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Archive for February, 2014

#StopQatar2022

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France 5’s weekly news magazine “Le Monde en face” had a very good two-part documentary on Qatar two nights ago—on its transformation from an obscure patch of desert to a veritable regional power and with near global reach—, by investigative journalists Vanessa Ratignier et Pierre Péan, and which may be viewed on the France 5 website until next Tuesday: “Qatar: la puissance et la gloire – 1995-2008” (part 1) and “Qatar: trahisons et double jeu – 2008-2013” (part 2)—both 53 minutes and followed by a 15-minute discussion, “Faut-il avoir peur du Qatar?,” with two specialists of that accidental country and its megalomaniacal ruling family. The documentary touches on, among other things, the slave-like conditions afflicting the bulk of the mainly Asian labor force there, which was the subject of my post “Qatar: modern-day slavery” last September, in which I insisted on the utter unfitness of Qatar to be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

À propos, The Guardian reported this week that “[m]ore than 500 Indian workers have died in Qatar since 2012,” and to which may be added the 382 Nepalese workers who have died there during the same period. The Qatari World Cup organizing committee announced last week that workers building the stadiums—but not those building other infrastructure—would be held to higher standards, but with the kafala system remaining unchanged. This is BS to mollify foreign critics. When it comes to the conditions of migrant labor, nothing will change there. Qatar needs to be stripped of the 2022 World Cup. Spread the word on Twitter and everywhere else: #StopQatar2022!

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Russia and Islam

Moscow, Eid al-Fitr, August 30 2011 (Photo: Ilya Varlamov/RT)

Moscow, Eid al-Fitr, August 30 2011 (Photo: Ilya Varlamov/RT)

Stanford University historian Robert Crews has a most interesting article in the March-April 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled “Moscow and the Mosque.” The lede: “Co-opting Muslims in Putin’s Russia.” It is the most informative piece I’ve read on the subject in a long while. If one does not have full access to the Foreign Affairs website, the article may be read in its entirety here.

Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia

Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia

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Lulu femme nue

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My post of a week ago on learning French got a fair amount of traffic and with numerous comments, both here and on FB. In my critique of John McWhorter’s absurd piece in TNR, I referred to a silly, off-the-cuff remark he made about how knowing French may enable one to see French movies without subtitles (as if such an ability is of no interest…) In fact, I see French movies all the time without English subtitles—some of which may not make it to the US—and am hardly the worse off for it. E.g. this is one I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks (English title: Lulu in the Nude) and which I liked. It’s the first film I’ve seen by the Icelandic/naturalized French director Sólveig Anspach, who’s done at least two others that have been highly regarded. This one, which is based on a graphic novel of the same title, is about a mid 40ish housewife, Lulu (Karin Viard), who lives in rural Anjou, has three kids and an unhappy marriage—her husband’s a real SOB—, and, on a coup de tête following a blown job interview—in seaside Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, in the Vendée—decides to take a break from her life in the sticks and stay in town. She quickly finds herself—quoting from a review in THR—”in an unlikely romance with Charles (Bouli Lanners), a charmer whose tramplike existence represents a temporary Eden; then with Marthe (Claude Gensac), an elderly woman who accepts Lulu in her lowest moment and becomes her best friend. Both relationships are presented as refuges too good to leave, but Anspach’s film always acknowledges what is left behind in ways that make a return inevitable.” The characters are offbeat and the acting first-rate, and particularly Karin Viard. It’s a nice film—sympathique—and that will, I think, be appreciated in particular by women over age 40. French reviews—very good across the board—are here and trailer is here.

