus far been pushed very hard or taken on any very definite contours. Sarko's allusion in his press conference to a plan for "greater Paris" seemed to catch Amara (and Delanoë) by surprise.

The Unnatural Leader of the Party

Time was, I wrote quite a bit about the internal squabbles of the Socialist Party. Eventually it became clear that this would be a slowly evolving process--or train wreck--and I moved on, even if the Socialists didn't. I revert to the subject today only because there is yet another sign that the glacier is melting. Julien Dray, one of Ségolène Royal's inner circle, says that "'aujourd'hui, la candidature de Ségolène Royal à la tête du PS n'est plus naturelle' et qu'elle va rouvrir une crise' dans le parti" (SR's candidacy is no longer natural today and it's going to revive the crisis in the party). I'm not quite sure what he means by "natural," but presumably it's something like, "Her victory cannot be taken for granted, she is not the inevitable choice for party leader, there are plenty of other worthy candidates to consider such as, er, for example, myself." But lest he be accused of a narcissism equal to that of which Hollande has accused Sarkozy, he lets it be known that he has no taste for a "war of party chieftains" or a reprise of the Congrès de Rennes.

Among the other contenders, there is Pierre Moscovici, who posted on his blog a rather tortuous explanation of his position on the simplified European treaty. Briefly, Moscovici is for the treaty on its merits, as he was for the original constitutional treaty, but he wasn't too keen on holding a referendum on that treaty, and events proved him right; now, however, he isn't too keen, either, on not holding a referendum, since, having consulted the people once, it's really an insult to pass the damn thing anyway without consulting them again. Frankly, I feel his pain. What's a good European to do? It is a hell of a mess that the pro-European elites have gotten themselves into. But états d'âmes are for intellectuals. Party leaders are supposed to have strategies, and I don't see much use in Moscovici's hand-wringing (though I might like to see him as head of the party).

Sarkozy's approach at least has the merit of grabbing the bull by the horns: "The people voted wrong, they're going to have Europe whether they like it or not, and if they don't like it they can throw me out of office in four years and five months." Of course Sarkozy has the advantage of controlling his own party. Nobody controls the basket of crabs that the Socialist Party has become. The idea that these contentious crustaceans might have a "natural leader" does seem rather quaint. As Dray says, "there will be a war." The only question is whether it will be nuclear war, in which no one is left standing, or a War of the Roses, from which a ruler emerges. Indeed, Shakespeare offers a rather apt description of French politics today:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

That "lascivious pleasing of a lute" while the monarch "capers nimbly in a lady's chamber" might well refer to Carla Bruni's music room in the Élysée. What a genius Shakespeare was, to have anticipated that improbable future.

Contracts, Regulations, Competition

The good news is that the unions and employers are talking about ways to revamp troublesome labor-market regulations and arrive at a more flexible labor contract. The bad news is that today is the self-imposed deadline for an agreement, and as I write no accord is in sight. Still, the negotiations seem to have been serious, and there has been movement on both sides, since they are bargaining under threat of unilateral action by the government in case of failure. It would be best of course if agreement could be voluntary, and to an outsider the differences don't seem all that insuperable. A six-month trial period vs. a one-year trial period? Eased conditions for transferring rights to professional training from an old employer to a new one?

Come on, people. Let's win one for Paul Krugman, who once again holds up vibrant, dynamic European social democracy as a beacon to sclerotic, faltering Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism:

What’s behind Europe’s comeback? It’s a complicated story, probably involving a combination of deregulation (which has expanded job opportunities) and smart regulation. One of the keys to Europe’s broadband success is that unlike U.S. regulators, many European governments have promoted competition, preventing phone and cable companies from monopolizing broadband access.


We learned the other day that the ministers in Fillon's government will be evaluated by the private consulting firm Mars & Co. Now, Mars is a spin-off of the Boston Consulting Group, so it's interesting to discover that BCG also played a key role in developing Sarkozy's presidential campaign strategy. This emerged from the article I cited yesterday by Jade Lindgaard and Joseph Confavreux. Emmanuelle Mignon, Sarko's idea person, had enlisted the advice of some 250 experts and academics on a range of topics, but after a series of colloquia the problem remained of how to turn the ideas derived from the discussions into "political arguments" that it was hoped would resonate with the public. Mignon felt she had lots of material to work with but no method. The UMP's political cadres apparently have little patience for seminars. This is where BCG came in. Its suggestion was role-playing: the pols were to imagine that they were editorialists or local politicians or union leaders or whatever, reacting to proposals on a variety of issues distilled from the expert advice, much of it gleaned from intellectuals of a left-wing stripe (because, Mignon says, "la gauche est moins conne" and, unlike the right, has a long tradition of invoking ideas in defense of its politics).

To see ourselves as others see us: good advice, it seems, in politics as well as in everyday life. Still, there are limits to the use of such pop-psychological methods to break down the ingrained but counterproductive habits of groups of professionals. My wife, a psychiatrist, heard recently from a patient a story about a consulting group that was brought in to "change the culture" of a certain research laboratory. The consultant told a roomful of Ph.D.'s that they were to improve their "capacity for empathy" by staring into their neighbor's eyes for three minutes without looking away. Half of them walked out of the room.

This aversive response resembles François Hollande's reaction to what he sees as the "narcissism" of Sarko's press conference. Hollande said he'd had enough of "le président moi-je." Perhaps the PS should hire a consultant to improve its capacity for empathy.

Le Monde: "Feuilleton Compliqué"

For those who wish to follow the Le Monde saga as it unfolds, there is this long and very badly proofread article by Philippe Cohen on Marianne2. It reads like the report of a private detective, if not an article by a gossip columnist, full of juicy but unsourced revelations about private transactions. The long and the short of it is that Alain Minc, who remains until March chairman "en principe" of the Monde Group's Board of Overseers, wants to sell the paper to Arnaud Lagardère, who is a principle stockholder in the outfit responsible for the on-line version of the paper, Le Monde Interactif. The interest for Lagardère, who wants to focus his group on digital media, would be that Le Monde Interactif operates the leading on-line news source in France and has acquired considerable expertise, which could be transferred into other Lagardère operations. For the long version, read Cohen, who describes the story as "cet [sic] feuilleton compliqué." If Le Monde goes under, I hope Marianne hires its proofreaders.

LATER: They must be reading this blog at Marianne. I see that the article has been corrected and retitled, and the error signaled above has been eliminated. But I assure you it was there earlier, along with a dozen or so other typos and grammatical mistakes.