Friday, March 7, 2008

Diversity Candidates

Across France, some 520,000 candidates are running for municipal office in the upcoming elections. Of those, how many are "visible minorities"?

Answer: roughly 2,000.

An astonishingly small number.

The Franco-Italian Divide

As everyone knows, in France one is not allowed to display ostentatious religious symbols in public schools. Since this law was passed in response to the wearing of veils by Muslim women, much has been written about its gendered significance. An Italian court ruled recently on a different sort of ostentatiously display, equally gendered:

The supreme court ruled that an unnamed 42-year-old man from Como had broken the law by "ostentatiously touching his genitals through his clothing".

His lawyers said he had a "compulsive, involuntary movement" because of uncomfortable overalls. But the court said his behaviour was an "act contrary to public decency" and that the rules "require everyone to abstain from conduct that is potentially offensive to collectively held feelings of decorum".

The judges pointed out that if men needed to grab their crotches, they should wait until they were in the privacy of their own home.

Comparative cultural theorists have a fertile new field to plow. :)

I Can Get It for You Wholesale

Among my aunts and uncles there were several who came from the world of retail sales, part of a "nation of shopkeepers" for whom a favorite form of largesse was the announcement, "Why pay retail? I can get it for you wholesale." Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to attack the purchasing power problem by creating a revolution in French retailing. To do this, he intends to eliminate barriers to entry (Galland and Raffarin laws), encourage price competition, and introduce other changes designed to quicken the pace of evolution on the retail front. In effect, he's promising the nation, "I can get it for you wholesale."

Of course there will be costs. One study predicts that big retailers will cut 40,000 jobs, while "maxidiscomptes" will add 18,000. Anglophones may be bewildered by the wild nomenclature of French retailing. What is un hard discount (pronounced ahhred deece-coont) and what is un maxidiscompte, exactly? French Politics is here to answer these burning questions. On "hard discount," see here. And on maxidiscompte, here:

Businesses that predominantly sell foodstuffs (those whose turnover is made up of over 1/3 foodstuffs). Differentiated as:

- « Grandes surfaces » - large-scale stores

- «Hypermarkets» - selling space at least 2,500 m²;
- Supermarkets, selling space between 400 and 2,500 m²,
whose turnover is made up of over 2/3 foodstuffs;
- «Magasins populaires», just as large as supermarkets,
but whose turnover is made up of between 1/3 and 2/3 foodstuffs;

- «Petites surfaces» - stores with smaller selling space

- Supérettes, selling space between 120 and 400 m2;
- Grocery stores, selling space under 120 m2.

Grocery stores known as "Maxidiscompte" represent no special category. They can be identified by the typical signs and are to be found in the supérettes (under a third of them) and in the supermarkets. The Maxidiscomptes grocery stores are generally smaller than 1,000 m² and offer 600 to 1,200 articles.

Manin and Urbinati on Representative Democracy

Hélène Landemore interviews political theorists Bernard Manin and Nadia Urbinati on representative democracy.

The Extremes

Les extrêmes se touchent is a Pascalian thought, which I wrench out of context to introduce a very interesting article by Éric Dupin on the state of play in the municipal elections. Of particular note is the decline of the Front National, which has been unable to mount a ticket in Dreux, the city in which it made its first electoral breakthrough in 1983 (for details, see the book by François Gaspard, A Small City in France). Indeed, it has a presence in only 85 French cities.

Meanwhile, on the extreme left, Lutte Ouvrière, the party of the venerable Arlette Laguiller, which has been steadily losing ground to Olivier Besancenot's Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, has negotiated what Dupin calls "a strategic hairpin turn," choosing a strategy of alliance with other parties of the left rather than attempt to maintain independent lists everywhere. Of course it would be a more significant sign if LCR, the stronger party on the extreme left, did the same. Such a move might presage a real "renovation" of the broad left. But that doesn't seem to be happening.

Dupin also considers what might be called, with tongue only slightly in cheek, the "extreme center," François Bayrou's MoDem, which seems to have no national strategy and to be availing itself instead of tactical opportunities where and as they arise. Dupin covers the various options well.

Grandes Écoles and Business Elites

An article at Telos revisits the timeworn subject of recruitment to French business elites and the role of the Grandes Écoles and finds that the latter has diminished somewhat in recent years. The most surprising finding of the study is that the French business elite is increasingly internationalized, with 26 percent of the members of CAC40 firms' executive committees now of foreign origin.

The Euro, Credit, Banking, Regulation, etc.

Yesterday, the European Central Bank decided to maintain its basic interest rate unchanged, and today the predictable effect--a further rise of the euro to $1.5431--promptly followed. Budget Minister Eric Woerth declared that this is too high, and, indeed, in terms of strict purchasing power parity it probably is. But two years ago, at a time when the US current account deficit was still growing by leaps and bounds, at least one prominent economist predicted that the euro would top out at $1.70 to $1.75, a figure that at the time seemed far-fetched to many. Today that figure seems perfectly realistic, if not on the low side.

It can't be an easy time to be a central banker. Real interest rates are now negative. Inflation is on the rise. Growth has stalled. The credit markets are in turmoil. Banks have recognized that the tools they use for risk management are inadequate. And the market no longer accords credibility to the very regulators who were being extolled only a year ago as the architects of "the Great Moderation" that had at last tamed the business cycle:

The credit markets are casting a big vote of no confidence in the idea that the Federal government can rescue the housing market.

As we noted before, spreads on agency securities have widened to extreme levels. This renders the Fed's rate cuts largely ineffective, at least if the intent was to give relief to the housing market via lower rates (note some believe the Fed wants to steepen the yield curve. Since banks borrow short and lend long, a big gap between short and long term rates will allow them to rebuild their battered balance sheets faster).

Meanwhile, the SocGen scandal took a new turn, with the revelation that the bank's physician sent an SMS to Kerviel before the scandal broke advising him to leave town. And the bank is taking advantage of a loophole in accounting rules to place its losses on the scandal in 2007 rather than 2008, a move that has caused widespread consternation.