Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sarko: Misinformation

Corrected here.

Sarko: La Forme

In the previous post, I wrote about the substance of Sarkozy's televised interview tonight. But the substance, as is often the case, was intimately intertwined with the form. Sarkozy a une certaine idée de la présidence, and he is at pains to project himself into it. But he also has une certaine idée de lui-même, as a man who will brook no criticism from anyone, who makes standing his ground a point of honor, and who appears not to recognize that the bully pulpit of the presidency can make him seem like a bully tout court when he uses it to silence interlocutors who are not at liberty to take as aggressive a tone with him as he takes with them.

First, the setting. It was an odd arrangement: a triangular get-up suitable for a TV studio plunked down in the middle of a palatial room of gilded columns, coruscating chandeliers, and plush carpeting. Off to one side sat a select but silent audience, like bishops attending a mass, gathered beyond the rood screen in their narrow pews while a cardinal officiated at the high altar. Or perhaps it was a lit de justice, with the president in a swivel-chair throne, two premiers présidents du Parlement de Paris serving as intermediaries, and three journalists called one by one as supplicants before the monarch to plead their cases and hear the royal decrees for or against their constituents.

In the background, visible through the windows, were the grounds of the Élysée, or was it a painting of the grounds by Monet, all in blues and greens and purples, an exquisitely restricted palette that communicated not nature but art, taste, and infinite refinement? Evening slowly enveloped the canvas, muting the colors and artfully blurring the details.

The camera movement, discreet and well-calculated, showed just enough of the room and audience to establish the desired subtext: grandeur, tradition, venerability, du sérieux. The president wore a dark suit and dazzlingly white shirt (not the best choice for television) but as usual left his tie just a tad too loose and slightly skewed to one side, conveying an impression of personal fecklessness at odds with the professionally set scene. He wore a patriotic lapel pin (copied from Bush, perhaps?--OK, it was Comm. de la LdH, but just think if he'd worn an American flag, what a sensation!) and thus would have escaped the treatment that Obama received at the hands of Stephanopoulos and Gibson. Oddly, Sarko kept tugging at the wings of his jacket, as though afraid of exposing too much belly, or perhaps a director was whispering to him through an earpiece that the excess white was a problem for the cameraman.

The president began in a philosophical mood, hoping to seem imperturbable and therefore presidential despite the accusations of failure, despite the best efforts of the newsmen to give him the répondant he had found lacking in his previous encounter with the press. But soon enough the philosopher gave way to the pugilist. Sarko is more comfortable in the latter role. He has developed a whole series of gestures and tics of language to make the point that he is not a man to be trifled with. There is the habit of bringing thumb and index finger together in a downbeat motion to enumerate a series of points, beat after beat. There is the device of insisting that no choice but his makes the slightest sense by turning any attempt to question his decisions back on the questioner: "Qu'est-ce que vous voulez que je fasse? Vous voulez que la France ne fasse rien?" Note the identification of self with France. Observe the slicing of the air with the lower edge of an open palm. Watch the opening of the arms with palms up, as if to say, "Have I not already thought of everything?"

But above all there is the device of addressing each interlocutor by name, in order to reduce the question to an expression of personal animus rather than a matter on the mind of the nation, posed abstractly in the name of all, of Public Opinion, and therefore every bit as legitimate as the president who is himself nothing more than an emanation of the same public as the journalist. Thus we hear repeatedly locutions of the following form: Je vais vous dire pourquoi, M. Pujadas. Je regarde votre émission, M. Calvi, je vous vois tempêter quand la loi est tournée ... Attendez, M. Poivre-d'Arvor, je vous dirai le fond de ma pensée, mais il faudrait quand même un peu de patience. And then there is the habit, mentioned in the previous post, of avoiding debate about the logic of a policy by shifting the ground from generalities to examples: Je vais vous donner un exemple, M. Calvi. ... Autre exemple ... Et puis cet autre exemple ... Thus the viewer is treated to an impressive recital of memorized facts and figures, to a rich reportoire of specifics and details, but never to the rationale of a reform, to the intricate way in which one policy is supposed to intertwine with all the others, since we have already been admonished that toutes les réformes se tiennent. Sarko, with thirty years of experience of browbeating interviewers and interlocutors, is a past master at this game. But each time he plays it, a little of the presidential sheen erodes, and in the mind of the viewer he slips back into the role of the brash partisan attack dog known to all.

