Sun Feb 18th, 2007 at 04:39:37 AM EST
Let's imagine a presidential election in the Republic of Far, Far Away, or Freedonia, or anywhere you like from the movies or books, just so long as it's holding a presidential election that has nothing to do with, you know, a presidential election that might be taking place soon in a European country that shall remain nameless. And let's imagine a candidate who:
- firmly intends to contest every patch of ground, every demographic, every social or professional group, and to that end uses the usual paraphernalia of private polls and focus groups;
- does not have to fear intense media examination of her policies and propositions.
What might this candidate fail to watch out for carefully? How might she go overboard?
Well, how about promising too much, too often, to too many people? A promise here, a promise there, so many votes gathered... But then the promises might become demagogic. There might be so many that some of them are contradictory. (Don't forget this candidate doesn't fear media scrutiny). Some might be simply unfeasible. The whole package taken together might be completely over the top financially.
So what? There's a French political proverb (I know I said Far, Far Away, but that was just to trick you into getting past the first line, dear reader, knowing as I do that yet another article on the French elections is borderline likely to make you scream and run) that says that a promise is only binding on the person who believes in it. (Nasty, cynical, Machiavellian people, the French...) As long as no one notices, our candidate can go on promising. After the election, screw you, voter!
All right (say you, reader). You lied about Far, Far Away, it was France again after all, and now I know what you're going to say: Ségolène Royal has gone and made too many promises, wow does she get everything wrong! Well, in fact, no. Of course, discussion of her programme has focused almost entirely on its cost, and the absence of costing, and the presence of costing, and arguments about costing, and meta-arguments about costing, and on the human drama involved in costing... All of this with the subtext, serious people in suits know that women on the left are sublimely ignorant of the weighty realities of state and will tax and spend the country to its knees. So Ségolène Royal has gone on getting the full treatment. Before, she didn't have a programme, and that was bad. Now, she has one, and as we expected it costs too much.
Sarkozy always had a programme. No one tried to pick holes in it, or cost it, but everyone knew Sarkozy had a programme. It's on his campaign website, Ensemble Tout Devient Possible (Together Everything Becomes Possible):
Click for a one-page pdf with a nice picture. It's dated 14 January 2007, but that's odd because on the 5th of February I got a different programme from the same link... Both "programmes" go in for vague generalities, but the new one, the one that's up now, is no kind of programme at all. A series of high-flown quotes from Sarko and others. Here's a piece that isn't even cherry-picked:
|«Ma France, c'est celle de tous ces Français qui ne savent pas très bien au fond s'ils sont de droite, de gauche ou du centre, parce qu'ils sont avant tout de bonne volonté. Je veux leur dire, par-delà les engagements partisans, que j'ai besoin d'eux pour que tout devienne possible.»
||My France is that of all the French who don't know if they're on the left, right, or centre, because they are first and foremost people of good will. I want to tell them, beyond partisan commitments, that I need them so that everything becomes possible.|
In fact, Sarkozy's "programme" was out there in bits and pieces, delivered in speeches to different constituencies. Some people were pulling them all together and looking at their coherence, feasibility, and cost. Not the MSM, of course. but a business-friendly think-tank, l'Institut de l'entreprise, set up a costing taskforce called Débat2007 that found (as one would expect) that Royal's plans would be costly, but also that the bill was piling up alarmingly on Sarko's side. Meanwhile, economist Thomas Piketty took one of Sarko's really big demagogic "promises" to pieces in a Libération article. Sarkozy vowed to take four (4) points off the tax burden, currently standing at around 44% of GDP. Piketty shot him down in flames. No way, no way at all, was it possible to take 4% of GDP off the tax burden in five years.
|Quatre points de PIB, cela représente, par exemple, davantage que toutes les recettes cumulées de l'impôt sur le revenu, de l'impôt sur les successions et de l'impôt de solidarité sur la fortune. Si Sarkozy envisage de supprimer ces trois impôts d'un geste auguste, qu'il l'annonce ! |
La vérité toute simple est que jamais aucun pays développé n'a abaissé de 4 points son taux de prélèvements obligatoires. Au moment où la révolution thatcherienne a produit ses effets les plus forts, de 1985 à 1995, les prélèvements n'ont baissé au total que d'à peine 2 points de PIB au Royaume-Uni (avant que Blair ne les réaugmente de 2 points, retrouvant ainsi aujourd'hui le taux d'environ 37-38 points de 1985). Nicolas Sarkozy envisage-t-il de faire des coupes deux fois plus lourdes que Margaret Thatcher dans une période de temps deux fois plus courte ?
