Friday, December 31, 2010

A Wooden Performance

Langue de bois, stiff delivery, stumbling over the teleprompter, verbiage dispensed with a haste and incomprehension bespeaking an utter lack of conviction--one of Sarkozy's worst speeches ever. And how about that thumb-twiddling and the tacky green-screen setting of the pres in front of an external shot of the Élysée, as if he were standing outside in the cold while giving his speech? Worst production values ever. The palace comm shop has lost its touch. They have to be hoping that no one was watching.

Those who were will, however, have discovered that the defense of the "most fundamental" principles of the Republic now includes enforcing "both the letter and the spirit" of the law against the burqa--a rather chilling statement when you think about it, since the "spirit" of such a law includes a pervasive distrust of whatever is unfamiliar, different, and "alien."

La Trêve des Confiseurs

We are of course in the period known as "la trêve des confiseurs," when nothing of importance ordinarily happens in politics. Check the link for the origin of the term. As for confiseries, you can't do better than this stand in the Cour Saleya in Nice. Happy New Year to all.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Can the Euro Become a Reserve Currency?

The euro is sometimes proposed as a plausible alternative or supplement to the dollar as a global reserve currency. Is this plausible? Not in the foreseeable future, according to Peter Kenen.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"The Most Irritiating" French Politicians

According to a VSD poll (via Thierry Desjardins):

Le président de la République n’arrive qu’en 4ème position. Il n’« agace » que 63% des Français. Loin derrière Ségolène Royal qui « agace » 73% de nos compatriotes et Brice Hortefeux, 70%, et juste derrière Marine Le Pen, 64%.
Ensuite, on trouve Martine Aubry, 54%, François Bayrou, 52%, Jean-François Copé, 47%, et, tout en bas du classement, François Fillon, 39%, et Dominique Strauss-Kahn avec un bien modeste 30%.

Was the Euro a Bad Idea?

The naysayers are enjoying their I-told-you-sos. Paul Krugman reminds us who they were. So much skepticism makes me skeptical. The Schadenfreude may be as premature as the preceding celebrations.

Criticism of French Arms Sale to Russia

Here. The deal, in the works for a long time, was announced on Christmas Eve, true to the spirit of the season. Not the peace on earth spirit, to be sure, but the commercial spirit, which conquers all.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bonnes Fêtes

Blogging will be light to nonexistent over the holiday. Have a good one!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Already found guilty of making a racist remark in the incident involving the "Auvergnat" and of violating the presumption of innocence in the case of David Sénat, the minister of the interior, Brice Hortefeux, is now charged (by a deputy of Europe Écologie) with "hindering the exercise of justice" for his criticism of the guilty verdict against a group of policemen in Bobigny. That's quite a few "missteps" for one minister.

"Coordination" without Loss of "Sovereignty"

Coordination: such a nice, unthreatening word. It may share a prefix with "coercion," but otherwise, nothing in common. So says Christine Lagarde:

"Je ne pense pas qu'il soit possible d'ôter aux Etats la souveraineté sur leurs budgets mais nous pourrions nous coordonner les uns avec les autres lorsque nous élaborons nos législations fiscales. C'est exactement ce que prévoient la France et l'Allemagne. De plus en plus, nous voulons nous coordonner lorsque nous préparons nos budgets pour les années à venir."

But surely Mme Lagarde is familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma, that favorite chestnut of political scientists, which demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining coordination when defection from the coordinated strategy promises to profit the erstwhile coordinators. What the minister of finance probably has in mind is something closer to the Dictator Game, in which the big economies--France, Germany, perhaps the UK--"coordinate" in deciding what the smaller economies can and cannot do. As for coordinating the French and German economies, well, good luck. Modell Deutschland and le modèle social français have not always played well together in the past, but crisis does tend to concentrate the mind, so perhaps there is hope for a better tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fitoussi's Bon Mot

Jean-Paul Fitoussi has come up with a fine sentence to describe where we are today in thinking about the global economic crisis:

Indeed, today the global economy’s arsonists have become prosecutors, and accuse the fire fighters of having provoked flooding.

Whither Germany?

