Wednesday, March 28, 2007

America's France.

Even though the war in Iraq is now widely recognized in America as a major mistake of the Bush administration, anti-French humor is still fairly popular in some circles. Here’s a good example of a not-so funny column:
Yes, the French may be many things -- arrogant, supercilious, self-righteous. They may use too much cream in their cooking, not bathe frequently enough, and insist on their narcissistic notion that, Civilization -- il est France.
But on Iraq, they were right. Pure and simple.

So, is that supposed to be…. funny? The writer, Ted Reinstein, can’t even get his French right ["La civilisation, c’est la France" and not "Civilization -- il est France"]. What a moron! His article is actually full of senseless Franglais. Maybe he was trying to imitate Pepe le Pew– but at least Pépé was funny! He's not!

One topic that keeps coming back for some reason is WWII. You’d think that by now, some 2 generations later, it would be an old story. But no, some people seem unable to ever forgive France for losing WWII.

In WWII, France was known more for knuckling under to the Nazis than for aiding the fight against fascism. True, the lonely heroism of the vaunted French Resistance was real and legendary. Last week, one of its last surviving heroes, Lucie Aubrac, who freed her husband from the Gestapo, died at 94. But during the war, while Aubrac risked her life in the resistance, crooner and later-movie star Maurice Chevalier smiled like a stuffed pig and performed in Paris for occupying S.S. brass. And who is the more famous Frenchman today? "Gigi" beats the Resistance.

Well, that is a bit.. passé, isn't it? Even if it were so in America - and even that, I wonder - it is certainly not in France. (I bet very few of my high-school students would have a clue as to what the names “Gigi” or even Maurice Chevalier refer to)

When you think of it, this obsession for WWII France is ironic since it is after all Nazi Germany that was the big “evil” back then. Yet it seems the Americans are much more likely to forgive the Germans, even today.

While its position regarding Iraq was similar to the French one, Germany has a much more favorable score (83%), having returned to the same level as before the Iraq crisis. (Le Figaro via WatchingAmerica. )

France’s image in the U.S. may not not bad but it is not that good either:

A Gallup poll conducted last month indicates that only 57% of Americans have a favorable opinion of France. The country's image is improving but remains far below what it was before 2003, which was largely positive (70 to 80% favorable).
(Le Figaro via WatchingAmerica. )

Reinstein is right about something – it is not all Americans who bash against the French, but mostly Conservative pundits and their anti-French rhetoric is actually meant against liberal Democrats.

Conservative radio jocks called the French "wine-drinking, cheese-eating, surrender monkeys." (Which, truthfully, was only a slight recycling of the right-wing's usual label for liberal Democrats.)

Now this has had some direct consequences:

The opinions Americans have of France today varies according to their political sympathies: 69% of Democrats hold a favorable opinion, versus 40%for Republicans. Such a gap didn't exist prior to 2002. (Le Figaro via WatchingAmerica. )

You’d think the failure in Iraq would have changed that but not.

"The anti-French mechanism" declares Jeremy Shapiro, "is about betrayal, ingratitude, and the cowardice of France - and the conflict in Iraq crystallized this image. No matter what a person's political stripe, no one making policy would dream today of saying: I agreed with the French in 2003 …" (Le Figaro via WatchingAmerica. )

Hence the WWII jokes which fuel the myth of French cowardice. Even though the French government has kept a low profile, avoiding the arrogant I-told-you-so rhetoric, it is sometimes not forgiven to be right. (Of course, I personally disagree that Chirac was right but one must admit his vision of potential regional chaos has come true.)

Granted, the French are not more virtuous – there’s plenty of Anti-Americanism in France although it is not a typically French phenomenon in today’s world. This means there is much work to do for the people of good will on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the end, I don't mind a bit of French bashing if it were at least funny.... .


Sunday, March 18, 2007

How Sarkozy Attempts to Indimidate the Press!

Apparently conservative contender for the French Presidential elections and current Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy is entrenched in the old idea that the media can be controlled by politicians, an idea prevalent amongst French presidents from De Gaulle to Chirac.

Sarko did not like the headline of left-wing newspaper Libération which read “Sarkozy's Tax on wealth: the suspicion”.

