Friday, April 30, 2010

Nous aussi

The Socialists have decided not to be outmaneuvered on the burqa issue. They won't go along with the UMP's hard ban because of their tender concern for "human rights." Nevertheless, they share the goal of ridding France of covered female faces. So:

"Elle vise au même objectif que le gouvernement : faire disparatre le voile intégral mais en veillant au respect de nos principes de droit (...) et à la volonté de rassembler tous les Français quelle que soit leur appartenance", a précisé le député et maire de Nantes. Il exhorte le gouvernement et la majorité à avoir "le même esprit d'ouverture et recherche avec tous les républicains la voie d'une loi qui libère et apaise".
Clear? Me neither. It seems that the Socialists believe that you're violating human rights if you tell women what they can wear without  raising concerns about violating their human rights; but if you do the same thing while expressing genuine concern and solicitude and a "spirit of openness and experimentation," then it's OK.

Defining the boundaries of the demos is bringing out contradictory impulses everywhere. In the US, Arizona has passed a law commanding police to ascertain the identity of anyone deemed suspect of being in the country illegally; Democrats, while deploring this law, have proposed issuing a national identity card, presumably so that such citizenship checks can be performed on an egalitarian rather than selective and racially-profiled basis. (They might look at countries such as France which already have national identity cards to see who is actually stopped in the subways by police looking to make sure that "papers are in order.") Repression thus wears two faces, one vindictive, the other somewhat more benign. For those on the receiving end, however, the distinction begs the question of the difference.

The Wisdom of Solomon

The Republic has a way of dealing with its prodigal sons. Charles Pasqua has been found guilty and given a one-year suspended sentence. His defense was that he was a dupe of his subordinates. His subordinates' defense was, Do you think we, Machiavelli's creatures, could have duped Machiavelli? Pasqua pleads imbecility, confident that no one will take him for an imbecile. A perfect crime, in which all the coupables are not responsables. Whodunit? The Zeitgeist.

Burqa Law

Here is Maître Eolas, excellent as usual, on the legal aspects of the proposed burqa ban.

The EU, Greece, and Sarkozy

The Times notes the invisibility of EU's new leaders on the Greek issue. The Lisbon treaty, its ink hardly dry, has thus been shown to have failed in one of its major objectives, to create a new point of international coordination. But no one really expected much of the present leadership, especially in the face of German intransigence. The puzzle is Sarkozy, who in the past was not bashful about asserting leadership even when he had no legal claim to it. After the relatively successful French EU presidency, he even proposed to continue as "virtual" leader in the absence of a real one. Although he has said the right things on the Greek debt issue, he hasn't pressed his point as forcefully as we know he might. This suggests two things: real fiscal constraints and anxiety that the French electorate isn't as passive as it seems. A more vocal push in favor of a larger bailout might risk triggering a backlash--the populist backlash whose absence in France I noted the other day--among precisely those voters who are slipping away from him most rapidly, those who have little patience for supporting supposedly profligate foreigners and who may have voted FN or sovereignist in the past. Sarkozy is protected on this issue by an elite consensus, but he knows full well that the elite consensus on the EU does not reflect popular sentiment (remember 2005!). He is the one who pushed through the Lisbon treaty despite the prior referendum, and the deeper the skepticism of the EU and the euro, the more his identification with Europe will become an electoral liability. So he has lowered his profile, in my estimation.

For a different view of the crisis and the EU role, see Judah Grunstein.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

PS: Social Reformists vs. Infernal Alliance

Gérard Collomb, Socialist baron and mayor of Lyon, sees himself as part of a "social-reformist" bloc within the PS, in which he is joined by Manuel Valls and François Rebsamen. The opposition is what he describes as an "infernal alliance" between Martine Aubry on the one hand and Laurent Fabius and Henri Emmanuelli on the other.

Bailing Out the Greeks

Lending money to Greece to stem the present crisis and save the euro is a matter of intense controversy in Germany. Nothing of the kind in France. The Socialists approved the necessary budget measure with nary a murmur. Why such calm? Well, for one thing, there is no impending election in France, as there is in Germany. But I suspect that the real reason is that French populists and sovereignists of the Right and Left are keeping their powder dry. The debt crisis will get worse before it gets better, and the costs to French taxpayers will be a juicy issue for the 2012 elections. In the meantime, the Socialists are probably better informed than the populists about the magnitude of French bank exposure to Greek, Portuguese, and Spanish debt. Default would hit French banks, and a direct hit on voters' bank accounts would be an even more serious political bombshell than the costs of a bailout.

Bedside Visit

Laura Bush tells all: the American delegation to the G8 was poisoned, she thinks, and George W. was so sick that he didn't rise from his bread to greet Sarkozy. Interesting that no word of that encounter leaked from the French side.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


The signs have been pointing to this for weeks, but the moment of truth--and the possibility of default--seems to have concentrated the European mind, precipitating a mild panic. If I had a working Internet connection, I'd know more about the French reaction, but I'm on a borrowed node with a seminar awaiting, so this will be another short post. Perhaps Comcast will have remedied the situation by the time I return home, but I have begun to feel that the company is run by refugees from the Soviet bureaucracy.

