Rigueur, quelle rigueur?

In the name of “witnessing the modernisation of the higher education institutes of France,” or something to that effect within Tuesday’s presidential agenda, Nicolas Sarkozy was at the University of Strasbourg to overlook the multi-million renovation of its main library and partake in an “exchange” with its students on the economic and political situation in Europe and the conclusions of last week’s G20 summit. Hours after handing his Prime Minister the unenviable task of announcing the latest tranche of austerity measures, effectively all but driving a final nail into his mantra of travailler plus pour gagner plus, and regrettably minutes before revelations of his and Barack Obama’s most intimate thoughts of Binyamin Netanyahu at the Cannes summit emerged, SuperSarko was very much on the campaign trail in Strasbourg and in all probability hoping to push on from his 5-point “Giulia bounce,” if I could put it that way. Hosted at the Ecole de Management, and gathering students from several of the university’s social science institutes, controversy brewed beforehand as selection policy appeared to overwhelmingly favour foreign exchange students including myself, with few if any French people from at least my institute invited. Perhaps the organisers feared a revolt was in the offing, a notion quickly dispersed by the warm reception for Monsieur President and the very nature of the questions put forward to him, almost pathetically crafted by groups of meticulous masters students the day before.

In his introductory remarks, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke at length as to how his concept of “rebuilding the university” had been at the heart of his presidency, failing to name a successful policy and instead meandering amongst ideas of greater “autonomy” and a more profound separation between the university and research. Taking his cue from the university president in addressing the challenges of the current generation, he highlighted the “unprecedented” level of global interdependence and political affirmation as signs of an increasingly multipolar world which France had to embrace, before quickly turning to his first question on food price insecurity. He said it was the first time the G20 had begun to tackle the issue, particularly in view of the need to boost agricultural production by 60% in the next fifty years. He blamed a production deficit for the “scandal,” stating that all disposable arable land was needed and dismissing calls for sacrificing, say, agricultural production in Europe for that in Africa. To combat the existing “law of the jungle,” he urged greater regulation of the food markets, inviting measures to buy back 15 to 20% of total agricultural production, diminish the likelihood of export embargoes such as Russia’s last year and doing all possible to conserve lands increasingly used for energy purposes. The responsibility for handling the food price crisis, he suggested, would be handed to an international body, in line with a gradual realignment of the global organisations, the UN remaining the guardian of peace and borders, the IMF the world’s economic guarantor and the ILO the ombudsman of worldwide labour conditions, to mention a few.

The following carefully tailored question turned to the matter of the day, the Eurozone crisis. Mr. Sarkozy qualified the world recession as a three-piece puzzle, the result of a crisis of financial regulation, an economic one of uniquely global proportions and sovereign debt. He attributed the developed world’s debt levels to its dominance of global commerce and high social standards, underlining in the process France’s failure to make a balanced budget since 1974. He described rejecting globalisation as “absurd,” accepting its need to change but trumping that rien est mieux que la liberté, rien pire que la protection – conveniently omitting his own protectionist moves in the throes of the recession. He again took the opportunity to whip out his complaints of the 35 hour week and its constraints on the country’s competitiveness, again forgetting how considerably several of his measures have reduced the effectiveness of a legislation ever increasingly less relevant today. When pressed on the steps taken to clamp down on tax havens, he proclaimed that at the 2009 G20 summit in London a “black list” of 64 jurisdictions had been commissioned, since reduced to 11, but failed to allude to his hefty tax concessions for society’s richest. Asked of the Franco-German axis, he reiterated its historical necessity and justified its present dominance of the union on the basis of demographic and economic conditions, affirming that this was no contradiction of the body’s democratic nature. Regarding the question of a split on nuclear policy between the two countries, Sarkozy said he had no plan to renege on the wisdom of his five predecessors and the source of 40% of the country’s electricity. Hours before George Papandreou’s government folded, he took a final swipe at him for calling a referendum on the bailout agreement of the 27th of October, rather than on membership of the common currency, declaring that it was a mistake to admit the country in 2001. Expressing hope for Italy, yet making no mention of its still uncertain political future, he indicated that its sovereign debt was proportionally less than Greece’s – an irrelevance as he should know in these times of barbaric unpredictability. A federal solution to the crisis, he admitted, was difficult to envisage, given the union’s ever continuing enlargement.

