Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pension Reform, Again

The Ayrault government has finally announced its long-awaited pension reform proposal. As one would expect from this government, it's a bit of a wet squib. The plan does nothing to reduce the opacity of the overly complex French pension system. It is entirely directed at trimming the deficit. I use the word "trimming," rather than, say, "eliminating," advisedly. There is not even a pretense that the increase in the system's revenues will be enough to restore equilibrium. But to get even this far, the government has been forced to ratify what the previous government (of the Right) did. It will reduce neither the payroll tax nor the number of quarters of contributions required to earn a full pension; in fact, it will increase both. Although the so-called "legal retirement age" of 62 is maintained (even though many who voted for the left wrongly believed that Hollande promised to reduce it to 60, where Mitterrand had put it long ago, they are wrong: he made no such promise), it is in large part a fiction that ought to be abolished. With the quarters of required contribution increasing from 41.5 years to 43 years by 2035, only those who begin work at age 19 and suffer no periods of unemployment will be able to retire at 62 with full pensions.

The proposed reform does break some new ground. There are provisions to assist workers in particularly arduous jobs, women, those who endure extended periods of unemployment, etc.

On the whole, however, this is a disappointingly timid effort. What is really needed is a sweeping reform to unify and clarify the entire system, so people know what they are paying in, what they can expect to get out at whatever age they choose to retire, and what options they have at every stage of their career. What they got instead is a reform that is carefully calibrated not to get anyone too angry, that will pare back the existing deficit by just enough to satisfy Brussels, and that makes a few gestures toward remedying the most serious inequities of the last several reforms. That's not nothing, but it's also not as much as one might have hoped from a government of the Left.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Like the beleaguered PS, I have reliably radical critics on my left flank: Brent and Mitch. Both castigated yesterday's post for its hostility to M. Mélenchon's "personality" and neglect of his "ideas," which Brent characterized as "ecosocialism." But one doesn't have to put up with--or revel in, as the case may be--Mélenchon's acidulous style to encounter new ideas about sustainable development, innovative energy sources, etc. There's this, for example, from the "social-liberal" Jacques Delors Institute, well to Mélenchon's right.

Both Brent and Mitch seem to be outraged by Hollande's timorous approach to governing, which quickens their taste for something bolder, which they find in Mélenchon. But boldness is cheap when it seeks no compromise and contents itself with standing perpetually in the minority. Ideas may then be merely a camouflage for intransigence. I see in M. Mélenchon's ideas nothing as distinctive as his style or personality, which is why I direct my criticism at these to my mind unfortunate defects rather than praise his undoubted qualities, among them rhetorical mastery, historical acumen, and a readiness to embrace any number of innovations, some of them worth supporting, others not.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The "Left Front" Cracks

The Front de Gauche is no longer a front, to judge by the frosty exchanges between former FG presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Communist party chief Pierre Laurent over the weekend. The cause of the rift is not far to seek. Mélenchon, the classic cavalier seul in politics, will be content to lose in a splashy way, as he did in the presidential elections. The logic of office-holding, patronage, dues collection, and party maintenance is not for him. So he can indulge his penchant for "heightening contradictions" and eschew any hint of "republican solidarity" with the Socialists, whom he accuses of kowtowing to the Germans, buying into austerity, and plotting to tear the social safety net. Laurent, on the other hand, has a party to run, a party headquarters to staff, and bills to pay. For him it isn't enough to keep his face in the TV news by making stinging attacks on the center-left. He needs the support of the PS to win the occasional town or city in the upcoming municipals, and he knows there is a price to pay for that support. So he is not happy with Mélenchon.

Of course Mélenchon might well respond that the PCF has been following Laurent's line for decades, and look where it has gotten them. On the other hand, Laurent could respond that Mélenchon revival of classe-contre-classe-style politics hasn't improve matters much, even if it allowed Mélenchon briefly to kindle a cult of personality around himself in the presidential campaign season. And so it goes.

Meanwhile, the wheeling and dealing over retirement reform has begun, with the CGT calling for a demonstration on Sept. 10.

Friday, August 23, 2013

DSK Making €200K a Month

You just can't keep a good man down. Dominique Strauss-Kahn may be through with politics, but high-rollers are still willing to pay good money for his advice. His consulting firm is making €200,000 euros a month. Although DSK is the only employee other than his driver, who is paid about €1,800 a month, he took a salary of only €7,500 a month last year. Presumably the remainder of his honoraria is being invested wisely, perhaps in the Cayman Islands or one of the other tax havens he ought to know a great deal about as former head of the IMF.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Debate" on the Right

The UMP is prepared to avail itself of its "droit d'inventaire" in regard to the Sarkozy years. Actually, the rank-and-file don't seem to be very interested: they'd rather just have Sarko back and be done with it. But the former president has lots of would-be replacements, and they're all for parsing out what he got wrong so as to claim that they, in turn, would get it right.

