Friday, 21 December 2007

Cole, not the Dole

I'm stealing the following anecdote, which is priceless, from a comment by Kieran Healey on the Crooked Timber blog:

In his Diaries, Alan Bennett tells a story about an Oxford Don conducting Margaret Thatcher on a tour of (I suppose) All Souls in the early 1980s. Along the way he was supposed to point out some of the portraits of various college luminaries. His plan was to pause by Cole’s portrait, point out the nameplate and say, “And this is the philosopher G.D.H. Dole,” whereupon Thatcher would have to say “Cole, not Dole.” But he chickened out and didn’t do it.

Thanks to Shashank for the pointer.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Sarkozy proves his bad taste - on many, many levels...

The real reason why the French call Sarkozy l'americain is style, not substance. They are deeply skeptical of a President who prefers yachts to country estates; jogging to promenading; and Hollywood blockbusters to philosophy books.

I wasn't. Well - I was skeptical of Sarkozy for all kinds of reasons. But it didn't seem to me that among the wealth of objections you might endorse, his holiday destinations, workout method or even leisure activities ranked particularly highly.

Now, however, he has proved me wrong - and all those nagging, self-satisfied Rive Gauche intellectuals right. A few months after his divorce from Cecilia - the main selling point of whom, in Sarkozy's eyes, it seems to have been that she at one point was a supermodel - he appears to have a new girlfriend. And she is... (drumroll, close-up of professors at the College de France shocked at the news, etc.)... another ex-supermodel, Carla Bruni.

The French media, traditionally loath to expose politicians' private affairs, couldn't help running the story after they were spotted - in Euro Disney!!

Classy destination for a Romantic outing, I hear you groan. Quite... But it gets worse: given that they could hardly have expected to be all on their own in Disneyland on a Saturday afternoon, this seems to reflect the happy couple's wish for their liaison to become public in just that space.

A few months ago, Jean Clair, former director of Paris' Musee Picasso, told me: "The Louvre must of course be open to all. But, frankly, I find it pitiful that it has eight million visitors a year. Most of these people don’t even know what they’re looking at - they probably are tourists who got lost on their way to Euro Disney"

Well, at least Sarkozy did not get lost...

Oh, by the way: did I mention that Carla Bruni's former liaisons, or so it is rumoured, include real-estate magnet Donald Trump??

Whilst many observers seem to think that Sarkozy would change France profoundly, I was not so convinced. Perhaps I should have thought about style, not substance. For the stylistic self-portrayal of her political elite, at least, could not have changed more.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Overheard in New York - Germanophobes

Thought I'd share this little gem from :

Girl #1: When I first met my boyfriend, I wasn't that into him.
Girl #2: Yeah, but there wasn't an 11-year age difference between you two!
Girl #1: But he was German! That's comparable!

Have been bad about updating the blog recently - more to come over the next weeks, I promise...

Thursday, 29 November 2007

On Criticism, Rhetoric and - Outbursts

Britain is a country of genteel humour - and yet the UK parliamentary system allows for the most vicious theatricals of any Western democracy. Americans, by contrast, are generally proud to be more brash than their stiff-upper-lipped cousins - and yet, in politics, the consider too much passion (or, God forbid, criticism) a cardinal sin.

One reason for this, it seems to me, points to an inherent disadvantage of Presidential systems. The President, the nation's most influential politician, at the same time acts as commander-and-chief and, most importantly, personifies the country as Head of State. That's why, for Americans, insulting the President equals disrespecting the country.

In the UK, a politician could not disrespect the Queen. But the Prime Minister, who is "merely" the Head of Government, can be shouted down with cries of "shame" by an uncompromisingly hostile opposition. Prime Minister's Question Time is the prime example - ever-shocking to Americans, it is, to me, the most beautiful embodiment of what democracy is all about. (It also saves the UK from incompetent leaders - George W Bush would not survive even the lightest grilling in the House of Commons)

All this just to say: to an American audience, Senator Ted Kennedy's impassioned plea for a rise in the US minimal wage seems ludicrously, even dangerously, agitated. To those of us used to parliamentary systems, on the other hand, it may ring true - not in spite of, but rather due, to its highly rhetorical pitch.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Mafia Morals - not so Tarantino after all...

Warning: Troubled teenagers with an overactive imagination awakened by the Godfather or Pulp Fiction will be as saddened as I was to read the ten commandments of Mafia morality, discovered after big-boss Lo Piccolo's recent arrest. If you ever needed a definitive let-down to dispel any illusions of glamour about organised crime, here it is:

1 - "You must not get in touch with one of our friends unless you're introduced by a third party."

2 - "Do not cast your eyes on the wives of our friends"

3 - "Do not make friends with cops"

4 - "Do not frequent bars or night clubs"

5 - "You have the duty always to be ready to render a service to the Cosa Nostra. Even if your wife is just about to give birth"

6 - "Categorical respect for appointments must be maintained"

7 - "You must respect your wife"

8 - "When you are called upon to give an information, you must say the truth"

9 - "You must not appropriate funds of others, nor of other families"

10 - "No one can belong to us if they have close relatives in the police, if there have been cases of infidelity in his family, or who behaves badly and does not respect moral values"

Poor, poor Hollywood...


Italian version:

1 - «Non ci si può presentare da soli a un altro amico nostro, se non è un terzo a farlo»

2 - «Non si guardano mogli di amici nostri»

3 - «Non si fanno comparati (amicizia ndr) con gli sbirri»

4 - «Non si frequentano né taverne né circoli»

5 - «Si ha il dovere in qualsiasi momento di essere disponibile a Cosa nostra. Anche se c'è la moglie che sta per partorire»

6 - «Si rispettano in maniera categorica gli appuntamenti»

7 - «Si ci deve portare rispetto alla moglie»

8 - «Quando si è chiamati a sapere qualcosa si dovrà dire la verità»

9 - «Non ci si può appropriare di soldi che sono di altri e di altre famiglie»

10 - «Niente affiliazione per chi ha un parente stretto nelle varie forze dell'ordine, oppure chi ha tradimenti sentimentali in famiglia, o chi ha un comportamento pessimo e che non tiene ai valori morali»

Thursday, 8 November 2007

A not so ironic Joseph Beuys sings for "Sonne statt Reagan"

One of Germany's most tragicomic TV moments, this 1983 campaign spot for the Green Party not only features artist Joseph Beuys in a sadly serious attempt at rock-stardom. It also, to use a Germanic expression, is the ideal-type of German humour's talent for mixing well-meaning earnestness with particularly bad puns.

The refrain - "Wir wollen Sonne statt Reagan / Ohne Rüstung leben" - exploits the similarity of the German word for rain and Reagan's name, to merge the strangely unpolitical wish for good weather with the baffling demand that Reagan simply turn into the sun. The lyrics, in short, are not inspired.

But Beuys' performance is worse. His temporary job description, for want of a better word, is that of a lead singer. It doesn't help, of course, that he has been parked behind both a band - Germans will recognise them as BAP - which looks like it doesn't know how to play its instruments and a bunch of women with no apparent reason for being on stage (the Green party, of course, was big on feminism, so I suppose it preferred having women on stage doing nothing to having no women at all in the spot...)

P.S. By the end of the spot, self-conscious Beuys seems so relieved it's nearly over, that he engages in some overly optimistic microphone-action - be sure to look out for the Beuys-Helicopter!

Monday, 29 October 2007

Fearing Fear Itself

In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman writes:

In America’s darkest hour, Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged the nation not to succumb to “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” But that was then.

Today, many of the men who hope to be the next president — including all of the candidates with a significant chance of receiving the Republican nomination — have made unreasoning, unjustified terror the centerpiece of their campaigns.

Do we need need to add to this a reference to the measured, calm beauty of Winston Churchill's rhetoric, when his nation was in more danger, and in darker an hour, than America has never seen?

It is a sad reflection that in our times, steadfastness and courage seem to be exemplified more by scaremongering high-pitched rhetoric than by the kind of leadership which inspires citizens to face up to their fears as they want their military to face up to their enemies. Krugman's article makes this point well...

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Republican Ron Paul on 9/11 & Giuliani's Bulldozing Answer...

As any historian or social scientist will know, it is extremely difficult to determine what the main cause of an event is. Ron Paul makes a few good points in drawing attention to the unintended effects of the US' interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East. It clearly had a strong influence on the ideology of Islamic terrorists - though the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and US support of the Taliban at that stage, were possibly just as important as factors that helped the rise of Islamic terrorism. Paul's remarks don't explain why 9/11 happened; but they are are least an attempt to think about the terrorists' ideology and motivation from their perspective.

What really scares me, however, is the extent to which the political discourse among Republicans seems to consist of hypocritical bashing about of taboos. "As someone who lived through 9/11", Giuliani seems to imply, he finds it offensive to be told that the attacks may be an unintentional result of US foreign policy. In the US today, being offended by a comment all-but equals the unspeakability of the idea behind the comment - even if its truth content hasn't been examined at all.

With the cheapest of rhetorical tricks, Giuliani equates the idea that US foreign policy was one of the causes of 9/11 with the entirely different idea that the 9/11 attacks were jutified because of America's foreign policy. Whilst it is difficult to disagree with the first idea, few people - certainly not me, certainly not Ron Paul - would agree with the crude second idea. If you study World War II you will conclude that Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor because of America's support for the Allies - but not that Japan was justified in doing so...

