La France Politique
Monday, December 22, 2008
French Laicite & Cultural Identity
I've got a guest post op-ed over at Art Goldhammer's site, French Politics:
PARIS -- Two weeks ago, one of my seven-year-old son’s classmates arrived at school with pastries to pass out to the class. His mother, a non-observant “cultural Muslim,” had spent the weekend preparing the delicacies that traditionally accompany the celebration of Eid al-Adha, as a way for her son to share the cultural tradition with his friends. But when he asked for permission to hand them out, the teacher refused. The pastries, it seems, would have violated France’s strict code of laïcité forbidding among other things, the introduction of religious dress or symbolism into the public school system. . . .
[I]t would be easy to chalk the pastry incident off to an overzealous defense of a principle that, for cultural reasons, Americans have difficulty appreciating.
Except for one detail. . . .
Click through for the rest, and let me know what you think.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
France's Soft Power
At the final Council of Ministers before the August vacation, Nicolas Sarkozy invited his entire government to share a going away toast in a salon of the Elysée Palace. There, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy offered them each a dedicated copy of her latest CD, which they all prominently displayed before the press upon leaving. Gotta love it.
The degree to which France has remained obsessed with Sarkozy is truly fascinating. He's consistently the cover story of the weekly news magazines, alternately calculatingly omnipotent or hystericaly powerless, but always front and center.
But perhaps more fascinating is France's newfound obsession with Carla Bruni, who has managed to seduce not just Sarkozy but the entire country. There are obvious reasons, I think, why I've yet to meet a man who isn't under her charms. But I've also yet to meet a woman who isn't smitten as well. The women all describe her as both glamorous and charming, aristocratic and down to earth, elegant and unaffected. I always expect the claws to come out, given that they're talking about a woman who has "everything." But instead, Carla has become "living proof" that the fairy tale ending they all still hope for can come true, so they'd rather cheer her on than root against her.
Of course, the fairy tale ending would be more convincing if the frog had actually turned into a prince, but I suppose you can't have everything.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Monday, June 30, 2008
Sarkozy the European
I've got a new piece up over at World Politics Review titled, Sarkozy the European: France's EU Presidency:
On July 1, France will assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, a role it will exercise for the next six months. It's a moment that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been preparing for since last year, and anxiously awaiting since at least January, when his popularity among French voters suddenly plummeted. With the impact of his domestic reforms stymied by the increased cost of fuel and food commodities, and his image tarnished by personal excesses and professional lapses, Sarkozy was counting on using the parallel track of the EU presidency to reinject some dynamism into his flagging first term in office. But as he himself once observed, political success depends on a combination of determination, competence and luck. And if Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty just weeks before the French EU presidency is any indication, Sarkozy's luck might not have turned yet.
Also, remember that if at any time during the week you don't see anything posted here, click through to the WPR blog, because I'm posting there every day.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
If you have an interest in French politics, you probably already know about Art Goldhammer's blog, French Politics. It's the most in depth and intelligent English language treatment of French domestic politics I've seen, equal parts policy analysis and cultural criticism. It's also the principle reason I don't spend more time writing about the subject here.
Art also has a piece on Sarkozy's foreign policy in e-International Relations which dovetails nicely with this week's WPR series on the French strategic posture review. I've seen Sarkozy's method referred to as that of an "avocat d'affaires" before (literally business lawyer, but with a dealmaker connotation). But Art draws the interesting parallel between the emerging global order and the political playing field Sarkozy navigated in his rise to power. There's a method to the madness, and Art does a good job of nailing it down.
As he suggests, the world order taking shape favors Sarkozy's style of working multiple deals simultaneously, although it's easy to imagine circumstances arising that could force his hand and make him pick a side once and for all. In the past, France has always responded by choosing France's side, for better or worse. But with Sarkozy increasingly identifying France as part of the "family of the West," this time might be different.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Interview with Hubert Vedrine
The last installment of the French strategic posture review series is up over at WPR. It's the full text of my interview with former French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine:
WPR: A quick question, off topic. Do you have any observations about the American presidential race?
Vedrine: I think that Bush's departure is going to provoke a huge relief around the world (except maybe in Israel, or in two or three other countries, and even there, I'm not sure). That it's going to create very high expectations with regard to the new president, expectations that will be strong if it's McCain, very strong if it's Hillary Clinton, and giant if it's Obama. Because there's a sort of Obama effect that I explain by the fact that the President of the United States is a little bit the President of the world. More than the Secretary General of the United Nations, in any case. And Obama is a personality who can give the impression that he understands the outside world. That's never happened before. Clinton managed to do it through his intelligence, but Obama gives the impression that he can do so by the path he's taken. So it's not the fact that he's black, that doesn't matter, either negatively or positively. It's the fact of his mixed background, in and of itself. That's an idea that could have an absolutely enormous impact in a large part of the world. And afterwards, there will obviously be a shock, and the higher the expectations, the bigger the shock will be. Because the President of the United States is, after all, the President of the United States. He's not the President of Brazil, or of China. But it could create an absolutely amazing moment.
The rest has to do with Sarkozy's foreign policy, the emerging world order, and France's place in it. Vedrine is a fascinating and gifted thinker, and one of the foreign policy world's "eminences grises". Definitely give it a look.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
A Widening Focus
Part three of the series on France's strategic posture review is up over at WPR. Today's installment explores the widening geographic focus of France's strategic vision:
In assessing the strategic environment to which the Livre Blanc, France's strategic posture review, must respond, none of the French officials and experts interviewed by World Politics Review could really speak with much certainty. Taken together, the conversations we had gave the distinct impression that outside of the stable if evolving configurations of the European Union and the Atlantic alliance, France's emerging strategic vision is driven more by questions than by answers.
Russia's determination to reclaim its former influence presents both opportunities for partnership and more alarming scenarios of conflict, most notably in Central Asia's gas fields. China's rise is considered inevitable, but comes with the possibility of destabilizing effects, both in Asia and further afield. The emerging powers might integrate themselves into a reformed global governance system, or else operate parallel to it should no room be made for their ascension. And the Middle East remains a vector of volatility, with the specter of an Iran with deliverable nuclear weapons looming on the horizon. Bruno Tertrais, research fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, evoked an increased -- if still not great -- risk of a major regional conflict, and added, "The world is more unpredictable than when we prepared the last Livre Blanc in 1994. The idea of a strategic surprise is an idea we have to take more into account in our analysis."
There are some surprising twists, so click through.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
NATO and European Defense
The second installment of my weeklong series in WPR is up. This one is on Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to reintegrate the NATO command structure, and what it means for European defense:
Since the time of Gen. De Gaulle, France's posture towards the United States can be summed up in the familiar expression, "Friend, ally, non-aligned." A source of French pride and American distrust, the formula has haunted France's historically stormy relationship with NATO, and served as the geopolitical expression of l'exception française, France's cultural identity of exceptionalism. It took on added significance since the emergence of the European Union, of which France was and remains a driving force. The need to balance its two principle relationships -- one a strategic alliance with political implications, the other a political project with strategic implications -- while still maintaining its autonomy to act in its own interests when necessary can be found at the heart of the French foreign policy debate. While no one seriously advocates one pole of the spectrum to the exclusion of the other, the eternal question remains the right dose of each. Which explains why President Sarkozy's proposal to formally reintegrate into the NATO command structure has been the subject of such scrutiny, discussion and debate...
For the rest, click through. And in case you missed part one, it's right here.
Monday, February 25, 2008
The Political Value Of Wit
In case it doesn't make the American news, Nicolas Sarkozy caused a new uproar yesterday at the Agriculture Salon when he responded vulgarly to an insult from a passerby. As Sarkozy was making his way through the Salon, reaching out and shaking hands with those headed in the opposite direction, a man in his late-fifties or so objected, saying "Don't touch me," in a very hostile tone of voice. He added an expression that translates poorly into English but which roughly means "You'll contaminate me." (Literally it translates as "You'll dirty me".) To which Sarkozy without hesitation responded, "Then beat it, you pathetic bastard." The actual French, pauvre con (which more literally translates to "poor cunt"), is a vulgar expression of absolute contempt. The entire incident (neither man stopped walking, so it can't properly be described as a confrontation) was of course captured on video.
The episode is revealing for yet again demonstrating Sarkozy's "man of the people" bona fides, for better or worse. But it also serves to set up this great passage that Art Goldhammer over at French Politics flagged from Marianne's online edition:
Older folks will remember that, confronted with equally difficult situations, presidents in the past adopted a more regal bearing. Take Jacques Chirac, for instance, to whom an onlooker called out "Bastard!" while he was leaving mass at Bormes-les-Mimosas. "Nice to meet you," replied the former Head of State. "Jacques Chirac, here." Compare that Cyrano de Bergerac-like riposte with General de Gaulle's inspired response when confronted with a vibrant cry of "Death to the morons!": "A vast undertaking." (Translated from the French.)
The passage made me realize to what extent Barack Obama represents a return of wit to the American political arena. Every time he is attacked, he manages to respond in a way that impresses with its cleverness, and that is perfectly lethal not despite, but because of the absolute lack of venom in the parry. I'm thinking in particular of his, "I'm looking forward to having you as one of my advisors, too, Hillary." But there are other examples.
As a reflection of character, it contrasts favorably with the brittle reactivity of the Bush administration, as well as the rapid response tactics of the Clinton era. In fact, I hate to say it but I think you'd have to go as far back as Reagan to find its equivalent.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Dept. Of Shameless Plugs
I've got a featured article over at World Politics Review on Nicolas Sarkozy's nuclear diplomacy in the Middle East. Here's an excerpt:
...Indeed, if there's been a surprise in Sarkozy's foreign policy, it has to do not with how active, but with how radioactive it has been. Everywhere he has gone, it seems, Sarkozy has been peddling nuclear energy. And while his aggressive advocacy for Areva, the French nuclear energy giant, in both China and India did not go unnoticed, it's his vigorous promotion of nuclear energy in the Arab world that has really attracted attention.
Since last summer, Sarkozy has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Libya, Algeria and most recently the United Arab Emirates; has signed a Memorandum of Understanding for such an accord with Qatar; has laid the groundwork for the same kind of deal with Morocco and Jordan; and has offered the arrangement to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. "What we're seeing," explained Bruno Tertrais, a research fellow at the Fondation de Recherche Stategique, "is a deliberate strategy of proposing nuclear partnerships that correspond to the regional demand."
Click on through to read the rest, because while this story has been covered elsewhere, I've got some stuff that hasn't been given much attention. Feel free to leave comments back here.
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Russia, France & Iran
In what can only be considered very encouraging news, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak defended the sanctions against Tehran agreed upon by the "P5+1" and now being considered by the UN Security Council:
"When this document is made public, you will see that it contains serious signals for Iran and envisions a certain expansion of the earlier sanctions", Kislyak said in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax...
"Iran should fully cooperate with the IAEA's Board of Governors, and, among other things, get back to the implementation of the additional protocol on control, freeze uranium enrichment and take some other measures pending the work to untangle all difficult problems", he said.
He added that the matter remained one of political will, presumably in Tehran. But China's political will is essential to any resolution of this crisis as well, so it's reassuring to see that Chinese banks have cut back their operations in Iran and with Iranian businesses, albeit reluctantly, due to pressure from America's banking sanctions.
Meanwhile, relations between Tehran and Paris continue to deteriorate. Both countries summoned each others' ambassadors, France to protest President Ahmadinejad's comments about the imminent demise of the State of Israel, and Iran in a tit-for-tat response. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman also pointedly criticized France's plans to establish a permanent military base in the UAE, explaining that Tehran was opposed to any increased foreign military presence in the region.
