Friday, January 25, 2008

A Note on the Société Générale Affair

À propos the Société Générale scandal, it's interesting to note that Daniel Bouton, the head of the bank, long ago served as Alain Juppé's chief of staff when Juppé was minister of the budget. Later, in 1996, after Juppé, then prime minister, had been destabilized by the winter strikes of 1995, Bouton, by then number two at SG, wrote a private note for Jacques Chirac assessing the political situation. In it he said:

Despite the recent improvement, the Prime Minister remains abnormally unpopular. This is certainly not a problem of public relations; it is a problem of strategic positioning. The presidential campaign was won on an illusion. ... The illusion lasted until the fall of 1995. .... The Maastricht discourse cannot mobilize anyone; talk about debt ratios and deficits doesn't make anyone dream. .... In short, la fracture sociale divides the people from the elite, not the excluded from the rest of the people. If this analysis is correct, the solution is political and institutional; it does not lie in public relations.

One hopes that his analysis of his own problems is as lucid as his analysis of Chirac's, but evidence to date suggests that it isn't.

The foregoing is taken from Philippe Madelin's biography of Chirac, p. 636; the note was published in Libération on July 10, 1997.

The Presidentialization of the PS

"I am not in favor of the presidentialization of the party," writes Pierre Moscovici. It doesn't make sense, he argues, to combat the "hyperpresidentialism" of Sarkozy on the one hand while attempting to introduce a "culture of presidentialism" into the party on the other. He wants to maintain the party's diversity (speaking euphemistically) while establishing a "majoritarian coherence" that he hopes will be "reformist, European, and firmly anchored on the left."

This clearly puts him at odds with Ségolène Royal, who obviously does want to "presidentialize" the party with herself in the starring role. In this way she envisions a route to power in 2012 similar to that by which Sarkozy traveled from leadership of the UMP to power in 2007.

Temperamentally, I prefer Moscovici's more open approach and reluctance to embrace the cult of personality. Yet I'm currently reading James Cronin's excellent New Labour's Pasts, which tells the story of the Labour Party's attempts to reform itself in the wake of repeated losses to Mrs. Thatcher. With the PS now in something of the same disarray as Labour in the mid-80s, Cronin's account is a cautionary tale to any Socialist leader tempted to follow Moscovici. For instance (p. 286): "It would be necessary ... to deal with the fact that ... there were '... too many worrying skeletons in the Labour Party cupboard deterring voters ...' ... Defense, taxes, and the role of the 'loony left'and the perception that Labour was still a divided and fissiparous party were the main 'skeletons,'and getting rid of them would require more than deft handling by the party's press officers. It would also require the development of a new set of policies that would assure the electorate that Labour had truly and permanently changed ..."

Moscovici no doubt favors "the development of a new set of policies," but it is hard to see how his vision of the party as a collegial association of debating partners will persuade the electorate that the Socialists have "truly and permanently changed." Under the conditions imposed by a presidential regime in the media age, a party must find a way to craft a message and an image that extend beyond the relatively small number of activists eager to participate in internal debate and weigh the virtues of competing programs. If the purpose of the party is to take power (and not all parties have that aim), then it must equip itself with the means to do so. A political party in 2008 cannot be a seminar at Sciences Po. One can deplore this fact, but one shouldn't avert one's eyes from it. (ADDED LATER: Laurent Bouvet makes a similar point here and notes that a victory in the municipals may serve only to slow the hard choices that the PS needs to make.)

À propos, Ségolène Royal is coming to Harvard next week, and I should have the opportunity to learn more about what her vision of the Socialist future is.

Goasguen Drops the Mask

In an interview published in France Soir, UMP deputy Claude Goasguen is refreshingly candid:

Q. Are you disappointed that [Sarkozy] entrusted this mission to Jacques Attali rather than to UMP deputies?

A. The mission was part of the post-electoral period when Nicolas Sarkozy was trying to sow discord in the Socialist camp. In that he was completely successful. Now that period is behind us. It's time for parliament to resume its place, to be a partner in the elaboration of laws and reforms.

No comment necessary.

The Attali Report in Toto

If you care to read the Attali Report, it can be found here.

An article on calls attention to the report's emphasis on promoting information technology and singles out articles 53, 54, and 58 for special attention. Article 58 advocates promoting open source software as a competitor to proprietary software and specifically calls for greater use of open source software in the public sector. "A goal of 20 percent of newly developed or installed open-source applications for the benefit of the public sector could be set for the year 2012."

The Attali Report has been characterized as "liberal," but this can hardly be called a liberal measure. It sets a fixed quota for the use (or is it the new development--the wording is hardly a model of clarity) of open-source software, which would oblige public sector organizations to procure from a specific source without regard to the competitive quality. To be sure, the subsidization of open source (envisioned in the same article in the form of a tax subsidy) could be interpreted as a blow against the "evil empire" of Microsoft, which in French eyes combines the sins of monopoly and American nationality. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that it's a wise idea to enforce by fiat the choice of a software regime, and I say this en toute connaissance de cause: I am sitting between a Windows machine and a Linux machine, and there is a Mac in the other room. These peacefully coexist in my household, but I have a Ph.D. from MIT (honest). Others should proceed with caution and certainly avoid the mistake of deciding that within 4 years, "twenty percent of the software" in this or that office will be open source. What does that formulation even mean? If I have an (open source) Apache Web server installed on one machine and Microsoft Word on 4 others, do I meet the 20 percent requirement? Is it OK if I execute a gazillion instructions a year under (open source) Linux and 4 gazillion on Mac OS X?

This ambiguity is typical of the Attali report (or at any rate, as much of it as I have read). Its recommendations suffer from being neither general nor particular. They create a false impression of specificity by recourse to arbitrary numerical quotas and technical jargon (viz., art. 53: "establish a European mechanism of digital identification allowing a mutual recognition of means of authentication by requiring root certificates issued by European certification authorities for the entire suite of communication software [messaging, browser, etc.] sold in Europe"). This is not the level at which such a commission should be operating. The pseudo-specificity is just eyewash. It may enable Jacques Attali to pose as an expert on everything, but in reality he is just an expert poseur.