The really interesting question, of course, would be to ask, from America's perspective, whether international influence is worth the risk of retaliation. If America had not played such a prominent interntional role since World War II, today it would not be the main target of Islamic terrorists. This clearly doesn't mean that it shouldn't have done so. Neither would isolationism have made the US safer today - the threats would just be of a different kind.

The US needs an intelligent President, who weighs all these considerations, with a good understanding of both the ideology of America's opponents and the possible adverse effects over the long term of short-term strategy. Giuliani's bulldozing answer to Ron Paul's remarks indicates that he's not the man America needs to combat terrorism intelligently.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

The School of Tall Studies and Sarkozy's virtu...

Pierre Manent, the eminent French political philosopher who teaches at the École des Hautes Études in Paris, is giving a talk at Harvard this Friday.

Check out the beautiful translation of his university which Google - or, perchance, a surprisingly British sense of humour? - has suggested to the event's organizers...

What will be next? The "School of Super-Normality"? The "National Elementary School of Administrators"? If you thought that Freedom Fries hurt Frensh sensibilities - they didn't, after all they are a Belgian invention - you should be doubly worried now.

Call me a hopeless pessimist, but if Americans start attacking French intellectual pride, all of this might just end, to use a phrase currently en vogue with the Bush administration, in World War III... Then, small Monsieur Sarkozy, supported by his friend from the School of Tall Studies, will finally have a real opportunity to prove his virtu!

Polish relief as the Duck Brothers are clobbered by Donald

Below is a re-print from my third entry on the Harvard International Review's blog...


Poland has not yet perished
So long as we live.
What foreign violence has taken from us,
We will reclaim, sword in hand.

Poland’s history of suffering at the hands of Germany and Russia is so long that its anthem was written at a time when the country had, once again, been partitioned off the map. Despite the loss of statehood, the anthem expresses the hope that, against the odds, “Poland has not yet perished / so long as we live…”

Over the last two years Poland has, once again, suffered immensely. But this time the suffering wasn’t imposed by powerful invaders from the West or East.

No, President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski – known, after their looks and surname, as the Duck Brothers – had hijacked Poland via the polls by evoking the worst in its citizens: an hysterical anti-Communist witchhunt which combined McCarthyism with partisan political manipulation; complex-laden, passive-aggressive nationalism which fused racism, anti-Semitism and a paranoid emnity to Germany; an amateurish foreign policy which left key embassies without embassadors; populist opposition to the EU; and economic mismanagement: Jaroslaw Kaczynski didn’t think it a problem that close to half of Poles don’t have bank accounts – indeed, he doesn’t have a bank account himself, preferring to entrust his Prime Ministerial income to his mother.

This time round, Poland’s spooky spectacle was self-imposed.

But at last Sunday’s election, recalling her anthem’s fighting spirit, a different Poland arose to reclaim, pen and polling paper in hand, what domestic violence had taken from her… The result: a resounding defeat of the governing coalition and a victory for the pro-European Civic Platform, led by a calm, intellectual Donald Tusk.

Though the Civic Platform, like the Kaczynkskis’ Law and Justice party, is considered right-of-center on the European political spectrum, its policies are likely to be radically different. As the designated Prime Minister, Tusk is hoping to substitute the traditionalist and protectionist populism of the Kaczynksi years by a modernizing approach: he will push for free-market reforms at the same time as taking a more liberal stance on social issues.

Internationally, the first priority of the new Polish government will be to return Poland to the center of Europe. Under Tusk’s leadership, the Sejm, Poland’s parliament, will move quickly to ratify the EU’s constitutional treaty, which the Duck Brothers had long opposed. This should be welcome news to all Europeans (even though Gordon Brown, who is in his own quandary about how to convince the British to accept the EU treaty, will be unhappy to have the spotlight turn on him…)

Relationships with Germany – which had detiorated to a level of mutual hostility unknown since before Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik reconciled the traditional enemies in the 1970s – will improve markedly, even though real disagreements remain. Poland is worried about a German-Russian oil pipeline which is being built outside Polish territory. It is also angry at the plans, championed by descendents of Poland’s German minority, to commemorate their forefathers’ expulsion after World War II without direct reference to the preceding Nazi terror.

The Polish-German relationship will not turn peachy overnight. But Tusk will know how to raise these issues calmly, as disagreements between friends should be. As a result, Tusk might convince Angela Merkel to take Poland’s genuine worries more seriously than she had when they were raised as a phony part of Kaczynski’s frenzied rhetoric.

The greatest measure of tact, however, will be required in Tusk’s handling of the Polish-American relationship. Tusk and his pro-business party are by no means anti-American – nevertheless, Tusk’s campaign promise to bring back home the remaining 900 Polish soldiers in Iraq will strain Poland’s relationship with the Bush administration. As the “Coalition of the Willing” is further decimated – most of the countries which invaded Iraq at America’s side now make up the “Coalition of Countries whose Previous Governments were Willing” – Donald Tusk will strive hard to assert Poland’s role as an equal partner, neither a vassal nor an enemy, to the US.

Overall, the better Poland has good reasons to be relieved that the Duck Brothers got clobbered by Donald. So has the rest of the world.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Why Sarkozy Breaks Taboos, Or: How to Understand Bush

Below is my second post on the Harvard International Review's blog...


Politicians are painfully – some even paranoically – aware that one wrong move, however small, can lastingly impact on their careers. Just think of George Bush Sr., who glanced at his watch once too often during one of the Presidential debates against Bill Clinton; or Howard Dean, whose 2004 run for President faltered in no small part because of the infamous “Dean Scream”.

Of all the political taboos that could ruin a politician’s career, however, it is those involving children or cuddly animals which are the most dangerous.

Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachussets and a Republican candidate for President, was rudely reminded of this when tales of a 1983 family holiday resurfaced recently. Some twenty-four years ago, he put Seamus, his Irish setter, into a dog carrier on the roof of his station wagon for a 12-hour trip to Ontario – and has had to reassure upset dog-lovers that “my dog loves fresh air” ever since.

On to children. In the UK, a somewhat more substantial decision was to haunt Margaret Thatcher’s political career. As a young government minister responsible for education, Margaret Thatcher, in 1971, scrapped the provision of free milk to school students over the age of 7. Until today, most British children continue to associate her with a neat little nursery rhyme: “Thatcher, Thatcher. Milk snatcher!”

But the realm of taboo includes not only the hidden political minefields which everyone tries to avoid. More important still are the instances of rhetorical defiance of orthodoxy, when politicians consciously choose a controversial policy. For then the breaking of a taboo must be understood as a symbolic battle cry, not merely an ill-considered mistake. It thus points to moments of decision for the larger political culture, at which politicians either defend a time-honoured ideal against the moment’s winds of political change; or try to shift a policy paradigm.

The former is the case with President Bush’s recent decision to veto a bill which would have provided state-sponsored health care to approximately three and a half million additional children. Bush obviously knew this to be controversial – there are few things which are as blatantly unpopular as denying poor, sick children a doctor (except, possibly, snatching their milk). But apparently he judged a last-ditch attempt to defend America’s traditional skepticism towards state-provided health care against the rising appeal of some form of universal health insurance to be more important than short-term popularity (or his party’s electoral prospects at the 2008 elections).

The latter is true of French government plans to require foreigners who qualify to immigrate into France because of family ties to prove by a DNA test that they really are related. The measure, which passed its last parliamentary hurdle yesterday, has kickstarted the first big opposition movement of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency – embracing not only his traditional political opponents, but also Francois Bayrou, a centrist, and Dominique de Villepin, the Conservatives’ last prime minister. Their worry: by linking immigration and genetics, the law would change the notion of French citizenship. No longer welcoming to anyone who subscribes to French Republican ideals, it would become a closed, implicitly even ethnocentric, concept.

Sarkozy is undoubtedly a shrewd politician. He has also proved more capable than to use bipartisanship for strategic goals than expected. Foremost amongst these seemed to be weakening the reform wing of the Partie Socialiste, the main opposition party – which is still reeling from the quasi-defection of two crucial figureheads, Bernard Kouchner to the foreign ministry and Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the head of the IMF. So why did a President who has surprised his opponents by orchestrating these bipartisan moves now push ahead with as taboo-breaking a policy as this?

The answer may be more simple than expected and it is bound up with yet another taboo. Sarkozy is hoping to reform pension benefits for state employees – potentially a huge cut to government expenditure, but raising the possibility of protracted strikes, which could paralyse his government as well as the economy. The first day of the strike, which will cripple not only the Paris Métro, but also – and more importantly, according to many – their beloved Paris Opera and Comédie Francaise, is scheduled to start this Thursday.

One way to see these issues is on the left-right spectrum, where opposition to the DNA measure and opposition to his economic reforms is largely correlated. A better way may be to look at the affected socio-economic groups. Et voila: among the working-class and lower middle-class Frenchmen most affected by Sarkozy’s economic cuts xenophobia is particularly rife. By picking his fight on DNA, then, Sarkozy is hoping to create cross-cutting constituencies, shoring up support for his iconoclastic politics among groups of the population who are likely to suffer from the very same willingness to break taboos in the near future.

Can President Bush’s decision to veto the children’s health bill be credited with a similarly subtle plan? Perhaps not. But whether consciously or not, the deliberate breaking of a political taboo signals a kind of endgame, a clash of ideological titans. Sarkozy may have his economic agenda in mind when he signs off on the DNA measure, but if his law becomes reality, immigrants to France – and France’s political culture – will suffer from the effects for decades. Bush’s bunker may at this stage have lost sight of everyone other than the few true-believers who still surround him; but if, against the odds, he manages to win the fight on state-sponsored insurance for children, he may just have managed to bolster America’s time-honored opposition to universal health care enough to torpedo its introduction even if a Democrat becomes President.

