Monday, August 28, 2006

Overworked Americans and Underworked Europeans?

If France is the world's top destination, it may be because it is a country of leisure. Surely enough, the French are also in the top 5in terms of vacation weeks taken. But they're not at the very top, Italy is actually the winner in that category. Then, more suspringly to a lot of people, comes Germany.
Here are the results for 2005 (in weeks taken on average):
  1. Italy: 7.9
  2. Germany : 7.8
  3. Netherlands : 7.6
  4. France / Spain: 7.0
  5. Britain : 6.6
(source The Economic Policy Institute, also available here on FP in Pdf)

Can you guess where the U.S. stands? Well, it is way behind with an average of 3.9 weeks taken on average. The only country that takes less time off is.... China. (even the Japanese enjoy more time off with an average of 5.3 weeks actually aken on average).
Not surprisingly, the average American also works more hours than the average European (in any given European country for that matter). The country where people work the leats number of hours on average in Europe is Norway, followed by Germany and France.

Now, the seemingly paradox is that the top two countries having the greatest producty levels (in US$ created per hour) are...well, Norway ($62.66) and France ($ 54.03), followed by Ireland ($48.86) and then, the U.S. ($47.52).
This does not necessarily mean that if you work less, you automatically work better (Germany is behind the US in productivity level), but it certainly means that working more does not make you work more efficiently. It also means that contrary to popular thinking the Americans do not work more efficiently than the French. They just work more....
As to whether that's a good thing, well, it depends what your priorities are. It's up to every society to decide for themselves and there is no moral judgement to make there - one way or the other.

NOTE: No need to say that those results have been largely commented in the French media. they have also been used by French politicians to make their points - but strangely enough, by both sides, those who think the French should work more hours and those who think it is just fine they way it is.


World's Top Tourist Destinations.

Most people have already been back from their summer vacation or are on their way back. It'll be interesting to know what this year's favorite destinations may be.... but it seems that in the kast 10 years at least, by and large France has been leading the way. In fact, there were more people coming to France (75.3 million tourists) in 2005 than there were French people living there(approx. 60 million).

Here are the top destinations for 2005 (in millions of tourists ):
  1. France : 75.3
  2. Spain : 55.6
  3. U.S. : 49.4
  4. China : 46.8
Source The Economic Policy Institute.

Personally, I would have thought that Italy came before China but they are behind by about 10 million. The results have not changed much in the last few years, except for the rise of China since 2000 which moved ahead of Italy in 2004.
Out of total of about 800 millio tourists traveling abroad, nearly 1 in 10 goes to France - that's about $40 billion into the country's economy. That's quite impressive, isn't it?


Reshaping the Middle-East... indeed.

The Economist this week:
The removal of the fiercely Sunni Taliban has allowed Iran to form valuable alliances with its fellow Shias in Afghanistan. Thanks to America's reorganisation of Iraq in favour of its Shia majority and the Islamic Republic's successful cultivation of the new elite there, Iran has a degree of influence to its west that it has not enjoyed since it lost its Mesopotamian possessions in the 17th century.
It is likely that if things do not improve in Iraq - and I don't see how they will - and whenever the US troops leave, we will see the partition of Iraq in 3 regions (Kurdish, Shiia and Sunni) along the following ethnic lines.

It may not happen right away. Since Bush said that even though the war in Iraq is "straining the psyche of our country", "We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president.", it is likely to continue on like this for the next 2 years. But it is probably just a question of time before we see the partition of Iraq. Clearly, that will make Iran the most powerful country in the region.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

The French System of Integration Not so Bad.... after all.

Following last November's riots and violent clashes in France (involving mainly the burning of cars and public buildings by youths in the deprived areas of the suburbs), it seemed that the whole French system of integration of its immigrants was collapsing. Most of the youths who took part in the violence were after all children of immigrants. Those events led to some soul-searching debates in the country.
But despite what many analysts said those riots, however morally wrong, actually underlined some strange paradox - the violence against whatever represented the Republic was an expression of anger at not being enough part of it.
Clearly, a majority of those youths are the children of Muslim immigrants from North-Africa (Algeria, Morroco, Tunisia) and sub-Saharan Africa (Mali, Senegal...) so it is easy to conclude that not only the French social but also racial system integration is a failure, and there is no doubt that there is racism in France.
While the French system of education makes a point in giving (more or less) the same education to the French youths, regardless of their background, the reality is that it is much harder to be economically integrated when you live in deprived ghettos (nothing new there). Does that mean that French Muslims reject the French values, and are the riots the first sign of this rejection?

According to this study by the Pew Center, (via Jerome-a-Paris in European Tribune) it does not seems so - especially if comparing to other European Muslims. What most French Muslims are concerned about is to find a job, but most of them have also embraced French values, including secularism. This is where it gets interesting:
What most distinguishes French Muslims among others in Europe are their self-perceptions. Few Muslims living in France see a natural conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. Seven-in-ten French Muslims (72%) perceive no such conflict, a view shared by a virtually identical 74%-share of the French general public. In Great Britain, however, Muslims split evenly (47% see a conflict, 49% do not) while only 35% of the British general public see no inherent conflict between devotion to Islam and adaptation to a modern society.

Moreover, when asked whether they consider themselves as a national citizen first or as a Muslim first, French Muslims split relatively evenly (42% vs. 46%) on the issue. Not only is this remarkably different from Muslims elsewhere in Europe (fully 81% of British Muslims self-identify with their religion rather than their nationality, for example) but it is remarkably close to the responses given by Americans when asked whether they identify first as national citizens or as Christians (48% vs. 42%). Perhaps in this, as in other things, Muslims living in France are indeed absorbing the secular ways of their countrymen, among whom fully 83% self-identify with their nationality, rather than their religion.

