Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ségo at the Kennedy School

Ségolène Royal spoke at Harvard's Kennedy School tonight on the theme of "Reforming the Left in order to Reform the Economy." There were elements of the program she outlined that could easily be interchanged with elements of Sarkozy's. For instance, she said that thriving economies are economies with high rates of job destruction and job creation and that a modern labor-market policy had to accommodate the need for high rates of flow from job to job by assisting workers in job search, offering continuing education, etc. The similarity may have something to do with the fact that Royal met yesterday with Olivier Blanchard, who advises Sarkozy and was the author, along with Jean Tirole, of the report on which Sarkozy's labor-market reforms are based. She also cited Amartya Sen, another Sarkozy advisor with whom she also met this week, on the importance of fostering the "capabilities" of workers to adapt to a flexible economy.

On university reform, she said that the key was a new mode of governance combined with increased funding. I'm not sure that she used the word "autonomy," but the new mode of governance seemed to be another way of saying the same thing. In response to a question, she said that she was impressed by what she had seen in American universities and heard from students at Harvard and MIT, including the flexibility that Harvard allows students to "shop" for courses in the first two weeks of the term and the usefulness of closer ties between academia and industrial R&D. She also mentioned the practice of students "grading" professors in the United States, which she said would be unthinkable in France in the short term but offered interesting possibilities. One could easily imagine Valérie Pécresse making the same points.

On the other hand, there were some sharp differences with Sarkozy. For example, she singled out for special criticism his eagerness to sell nuclear power plants abroad. She unequivocally rejected that idea.

She also attacked Sarkozy for failing to be truthful during the campaign about what kinds of reform were possible rather than merely desirable. In particular, she mentioned his promise to raise the minimum old-age benefit by 25 percent, whereas she had maintained that no more than 5 percent was possible. The increase announced yesterday was in fact only 1 percent. But in fairness to Sarkozy, it should be noted that he maintains his intention to raise the minimum gradually to 25 percent above the current level within five years. And since Royal has acknowledged that she campaigned on a Socialist platform calling for an increase in the minimum wage to 1500 euros even though she didn't believe this was possible, I'm not sure that she can claim any clearcut advantage over Sarkozy in this respect. Nevertheless, her point that lack of truthfulness alienates citizens from government and ultimately undermines democracy is surely worth honoring in the breach, given that the observance quite frequently proves elusive.

The forum once again highlighted the challenges that a politician faces. The first question from the audience called for a statement of Royal's position on the demand of Puerto Ricans to be granted the right to vote in US elections--not a matter likely to have been given much thought by la présidente de Poitou-Charentes. Ségo maintained her poise admirably and continued to smile while much of the audience groaned and scowled.

More on Ségo at Harvard here.

Romney Can't Help Himself

Bowing out of the Republican presidential race today, Mitt Romney said this:

I am convinced that unless America changes course, we will become the France of the 21st century—still a great nation, but no longer the leader of the world, no longer the superpower. And to me, that is unthinkable.

I guess he really didn't enjoy his time as a Mormon proselytizer in France. France's decadence has of course been an obsession of Romney's from the beginning of his run. Of course one can't be sure that his detestation of France is any more sincere than any of the other positions he espoused. Romney resembled one of those freighters that plies the seven seas under multiple flags of convenience, hoping to avoid detection of his true colors. But he was out to sea so long that he forgot what his true colors were, if he ever had any. Bon débarras.

Another Country Heard From

While preoccupied with Ségolène, I almost missed the sparks from another quarter of the Socialist Party, the Strauss-Kahniens. Libération hints* at friction between some long-time supporters of DSK and Pierre Moscovici, who has proposed himself as the standard-bearer of the DSK camp in the contest for the party leadership. PM's critics regard him as an "aristocratic intellectual" who lacks the personal touch needed to impose himself as party leader. Moscovici on his blog sees an underhanded effort to foment discord between himself and J.-C. Cambadélis and claims that no discord exists.

*The link includes further links to related articles.

"Plan Banlieue" Leaks

The Sarkozy-Amara "Plan Banlieue," which is to be released tomorrow, has leaked to MediaPart. Among other things, it will step up "busing" for students from disadvantaged neighborhoods to presumably better schools outside. The promised billion euros in new funding seems to have slipped through the cracks. The previous sleight-of-hand by which this sum was derived from funds set aside for developing mass transport under the Environmental Grenelle accords appears to have been dropped. The new plan does call for new transportation services to diminish the isolation of the suburbs from their metropolises.

The Personal and the Political

A reader asked yesterday whether I would be sharing my personal impressions of Ségolène Royal, who has been in Cambridge this week. Of course I have certain impressions and discuss them privately with friends. But to blog about such impressions raises questions of a different order. In thinking about what to say, it has occurred to me how difficult the life of a prominent political figure is. The people she meets know, or think they know, a great deal more about her than she knows about us. When she visits Harvard and MIT, people important in their own little worlds are suddenly seized by the idea, or the illusion, that through her they might achieve some influence in the wider world, so--admit it or not--many are trying to sell her something, and the market is one afflicted with asymmetrical information to an unusual degree. The politician is under everyone's scrutiny, and every time she opens her mouth she risks something.

I've met quite a few politicians in my life, and they're all different. Some are much the same in public as they are in private, others not. Some have a genuine appetite for human contact, while others are more reserved. Some regale you with their opinions, whether you want to hear them or not, while others exhibit, or feign, interest in yours. In the end, the nature of a politician's personality should matter mainly to his or her collaborators. What matters more to the wider public is not how the politician comes to her positions but what positions she holds. So I would prefer to continue assessing Ségolène Royal's views on the basis of what she says publicly. Having met her only briefly, I see no usefulness in publicizing my private impressions, which are too tentative in my own mind to record in stone, or even in HTML. Suffice it to say that I liked her, found her open if understandably guarded, and thought I understood a little better than before why she has such magnetic appeal to some voters.


As I predicted yesterday, Pres. Deby of Chad has graciously announced that he will deign to grant a pardon to the imprisoned Zoenauts just as soon as he is begged to do so by France. This free-will pardon is of course in no way a quid pro quo for having had his bacon saved by the rattling of French sabers. Sometimes the old ways of doing things are the best ways. And so the great Chadian War of 2008 draws to a thrilling close.


Last night I praised Sarkozy for keeping his promise to raise minimum old age benefits. Today François Hollande suggests that I fell victim to a "pre-election maneuver." Sarko raised the benefits by only 200 euros a year. This is just 50 cents a day, Hollande complains. He exaggerates the scantiness of the hike: actually it comes to 0.54794520547945 euros per day--more than 9 percent higher, imagine! He can be confident that I'm right: I have a Ph.D. in math from MIT. But maybe it's best to think of the sum as 200 euros per year. Does Hollande think that stating the amount in annual rather than daily terms is in reality a nefarious way of hiding its paltriness? I find this pointless sniping one of the more dispiriting aspects of Hollande's leadership of the party. Surely he can do better than this.

Grumbling in the Ranks

As Sarkozy's approval rating plummets, les vieux grognards of the UMP have begun to sound like Napoleon's army, cursing like troopers the general who warms himself with his égérie while they shiver in the snow (and prepare for the municipal elections). Sarko is not pleased with the muttering. He opened yesterday's Council of Ministers by announcing that "I am listening, I am reading, I am hearing everything that is said. After the municipals, I will coolly take whatever decisions are necessary." To those who complain that what is delicately termed the president's display of his private life has harmed the party's cause, the Élysée responds, "The display of imbecility is a more serious matter than the display of private life." Qu'on se le tienne pour dit!