|Four GDP points represent, for example, more than all the combined revenue of the income tax, the inheritance tax, and the wealth tax. If Sarkozy means to abolish those three taxes in one majestic gesture, let him make an announcement!|
The plain truth is that no developed country has ever lowered its tax burden by 4 points. When the Thatcherian revolution was producing its most powerful effects, between 1985 and 1995, taxation only dropped by barely two points of the UK GDP (before Blair put it back up again by two points, so getting back to the level of about 37-38 points of 1985). Is Nicolas Sarkozy planning to make twice as big cuts as Margaret Thatcher in half the time?
Still, this wasn't the MSM, and Sarkozy could have gone on. But even in his own party, the UMP, which has been completely on message up to now, there were stirrings of unease, expressed in a meeting Thursday. The team responsible for "budgeting" the candidate's propositions, headed by Pierre Méhaignerie, came out and said there were promises that would have to be, er, de-promised (meaning forgotten about, or put off for years). The "4 points off the tax burden" would have to go: only "one point in five years" was reasonable. Promises to reduce the inheritance tax would have to be scaled back. The promise to pay family allowances from the first child on (currently family allowances kick in on child number two) would be postponed sine die. The entire programme had to stay under a ceiling of €30 bn. (It was reckoned by l'Institut de l'entreprise at over €50 bn, plus the 4 points of GDP, worth €68 bn; Sarkozy now says his programme will cost €32 bn).
Up to now, Sarkozy's campaign has seemed a model of on-message professionalism (not the case with Ségo's). But it has started to show cracks. He's lining up polls that show him clearly beating Royal in the second round of the election. The MSM are on his side. What can go wrong? Well, that his campaign people and political backers at the UMP start dreaming about the spoils. And start fighting each other. And take their eye off the ball. And annoy the boss and his wife. Leading to... This week's Canard Enchaîné (no link) reports huge blow-ups at campaign HQ, Sarko (who is known for his bad temper) yelling at everyone and calling the UMP offices to tear a strip off them too. He has got rid of his main communications advisor, Frank Tapiro, and has grounded one of his surrogates, Nadine Morano, and complains of others. "I've had enough of people speaking in my name," the Canard reports him as saying. Personally, I don't always find him very good, and his surrogates seem to me to have been efficient (would that Ségolène had some feistier ones!), but, if that's the way he wants it, why not?
So the candidate's programme is nothing but a string of out-of-control promises he has had to renege on already. And his campaign is showing signs of serious strain after a month's campaigning. This could be a turning-point?
Well, it could. But what did I hear last night on TV News (France3, public broadcasting?) The nice lady who reads us what's on her prompter told us all about the polls saying Sarko would win. And how there was une accumulation de couacs (a concert of false notes) coming out of the Royal campaign, the latest being the quarrel over costing (you guessed it!) leading to the resignation of Royal's budget specialist, Eric Besson. It's true that's a false note, but it happened last Wednesday and we're still being reminded of it on Saturday evening. Even this Sunday morning on public radio France Inter, where two journalists' questions to François Hollande went back again and again to the bad polls and the false notes and the mess Ségolène Royal was in, and where Hollande had to fight to be allowed to say that Sarko had completely redimensioned his "programme" and was therefore not credible. If it isn't in the MSM, does it really happen?
A final encouraging update: a new poll says 8 out of 10 French think the campaign is not over yet...
Update [2007-2-19 16:29:33 by afew]: Le Monde comes through today with articles on these questions, in particular a long and interesting piece by Philippe Ridet, "embedded" journalist with Sarko, who tells more about how the fake chummy relationships grow (and are Sarko-cultivated) over the years.
Le Monde also gives some info on the above points about the shake-up in the Sarko campaign. The article admits these elements have not been talked about much in the media. The point is that Royal has openly said she's making changes in her campaign staff (about time and let's hope she brings in more efficient people), and all the media are talking about that: one more piece of evidence she's going down the toilet, right? Meanwhile no one talks about Sarko's team changes.
Most important is a pretty precise and damning piece of writing by Raphaëlle Bacqué about how Sarko has "embedded" himself with the media over the last 25 years, particularly by his friendship with big media bosses. This is such an important article it calls for separate treatment in a piece on the media (as suggested by someone). So perhaps there's some sense of shame at Le Monde? Some wish to fight, on the part of some of the journalists?
Sorry there's so much in these articles I haven't time to translate.