However, the younger generation has a more conflictual perception, while 51% of them (those under 35 of age) self-identify first as Muslim, they are as equally (78%) as their elder to say they want to adopt French customs. It seems pretty clear to me that when you're jobless or see yourself with little economic opportunity, you may be more prone to some soul-searching in all kinds of ways.

In any case, those results certainly show that an overwhelming majority of Muslims have embraced French values, including the French system of assimilation (which is based on ignoring differences), and that makes the French Muslims apart from their fellow European Muslims - only 53% of Muslims in Spain, 41% in Britain and 30% in Germany say they want to adopt local customs.

So while there is certainly a great need for better economic integration and more job opportunities, the French do not need to look elsewhere in Europe for a better system of integration of their immigrants. This is good news, since France has the largest Muslim community (5 million or so, i.e. between 8% and 10% of its population) in Europe.


Friday, August 25, 2006

Chirac's Foreign Policy : Yes... No... Maybe... Don't know.... !

When Italy announced a few days ago that it would send 3000 troops to Lebanon, would even take the lead in the force and then when they won backing from other Western capitals, you could be sure Chirac would react. He is a man with a pretty big ego, in the tradition of De Gaulle. As The Times puts it, it “has ruffled feathers in France”, or shall we say, of Chirac. After all, France is on the Security Council, helped write 1701, and considers itself the natural leader of the international community in the region as the former colonial power in Lebanon and Syria, or as Chirac put in a great understatement, because France is “historically close” to Lebanon.

So now, the French president has announced on TV that France would send an additional 1,600 troops which will make a total of 2,000 – still less than the Italians. but the Italians seem pretty cool about the decision:

The premier later told state broadcaster RAI that if the UN chooses another country to lead the force, expected to number up to 15,000 troops, this would also be acceptable to Italy . (ANSA)
Granted that Chirac has consistently said that he would send more soldiers only if the UN strengthened the force's rules of engagement, as well as clearly defining its mission and providing guarantees that Hizbollah would be disarmed, but still the French government helped write the initial cease-fire resolution, 1701 which called for 15,000 UN peacekeepers and another 15,000 Lebanese army troops to deploy to southern Lebanon and did not pressure for new rules of engagement then. Well, so now, it seems that the rules of engagement are about to change - something that should have happened years ago. (after Rwanda and Bosnia)

Troops would be allowed to use "deadly force" in order to impose the August 11 cease-fire resolution, according to these rules. They would also be mandated to defend themselves, protect civilians and - most critically for the Israelis - provide backup for the Lebanese Army in its effort to stop Hizbullah-bound arms from leaking over the Syrian border.

These officials say the draft rules distributed last week are the closest they have gotten to a consensus position among the countries that are serious about contributing to the force.

The proposed rules seem to strike a middle ground. Though "predominantly defensive in nature," the draft rules mandate "use of force, up to and including deadly force, while assisting the government of Lebanon, at its request to secure its borders and other points of entry to prevent the entry into Lebanon, without its consent, of foreign forces, arms or related material." This falls just short of confronting Hizbullah head-on, but still has the potential to set up a clash between UNIFIL and the militia. (The Jerusalem Post)

And maybe between UNIFIL and Israel…who knows.

The reaction in Lebanon seems rather positive:

The Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, said in an interview with French radio: "The Lebanese want France to have a strong presence which could push other contributing countries to do the same and which could encourage the Lebanese too."

Trad Hamadé, the Lebanese employment minister and a member of Hizbollah, told Libération: "I say to the French, soyez les bienvenus (be welcome)." (The Times)

However, Chirac is still very ambiguous and continues to defend his initial position:

"My feeling is that the figure that was given at the beginning, of 15,000, ... is a figure that is completely excessive," Chirac told a joint news conference with Merkel."I don't know who mentioned this figure but it doesn't really make sense. So what is the right number, 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000? I don't know." (Reuters)

So why co-drafta resolution which calls for 15,000 troops in the first place? It's about time for Chirac to go on retirement. Indeed, France probably needs a new president who knows a little more and can make some decisions! Thank God, just a few more months to go...

It is find of funny to consider the different kinds of leadership between France and the US. In many ways, Chirac is the antinomy of Bush, when one should be less certain, the other should know more, when one is too prone to hasty action, the other should... act, when one does not gauge the consequences of his actions, the other is paralyzed by reflection. It's too bad - they could have actually made a good pair- good cop / bad cop type, but their egos prevented that.

In any case, it’ll be interesting to see if this is finally going to give the necessary strength to the UN forces and give them some credibility.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Foie Gras Raids?

As we posted early this year, the City Council of Chicago has voted a ban on foie gras in all restaurants (against the mayor's better judgement) but there seems to some real "civil disobedience" resistance to the measure:
... a handful of restaurants in Chicago that never served foie gras featured it on Tuesday, the very day Chicago became the first city in the United States to outlaw its sale.
The illicit foodstuff could be spotted in places it was rarely seen when it was legal: buried in Chicago's famed deep-dish pizza, in soul food in the South Side of the city, beside beef downtown. (NYT)
The decision by the city council is turning into a fierce legal battle as " the Illinois Restaurant Association has now filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the law, passed by the city council in April this year." (BBC)

But the NYTimes had this great reassuring statement : "Even after Tuesday, however, the possibility of foie gras raids appears remote." Don't you love it? "Foie-gras raids"! I wouldn't mind being part of the foie-gras brigade as long as I can taste the product.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Playing the terrorists' game.

There is a couple of good articles in the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly. One called “Declaring Victory” holds a very provocative thesis – it claims that “the U.S. is succeeding in its struggle against terrorism” and “the time has come to declare the war on terror over; so that an even more effective military and diplomatic campaign can begin.