Élie Cohen contemplates the evolution of German policy since the beginning of the crisis and sees a moment of truth ahead:

La pression d’une opinion publique de plus en plus gagnée par les thèses eurosceptiques et la vigilance sourcilleuse de la Cour de Karlsruhe limitent les progrès dans l’intégration européenne et le fédéralisme budgétaire. Les progrès de la solidarité européenne requièrent donc une grande inventivité dans le design institutionnel, la production de normes et les modalités de leur mise en œuvre. Dans ces conditions et compte tenu des développements prévisibles de la crise la solidité de la construction européenne sera testée dans les mois qui viennent. Cette crise a pourtant une vertu, celle de provoquer un débat fondamental en Allemagne sur l’avenir de l’Euro(pe). Face à une opinion publique travaillée par des forces isolationnistes et xénophobes comme en témoignent les ouvrages récents de deux éminents responsables économiques (Thilo Sarazin de la Buba et Hans Olaf Henkel, ex-patron des patrons) le SPD s’engage plus franchement dans une stratégie de renforcement de l’Europe.


Tim Snyder, the author of Bloodlands, pays tribute to Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah":

A quarter century ago, the Holocaust was not as widely recognized as it is today as an unprecedented evil. Lanzmann did much to change that. In his expansive “fiction of the real,” as he calls it, he is like a French realist novelist of the nineteenth century, addressing an injustice by painstaking research: a decade of reading; hundreds of risky conversations with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders; thousands of hours of unused film. This is “J’accuse” six million times over. Lanzmann is quite visible in the film, and heroically so. In his conversations with Jews and Germans and Poles, he is the perfect image of a French intellectual seeker of truth, doing what the existentialists spoke about but rarely did: imposing his mind and his will on a great emptiness, forcing it to take shape, and so leaving a trace of himself in history.
The article is worth reading in full. (h/t Peter Gordon)

Les Neiges d'Antan

Où sont les neiges d'antan? On the runways of Europe, seems to be answer to Villon's question. The French authorities are no doubt glad that Heathrow, Brussels, Schiphol, and Frankfurt have been an even worse mess than CDG, because now they have an alibi. Le Monde points out that the Canadians have shown how the job ought to be done. The key seems to be organization, training, and alertness rather than investment in heavy equipment: the Montreal airport makes do with just seven large plows. And naturally, organization, training, and alertness are the things that tend to atrophy when not constantly tested. Since snow of the sort Europe has seen in the past month is relatively rare, it's not surprising that the result has been la pagaille totale, but still, it's inexcusable.

Given the enormous cost of paralysis of major travel hubs--hundreds of thousands of lost vacation and work days, hundreds of immobilized multimillion dollar aircraft, etc. etc.--one would think that there would be more interest in remedying these problems. And of course for the stranded passengers, the most vexing issue--aside from finding a place to sleep--is the absolute paucity of information available about their plight. This could easily be remedied if the airlines and airport authorities would devote a little thought to the problem: special Web sites with emergency information, instructions to passengers about what to do, advance notification of flight delays and cancellations, etc.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lost in translation

Apparently, the Confédération Générale du Travail no longer looks with favor on the word travailleur. The union now favors, not ouvrier, but salarié to describe the status of its members. This is bizarre in any number of ways, as the linked article points out. But the poor translator must now be on his guard: if travailleur becomes pejorative, can we translate salarié as "wage-earner," even though this has no especially pejorative connotation in English (though of course it's generally considered higher-status to receive a salary, which is not the same thing as un salaire (this is often a faux-ami, since English distinguishes between salary and wage: rémunération, appointements, émoluments might be better)? It rather grates on the ear in English. Economists distinguish between "hourly" workers (salariés) and "salaried" workers (whose pay is independent of the number of hours worked, and who are not exactly the same as cadres). Of course, in the United States, we have no "working class": everyone considers himself "middle class," so I suppose we have neither travailleurs, ouvriers, nor salariés but only bourgeois earning over $1m a year, which explains the otherwise puzzling support for tax cuts for the rich.

Perhaps the demise of travailleur began when il fallait travailler plus pour gagner plus. This was certainly a change from abolir le salariat. But the euphemisation of work has been going on for some time, at least since Auchan declared its clerks to be techniciens de surface. On the other hand, certain formerly despised professions sought to raise their status by claiming the privilege of labor: sex workers, intellectual workers. Or as non-commissioned officers used to tell me in the army when I mistakenly addressed one as "Sir," "Don't call me 'sir,' I work for a living." Work can be a badge of dignity and pride, except, it seems, chez la CGT.


It looks as though the new government has wasted no time in distributing benefits to people close to various ministers. In Franche-Comté, Nacer Meddah is out as prefect after only 7 months on the job, replaced by Christian Decharrière, the former chief of staff of Eric Besson (h/t Anonymous commenter). And at Inaglobal, Frédéric Martel, the founder, has been ousted only two months after the launch of the site by Frédéric Mitterrand's protégé, Mathieu Gallet, whose meteoric rise at the culture ministry has tongues wagging. Martel's replacement: Gallet himself!