When politicians choose to break political taboos, the public’s first reaction is anger or indignation. This, however, is part and parcel of the taboo breakers’ strategy. Only by understanding their motives and goals can the public oppose not only the particular measure in question but also make sure that policy paradigms do not shift as a long-term result. Otherwise, an angry public will achieve a Pyrrhic victory, winning the battle of the day and yet loosing the cultural war which lurks behind the headlines.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Stay Away From my DNA

The French government plans to require foreigners who qualify to immigrate into France because of family ties to prove by a DNA test that they really are related. In all likelihood, the measure will pass its last parliamentary hurdle today.

Last Sunday, opposition parties and civil society organisations filled the Zenith, a massive Paris stadium, to the last seat in a loud protest against this worrying law. As importantly, the masses were joined by political actors from the whole democratic spectrum: next to the left's luminaries, there was also Francois Bayrou - the centrist Presidential candidate who came in third at the elections - and Francois Goulard, a government minister in the last conservative cabinet.

An online petition against the law has been signed, at this time, by over 230.000 people - among them Dominique de Villepin and Jack Lang, as well as the usual suspects (click here to add your name to the protest!). The petition's text is pretty good at outlining some of the moral issues the government project raises:

En instaurant des tests ADN pour prouver une filiation dans le cadre d'un regroupement familial, l'amendement Mariani, adopté par l'Assemblée Nationale, fait entrer la génétique dans l'ère d'une utilisation non plus simplement médicale et judiciaire mais dorénavant dévolue au contrôle étatique.
Cette nouvelle donne pose trois séries de problèmes fondamentaux.

Tout d'abord, des problèmes d'ordre éthique. En effet, l'utilisation de tests ADN pour savoir si un enfant peut venir ou non rejoindre un parent en France pose d'emblée cette question : depuis quand la génétique va t'elle décider de qui a le droit ou non de s'établir sur un territoire ? Au-delà, depuis quand une famille devrait-elle se définir en termes génétiques ? Sont pères ou mères les personnes qui apportent amour, soin et éducation à ceux et celles qu'ils reconnaissent comme étant leurs enfants.

Ensuite, cet amendement fait voler en éclats le consensus précieux de la loi bioéthique qui éloignait les utilisations de la génétique contraires à notre idée de la civilisation et de la liberté.

Enfin, cet amendement s'inscrit dans un contexte de suspicion généralisée et récurrente envers les étrangers qui en vient désormais à menacer le vivre ensemble. Car tout le monde s'accorde à dire que la fraude au regroupement familial ne peut être que marginale au regard des chiffres d'enfants annuellement concernés et au regard de l'absence de raison substantielle qu'il y aurait à frauder dans ce domaine. En effet, quelle étrange raison pousserait les immigrés à faire venir massivement dans notre pays des enfants qu'ils sauraient ne pas être les leurs ? Autrement dit, l'amendement instaurant les tests ADN n'a pas pour fonction de lutter contre une fraude hypothétique mais bien de participer à cette vision des immigrés que nous récusons avec force.

Nous sommes donc face à un amendement qui, sur les plans éthique, scientifique et du vivre ensemble introduit des changements profondément négatifs. C'est pourquoi, nous, signataires de cette pétition, appelons le Président de la République et le Gouvernement à retirer cette disposition, sous peine de contribuer, en introduisant l'idée que l'on pourrait apporter une réponse biologique à une question politique, à briser durablement les conditions d'un débat démocratique, serein et constructif sur les questions liées à l'immigration.

Swiss Sheep II

And it just got worse: on the SNP's homepage you can now play a game which involves stopping black sheep from transgressing the Swiss border; and catching Swiss passports before they are blindly distributed (by Greens and a dorky judge) to a clamouring crowd of foreigners.

The games are preceded by little quizzes - i.e.: what proportion of rapes in Switzerland has been perpetrated by foreigners?

The site is rather slick, as, on the whole, is the SNP's entire campaign. It would be interesting to see what, given the current state of discontent with the government and the weakness of democratic opposition parties, would happen in Germany if a right-wing extremist party would run such a professional campaign.

It's an experiment I'd rather not see happening in reality - for, somehow, my feeling is that the potential for right-wing extremist parties is no lower than it was at the peak of Haider's influence in Austria, or Blocher's likely triumphal election results next Sunday...

Friday, 12 October 2007

Swiss Sheep

We Europeans have many prejudices about Americans; not all of them entirely unfounded. But one of the American prejudices about Europe that I often have to argue against is that racism is a lot more widespread in our beloved Old World. Mostly, people who argue this are simply misinformed. Sometimes, however, I think there may be a modicum of truth to this.

Switzerland, for example, will be voting in 10 days, and Blocher's right-wing extremist SNP will likely gather more than a quarter of the votes. And in case you think they're not so bad - or at least not openly racist - have a look at the SNP's election poster:

It reads something like: "People's Initiative to Deport Criminal Foreigners - Building Security". The foreigners, in case you didn't find the slogan offensive enough, are depicted by a black (!) sheep, being booted out by a good white patriotic (and presumably Swiss) sheep.

Let's hope Swiss voters give Blocher the boot instead. But there's not much hope. Perhaps I'll just have to start admitting that we Europeans do have a real problem with racism??

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Harvard International Review

Hi all,

I've just posted my first post on the Harvard International Review's blog. I promised them to post an entry every week, so be sure to check over there regularly for updates. I'll also post links on here every time...

Obviously, also continue to look at Bits of News regularly, though I've recently been a bit lazy on that count...


Putin - Democracy's Man in Moscow

No, I obviously don't think Putin is a good democrat. But his recent manoeuvering might just help Russia return to a modicum of democracy. Why? Check out my post over at the Harvard International Review Blog:

Here's the first two paras:

It’s been a long while since good news for democracy has come out of Russia. Last week, however, brought two interesting developments. First, Garry Kasparov – a charismatic and popular former chess champion – decided to stand as the opposition candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections. Then, Vladimir Putin – Russia’s cold and stern, yet eerily even more popular President – implied that he may seek to become Prime Minister when he has to step down from his current post.

In my view, only one of these decisions has real potential to be good for civic freedoms in Russia. Which? Counterintuitively, it is Putin’s self-serving political calculation, not Kasparov’s well-meaning idealism, which gives me hope.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

French Republic = United States of America (II): The Tazering Years

Just in case anyone thought that my last post on France and the US was frivolous - here's another tiny step towards French Americanisation. According to an announcement reported by today's Le Monde, the French municipal police will be equipped with - Tazers. It seems like all things American, good and bad, eventually cross the Pond. If the French aren't careful, Oreo-topped pizza might be next...

The French, however, will have to use Tazers more carefully than police in Flordia did during a recent John Kerry speech (see below): if every rambling audience member at French political rallies was to get tazered, the whole audience would be sent into paralysis sooner or later.

Better idea still: politicians on TV debates, when they exceed their allocated speaking time, could be tazered into silence. I knew America would find a way of silencing these self-righteous French politicos eventually... and a few years ago, when the "Freedom Fries Years" gave no indication that they might be succeeded by the "French Tazering Years", we all feared that the Whist House's weapon of choice might be rather less peaceful!

Monday, 24 September 2007

French Republic = United States of America (I)

I have a pet theory. Most people perceive it as silly, which is why I've been keeping quiet about it. But now - from a very unexpected direction - it is being publicly vindicated. I guess I gotta get moving with it to keep my intellectual property right...

Here it is:

The country with the political system and ideology closest to France is - the US.

My arguments for this will follow over the weeks.

So long, just have a look at Mr. Sarkozy's opinion on the matter:

Mr. Sarkozy, who has been accused of being too enamored of all things American, said he considered France and the United States to be on equal footing and somehow better than many others, because they believe that their values are universal and therefore destined to “radiate” throughout the world. The Germans, the Spaniards, the Italians, the Chinese, by contrast, do not think that way, he said.

Pleased though I am about this support, I am also struck by another, equally surprising, bit of praise for America:

He listed the things that appealed to him during his two-week vacation [in New England]: the countryside, the shopping malls, the restaurants...

The shopping malls?? Apparently Sarkozy really does want to turn France into another mini-America. But I'm not sure I, or the French, can stomach the idea of a "New-England-Come-New-France" minus the convenient Chinatown-bus connection to New York...

(For the full interview, see here)

If only the Dems had some courage... (Le Déserteur)

Whilst the Democrats are failing to oppose the Iraq War effectively on Capitol Hill, Boris Vian's moving song - written in the last stages of France's faultering imperial ambitions during the Indochina War - might serve to inspire them. They probably wouldn't like it, though.

(Here's a verbatim translation, for non-Francophiles:

The Deserter

Mr. President
I'm writing you a letter
that perhaps you will read
If you have the time.

I've just received
my call-up papers
to leave for the front
Before Wednesday night.

Mr. President
I do not want to go
I am not on this earth
to kill wretched people.

It's not to make you mad
I must tell you
my decision is made
I am going to desert.

Since I was born
I have seen my father die
I have seen my brothers leave
and my children cry.

My mother has suffered so,
that she is in her grave
and she laughs at the bombs
and she laughs at the worms.

When I was a prisoner
they stole my wife
they stole my soul
and all my dear past.

Early tomorrow morning
I will shut my door
on these dead years
I will take to the road.

I will beg my way along
on the roads of France
from Brittany to Provence
and I will cry out to the people:

Refuse to obey
refuse to do it
don't go to war
refuse to go.

