Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Pits

I don't as a rule care much for political commentary that simply points to opinion polls and then declares, "There, you see!" There are enough forces that would reduce democracy to plebiscite of the thumbs up-thumbs down variety (even Siskel and Ebert always offered thoughts to accompany their pointing thumbs). Still, an IFOP poll that indicates 79 percent disapproval of Sarkozy's "action" after almost a year in office makes you sit up and take notice. But other numbers tend to confuse the picture. The chief executant of the reforms, François Fillon, still enjoys a 52 percent approval rating--down 6 percent since the previous poll, but still a majority. Sarko himself is at 36, down 1, but faring better than his policy, if we believe the numbers. How can that be? It was the policy that 53 percent of France voted for last May, was it not?

Well, let's look at what IFOP actually asked, rather than at Libé's characterization. The question was, "One year after the election, would you say that the action of the president and of his government has allowed an improvement of the situation of France and the French?" (and not, as the headline puts it, "Has Sarkozy's reform failed?") Now, an objective observer would have to grant that France's economic situation has not improved (nor has improvement been "allowed," in IFOP's curiously indirect and passive formulation), though, to be sure, unemployment is down, and reduced unemployment has been a primary goal of economic policy for 2 decades. One has no way of knowing whether people have taken the pollster's question to focus primarily on the situation--a global context that is less favorable than it was last may owing to the credit crisis, soaring commodity prices, and probable recession in the US--or the policies. To be sure, the policies were conceived in a very different context and do not address what might be considered the more urgent immediate problems. But "mismatch" is not the same as "failure."

The question was so ill conceived that the detailed breakdown of responses is of no help in interpreting how people read it. At most one can conclude that the French are not happy with their situation, but then who is? It would be a sign of irrationality to pronounce oneself happy with the way things stand now anywhere in the world, and to link that question to Sarkozy's name is bound to produce a meaningless result.


Édouard Balladur, Sarkozy's mentor in neo-liberalism, congratulates him for having accomplished so much--"rarely has so much been done in so little time"--only to admonish him for creating "a certain feeling of overabundance." The French need to have a clearer idea of where he thinks he's going. "I hope, for example, that the government will quickly make known its action plan for 2008."

Indeed, the chaos of the last few weeks, for which journalists seem unable to find any descriptive terms other than couacs and cafouillages, might have seemed less chaotic if there were anything like the roadmap Sarkozy laid out in his presidential campaign. Whatever one thinks of what he did, he made no secret that he was going to do it. After a year in office, he has lost his forthrightness. Balladur issues a veiled warning against chiraquisation: "All too often over the past thirty years, the duration of effort has been too short. Some have sought to assure the French that acquired rights were untouchable, that open-handed spending could continue, that the state would take care of everything. The people were deceived. A year ago, things changed, the need for an overhaul was clearly spelled out. It remains to find the proper rhythm of change and to explain things to the French. I am certain that Nicolas Sarkozy will do this on Thursday" (when the president is scheduled to meet the press).

Yet no sooner has he said that than he adds, in response to a question about changes in family allocations and the controversy over the SNCF "family card," that "family policy should be modified only with the utmost caution."

Sarkozy must feel that his erstwhile mentor has offered him an "overabundance" of advice: on the one hand, "full speed ahead against nervous conservatives and hidebound corporatist resistance," on the other hand "utmost caution" in dealing with potentially explosive issues. Clearly the controversy is about priorities. For Balladur, family policy is a distraction from the central economic issues. But for Sarkozy, who needs quick results, who is in danger of disappearing into the void if he cannot announce new legislation week after week, small accomplishments may be better than none. Ultimately, Balladur's counsel is that Sarkozy should become Balladur. But Balladur is the mentor who failed to become president. Chirac was also once a mentor of Sarkozy's, and Sarko may at last be learning the ultimate lesson that Chirac had to teach: things look different from the top, and not quite so simple as they appear to lean and hungry lieutenants.