The French role in the Iranian crisis can't be understated. Both London and Berlin have expressed only tepid support for America's unilateral sanctions, and the likelihood of either of them signing on with their own was remote even before the NIE. Now, America's credibility has been effectively torpedoed. The Bush administration's overly aggressive posture when it was actually in a position to impact the crisis was bad enough. But the brutal aftermath of the NIE report combined with the Bush administration's lameduck status are a fatal cocktail.
France, on the other hand, has maintained a credible and consistently firm opposition to the Iranian enrichment program, and if there is a third round of UN sanctions, it will be largely due to France's very aggressive lobbying for it. Likewise for EU or EU3 sanctions. In fact, it's safe to say that France's resolve has prevented a complete unraveling of the US/EU position in the aftermath of the NIE and the anticipation of a new administration in Washington. So it's no surprise that Paris has to some extent replaced Washington as public enemy no. 1 in Tehran.
I've criticized Nicolas Sarkozy in the past for being a very opportunistic politician who carefully picks his battles. Usually what he looks for before investing any of his political capital in trying to resolve a standoff is a situation where everyone knows the solution, but for lack of a face-saving way to reach it, no one is willing to compromise. His m.o. is to then lean on the right pressure points to generate the political will necessary to get everyone to sign on the dotted line, and then take the credit for saving the day.
That hasn't been the case at all with the Iran crisis. Last summer, he very vocally implicated France in the heart of the crisis at a time when many were concerned about the militarist tone coming out of Washington. Some interpreted his comments as indicating his support for a military strike, but my own sense was that by reassuring Washington about how serious he took the threat, he was actually attempting to walk the Bush administration back towards a negotiated settlement. In the meantime, the NIE effectively left him out on a precipice, very noticeably alone. But to his credit, he has not backed away one inch (or 2.54 centimeters) from the very precarious ledge he found himself on. And if the West does manage to stand Tehran down on its uranium enrichment program, it will be in large part due to the enormous political risk he has taken.
Friday, January 25, 2008
We Try Harder
That's the ad campaign that Avis launched in the early sixties to turn its no. 2 position in the rent-a-car business into a strength:
The results were dramatic…
In 1962, just before the first 'We try harder' ads launched, Avis was an unprofitable company with 11% of the car rental business in the USA. Within a year of launching the campaign Avis was making a profit, and by 1966 Avis had tripled its market share to 35%.
It's the first thing I thought of when I saw that Chinese President Hu Jintao had met with the chairman of Kazakhstan's senate on the latter's state visit to China. Now it's not surprising that China would want to provide a warm welcome to its neighbor, especially its neighbor that ranks eleventh in the world in both gas and oil reserves. But a president giving face time to the visiting senate leader of a "minor country" is almost a breach of diplomatic protocol, and it's the sort of thing that's hard to imagine an American president doing, even though the impact of the gesture is undoubtedly significant.
On a related note, compare the travel itineraries of President Bush, who just made his first visit to the Middle East after seven years as president, to Nicolas Sarkozy, who in less than a year has visited the Middle East, North Africa, China and now India, signing major contracts and nuclear cooperation agreements everywhere he goes, and vastly improving France's strategic position in the process. The president of the United States might very well be the most powerful person on earth, but that shouldn't get in the way of trying hard.
Friday, January 18, 2008
It took a while of reading about Mike Huckabee's 30% sales tax, which he dubs the Fair Tax, before it occurred to me that here in France, we pay 20% sales tax on goods and services (basic foodstuffs are taxed at a 5.5% rate). The main difference between the French system and Huckabee's is that here, that's in addition to a pretty stiffly progressive income tax that tops off at 40%. And that's in addition to a pretty stiff Social Security tax. Socialized medicine does have its costs.
Friday, January 18, 2008
Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias have both flagged the news that France has just signed an agreement with the UAE to establish a permanent military base just across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. Kevin cites Marc Lynch, who writes:
Early spin has suggested that this will allow France to better cooperate with the US against Iran, but this seems shortsighted. A long-term French strategic position in the Gulf challenges American exclusivity, and potentially undermines the fundamental architecture of the hegemonic American position in the Gulf. (Link included from original.)
Matthew suggests that the latter might be a good thing, in that it will re-balance the dysfunctional relationship between American military commitments and European strategic interests.
The fact is, there's a bit of all three going on. The base in question is for the moment largely symbolic given its limited size and the fact that it won't be operational for a year at least. But its location at the bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz and very close to Iran does in fact constitute a pressure point on Tehran. That France happens to be the most forceful and most credible advocate right now for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear fuel enrichment capacity is significant. Their position is not so much in alignment with ours on Iran so much as it is an ideal version of what ours should have been from the start: Clear-sighted, non-hysterical, with firm demands and rewarding incentives.
On the other hand, as I argued on the very first day of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, he has a very ambitious vision for France's role in the world, and he's pretty savvy about getting what he wants. As for the French presence he's establishing, it's not limited to the military and it's not limited to the Gulf. Sarkozy has been using a nuclear energy foreign policy to establish France's strategic position throughout the Arab world. In the eight months since he took office, he has already signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with Morocco, Libya, Algeria, and the UAE, while offering assistance to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Significantly, this is in direct opposition to the American line of discouraging the proliferation of civil nuclear capacity in the Middle East, especially in the circumstances now surrounding the Iranian standoff.
So while Matthew is correct in suggesting that Europe in general and France in particular having the capacity to put their military money where their mouth is will balance the trans-Atlantic relationship, that will in effect be a development that lessens America's strategic leverage in the world. In other words, good-by to the world's reluctant policeman, hello to the long-announced French vision of the multi-polar world. This isn't going to happen overnight, but it is definitely the way Sarkozy would like to see things develop.
That it's ineluctable does not necessarily mean that it will be advantageous to the US. The alternative, however, of an America that serves as the military firewall to all the world's brushfires, is no longer sustainable.
Friday, January 18, 2008
The Sarko Show
Yesterday I was the guest of an invitee to Elysee Palace for Nicolas Sarkozy's speech to "les Forces vive de la France". I wrote it up as a guest post over at Art Goldhammer's blog, French Politics. If you're interested in what the Sarko Show looks like from the live studio audience, take a look.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
If you're looking for an organizing logic to Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign visits, a good place to start might be the fact that he's touched down in Libya, Morocco, Algeria, and China. And each time, when he climbed aboard the plane to head back to France, he was toting a freshly signed agreement to build civilian nuclear power plants with him. So it should come as no surprise that when Sarkozy heads to Saudi Arabia and the UAE tomorrow, he's expected to sign a nuclear development deal as well. Sarkozy calls it part of a "pact of confidence which the West must forge with the Islamic world". Cynics, of course, would argue that it displays Sarkozy's fondness for deals forged by the West but signed by France.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
The Engagement's Off
Nicolas Sarkozy raised eyebrows last month when he dispatched two top advisors to Damascus in an effort to engage Syria on resolving the Lebanese presidential standoff. Sarkozy claimed at the time that he'd gotten Washington's tacit approval on the initiative. The move was at best a gamble and at worst an act of desperation, trading off the enhanced prestige it would lend to Syria for a face-saving outcome to France's months-long effort to mediate the crisis.
In the end, the continued failure to arrive at an agreement -- which this week led to a tit-for-tat series of declarations from Paris and Damascus announcing the suspension of cooperation -- amounts to a confirmation that Syria's influence in the region can't be wished away. On the other hand, those who have criticized the Bush administration for failing to engage Syria (and I count myself among that group) need to acknowledge that engagement is a tactic, not a strategy, and that for it to work, there needs to be willingness on both sides of the table to reach an agreement.
Meanwhile Lebanon remains without a President.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Who Is Rattling The Sabre?
When Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner made comments a few months back that were portrayed as suggesting that France would support a war to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capacity, Sarkozy was accused of aligning himself with the hawkish elements of the Bush administration. My own feeling is that the remarks were misrepresented, and were made merely to correct any lasting misperception of France's position -- which has consistently been in very firm opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity -- that may have been caused by Jacques Chirac's off-the-cuff statement last spring that a nuclear Iran could be deterred. So it's interesting to see Sarkozy, in an interview with the Nouvel Obs, give his version of what was really at stake:
Everyone agrees that what the Iranians are doing has no civilian explanation. The only debate is whether they'll achieve a military capacity in one year or five years. The problem for us isn't so much the risk that the Americans launch a military intervention, but rather that the Israelis consider their security to be truly threatened. The danger of a war exists. If Iran lets the IAEA conduct its inspections, I'll be willing to go to Tehran and explore a civilian nuclear cooperation. I've got the trust of the Israelis and the Americans on this question. The Americans aren't, in this case, warmongers. (Translated from the French.)
Something tells me we're going to be hearing more about that Israeli strike on a Syrian "nuclear" facility in the very near future. I've already seen some speculation linking the strike to the same intelligence source that allowed for updating the Iran NIE. Call it a Debka Files moment, but I've got a gut feeling that whatever threat was targeted in that strike, whether real or fabricated, has still got a role to play in the Iran debate.
(Via French Politics.)
Monday, December 10, 2007
Waking Up With Fleas
The arrival in Paris today of Libya's Muammar Khaddafi has brought into sharp relief just how Nicolas Sarkozy's emphasis on results can sometimes call into question his judgment about the company he keeps. The visit is part and parcel of the deal that Sarkozy struck to get Khaddafi to release the Bulgarian nurses back in July.
Unfortunately for Sarkozy, Khaddafi is not exactly what you might call discrete as far as state visits go. He arrives with an entourage of roughly four hundred, and will install his Bedouin tent in the garden of the official residence provided by the French government. While Elysee has made sure to downgrade the protocol from that of an official state visit (a cabinet Minister will greet Khaddafi at the airport, for instance, instead of the Prime Minister or President), Khaddafi will meet twice with President Sarkozy to sign the contracts agreed upon at the time of Sarkozy's visit to Libya following the release of the Bulgarian nurses.
Little was said about Sarkozy's willingness to collaborate with Hugo Chavez for the release of Ingrid Betancourt, for obvious reasons. Sarkozy's congratulatory phonecall to Vladimir Putin last week in the aftermath of the latter's "election" victory sparked some pointed criticisms, but only from some anonymous backbenchers.
By contrast, Khaddafi's visit has brought out the heavy artillery, with centrist opposition leader Francois Bayrou calling it an example of how France's foreign policy has been reduced to "checkbook" diplomacy. But perhaps the most violent criticism came from Rama Yade, Sarkozy's very own Secretary of State for Human Rights:
"I don't think we can be satisfied with a declaration of virginity from Colonel Khaddafi. It's like in a love affair, it's the proof that counts," she tossed out, adding that "to find ourselves with Human Rights Day on one hand and Khaddafi on the tarmac of Orly on the other, that's a problem." She went on to cite the disappeared, those condemned to death, or still more, the families of the victims of Lockerbie.
She repeated that "France has an identity, values, prinicples," and is not "just a commercial scale"...adding that "France isn't a doormat that a leader can just come wipe his bloodstained feet on..."
"I haven't said anything until now, since we do have to encourage economic growth. But after a while, I've got to put on the habit" of Secretary of State for Human Rights. (Translated from the French.)
