Monday, November 30, 2009

Uncle Sam Wants Vous!

Sarko finally got the long-awaited call from Obama, but perhaps not exactly the call he would have liked. Obama wants 1,500 more French troops in Afghanistan. This is not only a tall (perhaps impossible) order for the French militarily, it is a tough one for the French president politically. With regional elections ahead and a French public firmly against the war in Afghanistan, he stands to lose support if he helps out the American president, who hasn't exactly endeared himself to his French counterpart. But if he holds back, he strengthens the hand of those in the US, mainly on the right, who say that the Europeans, and most especially the French, are all talk and no action and that there is no point in seeking a more multilateral foreign policy--not an outcome that Sarkozy wants.

To be sure, consultation with allies doesn't seem to have ranked much higher on Obama's agenda than it did on Bush's when push came to shove. The US military does not like coordinating with foreign forces, hamstrung as they are by complex (and politically motivated) rules of engagement and hindered by different doctrines, incompatible equipment, and all the rest. Of course there is also a symbolic dimension to the commitment of forces to Afghanistan, and this is surely not lost on Sarkozy, who operates more in the realm of symbolism than of hardware in any case. But to an unusual degree the American request for aid this time may be operational as well as symbolic. Now that the commitment is made, and a timetable apparently set, boots on the ground count, if only to hold territory already cleared. So any foot-dragging by Sarkozy will only further sour relations.

As for what Sarkozy really thinks of Obama's decision, as opposed to the various calculations, electoral as well as military, that may figure in his response, only time will tell. If there's anything Sarko does not want, it's a commitment to a subaltern role in what could well turn out to be a protracted, costly, and unwinnable war.

Newsweek Attacks Sarkonomics

Newsweek has published a long and very critical attack on Sarkozy's economics. Some of the charges are old--Sarko is really a Colbertist, not a neoliberal, he flies by the seat of his pants, etc.--and some are more on target than others. On the whole, I would describe the tone of the piece as, "You think state intervention in the economy looks good now, but wait until the bill comes due." Hence it might be better to read this as a veiled attack on American interventionism since the crisis than as a measured assessment of French policy, which has its strong points and its weak points. Still, this is unusually thorough coverage of French politics for an American newsweekly.


Le Monde notes in today's editorial the contradiction between the notion of a French "identity" and the continued existence of ghettos where social conditions are anything but identical with those existing elsewhere, as this page of statistics demonstrates. Enormous effort has been expended to expunge signs of difference from "public space," yet the most public of all space--the very streets of entire towns--has been allowed to deteriorate to the point where it is not only a sign but also a breeding ground of difference, not to say resentment. Inaction on this front has been glaring. While Valérie Pécresse organizes her campaign for the Ile-de-France regionals around the theme of "humanizing le Grand Paris," what is happening in les banlieues that the glittering image of a brand new greater Paris is supposed to banish from consciousness? From my vantage point, not much.

To be sure, I am far away. If things are happening on the ground that I'm not aware of, I'd be glad to know about them. I read Fadela Amara's blog regularly and come away with little sense of action. Perhaps that's because Amara's is more of an ambassadrix to the suburbs than a minister. But who is in charge? What is being done? This seems to me an area that cries out for government action, yet among the projects to be financed by Le Grand Emprunt, I don't think there was one that specifically targeted disadvantaged towns, underprivileged students, or deteriorating urban landscapes. Between incidents of unrest, « ces gens-là » disappear from the government's agenda.

Of course one might argue that targeted government action of this kind is ineffective "social engineering," which has been demonstrated not to work. That was the line taken by the neoconservative critique of Great Society programs such as "Model Cities" in the United States. Indeed, the backlash against such programs was one of the driving forces behind the rise of American neoconservatism. I know of no such critique in France, where attitudes toward the suburbs don't even seem to rise to the level of "benign neglect" once advocated by the late Sen. Moynihan. In France, the task is left to the schools and the police: the former are to inculcate "values" and discipline and the latter to maintain order and keep the peace. It's not enough.

Pitiless Selection

The sociologist François Dubet issues a jeremiad against France's pitiless system of "meritocratic" selection:

Si l'on pense que l'école a pour vocation centrale de distinguer le mérite des élèves et si on croit que ce mérite est juste et décisif, la vie scolaire s'apparente à une vaste compétition distinguant progressivement les vainqueurs et les vaincus aux dépens des dimensions proprement culturelles de l'éducation. Les enquêtes internationales montrent que les systèmes scolaires qui adhèrent fortement à ce modèle sont aussi ceux dans lesquels les élèves ont le moins confiance en eux, sont les plus pessimistes et les moins confiants dans les institutions. De ce point de vue, la France est dans le peloton des pays les moins bien placés.