Whoops--just heard that S&P has downgraded Spain from AA+ to AA. Après ça, le déluge.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

More Apologies

My Internet was out all day today, so I wasn't able to read the news or blog. And I will be leaving for France on Sunday, to there will be another fallow period coming up. If the connection stays up, I should have a little time to post between now and then, however. But I'm not sure it will stay up--things are pretty flaky, and Comcast hasn't been too swift on the uptake.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Back, but not quite

I'm back home, but my Internet is out, so blogging will continue to be limited. I'm at Harvard at the moment, where I have a working connection, but unfortunately many things to do. Please accept my apologies. I hope the Internet will be repaired tomorrow.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Where I've Been

For the past few days I've been at a conference in honor of my friend Peter Gourevitch, a political scientist at UCSD. Here's the view from the conference room: a hang glider floats over the Pacific. French university reformers take note. There is a nude beach below, which was once the subject of a study by French sociologist Edgar Morin, who was fascinated by the mores of researchers at the nearby Salk Institute, designed by Louis Kahn.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


A judicious assessment of the current political situation from Bernard Girard.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Away from My Desk

I am in California for a few days, so blogging will be light.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Majesty of the State

A president badly in need of a victory has decided to apply the full majesty of the state to a menace feared by a majority of its citizens: the burqa (and the niqab). The Conseil d'État be damned. So here we go. One has to imagine the scene in advance. Who will be the first target? Will a surveillance team stake out the Gare du Nord or the Sunday market at Cergy? Will Eric Besson and Brice Hortefeux accompany the flics as they lay hands on the offending "agent of Islamism?" Will she be taken for a garde à vue and, in the name of equality of women and public security, be stripped of her robes and headgear, searched, photographed, and displayed on the evening news? Will she be hauled into court and required to appear with face uncovered before her ermine-clad judges? Will she then express gratitude to the state for emancipating her from her oppressive culture?

And Belgium will do the same. Then all eyes will turn to the European Court of Justice. But no matter what the learned judges decide, to many the behavior of these two states will resemble bullying: all the might of the state will be brought to bear on the weakest member of the community, whose offense consists only in firing the fantasies of her persecutors.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Politics of Translation

Gisèle Sapiro has published a study.

Another Bizarre Story for a Slow News Day

A sergeant in the Foreign Legion blew off the balls of one of his subordinates by firing three blanks between the man's legs at point-blank range. The sergeant is on trial today but has not been dismissed from the Legion, unlike the gendarme who wrote a satirical poem about Sarkozy. Apparently, in this man's army, it's worse to mock your superior than to castrate your subordinates.


The summer doldrums have come early this year. Sarkozy's disarray after the regional elections seems to have precipitated a sort of retreat into silence and/or the past: thinking he's still Minister of the Interior, he has come out swinging against crime. Meanwhile, nothing else seems to be happening, unless it's banning burqas or footballers sleeping with underage prostitutes. Which makes me wonder whether Marine Le Pen will attack Franck Ribéry with all the gusto with which she went after Frédéric Mitterrand. Ribéry has actually confessed, even if in his case the sexual tourism was undertaken by his partner, at his expense.

Meanwhile, intellectuals are sniping at one another: here, Michel Onfray has a particularly unpleasant go at Elisabeth Roudinesco. I'm not sure how Onfray rose to celebrity status. One year I arrived in France and there, suddenly, he was, in all the bookstores, stacked up at the FNAC, etc. The media seem to need a few celebrity intellectuals, and with BHL having reached the point of oversaturation, I guess Onfray is the new "it" boy. But hasn't anyone ever told him that it's bad form to respond to negative reviews and worse form to respond vituperatively. Irony doesn't seem to be an arrow in his stylistic quiver.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Message: "We Care" (but we need a translation)

"Care" seems to be the new watchword of the Socialist Party. Unfortunately they're going to need a good French translation. Sollicitude doesn't quite have the cachet of that English "care." Souci: too much worry in that. Solidarité: trop ringard. But "care": very chic and modern and Anglo-Saxon without being neoliberal. As in: I could care less.

Of course there is already a theoretical treatment:

Le terme de « care » s’avère particulièrement difficile à traduire en français car il désigne à la fois ce qui relève de la sollicitude et du soin ; il comprend à la fois l’attention préoccupée à autrui qui suppose une disposition, une attitude ou un sentiment et les pratiques de soin qui font du care une affaire d’activité et de travail.

Draft of New PS Program

A draft of the new PS program prepared by a committee headed by Pierre Moscovici can be consulted here. It proposes a limit on executive "salary" of 20 times the minimum wage, which would work out to 322,000 euros per year. This proposal is called "demagogic" here. And examined more fully here. It's also a bit vague, since it is not specified whether salaire includes stock options, deferred compensation, and other perquisites of life at the top. It's also not clear whether it's a good idea. As much as one may think that executives are overcompensated--and I do--there are risks in fighting the market in this way. Can such judgments be made across the economy as a whole? Might it not be better to impose regulations on corporate boards and compensation committees, say, by requiring that these groups include representatives of the public and publish justifications of their compensation decisions?

Le Premier Flic de France

Sarkozy is promising to get tough on crime--again.

Regulatory Arbitrage

It isn't just for banks:

Like many celebrities, football stars frequently visit prostitutes in Paris because French privacy laws prevent the publications of kiss-and-tell stories.

