Saturday, October 23, 2010

Debate Announcement

At the request of a reader, I post this announcement:

Wednesday, October 27th at 7pm

Democrats Abroad France and Republicans Abroad France 
only 6 days before crucial U.S. Congressional Elections

Which party best addresses challenges 
 on American economic, social and foreign policy?  
1st Debate by the Juniors :   Young Democrats versus Young Republicans
              2nd Debate by the Seniors: Thomas McGrath versus Joseph Smallhoover

ESCP Europe, 79 ave. de la Republique, 75011 Paris, Metro St. Maur
                                                        10 euro admission, students free, refreshments provided

Gouverner, c'est choisir; manifester, c'est esquiver

Nicolas Sarkozy is not a popular president at the moment. His diminished personal stature is no doubt part of the motivation of the protesters: sensing weakness, they hope to cripple permanently a president whom they dislike. I'm not particularly fond of the president either, but I think that critics of government have a duty to put themselves in the government's place. In a good deal of the commentary on the present crisis, I find, however, that delight in Sarkozy's discomfiture takes the place of responsible evaluation of the policy as opposed to the person.

Take, for instance, this comment from Thierry Desjardins, always a lucid and well-informed observer:

Mais, d’une part, tout le monde sait que cette réforme est insuffisante et qu’il faudra rouvrir le chantier avant longtemps et, d’autre part et surtout, on ne pas peut dire que la chose ait été menée de main de maître.

Il est évident qu’il aurait fallu lancer cette réforme (comme celle de la fiscalité, plus ou moins promise pour l’année prochaine) dès le début du quinquennat, avant que Sarkozy ne sombre dans tous les sondages. Mais il est vrai que Sarkozy s’était bêtement engagé, pendant sa campagne, à ne pas toucher aux 60 ans.

Il est d’ailleurs évident qu’il était maladroit de s’attaquer à ce mythe des 60 ans. Il aurait suffi d’augmenter, avec une certaine hypocrisie, le nombre d’années de cotisation nécessaires pour avoir une retraite à taux plein et le tour était joué.

Il est évident qu’il aurait fallu prendre mieux en compte la « pénibilité » (ne pas la confondre avec l’« invalidité »), le cas des carrières longues et des carrières interrompues. On aurait ainsi donné un os à ronger aux syndicats.

Il est évident enfin qu’il aurait fallu virer Eric Woerth aux premiers jours du scandale qui allait le discréditer totalement aussi bien aux yeux de ses interlocuteurs syndicalistes qu’aux yeux des Français et lui interdire de porter cette réforme difficile.
There is in this analysis a mixture of candor, cynicism, and Schadenfreude that I find disturbing, not to say flabbergasting. Unlike many who are in the streets, Desjardins concedes that reform is necessary. He criticizes Sarkozy first for promising not to touch the 60-year retirement age and then for clumsiness in attacking it. He does not allow for the possibility that at the time of the campaign it may have seemed possible to preserve that much of the status quo but that conditions have since changed. Rather, he charges Sarkozy with insufficiency of hypocrisy. It would have been better, says Desjardins, to pretend that the age limit can remain unchanged while adjusting the rules of the retirement system to make its preservation little more than a hollow promise (which is essentially the policy prescription of Martine Aubry). It is perhaps refreshing to hear a politician denounced for telling the truth rather than prevaricating. Desjardins, as a shrewd political observer, seems to wish for a leader whose Machiavellianism he can admire. But this seems just a little unfair to the current president.

He then faults Sarkozy for failing to dicker over the definition of pénibilité, thus "throwing a bone for the unions to gnaw on." And he wishes Sarkozy had begun this reform earlier in his presidency, when his popularity was still high. Perhaps he has forgotten that there was a previous round of retirement reform, ending the special regimes and aligning the public sector system on the private sector. Perhaps he has forgotten that at that time Sarkozy did dicker with the unions and was widely criticized, not unjustly, for offering special deals to certain of them in order to buy off opposition. In any case, the notion that the unions have not been "consulted"--one of the cries of the protesters--is ludicrous. Retirement reform has been a central issue of French politics since 1995, if not before. There has been abundant consultation. But at some point decisions have to be made.

I do not claim that the reform on the table is without flaws, and Desjardins is surely right to state, as Le Monde did in its editorial yesterday, that this reform will not definitively resolve the issue. Indeed, an amendment was introduced in the Senate promising a fresh look at the issue in 2012 and a more thorough overhaul at that time. This may prove to be an empty promise. But when you add up all of Desjardins' charges, what are you left with? The conclusion that a) the retirement system needs reform; b) the increase of the age for minimum benefits to 62 was a necessary measure that might have been better camouflaged but couldn't really be avoided; c) the system still won't be solvent even after retrenchment. Henri Guaino might well want to weave these points into Sarko's speech next week. They actually constitute a rather persuasive defense of the reform, whose chief flaw in Desjardins' eyes is that it didn't go far enough. And, of course, that it will have been promulgated by a president whom he detests.

About that cabinet reshuffle ...

So now we're beginning to hear more chatter about that promised remaniement. Fadela Amara says she likes Borloo. It's nice to hear from Fadela after all this years. I hadn't realized she was still in the government. Meanwhile, Fillon is said to want to stay in his job, after giving many signs that he was preparing to leave it. I wouldn't be surprised if Sarkozy moves next week. The reshuffle was initially announced for October, and time is running out. In addition, a reshuffle would push the protests off the front page for two or three days, as learned commentators, myself included, will be obliged to decide What It All Means. In the end, no doubt, it won't mean much. It's becoming difficult even to remember the previous reshuffles. Who was Minister of Education in Gov't Fillon 1 anyway?