Sunday, November 16, 2008

Le Style Ségo

With Ségolène Royal again threatening to overwhelm the resistance of party apparatchiks and take control, old knives are being sharpened and weapons mothballed since the presidential election pressed into service again. Exhibit number 1, from L'Express:

C'est une carte postale déposée dans la salle de presse du congrès par un anonyme qui susurrait: "C'est le sourire de l'ange de Reims". Au verso, une photo en noir et blanc de l'ex-candidate à l'Elysée. Un témoignage parmi d'autres du culte que suscite celle que les médias ont surnommée "la Madone", ou "la Dame en blanc".

But Ségo didn't appear in white at Reims. She wore a simple gray sweater over a white blouse and could have been a schoolteacher or a secretary. Her apotheosis was in the eye of the beholder. When she went "folksy" at Le Zénith, she was derided not as a madonna but rather as a would-be adolescent or over-the-hill rock star. Nor was there anything particularly religious about her Reims speech. Her rhetoric involved a call for "healing" of a party wounded by months of division and still bleeding, an extended though unremarkable metaphor under the circumstances:

"Il nous faut prendre soin de notre parti. Il va falloir nous guérir, il faut nous soigner de toutes ces petites et grandes blessures que nous nous sommes infligées, de tous ces chagrins, parfois de ces offenses. Il va falloir les oublier, les effacer, un jour nous les pardonner", a-t-elle déclaré.

Of course it's her ability to tap the register of emotions that upsets some Socialists. Her core competences are education and family policy, and this led some observers to dismiss her for her lack of experience with the "regalian powers." Her expertise lay in what some were pleased to describe as "women's issues." Economics, foreign policy, the military: no place for a woman, those battlefields, except perhaps as a nurse prepared to "heal" -- hence the quickness to seize on the passage quoted above with its expressions of solace and empathy (guérir, soigner, chagrins, offenses, oublier, pardonner).

Aubry, also a woman, brings a very different image to the contest. "Madame les 35 heures" hails from the heartland of social democracy: the wage bargain. Unlike her German counterparts, she represents not an exchange of wage restraint for a share of future profits and the benefits of growth but rather a new dispensation in the reckoning of the social wage, a trade between work and leisure. If Ségo represents a leap into the political unknown, into the post-modern politics of caring for the damage inflicted by the post-modern world, Aubry offers a politics more familiar to an older generation of party members. So we may well see a generational divide in the vote. I followed Reims only on television from 3,000 miles away, but still I saw remarkably few young faces in the crowd or among those interviewed by the media. I suspect that younger members of the party are the more enthusiastic Ségolènistes. They're responding not to Madonna (old or new) or Joan of Arc but rather to a woman who recognizes that left-wing politics in 2008 is about more than just the workplace.

Cui bono?

Who benefits from the various routes to admission to Sciences Po? An interesting note from ScPo head Richard Descoings gives an answer. There are 3 ways to get in to Sciences Po: 1. selection based on school record (mention très bien) without exam; 2. traditional written exam; 3. special admission under "priority" selection rules (what we would call affirmative action). Descoings asks how the social backgrounds of students admitted via each path differ and offers statistics on the proportion of scholarship students in each group and the mean tuition fees paid.* The answers are revealing: 10, 22, and 62% and 3,000, 2,370, and 600 euros respectively. The number of students admitted under each regime was 374, 371, and 103 respectively.

*Tuition fees reflect the income of parents (or of the student if recognized independent).

Darcos Chahuté

Education minister Xavier Darcos faced tough questioning from lycéens summoned from across France to the Ecole Polytechnique. He denied that curriculum reform was being used to eliminate teaching posts, although large numbers are being eliminated. Some of the students attending the session came away satisfied, however.

Right vs. Left or North vs. South?