Yade was quickly brought to order by Prime Minister Francois Fillon followed by a convocation to Elysee, but not before Bernard Kouchner supported her right to speak out on a question that concerns her ministerial portfolio. Kouchner rejected the suggestion of a realpolitik, which he described as a "violent, Germanic word". Instead, he made sure to point out that the treatment now enjoyed by Khaddafi reflected the latter's willingness to rehabilitate himself and re-integrate the world order, a not so subtle invitation to Iran to follow his lead and renounce their nuclear ambitions.
Friday, December 7, 2007
France, Lebanon & The NIE
Last week it seemed like all sides in Beirut had found a way out of the Lebanese presidential impasse: change the constitution to allow the head of the Lebanese army, Michel Suleiman, to hold the office. This week, things don't look that certain anymore. Everyone still agrees that Suleiman is the man for the job. But the Lebanese minority, which includes pro-Syrian factions and Hezbollah, is insisting on altering government power-sharing formulas as a pre-condition to clearing the way for Suleiman's election. As Le Monde put it:
The silence and drawn features of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, said it all...about the impasse in his mediation of the negotiations...
If the crisis remains unresolved, it will have been a pretty tough week for French foreign policy. Lebanon is supposed to be one of the cards that France delivers in the Middle East. So a failure to do so weakens its offer in any sort of regional bargaining going on with the Bush administration.
At the same time, this week's Iran NIE report poses some problems for Nicolas Sarkozy. Rightly or wrongly, his recent stance on the Iran nuclear standoff was interpreted by many to signal that he'd been tipped off to an eventual American military intervention and was positioning himself to be on the right side of the Bush administration when it went down. According to this view, the report itself leaves him out in the cold with his good friend George, throwing a war to which no one shows up.
I'm not sure I agree with that interpretation. For me, Sarkozy's and Kouchner's recent declarations were, a) more a corrective to Jacques Chirac's slip of the tongue downplaying the significance of an Iranian bomb this past spring than a change in policy, and b) wildly distorted to sound more bellicose than they actually were. (Admittedly, using the word "war" in the same sentence as Iran, even without actually advocating for it, was clearly provocative.)
As for the underlying strategy, I felt it was a way to make the hardliners in the Bush administration more comfortable with the EU negotiation track by convincing them that he, too, understood how high the stakes were. But he was determined to bring the hawks back to the negotiation track because the very stakes involved demand that any resolution to the crisis be legitimized by a multi-lateral approach. The NIE itself, as Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation points out, validates the EU approach and firmly places the initiative in the engagement camp. The danger now being that the wildly exagerrated rhetoric out of Washington has de-legitimized any sense of alarm about the underlying crisis and reduced Russia and China's willingness to go along with sanctions.
That would be unfortunate, because it seemed like the latest round of diplomatic wrangling was clearly moving towards sanctions designed to raise the pressure on Iran to fully comply with its NPT obligations. Which makes the timing of the NIE's release all the more curious. Counterintuitively, if the NIE ends up derailing what looked like promising diplomatic initiatives to a negotiated resolution of the conflict, it might end up making the military option that much more likely.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Let's You And Him Fight
Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe start calling each other names, and the loser is... Nicolas Sarkozy. Huh? you might be wondering. Simple.
When Sarkozy took office in May, one of his first acts as President was to call Uribe and personally intervene to get the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt back onto the front burner. Why? Because like the Bulgarian nurses, the liberation of Betancourt -- a French-Colombian dual citizen whose husband and daughters live in Paris -- would be a high-profile success story that would demonstrate Sarkozy's ability to get results.
And it's that desire above all others -- to be perceived as the man who gets the job done when all others have failed -- that led Sarkozy to accept an offer from Hugo Chavez to negotiate directly with FARC, Betancourt's captors, when common sense and good judgment would have argued for some measure of reserve.
Chavez immediately went ahead and pulled a Sarkozy (ie. hogging the spotlight) and flew into Paris last week promising good news. Most of the French government and media assumed that meant proof of a sign of life for Betancourt. For Chavez, though, the good news was more or less that he got a great photo op at the Elysees Palace. Basta.
In the meantime, Uribe has barred Chavez from any further involvement in mediating Betancourt's release. The first reports I read referred to his "unauthorized" conversations with Sarkozy as a pretense, but the article I linked to above mentions Chavez's direct conversations with unnamed Colombian generals.
So Sarkozy ends up with quite a bit of egg on his face in the aftermath of his Chavez lovefest. Not only has whatever momentum on the Betancourt negotiations been lost, but he also lent Chavez an enormous amount of legitimacy, with absolutely nothing to show for it in return. Sacre bleu.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The Front Lines
I haven't had a lot to say about the riots that have broken out the past few nights in the outlying districts of Paris, mainly because it's such a replay of exactly what happened two years ago that there's little left to say. The major difference being that instead of stones being thrown, there have been reports of hunting rifles fired and footage of Molotov cocktails being exploded.
This past May I interviewed Rost, a French rapper who released a song predicting the 2005 riots just before they broke out. (It was immediately censored from the French radio.) He made it clear that nothing had changed in the intervening two years, except for the kids' expectations being a bit higher because of the recent presidential elections. He ended the interview by describing the message he delivered to the UMP parliament members he knows from his own political activism:
Tell Monsieur Sarkozy that when he chooses his cabinet members, that he gives them a marching order: Respect us in the ghettos. Because we won't tolerate all the injustices we've suffered all these years any longer. We won't tolerate them any longer. From now on, we'll go to the front.
I caught up with Rost in September, just after I got to Paris, and he was feeling pretty glum about the prospects for avoiding the worst. Two nights ago, just as he had predicted, a police spokesman characterized the violence as "urban warfare".
Watching one of the round-table talk shows that the French are so good at last night, I heard a French politician very matter-of-factly say that the problem could be solved in ten years with effort, commitment and funding. Lacking any one of those three, he went on, we're destined to play out the same scenario every few years.
Unfortunately, once the current violence dies down, so too will any interest in addressing the root causes of the problem. Until two years from now, that is, when the same guests will be invited to the same television studios to repeat the same tired cliches. That's how the French handle the problem of "les banlieues".
Friday, November 23, 2007
The Witching Hour
At midnight tonight, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term in office will come to an end, and barring a miracle, the country will enter into a constitutional crisis, as no one has been selected to succeed him. The possible consequences of the standoff range from destabilizing to catastrophic, and the Lebanese military is already in a state of alert in the capital.
Besides Lebanon itself, the big loser in the entire affair is France, which has been engaging in a diplomatic effort since July to encourage all the parties to reach a compromise solution. In the past few weeks, President Nicolas Sarkozy has dispatched top advisors to Damascus to offer a broad deal to the Syrians (a progressive normalization of diplomatic relations with the West in return for facilitating a compromise), and yesterday placed a direct call to Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss the impasse. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has been in Beirut all week trying unsuccessfully to hammer out a deal. Here's how Le Figaro assesses the failure of Sarkozy's diplomatic intitiative:
A happy ending would have...marked the success of Elysee's strategy to reposition France in the region.
The cancellation of the presidential election, on the other hand, is a humiliating blow, even if Paris only played the role of facilitator in this affair. It will also, to some degree, be interpreted abroad as a sign of the powerlessness of French diplomacy which, despite all its efforts, was unable to weigh in on the events in Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East where she is still supposed to exercise a strong influence.
Lebanon has long been a chessboard on which regional powers play out their strategic rivalries, and the current constitutional impasse is no exception. Specifically, it sheds some light on some recent evolutions in France's regional diplomacy, and in particular its increasingly hard line on Iran. As Le Fig points out, Lebanon is supposed to be France's hole card in Middle Eastern politics. But an increasingly influential Iran, through its support of Hizbollah, diminishes France's ability to deliver the goods, as seen by today's failure.
What's more, should the situation in Lebanon result in violence or longterm instability, the heat on Iran, who will almost surely be scapegoated for it, will likely go up a few notches.
Update: According to Nouvel Obs, the parliamentary session to elect the president has been postponed until next Friday. Nevertheless, President Lahoud is still expected to leave office at midnight tonight, leaving the country with no one exercising the consitutional responsibilities of president for a week.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
It's not getting much notice in the American press, but former President Jacques Chirac was placed under formal investigation today by a magistrate investigating a corruption scandal that took place while Chirac was both Mayor of Paris and head of the RPR political party. That's one step short of an indictment in the French criminal justice system. One of his longtime political allies, Alain Juppé, was already convicted three years ago for his role in the scheme, which basically used phony jobs on the City Hall payroll to pay RPR employees for their political work. (No accusations of personal enrichment have ever been associated with the scandal.) Common wisdom had it at the time that Juppe was taking the fall for Chirac, who wrapped himself in Presidential immunity to postpone facing any charges while he himself was still in office.
I'm not sure what it is about ex-presidents, but they seem to have a way of becoming instantly more sympathetic to me pretty much as soon as they're out of office. I remember fighting off the wave of revisionist sentimentality that followed Nixon's death, and I'm a sucker for this type of thing. I admit that as much as I despised Ronald Reagan while he was President, I find it hard not to admire what he did restore to America, which in retrospect was, I think, a sense that we'd make it through the rough spots.
So needless to say, I don't see the point in going after a 75 year-old man who's spent his entire life in government and who once "incarnated France", as the presidential oath here puts it. True, democracy means no one being above the law. But I think the punishment should be the humiliation and disgrace of being impeached from office, which is a mechanism that didn't exist here until Chirac amended the constitution to include one just months before leaving office. I don't see who benefits, though, by throwing "France" in jail.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Sarko The Silent
This NY Times article captures something that I'd noticed the other day about French press coverage of the transport strikes. After months of all-Sarko, all the time, the French President has been strangely silent the past week, letting his Prime Minister and Labor Minister do the talking. This is traditionally the way things are supposed to operate, with the President functioning as a sort of political Deus Ex Machina: guarding himself from being too closely associated with the details of day-to-day governance in order to intervene with more authority when needed.
In this case, Sarkozy's discretion is facilitated by the press coverage's narrative line, which is focusing less on the details of the conflict -- which boil down to very little in terms of actually addressing the pension fund's deficit -- and more on the public's perception of the strike. And for the time being, that's working in Sarkozy's favor, as most people are royally pissed off about having their lives disrupted for the sake of a minority pension plan.
But the coverage reflects a larger truth, namely that the strike and the negotiations that frame it are largely a symbolic confrontation intended to clarify the balance of power between the government's mandate for reform and the unions' ability to protect (their) workers' interests. The outcome of the current standoff over the "special pension" that effects relatively few will set the stage for later reforms to the general pension and labor laws designed to liberalize France's economy.
Sarkozy's strategy is clever in that it forces the unions to choose between two unattractive options. A symbolic strike over symbolic reforms has a very real negative impact on public opinion; rolling over provides the government with momentum for a reform package that is sure to become increasingly less symbolic as it progresses.
The unions, for their part, have demonstrated their ability to make things very inconvenient for everyone else if they don't like what they see at the negotiating table. And that was during a normal week in November. A similar strike during the holiday season's peak traffic would raise the pain threshhold considerably. The question now is whether they'll be willing to do so again.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Taking It To The Streets
Tonight the French transport workers unions will go out on strike, hoping to repeat their successful one-day walkout that shut down the country's rail and subway systems last month. The unions face two problems. First, last month's strike obtained nothing in the way of concessions from the Sarkozy government, leading them to accuse the government of practically asking them to strike again. Which leads to the second challenge: Public opinion is largely critical of the strikes. That the public is also largely critical of the government's performance on social and economic issues seems less important to Sarkozy, who in a speech yesterday before the European Parliament declared his intention to "see the reforms through to the very end".