Only at the end was a question with some modicum of intent, regarding the latest plan de rigueur, conferred. A little brashly, Sarkozy dismissed the notion of austerity, insisting that the included reformes were nothing comparable in scale to the measures taken in Portugal, Greece or Ireland. He underscored his commitment to nullify the deficit by 2016, deriding a “certain candidate for the presidency’s” signature pledge to reinstate 60,000 teachers, none less than François Hollande’s. And with that, charming and persuasive to most as ever, SuperSarko climbed the aisles to make good on his oft proclaimed ambition to speak to the leaders of tomorrow. A few Socialist activists handed around leaflets graphically exposing the staggering accumulation of debt on his watch. Spin and woo as he may, Monsieur President will have tougher rides than at Strasbourg’s Ecole de Management in the months to come.


One response to “Rigueur, quelle rigueur?

  1. I like your article (as you can see). First of all, if I may, I’d like to add that French students of the IEP were not asked to take part or very belatedly so. We were not even informed that international students would participate. The underlying idea was that Mr Sarkozy would face nicer questions from students of the EM (who usually are no dab hands at politics) or international students who (understandably) don’t necessarily know the particulars of Mr Sarkozy’s policies. They deliberately sidelined us. As you say, the whole thing was a sham from A to Z.

    His take on agricultural policy is rubbish. You can now see why Mr Sarkozy will never be popular with genuine classical liberals: buy back 15 to 20pc of agricultural output! By the way, the continuing failure to scrap the CAP explains much of Africa’s food problems. Because European, especially French, agriculture is heavily subsidised, it can be unleashed and flood the African market, replacing local crops. It is incredibly cynical to say we are helping Africa by handing it 10bn € a year (which ends up in dictators’ coffers) while we are methodically destroying its agriculture. Besides, the whole central planning thing scrambles price signals, removes incentives and makes it impossible for any efficient, productive, competitive European agriculture to arise. We just have to look at New Zealand in order to see what we’re missing out on. And yet another international quango…

    As you correctly pointed out, Mr Sarkozy has a protectionist record. In the earlier stages of the global financial crisis, he was clamouring for more regulation and strengthened his pro-CAP credentials. Also, Mr Sarkozy and much of the French political class conveniently overlook the fact that the existence of tax havens suggests there are tax hells… We are in one (and the most punitive tax hell if the Tax Misery Index is any guide). As for his comments on the Greek referendum, I expected nothing less from the same man who denied us a say on the Lisbon Treaty. The only thing I actually agree with is his commitment to nuclear energy, which, by the way, makes France far cleaner than the rest of Europe.

    Austerity? Where? Surely you must be talking about some other country! There has been no squeeze at all. The recent measures announced: more tax hikes (76pc of the plan), a freeze on some civil servants’ pay. Hardly what you’d call a hard squeeze except for poorer households who will bear the brunt of it, considering they can’t escape VAT. In effect, poorer taxpayers are expected to chip in more money in order to prop up a caste of well-off civil servants. We already have the biggest number of civil servants in Europe, and he wants to add 60,000 more on top of that? Did he bother to ask whether we want our money spent that way? Or does the kleptocracy in charge think it is theirs to dispose of? How much will we get? 8bn € at most? How much is our deficit? 90bn €? If they really meant to cut the deficit, there would be far more sensible things to do than inhibit 75pc of French growth (i.e. consumption, by far the biggest engine of growth over here). And they dare say raising VAT won’t impede growth? Are they mad? If you inhibit consumption, firms will sell less, their profits will shrink and they will lay off people… The government are a bunch of economically illiterate toffs.

    They could scrap international aid for one thing, even the UN say it has been wasted and lavished on dictators and banquets (that’s 10bn € a year, more than all of these aforementioned measures put together). Then, they could say we won’t pay for bigger wages in the European Parliament and won’t pay our share of the budget increase. European institutions should lead by example and tighten their belts. Then, they could save up to 700m € a year by halving MP, MEP, presidential and ministerial pay. They could save more by scrapping the Senate altogether since they serve no tangible purpose. They could scrap subsidies to trade unions (we don’t even know how much it costs since there is no disclosure and, therefore, accountability) and associations. They could also confiscate Mr Sarkozy’s brand new plane… Then we could get rid of the local bureaucracy (conseils généraux) and merge all these petty departments and municipalities into more autonomous regions, even if it upsets the ruling Jacobins. They can’t think of how to make economies? I can.

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