Another French film seen in recent weeks, and which also stars Karin Viard, is ‘L’Amour est un crime parfait’ (Love is the Perfect Crime), directed by brothers Arnaud & Jean-Marie Larrieu and based on the 2010 novel Incidences, by Philippe Djian (book and author both unknown to me). This one’s a crime thriller set in Switzerland, which I went to see for the A-list cast, notably Mathieu Amalric and Viard. Amalric’s character, named Marc, is a mid-late 40ish professor of creative writing at a university in Lausanne, lives in a chalet up in the Alps with his troubled sister, the Viard character, and with whom Marc has a complicated, incestuous relationship. But Marc is also a ladies man and seducer when in town, the main targets of his charms being his female students—all babes (funny how they’re always like that in movies)—and with whom he has a high success rate. The film indeed begins with Marc bedding one of his student conquests, whom he finds dead in bed when waking up in the morning. He doesn’t immediately recall her name—he’s had so many of them it’s hard to keep track—nor how she was killed, though he was the only one who was with her during the night. And he’s a sleepwalker and she’s not the only one who gets murdered while paying him a visit in the chalet, so one may guess who the culprit is…

Three comments about the pic. First, it’s an engaging thriller and more than holds one’s attention, but the story is ridiculous. It is not credible—and particularly Maïwenn’s character and what she reveals about herself at the end. Second, Amalric turns in a great performance, as usual—he’s one of France’s best actors hands down—, and Viard is typically good too, but Sara Forestier is typecast yet again (as a sassy, desultory eternal 22-year-old; and whose character in this one is, moreover, not believable); despite her Césars I have not been impressed with her as an actress. Thirdly, on middle-aged professor Marc scoring with his female students. Now it is not entirely unheard of for a male university professor to have casual sex with a current female student half his age (or more). Such has certainly happened in the course of human history. But it is rare, indeed exceedingly so. And when it comes to profs having sex with students serially—bagging one after the other—, this simply does not happen. Period. It’s a middle-aged male fantasy (and a fantasy of men who are not academics). First, women in their early 20s—with the usual exceptions (and we can all cite examples)—are not interested in men who are the age of their fathers (and particularly if the men in question are not rich and famous). Second, a professor who hits on his students—wherever and under what circumstances such could take place (which is not obvious)—is not only engaging in unethical, unprofessional behavior but is taking a huge risk to himself, legally and to his career. Third, a prof who does hit on his students—who sees in them a pool of potential sexual partners—would, in addition to revealing himself to the world as a narcissistic pervert, have little success. He would be serially rebuffed. And these days he would get into big trouble and quickly. (N.B. I’m talking here about casual sex—as one sees in the movie—, not romances that may develop between a professor and a student, which, of course, do happen—anyone familiar with academia can cite several cases off the bat—and are wonderful for those involved in one). So on this level alone the film is BS. Hollywood press reviews—which are generally positive—are here, here, and here, French reviews—mostly good, though Allociné spectateurs liked it less—are here. Trailer is here. À chacun de décider ce qu’il en pense…

Another French film seen of late was ‘Suzanne’, directed by Katell Quillévéré. This one opened in December and which I wanted to see, on account of the trailer, good reviews, and its five César nominations (mainly in the acting categories). And as Sara Forestier had the lead role, I decided to offer her one last chance before definitively pronouncing her to be an overrated, one-dimensional ham actress. The verdict: she pulled this one off. She put in a good performance. She’s not a bad actress after all… Voilà! As for the film, it’s engaging enough. Briefly, it’s set in Languedoc—specifically in Alès, in the Gard (a small city I’ve been through several times)—and among the couches populaires, here a truck driver father (François Damiens) who’s had to raise his two daughters all by himself—his wife having died when the girls were little—, the girls being adorable as children but the older one—Suzanne, the Forestier character—becoming less so into her teens, having a child out of wedlock to father unknown, falling in love with the wrong kind of guy (Paul Hamy), embarking on a life of crime and abandoning her child along the way, cutting her father and sister (Adèle Haenel) off—though she was close to both—, going to prison, gaining early release, having a child with the voyou love of her life—even though she did prison time for their joint criminal activities but not he—, tentatively seeking redemption, and etc etc. Thirty years of a life in one-and-a-half-hours. C’est rapide. The film is engaging enough and with solid acting but I thought it didn’t ring true at several points. So I cannot give it the unreserved thumbs up. But Hollywood critics who saw it at Cannes last year liked it on the whole (e.g. here, here, and here). Comme pour le film précédent, à chacun de décider…

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Voilà more links on Sochi.

On the outrageous cost of the games, MJ has charts on what are absolutely “The most ridiculously expensive games ever.” Totally obscene (though the Sochi price tag will be peanuts compared to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar…).

