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”.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

French Presidential Debate Preview (and Sarkozy's preference for Le Pen voters over shoplifters)

Paris is all ablaze with expectation before the debate between Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, which will air tonight. (I expect I'll be writing a piece on it for Bits of News and link to it here.)

Everyone, of course, hopes that the candidate they oppose will make some major, all-determining, gaffe tonight. Perhaps Royal, keen throughout the campaign to reappropriate the Marsaillaise for the left, will start singing it – to the tune of the International? Or perhaps Sarkozy will once again offer to hoover France's suburbs free of thugs? Both scenarios are admittedly rather unlikely... But minor gaffes, or at least errors of stylistic judgement, there might well be – only, on whose side?

It must be said that the gaffes in this election campaign have, by and large, been committed by Royal. For example, she expressed her wish that Quebecans should live in liberty – earning her a rebuke from Canadian officials who thought she might be advocating Quebec's independence. For months she lost popularity because her only response to any policy question was: “I'll ask the French what they think about this”. And when Royal finally published her detailed election manifesto, her team could not say how much the numerous promises it entailed would cost. “Ring us in three days; we'll have the figures by then”, they told a reporter.

But Sarkozy is catching up fast. Before the first round, he told the Magazine Philosophique that peadophilia was probably genetically predetermined, infuriating left-liberals and conservative Catholics alike. (Royal refused to disagree, saying that she had to “ask the experts what they think about this”. At least limited progress on opinion-poll democracy, there). More importantly, he has over-reacted against the televised debate between Francois Bayrou, the popular centrist, and Royal, thus giving the impression that he had ample reason to be worried about it. Questioned about this on TV a few days ago, he kept repeating, in a rather aggressive manner, that the media were all biased against him – a complaint that few here find credible.

What's worse for a man equally revered and hated for his frankness, Sarkozy has been getting dangerously close to hypocrisy. Throughout the election campaign he has openly courted far-right voters, promising to address their worries more effectively than Le Pen. Criticised for going fishing in unsavoury waters, he defended himself by saying that politicians should try to win any French voter back to the democratic spectrum, no matter what their convictions.

But now, Sarkozy apparently (I only have one source on this) told voters in Corsica that he does not want small-time criminals to vote for him. Those who free-ride on the metro, he is reported to have said, needn't vote for him – he only wants votes from les vrais francais.

In aniticipation of the debate, this might make an interesting topic: should politicians try to appeal to the entirety of the population? Or do they, on the contrary, have a responsibility to by-pass a part of the electorate? And if so, who's worse: someone who voted Le Pen in 2002, or someone who shoplifts a beer from a supermarket every now and again?

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Make Propaganda like Casablanca (on Bits of News)

I've just started writing for an exciting new web-journal, Bits of News. They publish some very interesting stories - many of them written by my friend Henry Midgley. The site is being re-designed at the moment, and screenshots of the new layout look very promising. In short, be sure to check it out. Ah, and here's the story I just put up on their site. (Click here to see it in the original.)

Hollywood could prouduce great propaganda for today's world – if it rewatched its old classics, such as Casablanca. The world needs it, desperately.

Casablanca is one of the greatest propaganda films ever written, subtly spreading its message through romance and humour as well as heroism. It is also a deeply American film – not just as it is a Hollywood production, but because of the values it communicates.

Politically, one of the most climactic moment of the film revolves around the rousing rendition of an anthem – but it is the Marsaillaise, not the Star-Spangled Banner, which humiliates the tone-deaf and ugly Nazi officers who beleaguer Rick's Cafe.

Crucially, the humble choice of another country's anthem is not owed primarily to the film's setting in Free France. Rather, it is one of the many concious rhetorical devices which make the film so universally appealing. Casablanca's political language does not glorify American courage and valour. It is not militaristic. It is not even triumphalist. Instead, it drives its message home through a humble yet self-assured presentation of the facts.

“Listen”, the film seems to tell viewers in its reassuring baritone voice as we watch Humphrey Bogart's Rick progress from cynical businessman to resistance fighter: “Listen, even if you are not particularly nationalist. Even if you are not particularly moral or just or political. Even if, mostly, what you want from life is a beautiful girl and a full wallet – under today's circumstances, whether you're American or Czech or French, you can only remain a decent human being by making sacrifices for this important cause.”

And in case the message has not become clear yet, Rick repeats it right at the end: “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”. Thus he explains away a heroic act in common sense terms. This makes him less of a hero, but more of a model that everyman feels called upon to emulate.

What a contrast to today's offering of American patriotic films! In our day, US propaganda not only fails to marshal any comparable artistic achievement; more worryingly for the world, it neglects the brilliant propaganda arsenal it had once so painstakingly developed.

