Monday, May 31, 2010

Elie Cohen on the "Dramaturgy" of Retirement Reform


Montebourg Report

The Montebourg Report on the renovation of the Socialist Party has been published.It details the primary procedure for selecting a 2012 presidential candidate and extols this reform as the essence of party renovation. This makes it hard to see how the party could renege on its pledge to choose its candidate by primary. Meanwhile, Ségolène Royal has announced that she is party to discussions with Aubry and DSK and would be prepared to "sacrifice her personal ambitions" for the sake of party unity. This seems to corroborate a rumor I reported earlier, that the fix may be in, in which the top elephants will allocate among themselves the top jobs. Such a backroom deal would of course make a mockery of the party primary. We shall see what we shall see, but I have a hunch that the primary will in fact be a pro forma ratification of a decision that will have been made in high party councils, behind closed doors.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Watch That Simile!

Martine Aubry, our lady of "care" (in the sense of Carol Gilligan rather than Heidegger or Foucault), has descended a notch in her preaching, comparing Sarkozy to Bernie Madoff, presumably an example of a guy who really couldn't care less what happened to anybody else.

Meanwhile, François Hollande, who has a problem, sensed an opening. Hollande's problem is that, although he wants to be president, the publicity machine seems to be ignoring him. Lately the media have been focusing on the possibility of a titanic struggle between DSK and Aubry, with Royal as spoiler. Hollande has dropped out of sight. But Aubry's comparison of Sarko to Madoff presented him with an opportunity to grab some air time, and he took it. Let's not descend to their level, he said, and let's back off the easy name-calling. And indeed, to compare the president of the Republic to the roi des escrocs is a good deal cruder than to accuse of him of perpetrating un coup d'éclat permanent. Yet it must be said that neither charge adds much heft to the Socialist argument that it would govern France better than the other guys.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

French Plot?

Did the French pressure the ECB to buy Greek debt? Some Germans are claiming that they did. But since when has the ECB been a lackey of the French? If there was French pressure, and the ECB responded to it, might there not have been a systemic threat warranting such a response? In any case, here is one more source of international tension growing out of the Greek debt situation.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Barbouze Scorned

Bernard G. reads the Bacqué biography of Grossouvre, Mitterrand's homme de basses oeuvres, and comes away with some juicy bits:

Or, ce qui ressort de la lecture de ce livre est que Grossouvre a très vite dérapé, nourrissant la presse de ragots contre Mitterrand sans que celui-ci ne fît rien pour sanctionner un vieil ami. On y apprend, incidemment, que Grossouvre a organisé au début du premier septennat de faux attentats contre Mitterrand pour le convaincre de revoir sa sécurité. On y apprend également que le livre interdit de Jean-Edern Hallier a surtout été jugé impubliable par tout ce que Paris comptait alors d'éditeurs anti-mitterrandistes. Ils craignaient moins la censure que le ridicule d'avoir publié un livre dans lequel on trouvait, à coté de la révélation de l'existence de Mazarine, des scènes dans lesquelles François Mitterrand se faisait sodomiser sur la plage d'Hossegor.

Dit autrement, Raphaëlle Bacqué voulait "se faire" Mitterrand et son livre contribue à le réhabiliter un peu plus. La seule chose qu'on puisse, à sa lecture, reprocher à notre ancien Président est d'avoir conservé de la tendresse pour de vieux amis. Qui peut voir là un crime?

The Leadership Question

Laurent Bouvet analyzes the situation of the Socialist Party.

Friday, May 28, 2010


More on the "care" debate. Americans will be reminded of the famous Bush I "note to self": "Message: I care." Proving that he didn't. The PS should beware of a similar fate.

A Deliberate Provocation?

Thierry Desjardins believes that the president of the Republic wanted a "test of strength" and got it by provoking the Left with a gratuitous attack on Mitterrand ("if he hadn't reduced the legal age of retirement to 60, we wouldn't be having all these problems today"--an attack that conveniently forgets Sarko's own statement in 1993 that "the UMP has always supported 60 as the legal age of retirement"). It's a plausible enough thesis: the president has lost control of the public discourse, and putting the unions on his back gives him an opportunity to adopt the posture of fighting cock that he used to favor.

But I think it hardly matters. In the matter of retirement reform, successive French governments have proceeded in the same clumsy way decade after decade. Feigning consultation, they come to the table with a sound plan firmly fixed in their minds. They are well prepared to fend off all anticipated objections. But in the end they prefer to avoid direct confrontation, and there is always enough flexibility in the plan to throw a bone to each potential opponent.

