Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obamaday in France and the World.

Obamania continues to sweep the France, Europe and the world...

In France, the main French TV channels (TF1, France 2, ...) will live broadcast the Inauguration today in HD. A first in France for a US Presidential Inauguration!
Radios and newspapers will also be on the event which will also been seen in many places across the city of Paris - in bars, pubs, restaurants and concert venues.... including the American Church in Paris. Even the Mairie, (the City Hall) will host its own Inaugural Celebration at the Hotel de Ville.
(And that's not even counting all sorts of Internet events!)

And it's the same all over Europe...
"All over Europe, networks are planning special programming to bring this historic day to their viewers live," said Eurovision Americas president Bill Dunlop.
In the last few days, the media Frenzy about Obama has been unlike anything I have seen. The preparation for the Inauguration has been the first topic in the news in the last few days - as if nothing else could measure up to this event. Our American readers need to see that these elections have had a global impact.
The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, observed that Americans had held a "world election" in 2008, and interest in Obama continues to run high in other countries.
As much as I personally relish the event, and enjoy the excitement, I can't help wondering if, besides the too high expectations, some people might not simply get "Obamaed-out" after so much.... maybe too much. The risk of indigestion is to be considered.
As much as I was at times uncomfortable with Bushophobia, and the ensuing anti-Americanism, I am wary of Obamania and pro-Americanism. One way or the other, it is all way too simple and on the fringe of idolatry.

But of course, if on the other hand, Obama's election helps make the US and Americans "feel the love" and feel cool again abroad ... It certainly helps me teach (American) English here in France.
In the meantime, I'll just enjoy the moment, at least for the day...


Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Torture Parallel between France and the US

As we like to stress on this blog, France and the U.S. have a lot more in common than some people might think - even sometimes in creepy matters. Take the heated topic du jour - torture.

Of course, while the U.S. has used torture recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, the last time the French were known for exercising torture was more than 40 years ago in Algeria and Indochina (the "French school" of torture was eventually exported to Chile and Argentina to help them fight wars against leftists).
So it seems that torture is not just the panacea of brutal dictatorships. Not only has it been used by democracies such as France, Britain or the United-States but it has been developed and refined mostly in democratic nations.
The difference is that while it is much talked about in the main-stream media in the United-States, either through debates or fiction, it is still a very touchy subject in France, hardly ever mentioned.

When the memoirs of General Aussaresses, in which the author acknowledged the official use of torture by the French army in Algeria, were published, a French court condemned the publishers on the ground that it was an "apology for war crimes". Last Thursday (Jan. 14), the European Court for Human Rights condemned France. The Court reiterated that freedom of expression within the meaning of Article 10 was applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offended, shocked or disturbed.

Yet, there is a lot to learn from the eerie parallel between the French then and the US now- notably that besides the moral problem it represents, torture simply does not work.

As Shawn McHale, associate professor of history and international affairs in George Washington University reminds us :

A democracy like the United States, France has long affirmed support for human rights. Like the United States, it resorted to extreme forms of coercion as part of a war against what it called "terrorists."

When we look at Iraq today, many parallels to Algeria jump out at us: the ambivalence toward the Geneva conventions on war, the diminished civilian judicial authority over the conduct of war, the problem of ambiguously defined command authority and the creation of "extra legal" spaces in which clandestine use of coercion can thrive.

The French failure in Algeria also suggests some questions that must be asked about Iraq.

As for Jack Bauer, even he seems to have second thoughts about torture. As for the French, what they need is their own Jacques for this dark side of French contemporary history to be known.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

France, an Economic Model? That's How Bad Things have Become!

If nothing else this article in Newsweek proves how bad the economic situation has become - I had to pinch myself when I read it, especially when I realized that the article had been written by the chief European economist at............ Bank of America! Oh the irony!

The Last Model Standing Is France

For better or worse, French-style intervention is gaining the upper hand as other economic models lose credibility.
When financial markets were working well, the Parisian penchant for supporting state-favored industries and national policy objectives was met with deep skepticism abroad. But with the unfolding crisis, the French habit to readily intervene in market processes has become a more widely accepted norm.

