Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Politics in Hard Times

Le Monde Diplo has taken note of Peter Gourevitch's Politics in Hard Times, which I recommended the other day.

The Empty Chair or the Empty Threat?

As if things were not already bad enough, the G20 leaders now have to deal with a French tantrum on the eve of the summit (h/t Katia). The French have been putting out the word that Sarkozy will walk out if he doesn't get his way on a "moral refoundation" of capitalism, no less. Xavier Musca says that this means some sort of transnational regulator of regulators; Christine Lagarde says it has to do with new rules on tax havens, leading Dani Rodrik to wonder what tax havens have to do with the global crisis. British officials are saying that Sarko is merely staging a tantrum to appeal to the home market.

No doubt the president has in mind de Gaulle's deft use of la politique de la chaise vide (thanks Sophie! for the correction) but this affair risks being more of an empty threat than an empty chair, and it is beginning to make Sarko look like an empty suit to his foreign partners, who aren't in the mood for playing games.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Lamont on the University Crisis

Michèle Lamont, who has a new book out on How Professors Think, has given an interview to nonfiction.fr in which she comments on, among other things, the state of French universities. Her remarks, which cut to the heart of the problem not only with the government's reform proposals but also with the status quo, are worth reproducing in full:

nonfiction.fr : En quoi cela tranche-t-il avec le système français actuel ?

Michèle Lamont : Le système français est en transition. Il y a une crise profonde, en partie parce que par le passé, les commissions d'évaluation étaient souvent composées d’un ou plusieurs groupes "affinitaires" dont la légitimité scientifique pouvait être faible, incluant des universitaires proches du politique ou des syndicats, mais qui n'avaient pas toujours un dossier de publications de premier ordre, alors que les chercheurs de pointe pouvaient refuser d’y siéger. Par ailleurs, en France, l'accès à un poste requiert souvent un lobbying préalable qui est humiliant pour le candidat, et qui reproduit des relations de patronage qui sont malsaines et qui vont a l'encontre du développement d'une culture de l'évaluation à même de renforcer la légitimité des universitaires.

Il me semble que le principal problème est que cet univers reste hyper-politisé, en partie à cause de la pénurie durable de ressources. Les universitaires ne considèrent pas toujours comme évident qu'un expert de haut niveau doive pouvoir évaluer un profil ou un projet en faisant abstraction de ses intérêts personnels. Je ne dis pas que c’est toujours le cas aux États-Unis, loin de là, mais on y constate qu'un expert qui ne fait pas d'effort pour séparer de manière explicite ses intérêts personnels de ses critères d'évaluation voit son statut professionnel décroître, et n'est pas réinvité à siéger dans les comités d'évaluation. Le localisme est associé à la médiocrité dans ce vaste système universitaire national où la performance selon des critères universalistes est vue comme une marque de véritable excellence.

Aujourd’hui, il semble que la politique gouvernementale française veuille remplacer le système actuel par une approche managériale, susceptible de renforcer le localisme, et davantage "automatisée" (notamment par l’utilisation systématique d’indicateurs quantitatifs). Les réformes proposées ne semblent pas mettre l'expertise des chercheurs au centre du dispositif d'évaluation. Le système américain marche en partie parce que les évaluateurs sont reconnus en tant qu'experts ayant passé une bonne partie de leur vie à développer une connaissance approfondie de leur domaine de recherche, ce qui leur permet de déterminer quelle sont les nouvelles questions qui valent la peine d'être explorées. Dans le contexte français, cette prérogative de l'expert est aujourd’hui mise en question. Il semble y avoir une crise profonde de l'expertise de recherche, ce qui est assez surprenant dans un pays ou la vie intellectuelle est si centrale pour l'identité nationale.

What the G20 Will Do

Previewed here. Bottom line: Europeans win big, US loses big, and--if you believe the conventional wisdom--this means a longer depression and slower growth in recovery, so we all lose big, but especially the developing countries. Hence the importance of the still-unresolved issue, how much additional funding will be made available to the IMF. If it's $250 billion, that's bad news for much of the world; if it's $750 billion, the news is better.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Nicolas Sarkozy "a la banane,"* dit-il. The French, precariously employed, are skidding on banana peels into poverty, says François Hollande. This is what passes for political debate in France? asks the commentator.

*i.e., he is smiling, from the resemblance of the mouth forming a smile to a banana, says the dictionary. In English we might say that he has a "s***-eating grin on his face."

Two Book Recommendations for These Times

"Economic crisis, policy debate, and political experimentation are surely somehow connected, and their connections are the subject of this book." So wrote Peter Gourevitch in 1986, in a book that deserves to be re-read today, Politics in Hard Times. And for a look at Keynesian doctrine in practice see Peter Hall, ed., The Political Power of Economic Ideas: Keynesianism across Nations. (Both Peters are friends of mine, but you won't go wrong with either book.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Blinkered? Thinking out loud about orthodox beliefs ...

Paul Krugman has been reading Eichengreen and Temin, "The Gold Standard and the Great Depression," and wondering if our sober and serious thinkers and policymakers are suffering, perhaps, from a blindness akin to that which derived from the ideology of the gold standard in the 1920s and 30s. He thinks that today's equivalent of the gold standard may well be the "mystique of finance," which he believes has not been expunged from the Geithner plan.

But let me play devil's advocate for a moment--always a useful role in an emergency, when urgency hardens choices prematurely and tends to shut out doubt and experimentation. I'm not as sure as Krugman that the mystique of finance continues to flourish, since it suckled on the milk of optimism, which has now evaporated. The ruling ideologies of the moment, derived from the lessons of the last Depression, are, I think, 1) that output gaps must be filled with unstinting government expenditure and 2) that trade openness must be maintained lest neighbors be beggared. About open capital flows there is less agreement, indeed a growing sense that these need to be regulated and perhaps taxed, but free trade in goods remains largely intact and untouchable.

I tend to believe these orthodoxies myself, to the point where I find dissent from either of them, such as that expressed by Angela Merkel on stimulus spending (h/t Eloi), shocking, just as the first attempts to throw off the "golden fetters" were found shocking in the 30s. But what if we orthodox believers are overlooking something?

Is there any reason to believe we might be? Well, take this column by Epifani and Gancia. They aren't directly concerned with the current crisis and are perhaps less likely, therefore, to be influenced by their emergency commitments. Although they are concerned with explaining the effect of trade openness on government size, the mechanism they discuss--the effect of government spending on terms of trade--is one that needs to be more thoroughly explored. For what Eichengreen and Temin remind us of is the way in which local instabilities were transmitted and magnified via adherence to the gold standard. We no longer have that to worry about, but we do have new mechanisms for the transmission and amplification of instability around the globe. How these mechanisms will interact with stimulus packages, especially when those stimuli are uncoordinated, is a matter about which history has little to teach us and theory--pace Mundell and Fleming--is underdeveloped.

I'm not saying that anxiety on this score should undermine belief in our orthodoxies. Just that all doubt shouldn't be thrown overboard to lighten ship in the storm. It just might turn out to be a life preserver. I see no reason to forget that, like our forebears, we, too, are likely to hold that the beliefs to which we cling in troubled times are the very embodiment of wisdom and virtue. That's certainly the way Paul Krugman feels about his beliefs.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mosco Tires of His Blog ...

... or is it the state of the PS that's got him down?

You Be the Judge

Will DSK be a viable presidential candidate in 2012? His appearance last night on À vous de juger was apparently a great success (I haven't seen it yet myself)--confident and statesmanlike, according to one friend. And the comparative ratings picture looks good:

1. Nicolas Sarkozy : 17,1 %, le 14 février 2008.
2. Dominique Strauss-Kahn : 16 %, le 26 mars 2009.
3. Rachida Dati/Bernard Tapie : 15,2 %, le 16 octobre 2009.
4. Bernard Kouchner : 14,4 %, le 15 mai 2008.
5. Une spéciale "Impôts, pouvoir d'achat, salaires" : 14,1 %, le 27 mars 2008
6. Martine Aubry : 12,7 %, le 29 janvier 2009.
7. François Bayrou : 12,3 %, le 11 décembre 2008.
8. Une spéciale "Crise" : 12,3 %, le 13 novembre 2008.
9. François Fillon : 12 %, le 12 juin 2008 (face à un match de l'Euro sur TF1).
10. Xavier Darcos : 9,8 %, le 11 septembre 2008.

