Saturday, December 29, 2012

Delors Invites Brits to Leave the EU

"Europe--love it or leave it" is the advice of Jacques Delors, one of Europe's Founding Fathers, to the UK. Delors, who seems always to have known that the euro project was doomed without tighter European integration, has come to see the UK as the primary obstacle to such integration and therefore to the survival of his life's work. But it's a dangerous strategy to suggest that any member state, let alone one as important as the UK, choose a strategy of exit as opposed to voice or loyalty (to invoke the memory of the late Albert Hirschman). Delors's spleen is showing, but so is his age. The younger Delors would have put up a fight, I think, rather than thrown in the towel, no matter how exasperating Albion's latest provocations.

Constitutional Court Quashes 75% Income Tax

The Constitutional Court has ruled that the 75% top marginal income tax rate, sprung by Hollande as a surprise on his own campaign earlier this year, is unconstitutional because it affects different households unequally depending on how total household income is distributed between spouses.

So how does one assess the fate of Hollande's most distinctive campaign ploy? It may well have helped to elect him by portraying him as a candidate farther to the left and more intransigently opposed to malefactors of great wealth than he actually is: "Riches, je vous haïs," he came across as saying, in a paraphrase of André Gide, but in fact the measure never made much economic sense and could be defended largely on the grounds that it would affect so few people and raise so little revenue as to be pragmatically insignificant. But as Hollande's post-election approval rating sank, the top marginal tax rate became a symbol not of Hollande's left-wing bona fides but rather of the inchorenece of his economic strategy. The Conseil Constituionnel was no doubt eager to strike it down at the first opportunity.And the government will no doubt seize on the opportunity to throw down some new symbolic markers demonstrating its determination. But what is really needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the tax system, which it is now too late to attempt, Hollande having expended his meager political capital already. So he must muddle through with the tax policy he has and hope that things improve without significant government input, for which the wherewithal is lacking.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Social Catholicism

Causeur has inaugurated a series on the history of social Catholicism in France. This movement exerted an important influence of French social policy, especially in the post--WWII period, when Christian Democratic influence was high. The background provided here by Jean-Louis Schlegel, who, with Denis Pelletier, has just published À la gauche du Christ. Les chrétiens de gauche en France de 1945 à nos jours, Seuil, 2012, is worth reading.

Casanova Targeted at Sciences Po

The struggle over the leadership of Sciences Po continues. Three prominent intellectuals--Claire Andrieu, Olivier Borraz, and Karoline Postel-Vinay--have published a manifesto in Le Monde calling for the ouster of Jean-Claude Casanova as head of the foundation that oversees the management of the institution. (Full disclosure: I know Andrieu, Borraz, and Casanova personally.) Readers can evaluate for themselves the reasoning with which they back up their call for Casanova's ouster. Casanova's admission that he was not aware of certain irregularities in the management of Sciences Po during a lengthy period in which it seems to an outside observer that he should have known more suggests that, in the interest of greater transparency, it might be a good time to install a new board of directors.

On the other hand, a group of distinguished outside observers insists, in yet another Le Monde op-ed, that many reforms of the "Descoings era," which coincides with the period of "irregularities" in the management of Sciences Po, are worth preserving. The question is how to preserve the achievements (and to identify those worth preserving) without also preserving the "irregularities," some of which seem to have been necessary to making the reforms work. Clearly, this is not a matter that can be settled by op-eds directed to a general public that has no knowledge of the inside workings of Sciences Po. An infusion of new blood does seem essential, but the choice of which new blood to infuse will also weigh heavily on the ultimate outcome of the "reform of the reforms."

What is needed is strong but impartial leadership from both the state and the intellectual community, both of which are deeply compromised by past partialities in regard to the Descoings era. Is there a way to slice through this Gordian knot? In the US, in situations like this, academic departments are sometimes placed "in receivership" by their tutelary institutiions. A period of "extraordinary measures" seems inevitable for Sciences Po, but it is hard to be sanguine about the outcome, siince any number of the players are consummate insiders who know well how seemingly impartial processes can be rigged to achieve desired results. I think it is safe to say, however, that a new Sciences Po will eventually emerge. Exactly what its character will be is difficult to say at this point. Yet this is an issue of great public importance, since Sciences Po, as much as any other single institution, selects the French elite and therefore weighs inordinately on the kind of thinking that is considered legitimate in contemplating new public policies. Ideas matter in politics, and Sciences Po plays a disproportionate role in determining what ideas matter and what kinds of state action are legitimate.

