Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Richard Descoings Is Dead

Richard Descoings, the head of Sciences Po and a major force for reform in French education, has been found dead in a NYC hotel room. Police are investigating the case as a suspicious death.

Compare Only What Can Be Compared!

The first tenet of comparative political economy is to compare only what can be compared. Here is an excellent post by Xavier Timbeau of the OFCE explaining why raw OECD figures for government expenditure to GDP ratios cannot be taken literally and must be carefully interpreted.

How the Campaign Will Play Out

Here's the way I see it. The great "exogenous shock" that was supposed to shake up the campaign occurred and ... nothing happened. After the killings in Montauban and Toulouse, the speculation was that Sarkozy might receive a boost from newly security-conscious voters, and indeed, the first-round contest did tighten slightly, but this effect was really more the continuation of a steady increase in Sarkozy's share over the previous several weeks. Unfortunately for Sarkozy, the second-round polling has remained stable at about 54-46 in favor of Hollande for several weeks now. Hollande has not been shaken from his tortoise-like crawl to the finish line. Mélenchon seems to be peaking at around 15%. Together, the 3 second-tier candidates claim about 40% of the vote.

So we will go into the first-round with the top-tier candidates at rough equality, each getting somewhere above 25% of the vote, with perhaps a point or two or three advantage for Sarkozy. Then will come the Great Debate between the two rounds. Sarkozy will have to go all-in in this debate, meaning that he will have to try to shake up Hollande in the hope that the Socialist will commit some fatal blunder.

I doubt that he will succeed in this, although Sarkozy is certainly a skilled debater. But the voters they will be competing for will be Bayrou's, since 90% of Mélenchon's will go to Hollande, but only 60% of Le Pen's to Sarkozy. One thing you can say about the centrist electorate: "sizzle" is not what it's looking for in a candidate. Hollande's lack of charisma is not so different from Bayrou's. Of course centrists also like accounts that add up, so you can expect Sarkozy to needle Hollande about the 60,000 teachers he has promised to hire, and you can expect Hollande to dance adroitly around the issue. You can expect some fireworks over the règle d'or and Hollande's pledge to "renegotiate" the treaty. You can expect allegations of "irresponsibility" and reneging on France's sovereign promises.

But in the end, centrists are fed up with Sarkozy, and there is little he can do to diminish the ras-le-bol sentiment. And so Hollande will win, although I think the final margin will be closer to 52-48 than the 54-46 in the current polls.

Defense Policy

Representatives of the UMP and PS discuss defense policy here.

A personal note: Arnaud Danjean, the UMP representative in this debate and currently an MEP, is a man to watch, I think. I met him when he visited Harvard recently and found him to be smart, well-informed, and refreshingly candid for a politician. He lost to Arnaud Montebourg by a handful of votes in a recent election for the conseil régional. If Sarkozy loses, there will be a circulation of UMP elites, I expect, and you can look for Danjean to emerge on the national stage.

Mélenchon's the Man

No doubt about it: Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the phenomenon of the 2012 presidential campaign. So many people are turning out to hear his speeches that the Front de Gauche is having to take out unanticipated loans to cope with the crowds.

A few months ago, all the talk was about Marine Le Pen. Would she keep Sarkozy out of round 2? How much of the working-class vote would she attract? Mélenchon has created a new dynamic, however, ex nihilo. It's a phenomenon that bears analysis, but so far there are few data to go on.

I know of no good sociological breakdown of the Mélenchon electorate. How many of the folks in these crowds are workers? How many ex-NPA or ex-LO? How many disaffected Socialists? How many curiosity-seekers turned off by Hollande's hunkered-down say-nothing make-no-waves campaign? How many aficionados of le verbe politique, dazzled by Mélenchon's rhetoric? How many nostalgics for the good old days when France had parties that believed in "revolution?" How many would-be buveurs de sang et bouffeurs de curé aroused by Laurence Parisot's denunciation of Mélenchon as a "terrorist?" How many anti-EU, anti-globalization, 2005 non voters, Sixth Republic fans, or disappointed Montebourgeois? How many anti-Sarkozystes primaires who simply want the most vociferous of the president's detractors? And how many, finally, voters sincerely convinced that Mélenchon has hit upon the right combination of policies to lead France out of the crisis, restore growth, reduce unemployment, and put state finances back on an even keel?

And what if some enterprising TV host arranged for a debate between Mélenchon and Cohn-Bendit? Amateurs of les grandes gueules politiques would be sure to tune in in large numbers. How about it, Ruquier or Ardisson?

I'm Not Alone

Arun Kapil not only joins me in complaining about the CSA equal time rules (see previous post) but also notes that many others agree, including the CSA itself! For those commenters who said that they prefer the French system, with its punctilious focus on equality, to the American system, where money talks ever more loudly, the comparison is misguided. Yes, the American system is an abomination made even more abominable by the unconscionable Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court and the advent of the despicable super-PACs (see Timothy Noah's excellent article on "Crankocracy"). But the French could do away with strict equality rules without opening the floodgates to torrents of cash.

Another red herring is the contention that if equality is not enforced by law, then "the media" will decide who is worth covering, and the media are--it is taken for granted--biased and corrupt. Or--yet another objection--"the polls will decide," and the polls are not mentioned in the Constitution. Nonsense. Journalists and pollsters are better informed about the issues than the average voter. It's worth drawing on their judgment and experience to bring what matters to the attention of the interested public--which, alas, is only a small fraction of the public that should be interested, but that's another matter. In order to exercise their judgment and professionalism in a responsible way, they need to be given the space in which to do so. That is precisely what the CSA rules do not allow. And why pretend that whatever manipulation of public opinion occupies the 4 years and 9 months between presidential campaigns can effectively be negated by the imposition of equal-time rules during the remaining three months only?

As for the ban on televised political ads in France, loués soient nos seigneurs! If such a blessing were to come to the United States, I would fall to my knees in thanksgiving. Of course the counterargument is that the revenue from these ads helps to sustain the journalism that I think is essential. But it might be useful if reporters ceased following the candidates around like puppy dogs, with their employers picking up the tab, and concentrated on issue-centered reporting instead of horse-race coverage. This would reduce expenses and improve quality at the same time.