Since the opponents do not agree among themselves, such a second- or third-best solution is the best they can hope for, and they take what is offered after putting up token resistance. So we will see many compromises around the question of pénibilité, a word that evokes images of bagnards breaking stones, but which in fact authorizes myriad inequalities in the name of compassion: Is the caissière on her feet eight hours a day and exposed to repetitive stress injury worthy of a shorter period of cotisation than a construction worker who spends his eight hours seated in the cab of a bulldozer?

If agreements are by sector or branch, how does one distinguish between the heavy equipment operator and the ditchdigger? Between compassionate abstraction and contractual nitty-gritty, the gap is huge, but public debate skips lightly over the real issues. My prediction: this n-ième retirement reform will no more be the la der des ders than its predecessors but a motley backroom compromise designed mainly to improve the short-term budget picture.

Politics and Markets

The views of Éloi Laurent and Karim Emile Bitar here and Uwe Reinhardt here.

"It isn’t coordinated stimulus, it is coordinated depression, which looks like coordinated stupidity,” says Mr. Laurent.


Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf are both flabbergasted by the OECD's recommendation that monetary tightening should begin no later than the fourth quarter of this year.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Burqa Debate Comes to Harvard

Judith Surkis vs. Patrice Higonnet. As regular readers will know, I am more sympathetic to Judith's side of the argument and would respond to my friend Patrice that continuity is no substitute for justification. It may be relevant to point out Marcel Détienne's observation that historians of France have in some respects contributed to the myth of national identity that politicians have lately been eager to exploit.

Euro: Feldstein vs. Wyplosz


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Europe Pulls Back on Climate Change

It was only to be expected after the failure of Copenhagen and the worsening of the economic crisis, but Germany has refused to go along with an accelerated timetable for greenhouse gas reduction, and one has the feeling that other governments are only too glad to let the Germans play the heavy on this as on other issues. The planet can wait, the politicians are suggesting, thereby ruining their credibility if ever they decide in the future to put the issue back on the front burner.

Left-wing Antisemitism in France

A review of a book by Michel Dreyfus.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One from Collomb A and One from Collomb B

Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon, is on the short list for the title of World Mayor 2010 (h/t Andrew Stevens), but he has his sights set higher: if DSK is not a candidate for president, Collomb proposes to run for the job himself.

News Not Fit to Print

The Times prints only what's fit to print, but your intrepid reporter is compelled to be more comprehensive when it comes to the French presidency.

Bremner: Sarko Has Sprung a Trap

Charles Bremner sees a foxy Sarkozy behind the hike in the retirement age:

Sarkozy has in reality led the opposition and unions into a trap. Chastened by the Greek tragedy and the euro-crisis, about 60 percent of the public accepts that raising the retirement age is inevitable, according to polls. They know that Germany, which is richer than France, agreed as far back in 2007 to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67.

The opposition risks locking itself in with its resistance. Martine Aubry, the Socialist leader, has decided to turn l'age de la retraite into a battleground for the presidential election that she hopes to win in 2012. She is talking of a "casus belli" and has promised to bring the age back down to 60 if she is elected.

The mood in France is certainly different from that in Germany, Ireland, Britain and the other countries that have bowed to austerity. Despite the headlines, people are not much concerned by the public finance crisis. But there is an awareness that France can't escape what everyone else is going through. The Socialist resistance looks like a miscalculation.

I think Bremner is right on the substance but possibly wrong on the politics. Sixty percent support may seem like a lot, but support for retirement reform was also high in 1995--until opposition exploded. The French public has been ominously quiet over the past few months. The bossnappings and threats to blow up the plant have diminished; farmers haven't been pouring milk in the streets for a while; the Besancenot surge has faded; Le Pen has been quiet; students have been sticking to their books; the suburbs have been relatively calm. Yet my sense is that confidence in government is very low, fear of the future is very high, and no one is content with the political class as a whole, not just the government. This may be the time when le corbeau outfoxes le renard.

Une nouvelle lettre persane

By Eric Fassin.

The Sheriff

Jean-Pierre Jouyet, France's former Mr. Europe, isn't blaming the markets and rating agencies:

This is the context of (and contrast between) the European Union’s dreams and issues of probity in 2010. It’s against this background that a number of its government leaders leaped to insist to their electors that the euro zone’s problems, beyond a Greek hiccup, were the work of “wolf packs,” “wild animals” and “armies” of “speculators.”

Instead, according to Mr. Jouyet, who is no gadfly but a European mandarin and formerly France’s secretary of state for European affairs, you could liken the role of the markets and rating agencies in the Greek crisis to that of justices of the peace in a cowboy film.

