Friday, March 31, 2006

The Understatement of the Day - Rice Wins.

"Yes, I know we have made tactical errors, thousands of them," US Secretary of State said in answer to a question over whether lessons had been learned since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Thousands? That's all?
"I believe strongly that it was the right strategic decision, that Saddam had been a threat to the international community long enough," she added.
Oh, so THAT justifies everything else then? Maybe we should all blame it on the French!


Chirac's Announcement on Job-Law - Confusion Remains.

Chirac said tonight that he would go ahead with the controversial labor law that would make it easier to fire workers — but he offered some concessions in the hope of calming protests and strikes.

1) He said he would reduce a trial period during which employees could be summarily dismissed from two years to one

2) The law would require employers to offer reasons.

If he signs the law tomorrow, how can it not be applied in its original terms? I am no expert on the constitution but this is not very clear. In any case, the opposition (the socialist Party and the Unions) continue to call for a major strike and demonstration on Tuesday.

It looks like the law will be signed but not applied (yes, I know this is ridiculous) and a new law will be debated in Parliament to replace the one that will not be applied. Wow...

Sarkozy has his own interpretation - that Chirac said the law is "suspended". How confusing...

One of the argument used by the unions - that the law is discrimnatory has been rejected by the Constitutional Council. In any case, I think that 'morally' speaking, it is no more discrimnatory than affirmitive action.

The Conservative government at the same also makes a moot point by saying that if this law is not signed, no reform will ever be possible in France. That is a way of highjacking the debate. The failure of this government to sell the law and negociate BEFORE the law is voted does not mean that reform is impossble (see our post on The Economist about the failure of the French political leaders to explain reality)


Quote of the Day

Found again in The Economist:
“THE French constitute the most brilliant and the most dangerous nation in Europe and the best qualified in turn to become an object of admiration, hatred, pity or terror but never indifference.”
Alexis de Tocqueville.


Waiting for (Autistic) Chirac...

France is waiting for the tradi-comedy (see Chirac as our new Godot) to unravel this evening, as the French president is supposed to make a major announcement on the job-law that makes it easier to fire young workers. The French media and analysts today are expecting Chirac to say he will enact the new labor law. He probably will, but who knows...
Now, the question may very well be whether Chirac will be more boring or more annoying. But there is some hope with this great new device (via Daniel Drezner):
MIT Media Lab researchers are building a device to help autistic people determine if they're boring or annoying the person they're talking to. The "emotional social intelligence prosthetic device" is a camera that clips on eyeglasses and feeds images to a small computer that uses image recognition software to characterize emotions. If the listener doesn't seem to be engaged, the device vibrates to alert the wearer.


France's Problems.

If the cover of the Economist is interesting, their inside articles are for the most part good, harsh and fair. I expected some sort of pro-Conservative French-bashing, but I must admit they have good some made some really good points even if I may differ on some things. Their view is merciless but it has the basic analysis right.
They notably exlain the current anger of the youth by the confusion entertained by the political leaders. There is undeniably more to it ut thay point with they point out, "the gap between the rhetoric (Capitalism is bad) and the reality (but consumption is good)" which may be the reason for this gigantic schizoid reaction (my terms). As they put it, the French condemn capitalism during office hours, but are quite happy to consume its products at the week-end.
This is, according to the Economist, the failure of the French political class over the past 20 years to tell it straight: to explain to the electorate what is at stake, why
France needs to adapt, and why change need not bring only discomfort. This failure has bred a political culture of reform by stealth, in which change is carried out with one hand and blamed on outside forces—usually globalisation, the European Union or America—while soothing words about protecting the French way are issued on the other. After a while, the credibility gap tears such a system apart.
They also sum up the French political landscape
quite well a choice between a form of socio-Gaullism embodied by President Chirac and an archaic socialism that fails to explain that wealth needs to be created before it can be shared.
Unfortunately, I do not share the Economist’s positive view of Nicolas Sarkozy as a new-generation leader capable of bridging the gap. It is true that they do stress the obsessive rivalry between he and Prime Minister Villepin over the succession which continues to sap
France's ability to get policy right.
In any case, this is a very interesting time in France, and you do feel the thrill of perilous times that could end up changing our lives for good and whether the rest of the world likes it or not, France's turmoil has implications beyond its own borders both in Europe and beyond.
After having rejected the European constitution last year, the French need to figure out what they really want, but that might not happen before the Presidential and Parliamentary elections next year, in which a new government may finally have some credibility for action.
(here's the entire article)


French Cockerel on The Economist.

This is the cover of this week's The Economist with a very telling picture of a blind rooster. (I remind you that the rooster is France's national bird!).

French comedian Coluche used to say that the reason why it is the French national emblem is that "it's the only bird that manages to sing with its feet deep in shit".
In reality it seems that the "coq gaulois" became a symbol of France hundreds of years ago due to a semantic quirk - the latin word "gallus" meant both rooster and Gaul. So it has been the symbol for the French fighting spirit and ancestry for hundreds of years.
Personally, I prefer Coluche's version.... athough the singing sounds more like shouting these days.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Moi? Faux pas?

For a good grasp on the today'smost recent events in turbulent France, you can read this NYTimes article.

Yesterday was not bad either:
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin made a slip of the tongue in parliament Wednesday, pronouncing the word that crowds of French demonstrators have been waiting to hear for weeks: resignation.
"Let's wait for the Constitutional Council, which will make its resignation tomorrow," he said. He meant "decision." In French, the words are more similar: "demission" and "decision.". Villepin quickly corrected himself as lawmakers on the left burst into laughter. (here)
As some of my students might say in Franglish, surely, the PM is thinking of "donating his demission"!.
For some reason, the words that come to mind when I read about this slip of tongue are all French - faux pas? gaffe? What would English be without the French!


American Says the French are Right.

