Une certaine idée de la France ?

It’s interesting that Emmanuel’s remarks about biased statistics about the French economy in Anglophone publications led to some comments trying to asses the extent to which France is perceived as “the other”, at least as far as “the West” is concerned. There have always been claims about a natural rivalry of the two main “universalist” western polities, France and the US, but there was, in my opinion, never too much hard evidence for such a claim. Still, intellectual traditions as well as institutionalised myths are often a very powerful element of public discourse, and sometimes even assume a certain life of their own if there are enough believers. In this case, there certainly are.

Since France will begin the process of electing a new President this Sunday, and since “Europe” wasn’t exactly a prominent subject on any candidate’s campaign agenda, I thought I share thoughts I once compiled with respect to the Europeanization of the French “other”, some parts of which have already been included in my guest post (in French) at publius.fr a couple of days before the now notorious French referendum on the European Constitution in 2005.
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The Not-So-Wolfowitz Bank

Was it just a little more than two years ago that we were slightly agog that the Bush administration was pushing Paul Wolfowitz to lead the World Bank? Indeed it was.

Since then, you may have heard, things at 18th and H Streets have not gone swimmingly. Downright pear-shaped of late. By my count, his Galbraith Score is now two, but I may be off.

These folks seem to be the go-to blog for World Bank inside scoop. I don’t think he’ll last. On the other hand, it’s not as if anyone the current US administration is likely to nominate will be received with wild enthusiasm, either Over Here, or at the Bank, or among the Bank’s clients, or…

The Jewish-European heritage

On the day following Israel’s national holocaust memorial day, writing in Haaretz, Fania Oz-Salzberger reminds both Israelis and Europeans that, for centuries, Jewish history has been an enriching element of European history. Concerned about the effect of class trips of “roudy groups” of Israeli teenagers to Auschwitz, she recommends trips to Spain instead –

Take the money, enlist more supportive foundations, and take select groups of Israeli pupils to Andalusia, in the south of Spain. Because there, in many ways, begins the story that ends in Auschwitz: the story of Jewish Europe, which is both an Ashkenazi and Sephardi tale.

Somewhere in Andalusia there was a small paper mill at the end of the Middle Ages. It was at that time that the ancient Chinese technology arrived, after a long journey across Asia and North Africa, and entered Europe via Spain. Without it Gutenberg would not have been able to print. And lo, that mill was operated by two partners, a Jew and a Muslim. Their clients from the north were Christians. This story, symbolic rather than historic, should be told to 17-year-old Jewish and Arab Israelis. You have to be a great pessimist not to tell it. It is a story of life and rejuvenation. It would not overshadow the story of the persecuted and the murdered, but empower it greatly.

Woe to a Jewish-Israeli identity that relies only on the ashes of the crematoria. Our European past also includes a thousand years of life, art and the spreading of knowledge.

I don’t think trips to Andalusia should replace trips to Auschwitz, but they certainly seem like a valuable addition. They represent what I like so much about the the Jewish Museum in Berlin – it’s not just a holocaust memorial but also offers a glimpse onto Jewish European’s life before the Shoah – as well as thereafter. Because, as opposed to Ms Oz-Salzbergers claim above, I don’t believe the story of Jewish Europe ended in Auschwitz, not even in Germany.

The statistics of recent Jewish immigration, particularly from Russia, are unequivocal. But it’s the anecdotal evidence that, I think, matters more in this case. The Jewish community in my home town, Mainz, is one of the oldest in Germany, dating back to the 10th century, possibly even to Roman times. In the 1970s, there were only about hundred community members. Today, there are about a thousand, and a new Synagoge – architecturally slightly reminiscent of the Jewish Museum in Berlin – is currently being planned.

Circular Logic Watch

The Independent’s John Lichfield, writing about Nicolas Sarkozy:

His ideas are based on two simple but accurate diagnoses of France’s economic decline in the past 30 years.

First, France does not work enough. Young people enter the workforce late; experienced people retire early; the standard working week is now just 35 hours. France works an average of just over 600 hours per inhabitant per year, taking into account all the people not in work; Britain 800 hours. Result: slow growth, low incomes and high unemployment.

Yes, he really did blame high unemployment on the number of people not in work. As it turns out, French people (if Lichfield’s figures are right) work 25 per cent fewer hours than the British, however, that includes the hours of potential work lost to joblessness. Of course, this is quite a valid reason to object to unemployment – it’s literally a waste of time, but this isn’t what he’s getting at. He seems to suggest that if only the others would work harder, they would either generate enough supply-which-creates-its-own-demand to create more jobs, or else they would spend enough extra income to create more aggregate demand and create more jobs.