So it comes down to a battle between Aubry and Royal, with Hamon as spoiler. How best to describe the evolving contest? Is it going to be about an opening to the center or its refusal, as I discussed yesterday? This is of course the sort of red herring that often distorts primary battles. As Royal pointed out, Aubry already has an alliance with MoDem on her home turf, so her alignment with those who reject an opening to the center in the current battle seems like the most hypocritical of tactical maneuvers, and a "commitment" that can be jettisoned whenever necessary.

Is it a face-off between the party's right and its left? It's hard to read that way, since the left is really behind Hamon rather than either of the front-runners. Is it pro-Europe vs. anti-Europe? Not clearly so. North vs. South? More plausible, perhaps, since Aubry's big battalions are in the Nord, whereas Royal's primary strength is in the Bouches-du-Rhône and Lyon. But are there any deep reasons for that geographical divide, or is it simply a matter of the location of powerful party leaders: Aubry in the Nord, Collomb in Lyon, Guérini in Marseille? Or is it just TSS, Tout Sauf Ségo?

In any case, it's a mess, and no synthesis emerged from last night's negotiations, characterized by Marianne as la nuit des petits canifs (as opposed to la nuit des longs couteaux). Could this be the end of the Socialist Party? It seems unlikely, since a split would not resolve anything. No faction has a clear enough line or identity to form the nucleus of a new party, and there are plenty of ego rivalries within each camp, so nothing would be gained in that respect either. The story seems to be that les élus locaux are content enough to muddle on through at the local level as they have been doing, and whether or not their party wins the presidency doesn't terribly affect them in their bastions. So there isn't enough incentive to compromise in order to win the big prize. Each therefore clings to his or her preferences based on the likes and dislikes, the balms and bruises, of a generation of party infighting. Unlike Sarkozy, they don't want the presidency badly enough to impose discipline or swallow the compromises necessary to get it.

Sarko Backs Off on Missiles

President Sarkozy now says that an American missile defense system in Eastern Europe might not be such a bad idea after all as a "supplement" to other defenses against ... Iran. In other words, Sarko and Bush are now back on the same page. So ... who got to him in Washington?

Sarkozy's independence on this issue was to me a healthy sign of a vigorous multilateralism. He correctly perceived the way in which Washington's provocation was empowering hard-liners in Russia. He therefore offered Russian soft-liners support: withdraw your countermove against the American threat, do not redeploy your offensive weapons systems, and I will do what I can to persuade the Americans that this is a bad idea. If I fail, you can resume your symbolic gesture (and that's all it is, really: moving truck- and rail-mounted offensive missiles closer to a NATO border is hardly a serious military move, since such systems can always be deployed on short notice if tensions rise; to move them now rather than later is a political quid pro quo for the anticipated construction of American radar sites and antimissile launch pads, which, by contrast, is a serious move, since it involves new fixed bases).

Of course Sarkozy can still be playing this game behind the scenes, but by seeming to fall in with today's American line, he weakens his hand and heightens Russian suspicions, since he reneges on a position he took only days ago after meeting Medvedev in Nice.

The really worrisome thing is that he has backtracked because he heard from someone in Washington that Obama would be sticking to Bush's line on the missiles. Now, who might that have been? Madeline Albright was one of Obama's two representatives at the G20, and Albright, with her well-known anti-Russian views, would likely be on board with Bush's thinking. But is this really Obama's position? The Poles indeed said that it was after a five-minute phone call between Obama and the Polish premier last week, but the Obama transition team rapidly denied that the subject had been discussed. Still, when you add up the various maneuvers, and credit Sarkozy with a certain savvy in this kind of game, it certainly looks as though he's been tipped that there will be no change in American policy on the missiles in the near term despite the change of administration.

I don't like the signs, although it may be that the "defensive" missiles are merely a ploy to persuade the Russians to join in sanctions against Iran, as Dennis Ross has suggested according to this article in the Times of London (h/t Boz). But is such a threat really necessary to move the Russians? Wouldn't a withdrawal of the threat coupled with a promise to undertake a comprehensive review of US and European policy toward Russia once a new American administration is in place be a better ploy?