The “suspicion” was that Sarkozy may have undervalued his asset in order to pay less of France's special tax on the wealthy, l’Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune (paid by individuals whose net worth is higher than €760,000, or about a million U.S. dollars). The same “suspicion” has been raised with the socialist candidate by the way.

But in Sarkozy’s case, it went a bit further. According to some French press (here, here, and here) Sarkozy lashed out when he called - not the editor but the main stockholder of the newspaper, Edouard de Rothschild to express his displeasure. He is reported to have added that “this would certainly prevent the daily from finding people to finance it”. [Libération has had financial problems in the last few years]. The exchange between the two men was allegedly tough, and the presidential candidate is even said to have been angry enough to be rude, calling Libération “a shitty newspaper”.

Now, interestingly, this happened about 2 weeks ago and it really did not make the headlines in France.

But is it a good sign that a politician who seeks the highest office in the nation, a man who may become the “guarantor of the institutions”, and a man who is still the Minister of the Interior should try to intimidate the owner of a newspaper?

In this particular case, it is unlikely to change anything – Sarkozy’s phone call is reported to have “made Edouard de Rothschild laugh a lot”. Certainly, de Rothschild can afford to laugh it off but still, this is really not a good sign, and it is undoubtedly something that should have made the headlines.


Chirac's Legacy.

A week ago, Chirac gave a sort of farewell speech to France by announcing the much expected news that he would not run again for the coming presidential elections. It has been interesting over the last week to read the media and how the international press has viewed Chirac’s legacy.

French newspapers offered a mix of polite praise and mild criticism of his 12 year mandate:

Le Figaro said that the reforms undertaken during his presidency had not followed an overall plan, while La Tribune criticized Chirac for not having drawn enough attention to the economy. La Croix argued that the outgoing president could have left Europe with his head held high if it had not been for the failed referendum. (source here)

Very little was said about the allegations of corruption Chirac may face once he steps down. It is funny that the French should seem so forgiving for a man once caricatured as "super-liar" on French television. A remnant of public affection of the French citizen for their king-like president? Maybe… Corruption apart, Chirac’s legacy is not that great:

The editorialist Françoise Fressoz in Les Echos considers that Chirac's presidency was marked by "two political catastrophes: the failed dissolution in 1997 and the 'no' vote in the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, both of which revealed the same weakness.”. (Les Echos)

But the foreign press spared him even less. The harshest criticism came from the British press (How surprising!).

The Daily Telegraph:

"Convention demands that we say nice things about people when they retire but, in the case of Jacques Chirac, it is not easy.


He won the presidency in 1995 by running, extraordinarily, as the anti-Establishment candidate - despite first having become prime minister 21 years before. He passed himself off as a beer-sipping populist, despite being the very model of a haughty énarque. The wonder is that the old rogue kept getting away with it.
It is said that, in a democracy, people get the politicians they deserve.
France deserved better.

The German weekly Spiegel concludes:

"Chirac's legacy of 40 years in French politics will not be remembered for many achievements. Chirac himself rarely followed the advice he gave to his people on Sunday evening." (source here)

In the Financial Times (United Kingdom), Martin Arnold writes that Chirac has flip flopped on many issues and that his words have been a lot of hot air:

"Most analysts agree that 'Chiraquisme', apart from supporting farmers, does not stand for much"

The Guardian also noted Chirac’s flip-flopping:

Nicknamed the "weathervane" for his ability to shift as it suited him - he went from championing state control in the 1970s to Ronald Reagan's free-market liberalism in the 1980s, from nuclear testing to eco-champion, eurosceptic to euro-defender

And concluded:

Mr Chirac is most criticised for failing to steward change in France and for calling a referendum on the EU constitution in 2005, then failing to sell the idea to the electorate, who voted no.
In a more cynical tone, De Standaard (Belgium) reminded its readers of Chirac’s cultural achievement:

People even jest that the museum of primitive art in Paris, the Quai de Branly Museum, is the one and only tangible result that Chirac has come up with in his own country. The past few years have indeed shown no ideology, no vision, no mission for the future." (source here)

Only.... the Chinese really paid tribute to Chirac. Some compliment!