Hollywood, today, doesn't even try to demonstrate the importance of the West's fight against terrorism by showing why the American way of life is more desirable than what Islamic fundamentalists have in store for the world. Neither does it picture its enemies to dissect what it is about their ideology that makes them act so cruelly – as, to take but one example, Ernst Lubitsch had done so comically in his To Be or Not to Be. No, it just shows the American flag and zooms in on a couple of Middle Americans blindly willing to die for their country.

300, a 'fine' example of its genre, at least goes to the length of clothing its simplistic message in Spartan togas. But – whether or not, as many have suggested, it consciously tries to cast Xerxes and the Persians as antique versions of the Middle Eastern forces America fights today – its content is completely indiscriminate. Though the film's Spartan heroes invoke 'liberty' in much the same way as a patriotic American might, the society depicted in 300 is so evidently unfree that this noble battle-cry sounds frightfully hollow. Not one of the 300 men who die for their liberty seems to have a minimal grasp of what this revered slogan actually means to them. At the end of the film, a calm spectator might be impressed by the Spartans' foolhardiness – but he will have less, not more, reason to be on their side.

America's current rhetorical failure is all the more puzzling as it would be so easy – and, to a great extent, so right – to project the fight against Islamic fundamentalism onto the big screen as principled resistance against letting ideology, repression and war dictate our lives.

If Hollywood told moving and humane stories about how Islamic fundamentalism has stopped people from leading their lives in free dignity, in its countries of origin as well as the West, it could help to win over the hearts and minds of people all over the world. But where are the big Hollywood blockbusters depicting life in Afghanistan under the Taliban? Where are the subtle films that could win over moderates in countries threatened by fundamentalism by illustrating what difference true freedom can make to the life of everyone?

It is not naïve to think it possible to make films that carry such political messages in subtle ways – we forget that countering Hitler's propaganda machine was not so easy either. What is missing today is not a universally attractive ideal to rally behind, nor even talent, but simply the realisation that a lot depends on making ourselves understood abroad as well as at home.

Casablanca was effective as a moving wake-up call precisely because its protagonist is not Laszlo, the perfect hero who will inspire you only if you share his ideals anyway, but Rick, the difficult yet winning romantic who everyone can identify with. It's time for American films to show more Ricks, and fewer Laslos. It's time for Hollywood to try to win over the hearts and minds of people irrespective of where they're from – rather than revelling in 'inspirational' stories of American glory and heroism which often have little to do with the distinctive values of freedom and individuality.

Play it again, Sam!

Monday, 30 April 2007

Blair's only legacy: the Iranian Hostage Crisis

According to this week's Private Eye, the Iranian Hostage Crisis came about because of – a failed publicity stunt. The Navy felt that it wasn't getting enough of the military limelight. So it invited a BBC film crew to cover heroic Leading Seaman Turney and her team.

Commodore Nick Lambert, who was in charge of the publicity coup – errm, excuse me, military operation – felt that two small inflatables doing a dangerous job on their own would look much better on the telly if they weren't visibly getting cover by helicopters or more substantial militiary vessels. So he ordered the cover to be off.

The Iranians, apparently, agreed with Commodore Lambert's artistic judgement when they saw the pictures on Channel Five news. Which is why, at that point, they decided to appropriate the striking images for themselves.

The lesson: The Iranian hostage crisis could have been avoided if only Prince Harry had chosen the Navy, instead of the Army, as his day job. With all the talk about Harry in Iraq, the Army, after all, doesn't suffer from a lack of publicity, does it?

The crisis could also, of course, have been avoided if the UK political and military elite hadn't followed Tony Blair's obsession with media spin quite so willingly. Though that might not have been so great, either. After all, if Tony thought that his only lasting legacy was being whittled away, he might try to cling on for even longer. And we've just seen where attempts to hug the limelight can land you...

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Ghosts of the Past

The Filbinger affair, and Germany’s search for ’normality’.

In 1978, Hans Filbinger was forced to resign as premier of Germany's South-Western region, Baden-Württemberg, when the Nazi bureaucracy's meticulous filing cabinets proved beyond all doubt that as a prosecutor in World War II he had asked for a teenage army deserters to be put to death.

But guilt, apparently, lies in the eye of the beholder. Filbinger never admitted that his actions during the Nazi regime had been wrong. Instead, he opined: “What was just then, can't be unjust now”.

Until he died on April 1st of this year, Filbinger remained an honorary president of the Christian Democratic Party – to which Chancellor Angela Merkel also belongs. At party conferences, he continued to be given a place of honor. Nevertheless, most of the country's establishment had distanced itself from him. The Filbinger affair remained in the national conscience as a watershed event, which stood for an uneasy yet earnest confrontation with Germany's Nazi past.