Current UK unemployment is 5.5 per cent, French 8.4 per cent – so just over a third (34 per cent) greater. All other things being equal, you’d expect the hours gap to change pro-rata with the unemployment gap – that is, if like the Indy, you are stupid enough to contaminate your proposed cause with a measurement of effect. But clearly something is not equal. If the greater quantity of worklessness is too great to explain the lesser quantity of work, the excess must have been cancelled out by something – which can only be that the people in work are working harder.

Economic nonsense about France

Yet again. Here’s what the BBC has to say in its updated-for-the-upcoming-elections online background article about France:

But France’s economy has grown more slowly than any other developed country in the world. In 2006, its 2% growth was the worst in Europe.

Well, sorry to beat a late parrot, but one year does not a trend make: if we look at, say, the 5-years period between 2002 and 2006, the average annual rate of growth of France was a meagre 1.6%*, but that is equal to the euro area average and higher than what the Netherlands (1,4%) and Germany (0,9%) and Italy (0,7%) and Portugal (0,6%) managed over the same period. I’ll spare you the 10-years period (1997-2006) which is even more favorable to France.

But even if we grant the Beeb’s dubious premise that 2006 growth is the ultimate yardstick to measure the strength of an economy (and in that case I have an old “US has grown more slowly than nearly every other developed country in the world” headline from 2001 to sell you), their claim isn’t even true. Or, if it is, we can safely conclude that Italy (1,9% growth in 2006 according to Eurostat) and Portugal (1,3%) are neither European nor developed countries.
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Hey, I know that guy

Saw this in the news the other day:

Kosovo official escapes death
13 April 2007 | 09:31 | Source: Reuters
PRIÅ TINA — Head of Kosovo Telecommunications Agency (KTA) Anton Berisha was the target of a mortar attack on Thursday, a police source said.

“The car was hit by a mortar bomb. A Kosovo police officer is injured. It happened in the village of Loznica 35 km west of PriÅ¡tina,” the source told Reuters…

Anton Berisha has been under close protection since February 28 when gunmen opened fire on his car on the main road from Priština to the western town of Peć.

Berisha was recently involved in the awarding of a second mobile phone license for Kosovo, the breakaway southern province whose ethnic Albanian majority hopes to win independence from Serbia later this year.

I found this interesting, because I know Anton Berisha. Continue reading

Written on the subway walls

My comments on the French election posters, which appeared in bulk last weekend with the formal beginning of the campaign, after which strict equal-access rules apply…

The ruling principle is the difference between those who want to be elected, and those for which the style of candidacy is most important.

Those who want to be elected are keen on getting votes, by the silliest means. Those who don’t expect – or seriously want – to be elected are keen to be seen to be doing politics how they wish it was done. Hence Sarko, Bayrou, Royal, and Le Pen’s posters are all centred on the candidate’s face, which is meant to convey their virtues but also their context.

For example, Sarkozy’s face appears, well-lit, from a darkened landscape, above his name and nothing else. Subtext – I am a leader without party, come to relieve our darkness. Join! Francois Bayrou’s is not that dissimilar, which should not really be surprising given that he thinks he really is without party, and that his party used to be more rightwing than Sarko’s as recently as 1994.

Ségoléne Royal’s face is inevitably the centre of hers, but what is this? Grainy, monochrome photography, with a block red masthead and italic, bold white Helvetica type. It looks like a 1970s leftwing paper’s front page from some demonstration, presumably intended to lend some revolutionary romance to her image (and herald a last-minute tack to the base?). More importantly, it’s easily the best-designed and most recognisable of the lot, rivalled only by…

Le Pen’s, which shows the man himself on stage, looking astonishingly like Ian Paisley. Like the Man Standing in the Gap Left By God, Le Pen’s political career is founded on his stage performance. Makes sense, and is at least legible. His far-right rival, Philippe de Villiers of the MPF, is a borderline case. No-one thinks he will get a significant vote, but he probably thinks he will. Notable is the odd look in his eyes – his party is very much the UKIP to Le Pen’s BNP, appealing to Catholic farmers rather than secular townies, and like them, he could well be described as a swivel-eyed loon.