So what’s to remember?

The FT has encapsulated Chirac’s legacy in a few good words:

Yet even his critics concede he did some things right. He is widely praised for admitting France's responsibility for deporting Jews during German occupation in the Second World War and in 2003 led 'Old Europe' in opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq and warned of the dangers of American unilateralism."

Although I am personally quite critical of the second praise….


Sunday, March 11, 2007

What about the Most Wanted Man on the Planet?

Last september, we mentioned a document of the French Foreign Intelligence Service (DGSE) was leaked and published by a local newspaper announcing that Bin Laden was dead - the report was denied by the Saudis.
Our conclusion was that a way to confirm it or not consisted simply in waiting a few months to see if some video or audio tape comes out proving he is sill alive.
It's been almost 6 months and nothing. So is he dead? Why isn't anyone asking the question?
Why wonder today, you may ask. Well, because it is Bin Laden's birthday today - he would be 50!


Chirac is Out and Bayrou is a Clintonian Blairist!

France is 8 weeks away from presidential elections (see our post here)
Tonight, French president Chirac announced his political retirement - not that his announcement came as a surprise! He has yet to endorse Sarkozy. His speech reflected once again the idea of French exceptionalism.
In the meantime, centrist candidate Francois Bayrou has caught up with Socialist candidate Segolene Royal in the polls for the first round of the French presidential election according to the newspaper Journal du Dimanche said.

Bayrou said in an interview to the IHT:
"I am a democrat, I am a Clintonian"
"I am a man of the ‘third way,’ ” he added, a reference to a much earlier vision of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.
If he could live in the United States, Mr. Bayrou said, he would live in the open spaces of Montana; if he could vote in the 2008 American presidential election, he would hope to vote for Al Gore.
But Mr. Bayrou called the American-led war in Iraq “the cause of chaos” in the region and criticized the United States for what he called its “survival of the fittest” model, where people are driven to make as much money as possible, colleges are horribly expensive and middle-class families find it hard to make ends meet.


Europe and the U.S. are a bit closer this morning...

This morning, time leaped forward for Americans as the shift to Daylight Saving time was moved to three weeks earlier than in past years (from the first Sunday of April to the second Sunday in March), as a result of the 2005 Energy Policy which also extends daylight saving in the fall (CNN).

Apparently, while this change does not get so much attention, it has the computer industry a bit nervous as most computers were programmed to believe that daylight-saving time begins the first Sunday in April and ends the final Sunday in October (this is mostly the case in complex networks with a range of newer and older equipment).

Anyway, as a result, until Europe also changes to what is called “summertime” in Europe (in the last week-end of March), the U.S. and France are only 5 hours away.

Beginning in 2007, most of the United States begins Daylight Saving Time at 2:00 a.m. on the second Sunday in March and reverts to standard time on the first Sunday in November. In the U.S., each time zone switches at a different time.

In the European Union, Summer Time begins and ends at 1:00 a.m. Universal Time (Greenwich Mean Time). It begins the last Sunday in March and ends the last Sunday in October. In the EU, all time zones change at the same moment. (here)

This expansion of Daylight Saving time in the U.S. is a reminder how time which we take for granted is actually not “real” and somewhat political. Time can easily be changed by a government and indeed, if the US continues to expand daylight saving time, we’ll end up with a year-round daylight time, which will amount to a change of time zone.

A couple of other points worth making:

The main idea behind the time shift has been to save fuel of course (the assumption is that more people are up in the evening than in the early morning). But there seems to be unexpected consequences as well:

  • a drop in crime rates:

A federal study of expanding daylight time in the '70s found a drop in crime in the District of about 10 percent when daylight time is in effect.

  • A reduction in car crashes (which tends to happen more after dark).