This is the first article I find which says, contrary to common wisdom in the US, that the French students and workers are right. You may disagree with this view (I partly do) but it has the merit of giving a bit of fresh air to an otherwise sterile one-sided view of the recent protests through ignorant media anchors.

More than a million people in France have taken to the streets against their conservative government's attempts to change the country's labor law. Here in the United States, these strikes and protests are generally seen as another example of France's inability to come to grips with the reality of "the global economy."
According to the conventional wisdom here, "Old Europe" is in need of serious economic reform. But will the reforms currently on the European political agenda actually help most Europeans?


The idea that labor protections are the cause of European unemployment is part of an overall myth that Europeans would benefit from a more American-style economy. The U.S. economy is said to be more competitive, yet we are running a record trade deficit of more than 6 percent of GDP, and the European Union is running a trade surplus. The U.S. economy is supposedly more dynamic, but French productivity is actually higher than ours. Their public pensions, free tuition at universities, longer vacations (4-5 weeks as compared with 2 weeks here), state-sponsored day care, and other benefits are said to be unaffordable in a "global economy." But since these were affordable in years past, there is no economic logic that would make them less so today, with productivity having grown - no matter what happens in India or China.
French students and workers seem to have a better understanding of these economic issues than their political leaders. Hopefully, the wisdom of the crowd will prevail.


Picture of the Day.

Look at this weird picture of 'Demon-like' Condi...


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The French Press on the Protests.

BBC offers a translation of some comment in the French press into English... just to give you a better idea if you don't speak French. Update here.


At least something really funny on the French protests!

Thanks to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show of course ! [It takes some sense of humor but I think it is quite funny!]

NOTE: if you want some other funny video (unrelated to the French), look at this analysis of FoxNews 'strategy' (via Crooks and Liars). It is just HILARIOUS!


More Media Distortion on French Protests.

As you can read here, the American media have covered the protests in France in a biased sort of way - even cutting away from away from a live broadcast of a news conference with US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld - which shows how much the media care about what Rumy has to say.
The award of ludicrousness is given to CNN anchor Kyra Phillips who is clearly very ignorant:
"Sort of brings back memories of Tiananmen Square, when you saw these activists in front of tanks."
Paradoxically, the news channels also (rightly) commented on the "incredible restraint" shown by French riot police during the demonstrations, given the force's ruthless reputation.

UPDATE: A CNN journalist in Paris on Wednesday described as "regrettable" a comparison made by the US chain's anchor between jobs protests in Paris and the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing. "Unfortunately I have to say that this reference to Tiananmen was regrettable," said Chris Burns during a reception with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. "It was one small comment by a presenter. Apart from that, for anyone watching yesterday's coverage, it was very detailed and very balanced," Burns said.


French Bashing... on Fox!

Frankly, that FoxNews lashes out at the French (again) feels rather good. In fact, any slur from John Gibson (just look at the guy!) and his friends should be treated as a compliment:
In France they have a big demonstration Tuesday.
First, it's about not working. The rioters don't want to work and the threat of firing if they're lazy or won't work is what they're mad about.
Second, it's not peaceful. French youth are angry they won't have the same chance at a lazy do-nothing job which they can't get fired from — same as their parents. The idea they might have to compete against workers in other countries who do work hard and don't take six-week vacations, well that's enough to burn cars and attack the cops.


Personally, my favorite moment Tuesday was the water canon.
This is a very effective device. Attack the cops, get blasted by a high-pressure fire hose on specially built riot trucks that can fire blasts of water at rioters in all directions.
Hats off to the French for that one.
And hats off to the French for a thoroughly entertaining riot.
May I confess to the guilty pleasure of a satisfying laugh at the sight of a French protester getting knocked on his butt and rolled down the street like a burger wrapper?
I know, it's unkind and I should feel sympathy.
But somehow a guy rioting over being able to keep a job he doesn't do but thinks he has a right to anyway, that doesn't produce much sympathy in me. (Source : FoxNews)


The 'War' on Christians and the Martyr Complex.

You may not believe this but this week, there was a conference called "War on Christians" in the US. Some people actually believe that American Christianity is under siege. Now the best part is about Tom Delay (if you don't know who he is, you're certainly not American or you've lived in a cave - he's basically the Conservative House Majority Leader who had to resign because he was charged with conspiracy to violate election laws and has dubious ties with with the lobbying industry).
Now are you ready for a good laugh?:
"I believe the most damaging thing that Tom DeLay has done in his life is take his faith seriously into public office, which made him a target for all those who despise the cause of Christ," Rick Scarborough, convener of the conference said, introducing DeLay yesterday. When DeLay finished, the host reminded the politician: "God always does his best work right after a crucifixion." (Wash. Post)


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

French Protest - the Impossible Number.

One of the traditions of the French demonstrations is that at the end of the day you always get two different figures - those of the organizers and those of the police, and guess what? they are always different and always different in the same way.
So when you read that there 3 million people throughout France today, it is the number given by the unions..and when you read there were a bit over 1 million (1,055,000to be exact) peope, it is the the authorities (i.e. the police). The reality? As always - neither. The truth lies probably somewhere in between.
What is known for sure is that there were lots of people...
Is it funny though in this day and age, with modern technology and computers (and probaby something much more simpe) that the media have not yet figured out a way to get the right number?Maybe they could hire a professional pollster to do the counting.... or do it themselves.
In any case, beware of the number....


The Neo-Con Implosion

Watching the neo-cons implode is a guilty pleasure. One shouldn't gloat over the demise of others. But when an ideology, or at the very least its implementation, has been responsible for such a disaster as the Iraq War...well, one permits oneself a brief moment of joy. Last week's New Yorker had an article about the new book out by Francis Fukayama, America at the Crossroads," describing his break with the neo-cons caused by his anger over the blind allegiance of cheerleaders like Charles Krauthammer, neo-con extraordinaire.
Well, you may now witness the spat for yourselves by reading the rather nasty réplique by Krauthammer in his own column in today's WaPo. It's nasty stuff, but par for the course from a gang on the ropes. Is Fukayama's conversion for real or is he an opportunist? For you to decide. But one thing's for sure, this isn't the end of his-story.