Significantly, the minister overseeing the negotiations had earlier this week refused to even meet with the unions, referring them back to the representatives of the rail and subway authorities in charge of the collective bargaining agreements. While he later agreed to meet a delegation from the various unions, the reception was in sharp contrast to that given to the heads of the rail and subway authorities, who have been invited to Elysee Palace for a pow wow with Sarkozy himself.
The entire confrontation coincides with a student strike in opposition to university reforms that has shut down a number of campuses, as well as a walkout of public sector employees planned for next week in opposition to Sarkozy's effort to reduce the government payroll. The unions, for their part, have rejected the possibility of joining forces with the other two movements, in part because the striking students are a minority faction not very highly regarded by public opinion either, but mainly because they're still hoping to negotiate a compromise reform of the special pensions.
But while continuing to emphasize his openness to dialogue, Sarkozy's unwillingness to compromise seems to be based on an expectation that the public will support him in any confrontation that plays out in the streets. (Already the police have forcibly removed students illegally blocking one campus.) If he's right, he'll have effectively broken the unions in the same way Thatcher and Reagan did, leaving him free to open France up to liberal market reforms. If, on the other hand, the image of violent street clashes turns the public against him (a possibility in a country where social protest is sacred and the use of police force disapproved of), it's going to be a long five years here.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Sarkozy: A User's Manual
[Nicolas Sarkozy's DC lovefest kind of snuck up on me when I was busy moving. As a result, I missed the "news bump" to try to get the following op ed placed. So here's a freebie for anyone interested in what he really said, between standing ovations, last week.]
By now Nicolas Sarkozy has returned to France, having accomplished the primary purpose of his visit to Washington: to leave behind a legion of admirers. He made no secret of his intention, announcing upon his arrival that he was there "to win back the heart of America". To that end, he left nothing to chance. The entire visit was a carefully choreographed public relations campaign, tailor-made for the American audience. With a kiss on the hand for Laura followed by a slap on the shoulder for George, Sarkozy set the tone, alternating between seduction and business, and offering a little bit of something for everyone.
For those who might have heard he was a divisive figure, Sarkozy used the composition of his delegation – three women (one of Arab descent, another of African origin) and a Socialist – to present the image of a "new France", one that America could easily identify with. In his speech before Congress, too, Sarkozy gave everyone a reason to feel satisfied. For those on the right, who want a French ally that will fall in line with American interests, Sarkozy was tough on Iran, committed to Afghanistan, and resolute in the fight against terrorism. For those on the left, who want a French ally that will keep us honest, Sarkozy was (silently) unapologetic on Iraq, forceful on global warming, and convincing in his arguments for a strong Europe.
As a result, Sarkozy accomplished what every media consultant dreams of: To have each listener hear not what he actually said, but what they wanted to hear. But for anyone familiar with Sarkozy's method, his speech before Congress was more than just a successful public relations ploy. It was the outline of a bargaining position for what he conceives of as an unfolding negotiation with his newly reconciled friend and ally...
Continue reading Sarkozy: A User's Manual>>
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Common wisdom has it that Syrian agents were responsible for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005. Hariri was a close personal friend of Jacques Chirac, so France's relations with Syria grew cold, as in just this side of permafrost, as a result. So it raised some eyebrows last week when Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched two close advisors to Damascus to discuss ways to resolve the deadlock in choosing Lebanon's next president.
Today, Le Monde offers something of an explanation (for French readers, anyway). One of Syria's principal allies is Qatar, whose Emir advocates ending its regional isolation and defends its interests at the UN. (His position is conspicuously at odds with that of the Saudis, who consider Bashar Assad untrustworthy.) The same Emir of Qatar was influential in helping Sarkozy obtain the release of the Bulgarian nurses from Libya's Muammar Khaddafi (although the promise of weapons and a civil nuclear reactor probably helped also). And Qatar has not only placed orders for 80 Airbus A380's, they've also been extraordinarily understanding about the repeated production and delivery delays that have cost the French industrial giant quite a few contracts. (Both UPS and FedEx eventually cancelled their orders for the freight version.)
Sarkozy himself has forcefully condemned the use of violence to interfere in Lebanese internal affairs, even if he has refrained from directly accusing Syria of being behind the assassinations. But it's worth watching how France's posture towards Syria evolves. French influence in Lebanon is something Paris has to offer in its dealings with Washington. And if it does manage to thaw relations with Damascus, it could wind up serving as a backchannel for American diplomatic overtures.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
From Paris With Disbelief
I find it hard to believe that Roger Cohen actually pulls down a steady paycheck for this. It's one thing for an op ed (if you want to call it that) to be poorly written, but this one lacks any substance as well. It's especially maddening to someone -- like yours truly -- trying to pitch articles on French politics, given the quota system on French political coverage in the American press.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
One of Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign slogans was "Work more to earn more". Trouble is, since his election, French workers haven't seen their salaries markedly improved. All that changed today, at least for one French worker. His name? Nicolas Sarkozy.
Because the legislature just voted him a 140% pay raise, increasing his salary from 8,000 euros per month to 20,000. Granted, before the raise Sarkozy wasn't even making as much as a low-level cabinet minister, let alone his Prime Minister. And the current pay rate puts him in line with other European heads of state.
But I wonder. Did his divorce agreement with Cecilia include any alimony payments?
Monday, October 29, 2007
At a press conference in Abu Dhabi, French Defense Minister Hervé Morin directly contradicted IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's assertion that he's found no evidence to suggest Iran's nuclear program has military aims:
Our intelligence, corroborated by that of other countries, gives us the opposite impression... If Baradei is right, there is no reason for Iran not to allow the IAEA to carry out its inspections... (Translated from the French.)
Now it's true that generally speaking, France has got solid intelligence throughout the Arab world. So maybe they've uncovered some incriminating evidence of a hidden military component to the Iranian nuclear program. But it's hard to believe that Sarkozy knows something that Chirac didn't, so the sudden shift in tone seems hard to explain.
Which leads us to the "other countries" who -- I think it's obvious -- are most likely Israel and the US. And if that's who the French are comparing notes with, then it's not surprising that they've suddenly given this dossier a greater urgency than the other EU negotiating partners.
Morin went on to make clear [note: English language article] that France is opposed to war with Iran, and reiterated French support for stiffer sanctions, even though they would harm French economic interests in Iran. But the newfound stridency in tone coming out of Paris is going to take some getting used to.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Via Art Goldhammer over at French Politics comes word that Nicolas Sarkozy walked out of his "60 Minutes" interview with Lesley Stahl after she asked him about his divorce from Cecilia. In the "60 Minutes" clip, you can hear Stahl wondering outloud, "What was unfair?", to which Sarkozy responds by basically giving her the French version of "Talk to the hand, girlfriend."
Two things. First, while it's true that French political culture respects the boundary between a politician's public and private life more than in the States, Sarkozy is the French politician most identified with putting his personal life in public view. During his long rise to power, Cecilia was never far from his side, and was considered one of his closest advisors. Her trip to Libya to negotiate the release of the Bulgarian nurses was considered an official state mission.
Second, by many people's best guess, Sarkozy wasn't above using the announcement of his divorce -- which he dangled for three days before finally officially announcing the day of the first major strike in protest of one his reform packages -- for his own political advantage. Needless to say, the top story that night on the news was Sarkozy vs. Sarkozy, not Sarkozy vs. the unions.
So while I've yet to hear the exact wording of Stahl's question, in some ways the Sarkozy's divorce -- at the very least inasmuch as it effects his access to a close collaborator -- is very much fair ground. His reaction shows the "dark side" of a man known for seduction but capable of strong-arm tactics. Simply put, the guy likes to get his way. When he doesn't he can be brittle and crass, both of which are on display in the clip.
Friday, October 19, 2007
Handling The Press
In France, stars are often called 'les peoples' (pronounced pea-pull), and the growing creep of celebrity culture is referred to as 'pipolization'. It's the equivalent of what's becoming known in the States as fame-iness. The Sarkozy divorce, as dramatic and newsworthy as it is, is 'pipolized' political coverage. Sarkozy has been at the forefront of the 'pipolization' of politics, and understands the media as well as anyone. So it's not surprising, as Kevin Drum points out, that he would use the 'pipolized' coverage of his divorce to his advantage in the very real political arena, mainly by diverting attention away from the nation-wide one-day transportation strike yesterday. The rumor that Elysee would be imminently announcing the Sarkozy's divorce began circulating Monday morning. And despite gathering momentum, Sarkozy managed to save the major headlines for the day of his fiercest opposition since taking office. You've got to hand it to him. The guy's a master of media management.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
When Wednesday's Just As Bad
I've avoided posting on it, because there's still been no official announcement. But it's been all over the news for the past week, and more and more of the French political press is beginning to break their silence, so what the heck. Cecilia Sarkozy has apparently filed divorce proceedings to end her marriage to Nicolas Sarkozy. Given Sarkozy's devotion to her, not to mention his hyper-macho style, her leaving him must be a pretty stiff blow.
Toss in the French rugby team's defeat in the World Cup on Saturday and tomorrow's massive nationwide transportation strike, and you get the feeling that it might be a good idea to keep the guy away from the nuclear launch codes for a while.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Menage A Six
We know that Nicolas Sarkozy has increasingly re-aligned French foreign policy to a pro-American stance, most notably on the Iran standoff. So Paris and Washington are all smiles and George and Nicolas are buddy-buddy. Except that France will very likely be selling Pakistan air-to-air missiles and radar for use with its Chinese-made fighter jets, a move that will (potentially) provide China with access to the weapons and insight into effectively countering them. Which will strengthen the Chinese hand vis à vis Taiwan, whose French Mirage fighters are equipped with the same missiles, thereby royally pissing off Washington. So, no smiles after all. No playdate for George and Nicolas.
To complicate matters even more, while France (and the rest of the world) not-so-secretly covets the Chinese weapons market, they also covet the Taiwanese and Indian weapons market. And both Taiwan and India are likely to be royally pissed off about the Pakistani deal, too. Keep your eyes on this one. Whether or not the deal goes through will be a good indication of who's really in the driver's seat in the emerging Franco-American rapprochement.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
There's something extraordinary going on here in France during the World Cup of Rugby, a convergence of the athletic with the political in a way that happens only rarely in the history of nations. Against all odds, France just defeated the All Blacks of New Zealand, 20-18. And in case you're like me and you know nothing about the sport, the All Blacks are to rugby what Brazil is to soccer, only without the occasional lapses in concentration. France has got a solid, competitive team that deserves plenty of respect. It remains, nonetheless, a major upset.
Now to give a little context, Bernard Laporte, the coach of the French national team, is set to enter the government of Nicolas Sarkozy as a vice-minister of athletics at the tournament's conclusion. Sarkozy was in Cardiff for the match tonight, and has been known to visit the team's dressing room before matches.
Laporte was widely criticized for using the famous last letter of Guy Moquet, a 17 year-old French communist executed by the Nazis during WWII, to motivate the team before their first match against Argentina. The tactic was blamed for the team's emotional tightness that ultimately resulted in a sloppy defeat. But more than that, it was considered bad judgment and bad taste to appropriate Moquet's sacrifice for something as profane as a sporting match.
The stunt also drew attention because it echoed a proposal Nicolas Sarkozy had made during this year's presidential election requiring French students to collectively read the young martyr's letter as part of their education. He later went on to put the measure in effect as one of his first acts upon taking office.