In my previous post I linked to a piece by Christian Caryl, in which he explained that Putin’s bid to hold the games in Sochi was intimately linked to the wars in the Caucuses and the determination to assert Russia’s will in the region. À propos, Joshua Keating has a piece in Slate rhetorically asking “Did the Age of Genocide begin in Sochi?” The genocide—or maybe it was just massacres on a mass scale; the question is not settled—was of the Circassians, a generic term for the Muslim peoples of the northwestern Caucuses who were killed en masse and expelled—to the Ottoman Empire—in their near entirety during the Russian conquest of the region in the 1850s and ’60s—a conquest that made what the Americans did to the American Indians a tea party by comparison. The cruelty of the Russians in Caucuses was on another level altogether. And as we know, historical narratives are passed down through the generations, so the memory of this is still very much alive.

There are some 20,000 Muslims in Sochi today, BTW, but the city does not have a single mosque, as one learns here.

Tons has been written on the nearby Chechens—who have historically gotten it almost as bad from the Russians as did the Circassians—but if one is interested in a single book, here’s a review of historian Moshe Gammer‘s The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule, by U.Mass-Dartmouth Islamic history prof Brian Glyn Williams (published in Slavonica 13/2, 2007).

For Francophones, the blog Penser la Russie had a dossier last week on the Sochi games. The lede

À l’approche des Jeux Olympiques, Penser la Russie publie un dossier consacré à l’événement le plus chaud de cet hiver. Le dossier s’ouvre par sur un reportage d’Éléna Ratcheva du journal Novaya Gazéta. Publié il y a un mois il contient des détails précieux sur le déroulement du chantier olympique: ouvriers impayés, chasse aux immigrés, les travaux contraints des «bénévoles» et… manque de main d’œuvre.

Nous publions également une interview de Vladimir Poutine qui témoigne de l’image contraire à la réalité du déroulement des travaux préparatifs . Le président russe souligne que dans le succès des préparations des JO de Sotchi réside la réussite du pays dans son entier. Ceux qui osent en douter, comme le démontre un échange sur Twitter, sont de suite condamnés : selon un fonctionnaire « patriote », «l’Empire » ne serait qu’ « un son creux » pour ces personnages…

And then there’s The Sochi Project, by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen. The description

Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen have been working together since 2007 to tell the story of Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. They have returned repeatedly to this region as committed practitioners of “slow journalism,” establishing a solid foundation of research on and engagement with this small yet incredibly complicated region before it finds itself in the glare of international media attention. As van Bruggen writes,
Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi. Just twenty kilometers away is the conflict zone Abkhazia. To the east, the Caucasus Mountains stretch into obscure and impoverished breakaway republics such as North Ossetia and Chechnya. On the coast, old Soviet-era sanatoria stand shoulder to shoulder with the most expensive hotels and clubs of the Russian Riviera. By 2014 the area around Sochi will have been changed beyond recognition.

Hornstra’s photographic approach combines the best of documentary storytelling with contemporary portraiture, found photographs, and other visual elements collected over the course of their travels. Van Bruggen contributes a series of engaging stories about the people, the land, and its turbulent history. Together, the images and texts unpack the complex, multivalent story of this contested region, shining a harsh light on Vladimir Putin’s claim that, “The Olympic family is going to feel at home in Sochi.” Designed by long-standing collaborators Kummer & Herrman, The Sochi Project book, website and exhibition: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is the culmination of this five year project, a contemporary masterpiece of photography and journalism in the collaborative tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor.