Of course, you can't expect the article to be all positive

At its core, the French approach to economic management reflects a deep-rooted suspicion that the free movement of capital may not always yield politically desired outcomes. Unfortunately, the global credit crunch has strengthened this French argument, although closer inspection suggests that much of the financial excesses that turned to waste can be traced back to misguided signals sent by governments and central banks, rather than to alleged private-sector malfunctions. We expect France to continue its calls for tighter regulation of global capital markets.

Fortunately, France's forceful president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is not only an interventionist. He also champions a common-sense approach to labor markets, with a strong emphasis on old-fashioned work ethics and a contempt for socialist lunacies such as the compulsory 35-hour workweek. So far, the European Union has been characterized by a very liberal regime for capital markets, and often grossly inefficient labor markets. If the French model continues to gain steam, this may be flipped—labor markets may be allowed to work better, while financial systems may be more regulated than before. Global investors can only hope that Europe gets the balance right. If ad-hoc interventionism spreads too far, the continent may eventually have to pay a hefty price in terms of constrained opportunities for innovation and growth. Europe would then be outclassed once again by the eventual resurgence of the more flexible United States.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Nicolas Bonaparte, the New King George!

You had King George of the United-States, and now, you have Nicolas Bonaparte. That's at least according to this week's issue of French magazine Le Point.
Of course, any historical comparison of our current leaders to kinds or emperors if scary is meant to be satirical yet there are reasons why such analogies come to mind: both George W and Sarkozy have done everything they could (and sometimes more) to reinforce their executive prerogatives.
Much has been said about Bush's (and Cheney's) but you may not be so familiar with Sarkozy's attempt at making the executive more powerful. The latest example in France is the reform of the legal system which would make judges under the control of the administration (and the government).
In both the United-States and France, the idea is to eliminate anything that stands in the way of urgency and efficiency, it be in the name of national security or in the name of much needed reforms. Interestingly both men are impatient and have autocratic temperaments.
Those "osbtacles" however are the basis of a good democratic system of check and balances. And as Arthur Goldhammer said it :
An obstacle removed today in the name of efficiency is a potential point of resistance absent tomorrow when it may be needed. This is not an argument for government by quagmire, in which the headlong rush to disaster is prevented by ensuring that every attempt to move forward ends up to its axles in the muck of soggy opposition. It is, however, a brief on behalf of dialogue. When obstacles are eliminated and carefully prepared reforms rush ahead to conclusion, there is little opportunity to take account of the voices of those affected, whose resistance to change, while sometimes narrowly self-interested, may at other times afford an opportunity to impart useful information to would-be reformers, without which their project, however efficiently executed, is doomed.
In the meantime, the (very British) Independent found other (sometimes irrelevant but funny) reasons to compare Sarkozy to Napoleon
  • Both men are known for their short stature. Nicolas Sarkozy is 5ft 5in and Napoleon Bonaparte was one inch taller (actually above average height for the early 19th century).
  • Both men had foreign ancestry: M. Sarkozy is half-Hungarian; Napoleon came from an Italian-Corsican family.
  • Both men had beautiful wives who were taller than they were.
  • They both set out to reform the judicial system. The Emperor's "Code Napoleon" remains the basis of much of French law to this day. M. Sarkozy has made some piecemeal changes – imposing rigid, minimum sentences for violent crimes and life terms on some sex offenders.
  • Both men set out to change the way that France thinks about itself.
  • Both liked to be regarded as peacemakers. Napoleon's idea of making peace was to make war. M. Sarkozy intervened successfully in the Russia-Georgia conflict in the summer, less successfully in the Israeli assault on Gaza this week.
I would bet that Sarkozy relishes this. One of Sarkozy's cabinet-member-slash-groopies - the Secretary of state for Family Nadine Morano agrees a 100% :
"Who can hold a candle to him? Until now, nobody. For me, there is Napoleon, De Gaulle and Sarkozy. Whoever is in between is peanuts.". (Le Parisien)
But this of course says a lot more about Nadine Morano than about Sarkozy!