Getting the facts right - US Media and the French protest.

Jerome-a-Paris on Daily Kos has some interesting remarks on the American coverage of the protests in France and on the numbers of youth unemplyment given in the media. Good start for a discussion. This is how it starts:

As France goes through another day of protests, the coverage in the US press is so appallingly bad that I am not surprised by some of the comments in my previous diaries, by people that are shocked by the seemingly irrational behavior of the French.

Let me say it as directly as I can: most of the coverage I have seen is either wilfully ignorant or purposedly lying, and they repeat a number of falsehoods about the French labor market that are, quite simply, shocking.

Let me try to correct the record.

(the rest can be read here)


Picture(s) of the Day.

(Rather primitive) voting booth in Israel. (Is it sponsored by Florida ot what?)

Here's more...
It rather looks like some UN guy carrying (the blue) voting booths in some African nation after a civil war than some elections in Israel... doesn't it?

(Source here)


The Abuse of the War-metaphor

Words are very important. The expression "war on terror" is a great exemple of political propaganda. This paper by two history professors makes some interesting points:
President Bush has given Commander-in-Chief Bush unlimited wartime authority. But the "war on terror" is more a metaphor than a fact. Terrorism is a method, not an ideology; terrorists are criminals, not warriors. No peace treaty can possibly bring an end to the fight against far-flung terrorists. The emergency powers of the president during this "war" can now extend indefinitely, at the pleasure of the president and at great threat to the liberties and rights guaranteed us under the Constitution.
The powers the current administration seeks in its "war on terror" are not granted under the Constitution. Indeed, they are explicitly prohibited by acts of Congress.

Unfortunately, the "war on terror" has been made acceptable and even unquestionable thanks to its repetitive use in the mainstream media.


Making the 'right' English 'mistakes'.

This new study on English does not surprise me in the least:
British students have a poorer grasp of spelling, grammar and the English language than their peers from overseas, research by Imperial College, London, suggests. They are more likely to make basic errors in their written work than those for whom English is a second language.
Another finding of the study concludes what I have also often noticed before : many English natives - 78% of British students in the study - mistakenly included an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun “its” (which becomes "it's" ) compared with 25% of overseas students. That's really a high number. I am certain that the result would be similar in the US. I find the same mistake to be quite common among many Americans. (also with "your" and "you're" and less often with "they're" and "their").
Undeniably, those mistakes are considered 'bad' by a majority of people (when they notice it!).
The funny thing, is that if you want to speak like a native you also need to learn to make the 'right' mistakes, that is those of the native English speakers or you draw attention for speaking too 'properly'. If you have no accent, people can't necessarily figure out where you're from but they can tell you're English is... odd. That's because you speak 'like a grammar book'.
Aa illustration I have in mind is the use of "well" (an adverb) and "good" (an adjective).
So to the question "How are you?", the answer "I'm good" has now become accepted as common usage in spoken English to mean "I'm well" even though it is not supposed to be proper grammatically. It is clear that teachers should teach both - the theory and the reality, and they should not focus too much on "the right mistakes". As we said before, there is no such thing as a "pure language" anyway!


Monday, March 27, 2006

NOTE on Bush's Press Conference.

We mentioned in a previous post how the President continues to dodge the questions on Iraq. (Even simple ones, like 'Why exactly did we go to war?' for instance) but one positive thing is that at least the questions are asked, and that's very healthy!
By watching this other extract from MSNBC (via , I was thinking how much I wish the French journalists asked their questions in a similar tone to Chirac and other political leaders. Their deferential tone is annoying and not so healthy.

BTW, I'm not the only to say this:
Always deferential to power, be it political, economic or unionized, French dailies have never really undertaken much investigative journalism. (Carte de Presse)
This may also be why the French want to revolt and take the street! The frustration....


Romanticized Revolution...

Francing ..oops = typo... FranCE is bracing herself for major demonstratons and general strikes tomorrow. The students will definitely protest but it remains to be seen whether the unions will succeed in getting people to strike. (I have my doubts!). The most serious concern is about the holligans at the end of the protest.
The coverage of the Anglo-Saxon media is usually rather negative or non-existent, but I have found one interesting article from the BBC which has a very unique romanticzed view of the recent events. I thought such romantic view was strictly French but apparently not.
Here's how the article ends:
And just faintly, comes the echo of May 1968 and a reminder that in France, even revolution for a mortgage and a pension has its own mysterious allure.


Black Eyed Peas-featuring George Bush!

Here is a funny parody video - Black Eyed Peas-featuring George Bush. (via Crooks and Liars)


Atheism in Europe and the US.

While more Europeans (other than the Poles of course) tend to be wary of religious people, the Americans seem unable to understand atheism and even tolerate it. Here's a study in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology which says that:
“Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.
Overall, over 90% of the respondents thought whites and African-Americans at least somewhat share their own vision of our society. Hispanics, Asians, Jews, and conservative Christians all received scores in the 80s, meaning that over 80% of respondents thought that each of these groups at least somewhat shared a common vision of our society. Recent immigrants and homosexuals received scores in the 70s overall. At the bottom of the list were Muslims and atheists.
After 9/11, we assumed that Muslims would fare the worst. However, this was not the case. Atheists received the lowest scores by far. While only 64% of respondents thought Muslims shared their vision of society, this was still 10 points higher than atheists, who received the lowest score of only 54%.
54% is a majority of people even though it is at the bottom of the list. I think Karen Armstrong (in her famous Battle for God) wrote something quite interesting which may partly explain the difference between Europe and the US:
In Europe, religion was becoming increasingly identified with the establishment, and ordinary people were turning to alternative ideologies, but in America, Protestantism empowered the people against the establishment, and this tendency has continued, so that it is difficult to find a popular movement in America today that is not associated with religion in some way.
So I think the view of atheism and religion is all much more cultural and historical than actually religious - whether in Europe or in the US. A lot of French people have a hard time understanding the positive role of religion in the American society (as a crucial unifying and socialising element). The same can be said about the role of the secular ideal of the French republic. Now 'secular' is different from 'atheism' but it may help make it more acceptable. The reverse is most likely also true, the importance of religion in the US probably makes the American people more tolerant towards other religion than the French.
All that seems pretty self-evident but it's a good reminder for better understanding our societies.