Saturday, December 18, 2010


The perfect Christmas/Chanukah gift for your anglophone Americanophile friends: the travel writings, diaries, letters, etc. of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont from their 1831 trip to America, selected by Olivier Zunz and published in my translation by the U. of Virginia Press. This is the stuff from which Democracy in America was made, now in English for the first time (mostly). See Tocqueville among the Quakers. Discover Detroit before automobiles and Eminem. Watch as Tocqueville nearly drowns in the Ohio River and nearly dies in the backwoods of Tennessee. Learn what he thought of American women and song (his thoughts on American wines, if any existed at the time, are not recorded, but you will find him being drunk under the table by the members of the New York City Council). Seriously, a great read.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ni pute ni soumise

So, Fadela Amara will also throw in her lot with Borloo. Could Sarkozy's renomination of Fillon turn out to be his greatest blunder? By casting Borloo out into the cold after raising him up as a potential prime minister, Sarko may have created a monster. Borloo is a popular politician (for reasons that escape me, to be sure--I've never quite penetrated the secret of his charm). He has wasted no time in building a party around himself and his cult of personality, and he has attracted a couple of the flashier embodiments of the ex-Sarkozyan ouverture. Lest anyone forget, Bayrou attracted a lot of votes in the first round of 2007 by being neither Sarkozy nor Ségolène. Borloo might well be positioned to do the same. The tout sauf Sarkozy vote could well be stronger in 2012 than it was in 2007, and that might be enough to propel Borloo past the candidate of the left, especially is she is Royal or Aubry. What is more, Sarkozy's first-round score is almost certain to be smaller, since the FN appears to be rising from the dead. So we could have a very interesting first-round scenario in 2012, a three-way race with a highly unpredictable outcome. Watch this space for further developments.

The PS Has Found Its Defining Issue!

Yes, the erasure of cigarettes from photos of French cultural icons is a travesty, but will it peel outraged yuppies away from the Greens as ineffectively as attacking Gypsies has peeled bigots away from the Front National? This is the great unanswered question of the 2012 presidential elections.

Le Grand Paris

This somewhat splenetic review of Bregjte van der Haak's documentary of Grand Paris sheds an interesting light on power, politics, people, and art. Annette Fierro writes:

All of these extravagant visions seem radically at odds with what van der Haak's film surmises at its outset, that Le Grand Paris was to address a Paris that is no longer the economic or political capital of Europe, in a France that has been downwardly spiraling in international and economic prominence since World War II. Even since the early 1990s, France’s economy has faltered and fallen far behind those of the UK and Germany, overwhelmed by its internal economic structures and the global strain upon them. Anyone at all familiar (who isn't?) with these daunting realities could not possibly expect that the most dazzling of visions given back to Sarkozy would be realized in any near or distant future. The film's conclusion is thus foreshadowed from the very beginning, seemingly anticipated by all but the architects involved. Despite all of the research and grand visions presented, at the symposium’s finale, Blanc announced that actual implementation would consist only of a fully automated new rail circuit connecting the banlieue, a foregone conclusion. Maas asked himself (somewhat petulantly) “Were we as architects used in this process?”

Certainly the architects were tantalized by adding their signature to the urban history of Haussmann and Le Notre as much as they were compelled legitimately by contemporary issues. It is hard to imagine, however, that architects of this stature, well-accustomed to the vicissitudes of realizing projects, especially enormously scaled ones, would be so deluded as to imagine that any one of their schemes would be built comprehensively. Certain also was the devastating effect of the sudden global collapse of credit halfway through the study, which dampened the initial enthusiasm of the government. The ambiguity of the intended outcome of the study is, however larger than these circumstances. Paris is, after all, a city that has demonstrated the will and resources to accomplish its own monumental reconstruction in the past.

In a sense, whatever the Grand Paris project may say about power and art, it can also serve as a metaphor for Sarkozy's presidency: occasionally soaring rhetoric, professedly grand ambitions, paltry or faulty realizations for which one can imagine a variety of explanations or alibis, and lingering latent possibilities.  And there is also the rivalry with one's predecessors, in Sarkozy's case not Haussmann and Napoleon III so much as Mitterrand and his Grands Travaux. It takes a historian or a journalist to compare le petit Sarko to Napoleon le petit; the principal himself thinks in terms of the more classically political categories of jealousy and revenge. And yet, and yet ... if some piece of the new subway line is built, eventually it will have important effects on life in greater Paris, long after the President and his architects are forgotten.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

And I wasn't invited ...

Shall I complain?

No Primaries for Sarkozy

Surprise, surprise.

