I have been following the Detroit bankruptcy story and thought the following syndicated column from David Sirota (“Don’t Buy the Right-wing Myth About Detroit”,, 23 July 2013) worth sharing.

Sirota asks good questions and supports his arguments with statistics, even if, in my view, he fails to ask the hard question: Where is the public interest in these events?

The easy answer is that public servants should be sheltered from the negligence and incompetence of their “political” superiors. In other words, State and municipal employees should be protected by a “civil service code”. In the absence of such a code, the real answer becomes more difficult to find.

Cities are public organizations that should be managed and not left merely to fend for themselves in the harsh world of laissez-faire economics. Municipal governance is profoundly anchored in the politics of territoriality and districting with all that implies.

In granting a home rule charter, policy makers should reserve for themselves an oversight role so that imbalances can be corrected. Had public oversight of territorial organization been the rule, in both Louisiana and in Detroit, “white flight” from city centers to the near suburbs could have been addressed as a public policy issue and tax burdens more equitably apportioned. Governance reform and tax reapportionment within the Aix-Marseille metropolitan area are at the heart of the reforms recently passed in the French legislature as the “Loi sur la modernisation de l’action publique territoriale”.

Unfunded liabilities are a typically American problem, shared alike in the public and the private sector. And yet…

The smart criticism avoids asking hard questions about public responsibility for public pensions (as opposed to private pension liabilities), and further ignores the issue of state responsibility for the regulation of public institutions. What could be more public than a municipal charter? and, what could the rationale be for running a city like a corporation?

If interested, read more here:, Don’t Buy the Right Wing Myth About Detroit

Published as personal commentary
on the Facebook page of “Democrats Abroad France – Marseille

Photo credits:
– Cover photo of marked-up, peeling wall paper by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, 2011. The Ruins of Detroit
– Packard Motors squat and Delray family pictures by Pete Brook, Captivating Photos of Detroit Delve Deep to Reveal a Beautiful, Struggling City, published by (Wired Magazine, Jan. 2013)
– Unknown source (Twilight over Motor City)


The following was written as a meditation introducing the theme of a luncheon conference on Expatriate Citizenship in a Connected World. The United States Consult General, Diane Kelly, was our featured speaker.

To paraphrase the French adage, “pour faire la République, il faillait faire des républicains” let me suggest that to create a global community we must first cultivate global citizenship.

I am a professional expatriate. Thirty-four of my sixty years have been spent overseas:
I was born and raised in Brazil (where I survived three “revolutions” or moments of high national tension and political turmoil: President Getulio Vargas’ suicide in 1954, Janio Quadros’ resignation in 1961 and succession by left-leaning João Goulart, and finally, the 1964 military overthrow of João Goulart.) I then lived 26 years in the United States (New York and New Orleans) and I am now in my 17th year in France.

My childhood years provided a ringside seat on the early stages of globalization. Indeed, my parents, brothers, sister and I were the embodiment of liberal capitalism, enjoying the fruits of diversified country risks and free trade. Our neighbors and friends in the local community could easily see and admire in us, ad hoc ambassadors, in my father’s words, the benefits of modern consumerism and the apparently unlimited benefits of the free market.

Communicating with the universe. Pioneer 1 Plaque
We watched as the promise of a new era and a grand “Alliance for Progress” inflamed passions and hopes in Latin and North America (1961). Then came the Great Society, the Vietnam War, the first energy shock (the Arab Oil Embargo of 1974) the Iranian Revolution and the overthrow of Somoza regime in Nicaragua.

As a young adult in New Orleans I watched as communities were torn by internal strife (Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador) and then rebuilt through multilateral, US-led programs administered by the United Nations.

As parents of teenaged children completing their education in Europe, we watched as the Stockholm Declaration (1972) became the Earth Summit (1992) and these found their way into a pragmatic discussion of object-oriented development strategies and environmental management. The OECD’s “International Development Goals” were reformulated as the United Nations’ “Millennium Development Goals” to become a road map for multilateral cooperation and community development.

There is no doubt these changes are at least partly the result of improved communications, from transportation and mobility to telecommunications, 24-hour news cycles and the now ubiquitous Internet.

But it is not obvious that these changes have all been for the good.

Globalization has meant the shifting, transformation, blurring and even elimination of traditional barriers, those lines of demarcation that define self and set apart the other. For it is barriers that define community geographies whether political and administrative, cultural or ecological.

Such geographies are universal, the exist everywhere. But everywhere they exist they are different, they are expressed differently and experienced differently. My Americanness, Frenchness or Dutchness is really nothing more than a descriptor for the frame of reference I bring to my experience of the local community. We may be Sunni or Alawi, Christian, Muslim or Jew, but in a deeper sense we are first citizens and participants in a local community, sharing in the transformation and trade in local environmental outputs, and that by choice and by virtue of friendship and mutual respect is what makes us citizens.