More trivial points:

  • About 70 countries around the world observe daylight-saving time.
  • Neither China nor Japan observes daylight-saving time.
  • The extension of Daylight Saving Time into November in 2007 has been proposed as a way to encourage greater voter participation, the theory being that more people would go to the polls if it was still light when they returned home from work.
  • As we mentioned two years ago, in some ways, the this Daylight Saving is a
    Franco-American idea - it was first conceived by Benjamin Franklin (portrait at right) during his sojourn as an American delegate in Paris in 1784, in an essay, "An Economical Project."
  • However it took a war and over a 100 years for his proposal to become reality:
Germany adopted daylight time during World War I to save fuel; the U.S. and Britain quickly matched the enemy's move.
  • Daylight Saving Time is NOT observed in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Arizona.
  • The official spelling is Daylight Saving Time, not Daylight SavingS Time.
Saving is used here as a verbal adjective (a participle). It modifies time and tells us more about its nature; namely, that it is characterized by the activity of saving daylight. It is a saving daylight kind of time. Similar examples would be a mind expanding book or a man eating tiger. Saving is used in the same way as saving a ball game, rather than as a savings account.
Nevertheless, many people feel the word savings (with an 's') flows more mellifluously off the tongue. Daylight Savings Time is also in common usage, and can be found in dictionaries.

Adding to the confusion is that the phrase Daylight Saving Time is inaccurate, since no daylight is actually saved. Daylight Shifting Time would be better, but it is not as politically desirable.
  • Time change gets the terrorists confused!
In September 1999, the West Bank was on Daylight Saving Time while Israel had just switched back to standard time. West Bank terrorists prepared time bombs and smuggled them to their Israeli counterparts, who misunderstood the time on the bombs. As the bombs were being planted, they exploded—one hour too early—killing three terrorists instead of the intended victims—two bus loads of people. (source here)
For more interesting details on Daylight Saving Time, go to this site!


Saturday, March 10, 2007

When Sarkozy goes nationalistic by slapping the Germans and the Algerians!

Exceptionalism - the perception that a country is "exceptional" (ie. unusual or extraordinary) in some way, and thus does not conform to normal rules, general principles, or the like – is a disease that affects both French and American right-wing circles.

Here’s a good example from a speech given yesterday by French conservative contender for the Presidential elections Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mais au bout du compte nous avons tout lieu d’être fiers de notre pays, de son histoire, de ce qu’il a incarné, de ce qu’il incarne encore aux yeux du monde.

But in the end we have every reason to be proud of this country, of its history, what it embodied and what it still embodies in the eyes of the world.

Car la France n’a jamais cédé à la tentation totalitaire. Elle n’a jamais exterminé un peuple. Elle n’a pas inventé la solution finale, elle n’a pas commis de crime contre l’humanité, ni de génocide.

Because France has never succumbed to the totalitarian temptation. She never exterminated another people. She did not invent the final solution. She did not commit any crime against humanity, nor genocide.

Elle a commis des fautes qui doivent être réparées, et je pense d’abord aux harkis et à tous ceux qui se sont battus pour la France et vis-à-vis desquels la France a une dette d’honneur qu’elle n’a pas réglée, je pense aux rapatriés qui n’ont eu le choix au moment de la décolonisation qu’entre la valise et le cercueil, je pense aux victimes innocentes de toutes les persécutions dont elle doit honorer la mémoire.

She has made mistakes which must be corrected. I think about the harkis [the Muslims who fought on the side of the French during the war of independence in Algeria] and all those that fought for France and towards whom France has a debt of honor it has not paid yet; I think about those that were rapatriated during decolonization and were given as a choice to leave or to die; I think about all innocent victims of all persecutions whose memory must be honored.

Mais la mode de la repentance est une mode exécrable.
But repentence as a policy is despicable.

(original text can be found here, on the UMP website - translation, courtesy of Jerome-a-Paris on Eurotrib)

Now while I agree that there is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s own country, this must be read within the current context of the cultural war taking place in France with regard to her past and her identity.

Let’s just remind ourselves that only in 1995 did a French President publicly recognize France's responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to their deaths during World War II. (see our post here)

In the last few years France has been divided over the issue of her French colonial past - partly exacerbated by the problems of integration of the immigrants from the former French colonies.

As mentioned on our blog, this debate became more emotional in the wake of a recent law demanding that teachers at schools all over the country and textbooks emphasise "the positive role (played by) France overseas, especially in the Maghreb region, in North Africa”. The assumption here is that France’s colonial system brought mostly positive things to Africa and Asia.