Trouble ahead ...

43% of young males in "sensitive urban zones" (ZUS) were unemployed at the end of 2009. One would think that figures like this might have spurred the government to action. As the song says, "Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind."

Just Deserts

With remarkable efficiency, the French justice system has at last seized on a culprit in the Bettencourt-Woerth affair: David Sénat, whose crime is to have spoken (allegedly) too freely to the press. Meanwhile, the Bettencourts have patched up their little tiff, Woerth is dealing with the fallout from his sale of a racetrack, and we've stopped talking about tax fraud, islands in the tropics, Swiss bank accounts, fraudulent Légions d'honneur, et toute la ribambelle. Merry Christmas.

Yade-Borloo, même combat

Rama Yade joins the Parti radical and discovers the importance of "social cohesion."

French Lesson

Why learn French? Looks like English biz jargon can be substituted wherever necessary.

Educational Stats

What portion of each age cohort gets the bac? How has this changed over the years? How has the proportion of students with the bac général changed in relation to the other types of bac? Answers to all these questions can be found here, along with a comment on the current level of expressive skills among entering university students.

The Decline of Marriage

Tout le monde pacsé, according to Scott Sayare and Maïa de la Baume. A significant cultural shift?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Frêche - The Film

A film has been made of the late Georges Frêche in his everyday activities as political boss of Languedoc-Roussillon. I doubt that it will play in the US (unless TV5Monde picks it up), so I would be pleased to publish a review by any reader intrepid enough to take in this documentary of politics in the raw.

Du rififi chez les patrons des flics

Nothing like a catfight among ministers over the conviction of policemen for tampering with the wheels of justice. Hortefeux, predictably, rushed to defend the flics and condemn the magistrats; Mercier responded; and then Fillon, newly emboldened by his renomination, took out after Sarko's bosom buddy Hortefeux. Here is Thierry Desjardins's account:

Mais, surprise, Michel Mercier, l’inconnu que Sarkozy vient de caser place Vendôme pour consoler les centristes du départ de Borloo a réagi. Bravo ! Il a simplement rappelé qu’Hortefeux n’était pas ministre de la Justice et donc, en clair, qu’il aurait mieux fait de « fermer sa gueule ». On imagine déjà avec délectation l’ambiance qui va régner mercredi au Conseil des ministres.

Et puis –et c’est là tout le sel de l’histoire- Fillon est sorti du silence dans lequel, plus faussement modeste que jamais, il se terrait depuis sa re-nomination victorieuse à Matignon.
Le félin a d’abord semblé donner raison à Hortefeux (et à l’opinion publique) en rappelant : « La justice doit assurer la cohérence de la chaine pénale » et en poursuivant : « Le travail des policiers doit être suivi de jugements et les peines prononcées doivent être exécutées et prévenir la récidive » (ce même jour s’ouvrait le procès de l’assassin d’une jeune fille, récidiviste libéré avant d’avoir totalement purgé sa peine).

Mais ce que chacun retiendra c’est que le premier ministre a surtout donné raison à la justice en qualifiant lui-même « d’injustifiables » les faits reprochés aux sept policiers et en ajoutant : « L’honneur de la police exige un comportement exemplaire »

Avant de conclure : « J’appelle chacun à la raison, à la modération et au sens des responsabilités » ce qui visait évidemment beaucoup plus Hortefeux que Mercier.
And Philippe Bilger, another commentator on the right and himself a magistrate, tries to put this and other recent events in perspective in the larger security-and-immigration-as-campaign-themes picture:

Cet affrontement qui met aux prises un Pouvoir qui fait ce qu'il peut et une opposition populiste et jusqu'au boutiste parce qu'elle n'est en charge de rien est d'autant plus dangereux qu'en permanence le gouvernement est assailli sur sa droite par une surenchère dont il doit tenir compte. Elle l'oblige donc à la fois à résister au FN mais aussi à lui complaire pour une part non négligeable, faute de quoi celui-ci engrangerait des gains trop évidents. Et d'abord devant l'inéluctable dégradation des promesses sur la sécurité face aux imprévisibles aléas du réel, où que ce soit, dans les cités sensibles ou les quartiers cossus. Le FN met son épée dans les reins du Pouvoir et ce dernier tente de s'en défaire mais sans trop regimber. Pas de pire situation que celle qui interdit de se battre par une familiarité qui continue d'exister et vous lie. Même si on persiste à la nier en théorie.