If blood must be given
go give your own
you are a good apostle
Mr. President.

If you go after me
warn your police
that I'll be unarmed
and that they can shoot.)

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Poland has nothing to hide - Or: "Waiting for the Log Cabin Republicans' Sequel..."

The Polish "Women's Party" bared all to show they have nothing to hide - a stab at the national-conservative policies of the Kaczynski government, which is hopefully headed for a hefty defeat in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

A naughty thought, though, may be forgiven. The US Republicans, from the bathroom-cubicled Senator of Idaho, to the prostitute-soliciting Senator of Louisiana, have a lot to hide. Why don't they bare all secrets, with a similar poster?

The Log Cabin Republicans, those rare and brave souls admitting to being homosexual in a deeply homophobic party, have laid the facts bare verbally. Those hypocrites from Idaho to Louisiana should follow suit physically. At least, for once, they'd be in charge of their own humiliation.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Another episode in "Tazering America"

Granted: ranting audience members can be annoying. But this instance of unprovoked police brutality is shocking.

Two things, though, are even more shocking.

a) Kerry's lacking response. On another video you can hear him trying softly to speak out to the police officers - without courage or decision.

b) The media reaction. CNN, for example - supposedly a "liberal" news outlet - in the main implied that it was the student's own fault for being "inappropriate". Inappropriate, by the way, is my favorite Americanism. I hope to write a blog entry on it soon. Suffice it to say, for now, that in a society where things being "inappropriate" is enough of a reason to ban them - or to tazer individuals behaving inappropriately - freedom of speech all too easily flies out of the window...

Saturday, 8 September 2007

The weakest of all parties

The Internationale is still regularly sung at the gatherings of some European Social Democratic / Socialist parties, or at least their youth movements. Translations vary, but in German and French, the beginning of the last verse reads:

Ouvriers, paysans, nous sommes
Le grand parti des travailleurs

In Stadt und Land, ihr Arbeitsleute,
wir sind die staerkste der Partei'n

(In English-speaking countries there has traditionally been little reason for such optimism, so the English version never makes any claims about how workers are the strongest of all - quite wise, given the state of European workers' movements today.)

The optimism radiant in the German text could, however, not be more dated. This is especially true in the East of Germany, where pressure from both the new Left-Party and populist right-wing extremists are all-but eclipsing support for the Social Democrats (SPD).

In the important state of Saxony, which includes cities such as Dresden, the situation is particularly dramatic. According to a recent opinion poll, the SPD can expect to receive only 8 % of the vote at the next state elections. The NPD, a neo-Nazi party, is likely to receive 9%!

Far from being the biggest party, then, the Social Democrats are once again gathering less support than outright Nazis in this part of the country. Equally worryingly, even a coalition with the stronger Christian Democrats (CDU), who rate at 39 %, would not grant a majority to the two "Volksparteien", Germany's traditionally dominant mass parties. It is as though Tories and Labour in England failed to muster a majority, with the BNP eclipsing Labour.

Changes to a country's party system are of course normal, and not automatically a reason to worry. But - far from indicating the advent, predicted by sociologists, of a depoliticised era when politics is more about style than substance - the new data implies that the fundamentals of our political system are again being questioned.

In Saxony, the fringes are now so strong that the only possible government constellation would be a coalition including practially all democratic parties. The left-leaning parties - SPD, Left, and Greens - are far from a majority. The traditional parties of the conservative establishment - CDU and the "Liberals" (FDP) - equally fall short of a majority.

The so-called Jamaica coalition, including the CDU (whose traditional colour is black), the FDP (yellow) and the Greens has repeatedly been floated as a long-term perspective. But it would be a revolution of German politial culture, which has been shaped in large parts by the stance parties took towards the 1968 student (and cultural) revolution. The CDU combatted it as though it was the demise of civilisation, whilst the Greens are its product. The experiment would therefore be of questionable longevity. It would need a solid parliamentary majority - with the meagre 51 % mustered by the Jamaica-coalition according to the Saxony poll dooming it from the start.

Which leaves as the only possibility a Grand coalition of CDU and SPD, with either the FDP or the Greens, or both, added in. Without precedent, such a constellation would all but eradicate the competition of ideas between mainstream political parties in Germany. The opposition would consist in the main of parties more interested in populist than constructive criticism. And more than likely further weaken the democratic system.

For the time-being, then, there is no alternative - whether you are a lefty or righty, Conservative or Liberal - to hoping that the Social Democrats will regain in strength. Germany, like most European countries, needs a recognisable and strong left-of-centre party to balance the political system. For the moment, the dramatic situation in Saxony is an exception. Let us prey to God - or, if you prefer, invoke Uncle Charly Marx by singing The Internationale - that it will not become the rule.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Not a blessed country

As I was rushing across Harvard Yard a few hours ago I cought a beautiful snippet of conversation:

American, desperate to impress German blonde: So how do you say "God bless you" in German?

German, taken aback:
Erm... Actually, I don't think we have that expression in Germany

Monday, 3 September 2007

An American and a German comedian...

Thanks for Henry over at Westminster Wisdom for unearthing this wonderful video of Tom Lehrer singing about Wernher von Braun, the principal German engineer behind the V2 bombs which destroyed much of London and later father of the NASA space program... (for a more detailed biog, see here):

There is a German comedian, Georg Kreisler, who has a very similar, and equally devastating, brand of humour. So for the German-speakers, here is a sounds-and-text version of Kreisler's beautiful song: But who's there to defend the police?

Paris, je ne t'aime pas (the film, at least)

More still than the city of love, Paris is the city of cliché.

By comparison to Paris, even London is pretty safe for avoiding cinematic vulgarity. Just stay away from Big Ben and 'droll' Englishmen reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes or – worse – Mr. Bean and you'll be fine. A film depicting an average London neighbourhood might lack in style, but avoids the pitfalls of universally recognisable kitsch. But then, who outside England knows about Stoke Newington or even Camden Town?

Try shooting a film about Paris, by contrast, and your troubles increase exponentially. The universally shared image of Parisian life is stunning people walking down a picturesque street, or sitting in an atmospheric cafe. Problem is: Most actors are stunning and streets in Paris unfailingly are rather pretty. Even the city's cafes all eerily resemble the Platonic form of the atmospheric Parisian cafe any filmgoer will have in mind.

No escape from received ideas, then, for a film forebodingly called Paris, je t'aime. A succession of 18 short films, each was realised by a different famous director and with a different star-studded cast. Billed as a film about love in Paris and a love declaration to Paris, Paris, je t'aime, in truth, unwittingly becomes a cinematographic ritornello revolving around cliché.

As each director uses his few minutes of screen time to decide whether his contribution will indulge in cliché, play with cliché or attempt to transcend cliché, a cacophony of styles hits the viewer. This, however, is not the problem. After all, coherence is overrated. If each director chose a different approach, and they each added another little stone to a colourful mosaic of Paris, the result would be glaring, yet beautiful. The problem, on the contrary, is that for all their incoherence, the 18 shorts making up Paris, je t'aime are disappointingly repetitive.

Gus van Sant's short about the "Marais" is a good example of the recipe most of them share. First, feebly attempt to transcend cliché by making your film really 'stylish'. The easy way to achieve this is to show some minority or subculture – in this case, gays. Second, you have them act a little weird, lending your film that certain art house feel... For example, you could ask the male lead (Gaspard Ulliel) to rant, egotistically, about his deep connection with another character (Elias McConnell) who, being American, doesn't even understand a word of what's going on.

Last, you reward yourself for your attempt to sidestep banality with a little indulgence. Have the good American discover his love for the enigmatic soliloquist, rushing out into the street to track him down and start a beautiful love story. This, incidentally, has the added advantage of being able to show, in the last frames of the short, all the quaint sights any tourist hopes to spot in the "Marais": Some more gays, a couple of orthodox Jews, and the sickeningly pretty Place des Vosges.

Even though some shorts at least go so far as being mildly self-ironic, the 'different perspective' on Paris they all self-consciously seek rarely goes very far. "Quartier Latin", directed by no other than Gérard Depardieu, for example, depicts Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara in a Parisian café. Far from romantic, however, their rendez-vous – twist! twist! – on closer inspection turns out to be an awkward reunion on the eve of their divorce.

The secrets which emerge as Rowlands and Gazzara enlist all their psychological weaponry and charme against each other are mildly entertaining. But the short's ambition to shock by showing how cruelly lovers can wage war on one another could not have been called innovative even back in 1962 – when Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, of which "Quarter Latin" is evidently derivative, triumphed on Broadway …

As Paris, je t'aime progresses, the catalogue of failed shots at originality becomes longer and longer. In "Père Lachaise", directed by Wes Craven, Emily Mortimer is having second thoughts about her engagement to Rufus Sewell. It takes an unbearable guest appearance by Oscar Wilde (Alexander Payne) to save their relationship – poor Oscar is wheeled in to teach the overly earnest Sewell how to have a good laugh, rescuing Mortimer from "a life devoid of humour".

Only Joel and Ethan Cohen, in "Tuileries", manage to attain any degree of virtuosity in deconstructing commonplaces about Paris in an entertaining manner. Steve Buscemi, playing another American tourist – a mid-sized battalion of them populates the film, probably quite enough to stop genocide in Darfur if only they weren't loitering around in the streets of Paris – reads his guide book in the "Tuileries" metro station. It tells him that Paris is the city of love and, true to the promise, there they are, two French lovers on the opposite platform, in a tight embrace.