Sarko: Le Fond

It's not always easy to separate le fond from la forme in Sarkozy's televised appearances. He relishes the appearance of give-and-take and has mastered a series of devices that allow him to control the flow of the conversation in such a way as to give an impression of mastery of the details of government without allowing room for any real probing of his justifications for making the choices he makes. But let me defer discussion of la forme to the next post and try to deal here only with the more substantive issues that were raised in his two hours with five journalists.

The president was immediately confronted with the judgment that his presidency had failed. He was asked what he thought hadn't worked, and why. He took exactly the tack that I said in an earlier post today would make him look "weak and self-repudiating": circumstances were to blame, he said, not the fundamentals of his approach. Oil prices had doubled; the subprime crisis hit; the euro rose to an all-time high. Yet France had "resisted better than other countries," he added, and had achieved its lowest unemployment rate in a quarter of a century. Later, when challenged about the inequities of the tax reform package, he went so far as to suggest that it had been a wise choice because it had anticipated the demand stimulus policies that other countries would later adopt in response to the subprime crisis. None of the reporters challenged this bizarre claim.

Asked if he had not failed because he had attempted too much, and would it not be better to prioritize the reforms, he said that previous reform efforts had failed because they did not recognize the systemic interrelations among the changes needed. "Toutes les réformes se tiennent," he said, echoing Jacques Attali. He had undertaken 55 reforms--mercifully, he didn't list them all--and all were necessary, none could stand without the others. No one pressed him either on this bizarre claim--manifestly false, since there clearly has been a prioritization of reforms as resistance has developed more rapidly in certain areas than others.

Asked how he had changed personally in his first year on the job, he fell back on one of the standard numbers from his repertory: "the presidency is such a heavy responsibility" that anyone who takes on the job must change. He avoided saying how.

These questions were from the generalists, the news anchors PPDA and Pujadas. At this point the specialists stepped in, and Sarkozy immediately became more aggressive in his answers, which turned now not on philosophical generalities but on "examples" (I will say more about this tactic when I talk about the form of the session). On purchasing power he gave no purchase: "La réforme des heures supplémentaires, ça marche." He also mentioned the re-indexing of rents to the general rather than the construction price index. When pressed on the price of gas and other fuels, he came up with a better formula to justify his inaction than "les caisses sont vides": "Either the taxpayer pays," he said, "or the user pays." True enough, but perhaps not the answer expected from le président du pouvoir d'achat, and sure to add to the disappointment. He invoked the need for more competition in retail sales, but he has been in power for a year and yet, as he himself pointed out, French prices and inflation are higher than in neighboring countries.

The idea of sharing profits with workers and giving workers an ownership interest in their employers--a favorite hobby horse--was broached again, yet there was also the now-familiar attack on "finance capital" and "pension funds." If employees are to own stock and save for their own retirement, it would behoove them to diversify rather than put all their eggs in the basket of their employer, and thus they would enter the realm of finance capital and pension funds and acquire an interest in the kind of return-enhancing leverage that contributed to the subprime crisis. The contradiction went unnoticed.

When challenged to explain why firms were not raising wages despite rising profits, Sarkozy rather incongruously blamed the 35 hr. week. To pay for this perk, he said, real wages had to fall, hence profits had to rise. But labor is supposed to be paid its marginal product, and productivity has risen since the 35-hr. week was introduced. It's interesting that Sarko's argument is that the reduction in the work week has led to increased profits but not increased investment. By this logic, the Socialists were the party of capital.