The Cloud

The Cloud hanging over Europe has become yet another blot on the European Union. Excess of precaution, lack of coordination, tendency to panic in an emergency--all these charges and more are being leveled at the EU. This is all a bit unfair. The emergency was unprecedented, and countries with coordinated leadership haven't exactly distinguished themselves in responses to large-scale emergencies--look at the US in Katrina.

Still, the spectacle of tens of thousands of people sleeping for days in airports, stranded far from home with dwindling cash, and left to fend for themselves suggests that not just the EU but the entire world needs to come up with a plan about what to do in case of a massive disruption of air travel--for which there could be many causes other than volcanoes. We are used to jetting around the globe nowadays, but between the indifference of the airlines and the indifference of governments to the plight of stranded passengers, it is clear that some contingency plan is needed. Anybody whose been stuck in an airport in a large storm can attest to the chaos, and the Icelandic volcano with the impossible name has given us the largest storm yet, and the greatest chaos.

And on a personal note, I hope they get this fixed before May 2, when I am supposed to fly to France.


Will wonders never cease? The Times today devotes two opinion pieces to France, by Vinocur and Cohen. True, neither is worth getting excited about, and neither is really about France--they're about Sarkozy. But two on one day ... And why today? Maybe it's the Cloud. You can't fly to France anymore, so people are getting interested again, just like in the steamship era.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Can Storrow Drive Be Next?

Bertrand Delanoë is closing the expressways along the Seine. Anybody care to hazard a guess how many votes this will deliver to the UMP? (h/t PVF)

Educational Reform

The news will seem familiar to Americans. In 2008, President Sarkozy announced with great fanfare that there would be no more "social promotions" in French schools. Students were to be tested for proficiency at the end of their primary schooling to assess their fitness to move on to the collège, or junior high school, level. The first CM2 evaluations since the reform are now in, and students have done slightly worse in French and slightly better in math than in pre-reform testing. And of course the nearly one-fourth of students who are doing less well than they should be will continue to suffer as they move on to higher grades. Of course no one would have expected huge improvements in just two years, but from these results it's not even clear that the reforms are moving in the right direction. And who knows whether the problem is with the tests, the curriculum, the teaching, the condition of the schools, or the home environment of failing students. These data won't tell us, but the Institut Montaigne promises a fuller report on May 4.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Still Divided

A good rundown of various positions within the PS regarding retirement reform. Broadly speaking, you have on one side Hamon, Emmanuelli, and Fabius, along with Vincent Peillon, who favor higher taxes to compensate for the projected shortfall, and on the other side François Hollande, Manuel Valls, and J.-M. Le Guen favor a longer period of contributions to qualify for a full pension. Ségolène Royal has been avoiding the issue, while Martine Aubry has been straddling the fence, waiting to see where the unions come down.

Another View of Sarkozy's Collapse

Here is Sarkozy's collapse as seen by Thierry Desjardins.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sarkozy's Collapse

It's a cold, gray day here in Cambridge, which puts me in a contrarian mood. I therefore want to question the conventional wisdom that the stunning collapse of Nicolas Sarkozy's support, even on the right, is nothing more than he deserves. He was a gifted campaigner, the argument goes, but has been a disastrous president. The job of head of state is one for which he is unsuited by intellect, temperament, and style. Hence his patent failure, and his rejection, according to recent polls, by as many as half of those who voted for him in 2007.

I acknowledge the strong points of this case. If the job of a president is to set long-range goals and stick to them, then the style that Sarkozy cultivated over the years, based on a need to generate constant headlines, may be counterproductive. In pursuit of publicity, Sarkozy diverted a great deal of energy into splashy but inconsequential efforts: the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, constitutional reform, the fleeting EU presidency. Some of his vaunted reforms have made little difference to the daily lives of most of the French: who now remembers the battles of the first months over the service minimum or the régimes spéciaux (especially now that we have moved to a new phase of retirement policy reform). The merger of the ANPE and ASSEDIC hardly amounted to the major overhaul of the labor market that some had expected. The RSA has been a disappointment. The detaxation of overtime hours is but a finger in the dike given the flood of unemployment triggered by the crisis. The tax shield has become an embarrassment as the national debt has risen to alarming levels. He needlessly offended academics and has done nothing about problems in the suburbs, unless it was to exacerbate them with useless gestures on symbolic and security issues. I could go on.

But what political program conceived in the very different economic climate of 2007 wouldn't be looking rather tattered right now? A better way to approach the problem would be to ask how Sarkozy's flaws of style, intellect, and temperament have prevented him from responding creatively to the new circumstances? But when I try to answer that question, I don't see his defects adding up to enough to account for the precipitous drop in his popularity. Sure, he's been stubborn on the tax shield, but he's retreated on numerous other fronts. Although he's caved to pressure from his own party on l'ouverture, he's resisted on territorial and local governance reform--an important matter with little obvious political payoff.

The best answer I can come up with is that people are afraid, and Sarkozy's alternately frenetic and pugnacious manner isn't what frightened people want. They're looking for a reassuring presence, and it's hard to imagine Sarko sitting down for a Rooseveltian fireside chat. But none of his potential opponents offers such a presence either. France chose in 2007 to transfer its allegiance to a new generation. The two leading candidates were still in their teens in the 1960s. They rose to leadership during a period that placed a premium on openness to change, youth, dynamism, and versatility. Neither had been tested in a deep crisis. Sarkozy had shown that he had the balls to rescue a child from the clutches of a man wired to blow himself to kingdom come, but in the kind of crisis that France faces today, what is wanted is not Captain Marvel but Captain Sullenberger, the pilot who brought his jumbo jet to a deadstick landing in the Hudson: in other words, someone with technical knowhow, practical skills, and the capacity to remain "calm even in catastrophe" (Van Gogh's definition of a masterpiece).

