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.