Institut Montaigne Proposals

Some interesting thoughts for the upcoming G20 from the Institut Montaigne. The proposals in the document narrow the gap between the European position, calling for regulation, and the American position, calling for stimulus. This opposition is too stark, to the point of caricature, since Tim Geithner yesterday laid out the American proposal for regulatory reform. This includes a clearing house for credit default swaps. But the Institut Montaigne proposal adds an interesting wrinkle: that CDS cleared through this central agency should pay a fee, the proceeds of which will go to fund the IMF. This is an excellent idea.

The Institut Montaigne also notes that European governments have met with difficulty in funding their deficits. The Germans were unable to place all of their last bond issue, according to the document. This may help to explain why Europeans are reluctant to stimulate by increasing their deficits further. The IM document suggests that an authority be created to issue a European sovereign bond. Details on this are a bit sketchy, and though they are said to be fleshed out elsewhere on the site, I wasn't able to find them. Without an EU taxing authority, I'm not sure why Euro-debt should be easier to place than national debt, but the underlying idea is clear: with a common currency and a common central bank, one needs a way to issue debt that compensates for the deficiencies of the weakest member states.

These are constructive proposals for the G20 to consider, and there's much more in the document, which is available in both French and English (except that, on checking, the English "document" appears to be in French as well).

Freedom Fries

Did French opposition to the Iraq War hurt the French economy? This paper argues that it did, significantly.

Kwak on Couacs out of Europe

Here. See also the Times, here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gromov Wins Abel Prize

Mikhail Gromov has won the Abel Prize recognizing superior work in mathematics. The Russia-born Gromov teaches at the Institute des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in Bures-sur-Yvette. Just another of those "mediocre" French professors Sarkozy was blasting the other day.

Aubry's Papa Backs Fillon and Juppé for EU

Jacques Delors, the father of PS leader Martine Aubry, says he'd like to see François Fillon or Alain Juppé head the European Commission.

Martine had better hope she's a knockout on Drucker's show.

Racial Statistics

I see from the blog logs that a previous brief note on racial statistics has drawn attention from several readers at the Assemblée Nationale. My note merely referred to a lucid and excellent article by Etienne Wasmer. Perhaps the AN readers were more interested in the comment to my note by Jean Granville. I originally felt that M. Granville's comment was best left to speak for itself, without any gloss from me, but since it seems to be attracting readers in high places, perhaps a few remarks are warranted. M. Granville begins by saying:

This is outrageous, pure and simple.

First, Mr Wasner, we French are not the ones who have to "accept the other". It is "the other" who has to make the French accept him first. He is the one who decided to come, nobody forced him. So please, let's put our priorities in order.

Then, Mr Wasner has already decided that the problem to be solved is discrimination.

No. The main problem is an excessive immigration. Immigration is fine just as long as you can assimilate immigrants. When there are too many of them, that becomes impossible and problems occur. It happens to be the case that most recent immigrants are either arab or black, and therefore, if immgigrants don't integrate well, the ethnic statistics will tell us that Blacks and Arabs seem to be pushed aside. And no doubt, racism will be invoked as the primary factor here. Indeed, invoking any other factor will be deemed racist.

I see nothing in Wasmer's remarks to warrant this rejection, not to say "outrage." Wasmer does not speak of "acceptance" but simply of employment. But suppose we consider the issue of "accepting the other," which for M. Granville is paramount. Granville argues that "it is 'the other' who has to make the French accept him first." But what does that entail? Wasmer notes that the unemployment rate for youths with at least one Maghrébin parent is 1.5 times higher than for youths with two "French" parents, even when the level of educational attainment is the same. He doesn't say that "racism" is the only possible cause of this. Indeed, as an economist, he may well be thinking of the standard economic argument that a foreign name or "underprivileged" place of residence is taken by employers as a "signaling" device connoting other characteristics pertinent to the employment decision.

Whatever the cause, the social problem remains. But my question for M. Granville is, "How exactly has 'the other' failed in his duty to 'make the French accept him first?'" He has obtained the same diploma as the French job applicant; he has signaled his readiness to work more in order to earn more by applying for employment. And yet he is turned away at a higher rate than his competitor. Is M. Granville arguing that his preparation for employment is somehow deficient? Perhaps he has attended an inferior school. If so, that is a social problem, a challenge for the government, that more precise social statistics might help to solve. How can one answer the question of whether a high concentration of children of immigrants in a particular school district is a challenge to educators unless one knows where immigrant children are concentrated? Under current law, such judgments must be made by indirect inference. Wouldn't it be better to measure directly?

M. Granville also makes the following point:

And by the way, Jews probably have a better memory of what ethnic statistics can be used for. I don't think it a coincidence that Simone Veil opposed the modification of the constitution's preamble, and she is right, of course.

Having argued that it is best for purposes of lawmaking not to distinguish subgroups of the national population, M. Granville nevertheless finds it useful to distinguish the Jewish subgroup as one possessing a special memory in regard to the collection of "ethnic statistics." Indeed, the fichage of members of this or that category for purposes of exclusion, expropriation, expulsion, and extermination is what no one wishes to see repeated.

But why is this example the one for which opponents of improved statistical data reach immediately whenever the issue is debated? The data to be collected are to be kept anonymous. To ensure that this will be the case, surveys must be carefully vetted and approved. Personal identifying information will be removed from all records. There is simply nothing in common between the kinds of data to be collected by social scientists and the fiches used by Vichy's police. Since I am as Jewish as Mme Veil, I can say with utter confidence that not all Jews share the sentiments that M. Granville imputes to her and, by extension, "them." To say more about "the Jewish position" on the question, I would need to gather statistics using some reputable and recognized social scientific method. To rely on purely anecdotal evidence, as M. Granville does, is to open the door to the imputation of whatever "ideas" the commentator wishes to whatever group he or she chooses to characterize. This practice is precisely what the collection and analysis of data is meant to counter.

Finally, as to M. Granville's point that "excessive immigration" is the problem rather than discrimination, I can agree that it is difficult for any society to assimilate immigrants when the arrival rate exceeds a certain level. But what we don't know in the French case, precisely because we lack adequate statistics, is the degree to which high observed unemployment rates are distributed among different groups issus de l'immigration: Is high unemployment primarily a phenomenon of the first generation? To what extent do the second and third and fourth generations also exhibit differential unemployment and education rates when compared with les Français de souche? How do neighborhood patterns vary with assimilation? None of these questions can be answered by inference from data on last names and parental origin alone. That is why better data are needed. Because one cannot say what rate of immigration is "excessive" until one knows how well previous generations of immigrants have been integrated into the society, and in France, despite the excellent work of authors like Justin Vaïsse and Jonathan Laurence, we still do not have all the information we need.

UPDATE: nonfiction.fr roundup here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Paved With Good Intentions ...

... is the "road to hell," of course, which the current president of the EU thinks is the road the US is on. But Mr. Topolanek is no longer the Czech PM, which I suppose draws the sting of his remarks somewhat. Still, Paul Krugman is worried about Europe's failure to come to grips with the crisis. Of course, he doesn't like Geithner's bank rescue plan either, so I guess it's a matter of choosing which road you'd rather take to hell, which, like Rome, seems to be the universal destination. ... Heaven help us.

But There's Still a Chill in the Air ...

So, the previous post suggests a thaw in the Washington freeze-out of Paris, but Charles Bremner isn't having it, nor is Nicolas Canteloup:

Sarkozy was gratified last week when Obama welcomed his historic decision to take France back into the military command of the US-led Nato alliance. But the glow vanished when it became known on Friday that Obama had sent an effusive letter -- of all people -- to Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy's bete noire, who did everything to stop his younger colleague succeeding him in the presidency in 2007.

"I am certain that over the coming four years, we will be able to work togetyher in a spirit of peace and friendship in order to build a better world," Obama wrote. Chirac stuck it hard to his successor, saying in public how "sympathique" he had found Obama's letter. It provided obvious fodder for the comedians, who wondered whether Obama might be under the impression that the chief international opponent to President Bush's war in Iraq was still running France.

Nicolas Canteloup, the breakfast radio impersonator, today performed an hilarious sketch on the President's imagined phone-call with Obama. "Allô Barack, this is Nicolas... you know, Little Big Man," said Canteloup-Sarkozy. "You know me, the husband of Carla Bruni, you know, the bombshell."

