Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Where Are the Secrets?

So, this is what Wikileaks reveals about Franco-American relations. Humbly, I would suggest to my rulers that they could learn a lot more about France by reading this blog than by perusing their own diplomatic cables. And really, which American diplomat wrote this: "L'engagement international de la France" est "magnifié par Kouchner"? Washington, if you want my number, I'm in the book.

Nota Bene

Now here's an interesting tidbit on the elevation of Denis Olivennes to no. 2 in the Lagardère organization (see previous post "Musical Chairs"):

Avec cette nomination, le groupe Lagardère semble se préparer de plus en plus à une éventuelle victoire de Dominique Strauss-Kahn en 2012, comme l'illustre un sondage du JDD du 27 novembre. Est-ce Ramzy Khiroun, proche conseiller du directeur du FMI et homme de confiance d'Arnaud Lagardère, qui prépare le terrain ?

Et tu, Arnaud? Didn't you once say that Sarkozy was "like a brother?"

"European Integration Is Dead"

From Henry Farrell:

I’m a bit surprised not to have seen anyone making this point, but one obvious consequence of the current situation in Ireland is that European integration (to the extent that it is driven by Treaty change) is dead for the foreseeable future. New Treaties – if they are to be passed, not only require unanimity, but have to pass through two veto points.

First, they have to get a majority vote in a referendum in Ireland. This is thanks to a legal ruling (the Crotty ruling) that Treaty texts which have constitutional implications (which any Treaty involving significant further integration obviously would have) require popular assent in a referendum. Given popular anger at the way that the bailout has been structured, I imagine that the chances of Ireland voting ‘yes’ to any new European initiative are close to zero.

Yet even if somehow the Irish people could be persuaded to say yes to some initiative – perhaps because it put in place a more equitable system of fiscal transfers in the case of crisis – it would have to pass through the second veto point – the German Constitutional Court. The Court has made it clear in recent rulings that it is not prepared to countenance major new initiatives that might e.g. shift responsibility for decisions over fiscal policy to the EU level. In other words – any more equitable system of economic governance is likely to be vetoed.

It is extremely hard to envisage Treaty changes that could get a yes vote in Ireland. It is next to impossible to imagine any new Treaty that could both get a yes vote in Ireland, and survive scrutiny in Karlsruhe. Hence – the process of ‘ever closer union’ through Treaty change is effectively dead. One can imagine other mechanisms of change (drift, policy incrementalism, ECJ rulings) coming into play, but they are unlikely to result in any very obvious changes except over the very long run.

Very true. And then of course the question is whether the euro can survive without further integration, which seems increasingly doubtful, and whether the EU can survive without the euro. Consider, for example, Paul Krugman:

I still don’t see a wide euro breakup. But I guess it’s worth posting, for future reference, one thought I have here: namely, that a rump eurozone, without the southern Europeans, doesn’t look workable to me. It’s not about economics per se; it’s about political economy.
One thing that’s really essential for the euro to work as a political matter is for Germany not to be too dominant. We can’t really have a North American Monetary Union, because the US is too dominant: either it’s just American monetary hegemony, or America takes an unacceptable loss of sovereignty to minor partners. Europe, by contrast, has four and a half big economies; Britain chose not to be in, but that still left France, Italy, and Spain to share the running of the thing. But France, Germany, and a few Flemings and Walloons doesn’t make for anything that even looks like an equal partnership.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't, I guess. Not a very hopeful picture.

Musical Chairs

OK, Alexandre Bompard quits Europe1 to take over the FNAC. Denis Olivennes, who used to head the FNAC before moving to Le Nouvel obs, quits the latter to take over Europe1. Meanwhile, Jacques Julliard, as reported earlier, has left Le Nouvel obs to take on the no. 2 editorial spot at Marianne.

Something seems to be happening in the media stratosphere, but I don't have any idea what it is, and so far I haven't heard anyone blame it on Sarkozy. Meanwhile, on TV5Monde, I have been following the feuilleton called Les Reporters, which first ran on Canal+ in 2007-9. The screenwriters have scrambled various aspects of reality (faux listings, rétrocomissions, journalists held hostage, coups tordus among government ministers, connivance between politicians and industrialists, crisis of the press) to produce a simulacrum in which the bad guys seem to be winning.

Ethnography of Barbès

Reviewed here.

What Is Laïcité?

Canadians Charles Taylor and Jocelyne Maclure reflect on the question.

Who's the Fairest of Them All?

For a woman whose intellectual and political acumen have often been criticized by other Socialists, Ségolène Royal has emerged from the latest scuffle looking like the only one of the lot with the slightest flair for political tactics. In retrospect, it's hard to see Martine Aubry's announcement of a "pact" among the Big Three as anything other than a gaffe of the first order. And Royal, recognizing her opportunity, pounced. Was there a betrayal involved? It seems unlikely that Aubry would have gone public with her "pact" if she hadn't had some sort of understanding with Royal, but a politician who fails to foresee the possibility of a reversal of alliances, and who doesn't have the wherewithal to sanction such a defection, is ill-advised to lay her head on the chopping block, as Aubry did. And since she, of all people, had every reason to expect that Royal would want vengeance for past wrongs, she was doubly foolish to do so. It's hard to see how she will recover from this, but then it was hard to see how Royal would recover from her loss in 2007 to Sarkozy and then her "loss" of the party leadership to Aubry, so I'm not ruling anything out.

So where does that leave the PS? Not quite leaderless but definitely pactless. There will be a real primary, and that might not be a bad thing, as Bernard Girard suggests. What I surmise, however, is that Dominique Strauss-Kahn may now be more reluctant than ever to enter it. He remembers his last encounter with Royal and his inability to counter her popularity. He recognizes the antipathy that the left wing of the party has toward him and realizes that his position on retirement reform leaves him entirely vulnerable to Hamon, Mélenchon, et cie. Although he might win the battle, I suspect that he has little taste for it. He could continue to temporize, choosing to enter his own stalking horse, Moscovici perhaps, in the hope that the party will in the end be so badly divided that it will appeal to him as a deus ex machina in its hour of need.

But this would be a dangerous strategy. He has basically three options. He could announce soon that he will leave the IMF at a specified date to return to France in order to rally his troops. He could remain silent, leaving his options open but his supporters in a quandary. Or he could announce that he has no interest in the presidency, throwing the race wide open.

I suspect that he will choose silence, the worst of his options, in my opinion. Although I think that DSK might well make a decent president, I also think that he's an inept politician--overly cautious, lacking a common touch, a technocrat by instinct and conviction, and fundamentally uninterested in what it takes to move people either individually or en masse. It's not that he would rather be right than president, but rather that he thinks being right is enough to make him president.

Monday, November 29, 2010

High School Confidential

There are days when the petty rivalries among would-be chieftains reminds me of high school hijinks:

Tout au long du discours de François Fillon, mercredi à l'Assemblée nationale, le député-maire de Meaux [Jean-François Copé, newly minted head of the UMP] avait en effet ostensiblement bavardé avec ses voisins, lu ou paraphé des documents qu'il avait apportés dans l'hémicycle, semblant porter une attention toute relative au discours du chef du gouvernement.

And what do you really think of our president?