It should be noted, moreover, that generational change seems to be an important factor in this struggle. Although Descoings himself was fairly young at the time of his death, his backing at the FNSP came largely from an older generation. Casanova, for instance, is 78. Retirement rules concerning French professors are fairly strict, but no such rules apply to the governing board of a private foundation like the FNSP. The younger generation may feel stifled by the kind of recruitment favored by the old regime at Sciences Po, and this feeling of institutional blockage may contribute to the evident bitterness of the debate.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hollande Se Lève Tôt

François Hollande, like his predecessor before him, paid a visit to Rungis. This afforded François Miclo an opportunity to use Hollande's own words to critique his performance as president:
Seulement, cette forme de communication un peu vaine a quelque chose d’outrancier… Ce n’est pas moi qui parle, mais François Hollande lui-même. En mai 2008, il commentait ainsi la visite matinale qu’avait effectuée Nicolas Sarkozy à Rungis : « Il faut éviter ce type de communication qui peut paraître outrancière. Se préoccuper des Français, ce n’est pas se lever nécessairement tôt le matin, c’est être capable de répondre à leurs questions… Nicolas Sarkozy est en campagne comme si d’ailleurs il était candidat : il reprend les slogans de sa campagne, il reprend les formules de sa campagne, les rites de sa campagne, les artifices mêmes de sa campagne. »
Bien vu.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Slaughter on EU-US Relations

According to Anne-Marie Slaughter, former head of State Dept. policy planning, 2013 will the the year of a US-EU free trade agreement. Hilary Clinton, Slaughter believes, has finally recognized the strategic importance of Europe as an asset in US competition with Asia: "America is not pivoting from Europe to Asia; we are pivoting with Europe to Asia." If this analysis is correct, then Slaughter deduces that the cost of British exit from the EU will go way up, so this coming year should be a very interesting one for British Euroskeptics.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Private Funding for French Cultural Icons

Facing tough austerity measures, French cultural institutions have resorted to good old-fashioned Yankee entreneurship: they have turned to private mécènes to make up the shortfall.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Depardieu Affair

Frédéric Martel, the host of  Soft Power on France Culture, has this to say about the Depardieu affair (via Facebook):
Contrairement à ce que l'on pense - à Paris, dans la gauche bobo, dans les beaux quartiers etc. - l'affaire Depardieu est un désastre pour le gouvernement. Elle a donné un visage à ce qui est en fin de compte une injustice : sur le marché de mon village ici, dans le Sud, tout le monde lui donne raison depuis qu'on sait qu'il a certainement été imposé à plus de 70 % (peut-être 80 % comme l'a montré Le Monde à cause de l'ISF non plafonné). Les Français, en fait, pardonnent beaucoup à leurs stars et à leurs artistes. L'opinion publique est en train de basculer en sa faveur. Des politiciens, des Moscovici, des Cahuzac, des énarques inspecteurs des finances, on en a beaucoup ; mais des Depardieu on n'en a qu'un. Et dans le match Hollande-Depardieu, c'est Depardieu qui rafle la mise. L'affaire Depardieu va, contre toute attente, coûter cher à la gauche. Elle est un révélateur.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Langue de Bois

François Kalfon is one of the PS militants who signed a letter to François Hollande urging him to change course on economic policy before it is too late. You might think that such a stand would place him rhetorically closer to Mélenchon than to, say, Manuel Valls. But no, M. Kalfon, who is a part of a group within the PS charged with monitoring public opinion, is a born apparatchik whose mother tongue is langue de bois. I haven't seen the likes of this since the days of Georges Marchais.

A few choice examples:
J'ai reçu de nombreux mails et courriers d'électeurs de gauche qui me disent leur soutien et leur satisfaction de notre démarche. Car ils se sentent ainsi légitimes et entendus. En ce qui concerne le gouvernement, le président ou le parti, je sais qu'ils nous entendent, je sais qu'ils font leur maximum. ...