Sensing the differences with Washington ahead of the London summit, Sarkozy has toughened his rhetoric this week while François Fillon, his Prime Minister, was dispatched to lobby in Washington. Sarkozy is determined at least to get a commitment from the reluctant Americans to start work on new world financial regulations.

In a speech in Saint Quentin on Tuesday night, he warned Washington and other foot-draggers that the G20 must take action to "put morality back into financial capitalism". He added: "I will not associate myself with a world summit which decides to decide nothing." It's not clear what he meant by that.

Obama, France, NATO, and ESDP

Corine Lesnes, Le Monde's Washington correspondent, has posted on her blog a White House communiqué not only welcoming France's reintegration of the NATO command structure but also "the further strengthening of European defense capabilities," which Obama says he looks forward to discussing at the NATO summit. There's also this from General Jones, the National Security Advisor, to the effect that there is no contradiction between being European and belonging to the Atlantic Community. (h/t Justin)

Wasmer on Statistics

A sensible article by Etienne Wasmer on the need for ethnic and racial statistics and the political value of having them. And another piece in Le Monde.

Valls Gets His Knuckles Rapped

The Bureau National of the Socialist Party was mostly critical of Manuel Valls' critique of the party's "antisarkozysme primaire." See my previous post and readers' comments on this subject. Also here and here.

La Journée de la Jupe

Did any of you see this film on Arte? It's not available in the US, but I see that it's attracting a good deal of attention in France, for example, here and here. If you saw it, what did you think?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


The government is prepared to invest 10 million euros in Heuliez, a manufacturer of automobile components in Poitou-Charentes. Ségolène Royal's region is prepared to invest an additional 7 million. Royal roiled the waters a bit by suggesting that Heuliez was deliberately being driven into bankruptcy by the government because it is in competition with a subsidiary of the Bolloré group, Vincent Bolloré being the financier who lent the president his yacht shortly after the election. Bolloré denies that this is the case and says that his group stands to profit if Heuliez survives, because it supplies batteries for an electric car prototype that Heuliez is developing.

In any case, what we see here is an attempt to bail out a failing manufacturer with state funds. Who will be next in line?

On Sarkozy's Use of French

Here. Charles Bremner writes:

Defending an income tax ceiling last week, he told factory workers: "Si y en a que ça les démange d'augmenter les impôts..." A London equivalent might be be "If there's anyone 'ere that's itching to put up taxes..." [I'm sure people can suggest better versions]

Sarkozy's verbal failings are compared to George Bush's and characterized as a means of reaching the "common man." It's interesting that Bush's pratfalls used to drive me up the wall, but Sarko's don't. In part, of course, it's the difference between hearing one's mother tongue mangled and hearing colloquialisms in a learned language. But maybe it's deeper than that. A commenter yesterday likened the visceral dislike of Sarkozy that is so widespread in France with the Bush phobia that was until recently so rampant in the US, and suggested that one of the reasons Obama won was that he never ceded to the facility of Bush-bashing. I think there's something to this observation.

Sarko Can't Get a Break

China has rejected the French proposal of a private meeting between heads of state on the margins of the upcoming G20 summit. The US had rebuffed a similar proposal previously. With no promise of domestic improvement, Sarkozy may well covet a splashy international occasion to demonstrate his indispensability, but the dice haven't been rolling his way since he stepped down from the EU presidency.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Et tu, Vaillant?

Daniel Vaillant joins Manuel Valls (and me) in wondering why Aubry's PS has chosen to attack Sarkozy on human rights and civil liberties:

"Il n'apparait pas que la priorité soit d'ouvrir le débat entre sécurité et liberté", estime l'ex-premier flic de France, plutôt raccord, sur ce coup, avec Valls. "Je ne suis pas sécuritaire, mais pour la sécurité. Et la sécurité n'est pas attentatoire à la liberté. Quand Sarkozy s'en prend aux bandes à Gagny, il a raison. Les délinquants ne sont pas les premières victimes de la société."

French Political Realignment?

Judah Grunstein speculates imaginatively on the potential "populist fallout from the economic crisis" in France. Judah notes disaffection from the main parties on both the extreme left, where the NPA is on the rise, and the extreme left, where Le Pen voters briefly wooed and won by Sarkozy find themselves disillusioned with the result. For Judah, the chief beneficiaries, other than the extremist parties themselves, are likely to be the center-right in the person of Hervé Morin (rather than François Bayrou) and the Gaullist right (in the person of Alain Juppé rather than Dominique de Villepin).

Judah's argument resonates in some ways with the mini-paper I gave at George Ross's retirement fest on Saturday. I, too, emphasized disaffection with and dissension within the two major parties, PS and UMP. To populist disaffection I added elite disaffection: I sense disappointment on the part of business elites with Sarkozy's abortive reforms and failure to adapt or innovate in the face of the crisis, while the PS is no more convincing to this group under Aubry than it was behind (or under the feet of) Royal.

In short, the crisis, if it lingers, and particularly if it worsens and brings further disruption and protest, will act as a corrosive on all the existing bonds within the political structure. The Socialist Party seems to me ever less plausible as a political force. It is on the verge of extinction, though it hasn't yet recognized the mortal peril it faces. I agree with Judah that--assuming the center can hold, despite Yeats's doubts*--the ultimately significant action will be in the center, not on the extremes of the political spectrum, though the media, which always prefer the vivid and colorful to the drab but influential, may try to persuade you otherwise. I'm not sure that Morin is the man to articulate a new centrist vision; Bayrou certainly isn't. I look slightly further to the left, to a vacuum that Strauss-Kahn might fill (on DSK has the man calling the shots behind the scenes, see this). Add Moscovici, Valls, and the long list of center-leftists who have signed on with Sarkozy (Bockel, Besson, Hirsch, Lang, Jouyet, Allègre, etc.) and you've got the nucleus of a new party to the left of Modem and the New Center but to the right of the ever more muddled PS. It's a long shot, but I'm sure that some of these ambitious men see the void and wonder if they might fill it.

And Ségo? She has occasionally made stabs in this direction, painting herself as a Blairist. But she inspires no confidence in the business elites--the managers, consultants, think-tankers, and opinionmakers--who would be the key to getting a party like this off the ground--a sort of Democratic Leadership Council à la française. Would this be a step backward, toward some Third Way God that Failed? Perhaps. But one does have to hope that the center will hold, lest "the blood-dimmed tide [be] loosed."

* Yeats, The Second Coming: "The center cannot hold ... the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

Off Target

I said a while back that I thought the Socialist attempt to demonize Sarkozy as a confirmed enemy of human rights and civil liberties was a mistake. Yesterday I noted that Manuel Valls had taken the same position. Today (h/t Boz) Le Figaro reports that Aubry's attempt to launch a new identity for the PS around this theme had failed to attract a crowd to the Zenith for what was envisioned as a grand rally.

Even if you disagree with me about Sarko and civil liberties, you can see why making this theme central to the identity of the PS is a mistake. What voters want now is a response to the economic crisis. They are less worried than they may have been about personal security, French identity, immigration, prisons, and police. They want action on the economic front and evidence of some understanding of how we got here and what is to be done. The new PS message is therefore off-key as well as off-target. It just doesn't speak to the anxieties of the moment. It's a non-starter, and the sooner the PS recognizes that the better. And note, in the Figaro photograph, the vast array of empty seats behind the small knot of leaders massed in the front rows. These make the case for tactical error more eloquently than any words I can write.

See also Causeur.

The Contradictions of Anti-Capitalism

The crux of the implicit if understated dispute between Europe and the United States comes down to this: the Americans want to resolve the existing crisis by massive spending and lending; the Europeans want to prevent the next crisis, and punish the Americans for causing this one, by imposing regulations on the financial system. Guillermo Calvo penetrates to the heart of this contradiction: financial regulation is meaningless without a lender of last resort, and if global regulation is to be effective, there must be a global lender of last resort.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Willem Buiter on Central Banking

A valuable primer.

Sensible Socialist

Manuel Valls has some sensible things to say (thanks to MYOS for the tip).

