Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Blog

French Politics contributor Judah Grunstein has a new blog at World Policy Review. Want to know what France's deputy trade minister is doing in Ankara? Judah has the answer. Now that is detailed coverage of French foreign affairs!

Sarkozy and Cruise

I was afraid of this: when I joked in a previous post about the Sarkozy-Tom Cruise-Scientology connection, a small voice in my head said, "But what if there is one?" There is: see here and here. Thanks to Éloi for the tip.

Sects, Cults, Religions, Public Order

Sarkozy may believe that all civilization is based on religion, but "sects" are another matter. Or are they? His chief of staff. Emmanuelle Mignon, who has already been in the news recently for her role in the Holocaust education proposal, gave VSD an interview in which she was quoted as saying that "sects are not a problem in France." She says that she was misquoted and said rather that sects are to be investigated to determine whether they pose a "threat to public order." The case of Scientology remains open in her mind.

Though I hold no brief for Scientology,* I have never quite understood the German animus toward the group, but of course I live in a country full of religious cranks and other minor cultish annoyances. To be sure, the French put a rather different construction on the word culte: for them le culte is the good form of religion, controlled, disciplined, and above all subordinated to a state that has even created a ministry to oversee them. La secte, on the other hand, encapsulates the shadowy side of religion, its unpoliced and amorphous id, which may fasten upon children as an incubus in the night. About les sectes the state worries from time to time, though Mignon's on the whole moderate and reasonable statement suggests that it isn't worrying too much at present, even if it hasn't quite settled on which manifestations of Islam are to be regarded as cultes and which as sectes (Wahhabi, Salafi, Tariq Ramadan, etc., have been proposed at one time or another for the latter category).

* I've heard it said that Dominique de Villepin used to refer to Sarkozy as "Tom Cruise" because of his fondness for aviator sunglasses. Perhaps this explains Mignon's interest in investigating Scientology.

The New Primary School Curriculum ...

... can be consulted here (pdf). My eyes glaze over when I read educational mission statements, but if some reader wanted to summarize the salient points, I'd be glad to post. Newspaper summaries suggest the classic conservative "return to the three R's" (or whatever the French equivalent of 'reading, 'ritin', and 'rithmetic might be). No wonder Sarko wanted to throw in a little Holocaust controversy. Otherwise the announcement might have elicited only yawns.

The Dignity of the Office

As everyone knows, Sarkozy now stands lower in the polls than Chirac did after the '95 strikes. And many excellent observers think they know why: he has damaged the dignity of his office, says Pierre Moscovici, and adopted a style that is "sometimes vulgar--let's be blunt." IFRI deputy director Dominique Moïsi says:

Sarkozy may want to be a combination of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, but in symbolic terms he is also the Queen. And, in his quest for modernity and transparency, he has de-legitimised the symbolic dimension of his function by mixing his private and public lives.

(Full disclosure: Dominique is a friend.) This is certainly true, but is it an explanation? A few short months ago, the innovations in presidential style were cited with equal assurance to explain Sarkozy's extraordinarily high ratings. American presidents, too, mix the functions of incarnation and representation, hence might be viewed from certain angles as "elective monarchs," yet "vulgarity" often serves them well enough. George W. Bush was no less vulgar when his approval was in the 70s than he is now when it is in the 30s. Bill Clinton, who discussed his underwear styles in public while campaigning, certainly damaged the dignity of his office: even his admirers, among whom I count myself a moderate, would concede that. Yet his approval soared when he came under attack for his scandalous private behavior.

Now, to belabor the obvious, France is not the United States, as several commenters frequently remind me. I need no reminding: comparison is my business. I'm not sure yet where I want to take this counter-vulgarity argument. But I did want to put the question out there, because I think it bears some thinking about. Sarkozy's sudden fall from grace does call for explanation, but I think we shouldn't be too quick to settle for the first explanations that come to mind.

The Forgotten Minister

Q: Who is the minister of Government Fillon II who is the least discussed in the press? Hint: he is not really a minister.