And there is a second problem: with control of both the legislative (at least until the recent intraparty revolt) and the executive, Sarkozy owned his reforms. And some of the better ones (such as local governance reform or reduction of the size of the bureaucracy) are intended either to achieve results over the long term but nothing (or even less than nothing) in the short run, or else to shore up existing programs (such as retirement security) by demanding new sacrifices without offering new benefits.

Being in full control of the government, Sarkozy is not seen to be winning victories over a divided political class (as Obama did, for example, in finally securing passage of health care reform). The battles that count are mostly fought out of sight, within his staff, in party councils, and with major political backers. The public views (non-cohabiting) French presidents as coming into office with programs, which either succeed or fail. It therefore judges presidents on the visible results of those programs. When the expected results are long-term, the immediate disappointment may be disproportionate. Voters are impatient.

And there are no short-term victories over powerful political opponents to fill the front pages. If Obama outmaneuvers Boehner and McConnell, that is news, but when Sarkozy outmaneuvers Copé, no one cares except political junkies. There hasn't been any news in a long time to suggest that Sarkozy has won any battles, so people have begun to ask how what has been accomplished since 2007 has affected them, and the answer seems to be that their futures look bleaker. One can argue about the extent to which Sarkozy deserves the blame for that, but since there is no one else to blame, all the grievances are directed at him. Whereas in the US, Obama's approval may have fallen sharply from near 70% (where both he and Sarkozy began) to somewhere in the 40s, but not as sharply as the approval of Congress, which was dismal to begin with and is now au ras des paquerettes. Sarko has no safety valve, not even a prime minister. So the buck stops with him.

Honesty Is the Best Policy

We are used to finance ministers telling us that things are better than they are, or appear to be. How refreshing, then, to find Christina Romer (not a finance minister, to be sure, but chair of the US Council of Economic Advisors) telling us that things are actually worse than they appear, and explaining why. In France, I'm sure that another powerful woman with a similar first name is reading this paper with great interest.

Benbassa on Le Repli Communautaire

Historian Esther Benbassa thinks that ethnic communities in France have indeed turned inward, but for her the fault lies with French elites. The long-term trend, as shown by any number of statistical markers, is toward greater integration, but elite stigmatization of various groups has triggered a range of defensive reactions.

Friday, April 16, 2010

New Book

Reader and contributor Chris Bickerton recommends this book, which I haven't read myself. It seems to be a theoretical treatise on how the Left might revive itself by engaging in a critique of the concepts of liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and reformism.

"La Niche Copé"

Jean-François Copé -- Cassius to the current Caesar, if not "lean and hungry" then at least bald and hungry -- is the author of a corporate tax break passed in 2004 when he was Finance Minister, which has cost the state 22 billion euros over the past 3 years. Opponents will be sure to bring this up if and when Copé finally makes his run for the presidency, which he seems to covet more than life itself.

2002 in reverse

I was saying the other day that 2012 could turn out to be 2002 in reverse, with the FN facing the candidate of the Left rather than the Right in the second round of the presidentials. Daniel Cohn-Bendit agrees. To me, this would represent the worst of all possible worlds and the ultimate failure of the Sarkozy presidency. Because until recently it had seemed that, whatever else he did or failed to do, he would at least have weakened the FN. But now, on the contrary, Le Pen's party seems to be regaining strength every day, while the UMP has become as much a den of ambitious vipers as the PS.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Yesterday I was privileged to meet Plantu, Le Monde's cartoonist, whom I have long admired. He has founded a group called Cartooning for Peace, which is working to foster free speech around the world. He came to Harvard with several cartoonist colleagues from Israel, Palestine, and the United States. It was the first lecture in which I have seen a speaker draw a caricature of the person introducing him during the time of the introduction. From one of the other participants, Daryl Cagle, I also learned of this interesting Web site. And this.

Portugal Is Next

According to Peeter Boone and Simon Johnson.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

World Turned Upside Down

Aubry at 65% in the popularity polls, Sarko at 38, Marine Le Pen at 29: is this a preview of 2012? And Marine is on the march: could we be looking at 2002 in reverse? What's more, Aubry isn't even the top Socialist: DSK is at 76 and Delanoë at 69. And among the Greens, Duflot is at 39, DCB 49.

Cool your jets, lefties. These beauty contest polls are among the most meaningless of surveys. And one thing you can say for Sarko: he knows how to campaign.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The FN Leadership Contest

Rue89 has a good account of the differences between Marine Le Pen and Bruno Gollnisch. This bit in particular caught my eye:

Pas facile de situer précisément Marine Le Pen sur l'échiquier des idées politiques. Reprenant le traditionnel discours frontiste, l'héritière y ajoute une tonalité sociale appréciée sur le terrain. A la façon des Italiens de la Ligue du Nord. « Elle n'a pas de fond, c'est sa force. Comme Sarkozy, elle ne pense rien, dit l'ancien idéologue du FN Jean-Claude Martinez. La seule chose, c'est qu'elle croit fermement à la peine de mort. Pour le reste, elle est ultra-compatible avec tout. »

Par comparaison, Martinez trouve en Gollnisch un « conservateur », qui croit au « vote en fonction du nombre d'enfants » Frontiste tendance catho-nationaliste. L'intéressé se définit comme un défenseur de la « la droite nationale », mais certains de ses propos litigieux sont à classer dans la catégorie des dérapages dont Jean-Marie Le Pen est coutumier. En août 2005, il n'hésite pas à qualifier l'antiracisme de « sida mental », reprenant l'expression de Louis Pauwels, l'éditorialiste du Figaro magazine.

