Friday, February 15, 2008

À bas la monarchie!

The critique of the Fifth Republican presidency as an incipient monarchy is a recurrent one, and, in a country whose modern politics derives from the overthrow of monarchy, I suppose inevitable. Yet it has never proved very telling against the power of any of the presidents who have elicited it, and its latest avatar is likely to remain just as ineffective. The problem with the critique is that it remains superficial and never goes beyond loose analogy.

The most important change attributable to the anti-monarchical critique is no doubt the reduction of the presidential mandate from seven years to five, which was enacted under Chirac and in reaction against Mitterrand, whose aloofness and favoritism, reminiscent of courtly politics under the Old Regime, were denounced with Saint-Simonian irony (see some of the humorous asides in Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Saint-Simon et la cour de Louis XIV or the explicit comparisons in Jacques Revel's article in Les lieux de mémoire). At the time, it was widely argued that the shorter mandate would "normalize" the French presidency and make it more responsive to the popular will, lessen the gap between it and other institutions of government, and turn the president from a demigod into a politician like other politicians. And it did: Sarkozy is a politician like the rest--clearly mortal, clearly possessed of only one body, pace Ernst Kantorowicz, and clearly standing on feet of clay; he is a politician of the media age, who avails himself of the tools of the media age in an unsurprising way, sometimes to his advantage, at other times to his detriment.

The signers of the latest anti-monarchical petition--a strange assortment yoked together by opposition to Sarkozy as personal as his exercise of presidential power, which is adduced as evidence of his "monarchical" proclivities--seem to think that the mere utterance of the word "monarch" is enough to delegitimate the current incumbent, despite his election by universal suffrage (and with a high participation rate) not so many months ago. This is short-sighted. For one thing, it is obscurantist as to the nature of monarchical power, as if every monarch were an autocrat. For another, it assumes that to utter the word "republican" is to conjure up an effective opposition out of nothing. It is in the very nature of modern governance that reform becomes personalized. Voters find it difficult to invest in disembodied programs. They need a figure to incarnate the idea of reform, and inevitably that figure becomes the one politician who is elected by the entire nation. This is a functional requirement, not an artifact of the regime type. Those who want to mount an opposition have to take this fact for what it is and deal with it as such, not propound a historical mythology to wish it away.

One final point: the decline in presidential approval ratings should not be conflated with a loss of democratic legitimacy. Electorates are notoriously volatile. This is another fact of democratic life. A president who didn't expect to lose popularity wouldn't get much done, and an opposition that mistakes loss of popularity for a shift of sentiment in favor of itself is laboring under a serious and ultimately incapacitating illusion.

Here's the petition.

The Litigious Society

What is France coming to? Time was, many people I knew in France liked to snicker about "litigious Americans" and our frivolous squandering of resources on lawsuits over matters that civilized people could settle over coffee. But now Moussa Bakir, Jérôme Kerviel's alleged penpal in the SocGen affair, is suing X, just as Sarkozy is suing Le Nouvel Obs, and on the same grounds: faux, usage de faux, et dénonciation calomnieuse. The same magazine printed and allegedly distorted messages that he exchanged with his friend, just as it is accused of doing with a message allegedly sent by Sarko to his ex-wife.

Bakir is also complaining that his picture was leaked to the media. By the way, what are the laws in France regarding the secrecy of criminal investigations? Can anyone enlighten me?

A Distressing Story

I received this morning from a friend in France a message that I reproduce below. It is a sad story, which illustrates the precarious condition in which undocumented aliens live, and not only in France. But this story is a French one, and I report it as told to me:

Chers tous,

Une histoire qui mérite d'être connue :

Je connais personnellement une personne, une femme, sans papiers. Elle s'appelle Khoura.

Khoura est de nationalité Ivoirienne et est en France depuis environ 6 ans.

Khoura louait une petite chambre pour 150 Euros par mois à une connaissance.
Cette personne, un homme, lui faisait des avances. Des avances de plus en plus insistantes et qui devenaient ces derniers temps des attouchements...

Khoura en a eu assez, et a décidé de loger ailleurs.
Lorsqu'elle est venue récupérer ses affaires, en compagnie d'un ami, son propriétaire a voulu l'en empêcher. Violemment.

Concrètement il l'a séquestrée, frappée au visage (ce qu'il avait déjà fait quelques jours auparavant) et l'a immobilisée en l'étranglant avec une écharpe.

Son ami a bien sûr tenté de l'aider et, plutôt que de procéder par voie de "rêglement de compte" musclé, il a préféré se placer sous la protection policière et a immédiatement appelé le commissariat.

Après tout, nous sommes dans un état de droit dans lequel les Victimes ont le droit d'être protégées, reconnues dans leur statut de victimes (n'est-ce pas Mr Sarkozy !), quelle que soit leur situation.

Les Policiers arrivent. Constatent les violences. Mais constatent aussi que Khoura est une Sans-Papier !!

Que font-ils nos représentants de l'ordre ? Ils ne prennent pas la plainte pour violence, d'après ce que Khoura comprend (et une atteinte contre les personnes en moins dans les indicateurs de performances de MAM) ET ILS EMBARQUENT KHOURA.... (et un sans-papier supplémentaire reconduit à la frontière pour Brice)

Garde à vue.

Centre de rétention pour les Sans-Papier de Vincennes.

Jugement cet après-midi.