Monday, May 24, 2010


"Care" is back in the news. For Anglophones who haven't been following this story, it is essential to point out that the English word "care" has taken French leave and is in danger of becoming a full-fledged French neologism thanks to Martine Aubry's adoption of it as a description of what the "new socialism" hopes to inject into the French social model. "Care," these two defenders of the concept tell us, is supposedly an American concept that will "restore the capacity to act" and "shore up precarious existences." Carol Gilligan is cited as sole source. Well, with all due respect to Carol (my first date with my wife some 27 years ago was a double with Carol and her husband), I think she would be the first to suggest that any connection between her critique of contemporary social theories and any practical social policy would require several layers of mediation. The French debate over the meaning of "care" threatens to become yet another smoke-screen behind which the Socialist Party will attempt to obfuscate what its actual intentions are. It would be better to conduct a real debate in plain French rather than hide behind this rather lofty ideal. Between the idea of "care" and the insistence on maintaining the legal age of retirement at 60, nearly everything of importance to real social policy is left undefined and therefore all the more vulnerable to backroom deals.

Les Champs-Elysées from Hallowed to Unfallowed

The Champs-Élysées were transformed yesterday from hallowed field of heroes into an urban strip farm. Exactly what the point of this exercise was supposed to have been escapes me, but Parisians loved it, huge crowds engaged for a day in what Marx once disparaged as "rural idiocy," Bruno Le Maire made a speech, and a good deal of greenhouse gas was generated. Perhaps the French were deceived yet again into thinking that a nation of agrobusiness and Carrefours has somehow reverted to its former existence as a nation of peasants. Sarkozy isn't the only one who has learned the tricks of la société du spectacle.

New Age Politics

Sans commentaire: see here.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Road to Serfdom

Peter Boone and Simon Johnson pull no punches:

Hayek had the sign and the destination right, but was wrong about the mechanism. Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests are what ended up undermining democracy both in North America and in Europe. All industrialised countries are at risk, but it's the eurozone – with its vulnerable structures – that points most clearly to our potentially unpleasant collective futures.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Schama on Popular Rage

Historian and TV celebrity Simon Schama, my former colleague, foresees an explosion of popular rage and invokes 1789:

Whether in 1789 or now, an incoming regime riding the storm gets a fleeting moment to try to contain calamity. If it is seen to be straining every muscle to put things right it can, for a while, generate provisional legitimacy. Act two is trickier. Objectively, economic conditions might be improving, but perceptions are everything and a breathing space gives room for a dangerously alienated public to take stock of the brutal interruption of their rising expectations. What happened to the march of income, the acquisition of property, the truism that the next generation will live better than the last? The full impact of the overthrow of these assumptions sinks in and engenders a sense of grievance that “Someone Else” must have engineered the common misfortune.

This strikes me as rather simplistic for historical theory but not inaccurate as regards smoldering emotions in the United States and Europe.

Tell Us More

The Times leads with a teaser:

An already strained relationship between the White House and the departing spymaster Dennis C. Blair erupted earlier this year over Mr. Blair’s efforts to cement close intelligence ties to France and broker a pledge between the nations not to spy on each other, American government officials said Friday.

The White House scuttled the plan, officials said, but not before President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had come to believe that a deal was in place. Officials said that Mr. Sarkozy was angered about the miscommunication, and that the episode had hurt ties between the United States and France at a time when the two nations are trying to present a united front to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.  

Now what in the world is that all about?

Tell It to the Marines

The New York Times profiles Marine Le Pen, or The Travails of Bearing the Name of the Father.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Never a Dull Moment

Just in case you've been lulled by the relative calm in PS internal bickering, Collomb and Aubry are spatting again to remind you that this is indeed still the PS. And DSK isn't all that sure about staging a last stand around maintaining the legal retirement age at 60.

A Coup in Mulhouse?

Commanded by the Élysée?

Legal Analysis of the Anti-Burqa Law


Public Finance, Theory and Practice

On the subject of public finance, we have two new publications of interest: the Champsaur-Cotis report on the degradation of French public finances over the past 30 years, which I mentioned yesterday, can be found here in its entirety (h/t EL); and Ecopublix has published a short primer on the theory of public finance that looks very good indeed.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Paul Champsaur and Jean-Philippe Cotis are the authors of a report to the president which argues that neither growth nor inflation will suffice to restore French state finances to a healthy condition. Additional efforts will be needed, they say, to reduce state expenditures over the next decade. The word "austerity" has been banned from the public vocabulary, so perhaps we'll have to say simply that il faudra sarkozyr le budget de l'État (see previous post).