Je m'inscris en faux sur cette lecture libérale de notre politique. Beaucoup de choses ont été faites. Je pense au blocage des loyers dans les grandes villes : cela a un effet immédiat sur le pouvoir d'achat. ...

Mais contrairement au passé, où certains de ses prédécesseurs ont dit : "Face au chômage, on a tout essayé", je vois un gouvernement qui a entamé le redressement productif, même si, bien sûr, jour après jour, il faut l'appuyer dans ses combats et ses décisions. [En passant, note that there are some in the PS who compulsively revisit the trauma of 2002, as if picking at a scab, and for whom the answer is always la faute à Jospin.] ...

A nous d'identifier les filières d'excellence européennes : les énergies vertes, l'économie créative, les grandes infrastructures de transport, qui ne sont pas soumises à la concurrence des pays à bas coûts. A nous aussi de sortir de la naïveté de la Commission européenne, qui, au lieu de construire des champions européens, a préféré traquer de façon maladive les "ententes" et fluidifier de façon névrotique les mécanismes de marché là où nos concurrents asiatiques et américains consolidaient leurs champions et protégeaient leurs marchés.

Italian Politics

Brent Whelan continues his musings on Italian politics here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cahuzac? What, he's still around?

I have a new measure of the political importance of a scandal. Does it outlast a short stay in hospital? Apparently, the Cahuzac affair meets the test. I was out of touch with the French news for a few days while dealing with the sequelae of a FUO (fever of unknown origin). You see how quickly I pick up the medical lingo. And I return home to find Cahuzac still in the hot seat. One thing is certain: Edwy Plenel and his friends will press any advantage against either la gauche caviar ou la droite bling-bling.  I wouldn't be surprised if some of these grudges go back a long way, to radical fringe battles of the past forgotten by all but the participants.

As for the Cahuzac business, I have no idea what's true and what's not true, so I will let the principals shout themselves hoarse. I have no voice anyway. Perhaps tomorrow morning French politics will once again look significant enough in world-historical terms to spend my time on. At the moment, I'm not so sure.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nine Months to Conceive and Deliver a UMP Leader

With the ship sinking and neither captain eager to leave, there was apparently no choice but to plug the leaks, try to steer a course away from the rocks, and hope for the best. So Fillon and Copé have apparently agreed to new elections in September 2013. This long gestational period of 9+ months is presumably intended to allow time for a realignment of forces within the party. Of course, such a realignment risks eliminating both of the current contenders. Perhaps Bruno Lemaire or NKM wil have his or her chance after all. But who knows what other ambitious men and women may even now be revising their calculations?

Does any of this matter to anyone outside the UMP ambit? Only if the party primary determines subsequent party strategy toward the FN, and there are other factors at work in this dimension. Copé is widely seen as having adopted the Patrick Buisson position of shifting the UMP ever closer to the FN. This is correct as far as it goes, but Copé, like Sarkozy, was an opportunistic Buissonien rather than a convinced one, and now that the maneuver has failed, he may well be tempted to try a new tack.

Similarly, Fillon, the "moderate," really isn't so moderate on economic issues, and Copé may well decide to mount an economic populist campaign of the sort that worked so well for Marine Le Pen but may be a rather difficult hat trick to pull off on the part of a corporate lawyer. Fillon will now have to develop some themes other than "moderation" and "anti-Copéism." So the debate could get more interesting. Or it could degenerate into a complex set of local maneuvers, with most of the horse trading taking place where no one can see it.

In any case, September of 2013 brings us to the German federal elections as well, to so one thing is certain: the European context will have changed considerably.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Albert Hirschman Dies

Albert Hirschman died yesterday at the age of 97. He was one of the most original thinkers of our time, as great a prose stylist as he was an economist, as important an anthropologist and sociologist as he was a theorist of development. France played an important part in his personal history. He spent the war there working for Varian Fry, an American who ran a network in the unoccupied zone that attempted to rescue persecuted, fleeing intellectuals and artists. I was privileged to know him through his two daughters, Lisa, who predeceased him some years ago, and Katia, who still lives in France today. His son-in-law Peter is my closest friend, and I burped his grandchild, Alex, on my shoulder eons ago. His death is a great loss not only for academia but also for the many friends he made in the course of his ceaseless travels, nearly always in the company of his vivacious, cultivated, and acerbically witty wife Sarah, who died earlier this year. Rest in peace.

