Friday, January 29, 2010

Interpret This

Can somebody penetrate this text and tell me what is really going on? Le Point seems to be telling us that three of the biggest financial players in France, Bolloré, Lagardère, and Arnault, all with ties to the government, are engaged in various maneuvers to put pressure on the already beleaguered Le Monde. If it collapses, presumably, one or more of them will pick it up for a song, and gone will be a major independent voice. France will take another step toward Berlusconization. Is this really happening? If so, what is to be done?

Derrière la Tett

Gillian Tett finds wisdom, sort of, in Sarkozy's Davos speech. Specifically, she singles out his call for a "new Bretton Woods" as an idea that only recently would have seemed "old-fashioned or even barking mad" but which now, in a time of confusion and uncertainty, has the virtue of a lighthouse in a fog, pointing the way to terra firma (or, at any rate, to a place where terra firma used to lie).

Well, maybe. One is never clear how much actual thinking lies behind Sarko's "unexpectedly geeky comments," to borrow Tett's phrase. He is a voracious idea monger and opportunity senser, and, as Tett also notes, he smells a vacuum: the US, preoccupied with internal squabbles and somewhat insulated from the disaster it has created, seems to have retreated from leadership in the international financial arena, but the problem  of global imbalances has not grown less acute. Somebody has to step up, and Sarko, tired of playing second fiddle to The One, is glad to be the one. But the US and China are the major players here, and French relations with both economic superpowers are somewhat frosty at the moment. Sarko may be onto something, but follow-through has never been his strong suit. This dossier bears watching, however.

Withered Laurels

Dominique de Villepin's victory march through the TV studios will have been cruelly short. The parquet will appeal the not guilty verdict. In fact, the verdict was not really "not guilty," despite Villepin's insistence that he had been "blanchi." It was more in the nature of a Scottish verdict of  "not proven." As Le Monde notes:

Si les trois juges considèrent que l'implication politique de l'ancien premier ministre dans cette affaire est bien supérieure à celle qu'il a voulu reconnaître – ils estiment notamment sans l'écrire explicitement que M. de Villepin ment lorsqu'il assure n'être pas intervenu lorsque Imad Lahoud a été placé en garde à vue ou qu'il dément avoir été en contact régulier avec Jean-Louis Gergorin ...

Indeed, the judges really held that Villepin's innocence rests on his not having been sure until October 2004 that the listings were fake. On the other hand, this is also the basis for believing him guilty of something, if not precisely a crime: if he entertained doubts about the veracity of the listings, he nevertheless continued to work with the people who were using them to get at his rivals. Furthermore, as many observers have noted, the verdict leaves open the question of cui bono. Who profited from the operation, and who might have initiated and/or paid for it? Well, Villepin certainly stood to profit, but that's not evidence that he initiated the affair. Would Gergorin have done this on his own? He, too, claims to have been a dupe. Lahoud? Seems unlikely. So we are back where we started, looking for a prime mover not among the three men convicted--a prime mover who may or may not exist.

The prosecutor's motives are clear. He's now the fall guy, and he wants to prove that his prosecution of Villepin was motivated not by politics (or orders from the Elysée) but rather by evidence that he insists is in the record:

Dans le dossier, il y a tous les éléments pour entrer en condamnation. Un jugement a été rendu. Mais la justice n'est pas encore totalement rendue.

But a court has already judged this record. It is a peculiarity of the French system that the prosecution can appeal a verdict of not guilty without alleging a technical flaw or new evidence. When Sarkozy said yesterday that he would not appeal as a civil party, he was actually mistaken about the law: he had no right to appeal. Only the parquet or the defendant did on the question of the relaxe; Sarkozy could have appealed only the dommages et intérêts. This was reported as a slip by the president, but I wondered at the time if it wasn't meant to be a signal to the parquet: "No appeal! This case has become a political liability!" Of course it may also have been intended as the opposite signal: "I'm not going to keep this going, I don't want to look like a bloodthirsty avenger, but you still have the option, and it would please me if you availed yourself of it."

On the other hand, the prosecutor has every reason of his own to continue the case: it is now his honor that is at stake, his judgment to prosecute Villepin in the first place. He is out to prove that he had every legal rather than political reason to do so by convicting Villepin in a retrial. But at this point, I think, trop, c'est trop.

N.B. Of course another explanation of the prosecutor's action is that he is following orders from on high. Probably most people in France believe this, since he is subordinate, ultimately, to the chief executive. Of course there is no evidence that this is the case. For many, that is proof that it is so, especially if they have firm convictions about the character of the individuals involved. I refrain from drawing any conclusions in this regard. A subordinate may act on orders. He may act in a way that he supposes will please his superior. He may act to defend his own honor. He may act to defend his idea of justice. He may act out of personal enmity. I see no reason to choose among these explanations in the absence of hard evidence.