Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gaston Lenôtre, a Parable

I suppose one might see the life of Gaston Lenôtre, which ended today, as a parable of recent French history. Born in l'Eure in 1920, he was rooted in the great tradition of Norman cuisine. His parents were cooks. He was an innovator who prospered during les Trente Glorieuses by throwing off the shackles of the tradition that simultaneously nurtured him:

«Mes collègues pataugeaient dans le conformisme», dit-il. Lui veut rompre avec les codes traditionnels de la pâtisserie et conçoit des gourmandises plus légères et aux saveurs nouvelles. Il invente des gâteaux tels que «Succès», à base de pâte de macaron et de crème de nougatine, au nom prédestiné.

And with succès came notoriety and the lure of expansion, incorporation, multiplication. With Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé he opened the Pavillon de France at Disneyworld (!). He operated the Restaurant Panoramique at the Stade de France. He sold his name to the Accor hotel chain, a global conglomerate. His passing drew comment from Nicolas Sarkozy, who said that he had raised pastry-making to an art. One is reminded of Yasmina Réza's snarky description of Sarko swallowing mouthfuls of bonbons at a reception somewhere in the fin fond of France.

Le coeur d'une civilisation change plus vite, hélas, que le coeur d'un mortel.

On Dati and Dad

The Dati saga continues: she is now at the center of a maelstrom about whether it is heroic or contemptible for a working woman to forgo the three months of maternity leave to which she is entitled. Charles Bremner also drops a strong hint as to the identity of the father. Follow the link if you desire enlightenment.

New World, New Capitalism

Those interested in the "Nouveau Monde, Nouveau Capitalisme" conference can follow it here on video. Sarko's speech is interesting for the number of times he addresses "chère Angela" by her first name but also, more seriously, for the rather aggressive distinction he draws between "old Europe"--still young in its head, he says--and the prodigal son, America, the root of all (present) evil. In Roundtable 1, Jean-Paul Fitoussi is particularly worth listening to on "the regulation of states and the deregulation of the market ... rules versus discretion."

The Gas War

Russia's annual winter dispute with Ukraine over the price of gas is interesting from a game-theoretic point of view. Russia's intent seems to be to signal to all its trading partners, not only the Ukrainians, that it holds over their heads a sword of Damocles.* But of course the maneuver also reminds said partners of the utility of moving their heads from time to time. In particular, they can see how wise they would be to diversify their gas supply.

France drew this conclusion early on, and while Sarkozy has actively pursued bilateral deals with Russia, he has also been active in seeking long-term contracts with other suppliers. And France has been successful at this game: it is more diversified in its gas supply than any other European country and least threatened by the current imbroglio. To be sure, geography helps: there is gas in North Africa, and transport of LNG by ship across the Mediterranean is more feasible for France than for north European countries. But as I've noted before, France has also been positioning itself and its GDF-Suez enterprise to become a gas broker for all of Europe. This is a good example of the "entrepreneurial state" that Sarkozy spoke of this morning (see previous post), but it is hardly a response to the crisis. It is a long-term strategy that began long before Sarko's arrival in power and that was never threatened by any neo-liberal vicissitudes of policy. Energy policy is a strategic national security matter. France has always known that, and the frigid winter, the strained electricity grid (nuclear-powered though it is), and the rumblings from the East serve only to drive the point home.

* I don't wish to be a party to the ideologicization of this crisis. The "gas weapon" is being wielded by Ukraine as well as by Russia. Ukraine is in dire straits economically and cannot afford to pay more for energy. It is hoping that international pressure--and loss of revenue to a Russia already suffering from falling world energy prices--will force Russia to moderate its terms. For an immoderate anti-Russian view, one can reliably turn, of course, to The Corner, which, while recognizing that "government-connected oligarchs on both sides maneuver to profit," nevertheless manages to interpret the situation as one in which "Russia ... is pressuring Ukraine to submit to its will."

What the EU Might Accomplish in the Middle East

Outsourced to Judah Grunstein.

The Entrepreneurial State

"The most important fact about this crisis is that the state is back." So said Nicolas Sarkozy at the sommet de secours that began in Paris today.

What a long way we have come from the early days of the Sarkozy regime. Then the watchword was "France is back!" Meaning that Sarkozy's realignment of French foreign policy and reconciliation with the United States had lifted la grande nation out of the pariah status to which it had been consigned by a hegemonic America piqued by French opposition to its supreme status in the world. And of course one basis of that reconciliation was Sarkozy's supposed acceptance--nay, enthusiastic embrace--of "Anglo-American neo-liberalism."

And now, with the mere substitution of "l'État" for "France"--"l'État est de retour"--we leap from Sarkozysme I to Sarkozysme II. Of course both constructs are rather mythical. Sarko I was hardly the neo-liberal he sometimes pretended to be; state capitalism was never far from his heart. And Sarko II is hardly the commissaire au Plan that his rhetorical formula might suggest. He hasn't the means, for one thing, and there is no Plan,* for another--and there's no plan, either. For all this talk of state intervention, there's been precious little action and even less in the way of a comprehensive blueprint.

But Sarko is the consummate surfer. He likes to hang ten on the edge of his board and let the wave of the Zeitgeist carry him triumphantly to shore, while he cuts an impressive figure against the azure of sky and surf. Let's see how confident he looks another six months into the Great Depression of the 21st century. But by then, of course, he'll be riding another wave: Obama spoke yesterday of the need to take a fresh look at entitlement programs. How long before Sarko follows suit and launches an attack on les conservatismes that stand in the way of necessary reform of la sécu?

* i.e., The Commissariat général du Plan no longer exists.

ADDENDUM: Maybe Sarko would like to compare his glittering generality--"entrepreneurial state"--with Obama's list of specific state-financed entrepreneurial ventures: alternative energy, building renovation, computerization of medical records, equipment of schools and libraries, teacher training, etc.

Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba

Le Point compares Sarko to Napoleon. Nadine Morano goes them one better: "Qui lui arrive à la cheville ? Pour l’instant, personne. Pour moi, il y a Napoléon, De Gaulle et Sarkozy. Entre, c’est peanuts." What could possibly be the basis of such hyperbole? Alain Duhamel sees "chez Nicolas Sarkozy un Premier consul contemporain, à ses débuts, un Bonaparte en frac." And then there is this bit of purple prose, that can only be ironic: "Campagnes d’Egypte. L’un emmène ses généraux, l’autre sa nouvelle compagne. Les deux partagent la même passion pour cet Orient compliqué qu’ils veulent démêler, par les armes pour Bonaparte, par le verbe pour Sarkozy."

If I were to compare Sarkozy to Napoleon--which, Lord knows, I would do only under duress or in response to foolishness like Le Point's, which must have come out of a bibulous New Year's Eve party--I would focus on the slow but steady reinforcement of executive prerogatives: the arrogation to the president of the power to appoint the head of France Télévisions, for instance. Or the move to diminish the independence of the juge d'instruction and bring her under the direct control of the administration.

But perhaps Le Point had the big picture in mind: Napoleon conquered Europe, Sarkozy assumed its rotating presidency for six months. Même combat, n'est-ce pas? The difference, as Nadine Morano might say, is "peanuts."