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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Obama and Sarkozy: A Tale of Two Presidencies

Last Sunday, March 21, saw two world leaders facing a key vote that would define the two-year remainder of their presidencies. I am, of course, referring to Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy. The Leader of the Free World (interesting how we stopped hearing that phrase when BO became president) was facing the break-or-make-a-presidency vote in the House of Representatives on his healthcare reform plans; while Sarko, whose party controlled only two of France's 22 regions, tried to show his abysmal approval ratings didn't rub off onto local polls.

If we are to believe the French satitical show, Les Guignols, Sarkozy has a heavy chip on his shoulder regarding Obama: the US president is taller, more handsome, an extraodinarily skilled orator, enjoys rock-star popularity all over the world and has a bigger plane - like all testosterone-high males, our leaders are obsessed with size. Well, if that is true, the results of the votes held on the same day did nothing to dent Sarkozy's inferiority complex.

Obama won the vote thus getting what may well be his lasting achievement, while Sarkozy lost Corsica (the home of another short, Gallic leader with ambitions of global grandeur) thus finding himself with ALL but one of France's regions controlled by the Socialists. Rarely had a political slap sounded so thunderous.

What does this tell us about these two rulers, their leadership style, their likely legacy and why we should bother? Since they lead major countries what they do does impact people's lives, for better or worse. In Obama's case, one can safely say the healthcare reform bill is for the better, as tens of millions of American citizens who were exposed to great hardships, made even worse in the economic downturn, got a strong helping hand. No longer will insurance companies be able to play with literally life-and-death matters with only one objective in mind: making even more money for their obscenely fat stockholders (obese is probably the right word.) So far Obama has not had a major political success: sure he's avoided a full financial meltdown but a negative is rarely a good indicator of success and, anyway, the economy is still in the doldrums with unemployment at record levels. On the foreign-policy front, his amazing popularity has yet to translate into substantial gains: the Middle East peace process is stuck (I'll come back to that later), Iran, Cuba, Venezuela are not any friendlier, Russia and China are, if anything, frustrating him at every corner. So, yes, there are still a lot of things for which, to be charitable, the jury's still out, but there's no denying that healthcare reform is a major achievement arrived at through vision, patience, dogged determination and a will to go beyond style and achieve substance.

Sadly, these qualities seem to be lacking with Sarkozy. Ever since he arrived at the Elysée Palace he has seemed overly obsessed with his image, increasing his PR team to a size previously unheard of but commensurate with the man's ego, inversely proportional to his physical size (the Napoleon syndrome.) Jetting around whenever a world crisis loomed but strangely unable to produce any concrete progress on the major issues facing 21-century France. He was elected on a wave of enthusiasm for his can-do, go-getter attitude and straight talking so different from his predecessor and nemesis, Jacques Chirac. But the French soon saw through his self-obsessed behavior: one of his first decisions was to triple his salary delivering on his increased-purchasing-power election promise - at least for...himself! And since then it's been a lot of noise made in France, Europe, the wider world, but with little to show for it back home. Voters can tell a fraud when they see one, and that was the main message they sent last Sunday.

A British statesman once said that "a week is a long time in politics." Let alone two years. Many things can happen in the run up to the 2012 presidential elections in the US and France. Obama may later this year get the equivalent of Sarko's election rout with the mid-term elections. Sarkozy may suddenly carry out reforms (none less than to his own style) that will make him not only popular again but deliver gains to his subjects, while the Socialist party may either implode or fall back to its fratricidal wars .

But, I have my doubts. I think that the pattern and trend are clear and I'll make the following predictions. And remember you read it here first: Obama will get reelected while Sarkozy will be sent packing. The latter prediction will in turn call for another one: Carla Bruni, shorn of the fun of staying in presidential homes and flying in presidential jets, will also dump him. Sad ending for a sad little man.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" becomes a Greek tragedy

So now it's all about wicked speculators trying to destroy a small and virtuous country. At least that's the message that Greek Prime Minister Papandreou has been hammering these last days in his mini-world tour aiming at finding a solution to his country's financial travails. Excuse me, but there's nothing illegal about speculating, otherwise said speculators would already be in jail. Speculators stand to lose their shirts in their high-risk operations and, yes, this is how it works in a capitalist system: they also stand to make big bucks. But they only do so in exceptional circumstances such as a war or a particularly badly managed economy which is the case with Greece. After all, Greece does have a high budget deficit (12% and counting) and speculators had nothing to do with it. It's irresponsible Greek governments who, also adding accounting fraud to such skills, have driven the country to such dire straits. (By the way did you know that for the most part of the past 60 years the Hellenes have been run by either a Papandreou or a Constantinis? difficult to shirk your responsibilities then.)

Of course, both Merkel and Sarkozy professed they wouldn't let Greece down but at the same time the Germans have ruled out any bailout and sensibly so: why should a Teutonic taxpayer subsidize a Greek's pension or holidays? As for Sarkozy, his gesticulations are on a par with his usual behavior: they are aimed at self-aggrandizement ("Sarko the savior of the Eurozone") but also self-interest. He knows that sooner or later France will be in a similar situation: after all no French government has presented a balanced budget in the past 30 years - quite a feat. Even Germany after the colossal deficit induced by Reunification's costs (at least they had something to show for their deficit) managed to balance the books for a while, and Spain for several years in the 2000's ran a budget surplus. Sure their economy was prospering (not the case now) but the French government NEVER presents a balanced budget whether in lean or in fat years.

When will our leaders learn this simple truth: just like responsible family heads, no one can live beyond their means for ever. The day of reckoning is coming, has already come for some.

(This picture of the author was taken in the Greek islands in happier economic times)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Women’s Day and Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar victory

Isn't amazing how symbolic some dates can be? On the very day that we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of International Women's Day, Hollywood's Film Academy bestowed, for the first time in its 82-year history, the directing award on a woman (and I'm not playing with dates since with the time difference between the West Coast and France, the two events took place almost simultaneously.) And in the process they sent that vacuous film, Avatar, packing. For once the Academy membership got things right, even if I was a bit disappointed that that perennial nominee, Meryl Streep, didn't win for a terrific performance in Julie & Julia. Isn't it astonishing that the greatest actress in the world hasn't won an Oscar for over a quarter-century. Well, the record-holder, Katharine Hepburn, did wait 35 years between her first award (in 1932) and her second one (in 1967.) So I have no doubt that la Streep will go on to win a couple more.

But let's get back to Bigelow's win, breaking one of the ultimate glass ceilings (and how poignant that it was given to her by Barbra Streisand who was snubbed in the early 1980's with Yentl.) In spite of all the hoopla and studio marketing, the better movie won showing that sometimes talent is all you need. More shocking was the quality press parroting 20th Century Fox's marketing slogans: "the highest grossing movie of all time," a meaningless phrase if there ever was one. Haven't they ever heard of inflation? A million dollars in 2010 bears little relation to a million in 1990. That's why even other media sectors, such as publishing or the music industry, talk in units: records (CD's) or books sold, since one book in 1930 is still one book in 2010. Have you ever heard of any other company in any other industry talking about "our best sales figures of all time"? Of course not, only Hollywood, with its predilection for creative accounting, engages in such hyperbole. But what is shocking is that the quality media, such as the BBC or The New York Times, reports those extravagant claims with no respect for truth or their viewers who deserve to be given news with perspective.