Meanwhile, the president, taking a leaf out of the German playbook, has announced a constitutional amendment that would require each president to set forth his budget goals for the quinquennat upon taking office. This, I imagine, will be a bit like a marriage vow: the newly elected president, like the newly wed husband (wife), will swear fidelity and promise to adhere to the highest principles. What he (or she) then does will depend, however, on his (her) character rather than the sworn oath, although, to be sure, one can expect broken oaths to be cited in subsequent domestic spats and/or divorce proceedings. Promises of virtue are unlikely to sway investors, however, who rather resemble divorce lawyers in viewing romantic effusions with a jaundiced eye.

Meanwhile, Sarko is less enamored of another German initiative, to ban "naked shorts" and credit default swaps in certain markets. Frau Merkel characterizes this measure as an attack on speculation, while cynics see it as protection for German banks holding bonds vulnerable to speculative attack. Whether the idea is good or bad, the unilateral German initiative points up the utter lack of European coordination (let alone international cooperation, with the US still dickering over its financial regulation bill), which is as unsettling to markets as speculation.


"Sarkozyr" has become a verb in the French language, synonymous with rapetisser. For conjugation and usage details, see the link.

Saving on Gas

Sarko's ministers haven't been asked to take salary cuts, but they will have to make do with smaller cars. Il faudra sarkozyr leur voiture de fonction (see next post for the meaning of sarkozyr).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Noyau dur de la droite post-Sarkozyenne?

Copé, Baroin, Le Maire, Jacob: read about the ambitious quadrumvirs in L'Express. Maybe Villepin isn't the one Sarko should be worrying about.

Sarko's "Brain" Joins Luc Besson

Emmanuelle Mignon, the brains behind Sarkozy's successful 2007 presidential campaign, has joined the production company of filmmaker Luc Besson.

Europe's Impact on the World

Another good post from James Hamilton, this one interpreting the global markets' reaction to the bad news from Europe. For Hamilton, the markets fear that European austerity will lead to falling commodity prices, falling global profits, and a new credit crunch, as banks with weakened balance sheets become reluctant to lend to private borrowers as in 2008.

This discussion by Paul De Grauwe is also interesting. In particular:

This has everything to do with the build-up of major imbalances involving the private sector. As argued earlier, some countries (not only in Southern Europe) allowed unsustainable real estate and consumption booms to emerge and to be financed by bank debt. Much of the financing of these unsustainable booms was done by the “virtuous” countries with current-account surpluses. These imbalances will occur even when all countries follow balanced budget rules. Thus it appears that the German government’s proposal to install balanced budget rules is a major cover-up of its own responsibility in contributing to the imbalance within the Eurozone.

In all fairness it should be added that there is an important new and positive element in the recent Commission’s proposals. This is that not only the government budget debts and deficits must be monitored, but also the private sector imbalances, in particular private debt levels. The issue here is how this monitoring can be made effective so as to avoid new crises. One can have doubts whether this can be achieved without a further transfer of sovereignty to European institutions.

The Underground Economy, Inflation, and the Euro

A very interesting argument by James Hamilton (h/t mg).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The 2012 Campaign in a Nutshell

Latest bulletin from the PS:

Martine Aubry, première secrétaire du PS, a annoncé, mardi 18 mai, que les socialistes s'opposeraient de "toutes leurs forces" à un report de l'âge légal de départ à la retraite. Pour combler le déficit, elle a proposé une surtaxe de 15 % de l'impôt sur les sociétés pour les banques et plusieurs mesures de taxation des revenus du capital.

So, there we have in a nutshell the 2012 presidential campaign, which starts today. Sarkozy is committed to raising the legal age of retirement. The PS is strenuously opposed. The issue skirts the real problems with the retirement system, but it's a clear enough criterion for a nice political spat. The PS gets to look like it's on the left, and Sarko gets to portray himself as the "reponsible" steward of the social safety net. Meanwhile, what actually happens to the retirement system will be negotiated in the back room by the serious folks among the "social partners": technocrats working for the unions, the employers' associations, and the ministries. In short, business as usual.

The Reception of John Stuart Mill in France

Discussed here.

Various Papers

I've posted the text of my talk at the Tocqueville Society colloquium in Nice here. This is about "Individualism, Populism, and Technocracy." The text of my Collège de France talk is on the Web site of the Collège as well as here. Both of these papers will appear in La Revue Tocqueville, of which I have just become a member of the editorial board. And my keynote address to the Society for French Historical Studies can be found here.