On a lighter note, here’s the Russian Police Choir singing ‘Get Lucky’ at the Olympics opening ceremony. Not bad…

Circassian-Republics-Map

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The Sochi games

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I haven’t watched them at all so far—not even the opening ceremony (wasn’t home)—and likely won’t, except maybe the figure skating. Have never been into winter sports (I never learned how to ice skate and have never put on skis in my life—which is too bad for me, as I know skiing is a blast, countless friends and others having thus informed me over the decades, my daughter included). And then there are the politics surrounding the Sochi games, the obscene $50 billion price tag—bigger than the GDP of over a hundred countries—, and just the mere fact that they’re happening there. I’ve read numerous articles and reports on the Sochi Olympics over the past several months, all of which, without exception, have been negative—and with the negativity being 100% confirmed by a current Russian student in one of my courses, who is active in a Paris-based pro-democracy/anti-Putin association. But then, a Russian student of mine from ten years ago, Anna—a delightful young woman and smart as a whip—, who presently works for Russia Today (RT) television in Moscow, is fed up with all the negativity and dumping on Russia by the international media, as she wrote yesterday in a post on her fine blog (check it out: lots of cool photo essays of Moscow). Along with her other compatriots she watched the opening ceremony on Friday with patriotic pride. Ça se comprend.

But, pace Anna, as I’m not Russian and have my political convictions, I have no choice but to add to the negativity. I have tons of articles on Sochi that I can link to but will select just a few (and particularly as a certain number have been making the rounds—not to mention the funny tweets from journalists these past few days recounting their Sochi hotel experiences).

One piece I just read is a post on the NYRB blog, dated February 5th, by former Moscow correspondent Christian Caryl, on why Vladimir Putin wanted the Olympics in Sochi. The short answer: because this would symbolize his triumph in the war with the Chechens.

In the February issue of Vanity Fair journalist Brett Forrest, who’s lived in Russia, has a report on “Putin’s run for gold.” The lede: “At $50 billion and counting, the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, will be the most expensive Olympic Games ever. Intended to showcase the power of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, they may instead highlight its problems: organized crime, state corruption, and the terrorist threat within its borders.”

For those who are not NYRB subscribers, or who are but missed it, Amy Knight had a review essay (behind the paywall) in the September 26 2013 issue on “Putin’s downhill race,” in which she discussed a 41-page report released in Moscow last May by Putin opponents Boris Nemstov and Leonid Martynyuk, entitled “Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Independent Expert Report.” Here’s the key passage from Knight’s review

When the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, was chosen as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics in 2007, Vladimir Putin had every reason to be pleased. Russia was given a chance to show the world the accomplishments of his regime. Now that he is again Russia’s president, after a four-year hiatus as prime minister from 2008 to 2012, Putin himself will be at the center of the events. But the Olympics might not turn out as he and his Kremlin colleagues have envisioned.

According to two of Putin’s critics from the democratic opposition, Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk, the Olympics, to be held in February 2014, are a disaster waiting to happen. Nemtsov and Martynyuk have published a booklet, Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Independent Expert Report, describing the folly of the choice of Sochi, the unprecedented amount of government money being spent to prepare for the games, and the vast corruption that is part of the process. The Sochi Olympics, for these writers, are a microcosmic example of what is wrong with Russia today. And far from presenting Putin’s Russia in a favorable light, the Olympics could be devastating to the country’s image, as well as Putin’s. The authors begin:

Russia is a winterly country. On the map, it is hard to find a spot where snow would never fall, and where winter sports would not be popular. Yet Putin has found such a spot and decided to hold the winter Olympics there: in the city of Sochi.

Sochi, which Nemtsov knows well—he is a native of the city who ran unsuccessfully for mayor there in 2009—is indeed an unfortunate choice. According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk, the temperature at Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain cluster outside of Sochi where many of the winter sports will take place, reached 55 degrees Fahrenheit this year on February 7, the date when the games will open next year. Four days later the temperature reached close to 60 degrees.

The Rotenberg brothers, Arkady and Boris, friends of Putin since their childhood in St. Petersburg, are a case in point. They were judo partners of Putin at the Yavara- Neva Judo Club in St. Petersburg, and continue, along with him, to be benefactors of the club. In 2008 the brothers, now billionaires, began buying up subsidiaries of Russia’s national energy company, Gazprom; their construction company, SGM Group, is now a major supplier of pipelines to Gazprom. They also have large investments in Mostotrest, a road construction company that won the concession to build the controversial toll road from Moscow to St. Petersburg and is now the contractor for several road projects in connection with the Olympics.

In total, the Rotenbergs have received twenty-one Olympic construction contracts, worth around $7 billion, more than the entire cost of the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk, the Rotenbergs have reaped enormous profits from the projects because the contracts were awarded without competition.