This is another long held myth in France:

Historian Marc Ferro, author of "Le livre noir du colonialisme" [The Black Book of Colonialism], an uncompromising account of European colonialism, noted that France has always insisted on describing its own colonial practices as "humane," while dismissing British or Spanish colonialism as ruthless and inspired purely by the aim of economic domination.

Now, at the same time, any commemoration of past events in France these days (here and here) has become an occasion for controversy, which has infuriated a lot of people, especially those of the older generation.
Then again, going extreme one way or the other is not something I support, but while self-flogging is certainly pointless, recognizing the darker side of one's history is absolutely necessary and it is something which Americans are definitely better at than the French.

Sarkozy is entitled to his own opinion of course, but he cannot ignore historical facts and he cannot ignore that such rhetoric can be inflammatory. This of course is not the first time that he has used divisive words. I, personally, find it to be a huge drawback for a man who wants to hold the higher office in the country - a position that will require the ability to bring people together. His divisive nature and his over-simplifying view of complex issues get me worried.

But the worst part is that his comments amount to a slap in the faces of the Germans and the Algerians and a way of saying that “we” are better than “them”.

I never thought I'd say this but if he gets elected, I may even regret Chirac's presidency.


Time to dig up old political wisdom!

On the Libby scandal, the FT makes the only point worth making:
Mr Libby’s cavalier approach to the truth betrays an attitude that pervades the White House to this day: an arrogance of power, that pretends government officials are above the law; an expansionist notion of executive privilege that pervades this administration, from the war in Iraq to the treatment of detainees, to the recent sackings of federal prosecutors – and apparent attempts by the US Department of Justice to muzzle them before a Congressional hearing. (full article here) .
Meanwhile, in the IHT Michael Johnson reminds us of the relevancy of reading Montesquieu again - the political thinker who, although French, had greatly influenced the making of the US Constitution:
Separation of powers was a key concept in the U.S. Constitution. "The oracle who is always consulted on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu," James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers. He quotes Montesquieu as saying that "there can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body or magistrates." Accumulation of powers "may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny," he concluded.

"The Spirit of Laws," a translation of which was published in Philadelphia and corrected by Thomas Jefferson, was "the best-read book in the Colonies after the Bible," said Joyce Appleby, a specialist in American History at the University of California at Los Angeles.
UPDATE: if you have doubts that this administration has way too much unchecked power, read this:
Angry lawmakers on Friday threatened to amend the USA Patriot Act and limit the FBI's powers in the wake of a disclosure that agents had improperly obtained confidential records of people in the United States. (LATimes)


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The only remaining primitive society is a paradise.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, a critic of consumer culture, globalization and the manufactured nature of reality, died yesterday. His concepts of "hyperreality" and "simulation" inspired the American filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski who wrote "The Matrix".

Paradoxically, as the AP comments, Baudrillard was also a tireless enthusiast for the United States:
Deep down, the US, with its space, its technological refinement, its bluff good conscience, even in those spaces which it opens up for simulation, is the only remaining primitive society.
Even more surprisingly he also said:
Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the U.S. is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise. There is no other.
Definitely a post-modernist, wasn't he?


Are the English and Irish Basque People Speaking Belgian?

As people of Northern Ireland go to the polls today to elect a new parliamentary aimed at creating once again a power-sharing administration between Protestants and Catholics that previously failed, a new study (see this IHT article) shows that the Irish and the English have a lot more in common than is usually acknowledged.

Contrary to what historians usually teach - that they are mostly descended from different peoples: the Irish from the Celts and the English from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded from Northern Europe and drove the Celts to the western and northern fringes – DNA tests seem to prove otherwise:
Stephen Oppenheimer, a medical geneticist at the University of Oxford, says the historians' account is wrong in almost every detail. In Oppenheimer's reconstruction of events, the principal ancestors of today's British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque.

In fact:

the similarity between the English and Northern European Y chromosomes arises because both regions were repopulated by people from the Iberian refuges after the glaciers retreated.

It even seems that the influence of the later invaders such as the Celts, the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans just played a minor role.