Ockrent in Trouble

Bernard Kouchner has been out for some weeks, and now may be the turn of sa compagne Christine Ockrent to be shown the door at France24. Of course there may be no relation between the two events. Ockrent is allegedly involved in an internal espionage scheme at the station. Spying on your boss's computer will get you fired nearly anywhere (but of course the allegations are "not proven," as they say in Scotland). Still, the drama at France24 seems to be mirroring the drama in Les Reporters, the Canal+ journothriller. Who would have thought? Since my entire TV career to date is limited to a few appearances on France24, naturally I'm on the edge of my seat.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Front National

It's been a while since I've written about the Front National, but Marine Le Pen has put the party she hopes to inherit from her father back on the front pages. Hers is a double discourse: on the one hand, she wants to know why, if Michel Drucker can invite Olivier Besancenot and Jean-Luc Mélenchon to join him on the red couch, she can't be invited too. Not that she really wants to exchange banalities with M. Drucker, but it seems that the perennial host has become the touchstone of legitimacy in French political life: if Drucker can invite you, you're not beyond the pale. Firebrands can demonstrate their charm and receive anointment from the unctuous Drucker.

But on the other hand, Marine wants to demonstrate to the party faithful that she has taken from her father his knack for provocation, so she has raised the issue of Muslim "prayer in the streets" and zones in which shari'a has allegedly supplanted the laws of the Republic. (Perhaps Mlle Le Pen would be interested to know that the state of Oklahoma, gripped by similar fantasies, has outlawed the enforcement of shari'a within its borders.)

For a lucid commentary on all this, see Romain Pigenel's blog.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Paris Real Estate Bubble?

The city may not be able to clear the snow, but that isn't stopping Saudi princes and Russian mafiosi from driving up real estate prices. If I were you, I'd look into which banks are lending the money for these purchases and put my savings elsewhere. Hasn't anyone learned anything from the past few years? A 20% annual increase in real estate prices is not normal, people. It's not a good sign. It suggests a disturbance in the flow of capital as severe as the atmospheric disturbance that has sent chill air, ice, and snow over France this past week. Watch out! Bubbles burst. And don't listen to any economist who tells you we don't know how to identify bubbles. They're like pornography according to the US Supreme Court (the bubbles, I mean, not the economists--we have other choice words for them). If you're a decent person (i.e., not a loan officer or a real estate broker), you know it when you see it.

Snow Fun at All

Watching the France2 news last night--a half hour devoted almost entirely to mammoth traffic jams in and around Paris caused by a 10cm snowfall--I wondered if there would be any political consequences. Among American mayors in the northeastern United States, it is an article of faith that if you don't get the snow off the streets, you won't be re-elected. But who is responsible for snow removal in France? (Sorry to ask such a mundane question. I know I'm supposed to be an "expert," but "expert" knowledge sometimes fails to burrow down to the nitty gritty of daily life, and I live 3,000 miles away, in a New England enjoying a remarkably balmy December.) Is it the city, the region, le Département de Chasse-Neige auprès du Ministère de la Ville et de l'Urbanisme, ou je ne sais quoi encore? Will someone be blamed for this? I mean, a region of 12 million people that can be paralyzed by 10cm of snow and freezing rain looks like a political, not a natural, disaster from where I sit. What about it, Parisians? Is the blood boiling over there sufficiently to melt ice, or are you just accepting this as one of the inconveniences of modern life?

Il parle bien

A very interesting comment by Bernard Girard on the nature of Sarkozy's appeal to certain observers.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

eBooks in France

French publishers have been slow to adapt to the evolving world of eBooks. attempts to explain why.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ecological Catastrophe

Or something. A pal of Nicolas Hulot's resigns from Europe Écologie and issues a public letter of "warning," and suddenly the Greens are turning all green and looking as discombobulated as Socialists. Just as Daniel Cohn-Bendit was about to extend an invitation to ecologists of the center and right to join the nebulous ecological party, which, like a low pressure system hovering above the ocean, keeps threatening to blow inland and wreak major havoc in French politics but always seems to dissipate before achieving hurricane force.

New Web Site

La Vie des Idées has been publishing book reviews for 3 years now. The site, sponsored by the Collège de France, now has an English-language offshoot, Books and Ideas. Worth checking out.