And so we are French, American, Dutch, German or Canadian. But it is because we live in peace that we are not obliged to choose.


This post was originally written and shared with an old friend, Bud Oakey (see Thoughts from Bud
). As I write, the run-off candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy (who received 27.18% of first round votes) and François Hollande (28.63%) are maneuvering for the second round  scheduled for Sunday, May 6. The rhetoric of the second round has been of very high quality and a real national debate is actually taking place on issues such as the social responsibility of the financial industries, resident migrant rights and citizenship as well as the issues raised in this article. With feed back and encouragement I will be pleased to continue sharing.

The problem posed by the French election is how to reconcile French national ambitions and perceived global responsibility as a nuclear power and the world’s fifth economy with diminishing expectations at home and the difficult sustainability of the French social model.

First though, we should take a moment to understand what the French understand as their “social model”. The French government does what it does in the international sphere to promote French industry and create national wealth. It sells Rafale jets, negotiates treaties, builds nuclear reactors and high speed trains and signaling systems. The fruit of this work is national income or the “common wealth” which is captured through income taxes (a regressive tax which produces a relatively small percentage of fiscal revenues), value-added taxes (a consumption tax paid by everybody across the board and representing the bulk of French government revenues) and property taxes which are collected by the national government but essentially redistributed to local authorities. (You should note that education, health services, fire and police protection are organized and financed nationally.)
The question is, what should be done with excess wealth? In other words, how should it be distributed?
Some say the excess wealth should be kept at home and used to “ensure the domestic tranquility”, i.e. support a 35-hour work week, retirement at 60 years and a high minimum wage, saying, “after all, we earned it”. These people do not generally concern themselves with paying down sovereign debt or the competitivity of French industry. The other side argues that this national wealth should be reinvested in promoting the productivity of French industry, and that the French labor, despite apparent productivity, has not worked hard enough (they are overpaid) or long enough (retirement should be postponed to 65 or 70 to reflect longer life expectancies).

I have no doubt about where I stand on these issues, except that Sarkozy’s flamboyance, his in-your-face style sends a message that quite understandably offends French sensibilities. (We should note that the threshold for being considered “flamboyant” in France is much, much, much lower than it is in Italy, for instance, where Berlusconi flaunted his money and virility to make a mockery of virtue and traditional Italian values.)

So what we have on the one hand is a socialist party organization that smells the blood of a wounded adversary and positions its candidate as the “mild mannered, nice guy next door” devoted to his party, best-in-his-class public servant and scorned husband to boot. (It does not hurt him that many French find his former wife, Ségolène Royal to be an ambitious woman who lost patience with her plodding husband and ran for president herself.) Here we have a first reflection on how the social model is broken, or at least, “exposed” in an unwelcome way. The French genuinely believe in women’s liberation but found (in 2006/2007) the public behavior of the outgoing and rhetorically brilliant wife of the Socialist Party First Secretary (at the time, François Hollande) pushy and somewhat misplaced. Even so, the Socialist Party today is not offering anything new. It is merely offering old wine in new bottles.

On the other hand, Sarkozy has governed well but the rashness and impetuosity of youth. In my opinion he gambled his political capital on reform. Also in my opinion, he won his bets. France is better and stronger for his first term (five years) and for his management of the sovereign debt and Euro crisis. But how much of this success is due to the man and UMP party faithful, and how much of this is the result of the inevitable, of bureaucratic (in the noble sense) continuity?

Unfortunately, the Sarkozy camp are discouraged, and two days out from the first round of the general election, don’t see their way to a clear-cut victory. And also unfortunately, the left has fielded two excellent candidates (in the sense of competitive politicians) who between them stand a chance winning over 50% of the popular vote on the first round. (Because they are two candidates there will still be a run-off. But if the left remains united that does not augur well for Sarkozy.)

The “financial” versus the “real” economy
Any analysis is necessarily a simplification, a reduction of complex processes to a single snapshot in time, and that, a snapshot described through the eye of the beholder, in this case your friend and humble servant, moi.

Since 1984 France has been reforming its institutions to provide greater autonomy and freedom of action to its territorial administrations. By order of size, these are, from largest to smallest, 27 regions corresponding more or less to the feudal divisions annexed to create modern France, 83 departments (sometimes compared to counties) set up following the Revolution of 1789 as the administrative units for implementation of public policy. And finally, there are some 36,000 cities, villages and towns, of which only 255 are “cities” of more than 30,000 inhabitants. It is in these cities that the “real economy” takes place.

