Monday, June 30, 2008

Right-Wing Antimilitarism

Libé's defense correspondent, Jean-Dominique Merchet, wrote a while back about what he perceives to be a rising right-wing antimilitarism in France. He cites a number of possible reasons for this, most notably a growing divergence of values between a right that is increasingly liberal, internationalist, and antitraditional and a military that remains conservative, nationalist, and tradition-bound. He revives this comment today in the wake of what he takes to be antimilitary remarks by Sarkozy in the wake of the Carcassonne tragedy.

I don't know whether right-wing antimilitarism is real and, if so, how serious it might be, but I do think that Merchet exaggerates the significance of the president's remarks. To my mind, Sarkozy was simply expressing the civilian's flabbergasted astonishment that such a thing could happen. Is it so "violently antimilitary" to insist that someone be held responsible?

That said, I do wonder how it happened. On France2 tonight, a retired general explained that there are "strict controls" to ensure that live ammunition is always accounted for. Forgive me, general, but I served in an army once myself, a long time ago, so I know what such "strict controls" are worth. Despite being obliged to count magazines and spent brass after each session on the firing range, I can't tell you how many times a member of my platoon returned to the barracks with a full magazine of live rounds. And of course when that happened, the military being the military, one never turned in the ammunition. It was buried in one of the well-known holes reserved for such contraband, because to return it was to risk punishment. And it wasn't always buried. Some soldiers had their private stashes for who knows what purpose.

So I'm not surprised that the guilty trooper had live rounds in his possession. What does surprise me, though, is how he could have loaded them instead of blanks. A magazine of live ammo, in this case the standard 5.56 mm NATO round, weighs noticeably more than a magazine of blanks. Even if the soldier mistakenly put the live magazine in his bandolier, he should have noticed its weight when he changed magazines during the exercise. Of course there was a lot of action and noise, the adrenaline was running, and he might have been distracted. But you do have to wonder ...

President of Europe

Forgive me if what I am about to say is too familiar to bear repeating. Many readers of this blog will no doubt be more conversant with the institutions of the European Union than the average American. But to judge by the number of times I am asked about "Sarkozy as president of Europe, what does that mean?" many people don't really understand the structure of the EU executive. And who can blame them? It's hardly a model of clarity, and the executive really isn't an executive in the classic sense. In addition, Sarko's publicity flacks are doing their best to magnify the office, which Sarkozy assumes tomorrow. So what exactly is it?

On July 1, Nicolas Sarkozy, as head of the French state, becomes the president (it might be more accurate to say "chairperson") of the Council of the European Union (not to be confused with the Council of Europe, which has nothing to do with the EU). The former council--let's call it the EC1, for short--is collectively the "executive" of the European Union. Now, there is also another EU organ, the European Commission, which also has executive or administrative-executive functions, and its president is not Sarkozy but José-Manuel Barroso. Let's call this EC2.

The presidency of EC1 is a rotating affair with a term of six months. The president has no greater formal powers than any other member of the council, although the visibility of his office affords him a certain opportunity for maneuver and initiative. Some occupants of the office have been content to deal with matters as they arise; others have attempted to launch initiatives, insofar as that can be done in a brief six-month tenure.

Sarkozy assumes office at a moment of crisis, in the wake of Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. But the EU has really been in crisis since the French and Dutch no votes of 2005. This chronic crisis--to be oxymoronic--may alter Sarkozy's priorities, which, according to Le Monde, are agriculture, defense, immigration, and environment. Defense is likely to sink to the bottom of the pile, as little headway can be made on a common defense policy in the absence of the more unified foreign policy apparatus that was to have been midwifed by the Lisbon Treaty. Rescuing the treaty itself may become Sarko's primary goal, though he is in an awkward position to repair the democratic deficit, as a head of state who decided to ignore the failure of his own people to ratify the agreement.

Sarkozy allegedly confided to Yasmina Reza that he knew he had only about a year to make his mark in France before rigor mortis began to set in. The clock has now run out on that effort, and the score, according to the latest LH2 poll, is 66-34 against the president. The temptation will therefore be great to make the most of the fresh clock afforded by the European jaunt, but Sarko will have forfeited the home-field advantage. He has also changed his style, and it remains to be seen whether he will return to the frenetic pace of his early presidency with its daily announcements and frequent interventions under klieg lights here, there, and everywhere. This hasn't been the style of EC1 presidencies past, but then Sarko's manner was new for the Elysée as well.