Some unflattering remarks by Nicolas Sarkozy concerning Barack Obama appeared in the press a while back. Now it's tit for tat, thanks to WikiLeaks (although the tittle-tattle does not come from the mouth of the US president). According to a US diplomat, Sarko "has a thin-skinned and authoritarian personal style" and is "an emperor with no clothes." Hmm. I guess someone will no longer be invited to consume petits fours and champagne at Quai d'Orsay cocktail parties.

For the record, Sarkozy, however imperial he may be, is always impeccably dressed.

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You ..

... a Sarkozy biopic. Can't get enough of him? This one's for you.

On Aubry's Deteriorating Position

Thanks to an anonymous commenter, see analyses here and here.

More on the Brain Drain


Saturday, November 27, 2010


Just when it seemed that the Socialists had achieved unity of a sort--an authoritarian, "democratic centralist" sort--it all falls apart, and they are back to bickering like crabs in a basket. The new party line--from Harlem Désir rather than Aubry--is that the now defunct pact among the Big Three was a pact only to give the party's full backing to the winner of the primaries. But I saw Aubry on France2: that isn't what she said, no matter what gloss is placed on it now. Or, if it is what she meant, she expressed herself so clumsily that not only I but most of the press misinterpreted her. Not a good move for a supposedly seasoned party leader who has supposedly been improving her game of late. So the stab at unity has in fact revealed the party's utter disunity and its perhaps fatal flaw: it is no longer a party but a chorus of prima donnas.The primaries should be a hoot.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sarkozy le Tocquevillien

When Nicolas Sarkozy praises local democracy, he sounds a bit like Tocqueville:

« Je n'ai jamais été de ceux qui pensent qu'il y a trop de communes. Parce qu'au fond, ces 500 000 conseillers municipaux, ces 36 500 communes, c'est peut être aussi pour ça qu'en France il fait si bon vivre. On a autant de communes que tous les autres pays d'Europe... Mais au fond, y a un savoir-vivre à la Française qui est peut être aussi la conclusion, l'héritage d'une démocratie locale extrêmement vivante.»

And he's not wrong. But he is perhaps allowing his rhetoric to obscure certain parts of the larger picture, a faulg from which Tocqueville, too, was not always immune.

Sarkozy n'est pas à un paradoxe près. Son éloge de la simplification s'arrête aux départements et aux régions. Les élections cantonales, puis sénatoriales partielles, sont prévues l'an prochain. On est jamais trop prudent. Tout juste se permet-il de critiquer le nombre de structures intercommunales.

The Grand Bargain

So Martine Aubry, Ségolène Royal, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn have agreed, it seems, among themselves that one of them will be the presidential candidate of the PS. What the other two get in exchange has not been revealed.

I wonder if any of the three reads American history. Perhaps they have heard of the 1824 pact that gave John Q. Adams the presidency and made Henry Clay Secretary of State (if it actually existed). In the end it didn't work out so well: its enemies labeled it "the Corrupt Bargain," and partly on the strength of that label Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828 and destroyed Adams' National Republican Party once and for all. Just sayin' ...

Clarification: This bargain does not mean that there will be no other candidates in the primary! It means that  the "big three" have agreeed that ONLY ONE of them will be a candidate. Their assumption is that only one of them can possibly win. They may, of course, be wrong. But Holland, Valls, and Montebourg are almost sure to be candidates unless something changes. And something could very well change. The PS could decide that it wants to present a united front, for example, and the other ambitious proto-candidates could be bought off in one way or another. The more interesting question is what the Big Three have decided among themselves. Any guesses?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Copé Moves In

Jean-François Copé is wasting no time in taking over the UMP. Although he judges his predecessor's bilan to have been globalement positif (ou mieux, "excellent"), he clearly believes that the UMP has been led about as well as Marchais believed Communism had been led, that is, to the abyss. So he will begin talking to "his" deputies in weekly meetings. At least until he, in turn, achieves the control Sarkozy once enjoyed, at which time he will no doubt recognize the advantages of the Sarkozyan method. Unless Fillon gets there first.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Managing the Press

Read Bernard Girard's commentary linked in the previous post, listen to Sarkozy's off-the-record remarks to the press in Lisbon (a link to which can be found in Bernard's post), and then read this comment on Sarkozy's management of the press. It seems that Sarkozy, unlike other heads of state, has formalized the off-the-record briefing as a tool of press management. His impromptu appearances are virtually scheduled. He seems to want to use these occasions to develop a sort of complicity with the reporters who cover him, as if the formality of the office were somehow an impediment to his natural style, which is to try to inveigle those who should be monitoring his actions to see things from his point of view. This is what he was attempting to do when he called upon reporters to imagine what it would be like if he were to accuse one of them of being a pedophile on the basis of unnamed secret documents.

He has a point, of course, and one can indeed appreciate and even sympathize with the difficulty of his position. But what he does not see is that a chief of state cannot behave this way. Unfair coverage is part of the job. He pretends to be unfazed by what mere "commentators" say about him, but clearly, somewhere deep in his personality, it rankles. But heads of state are supposed to dismiss their merely personal travails. Try for a moment to imagine de Gaulle blubbering in front of the press as Sarkozy did in Lisbon.

When Sarkozy was first elected, I thought that his efforts to ingratiate himself with the public and the press were legitimate. He wanted to change the style of the presidency, to reduce its august majesty, to create an aura of proximity in the wielding of power that would bring it closer to the people. This might not have been a bad thing, given the abuses of presidential majesty by past presidents. A less regal, more popular and democratic presidency might have marked a certain progress. But Sarkozy, evidently frustrated by his inability to connect with the public, has been unable to strike a proper balance. At times, as in his televised discussion with 3 journalists the other day, he tries desperately to put himself back on the pedestal that he earlier smashed, referring to himself in the third person as the chef de l'État, challenging his interlocutors to imagine his solitary burdens, etc. But at other times, as in Lisbon, he cannot prevent himself from displaying his wounded ego and from pouring out his woes like a tedious passenger in the next airplane seat or a woebegone drinker on the next barstool.

It's unseemly, yes, but worse, it's counterproductive. Such demonstrations of weakness, of ego, of sniveling sensitivity, only invite further attack. And the alarming thing is that Sarkozy surely knows this but cannot help himself. I am increasingly reminded of Richard Nixon and moved to wonder whether Sarko has begun talking to the paintings on the wall in the Élysée, as Nixon reportedly soliloquized to the paintings in the White House. Where is Yasmina Reza when we need her?

"Soliloque pitoyable"

Bernard Girard on Sarkozy's outburst against a journalist questioning him about Karachigate:

Dans son ressassement qui n'en finit pas, cette espèce de geignardise violente sonne bizarrement juste. On a l'impression qu'il s'est toute sa vie comporté comme cela face à l'adversité, que c'est sa nature profonde qui parle.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Copé vs. Fillon

Thierry Desjardins has an interesting analysis of the impending duel between Fillon and Copé, both of whom hope to pick up the pieces if Sarkozy loses in 2012. Copé made his first move today, selecting one of his loyalists, Christian Jacob, to replace him as head of the UMP group in the National Assembly. But as Desjardins notes, many UMP deputies are wary of Copé's splashy ambition and prefer Fillon's discretion.

