Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Je comprends votre impatience"

I have two reactions to Sarkozy's post-election address to the nation. First, the tone: Sarkozy's is that of an exasperated parent attempting to explain to a petulant child why strict discipline is actually something for which the child will be grateful in later life. He may well be right, but you can be sure that the lecture isn't going to go over well with the child, who has just discovered the power to make life difficult for the scold. What's more, the president isn't very good at this mode. He's a boxer by nature, who likes to throw punches in his speeches. But you can't punch a child.

Second, the substance: essentially Sarkozy patted himself on the back. He's done all the right things, the things that "you" (the French) elected him to do. "You" may not yet have seen the effects in your daily life, but we're not going to change a thing. Even the things we are going to change, the like carbon tax, aren't really a change: we're just waiting for our partners to realize how right we were.

The steadfastness is admirable in a way, but it fails to take account of the change in the country's temperament. Sarkozy's formula for reform was--I have said this before--at least coherent and in some respects plausible, but it was never universally accepted. He did, however, persuade an important group of swing voters to give it a try. He now appears to have lost that group. To win it back, he needs to show some understanding of how their confidence in the likelihood of success has changed even if his hasn't. But he didn't even attempt this. He seems to believe that the case is self-evident, that it has always been so, and that the advent of a major economic crisis has in no way changed this.

I hasten to add that he may be right on the merits, at least on some issues. I believe that he is right on the need to extend the working life of most French people. I think that he's wrong in his refusal to contemplate tax increases of any kind, including on the wealthy. I think he's wrong to believe that everything that can be done to alleviate unemployment has been done. I think he's wrong to make sweeping (and impossible) promises to farmers while neglecting industrial workers and state employees, who are also in difficult situations. His generalizations are divisive in an unhelpful way: "reform" is presented as something monolithic, which one must either take or leave ("you're either with us or against us"). In practice, of course, he has been much more pragmatic, often willing to compromise in detail (as he did in the first round of retirement reforms). But he has difficulty, apparently, in modifying his discourse accordingly. Hence his tone of exasperation. Still, he has shown himself to be adaptable in his style before. He may yet find a new voice. But he is now weakened to the point where other voices on the Right are beginning to make themselves heard. The Omnipresident is no more.


Anonymous said...

He won the first round of retirement reform and... the "reform" ends up costing more than what was in place before. it was pure symbol.
Extending people's working lives: that's not really the issue. Even though the French have a right to retire at 60 if they choose, most choose to retire later on because they need to have worked 41 years in order to retire. If you went to college and never got unemployed, ever, you can retire at age 63. For women who stopped working to have children, the age limit is even higher (even though there's some kind of deductible for having children). So the issue isn't extending working lives, but adding years of payment before you're allowed to retire. Since most ^people now have times of unemployment or par-time work, the new limit would make retirement almost impossible for lower incomes. Who wants to try and live off 400 euros a month?
In my opinion, the issue on retirement is to admit that the number of years required of you should depend on how physically demanding your job is (or psychologically). This can easily be tracked with stats on long-term illnesses, occurence of suicide/breakdowns, etc. -è which are already available.
For example, I'd argue that being a bank teller is "easier" than being a Frence telecom employee. :)

Anonymous said...

How do French people react to being treated like naughty children who won't listen to grown ups?

Just curious. I don't think it'd go over well with Americans, at least.

CJWilly said...

Isn't the problem that his "reforms" just haven't amounted to much? Or, like all politicians, he promised too much to get elected to not be disappointing once he was elected.

James Conran said...

Yes, hasn't Sarko basically done enough reforming to piss of lots of people without doing enough to hope to transform the French economy?

Whether or not you believe liberalising "structural reform" type measures were/are in fact the solution to France's woes, they are certainly politically difficult to undertake. But the moment looked fairly ripe when Sarkozy was elected, given the weak-to-shambolic state of the Left. I, like lots of people I think, assumed the Sarkozy formula was 1) build up a head of steam for reform while in opposition (to Chirac!), 2) once in power bulldoze through reforms come hell or highwater, 3) hope they work in time for re-election - if they don't fight 2012 on culture war type issues.

The crisis would have complicated things for sure, but even before it broke this plan was not being followed.

CJWilly said...

I love how Mitterrand and Sarkozy resemble each other, sort of mirror radicals, as candidates and early presidents. "La rupture" and "la force tranquille" to "la rupture tranquille"..

Sarko's reforms were much more moderate than Mitterrand's though. He either did not believe his own neoliberal narrative or accurately estimated his win was NOT big or significant enough to mean he could actually mess with French society too much.