"Eye contact should be avoided", the guide book warns him; a little too late, for he has just caught the eye of the striking girl (Julie Bataille), and attracted the consequent wrath of her lover (Axel Kiener). What follows is a dizzying succession of surprises. The Cohen brothers switch realism on and off – as unpredictably, one imagines, as the ebbs and flows of Buscemi's testosterone whilst he goes from being gratuitously attacked by Alex Kiener to being gratuitously snogged by Julie Bataille.

When, surrounded by hundreds of Mona Lisa postcards, Buscemi is finally left alone on the platform, we, along with him, are a little bewildered: A sustained tour de force of Paris could have been breathtaking after all…

Perhaps the many flaws of Paris, je t'aime just are the flaws of modern-day Paris. Crushed by all the beauty it hopes to preserve and all the tourists it hopes to attract, Paris can be a stifling place to live. In London, historic monuments are the reassuringly constant background to rapidly changing life. Paris, by contrast, can feel like individuals are the worryingly ephemeral extras for a never-changing protagonist, la France.

Paris, therefore, is much more than a pretty setting to live in: it is an ever-competitive primadonna. Living in Paris, you have only two options: take the back seat, enjoy the beauty of the primadonna bestowing her presence on you, and give up hope of ever doing anything with your life. Or fight the city, with all the energy and every dirty trick you have at your disposal. Perhaps that's why Parisians – just like the shorts making up Paris, je t'aime – can seem so earnest and self-obsessed behind their ironic veneer. Don't blame them: they're weighed down by an uphill struggle…

So, of course, is Paris, je t'aime. For the film to succeed, eighteen directors would have needed to overcome the pitfalls inherent in telling a love story about Paris. A few worthwhile shorts, such as the Cohen brothers' "Tuileries" or Walter Selles' and Daniela Thomas' "Loin du 16e" thankfully show that these obstacles could have been overcome. One or two out of eighteen, however, sadly is not enough for a good, or even just entertaining, full-length film.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Outlawing Holocaust-deniers

First-off: sorry for this ridiculously long blogging absence. I've been suffering from a rather foolish choice of summer internship, and haven't found the time to write. The next weeks, I promise, will bring many more entries.

For now, I thought I'd share this thoughtful stance on holocaust denial - which is written by Deborah Lipstadt, the historian who criticized the holocaust-denier David Irving and, after he sued her for libel, had to prove that the Holocaust happened in a British court.

Lipstadt, even though she couldn't have been sued for libel had a law against holocaust-denial existed in Britain, opposes such laws. What is more, she holds a position which I have rarely heard, but agree with: that there may nevertheless be a justification for such laws in Germany and Austria, because "the swastika or denial of the Holocaust has a different resonance in Atlanta than it does in Berlin or Vienna."

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Vodka Sarkoff

Had (teatotaller) Sarkozy indulged in a little vodka during the talks with Putin which preceded this press conference? Either way, the result is positive: he seems quite a lot more likeable than usual, and not even those few and brave Galliards who are holding out against the Sarko wave will be too scared to share a Vodka Sarkoff.

(On the negative side, though, see the last blog entry on Sarkozy's moving uncompromisingly towards tightening immigration laws in France, and planning to deport 25.000 illegal immigrants this year)

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

A Scandinavian Welcome to Iraqi Refugees

All over the world, Scandinavia remains the lefty's short-hand for paradise. Personally, I never envied Adam and Eve – they seem to me to have been leading lives best described by another lefty favourite, Karl Marx, when he sweepingly condemned the "idiocy of rural life". So, if Scandinavia really is like the Garden of Eden, then I don't envy Lars Larsson and Søren Sørensson much. Innumerable numbingly boring childhood summers spent in Sweden have, in any case, long since confirmed my intuition…

But Sweden does have its positive sides (as, I suppose, must paradise). When my family was thrown out of Poland on the height of a hysterical witchhunt in 1968, only few countries offered to welcome my parents and grandparents. Foremost amongst them, for no particular reason other than their niceness, was Sweden – where part of my family has lived ever since, in unexcited Scandinavian bliss.

Since then, some things have changed in Sweden. In particular, the Swedes themselves seem rather less enamoured with their own system than my friends in the US and other places. After all, a year ago, they voted in a non-Social Democratic government for – virtually – the first time since 1932.

Yet, as a story by Ivar Ekman in today's International Herald Tribune seems to confirm, their change of government has not, so far, brought about an end to Swedish niceness. In 2005, 9.000 Iraqis fled their ravaged home for Sweden – that is over 40 % of the number welcomed in the entire industrialised world. In the current year, around 20.000 are expected to find their cold home in Sweden. Just for comparison, the United States, which, arguably at least…, has more to do with the reason why Iraquis are fleeing in the first place than pacifist Sweden, is planning to accept a mere 7.000.

As the United States and France (under Sarkozy's enthusiastic leadership) are gearing up to tighten rules for immigration, it is important to remember that the right to a safe haven must remain absolute. This is true for every country, though it is particularly shaming for a state to slam its doors in the face of the needy if its own policies – however well-intended – have contributed to the crisis.

Western democracies must be based on respect for all humans, no matter what their race, religion – or nationality. We all must thank Sweden for reminding us of this. What is more, as the US and France debate how humane to be towards those most desperately in need of their help in the future, we needn't worry about the negative aspects of paradise: both of them are too far off from Sweden's idyll to become boring anytime soon.

St. Paris of Hilton?

Despite having previously suspected that hotel heiress Paris Hilton was indirectly responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre, recent developments have led me to believe that she might actually be on course to becoming a saint and that - in anticipation of her no doubt imminent martyrdom - thought should be given to petitioning the Holy See for her canonisation.

Of course, there are some abominable cynics whose minds are clouded by sin who would protest that she is nothing more than an excessively wealthy, spoiled little woman with eating problems and an unpleasant propensity for making amateur pornography. For the enlightened, however, it is perfectly plain that her early life of privilege and pleasure is merely the prelude to the life of sanctity and Godliness which is clearly her destiny. Consider the evidence. The biographies of some of the earliest saints display certain irrefutable similarities which only the blind could doubt. Is her remarkable wealth and apparently extraordinary lack of morals really an indicator of her permanent distance from God? Far from it! Her background is typical of ancient saintly women: if we look at the no-doubt well-known St. Pelagia, this is perfectly clear. According to the writings of the Desert Fathers, Pelagia was a"beautiful but dissolute actress... at the height of her renown, with many lovers, jewels and servants." Ring any bells?

As Ruth Mazo Karras has pointed out in her study of prostitute saints, the dissolute youth of female saints merely "provided the background against whichpenitence stood in stark contrast." The wanton abandonment of Pelagia, Thais and Mary Magdalene, for example, served as the logical prelude to their later transformation into saintly figures. Translating this to our modern case-study, it is plain that Paris Hilton's night-time rompings in hotel rooms not merely fails to impugn her claim to saintliness, but actually recommends it. This is apparent when we turn to recent developments. In July 2006, Paris announced that she was voluntarily embracing chastity. This, it is plain, is the first step on the slow path to sainthood and is, again, typical of the type. It reflects a willingess to reject her past and a desire to embrace virtue, albeit unconsciously.

That this was indeed the first step ina path to saintliness is confirmed by the most recent miracle story in Paris' life. In an interview given over the telephone from prison, Paris declared that her incarceration was a "message from God." For the sceptic, this might again seem to be implausible, but it is perfectly in keeping with the imagery and history of Christian spirituality. Remember Ps. 103: "De profundis..." etc. Recall also the life and writings of Boethius: it was in prison that this former official of Theodoric the Great composed his most famous meditation, and he uses theimage of incarceration to reflect the tomb that is the worldly body, and to emphasise the raising of the soultowards God. That Paris Hilton has indeed been given a message by God in prison is not merely far from unlikely, but is indeed even plausible!

If some still need persuading, further evidence can be adduced from her music videos. In 'Nothing in this World' (a title itself redolent of early Christian spirituality), she appears as a saviour-figure, rescuing the downtrodden schoolboy from the oppression of his contemporaries and giving him hope. He reaches bliss through her co-operation in his prayers, as the video clearly demonstrates. In 'Jealousy', she appears to tap into some of the motifs which appear in records of the persecution of early saints. Dealing with the jealousy of a friend in the song, she ambitiously engages with the thorny issue of one of the deadly sins, and relates how the envy of her chum opened her up to all sorts of troubles. The victim of enmity, Paris is made to appear "like the Devil" ands he tells that though she was "always happy", her friend was only happy "when the world was opening up my scars". "Jealousy," she concludes, "is such an evil thing". Even the briefest of analyses clearly demonstrates that this is both a cleverly constructed attack on a deadly vice, but is also reflective of the suffering of early saints. We may recall, for example,that Sulpicius Severus records how St. Martin of Tours was persecuted by envious bishops, but prevailed.

Of course, as St. Augustine points out, it will beimpossible for us mere mortals to be 100% certain that Paris Hilton is indeed a member of the Heavenly Cityof God in this life, but it is nevertheless true that all of the available evidence points towards her indeed being a modern saint in the making. Given the cynicism of our age, however, I suppose that many people will only be persuaded when she enduresher inevitable martyrdom. She has, however, already prophetically pointed to the fact that she shares some similarities with Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana,so I think there is room for hope.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty has died, Friday, at the age of 75.

His importance stemmed partly from the fact that he was read by scholars in so many disciplines. From the perspective of political theory, it is deeply sad to note that one of the last defining philosophers of the post-war period has now left us to our own, inferior, musings. And though many or even most disagreed with him, few would doubt that his work was among the most pleasurable and thought-provoking in the field.