Moralité de cette histoire : il existe deux catégories de personnes en France : ceux qui ont le droit d'être protégé, et ceux qui n'ont aucun droit, ne serait-ce que d'avoir leur intégrité physique protégée.
Quelle est la conséquence d'une telle situation : cela permet toutes les dérives, tous les abus envers cette population, qui n'a d'autres recours que de régler leurs comptes entre eux, ou de subir la loi du plus fort (ceux qui ont des droits).

Ce mail a un objectif : si vous connaissez quelqu'un autour de vous susceptible d'aider Khoura, soit directement, soit en diffusant largement cette histoire, n'hésitez pas, forwardez lui ce mail. D'ailleurs forwardez ce mail à tous votre carnet d'adresse.

For those tempted to doubt the authenticity of this letter, please see the comments.

Franglais strikes again

FRANCFORT (Reuters) - Une enquête pour évasion fiscale à l'encontre du patron de la Deutsche Post pourrait bien s'étendre à des centaines d'autres responsables riches et influents d'Allemagne, les procureurs ayant mis la main sur les données détaillées d'une banque offshore au Liechtenstein, révèle vendredi le quotidien des affaires Handelsblatt.

Offshore? Liechtenstein? How many ships has the Liechtenstein Navy? I realize that "offshore" must sound awfully hip and up-to-the-minute in French ears, sort of like le trader and les stock-options, but, please, a little respect for the objective correlative, das Ding-an-sich, le mot et la chose.

Trade Patterns and Exchange Rates

The Eurozone enjoyed a trade surplus of 28 billion euros in 2007, compared with a deficit of 9.3 billion in 2006, and this despite an appreciation of the euro. By contrast, the EU as a whole, including non-Eurozone countries, had a trade deficit of 185.7 billion euros in 2007, compared with 192.6 billion in 2006. Go figure. Of course one needs to look at a detailed breakdown of these figures and in particular at the role of energy costs in view of the sharp rise in the prise of oil in 2007.

Not Working More but Earning More

The first official figures on the effect of detaxation of overtime on working hours are out, and they are not encouraging: the average number of hours worked per week in 2007 was exactly the same as in 2006: 35.6. To be sure, the detaxation of overtime did not go into effect until October 1, and few firms were able or likely to react immediately to the changes in the law. Wages increased slightly more than inflation, for an increase in purchasing power of 0.1 percent. The economy created 237,000 net jobs overall, with the best performance in the construction and service sectors. Will this continue, as construction is hit by the credit crunch?

So the French are not working more but earning more anyway--even better than Sarko promised! What's not to like? And yet his popularity looks as if he'd gotten his country bogged down in a foreign quagmire. How would the French react if things went really sour? Life isn't fair.

Wikipedia Debate

For those who can't get enough of Sarkozy, here is a source you may not have considered: the quasi-public discussions among Wikipedia editors and contributors about what to include in the "Sarkozy" article of the famous on-line encyclopedia. Of particular note is the extensive discussion of whether to include the names of all of Sarkozy's actual, alleged, rumored, or fancied mistresses. Caveat emptor. But I suggest this as an alternative model for the pipolisation de la politique: a pull rather than a push model, to use the jargon of the Internet. With a centralized repository of gossipaceous Sarkozyana, the "serious newspapers" could get back to business. Those who want this sort of information would know where to find more of it than they can possibly digest, while those who don't want it could cease to have it "pushed" at them by (presumably) respectable media (extending now even to America: witness the Washington Post).

I close with a Freudian observation: perhaps we all want it from time to time, when id and superego are on the outs and id goes on the prowl looking for a little titillation, so by all means let's not ban the stuff. But civilization, for all its discontents, can't do without a little salubrious self-control.


What French town has recently been compared to all of the following: the imperial court of Vienna, Dallas, Chateauvallon, a pantalonnade, a Feydeau farce, and a Brazilian soap opera?

Hint: Arnaud Teullé, who serves on Sarkozy's staff with responsibility for Hauts-de-Seine, has just been suspended from the UMP for presuming to head the list from which another member of Sarkozy's staff, David Martinon, just resigned, and which is now opposed in the municipal elections of said town by the erstwhile dissident list headed by Jean-Christophe Fromantin, who now carries the imprimatur of the UMP.

"Sarkozy's Original Sin"

For David Spector, a professor of economics at the École d'Économie de Paris, "the original sin" of Sarkozy's plan to reform the economy is clear. Some economic reforms create losers: for instance, ending corporatist privileges, as when the taxi profession is opened up to greater competition. Or when social charges are shifted from payroll taxes to a broad-based tax such as the CSG or social VAT, which reduces labor costs but affects the purchasing power of those on fixed incomes. In order to make such reforms acceptable in a democracy, one might think of compensating the losers: the taxi drivers in the one case, the retirees in the other. But the funds available for such compensation were squandered in tax reductions, which were among the first reforms enacted into law when Sarkozy was elected. The tax reduction package--reduction of the wealth tax, lowering of the fiscal shield, tax rebates on mortgage payments, cuts in the estate tax, detaxation of overtime--reduced the government's margin for maneuver. Hence, Spector argues, it now confronts political opposition that cannot be defused when it attempts to move on other fronts.

But would Sarkozy have been elected without the promise of a tax-reduction package? It's not inconceivable. France is hardly the United States, where the anti-tax, anti-statist ideology has enjoyed the status of a quasi-social movement for decades. But his campaign would have looked rather different. How do you think he would have fared?