When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Bigga PISA Pie

The PISA scores are out, and the news isn't good for either France or the USA. Of course the Chinese results reflect only the students of Shanghai, a select group, but other Asian countries, Finland, Switzerland, etc., all overachieve. Anticipate a mini-brouhaha concerning the failure of the schools. But before getting your knickers in a twist, you might do well to re-read Baudelot and Establet, L'Élitisme républicaine, which peers behind the league tables to give a more accurate picture of results like these. The short answer is that if you compare the cream of the French educational system with the students of Shanghai (the cream of China's crop), the results would look rather different. French (and American) schools fail at the bottom of the distribution, not the top. And then there's this paradox: Chinese college graduates can't find jobs, earn little more than less educated workers, and excel on tests but disappoint in the workplace.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hey, If It Works, Don't Knock It

Nicolas Sarkozy's latest moves--remaniement, marathon news conference--were nearly universally panned by the commentariat, but here he is, up five points in the polls. Random fluctuation or meaningful uptick? Beats me. As Sarko is fond of saying, commentators comment, deciders decide. And let the chips fall where they may.

"Unable to Cope"

Wolfgang Munchau finds the European Union "unable to cope" with the continuing economic crisis. The third of his six points is worth noting:

The third is a breakdown of communication. The EU has a tendency to hype whatever it agrees. The markets first react with euphoria to the announcement, then with disappointment once they have read the small print.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sur le pont d'Avignon, on n'y danse plus ...

Brent Whelan reports on the sad end of the saga of Ilham Moussaïd, the NPA militante who ignited a firestorm by wearing a headscarf while campaigning for office.

It's official: Ilham Moussaïd and 11 of her colleagues have resigned from the NPA's Vaucluse chapter, after eight months of fruitless negotiation with the central party. 

Things aren't going well for the NPA, it seems:
While Ilham is at best a footnote, her story I feel is devastating for the NPA (which is hemorrhaging members for a variety of reasons), and for the immediate future of the far-left.

O'Rourke on the Euro

The reaction to the news that Irish taxpayers are to be squeezed while foreign bondholders escape scot-free has been one of outraged disbelief and anger. At the start of last week, it was possible to make the argument that ‘burning the bondholders’ was irresponsible, since it would inevitably lead to contagion, and the spread of the crisis to Iberia. That argument has at this stage lost all validity, since contagion has happened anyway. Besides, the correct response to the possibility of contagion was never to engage in make-believe, but to extend taxpayer protection to other Eurozone members as required. Swapping debt for equity in a coordinated fashion across Europe would show ordinary people that Europe is on their side; but like the PLO of old, the European Union never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It could have provided a means of kick-starting a new post-crisis growth strategy based on investment in the infrastructures we will need in the future; instead it has transformed itself into a mechanism for forcing pro-cyclical adjustment onto countries that are already sinking. It could have led the way in reining in an out-of-control financial sector; instead it now embodies the discredited principle that banks must never, ever, default on their creditors, no matter how insolvent they may be. (h/t Henry Farrell)

And for more gloom, see Ken Rogoff.


The DSK watch continues. The haurspices minutely examine the entrails. Their interpretations are contradictory and inconclusive. And one has to assume that that's just the way DSK likes it. Because, really, folks, it wouldn't be all that difficult to put up a more persuasive picture of an active candidacy if one really wanted to. This business of IMF-enforced neutrality is nonsense. The game isn't really that hard to play. You form a political action committee, or whatever the French equivalent might be. You put in charge someone known to be close to the prospective candidate. Of course the principal himself officially disavows any connection with the efforts made on his behalf, but the fiction is transparent. The spokesman parries the attacks and maneuvers of the rival candidates. Meanwhile, an organization is constructed, and private assurances are given to prospective affiliates. When the moment is right, the candidate resigns from his international post and enters the fray with an organization already in place, well-honed, and ready to roll.

So why isn't DSK doing this? Either he's not a terribly competent politician--a possibility I don't rule out--or he'd rather not take positions on the issues of the day, because as a nonaligned potential candidate he's likely to remain a lot more popular for a lot longer than as a declared candidate favoring one line over another. But this is a mug's game. This has been the problem of the Socialist Party for nearly a generation now. It is more comfortable with the vagueness of "opposition" than with the definiteness of commitment. Its poll numbers rise as the situation of the government worsens. But then when it comes time to stake out a position in the campaign, its platform seems hollow, because it hasn't really established an identity over the long term. Voters feel they're being sold a bill of goods by a flim-flam artist. Whatever else you can say about Sarkozy in 2007, you have to concede that he had successfully crafted an identity for himself. Like it or loathe it, voters had a sense of a man who was precommitted, who wouldn't simply blow in the wind. When it comes to DSK, the left of the left already knows that it doesn't like what it's likely to get, but the volatile voters in the center, who will decide the election, want definition that the Strauss-Kahnians, whoever they may be, have been loath to provide, lest those buoyant poll numbers start to tumble back to more realistic levels.