This, if it turns out to be true, it may even change the way we see the English language:

English is usually assumed to have developed in England, from the language of the Angles and Saxons, about 1,500 years ago. But Forster argues that the Angles and the Saxons were both really Viking peoples who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted historical schedule. They did not bring their language to England because English, in his view, was already spoken there, probably introduced before the arrival of the Romans by tribes such as the Belgae, whom Caesar describes as being present on both sides of the Channel.

So the Celtic identity may be no more than a myth after all. This is all far from being confirmed of course and the jury was still out. According to the article "there is not yet a consensus view among geneticists" and the “genetic story may well change”.

It is an interesting idea though… if nothing else because this new research challenges our well-established view.

The conclusion drawn by Oppenheimer is nonetheless realistic:

Oppenheimer said genes "have no bearing on cultural history." There is no significant genetic difference between the people of Northern Ireland, yet they have been fighting with each other for 400 years, he said.
As for his thesis that the British and Irish are genetically much alike, "It would be wonderful if it improved relations, but I somehow think it won't."


When the government is better that private contractors!

The word "government" is often associated with inefficiency and waste of "tax payer's money". Well, the idea may be prevailing but it is often quite mythical. Here's a good case in point which shows that profitability is not always a good goal, especially when it comes to health.
Last the NBC Evening news had an interesting take on the Walter Reed Scandal (in case you have been living in a hole recently, Walter Reed is the military medical center accused of neglect by wounded soldiers and their family members).
Apparently, replacing government workers by private contractors did not do it too well.
Critics say part of the problem may be an Army decision last year to contract out maintenance and support at Walter Reed to a private company, even though government workers argued they could do it better, and for less.
The best part is this though:

The contract went to a company — International American Products, or IAP — that played a major role in the ice fiasco during Hurricane Katrina, when trucks roamed the country, delivering little and running up costs to taxpayers.

"They didn't seem to be doing a very good job even delivering the ice, and from what we now see, they didn't do a very good job at Walter Reed, either," says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee.

Don't you just love the stupidity of those ideologically motivated decision makers?! All those "deciders" have certainly decided..... the wrong thing, once again!


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Is the Earth Sphericated or Flaticular?

The Bush administration's pressure on the scientific world is well established (see our post here or this article here - but there are many other examples).
So just for fun - this is Sunday after all - here's a cartoon published in which I think is pretty good. If you don't laugh, you will probably smile at least. The whole process is amazingly well rendered. (for a larger version, go here)


The End of French Peasantry (as we knew it)

This is the season of France's Agricultural Fair again and the last one for French president Chirac who will end his term in about two months. It is often said that the French, even many city dwellers, still feel a connection with the countryside and so that agriculture has held a special place in the hearts of a nation.
Chirac has always had been a very good defender of French farmers who are now rightfully worried. So this statement during his visit to the annual Agriculture in Paris, should not come as a surprise:
"I am deeply shocked by certain positions taken by the European (trade) commissioner Mandelson, who continues to offer more while the Americans, in exchange, show absolutely no intention of making the slightest concession on agriculture,"
"Shocked" indeed! Hijacking negotiations for people who now comprise less than 3% of the labor force (that's just twice the number of unemployed in France!) seems a bit out of touch with reality.
Things are changing anyway as the agricultural electorate is quite small today. Even Sarkozy, the conservative candidate in the presidential elections... "has proposed a 'simpler" version of the CAP" and socialist contender Royal "has focused mostly on the environment. Farming issues have barely featured in the campaign." (read article here).
There is growing acceptance in France that the European C.A.P. (Common Agricultural Policy) must be reformed - for instance it has greatly encouraged corn production by giving more subsidies to cereal farmers, which has meant a great increase of water irrigation (50% of the water used for agriculture goes to corn). Besides, it is very costly:
Nearly half of the EU budget (48 billion Euro) of 98 billion Euro is allocated to agricultural spending, and France is the first beneficiary, yet the farmers represent only 2.6% of the working population in France (official data found on the website of the French Ambassy in the U.S.).
As we said last year, both France and the U.S. have farm communities “that benefit from tens of billions of dollars in handouts each year, allowing their farmers to export inexpensive food to world markets” (I.H.T.)