Populist Rage in High Places

In the US, bus tours have been organized to bring angry citizens close to "The Lives of the Rich and Infamous" beneficiaries of AIG bonuses. In France, ministerial limos deliver less persuasively angry ministers to TV studios, where they berate the counterparties of AIG's now infamous credit default swaps:

Si la ministre a abordé cette question, c'est que les stock-options distribués à ses cadres dirigeants par la Société Générale - qui a bénéficié d'aides de l'Etat - ont fait grand bruit cette semaine. Mme Lagarde a sèchement déclaré: "Il serait grand temps que Société Générale rime un peu plus avec intérêt général". "J'avais demandé aux dirigeants de la Société Générale de prendre des décisions appropriées", c'est-à-dire de "renoncer à l'attribution" de ces stock-options.

Pope and Besancenot Neck-and-Neck

A CSA poll finds that 57% of the French disapprove of the Pope (h/t Eloi Laurent). That leaves 43% who approve, and this happens to be the same number who feel that Olivier Besancenot is the politician "most concerned with the problems of the French" (Sarko scores only 28% on this measure). The French are particularly unhappy with the Pope's positions on homosexuality (69% disapprove), divorce (77%), and contraception (85%).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Messed Up

Oh, well, despite the previous disclaimer, one little blog for today, to call your attention to a new book by Cahuc and Zylberberg:

LES RÉFORMES RATÉES DU PRÉSIDENT SARKOZY de Pierre Cahuc et André Zylberberg. Flammarion, 244 p., 18 €.

Honoring George Ross

No blogging today. I'm participating in a colloquium honoring George Ross, a friend and colleague who is retiring from Brandeis University at the end of this year. I'll be talking about the Socialist Party, my views on which will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bonfirepower of the Vanities

At the upcoming NATO summit meeting,

Mr Sarkozy will sit at Mr de Hoop Scheffer's right hand whenever TV cameras are in the room, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will sit at the Nato chief's left.

When the cameras leave Nato's heads of state and government, including President Obama, will switch their seats to return to the neutral, and traditional, alphabetical order.

The tip comes from World Politics Review, which offers more substantial comment on France and NATO as well.

Crisis Rundown

The EU will double, to 50 billion euros, the reserves available to aid eastern countries in financial difficulty. It is also calling for a doubling of IMF funding. These are welcome moves. Meanwhile, the prospective G20 agreement on financial regulation has leaked. The IMF is asking for more stimulus from G20 countries. So are European socialists. Lorenzo Bini Smaghi of the ECB takes a different view, however (h/t Eloi Laurent).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Civilization and Its Discontents

It's often hard, when lolling underneath a lime tree in Provence in the afternoon shade, to conjure up the "contentious French" who fill the history books. Strike days like today make that task easier, however. Seventy-eight percent of the French are said to support "the social movement," which is a rather complimentary phrase, suggesting quite a bit more organization than actually exists, to describe the ras-le-bol that seems to be mounting.

Laurence Parisot, the MEDEF's pixieish leader, has been accused of pouring oil on the fire by suggesting that these one-day strikes exact a heavy toll in "demagogy and illusions created." Is she perhaps in cahoots with Olivier Besancenot, eager to fan the revolutionary flames? asks an editorialist for Sud-Ouest.

It's hard to imagine what motive she might have for doing that. A more parsimonious explanation would be simply that, like rational economic calculators everywhere, she sees absolutely no point to burning a day's gross domestic product simply to generate more steam to blow off.

But rational economic calculators are constantly being disappointed by the unruliness of human emotion, and the crisis is generating plenty of that. Alain Juppé, who knows a thing or two about how even the best-laid calculations can be bollixed up by people letting off steam, rebuked Parisot for her "arrogance." First he attacks the Pope, now MEDEF: Juppé seems to be bidding to put a new face on conservatism, and why not--the old new face, Sarkozy's, now seems only to anger roughly the same percentage of the people that approved of his program immediately after the election.

Democracy is fickle that way, and often a disappointment to the rational calculators. Sarko was never one of those, but he has experienced the fickleness and no doubt figures this latest episode will also pass. Nevertheless, his nervousness has been apparent in his recent public statements: sniping at the weak-kneed members of his own party, imprudently insulting teachers and professors, and still insisting that he was elected not to raise taxes but to "reconcile" France with "enterprise," as if either of the two parties to that divorce were in the same condition they were in 2007. France is morose, and enterprise is prostrate. If the president hopes to be their marriage counselor, he needs to acknowledge the sad state in which they find themselves.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pope "Poses a Real Problem" for Juppé

"This Pope is beginning to pose a real problem," Alain Juppé remarked in the wake of the flap over the Benedict XVI's suggestion that condoms weren't the solution to AIDS in Africa. He is living "in a situation of total autism," the former Prime Minister added.

It wasn't so long ago that the president of the Republic was delivering sermons about the necessity of religion's moral guidance. Secular ethics could never suffice without the "civilizing" benediction of the sacred. Clearly, Alain Juppé, who declares himself "attached to Christian values," has his doubts about Sarkozyan as well as papal doctrine.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sciences Po Occupied

Sciences Po has been occupied by 200 students from universities and schools in the Paris region:

They assert that Sciences Po is a "symbole du système élitiste et hiérarchique dans l'enseignement supérieur français ... On veut nous enfermer dans des facultés qui tombent en ruine, alors nous nous enfermons dans l'école la plus riche."

It will be interesting to watch this one play out.

France and NATO

As seen by Judah Grunstein. Money quote:

France's return to the heart of NATO will certainly not spell the end of France's independence and autonomy, nor will it prove the alliance's undoing. But both will be changed, in ways that no one -- least of all Sarkozy -- can foresee. Rich in symbolism, profound in consequences, unpredictable in effect: The move is typical Sarkozy, for whom it is the deed, and not the outcome, that matters.

Cf. the last line of my post "Huh?".

France vaporized!

The loss of wealth incurred by American households in the crisis has been estimated at $11.2 trillion. Total French wealth is 12.15 trillion euros. According to this blog, what this means in terms of purchasing power parity is that the equivalent of one France has vanished as a result of the crisis--economically speaking, of course.

Worldwide, I might add, the loss of asset value has been estimated at $50 trillion. There goes Europe.


Merkel and Sarkozy today issued a joint communiqué calling for the EU to enforce the stability and growth pact. This is a) a direct rebuff to the Obama administration, which wants Europeans to spend more on economic stimulus and borrow accordingly and b) a direct denial of reality, since France is already in violation of the SGP and Sarko, on the very same day that he has called for enforcement, also said, "I wasn't elected to raise taxes." But he shows no sign of reducing spending any time soon--thank heaven, since we're in the midst of a crisis--so these two statements add up to a farewell to what the Bushies used to call "the reality-based community." Welcome to la-la land, M. Sarkozy. There you will keep company with some of your past heroes, including George W. Bush. But you have just alienated yourself from the United States you were courting just a few days ago with your return to NATO.

It's time for the real Nicolas Sarkozy to step foward. Do you have any idea what you're doing, Monsieur le Président? Or are you content simply to do, perpetually, and devil take the hindmost?

Wasmer: Use the Crisis Wisely

Etienne Wasmer recommends that G20 leaders use the crisis wisely to tax those "who have immensely benefited from three decades of deregulation and globalization" and ensure "that there is sizeable amount of ex-post redistribution through highly progressive tax rates on labour and capital."

My propositions may have sounded absurd just a few weeks ago given the credo on optimal taxation of factors. But the inability of European leaders to undertake coordinated action on the one hand, and the sudden collapse of the perceived of superiority of laissez-faire models on the other hand, give a unique window of opportunity to build a new post-crisis social consensus.

Rumblings on the Tax Shield

The bouclier fiscal, or tax shield, was always the most dubious part of Sarkozy's reform package, and lately there have been rumblings on the right about scrapping the shield, or parts of it, as a gesture of fairness in a time of crisis. René Couanau, a deputy and mayor of Saint-Malo, will file an amendment to that end, and he has been joined by others on the right, most notably Pierre Méhaignerie and Gérard Larcher, but the legislation is not likely to get very far.

Europe Needs More Economists

Charles Wyplosz thinks Europe needs more economists, especially of the "saltwater (pro-fsical policy) macro" variety:

Why, then, the growing divide between the US and Europe on how to respond to the recession? The size of public debts is one answer. Another answer is that the hallways of power in Washington (both in the Fed and the Treasury) are peopled with first-rate economists who happen to be of the saltwater variety who believe that fiscal policy works and have developed a clear view of what they want to see done. Several of them are also economic historians who have studied the Great Depression in great detail and concluded that, maybe, policy actions did not do as much good as is sometimes asserted, but that inaction under the Hoover administration transformed the financial crash into a full-blown recession.

