Thursday, July 2, 2015

Greece Again

I take another crack at the Greek crisis, which grows more worrisome by the hour.

Sarko vs. Les Guignols

It seems that former president Nicolas Sarkozy does not like les Guignols de l'Info, which, truth to be told, can be a bit tiresome as well as tasteless. In any case, his good friend Vincent Bolloré, who owns Canal+, the network home of les Guignols, wants them gone. A little comic relief is welcome in these troubled times.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Charles Pasqua, Bellowesque Macher

Charles Pasqua was a macher in his day. I use the Yiddish word because he always reminded me of a character out of Saul Bellow, a political mobster with verbal flair. He was as corrupt as they come, deeply mixed up in all the magouilles de la République and Françafrique and the Marseille and Corsican milieus from which he sprang. But he had style. Who else could have said, "Without Charles de Gaulle and Paul Ricard I wouldn't be what I am today." Charles de Gaulle needs no introduction, but some of my non-French readers may not recognize Paul Ricard as the patron of the distiller of Ricard, my favorite pastis, drinking which always puts me in the mood of the Midi on a summer day. Ricard was Pasqua's first employer and major backer. I don't have time to write a proper obit, but you can read about Pasqua here and here. Like the taste of Rica', the taste of Pasqua will not appeal to everyone, nor should it, but it brings back the flavor of French politics in a certain era as effectively as pastis recalls the south of France.

I would say rest in peace, but peace was never Pasqua's cup of tea. He was a scrapper, and will no doubt go on scrapping wherever his soul ends up. I doubt it will be the proverbial "better place."

Monday, June 29, 2015

"Guerre de Civilisation"?

After the January terror attacks, Manuel Valls drew praise for his staunch defense of French Jews. His use of the word "apartheid" to describe discrimination against French Muslims was more controversial but still useful as a way of dramatizing one of the besetting ills of French society. But the praise Valls received for his forthrightness seems to have gone to his head. Yesterday he chose to borrow the bellicose rhetoric of the Bush era by asserting that the latest terror incidents indicate that France and the West are engaged in a "war of civilization."

I won't belabor the long history of abuse of the word "civilization." Is it necessary to recall that the mindless slaughter of World War I was cast as a war of German Kultur against French civilisation? Is it necessary to rehearse all the critiques of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, or to point out that, for all its flaws, Huntington's book was a model of subtlety compared to the crude way in which Valls has distorted its central concept?

What exactly Valls intends to achieve by his use of the war metaphor is unclear. France has already instituted a Patriot Act of its own to tighten its security. No one doubts that radical Islam is a danger that must be confronted, but the secret of how to do so successfully remains unbroken, and verbal excess is not the way to decipher it. Self-restraint is not Valls' long suit, but his job is to formulate policy, not to flail and fulminate.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Greece and the Eurozone

My opinion of the Greek turmoil was sought, and, rashly, I gave it to The Washington Post.

Greek banks will not open tomorrow. France's exposure to Greek debt amounts to about 3% of French GDP. Greek default and eventual Eurozone exit would be more costly to France than granting additional writedowns of the Greek debt. A rational compromise should therefore be possible, but both sides are torn among contradictory forces and subject to ideological blind spots. There is plenty of blame to be shared among the parties. I do not choose sides, but my sympathies are with the unfortunate pensioners, hospital patients, and civil servants in Greece who will be--and have been--the first to pay the costs of this five-year crisis.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sarkozy et le style beauf'

Numerous commentators have remarked on Sarkozy's new penchant for standup comedy. It began with his mockery of Hollande's devastating debate anaphora "Moi, président ...," which the president of Les Républicains, if not of the Republic, travestied as "Moi, je ..." The irony of the once-and-would-be-future Hyperprésident mocking the supposed egotism of his successor was delicious. Sarkozy's successful debut as a comedian has apparently encouraged  him to continue in this mode, most recently with his now infamous sketch comparing the influx of immigrants to the flow of water from a burst pipe, which drew much laughter from a crowd of Sarkozystes.

Sarkozy's style beauf' is quite deliberate, reflecting not merely bad taste but strategic calculation. Irreverence toward power, rejection of solemnity, and emulation of the common man's often healthy democratic contempt for elites are perennial features of populist politics. Marine Le Pen's rhetoric, like her father's before her, effectively mines the comic vein. Beppe Grillo is a comedian turned politician, like Coluche before him. Sarkozy is a politician turned comedian. His successful presidential campaign in 2007 depended in part on a desacralization of the overly remote French presidency. Once elected, however, his irreverence deserted him, to the point where he ordered prefects to arrest protesters who heckled his appearances on charges of lèse-majesté. His recent turn to scabrous comedy is meant to take him back to his roots as scrappy outsider, as if he had never occupied the Elysée.