While the blame should be put on both countries, it is particularly ironic that Chirac
should have continued to defend farm subsidies while playing the defender of the cause of Africa in international talks :
Four African ambassadors to the United States who were attending World Food Prize events in Des Moines said Friday that U.S. and European Union farm subsidies make it difficult for African farmers to compete in the world market and increase the amount of money needed for development assistance in Africa.

Luckily Chirac will soon be gone and frankly, good riddance!


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Islam in France.

Some Americans, particularly in the conservative camp, think France's greatest problem is its Muslim population.
As we discussed some time ago, The Economist used this provocative image with the word EURABIA to speak about the caricature about Europe forming in America (about an ever-growing Muslim Europe-within-Europe—poor, threatening, unassimilated and hostile to the United States).
Estimates greatly vary. Some claim (such as the U.S Department of State) there are 5 to 6 million Muslims in France - about 10% of the population - while others (such as the French Ministry of the Interior) estimate a lower figure of about 4.1 million.
The reason why those numbers vary so much is that it is illegal in France to classify people by their ethnicity (for historical reasons), a taboo which has been a controversial issue in this year's presidential campaign.
Last week, a comprehensive poll on religion in France was released (available here in French). More than 90,000 French people were asked which religion they “felt closest to” and the results were quite challenging - only 3% of the total population said they "felt closest to" Islam. Quite different from the 10% given by the US Department of State.

As you can see on the map here below, there are great regional variations of course. Most Muslims are to be found in urban (the Paris and Lyons areas) and industrial areas.

The discrepancy may come from the confusion between the number of people with roots in Muslim countries and people of "possible Muslim faith". Even then, when many may follow some rites such as the Ramadan, they are necessarily strict observant Muslims (very few pray five times a day for instance).

Other interesting results:

  • 64% said "felt closest to"Catholicism.
  • 27.6% said "felt closest to"no religion.
  • 3% said "felt closest to"Islam.
  • 2.1% said "felt closest to"Protestantism.
  • 0.6% said "felt closest to"Judaism.

These results with regard to Islam confirm what we said in this post and this one when we talked about a book about the integration of French Muslims written by a French historian and an American political scientist, called “Integrating Islam: Political And Religious Challenges in Contemporary France”.

While the 2005 riots have shown that integration is a problem in France and even somewhat a failure, they have also shown that religion played no role. The problems are mostly social and racial but not religious.

If you need more convincing, here's an excerpt from an interview with historian Justin Vaisse, one of the authors of Integrating Islam (with Jonathan Laurence, a Brookings Institution book) on the French-language New York blog French Morning (translated by European Tribune)

There has been failure to get rid of these social relegation zones, ghetto phenomena, with unemployment, school failure, etc. But the religious dimension doesn't come into play. The police, the Renseignements Généraux (political police) emphasized, Islamism is not a factor in the riots. The proof is that when religious bodies, like the UOIF (Union of Islamic Organizations in France), tried to stop the violence, they failed. The UOIF published a fatwa and it had absolutely no effect on the number of cars that got burned.

The Mohammed cartoons affair didn't give rise to any incidents in France. Above all, the Islamic headscarf showed that Muslims in France respect the law. It's a sacrifice for some of them, for whom the headscarf id important, but first and foremost they show respect for the law.

What is certain, is that the French republican model has considerable advantages.


Claims for equality and social justice can take place within the system, rather as African-Americans based their claims on principles of the American model which were not being applied. Besides, it's visible that other countries, Great Britain, the Netherlands, are now looking towards the French system, because they went too far in the direction of multiculturalism. We think that France, with its secular model, can offer a new experimental ground for the meeting of Islam with modernity. It will transform Islam, but also, evidently, France too.

It seems to me that this last point is essential. The French secular system (la laïcité) also needs to adapt to this ever changing world and be somewhat more flexible. That's why I tend to favor breaking the taboo on classifying people by their ethnicity. It is important to have hard data and know exactly the problems we're dealing with in integrating people of other origins. The question needs to be addressed with care of course, particularly with regard to one's definition of a given ethnic background. This is all the more sensitive in a country such as France where there a lot more mixed couples than, say, in the U.S.