Thursday, June 26, 2008

Another Position Paper

Another Socialist position paper has arrived: that of Gérard Collomb, mayor of Lyon, Manuel Valls, mayor of Evry, and Jean-Noël Guérini, president of the conseil général of Bouches-du-Rhône. They are joined by several other personalities representing the "decentralized" leadership of the PS as opposed to the "national" leadership. Hence it is not surprising to find that their statement borrows from the urbanist Jean Haëntjens, who has himself borrowed from Fernand Braudel's contrast between "city-hares" and "the tortoise state": "States have the power, cities have the creativity." It is an attractive thought that the renovation of the left should come, not from the bottom up, but from the middle out. The PS has flourished at the urban and regional levels of government while the national party has floundered. The PS did well in the recent municipal elections. Voters who are hard put to distinguish the parties at the national level discern clear differences in local management. The challenge for this courant of the party is to persuade militants that out of their experience it is possible to divine a new orientation for the party at the national level.

Media Mogul

Sarkozy's decision that the president of France Télévisions should henceforth be nominated by the chief of state is troubling, as I indicated in my previous post. Equally troubling is his rationale for the decision: "I do not see why the principal stockholder in France Télévisions, namely, the state, should not appoint its president." He also compared FT to any other state enterprise: EDF, GDF, SNCF, RATP. This refusal to grasp the distinction between the media--a fundamental organ of oversight and control in a liberal democracy--and other kinds of business is alarming. So is the implicit assertion of ownership. So is the confusion of agent with principal: if anyone owns the public media, it is the public--the People, not the president, who is merely their agent as well as a prime object of the media's attention, by the very nature of his office. Hence control of the agent by the principal is in this instance an even more sensitive issue than usual.

It is not too much to say that what is at stake is liberty. As for the ostensible check on the president's prerogative in the form of required approval by the parliament and CSA, Tocqueville already saw through this stratagem in regard to another assault on French liberties nearly three centuries ago, when an absolute monarch promised to compensate for his refusal to convoke the Estates General by feigning to enhance the powers of les parlements:

There was a need to appear to provide new guarantees in place of those that had been eliminated, because the French, who had put up rather patiently with absolute power as long as it was not oppressive, never liked the sight of it, and it was always wise to raise some apparent barriers in front of it, barriers that could not stop it but nevertheless hid it a little.
---L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, II.10.


Commenting on the previous post, kirkmc wrote:

Regardless of what finally happens, this situation [the confusion surrounding changes in the reimbursement for certain drugs] points out a serious problem in France. There is such paranioia that whenever any reform is announced - especially when things aren't clear, which is the case here - the French go rampant with conspiracy theories, and you read and hear, in the media, tons of conflicting reports of what is going to happen. (The politicians - especially the "opposition" help fuel this fire.) It's like during the university reforms, the students were demonstrating because the state was going to "privatize" universities.

I think this kind of speculation is very dangerous....

I can agree with this observation up to a point. Suspicion and distrust pervade French political life, and this is not a healthy situation. But if a government wishes to reduce such suspicion, it has to explain what it is attempting to do. It has to provide a plausible rationale for reform and a credible financial logic. To that end, it needs to consult with a variety of interested parties. In the case in point, we see a policy conceived without consultation with a major player, the private insurers who are to pick up the cost of medications no longer supported by the government. Read the remarks of Jean-Pierre Davant, the head of the Fédération Nationale de la Mutualité Française, here: "There was no consultation with the various actors concerned with health policy." This is not a matter of distortion by "politicians" for self-interested reasons. Davant goes to the heart of the matter. It is true that, compared with other European countries, the French consume a lot of drugs and that these costs need to be brought under control, but there is nothing in the logic of the current proposal that would obviously contribute to that goal. Costs are simply being shifted from public to private funding. Unless, of course, the private funders ultimately deny reimbursement for some of the drugs. So it's reasonable--and not at all "paranoid"--to ask what the motive of the reform is. And it's not only the opposition that has raised the question. Deputies of the UMP and Nouveau Centre have also expressed puzzlement about what the government's real intention might be. The problem is not simply, as kirkmc suggests, a lack of clarity; it is rather a lack of plausibility in the aim of the reform, however generously its terms are construed. I am willing to grant a government, any government, the benefit of the doubt if I can make sense of its intentions. But if I can't, then I think it's not only reasonable but obligatory to ask what they're really up to.

The same reasonable suspicion attaches to yesterday's decision regarding the reorganization of public radio and television. At bottom I don't really care whether public broadcasting is paid for by advertising or public funding. I don't care whether this or that tax is 0.5 or 0.9 percent. But I do care that the person in charge of public broadcasting will henceforth be appointed by the president. The charade of advice and consent by a "majority" of parliament and the "concurrence" of the CSA is risible. We know how this system was abused in the past, in the bad old days of the ORTF, and we are within our rights to anticipate abuse in the future, since the reforms instituted to prevent them have been suddenly and stealthily overturned. And to compound the offense, we are told that the reason for the change is to promote "culture": in exchange for operas and plays uninterrupted by commercials after 8 in the evening, we are to accept direct presidential control of some of the most influential French media. Is it "paranoid" to object?