NOTE: For more comparison between Sarko and Napoleon, you can always read this.


Tinies Mactini...

Peter Serafinowicz introduces the newest Apple product, the one-button Mactini.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Happy Birthday to the Euro (€)

Thanks to SuperFrenchie, I was reminded that 10 years ago the Euro was introduced to world financial markets as an accounting currency.
It took another 3 years before it was launched as physical coins and banknotes (Jan 1 2002).
SF posted an interesting reminder of what some people said back then :

To be honest, one must say that it has not always been very popular with the Europeans, mostly because some businesses and shops took advantage of the currency change to make a profit.
But now, there is a consensus that the Euro is benefiting the national economies, especially in this time of economic crisis.
Besides, it makes it so much easier to travel. (it is even accepted in stores in Britain, Denmark, or Switzrland).
Below is the Eurozone (in blue)


Laïcité - a response.

While I find this comment on our post in many ways interesting and exact, I think it only deals with one aspect of this complex issue, and in the end I'd like to explain why I stand to what I said before

- namely that yes, "Too often in France, laïcité has become a disguise for anti-clericalism, and more recently for Islamophobia"

- and that "I would even argue that it has even become a religion of its own".

First of all, it is hard to compare the 50s and 60s to the 90s or the millennium. I agree with you that there have been many changes in French society since Jules Ferry but there have been just many since the 60s. I have been a teacher for 12 years now, and even in that period I have seen change.

Mostly, teachers are not as highly regarded as they used to be and kids and parents are less willing to accept the unchecked power of teachers than before. This is also the result of the change of status of education as a whole notably with the expansion of schooling– more kids going to school longer but with fewer prospects. One of the unintended results is that some parents are willing to oppose teachers or schools, sometimes even by suing them. (Something also unthinkable 20 years earlier).

Now if we take the scarf issue, I agree with you that the parliament debate was not so much about the “séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat”, but it wasn’t either about teacher’s powers. By that time, their “power” was already long gone. You can blame ’68 or politicians, but I think it is the result of some greater and more fundamental changes in our societies.

But I agree with you that the “anti-scarf law” (I mean to make it in such simplistic terms) was an “opportunistic political maneuver” and in my opinion, there was no need for it. The reason is that in most cases, and in most schools, the problem was dealt with by the educational communities (i.e. schools at a local level) who usually found some agreement with the parents. There were only about 10 to 15 cases a year where no agreement could be reached and the student was expelled. Hardly a reason for so much fuss about it or for a law! It was a law that contented the people, just like the Christians killed in the circus games made the Roman citizens happy and forget the real issues.

But the very reason it worked is that politicians (from the right and the left) pushed the right button and the law did not become a disguise for anti-clericalism in the old traditional sense of the word (i.e. a powerful Catholic church as seen in Jules Ferry’s time), but a disguise for the “invasion” of a new religion, Islam and for the fear of extremism. I wouldn’t compare this fear to the trivial Polish plumber. I believe that, especially in 2003, the fear of religious extremism (meaning terrorism of course) was very real to a lot of people. This, remember, was in the wake of 9/11.

From what I remember, however, the Parliament debate was a joke. There was no debate because there was no issue and no disagreement, other than the protest of a few Muslims who quickly rally-round-the-flag when the Iraqi kidnappers of two French journalists demanded that the law should be abolished to liberate them. The uproar only took place abroad and France took the heat for it.

The very fact that there was hardly any debate in this country over this law is also what made me compare lacicité to a religion. Like religion, it has its founding myths, its credo, its cohesiveness and it believes it can save people. It is also shared by a majority of people who think laicité can “set people free despite themselves” and that the Republic will enlighten people. In fact, it is similar to the patronizing philosophy that gave moral grounds to colonization.