"Le Mythe gaullien"

A review of Sudhir Hazareesingh's book.

Egalité Réelle

I have been rather critical of Benoît Hamon's "Égalité réelle" proposal for the PS. Here is a more positive assessment of the "youth" aspect of the plan. The kicker is the cost:

Ce programme a été chiffré par le think tank Terra Nova à environ 50 milliards d’euros (12 milliards pour l’allocation d’autonomie, qui s’articule à des prêts étudiants) qui dégage des pistes de financement : la suppression de la plupart des transferts liés à l’entrée dans l’âge adulte et qui sont actuellement versés à la famille ; la suppression du quotient familial, donc des allègements d’impôt pour les familles; l’alignement de la fiscalité des retraités aisés sur celle des actifs ; l’augmentation de la CRDS, impôt affecté au remboursement de la dette sociale.
50 billion euros! Surely they jest. Such a figure makes it clear that this is a plank in a campaign platform, not a serious program for governing. Still, the thinking behind the figure is not without interest: that the post high school student years are crucial for orienting the young in the adult world and that insuperable inequalities develop in this period between those who are free to pursue their studies full-time and those who must juggle work and education. Of course one might ask if these inequalities aren't overdetermined by all the accumulated inequalities of the years through high school. But a little utopian leavening is rather refreshing in these times of austerity.

Monday, November 22, 2010


"Que la justice fasse son travail," said the president yesterday. All necessary documents would be made available to investigators, he indicated. Yet today François Fillon refused to allow Judge Van Ruymbeke to search the DGSE for relevant material. And Sarkozy seems to have lost his temper with journalists who are trying to link him to the affair. It is indeed exasperating to be called upon to prove a negative, but the Law of Scandal suggests that transparency is the best way to dispel rumors. Open the lid and false rumors go "pschitt," to quote Jacques Chirac. Keep the lid on and the pressure builds until something blows. The next weeks should be interesting.

ADDENDUM: A presidential moment:

Sarkozy: affaire Karachi
Uploaded by gill68. - News videos from around the world.

Vidange des cerveaux

The Institut Montaigne claims that French academics are abandoning a sinking ship:
The report, by the Institut Montaigne, a leading independent research group in Paris, found that academics constitute a much larger percentage of French émigrés to the United States today than 30 years ago. According to the report, between 1971 and 1980, academics represented just 8 percent of the departing population; between 1996 and 2006, they represented 27 percent of the departing population. 

But some parts of the ship seem to sinking faster than others:

“Biology and economics are poorly recognized in France,” said Thomas Philippon, a French economist who began teaching finance at New York University Stern School of Business in 2003. “But the problem also comes from the fact that the French labor market doesn’t value Ph.D. theses.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dynastic Affairs

Patrick Devedjian isn't happy and accuses Sarkozy of preparing the succession even as the crown rests uneasy on his own head:

Vous n'avez pas été renouvelé à la fonction de président de la fédération UMP des Hauts-de-Seine. Comment expliquez-vous votre défaite ?
Je vais vous raconter la véritable histoire. Le 15octobre, j'ai été convoqué en urgence par Nicolas Sarkozy à l'Elysée. Il s'est ému que cinq candidats se présentent contre son fils Jean aux élections internes de l'UMP à Neuilly. Il m'en a rendu responsable. J'ai dit que c'était faux. Il ne m'a pas cru et, très mécontent, m'a dit que j'aurais bientôt "une surprise". Quelque temps après, j'ai appris qu'Olivier Biancarelli, attaché parlementaire de l'Elysée, et Eric Cesari, directeur général de l'UMP, téléphonaient aux principaux responsables politiques des Hauts-de-Seine pour leur dire de voter pour Jean-Jacques Guillet [député et maire de Chaville] qui venait –oh surprise!– de se déclarer candidat contre moi à la présidence de la fédération.
Restez-vous fidèle à Nicolas Sarkozy ?
Je suis admiratif de ses réformes mais comme la plupart des Français, je suis un peu plus réservé sur le style. Il est notre meilleur candidat pour 2012.

Copé Quits Gide and Other Legal News

All good (and lucrative) things must come to an end: Jean-François Copé, recently anointed head of the UMP by Nicolas Sarkozy, has quit his affiliation with the law firm Gide-Loyrette-Nouel, which seemed to many people, including me, to constitute a conflict of interest with his political role (though, to be sure, such conflicts are neither rare nor illegal in France). He will continue to act as an unaffiliated private attorney, however--a role that bears watching. Frédéric Lefebvre has also quit his lawyering.

Perhaps a sudden and sobering wave of virtue has suddenly swept the UMP, but it looks to me more like an edict from on high. Caesar's wife is above suspicion, it goes without saying--although she is an "intelligent" woman, dixit Caesar himself, as though there were something oxymoronic about this--but Caesar's cronies are to be scrubbed with the savonnette à vilain that will retroactively wipe away any past sins as the election campaign approaches. And those who can't be scrubbed can be jettisoned: ask M. Woerth.

Meanwhile, David Sénat, the former MAM aide who has now been "reassigned" to Cayenne (O! the cruelty of the postmodern state! instead of imprisoning its enemies in a penal colony, it assigns them to work in the penal colony's bureaucracy!), has himself assigné Brice Hortefeux (if I may indulge in a bilingual pun) for atteinte à la présomption d'innocence, a lovely legal concept, which I suppose might apply to anyone who so much as hinted that Copé's or Lefebvre's legal activities might in any way have constituted a conflict of interest that was anything but legal. So let me make it clear that I believe that both are, if not as pure as the driven snow, then at least as slick as a Parisian gutter after its morning wash by the éboueurs de la Ville.

There remains, however, the troubling business of the Karachi rétrocommissions: Charles Millon, former defense minister, has confirmed their existence (un secret de Polichinelle, bien sûr), and now we wait for the next shoe to drop. The lifting of the secret défense in this case--now called for by various aggrieved parties--would no doubt prove embarrassing to all sorts of people formerly or still in high places. And what a made-for-TV movie that would make!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bitter End of the Old Nouvel Obs'

Jacques Julliard has quit after 32 years at Le Nouvel Obs' and gone over to Marianne.

Haski: Humiliation in Sarkozistan

Pierre Haski:

Cela tient de la cérémonie religieuse et de l'humiliation publique. Quand il lui plaît, l'Homme Fort s'invite à la télévision. Il choisit ses chaînes, chaînes d'Etat, ou chaînes d'oligarques. Il choisit la date. Il choisit la durée. Il choisit les « journalistes » locaux qui auront le privilège de se faire humilier et ridiculiser par ses bons mots, ses mensonges effrontés ou ses colères étudiées.
Alors que l'Homme Fort du petit Etat voyou est aujourd'hui dépossédé de la plupart de ses pouvoirs réels par les grandes banques internationales, alors que le Numéro Deux vient de mener contre lui une révolution de palais feutrée mais impitoyable, ce pouvoir de venir pérorer quand bon lui chante (dans la langue de bois des médias officiels, on appelle cela une « intervention présidentielle ») est peut-être le dernier auquel il s'accrochera.
Toute « intervention présidentielle » devient immédiatement, pour 24 heures, le sujet unique des médias du pays. Auparavant, on suppute sur ce qu'il va dire. Le lendemain matin, on glose. Non pas sur les paroles, mais sur le motif musical.