I thought I detected some irony there but I wasn't sure and in any case, the article presented such an iconoclastic view that it picked my interest. It turns out that even though he may be going too far, James Fallows, the journalist who wrote it, makes some valid comments on the whole terrorist issue:

One of the people he interviewed for his paper – an expert on terrorism - compared today’s terrorists to the European anarchists of the late 19th century and said it is our reaction which can cause the most damage (citing the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife which started WWI). In fact, another expert, Marc Sageman also makes a comparison with 19th century anarchists who were, according to him, like today’s Jihadists, in that hey were “romantic young, people in a hurry with a dream of changing the world and kept pushing the envelope and committed more atrocities until the dream was no longer attractive to other young people."

It is true the terrorists have actually alreday killed more Muslims than non-Muslims. They have also certainly killed more Iraqis than the US army has. Attacking mosques may in the end prove to be their greatest mistakes, but has it been enough for enough Muslims to realize that the terrorists are a greater threat to them than to non-Muslims?

Of course, ironically the war in Iraq has also been a great advertising campaign for the recruitment of more terrorists in the sense that it has greatly undermined the moral authority of the US. A former director of Britain’s secret intelligence agency MI-6 makes a good remark on the perception of the U.S. in the world today:

The United-States is so powerfully military that by its very nature, it represents a threat to every other nation on earth. The only country that could theoretically destroy every single country is the United-States. The only way we can say that the U.S. is not a threat is by looking at intent, and that depends on moral authority. If you’re not sure the United-States is going to do the right thing, you can’t trust it with that power, so you begin thinking. How can I balance it off and find other alliances to protect myself?

As James Fallows then puts it, "America’s glory has been its openness and idealism, internally and externally". Well, those qualities are certainly being threatened today.

Another good point raised by another interviewee is that the terrorists have to try to top their last attack, because the public becomes desensitized and the media may pay less attention to it and toping 9/11 is not exactly something they can do easily. I think this is not so much true in the U.S. but it is a valid argument in Israel and partly in Europe. That's why a 'nuclear' attack, like a dirty bomb, could be the next phase as it would cecrtainly make an impact ven if it killed only a few people.

But the main point of the article is to say the “war on terror” is counterproductive. James Fallows says that we should simply consider terrorism as "another peril of urban life". The terrorists, he says, "cannot destroy us by their own efforts, and their real destructive power lies in what they can provoke us to do". I agree there. Not only does fear cause us to step on our some of our most cherished values, including freedom and democracy, but it damages our relationship with the Muslim world and create potential enemies.

Their most dangerous weapons are not so much the terrorists' bombs, butthe very actions we take because of our feeling of insecurity, fear, anxiety, hysteria. As we continue to see in the news, this is certainly where they cause the most damage to our societies. It is also their goal.

So how much longer are we going to take the bait? What we must certainly do is refuse to overreact. But in our global world of 24 hour media connection, it is certainly a greater challenge than it was in the 19th century. Insecurity, fear, anxiety, hysteria can certainly propagate much more rapidly and more globally in today's world.

Of course, it does not mean we should get rid of security check-points, or be complacent, but as Fallows suggests, language training, agent training, but also the containment of “loose nukes” or diplomacy should certainly be some of the tools that have been neglected and should thus play a bigger role in the war on terror.


When Mob-rule gets its way over Reason.

Here is the scary world we live in... :
Two Asian students were thrown off a plane (en route from Malaga to Manchester) at gunpoint because other passengers feared they were terrorists. (The Guardian)
This shows we should be more scared of people's reaction these days than of the terrorists. Here's how one of the passengers defended their action:

"It was a return holiday flight, full of people in flip-flops and shorts. There were just two people in the whole crowd who looked like they didn't belong there." (BBC)

The BBC has some good explanations about group hysteria. Another psychologist dismisses this is paranoia, but frankly I am not convinced. What I find amazing is that the airline (or the captain) caved in to mob-rule. Fear can really make people do amazing things but it's up to the airline, the aiport and the crew to reason with people, isn't it?

I find the two Asians who were thrown off way too forgiving.

One of them told the Daily Mirror (in The Guardian)

"These are nervous times and I can understand why people are so panicked," adding, "We might be Asian, but we're two ordinary lads who wanted a bit of fun. Just because we're Muslim does not mean we are suicide bombers."

And the other said:

"I don't blame anyone for what happened. Actually I feel sorry for the people who thought we were terrorists."

So what's next? Shoot and ask questions later? Or a new version of good old lynching? This madness needs to stop.

UPDATE: More of the same, it seems. I wonder what this one is going to turn out to be :
Dutch police detained 12 passengers who were allegedly behaving suspiciously on a US airline flight to India that returned to Amsterdam shortly after takeoff today.
CNN has some tentative explanations. As for me, I'm flying on Monday from the U.S. to Britain, I'd better be prepared for a long trip... . Should I wear shorts and flip-flop? Or do it in the nude?


Who is the best in math?

This may not have made the headlines, but the world’s most prestigious prize for mathematics – the Fields Medal (often described as math's equivalent of the Nobel prize) was awarded to four researchers during a ceremony in Madrid this morning.

The novelty this time is that one of the mathematicians who received the world's highest honor - a Russian mathematician by the name of Grigory (aka Grishka) Perelman - actually refused the award. Apparently, a Fields Medal has never been turned down before. Grishka seems to be a bit of an eccentric. He is described as “a reclusive Russian genius” who claims to have cracked one of history's toughest math problems – a famous and intractable century old mathematical problem, known as the Poincaré conjecture, about the nature of space.

Even after reading this NYTimes article which tries to explain why this is an important breakthrough, I do not believe I get a good grasp of the whole thing but I take their word for it – this is big news.

From my layman perspective, I find the whole thing about Grishka pretty funny. He seems like a caricature of a Russian mathematician, doesn’t he? Like the Rasputin of mathematics.

I have know about the Fields Medal for some time because I happen to hang out with mathematicians. The Medal is awarded every 4 years, and secondly and the winners cannot be over the age of 40. Fields Medals have generally been awarded for a body of work.