Anyone who has ever watched a rugby match would probably agree that it's about as brutal a sport as exists. I don't think I'd get much argument if I suggested that it doesn't exactly fit the stereotype commonly used to portray the French, either. Like American football, despite flourishes of individual skill and grace, the game is principally decided by controlling territory through brute force and team discipline. Cheese eating surrender monkeys need not apply.
It's a sport traditionally associated with the political right, played in "la France profonde" (the heartland), "la France d'en bas" (the little people). In other words, Sarkozy's France. Tonight's victory is along the lines of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. Not in the significance of the symbolic narrative of the two teams playing, but in what it means for the narrative of France as a nation.
Of course, it hasn't been that long since France tasted the joy of victory. Winning the 1998 soccer World Cup followed by the European championship two years later defined a historic moment in the country's identity. France, like its national soccer team, was no longer bleu, blanc et rouge (blue, white and red) but black, blanc et beur (black, white and Arab). And contrary to American opinion, its defiance of the American invasion of Iraq, so eloquently expressed by Dominique de Villepin at the UN Security Council, was here considered a point of pride. (In fact, I'm convinced that the World Cup victory played a role in France finding the confidence necessary to stand up to US and England on the world stage.)
Nevertheless, since 2003 (and even before, if you include Le Pen's second round finish in the 2002 presidential election) it's been a pretty bad dry spell. So to see the country back in the running, and for a title that symbolically represents all the values of the new direction Sarkozy would like to take it in, resonates with a particular signifance.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
It might be slipping under the radar in the American press, but France and Germany have been engaging in something of an armwrestling match over European industrial projects, dating back at least to last year's negotiations over how to re-structure the European aviation heavyweight, EADS. According to an article in last week's Nouvel Obs (print edition), recent tensions between the two countries are in part a result of German exasperation over Nicolas Sarkozy's frenetic style, and his tendency to "tirer les draps" (French for hogging the covers). Now comes word that Berlin is insisting on structuring the financing of a European satellite GPS system in such a way that stacks the deck for German aerospace contractors, to Paris' (and the rest of Europe's) irritation.
In the traditional logic, these two countries are the motor that drives Europe. And while their relationship has always known peaks and valleys, rumor has it that it's entering a pretty deep valley phase. Which adds some context for Sarkozy's emerging re-alignment of French foreign policy to an American line.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The Honeymoon's Over
There's been a subtle change in the political climate here the past week. Or maybe I should say that given the kind of bad news that's been bubbling up through the usually on-message Sarko-sphere, I sense a shift coming. Because even if Nicolas Sarkozy is still surrounded by plenty of sycophantic courtiers (in both politics and the media), his act is beginning to wear a bit thin on the folks outside the palace.
To begin with, other European leaders, who are having trouble keeping up with Sarkozy's scatter-shot initiatives that lack any overarching logic or strategy. Add to that his own Prime Minister, who in an interview with Paris Match cited by Le Figaro admitted that he'd been annoyed by some of the President's condescending comments over the past couple months. Toss in the labor unions that are a bit steamed over his two-week deadline for negotiating a reform to the "special retirement regimes" for hard labor, and have called a railroad strike next month. And if all that weren't enough, there's the police who have opened an investigation into a possible kickback scheme dating back to 1997 while he was still Mayor of Neuilly.
Besides that there are rumors of a government shakeup planned for January, along with knowing asides about dissatisfied cabinet members. All of this, it's important to remember, when there isn't the slightest shred of a legitimate opposition left to contest him.
That's a lot of rumbling. The question is, What's going to blow? As Dominique de Villepin pointed out, Sarkozy's dynamic activity is only convincing if it produces concrete results. So far, everyone has played along with him. But that might be changing, which means the next three months could get bumpy. And the Sarko that so many people warned us about during the presidential campaign might rear his ugly head.
Monday, September 10, 2007
It's all well and good for Ryan Crocker to mention French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's visit to Iraq as a sign that European states originally opposed to the war are now becoming more involved in trying to find a solution to the Iraq problem. What he left out is that Nicolas Sarkozy explicitly declared that a withdrawal timeline for American forces was essential to any progress being made.
Saturday, September 8, 2007
What Goes Up...
I was mistaken yesterday when I said that Dominique de Villepin's new book describes Napolean's fall. Instead it describes how Napolean's fall was historically inscribed in his rise. But the truth bears out my point even more effectively. Namely, that Villepin is articulating the theoretical principles around which an opposition to Sarkozy might mature. Here's the historical thesis on which it's based, from his book as quoted by a review in Marianne:
For me, the mechanisms of his fall are at work from the beginning of the Napoleonic gesture, at the Empire's source... If Berezina, Leipzig or the betrayal of Talleyrand punctuate the collapse, to my mind they still only finalize it. Their direct causes are the result of older and more profound factors; they are inscribed in the adventure's genes, marked from the very beginning by the precarity of a power undermined by revolutionary fever.
Villepin's larger point, according to the article's author, is that France is at its core a conservative country. So any ruler whose agenda is too ambitiously revolutionary is bound to fail. This was true of Napoleon at the very zenith of his power. And by dedicating his book to the subject, Villepin the Gaullist is sending Sarkozy the Reformer a message: To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, "Mr. President, I've studied Napoleon Bonaparte, I've written two books on Napoleon Bonaparte. Mr. President, you're no Napoleon Bonaparte."
I've gone back and forth, personally speaking, on Sarkozy. There are parts of his agenda that seem necessary, others that seem excessive, and some that are just plain, downright offensive. I've often felt that the fear expressed by his most virulent opponents was a bit out of proportion. And then every now and then I find myself wondering if he isn't capable of the worst.
So it's reassuring to know that should Sarkozy give in to his own worst instincts, Villepin is prepared to play the role of Joseph Welch to Sarkozy's Joe McCarthy. It's a role that's he's already familiar with, having played it to perfection in the run-up to the Iraq War. It'll be fascinating to see if he'll be needed for a reprise.
Friday, September 7, 2007
The Pendulum Of Power
For anyone with an interest in politics, the developments of the past six months here in France could serve as a primer in the dynamics of power. Particularly the peculiar alchemy of how power contested becomes power consolidated, only to become contested once again.
The most striking aspect of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency so far has been the way in which he transformed a 53% electoral victory into an effective dominance of the political landscape, even in the face of a lower-than-expected parliamentary majority. A lot has to do with the actual state of the opposition: The 47% who voted against him did not necessarily vote for his opponent. A lot also has to do with his skillful dismantling of the fractured Socialist Party by offering plum ministerial and advisory posts to the PS stars who were too impatient to wait another 5-10 years for the party to regroup and retake power. Finally, a good deal has to do with his skillful management of the media. More than any previous French president, Sarkozy seems to have understood how media has been transformed in the information age, and his active governing style is tailor-made for dominating the political dialogue and determining the lines of debate.
But power consolidated inevitably leads, once again, to power contested, even if that alchemy is more difficult to trace. In the face of a conquering hero, most opposition seems feeble, petty, and ineffective. So where does opposition arise, and under what circumstances does it gain legitimacy? When the consolidated power over-reaches, raising fears of absolutism and tyranny. And when it fails, leaving doubts about its omnipotence.
Once again, the French political landscape offers a demonstration, in the person of Dominique de Villepin. As a former UMP prime minister, Villepin is ostensibly within Sarkozy's majority, even if they belong to rival clans. In fact, at one time it looked like Villepin was the only person who might stand a reasonable chance of disappointing Sarkozy's presidential ambitions. But Sarkozy skillfully outmaneuvered him in the party in-fighting that determined the UMP nominee, where Villepin's tenure as prime minister presiding over the last days of Chirac's failed presidency handicapped him.
But not content with defeating Villepin, Sarkozy has made it clear that he intends to destroy him. And the instrument he has chosen is the Clearstream affair. Sarkozy believes Villepin was behind a smear campaign designed to de-rail his presidential aspirations, and has promised to "hang him from a butcher's hook". But Villepin, after silently suffering a series of humiliating searches and perquisitions over the summer, has now decided to fight back. In part, his calculation is based on political survival. But it is also, I suspect, based on his astute understanding of the dynamics of power (his new book describes Napolean's fall from grace).
Villepin is calling attention to the danger posed to an impartial judiciary by a President (who under French jurisprudence oversees the magistrature) who is also a civil party to the Clearstream investigation. Which takes care of the first condition for legitimating opposition, namely overreach. And by offering a critique of Sarkozy's policies from the right, he has filled the political vacuum left by the decline of the left. In so doing, he has clearly defied the imperium and raised the stakes considerably. For should he survive, he will have demonstrated the limits of Sarkozy's power, which is the first step in pushing it back.
All of this in many ways resembles the problems faced by Democrats in the aftermath of 9/11, where President Bush enjoyed such an overwhelming level of popular support that it became almost impossible to rein in his power. Even in the face of Bush's repeated overreaching and legislative failure, the Democrats have not been able to frontally contain him, which I attribute to the impact of 9/11 on the country's political judgment, as well as their relatively fragile Congressional majority.
The tipping point will undoubtedly come from Bush's flank (ie. from someone like Chuck Hagel). Of course, we've known it all along. We just didn't think it would take this long.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
I'm not a policy wonk, and I'm certainly no expert on healthcare. But with the subject getting alot of recent attention, and with Michael Moore's SiCKO just opening here in Paris, I thought it might be interesting to American readers if I offered a couple of anecdotes on my experience of the French medical system.
The first occured on my very first visit to France in 1999, when a case of "water on the ear" clogged my ear canals, leaving me barely able to hear a sound. I'd had similar experiences in the States after swimming a few times before (although never to that degree), and I'd always used some over-the-counter eardrops that chemically dried out the ear canal within days. So I went off in search of some at the local pharmacy, only to find out that they don't exist over here. Of course, my first reaction was to grumble and rail about the superiority of American medicine, until my future ex-wife's family convinced me to do what is perfectly natural for any French person, but is the last resort for an American: go see the doctor.
I called a local ear doctor (an otologist, for any persnickity wordies out there), who gave me an appointment for that afternoon. I went over and explained the problem, and he promptly removed the offending earwax with the help of a funnel-like instrument and filament. Total cost of the procedure: the equivalent of twenty bucks. (As a tourist, I wasn't covered by the French Social Security system, and so I was ineligible for reimbursement.)
The second occured this past winter. My son woke up one day with a slight cough, but without any fever, so I brought him to school as usual. When I went to pick him up for lunch, he wasn't looking so good, and his teacher suggested that I bring him to the doctor. After six years in France, my instinctive resistance to doctor's offices had evaporated. So I immediately walked him across the street where, after waiting ten minutes for the doctor to return from an emergency house call, he was diagnosed with a throat infection. We still had time to make the pharmacy before it closed at noon to fill his prescription. Total cost: the equivalent of twenty bucks for the medical visit, of which (if memory serves correctly) twelve were reimbursed by Social Security. The medication was fully reimbursed.
Two points I'd like to make. First, in writing this post, I realized to what extent one's experiences with a healthcare system become internalized (ie. the resistance I always felt towards going to see a doctor in the States compared to my willingness to do so here). Second, as someone with an entrepeneurial bent, I also recognize to what degree the social charges needed to fund France's generous medical system function as disincentives to initiative. But I wonder if the American system doesn't serve to hide those disincentives in the exagerrated cost of seeking care.