His presidency would be in trouble if it were to become a presidency that favored some rather than all, he said, prompting PPDA to ask whether the paquet fiscal hadn't indeed favored some--the wealthy--rather than all. But the only error to which Sarko would admit was an "error of communciation."

On the revenu de solidarité active, he said, "Le RSA se fera," but there were wrinkles to be ironed out. We will see what remains when the ironing is done.

As for reduction of the deficit to 0 by 2012 despite the failure to make progress on the deficit in the first year, he said that he would be judged at the end of his quinquennat and stuck to his promise.

Turning to social issues, he was adamant on immigration choisie and rejected mass regularizations. He dismissed the current pressure from employers, about which I wrote earlier today, as the result of un coup médiatique and said that since unemployment was high--22%--among legal immigrants, there was no need for anyone to hire illegal ones. He cast his policy as a middle course between the extreme right's characterization of immigration as a "menace and malady" and the extreme left's equation of "control" with "racism."

On the schools, he parried a question about whether there were too many teachers by saying that expenditures were not matched by results. Enrollments were down, hence the schools should be able to make do with fewer teachers.

Did he stand by his statement that the teacher could not replace the priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, etc? Indeed he did. Was this incompatible with republican values and laïcité. Not in his mind.

Could he continue to call for 41 years of contributions for full retirement benefits when even the reformist unions (the CFDT) had turned against it? It was the job of the head of state to demonstrate courage, to make the hard decisions no one else wanted to make. Whatever he did, someone would be unhappy. So be it.

What was his personal position on genetically modified organisms? Favorable to research but insistent on caution when it came to use.

On Tibet: were the followers of the Dalai Lama terrorists, as China insisted, resisters, as many in the West believe, or something else indicative of the need for caution before intervening in the internal affairs of another sovereign power? He sidestepped this question by suggesting that he was working to establish a dialog between the Chinese and the Tibetans. The journalists were incredulous. France? By itself? Were there any signs that this effort might bear fruit? An enigmatic smile. "Signs, yes." Four months remained to achieve progress, and when the time for decision came, France would have the EU presidency. Clearly Sarkozy hoped to lend weight to his démarche toward China by invoking the EU. If these efforts were to succeed, he said, it would be necessary to reduce the number of "blessures d'amour-propre," a very interesting formula and a clue to his thinking about the Chinese leadership.

On Afghanistan he resorted to the clever ploy of linking the French commitment there to the struggle for human rights: "If you back the Tibetans, then why don't you support the effort to allow little girls to go to school in Afghanistan." But it wasn't only a matter of protecting little girls: there was Pakistan next door, with its nuclear bomb, and if Afghanistan fell, Pakistan would be next--a curious domino theory, in which the strong are propped up by the weak.

In conclusion, "je sais où je vais," he insisted, and he had four more years to get there. Did the municipal elections constitute a rejection of his policy? All across Europe, he replied, incumbent parties had lost in municipal elections. It was a setback, but he would continue on his course, unperturbed.

Did he put doubts to rest? I don't think so. Did he help himself? A little perhaps. Did he clarify his intentions, lay out any new programs or directions, or indicate innovative responses to changed circumstances? No. It was not one of his better performances.

Peillon's Take

Reader myos calls my attention to this interview (video) with Vincent Peillon. It is indeed interesting, not least for Peillon's repeated reference to a phenomenon that has received far too little attention, in my view: the volatility of the French electorate. Peillon draws from this observation a warning to his own party: do not make the mistake of thinking that Sarkozy's current abysmal approval rating indicates that the next election is already won or that the PS has successfully reestablished itself in the eyes of voters.

Les Gracques Evaluate Sarko

Sarkozy has proposed quantitative evaluations of the performance of his ministers. Les Gracques have proposed a qualitative evaluation of Sarkozy's first year in office. They find him guilty of three sins: against economic reason (focusing on demand stimulus rather than supply-side reform), social justice (redistributing to the rich through such measures as reform of the estate tax, wealth tax, and fiscal shield), and squandering of the clear electoral mandate for reform (despite some acknowledged successes). They conclude with an examination of France as an exception in relation to other European nations, on four counts: high social expenditure with low social redistribution; excessive reliance on regressive taxation such as the VAT; high expenditure on education with relatively poor results; and an employment security system based on the protection of jobs rather than workers, to the detriment of economic dynamism.

