Monday, May 12, 2008

Racial Discourse in France Today

Eric Fassin argues that "antiracism must focus its attention not just on racists but also on victims of racial discrimination," whose consciousness of themselves as a group has been heightened by years of unequal treatment. "Let's not speak in the name of our 'potes'. On the contrary, let's make their voices heard, in the plural. ... Our commitment should be against discrimination, not surveys."

Equality Multiplier

Erling Barth and Karl Moene have written an interesting paper entitled "The Equality Multiplier." They argue that states with less wage inequality (before transfers) generate political support for more generous social insurance while states with high wage inequality do not. They also show that states with more generous social insurance strengthen the position of low wage earners in wage negotiations and therefore generate more compressed wage distributions (i.e., less wage inequality). Together, these two mechanisms reinforce each other to generate what they call an equality multiplier. They test their theoretical model against OECD data. Very interesting work.

Reza Thin

Yasmina Reza's book on Sarkozy, which Éloi Laurent reviewed on this blog many months ago, has now been translated into English, and Adam Gopnik interviews Reza for the New Yorker. He doesn't get much. The book was thin gruel to begin with, but it was thickened by the immense expectation that attaches to any newly elected president, compounded in Sarkozy's case by a hint, an intimation, that whatever he had done to get himself elected was now water under the bridge; that he had been secretly preparing himself, steeling himself, for a moult into a new man equal to the position to which he had been elevated; and that Reza, who had observed him throughout the chrysalis phase, was in a unique position to sketch the butterfly that would emerge where once there had been only a creepy caterpillar.

Events have not been kind to either Sarkozy or his scribe. His transformation was short-lived. Reza's text proved more enigmatic than revelatory, an elaborate tease, rather like the tease of Sarkozy's election night promise that he would retreat to a monastery to prepare himself for the presidency in three days of rigorous ascesis. The monastery was almost immediately abandoned in favor of a yacht, however, and the tone of the new presidency was set. Gopnik, who attends to French matters only intermittently these days, seems, or pretends to be, unaware of all this.

In any case, Reza's book will surely vanish almost immediately. Whatever publisher might have imagined there would be a market for such a book in translation is probably rueing the day. Even in France it has had no staying power. It was a flash in the pan, the product of a fleeting moment that never existed in the United States. The New Yorker may think that by noticing the book it is evincing a continuing interest in France, but in fact it is demonstrating that its curiosity does not extend beyond the tinsel and glitz of second-degree celebrity. So we have Reza commenting on Bruni, just as in some other go-round we will surely have Bernard-Henri Lévy commenting on Bernard Kouchner or some such coupling. But these are the small potatoes, inexpensive enough to fill the pages of glossy magazines. When we have Luc Besson presenting a biopic of Eric Besson or Jay-Z sharing the stage with Diam's, we will know that France has truly arrived in the firmament of American media.

The Revolution on Television

In my youth, self-dramatizing revolutionaries stood on chairs at meetings and waved the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao. Yesterday, Olivier Besancenot sat on the Big Red Couch of Michel Drucker and laughed in complicity when a comedian mockingly implied that his appearance neatly and completely deconstructed every word he spoke. Since I didn't see the show, I will refer you to the interesting analysis by Jean-Baptiste Thoret on Bakchich: "If one can say anything on television--and one can say anything even, or especially, on Drucker's program [with its resolutely nonpartisan, consensual, bluff, unthreatening, unanlytical, and unintellectual tone]--it is as if one said nothing."

In other words, Besancenot can appear on television because no one is threatened by the revolutionary sensibility he claims to represent. Anyone can sympathize--at a safe distance--with a whole litany of good causes: the undocumented, the oppressed, the underpaid, the overworked; for two hours, no one in the implied audience is a racist, a capitalist, a financier, or an overprivileged beneficiary of an increasingly unequal, unbalanced, and uncorrectable set of social arrangements. But who could possibly want to overthrow a system that so cheerfully tolerates the exposure of its worst flaws? Isn't it wonderful that we listen to their denunciation as raptly as we delight in the culinary preferences of Thierry Lhermitte or Rachida Dati's choice of couturier? Then the program ends, and it's on to the football match, the evening film, or the news in which a histrionic Bernard Kouchner all but promises to commandeer a landing craft and lead a commando raid on Burma, dagger in teeth, to bring food and medicine to yet another group of victims with whom we sympathize cathodiquement for 7 minutes and 30 seconds.

For a contrary though not altogether perspicuous view of Besancenot and the media, see Philippe Bilger.