Rom ou Français

Jean Véronis:

Je parlais il y a quelques semaines de l'amalgame insidieux que l'on a senti monter depuis cet été en France (et auparavant en Italie) entre Roms et Roumains... Grande a été ma stupéfaction d'entendre cette opposition dans la bouche du chef de l'Etat ce soir :

"Qu'on soit Rom ou Français, il faut respecter les lois de la République".

Et si l'on est Rom et Français, ce qui est le cas de nombreux compatriotes ?
Comment un président de la République Française peut-il mélanger ainsi ethnies et nationalités, et afficher une telle méconnaissance des fondamentaux d'un des dossiers les plus médiatisés de l'année, y compris sur la scène internationale ?

Le candidat Nicolas Sarkozy disait pourtant :

Je veux être le Président qui réconcilie les Français entre eux, quelles que soient leurs origines, leur couleur de peau, leur religion... (discours du 11/02/2007 à la Mutualité).
Belle promesse.

J'ai également été consterné de ne voir aucun commentaire sur les différents sites d'information, qui sont pourtant prompts à transcrire les fragments du débat. Nul n'a relevé.

Et si l'on s'amusait à remplacer ?

"Qu'on soit Juif ou Français..."
"Qu'on soit Musulman ou Français..."


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sarkozy's Press Conference

I didn't see all of it, but in what I did see he came off as more disagreeable than usual, blaming the media for "forcing" him to make an issue of the Roma by playing up the supposed climate of insecurity; challenging his interlocutors to credit him with "at least average intelligence" in order to sidestep a question about spying on journalists; exalting himself ("You can ask that question only because you've never been head of state, have you?") and diminishing them ("Do you really think, David Pujadas, that the head of state should become involved when one of your colleagues loses his laptop?"); and, in general, showing off his alpha dog traits--to the point of baring his teeth at one moment--and absence of humor.

But just to make him look good, I guess, he was followed more or less immediately (if you ignore the banalities uttered by Alain Duhamel) by Ségolène Royal, who rattled on at interminable length to the great annoyance of Arlette Chabot. Ségo did her best to remind voters of what they found irritating about her: repetitiveness, lack of focus, illogic, and simply not knowing when to stop. And then the attack dogs--Baroin and Moscovici--went after each other. I suppose it's no wonder that France winds up with an alpha dog for president when the training ground for politicians is this variety of snarling in front of the cameras. Baroin and Mosco are perhaps the sleekest of the brood, capable of drawing blood with quick snaps and without breaking a sweat.

In contrast, Bayrou seemed calm and collected and might have passed for thoughtful, ensconced as he was in an office filled with books, except that he couldn't refrain from dismissing his would-be centrist rivals as Johnny-come-latelies who, unlike himself, had failed to shun the Sarkozyan virus at the beginning of the plague. On the whole it was a dispiriting evening, though I did enjoy Marine Le Pen's pose in front of some handsome antiques, as well as her blouse, which coruscated nicely under the TV lighting. She was not quite as pointlessly garrulous as Ségolène but she did go on, without, alas, her father's pungent way with the language--a gift that got him in trouble as often as not but at least made him occasionally interesting to watch.

Oh, yes, almost forgot: the substance. So, we're going to get rid of the wealth tax and the tax shield and replace the whole shebang with some kind of capital gains and capital income tax. The devil, as they say, is in the details. And by now we've learned that 'twixt the Sarkozyan  announcement and the final legislation, "stuff happens." For instance, just today, the Assembly voted to retain advertising during the day on the state TV networks. Scrapping part of another presidential initiative. So why try to read the tea leaves? Just wait and see what comes out of the eventual bargaining with the various forces within the UMP.

A Centrist Primary?

Jean Arthuis is calling for a centrist primary. Morin, Borloo, Bayrou: all see themselves as présidentiables du centre. Even Villepin might declare himself a centrist. Arthuis suggests that there is no "natural" leader of the center, any more than of the left or right. Election rather than self-proclamation should prevail. But who will organize such a primary? Under what rules? The details will very likely determine the outcome, so they matter.


Le "repas gastronomique des Français" a été inscrit au patrimoine immatériel de l'humanité

Les experts de l'Unesco réunis à Nairobi, au Kenya, ont estimé que le repas gastronomique à la française, avec ses rituels et sa présentation, remplissait les conditions pour rejoindre la "liste du patrimoine culturel immatériel de l'humanité". (AFP)

Hmmm. This is worthy of a news flash? 

The Euro

Last week at Harvard, I listened to a number of experts debate the future of the euro. The panel was generally upbeat. This morning's headline, not so much:

Europe Fears That Debt Crisis Is Ready to Spread

Spain is the big enchilada here: 20% unemployment, 9% deficit. And French banks are believed to hold a lot of Spanish debt. Fasten your seatbelts.

Van Rompuy's comment on the situation here.

That Didn't Take Long

Eric Woerth, out of the government for one day, has a new headache:

Eric Woerth cité devant la Cour de justice de la République

Le procureur général près la Cour de cassation a demandé à la Cour de justice de la République d'ouvrir une enquête sur Eric Woerth pour favoritisme et prise illégale d'intérêts. M. Woerth était intervenu en qualité de ministre du budget pour que l'Etat vende une parcelle de la forêt de Compiègne (Oise) à la Société des courses de Compiègne. (AFP et Reuters)
Interesting. I had thought that the racetrack affair was the least of his problems. No doubt this explains why he was dismissed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Job One

Job One for the new Juppé-Alliot-Marie tandem in French foreign policy: explaining France's position vis-à-vis the new US get-out-of-Afghanistan date: 2014 instead of 2011. This is inconvenient for two presidents up for re-election in 2012. One of them is French.

The Foreign Policy Shop

Incoming and outgoing.

Employment of Graduates

Survey results contested.

War Machine?

So, one line of interpretation of the government shakeup runs this way: Sarko has circled the wagons, drawn all the UMP heavyweights into a tight formation, and assembled not a government but a campaign staff (see Grunberg's analysis in the previous post and the comments of FrédéricLN to the post before that). Maybe, but the UMP has a problem similar to that of the Socialists: it needs une force d'appoint in order to win.

Has Sarkozy's move helped on that score? Not if you believe that he has driven the centrists into opposition by sacking Borloo and Morin. And not if you believe that he has given up on wooing back FN voters who have been deserting him for the Le Pens--a surrender marked by the disappearance of the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity and the reassignment of Eric Besson. To be sure, the new government includes not only Chiraquiens but also Villepinistes, but this is an all-UMP affair. And the party itself has been turned over to IagoJean-François Copé, who may not be playing Sarko's game at all. Copé might not be entirely disconsolate if Sarko lost in 2012. This would leave him in the position of leader of the opposition and head of the party, an excellent place from which to launch his own bid for the presidency in 2017.

And Sarkozy knows from experience that putting rivals inside the government doesn't prevent them from taking potshots at the head man if the latter is perceived as weak, tottering, and discredited: remember how he treated Chirac between 2004 and 2007. Sarko is now in the position of Chirac bis, and he can expect any number of petites phrases launched in his direction from the likes of Copé and Baroin. Juppé remains his own man. Bertrand and Lefebvre are now inside the government and perhaps therefore constrained from playing the part of attack dogs if their master is assaulted by one of their cabinet colleagues.