Like I said at the beginning, I'm no healthcare wonk. There are costs and benefits to such an affordable (to the patient) and accessible system. Some of them, like these two anecdotes, don't translate very well into statistics.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
In The Court Of The Sarko King
After months of kid glove treatment, the new theme creeping into French political coverage is the disturbing parallels between the Sarkozy presidency and a royal court. Throughout the summer, the serious opinion-setting dailies and weeklies featured wide-eyed, "celebrity tabloid"-style coverage of Sarkozy's active governing style. This was followed by the publication of an authorized and largely flattering campaign-diary by a noted French playwright who followed him throughout the presidential campaign.
This week, Marianne, an iconoclastic centrist weekly, blasted the press and the political world for its courtisan-like behavior. Now, in a radio interview related by Nouvel Obs, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has picked up where they left off. Comparing the new President with Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the nouveau riche bourgeois who dreams of becoming a nobleman, Villepin also defined his own role:
I am part of the majority in a country where there is no longer an opposition, and in this majority I believe we have to be self-critical... I'll cite my source: it's Nicolas Sarkozy. I was in a government where Nicolas Sakozy never ceased to say that we had to animate the debate... He was right, and I'm the one who will play the role of gadfly to a majority that must not rest on its laurels.
Villepin's attack is something of a double-or-nothing gambit. He is currently under investigation for his role in a scandal known as Clearstream, where an anonymous source provided a judge with a phony list of offshore accounts that included Nicolas Sarkozy's name. Sarkozy remains convinced that the list was an attempt by Villepin to upend his presidential ambitions, and the conventional wisdom is that he is using the current investigation to finish Villepin off.
Villepin, sensing the political void left by the implosion of the Socialist Party, must believe that his best defense is an aggressive attack. Either that or he has decided that if he goes down, Sarkozy will go down with him.
Via French Politics.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Sarko The Slender
Nicolas Sarkozy has often been accused of having an unhealthy influence over the French media. In one famous episode, he allegedly had the editor of Paris Match fired after that magazine ran a cover photo of Sarkozy's at-the-time estranged wife, Cécilia, with her lover in New York.
Apparently, the message got through, because in Paris Match's August 9th edition, a photo of the French President canoeing with his son was re-touched to remove Sarko's protruding love handles. The magazine's explanation?
The position on the boat exagerrated the bulge. In lightening the shadows, the correction was exagerrated in the printing process.
In other words, all they did was lighten the photo a bit and the pounds just disappeared by themselves. Here's a side-by-side of the original and doctored photos. You be the judge.
Monday, August 20, 2007
This is a point that I tried to make here, but which Adam Gopnik makes remarkably well in his article about Nicolas Sarkozy in the New Yorker:
[America's] military weakness has been exposed in Iraq, its economic weakness by the rise of the euro, and its once great cultural magnetism has been diminished by post-9/11 paranoia and insularity. America has recovered from worse before, and may do so again. But it is also possible that the election of Nicolas Sarkozy may be seen not as the start of a new pro-American moment in Europe but as a marker of the beginning of the post-American era.
America's current diminished standing in the world has left a power vacuum in the global geopolitical equation. The longer it lasts, the more opportunistic leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy or Vladimir Putin are going to move in and claim space that used to be ours. That's not to say that France or Russia will become a global superpower capable of unilateral interventions. But they will enhance their global influence at the expense of our own.
The danger is that what used to be unimaginable -- a world without American leadership -- is little by little becoming a reality that people are discovering they can live with.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
They Might Be Giants
If you take a look at this White House video of President Bush chatting up the press before going off on a boatride with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, you might understand why the President's advisors made sure Poppy Bush stayed by W's side during the "private" meeting between the two. While both men share the same backslapping style that seems to be so shocking to French sensibilities, Sarkozy is so clearly the sharper intellect that it's almost embarrassing to watch them together. (Sarkozy arrives about halfway through the clip.)
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Super Cecilia Frees Bulgarian Nurses
Not content to single-handedly save the free world, Nicolas Sarkozy sent his wife, Cecilia, to win the release of the five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor who had been sentenced first to death, then to life in prison for purposely infecting 400 Libyan children with the AIDS virus. While Cecilia was technically not empowered to actually engage in the negotiations, her presence in the EU delegation obviously added the needed Sarko touch, that "je ne sais quoi" that ultimately leads to success.
Nicolas himself will follow up with a visit to Qaddafi's Bedouin tent "...to help Libya rejoin the international community."
Next up for Sarko the Magnificent? Bringing Lyuba, the frozen mammoth cub, back to life.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Robbing Peter To Pay Paul
What happens when Sarkozy the Hardliner faces off against Sarkozy the Protectionist? The answer might go a long way towards revealing just how reliable an ally to America's neocon agenda Sarkozy's France will prove to be.
In this corner, Sarkozy the Hardliner, who via the Foreign Ministry announced that France supports tough new UN sanctions against Iran. In this corner, TotalFinaElf, France's quasi-national oil company that just announced it intends to increase its investment in Iran's energy sector.
Granted, Sarkozy doesn't actually control Total. As this brief corporate history points out, the French government divested 4% of its holdings in 1996, leaving it with only a 1% share in the company. But as recently as 1992, it held a 32% interest, and Total qualifies as one of the crown jewels of French industry.
So will Sarkozy have something to say about Total's courtship of Iran's oil mullahs? Stay tuned...
Monday, July 2, 2007
Sarkozy The Pragmatic
What do you call an economic program that at the same time: a) reduces taxes for the highest incomes and deregulates labor laws; b) postpones deficit-reduction in order to pump 10-15 million euros in federal subsidies back into the economy; and c) maintains the state's prerogative to defend national industry from foreign competition? Is it liberal? Keynesian? Or protectionist? (Or to put it another way, is it Thatcherism? Blairism? Or Chavezism?)
That's the question Le Monde poses today, and the answer, in case you don't know by now, is that it's Sarkozyism. Because what most American conservatives conveniently overlooked in their rush to celebrate France's "return to sanity" this spring is that Nicolas Sarkozy is first and foremost a politician.
Or pragmatic. Or opportunistic. Call it what you like. But if he has to choose between theoretical coherence and keeping his electorate happy, you can kiss the textbook good-by. As Dominique Plihon, a leftist professor put it:
Nicolas Sarkozy practices right-wing "Gramsci-ism": It's the ideas that are at the service of the conquest of power, and not power that is at the service of an idea. (Translated from the French.)
That doesn't mean that he won't follow up this year's modest reforms with a more ambitious second round next year. But he's willing to take what he can get, and wait for the rest, as long as it keeps the voters happy.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Sarko The Generous
As promised, Nicolas Sarkozy just named a Socialist, Didier Migaud, to preside over the Parliament's Finance Commission (the French rough equivalent of the House Oversight Committee). Its president can demand audits and investigations of the government ministries, as well as refuse any legislative amendments that effect spending (ie. pork-barrel spending). As such, the position provides ample opportunity to interfere with the government's agenda, and this is the first time it has been offered to a member of the opposition. Needless to say, the PS has minimized the significance of the appointment, while Sarkozy's UMP has expressed its concern that it not be abused.
The move needs to be understood on two levels. Previously, the only way the opposition could block the government's agenda was to call for a vote of censure, or no-confidence. Obviously, that's only effective if a sizable portion of the majority is in open revolt against the government as well. Individual laws can also be referred to the Constitutional Council, but their decision is not guaranteed. So in offering the position to the Socialists, Sarkozy has, as he claims, expanded the institutional status of the opposition.
But it also reflects a classic Sarkozyian negotiating strategy. Namely, to make a concession that was not asked for as a conciliatory gesture, in order to strengthen his ability to demand the concessions he himself wants from his adversary later on. That way, in the event he ends up forcing his position through, he can always lay the blame on the other side's intransigence.
It's also meant to directly challenge the image of Sarkozy as a dangerous authoritarian who can't be trusted. By putting the ball in the Socialists' court, he's reframed the debate. He still holds all the levers of power, but the question becomes whether the Socialists will adopt an obstructionist position, or a cooperative one.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Not So Fast
I dashed off an analysis of the Socialists' surprise comeback in second-round parliamentary voting last Sunday. But it was a bit short notice to get it placed anywhere. So in the interests of keeping you all well-informed about the ins and outs of French politics, I offer it to you here as a freebie:
Not So Fast
It’s not quite “Dewey beats Truman”, given that they didn’t actually win the election. But in turning back the UMP’s forecasted “blue tsunami”, the Socialists did manage to take some of the polish off of Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory. Given up for dead just last week, the PS not only avoided a humiliating defeat that had seemed all but certain, they gained (along with their PRG allies) more than fifty seats over their 2002 results. Combined with the small Communist and Green delegations, they limited Sarkosy’s UMP and its allies on the right and center to a 60 percent parliamentary majority, instead of the predicted 70-75 percent.
It’s a testament to how low expectations were that the results reinvigorated the Socialists’ flagging spirits. But while the second-round surge served as a political reprieve for the beleaguered party, it was unclear how lasting the impact would be on its longterm stability. It certainly did nothing to resolve the structural problems that make a clarification of ideology and leadership increasingly necessary. Split between a left-wing determined to preserve the party’s traditional progressive posture, and a social-democrat faction veering increasingly towards the electorally promising center, it seems the PS can only set aside its internal differences when faced with potential disaster.
And even that for only short periods at a time, as demonstrated Sunday evening by a headline announcing in the same breath the separation of the party’s reigning power couple, Ségolène Royal and François Hollande, and Royal’s intention to succeed Hollande as party chairman. No sooner do the Socialists dodge a bullet, it seems, than they re-load the gun and take aim at their foot once again...
Read the rest>>
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Out Of Breath... Alyzer
Here's Nicolas Sarkozy's version of the events leading up to his now-famous G8 press conference:
I was late, so I took the stairs four at a time. I didn't have anything in particular to say. So I asked if there were any questions. I don't drink a drop of alcohol. Not because I'm virtuous: I just don't like it. (Translated from the French.)
Since I originally posted the video clip, the Belgian TV announcer who introduced it has apologized for suggesting Sarkozy was drunk. Because by all accounts, Sarkozy's actually a teetotaler. Which is somewhat surprising given his macho style. Somehow I could see him giving in, "just this once", so as to keep Putin from one-upping him. But his version is plausible, too... I suppose.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Sarkozy And Le Pen
Before leaving for an EU summit, it's customary for the French president to receive the heads of the major political parties, in addition to a few other respected political figures, for a consultation at the Elysées Palace. With one notable exception. In his twelve years in office, Jacques Chirac categorically refused to meet with Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right National Front party, despite the FN's legal standing as a legitimate political formation.
So it's noteworthy that Nicolas Sarkozy has decided to meet with Le Pen tomorrow, in advance of the gathering of European heads of state to negotiate the EU's constitutional "mini-treaty". Sarkozy managed to attract a significant portion of Le Pen's followers during the presidential campaign by appropriating the FN's traditional themes of "national identity", immigration reform, and law & order rhetoric. The major question was whether this was just a clever, if cynical, electoral calculation, or whether he would attempt to maintain the new converts once in office.
Sarkozy's EU policy is diametrically opposed to Le Pen's, who advocates withdrawing from the Union. So there's little chance that the meeting is anything but symbolic. But the symbolism is significant. Chirac's one ironclad rule in politics was, "Ne jamais composer avec l'extrême droite." (Never join with the extreme right.) It was less a question of formal alliances -- which were out of the question -- than a moral dictum, a sort of political ex-communication whose logic led him to refuse to debate with Le Pen during the 2002 run-off election.
Sarkozy has obviously decided to take Le Pen off the Index. It remains to be seen if it's the first step in a progressive rehabilitation or simply a public relations move. Either way, it lends legitimacy to Le Pen and credibility to the image of a Sarkozy willing to pander to the extreme right.