Remaniement intime

Sarko is his own prime minister, so he can't deflect blame by firing the PM. The next best thing is to fire some advisors. So today we have confirmation of yesterday's rumors of a shakeup in the staff of the Élysée. Actually, looked at more closely, the report doesn't say that anyone has been fired. Rather, the morning staff meeting has been rearranged. Fewer people will attend. Some advisors seem to have been frozen out. Catherine Pégard has had her office moved farther from the president's, la pauvre. Reason: she was too close to Cécilia (but wasn't she appointed after the remarriage? Well, never mind, surely there are better ways to analyze French politics than to employ the methods of Kremlinology and celebrity tittle-tattle magazines--or, then again, maybe not). Pierre Charon is "in disgrace" for having concocted the theory of a "conspiracy" out to destabilize Sarko by planting the rumor that the presidential couple was on the rocks (as I said, maybe Kremlinology and tittle-tattle are indeed the order of the day). Claude Guéant, it is said, has been cut down to size after consolidating too much power in his own hands. Ainsi va le monde.

Meanwhile, the president himself is in Washington. This time he scored an interview with Katie Couric, who asked him about rumors concerning his private life (ah, how fearless journalists become when they are beyond the reach of presidential ire). It goes with the territory, Sarko replied in essence. He seemed completely unruffled, unlike the time he stormed out of an interview with another CBS reporter who pressed a tender spot. This time he remained completely poker-faced. He's a seasoned president now and knows what to expect from female American journalists.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

"Behaving Normally"

Germans, it is said, are “talking of behaving ‘normally’ now, like the others, and that means nationally." In particular, Germany is said to be seeking closer ties with Russia on energy, and this is supposed to be straining ties with France. Now, this is interesting, because a running theme of this blog in 2007-8 was that France was in fact seeking bilateral deals on energy not only with Russia but with Libya, Algeria, and other suppliers, as well as trading nuclear technology for petroleum. Indeed, Sarkozy's failed Union for the Mediterranean was in part, I thought, an attempt to bypass the EU and place France at the center of a new energy consortium.

To be sure, Germany is in the spotlight now for other reasons, especially its recalcitrance on the Greek bailout (which now seems finalized) and reluctance to show solidarity over the euro. But the Germans are surely right that they are not the only "nationalist" players in this game. With the U.S. military now forecasting world energy shortages as early as 2015 (according to an NPR report broadcast this morning), with petroleum output peaking next year and demand continuing to rise (if the recovery continues), maneuvering on the energy front will become increasingly salient as a component of foreign policy. And this, more than the failure of Copenhagen, may determine the future of the climate, as oil shortages drive countries to faire feu de tout bois, as it were, and de tout charbon, even the most unclean.

Thought for the day

A thought for the day, courtesy of Eric Fassin:

Pourquoi tant de corps aujourd’hui ? C’est pour incarner la politique, accusée d’abstraction. On pourrait y voir un symptôme de la démocratie comme deuil interminable du « corps du roi » : la « crise de la représentation » appellerait un supplément – non point d’âme, mais de corps. On peut aussi, à l’inverse, y lire une tentative pour occulter un déficit démocratique, en compensant des carences politiques par des opérations purement symboliques.

Monday, April 12, 2010

And Even More on Retirement Reform: Thomas Piketty

Here. Both right and left have avoided the central questions, he says, the right by trying to frighten the people the left, by saying that all will be well if only we can undo what the right has done. Both are wrong.

Réforme des retraites - Thomas Piketty (1)
Uploaded by laviedesidees. - News videos from around the world.

Still More on Retirement Reform: It Could Be Worse

France doesn't have the best old-age dependency ratio structure, but it doesn't have the worst either. That honor belongs to Japan. Discussion here and here.

Marine or Bruno?

Come January, we won't have Jean-Marie Le Pen to kick around anywhere, but we may have his daughter. Or then again, it may be Bruno Gollnisch. Place your bets and name your "favorite" here.

Still More on Retirement Reforms

Two OECD economists note the issue of finding work for older workers if the number of years of work required for full benefits is increased. They further note the difficulty of increasing payroll taxes, which would increase labor costs and thus be a competitive disadvantage.

More on Retirement Reform

Who is proposing what? A handy guide.

A Whiter Shade of Green

Cécile Duflot has put forward her own ideas about the future of the Green political movement. Le Monde is quick to paint this as a rebuke to Daniel Cohn-Bendit and to voice the suspicion--which Sylvia Zappi attributes to unnamed others--that the latter joue trop perso. True, Duflot does not endorse his idea of establishing a network of Europe Écologie collectives around the country. She wants a more open, fluid, and pluralist structure. But it's too early to conclude that this signals any real split in the ranks of the Greens, who find themselves at a crucial point of transition, having emerged as a strong electoral force. Duflot wants to anchor the movement on the left, linking it to the traditions of the workers' movement and feminism. I see it as more of a rallying point for the "radical center," that emerging swing group of voters who for disparate reasons cannot identify with either the PS or the UMP but are also immune to the blandishments of the left and right fringes. This is an inherently volatile group, defined more by attitude than by issues. "Green" is a convenient color for the moment and in some ways captures the "post-materialist" motivations of the members. Moving from there to issues and candidates will not be an easy task.