The gutting of French industry by low-cost producers (read, low labor-cost producers) has a deep effect of the viability of these local economies in a globalized and globalizing world.
With the advent of consumerism (an economic layer predicated on the need to consume to ensure full employment and productivity), the disappearance of physical barriers (both transport and telecommunications) village and town communities are threatened with transformation as supply territories, destined for rural impoverishment by big city “consumption machines” that monopolize energy and concentrate resources to accumulate ever more wealth. We are talking here, about megacities and urban centers, as well countries and ideologies.

Some on the left maintain that our troubles are produced by globalization and the blurring of traditional barriers. Others, mostly on the right, argue that the French are not sufficiently globalized, that France must defend itself from cultural and economic colonization, not by protectionism and introspection, but by offering new models of social organization, renewing the national capacity for empathy as a means to resolve persistent (and growing) inequalities, not only at home, but as humans. There is no turning back. If we are to survive as a species, to retain stewardship of the blue planet, with its oceans, forests, atmosphere and soils rich in diversity and teaming with life, we much propose new models of growth and social authority.

What does all this mean for the choice of candidates in 2012?
The 2012 general election presents a choice between those who slow the pace of globalization and if that were to prove impossible, erect barriers to ensure that for them at least, the world would not go too fast and those who consider that liberal democracy is the way forward: On the one hand, reactionaries and would oppose modernization by obstructing, and on the other hand those who believe that for France and indeed, the world, the only way forward is through closer integration and improved stewardship.

Stated this way, the choice is obvious. But from a French perspective, looking at Sarkozy the flamboyant, man of power head of state, the choice is somehow transformed into a choice between consumerism and family values, between the local economy which the French left has fairly successfully coopted, and the globalized economy and progressive colonization by financial, political and industrial elites.

The candidate who most engaging is Jean-Luc Melenchon. I think this is because he is an effective speaker, a performer with a populist socialist message. He is to the far left of the socially acceptable socialists and he is dangerous, like a bad-boy lover. One of the articles of his platform is constitutional reform, a 6th Republic. I cannot imagine that this would benefit France in anyway, but it is useful to think that the alternative to another five-year term with Sarkozy would be constitutional reform. And that is not an option!

Finally, and to his credit, it should be mentioned that Sarkozy has been open to shared sovereignty in areas that can no longer be successfully managed as national domain; the seas, the atmosphere and carbon entitlements, food security and water. Europe needs effective institutions, and the way forward clearly lies in strengthening these. The direction offered by the Sarkozy camp is the only way forward if you would live in the Star Trek utopia proposed by Jacques Cheminade (currently polling less than ½ of one percent) while avoiding the disaster of the shy, teddy-bear-like anticapitalist, Philippe Poutou (currently polling less than 1% of first round voting intentions).

Economic Misinformation and the French Election

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) recently produced a convincing analysis and alternative view of the stakes in France’s run-off elections. You will find the article, “Economic Misinformation plays a Major Role in French Election” on-line at

I have long felt that there was little sense in comparing U.S. and French income figures, largely because French productivity is higher for the most part. His employment analysis for males in the 15-24 age bracket however, had escaped me and of course, makes perfect sense. I wondered how Mark’s mathematics-of-unemployment calculation would hold for other segments of the population…?

I wonder whether Mark Weisbrot’s evaluation of the Sarkozy measures were correct, or even, if correct, whether they fairly represent the economic issues currently debated here in France.

What Sarkozy is promoting is labor market flexibility, not a redistribution of wealth as claimed by Mr. Weisbrot. (While the difference may be semantic, no French politician would get very far on a platform of “wealth redistribution”.) But the difference is important. Despite having created a viable society in which an educated population aggressively defends and promotes their social and economic rights, France sufferes from “immobilisme”, a self-inflicted inertia.

The Socialists (a better characterization of Ségolène Royal’s “left of center” group) preach “job security” and “redistribution” through job guarantees. Consumer stimulus may be well and good except they do not say how they would create such jobs or even what self-financing “public service” such employees could provide. In the process, the Socialists manage to avoid meaningful discussion of just how they would address the main cause of labor market inertia: the high cost of job creation (45% employer social security contributions) and labor laws that favor employment security over measures to increase disposable income.

There are other issues, to be sure, including important matters of public finance and community empowerment, of the reduction and redeployment of a civil service that continues to have a very high level of redundancy and functional overlap, and finally, the reform of higher education.

In my own opinion, and, I think, in the opinion of a majority of French voters, society needs a good shaking. The Youth riots of 2005 are not at the center of national debate, and the threat of force to contain and redress what are fundamentally social issues troubles me (and the French electorate) considerably, but these are not at issue here. Rather, the culture of social entitlements mixed with a profoundly cautious national ethos produce a deadly mix which stifles private initiative and places a unreasonably high cost on innovation.