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...