Now look at the hallways of power in continental Europe, and you will not find many economists, even fewer first-rate economists, and certainly no one who can claim any in-depth knowledge of the Great Depression. Confused policymakers cannot develop a macroeconomic strategy on their own. On the other hand, microeconomic policies are more reassuring, because they do not seem to involve general equilibrium reasoning. Policymakers like partial equilibrium reasoning – because it is easier but mainly because they can believe that they understand what they do. Of course, we know that partial equilibrium is dead wrong and that you never get what you expect.

All this is true enough, but it's also true that one of our saltwater macroeconomists, Larry Summers, was deeply involved in removing and limiting the regulations on banking and financial markets. The remedy may thus lie in the malady, but I wouldn't say in this case that it's a blessing in disguise (I allude to Jean Starobinski's Le remède dans le mal, my English translation of which was published under the title Blessings in Disguise).

Monday, March 16, 2009

La liberté en danger!

I've been meaning since last week to say a word about La France en libertés surveillés, announced with great fanfare by Marie-Pierre de la Gontrie. It is supposed to be the PS's "livre noir" on Sarkozy, meant to be reminiscent of le Livre noir du communisme that came out more than a decade ago but directed now against Sarkozy rather than the Gulag. I haven't hesitated to criticize Sarkozy on matters of individual right when I thought it warranted, but I also haven't hesitated to criticize the amalgames that I think have been abundant on the left on this score, along with a certain amount of paranoia and demagoguery, the latest example of which is Martine Aubry's preamble to last week's release, according to which Sarkozy's government is "un pouvoir omniscient [qui] s'acharne à écorner les principes qui fondent le coeur de notre pacte républicain." Now Marc Cohen has saved me the trouble by exposing the hyperbole of the Gontrie report.

Cohen links the left's eagerness to see assaults on liberty even where they are not to its zeal to avoid realities for which it either has no solutions or quietly acquiesces in the solutions proposed by the right. "L’ambition générale est d’ériger le tout-répressif sarkozyste en catégorie philosophique," writes Cohen. "On est sidéré de voir à quel point la gauche incapable – et peu désireuse – de se frotter au sarkozysme idéologique, en particulier en ce qu’il a de novateur à droite, préfère cibler l’homme, foncièrement pervers et forcément pétri de mauvaises intentions."

Yes, there's a lot of truth in this, and it's a sin of which I'm often guilty myself. No question about it: Sarko is a flawed president. But his flaws will neither win the presidency for the left nor justify a left victory in the absence of a coherent program. Sarkozy's France is less of a police state and less of an authoritarian regime than de Gaulle's, and the left will not frighten voters into voting it back into power by attempting to paint it otherwise.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


The lovebirds can't catch a break. Last year they vacationed in Luxor and showed themselves off to the photographers, as a result of which they were castigated for making a spectacle of their private lives, sponging off Bolloré, whose jet they borrowed, and rubbing the noses of their less fortunate concitoyens in the gaudy luxury they seem to like. This year they tried to seclude themselves at a swank Mexican hostelry en route to a tropical summit, and they're castigated for sponging off alleged narcotraficantes and not paying their own bills. Conservative jurist Philippe Bilger is in high dudgeon (albeit in the rather affected, euphuistic prose he holds dear):

Ce qui me frappe et ce sur quoi, à mon sens, on n'a pas assez insisté, ce sont moins les modalités du paiement par un autre des frais d'un séjour purement privé - modalités au demeurant guère reluisantes- que le fait incontestable que le couple présidentiel n'a pas jugé bon de régler lui-même les dépenses afférentes à son escapade intime de deux jours. Pour ma part, c'est cette abstention qui ne laisse pas de m'étonner, pour ne pas dire plus. Comment se fait-il que le couple, avec un partage aussi clairement établi entre le privé et le public, n'ait pas choisi l'attitude, qui allait de soi, de prendre en charge lui-même ce qui relevait de la phase festive ?

In short, Sarko is behaving like an ill-bred parvenu. Is anyone surprised by this anymore? It's been like this from day one, and the presidential character was confirmed the other by Sarko's friend Jacques Séguéla, the man who introduced the president to Carla. Séguéla, defending Sarkozy against the charge that his wearing a $16,000 watch during a recent press conference displayed a certain insensitivity in these hard times, said that if a man reaches 50 without having acquired a Rolex, he's wasted his life. The head of state apparently shares the values of the advertising man. De la pub' à la comm', il n'y a qu'un pas.

Watch more Dailymotion videos on AOL Video

Monica Won't Play Carla

The producers of Loft Story are going to do the presidential romance as reality show. They wanted Monica Bellucci for the role of Carla, but she's turned them down. They should aim higher and go for Carla herself. La première dame de France hasn't given up her professional career, and after model and singer TV star would seem a natural next step. Sarko could also appear as himself, and the pair could do a Loana-et-Jean-Edouard in the swimming pool, after which viewers could vote Sarko off the show and choose to retain First Lady Loana.

Kings, Bishops, and Pawns

If you think of politics as chess and like to watch positions developing over the long term, you'll be interested in the little skirmish that took place in a corner of the chessboard on Friday. The king's pawn (and tousled blond son), Jean Sarkozy, moved into position to attack one of the king's knaves (Valérie Pécresse) and in doing so opened up an avenue of attack on one of the king's bishops (Jean-François Copé). Copé of course wants to be president some day, and so, I wager, does Jean Sarkozy, so Copé is the real target here, and Pécresse is merely an expendable piece who is currently quite vulnerable because she hasn't managed to tamp down the smoldering rebellion in the universities. In supporting Karoutchi over Pécresse, young Jean hopes to knock Copé back a peg or two, and this can't displease the king, who seems determined to keep his bishop on the defensive at all times.

So if this is a chess game, why are the white pieces attacking one another? Because black has left the board entirely and gone off to play tiddlywinks in its own corner.

New Paris

Mitterrand had his grands travaux; Sarko has his "Grand Paris." Ten architects submitted plans this week. Agnès Poirier likes Roland Castro's. He proposes "moving the Elysée Palace to the tough north-eastern suburbs." Now, that's sure to endear itself to the pres, who is known for his affection for grime, grafitti, and poverty. (h/t Polly)

The FT Is Not Amused

The Financial Times has taken to referring to the G20 as "the gap of 20" owing to the stark difference between the US and European positions. Witness this characterization of the European reaction to American proposals:

With the crotchety air of a dowager duchess sending a sub-standard amuse-bouche back to the kitchens, Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg prime minister and chair of the “eurogroup” of finance ministers from the single currency zone, added sniffily: “The 16 finance ministers agreed that recent American appeals insisting Europeans make an added budgetary effort were not to our liking.”

And the American stock market hasn't helped: the ten-percent rise in the Dow this past week can only fuel European suspicions that they're being hustled yet again by city-slickers (or should that be Citi-slickers?). Meanwhile, the Europeans seem to have "coordinated" on the one thing that won't cost them a dime, namely, regulation of errant financiers, especially those domiciled in "neoliberal" countries. The animus is so fierce that it's brought even Merkel and Sarkozy together:

Bashing unregulated financial capitalism in general and hedge funds in particular is sufficiently popular in continental Europe that this call even overcame the habitual froideur between Angela Merkel, Mr Steinbrück’s boss, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president. Later in the week, the two of them joined forces to argue that more rules rather than an open cheque book would be the way out of the financial crisis. Asked about the US push for stimulus, Ms Merkel pointedly responded: “This is the reason why we decided to speak with one voice today.”

Which is not to say that the financiers don't fully deserve the bashing. But when the pummeling falls incessantly on the "usual suspects," one begins to wonder who's escaping out the back door under cover of the fisticuffs:

One finance official characterises this attitude as akin to that of a pugilist in a bar brawl. “You wait until a fight breaks out and then take a swing at the guy you have always wanted to hit,” the official says. “Whether or not he had anything to do with starting the fight is not the point.”

So, that, dear readers is the current state of play in the staid chambers of international financial diplomacy at the moment: brawling wherever finance ministers gather, quiet in the streets (unless you happen to be in Iceland, Latvia, Hungary, Greece, Guadeloupe, etc.). Soon it may be the reverse.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Quarter of a Million

As you can see from the counter to the right, the blog has now passed 250,000 page views. Mind-boggling, really.

Thank you for reading, and please don't stop.

Albion Discovers Astérix

Well, well, well ... British business secretary Peter Mandelson, who used to be Sarko's bête noire, has apparently discovered the virtues of modern French-style industrial policy.

“We have not set major infrastructure objectives and then organised our industry and supply chain to deliver them as has been done in France,” he said. “We are quite good at putting the regulatory system in place, but we have always assumed the supply side would take care of itself.

Mandelson seems to be focusing on new objects: economic collapse, like impending execution, concentrates the mind wonderfully.*

*"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
Boswell: Life of Johnson

Franco-American Spaghetti

In my childhood my mother occasionally served some awful glop out of a can labeled "Franco-American Spaghetti." What this mess had to do with France, America, or spaghetti was never clear to me, but the amalgam has stuck in my mind as the perfect symbol for what goes wrong when comparative analysis goes off the rails for want of proper methodological precautions. Henry Farrell gives, as always, the careful, nuanced statement of this metaphorical condemnation. But Ross Douthat, who is soon to become the NY Times' conservative pundit of the hour, replacing the unlamented Bill Kristol, ignores Henry's warning and plunges right ahead with the conservative anathema of the hour: Obama is turning America into "France."

But saying "let's not turn into France" is a form of shorthand, not a rigorous comparison of systems: It's a way of saying "let's not dramatically change the relationship between the American state and American society," at a time when both short-term politics and long-term trends make a substantial change seem possible.

As Henry notes,

.... the claim is that America will become ‘France,’ not that America will become France. The ‘France’ of Cohen and Crook’s articles is less a country than a numinous state of being, consisting primarily of state-provided everything, laziness (both enjoyable and otherwise) and very good cheese. It has no actual inhabitants (excepting, perhaps, Peter Beagle’s imaginary Mr. Moscowitz who at the last became so French that France itself was no longer good enough for him).

Indeed. Let's hope that the editors at the Times will hold Douthat to a higher standard of argument. But given the enormities that they allowed Kristol to get away with, I doubt that much hope is warranted.

"Injure publique"

Nadine Morano is suing Daily Motion to obtain the IP addresses of Internet users whom she deems to have defamed her: injure publique is the legal term. I don't know what the alleged insults were, but this is incredible. It seems to me that if you accept a ministerial post in a democratic regime, you accept the possibility of being subjected to "public insult," no matter how unjust, uncivil, offensive, or even lewd. It goes with the territory. To invoke the force of law against your detractors is to attempt to silence public debate. The Sedition Act is one of the more infamous moments in American history: "The Sedition Act (officially An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States) made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. Enacted July 14, 1798, with an expiration date of March 3, 1801." The government repeated the mistake during World War I. Mme Morano may not regard her legal action as having anything to do with the suppression of free speech, but she should. This is a terrible precedent. The courts should throw out her suit.

"No View of the Middle-Term"

Today's Le Monde features an editorial suggesting that Sarko, after flirting with substituting Britain for Germany as France's key European partner, has rediscovered the virtues of the "Paris-Berlin axis." The return to NATO is presented as a gift to Angela Merkel, who did not want France to strike out on its own in bilateral cooperation on specific issues with the US and/or Britain. In this perspective, NATO is thus a step toward Europe rather than toward "Atlanticism."

Perhaps. But it may well be simply the velleity of the moment. What has been striking about Sarkozy's tenure thus far is the investment in initiatives that make headlines for a few weeks and then vanish. Is there any steady direction to his policy, foreign or domestic? If so, it's not easy to discern. Over coffee yesterday a distinguished French visitor suggested to me that what Sarkozy lacks is any vision "even of the medium term, let alone the long term. He flies by the seat of the pants. He is the very incarnation of the pure politician." To which I remarked that the irony was that Sarko, who defined himself as the anti-Chirac, has lately been doing a tolerably good imitation of the late Chiracian style: a foray here, a foray there, a discreet retreat here, a wholesale abandonment of previous commitments there (whatever happened to the Attali Commission report, for instance?), occasional bursts of energy followed by spells of apparent torpor (disguised in Sarko's case by the appearance of perpetual motion).

Only the total absence of coherent opposition keeps these defects from becoming more troublesomely apparent.

So Why So Many Bookstores?

Casual observation suggests that France has many more bookstores per capita than the US. Yet it seems that 64% of the French classify themselves as "infrequent readers." So who's buying all the books?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Ignorant Francophobia Bandwagon"

Matt Yglesias calls out the "ignorant Franophobia bandwagon" and nominates Judd Gregg, who happily opted out of a chance to serve in the Obama administration (what was Barack thinking?), for permanent membership.

Not Good News

This is not good news at all: the "exceptionally strong" decrease in German industrial output in January does not bode well for France, Germany's largest trading partner. While much of the decrease may be attributable to precipitously declining Chinese demand for German machine tools, the generally depressive effects on German consumption will have repercussions throughout Europe.

But it's an ill wind that blows no good: with the G20 looming and Obama pressing Europe for more stimulus, this news can only further galvanize the hitherto reluctant Germans to loosen their purse strings and, for Heaven's sake, do something before the sky falls. Perhaps they'll also whisper in the ears of their compatriots at the European Central Bank that the troops can be recalled from the Eastern Front (the war on inflation is over) and set to work in the West (the stimulus battle and the imminent threat of a landing by the forces of deflation), where all is definitely not quiet.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


CEVIPOF, an acronym for Centre d'Etudes de la Vie Politique Française, continues to go by that appellation despite the fact that for some time the institution has been officially named the Centre de Recherches Politiques de Sciences Po. But now, in a dispute over methods and ideas, fourteen chercheurs are leaving for the Centres d'Etudes européennes, another filiale of Sciences Po. They are protesting the reappointment of Pascal Perrineau as head of CEVIPOF. Among the departing scholars are Gérard Grunberg, an expert on the PS, and Nonna Mayer, an expert on the FN.

Ridgway Come Home

Tonight President Sarkozy will announce that France is rejoining NATO. The stiffest opposition comes from within the ranks of his own party. Somewhere, the ghost of General Ridgway is smiling. All is forgiven: Ridgway come home, and make Gérard Depardieu happy:

Younger French people may find it unimaginable but American forces were part of the landscape from 1944 to 1967, admired and envied, especially in the 29 base towns, where they cruised in exotic cars, lived luxuriously and taught local women to dance rock'n'roll. At Chateauroux 10 per cent of all marriages between 1951 and 1967 were between US servicemen and French women. The film star Gérard Depardieu has fond memories of a black American girlfriend of his teenage years.

Socialists Go to School

Martine Aubry's dircab, Arnaud Montebourg, Delphine Batho, and Olivier Ferrand, the head of the left-wing think tank Terra Nova went to the US to study Obama's campaign methods. Montebourg says he drew inspiration from the trip, but the example he gives--that the Obama campaign used the Internet "not just as a communications tool but as an instrument of mobilization"--suggests that he may have missed a few steps in the argument. Indeed, the campaign did use the Internet as he suggests, but it worked only because the candidate was a person for whom people were prepared to "mobilize." Montebourg seems to think that technology can turn a moribund party--un parti exsange, dit-il--into a powerhouse. The Internet is a marvelous tool, but it can't yet make fishes and loaves out of this.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sollers on Lanzmann

Philippe Sollers reviews Claude Lanzmann's autobiography. Quite a life. (h/t Lauren)

Trotsky and the FNAC

What is the connection between Leon Trotsky and the FNAC discount chain? Hugo Schofield explains.

Looming Clash?

David Sanger looks at the looming clash between the US and Europe at the G20.

One European ambassador said last weekend that “in three weeks we’ll see whether the love affair with Mr. Obama can withstand our demand that the United States clean up its system fast, and his demand that we contribute more to Afghanistan, even faster.”

Monday, March 9, 2009

Buiter on Regulation

Willem Buiter reflects on what sorts of regulation are needed for the financial system.