NOTE: I would also add that two destructive World Wars in Europe have made the idea of a benevolent much harder to believe for a lot of people.


Quote of the day - Worse than Bush and Chirac together.

Whenever I get desperate about our leaders, I always ... there's always Italy with Berslusconi. Here's an illustration of his latest 'political' strategy in his campaign:


We are the world...

I guess I missed the details of Bush's press conference last week. This excerpt (Surce: White House) is worth reading. It is a good illustration of how the US President dodges embarrassing questions and ends the discussion on some dubious diversion (with the whole press corps laughing). Needless to say that the Helen in the ‘answer’ refers to Helen Thomas. (here's the video)

THE PRESIDENT : […/…] But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.
Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that's why I went into
Iraq -- hold on for a second --

Q They didn't do anything to you, or to our country.

THE PRESIDENT: Look -- excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where al Qaeda trained --

Q I'm talking about Iraq --

THE PRESIDENT: Helen, excuse me. That's where -- Afghanistan provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where they trained. That's where they plotted. That's where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences --

Q -- go to war --

THE PRESIDENT: -- and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

People arrested for being drunk... in bars!

This is of course taking place in.. Texas, (Where else?!) - the state that first re-elected George Bush.. and that also has the highest drink-driving figures in the United States. I'm thinking ... the two may very well be related.
In any case, the problem is not just that for the rest of the world, getting drunk in a bar is kind of.. 'normal' but it is mostly that you can get arrested even if you have a designated driver and are not planning to drive. And the funny thing is that authorities have been using "undercover cops". Isn't that a little bit too much? don't they have anything better to do? What's next? Prohibition?
Here's the MSNBC news video report.


The Problem of pro-Israel Lobby Discussion.

The problem with criticizing either the pro-Isreal lobby or evene Isreal isetlf, is that you end up on the side of repugnant extremists - not just Muslim fanatics ho want to get rid of Israel but also with all sorts of neo-nazi or white supremacist morons:
"The Jewish supremacists not only want to control Israel, they want to control America, Europe and the whole world," David Duke announced to a dozen men who crowded around to hear his every word. "The best thing we can do is expose Jewish influence. Then one day the world will rise up, people will fill the streets and call general strikes--just like in Europe." (The Nation)
Needless to say that such anti-semitic views are nothing new but they should not prevent us from discussing the actual issue of AIPAC, and of course, the discussion should be dealt with both Jews and non-Jews. (After all, the discussion on abortion is not limited to pregnant women only!). But still, isn't it annoying that you have to take the risk of being somewhat associated with such morons when you discuss the issue? Isn't that also why some people are afraid of being critical of pro-Israel organizations?

Whether I agree with his criticism of the paper, Daniel Drezner [who has been discussing the issue repeatedly] has a good way of putting it:
Walt and Mearsheimer should not be criticized as anti-Semites, because that's patently false. They should be criticized for doing piss-poor, monocausal social science.


The US-Isreali Lobby Report.

Last week we had a post on a controversial Harvard paper published by two promiment professors on how the pro-Isreal lobby have shaped US policy. Strangely enough, the mainstream US media have been mostly silent about, as the CS Monitor reports. It is particularly interesting to notice that the American Jewish community has laos been rather silent on the issue. According to the New York Jewish weekly Forward Jewish organizations in the US, while furious over the paper, are "holding fire in order to avoid generating publicity for their critics.".
However, the report remains controversial in the academic world AND it has been widely discussed in the Isreali press. Needless to say that the debate is highly political and meets the usual partisan lines. The Jerusalem Post talks about "ignorand propaganda", and Haaretz calls it a usefull "wake-up call on both sides of the ocean", while admitting that the reports contains some flaws. David Levy in Harretz points out that:
... identification of American with Israeli interests can be principally explained via the impact of the Lobby in Washington, and in limiting the parameters of public debate, rather than by virtue of Israel being a vital strategic asset or having a uniquely compelling moral case for support (beyond, as the authors point out, the right to exist, which is anyway not in jeopardy). The study is at its most devastating when it describes how the Lobby "stifles debate by intimidation" and at its most current when it details how America's interests (and ultimately Israel's, too) are ill-served by following the Lobby's agenda.
It is amazing that the controversy - which could lead to fascinating debates on the nature of US government decisions - has not yet reached papers and editorials in the mainstream US press, not even (most of) the blogosphere. It is after all a major issue. If it is a wake-up call, who has been awaken? Whether the report has flaws, it deserves discussions but nobody seems ready to open Pandora's box.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Chirac, French, English... and Joe Canada!

As addendum to our post on Chirac's fierce "defense" of the French language [which he linked to the defense of cultural diversity], I want to say this: the best way to defend the diversity of cultures is to help people be bilingual. The Scandinavians have not become ‘American’ because they speak English, just the same way the Indians have not become Americans when they eat at McDonald’s.

In fact, most people in the world speak two languages and there don't feel threatened. They have not lost their identity. And this is not just the case of India, Belgium and Canada which are officially bilingual, it is the case of most people of the world.