Palier on Retirement Reforms

With retirement reform apparently the centerpiece of Sarkozy's domestic policy in the runup to 2012, it is worth listening to this series of interviews with one of France's leading experts on retirement policy, Bruno Palier. Below is one segment in which Bruno makes the interesting point that France has more unions with fewer members than other countries, making for a fragmented and competitive negotiating environment. He also discusses the difficulty of resolving the issue of how to deal with difficult and stressful jobs when confronting the issue of length of working life.

Réforme des retraites - B. Palier (4)
Uploaded by laviedesidees. - News videos from around the world.

Back from the Desert

So, what happened while I was gone? I didn't have much time to read the news while in Arizona for the annual conference of the Society for French Historical Studies, which was a real treat. My compliments and thanks to the organizers, especially Victoria Thompson, who did a fabulous job and really made me feel welcome. It was great to swim in the morning, listen to lectures all day, and dine in the evening with old and new friends.

But now it's back to real life, and I need to catch up. I see that the First Lady was out and about trying to prevent Affairsgate from turning into the Assassination and Persecution of Rachida Dati by the Inmates of the Elysian Asylum. It might be interesting to see what would happen if Mme Dati were turned over to the justice system whose collective back she got up while serving as Justice Minister. We might see her condemned to be broken on the wheel, drawn, and quartered on the place de Grève.

ADDENDUM: It looks as though one of the inmates has been sent to solitary by the warden. Yet another bizarre twist in this loufoque affair.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

From the desert 3

Alain Juppé has just struck another blow at Caesar. A wounded leader is a pitiful sight. But Juppé says one useful thing along with his various coups fourrés. This on the burqa:

Non. Soyons clairs ! Cette pratique, qui n'est pas une prescription religieuse mais une habitude importée de certaines zones géographiques, est contraire aux valeurs de la République. Mais une loi générale risque de donner le sentiment d'une stigmatisation de l'islam. Le premier ministre a choisi la bonne démarche en demandant l'avis du Conseil d'Etat sur les mesures qui s'imposent. On devrait suivre cet avis.

Friday, April 9, 2010

From the desert 2

I've just had my morning swim in the hotel pool ahead of a busy day of lectures. In my absence, you might like to read Bernard Girard's reflections on the reasons for Sarkozy's apparent failure to effect lasting reforms.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

From the desert

Gossip knows no boundaries in the Age of the Internet. Word has reached me here in Arizona, by way of Princeton, that Rachida Dati has suffered yet another humiliation: she has lost her luxury hotel room in Geneva.

Two Books on the Conseil Constitutionnel

Reviewed here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I'll be on the road for a few days, attending the Society for French Historical Studies conference in Tempe, Arizona, where I'm a "featured speaker." I may get in a little blogging, but don't expect too much over the next few days. Feel free to leave comments here or point the way to interesting stories, since I won't have as much time as usual to scan the press and the Web. Back on Sunday. À bientôt.

Bourdieu Resurrected

In advance of a government push toward an ultimate solution of the retirement conundrum, a group of intellectuals, trade union leaders, and political leaders from the left of the Left and the left wing of the Socialist Party have launched a petition calling for a "broad mobilization of citizens" to stop what they see as an attack on a venerable French institution and linchpin of the French social model. The complexion of this group is reminiscent of the coalition that formed around the late Pierre Bourdieu in the wake of the massive 1995 strikes against Alain Juppé's proposed reforms.

But this time the sequence is reversed. In 1995, there had seemed to be a consensus of intellectuals and unions in favor of the reforms before the strike. The virulence of the public reaction came as something of a surprise to both government and reformists outside of government, and Bourdieu's intervention became a rallying point for a dissidence that revealed a real cleavage among the ranks of intellectuals (see Gérard Noiriel's analysis in Les fils maudits de la République--Noiriel is one of the signers of the new petition). Now--for the time being, at any rate--moderate reformists outside the government are relatively quiet, and the dissidence is raising its voice in advance of any popular protest, as if to lead a future movement rather than follow it (in the footsteps of Ledru-Rollin, who famously said, "Je suis leur chef, il fallait bien les suivre"). It remains to be seen where popular sentiment actually lies on this issue. It may be that the public mind has evolved since 1995. Or again, it may be that the relatively mild reaction to the reform of the special regimes back in 2007, when Sarkozy was at the height of his popularity, has lulled the government into a false sense of security.

With Sarkozy having retreated or been forced into a defensive posture on so many other fronts (Copé is now even calling for maintaining advertising on public TV during the daytime, and UMP opposition to the tax shield has not lessened), retirement reform is likely to loom as the defining issue of Sarkozy's presidency. Make or break, just as health care reform was in the United States. This may tempt his many enemies to go for broke in an all-out effort to defeat him as we move into the next presidential season. How the Socialists deal with this issue will therefore be a defining moment for them as well. They presumably will not want to sign on with the new rejectionist front. But where is the middle ground? What will they propose instead?