My web search for an adequate obituary has yielded this, this and this meagre result. If you've found better, please let us know.

Taking a Risk with Children

This interesting article by Helene Guldberg over on Spiked convincingly argues that children are as much in danger from parents and government officials who want to keep them too safe, than they are from the actual risks out there. I tend to agree.

It also seems to me that there is a significant cultural difference here between the more risk-taking continent on the one hand and the more risk-averse UK and (more extreme still) US on the other hand. If so, this would be an interesting reverse-image of attitudes towards financial risk in these countries.

Also, if we put the same point differently: throughout the West people in the last decades have become increasingly willing to take financial risk. At the same time, they seem to become less willing to stomach other kinds of risks - as demonstrated not only in child-related safety issues and health scares, but also the increasingly large damages awarded in law suits about accidents. Is an extreme form of financial individualism and risk-aversion about personal safety logically connected?

Please send your thoughts!

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Putin, the violent anarchist

Germany is obsessed with the violent riots against the G8 summit. They are being driven by a subgroup of the left-wing protest movements known in Germany as the "Autonome" (and popularly called the "black bloc").

Now, the word "autonom" of course also means autonomous - and as an adjective is sometimes used to designate protectionist or autarchic policies. Never, though, is a protectionist called an "Autonome".

Never, that is, other than in a current lapsus on the Spiegel website. Where it says, in large letters - and next to a rather funky photo of Putin in a black suit and black sunglasses: "Putin, der Autonome".

An elaborate pun? Comedy-value to be had out of imagining the cold Putin as he throws stones full of emotion against Western capitalism? The choice of colour in the Putin photo a subtle allusion to the "Black Bloc"?

More realistically: a linguistic error, and bad copy-editing. But perhaps the beginning of a new linguistic trend, the transformation of a word. Exciting stuff. Better, at least, than the 100th discussion round on German TV about whether the violence was caused by the "Black Bloc" or police provocation.

(See also my analysis of Parisian anarchists a few weeks ago - my friend Thierry, by the way, rightly pointed out that I should have distinguished more clearly between the extreme left-wing and anarchists in that post)

Friday, 1 June 2007

Farmer Klaus' Cows

TV can help you understand a country. But if you want to see the real abyss, tune into some godforsaken local channel, late at night. Anthropology as an academic subject could easily be replaced by a "EuroTrash" selection along those lines. Or "BritTrash" or "AmeriTrash", for that matter…

Last night, for example, I watched the most unbelievably shameless TV show – every sentence was in bad faith, and it went on for a good 45 minutes. The whole point of the show seems to have been to make as many people as possible call a very expensive hotline. Their way of achieving this, though endlessly embarassing, was actually rather ingenious:

They promise 1000 € to anyone who manages to answer a very, very, bleedingly simple question. Then they pretend as best they can that the question is rocket science (as Americans would put it), to make viewers think they alone are intelligent enough to know the answer, and itch to call in. The trick of course must be that if you tried to call, you wouldn't get through, but be charged lots of money – not a single viewer was put through during the entire time I watched.

The question: Farmer Klaus has 17 cows on his farm. All but 6 run away. How many are left?

This simple child's riddle was repeated in the grave, deferential manner of a Field's Medalist who describes Fermat's Last Theorem – about 59 times! They even kept saying: "I really think this question is so difficult that most viewers won't get it. If you do, please call in. The lines are free: you'll win 1000 € immediately".

By the end of the show, the show's host, a slightly dipsy girl who is obviously not THAT stupid, was still pretending that she hadn't worked out the answer.

It is striking that people are willing to lie quite so obviously and persistently, whilst casting themselves as complete fools, in order to be on TV and / or run a scam. You may have been shocked at the voyeurism of Big Brother a few years ago. But Big Brother only allows you to see people's little dirty secrets, which you would have guessed at anyway. This, by comparison, is the real thing, showing quite how far people will debase themselves for an hour's late-night local TV glory…

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Academic Boycott of Israel

Yesterday, I was going to write a blog entry about the UK Union of University Teachers and Lecturers´ support for an academic boycott of Israel. Instead, I collapsed into bed... But I'm glad I didn't, for now I can point you to Henry Midgley's article on this over at Bits of News. (Also be sure regularly to check out his excellent blog here).

I'll write an article on an event which triggered the 1968 student revolution in Germany soon, so check back for sex, violence and rock'n'roll shortly...

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Honouring Dead Soldiers

Soldiers and death have long been a controversial topic in Germany – not just because of the Nazi past. In the German peace movement, for example, a slogan – borrowed from Kurt Tucholsky – is very popular: “Soldiers are Murderers.” A few years ago, the German Constitutional Court ruled that this slogan did not constitute slander, and therefore was a legitimate use of freedom of expression, so long as it wasn't used to describe any particular soldier. A fair enough legal cop-out to resolve the problem.

But now the topic soldiers and death is re-emerging again in a very different way, which, alas, will not be resolved by a clever judge. In the “Bonn Republic” it was taboo to use the German army for military missions abroad. But since 1994, German soldiers have been participating in foreign missions once again – and over the last thirteen years 69 have died in combat, including some who were killed a few days ago in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. It has become increasingly apparent that their comrades and families wish that there was a central monument at which they could remember the dead. This is understandable.

It is also important for a democracy not to turn its eyes away when citizens have died on a mission which the people – represented by Parliament – has sent them on. After all, unnecessary wars can best be avoided when all voters are well-aware of the faces and stories of the nation's own victims. This insight has inspired Immanuel Kant's stipulation in Perpetual Peace that a nation should not have a standing army, so that all citizens must fear that any victims of a war they embark upon might be friend or even family. Not to credit Bush with Kant's analytical gifts, this is also the very reason why the US President wouldn't allow the coffins of American soldiers to be photographed...

At the same time, though, the opposite danger also exists. The pictures of glorifying or simply tasteless war monuments in Germany express this more eloquently than words. All too easily, war monuments can either speak too positively of war, in an attempt to justify the immense suffering (I expressly avoid the word “sacrifice”, though suffering is perhaps also euphemistic) it imposes on victims. Or they speak of the dead, often in their teens when they were slain in the battlefield, as though they had willingly laid down their life in pursuit of a noble ideal. Whilst the former phenomenon is particularly true of 19th century and Nazi-time German monuments, the latter holds for many 20th century designs too – I have, for example, often observed it on English World War I memorials.

It is imperative that we are more honest with ourselves, even when talking about soldiers who died on missions we wholly approve of. Even when soldiers were indeed pursuing a noble ideal, and even when they did make a conscious decision to risk their life, it is too easy too elevate them into a moral sainthood which only serves to mask the fact that we all, as citizens of a democracy, sent them to their death. So please no more talk of teenagers valliantly and willingly laying down their life – whether it be for the most noble cause or the basest nationalism.

Assuming that a new German war memorial will soon be built, the real question therefore is what the inscription should be. I've already noted two possible dangers, which should at all cost be avoided – even if, in the extreme case, the cost is not building the monument.

Let me finish with a suggestion from Munich. On the Leopoldstrasse, a central, representative 19th century boulevard, a rather martial triumph arc has stood for one and a half centuries. Its original inscription: “To the victories of the Bavarian Army”. After it was destroyed in World War II, the monument was rebuilt, with its original inscription on one side. But on the other side, it now reads, in plain latters and sober, evocative language:

“Dem Sieg geweiht. Vom Krieg zerstört. Dem Frieden mahnend”

“Dedicated to Victory. Destroyed by War. Calling to Peace”

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Revolving around Paris

A French friend reported to me recently that, when she was thinking of leaving Paris for a year to study at Cambridge, she was told (no doubt in a comedy-accent) : ‘But everyone and everything is in Paris. Why would you want to leave all this to move to some village in England ?’

My favourite English prejudice against France – that the French are convinced the earth revolves around them – has some real foundations then… But this video clip from the French (and very earnest) version of Who wants to be a Millionaire suggests that other things revolve around the French, too…

For non-French speakers : the question is what revolves around the earth. The candidate hesitates between answer A, the moon, and answer B, the sun. So he asks the audience…

(Having problems with the links - will put them up properly soon)

For the Love of the Louvre

My article on French intellectuals railing against the recent intenationalisation of the Louvre – and influx of capital into the French art world – is now up on Spiked.

I liked the edits, and the headline - an example of journalist puns too rare here in France, where only Liberation goes in for a similar style, as in their headline the day after Sarkozy was sworn in as President: "Bienvenue dans Sarkozie".

But I'll put my first paragraph up here in its original version nonetheless, for Brits and Historians to enjoy:

Ask a traditionalist Frenchman whether museums should take some commercial considerations into account when making artistic decisions, and you are transported back to early 19th century Britain. His ‘no’ will be so vehement, and his disdain so complete, as could only be rivalled by an English aristocrat who had just been asked to marry his daughter off to a Manchester industrialist.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Right-Wing Extremist Crime on Rise in Germany

Sorry for the recent string of German-related entries on this blog. Back in France tonight, and then there'll be more entries about France and other countries.

Just to note here that according to the Verfassungschutzbericht 2006 (a yearly report by the German federal agency responsible for the protection of the constitution), which was presented by Germany's Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble a few hours ago, right-wing extremist crime has risen 18.1% in 2006, as compared to 2005. This means that a staggering 18.100 right-wing extremist crimes were committed in Germany last year.