Now, it is true that the word bilingual is ambiguous in its use – here we’re not talking about people knowing two or more languages from birth, but a reasonably effective competence. If the number of people who speak English fluently as their second language is rather low (estimates are about 10% of the world’s population), those who an speak and understand English reasonably competently are more than twice that number. (see source here).

If you think bilingualism is hard or even a myth, well, go to this site. For sake of practicality, a world's lingua franca (i.e. English today like Latin in the old days..) is actually a great thing.

Now in order to show that Chirac is (once again) wrong and that you can keep your distinct cultural identity while speaking the same language (i.e. English), think of the Canadians. Not Quebec, but English-speaking Canada. Just a few minutes into a discussion with a Canadian, you’ll quickly realize that they have little to do with the Americans.

Here’s a great illustration from… a popular Canadian beer commercial from years ago with Joe Canada (see the video here if you can, it’s hilarious):


I'm not a lumberjack,

or a fur trader...

and I don't live in an igloo

or eat blubber, or own a dogsled...

and I don't know Jimmy, Sally or Suzy from Canada,

although I'm certain they're really, really nice.

I have a Prime Minister,

not a President.

I speak English and French,

NOT American.

and I pronouce it ABOUT,


I can proudly sew my country's flag on my backpack.

I believe in peace keeping, NOT policing.

DIVERSITY, NOT assimilation,











Friday, March 24, 2006

Chirac Defends His Walkout!

Here's what Chirac told reporters after his walkout:
"I have to say I was profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself in English at the (EU) Council table. That's why the French delegation and myself walked out rather than listen to that,"
As an English teacher in France, I am shocked too - wow, a(n) (older) Frenchman CAN actually speak English?! Shocking indeed!
The French president also said:
"It is not just national interest, it is in the interest of culture and the dialogue of cultures. You cannot build the world of the future on just one language and, hence one culture."
bla, bla, bla... Do you see the French president defend the use of.. say, Spanish or German? This is very much like what the French call "cultural exceptionalism" which means the defense of French culture - but not of other cultures as if the French culture was entitled to some special treatment and protection. Chirac's defense of "other cultures" would be credible if he really defended other ones.
His reaction is so.. weird by the way that it got to be in the 'Odly Enough Reuters News'
The walkout drama was not just about English though. It was also about Chirac refusing to hear his old friend Seillière (whom I don't particularly like) criticize his government for their economic protectionism of late.
As the Telegraph figured out:
France was under attack for its increasingly protectionist ways and Mr Seillière was among the attackers. The walkout was a classic diversionary tactic.
And The Telegraph gives another illustration of his lack of influence within the EU in his pro-French fight:
Mr Chirac's attempt to block Peter Mandelson's appointment as EU external trade commissioner, on the grounds that his French was not good enough, fell on deaf ears in any language.
The other EU members are probably getting sick of hearing the same old rhetoric. I know I am. Times are changing and everybody is anxious to see Chirac retire. Finally! (One more year to go though... )


Chirac's Grand Stupid Move.

Chirac's little drama yesterday:
French President, Jacques Chirac, yesterday stormed out of an EU summit along with the whole French delegation. The reason? Frenchman Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the president of the EU employers' federation, Unice addressed all 25 heads of government on economic reform IN ENGLISH. (Imagine that?!) After a brief introduction in French, Seillière said he would speak in English because it was the international business language. (see article here)
Either Chirac cannot take the pressure at home and he is losing it or.. he is even more in denial of reality than we already knew. In any case, his decision to walk out like that is overly dramatic, something from another time; it is the reaction of a spoiled little brat.
Now given the current context of French outrageously economic protectionism in Europe, Chirac ought to have kept a low profile, but no, he couldn't do that. He just lives in his own world.... a world that disappeared years ago, in the last century.
And yes, major news since then - English IS the international business language!


Thursday, March 23, 2006

How to spot a baby conservative.

This study may be a load of crap but it suits my biased opinion:
Whiny children, claims a new study, tend to grow up rigid and traditional. Future liberals, on the other hand ...


Student Protest in France.

A few days ago, we posted about the current student demonstrations in Francefor the abolition of a new law known as the "First Employment Contract" (CPE in French - the French love acronyms!) that would allow employers to lay off young workers (26 and less) without cause for a period of two years.

Today there was yet another demonstration of students and it ended up – again - in violence (BBC). The pictures are very impressive even though one needs to be careful of impressive pictures. For all the anger yu see, this is not ‘68 all over again.

The major difference is that the movement seems to become out of control - there are few leaders, no central organization, and no real representative. Instead, the movement is based on cell phones and the internet.

As this socialist European MP members pointed out:

"Traditionally, the labor unions or political parties and organizations acted as relay systems with the powers that be, and they became the mechanisms for negotiating a way out of the crisis," says Benoit Hamon, one of the youngest members of the European Parliament. "But this time, nobody is acting as the interface."

Clearly that’s going to be the major problem for the government. Students who take the streets are hard to tame. If the government may be able to find some agreement with the unions (whom they meet tomorrow) that does not mean the students will follow through. It's the pandora box!

Besides, some small groups of political extremists (anarchists and far-left, or far right morons) as well as young criminals have used the demonstrations as an opportunity for violence and theft. Yet even though protests against the CPE have spread across France in the past few weeks, they have so ar largely remained peaceful.

That being said, this is not a sign, despite what some 'experts' may claim, that there cannot be reforms in France. It just means that this government was unwilling to make some bipartisan decision before the law was voted. As always, they opened talks with the unions AFTER they made their decision. How stupid is that?!

In fact, the word ‘bipartisan’ does not even exist in French politics. Until the current French political and union leaders get it, things will not change. Thinking about it, we might just need to wait for the whole baby-boomer generation to retire. Thank god, that is coming soon.