Simon Johnson on Eurozone Debt Crisis


In other words, any one member of the euro zone can veto a country from being determined merely illiquid, thus cutting it off from cheap and endless credit (from the European Central Bank or European Stability Mechanism or any window to be named later). So now Germany effectively has a veto, as do other fiscally austere countries including Estonia (from Jan. 1, when it becomes the 17th member of the euro zone).

Most likely we will witness the creation of an Austere Coalition (actually a modified Hanseatic League) of Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Estonia and a few of the smaller countries. Ending forever what is charmingly known as moral hazard — the prospect of soft bailout money — is an admirable goal. But getting there under current conditions is going to be rocky, because that new regime implies that prominent countries need to have less total debt and a longer maturity on their debt than they do now.

Head Fake

Well, we do learn something from WikiLeaks after all: namely, that the Americans believed that the French deliberately played up Bashar al-Assad's (nonexistent) role in the release of Clotilde Reiss in order to validate Sarkozy's earlier "opening" to Assad, of which the Americans disapproved.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I surmised that Sarkozy was pushing the opening to Assad in order to give himself, and France, a more central role in the Mideast diplomatic game. I even thought that the US might be cooperating in a double game, rejecting talks with Syria for itself but encouraging France as an intermediary. Apparently I was wrong. Or at least wrong at the low level of secrecy penetrated by WikiLeaks. As Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a thing or two about official secrets, recently said, the leaked database was easily penetrated because it was considered to contain such unimportant material (viz., Sarko chasing Louis's rabbit) that it wasn't held very closely; it was the kind of material he wouldn't have bothered to look at back in his time as a RAND intelligence analyst. So there may still be another part of the story.

But while we're on the subject of WikiLeaks, it seems that I may be endangering my future security clearances by even talking about it. See James Fallows' astonished report. I don't know if Fallows has ever worked for an intelligence service, but he might be less astonished if he had. Of the Obama administration's executive order he asks, "Why not just stamp 'Secret' across the front page of The New York Times?" When I was in the US Army, that's essentially what we did: "intelligence" would be gleaned from newspaper reports, typed up on official letterhead, and stamped "Secret." So, in theory, one could have been sent to jail for disclosing what one read in The New York Times. But of course you have to be on the inside to know that a secret is a secret. To the average Joe, it looks like common knowledge. You'd be amazed at how the transformation of common knowledge into secret knowledge inflates one's sense of self-importance. This is one of Ellsberg's fundamental points in a book I recommend, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Barry Eichengreen Lets Loose


The Irish “rescue package” finalized over the weekend is a disaster. You can say one thing for the European Commission, the ECB and the German government: they never miss an opportunity to make things worse.

It pains me to say this. I’m probably the most pro-euro economist on my side of the Atlantic. Not because I think the euro area is the perfect monetary union, but because I have always thought that a Europe of scores of national currencies would be even less stable. I’m also a believer in the larger European project. But given this abject failure of European and German leadership, I am going to have to rethink my position.
As John Maynard Keynes – who knew about matters like reparations – once said, leadership involves “ruthless truth telling.” In Europe today, recent events make clear, leadership is in short supply.

Immigration and National Identity

A review of Patrick Weil's latest book, Liberté, Égalité, Discriminations: L’«Identité Nationale» au regard de l’histoire.

The Incomprehension of the Socialist Party

Le Monde's editorial is correct:

Hormis leur refondateur des années 1970, François Mitterrand, les socialistes n'ont toujours pas compris la nature de l'élection présidentielle française : la rencontre d'un homme - ou d'une femme - et du pays. Plus exactement, s'ils l'ont compris, ils n'assument pas pleinement cette monarchie républicaine instaurée en 1962 et l'aventure singulière, l'ambition individuelle, la détermination sans faille qu'elle suppose.

But the editorial does not pursue this analysis any further. The obvious question to ask is why the Socialists have not grasped the fundamental nature of presidential politics. Mitterrand, who learned the political art in the Fourth Republic, was also schooled by the weaknesses of that regime in the importance of a gravitational center, without which the satellites veer from their orbits and quickly reduce order to chaos. He may have polemicized against the coup d'État permanent, but he knew what needed to be done to govern "le pays de 350 fromages."

