Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Party Ritual

The various Socialist courants are to submit their position papers to the consideration of party members this week in view of the upcoming Congress of Reims. Fabius is first out of the block. His summary statement can be read here. The document is an unconscious parody, a work of hucksterism rather than political thought or analysis. It is sort of an expanded bumper sticker of the genre that runs "think globally, act locally," but it would be more precise to describe it as "think grandiosely, act defensively." So we begin with a brisk--femtosecond brisk--overview of the global situation: China is big and getting bigger, oil is pricey and getting pricier, the West is no longer the center of the world, liberalism makes everything worse, and the Left has failed to appreciate the new lay of the land and the failure of liberalism (in case you missed it the first time). So much for the big ideas. Now come the various lines to be held: France needs more innovation and more small businesses, so let's invest in research and create a small business administration. Already the gap between the diagnosis and the remedy is beginning to seem, well, rather wide. And then we need more redistribution of wealth (always a good idea, but let's not dwell on the details). Protection and solidarity: more sine qua nons of la gauche de toujours. Ecology: check, we're modern as well as traditional in our idea of socialism. Republican equality, laïcité, and education: you can never go wrong with these. Euro-volontaires et internationalistes: sounds good, doesn't commit to anything controversial like an actual agreement among the 27. Nobody's against Europe, as long as they can have a Europe of their own. "We need a proud, aggressive, and open party." Check. "We propose a strategy of clear and winning alliances." Opponents presumably favor murky, losing alliances. Oh, and by the way, Fabius opposes the "presidentialization and peopolisation of the party."

If this whets your appetite for more, you can read the full document here.

Labor Mobility

It isn't only the unskilled worker who is migrating in search of better opportunities. The educated and skilled are also on the move. France is both a source of human capital for export and a favorite destination of talented individuals. Interactive map here.


All signs are that Sarkozy's speech to the Israeli Knesset was quite a success. The first part was such a dithyramb to the idea of a Jewish state that one Israeli MP proposed that it be distributed to all Israeli schools and read to schoolchildren (a gesture reminiscent of certain educational gestures of Sarkozy's). But then in the middle came the crucial modulation that rescued the speech from the one-sidedness to which it seemed to be doomed: "Mesdames et Messieurs,
On doit la vérité à ses amis, sinon on n’est pas un ami." The president went on to say that he represented a country that had had to forgive and reconcile with its neighbors. He defended the principle of a Palestinian state. And he said that there could be no peace without an immediate halt to the colonization of the West Bank and called for legislation to induce the departure of existing settlers. It was an unambiguous statement, and Sarkozy had the courage to make it before the Israeli parliament.

And, mirabile dictu, his speech earned the unequivocal approval of a contender for the Socialist leadership, Pierre Moscovici. There won't be many days as good as yesterday in Sarkozy's quinquennat.

Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste

Mouvements has published a series of articles on the possibility of launching a Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste. This is the proposed name of the party that is to unify the "left of the Left," the nebula of parties, groupuscules, social movements, affinity groups, and others who have given up hope that a Socialist will again unite the Left sufficiently to win a presidential election as Mitterrand did in 1981 and 1988. Olivier Besancenot's breakthrough into the front ranks of leftist politicians has aroused hope in some quarters that such a party is indeed viable. The Trotskyite postman has evidently hit on a successful formula for representing the revolutionary in a media age: affable, unflappable, and as indefatigably voluble as a sidewalk salesman on the rue de Rivoli, he now polls as well as or better than the Socialist heavyweights (43% "approve" of Besancenot and "would like to see him play an important role in the future," compared with 41% for Ségolène Royal and 45% for Dominique Strauss-Kahn).

One might question precisely what the words "important role" conceal, however. The revulsion from the Socialist présidentiables suggests a resignation, in a broad segment of the Left, to non-governing status. An "anticapitalist" party is a party unable to conceive of itself in compromise with the world as it is. It is a party that believes the most useful role it can play is extragovernmental. It is a party that sees itself as a "tribune of the people" rather than a manager of the economy or vanguard in some constructive project. It is a party that believes that politics in the present means temporizing until some fundamental change occurs to open a new way forward. It is, in short, a party of populist protest, with any number of predecessors in the recent French past.

But how strong is such a party? How much of the population does it represent? Is the 4.08% that Besancenot polled in the last presidential election more representative of its actual support than the 43% he received in the beauty contest poll cited above? I suspect so. To signal approval of Besancenot to a pollster is protest on the cheap; actually to vote for him is another matter. Still, the surveys should stand as a warning to leftists of all stripes: many on the left are still looking for a home, despite all the promises of "renovated" quarters ready to move into any day now. Leave them out in the cold much longer and they may well build a ramshackle shelter of their own.

The History of Trust

One of last year's notable books was Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc's La Société de défiance, a work that purported to show that French society was beset by a crisis of confidence stemming from a corporatist reaction to a dirigiste state. The seeds of this lack of trust were sown, allegedly, in the postwar compromise among social partners that created the welfare state.

Now, in a very interesting critique, Nicolas Delalande questions this thesis from two angles. First, he notes that the statistical evidence on which the case that France is an especially distrustful society rests looks less impressive when the Scandinavian countries are left out. Second, he questions the underlying historical premise of the work by the two economists. In Delalande's view, Algan and Cahuc see the Third Republic as a "golden age" of trust, which they claim came to an end in World War II and its aftermath. But what if this is not the case? It would certainly come as a surprise to many students of the history of France that "the contentious French" enjoyed a happy hiatus of mutual confidence in the years before the Second World War.

Although Delalande doesn't say so, his critique raises questions about a type of argumentation that has become popular in recent years. Algan and Cahuc rely heavily on survey data such as the General Social Survey and World Values Survey. Similarly, Thomas Philippon, in another much-praised book, also relied on data gathered by questionnaire. Econometric methods were then used to relate these soft data to "harder" statistics pertaining to economic performance. The sophisticated machinery yielded an air of solidity to conclusions that call for closer scrutiny. To put it bluntly: How trustworthy are the comparative data about trust? Do the questionnaires perhaps magnify cross-cultural differences? In view of the interest that Algan and Cahuc's work has attracted, their methods deserve careful study. Nicolas Delalande's essay has the merit of making a start in that direction.