(Princeton University Press will publish a biography by Jeremy Adelman early next year.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Fillon, Copé Destroy Each Other

Copé is now approved by just 17% of respondents to an OpinionWay poll, well behind Marine Le Pen (31% approval). Fillon does slightly better, at 33%. Of course, such polls demonstrate nothing so much as the fickleness of the electorate, but at this point the two UMP "leaders" must be asking if the game is worth the candle.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bouvet's "Hollandisme"

Laurent Bouvet offers a careful, deliberate, analytical reading of what he calls "le Hollandisme" in power, which he sees as in many ways continous with Hollande's tenure as head of the Socialist Party:
Cette pratique du pouvoir, qui était déjà visible et sensible chez le premier secrétaire du Parti socialiste pendant dix ans, met en lumière un deuxième trait caractéristique du hollandisme : le refus de tout a priori idéologique, de toute position doctrinale figée.
For Bouvet, Hollandism, in addition to rejection of rigid a priori ideological doctrine, consists of what Dick Morris first named "triangulation" (LB: "son sens de l'équilibre et sa permanente quête d'un compromis entre des positions adverses, sinon antagonistes"), coupled with a "new sociology of power" characterized by a return of the énarques, banished (to a certain extent) by Sarkozy, and promotion of local leaders who had worked their way up through the ranks of power in socialist-controlled local and regional fiefdoms.

This is an intelligent analysis, and as Bouvet notes, it is too early to say whether Hollandism will actually bear the desired fruits. Using Bouvet's categories, however, one can hazard a few judgments. The "new" sociology of power is perhaps better seen as a return to the old sociology of power of the early years of the Gaullist Republic, Then, le pouvoir périphérique, as Pierre Grémion called it, governed effectively by striking a compromise between a highly technocratic and competent central state and flexibile, opportunistic local power elites. The challenges now are different from the challenges then, however, and one might argue that such a coalition was better suited to the needs of postwar reconstruction and modernization than to the Schumpeterian creative destruction required (to my mind--many will disagree) by the present conjuncture of the global economy.

Second, pragmatism can be a desirable quality in a president, but it must be tempered by a firm fix on the North Star: in plain language, the leader must know where he wants to go. Bouvet sums up Hollande's presumptive goal in a resonant formula:
de devenir en cours de mandat un grand président de gauche qui, grâce à l'efficacité de son action davantage qu'à son sens du tragique dans l'Histoire, changerait enfin la société française en réorientant ses choix économiques, en pesant sur le destin européen et en garantissant davantage d'égalité entre ses concitoyens.
Achieving these ends would indeed change the French perception of social democracy for the better, and Hollande wants to be remembered as "a great social democrat" as well as "a great president," but it would be reassuring if his intermediate goals along the way to such a fine destiny were more clearly articulated. It is hard to judge the efficacy of any particular policy or strategy against such a general aim as "reorienting France's economic choices and weighing on Europe's destiny."

Finally, flexibility and suppleness are fine things, but in the end, gouverner, c'est choisir, and firm choices have never been Hollande's forte. As Socialist leader he temporized; as President he has frequently, and quite properly, availed himself of the prerogative to remain above the fray. But there will come a time--there have already come times--when he must make his position known, and then we will see whether, as Texans say, he's all hat and no cattle or the real deal.

Cohn-Bendit Quits EELV

What had been a separation is now officially a divorce: DCB wants no more to do with EELV. In some ways, this is an odd dénouement to a long saga, since Cohn-Bendit had long argued that EELV should not run a presidential candidate of its own but instead try to exert maximum leverage on the Socialists. Others countered that without a candidate of its own, the party had no leverage: that was precisely the issue.