This year, the other winners are an American-Russian (Andrei Okounkov), an Australian, Terence Tao (Australia), and a Frenchman, Wendelin Werner.

I had been told by some French mathematician relative of mine that the French have an excellent reputation in the world of mathematics. One may think this may be some jingoistic wishful thinking but the Fields Medal award gives a chance for some objective view and it is quite clear that, yes indeed the French are in a good position. Of course, the U.S. is leading but the last two are actually Russians who emigrated to the U.S.

Out of 48 medal delivered since 1936, the results are the following:

  • USA: 13 (27%)
  • France.: 9 (19%)
  • Russia/USSR : 7 (14.5%)
  • GB: 7 (14.5%).

Interestingly, all the French winners have been to the same school (a Grande Ecole, called L’Ecole Normale Supérieure (also known by its acronym of ENS), probably the most prestigious higher education establishment in France. Its alumni include eight laureates of the Fields Medal, as well as Nobel Prize winners in both science and literature. Needless to say, in order to get in, you have to take one of France's most selective competitive exams.

Recently, I had a discussion on why France, Russia and Britain are among the four top nations in mathematics. My mathematician relative said it is because France has a strong tradition in the field of mathematics. Blaise Pascal or Henry Poincaré are certainly good illustrations. I ventured to say that the French education system also tends to focus on mathematics more than that of other countries. In fact, it seems to me that in the French secondary school system, the selection goes mostly along the lines of one's performance in math. The French love for abstract notions and for logic may also by another reason for the French success in mathematics.

What is certain is that good grades in math in French schools is the fast track to success in France.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Quote of the Day.

BUSH: The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.

QUESTION: What did Iraq have to do with it?

BUSH: What did Iraq have to do with what?

QUESTION: The attack on the World Trade Center.

BUSH: Nothing. Except it’s part of — and nobody has suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a — Iraq — the lesson of September 11th is take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody’s ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq.
(via Think Progress - see video here too).

No one ever suggested that? What about here, here and here. But that must have been the liberal media, no doubt.



Even though the French are more reluctant to take on neologism than the Americans, they have come with a new word in the political sphere - Segomania which defines quite well the excitement about Ségolène Royal, the first French female socialist to (probably) run for the highest post in the country - the presidency.

The French want some change for sure and so far, it seemed that only Nicholas Sarkozy might be able to give it to them. But at the same time, the French do not necessarily want a "conservative revolution" either. Sarkozy is probably too laissez-faire for them. Sarko (as he is often called) might be a good choice for improved Franco-American relationships but that might just be too much of a liability for him. His controversial rhetoric might also sound too harsh for a majority of people.
Ms Royal, on the other hand, might be more suited to sell what she calls for "a new form of socialist politics, founded on individual responsibility and state protections."
The Independent is right: her popularity is in part due to her being a woman and "speaking in a language shorn of most of the usual political cliches", which has "allowed her to emerge as a "new face", without seeming to threaten abrupt departure from the past."
And indeed;
She has become the first mainstream politician in France to generate popular fervour since the successful presidential campaign of her mentor, François Mitterrand, 25 years ago.
But her problem may be precisely to maintain her popularity in the months ahead. After all the presidential elections only takes place in May. As Jospin found out, no one is above a mistake or two that could jeopardize their chances. Her immediate challenge is to stay up in the polls until the Socialist party votes for their candidate for president in November. There is a lot of opposition whithin the party, mostly from the old guard. There have been talks of bringing Jospin back from the graveyard but that is unlikely to work. Besides, remarks "who is going to keep the kids" by the old-guard (cf. Laurent Fabius) are bound to backfire and make her even more popular.

As left-leaning French daily Libération noted:
"She is not in a bad position" to be chosen as Socialist presidential candidate, but "nothing is more difficult than transforming popularity into votes,"
Her more long-term challenge, however may be to keep the fine line between a Blairesque or Clintonian philosophy (when she asks the Letf to "reappropriate" individual responsibility as a left-wing value") and a more traditional socialist rejection of "the "precariousness" of employment, brought by new technologies and globalisation."
What bothers me the most, however, is the hype made about her, which the term Segomania reflects too well. At times, it looks rather like a popularity contest à la French Idol than a political campaign but maybe that's just the way things ought to be in our day and age. In the end, and at this point, I would choose Royal over Sarkozy for sure.


Waiting for Chirac

French president Jacques Chirac is taking a well-deserved beating in the media here in the U.S. For the most part, it is more Chirac bashing than French bashing – except in some very conservative media who are always biased against France anyway.

The NYTimes sums it well today with its op-ed entitled “Waiting for Jacques” [a fitting allusion to Beckett’s existentialist play “Waiting for Godot” in which Godot is much talked about but never shows up].

It would be tempting to laugh about France’s paltry commitment of 200 additional peacekeepers for Lebanon, if it weren’t so dangerous. After insisting for years that they be treated like a superpower, the French are behaving as if they have no responsibility for helping dig out of the Lebanon mess.

As they put it, Chirac is certainly “a politically unpopular lame duck," and as we have said before, he does not have what it takes to lead the country effectively. That’s the way he is perceived in France anyway. His popularity may have gone slightly up but it is still very low – even lower than G. Bush’s - at a staggering 21% with 77% of the French who have no confidence in their president.
[I do not understand, however, what the NYT means when they say he is “unable to keep his generals in line.” It is true that the French military command is nervous about getting involved in what could turn out to become a quagmire but that does not account for Chirac’s inability to deliver his promises.]

Unfortunately, the French know all too well that this president has not delivered on most of his promises domestically so why expect anything different in foreign affairs. Unfortunately, the consequences may be greater as it impacts France's future diplomatic ability, and weakens the fragile truce in Lebanon.