I believe that while a lot of things you said in your comment are true, you only see them in French political terms when I think there is a lot more to this whole issue. I think the French laicité has become a refuge for a lot of people who are trying to make sense of an ever-changing world they do not understand, instead of grasping those changes and redefining secularism in post-modern terms –This refuge into laicité is a defense mechanism, a way to cope with anxiety, not unlike religion at times.


Laicité - comment

The comment of one of our readers on our post on French laïcité is worth posting on the blog, I think.... The next post that follows is my response.
And many thanks to our commentator.
- "Too often in France, laïcité has become a disguise for anti-clericalism, and more recently for Islamophobia".
I would like to discuss this below, if you please.
- "I would even argue that it has even become a religion of its own".
Whew... THAT's what I call fantasizing!

I totally agree with the first part of the first sentence: in France, laïcité has (recently) become a disguise for something. But is this something anticlericalism or even islamophobia?
Back in Jules Ferry's times, laicité was undisputably used as the polite way for naming anti-clericalism.
As it was not uncommon for Republican-sided newspapers to proudly advertise themselves as "laïques et anti-cléricaux", one could say that such a "disguise" was as thin a veil as the ones that flattered Marianne's opulent feminine curves in officially approved allegories.
There has been many major changes in French society since then. Notably, the Catholic Church, for long a major support to a then really strong and active monarchist current (whose Pétainism has been the latest avatar), has, since WWII ended, cut off any remaining links with this now moribund school of thought. Following this political shift, the Church began in the '60s not to be seen anymore, by representatives from most of the French political spectrum ouside of the far left, as as much of an unreconcilable enemy as it once was.
For roughly one-quarter of a century, "laïcité" stayed as some vestigial concept deprived of meaning.
In the interval, other changes, other political shifts occured: after "les événements de 1968", the Education Nationale (formerly thought of as the most reliable tool for propagating support for Republican institutions) began being perceived by successive governments as a loose cannon. Thus legislators started, from the late '60 on, to gradually erode the academics former independance.
Back in the '50 and '60 (I'm old enough for remembering perfectly this time when high school boys were expected to daily wear ties) students wearing tennis or basket shoes would have been ruled out from some classrooms. In some schools (most, in fact), girls were not allowed to wear pants; in some others, girls would have been ignominiously sent back home if they had been caught wearing tights instead of socks. Meanwhile in some other classrooms none of these rules applied.
What's the key word in the above sentences? It's "some". For the thing worth noting is, schoolteachers were then supposed to be their classroom's masters and commanders. If one had decided to allow students under their responsibility to wear scarves, if another had decided to forbid them to, there would not have been interferences from neither executive nor judicial powers. If, back then, a teacher's individual decisions had created a conflict involving academic authorities ("l'inspection académique"), it would have been dealed with as a strictly internal affair (of course some such decisions could have put the teacher's career at stake, but these matters wouldn't have been publicly discussed).
Then in the years that followed '68, there was roughly one Education Nationale reformation per year... some of these remarkably short-lived, yet each and every one contributing to trivialize the idea that educational matters were the legislator's business (there has been no discontinuity in the political approach to this issue, no matter the government was labeled "gaullist" or "socialist"...) When in the '90 the scarf question arose, teachers who had chosen to object to scarf wearing, as well as those who preferred not to, found out the rules had changed. The Parliament debate that ensued (an event that would have been unthinkable 30 years earlier) was not that much about the séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat as it was about redefining the teachers powers, by offering the teachers something of little value (a rather out of place reaffirmation of la Défense de la Laïcité) in exchange for their independence: if you allow me to choose a Biblical reference, think about the deal Jacob made with Esaü... The public uproar, not only in the Muslim community, but in various religious denominations as well, was some sort of collateral damage the legislators had most probably grossly underestimated. Surprising mistake? Well, not that much considering how wrong the same legislators have been with anticipating the voters reactions to recent consultations.