The others know they won’t be elected, and have their explanations ready – the election system is against them, the media is controlled by the armaments industry, France needs a more deliberative system. So they are free to design as if everyone in the country would stop to read every word. Olivier Besancenot, Arlette Laguillier, and the risible Schivardi stuff theirs with reams of text, illegible without making a point of visiting every poster – which is what they wish you would do, and they choose to imagine a society where everyone would. Voynet’s just look like they were left over from last time out.

The Suburb as Frontier

Just back from a trip to France, where this quote in a book on the history of Libé struck me:

Le Tiers-Monde commence en banlieue!

The Third World begins in the suburbs, in other words. This was 1972 or thereabouts, and it was a slogan of the very far Left.

Curiously, the same notion is still with us, but with the opposite end of the political spectrum…or perhaps this metaphor is unhelpful. Spectrum implies variance around a central value, along a single axis. It’s now the far-Right outside France, and its pals in the traditional French Right, who see the third world at the gates of Paris. The French extreme-left doesn’t seem to care very much any more, and the French extreme Right’s position is even stranger.

Back in the day, the growing concrete world of HLMs and sweeping flyovers across the Ile de France was the new frontier for the Communist Party. As the workers moved from the stinking slums of Paris’s railway districts out to enjoy their acquis social, so the Party would go with them. (Hence the towns where you can stage a demo between the rue Stalingrad and the hall Youri-Gagarine.) Moving out to the suburbs was moving towards the future, and if it should be a multicultural one united by class consciousness, so much the better.

Later, of course, it turned out more than a little tougher. As in most other places, just being a good trade unionist didn’t stop you being a racist. There were the betrayals of 1956 and 1968 and the internal crises that followed. Eventually, the roaring full-employment years came to an end too. But before then, the New Left had already found a new frontier in the suburbs – addressing the new proletariat, and the new concerns, whilst also getting around the Stalinist old farts at PCF headquarters and the ugly sense that a lot of proletarians didn’t agree with you. If you were a Maoist, the idea of surrounding the city from the countryside had an obvious attraction, not to mention the advantages of going to the revolution on the RER rather than the next flight to the Congo.

Later yet, with 80s structural unemployment, hand-wringing liberals and social democrats found it the moment to write a ton of reports on how to save the suburbs. It will be noted that, so far, the people who lived there are invisible. Very true. It ‘s in the nature of the frontier that there is never anyone there but the pioneer and the bad guys (Stalinists, pieds-noirs, cops, etc).

The latest take on this was the rise-without-trace of Nicolas Sarkozy, who made the suburbs briefly the new frontier for the Right. Having noticed them, he offered to hose the lot down, and here encountered another feature of the frontier – if you turn up waving your guns around, you’ll usually find a fight. Gunfighters were a vanishingly tiny feature of the U.S. West, compared to farmers, ranchers, sheep herders, railroaders, cavalrymen, cops, and Indians, or to put it another way, “people who did something useful”. More recent scholarship has tended to show many of the most famous bloodbaths as unnecessary, plain evil, or most often, the result of mutual stupidity.

In the general scapegoat hunt post-Iraq, though, plenty of right-wing people all over the world were willing to buy in – just as plenty of young idiots were willing to join the posse and run that city slicker out of town. This suited Sarko. Like all Ministers of the Interior, his core product is control, and the best marketing strategy for that stuff is fear. Unfortunately, he tends to evoke that in a lot of people, and a lot of people tend to evoke it in him.

Hence, last week, the mighty Kärcher called off a visit to La Croix-Rousse, in the heart of Lyon, for fear of left-wing demonstrators summoned by an instant messaging and SMS network. Itself a manifestation of another wave of suburban pioneers, the post-2005 volley of .orgs broadly supporting the Left and their voter registration campaigns. He did, however, manage to speak near the Pont Alexandre III in Paris – hardly the towers of La Courneuve – under guard by over a hundred cops of various kinds. A similar force as John McCain took for a stroll in Baghdad.

Which brings me to my final point. The latest pioneers on the suburban frontier are the Front National, of all people. While Sarko was struggling to manoeuvre around his own security, Jean-Marie Le Pen staged a string of appearances around the northwestern expressways, including one on the access deck at Argenteuil, where once Sarko wielded his metaphorical hose. Le Pen, despite his history, his ravings about making a “pure-blooded Frenchman” president, and essentially everything he has ever stood for, coped with a couple of cops and a squadron of journalists.