Presidential Style

Annick Bonnet reviews a book by Nicolas Mariot, Ils se présidentialisent, which analyzes the way in which presidents of France have "inhabited" their functions since 1848. To judge from the review, the book concentrates on the various instruments by which presidents have sought to establish and project power over institutions and civil society. These instruments include trips, local visits, ceremonies, speeches, etc. Mariot attempts to diminish the contrast that other commentators have established between the presidency of the Fifth Republic and earlier presidencies. Readers may appreciate the accompanying photo gallery.

Students of comparative politics may wish to compare Mariot's approach with the very different one of Stephen Skowronek in The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Skowronek is interested not so much in the instruments of leadership as in relationships between leaders, their predecessors, and the political context. His complex argument, which is very difficult to summarize, hinges on the observation that some leaders define themselves as fulfilling a promise initiated by others while others define themselves as reversing or undoing a predecessor's program that has allegedly ended in impasse or disaster.

The notice of these two books is particularly pertinent as we await President Sarkozy's confrontation with the press later today. Sarko will be availing himself, in Mariot's terms, of an instrument he has made his own: the conversation with selected media stars in an august Elysian setting. In Skowronek's terms, however, he will be attempting a difficult maneuver: having defined himself initially as both the opposite of his predecessor (Chirac) in terms of style and energy and the continuator in terms of fundamental policy orientation (a cautious liberalization of the French social model in order to preserve its overall structure while removing supposed fetters to growth), he will now be redefining himself, I imagine, in opposition/continuation of himself. He has already said in a myriad of ways, "I have changed, and yet I remain the same." The question now is how he will rearticulate this basic message.

In Skowronek's analysis, the president most gifted at this delicate operation was Franklin D. Roosevelt: when the initial thrust of the New Deal encountered major obstacles, FDR used failure and defeat (particularly the rejection of the NRA by the Supreme Court) to remobilize the forces that had brought him to power in the first place. Sarkozy's challenge is greater: he is perceived to have failed despite the absence of opposition as formidable as that posed by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also a continuator rather than a renovater (despite his rhetoric to the contrary) when he first came to power. Hence he cannot blame the forces of reaction and must rather explain the inadequacies of his initial analysis of the situation he faced. He can of course plausibly blame an unfavorable global economic conjuncture, but having defined himself as a voluntarist whose will is equal to any circumstantial challenge, to take that tack would be to appear weak and self-repudiating.

It will be interesting to see how he rises to the challenge.

Les Mots et les Choses

During the presidential campaign, the Right criticized the Left for its angélisme on the immigration question. Realism was the watchword of the Right. France would select its immigrants on the basis of its needs. The problem was a question of management, not morality.

How fascinating, then, to see a powerful center of opposition to the government's immigration policy developing among employers, particularly small to medium enterprises in the construction, restaurant, and hotel sectors, which employ large numbers of immigrant workers and which have become impatient with the foot-dragging, case-by-case approach to regularization still defended by the minister of immigration and national identity, Brice Hortefeux.

Thus the Right finds itself hoist by its own petard. Management is indeed the crux of the matter, and it's the managers of small businesses that rely on immigrant labor who are forcefully making the point to the government that efficient management cannot tolerate the uncertainty that your policies are causing to hover over our labor force and cannot tolerate the disruptiveness of your police tactics, searches, deportations, etc. The government is thus caught in a bind. It must choose between the rhetoric of management and the winks and nods to the extreme right, whose support at the polls remains an integral part of the equation of power. It was a day of reckoning that had to come. It's interesting that it has come through the combined pressure exerted by employers, unions, and immigrant workers themselves. It's always heartening to see civil society asserting the demands of reality in the face of distortionary state rhetoric.