Monday, June 18, 2007
When Nicolas Met Cecilia
Speaking of the candidates' romantic lives, that reminds me. The American press has mentioned Nicolas Sarkozy's "Brady Bunch" family, consisting of his two sons from a first marriage, his wife Cecilia's two daughters from a first marriage, and their son from their own marriage. And they've also mentioned their brief but highly publicized separation a couple years ago.
What I've never seen mentioned is the circumstances under which they met. Here in France, if you choose to get married in a civil ceremony, you go down to city hall where the mayor performs the wedding. Which is what Cecilia did when, at the age of 27, she married 51-year old television star Jacques Martin in the city of Neuilly. The mayor of Neuilly at the time? 29-year old political wunderkind, Nicolas Sarkozy.
As the official story goes, it wasn't until three years later that they met again and fell madly in love with each other. Each left their respective spouse, and they eventually married in 1996.
People talk about Rudy Giuliani's marital baggage. But try getting that one over in American politics today. Chalk it up to l'exception française.
Monday, June 18, 2007
The other item making headlines today was the announcement that France's premier power couple, Ségolène Royal and Socialist Party chairman François Hollande, have separated. She immediately declared herself a candidate to succeed him when he steps down from his functions next year.
Talk about a custody battle: "Oh, and honey? One more thing... I get the Party."
Monday, June 18, 2007
The Blue Ripple
The major news this morning here in France was the surprising rebound of the Socialist Party in the second round of the legislative elections. While Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP still managed to win a 60% parliamentary majority, it was nowhere near the 75% tidal wave that had been forecast as late as a few days ago.
There are a number of explanations, including the UMP coming down with a case of political tone-deafness between the two rounds. Talking about raising the sales tax by 5% in order to make up for a reduction in corporate payroll taxes, for instance, isn't exactly how you gather people behind an economic reform package.
But the real message sent by French voters was that they still believe in the value of a strong opposition. They gave Sarkozy the comfortable margin he needs to pass his reform agenda. But by saving the Socialists from electoral meltdown, they guaranteed that someone would be around to keep him honest.
Friday, June 15, 2007
More Dept. Of Shameless Plugs
For anyone interested in French politics, I've got another article up over at The American Prospect. This one's about the legislative elections, and in particular, how Nicolas Sarkozy turned a hard-fought presidential victory into an overwhelming parliamentary majority in just over a month. Drop any feedback you might have in the Comments here.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Super Sarko Saves Europe
This just in. Yesterday, Polish President Lech Kaczinski was threatening to veto the mini-treaty for institutional reform of the EU. This afternoon, he met with Nicolas Sarkozy. And wouldn't you know it, Kaczinski left the meeting "convinced" that the upcoming EU summit to decide the issue will be a "success":
"I'm full of optimism after my meeting with President Sarkozy... I am profoundly convinced that on June 21st and 22nd we'll arrive at a compromise... Today it seems to me that it's possible," he added. (Translated from the French translation of the Polish.)
So far they've only agreed to agree, without actually figuring out how. But it's a pretty dramatic turnaround for Kaczinski, who only a few days ago was describing Poland's demand for weighted voting as "worth dying for".
So how does Sarkozy do it? Is it a magic potion of Gallic origin? A psychic channeling of Napoleon Bonaparte? For now the source of his Super Sarko powers is still a mystery. One thing is certain, though. As Kaczinski himself put it best, "France has a president with whom you can resolve a lot of problems."
Sunday, June 10, 2007
La Vague Bleue
The results for the first-round French legislative elections were just announced, and as expected, Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP came out the big winner: 43% of the vote, compared to 35% for the combined left (28% for the Socialists), and only 7% for Bayrou's Mouvement Démocrate. Although there will be runoffs next Sunday in any races where a candidate didn't win a clear majority, that should translate into 440-470 seats for the UMP, compared to only 60-90 for the PS. Abstentions, as expected, set a record.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
It looks like the stress of last month's presidential election took its toll on the French. According to Le Figaro, the level of abstention in the first-round Parliamentary elections is projected to set a record of 37%.
It's not like there's been a whole lot of suspense about the outcome. The Socialist Party is in disarray, most of Bayrou's centrist incumbents abandoned his new political party, and Sarkozy and his government have made a strong impression in their first few weeks in office.
The question has been how big a majority Sarkozy will have to work with. By the looks of things, the answer is a substantial one.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Nicolas Sarkozy might have been following the script I'd written for him up to now. But it looks like he's decided to do a little ad-libbing. Here he is after his G8 meeting with Vladimir Putin where, as the announcer surmises, "Apparently, he drank more than just the water."
Here's the (unofficial) transcript:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I ask you to forgive my lateness, which is due..."
[Cough, slur, half-smile. 'Should I mention the vodkas? Maybe not.']
"...to the length of the dialogue that I just had with Mister Putin."
[Shoulder shrug, head reel, glance around the room. 'Jesus, I am drunk off my ass.']
"What do you prefer, that I respond to questions? Well, then..."
[Involuntary hand gesture, sheepish grin.]
"Are there any questions? Go ahead..."
[Sudden look of panic. 'Holy shit, I might pass out.']
"Yeah, yeah, whatever..."
[Fumble earphone into ear. 'For a second I thought he was speaking French. I am seriously plastered.']
[Crestfallen expression. 'Merde. This is going to be a long day.']
Via The New York Nerd
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Super Sarko Goes Continental
Nicolas Sarkozy attended his first G8 as France's president, and if his first press conference is any indication, it looks like he's been reading the site regularly and decided to make me look like a clairvoyant genius.
First off, he asked himself how best to illustrate my "Sarkozy the Activist" prediction. 'I know,' he said. 'How about getting Tony Blair on board for my streamlined institutional treaty for the EU? Then afterwards, tell the press, Don't worry, me and Tony straightened everything out.' (OK, I'm paraphrasing, but not by much. The direct quote was, "Tony Blair and I just agreed on what could be the framework for a simplified treaty.")
It was a good start, but he soon realized that it might not be enough, since France and England are supposed to be influential in EU politics, and I'd predicted that he'd find ways to surprise people with his ability to wield French influence in areas where they might not expect it.
'Wait a minute,' he said to himself. 'Here I am meeting one on one with Vladimir Putin, right when this whole Return of the Cold War business is getting out of hand. If I suggested that France could serve as an intermediary and help resolve the entire crisis, why, that would make Monsieur Grunstein look like he reads a crystal ball.'
So that's exactly what he did, telling Vlad, "Have your people call my people and we'll get this whole thing squared away." (OK, I'm paraphrasing, but not by much. He actually suggested "...that French and Russian military experts meet to see where things stand.")
'Zees ees verrry good,' he thought to himself. 'But M. Grunstein also once described in detail my negotiating strategy. If I outline an approach to resolving Kosovo's final status agreement in terms that basically paraphrase his, it will make him look like a mindreader.'
"You have to avoid going straight to conflict." He therefore proposed that "...President Putin recognize the inescapable perspective of Kosovo's independence..." and "...that we let Belgrade and Pristina dialogue together..." for six months. In the absence of an agreement after six months, the UN plan would take effect.
Sarkozy is careful to never identify what he wants (mini-treaty, minimum service) without at the same time dangling the cost to his negotiating partner (Turkey veto, unilateral legislation) should he not get it. More importantly, he's perfectly willing to postpone confrontation, as long as he can leave the room with a child in his arms.
For an encore, I predict that the next time President Bush goes to Crawford, Sarkozy will be one of his first guests. They'll engage in manly activities like clearing brush together, and get into a minor altercation when Bush has a Secret Service agent trip Sarkozy up in order to win the mountain bike race he's challenged him to. They'll shake hands afterwards and joke about it for the cameras, but things will never be the same between them again.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Over Here, As Seen From Over There
There are a few observations I'd like to make as an ex-patriate whose been closely following both the recent French presidential election and the nascent American one. First, there really is something weird about the "values" litmus tests that have coagulated American politics these days. Compared to that, following the French campaign -- where religious faith, abortion and evolution were never once mentioned -- is like the feeling you get for the first few seconds after taking off a pair of ankle weights.
Second, the criteria for selecting the President of the United States just seem to have become -- there's no other word for it -- insubstantial. When you consider the potential impact the outcome has on the lives of American voters, it's curious. But when you consider the potential impact the outcome has on the lives of the all the people around the world who can't cast ballots, it's an abdication of responsibility that borders on criminal negligence.
From a global perspective, the idea that Mitt Romney might ever be invested with the power of the American presidency strikes me as fundamentally unjust.
Monday, June 4, 2007
The American press made a big deal out of the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy named Bernard Kouchner, a Socialist, as his Foreign Minister. But despite all the attention given to Kouchner's "humanitarian interventionist" approach, the move was mainly meant to provide bi-partisan political cover for Sarkozy heading into the parliamentary elections. Trouble is, although Kouchner's always been popular among the general public, he was something of a contrarian within the Socialist Party itself, often at odds with the party line on foreign policy (see Iraq), and resentful of the lack of respect he got from the party apparatus. So as Socialists go, he was really a consolation prize.
Jack Lang, on the other hand, has been both wildly popular and a Socialist Party fixture ever since serving as François Mitterand's Minister of Culture. (His brainchild, "La Fête de la Musique", is celebrated every year on June 21st with free street concerts and festivals in every town, village and city in France.)
And rumor has it that Sarkozy has offered him a cultural portfolio (probably on the level of special assistant to the President) to be announced after the legislative elections. For the time being, Lang's people are denying that any discussions have taken place. But if it turns out to be true, it would deal a heavy blow to the Socialist Party's hopes for reconstructing itself following its loss in the Presidential election and what looks to be a disappointing showing in parliamentary elections next week.
Friday, June 1, 2007
About a week or so ago, reader RGM asked me whether Jacques Chirac's secret Japanese bank account was news here in France. The answer is yes and no. It's a story that's been floating around for a while now, so it's not exactly news. But it's regained some momentum now that Chirac is out of office and will soon lose his presidential immunity, and as details slowly leak out about the case.
Like the possibility, as the Guardian claims, that Gaston Flosse, the former President of French Polynesia recently convicted of corruption, may have deposited money into the account. Money that theoretically might have come from the E.150 million (Euros) France used to pay French Polynesia each year for the right to test their nuclear weapons there.
So far, it's a string of hypotheticals. But it's safe to say that the wave of post-presidential "Chirac sympathy" will quickly subside if it turns out the deposits into his slush fund were some sort of radioactive kickback.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
La Méthode Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy's first real moment in the national spotlight occured in 1993 when a man calling himself "HB" (which was later discovered to stand for Human Bomb) took a roomful of kindergarten children hostage. Sarkozy, as mayor of the city where the drama took place, negotiated directly with the hostage-taker. Every time he entered the classroom to negotiate he would agree to one of the guy's minor requests in return for releasing a child or two that he took out with him upon leaving. All the while, he refused to meet the guy's principal demand, which was access to the news media.
Finally, after two days, the negotiations reached an impasse and HB refused to allow any more children to leave. At which point Sarkozy sent in the elite French commando unit known as RAID, who killed HB instantly and freed the rest of the children. As a couple of anecdotes from this past week demonstrate, his negotiating style hasn't changed much since then.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Sarkozy's two major policy declarations regarding Europe were, a) his support for a streamlined "mini-constitution", passed by parliamentary vote, to replace the unreadably obtuse one rejected by referendum two years ago; and b) his opposition to the entry of Turkey into the EU. Now if you look closely at the two positions, one thing becomes clear. The first, an institutional resuscitation of the EU, is urgently needed. The second, a decades-long process that will unfold in stages, can easily be scuttled at some more convenient time in the future.