"Measuring Diversity"

Yazid Sabeg, the new "diversity and equal opportunity commissar" (it sounds less sinister in French) is in favor of "measuring diversity" as long as it doesn't involve anyone's "origin" or "family name" but is rather based on "objective criteria" such as "membership in a community" or "the sentiment of belonging to a community" (le ressenti). Well, forgive me for being churlish here, since I approve of the collection of ethnic and racial statistics, which is where Sabeg is headed, but isn't this formulation patently contradictory? If anything is subjective rather than objective, it's "the sentiment of belonging to a community." And not to go all Sartrean or anything ("le Juif, c'est celui qui est juif pour l'Autre"), what counts here is how one is classified by others--prospective employers, teachers, bureaucrats, etc.--and not how one sees oneself. If my African patronymic prevents me from getting a job, it doesn't matter whether I think of myself as an apsotle of Negritude or un pur produit de l'école républicaine. That's why these data are needed: to determine where discrimination is closing off equal opportunity--which is after all the "commissar's" brief. So, by all means, let's gather the data, but let's be forthright about why we're doing it. And it's precisely to deal with what Sabeg says it isn't about at all, namely, the questions of "origin" and "family name."

Debout, les damnés de la terre

Jean Quatremer takes the threat of serious progress for the NPA in the European elections seriously enough to look at the party's program and sees himself back in 1917 with dollops of feminism and ecologism added to sweeten the anticapitalist sauce.

There will, however, be no "leftist front." A large majority of the NPA rejected the overtures of Mélenchon's French Linkspartei and of the PCF.


An excellent survey of what the econ blogs are saying about the state of Europe.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Guaino Has the Solution

Sarko amanuensis Henri Guaino has the solution to the crisis: "The problem is to bring about an evolution in mentalities, in people's minds, so as to move from the world we're living in today, which is in crisis, to another world," which isn't. Ah. Why didn't I think of that?

Guaino says this can be done with "strong decisions that everybody can understand and that change everything," but not with "technical decisions ... which are complicated and merely adjust the present system at the margin."

Oooook! I can hardly wait to hear what Sarko proposes along these lines at the G20.

Sarko in Mexico

The Sarkozys left for their Mexican state visit a little early, leaving time for a little fun in the sun. But we won't know where, or how much fun they're having. The location and all details of the visit have been declared top secret. Gone are the days when the happy couple exhibited itself at Disneyland, Rungis, and Luxor. The crisis is here, and austerity is de rigueur, at least as far as the press is concerned. But Sarko will dine tonight with Felipe Caldéron and, it is intimated, work out a deal for the release of Florence Cassez, a French national who has been convicted of complicity in a kidnapping and sentenced to 96 years in prison, now reduced to 70, but who continues to proclaim her innocence, despite her companion's confession. This exploit, if Sarko pulls it off, won't rank with the release of the Bulgarian nurses or Ingrid Betancourt. It's more on the level of the Arche de Zoë affair, and Cassez would presumably be transferred to a French prison (and a shorter sentence). Still, it should play well among the French if their president pulls off yet another "hostage release."

Et Tu, Barack?

Barack has cooled on high-tech:

Mr. Obama rode to the White House partly on his savvy use of new technology, and he has a staff-written blog on his presidential Web site. Even so, he said he did not find blogs to be reliable, citing the economy as one example.

“Part of the reason we don’t spend a lot of time looking at blogs,” he said, “is because if you haven’t looked at it very carefully, then you may be under the impression that somehow there’s a clean answer one way or another — well, you just nationalize all the banks, or you just leave them alone and they’ll be fine.”

Whatever happened to Sarko's Web master, the young fellow who was going to monitor all the blogs and report back to HQ? We haven't heard much from him lately. Perhaps he, too, decided that blogs were not only unreliable but also unlikely to topple the government or make much of a change in the president's approval rating one way or the other. Well, I may be unreliable, but I would never suggest that there's a "clean answer" to the problems that Obama faces, or Sarkozy either, for that matter.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Crisis Talk

If you're in the Boston area, you might be interested in the following event at Harvard's Center for European Studies this Monday, March 9, in which I'll be participating:

"Europe and the Global Economic Crisis"
Speaker: ARTHUR GOLDHAMMER, Writer; PHILIPPE AGHION, Professor of Economics, Harvard; GEORGE ROSS, Political Sociologist, Brandeis University; and CATHIE JO MARTIN, Professor of Political Science, Boston University
Sponsor: CES Special Event co-sponsored by French Politics, Culture & Society, the journal of the Conference Group on French Politics & Society
Location: Lower Level Conference Room
Contact Name: Jason Beerman
Contact Email: beerman@fas.harvard.edu
Moderator: HERRICK CHAPMAN, Professor of History and French Studies, NYU
Directions can be found on the CES Web site.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sarko Punts on Balladur Reforms

The Balladur commission submitted its report (which you can find here, summary here), and Sarko promptly punted it to Fillon, who's supposed to report back some day about progress in "building a consensus," that is, cooling the hot tempers that flared as the report's contents were leaked. Sarko attributes it all to the "conservatism" of local pols, and no doubt there's a lot of it, but one of the peculiarities of the French political structure is the way in which national power is built on local baronies. In addition, the Socialist lock on most big cities and regions is the major check on presidential power in a period when the president's party has an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Tampering with the bottom of the pyramid thus threatens the balance of power at the top, and nobody knows where such things, once begun, will end. So the inefficiencies remain, despite the opportunity offered by the crisis to get something done. One has the impression that this reform was one of those ideas that work well in a campaign but are hard to translate into practical results.

Change of Address

The occupant of 93, rue Lauriston in the 16e wants to change the address to 91bis, and the political leadership of the swank district is in disarray. Claude Goasguen, the mayor, says he "doesn't know what to think."

Why? 93, rue Lauriston was Gestapo HQ during the Occupation, as all readers of Patrick Modiano know. The Franco-Arab Chamber of Commerce, which now occupies the site, doesn't like the association. Hence the request to change the name.


France has invaded the United States. Bernard-Henri Lévy has decided to spend six months a year here.

What did we do to deserve this? Oh, yeah--we fomented a banking crisis that has plunged the entire world into depression. Still, this retaliation seems to punish the innocent along with the guilty.

And how about that sign?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

French Political Science Blog

A new French political science blog. Check it out. It looks very promising indeed.

Ganging Up

Looks like Villepin and Juppé are joining Védrine in opposing France's rejoining of NATO (see previous post). Have they found Sarko's Achilles' heel?

Védrine Says No to NATO

Hubert Védrine, who was reportedly under consideration for the foreign minister's job before Kouchner was named, has broken with Sarkozy on the question of France's rejoining NATO. Why? The classic reasons: France needs to maintain its independence, there is good reason to be wary of American intentions (e.g., with respect to the construction of a missile shield against either Iran or the Russians, take your pick), the lack of appetite in Europe for a common European defense, the loss of control of one's own destiny that goes with the binding commitment of Article 5. In some respects, Védrine's argument sounds like an American neoconservative's denunciation of Europe's "Venusian" attitude compared with virile America's more "Martial" stance. He seems as wary of his fellow Europeans as he is of France's potentially perfidious allies from outre-Atlantique. This is a troubling indication that the various dissensions that rippled through Europe during Sarkozy's presidency of the Union may have been mere surface manifestations of deeper subterranean rumblings. And the economic crisis has only made matters worse.

Oddly, Védrine takes no account of the effects of the crisis on Russia, whose presence, largely unanalyzed, nevertheless looms in the background, as it must in any discussion of NATO. Economically, Russia has been hit hard. On the one hand, this weakness limits its room for maneuver. On the other hand, it may make the Russians more desperate to seek political/military advantage if the money pipeline is temporarily stopped up. If that is the calculation underlying Védrine's insistence on French independence, it would benefit from being spelled out more fully. As it is, it's not entirely clear what engrenage he fears being drawn into, or why France cannot be both a fully integrated member of NATO and a reasonably independent national actor. Other NATO powers seem to have no difficulty expressing their disagreement on any number of issues, and Article V, if ever put to the test at a time of real disarray in NATO (heaven forbid), would probably sprout escape clauses faster than an unwitnessed will at a convention of Philadelphia lawyers.


Roger Cohen, recidivist France-basher, is back at it.

UPDATE: Comment outsourced to Tim Fernholz and Steve Benen.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Automatic Pilot

Automatic stabilizers--spending items built into the budget that will automatically put the state in deficit in a downturn--are supposed to exert a countercyclical effect on the economy. If so, the announcement that the French budget will be in deficit by 5.6% of GDP this year should be received as good news:

Le déficit de l'Etat devrait atteindre 103,8 milliards d'euros en 2009 et les déficits publics (Etat, collectivités, comptes sociaux) devraient s'élever à 5,6 % du PIB, selon les prévisions inscrites dans la loi de finances rectificative, a-t-on appris, mercredi 4 mars, de source gouvernementale. (AFP)

This deficit will bring French debt outstanding up to about 70% of GDP. Both figures are well in excess of the Maastricht limits of 3% and 60% respectively. The problem for Sarkozy is that he now has no room to maneuver. His targeted crisis responses cost about 2% of GDP, and the automatic stabilizers make up the rest. To go much farther than this would be more than is justified by the current level of unemployment. So it will be difficult to seize the opportunity to turn state spending in new directions, as Obama is trying to do in the US: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," as Rahm Emanuel has said. Perhaps that's why Sarkozy hasn't been proposing much beyond a bailout of the auto companies, which now, with Toyota joining the march to the trough, seems global. He knew he wouldn't have the money to spend.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Le Jambon-Beurre Tient Bon

The jambon-beurre sandwich, the staple of my impecunious youth in Paris, is holding its own against the hamburger, outselling the detestable import 10-1. Indeed, Le Point has established a jambon-beurre index to rival the infamous Big Mac consumer price index with which The Economist tracks the global economy. Paris tops the J-BI at 3.27, followed by Poitiers at 3.15 and Strasbourg at 3.11, while you can snap up a sandwich from an independent baker for just 1.69 or get one at une grande surface for 1.88.

The J-B spread awaits its theorist. Let u(w, q, b, t, h) be the utility derived from consuming a sandwich with weight of ham w, quality of bread q, pats of butter b, cafe table rent t, and hours wasted lingered at lunch h, and assume that u is increasing in w, q, and b but decreasing in t and h with continuous second derivatives <0 in w, q, b ...

Plus Belle la Vie

So, Pierre Bergé, who bankrolls Ségolène Royal these days, sold his looted bronze Chinese heads to a bidder who turned out to be Chinese and refused to pay for them out of patriotic duty. The New York Times covers France's leading soap opera. Somebody is sending 9mm rounds to various French public officials. Christine Boutin, sporting a new butch haircut, says that "l'enfant pour se structurer a besoin d'un papa et d'une maman," a maxim that provides pacifists with a new rationale for refusing military service, on the grounds that death on the battlefield is bad for the children: one wonders how Boutin imagines France survived the generation of "unstructured" orphans left behind by World War I.

A crazy country, or what? Does it get any better than this? Plus belle la vie indeed.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Balladur, Terrible Complexificateur

François Miclo dismantles the Balladur Commission report, which aspires to dismantle the existing regions in the name of simplicity. A brilliant dissection, which concludes with the simple observation that the Balladur Commission, for all its gusto in slicing up the map of France with the abandon of the revolutionary commissars who created the départements in the wake of the Revolution, failed to carry out the mission entrusted to it, namely, to clarify or at least simplify the relations among different levels of local and regional government and eliminate overlapping resources and responsibilities.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

The president, despite his "busy schedule," will drop in on the annual banquet of CRIF, the representative organization of French Jews, "for a few moments," just long enough to upstage the long-suffering François Fillon, who will deliver the after-dinner speech. Sarko distinguished himself at this event last year by springing the surprise announcement that every French schoolchild would be required to carry the picture of a Holocaust victim. This idea was quickly forgotten, and perhaps Sarko didn't want to raise expectations of pulling another rabbit out of his hat, so, at first, he decided to poser un lapin instead. But that raised eyebrows instead of expectations, hence the last-minute decision to "drop in" on the banquet. Sarko does indeed have a busy day: he'll be leaving a summit in Egypt this morning to attend the funeral in Levallois-Perret of the French teen killed last week in Cairo. No wonder he has no time for gefilte fish. Or maybe he'd just rather dine at the Bristol (see previous note).

Diversion: A Little Gastroporn

Sarko's favorite chef, Eric Fréchon of the Hotel Bristol, has been awarded 3 stars by Michelin. For an amusing little dégustation of gastroporn, try this link.

A Stellar Void

"Stellar void": the Algerian press's word for the Union for the Mediterranean. Remember that? It was the fallback from one of les grands projets of Sarkozy's early presidency, the Mediterranean Union. Merkel objected, and we got the UfM instead. And then Gaza erupted, and union, such as it was, turned to disunion.

But the MU was to have been a French-dominated alternative to the EU, or perhaps a sort of consolation prize for the Turks, and with the EU itself in some disarray, and the Turks, in the person of their prime minister, having unleashed an angry outburst at Israel at Davos this year, the UfM is going nowhere fast.

The French Holbrooke at Last

Sarko now has a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a French equivalent of America's Richard Holbrooke: Pierre Lellouche. Lellouche had made no secret of his disappointment at being left out of the government. (His memorable words to that effect can be consulted here.) Lellouche is among the most Atlanticist of the French, so apparently Sarko figures that parachuting him in to the hottest spot on the planet alongside the surging American forces coming out of Iraq will make him feel right at home. Holbrooke is an American used to having his own way, however, so it remains to be seen how he will take to having a Frenchman looking over his shoulder.

Seeing Double

We have markedly different takes on the situation in Europe from an American and a French newspaper this morning. The Times takes a decidedly downbeat view of this weekend's European summit, sees the east-west cleavage developing rapidly and threatening the Union itself, and is already imagining the collapse of Ukraine and possible Russian (I almost wrote "Soviet") intervention. Meanwhile, Libé, or at any rate Libé's EU correspondent and blogger Jean Quatremer, sees a "reaffirmation of European solidarity." Alas, that solidarity is illustrated by an image of Sarkozy and Berlusconi arm-in-arm (reproduced here). And then we have Sarko illustrating his idea of solidarity with this sibylline phrase: "Entre le protectionnisme et le libre-échangisme, il y a un équilibre." Indeed. In fact, I'd go farther and say that there are multiple equilibria. The question for Europe is whether it will choose among these the optimal or the less optimal, and the signs thus far are not encouraging.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman gives Europe an F.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Collomb n'est pas une colombe

Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon, stood to win big if Ségolène Royal had been chosen to lead the PS, because he was one of her first and most powerful backers. As it is, he seems to have lost big, as former Ségolènistes and Delanoïstes have been inducted into l'Union Sacrée at the expense of the Collombistes. But the mayor isn't going quietly.

Le maire de Lyon Gérard Collomb, grand baron du courant, a fustigé une "parodie de démocratie" comme au "comité central du PC d'URSS". M. Collomb est notamment furieux du parachutage d'un autre royaliste, Vincent Peillon, dans la région Sud-Est contre son candidat local.

Soviet tactics, eh? Well, that does seem a bit harsh to characterize le parachutage de Peillon, who is hardly Molotov, nor even Montebourg (and Peillon's not happy about it either!). But politics for a local political baron like Collomb begins and ends with pushing one's pawns into squares from which to control pieces of the chessboard, and the capture of a pawn can quickly degenerate into a slashing attack by the queen's knights, or knaves. And lurking in the background, always ready to pounce, are the bishops of Solférino and the rooks of the inner circle.

Meanwhile, poor Pierre Moscovici, who found himself dancing without a partner at Reims and who hastily threw in his lot with the Delanoïstes lest he be deemed a wallflower, has lately discovered, in all the inimitable stiffness of his wounded pride, that "le fonctionnement de cette motion [i.e., Delanoïstes] n'a pas été pleinement solidaire" dans la constitution des listes au Conseil national."

It's hard to know which of the two, Collomb or Moscovici, is more deluded about the PS: Collomb with his fantasies of the Stalin of Lille or Mosco with his image of "democratic socialism Solférino-style" as some sort of deliberative democracy of Rawlsian philosophes ratiocinating behind a veil of ignorance in order to select the best of their number to represent them--as if they could forget their own identities.

But such is French Socialism these days. I am to take part in a Festschrift in a few weeks in which my assigned task is to discourse learnedly for ten minutes on "the center-left in France in the face of global economic crisis." It's sometimes difficult to discern where the center-left is in France, however, since it has no center. It's a kaleidoscope of petulant personalities, each wounded by some recent remark or snub by one of the others. It's more like a junior high school class than a political party. At what level of abstraction does one attempt to relate such a roiling mess to that other roiling mess, the global meltdown? Stay tuned.