This points up the absurdity of Sarko’s monster guard force. But it also points up the weird way Le Pen is trying to win votes on the suburban frontier. Said the Black Panthers, “We want access to the American Dream.” And strangely, this is the substance of his address to the ‘burbs. He speaks of the equality of all citizens in the Republic, state secularism, and the need to create jobs by kicking foreigners out of them. Ironically, it’s just the stuff that was churned out about laicité, Theo van Gogh, and the rest in such great quantity back in 2004 – but this time, it’s directed at angry young blacks as well as angry old whites.

It’s surely a strange election. The PCF is nonpresent, its leader not even using the word “communist”. The far-left is almost exclusively a bourgeois taste. The Gaullist right has vanished. The “droite classique” has swung across behind it, from its right to a position overlapping the Socialists. The Greens have split three ways along the lines Charlie Stross predicted, between Luddites and techno-ecologists, but that’s not all. The Viridian Greens are well catered for by Dominique Strauss-Kahn within the PS, the fundamentalists by José Bové, but there is still a rump for the ex-minister Dominique Voynet.

And there’s the world’s most useless candidate, one of three Trotskyists, Gérard Schivardi. Polling around 0.5%, he has refused to suggest who his voters should support in the second round, and improved on that by promising to spoil his own ballot. Fortunately for democracy, he’s been so ineffectual that even France Decides 2007 got his name wrong, with a week to go…

Easter Egg Vlogging: statistics and swords

Well, sort of. But don’t be scared, gentle readers, I’m not torturing you with a video of myself watching Edward Hugh watching Alex Harrowell watching me watching Edward, thus entirely disregarding the possible value of such a video for media theorists and social psychologists as well as the fact that all the cool kids are apparently engaging in such technically mediated low level chain-voyeurism these days

Last December, I saw the Swedish demographer Hans Rosling’s presentation about his project gapminder at the LeWeb3 conference in Paris. Professor Rosling and his team have developed the “Gapminder Trendalyzer”, recently purchased by Google (and now available on http://tools.google.com/gapminder/), a truly stunning tool to flexibly visualize and break down statistical time series, currently particularly relating to UN world development data.

Rosling’s presentation, in which he demonstrated beyond doubt that top Swedish students statistically know far less about the developing world than chimpanzees (who are on par with Nobel laureates), was one of the most interesting parts of the conference, and, as Loic LeMeur mentioned then, eye opening. Professor Rosling’s statistically derived world view is very different from the gloomy preconceptions most people are often mistaking for reality when talking about the state of the world’s development and demographic situation, particularly with respect to Africa, as Bruno Guissani remarks on Lunch Over IP

My experience in Africa, he says, is that the seemingly impossible is possible. Even bad governments have gone in the last 50 years from pre-medieval situation to sometimes decent infrastructure and conditions. … “You can believe statistics when you can relate them to your grandmother”, he says. By which he means that he has mapped his family history comparing the situation of Sweden in the different years in which his family members lived to that of different nations of the world today. His great-great mother born in the early 1800 lived in a country similar to today’s Sierra Leone; his g-g-mother in one that looked like Mozambique; his g-mother’s living conditions were close to that of Ghana today; his mother lived in the equivalent of Egypt. “And I am a Mexican”, he says, while his kids were born when Sweden was similar to today’s Chile and, in the case of the youngest one, like Singapore.

Luckily, for your Easter Vlogging pleasure, the TED blog has a video of Professor Rosling’s speech at the TED conference 2006, which is basically the one I saw in Paris. Unfortunately, there seems to be no video of his appearance at the TED conference 2007, where he demonstrated that demography and sword swallowing are two rather compatible activities. But there is a picture

Meanwhile, in Montenegro

Montenegro initialed a Stabilization and Association Pact with the EU on March 15. That’s a step on the road to EU candidacy.

Nobody outside the Balkans noticed. Even inside the Balkans, nobody got too excited. Montenegro is a small and rather poor country, and EU membership is still years away. Hell, all they did was “initial” the S&A pact. They won’t actually sign it until (1) Montenegro adopts a new, EU-appropriate Constitution, and (2) all the current 27 members approve.

Still, it’s no small achievement. It shows that the Montenegrins, like the Croats, may be able to launder their recent history. Montenegro isn’t being held up for not cooperating with the Hague Tribunal, nor is their enthusiastic participation in the breakup of Yugoslavia being held against them. They are now formally, officially on the road to EU membership.

This is as good an occasion as any to review the league table in the Western Balkans. Continue reading