Monday, 14 May 2007

German TV dementia

Currently in Munich, I was watching German TV yesterday night for the first time in a long, long while. They served me up a rather entertaining half-documentary, half-movie about the first German experiences of serious terrorism.

Two moments of dementia, however, were striking and amusing. A Lufthansa plane had been hijacked, and has found its rocky way to Mogadishu. German special forces - the infamously incompetent GSG9 - are flown in to liberate the hostages. When they arrive, the Somali authorities are training to storm the plane themselves.

The German commander makes fun of them: "I asked them whether they had ever stormed a plane before. I had to explain to them that it isn't so easy, that people could die. But the Somali commander looked all-excited: 'we don't have any experience of how to do this, but we've been practising since this morning', he told me. Naturally, it would have ended in a catastrophe had we left the affair to the Somalis".

Quite. Just as it did end in a catastrophe when in Munich, a couple of years before, the same GSG9 decided to refuse a request by the vastly more experienced Israeli forces to allow them to mastermind the operation. Instead, the GSG9 took things into their Germanic hands, and stormed the plane full of Israeli Olympic athletes hijacked by Palastinians. All hostages died. A few years ago, Germany was even convicted to pay some damages to relatives of the victims for its insufficient handling of the situation. So the experience the German in the documentary seemed so proud of stems primarily from that catastrophe...

Second, there was a comic moment when Helmut Schmidt, who was Germany's Chancellor at the time of the successful Mogadishu operation, was recalling how useful it was that nearly all politicians in charge at the time had been Wehrmacht officiers not that he proncounced the word "Wehrmacht", makign reference merely to their position as Unterleutnant. "The hijackers didn't know what cattle of fish they were dealing with - they had certainly made a huge miscalulation" he said, commenting on his military experience. Well, yes. But Schmidt's point didn't exactly help to diissipate the terrorists' - no doubt ridiculous - claim, oft-repeated in the movie-elements of the show, that the German government were all fascists anyway...

Not making any serious points with this, but amusing, I think, these instances of German TV dementia certainly are.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Red-Green Comeback in Germany

At today's elections in Germany's smallest state, Bremen, the governing grand coalition has suffered marked losses, whilst the Green Party has increased its share of the vote to over 16%. It is likely that Bremen's Social Democrats will choose to govern in a coalition with the Green party henceforth - even though a grand coalition would continue to have a large majority and a red-green coalition would have been possible even in the last Parliament.

For those, admittedly not many, who are nostalgic for the seven years in which Gerhard Schroeder was Germany's Chancellor this is important news: the red-green model had become completely wiped out in Germany, not only on the national but also on the state level.

A little bit of hope, however, is also restored to others, who perhaps were never entirely enthusiastic about the Schroeder government, and yet hope that Germany's political future lies with its moderate left of centre forces. For socially liberal social democrats the Green Party is the natural coalition partner because it provides a corrective for socially authoritarian and populist forces on the left, such as those trumpeted by Oskar Lafontaine in Germany, some Old Labourites and, in part, Royal in France.

It was with the Red-Green coalition of 1998 that the social changes initiated by the 1968 generation found visible representation in the country's political leadership. These accomplishments have now, by and large, penetrated into the political consensus. But many battles for social advances remain to be fought. These need a political home, which for progressive left-wingers in Germany is likely to remain, to a great part, somewhere between the Social Democratic and the Green Party.

For this reason, today's election result in the tiny state of Bremen is important, even though it is a very long road indeed to the next Red-Green coalition on the national level - and, alas, possibly an even longer road to a national Red-Green coalition that can live up to the hopes initially invested in the 1998 Schroeder government.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Dramatic Crescendo in Polish Battle over Democracy

(Sorry for the 3-day silence - more blog entries to come over the next days, so be sure to check back!)

The Polish Constitutional Court struck down important parts of the so-called “lustration” law Friday, thereby temporarily derailing the government's anti-communist witchhunt, which many consider a danger to democracy. A battle between institutions has ensued, and is likely to determine the political future of the country.

As discussed in this recent blog entry, the law, proposed by the Kaczynski government, would have required Poles to sign a declaration about whether they had any involvement with the Polish secret services during communism. Failure to comply, or past collaboration with communism, would have been punished by suspension from work for ten years. The forms, now obsolete, had already been sent out and were due back by May 16th.

The government had made it amply evident that it fully intended actually to remove anyone who did not return the questionnaire in time from their work. This would have included revoking the mandate of MEP Bronislaw Geremek, an opponent of the Kaczynski government who had been a famous dissident during communism.

Frustrated in their scheme by the Constitutional Court's ruling, the government immediately tried to question the court's legitimacy in a full-blown smear campaign against its judges – demonstrating just why its unhealthy obsession with the past could spell real trouble for Polish democracy.

Even before the verdict was officially announced, Arkadiusz Mularczyk, who initiated the “lustration law”, accused two judges of having worked for the Communist secret service. The allegations have since turned out to be ill-founded, but not before the court had excluded the judges from deliberation on the case.

The reputation of the judges has survived intact, but the government thereby demonstrated its readiness and ability to use privileged access to state archives for partisan political advantage. Worse, it has reinforced fears that the “lustration law” functions more as a declaration of allegiance to the Kaczynski twins than a serious attempt to gather information about past wrongs.

The fierce broadsides the government fired against the Constitutional Court over the last 48 hours have also raised fears that it might not respect the judges' institutional prerogative to ascertain whether laws are in conformity with the constitution. Comments by both Prime Minister Jaroslaw and President Lech Kaczynski, who insisted that "we're not through with this case yet", were seen as an indication that a power struggle between executive and judiciary may be fast approaching.

If the executive prevails, Poland's first democratic constitution since World War II might soon have as little to do with reality as Socialist declarations of human rights.

The stand-off between the ideological follies of the Kaczynski government and democratic forces such as the judiciary has undergone a tense crescendo over the last forty-eight hours. In the best case scanario, the Constitutional Court has reigned in an ailing government, helping Polish democracy to survive until more moderate forces are elected. In the worst case scenario, the wrath it now faces will make Poland's judiciary – and, along with it, political liberty – obsolete.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Burning down McDonalds – the Dangers of Ideological, and Pragmatic, Political Reasoning

There still is a breathtaking presence of police in the streets of Paris. Yesterday, 30 heavy buses full of baguette-eating (literally) cops were making their way, police bumper only few inches away from the next police bumper, towards Bastille. A few hours later, people were regailing each other with stories of carnage wreacked there by anti-Sarkozy protesters. But when I got to Bastille, everything was quiet. Apart, that is, from a bombed out McDonalds. Hmm.

Why? After all, these are supposed to be protests against Sarkozy, and somehow it's not easy picturing him ordering Chicken McNuggets with much culinary anticipation...

The protesters, I suppose, associate Sarkozy with neo-liberal policies, neo-liberal policies with the US, and America's influence on the world, including France, with McDonalds. Or something like this. But if what's at issue is the economic world order, wouldn't banks – of which there are many around the Bastille – make the more natural target?

Each of the steps linking Sarkozy to McDonalds are, needless to say, quite tenuous. Presumably, those who threw the Molotov-cocktail at McDonalds weren't particularly conscious of their own reasoning, either. Once something is associated with evil in a particular way, the reasons for this association are only rarely questioned, particularly when you're about to dispose of an explosive in a street battle...

All the more troubling that the kind of ressentiment which leads the far-left to a blind hatred of McDonalds is characteristic of much ideological thought. Ideological thought often is more focused on an enemy than on a substantive goal – not to mention the absence of any serious reflection about how to achieve the goal in question. It attaches great symbolic value to relatively irrelevant issues, with the tacit assumption that a victory in this small vanguard battle would lend huge momentum to the overall cause – hence, perhaps, McDonalds rather than banks as a target. And it has a tendency to see anything, including particularly new information, from the perspective of a grand overall theory – making it so infuriatingly oblivious to thoughtful distinctions and careful reasoning.

The alternative to ideological thought would seem to be pragmatic thought. This certainly has very great attractions. Instead of interpreting any small fact in light of an overall view of the world, pragmatists pride themselves in seeing things for what they are. They then swiftly proceed to think about possible solutions to problems they have identified, focusing their energies on detailed reflection about the means to rectify the concrete situation at hand.

But this mode of thinking has dangers of its own. Because pragmatists look at every situation for what it is, they spend little time asking themselves whether it might have less-than-obvious interconnections with more general problems in the world. Neither are they necessarily critical towards their convictions, as their episodic reasoning about isolated problems can make very great injustices, which are composed of many small ills, look trivial. A similar problem may arise for pragmatic solutions. Even though they often involve more critical thought about the roots of a particular problem as perceived in isolation, pragmatic solutions can be little more than a drop of water on a hot stone if they don't dare to tackle the real, vast, forces at play.

It seems to me that people who hope to think about the world in a critical yet honest and differentiated manner must be both ideological and pragmatic. They must be aware of the strengths of both modes of thought – whilst consistently interrogating themselves whether they are managing to avoid both their dangers. A momentuous task, which perhaps explains, but does not excuse, some of the causes for the McDonalds-wrecking stupidity.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

A French Night a la Sarkozy

The party, I guess, would have been better if Sarkozy had lost. On my TV screen, the Royal supporters seemed like they knew how to celebrate into the night. Whereas the Sarko camp, as assembled by the Concorde and cheering to a pathetic (in both senses of the word) rendition of the Marseillaise, reminded me of your average Morgan Stanley investment banker. “We work hard, but just look at us and you'll see how hard we can play, too... Fanaa!”. Not my cup of tea.