The problem Sarkozy faces is to know how far he can push his provocations without going too far. He has already overstepped the line several times. His plumbing routine was preceded, allegedly, by a crack about François Bayrou ("Le bègue, je vais le crever"). In the primary against Alain Juppé, whose style is anything but populist, Sarkozy will probably feel compelled to push his barbs to the limit, to mock his opponent as a remote, unfeeling technocrat. Since self-control has never been one of Sarkozy's strengths, he may well trip himself up.

Another Word on the Spying "Scandal"

The French ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, is a refreshingly candid man. After the news of American spying on the communications of three French presidents broke yesterday, he tweeted this:
Later, he added that French officials and diplomats are supplied with secure means of communications and told to assume that anytime they use any non-secure means of communications, what they say is likely to be intercepted.

Really, people. Is there anything else worth saying about this? Let's get real.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Top Secrets We All Know

Scoop! The US has spied on the private communications of French presidents Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande. And what did they learn? That Sarkozy is an egomaniac who believed he alone could save the world and that Hollande, having got nowhere in discussions with Angela Merkel on Greece, went behind her back and met with leaders of the SPD, with whom his discussions proved equally inconsequential. As DSK might have said, tout ça pour ça?

La première de ces notes date du 22 mai 2012. Intitulée « Le président français accepte des consultations secrètes sur la zone euro, rencontre avec l’opposition allemande », elle relate une conversation entre François Hollande et son premier ministre Jean-Marc Ayrault à propos de la crise de la zone euro et de la Grèce, le 18 mai 2012. Soit trois jours seulement après son investiture officielle comme président de la République.
François Hollande et Jean-Marc Ayrault discutent de l’organisation, à Paris, d’une réunion « secrète » avec les responsables du parti social-démocrate allemand, le SPD. Après sa rencontre avec Angela Merkel, le jour de son investiture le 15 mai 2012, « Hollande s’est plaint que rien de substantiel n’ait abouti : c’était simplement pour le show. Hollande a trouvé la chancelière obnubilée par le “Pacte budgétaire” et surtout par la Grèce qu’elle a laissée tomber, selon lui, et n’en bougera plus. Résultat : Hollande est très inquiet pour la Grèce », écrit également la NSA.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Leak Metaphor

Nicolas Sarkozy has drawn heavy flak for comparing the influx of refugees to Europe to the flow from a burst pipe:
« Dans une maison (…), il y a une canalisation qui explose, elle se déverse dans la cuisine, a poursuivi M. Sarkozy. Le réparateur arrive et dit j’ai une solution : on va garder la moitié pour la cuisine, mettre un quart dans le salon, un quart dans la chambre des parents et si ça ne suffit pas il reste la chambre des enfants. »
With his characteristic grace and elegance, evidently much appreciated by the UMP--er, Republican--militants who laughed and applauded his remarks, Sarkozy is here denouncing the EU's quota plan, under which each member state would be required to receive a certain number of refugees, based on its capacities.

With his analogy, Sarkozy mocks this solution. The appropriate thing to do, he says, is to cut off the flow. Of course, that would leave the residents of the metaphorical house dying of thirst, deprived of water. The proper response is to repair the pipe.

Branko Milanovic, eschewing such homely analogies, offers a series of thoughtful reflections on the refugee crisis and, more generally, the issue of economic migration from south to north:
It is I think obvious that EU has absolutely no solution to this latest migration crisis. It is simply lost: with no strategy, no policy and no ideas. Not that the problem is easy. But the only approach that might begin to produce something that resembles a solution would be multilateral, not solely amongst EU members (as in the current, strongly contested, idea of allocating migrants among EU member-countries), but in including also the emitting countries from Africa. A general system of both emitting and receiving country quotas seems the only way to impose some order and stability. The quota system may not be able to deal with random events like the Syrian civil war, but it should be able to deal with economic migration.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Consensus in Favor of a Gloomy Status Quo

A brilliant analysis of the functional dysfunctionality of the French labor market by Olivier Galland (h/t Jane Jenson):

Le compromis générationnel dont on vient de décrire les contours induit une préférence pour le statu quo. En effet, le pessimisme sur la société et la défiance à l’égard des politiques sont tels que ces arrangements informels paraissent aux jeunes préférables aux réformes. Ils doutent qu’elles puissent améliorer le sort commun et n’en retiennent que le risque potentiel qu’elles comportent d’amoindrir leurs chances personnelles. La défiance engendre l’individualisme.
Par exemple, l’idée de réduire le clivage entre CDD et CDI, sur laquelle s’accordent beaucoup d’économistes et qui a été à la base de la réforme du marché du travail menée en Italie par Mateo Renzi, peine à s’imposer en France. Un récent sondage le montre bien (Observatoire politique du CSA pour Les Echos et l’institut Montaigne, 2-3 juin 2015). Les mesures qui touchent au CDI n’emportent pas l’adhésion d’une majorité de Français, alors que celles qui visent à étendre l’emploi des CDD sont très largement approuvées. Au fond, les Français préfèrent donc pérenniser et même renforcer le principe clivant du marché de travail que nous connaissons actuellement.