Dany the Horsetrader

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, as pungent as ever, has no patience with those who have criticized the government for trading a spy and an assassin for Clotilde Reiss:

Le leader d'Europe-Ecologie, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a, pour sa part, été encore plus sévère dans ses critiques à l'égard de Benoît Hamon. "Clotilde Reiss a été libérée, c'est bien, et si le gouvernement a fait tout ce qu'il a pu pour la libérer, eh bien c'est comme ça", a déclaré le député européen sur Canal+. "On ne peut pas être content de la libération et en même temps tiquer parce que le gouvernement a fait ce que devait faire un gouvernement... Moi je trouve cette manière d'opposition absolument ridicule (...) Est-ce que vous croyez que c'est sur la place publique qu'on va négocier?", a demandé Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

"Ils ont fait libérer deux personnes pour échanger, c'est ce qu'on fait dans ces cas-là. Jouer aux vierges comme ça c'est quand même ridicule", a-t-il lancé.

Retirement Reform

Retirement reform is to be the centerpiece of Sarkozy's domestic agenda in the runup to 2012. He seems to be taking a cautious approach, reluctant to renege on any promises yet eager to mollify various constituencies. Since he promised the bouclier fiscal, he won't modify that, except that he will: there will be a "solidarity contribution" from the rich to defray retirement outlays, and this won't be counted under the tax shield. The great debate seems to be about whether this exception constitutes une brèche in the bouclier or une entaille, the latter being the word Copé prefers. Sarko also refuses to cut retirement benefits, so the largely irrelevant legal age of retirement will be raised, and years of contribution required for full benefits will be increased, albeit with many exceptions for pénibilité, etc. Finally, the changes will be phased in very gradually, and equilibrium will not be achieved until Sarko is long out of office, so it will be somebody else's problem. In short, this is retirement reform of the sort we are used to, piecemeal, complicated, and difficult to assess. Reform by obfuscation and complication, but enough to provide a campaign theme and a modest defense against the charge that the government's policies since 2007 have favored the rich and hurt the working stiff.

Will the Euro Survive?

It was only a year ago that I appeared at a conference in Montreal in which Lionel Jospin took part. Jospin's presentation was a robust defense of the creation of the euro, in which he played a fundamental role. At the time, Europe seemed to be holding its own in the financial crisis, indeed doing a bit better than the US, and the dollar was depreciating. Some reputable economists predicted it would reach $1.60 or 1.70 against the euro. But times have changed; the creation of the euro now looks to some like folly; skeptics, vindicated, are trying to restrain their Schadenfreude; and the future of the euro looks increasingly uncertain.

I confess to having been in favor of the euro, although I recognized the power of the arguments of the skeptical economists. I favored tighter European integration, and I thought that the euro was a step in that direction. But the skeptics were right about the danger of putting the cart before the horse: integration is needed in any currency union in a time of crisis. The Lord works in mysterious ways, however, and it may be that the result of this crisis is the tighter integration necessary to hold the euro together. Although that is the optimistic scenario, and I generally prefer to err on the side of pessimism, le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas.

What Is the ECB Up To?

No good, according to some: buying Greek debt but selling other debt to keep the money supply constant and putting pressure on short-term lending in the process. A sure way to drive up unemployment.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Euro, Yuan, Dollar

The difficult trick of rebalancing the world's leading currencies.

Text of My Collège de France Lecture

The Collège de France has posted the text of my lecture here.

Olivier Roy on Islam in Europe

A very interesting interview with Olivier Roy on Islam in Europe.

Book Announcement

I am pleased to announce a recent book by a fellow Tocquevillean and translator, Alan Kahan. Here is a description: "For the past 150 years, Western intellectuals have trumpeted contempt for capitalism and capitalists. They have written novels, plays, and manifestos to demonstrate the evils of the economic system in which they live. Dislike and contempt for the bourgeoisie, the middle classes, industry, and commerce have been a prominent trait of leading Western writers and artists. "Mind vs. Money" is an analytical history of how and why so many intellectuals have opposed capitalism. It is also an argument for how this opposition can be tempered. Historically, intellectuals have expressed their rejection of capitalism through many different movements, including nationalism, anti-Semitism, socialism, fascism, communism, and the 1960s counterculture. Hostility to capitalism takes new forms today. The anti-globalization, Green, communitarian, and New Age movements are all examples. Intellectuals give such movements the legitimacy and leadership they would otherwise lack. What unites radical intellectuals of the nineteenth century, communists and fascists of the twentieth, and anti-globalization protestors of the twenty-first, along with many other intellectuals not associated with these movements, is their rejection of capitalism. Kahan argues that intellectuals are a permanently alienated elite in capitalist societies. In myriad forms, and on many fronts, the battle between Mind and Money continues today. Anti-Americanism is one of them. Americans like to see their country as a beacon of freedom and prosperity. But in the eyes of many European and American intellectuals, when America is identified with capitalism, it is transformed from moral beacon into the 'Great Satan'. This is just one of the issues "Mind vs. Money" explores. The conflict between Mind and Money is the great, unresolved conflict of modern society. To end it, we must first understand it."

Polanski Affair

Looks like those new charges against Polanski aren't going to stick.

Greek Myths

Well, well. We need to revise our stereotypes. Greeks work more hours per worker than Germans, and German households are more indebted than Greek households:

And don't forget Ireland.

The Reiss Affair

The latest bulletin:

Au lendemain de la libération de la Française Clotilde Reiss, qui était retenue en Iran depuis juillet 2009, le ministre de l'intérieur, Brice Hortefeux, doit signer lundi le décret d'expulsion de Vakili Rad, condamné en 1994 à perpétuité pour l'assassinat du dernier premier ministre du chah d'Iran, Chapour Bakhtiar, en 1991. (Le Monde)

In an interview given some time ago, Sarkozy had explicitly and indignantly ruled out such an exchange of prisoners. Reiss, he said, was innocent; Rad was an assassin. That statement now seems to be "inoperative," even though the Élysée will undoubtedly deny that there is any connection between the two cases. But who will believe them? This will do Sarko's credibility no good. No wonder he didn't appear in public yesterday with Reiss, in stark contrast to his behavior with other freed hostages.

Rights and Realities

This column by Libé's Washington correspondent tells us that the ACLU is defending every American's "right" to shout "you f ...'ing ass" at the cop on the beat--an offense that can land you in jail in France for "outrage à un agent de l'ordre public" or something of that sort. I have some advice for Mme Millot: that she not try to avail herself of her "right" to insult the cops while in the US. There are rights and there are realities. She might find herself lying face down in the gutter were she to press her right too far, particularly if delivered with a French accent.

A Cheery Note from William Buiter

From The New York Times:

With the exception of wartime, “the public finances in the majority of advanced industrial countries are in a worse state today than at any time since the industrial revolution,” Willem Buiter, Citigroup’s top economist, wrote in a recent report.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Liberation of Clotilde Reiss

Clotilde Reiss is free, but Sarkozy is unlikely to gain much from this liberation, unlike that of Florence Aubenas or the Bulgarian nurses. A polemic has  already begun, with the Senegalese president accusing his French counterpart of having botched an earlier opportunity for a release, and suspicions are being voiced that the Iranians may have obtained concessions regarding prisoners held in France, including one whom the American authorities want for questioning on the subject of nuclear weapons.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Long View

Sam Moyn reviews two books on Enlightnement politics by Jonathan Israel and Dan Edelstein.

Krugman on the IMF Report

Paul Krugman astutely comments on a new IMF report on structural deficits and the evolving economic crisis:

It takes careful reading to discover what’s really going on:
The persistence of deficits reflects permanent revenue losses, primarily from a steep decline in potential GDP during the crisis, but also due to the impact of lower asset prices and financial sector profits.
Aha. Most people who look at the IMF report will, I suspect, read it as telling a tale of government profligacy getting us into a hole. But what the report actually says is quite different: it says that the financial crisis has made us permanently poorer, which among other things reduces revenue, and governments have to tighten their belts to make up for that loss.

Two Centrist Blogs

Given my conviction that the greatest political ferment in France at the moment is in the center of the political spectrum, where various realignments are imaginable, I have been neglecting centrist blogs. Here are two of note (h/t LD-F): the Alliance Centriste and Le Centrisme.

Polanski: Elysée active, new charges

President Sarkozy has spoken with his Swiss counterpart about Roman Polanski's situation, according to the Elysée. And new allegations against the director have been made by a British actress. Curiouser and curiouser.

Cécile Laborde's New Book

Cécile Laborde, whose work on French republicanism I've praised in the past, has a new book on the subject, which is reviewed in Le Monde.

Transeuropean Differences

The importance of tracking economic difference within a region such as the Eurozone, which is unified in terms of money and trade but not legal regimes, has become increasingly important in the wake of the crisis. Here is a note that looks at differences in housing prices in relation to national monetary aggregates as an index of differential performance.

Comment on the Euro Crisis

By Marco Pagano. Trashed here by Paul Krugman. See also Barry Eichengreen.

Retirement System

The always excellent Ecopublix offers two remarkable pieces surveying the French retirement system and various proposals for reform.

The Euro

Reports have it that President Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the euro if other eurozone countries didn't agree to the big bailout found (h/t Charles Butler). Did he make this threat? Very likely. It fits his style. But was he taken seriously by the Germans? Very likely not. Germany was moved by its own judgment of the increasingly untenable situation. As James Carville once said, he would like to be reincarnated as the bond market, because that's where the power is. The prospect of sovereign default is serious; the prospect of disintegration of the eurozone would be cataclysmic. The Europeans seem to be banking for the moment on the prospect of a successful bluff, but yesterday's rout suggests that the bluff could be called sooner than expected. And then we will see what we will see. The economic crisis seems to be moving rapidly into a dangerous second phase, where national coordination (as in the US) and regional coordination (as in Europe) will no longer be enough. A plan for global rebalancing is needed, and it is not yet clear where such a plan will come from or how it can be implemented politically in national polities that have become increasingly restive and volatile.


While in France I did two interviews for France24, one in French, the other in English. It's almost embarrassing to link to them: the lapses of French grammar, the banality of the answers, etc. I'm a blogger, not a pundit. The medium enforces a distressing superficiality. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the operation from inside.


Back from nearly two weeks in France, I return with a store of rumors circulated with more or less confidence by a variety of sources who of course claim to have their information from the highest authority. I see that Charles Bremner has been drawing on the same wells. Indeed, the rumors about DSK are particularly thick on the ground at this time, and the juicy tidbit that Bremner attributes to a new book about DSK--that pictures exist of him leaving a notorious wife-swapping club (but surely not with Anne Sinclair on his arm)--is one that I heard from any number of sources. But of course this sort of low blow is what is to be expected in the case of a candidate like DSK--if he is a candidate--because it strikes at his most vulnerable point and is perhaps the only way at this point for the opposition to cut him down to size (he leads Sarko 61-36 in one poll). Nevertheless, the potency of his candidacy may look less formidable if the European economic crisis worsens as it may well do: the euro at 1.247, and just after I was paid a sum in euros!!

But there is another rumor regarding DSK that Bremner does not report, a scenario that seems almost too good to be true. It is this: Martine Aubry, I am told, does not want to be president (like father, like daughter). She would prefer to be prime minister. And she has struck a deal, the story goes, with DSK and Fabius: she will become PM, DSK will defeat Sarkozy and become president, and Fabius will keep his troops in line and support DSK in exchange for nomination as foreign minister. What about the primaries? I asked. And how can Ségolène be kept from upsetting the applecart? The primaries will be finessed, was the answer. Some pretext will be found to renege on the public promise to hold primaries, and DSK will be nominated by approbation. Americans will be reminded of the "smoke-filled room" in which presidents used to be chosen. And what about the party barons? Not to worry, I was told: Martine has the party firmly in hand.

On va voir. Two years is a long time in politics, and there will no doubt be many more rumors between now and the campaign season. But this is the picture with which I return: the Socialists are persuaded that 2012 will be a do or die election for them: they must win, and to do that they must unite on a candidate. DSK is their most plausible candidate, so a consensus is already developing around him. And Ségolène Royal will simply be swept aside, since the elephants are convinced that she is the one sure way to lose. The potential flaw in this otherwise impeccable machination is, of course, that DSK may prove to be a totally inept candidate, and not just because of his sexual peccadilloes. He really hasn't proven that he has the single-minded devotion and discipline required of a presidential candidate. Il préfère le plaisir au pouvoir, was the way one informant put it. This was more than just a waspish comment on his roving eye; it was a judgment that the man lacks the sheer will to power necessary to conquer all.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

America Seen from France

I spend a lot of time looking at France from the US. Sylvie Laurent does the reverse. Her superb series of vignettes of L'Obamerique will amuse and instruct you. Highly recommended.


