Saturday, January 19, 2008

Socialist Party Membership Declines Sharply

At its recent peak, the PS had 218,000 members, but over the past year the membership has declined to somewhere between 160,000 and 180,000.

CFDT Explains Its Signature

Marcel Grignard, a high official of the CFDT, explains why the union signed the agreement for reform of the labor market.

Culture Clash

It is often said that the ferocity of the left-right clash has diminished in France over the past two decades. What remains intense, however, is the hostility between héritiers and boursiers, those born to rule, at least in their own minds, and those who have had to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. Political conflict can become bitter when un héritier confronts un boursier, as is the case in Lyon, where Dominique Perben is trying to oust incumbent mayor Gérard Collomb. According to Le Monde, neither man will deign to mention his opponent's name.

Sometimes, though, the culture clash divides members of the government. In an extraordinary piece broadcast last night on France2's 8 PM news, we saw Christine Boutin and Fadela Amara ostensibly together on a visit to one of the suburbs to be targeted by the so-called Amara plan for urban revitalization--a plan that Boutin has already described as misconceived. It seems that Amara had arranged for a buffet dinner, with guests to eat standing up in order to encourage contact between the locals and the visiting delegation from the ministry. But Boutin and her équipe evidently regarded standing and eating out of paper plates as uncivilized and therefore waged their own form of the "politics of civilization": they ordered a table, chairs, and a catered dinner for themselves and sat in a corner eating off china while the locals milled around with Amara. The cameras caught Amara shrugging in Boutin's direction and saying, "Incredible, I've never seen anything like it." Indeed. Needless to say, Boutin and Amara belong to two different worlds: the BCBG Catho and the ever so branchée ministre issue de l'immigration. "Bonjour les garçons, je suis Fadela," Amara greeted one group of young men hanging out on a streetcorner. It would be hard to imagine Boutin uttering the words, "Salut les gars, je m'appelle Christine," even to a group of choir boys, which these young men certainly were not.

Image Management

Speaking of image management, have a look at this one (it's copyrighted, so I can't reproduce it here). Then compare it with Charles Le Brun's Alexander and Porus here (reproduced in miniature at left). To be sure, Sarkozy isn't mounted, but notice the expansive gesture with the hand, similar to Alexander's. Notice the hapless spear carrier attending on the ruler (agriculture and fishing minister Michel Barnier in the modern setting). Notice the anxious crowd gathered around the wounded prince, hanging on the emperor's every word. The only thing present in the painting but missing from the photo is the casualty: the wounded King Porus. In the modern setting, that would be the fishing industry, which might have been represented symbolically by a squirming fish at Sarko's feet, but that would have spoiled the effect, otherwise entirely classical, of the leader, erect and calm in the center of catastrophe. As it happens, though, the defeat of Porus was a Pyrrhic victory for Alexander, because it cost him so much that his troops mutinied. Porus, however, became a loyal imperial satrap after being spared by the Great. When Alexander asked Porus how he wished to be treated, Porus replied, "Like a king!" By the same token, Sarko has told the fishermen that he will free them from the yoke of Europe and restore them to power in their own satrapy. Are they pleased enough to back him in further conquests, as Porus did Alexander? Or will Sarko's concessions to the disgruntled weaken his position as he attempts to press further east? Time will tell.

Sarko and Shinzo

It seems that le style Sarko had a precursor in Japan in the rhetoric of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. That is the opinion, at least, of Tobias Harris, who writes the Observing Japan blog. Since I am ignorant of Mr. Abe's gifts, I can't confirm this, but Harris quotes me as an authority on France, so obviously he's a man of discernment. (I dislike those little smiley gadgets, or I'd put one here.) He adds that "M. Sarkozy is obviously a much more adept politician than the hapless Mr. Abe," but it should be noted that Sarkozy's recourse to the "politics of civilization" has thus far been dismissed by the chattering classes as an affront to a nation awaiting a remedy to its loss of "purchasing power."

Of course, the pundits who regard the "politics of civilization" as mere drapery have no problem with the ubiquitous use of the phrase pouvoir d' achat, which I find more problematic. There is in fact a serious idea behind the "politics of civilization," though it's not at all clear to what extent Sarkozy has grasped it. Pouvoir d'achat, on the other hand, seems expressly designed to convey the impression that that to which it refers is a "power" that can be granted or denied by political fiat. It avoids mention of the two realities that it enfolds, wages and prices. Perhaps that is because each of those words has a clear political valence that pouvoir d'achat camouflages. To call for higher wages, after all, is to court the left, whereas price stability has monetarist connotations that pull toward the right. Pouvoir d'achat thus straddles the divide; it is a sort of ouverture in a phrase, one of those signifiers that Tocqueville compared to a valise with a false bottom, which makes it impossible to detect what has been put in or left out.

We have been endlessly reminded that, during the campaign, Sarkozy said "je serai le président du pouvoir d'achat." Perhaps the mistake was to assume that this meant that he intended to do something about either wages or prices rather than claim yet another presidential prerogative for himself, only to concede later, when it suited him, that of course he had no such power.

To be sure, he has enormously increased his own pouvoir d'achat by raising his salary while cutting his costs for items like jet travel to zero. But it would be cynical to point that out, and in any case, the media, supposedly the president's lackeys, have had good sport with it. How curious that Vincent Bolloré lends his plane so that his minions can sell magazines by lambasting the president for borrowing it. What diabolical cleverness! As Steve Rendall noted in a comment to a previous post, too many on the left console themselves with the belief that no one would find anything persuasive in Sarkozy's policies were it not for his alleged control of the media. Can anyone who has been reading the French press over the past month really believe that?