Random thoughts on returning from French Africa

If you’re a human being who speaks French, you’re more likely to be African than European. La Francophonie’s demographic center of gravity is now somewhere around Bamako, Mali.

If you’re a human being who is literate in French — say, at a high school graduate level — you’re probably European. But not for much longer. Demographic growth plus the slow-but-steady rise of literacy rates in most of Africa means that by the next decade, most literate Francophones will be African too.
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Dans la Francophonie

So now I’m in Burundi for a couple of weeks, on business.

I’ll probably do most of my Burundi-blogging over at my home blog. But here’s a thing: Burundi is part of La Francophonie and, yup, everyone here speaks French.

Okay, not everybody. French is introduced in primary school, but it’s not taught intensively until secondary school. Since only about 10% of Burundian kids finish secondary school, French is very much the language of the educated elite. (Which in Burundi is disproportionately ethnic Tutsis. But that’s another story.) But French is the language of law and government and formal public discourse and, up until now, it’s how Burundi talks to the world. It’s everyone’s second language here; English is, so far, a pretty distant third. Continue reading

“Well… I guess that’s what you’d call ‘the conscious’.”

A warm welcome to guest poster Joanna Walsh.

I’m reading the guide notes on the walls of the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. They’re annoying me. I’m seeing the exhibition with a friend. It’s always good to have someone to complain to.

“Look, here it says about how miserable she is again: ‘depression, anxiety, the fear of abandonment, of loss of love.’ It says it’s all going on in the ‘depths of her unconscious’.”

Although Bourgeois’ material comes from the unconscious, and often from misery, she transforms it with tough, highly-articulate and playful conscious thought.

Ok – let’s look at the most immediately obvious things about an artist who is shown in the bank of photos outside her exhibition, unfailingly smiling. She smiles wisely, secretly, ironically, openly; she smiles from inside her sculptures; she smiles at Andy Warhol; she smiles wickedly and most famously holding under her arm a latex phallic sculpture entitled, ‘little girl’.

Let’s look at her early, isolated, stick-like, sculptured human figures whose fragile attempts to connect with each other are described by the artist with a nod and a wink – look at those two stick-people standing together, the ‘female’ inclining her head toward the ‘male’, ‘listening’ (as in the title of the piece) clearly not only with affection, but a definite touch ‘yes, dear, very nice, dear,’ in her attitude.

It’s so hard to ignore the hard hysterical, joke-y surrealism which inhabits her sketches and prints of ‘house-wives’ – women imprisoned by their domestic role. So – let’s not ignore it.

Her 1960s ‘body parts’ sculptures of penis-breasts, which she teasingly denies are sexual are not only ‘repellant, and unsettling’ but also meltingly and sensually textured: here is someone who enjoys sex and likes to play around with gender.

It’s good to see a room of pieces inspired by the artist’s mother whom Bourgeois had a deep need to rehabilitate from her role as silent witeness to a powerful and adulterous husband. Bourgeois transforms her into an enourmous spider – a huge, twisted being; the domestic become monstrous through a change of size – but also a friendly maternal force with her well-protected bundle of eggs. In the end, this spider scares me less than the ones I find in the bath. I’d like to have this spider on my side.

And let’s not shy away from the fact that Bourgeois’ work is and has always consciously followed fashion. As maxi-skirts followed minis, so Bourgeois’ early Giacommeti-like figures were superseded by her installation works in the 1980s then by her currently fashionable use of embroidery and textiles. If she’s ‘impossible to categorise’ it’s not through iconoclasm but her knowing and eclectic use of any art movement she finds lying around.

The slightly po-faced exhibition guide has concentrated on Bourgeois’ pain rather than the angry, intelligent, tough jouissance with which she transforms into a clearly-articulated visual language her hard, priviliged, trivial, serious life.

We get to the last of the noticeboards. My friend agrees:

“They keep on going on about the subconscious meaning. I don’t think it’s subconscious. It’s – what do they call that thing that’s above the subconscious.”

“Well… I guess that’s what you’d call ‘the conscious’.”

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“I am a scientific person. I believe in psychoanalysis, in philosophy. For me the only thing that matters is the tangible.” Louise Bourgeois

Against indefinite imprisonment

One of Nicolas Sarkozy’s worse ideas is the retention de securite, a change to the law that would allow for prisoners who complete their sentences to not be released if the government thought they were of “particular dangerousness” – this being an executive decision and hence very likely to be taken for reasons of low politics. There is a campaign about it that’s made a film, part of which is below:

More film is here. And there’s a petition to sign here.

France Changes its Nuclear Policy; Not Very Much

Nicolas Sarkozy was in Cherbourg to name the latest French SSBN, the appropriately named Le Terrible, this week; and he had a few things to say about the circumstances under which she might be called on to fire her M51 SLBMs. The headline grabber, which everyone picked up on, was that France is going to reduce the number of operational nuclear weapons it declares to the world; specifically, the airborne component of the French deterrent is being cut by one-third in terms of warheads.