You've Got to Be Kidding

It just gets better and better:

At the same time, the Elysée has been pointing the finger at Rachida Dati and is determined to punish her (last week's post). It has leaked reports that its investigators (presumably police) have proof that the former darling of the President was passing on the gossip [about alleged affairs of both NS and CB). Claude Guéant, Sarkozy's chief-of-staff, got into the act today, telling le Canard Enchaîné on the record: "The President of the Republic does not want to see Rachida Dati any more". [What is this, High School Confidential?--ed.]

Dati is in turn threatening law suits against the boys at the Elysée. On RTL radio this morning [in picture], she insisted that Sarkozy would never say the things that his advisers were alleging and she hoped to have it out with the President him soon.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Planting a Seed

President Sarkozy is calling today on "peasants"--a rather quaint word to apply to the agrobusinessmen whose affections he will be attempting to win back. Farmers' income fell 34% in 2009 after a decrease of 20% in 2008, so these people are hurting. They used to be among Sarko's most enthusiastic backers: he enjoyed an 87% approval rating in this category just after his election, but this is now down to 47%. He is in grain-growing territory today (the Essonne), and one problem here, in addition to a collapse of world grain prices, is due to government policy itself: a decision to shift EU subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy from grain-growers to animal breeders. This was a consequence of trying to outguess the markets.

Once there were plans afoot to redo the CAP altogether, but talk of this has vanished in the wake of the crisis--another instance of "reform" succumbing not to the "conservatisms" that Sarkozy likes to depict as the enemy but to "emergency." It's not clear what he can say to appease the farmers, who have already struck at key symbols of Sarkozysme: they parked their tractors in front of Fouquet's and dumped hay outside the Élysée.

At least this time he will probably come with a new speech, instead of recycling an old one, as he did in a previous meeting with agricultural groups. But the best he can do is to promise an attempt to sacrifice as little as possible to the conflagration. Nevertheless, French agriculture seems certain to emerge from the crisis somewhat shrunken as a result of intensified competition. French identity will suffer yet another small wound, but nothing like the trauma of the "rural exodus" of generations past. And the UMP will lose votes.

Male-Female Wage Differentials in Europe

As the table at left shows, France is in the middle of the pack when it comes to male-female wage inequality. (Source: Observatoire des inégalités)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Culture Clash

After listening on Easter Sunday to news stories about the Catholic Church being secouée and ébranlée by what Cardinal Soldano had the temerity to dismiss as jacasseries (in the French translation; ABC News preferred the more delicate "idle gossip"), I was amused to wake up on Monday morning to discover this review, by a puzzled French philosopher, of Richard Swinburne's Is There a God?, a treatise in the finest tradition of British analytical philosophy. To say that there is something of a culture clash here is to put it mildly. The reviewer, Denis Moreau, first has to persuade his readers that the whole idea isn't daft: in France, according to Bernard Sève, the philosophical question of the existence of God has for generations been considered "obsolete, at best something to be stuffed away in the closet reserved for the history of outmoded ideas," not a question for active investigation under the rubric of philosophy.

Well, perhaps. I'm not sure that "rational theology," the heading under which Moreau would like to place Swinburne's work, is consuming many neurons in Anglo-American philosophy departments either. And as for l'Être Suprême in French philo, I might note that I recently dipped into a Harvard colloquium on "Derrida and Religion," in which any number of learned scholars promised to turn Derrida into a theologian of sorts, albeit--it seemed from the introductory lecture, which was all I could manage--in a distinctly ironic mode, distinguished by punning on the word "Adieu" (variously read as à Dieu and a-Dieu, get it?). So, if "rational theology" is flourishing in England, "irrational theology" is apparently flourishing in France, or at least in that tiny colony of American intellectuals that feasts on the French-accented post-Nietzschean post-modern.

All of this high elucubration on the Summum Bonum no doubt has something to do with the evident refusal of the faithful to shed their beliefs, as modernization theory used to say they should, and with their even more evident inclination to act on those beliefs: witness any number of items from the recent news, from the armed militia of God in the American Midwest to a pair of blonde "Jihad Janes" prepared to assassinate a Danish cartoonist to evangelical churches springing up across France (according to a France2 JT report) to the Belgian burqa ban (the Belgians, apparently, don't read the opinions of the French Conseil d'État).

Perhaps some kind reader will explain to me what links all these phenomena together. I am as puzzled by the analytical theologians as I am by the post-Derrideans and the Hutaree. Perhaps, at bottom, I was doomed by my mathematical training to think like Laplace, who, when asked by Napoleon why there was no mention of God in his theory of the cosmos, replied, "Sire, je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là." Many people do, however, and it seems that one really ought to try to understand them. I don't, however, expect to find much help in Richard Swinburne's book, even in French translation. (On the other, Mitchell Silver's book, linked to above, has been of some help.)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Different Style

No butcher's hooks for Villepin. When he wants to skewer someone, he prefers the verbal rapier. Thus his comment on the news that the prosecutor who tried to nail him--in his view at the behest of Sarkozy--has been promoted to the rank of officier in the Légion d'honneur:

Je vois avec bonheur aujourd'hui pour les intéressés que M. Jean-Claude Marin est nommé officier de la Légion d'honneur (...) Voilà, pour moi, la messe est dite (...) Je ne suggère rien, je dis tout simplement, joyeuses Pâques !"

