Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Leader of the French World

I grew up in Los Angeles, which has great mountains and beaches but a pretty damn crappy city-scape. To see great trees and amazing buildings and have the feeling of luxurious calm they can give, my friend's dads would occasionally take us to some mogul party in Bel-Air. There you'd see Luxembourg- Gardens style glories of eternal summer, the peaceful abundance of a Fragonard painting , maintained by invisible faires hailing from Oaxaca and Guanajuato.

Manmade L.A. beauty was mostly private. There were a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright houses open to the public, about a half-hour of driving from each other and the La Brea Tar Pits, and the County Art Museum as we then called it. Mostly for aesthetic pleasure we went to Griffith Park Observatory or to the beach. UCLA's Powell library was a nice Moorish-Spanish fantasy, but they didn't like kids.

More generally, the parks were pathetic. The streets were one-story shop fronts built with ten-year write-offs in mind. The later upgrades, driven by Hollywood migrations west towards the ocean to beat the smog, meant that shopping strips got taller and the Gaps looked like a 1980s bank, as did fancy restaurants like Chaya Venice. Picture today's Santa Monica Promenade, morphed from the 3rd st concrete strip. I do like the airplane hanger Broadway Deli but stuff like that doesn't add up to a visible city.

Paris is the contrast. The beauty is public. There's the cafe in the courtyard of the Louvre, rue Mouffetard, the square around the Mairie du 14e, Butee aux Cailles, my own ordinary rue Pascal (pictured above), le Jardin des Plantes, all the cutsy little shopping streets in the 6e that American jam because it's human scale Disney "Main Street" of people face to face next to amazing clothes and perfect courtyards only its real. There are hundreds of places that look great and are there for everybody. I almost feel dumb saying it, it's so simple. Beauty for free. Public beauty. And it's really great.

The leader of the French world, aka Le Jogger, aka President Rupture - he likes private beauty. The weekly magazine Marianne has a story this week elaborating Sarko's obvious love of the rich and famous. The article is on the "Fricocrates" now surrounding and controlling a president who can't help but worship them ("fric" = dough as in money). For some reason, Marianne is about the only major national publication that seems upset by Le J's plutocracy dressed up as vigorous renewal. The magazine isn't radical, but it is independent. This reminds me that the major magazine voice on this subject in the States has been Lewis Lapham, the longtime and recently retired editor of Harpers who hated socialism but not quite as much as he hated fat-cat pseudo-democracy. Independence. Hmm, could be important.

The Marianne article is by Laurent Mauduit, who names lots of the huge money surrounding Sarkozy. Most of them don't mean much outside of France (or inside for that matter) - you've seen Bouygues, as in Martin Bouygues, on one of the Tour de France teams if you watch cycling, and he's a huge mogul in communications among other things. Most of Le J's big names are top 20 in the wealth-o-meter - several billions of euros, which is a lot of dollars as the dollar heads towards the value of the yen.

Some tidbits:
  • a Sarkozy insider, Henri Guaino, happily compares Sarkozy's vision to that of the Second Empire, the dictatorship of Napoleon III which Guaino describes as an era of modernization and economic renewal.
  • Le J is, we must repeat, a drooling dog around big money. Saluting his wealthy friend Stephane Richard in a state building, the Ministry of the Interior Place Beauvau, he said, 'you are rich, you have a beautiful house. . .You have made a fortune. Perhaps at some later point this too will happen to me."
  • One critic correctly says, these guys Sarkozy loves, they aren't really the entrepreneurs but the very rich. He actually prefers the inheritors of wealth to the empire-builders.
This last is the crucial point. The wealthy explain their money as the natural reward of value that they have personally created. But le J's wealthy didn't actually create much value.

One could generalize the point to the financial sector in general, which once could say is grossly overpaid for sometimes providing liquidity but mostly taking a huge cut of raising the price of everything. The Second Empire that Guaino praises was also a period of unhinged speculation in real estate and finance that arguably drained money from France's industrial development, which never came close to that of England or Germany. One of the victims of the power of investors over corporations today has been research and development, which companies have cut to the bone to help keep their stock price high.

We're supposed to be innovation economies. But does the Right's leading lights like Le J really support innovation? That's different from inflating asset values and collecting gigantic broker fees.

I can't prove it (yet), but innovation has everything to do with how you feel in a beautiful place that is entirely public.

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