Jean-François Copé, the party leader, has finally hopped on this growing bandwagon, seeing an additional benefit to himself: he can remind the faithful that the Sarkozy years were in some sense the Sarkozy-Fillon years, and thus whatever Sarko got wrong should also be blamed on his "collaborator," Fillon, who just happens to be Copé's main rival. But it's a tricky game for Copé, so he is taking his precautions: he wants the "debate" to wind up quickly, and he doesn't want it to become a "personal" vendetta against Sarkozy (indeed, he needs the votes of those Sarkozy supporters who still constitute a majority of the party).

It will be interesting to tease out the subtleties when this debate actually gets under way. Everyone will of course be protesting that the UMP doesn't want to become the FN, but that's not where the real differences on the Right lie, and in any case that issue won't be sorted out by debate: it will depend on how well the FN does in future elections. If the UMP electorate continues to erode, it will be hard to keep the floodgates closed.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Eurozone Grows 0.3%, France 0.5%, for Quarter

These are not stellar results, but they are better than contraction. The numbers lend some substance to François Hollande's Micawberish hope that "something will turn up" before the end of the year.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Profile of Christiane Taubira

Scott Sayare has an interesting profile of Christiane Taubira, France's controversial justice minister, in today's Times.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The FN's Electorate

Le Monde commissioned a survey of Front National voters and found two Fronts, one in southern France and the other in northern France. Both groups share an overwhelming belief that "there are too many immigrants in France" (97% in the south, 95 in the north). But the northerners are more concerned with taxes and economic issues, while the southerners are preoccupied with security:
La question du niveau d'imposition des personnes les plus riches en est l'illustration. "Cela laisse apparaître une vraie différence de nature entre les deux électorats", souligne l'étude. 60 % des frontistes méridionaux estiment que "le niveau de fiscalité payé par les personnes plus riches est trop élevé", quand seulement 37 % des "nordistes" partagent cette opinion. A l'inverse, 42 % des électeurs lepénistes du Nord-Est jugent que "le niveau de fiscalité payé par les personnes plus riches n'est pas assez élevé, ce qui ne permet pas de corriger les inégalités". 22 % des "sudistes" sont de cet avis.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fermeture annuelle ou permanente?

The word from France is that François Hollande, le président normal, discouraged his ministers from taking summer vacations (though what is more normal in France than the great summer exodus?), If they did leave Paris, the word went out, they were to remain nearby and available for a quick return, and une permanence was to be left minding the store at the ministry. Et pourtant ... there hasn't been much news out of the government for quite a while now. Perhaps everyone is hunkered down in anticipation of what may well be une rentrée chaude: with new pension and labor-market reforms on tap for the fall, the reaction could well be significant. This isn't what a lot of people who voted for the Left signed on for. But for the moment, it's all academic: we don't really know what Hollande has in mind for the fall.

And that, I submit, is the problem with the Hollande presidency. He is neither a visionary nor a pedagogue but an attentiste. The Germans go to the polls in September. Maybe something will turn up. The US economy and perhaps even the British economy are a little less sluggish than last year: maybe that will be good for France. In the meantime, keep one's own counsel and don't make any abrupt moves.

This seems to be Hollande's philosophy of governance, and the French have tired of it even more rapidly than they tired of the Sarkoshow. I would call it a sad spectacle, except that it's been anything but a spectacle--by design, as if keeping a low profile after Sarkozy's permanently high profile would be enough to ensure success.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kouchner Offers His Advice

Bernard Kouchner has not been in good odor on the left since his fling with Sarkozy, from which he got very little for himself--Sarko ran his own foreign policy and used Kouchner as an occasional messenger. Now he seems to want back into the game, but with his old friends. Here he offers a fairly mild and not inaccurate assessment of Hollande's first year in office:

Diriez-vous qu’il y a un style Hollande comme il y avait un style Sarkozy ?Difficile de trouver plus différents. Le style de François Hollande est patelin, débonnaire, sympathique. Il a toujours une lueur d’humour au fond des yeux. Mais juger du style d’un homme d’Etat est toujours réducteur parce que le président doit penser plus loin pour la France. C’est là où, je crois, François Hollande ne répond pas assez à l’attente des Français. Ceux-ci veulent connaître la route et les étapes nécessaires, les sacrifices qu’ils devront tous, à leur mesure, consentir. Au fond, il faudrait, dans le discours inventer une traçabilité politique. Et mieux connaître son entourage.