France, until not long ago, operated a nuclear triad; as well as the first class of submarines, there were also four air force squadrons assigned to the nuclear mission, originally with the Mirage IV-A bomber and then with the Mirage 2000-N, and a force of intermediate-range ballistic missiles based in southern France. These weapons were withdrawn at the end of the cold war; they were always slightly odd with regard to France’s overall policy, as due to their range their only credible target was Russia. Officially, of course, the French nuclear force has always been “tous azimuts” or omni-directional (i.e. could point west, or maybe even north:-)).

The reduction, however, is entirely in keeping with the long-term principles of French nuclear strategy; France, like Israel and the UK (although the UK doesn’t have a published doctrine), has a traditional policy of minimal deterrence. This argues that nuclear weapons are subject to diminishing returns; the consequences of having all your cities nuked once are not noticeably better than twice, three times, or more, so the certainty of retaliation is much more important than its scale. “Superiority” is probably meaningless, and anyway uneconomic if not actively dangerous. This was also the doctrine associated with the US Navy in the 1950s, as opposed to the US Air Force; it was much more important to have a very secure retaliation force than a massive first-strike force, which was certain to be perceived as aggressive and threatening, and by happy accident this policy would involve heavy investment in the Navy’s submarines and carriers.

Despite this, Sarko is trying to frame the change in opposition to Jacques Chirac’s speech in 2006 in which he suggested that deterrence extended beyond a direct nuclear threat to the Republic; his press-cat describes this as a return to the fundamentals of deterrence. Beyond that, he also suggested a “dialogue” on the role of nuclear weapons in European security; well, I suppose he had to say something more, as this is an idea that gets taken out for a stroll every 20-30 years without effect. The speech is here; as far as detail goes, he sticks closely to tradition in refusing to define “vital interests” precisely (so not so much difference from Chirac, then) and stating that the force is targeted on a counter-value policy, i.e. against cities rather than against nuclear weapons systems.

As far as the practicals go, France has some 60 airborne nuclear weapons, of which 50 are ASMP(A) cruise missiles and 10 freefall bombs; this happens to match the number of Mirage 2000N aircraft on line precisely, mirroring the original and highly aggressive concept of operations from the 1960s, which foresaw launching the whole bomber force, if necessary on one-way missions to reach more distant targets. The mathematical geniuses this blog is known for will no doubt spot that this will fall to 40; the French Air Force and Naval Aviation have currently got 120 Rafales on order out of 294 planned, all of which are capable.

The reduction doesn’t go quite as far as the UK’s decision to withdraw all the WE177 nuclear bombs from the RAF in 1998, which accounted for all the UK’s airborne and tactical nuclear weapons. However, it’s worth pointing out that the British and French jointly developed an air-launched missile recently; in British service it’s called a Storm Shadow. Some voices in the UK have suggested acquiring a supply of these with nuclear warheads as a substitute for the Trident missile submarines that would be cheaper and less dependent on the US; the argument is based on experience since 1991 that surface-to-air missile defences are considerably less fearsome than was thought in the 1960s.

However, the UK government has been notably unwilling to engage with the idea. Its recent white paper on the deterrent cited only two alternatives to Trident (or disarmament), one of which was to independently develop an ICBM and find bases inside the UK, and one was to procure very long range nuclear cruise missiles (which would need developing) and base them on large airliner-type planes (the range because these could not go in reach of enemy air defences). This can only realistically be seen as an exercise in closing down the debate.

Finally, on page one:

Il a fallu des decennies d’apprentissage pour maitriser de tels savoir-faire, que certains de nos partenaires ont eu bien du mal a reconstituer apres les avoir negliges…

I wonder who he might possibly mean?

The Bear Blows First

Last week, the EU peacekeeping force for Chad/the Central African Republic/and anywhere else in the general mess left of Darfur looked all set; after the French government offered to pony up more troops, and specifically enough Transall cargo planes and Puma support helicopters to assure the force’s mobility, the EU foreign ministers signed off the deal. It was settled that a multinational HQ at Mont-Valerien outside Paris, headed by an Irish general, would command the operation, with a French land force commander on the scene; the first-flights were due to arrive on Thursday and Friday, bringing an advanced guard of Irish Rangers and various logistic elements.

However, it seems Chad’s rebels have adopted the bear principle. Remember the man who tried to give the powder to the bear, said Winston Churchill; he rolled it up in a piece of paper, pointed it down the bear’s nose…but the bear blew first. The initial airlift was held on the ground, as a column of rebels appeared at the gates of N’Djamena; instead the French army brought in 150 more troops from their base in Gabon. The rebels, who raided the city last spring and were beaten off with the help of French aircraft are reported to be fighting towards the presidential palace. As Secret Defense (my new favourite blog) points out at the link, it’s in the nature of desert warfare that enemies can appear suddenly almost anywhere, especially when the modern ship of the desert is the Toyota Land Cruiser.