As we also said before, if the French defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie has a point when she says:

“We need to know what are the material and legal means at our disposal. You can’t send in men and tell them: Observe what is going on, but you don’t have the right to defend yourself or shoot.’’,

But what is the French government waiting for drifting a new resolution that would clarify the rules of engagement in this conflict? They, after all, wrote this resolution. It really seems like a bad excuse to keep the status quo.The problem is that cowardice is contagious – the rest of Europe is also having cold feet. No wander! The whole thing does not seem to prevent Chirac from having the nerves to urge for other European countries to get more involved. How much credibility does he have? His arrogance is with no limit.

Chirac also gets a lot of heat from the press in France (see left-wing newspaper Libération but also the more conservative Le Figaro).

The French socialist rising star Segolène Royal also took a swipe at the Middle East policy of President Jacques Chirac, saying that France, "to win the respect of the world", should be prepared to act, not just talk."

The famous ending quotes of Waiting for Godot seem all the more appropriate when it comes to the French president these days:

Vladimir: Well, shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let's go.

And they do not move.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Compassionate (Gay) Republican.

This summer I have had many opportunities to discuss with friends of mine who are on almost opposite ends of the political spectrum. They know where I stand politically and they usually know where I stand on issues because of our blog. Both the Joker and the Thief tend to have similar views on current events. Most of my Republican friends actually expect me to disagree with them.

This anecdote however reflects more a personal experience. This year, I was challenged in my views by a man called Steven Sion who runs for State Assembly in California as a gay (and Christian) Republican. Imagine that! One of my very first questions was to ask him if that was not a bit of an oxymoron and how he faced the apparent contradiction given the GOP’s stance on gay marriage, and he acknowledged his disagreement but was very aware of the challenge ahead. [Obviously I was not the first one to ask him that and he had certainly thought things through]

What was interesting is that by talking to him, I realized how much his passion for what he does transpired and I could tell he really believes he can change things not only in his own district but also somewhat in his own party. His goal is to “rejuvenate the Republican Party in the district and change the perception that the Party is only for the wealthy and not progressive on social equality”. As much as I knew some very Compassionate Republican friends of mine, I had yet to meet a true Compassionate Republican running for office – not that I meet politicians so often anyway. But my meeting with him was very refreshing that way.

The other interesting part is that he runs for office in a predominantly democratic [and gay] district where it is actually easier to be gay than to be a Republican. I just loved the irony. He is the odd man in the race and certainly the underdog, and as someone with rather liberal views, my heart goes to the underdog. As much as I disagree with him on a lot of issues, I can appreciate that he should be so devoted and have the courage to stand for what he believes. It takes character. It is also what makes our democracies run since it offers a real alternative.

This led me to realize that quite often politicians – at a local level anyway – may be underappreciated for what they do. They have to meet tons of people, go to endless meetings and make themselves available. They also become exposed to all sorts of public scrutiny and even personal criticism. That’s tough. As a teacher, I get a little bit of that and I think I am already enough of a public figure - I do not think I could do more than that.

In any case, it’ll be interesting to follow what happens in this race in the 42nd district of California, and personally I wish him good luck.


Why is Europe so anti-Israel?

Recently, in the wake of the Israeli-Hezbollah war, we asked why the United-States is so pro-Israel.
Well it only seems air to ask the reverse question then – why does
Europe tend to be so anti-Israel. This is extremely relevant to the main theme of our blog as there is no doubt about the transatkantic divide over the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians - as illustrated in the polls here below:

The common idea in America is that it is a return of the old European anti-Semitism, yet I don't think one can see anything resembling the anti-Semitism of the late 19th century and 1930s in Europe and in any case, there is a difference between being anti-Semitic and being anti-Israel.

Europe and France in particular has a strong Muslim population but it has little influence in the political decision making and it does not reflect the general public opinion – they account for only 10% of the population in France. Even though Muslims living in Western countries have a more negative view of Jews, the largest Muslim community in Europe in France, which also has the largest Jewish community in Europe] has - against all odds - a positive view of Jews (by an impressive 71% according to a recent Pew poll). In fact, this is the only Muslim population or sub-population surveyed whose opinion of Jews is more favorable than not. So, despite common thinking, the largely prevalent negative view of Israel in Europe does not stem from its Muslim population.

Once again, we can turn to The Economist for making some interesting points. They see the six-day war in 1967 as the turning point that changed Europeans' perception of Israel. It was not so much the war itself as the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai that followed which changed the framework of the conflict. Israel was no longer the “plucky survivor of the Holocaust keeping powerful neighbors at bay“, it had become a neo-colonial regional superpower and the Palestinian became the underdog, the oppressed and the displaced.

According to Manuele Ottolenghi, an expert on Israel and Europe at Oxford University:

“Europeans see Israel as the embodiment of the demons of their own past.” The European Union is supposed to have traded in war, nationalism and conflict for love, peace and federalism. European public opinions tend to support whoever they perceive as the underdog and the oppressed which explains the shift to an increasingly critical view of anti-Israeli views. It is all about how you frame conflict. (The Economist)

This is particularly true of the political left of course as European socialists see themselves as sheer defender of the oppressed and the disaffected.The very fact that the most powerful nation on earth, the US, is so supportive of Israel fits their view of a the conflict.

The Economist’s article rightly points out that the once anti-Semitic far-right is now pro-Israel (not only Forza Italia but also French Jean-Marie Le Pen). My personal explanation is that this stems from their negative view of Arab immigrants in Europe. They see Muslims as a more pressing enemy.

The fact that Europe has no equivalent of America's powerful AIPAC Israeli lobby may also explain in part why European politicians are more keen on criticizing Israel but I think it is a minor factor as their views reflect those of a large part of the public opinion.
More importantly however, Europeans tend to believe that diplomacy rather than armed conflicts will ultimately solve regional problems in the Middle-East. They are more reluctant than Americans to support wars for obvious historical reasons and thus they tend to see war much more as the very last resort.

What I find fascinating is that while Europe and the U.S. have a fairly similar cultural proximity, and as they watch the very same conflict in the Middle-East, they see it in almost opposite terms. Their view of the situation is based in a different framework.

  • The Americans see Israel as a plucky democracy threatened by Islamist extremism and terrorism, in a region afflicted by dangerous autocracies. In our post-0/11 world, they see the Israeli even more as themselves.
  • The Europeans, on the other hand, see Israel as a powerful militaristic nation with misguided neo-colonial motives, (emphasized by expressions like “settlements” or “occupied territories”). It is a reminder of their own past and their own guilt like a ghost that comes to haunt them.

Both views make some sense at some levels but neither are probably quite accurate - the truth may lie between the two. That is why, in my opinion, the picture is rather gray. I believe the whole situation is extremely complex and cannot be seen through a simple moral identification with one side or the other. What is needed is distance and perspective and not a binary and overly simplistic view. That's the only way Europe and the US can some day play the broker in the region.

NOTE: It is clear that religion plays an important role in the reason why the U.S. is so supportive of Israel, as one of our faithful readers commented. But since we have discussed this before on our blog, we have skipped it this time. It is nonetheless a major element to understand the difference between Europe and the U.S.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Chirac is Weaseling Out of Commitment.

Well, given the recent developments, it seems that French foreign policy is all about words and none about action. A commitment of no less than 200 additional troops to Lebanon, well imagine that! Not exactly what the UN or the rest of the world had in mind.

French newspaper Libération wrote that the offer of so few French troops was an insult for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

'I cannot ignore the fact that France has been accused of not fulfilling its duty as regards the Lebanon crisis,' the French defence minister said. Since the beginning of the crisis, France had been at the forefront and had made the greatest contribution, she added.

Apparently, French officials defended the decision not to become heavily involved in southern Lebanon, citing French casualties in previous UN peace missions such as that in Bosnia. France as well as Germany called on the United Nations to give the troops deployed in Lebanon an "unequivocal mandate" for the use of force.

That is a good point, I guess. Who needs another UN mandate of blue helmet “observers”? Multinational peacekeepers have been constrained by rules that allowed them only to fire only in self-defense in Bosnia or Rwanda for instance. (read here)

However, I wonder how much that can be used as an excuse. Why not then push for a vote that would allow change in the rules of engagement? It seems to me that Chirac is weaseling out of his commitments and is only interested in status quo. This is bad politics.

Now, not only is the UN upset but both Israel and Lebanon governments feel betrayed.

In the meantime, this another great opportunity for French-bashing in the American media – The Chicago Tribune wrote that "it is a bracing reminder about why the words "France" and "backbone" rarely appear in the same sentence". Others say that French diplomacy in this crisis has been brilliant but I find myself in agreement with the Chicago Tribune that “the French can't expect their diplomatic efforts to be taken seriously if they're not willing to back talk with commitment.”

I tend to believe that the presidential campaign now starting in France may also be another reason why the French government is not willing to commit troops to a something that could turn into another military quagmire and a political disaster. In fact, I am not sure that most French politicians would be willing to engage the country into a war for peace.

To me though, it shows that Chirac is very short-sighted and not worthy of the kind of leadership France needs.
I fail to see why he does not put more pressure on the UN Security Council for more fire power if he were truly committed. The truth of the matter is probably that he is just interested in keeping the status quo until the presidential elections.

Most French people have known that for years. His lamentable (lack of) leadership during the urban riots provided a good illustration.

In this case, though, the result is that the fragile peace in Lebanon and Israel is not likely to hold – as we can see today - and Chirac will have to take the blame. This is also bad politics for France though. It makes its word in international affairs worth peanuts and deeply hurt its future diplomatic move.

Boy, I can't wait for Chirac to be out of power. It seems nothing good can ever come out of his government. And The Sun may have been right after all - his legacy may be that of a sort of useless worm in the end.

NOTE: let me rectify what I said- some things are going surprisingly well in France. However, I'm afraid Chirac has little to do with them.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Bush Discusses Existensialism.

George Buh has only taken a 10 day vacation in his Texas ranch in Crowford this year, and according to Tony Snow - the White House Secretary - the president spent part of his vacation reading French Albert Camus''s "The Stranger". According to Snow, it even triggered a discussion about existentialism with his aides
"He found it an interesting book and a quick read," said Mr Snow. "I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism." (MSNBC)
What to make of it? Like anything official that comes from the White House, we need some skepticism and consider this may just PR.
Camus is certainly no beach reading and the choice is all the more surprising that Bush has so far made a point in playing the anti-intellectual president- especially if you consider that Bush has spent much of his presidency dismissing the French, why would he now read one of the country's literary heroes and goes public about it (Slate)

So what other possible explanations
Some have suggested it is an act of glasnost:
Bush has spent much of his presidency dismissing the French, so now he reads one of the country's literary heroes and goes public about it.
Jon Stewart has another explanation - the story is after all basically about a westerner who kills an arab for no good reason and dies with no remorse. (sic!)
Slate also suggests that the president could easily relate to Meursault, the main protagonist. Yet, Bush is everything but a Camus man, in my opinion.
Others, such as Senior White House Correspondent Jason Jones suggested that George Bush was actually catching up on his 9th grade syllabus.
Well, maybe he is simply extending his intellectual horizon.

In any case, there seems to be a lot of fuss and skepticism about the whole thing.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Clear Mandate.

According to some reports, France will probably play a big role in Southern Lebanon.
France is expected to lead the enhanced force, which is to grow from the current 2,000 troops to 15,000 troops. An estimated 15,000 Lebanese troops are to join the strengthened U.N. force, which is to move south of the Litani River, about 18 miles from the Israeli border . (AP)

As a French citizen I don't have a problem with that. The only thing is that I can see why France is demanding a more specific mandate for the force, including when it may use firepower. What France needs is a clear mandate that allows UN Troops to use firepower and NOT be the feeble force it was in the past (Think of Rwanda). The credibility of the UN is once again at stake.
It is also probably good that Turkey and Indonesia should join.


How much can we trade off for security?

I like this piece (on European Tribune by Helen):

[.../...] No Govt can impose a level of security that can keep air, or indeed any form of travel, safe from those who intend us harm. All they do is provide us with illusions that require occasional updating.

And that's a point worth considering. Life is often nasty, brutal and short and absolutely nobody gets out alive. Many many more people die in the west on our roads than in terrorist incidents, but we shrug our shoulders over that.

Government cannot keep us absolutely safe, it can only make reasonable efforts to do so. Before we authorise our Govts to render our everyday life as we know it unliveable with impositions of security that make ideas of freedom, liberty and self-determination meaningless we need to engage in a debate about our realistic expectations. There are trade-offs, nihilist terrorism is fashionable and must be guarded against, but we cannot keep allowing fools like Blair and Reid to shut the country down because it would be electorally suicidal to admit the true limits of their abilities.

Maybe, if I'm generous, I could admit that is a function of being in charge that they feel a sense of responsibility to us. That they would do anything to ensure that we are kept safe lest their pact be broken. But they cannot keep us utterly safe and the price for maintaining the fiction that they can might be too high to our sense of who we are.

Of course, maybe we'd like our Govts to consider treading more lightly on the world. Causing fewer problems in far away places in the continued assumptions of Western Imperialism that we are immune to meaningful blowback from our interference in the 3rd world. Our believe that our technology and distance keep us safe. Throwing petrol around and then wrapping us in asbestos to protect us from the fire make keep the flames at bay, but also gives us asbestosis.


Debating Profiling... sort of.

Paranoia is high as we keep saying, which explains why profiling muslims is considered as an option by more and more people. The debate over profiling Muslims at airports is of course raging in some conservative circles. ThinkProgress reported how FoxNews conservative host Mike Gallagher debated with Michael Gross, a constitutional law attorney.

Watch the video here (hear the applause when GALLAGHER suggested we have a Muslim-only line.)

GROSS: Don’t discriminate based upon race, creed, color, country of national origin.

GALLAGHER: Let’s have a Muslim-only line.

GROSS: What uniform you are wearing. What we want to do is look at behavior. We want to stop people who behave wrongly.

JERRICK: Michael, I think you missed a Mike Gallagher line there. What did you just say about different lines?

GALLAGHER: It’s time to have a Muslims check-point line in American airports and have Muslims be scrutinized. You better believe it. It’s time.

GROSS: Of course, your prejudice, which means to prejudge when you say Muslims or any people of any faith should be treated unequally because of their faith. You are absolutely wrong. Most Arabs are not Muslims. Most Muslims are not Arabs. You don’t have your facts straight. And Mr. Gallagher, how would you feel if we had a line for the Irish which English people were doing during the I.R.A. problems.

For more arguments as to why profiling muslims is nonsensical, read our post here.


Words of the day : "morons" v. "idiot".

I tend to use both words indiscriminately the words "moron" and "idiot" (see our latest post) but I just found out that there actually is a difference:
an idiot is a stupid person with a mental age below three years, while a moron is a stupid person with a mental age of between seven to twelve years. (

MORON (Wiki):
As it turns out, the term "moron" is originally a scientific term, from a Greek word meaning "foolish" and coined by psychologist Henry Goddard and used to describe a person with a genetically determined mental age between 8 and 12.
It actually applied to people with an IQ of 51-70
It was a step up from "imbecile" (IQ of 26-50).
And two steps up from "idiot" (IQ of 0-25)

So you're much better off as a "moron" than as an "imbecile" and you really don't want to be called an "idiot".

IDIOT (Wiki):
It is a word derived from the Greek meaning "layman," "person lacking professional skill," "a private citizen," "individual"). In Latin the word idiota ("ordinary person, layman") preceded the Late Latin meaning "uneducated or ignorant person."
Its modern meaning and form dates back to Middle English around the year 1300, from the Old French idiote ("uneducated or ignorant person"). The related word idiocy dates to 1487 and may have been analagously modeled on the words prophet and prophecy.

Don't you love those totally useless bits of information?


Paranoia and Stupidity.

I am scheduled to fly in less than two weeks on a BA flight from Boston to Paris... through London Heathrow. When I booked my tickets (a few months back) I had the choice between London and Frankfurt for the same reasonable price (direct flights were too expensive). That's my luck!
Well, the good thing is that they seem to have already eased some of the restrictions. My greatest concern was to have to put my laptop in the cargo-hole and have it smashed by other pieces of luggage, but it looks like I could have also worried about my bags being one of the 10,000 they actually "misplaced" (Euphemism for "lost"?!
I am glad the flight is onyl 12 days away. Hopefully by then people will have come to their senses a little more. My latest concern is that some moron does something idiotic enough (what they call "passenger disturbance") to get people to panick and have the captain return to the gate or something.
Read this:
A flight from Heathrow to Washington DC had to be diverted to Logan Airport in Boston because an "agitated woman" was "carrying Vaseline, matches, and a screwdriver", and even some words in Arabic (an "al Qaeda note"). That's according to initial reports. But now, and that really does not surprise me - it turns out that the 60 year-old woman was just having an attack of claustrophobia.
Undeniably, the chances are much greater to see my flight disrupted by some nutcase than by a terrorist attack. There are certainly more morons in the world than there are terrorists - which is why al Qaeda does not even need to do anything to create panick! People love drama enough, and if it's not dramatic enough, they'll make it so for everybody's enjoyment.
Hopefully, I'll be able to fly from LAX to Boston on Friday with no "passanger disturbance" on board.


Is Bush an Idiot?

This question may be at worst stupid and at best irrelevant - but it is funny to ask anyway and it has been asked by a number of people throughout world in the last 6 years. Now even some Americans seem to wonder (albeit mostly in left-wing circles). This video (via Crooks and Liars) is an extract from the TV program Scarborough Country [Note that Joe Scarborough is a former Republican Congressman]
The first half of the video in itself is worth watching - it is a run down of clips involving some of the most famous "Bushisms" and it is absolutely hilarious.
Personally, I'll give Bush some credit for at least being funny and even for having a sense of humor - including self-derision. So he can't be that stupid.
In a recent conversation with Republican friends of mine, I was told that you can't be an idiot and become the President of the United-States. That I would not be certain of. The powerful GOP machine may do miracles and it may just take a team of very intelligent people to work for the guy.
Bush is certainly not very articulate and that may be why Jo Shmuck can relate to him so much - but that does not mean he is necessarily stupid either. As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out...


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Profiling at Airports.

Paranoia runs high in Britain these days - so much so that they are now considering profiling at airports:

Officials at the Department for Transport (DfT) have discussed the practicalities of introducing such a system with airport operators, including BAA. They believe that it would be more effective at identifying potential terrorists than the existing random searches.

Like anybody else, I find it stupid to hassle an 80 year old grandpa who has shrapnel in his leg from WWII or take the nail clippers from a mother when they actually sell them in stores after security checks – and frankly I tend to blame the stupidity of the people in charge of security more than anything else.
Obviously, the would-be terrorists are also all Muslims so profiling Muslims may seem like a good idea after all. It would probably help
greatly reduce lines at security gates and may prevent delays and all sorts of problems.
It is also true that profiling can be a rather sophisticated system which also includes
behaving suspiciously or having an unusual travel pattern.

But deep down, it’ll come to screening people also based on their ethnic or religious background and that could certainly cause more problems than benefits.

Metropolitan Police Superintendent Ali Desai said on British television such profiling, if based on racial appearance rather than solid intelligence work, would be counterproductive to counter-terrorist efforts.

"What you are suggesting is that we have a new offense in this country called 'traveling whist Asian.' It is unpalatable to everyone," he said. "It is communities which defeat terrorism, and what we do not want to do is actually alienate the very communities who are going to help us catch terrorists."

So in essence profiling Muslims will probably increase their sense of alienation. They will feel picked on because they will be. Even if the intentions may be good (i.e. increase security for all of us), it would come down to a form of apartheid in airports.

Tarique Ghaffur, an assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said: “We must think long and hard about the causal factors of anger and resentment.
“There is a very real danger that the counter-terrorism label is also being used by other law-enforcement agencies to the effect that there is a real risk of criminalising minority communities.” (Times)

Even if you don’t consider the moral aspect of the whole idea, it will just widen the rift between the Muslim and the Western World. After all, the West claims to hold sacred values and needs to be somewhat coherent with its rhetoric.

The next question is obvious – where do you draw the line? Should you discriminate Muslims when they want to buy certain items? Or when they travel by train?

Even from a simple practical perspective, I am very skeptical of profiling.

  • How do you actually recognize a Muslim? What about if you’re black? If you’re light-brown? If you have olive skin because you have Italian heritage? That of course does not even take into consideration the fact that there are white Muslims out there also. Not just new converts – the Kabyle people in Algeria for instance are often white (look at Zidane) even with blue eyes.
  • Then what do you do next – ask people for their religion? Not the kind of world I want to live in.
  • The other series of question has to do with performance – do they really think those security people are subtle enough to do profiling? If, as they claim, profiling is a sophisticated system, it probably requires “sophisticated” people to handle it, and I think you’d probably have to spend a whole lot of money to find those people and hire them. (No offense meant to TSA or BAA people, but frankly, a lot of them do not seem to the brightest dudes in the world!).

The problem is that there is probably not a stereotypical image of a terrorist, and in any case, they are smart enough to come in all sorts of shape and form and they will most certainly adapt while in the meantime, we’ll have lost a lot more than what we may gain.

Delays can be a pain for sure, cancellation is worse and certainly if they lose your luggage, it gets even more frustrating but on the other hand, and not carrying liquid in your carry-on or reducing the size of your carry-on does not seem like such a big deal to me. I’d rather cope with those inconveniences than live in the world where people are checked because of their appearances. I certainly would not like my kids to grow up in that world.

We must keep a cool head about what is going on and so do the authorities.

NOTE: I guess this is also discussed in some circles in America:

A Fox News guest proposed having a "Muslims only" line for airport travelers, an idea that "Dayside" co-host Mike Jerrick called attention to it so that viewers did not overlook the proposal.Conservative radio host Mike Gallagher suggested the idea during a segment Tuesday (August 15, 2006) with constitutional lawyer Michael Gross discussing racial profiling. (Fox)


Monday, August 14, 2006

Which countries do most for the poor?

The Center for Global Development (CGD) has come up with results of a comparative study of which countries do most for the poor. The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries are cleary at the top.

The results may be controversial because of the tools used to measure aid to poor countries. It is an interesting idea however : it is not done on straight aid figures, but on a combination of aid, trade, environment, immigration, security and investment policies and how these benefit poorer nations.

As a result, the graph indicates that France does pretty poorly compared to America.

The reason is that the "US fared well on the trade front. Its barriers to exports from developing countries were lower than any other country in the Commitment to Development Index except New Zealand."

However, as the BBC reports:

And although the US gave more money than anywhere else, its donation was the smallest of the 21 states in relation to the size of its economy.
Much of the
US's aid, the CGD added, was contingent on the purchase of US goods, and so was in fact a "backdoor subsidy for American interests".