My guess is that Sarkozy has decided to play the international card, to try to lift himself above the squabbles of the barons by availing himself of the bully pulpit afforded him by the French presidency of the G20. In this light, the appointment of MAM as foreign minister makes perfect sense. She has no foreign policy credibility whatsoever and will be even more of a nonentity than Kouchner was. Sarko will be his own foreign minister more or less full time. In any case, there's nothing to be done on the home front. The retirement fight is over, the security front proved unrewarding, and austerity offers no room for maneuver. So it's off to foreign climes--unless, of course, the suburbs erupt. Since Sarkozy has done nothing to improve their plight since 2005, this would be a fitting verdict on his presidency.

ADDENDUM: Bernard Girard agrees with me. I swear, folks, I wrote this post before reading Bernard, even the Iago reference!

Grunberg on the end of the Hyperpresidency

Gérard Grunberg thinks that Sarkozy's retreat, however unwilling, will make him a stronger candidate:

D’une certaine manière, les difficultés rencontrées par le président pour remanier le gouvernement l’ont paradoxalement aidé. Elles l’ont conduit, pour une part bon gré mal gré, à faire ce qui était le meilleur pour lui, c'est-à-dire à mettre fin à l’hyper-présidence. Désormais, il devra compter davantage sur son Premier ministre, ses groupes parlementaires et son parti. Il pourra ainsi retrouver une position qu’il avait à tort abandonnée, celle d’un chef d’équipe et pas d’un chef tout court. Ce qui ne signifie en aucune façon qu’il perdra le leadership réel du pouvoir exécutif. Mais il pourra se concentrer davantage sur les grandes questions et sur sa future candidature, si toutefois son tempérament le lui permet !

Shocked, shocked

French union leaders come to the US to help an organizing drive at Sodexo and are surprised:

French Sodexo union leaders Jean-Michel Dupire and Gerard Bodard say that after visiting Columbus last spring, they were shocked by differences between the lives of Americans like Snell and French Sodexo workers -- and the difference between Sodexo's self-image and reality. In France, anyone can easily join a union, and everyone in the food services is under union contracts. Most French Sodexo workers earn the minimum wage (about $12 an hour), but they have comprehensive public health insurance, a much more generous public pension, full work weeks, and six weeks paid vacation. (Snell will get her first few vacation days next year.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Well, if I must ...

I suppose that a blog named French Politics is obliged to comment when a new government is named, but I feel like going on strike to protest this botched remaniement. So it was going to be Borloo, they said, because Sarko wanted to faire du social. And what happened? Bachelot moves from health to something else ... that's about the extent of le social. Unless you count the sacking of Estrosi as a positive good for society. Woerth is out--so why was it that Sarko fought so hard to keep him on? L'ouverture is over, unless you count Besson as l'ouverture to something other than his own ego. Fadela Amara can now glandouiller with the guys back on the block whom she criticized for their glandouillage. So much for the Marshall Plan for the suburbs. Rama Yade's departure cripples the cabinet in the pulchritude department. Kouchner is now free to join Bill Clinton and George Bush in Haiti. And Borloo is going to "defend the values" that he cherishes. We look forward to discovering them. Libé's headline is "Fillon keeps Sarkozy," which I guess says it all. Someone on France2 tonight referred to the former as "le hyper-premier ministre." My, how times have changed since the days when FF jogged along half a step behind NS, who deigned to treat him as mon collaborateur. If this shuffle was meant to convey the image of a president still in command, it failed dismally.

Congratulations to Alain Juppé, ministre d'État, ministre de la Défense, etc. etc. He should enjoy the view from his limo, especially when his former collaborators Chirac and Villepin are on trial. They let him take the fall back in the day. Now he's rehabilitated, and they're twisting in the wind. Who said there is no justice in politics?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Once and Future Prime Minister

So, apparently it's going to be Fillon again. Ho-hum. Have a good weekend.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Harvard vs. MIT, IMF, WEO, etc.

Alphabet soup? No, just the latest round in the macroeconomists' wars, this one pitting Harvard's Alberto Alesina against the IMF World Economic Outlook, which was prepared under the general direction of MIT's Olivier Blanchard, now IMF chief economist. At issue is what the economic impact of fiscal retrenchment (ä combination of spending cuts and tax increases, which Alesina delicately terms "adjustment" rather than "retrenchment") in the midst of weak recovery will be. I wish that this were just another academic dispute, but in this case we will all be living with the consequences for years, perhaps decades, to come. Of course it is not really the theologians who are making the decisions, but they are providing the decision-makers with mantras they can intone as they plunge into the unknown. And make no mistake: they--and we--are plunging into the unknown. And macroeconomic debate really has come down to what amounts to a theologians' dispute about how to read the entrails in deciding just when fiscal retrenchment has occurred:

The imperfections of cyclical adjustments are well known, and this is shown in the vast literature on this subject experiments with many sensitive tests. Yet the WEO chapter simply dismisses this methodology. It claims to have found a better way of identifying when a fiscal adjustment really occurs. How? By reading IMF and OECD historical reports and checking what countries were intending to do at the time of publication. There are pros and cons in this approach. First, it involves many judgment calls. Second, and more importantly, the idea that this procedure would eliminate endogeneity (i.e., fiscal policy responding to the economy and not the other way around) is non tenable.
Certainly various governments cut taxes or spending programmes (or the other way around) for a reason, such as how the economy was doing or expected to be doing. The WEO chapter claims to have mirrored the methodology of Romer and Romer for the US economy. But this is not quite right. Romer and Romer examined a voluminous documentation of Congressional proceedings to disentangle “exogenous” tax changes, i.e. exogenous to the economic cycle. The WEO Chapter uses descriptive IMF and OECD reports which state what happens to the deficit in a particular period; these reports do not go into the details of policymakers’ intentions, discussions and congressional records.

Ultimately, Alesina wants to enlist the opposition in his own camp:

Giavazzi and Pagano (1990) had already discovered two expansionary episodes. In his published comments on that paper, Olivier Blanchard (the IMF’s Chief Economist) argued that expansionary fiscal adjustments can indeed occur and he also showed why. He argued that a fiscal adjustment, by removing fear of future harsher ones and future taxes, can stabilise expectations, increase consumers’ expected disposable income, and increase confidence of investors and therefore can stimulate private demand.
Below is an incomplete list of papers consistent with the possibility of expansionary fiscal adjustments. All of these analyses find two results:
  • Spending cuts are less recessionary than tax increases when deficits are reduced, and;
  • Sometimes, not always, some fiscal adjustments based upon spending cuts are not associated with economic downturns.
I don’t believe that, despite its rhetoric, the WEO chapter proves that either of these two conclusions regarding the history of fiscal adjustments is incorrect.

Alesina dismisses from his mind the possibility that "fiscal adjustment" may undermine rather than bolster confidence by putting thousands of people into the streets (think of the striking Greek policemen earlier this year or this week's rioting British students). One hopes that someone in power is reading historians as well as economists.