The French troops evacuated 400 or so nationals to Gabon, but the million-dollar question is whether they will support Idriss Deby in trying to stay in power; French forces have been doing precisely that ever since 1986 under Operation EPERVIER. Apparently Deby refused the offer of a Dassault Falcon lift into exile and is fighting it out; the head of the Chadian army was reported to have been killed in action, which argues that this is pretty serious business. For what it’s worth, Bernard Kouchner says France is neutral in this conflict, but we support legality and the powers-that-be.

Pretty clearly, part of the point was to act before EUFOR deployed across the route from the border to the city; the questions are now whether EUFOR will ever move – after all, will there be any peace to keep? – and whether its French elements move to save France’s man in Chad. This only points up the ambiguity in the entire mission; protecting the civilian population and supporting the African Union in Darfur are goals that are easily merged with saving Idriss Deby’s skin and TotalFinaElf’s interests. As Daniel Davies so wisely said, unless you can make it rain as much as it used to, you probably aren’t going to solve Darfur’s problems.

Nuclear Diplomacy – Not That Sort

It’s become a routine part of any foreign trip President Sarkozy takes that he announces the sale of a nuclear power station. On his recent visit to the Middle East, for example, the two keynote announcements from his meetings with the leaders of the UAE involved a) the sale of a nuclear power station and b) the establishment of a French military base. We’ll come to the base later; first, the nuclear, as Harold MacMillan said. Not only that, Sarkozy went on to Saudi Arabia, where he offered them a couple of nuclear power stations. Qatar had also lined one up. He’d already sold a number of them to China, and offered the possibility of one at least to Libya.

Clearly, not only is Areva a major export earner, it’s also an important part of French foreign policy. When we say that Sarko “signed” a contract for a nuclear reactor, what we mean is of course that the agreement was held over so as to be announced when he showed up; this bit him on the backside when the Indians refused to play, arguing that boosting his image was no concern of theirs.

But I would suggest that nuclear technology, as with aircraft and arms sales and even branches of the Louvre, has been restored to the sort of foreign-policy place it held in the 1950s; impress a superpower and win a reactor. That kept going until even Kinshasa University got one; one hopes Sarko doesn’t go quite that far. In this, and many other things, Sarkozy is as neo-Gaullist as they come; this symbiosis of the state, technology, and policy is a core element.

Even if his report on economic growth includes no less than 314 (told you he was like Chirac with too much caffeine) individual propositions, it appears to consist of the creation of some new educational institutions, heavy spending on R&D, pious vows about reducing labour costs, and a nod to Danish social policy. Note that the president of Areva, Anne Lauvergeon, was consulted.

Over New Year, the SNCF brought a gaggle of trains into the Grand Palais for their anniversary celebrations; the centrepiece of this Gaullist techfest was the video of the world speed record set in the spring. A large crowd of sober citizens gathered, as if to view the latest howitzer sometime in the 1910s. Sometimes, progress exists; this is something the French state understands.

So does realpolitik, though; the backstory of the UAE base is that the emirates have been trying to reduce their dependence on the US for some time, especially Abu Dhabi (which dominates the military). As well as asking the Louvre to open a branch, they bought Mirage 2000 aircraft, and now they want an EPR reactor and a French military presence.

And you thought I was joking…

Ha. You thought this was an exercise in strategic trolling. Think again; the French Navy’s helicopter carrier Jeanne d’Arc pulled into New York on the 28th for a port call, and to deliver a consignment of books for schools in New Orleans. (French ones, naturally.) Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani’s primary campaign took a misstep when he badly misjudged his core constituency

«Un sondage montre que 67 % des Américains pensent que le pays est sur la mauvaise voie…», annonce Rudolph Giuliani à une centaine de supporteurs réunis dans un petit restaurant de Hampton, dans le New Hampshire. Costume noir rayé, cravate rouge, l’ex-maire de New York en campagne pour la Maison Blanche balaie d’un regard contrarié la foule trop éparse. «Connaissez-vous un autre pays qui soit plus mal en point que ça ?» «La France !» lance un militant arborant un macaron «Rudy for president», aussitôt approuvé par l’assistance. «Pas du tout !» bondit Giuliani. «Nicolas Sarkozy a écrit un livre excellent sur son programme, qu’il met en œuvre en ce moment», rétorque-t-il à son auditoire un peu confondu.

I’m not sure which is funnier – Giuliani trying to push France as an example to his war-crazed freedom fries base (this is the guy who hired Dan Senor and Norman Podhoretz, mark) or the notion that Sarko is still new, revolutionary or exciting.

