Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gauchet on "Crisis of Mediation"

Marcel Gauchet looks at the crisis of the media as a symptom of a more general "crisis of mediation." In an interesting remark, he notes that the flourishing of numerous associations dedicated to defending particular interests, often seen as an antidote to the decline of more general representative groups such as parties and unions, is in fact a symptom of that decline, since one function of general representation is to thrash out a hierarchy among competing interests. It is the difficulty of establishing priorities that is at the heart of the problem.

Gauchet, it seems to me, has articulated a real problem with Tocqueville's much-discussed admiration of "association" as a palliative to some of the inherent flaws of democratic society. Tocqueville believed that associative skills were learned and that a society that had many associations could foster the sorts of traits (readiness to compromise, reciprocity, long-term thinking) that successful democracy required. But perhaps there can be too much of a good thing: a penchant for association encourages the "exit" option over "voice" and "loyalty," to borrow Albert Hirschman's terms and thus corrodes the very traits it is supposed to foster. This is a problem that Tocqueville failed to foresee.

The New Dramaturgy

Given the almost total abidcation of the opposition, the French media have been finding it difficult to cover politics in recent months. Sarkozy is no longer the whirling dervish of the first presidential summer, so there are fewer supreme interventions to cover. The day-to-day business of dealing with the economic crisis is soporific to most readers.

L'Express, it seems, has hit on a new ploy. According to the latest dramaturgy, Sarkozy has assembled the "team of rivals" made famous by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book about Lincoln, which has already served the American media in their coverage of Obama's presidency. At the bottom of our drama remains the supposed distance between Sarko and his prime minister, Fillon. Fillon is typecast as the dour and recessive fiscal conservative. His hothead foil of the hour is no longer the president, however, but his "special advisor" Henri Guaino. Once a speechwriter, notoriously described by Sarko as un fêlé (according to Yasmina Reza), Guaino has supposedly expanded his role to that of Rasputin, the energumen behind the throne, whose feverish brain the chief finds useful to exploit but constantly in need of careful surveillance, lest it run amok.

Enter Xavier Musca (pictured), the new deputy secretary general of the Elysée. Conveniently, Musca participated in the drafting of the Maastricht Treaty way back when, and Guaino strenuously opposed it, so we have that essential ingredient of all good "team of rivals"-type drama, the festering grudge. Yet hovering above this seething cauldron of passions is the ingenious head of state, calmly manipulating his pawns for the greater good of the Republic. Here is the way L'Express describes the action:

Dans l'équipe, Henri Guaino côtoie Xavier Musca, le nouveau secrétaire général adjoint: le premier a fait campagne contre le traité de Maastricht, le second, alors haut fonctionnaire au Trésor, a participé à sa rédaction. Le chef de l'Etat joue de ces sensibilités comme des touches d'un piano : il instrumentalise ses conseillers pour composer sa petite musique.

Well, I suppose political journalists, like political bloggers, have to find their copy where they can. But I find this new dramaturgy rather thin gruel. Note, by the way, that Musca is an énarque. An early theme of this blog was the relative absence of énarques in Sarkozy's government. That is less true than it used to be. Les grands commis de l'État have been finding their way back in for some time and have been displacing the lawyers and political cronies in the process. L'Express makes a point of noting Guaino's increased presence in the media in defense of his emprunt national. Indeed, publicity is essential in what is, after all, fundamentally a publicity stunt. Far from the klieg lights the sausage will be sliced, and it won't be Guaino who wields the knife.

Aubry v. Valls, Round Two

There are some rumblings from deep within the bowels of the Socialist Party against Aubry's threatened purge of Valls. Some of the local barons (Collomb, Guérini, Mignard) are unhappy, as are some of the "quadras," the party's young Turks. Here is yet another sign that the party's crisis is multidimensional, at once a quarrel of personalities, a struggle for the presidential nomination, an ideological split, but also a structural crisis, in which the central organization has repeatedly been shown to be an autonomous but ineffectual head atop an increasingly independent body. The local powers that have been shut out of national influence, and the younger generation that has found its ambitions blocked, are growing increasingly restive.

Other signs. Laurent Bouvet's take.