Thursday, May 22, 2008

Europe on has introduced a new feature: a page on European affairs, which will feature reports from correspondents across the continent during the French presidency

Lagarde on Trichet

Count Christine Lagarde among those who are less impressed than Jean Quatremer and Le Monde by the wisdom and genius of Jean-Claude Trichet:

While Ms. Lagarde said that the bank’s president, Jean-Claude Trichet, was right to be concerned about inflation, she said he was “overly focused” on it.

Of course Lagarde may be wrong about currency misalignment, the underlying theme of her critique of Trichet.

Alain Rousset

I have a new MP3 player (Sansa Clip--highly recommended!), so when I walk my dog I can listen to the backlog of podcasts that have accumulated in my volumes of storage of "things French." And so it was that I listened yesterday to an old interview with Alain Rousset on Le Rendez-vous des politiques (this may not be everyone's idea of fun, but call me un obsédé). Rousset has been the president of the Conseil Général de l'Aquitaine for 10 years. Earlier this year he ran for mayor of Bordeaux against Alain Juppé and lost--but he got 34% of the vote in a city that has been held by the Right since 1947. Rousset is a Socialist, but his name may not be familiar to most people even in France. This is in part because he seems to be one of the few Socialists of any distinction without national ambitions. In any case, what struck me in the interview was the way in which this lack of national ambition transformed his discourse and altered his policy focus. This is not to say that he is a "local pol" of the "fill their potholes and make 'em happy" school. There is a genuine strategic dimension to his thinking, a macroeconomic dimension, but it's different from what one hears at the national level.

Two points struck me in particular. First, he says that for him the real problem of the French economy is not France's relation to work but its relation to business (l'entreprise). France can work more hours per year per capita and extend the mean working life, but nothing will really change until the adversarial workplace relationship changes. He doesn't discuss this relationship in terms of the currently fashionable academic literature on "distrust." I got the sense that for him the root of the problem lies deeper. It has to do with a pervasive cultural attitude, common among employers as well as workers, that la vraie vie est ailleurs, that what one does for a living is a pis aller rather than a vocation (and perhaps the religious overtones of the word "vocation" are a clue to the nature of the problem).

Second, I was struck by Rousset's observation that many well-intentioned reforms founder because the central authorities are insufficiently aware of details of implementation that crop up at the local level as obstacles to success. He mentioned, for instance, apprenticeship programs that required trainees to show up with their own toolboxes ready to work. But the necessary tools were too expensive for many prospective applicants. Had the region not stepped in and used its discretionary funds to buy tools, the program would have failed, but the ministry in Paris would have concluded that it failed because of lack of interest rather than lack of appropriate funding. Sometimes, he said, policies go wrong for reasons that are "bêtes."

He was also quite critical of the lois de Robien et Borloo (tax breaks on investments in rental property), which he said had led to speculation in real estate and a diversion of savings from more productive investment opportunities.

Salade de Crudités

Le Nouvel Observateur yesterday accused Sarkozy of another crude outburst, this time in front of journalists. But according to Jean Quatremer, it never happened and no journalist from the NO was present. Perhaps this latest slander (remember the SMS affair, another stain on the NO's reputation) will begin to restore some sobriety to the coverage of Sarkozy, which had become surreal.