Mincing No Words

Gérard Grunberg doesn't mince his words:

Le document sur « l’égalité réelle » que vient d’adopter la direction du parti socialiste est tout sauf un programme sérieux de gouvernement. Plus encore que le précédent projet, il fait totalement abstraction de la situation économique et financière du pays, ce qui traduit soit une complète incompétence, soit un total cynisme, soit les deux ensemble.

France Is a "Tractor," says Allègre

France has been called many things: la fille aînée de l'Église, la Grande Nation, la Pucelle, la Gueuse. But never to my knowledge "a tractor." Until Claude Allègre:

Nicolas Sarkozy a fait «énormément d'erreurs de posture», selon l'ancien ministre socialiste. «Les Français veulent comme président un monarque républicain, (...) ils ne veulent pas de quelqu'un d'extrêmement actif...», a-t-il expliqué. «Le reproche que je lui fais, c'est qu'il a surestimé la France, il pense que la France est une Ferrari, mais je pense que c'est un tracteur, la France», a-t-il conclu.
I guess Bayrou should therefore be elected president. He's said to love his tractor.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cohn-Bendit on the PS

Dany puts his finger on the weakness of the emerging PS strategy. The Socialists cannot win without allying with some outside force. The dominant faction within the party appears to want to angle for an alliance with the left of the left (see Hamon's "Real Equality" platform, discussed here yesterday). In practice, this means courting Mélenchon's Parti de Gauche or Besancenot's NPA. But it is hard to see what the basis of such an alliance would be, while it is not at all difficult to see how it would alienate centrist and center-left voters. The Greens are the obvious alternative, but Socialists seem to take it for granted that Greens will have no choice but to join them in the second round and are not engaging in the kind of local bargaining that might give substance to that assumption. There is an old adage in the PS, going back to Mitterrand's time, that the path to victory veers left on the first round and right on the second. But the electorate has changed in ways that Socialists appear not to appreciate.

The G20

If you don't live in France, you're probably unaware that the G20 meeting that begins today in Seoul is to be presided over by Nicolas Sarkozy. Even if you do live in France, you may well be in the dark. In certain circles, however, there has been a good deal of buzz about whether Sarkozy can use the G20 to revive his flagging political fortunes at home. The answer is obviously no, but this is not apparent to the few who live inside the bubble of high-level international diplomacy. Take this comment by Hubert Védrine, for instance, which dates from September:

Quelles sont les conditions d'un succès pour Nicolas Sarkozy?
On peut imaginer que dans cet exercice, il sera bon. Il a été bon quand il présidait l'Union européenne en 2008. Il aura l'énergie, l'inventivité, etc. Je ne pense pas que son image soit trop atteinte et que ça puisse l'empêcher de mener cette présidence à bien. En même temps, c'est très compliqué, parce que les objectifs sont très ambitieux. Mais il peut tout à fait aboutir à ce qu'on dise qu'il a fait la meilleure présidence possible.

Of course, even if Sarko does have "the best possible presidency," it won't matter a jot to French voters, who could care less whether such French priorities as "setting up a permanent G20 secretariat" are achieved. This is not to say that such institutions of international governance don't matter. They do, but the man in the street won't hear about them. He may not even hear about the "clash of titans," the "G2 within the G20," or "the face-off between today's mega-power (the US) and tomorrow's (China)." I wonder how many even know that Sarko is in Seoul, compared with the number who know that he flew there on a new A330 that has been dubbed "Air SarkoOne." In an era of austerity, the median voter is more likely to care about the sous squandered on presidential transportation than on the destination of the journey. Sad, perhaps, but true.

Didier Fassin

Le Monde calls attention to the work of Didier Fassin, the French physician and medical anthropologist who was recently appointed to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study.

Du Rififi chez les Verts

Sigh. Can't even the folks who think that Man can live in harmony with Nature live in harmony with one another? "Sectarianism" indeed:

Dans les colonnes du Parisien, le député européen Daniel Cohn-Bendit est loin de partager l'enthousiasme de Cécile Duflot. Chez les Verts, "le sectarisme n'a pas disparu", assène-t-il, exemples à l'appui. "La semaine dernière, j'ai fait une déclaration pour proposer l'asile politique à Martin Hirsh [sic] à qui les députés UMP faisaient des misères. Eh bien, certains Verts se sont cru obligés de faire des mails de protestation pour dire 'Dany est à droite'. Ils n'ont même pas compris l'ironie !"

Martin Hirsch! Have you no shame, les Verts?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Interesting Blog

Thanks to Henry Farrell for calling my attention to Daniel Little's Understanding Society blog. Here is Little's post on inequality in France.

Score-Settling at Le Monde

It seems as though everyone who has ever had anything to do with Le Monde has a score to settle. Luc Rosenzweig has a go at Colombani and Plenel, following the lead of Eric Fottorino. There's lots of inuendo here, more than a little of which remains impenetrable to those of us who follow the saga of Le Monde's decline only sporadically. To be sure, I'm not sure that journalistic virtue remains anywhere in the world: crisis conditions are not conducive to it. But France has yet to develop a blogosphere of energetic young journalists with solid policy credentials, writers like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein in the United States, who have shown what a small band of smart and dedicated journalists can do to maintain the role of the Fourth Estate as an indispensable counter-power in democracy. France has Mediapart and Arrêts sur Image, to be sure, but these are better at muckraking than policy analysis. Some French think tank should look at what the Center for American Progress has accomplished by paying Matt Yglesias, for example. This would be far more useful than what Terra Nova has done by paying for its president, Olivier Ferrand, to accompany Arnaud Montebourg on a junket to Washington to learn how Obama used the Web in the Democratic primaries.

Climate Change

Whenever I post something about climate change, I get a comment or two claiming that Claude Allègre has shown that all that is a load of rubbish. In October, however, the Académie des Sciences, of which Allègre is a member, issued a report refuting Allègre's claims (without mentioning him by name). I mention this today because I see that Allègre is praising Sarkozy's reforms, apparently angling for a post in the new government, now scheduled, according to Le Figaro, for an announcement next week.

"Real Equality"

The Socialist Party has published a platform document entitled "Real Equality." Once again I refer you to Bernard Girard for his analysis (I am beginning to think I should just put up a permanent link to Bernard's blog). Here is the money quote:

Désordre conceptuel qui donne une bonne image du flou des idées dans lequel vit le PS. D'où le sentiment que certaines de ces propositions pourraient rapidement devenir contradictoires. La seule chose rassurante est que rien de tout cela n'étant financé (le texte fait allusion à la création de marges de manoeuvre, manière on ne peut plus dilatoire de renvoyer à plus tard ce qui peut poser problème), il faudra bien un jour faire des choix.
In other words, business as usual chez le PS. And to make matters worse, the publication of the text has only brought the simmering tensions once again to a boil, eliciting attacks from Hollande, Moscovici, and Valls. So the semblance of peace established by Aubry is revealed as just that: a semblance rather than a reality. The "real equality" in the PS is among the contenders for the presidency, none of whom has distinguished him- or herself with either a coherent program or a show of political skill or acumen. Bernard's analysis suggests that the left wing of the part at the national level has forged alliances with powerful constituencies at the local level, which to my mind is a recipe for deadlock in the coming primary battles and failure in the next presidential election.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ecopublix on Retirement Reform

More good sense from Ecopublix here. Of particular interest are the passages on the meaning of "justice" and "injustice" and the quality of public debate:

Le plus décevant finalement dans cette réforme 2010 est la dégradation du débat public sur la question des retraites.