The Protocols of the Elders of Finance

Paranoia seems to be à l'ordre du jour at the Élysée. Pierre Charon, one of the presidential PR flacks, is suggesting that rumors of Carla and Nick's alleged extramarital flings were planted by unnamed agents from the world of finance in order to "destabilize" Sarkozy in advance of the G20 meetings in 2011. Yes, those financiers will stop at nothing.

Artus: Cut Taxes on Labor, Raise Taxes on Capital

The other day, I cited an interesting paper by Patrick Artus. Today I want to single out the conclusions of that paper, namely, to cut taxes on labor income and increase taxes on capital income. The first recommendation comes from the observation that current stimulus policies are going to have to be curtailed. Further stimulus should focus on increasing domestic demand, which is best done, Artus contends, by increasing the income of workers, whose propensity to spend is greater. Conversely, there is little propensity to invest at present, because of low capacity utilization, so relatively little harm will be done by increasing taxes on income to capital. Artus further recommends increasing taxes on pollution, presumably for the familiar Pigovian reasons. The paper is short and worth reading in its entirety.

Addendum: It looks as though the Obameconomists have decided to take the exact opposite course. Here is Christina Romer:

Instead, she said other smaller drivers would be critical. “It’s going to need to come from our exports. That’s why the president has been pushing his export initiative. It’s going to need to come from business investment, and that’s why measures like a zero capital gains for small businesses, or tax incentives for investment. I think those are the right policy to make sure we get a healthy kind of growth, going forward.”

Her reasoning is that consumers are intent on decreasing their credit exposure and won't spend income increments.

Devoir de réserve

One gendarme was suspended for criticizing the government. Now another has been suspended for writing a poem in support of the first. When I first read this, my reaction was, "Overreaction by a thin-skinned administration." But then I read the poem. Here is an excerpt:

Un nouveau Roy fût nommé, et tout a changé.

Diviser pour mieux régner, tel était son but !

Il y parvint bien, précipitant la chute !
Pour ce faire, il choisit bien parmi les nôtres,

Ceux d’entre eux les plus vénaux, les moins fidèles,

Leur fit tant miroiter, qu’il furent ses “apôtres”.
Ces vendus et parjures aujourd’hui, ont ourdi

D’enterrer sans coup férir notre belle histoire…

De nous taire ils nous ordonnent, arguant: “Tout est dit !”
L’un des nôtres osa parler sans démériter,

se faisant ainsi le râle de notre douleur…

Il fût vite éliminé par ces fossoyeurs !
Aujourd’hui, Sainte Geneviève saigne et pleure,

Je sens bien ses larmes chaudes sous mon képi,

Comme si sur moi SARKOZY faisait son pipi…
Soldats nous sommes, et c’est debout que nous mourrons.

Et à l’instar de CAMBRONNE, “MERDE” nous dirons.

I am reminded of Chévenement's immortal words: "Un ministre, ça ferme sa gueule ou ça démissionne." Un gendarme aussi.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Guéant le géant (et gérant)

Remember the other day when I suggested that Claude Guéant was actually running the country while the president licks his wounds. Seems I wasn't far off:

Nicolas Sarkozy ... répète vingt fois par jour à tous ceux qui le réclament : "Si tu as un problème, un message à me faire passer, va voir Claude. Ce sera comme si tu me voyais…" ? Comme si tu me voyais…

Friday, April 2, 2010

Jon Stewart on Sarkozy's US Visit


Guy Debord, "National Treasure"

Guy Debord, whom the French authorities would probably have liked to get rid of while he was alive, has now been deemed a "national treasure." His papers will not go to Yale, which wanted them, but will remain in France, at a price of some 2 to 3 million euros. Life is full of ironies. If you're too young to remember the Situationists, know simply that "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Comment Chercher la Croissance avec les Dents

Patrick Artus has a very interesting paper on how to restart European growth. A (tendentiously provocative) summary of some of its points can be found here.

Publishers and Google

China is not Google's only enemy. Two more French publishers join a suit against the company. Bernard Girard vigorously defends Google.

Why Does This Guy Remind Me of John Edwards?

Now here's a new wrinkle: a Sarkozy minister suing a Lagardère publication for putting his picture on the cover. François Baroin claims that he's doing it for the principle of the thing: he's never been one to publicize his private life, so why should he accept the rules of the game that his boss has more or less defined? And he does have one of those private lives that get talked about: first Marie Drucker, now Michèle Laroque. Plus, if you're an American, you look at him and his coif and you think, "John Edwards!"

Expensive Dinner

The New York Times has finally deigned to take note of Sarkozy's visit to Washington. It thinks he should pay for his dinner with the Obamas by sending more troops to Afghanistan. That would add considerably to the already large tab for the world's most unnecessary state visit. Oddly, the French media have given Joyandet a hard time for chartering a private jet to Martinique for 116,500 euros, but none has mentioned the cost of Sarko's jaunt, which included a paternal visit with le petit Louis, an empty and uninspiring speech to Columbia students, a hot dog at a Washington chili joint, and a tête-à-tête with the Obamas in the White House family dining room. A few rather odd protocol demands have begun to leak out: for instance, Sarko demanded that an espresso machine be installed at Columbia in case he needed a pick-me-up. I have not been able to determine whether he actually had a cup.