So it should come as no surprise that Sarkozy, in meeting with EU President Manuel Luis Barroso last week and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero yesterday, was willing to withhold a French veto of a preliminary round of negotiations with Turkey in order to gather momentum for his mini-treaty.
Another example is his controversial campaign promise to require minimum service during any transportation strike. The unions have come out strongly against the measure, which would limit one of their most powerful weapons. Sarkozy has since backed off from passing a law immediately, stating that he would allow the unions and the employers' organization to negotiate the terms, with the relevant government ministers only stepping in if the two sides could not come to an agreement. Unilateral legislation would be reserved as the last option should negotiations fail.
Sarkozy is careful to never identify what he wants (mini-treaty, minimum service) without at the same time dangling the cost to his negotiating partner (Turkey veto, unilateral legislation) should he not get it. More importantly, he's perfectly willing to postpone confrontation, as long as he can leave the room with a child in his arms.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
"Sarkozy The Activist" Alert
Ali Larijani, Iran's chief negotiator for the nuclear dossier, discussing how to break the current impasse in today's Le Figaro:
The means consists of reopening the dialogue, without pre-conditions on either side. With that in mind, France under its new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, could play the role of an "honest broker", since France enjoys a good image among us: She never exerted neo-colonial pressure on Iran, and she sheltered the Ayatollah Khomeini while he was threatened by the Shah's dictatorship.
Rumor has it he's working on getting the blind to see and the crippled to walk.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
The Running Man
I've already mentioned that Nicolas Sarkozy will be an activist President. What's become clear since the election is that he will also be an active President. And by that, I'm referring to more than just his ritual morning jog, which has become a daily photo op in the French press. More significantly, Sarkozy intends to transform the function of the French presidency to better reflect his hands-on management style.
The French presidency has traditionally served to identify the political horizon, while leaving the captaining of the ship of state to the Prime Minister. Technically, under the terms of the Constitution, the President names only his Prime Minister, who then names the government, which is subsequently referred to by the Prime Minister's name. This is more than just a technicality. When Jacques Chirac named Dominique de Villepin Prime Minister two years ago, it was considered scandalous and a 'presidential usurpation' that in the same speech, he also confirmed that Sarkozy would become Minister of the Interior. This before Villepin had officially assumed his functions.
And yet, by several press accounts, Sarkozy was so involved in the formation of François Fillon's government that on several occasions he contacted ministerial candidates to offer them positions personally. Not only did he name the ministers, though, he apparently also vetted their chiefs of staff, with whom he will also be in direct contact. By comparison with Chirac's indiscretion, today was the first time I saw a mention of it in anything but the most matter of fact terms in the French press. (And that only in a decidedly iconoclastic weekly called Marianne.)
Sarkozy has also introduced a National Security Council that works out of the presidential offices in Elysée Palace and reports directly to him, something that has never existed here. And during the campaign, he mentioned amending the Constitution to allow the President to defend legislation before the National Assembly, something that currently only ministers are allowed to do.
In fact, Sarkozy has made no secret of his intention to govern using an "Americanized" presidency, and the press has already referred to his ministers as "Secretaries of State". In other words, Sarkozy is centralizing his control over all governmental policy-making. So while the American press focused on his naming of centrists and Socialists to the government, what they missed is that it will still be Sarkozy who runs things.
Friday, May 18, 2007
A Man Of Action
As an example of the kind of activism we can expect from Nicolas Sarkozy in the foreign policy arena, take the case of Ingrid Betancourt. She's the French-Colombian woman who, while campaigning for the presidency of Colombia in 2002, was kidnapped by FARC guerillas and hasn't been heard from since. She's become something of a cause célèbre here in France, to the point where I remember thinking at one point during the presidential campaign how odd it was that no one had mentioned her.
Well, apparently Nicolas Sarkozy had. And yesterday, in one of his first real gestures as president, he spent a half-hour on the phone with the President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, in order to re-invigorate the efforts to obtain her release. Then today, before the first ministerial meeting of his newly formed government, he met personally with her family.
If Betancourt is freed soon, luck will have had something to with it: As I mentioned yesterday, a Colombian police officer who just escaped from FARC captivity claims she was kept in the same compound, which helps to pinpoint her location.
But Nicolas Sarkozy, through the strategic use of his presidential intervention, will have played a role as well.
Update: According to this French language report, Uribe has now ordered the Colombian military to liberate Betancourt. I'm not sure if this is what Sarkozy had in mind. If so, it shows the danger of activism when it veers into impetuousness (see "George W. Bush", for example), because raids on the FARC's jungle camps have normally been unsuccessful and resulted in the executions of the prisoners being rescued.
Friday, May 18, 2007
The Price Of Ambition
I've never been particularly impressed with Bernard Kouchner, despite him being one of the most popular political figures among the French. He's always struck me as something of a sycophant, and an ambitious one to boot. Which might explain why he was willing to campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy up until two weeks ago, and accept a position in his government as Foreign Minister today.
Sarkozy had talked about naming Socialists to his government as a way of proving his willingness to seek bi-partisan solutions. Now he's got one, but not for long: As promised last week by François Hollande, Secretary General of the Socialist Party, expulsion proceedings for Kouchner have already been initiated.
It's possible that Kouchner might last at Quai d'Orsay. But if he doesn't, he's finished politically. Quite a gamble for someone who entertained presidential aspirations as recently as last year.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Président De La République
The official changing of the guard took place today in a formal ceremony (video link) at Elysée Palace that juxtaposed the oddly poignant, regal bearing of Jacques Chirac with the agitated jumpiness of Nicolas Sarkozy. In his investiture address, Sarkozy again mentioned Europe, the Mediterranean, and Africa as priorities, and announced that he would place human rights and global warming at the heart of France's foreign policy.
Which says alot about what Sarkozy really represents for France's posture in the world. Because there's been a lot of discussion of whether, how much, and in what ways he'll represent a difference from Chirac in particular, and from traditional Gaullism in general. But it's all focused on policy. And while there will be differences in priorities and emphasis, the major change won't be in terms of policy itself.
The quality that will mark Sarkozy's foreign policy is activism (not to be confused with interventionism). Which might take people by surprise, especially Americans who are used to thinking of France as a "second-rate" power. But Sarkozy's genius is in seizing the initiative and determining what people are talking about to fit his agenda. He did it throughout his five years in the government. He did it throughout the electoral campaign.
And watching him today I realized that he intends to do it as president. How? I don't know. But one thing is certain. While he's president, France will be an actor on the global stage, not a spectator. And French influence, which Americans tend to underestimate, will most likely grow even stronger.
So in wondering how Sarkozy will align France with US policy, American analysts are missing the point. The real question is, How are we going to align ourselves with his?
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Facing The Music
One of the running jokes during the 2002 French presidential election was that Jacques Chirac not only had to run for president, he had to win, if he wanted to stay out of jail. Because from 1976 until his first presidential term began in 1995, as both mayor of Paris and head of the former Gaullist political party RPR, Chirac presided over an illegal patronage system whereby party hacks were offered plum municipal positions.
One of his top lieutenants and former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, was already sentenced to a year's probation (including exclusion from elected office) for his involvement. And there's plenty of evidence that Chirac himself was perfectly aware of the system. Besides that, though, there were also a couple bid-rigging scandals, as well as an illegal party financing scheme, all dating to his years as mayor.
The only thing that's kept him from being charged to date has been the presidential immunity granted by the French constitution up until a month after he leaves office.
Which is why there was some speculation that he might decide to run for a third term this year out of desperation. His decision not to, and his subsequent endorsement (if a tepid one) of Sarkozy's candidacy caused quite a bit of whispering about a deal struck between the two. The idea being that Sarkozy would enact a law placing a ten-year statute of limitations on corruption cases, which would effectively cover Chirac on his most serious legal worries.
Sarkozy vehemently denied the rumors at the time. But it's something else to watch for during his "first hundred days".
Monday, May 14, 2007
Sarkozy The Pragmatist
Kevin Drum was wondering when American conservatives were going to quit fawning over Nicolas Sarkozy long enough to realize "...that when it comes to actually dealing with the United States, he's going to be every bit the pain in the ass de Gaulle was." He thinks Andrew McCarthy over at NRO might be the first sign that the honeymoon is over.
Look for the divorce proceedings to begin should Hubert Védrine, former Mitterand chief of staff and Foreign Minister under Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, accept Sarkozy's offer of Foreign Minister. Védrine coined the term "hyperpuissance" (hyperpower) to describe America's post-Cold War international status, and was the architect of the French "containment" policy designed to pushback against American domination of global geopolitics.
For Sarkozy, the offer is part of his attempt to open up his cabinet to the left, thereby establishing bi-partisan credibility. Another prominent Socialist, Bernard Kouchner, who founded Doctors Without Borders, has also been mentioned for the same post. Le Figaro cited sources claiming Kouchner is "...ready to enter the government", although his actual post wasn't specified.
The rumors have set the Socialist hive abuzz. François Hollande, the Party's Secretary General, has already threatened any party members who accept a position in Sarkozy's government with expulsion, saying “You can’t belong to one side then join the other." Bertrand Delanöe, the Mayor of Paris and another prominent Socialist, declared, "You can't be of the left and of this government":
"I'm not going to claim that Claude Allègre has become stupid or that Bernard Kouchner has lost his appeal, but I'll simply say that whoever believes in good faith that this government can carry out a progressive program" is fooling himself, he insisted. (Translated from the French.)
At least one member of Sarkozy's team isn't exactly thrilled with the bi-partisan idea either. Patrick Devedjian, his chief campaign strategist, insisted that "...loyalty isn't necessarily the opposite of competence."
It was a not-so-thinly-veiled reply to Sarkozy's declaration last week that "...loyalty is for the sentiments, efficiency is for the government." Sarkozy's way of warning the faithful, on both sides of the Atlantic, that there would be some disappointments when the actual government is named.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Reform Or Stalemate
This article in The Economist might just be the best one I've read so far on the implications of Nicolas Sarkozy's election as President of France. It perfectly captures the many contradictions he represents, contradictions that make it very hard to pin down just how his presidency will play out.
He uses provocative language and has a confrontational style, while emphasizing consensus in his method of governing. He is an Atlanticist (ie. sympathetic to America and England) while remaining no less a Gaullist in trade and foreign policy. He is young and dynamic, while using traditional values (work, law & order) to justify his program of change.
Sarkozy will face a lot of resistance, because while his initial reform package might seem innocuous to an American, it takes on added significance when put in the context of French politics. Particularly his declared intention to limit the power of the unions, which is very clearly a first step towards consolidating a later package of reforms.
The unions officially represent a very small minority of workers, but wield a disproportionate amount of power for two reasons. First, they are designated by statute as the official representatives of all workers in negotiating private sector contract and employment standards with the government. Second, while they represent a minority, it's a militant minority that's managed to paralyse the country through street mobilizations and transport strikes anytime a government has tried to impose reform from above.
The unions and the street have traditionally been regarded as an emergency break, protecting aquired social privileges for all French workers. In the event negotiations fail, Sarkozy will almost certainly use the classic populist tactic of making them out to be a loud but small minority that makes life difficult for the "silent majority". The outcome of that struggle will determine what direction France, and its culture, will take during his presidency.