But last week, at Filbinger's funeral, his successor Günter Öttinger, ignoring plain historical fact, claimed: “Hans Filbinger never was a National Socialist. On the contrary, he was an opponent of the Nazi regime.” In case any doubt remained about the revisionist intentions of the speech, Öttinger hammered the message home even more brutally: “Filbinger did not hand down any judgements which caused anyone to lose their life.”

This was not just a momentary rhetorical lapse. Nor does Öttinger merely have a peculiar conception of what an opponent of Nazism is – it would have to be very peculiar for a member of the SA and the NSDAP, a judge who in one instance continued to apply Nazi law even after German capitulation, to qualify. No: Öttinger's office freely admitted that the speech was carefully crafted, and had been discussed in detail.

This leaves only two possibilities. Either the speech was a deliberate political ploy to appeal to the party's far-right. Or Öttinger, who belongs to the first generation of German leaders to be born after World War II, no longer sees the need for truth or tact in dealing with the past. In the first case, the renewed Filbinger affair, which has been monopolising German front pages for the past week, would be a shocking instance of ill-judged populism, but of limited importance. In the second case, it would stand for a wider trend in German society, with potentially far-reaching implications.

Unfortunately, the latter interpretation is the more plausible one.

An earlier generation of obstinate revisionists was primarily concerned with white-washing the post-war German elite – many of whom, in their youth, had been all too willing to participate in the Nazi frenzy, just like Filbinger. But by now, those implicated in Nazi crimes have either died, or retired from public life. For the likes of Öttinger, then, the trivialization of the historical guilt of Filbinger and others is no end in itself. Rather, it is a necessary means to a more ambitious goal: to allow Germany once again to be unthinkingly nationalist.

This would not pose much of a problem if Germans actually were capable of expressing straightforward patriotism without much reflection. But in reality, a sense of "normal nationalism", though much talked about and even more ardently desired in recent years, remains elusive. In reality, Germany's new-found nationalism, for many, is predicated on drawing a categorical “Schlusstrich”, or concluding line, under the country's self-critical preoccupation with its past.

The problem is that for a nation in search of normality – which other country, by the way, desires first of all to be normal? – normality will forever be elusive. As long as Germans keep telling each other in all-too-audible stage whispers not to talk about the past, nationalism and historical honesty will continue to prove incompatible.

The desire to block all things relating to Germany's not-so-normal past out of view also makes impossible a real battle against the resurgent far-right. Neo-Nazis are gaining an ever firmer grip on community life in certain areas of the country; at the last state elections, which were held in the Northeastern region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, 18 % of voters aged 18 to 24 voted for the Neo-Nazi party NPD; and according to recently released records, xenophobic as well as anti-Semitic crimes have reached new record heights last year.

It's true that the way to fight these developments does not consist in over-dramatizing them as though a Fourth Reich was just around the corner – it is not. But democrats must worry and react when the extreme right-wing is gathering such momentum. The need to pretend that everything is normal can hardly be helpful in this respect. On the contrary, it encourages wilful ignorance, as expressed by Germany's Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble – a political ally of Öttinger – when he insisted that the racist murder of a black German engineer was no big deal: “After all, crimes are committed every day against Germans with blond hair and blue eyes”.

It thus seems that, despite decades of similar controversies, every generation of German elites has to learn anew to reconcile their patriotism with seriousness about the past and vigilance in the present.

Up until now, those politicians who loved their country yet managed to express sincere regret about the Nazi past have usually carried the day. Unforgotten, for example, are the breathtaking pictures of former Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the monument for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in December 1970. At first, a majority of Germans loathed him for it – but over time, especially after Brandt received the Nobel Peace Prize, most came to agree that the gesture had been appropriate.

It is difficult to imagine Angela Merkel accomplishing such a historic gesture. Her style is too discreet and rational for symbolism of this kind. But she did what the last Christian Democratic Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, most probably would have failed to do – publicly reprimand Öttinger.

Merkel's frank words did not exactly help to solidify her standing within her own party which, by and large, had cheered Öttinger's remarks from the sidelines. Indeed, some senior politicians declared that Merkel's protest, not Öttinger's original remarks, were the real scandal. But her intervention did force him to publish an apology of sorts, if only after days of obstinate wavering.

Let's hope that most Germans, undeniably keen for their country to express patriotism more prominently, will turn to Brandt's courage or Merkel's sober honesty, not Filbinger's and Öttinger's distorting idyll of 'normality', for a source of inspiration. If – and it is a considerable if – the renewed debate about Filbinger has helped Germany make that choice, some good might, after all, have come from it.

In Tuscan towns, a disturbing quiet

Read my article on the wonderful Monte Amiata region, and its severe problem of depopulation, which came out about a week ago in the International Herald Tribune:

And for a photo slide show, see: