Wednesday, June 28, 2006

French Victory at World Cup.

It is 1:00 pm and still you can hear car drivers honking their horns all over Paris after the victory of France over Spain - 3 to 1 at the World Cup. A remarkable game with Zidane, the hero of the 1998 final victory over Brazil, scoring the final goal. This large victory was unexpected, and les bleus were sort of the underdog team, even in France.

Coach Raymond Domenech said

"It was a remarkable match in every way.", adding with irony, "It was very tough for the players. We may have a team of old men but we know how to be patient. Younger people run out of breath. There's something exceptional waiting for us, unique emotions.
As for Zidane, he kept going for the whole match. In the 89th minute, he stuck to it - he still accelerated."

The win against Spain has sent France to the World Cup quarter-final in a dream date with Brazil. The stakes are high as the game will be reminiscent of the 1998 World Cup final which France won't need to be reminded they won 3-0.

Are Les Bleus reborn? We'll see on Saturday but in any case, this game was definitely an excellent show and proof that soccer can be exciting.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Respect for the Wealthy... sometimes!

This week the media have been all over the place about Buffet's philanthropic decision to give to charities 85% of his wealth. When the second richest man in the world - after Bill Gates - makes such an announcement, with a net worth of $44 billion it is only natural that everyone should notice.
I don't know about you, but for me $37.4 billion dollars is so much money that it is beyond any mental representation of what it's worth. It almost becomes meaningless. Maybe that's how Warren Buffet himself feels.
In fact, it is:
  • ten times the UN budget ($3.79 billion for 2006-2007)
  • one tenth of the US military budget ($441.6 billion for the fiscal year 2006) - but that figure does not include combat (Congress had already approved an additional funding total of $300 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
  • it is close to France's total military spending ($41.6)
  • it is the GDP of a few countries.
On the one hand, it is scary that one man alone can be so wealthy, on the other hand, I find it remarkable that he should have a philosophy at odd with his peers and against the privileges of his own class. His views on politics and economics are particularly interesting:
Not only did he oppose repealing the Estate Tax (attempted by President Bush) but he also believes that tax property
should be based on value on purchase date.
He also clearly opposed Bush's policy of tax cuts for the wealthy. He wrote a Washington Post opinion article criticizing a key element of Bush's tax package -- a cut in tax rates on corporate dividends. He urged that any tax cuts should go to lower-income people or others "who both need and will spend the money gained." (Forbes)
"Tax breaks for corporations -- and their investors, particularly large ones -- were a major part of the administration's 2002 and 2003 initiatives," Buffett said. "If class warfare is being waged in America, my class is clearly winning."
"We hope our taxes continue to rise in the future -- it will mean we are prospering -- but we also hope that the rest of corporate America antes up along with us," he also said.
What I appreciate about him is that his actions match his words. That's rare enough to be noticed. He has often said that he had no intention of making mega-heirs and heiresses of his children and he surely didn't.
"It's in keeping with the idea of equality of opportunity in this country, not giving incredible head starts to certain people who were very selective about the womb from which they emerged.".
One is bound to wonder if his children feel any resentment... but apparenly, they don't. Given human nature, that's pretty amazing too, isn't it?
In the NYTimes, he said his children were not at all disappointed not to be receiving the lion's share of his fortune.
"They've known all along my views on inherited wealth, and share them," he said in a news conference this afternoon. "They have money that most people would dream of. They're lucky, in that respect, when they selected their parents."
The guy has won my respect. Besides, he supported John Kerry in the 2004 presidential elections. His philanthropy is in line with American capitalism. You may find it paternalistic but it works, and I have yet to hear a French billionaire ready to give away their wealth to charity.

NOT: Boy do I loathe those who say that "by donating his fortune to his friend’s charity, Buffett may have found a clever way to avoid the estate tax for a large part of his own fortune". More than anything, I find the argument totally nonsensical (just like those who say it is not worth making money because you pay too many taxes). As if it made sense to give it all away in order to avoid paying taxes?! What sort of logic is that?
Of course, those who criticize Buffet for his move are usually on the right and in favor of Bush's tax cuts.
NOTE2: In the end, the question should not be about cutting taxes but rather how well the money is spent. I don't think people would mind if they could see that their money is usefully spent. That requires checks and balances, and Congress s certainly not ready for that.


Bush's Environment..

Here is what President Bush said this morning despite the report by the National Academy of Sciences (see our post here):

QUESTION: I know you’ve said you are not planning to see Al Gore’s new movie, but do you agree with the premise that global warming is a real and significant threat to the planet?

BUSH: I think it’s — I have said consistently that global warming something is a serious problem. There is a debate over whether it’s manmade or naturally caused. We ought to get beyond that debate and start implementing the technologies necessary to enable us to achieve a couple of big objectives. One, be good stewards of the environment, and two become less dependent on foreign sources of oil for economic reasons and for national security reasons.

(see video here via Think Progress)

Note that Bush used the expression "be a good steward of the environment", which has both economic and religious connotations. If a 'steward' is strictly "one who manages another's property, finances, or other affairs." or "one who is in charge of the household affairs of a large estate, club, hotel, or resort.", it has become in the Christian rhetoric (since Calvin and even more with John Wesley) a spiritual metaphor, a sort of pious responsibility. In other words, it carries religious and social values, but it is also economically grounded in its concern for wise investment and management of our resources.

Then in case we had doubts, he makes it very clear for us that we ought to "become less dependent on foreign sources of oil for economic reasons" (and national security reasons).

So basically, in president Bush's world everything is contingent on the economy which has become the new God. How Christian is that?


Sunday, June 25, 2006

Internet partly to blame for your lack of close friends?

"Duke and University of Arizona researchers are citing the Internet as one of the main contributing factors to a shrinking of social networks among Americans. People say they have fewer people they can talk to about important stuff, even if they are talking to lots more people from all over the place about unimportant stuff online." (here)

As far as Americans are concerned, I'd think that longer working hours - rather than the Internet - can explain why people don't feel like they have time to share important things. Let's do it the European way and work 35 hours a week.

Apparently, between 1985 and 2004, the average American's circle of "core" confidants shrank from 3 persons to 2; and the number of people who said they have "no one" to talk to about important things more than doubled, from 10% to 25%.

1 out of 4 Americans have no one to talk to about impottant things, that's scary! It seems to me that not having close confidants is not good for your physical and mental health. If you add obesity, you have one foot in the grave already!


Alcohol in Europe.

The Internationa Herald Tribune reports some interesting figures (published by the European Commission) on alcohol consumption. The maint point is that the EU is "the part of the world with the highest proportion of drinkers and the highest level of alcohol consumption,".

European surveys show that
  • among 15-year-old boys and girls nearly 70 % have been drunk at least twice in the past year; 89 % of 16-year-olds had been inebriated.
  • although overall alcohol consumption in Europe has dropped since the mid-1970s, rates are rising quickly in a number of categories, such as binge drinking among young people, which is particularly high in Britain, Bulgaria and Sweden, as well as Denmark.
  • the average adult in the EU consumes 11 liters, or 3 gallons, of alcohol a year, more than 2.5 times the world average and far above the next highest region, the Americas, where the figure is just under 2 gallons. Alcohol use in Asia is far lower, but growing quickly.
Another interesting point is that there are major differences within Europe - alcohol use is decreasing in France and Italy while it has increased in many central and northern countries. The article also points out the cultural difference between northern and southern countries.

In any case, drinking alcohol is definitely more accpted in Europe than in the US:
In the EU, 90% of 15- and 16-year-old students have drunk alcohol at some point in their lives, a rate far higher than in the United States.
One of the reasons for the decrease in France - not mentioned in the article - is the crackdown on driving under the influence. Even in France, a country wherer the alcohol lobby is huge, things are changing.
In 2004, the European Court upheld a French law requiring television broadcasters to "pan away" from liquor advertisements on display at sporting events. Alcohol producers argued that the law was an illegal trade barrier; the court ruled that it was a matter of public health


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Perception of Muslims.

Many conservative pundits in the US believe that the Europeans do not support Bush's strategy in Iraq because they don't believe that democracy is possible in Muslim countries. Well the results of the polls conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project contradicts that - at least as much as France and Britain are concerned:

More people in Britain and France believe that democracy can work well in Muslim countries than in America.

Here's another interesting result:
France and the US are the two countries where a great number of people think relations between Muslims and Westerners are generally good (about 1/3). That's low but better than anywhere else in the West.

More surprisingly is that France is the only country where a large percentage (74%) of both the general public and the Muslim minority population feel there is no conflict in being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.
This is all the more interesting that France is the most secular society in the West. (this may contradict some of what we said in our previous post)
In fact, it appears that French non-Muslims are more optimistic than the Muslims themslves. (71%). This is interesting if you consider that the polls were taken after the riots in heavily Muslim areas of France.

According to Pew Global, overall, the views of Europe's Muslims represent a middle ground between the way Western publics and Muslims in the Middle East and Asia view each other.
So maybe European Muslims could be a chance for the future of the relationships beteween the West and Islam. They could be the key to avoid a definite clash of civilization.


Eurabia (2)

The Economist rightly explains (here) that notion summed up by the word ‘Eurobia’ not only gets Americans scared but also a lot of Europeans. In the last 2 years a number of events have also fueled those fears of a dangerous Islam taking hold in Europe: the riots in France's banlieues, the uproar about Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, or the murder of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker, and the virtual exile (to America) of his muse, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. On top of those is the fear of terrorism often associated with arguments concerning the alienation of the Muslims from the rest of the wealthy Europe.

That may be why more Europeans have a negative view of Muslim-Western relations than Americans. Here are the numbers of people (Pew Research Centre) who see Muslim-Western relations as:

  • Bad: 55% Good: 32% in the US
  • Bad: 70% Good: 23% in Germany
  • Bad: 66% Good: 33% in France
  • Bad: 61% Good: 28% in Britain

So contrary to common belief, Europeans are mostly more negative than Americans. This can also be explained by the way most Europeans usually view religion in their secular societies. It must mostly remain private and they are deeply suspicious of those who express their beliefs publicly. That may be why the Americans are more optimistic. Then again, this is the perception in a period of great changes and turmoil. It is likely that things will be perceived differently in a decade or so.

The Economist also makes a point in showing that, despite the negative perception; the reality is more complicated than it first appears:

Many European terrorists were either relatively well-off or apparently well-integrated. The Muslims who torched France's suburbs last year were the ones who seldom attend mosques.

It is true that what they actually want is a future in Europe rather than the destruction of Western values. They certainly express their needs in violent ways and may not put their needs in actual words, but at the core of the French riots were jobs, education and more acceptance by the rest of society. They had no demand for more Islam. Their violent behavior was a sign of anger at being left out, checked by the police and living in ghettos.

The numbers used with regards to Islam in France are also only estimates. The French secular authorities never ask a religious question on a census form. Even though not everyone agrees, the general consensus is that France has 5 million Muslims, which make up for 8% o the population. As far as Europe is concerned:

The European Union is home to no more than 20m Muslims, or 4% of the union's inhabitants. That figure would soar closer to 17% if Turkey were to join the EU. (.../…) Even taking into account Christian and agnostic Europe's lousy breeding record, Muslims will account for no more than a tenth of west Europe's population by 2025.

However two points must be made even if they add more complexity to interpreting those numbers:

- there are many intermarriages between Muslims and non-Muslim French.

- many people called ‘Muslims’ have become either atheists or secular in their views. Islam is often an element of identity, more likely to be strong among those who feel excluded and among teenagers (who go through identity crisis of their own).

It is also undeniable that most European Muslims have a very moderate vision of their belief:

The secular French state has given mosques and clerics a privileged role as representatives of Islam; yet France’s Muslims are a lax in attending their mosques as Catholics are about going to church (though there are better at private prayer and observing religious fasts).

So while the picture may be somewhat gloomy, there is reason for hope:

The future of Europe's Muslims, no less than that of America's Latinos, lies with the young. For every depressing statistic about integration—France's prisons hold nine times more young men with North African fathers than ones with French fathers—there are several reassuring ones: a quarter of young Muslim Frenchwomen are married to non-Muslim men; Muslims are flocking to British universities and even popping up in white bastions like the Tory party.

A middle way will probably be found between French strict integrationism (France's head-scarf ban was surely harsh) and British multiculturalism (Britain is now reining in its Muslim schools).

Who knows if in 50 years' time, the solution may not have come from this new generation of European Muslims for leading the enlightenment that some Muslims desperately need outside Europe and for building bridges.


Eurabia (1)

This week’s Economist has a very provocative cover – the Eiffel Tower with a Muslim crescent:

What to make of it?

On the one hand, the picture could be seen as a the unity of the French and Muslim symbols, and the creation of some new entity: Eurobia.

However, this could also be seen as the symbol of Islam taking control of France with an Eiffel tower (a symbol for France secularism) turned into a Minaret, and in this way, the picture exemplifies the fear of some (usually right-wing and older) Europeans.

If you go even deeper into the symbolic interpretation you might also see the Eiffel Tower as a phallic representation of French power weakened by Islam. (even though I doubt The Economist would means to go so far).

What is certain is that the picture will probably be shocking to a lot of French people in the current context. There is no doubt that it is controversial given its ambiguity and the great number of meanings you could attach to it.

Then, you have the word EURABIA in bold letters. The word is portmanteau or a blend of the words Europe and Arabia but its meaning is also very ambiguous. Whereas the word Europe is tangible and easy to understand, the word Arabia is hard to define in this context. Strictly speaking, Arabia is the peninsula that includes the countries of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. More broadly speaking it is related to other countries where Arabic culture and language are predominant (including Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and parts of northern Africa). It is only in the west that the word has come to be associated with the regions of the world influenced by Islamic culture and religion, thus including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and even Turkey as well as the remaining parts of North Africa. The difference is important because it is a vision from outside the Muslim world for instance a Turk will never see himself as an Arab.

So it is likely that the word ‘Eurabia’ is actually meant to reflect the caricatured view from the West of Islam in Europe. But it remains intriguing and thought-provoking as .

Yet as extremely provocative as the cover may be, the title “The myth and reality of Islam in Europe” seems to add to the idea of word used for caricature purposes and it shows that the Economist intends to debunk the myth of a false notion encapsulated in the word Eurabia

As it turns out, I was not too far off. The Economist uses the word EURABIA to speak about the caricature about Europe forming in America (about an ever-growing Muslim Europe-within-Europe—poor, unassimilated and hostile to the United States).

Obviously it looks very promising and we will certainly come back to the content of their articles.


Friday, June 23, 2006

Global Warming is Real.... Imagine that?!

It is going to be much harder for many Republican lawmakers and business-financed groups to claim that global warming is just "built on cherry-picked data meant to create an alarming view of recent warming and play down past natural warm periods".

No less than the National Academy of Sciences said that the data are "additional supporting evidence ... that human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming." (the full report avaiable here).
(coverage from: AP; NYT; WaPo; MSNBC; NPR; Boston Globe)

This graph is commonly called Hockey Stick (It can be compared the sharp curve of the hockey blade to the recent uptick in temperatures - the rise in global average surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere during the 20th century - and the stick's long shaft to centuries of previous climate stability. ). It bascially shows that global average temperatures sharply spiking in recent years.

On the political front, a few things worth mentioning:
  • Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee, had asked the academy for the report last year after the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. Joe Barton, launched an investigation of the three climate scientists.
Although both representatives are Republican - one is from NY and one is from... Texas! I'll let you guess which is which.
  • While the 15 European Union states have ratified the Kyoto Protocol on global warming which requires industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 8% of the 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. What has the Bush administration done exactly?
  • They have maintained that the threat from global warming is not severe enough to warrant new pollution controls that the White House says would have cost 5 million Americans their jobs. (Isn't that typical of the White House's short sighted view... on everything!).
You might have believed them, if in 2002, President Bush had not dismissed a report put out by his own administration warning that human activities are behind climate change that is having significant effects on the environment. (here).
Just like with WMD, this administration has been misleading the public. Remember when a scientist from NASA said in 2002 that the Bush administration was "trying to stifle scientific evidence of the dangers of global warming in an effort to keep the public uninformed". (MSNBC)

This is all very good news for Al Gore. (here)

My take is that it's going to take more than a couple headlines to change the minds of many Americans and have them change their lifestyle. The more in denial, the harder. Unfortunately, it might even more than a Katrina a year.


Some time, sometime and sometimes.

According to the Oxford English Corpus, one of the changes in the English language is the increasing use of the single-word form of words that used to be commonly two-words such as "someday" or "sometime". This is also appears to be a particularly American phenomenon:
The phrase "some time" now appears as the fused single-word form "sometime" in 32% of all occurrences in American English and 19% of all occurrences in British English.
In American English someday has now become more or less standard, substantially outnumbering occurrences of some day; anymore and underway look set to follow. Although the same trend is apparent in British English, it tends to lag behind.
I personally still tend to write "some time" rather than "sometime". As a teacher of English, I also think it makes it easier for student to avoid the confusion between the adverbs:
  • "some time" (as "at an indefinite time in the future")" Ex.: We'll meet some time/sometime next week.
  • and "sometimes" (as "on certain occasions or in certain cases but not always") Ex.: Sometimes, I like watching a good game.
It can be very cinfusing for non-English speakers.

However, "some time" (in two words) can also mean "an appreciable length of time" as in: I've been waiting for some time, and in this case, I have yet to see it in one word, even in American English.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

The most frequentely occuring noun in English:

Earlier today, we asked what is the most frequently occurring noun in English, wel, the trick is that the most frequently used words are short 'function words' (such as "the,' "of", etc...) whose main purpose is to join other, longer words rather than determine the meaning of a sentence.
So what is really interesting is the frequency of 'content words'. According to the Oxford English Corpus, the most common noun is time, followed by person, and year, followed by way and day. Don't you feel a little bit more knowledgeable now?

I understand (as Bush might say) you may find the whole thing boring, but if you have nothing else to do here's more:
Nouns Verbs Adjectives
1 time
2 person
3 year
4 way
5 day
6 thing
7 man
8 world
9 life
10 hand
11 part
12 child
13 eye
14 woman
15 place
16 work
17 week
18 case
19 point
20 government
21 company
22 number
23 group
24 problem
25 fact
1 be
2 have
3 do
4 say
5 get
6 make
7 go
8 know
9 take
10 see
11 come
12 think
13 look
14 want
15 give
16 use
17 find
18 tell
19 ask
20 work
21 seem
22 feel
23 try
24 leave
25 call
1 good
2 new
3 first
4 last
5 long
6 great
7 little
8 own
9 other
10 old
11 right
12 big
13 high
14 different
15 small
16 large
17 next
18 early
19 young
20 important
21 few
22 public
23 bad
24 same
25 able


Collective responsibility?

The question of collective vs. personal responsibility is a very relevant one these days. How much is an individual responsible for the wrongdoing of their government? What does “collective responsible” mean? Are we collectively responsible in a democratic system? That’s definitely something most Americans who go abroad have to deal with today. How much blame can or should they take as individuals for the war in Iraq? Should only those who re-elected Bush feel some responsibility? Should no one feel responsible but the individuals in the government?

What about wrongdoings done in the past? French President Jacques Chirac became in 1995 the first French leader to recognize publicly France's responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to their deaths during World War II.

In the last couple years, the issue of the French colonial past has also been much discussed - partly exacerbated by the problems of integration of the immigrants from the former French colonies. In the same way, France held for the first time this year a national day of remembrance for the victims of slavery (May 10). France being…. France, well, the teaching of France's colonial past was even turned into a law.

The guilt-trip is beginning to make some people mad. They think it is too much. I know a lot of history teachers feel that way. I also think it is a question of generation. A lot of people who lived through WWII and through the end of the colonial period are still alive today.

The latest example of the changes in France's view of its past is a court decision last month. A tribunal found the state-owned railway (the SNCF) liable for the deportation of Jews by cattle car. The tribunal ordered the SNCF and the French state to pay one of the survivors’ family the equivalent of $85,000.

This is the first time that a French court has singled out a government agency, rather than an individual, for condemnation in connection with the Holocaust. More litigation is expected: The SNCF will appeal; and similar arguments have been made in a class-action lawsuit in New York.

The Globe and Mail has published two very interesting articles (here and here) that exemplify the current struggle between those who think there is collective responsibility and those who think it is going too far.

If French railway men are held responsible, where does one draw the line? What about the secretaries who typed the lists of deportees, or those who scheduled the trains? And, as Arno Klarsfeld, a Paris lawyer who defended the railway's record, noted: "If everyone is guilty, then no one's guilty."

Ironically, the SNCF has set something of an example of historical responsibility. In 1992, in response to charges of complicity, the company opened its wartime archives to researchers.

Then on the other hand:

Many Holocaust survivors in France and elsewhere welcomed the ruling as the first time a French court condemned a contemporary French government institution for its role in rounding up Jews and sending them to their destruction in death camps.

For decades after the war, the official view in France was that the Vichy collaborationist government was illegitimate and that subsequent French governments were not accountable for its crimes.

Then in 1995, President Jacques Chirac formally acknowledged that France shared in the responsibility for crimes against the Jews, saying "the criminal folly of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state.".


What is the most frequently occurring noun in English?

What is the most frequently occurring noun in English?

Granted this is a totally useless question... but it's good to have worthless subjects sometimes, isn't it? J2T will post the answer in a while and let you ponder over it in the meantime, hoping you won't get into a stew about it.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

It takes one to know one.

The French and the Americans have somethign very special in common:
According to this CS Monitor article, the bad image of America has caused a substantial loss of tourists for the US:
"We lose out on jobs when foreigners don't travel here as much. We lose out on billions of dollars in spending, but we also lose the goodwill we know comes from people getting to know Americans," says Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA).
In 2002, the US reaped 9 percent of international travel, but today the number is down to 6 percent. Each percentage drop represents 150,000 jobs and $15 billion in spending, according to the TIA.
The worst part is that it's not going to get better any time soon:
"I don't believe the figures we're seeing will change much so long as this president is in office," says Simon Serfaty, an expert in US-Europe relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
But here's the best part of the article, I think:
There are some bright spots for the US. The Pew survey found that America's image improved among French youth, for example. "Feelings about America were bad in 2003 at the start of the war, but you don't see that so much among the young people anymore," says Swann Gros, a 17-year-old Parisian on his first visit to America this summer. Demonstrating an awareness of current events, he says the French know that Bush "is not so popular with Americans now - just as the French don't so much like Jacques Chirac."

See? We understand you guys. We feel the same about OUR president. So we should know that you cannot be held responsible for all the stupid decisions made by your leader.


Bush from Europe.

As much as I agree that it is absurd for people to think that the US is more dangerous than Iran, the fact is that public opinion always turns in favor of the underdog, against the rich and powerful – and the US is perceived not only as rich and powerful but also as the bully in the classroom:

Another poll published this week by the Harris group shows that Europeans generally pick the US as the world's biggest threat to global security over Iran. This was true even in Britain, although Germans and Italians rank the US below Iran. (here)

Even in Britain – that should mean something.

Yes- as President Bush also said today, (see video here, via Think Progress) it is also true that the Europeans have failed to understand the impact and the trauma of 9/11 on the American mindset:

For Europe, September the 11th was a moment; for us it was a change of thinking.

That’s certainly true but the Bush administration also fails to understand the America’s unilateral actions have a great impact on today’s global world. 9/11 is America’s drama but outside the US, people often feel that they have felt sorry enough, and that it does not give the US a blank check.

When the American president says that he “made them in the best interest of our country and, I think, in the best interests of the world”, it sounds very paternalistic. It is precisely similar to what Europe used to do withAfrica and Asia : we know better what’s best for you.

In what follows in his answer is even more telling:

I’ll say, on the one hand, we’re going to be tough when it comes to terrorist regimes who harbor weapons. On the other hand, we’ll help feed the hungry.

Other than the fact that Saddam Hussein was not harboring terrorists and/ or weapons (of mass destructions at least), the rhetoric is more importantly reminiscent of the old (European) colonial prose. By using those words, Bush implies that the US government should tell the rest of the world what is best for them. That's what unilateralism is.
How much freedom is there in that? Bush may believe in the universality of freedom, but his definition of freedom does not include listening to the rest of the world. Yet the rest of the world has not voted for Bush, only America did.

This is particularly true for Europe: as Mr. Serfaty of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says it:

The prisoner-abuse issue and the case of Guantánamo are particularly poignant for Europeans because they suggest an America making the same kinds of mistakes that Europe made in its colonial past.

"Europeans are saying, 'Don't use your power to do what we used to do,' " he says, which was to commit widespread rights abuses in African and Asian colonies while claiming to improve the world.

Will America listen? Well, whether it does or not, the rest of the world will not take it. This is not the 19thcentury any more. If nothing else, and with a more pragmatic approach one also needs to consider tha perception matters: low public esteem for the US makes it more difficult for governments to unabashedly side with the US on international issues. And sometimes, the US needs the rest of the world - even "old Europe".


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Nostalgia for the 80s?

I remember back in the day when Michael Jackson's video Thriller first came out on TV, boy, everybody was talking about it. Well, in my school yard at least! That was back in 1982 and we didn't have MTV in our home yet.
Well, now if you go to this site, you can have your own personal MTV from the glorious years and watch as many music videos from the 80s as you want - ZZ Top, Duran Duran, the Police, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark... and other Eurythmics - all for free.
As much as I enjoy a lot of them because of the fun memories, those may not have been the best years from a musical point of view, and the fashion was pretty atrocious... but then again, who cares?


American Way of Life à la European.

President Bush is to meet EU leaders in Austria tomorrow. (This is because Austria holds the rotating EU presidency). Bush is the first American president to visit in 27 years but he is also the least popular one (ABC News).

Almost nowhere in Europe is disdain for Bush greater than in Austria, where a recent poll by the Vienna-based News magazine found that 72% of respondents said the U.S. president was not likable and a danger to world peace. (LATimes)

So the police were on alert for possible violent anti-Bush demonstrations.

More interestingly is this analysis in today’s Los Angeles Times on how the Europeans don’t like US politics but do like American entertainment. This is nothing new of course. What is more telling is that a rising number of Austrians say they dislike the "American way of life". (whatever that may mean in their eyes).

Those who viewed American life negatively rose from 48% in 2000 to 61% in 2005, according to the Sora Institute polling group in Austria.

"To some extent, this is influenced by politics, but there are some new things too: Austrians and Europeans see that Americans have to work very hard for their wealth…. You've got to have two jobs, or work lots of overtime," he said. "So Austrians don't want to become like Americans anymore."

But at the same time, American popular culture, with its candor and deep optimism, still resonates. In some measure that is part of a long tradition of enthusiasm for Americana, particularly jazz, rock music and blue jeans. But it is also about a certain deep populism that Europe, which has a tradition of elites, especially admires.

In other words, let’s take the candor and optimism (i.e. the idealism) but leave the hard work, even if that means less wealth so that we can enjoy life’s pleasures way more. I think this encapsulates quite well how most Europeans view an ideal society.


Monday, June 19, 2006

Diet Sponsored by.... Nestlé!

Well, I guess when a chocolate company buys a weight loss company, the cycle is finally complete.


The World Cup is like an American Election.

Here's an interesting post (in French and English) on this blog which compares the Soccer World Cup to a U.S. presidential election:
  • both events take place every four years
  • the elemination phase in the Soccer cup is like the primaries
  • the whole world follow both events and you can't avoid it, no matter where you are.
  • and the first game can be compared to a good showing in Iowa and New Hampshire.
  • a red card is like the impact of Howard Dean's self-elimination.
Funny, hey?


France's Bleus.

Watching France v. South Korea last night, I couldn't help noticing how much the game was a good illustration of France's current (and hopefully temporary) malaise.
In the first half, the French clearly were leading the game - scoring after just nine minutes. It seemd as it the old glorious band was back. Unfortunately, there were unable to hold on to it and in the second half, not only did the Koreans scored but "les bleus" seemed to lack the needed energy, force or power to react quickly enough and the Koreans seemed to push them hard.
Interestingly enough, the day before, a Korean supporter said that while the French were technically superior, they were also too old to keep it up. I think he may have been right:
Indeed, the French team is an ageing team - the country's oldest ever international team with an average age of 30 years and 289 days. In fact, Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele all came out of retirement to ensure France qualified for the tournament.

The other problem seems to be that the players don't all get along so well. The tension between Zidane and coach Raymond Domenech was quite visible at the end of the game. How Gallic! would have thought Caesar.

This reflects France's need for change, in politics as in sports, the nation needs a new generation to take the lead. In fact, it seems that nothing can happen in France before the next presidential elections next year... and maybe nothing can happen in soccer before the next World Cup either.
Michel Platini, the great French soccer star, once said, "A football team represents a way of being, a culture.". No kidding. Isn't Bleus French for "blues" anyway?

NOTE: of course, it is not all lost yet, France could still qualify by beating Togo on Friday.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Immigration: EU pulls up drawbridge to Fortress Europe

Recently, this blog has had many posts on the subject of immigration (here, here, or here) – we think it is one of the major issues of the decade both in France and in the U.S. and it’s only going to get more complicated.

It is also a very divisive issue as the situation in
France examplifies. It is all the more difficult that it is hard to draw a line between idealism and pragmatism.

Yesterday, the French upper-house (le Sénat) approved the new immigration bill makes it harder for unskilled migrants to settle in France and abolishes the rights of illegal immigrants to remain after 10 years. The new immigrants will have to sign a contract agreeing to learn French and to respect the principles of the French Republic. It also makes it more difficult for them to bring their families over to join them.

It is worth noticing that the bill was softened and the new version now makes it easier for illegal immigrants whose children attend school in France to stay than previously planned. This is a result of the recent wave of civil and political disobedience spreading across France against the government crackdown on immigration. While opinion polls show that a majority of French people support expelling illegal immigrants, there has been a backlash against the move to expel young schoolchildren (often born in France and speaking only French), to their parents’ country of origin. (as we mentioned before parents and teachers have been taking turns to harbor children who are threatened with deportation and who have gone into hiding.)

As we have said before this is not strictly a French problem. Europe as a whole is facing similar difficulties as the US.

  • The conservative governments of Denmark and Austria have introduced tougher immigration measures in recent months to keep the support of populist right-wing parties.
  • The Netherlands, which has shed traditional tolerance to pass some of Europe's toughest migration laws, began in March making would-be immigrants study the Dutch language and culture for up to 375 hours in preparation for a $400 (216 pounds) exam.
  • Along with France, Italy and Germany also recently adopted new laws which oblige would-be immigrants to study the language and culture of the host country.
Last Thursday, the EU summit agreed that immigrants must adhere to European values if they want to settle in Europe:

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said after EU leaders discussed migration: “There are certain things that lie at the heart of Europe and if people want to be part of Europe they should sign up to these things. We all agreed on this,". (Reuters)

While the Bush administration plans to increase border control in the US – the EU is also considering a permanent EU system to improve maritime border security and surveillance – something called “rapid border intervention team”.

The EU's external border security agency, Frontex, which is based in Poland, already has a second unit in the Canary Islands to help Spain coordinate efforts to deal with the thousands of illegal immigrants who have crossed by boat from Africa in recent months. France and Britain are among the countries supporting those efforts, supplying boats and other equipment after Spanish officials appealed for help. (IHT)

Italy and Malta are also anxious about illegal immigration and, according to EU officials, have pressed for an EU-wide solution.At the same time demography experts insist (here) that the EU needs immigrants to compensate for an ageing population and a decline in birth rates so a proper joint migration policy is much needed.

A similar discussion is taking place in Australia and of course in America.


A European Perspective on the American Dream (2)

When you see this cover of this week's Economist, you probably think that the British magazine is precisely doing the same (although if you do know the magazine's economic views, you know it's not going to be so simple):
Europeans have long held that America does not look after its poor - a prejudice reinforced by the ghastly scenes after Hurricane Katrina. The sharp decline in America's image abroad [see our post here and here] has much to do with foreign policy, but Americanisation has also become synonymous with globalization. Across the rich world, global competition is forcing economies to become more flexible, often increasing unequality.
Any system in which the spoils are distributed so unevenly is morally wrong, they say.

This is where The Economist makes a challenging point (for most Europeans anyway). They claim that inequality is NOT inherently provided that:
  • the whole society is getting richer
  • there is a safety net for the poor
  • everybody regardless of class, race, creed or sex has an opporunity to climb up through the system.
Interestingly, the article acknowledges that some studies have shown that it is easier for poorer children to rise through society in many European countries than in America, yet it is still seen as the country that offers most opportunities.
Several studies (available on their website) also show that parental income to be a better prediction of whether someone will be rich or poor in America than in Canada or much of Europe. (Part of the explanation may be that the political consensus has been to pursue economic growth rather than the redistribution of income.)

Lately, the engine seems to be stalling :
The median worker - the one in the middle of the income range - has done less well than the average, whose gains are pulled up by the big increase of those at the top.
That's why increase by 8% of the average after-tax income given by the White House is misleading.
Yet, most Americans still believe that theirs is the THE land of opportunity. In fact, they tend to blame heir woes not on their rich American fellows but on poor foreigners. In fact, more than 6 out of 10 are sceptical of free trade.
Every measure shows that over the last 25 years, those at the top have done better than those in the middle. In the 1980s, the lowest skill were the hardest hit but this decade has squeezed the middle. The bottom is not longer falling behind, the top is soaring and the middle is under pressure. The explanation may indeed be that wheareas service jobs which demand low-skill workers and cannot be outsourced are rising and with a booming market for chief executives (thanks to technology), middle-class workers have found it harder to get jobs and their income also tend to fluctuate more.
According to the Economist's editoral, the two main problems that could also stall the engine is the poor achivement of the (high-school) education system and the lack of a social-welfare system.

In my opinion, the special report of the Economist - while being extremely good - still fails to develop on the idea that redistribution and taxation may explain just as well the squeez of the middle-class, and the great success of the top. Bush's tax-cuts have certainly not helped make the American society more equal.


A European Perspective on the American Dream (1)

The American Dream [the idea that that through hard work, courage, and determination one can achieve a better life for oneself, usually through financial prosperity.] is one of the topics always discussed in English class in French high-schools.

Most textbooks, it must be said, pick and choose (English or American) articles or texts very critical of it, showing how the U.S. is also a very unequal society. Most of them hint at the idea that the American Dream is a myth that must be debunked by reason.

While it can easily be argued that it is [a myth], I think that they're missing the point. The American Dream is - like most other ideals - not about numbers and economic statistics but rather about faith. So what is important is NOT reality but how people perceive it and how they see themselves in it. (That being said, I agree it is also good to be as aware as well as possible of the reality of the situation.)

It should be stressed that one of the features of the American psyche is that they do not go in for envy. As this article (free online) from The Economist puts it "Americans want to join the rich, not soak them". This is particularly true when you consider that studies show that the gap between rich and poor is greater in the U.S. than in other rich countries. In the U.S., however, 8 out of 10 people believe that even though you may start poor, if you work hard, you can make a lot of money - and that's more people than in any other country.

It should also be added that in America, the image of the rich is much better than in Europe. This may have to do with the philanthropic tradition of the wealthy (think of the great American capitalists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and more recently Bill Gates).

In France, for instance the rich are seen with suspicion, especially by the left. In fact, quite recently, the leader of the socialist party said that on TV that he did not like the rich. (see the video here - in French). That is not something you'd see on American TV. This is because the rich are perceived as having reached the top unfairly. They are often perceived in Europe as the old aristocracy used to be. Whether it is because they really are or because they fail to sell the media a better image, or because the media themselves like to replay the old rivalry of the pre-revolution era, the fact is that it is perception which matters. It is what shapes the political landscape of a nation.

Our point, I guess, is that we ought to acknowledge the fact that there are myths - albeit different ones - on either side of the Atlantic and it's up to us to choose to debunk them or use them for the good of society. What is certain is that in any given society collective myths are needed whether they should be dreams or nightmares is another question.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Why Illegal Immigration is suddenly so big a deal in the US?

I think our previous post is a good illustration of why immigration is such a hot issue. People react more stongly against "illegal immigration" in areas where there was some rather homogeneous neighborhood. In Philly, those Italian neighborhoods becoming more diverse - with new waves of immigrants coming in - get the Italian-Americans (as they like to call themselves) worry.
Kevin Drum is right, I think, when he says:
that concern about immigration has spiked recently because it's increasingly affecting areas that have never experienced significant immigration before, rather than being confined primarily to border states like California and Texas.
The economic opportunities offered by low-qualified jobs (meatfactories in Iowa or agriculture in the Midwest) have attracted a great number of illegal immigrants. (read this very enlightening article). While border states and major urband centers have (more or less) gotten used to Hispanics (legal or not), the people in Middle-America are not.


This is America, when ordering "Speak English"!

The story has been around in the US for about wo weeks but it's now all over the media, from coast to coast - the controversy started when the owner of one of the most famous Philadelphia cheesesteak joints (Geno's Steaks) put up the folloing sign:
It reads: This is AMERICA. When ordering "speak English".

The owner, Joey Vento, faces a discrimination complaint from the city. You might find it ironic that Vento's own grandparents came from Italy without speaking a word of English and Geno's Steaks is actually in a neighborhood founded by Italian immigrants. But that shouldn't surprise anyone. Those descendants of immigrants who did well tend to be proud of their parents' efforts to become Americans. That's also part of the myths (and so is Italian bashing forgotten!)
More importantly what may explain the current crisis may be this:
Over the last quarter-century, South Philadelphia has been transformed from an Italian-American enclave to a melting pot of whites, blacks, Vietnamese, Cambodians and Latinos. (LATimes)

There are a few things that strike me:
  • Whatever your views of a national language may be, not every one who comes to the States is.... American. What about foreign tourists? As Brian said on Crooked Timber:
I’m very pleased that no place had a similar sign when I was trying to get fed in Paris.
  • Despite what many supporters of Vento may think, the question is really not about "freedom of speech" but about whether people will not be served on the ground that they do not speak English.
  • Even though "many Geno's customers insist that everyone in America should speak English", it seems a bit odd for a business also dealing with tourists from all over the world to be so in your face about speaking English. Isn't that a bit risky? (That's probably whyThe Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau is so concerned about the city's image)
  • How do you define "English" in this case? How much English does it take to order "Cheesesteak"? Will Geno refuse to serve you if you don't know what "Cheez Wiz" is. From experiencing it myself, I must say that it may be difficult for outsiders to order at Geno's or other local cheesesteak places if they don't know the "unspoken" code:
The requested language is to state the quantity, the type of cheese, and then "wit" or "witout" to indicate fried onions on the sandwich. A common order is "Whiz wit", a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz, served with fried onions. It is not called "Whiz with", as the guttural South Philadelphia Italian-immigrant pronunciation actually appears on menus—ordering otherwise brands one as an outsider or tourist. Lines for the sandwiches can extend into the streets on certain nights, especially after a sports event at one of the major Philadelphia stadiums, thus showing the need for a rapid ordering system........ (Wiki)
  • What is at "steak" in this particular local event is clearly not Geno's place - after all you can always take your business to Geno's rival - the other famous cheesesteak place, Pat's steaks. (although I suspect that it would be just the same - if you hesitate in giving your order, the guy behind the counter will make the Soup Nazi seem nice and friendly.)The central issue here is the symbol of the entire divisive debate over illegal immigration.
One should be wary of a debate where people start discriminating in the name of patriotism.
and by the way, at Geno's they give in to strong patriotic sentiment - reflecting a very conservtive view.
At Geno's, they call french fries Freedom Fries, (reflevting the anti-French sentiment for its opposition in the United Nations to the Iraq war).
So what's next, banning French people from patriotic stores? Thankgod, Americans are smarter than that and definitely more pragmatic.

NOTE: for those of you who don't know "Cheesesteaks", here's a picture worth a thousand words:


English at the 2006 (French) Baccalaureate.

After 7 years studying a foreign language, French high school students sit for their foreign-language exam for the Baccalaurate (the French national high school graduation exam - see our post here and here).

That's what they did yesterday. So in order to give you an idea of the sort of things that the French Education requires for this exam, I decided to put on the blog the exam given to the S stream ( the most prestigious stream which prepares students for work in scientific fields.)

It is a written exam and lasts 3 hours. There are two parts - the students first have to answer questions (and translate a few lines), and then write an essay of about 300 words.

This year, the text was an extract from Small Island, by a British author, Andrea Levy, written in 2004.

NOTE: As a high-school teacher, I am required to grade the Baccalaueate exam. I will be given about 90 papers to grade and I'll have about a week to do it. It's more tiring than it looks. The hardest part is to remain focus as it gets repetitive. It takes about 1/2 an hour to grade one paper so it might take up to 45 hours of your week - which is a long time to focus.

Here it is.

"I am a teacher and I understand this is the place at which I should present myself for a position in that particular profession." Through the woman's warm smile I detected a little confusion. Too well bred to say "What?" she looked a quizzical eye on me, which shouted the word just as audibly. I repeated myself clearly but before I had completed the statement the woman asked of me sweetly,

"Did you say you are a teacher?"

"I am," I said. My own smile was causing me some pain behind my ears but still I endeavoured to respond correctly. I handed her the two letters of recommendation which I had taken from my bag in anticipation of their requirement. She politely held out her slim hand, took them, then indicated for me to sit. However, instead of studying the letters she merely held them in her hand without even glancing at their contents.

"What are these?" she asked with a little laugh ruffling up the words.

"These are my letters of recommendation. One you will see is from the headmaster at—"

Interrupting me, her lips relaxed for just a moment before taking up a smile once more. "Where are you from?" she asked. The letters were still held in mid-air where I had placed them. "I am from Jamaica," I told her. She was silent, we both grinning on each other in a genteel way. I thought to bring her attention back to the letters. "One of the letters I have given you is from my last post. Written by the headmaster himself. You will see that—"

But once more she interrupted me: "Where?"

I wondered if it would be impolite to tell this beguiling woman to read the letter in her hand so all her questions might be answered. I concluded it would. "At Half Way Tree Parish School," I told her.

"Where's that?"

"In Kingston, Jamaica."

"Well, I'm afraid you can't teach here," and passed the unopened letters back to me. I was sure there had been some misunderstanding, although I was not clear as to where it had occurred. Perhaps I had not made myself as understood as I could. "If you would read the letters," I said, "one will tell you about the three years of training as a teacher I received in Jamaica while the other letter is concerned with the position I held as a teacher at—"

She did not let me finish. "The letters don't matter," she told me. "You can't teach in this country. You're not qualified to teach here in England."

"But..." was the only sound that came from me.

"It doesn't matter that you were a teacher in Jamaica," she went on, "you will not be allowed to teach here." She shook the letters at me. "Take these back. They're of no use."

When I did not take them from her hand she rattled them harder at me. "Take them," she said, so loud she almost shouted. Her smile was stale as a gargoyle. My hand shook as it reached out for the letters. And all I could utter was "But—"

"Miss, I'm afraid there really is no point your sitting there arguing with me." And she

giggled. The untimely chortle made my mouth gape. "It's not up to me. It's the decision of the education authority. I can do nothing to change that. And, I'm afraid, neither can you. Now, I don't mean to hurry you but I have an awful lot to do. So thank you for coming."

Every organ I possessed was screaming on this woman, "What are you saying to me?"

She went back about her business. Her face now in its normal repose looked as severe as that of the principal at my college. She picked up a piece of paper, wrote something at the top. She looked to another piece of paper then stopped, aware that I was still there.

"How long is the training in England?" I asked her.

"Goodbye," she said, pointing a finger at the door.

"Must I go back to a college?"

"Really, miss, I have just explained everything to you. You do speak English? Have you not understood me? It's quite simple. There is no point you asking me anything else. Now, please, I have a lot to do. Thank you."

And she smiled on me — again! What fancy feigning. I could not stand up. My legs were too weak under me. I sat for a little to redeem my composure. At last finding strength to pull myself up, I told this woman, "I will come back again when I am qualified to teach in this country."

"Yes," she said, "you do that. Goodbye."

Small Island, Andrea Levy, 2004

(abridged and adapted)


1. What do you learn about the narrator: occupation, country of origin and sex?

2. In what country does the scene take place?

3. (lines 1-2) "I understand this is the place at which I should present myself for a position in that particular profession."
a. In the passage "the place" is not described in detail. What could the underlined words refer to?
b. Explain what the narrator has come there for.

4. (line 7). I handed her the two letters of recommendation...
Who does the underlined pronoun refer to? Suggest what that character's status or job may be.

5. What does the narrator expect the other character to do with the letters?

6. What does the narrator feel these letters prove?

Questions 7 and 8. Focus on lines 8 to 37. She politely hold out ... reached out for the letters.

7. There are three stages in the way the other character deals with the letters. Describe what these stages are.

8. Pick out two quotations from the text which show how this character justifies such an attitude.

9. Focus on the passage from line 30 to the end of the text. Are the following statements true or false? Justify each answer with a quotation from the text.
a. This character is impressed by the narrator's professional experience.
b. This character is helpful towards the narrator.
c. This character is insulting about the narrator's mastery of the English language.

10. (line 44). Her face now in its normal repose...
In what way have her face and attitude changed throughout the whole scene? Use elements from the whole text to justify your answer. (40 words, quotations not included)

11. What do these changes reveal about this character's true feelings? (30 words)

12. Using the following quotations, analyse the changes in the narrator's state of mind and show the different stages the narrator has gone through. (30 words)

(line 6) My own smile was causing me some pain behind the ears...
(line 36) My hand shook...
(lines 53-54) My legs were too weak under me.
(line 55)
"I will come back again..."

13. Translate into French from line 27 to line 30 "If you would read the letters,"... she did not let me finish


Choose subject 1 (a+b) or subject 2.

Some time later the two characters in the text meet again. The narrator has become "qualified to teach in this country" and decides to go and see the same person again. Write their conversation. (150 words)
b. Should French diplomas be valid everywhere in Europe? (150 words)

2. How can overcoming obstacles at school or at work make someone stronger? Illustrate your point with one or two examples. (300 words)