I spent enough time on this blog trying to dispel the myth of “Sarkozy, France’s Margaret Thatcher” that iit’s wearying to repeat any of it; but essentially all the media beyond France, and much of it within France, got him completely, embarrassingly wrong. Rather than offering a dramatic ideological break, Sarko is much better understood as a Blair or Berlusconi figure; heavily reliant on a dominant media owner (his own media for Berlusconi; Murdoch’s for Blair; Lagardere and the wave of late-Chirac appointments at France Televisions for Sarkozy), wrapping a fundamentally conservative message in the cult of newness and business style. Security, property prices, and TV.

It’s like Chirac with more caffeine. This is unlikely to change much; the long-awaited ruck with the Left over special pension provisions has resulted in the issue being punted to tripartite negotiations with business and the unions, and the flagship economic policy (introducing mortgage tax relief) was derailed by the courts. Although it’s still theoretically on the agenda, nobody is now expecting a property boom any time soon.

What Sarko is probably worrying about is more that his fiscal boost came before the credit crisis; €15bn of tax cuts that fell precisely the wrong side of the cycle.

What’s left of France

Ezra Klein is having a bit of fun with Rudy Giuliani’s assertion that the U.S. “will be to the left of France” if the American electorate is “not careful” and doesn’t elect him:

We could elect Dennis Kucinich and 10 more Democratic senators and we wouldn’t get anywhere near France. France is a country where the rightwing reformer won’t touch the 35-hour workweek, where all sorts of powerful politicians call themselves socialists, where there’s over a month of legally mandated vacation and unlimited sick days.

Well, France is also a country where insulting the flag is a criminal offense, where the level of opposition to affirmative action would delight any card-carrying Republican, where about 20% of the student body attend religious schools (double the American percentage) and where capital income is much less heavily taxed than in the U.S. (see this pdf).

Not that I’m defending Giuliani’s idiotic statement, mind you. Especially one in which he equates caution with voting for his crazy self. But the idea that France is some sort of liberal wet dream doesn’t jibe well with the facts either. Continue reading

Christopher Caldwell: Untrustworthy on Facts

Christopher Caldwell, senior editor of neocon house journal the Weekly Standard, once wrote a six-page feature in the New York Times magazine in which he claimed that Robert Kilroy-Silk would “transform European politics”. Despite this, he is still taken seriously by some people; disturbingly, this includes the editors of the Financial Times. In his column this weekend, he issues a rant against trades unions and specifically French ones. I am not going to trouble my readers by taking issue with his ideological position; this is well-known, hence there’s no informational gain in arguing with it.

Instead, I’m sticking to his factual assertions.

Sixty per cent of SNCF cancellations are due to strikes.

The only source for this statement I can find is the French Government’s spokesman; anyway, as the overall 10-minute punctuality rate is of the order of 90 per cent (source: SNCF Annual Report 2006), this is equivalent to saying that 3 trains in every hundred are affected by industrial action. In fact that is a considerable overstatement itself, as not all trains that run 10 minutes late are cancellations. Anyway, this is a theoretical issue; Le Canard Enchaine published the actual figures, according to which strikes accounted for 140 out of 6,043 delays recorded in 2006 – about 2 per cent. Caldwell is wrong.

The young anti-union orator Sabine Herold drew tens of thousands to her speeches during the strikes of 2003.

Fortunately, I’d recently seen some of her old election posters, so I actually knew who she was, which puts me ahead of the vast bulk of the French public. It is actually possible that Mme Herold pulled in at least 10 kilodemonstrators; French Wikipedia claims she did, citing Le Monde as saying she got 30,000, but I can’t find a root-source for this anywhere; just a lot of wingnuts clapping each other on the back. It hasn’t stopped her claiming 100,000 in order to sell books. But it’s hard to be sure, as her political party didn’t get enough votes to be broken out independently in the official results of the 2007 parliamentary election. Neither could they find 500 local councillors willing to sign their presidential nomination. To place a lower bound on her popularity, though, we can say with certainty that she pulled some 345 votes on her home turf, the very bourgeois 16th arrondissement of Paris. That is, 1.4 per cent of the vote. Her fellow leader, Edouard Fillias, pulled a whacking 228 votes in the 12th – 0.52 per cent.

This didn’t stop various right-wing anglophone papers lionising her; fortunately she kept the tributes on her own website. Here’s Matthew Campbell of the Sunday Times predicting that if Segolene Royal wasn’t elected, she might be. Here’s the Daily Telegraph asking whether she really did speak for millions. I think you got your answer, son.

Anyway, moving swiftly on:

They rest on government-accorded privileges, particularly that of compelling membership, whether formally or informally – a privilege that, if it were exercised by a church or a political party, would horrify the public.

“They” are trade unions; it’s a pity Caldwell appears not to know that the closed shop has been illegal in France since 1956.