But a certain presidential tropism was not the only legacy of the Fourth Republic: technocracy was perhaps its finest product. For most of les Trente Glorieuses, France was in fact ruled by technocrats. The legitimacy derived, after the advent of the Fifth Republic, from the election of a supreme magistrate by universal suffrage only added to the legitimacy of competence that the technocrats derived from their own training and ostensible commitment to the general interest. Mitterrand, recognizing this, surrounded himself with young énarques, who continue to dominate the Socialist Party today. But he squashed the Rocardians, who might have infused technocracy with a bit of political savvy, had they been allowed to develop as a movement, and then Jospin, the best of the remaining lot (with Fabius sidelined by the blood scandal and rightly distrusted for his sinuous political line), was in turn squashed by the Front National, a movement that Mitterrand had covertly encouraged (through his sanction of proportional representation in local elections) in order to divide the right. This left only the small fry among politicized technocrats to run the PS at the national level, while the local federations were ceded to barons who might have been at home in the Fourth Republic: the Collombs, Frêches, and Rebsamens, among others.

There is of course a younger generation of Socialists schooled in a variety of political arts unknown to the énarques. Harlem Désir, another Mitterrand product, came up by way of racial politics. Manuel Valls has been searching for a third way in downtown Evry for years. Arnaud Montebourg, who has studied the secrets of Sarkozy's rise and Ségolène's surprising appeal, would like to be a media darling as well, but he hasn't quite found the trick of it. So the party limps along with out-of-touch énarques at its head, struggling youngsters searching for another way, pollsters endlessly touting Hamlet Strauss-Kahn, who can't decide whether to be or not to be, and the mercurial Ségolène, who alone among the lot has grasped the fact that a president must be the incarnation of something.

And incarnation is precisely what Ségolène has mastered: she has undeniable presence. It's the "something" that eludes her. Exactly what she intends to incarnate has never been clear and becomes less clear with each reinvention of herself. By turns Blairite, gauchiste, 68arde attardée, femme fatale, attack dog, Marianne redux, and Mother of all the French, she retains her spontaneity by avoiding identification with any particular line of policy and her vivacity by refusing to closet herself away with the many dossiers she needs to master if she wants to make her next candidacy more credible than her last one.

In retrospect, one has to admire the genius of Mitterrand, who was able to mold this nébuleux into a vehicle of victory. If only he had been able to pass some of his Florentine subtlety on to his protégés, the party might be in a better position to win an election that would seem, if Sarkozy's unpopularity is any gauge, to be eminently winnable.

More on the French Brain Drain

The story continues to attract attention in the US but, curiously, in France, not so much:

Ben Wildavsky, a senior scholar in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of The Great Brain Race, appeared with Kohler at the French Embassy. In his book, Wildavsky argues that academic excellence is not a zero sum game and that it's a good thing that there is more competition for academic talent. Still, he said Tuesday that "without being alarmist," there is good reason for a country like France to worry about its loss of talent.

He argued -- to the visible discomfort of some of the French academics in the audience -- that the "culture of egalitarianism" and a "culture of mediocrity" have eroded the quality of French universities. (He later said he "withdrew" the word "mediocrity" and that he should have referred instead to a culture of "insufficient excellence.") Some of those who were challenging the report, he said, showed "elements of denial."

"Insufficient excellence?" C'mon, Ben, do you think anybody's gonna believe a weasel-word like that conveys your true thoughts on the matter? But I think you're being rather unfair, even with your waffle. French academics receive too little money and virtually no support of the sort that American academics take for granted: libraries, computers, secretaries, travel grants, research funding, etc. Mediocrity is a product of policy, not of  "culture." As for egalitarianism, you're neglecting the Grandes Écoles, which might lead you to the opposite conclusion about the French system. It would be more accurate to say that the stratification inherent in any system of higher education needs to be spread over a somewhat wider base than is presently the case in France.

More WikiLeaks

Notice how much better a job the Times does in summarizing these cables than the French press has managed to date. Our diplomats may lack flair, but our journalists are tops when it comes to collecting and regurgitating the diplomatic mush.

I think I'll spend the afternoon re-reading Isaiah Berlin's wartime dispatches from Washington and George Kennan's letters from Moscow. Longing for the good old days. I guess this is a sure sign I've become an old man.

Here Are the Secrets

OK, I take it back. US diplomats did know something that they couldn't have read on this blog: that DSK regarded Ségolène Royal's popularity as a "collective hallucination." As for Ségo herself, she confessed that she watches "Desperate Housewives" (hmmmmm), but that didn't prevent our crackerjack diplomatic corps from recognizing her allegedly "traditional leftist preconceptions, not to say prejudices" against the US. Oh, yes: and they also knew about Sarko chasing little Louis's dog and rabbit around the Élysée.

I mean, like, you know, Good grief! (Or WTF, in today's parlance.) So, sure, we negotiate with an impostor in Afghanistan, but what do we know about Afghanistan? We've only been at war there since 2001. France--our oldest ally, and this is the best we can do? Twaddle and tittle-tattle?