So Europe waits. Or, rather, a thin stratum of Euro-watchers waits, while most of Europe goes about its business in sublime indifference. It probably doesn't help Sarko's cause that much of the continent will be in fermeture annuelle, albeit with fewer tourists than usual owing to the steadfastness (recalcitrance?) of that other echt-European institution, the European Central Bank, which, alas, the EC1 president is powerless to do anything about. Before anyone begins paying attention to the news out of Brussels again, it will be autumn and Sarko's presidency will be half over. In the meantime, he has twenty-six other heads of state watching his every move like hawks, outgoing president Angela Merkel first among them. The state of play is quite different from the state of play at home, where the opposition is in disarray and the majority in disgruntled beatitude. It will be a test of Sarkozy's skills to see how he handles this. I don't rule out surprises, but I don't expect miracles either.

For a more thorough exploration of the issues, see Judah Grunstein's blog.

Need(l)ing the Left

The M&M (Moscovici-Montebourg) faction of the Socialist Party, aka Socialisme et Démocratie or "les stauss-kahniens," submitted its position paper over the weekend. Reading these factional position papers is a special art. An innocent arriving from, say, the United States would probably have a hard time explaining, on the basis of these papers alone, why the various party factions disagree or even where on the political spectrum they stand. Are the Strauss-Kahnians on the right wing of the Socialist Party? Yes, but their paper attacks "financial speculation" with as much gusto as the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste and proposes an economic policy that smacks of the dirigisme of old, with nary even a nod to "the social market economy."

Speculation is of course today's antithesis of motherhood and apple pie, the Great Satan, and no one is for it, particularly since no one is required to define it or differentiate it from ordinary garden-variety capitalism, which "modern" socialists favor. Thus M&M insist that "we must respond to the challenge of growth and French competitiveness by rehabilitating economic voluntarism." They favor "sustainable development" while "resisting the primacy of the short term and the supremacy of the market." If this farrago of buzz words means anything, it suggests that M&M propose to invest scarce public money in new technology whose returns will be realized only in the long run.

To remark that such industrial policy ("economic voluntarism") is in fact tantamount to "speculation" even riskier than the speculation they denounce would perhaps be to expect more rigor of a position paper than is warranted--even if this is the paper of the faction of the PS reputed to embody the soundest economic thinking. Indeed, the purpose of the paper is not to propose an economic logic but to issue an emotional appeal to the left of the party, without whose support M&M have evidently concluded they are doomed: "In opposition to financial speculation, which diverts capital from indispensable investments, and in opposition to the politics of the Right, which in France promotes rent-seeking, the Left must encourage entrepreneurial risk-taking." It would be churlish, of course, to ask what "entrepreneurial risk-taking" in the absence of "financial speculation" amounts to: a sort of technological bungee-jumping, I imagine.

But if the economic side of M&M's program disappoints, we can always console ourselves with "the ecological revolution," which "necessitates planetary solidarity." Revolution, solidarity--the words hallowed by tradition are coupled with the new kid on the left-wing block, ecology.

Sigh. The Socialist Party might do well to forgo the position paper exercise and get on with the clash of éléphants that will decide this contest. Delanoë and Aubry seem to have concluded that neither is quite enough of a mastodon to tackle the nimble gazelle alone, so my guess is that they are in the process of working out a power-sharing arrangement. Aubry's Web site is still a bare-bones affair, however, and although Rue89 thinks she swiped it from Obama, they're mistaking the mere look-and-feel for the actual sophistication of the Obama Web operation, which gathers information, collects money, and links visitors in to a vast direct e-mail operation from which there is No Exit (as the dozens of daily missives from the Obama campaign in my inbox will attest). Not even Ségolène Royal, who has the most extensive Web presence of any Socialist contender, can compete. If the Socialist Party is indeed in the process of transforming itself into a flaccid umbrella party of the Left, akin to the American Democratic Party, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon alleges and fears, its marketing, polling, and image-shaping apparatus remains artisanal.

Besoin de gauche is the title of the M&M position paper. "Needing the Left" is perhaps an accurate characterization of France's position today, but the actual performance of the Left makes "needling the Left" almost irresistible.