Just before eight, when the results were to be announced, I walked around the Bastille. Never have I seen so much police out in the streets – especially not in a democratic country. Hundreds and hundreds of Gendarmes Nationaux with huge machine guns and full body armour.

I suppose they already knew that Sarkozy would win; and it wasn't difficult to guess how the far-left would react. The battles we saw in Paris' streets today nearly seem like a promise of things to come. All foreign correspondents seem delirious that Sarkozy won – more out of professional self-interest than political conviction. Whereas five years of Royal might have been boring from a headlines point of view, five years of Sarkozy promises to deliver excitement and confrontation.

On my way home, some thirty minutes ago, I had a taster of this. Fifty or so protesters – I guess they had been driven away from the main anti-Sarko rally at the Bastille – were monopolising the Quai des Grands Augustins near Saint-Michel.

In their brightly-coloured alternative clothing they seemed approachable and non-threatening. As I turned off towards my tiny appartment, one of them, a beardy middle-aged man who could equally well have been Hippy or Hobo, told me: “On est des non-violents. Pour l'instant.” The second phrase sounded more heart-felt than the first. Congratulations to the French press corps, I suppose!

P.s: I will delete the “Royal” tag in a moment. It won't be needed any more. Unless we're talking about the American equivalent of a “Big Mac” – see Pulp Fiction – which, though it involves cheese, isn't all too French.

Poland Plays with Fire

In politics all is rarely well when the most heated debates erupt over symbolic acts, not policies. When disagreements about flags, declarations and history are in the news, tempestuous times often lie ahead.

How quickly a symbolic act, carried out in the full conviction of acting rightly, can turn into rioting and international tensions was demonstrated by the Estonian authorities a few days ago. Chaos and unnecessary misery ensued when Estonia announced its intention to remove memorials to Soviet soliders who had freed the country from Nazi rule during World War II. Any sober mind that followed this sorry spectacle might have concluded that, at least when they are hardly about to wake up and bite you, it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.

The Polish government, however – in any case not particularly renowned for its soberness – seems to have drawn the opposite conclusion. Engaged in what has justly been described as a “witch hunt” against intellectuals who have co-operated – or, as likely, been forced into pretending to co-operate – with Communist authorities, it took the events in Estonia as inspiration to take its unhealthy obsessions another step further. As a result, the catalogue of unsavoury and dangerous measures against ideologically "suspect" Poles is growing day by day.

The Kaczynski twins, respectively President and Prime Minister of Poland, have for some time been orchestrating a “lustration law”, according to which all state employees (including university professors) and figures of public life (including journalists) have to sign a declaration about whether they had any involvement with the Polish secret services during communism. In case they refuse to fill out the government questionnaire, or are judged to have lied, they will be suspended from their work for 10 years.

The eminent British historian Norman Davies has rightly called this a “threat to freedom”. Not, however, because a serious investigation of crimes committed during communism is unnecessary; but rather because under a surveillance system akin to that depicted in The Lives of Others countless people were pressurised into signing declarations that they would co-operate with secret services, yet never passed on any information. Superficial glimpses into secret service archives are therefore bad guides to historical guilt. What is worse, the de facto declaration of allegiance demanded by the “lustration law” replicates Communist rituals of ideological cleansing – and runs the danger of being used primarily as a partisan weapon against political opponents.

In the last days the Polish government has taken further, equally worrying, steps, which demonstrate that in its fanatical fight against all things communist it will not leave untouched even the battle against fascism. First, it tentativley followed the Estonian example by loudly considering to authorise local government agencies to remove monuments to Soviet World War II soldiers. Now, it is removing veteran status from Poles who had fought against fascism on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war.

A great majority of those unjustly dishonoured by this symbolic step have died long since – only five Polish veterans from the Spanish Civil War are still alive.

A declaration signed by important intellectuals in Poland and abroad, and published in the country's most important daily, the Gazeta Wyborcza, has called upon the government to reconsider its policies. “We appeal to public opinion throughout the democratic world: don't turn your eyes away from what is happening in Poland. For the sake of your, and our, freedom”.

Indeed world, and especially European, opinion will have to decide how to confront the Polish government's actions. Whilst the European Union appears unwilling to meddle with the way its member states deal with their past, it cannot turn a blind eye to the ideological prosecution of individuals unfolding within its territory.

Neither can the EU remain silent about other policies activley pursued by the Kaczynski brothers, such as legislative projects which clearly discriminate against homosexuals. According to a law currently under consideration by the governing coalition, for example, school teachers could be dismissed if they publicly admitted to their homosexuality.

If the EU is to be a society defined by shared values, rather than merely a common market, it will have to find effective means to stop these ideas from becoming law. If public opinion in other European countries fails to rise to this challenge, the Polish government's pyromaniac penchant for symbolic politics could burn down a piece of the European project as well as political freedom within Poland itself.

The authors of the recent declaration are right. All of us must engage with current events in Poland to safeguard liberty – and to protect the credibility of the European project.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Long and Useless - On France's Presidential Debate

(I've put up my article on the French presidential debate over at Bits of News a few hours ago. There's already a number of interesting comments, so make sure to check out the original here.)

With every passing minute of yesterday's interminable debate between the French Presidential candidates – which went on for an exhausting two hours and forty minutes – it became clearer that the disagreements between Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy are actually rather insignificant.

Economically, the differences between the candidates are far, far smaller than is suggested by those who compare Sarkozy to Margaret Thatcher. Yes, he wants to reduce inheritance tax, limit cumulative taxation of individuals to 50 % over the course of a year and “give value back to work” by exempting from tax any time worked in addition to France's 35-hour week. But these measures hardly amount to a revolution of French economic policy.

Royal proposes some recognisably social democratic initiatives, such as to encourage companies to give school dropouts a chance of proving themselves in a steady job by paying for their first six months of wages. But her most memorable line about the economy is hardly the stuff of which a traditional leftie's speeches are made: “I want the French to become a people of entrepreneurs”. On the main economic issues she, in any case, got Sarkozy to acknowledge that his policies wouldn't substantially differ from hers.

More worryingly, both Royal and Sarkozy fail to realise that France needs to push back excessive interference by the state in the social as well as the economic sphere. Both, alas, are unreserved believers in the moral authority of the state, which, they seem to think, is solely responsible for solving all social evils. Little distinguishes the populist left-authoritarianism of Royal, who wants to re-educate young trouble makers in military-style barracks, from the populist right-authoritarianism of Sarkozy, who wants to "hoover" the "scum" of the suburbs by means of sheer force.

A good example of this is Sarkozy's misunderstanding of the French educational system. Internationally, it is infamous for suffering from antiquated top-down teaching techniques and an overreliance on learning facts off by heart. But Sarkozy's vision for France's schools is yet more dusty, yet more hierarchical: it revolves around notions of “respect”, in which students must jump to their feet on sighting their teacher. It is not surprising, then, that his final credo was to “resolve France's moral crisis”, when what he should be promising the French is to let them resolve their moral crises for themselves.

Royal, on the other hand, seems deeply embedded in a model of left-wing politics which is more interested in being seen to care for the weak and the meek than in actually empowering them. At the beginning of the debate, for example, she tried to put Sarkozy on the defensive by attacking his record as Interior Minister – a strategy which shows her choice to challenge him by appearing even tougher than him, rather than offering a vision of France less focused on law-and-order.

In France, at the worst of times, state employees have a well-nigh Soviet attitude. They can treat you as they wish because it is impossible for them to lose their job. And lodging complaints is widely recognised to be useless as there are few or no independent watchdogs. Especially the police is virtually beyond reproach, making even law-abiding upper-middle class Frenchmen wary of dealing with authority any more than absolutely necessary – imagine, then, what the relationship of immigrant youth in Paris' tough banlieus to the state's most visible manifestation must be.

The result of this is an exacerbation of the problems created by France's overregulation. Dealing with a load of bureaucracy in order to, for example, open up a company is bad enough; but doing so whilst being frustrated at every step by moody bureaucrats who have no desire or incentive to help you along the process is far worse. The Presidential campaign would have been an opportunity to ask for a change of attitude in this respect. But for all Sarkozy's talk about “work”, neither his rhetoric nor his policies touch on these fundamental problems. (Neither, of course, do Royal's proposals.)

François Bayrou, the centrist candidate who gained an impressive 18 % of votes in the frist round but failed to qualify for next Sunday's run-off, nicely expressed his objections to the two main candidates. “I neither want France to be all-state a la Royal, nor do I want France to be cruel a la Sarkozy”. Insofar as the social sphere is concerned, it seems, his legitimate fear could have been put even more bluntly. Whether Royal or Sarkozy take power, France is likely to get social policies that are both cruel and all-state. What France really needs is a liberation of its social sphere from statist micro-management – but yesterday brought the definitive proof that, whatever the outcome of the elections, it will be headed in the opposite direction.

If the vote of most French people this Sunday is going to be directed against the candidate they dislike more, rather than for the candidate they agree with, they have good reasons for such a negative attitude. As a voter who is still undecided told me: “Whenever I hear one of the candidates on TV, I change my mind. Listening to Sarkozy, I want to vote Royal. And listening to Royal, I want to vote Sarkozy”.

If many people share that logic, then Sarkozy won a few votes yesterday. Two and a half hours into the debate, it seemed that it might never end because, in a clear violation of its meticulously negotiated rules, Royal continued to be about three minutes ahead on speaking time. “Don't worry about it”, Sarkozy said magnamonously, “I give these three minutes to you as a present”.