Now, both sides have their wish: the EELV leadership has become a (minor) appendage of the PS, bound by the doctrine of governmental solidarity to stifle the opinions of its own ministers when they differ with those of the government, and linked to policy choices unpopular with EELV voters. So EELV is both decapitated, as DCB wished, and impotent, which he claimed would not be the consequence of decapitation. His departure is therefore the logical culmination of his and his former party's contradictions.

But Dany's position in the French political spectrum was unique. He could not be intimidated by left-wing romanticism of the sort that Mélenchon successfully peddled for a while. He had grown up in the struggle against outmoded ideas of the universal working class, the vanguard party, and the "relative autonomy" of politics and economics. Yet he was anything but an armchair theorist of a new left. He thought of politics as a profession, requiring commitment and hard work, and not as a psychoanalytic transference leading to personal catharsis, a posture he often criticized in his comrades at EELV. The demands of that high and selfless ideal of politics were no doubt too great to attract people in the numbers required to form a political party, especially in the absence of tangible reward. So other Greens have become ministers, while Dany the Red once again retires from politics, possibly for the last time. Go in peace.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Apologies for My Absence

Dear Readers,
I apologize for my absence of several days from the Web. I had an allergic reaction to a new drug and had to suspend my normal activities. I'm back now and will maintain regular blogging if I can, but there may be additional lapses in the days to come. Just know that if I could be with you, I would.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Merkel Hogtied

Although Chancellor Merkel currently reigns as the Iron Lady of Europe, her actions are constrained by German domestic politics. There is an election coming up next year, and there are signs that the "chancellor's majority" is no longer holding:
The focus instead was on the 23 lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own center-right coalition who voted against the measure, robbing her, for the third consecutive vote on Greece, of the so-called chancellor’s majority, or absolute majority among her government’s own deputies.
While not relevant for Friday’s vote, the chancellor’s majority is widely seen as an indicator of the strength of the incumbent’s power base, because most legislation put before the lower house of Parliament requires only a simple majority of those voting. Missing it on three votes in a row on one policy matter, in this case, Greece, is unusual.
“The missed chancellor’s majority is a clear sign that even if one wants to be a good colleague, even her party colleagues do not agree with her government’s policy of pushing these packages through Parliament,” said Manuel Becker, a political scientist at the University of Bonn.

Steel Yourself

What exactly has the government now agreed with Mittal? What was agreed in the past? Who knows? Everyone involved in this tangled affair is trying to save face. There is a good deal of bluster in the air, as there always is when Arnaud Montebourg is involved, and precious little analysis.

What analysis there is is not very enlightening or even coherent, such as this piece in Mediapart. The writer simply assumes that mentioning the involvement of Goldman Sachs in the financing of the Mittal empire is ipso facto discrediting. But no one ever accused Goldman of stupidity. If Goldman backed Mittal's acquisitions, it was because it bought his strategic analysis of the European steel market. We don't really know what his strategy was or his motive in acquiring obsolete, underproductive plants such as Florange and Gandrange. Perhaps there were other parts of the Arcelor empire that were key elements of an undisclosed plan. Florange and Gandrange would ultimately have been converted to new uses. In any case, the old plan is now moot, because the European recession has sharply reduced steel consumption.

But Montebourg has forced the state to act, and so the state has stepped in as party to a deal that may be a very bad one for taxpayers if it involves large state investments in perpetuating obsolete technology rather than shifting work at the two threatened sites to new ones. This is precisely what the state should not be doing. Of course it may not be doing that. We don't really know. All we have are reports like this one that Mittal workers are "disappointed" with the "compromise." To hear some of the demonstrators describe the case, it would be more accurate to say that they are disappointed that the status quo, unsatisfactory as it is, won't be maintained. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't. Such nervous reluctance to change is perfectly comprehensible in a situation where trust among the parties has broken down completely, but it can also become an obstacle to the kinds of changes that are needed to put French heavy industry on a sounder footing.

When the sound and fury die down, we may learn something. For now, we can just sit and watch the spectacle play out in the time-honored manner of high-stakes industrial conflict in France: lots of color (union jackets, banners, smoke grenades), lots of cops, lots of rhetoric, and lots of grandiloquent pledges to defend to the death the moribund white elephant of the hour.