Friday, March 14, 2008

Ségo on the Go

Marianne waxes ironic at Ségolène Royal's expense, having a bit of fun with the vapidness of the message of support she has offered to Socialist lists in dozens of cities around the country. But Marianne misses the point. No other personality of the left has managed to represent the national stakes of the municipal elections with equal effectiveness. Sure, there has been plenty of talk of a sanction vote against the government, but no one else has carried that message on his or her shoulders. Certainly not François Hollande. And the other national leaders of the PS have either been too busy tending their own fiefs or too wary of courting ridicule of the sort that Marianne is dishing out. Landerneau is a place that people make fun of, but you can't win elections without going to Landerneau.

The right hasn't had a national standard-bearer either. True, Sarko went to Toulon, and Juppé and Fillon tried to shore up Darcos's sagging fortunes in Périgueux, but no one has been on the road every day. Patrick Devedjian has begun to catch flak for failing to mobilize his troops. Ségo a fait le don de sa personne, and as in the past she continues to be mocked for it: la madone, the journalist calls her. So perhaps it is worth recalling that in days of yore, people who had no use for the ecclesiastical hierarchical nevertheless worshiped the Madonna.

The Union for the Mediterranean

So, Sarko has won another of the (pseudo) "victories" that have become a sort of hallmark of his presidency: he wanted a Mediterranean Union but will get a Union for the Mediterranean that bears little resemblance to the original project and will fulfill none of its goals, which were in any case never really made explicit and always left in a state of vague indetermination. But, since it wasn't a defeat, it will count as a victory, another "promise kept." In fact, the UM is little more than a rebaptism of the old Barcelona Process, which, like many EU "processes," seemed to proceed only by fits and starts. And after Angela Merkel apparently threw a bit of a fit in Berlin, in Brussels yesterday we got a fresh start.

Sarko Corrige le Tir

What might at first seem a minor change seems to me to signal a new conception of the presidency, given the fundamental role that Sarkozy has always attached to "communications." David Martinon, who has been the press secretary but whose fortunes have been plummeting since his fiasco in Neuilly, is to be shunted aside. There will be no more daily press briefings à la the White House. Sarko the American will revert to a more French style, with occasional briefings on domestic affairs from a new figure, Franck Louvrier. But the real news is that the role of presidential spokesman will no longer be entrusted to flunkies but divided between two heavyweights, Claude Guéant, secretary general of the Élysée, and Jean-David Levitte, diplomatic advisor (who will have primary responsibility for international affairs).

These moves are I assume expected to accomplish two things. First, the confusion created by the frequent statements of a range of presidential advisors will presumably be checked by the appointment of two "official" senior spokesmen. Second, Sarko will be able to step back from center stage when he chooses to by allowing his top advisors to speak authoritatively but impersonally in his place. Policy will no longer seem like a personal caprice of the president, to be "corrected" the next day by his more careful and sober advisors, but rather the result of a deliberate process. Of course the president will need to collaborate with his "collaborators" if this screen strategy is to work. On verra s'il a cette capacité dans ses cordes.

As for David Martinon, he may soon find himself in New York, as consul. Not good enough for Neuilly, but just right to conquer the Big Apple.

Phelps on Uncertainty

Ned Phelps, Nobel laureate in economics, has some wise words about the nature of uncertainty in economic thinking and about rule-based monetary policy. "The claim for rule-based monetary policy is weak on its face," he argues, because it is based on concepts such as the natural rates of interest and inflation--concepts that Phelps invented--that "are anything but certain." And yet the European Central Bank relies on rule-based monetary policy--relying largely on a variant of the so-called Taylor rule (named for John Taylor), according to which the bank sets its basic rate by computing a "reaction function" in which the key independent variables are the deviation of output and inflation from their natural rates.

The virtue of rule-based monetary policy is supposed to be that it removes the policy process from undue political influence and therefore makes the central bank's commitment to controlling inflation more credible by making its response more mechanical, even if the result is a "politically unpalatable" level of unemployment.

Sitting It Out

Eric Dupin makes several important points in this discussion of the municipals:

1. The abstention rate was unusually high, rising to 38.9 pct in communes with populations above 3,500, a new record.

2. 32 pct of the abstainers voted for Sarko in the first round of the presidentials, compared with 15 for Bayrou and only 9 for Royal.

3. The most marked abstention of UMP voters was in the "popular" classes, but the turnout of left-wing voters in this group was also low. In other words, there was no massive "sanction" vote against the government.

4. In cities with populations greater than 30,000, there are 55 triangular runoffs and 13 quandrangulars.

From (4) one can infer that the turbulence in the center of the political spectrum, already attested to by Bayrou's good showing in the first round of the presidentials, continues. But neither Bayrou himself nor MoDem has been able to capitalize on this. The bipolar logic of the system is strong, and a centrist party has no choice but to tilt one way or the other, leading to incoherence at the national level. What centrist voters seem to want is a "third way," a vision clearly distinct from what is on offer from both Left and Right.

(5) Incoherence is not limited to the center. The PS has rejected alliances with the LCR while accepting alliances with the other Trotskyite party, Lutte Ouvrière.

ADDENDUM: Justin (see comments) points out an interesting discussion of the abstention rate here. For Ceteris Paribus, it was the enthusiasm aroused by the 2007 presidential campaign, which both swelled the voting lists and ensured a high turnout then, that can be blamed for the diminished turnout now, as new voters abstained in disproportionate numbers.