En choisissant de focaliser le débat sur l’augmentation de l’âge minimum de liquidation, le président de la République a su « cliver » le débat et pousser la gauche à s’arcbouter sur la défense de « la retraite à 60 ans ». Ce faisant, et le gouvernement et l’opposition, ont joué sur les mots de « l’âge de la retraite ». Le gouvernement a annoncé qu’il était évident d’augmenter « l’âge de la retraite » lorsque l’espérance de vie augmente. C’est parfaitement légitime. Mais ce qu’on entend par l’âge de la retraite dans ce cas, c’est l’âge effectif de la retraite, ou le taux d’emploi des seniors. Un moyen de parvenir à cette augmentation est de renforcer les incitations au report d’activité. Cela ne doit pas être confondu avec l’âge minimum de départ en retraite. Il est ainsi possible d’avoir un âge de départ effectif élevé et un âge minimum faible. La Suède par exemple, permet aux salariés de partir dès 61 ans, mais parvient à maintenir en emploi 72% des 55-64 ans contre 39% en France. L’opposition n’a pas tellement mieux contribué à clarifier le débat. Le PS a affirmé haut et fort qu’il allait revenir « à la retraite à 60 ans » et puis on a entendu – de façon moins claire – qu’il s’agissait de l’âge minimum de liquidation mais non pas de « la retraite pour tous à taux plein dès 60 ans ». Combien dans les cortèges de manifestants ont compris le message ?


A lucid analysis by Bernard Girard.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Don't Know Much about Algebra

Sam Cooke's words:

Don't know much trigonometry
Don't know much about algebra
Don't know what a slide rule is for

are reinforced by the Institut Montaigne: 37.7% of French students enter junior high school less than proficient in math, and 44% leave in that condition, suggesting that what is going on within the walls of the institution isn't helping much.

Villepin on Sarkozy

Quoted in Le Point:

"Ce qui nous oppose fondamentalement, Nicolas Sarkozy et moi, est notre conception de la politique. Pour lui, elle est un moyen ; pour moi, un but. Chez lui, elle est un commerce - un "deal" - des hommes et des idées ; alors que je la vis comme un service ingrat, et par essence tragique et sacrificiel. [...] Nous ne partageons pas non plus la même idée de la France : je la crois capable de dépassement, alors qu'il veut la corriger. Dans cette logique, il juge la littérature précieuse et l'histoire ringarde. Aussi préfère-t-il rencontrer les vedettes du show-biz plutôt que de discuter avec tel ou tel intellectuel ou artiste. C'est parce que nous ne pouvons pas nous comprendre que nous ne pouvons plus nous entendre".
Le Point's rather breathless review is written by someone who seems a trifle smitten with Villepin: "Dans ce quatorzième ouvrage (*), Villepin est à son meilleur. Court, clair et clinique. Il y dissèque les faits et méfaits de l'esprit de cour depuis le Moyen Age jusqu'au "paroxysme" actuel." In fact, the courtly metaphor is a rather tired trope when it comes to describing the presidency of the Fifth Republic, though Villepin can no doubt give us the benefit of his own unique perspective, having been at the center of court intrigues for so many years.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Economic History: France and the Great Depression

"Did France Cause the Great Depression": A paper by Douglas Irwin. What passes for prudence in the economic realm isn't always beneficial. Moral: virtue is not always its own reward. A maxim to keep in mind as economic policy evolves over the next months and years.

The Poverty of Post-Mortems

Marx wrote The Poverty of Philosophy in answer to Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty. After reading Le Monde's post-mortem "debate" on France's latest political fracas, I am struck by the poverty of the discourse. Pascal Bruckner arraigns yet again the "pessimism" of the French. Jacques Attali advocates the "new nomadism" and a "tribal" concept of solidarity:

Afficher un nouveau modèle de développement : il doit être fondé sur le nomadisme (c'est-à-dire sur la mobilité géographique et sociale ; la priorité donnée aux réseaux, aux ports, à l'acceptation de la diversité des modèles de réussite) ; sur la connaissance (par une priorité majeure donnée à l'enseignement préscolaire et primaire, à l'université, à la recherche, au financement des secteurs d'avenir, dont la santé, qui n'est pas une charge mais un potentiel) ; et sur la fraternité des nomades, qui ne peuvent survivre qu'en tribus (c'est-à-dire sur le partage et la gratuité, c'est-à-dire la valorisation du travail des associations, des syndicats, des partis -politiques).
Paragraphe ahurissant! Pierre Bance extols the return of "revolutionary syndicalism," which can attain its apogee only when the last of labor's "soft" leaders has been driven out by the aroused "masses" (presumably meaning the 7% of the work force that is unionized). And Christophe Guilluy sees a beleaguered people of démunis clinging to its "social model":

Car, ce qui est en jeu, ce n'est évidemment pas seulement la durée du travail, mais bien la persistance d'un modèle social européen, perçu comme le dernier rempart face à un marché mondialisé.

And what if the preservation of the "model" required some changes in the duration of work? So here we have a range of views, from peevish exasperation on the right (Bruckner) to revolution on the left (Bance) to mushiness in the marais (Attali's "nomadism" and "tribal" solidarity and Guilluy's defense of the "model"). In all this "debate," there is not a single number, a single word about demography, a single mention of actuarial computations, unit labor costs, trade imbalances or composition, etc. etc.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Politique Fiction

Instead of un remaniement, une dissolution? A victory of the Left, Martine Aubry as Sarkozy's next prime minister? Sarko defeated by Marine Le Pen in the first round of 2012? Aubry elected president? Listen to Paul Quilès spin out his fantasy ...

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sarko and Hu Follow in My Footsteps

Presidents Sarkozy and Hu visited the Villa Masséna in Nice today. I, too, enjoyed a private visit to the villa this May, along with other participants in the Tocqueville colloquium. Rather than ogle this rather kitschy temple of robber-baron era opulence, Hu might have taken in a little Matisse or motored over to Cagnes to look at Renoir's place, but de gustibus non disputandum ... Apparently it was the Chinese leader who wanted to do up the Côte d'Azur in a big way, and Sarko, who is a familiar of the Riviera now that he can share the Bruni property there, was glad to oblige. Two bling-bling presidents touring the Masséna would have been a sight to behold, I wager. I suspect that we won't see any photos of Hu in a bathing suit, however.

Sarko's Endgame Strategy

A reader calls attention to this post, with which I disagree. Sarkozy exercised personal power during his first few years, but personal power is not "absolute" power, as argued in the referenced text. Sarkozy managed to hold together the various factions of the UMP by giving something to each: a little more flexibility and "activation" in the labor market, a little more lip service to religion, some threatening gestures on immigration and crime, internationalism (rejoining NATO, for instance) coupled with nationalism (differences with Merkel over economic and energy policy), overtures to Washington and snubs to Washington, tax cuts for the wealthy, defense of loyalists (Eric Woerth), sacking of the disloyal (Rachida Dati), etc. etc. But all of these thrusts, which never really coalesced to define a philosophy of government, were accepted by the party only as long as they promised to produce results.

With the advent of the economic crisis and the obvious insufficiency, not to say injustice, of some measures that were previously accepted, the consensus ended and Sarkozy's power, never absolute, had to seek a new equilibrium. That is why he is hesitating so long over the choice of a new prime minister. The issue isn't what prerogatives the PM may or may not be granted; it's rather what the choice will symbolize to various constituencies. Borloo, who may be popular with the public (for reasons that are hard to discern), isn't popular with many segments of the UMP. Fillon is closer to the party's core, I believe, and may be kept on precisely because Sarkozy's reign is not and never has been absolute. It arose out of a pragmatic compromise, of the sort that has eluded the Left, without erasing substantial ideological differences.

Sarkozy wanted the confrontation with the street over retirement reform, in my view, more than he wanted the reform itself. It gave him an opportunity to hang tough, just as his "sécuritaire" actions did earlier this year. He has one more strategic opportunity left before the election campaign begins in earnest: tax reform in 2011. There is substantial pressure in his party to do something about the highly unpopular bouclier fiscal. His most likely move, I think, will be to call for abolition of both the wealth tax and the tax shield. He can still reward the wealthy donors who so badly wanted the tax shield by introducing "innovations" into the tax code to protect income from capital gains, for example. This can be dressed up as an investment credit, a spur to the economy. In revising the tax code, he will not have a free hand, however, precisely because his power is anything but absolute. Tax reform will impinge on naked interests, and it will take some adroit maneuvering to strike the right balance between, say, the provincial small-business UMP of Raffarin and the corporate shark UMP of J.-F. Copé.

So Much for Human Rights

President Sarkozy's statement marking Chinese president Hu's visit:

“China should not be seen as a risk but an opportunity,” Mr. Sarkozy said before Mr. Hu landed in France. “It’s not by reproaching people for things that you make progress.” Mr. Hu opted for a written statement: “China and France share broad common interests and huge potential for cooperation.” 

Yes, OK, I favor engagement rather than ostracism in dealing with China, but a little diplomatic subtlety might help to sweeten the bill. "Reproaching people for things" strikes me as an awfully crude way to dismiss the mistreatment of millions of people. When Sarkozy was riding the human rights horse, he found other words to describe their plight. Now, with 16 billion € of contracts to be signed, they are a nuisance, as were the demonstrators who were shunted out of the Chinese leader's sight.

Sarkozy expects to use his upcoming presidency of the G20 to rebound in the polls. He needs Chinese support to do this, particularly since his "proposal" (so far empty of content) to renew the world's financial system will likely encounter opposition from the US. So he's courting Hu heavily, but the latter is not likely to succumb as easily as Carla Bruni did.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Favorite

Nicolas Sarkozy's royal blunder--announcing a cabinet reshuffle for October, months in advance, and then letting the deadline pass--has the rumor mills spinning full tilt. It would take a Saint-Simon to do justice to the obsequious fawning and imperious signaling that have marked these past few months. Thierry Desjardins captures the atmosphere:

Aujourd’hui, Nicolas Sarkozy est à Troyes. Du coup, puisque le souverain daigne ainsi honorer de sa visite le fief de François Baroin, la Cour et les arrière-cours nous expliquent le plus sérieusement du monde qu’il pourrait bien avoir envie de faire « le grand saut générationnel » en nommant à Matignon cet éphèbe (de 45 ans tout de même) aux allures d’Harry Potter. Pourquoi pas ?

Baroin a une « belle gueule », il s’en est plutôt bien sorti pendant les dernières turbulences, il partage ses nuits avec une actrice populaire, il est le fils d’un ancien grand patron de la franc-maçonnerie, il est étiqueté comme « chiraquien », il a tout pour plaire.

Oui, mais Sarkozy est accompagné à Troyes par Jean-Louis Borloo et faire ainsi partie de la suite du monarque est un privilège aux lourdes significations. Il faut donc faire attention. Le favori d’hier n’est peut-être pas encore déchu même si, par moments, on a eu l’impression que le président était moins attentif aux cabrioles respectueuses de celui qu’on appelle, paraît-il, au château, « le fou du roi ».

Indeed, this account corresponds to various rumors I have picked up here and there. Fillon more and more overtly wants to stay. More and more overtly, Borloo is arousing opposition that Sarkozy can no longer ignore. Hence it is not surprising to hear that the monarch's eyes have turned to consider other possible favorites. The decision will no doubt have important consequences for the future of the UMP. As for the future of France, doubt is permitted. Sarkozy's personal style of government leaves little room for partnership. Still, a prime minister less discreet than Fillon has been until recently could conceivably create a space for himself alongside a seriously weakened president. But I'm not placing any bets.

Bozio on Retirement Reform

An excellent summary of the retirement reform and its distributive consequences by the always superb Antoine Bozio can be found here.

Slow Growth

The IMF has lowered its growth estimate for the global economy from 4.8 to under 4%, with a marked "asymmetry" between developed and emerging economies. The former will grow even more slowly than previously estimated, if at all. Chief economist Olivier Blanchard approves of the Fed's quantitative easing, announced yesterday, but notes that it has never been tried before on this scale. Implication: some unforeseen consequences are likely. As for foreseen consequences, French finance minister Christine Lagarde notes that the euro will bear the brunt of the Fed's move: as long interest rates come down in the US, the euro will appreciate still further against the dollar (as it did yesterday). Will we see a return to the $1.60 level of the past? If so, European exports to the US will be reduced, further slowing the European recovery, which European austerity measures have already hobbled. For an interesting discussion of various possible scenarios, particularly involving currency impacts, see here.

Talk Today at Harvard

I'll be speaking today about French Politics at the Harvard Center for European Studies, 27 Kirkland St., at 4:15. Joining me will be Jim Cronin to speak about British politics and Charlie Maier on Germany. Come if you're in the vicinity.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

France Shares Nuclear Secrets with Perfidious Albion

What would de Gaulle say? Cheese-paring politicians trade away sovereignty over the ultimate defense because they've drained the coffers and can't afford another aircraft carrier? Well, perhaps, but somehow it just doesn't seem as dire as it might have back in the mid-50s.

For a more thoughtful analysis by Judah Grunstein, see here. And Dan Drezner here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Joly: Tax the Rich

Eva Joly has unveiled her program for a return to "budgetary reality," and it features increased taxes on the wealthy, who she claims pay the lowest income tax rate in Europe (my italics, intended to signal the relative unimportance of the income tax in France). She calls for an income tax rate of 50% on those making more than 70,000 euros per year. She would also get rid of le bouclier fiscal, the reduced VAT on restaurant meals (does anyone think that achieved anything?), and the mortgage interest credit.

Not a bad program, to be sure, but a surprisingly modest one for a potential third-party candidate. One might have expected something bolder from this corner of the political spectrum, where the imagination is less fettered by the exigencies of coalition. Indeed, I expect something bolder from Sarkozy next year, since he has no other ammunition left. If the Left seriously wants the presidency, it should make a real effort to get there first with more. Can the PS go beyond Joly's modest start?