The other failure - Afghanistan - part II

Since we wrote a post on an Afghan man tried for converting from Islam to Christianity. (with a reminder that Afghanistan's post-Taleban constitution is based on Sharia law, which means the man may be put to death), I found this great excerpt from President Bush's speech a couple years ago :
We’re making good progress, we really are, in parts of the world. Afghanistan has now got a constitution which talks about freedom of religion and talks about women’s rights. (1/23/04, source White House)
Is that 'spinning' or mere incompetence and ignorance? Or maybe an article is missing, the Afghan Constitution is about freedom of A religion.... maybe but probably not.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Interference of Computers.

Here's an interesting piece:
A group of University of Memphis law students are passing a petition against a professor who banned laptop computers from her classroom because she considers them a distraction in lectures.
"My main concern was they were focusing on trying to transcribe every word that was I saying, rather than thinking and analyzing," the professor said Monday. "The computers interfere with making eye contact. You've got this picket fence between you and the students." (USA Today)
I am not sure the professor has a point. I can imagine her frustration with regard to the lack of eye contacts (even though I suspect that reflects some ego on her part) but I have doubts she can draw the conclusion that typing prevents them from thinking and analyzing.
There have always been students who have tried to "transcribe every word rather than thinking and analyzing", even with ink and paper. Not sure technology makes a big difference.
Besides, those in her class are law students. Why said they should be thinking....


Proposal of Basphemy Law by French MP.

In the wake of the Denmark cartoon controversy a French member of parliament officially proposes an amendment to the existing law of free press, making it a crime to insult or defame a religion.
French MP Jean-Marc Roubaud belongs to the ruling majority party (UMP) and is known for being a (Catholic) religious zealot (a mix of anti-gay, anti-immigrant and pro-Catholic moral values).
Interestingly, a Muslim association has supported the initiative and even wrote an open letter in that sense last Monday.
The whole thing has not been mentioned in the main-stream media. Thankfully it has no chance of being voted by parliament (besides, the current majority has enough to deal with these days...) but still, you wonder how that guy can even belong to the most powerful political party in France.


The other failure - Afghanistan.

While the press has been focusing on the third 'anniversary' of the invasion of Iraq, there has been hardly anything about Afghanistan.

That's probably because there are not so many troops there and the war was not so controversial to being with- nobody challenged the notion that the Taliban were actively supporting terrorism [Not even Chirac - there are French troops there].

But as Senator Joe Biden reminded us, here is another grave mistake of the Bush administration: it has wrongly turned its attention away from Afghanistan.

Yet, in terms of success - and not just military - one can wonder whether anything has changed in Afghanistan:
An Afghan man is being tried in a court in the capital, Kabul, for converting from Islam to Christianity. Afghanistan's post-Taleban constitution is based on Sharia law, and prosecutors in the case says this means Abdul Rahman, whose trial began last Thursday, should be put to death. (BBC)

So... all that… for that?

Well, that did not seem to bother VP Dick Cheney who praised theU.S. efforts to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban regime and al-Qaida yesterday.

"Afghanistan is a rising nation -- with a democratically elected government, a market economy, and millions of children going to school for the very first time."

A rising nation? With a Constitution saying you should be put to death for what you believe? Maybe I just don't get it. I am not a Muslim after all.... and yes, I like to think of myself as a tolerant person. I even believe that Islam is mostly a religion of tolerance. For a monute I thought the Afghan judge agreed:

"We will invite him again because the religion of Islam is one of tolerance. We will ask him if he has changed his mind. If so we will forgive him," the judge told the BBC on Monday.
But if he refused to reconvert, then his mental state would be considered first before he was dealt with under Sharia law, the judge added.

... but I guess we just have a different definition of the word 'tolerance'. Unfortunately, according to the BBC, even President Karkai will not intervene.
And I thought he was one of the good guys...


Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Even though the news got somewhat unnoticed, yesterday was also The International Day of Francophonie.
If you don't know what 'Francophonie' is, well here's a short definition: "it designates the community of people and countries using French. It is also an international organisation of French-speaking countries and governments. 49 states and governments are members of the organisation". (dont' kid yourself, French is the sole major language of only a few of them!)
Francophonie is also a term used to "designate the geographical area where French is spoken".

Superfrenchie (the epitome of French 'defense' blog... sometimes lacking too much distance and humor for my taste ) has this to say:
  • French, along with English, is one of the only 2 languages spoken on all continents.
  • French is the most studied language in the world after English, and is the 9th most used language in the world.
  • 175 million people in the world speak French. 110 million speak it as their only language and 65 million as a secondary language.
  • French is the official language of 29 countries.
  • 11% of Africans speak French. That’s a larger number than the number of French speakers in Europe.
  • There are more than 700,000 French speakers in the United States.
  • English makes up 45% of Internet pages, for than German (7%), and French (5%). 90% of all world languages are not represented on the Internet.
Personally, I am not a big fan of Francophonie, but I'll keep it at that for now....

NOTE1: One recent stepback for Francophonie:
Algeria decided to close 42 French-language schools because they have failed to teach mainly in Arabic. The decision by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika`s government was made on grounds of 'linguistic deviation,' and is a blow to France`s effort to keep French as a second language in its former colonies, reports The Times of London. The decision was criticized by Algerian parents in the French media, the report said. Publicly the French government said the decision was an internal matter of Algeria. Privately, however, it sees it as bowing to pressure from hard-line Islamists, the report said. Officials also felt the move might be in response to the government`s resentment of the critical French-language press.
Algerian civil rights activist Mouloud Brahimi told Le Parisien the school closure 'is part of a worrying phenomenon, which is leading Muslim countries to turn in on themselves.' (source)

NOTE2: By the way did you know that Francophonie has its own flag:


General Strike in France?