The Cour des Comptes has produced yet another report on French schools, this time from the standpoint of management of ends and means. The report is severe: management methods have not evolved since the 1950s despite major changes in the goals of the educational system; means are not appropriately proportioned to ends; officials do not have a good grasp of where funds are being expended and where additional sums are needed. OK. Now what?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brave New World

So, the UK has a new prime minister, Europe has a new and huge bailout fund, and I am blogging from a cafe in Paris: all firsts. The euro seems to have stopped plummeting for the moment, along with the markets. In the not even very long run, however, the financial crisis is going to turn political, and I think the outcome(s) is(are) very difficult to foresee. Krugman and many others see an eventual Greek exit from the euro as the only way out, but even such a drastic move may not alleviate the problem. Normally pessimistic, I am even moreso today, and the government of Cameron and Clegg in Britain doesn't promise much; I would be surprised if such a coalition contre nature lasts a year. But the coffee is good, and got to run. Patience. I'll be back to normal blogging soon. Meanwhile, read yesterday's Le Monde for an interesting article on Sarkozy's style and its ultimate failure.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Quote of the Day

From Mona Ozouf in yesterday's JDD:

François Mitterrand had an extremely refined electoral and geographic knowledge of France. A strong attachment to its regions. But he wasn't the only one. Behind Georges Pompidou there was the Massif Central. Behind Jacques Chirac, the Corrèze. Behind François Bayrou, the Béarn. Behind Nicolas Sarkozy, by contrast, one sees nothing but Neuilly.


I'm in Nice today, where I'll be speaking at the Centre Universitaire Méditerrannéen at 2 PM.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Review of my Collège Lecture


As for the Collège, I enjoyed touring the premises, including the remarkable 13th c. remains recently uncovered in the basement. But at lunch I learned that when a professor at the Collège presents his ID card at the checkout counter of certain bookstores in the neighborhood in order to qualify for the academic discount, the cashier often fails to recognize France's most prestigious institution of higher learning. The name "collège" suggests a middle school, and the card is refused. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I very much enjoyed the extraordinary privilege of lecturing at this most august of junior high schools.

Aux Petits Soins

Françoise Fressoz offers an interesting commentary on the recent shift in Socialist rhetoric to emphasize the "society of care." Not only is there a residue of social Catholicism in this language, which comes naturally to the daughter of Jacques Delors. There is also a recognition that in an era of austerity, promises of state assistance are likely to ring hollow, and it will be difficult to distinguish the austerity of the Right from that of the Left. Hence the need for a new "value." "Care" fills the bill: it is as capacious as "security" and requires no real commitment.

Friday, May 7, 2010


The government has announced a 3-yr spending freeze. It wasn't so long ago that we were told that no austerity program would be necessary or desirable. The question of whether austerity is desirable, particularly now, remains alive. I fear that the world is about to repeat FDR's mistake of anticipating the end of the crisis and cutting spending too soon, the effect of which was to precipitate a new downturn. This is a dangerous moment, and France seems to have been the first to retreat.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Inside MoDem

Thanks to a blog reader (h/t FLN), I was given a tour of MoDem's headquarters today. As you can see from the photo, things are pretty quiet at HQ while the party rethinks its strategy. Meanwhile, down the street, at the Assemblée Nationale, a phalanx of flics in shoulderpads and flak jackets and protected by plastic shields faced down a "mob" of about 50 oystermen, whose slogan was "de vrais huîtres, de vraies aides," while another group protested a proposed airport in les Landes by playing songs of the Resistance.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sur Place

So, I've been in France 2 days and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good: a splendid concert of Mozart flute sonatas in the Sainte Chapelle: what a venue for a concert! The bad: ridiculous bureaucratic inefficiency with an Air France bus whose ticket validator wasn't working: result--paralysis. The ugly: I was robbed at an ATM by a gang. Vive la France! Despite the adage that a neocon is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, I cling to my old politics, since I lost nothing but money.

Oh, and I had dinner at the same restaurant where Obama dined a few months ago. Delightful.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

French Savers and Greek Debt

Elie Cohen analyzes French exposure to Greek debt. He believes that the principal channel of influence is via life insurance and annuities, which are favored savings vehicles in France. These instruments are supported by euro-denominated securities, and according to Cohen a substantial amount of this investment is in Greek sovereign bonds.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Headed for France

I leave for France tomorrow. While there, I will be doing 3 gigs.

Friday, May 7, Collège de France, Salle Halbwachs, 11h00: "De la démocratie en américain: conditions et conflits chez Tocqueville"
Monday, May 10, Nice, Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen, 14h00: "Individualisme, populisme, technocratie: trois façons de vivre la démocratie" (part of a colloquium on individualism organized by La Revue Tocqueville)
Wednesday, May 12, Paris, Institut Français de Relations Internationales, 8h30: "Les dysfonctionnements de la démocratie américaine"

It would be a pleasure to meet any readers who are able to attend these events. I will eventually post the first two papers on line. For the IFRI event there is no formal paper. I am also scheduled to do two interviews with France24, one in French, the other in English.

Greece vs. California

Why is Greece's financial difficulty a more serious problem for the EU than California's for the US? Jacques Melitz ponders the question.