In conclusion, I'm not denying that laïcité is part of the French Republic founding myths; however, supposing there's currently a revival of it as a religion seems a bit over the top.
Who's currently waving more or less overtly the flag of islamophobia? The political right, right?
Who's been lately routinely suspected of crypto-islamophilia? The political left, non?
Who during the past 2 centuries advocated laïque values? The left.
Who is now voicing a newfound concern for les valeurs de la laïcité? The right.
If somehow this fits into the picture of laïcité as a disguise for islamophobia, it's not as a resurging of the old-style heartfelt anti-clericalism of the left, but rather as a mere oportunistic political maneuver from the right. Nothing "religious" in this, not even metaphorically.
There are exactly as many people in France fearing that religious zealots might seize power as there are people panicking about Polish plumbers invading the country (how many is easy to figure out). Instead, there are quite some people that fancy using these mythological creatures as bogeymen... The same are using la Défense de la Laïcité as a smoke screen for covering an entirely different agenda.


Israel, Hamas and the Blame Game.

Who is to blame for the current war between Hamas and Israel?
Of course, depending on who asks the question and who answers - an American, a European, a Muslim, a Jew, an Arab or a Palestian, you'll probably get a different answer.
One thing is certain, the Bush administration's simplistic view (that Israel, a plucky democracy threatened by Islamist extremism and terrorism, in a hostile region afflicted by dangerous autocracies is simply defending itself) is ideaological. It is my view that, as in most wars, the blame should fall on all the parties involved.
Hamas :
Obviously Hamas has a major responsibility in the the latest developments. On December 19, it declared that it was not renewing the cease-fire (tahadiya) and and it fired rockets again against Israel as a supposedly strategy for a "better cease-fire" from its point of view-- i.e. the lifting of the international blockade.
(and since its election in 2006, Hamas has persecuted journalists and closed donw newspapers, Fatah members have been assassinated and Christians have been assaulted.)
The Bush administration :
The current administration's naive belief in "democracy", no matter what the local conditions may be resulted in the American demand that Palestinian elections be held in January 2006, despite Israeli and Palestinian Authority reservations about the timing and possible outcome. What was feared just happened: the Hamas victory.
The tragic irony was that the United-States (along with Israel and its allies) then refused to recognize the democratic election of Hamas, which was a denial a the very values they had preached.
Hamas's victory was the result of the years of Israeli occupation and tough policy, as well as the disillusions over the Fatah's promises of peace and better living conditions (disillusions for which Israel bears a strong responsibility.
But Israel also failed to even try to engage directly with democratically elected Hamas government,. More importantly, Israel did not enforce the lifting of the blockade even though it was a part of the June cease-fire agreement.
The International community:
It failed to pressure Israel to enforce its legal commitment - the end of illegale settlements and more importantly to Gaza, the lifting of the blockade.

As far as this latest war is concerned, I don't see how Israel can win it. Even if they win it on the ground, they have probably already lost the image war. Thousands of protesters have held demonstrations in the world - the most important one in Paris. Global criticism will make it harder for moderate Arab leaders to have any credibility.
Obviously, Israel is aware they're fighting a PR war as well :
In the hours preceding the ground operation, The Washington Post reported: "Israel dropped leaflets over northern Gaza urging residents to leave their homes. The leaflets read: 'Area resident, as result of the acts undertaken by terror activists in your area against Israel, the IDF is forced to respond immediately and operate in this area. For your own safety, you are asked to leave the area immediately'." (The National Newspaper)
But where are they supposed to go in this tiny sealed land, home to 1.5 million people.
Israel may destroy much and kill many in Hamas, but that is not the solution. Violence breeds violence and for every Hamas leader killed, another one will come, one day or another, born out of anger with the violence.
In fact, the Israeli attack may have actually revived Hamas. In the Washington Post, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab wrote :
In its efforts to stop amateur rockets from nagging the residents of some of its southern cities, Israel appears to have given new life to the fledging Islamic movement in Palestine.
This is a natural rally-round-the-flag phenomenon : give people a common enemy and they'll forget their division for a while.