Yesterday was the beginning of Spring...
But Paris in the Spring may be a bit hot this year as yesterday was also the day when French students and unions called for a general strike on March 28 to fight the new labor law that makes it easier for companies to fire young employees. (see our post here).
It remains to be seen if enough workers will join the movement for a general stirke. It is one thing to get 1 million or so people demonstrate on a sunny Saturday, or to get students "go on stirke", it is another to get people risk their paycheck on that issue. They may go on strike for one day, but probably not for more (the 2003 teachers strike cost the strikers a lot and they ended up losing anyway). I am not sure the average worker will be motivated for that issue.
That is going to be an interesting test for both the unions and the government - both are in a weak position and need to gain muscle... but both may end up losing a lot.

One more thing - what is funny (and traditional) about French demonstrations is that by the end of the day you always get two sorts of assessments - the number of demonstrations given by the organizers (1.5 million people in this case) and that given by the police (800.000 demonstrations). For some reason, I tend to trust neither.

Why can't the media hire some people to do the job? I am not sure I hear the same thing going on anywhere else...


Monday, March 20, 2006

Does the Israel Lobby Shape American Middle-East Policy?

Here's an interesing and controversial essay on the issue of how the 'pro-Israel lobby' shapes American policy in the Middle-East. I remember writing a paper on the same issue years ago when I was in university and the discussion was very similar. While this is nothing new, the way this paper deals with the issue is unusually straightforward. Here's an excerpt just to give you an idea:
For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.
Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.
Daniel Drezner has made an interesting critique of the article on his Blog. He acknowledges that:
Mearsheimer and Walt make a decent case of arguing that interest group lobbying is responsible for some aspects of U.S. policy towards the Greater Middle East. Now this asssertion alone is enough to make people very uncomfortable at cocktail parties and other venues. Whenever I bring up ethnic lobbying in my American foreign policy class and mention Israel, everyone in the room tenses up. So kudos to Mearsheimer and Walt for speaking the taboo thought. arguing that interest group lobbying is responsible for some aspects of U.S. policy towards the Greater Middle East.
He also makes some fair remarks on how American politicy is always the result of lobbyist activities and AIPAC is certainly not the only one (think 'oil companies') although it is one of the most powerful ones on the Hill.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

French Students, Workers Protest.

Granted the French are always demonstrating for one thing or another... but yesterday's demonstration was a big one, even by French standards. There was over one million people demonstrating against the the new job law.
This mess started a few weeks ago when some students began to protest for the abolition of a new law known as the "First Employment Contract" (CPE in French - the French love acronyms!) that would allow employers to lay off young workers (26 and less) without cause for a period of two years. The government argues that the plan is necessary to reduce the high rate of unemployment among the country's youth.
And indeed they may have a point but the way they have handled the situation has been so catastrophic that it does not even matter today.
As almost always, the government was unwilling to conduct formal negociations, or even give the appearance of negociations before they voted the law. In fact, they used emergency powers to push the law through the lower house last month. That was a stupid move.
Their worst mistake though is probably to allow the lay-off 'without cause'. This may not only end up being unconstitutional, but it is also politically damaging, especially since it was not necessary. It is not like employers would be shy of giving any cause (like 'does not fit the profile', 'does not meet expectations') for laying off so why did it matter?
Interestingly, the French didn't have a strong opinion on the law until the students succeeded in creating an open-ended standoff between them and the government. The government would not budge and as a result 68% of the French (according to a Parisien poll) said they want the jobs law to be rescinded and only 27% want it to go forward.
Yesterday's demonstration which included unions and families shows that the movement is now becoming a major social moment. It is now unlikely that the current government will stay unscathed. The question is really whether Villepin will take Sarkozy down with him. The major worry is that if the protest continue to give an impression of disorder, Le Pen may gain some votes. The unions have given the government a sort of utlimatum and warn of a possible general strike next week. It is also a way for them to regain a major role which they lost. It is an opportunistic move but it is also a test.
However, the elections are one year ahead and a lot can happen before then. Besides, if people don't necessarily forgive, they forget. The next few days and weeks are going to be interesting. Villepin is no Thatcher though...

One last note - it is interesting how a lot of the American media seems to have no clue when they report the news. (the only good report I have found so far is on NPR). The conservative but even the moderate press points out the continuing problem of reforming France, but that is hardly the issue here. Yes, there is fear of change, like anywhere else, but for one thing having a clueless president (Chirac) does not help calming fear. However the real problem is the inability of politicians to "sell" reform and do it by taking the rest of the country into account, or at least by giving the appearance of it. The Villepin government is no worse than any other, they just wanted to rush things too fast, so they could have some things on the table in next year's presidential elections. So their problem is their unwillingness to find a bipartisan method to make reform.
But, as we all know, that is hardly just a French problem.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

UPDATE on South Park.

Something I missed in my post on Thursday:
Cable channel Comedy Central pulled a repeat Wednesday of a South Park episode that poked fun at Cruise's oft-contested sexuality and his religion Scientology.
In the episode, "Trapped In The Closet," Tom Cruise locks himself in a closet after one of the characters on the show is chosen as a Scientology savior. A cartoon version of Cruise's ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, tries to coax Cruise out, saying, "Don't you think this has gone on long enough? It's time for you to come out of the closet. You're not fooling anyone."
In January, Cruise was successful in keeping the episode from airing in the UK. This week, the blogsphere buzzed that Cruise had threatened Paramount, who shares corporate parent Viacom with Comedy Central, that he wouldn't do publicity for their upcoming Mission: Impossible III if the episode wasn't pulled, a fact Cruise's publicist denied.


The myth of the Irish pub.

More interestingly than what's behind Saint Patrick's Day, Slate had a fascinating article yesterday about the faux Irish pubs. As they put it, Ireland, as much of the world knows it, was invented in 1991 with the Irish Pub Company.
In 1995, the Irish government saw potential in international "Irish" revelry. They reinvented the holiday at home to kick-start the tourist season. Now thousands of partiers head to Ireland for the "St. Patrick's Day Season" as Guinness has called this time of year. (It used to be called "March" or, for Irish Catholics, "Lent.") In Dublin, the festival lasts for five days and adds about 60 million euros to the economy. Guinness describes the irrepressible spirit of Irishness with the Gaelic word for communal fun, "Craic" (pronounced crack), and recommends "importing Craic from Ireland."

The article gives some interesting details of the IPC's strategy (architecture, language) to make those faux Irish pubs so popular. Irish pubs have even made their way to... Dubai. (Wasn't I told that Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol? Well, but I guess foreigners do!)

NOTE: in case you don't know, the word 'pub' comes from 'public places', and essentially they are places where you eat and drink alcohol. What is so special about Irish pubs is that there are also places where you typically listen to some live music, or watch some good games of Gaelic football or Hurling - and despite the fake sort of pubs exposed in the Slate article, there are still some great genuine pubs in Ireland with a real 'craic' atmosphere. Well, that is also because in numerous Irish villages, there's not a whole lot else to do... even today.


The myth of Saint Patrick's Day...

Even if you're not familiar with Irisih culture, you probably know at least a couple of things - beer and Saint Patrick's day, the former being closely associated with the latter. Saint Patrick's Day was yesterday,. Interestingly, even though the cult is associated with beer in most of the world, until the 1970s, Irish laws actually mandated that pubs be closed on March 17.
But it looks like economics have changed all that - in the mid-1990s the Irish government began a campaign to use Saint Patrick's Day to showcase Ireland and its culture. (Wikipedia). So is it another of those myths turned commercial?
Let's remember that Saint Patrick (Paddy) is indeed regarded as the patron saint of Ireland and has been so for hundreds of years. Legend has it that he rid the land of snakes, (there are no snakes in Ireland) and that he compared the Trinity to the shamrock (badge of Ireland). Yet as David Plotz reminds us, Saint Patrick probably did none of that and was not not even Irish (well, of course not, he was a missionary from Britain!).
Not only that but while the Irish have indeed been celebrating Saint Patrick's day for years, they used to do so in a quiet more religious sort of way until it became a boozy spectacle in the US. That drew attention and popularity.
It took the United States to turn St. Patrick's Day into a boozy spectacle. Irish immigrants first celebrated it in Boston in 1737 and first paraded in New York in 1762. By the late 19th century, the St. Patrick's Day parade had become a way for Irish-Americans to flaunt their numerical and political might. It retains this role today.

Saint Patrick's Day celebration in Chicago.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

The satire that ends the satire?

A lot of people think Muslim extremists have no sense of humor (and clearly they don't!) but they're not the only ones. Guess what this is about and who said it?
"There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends, and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins. As a civil rights activist of the past 40 years I cannot support a show that disrespects those beliefs and practices."
The answer is Isaac Hayes (yes, the guy best known for the soundtrack to Shaft) who decided to quit the show South Park out of outrage for its treatment of ... Scientology. I kid you not!

According to the Guardian, what "drew the line" for Hayes was an episode in which Stan (here on the left) is hailed as the successor to L Ron Hubbard, who started the cult of Scientology in 1952. The episode was pulled in the UK. (That baffles me!)

Hayes also added:
''Religious beliefs are sacred to people, and at all times should be respected and honored."
I guess it depends on how you define 'religion' and 'respect'. It seems that for Hayes, it is what only he believes in which is worth fighting for. Some civil right activitst! What about the First Amendment?
Well, shall we add that:
  • South Park has mocked just about every religious and political groups in the last nine years.
  • Hayes is a Scientologist.
  • He has obviously no humor and no sense of self-derision (but then again, he's also a Scientologist so we can only expect him to be screwed up)

NOTE 1: Hayes was the voice for Chef, South Park's resident school cook, ladies' man and love doctor.
NOTE2: In case, you don't know 'Scientollywood' (coined by two journalists in 1993) is a reality. No wonder it's a screwed-up 'religion':
Other than Tom Cruise, ''the public face of the church," here are some other celebreties who have claimed some support of Scientology in Hollywood: John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Beck, Jenna Elfman, Al Jarreau, Kelly Preston (Travolta's wife), Juliette Lewis, Karen Black, Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, Nicole Kidman (Cruise's ex), Anne Archer, Chick Corea, Chaka Khan, and Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson's voice). (more here)


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Why is 'pink' for girls and 'blue' for boys?

I am surrounded by friends who are all having babies and it seems that the only way to distinguish a boy from a girl newborn (other than seeing them naked) is that they're wearing either pink when they're girls and blue when they're boys. Why is that?
According to this Google answer, this associaton is quite recent and in fact at one point pink was considered more of a boy's color (because of its relation to red) and blue was a girl's color (because it was supposed to a paler color). The current association was not uniform (at least in the US) until the 1950s.

According to Wikipedia:
In 1918 "Infant's Department" (an industry publication) said the reverse was the "generally accepted rule", describing pink as "more decided and stronger" while blue was "more delicate and dainty"" Pink continued to be used for both boys' and girls' clothing through the early 1960s, though associated more and more with femininity.
A more gruesome influence, it seems, was Nazi germany as the Nazis chose the color pink (with the triangle) to identify homosexual prisoners in concentration camps. This color was later re-claimed by homosexuals as a sign of defiance. It appears that pink was already associated with girls in Germany in the 1930s.

NOTE: Despite what some people (now in their 30s) may have thought back in the late 80s, I don't think Don Johnson has made 'pink' more manly... Hopefully that dreadful fashion won't be back for a long time.

Aren't we glad times have changed?! Long live the new century.