A: Martin Hirsch, who rejected the title of minister in favor of High Commissioner for Active Solidarities, has, I would wager, maintained a lower profile than any other minister. His very title suggests that his entire mission is oriented toward the implementation of one policy: the Revenu de Solidarités Actives. The basic idea is to supplement other social minima (such as the Revenu Minimum d'Insertion, or RMI) to ensure that there is no disincentive to take available work. Under existing programs, an RMI recipient might actually see a decrease in income as a result of accepting a paid job. The RSA is supposed to prevent this. Hence it is similar to measures in the US generally referred to as "workfare": incentives to those receiving social assistance to work rather than not. The RSA is currently in an experimental phase: various départements have signed on to try out the program (how Girondin and "unrepublican"!). It is to be expanded to the entire country before the end of 2008.

The slow implementation is rather puzzling. Hirsch is not a politician by trade, and he seems to prefer to work in the shadows. But the political contours of the measure are not clear to me. Is there active opposition? From whom? Have the parameters of the program been modified as a result of political inputs? I haven't seen much about this in the news. But I wouldn't be surprised to hear more about it after the municipal elections. It may be that Sarkozy is reluctant to be seen handing out "sweeteners" to those at the bottom of the ladder when he is emphasizing law enforcement (the Villiers-le-Bel raid) and visionary but underfunded ambitions (the Amara plan for the désenclavement of the banlieues, the creation of 40,000 jobs, new educational and training opportunities, etc.).

ADDENDUM: Bad timing: Hirsch just raised his profile with a rebuke to François Bayrou.

La Guerre du SMS n'aura pas lieu

According to Bakchich, the Paris prosecutor's office is refusing to search the premises of Le Nouvel Obs for evidence regarding the famous texto that Sarkozy is alleged to have sent his ex-wife agreeing to forgive all if she returned. The article asserts, moreover, that Sarko's lawyer won't make a fuss about this, because he wants to accredit the idea that there is no original message, that the reporter, Airy Routier, merely printed a rumor, that Sarkozy knows where the rumor originated, and that the whole point of the exercise is to expose the left-wing weekly as a scandal sheet.

Who knows how much of all this is true? Certainly not I. But look at the picture of French institutions that it paints: a president whose private life has invited scandalmongers; a respectable news magazine that has reduced itself to flogging tawdry rumors; a justice system that is instrumentalized by the president to attack a hostile press organ; a prosecutor whose independence is nonexistent; a prosecutorial staff that engages in a fronde not to defend the law but to thwart the allegedly vindictive will of a president it dislikes; and a readiness to wrap all this politique de basse cour in an endless series of high principles: the sanctity of private life; a government of laws, not men; freedom of the press; independence of the judiciary; republican resistance to elective monarchy, etc.

True or not, the picture is plausible because it is a calque of so many previous entanglements of presidency, press, and police. The scandals of the Mitterrand and Chirac administrations have accustomed the public to the pattern of charges and counter-charges, parries and thrusts, manipulation and "resistance," provocation and retaliation. Of course I'm not about to hold up the United States and its subservient Justice Department as a counterexample. The serious question that arises transcends boundaries: democracy in the media age is increasingly mediacracy (not to be confused with mediocrity), by which I mean not that the media rule but rather that government is effected through a symbiotic relationship of elected officials and the media through whom the public is informed (or inflamed). This relationship has developed any number of pathological characteristics, of which the case of Sarko's SMS is but the latest example. Hence it is a relationship that needs to be regulated by some sort of "counter-power," to borrow a term from Pierre Rosanvallon's Contre-démocratie. And it needs to be regulated on both sides--on the side of the government and on the side of the media. How is this to be done if the justice system cannot be counted on to be independent, or if its independence cannot always be counted on to serve the cause of justice? The "liberal" answer is regulation through competition, but as the present case demonstrates, competition for the big scoop may be as much a cause of excess as a cure.

Kafka in France

Brice Hortefeux appears to be working hard to meet his expulsion quota in order to get a good grade from the ministerial evaluators before the coming cabinet shuffle. This article details the rather Kafkaesque adventures of a man from the Ivory Coast who was arrested in Italy and returned to France, where his visa had expired, so that French authorities could officially expel him, even though he had an airplane ticket in his pocket and was on his way back home to be married in the Ivory Coast.

As my children say in their text messages, WTF? If you don't know what it means, don't look it up.