Another old Putin friend, Vladimir Yakunin, a former neighbor of his at the exclusive Ozero dacha compound outside St. Petersburg, is also a major beneficiary of the Sochi Olympics. Yakunin is the head of Russian Railways (RZD), which was designated to oversee the building of a combined highway and railway from the city of Sochi to the area for downhill skiing at Krasnaya Polyana. As Nemtsov and Martynyuk note:

The most expensive facility of the Sochi Olympics…is not the central stadium, the ski-jumping center, or the bobsled track. Those facilities were peanuts compared to a 48-kilometer stretch of highway….

As in the case of the Rotenbergs, the builders of the road and railway, which have caused unprecedented environmental damage, received their contracts through Russian Railways without competitive bidding.

Yakunin has recently been in the spotlight because of revelations by anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny about his questionably acquired luxurious dacha outside Moscow. Navalny’s Fund to Fight Corruption also uncovered a network of offshore companies that Yakunin and his family use to fund real estate ventures abroad. In June it was widely reported that Yakunin had lost his job. But the Kremlin quickly dismissed the reports as unfounded.

Yet another Putin crony, Gennady Timchenko, is a large stakeholder in SK Most, one of the companies contracted by Yakunin to build the road and train to Krasnaya Polyana. He also happens to be a sponsor of the Yavara-Neva Judo Club and reportedly plays ice hockey with Putin and Arkady Rotenberg and some other close friends of the president. Timchenko runs Gunvor, the third-largest oil-trading company in the world. Gunvor rose from a little-known business to become a major force in the oil industry after the takeover by state-run Rosneft of the oil giant Yukos—and the arrest of its owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky—in 2003. Rosneft now sells a significant amount of its oil through Gunvor.

According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk’s report, the cost of the highway to Krasnaya Polyana would have been radically reduced if the project had not included railway lines. But this would have meant leaving RZD management out of the vast profits, along with the affiliated companies with which it makes contracts.

In addition to the unfavorable climate, Nemtsov and Martynyuk go on to point out other risks of having the Olympics in Sochi. A major problem is the enormously large amount of energy that will be required. Sochi, a city of only a half-million people, is woefully inadequate for this task. In 2012, more than a thousand power outages—an average of three a day in various parts of the city—occurred there because of the poor condition of the electricity network.

The construction of facilities for the Olympics is being carried out by more than 16,000 migrant workers from the former Soviet republics. According to the report’s authors, in 2012 alone forty construction accidents and twenty-five deaths occurred in the preparations for the games:

The poor quality of construction and violations of technological rules and regulations are related to the use of cheap and unskilled labor. A paradoxical situation arose: despite the astronomical budget,…the building workers often did not receive their hard-earned pay. The money ended up in the pockets of the main clients, general contractors, subcontractors, and subsubcontractors…. We can only speculate what the quality of the facilities built will be.

The authors observe that many of the contractors have not met the deadlines for completion: “This means that the last stage of preparation for the Olympics is being carried out in an emergency mode, and no one cares about the quality and technology used.”

Moreover, the authors predict, visitors to the Olympics in Sochi, which is known for its road congestion, will encounter traffic jams that could make Moscow streets seem tranquil in comparison:

Due to the influx of high-ranking officials of Putin’s government and official delegations, who are used to having the traffic halted to allow them to speed by, the situation on the roads of Sochi will become a real nightmare.

Adding to the concerns about the Kremlin’s planning for the Olympics is the controversy over the draconian anti-gay legislation, including a ban on “homosexual propaganda,” signed by Putin in June. The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, has said that this law will be enforced during the Olympics. Gay activists are calling for a boycott by participants in the games.

Nemtsov and Martynyuk make only passing reference to the possibility of terrorism at the Olympics, noting that Sochi is part of the notoriously volatile North Caucasus. In fact, Sochi is located just 250 miles from the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, where Islamist rebels have their base. In early July, Doku Umarov, the leader of the rebel movement, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains between Dagestan and Chechnya, threatened in a video that his followers would use “maximum force” to ensure that the games do not take place. Umarov has claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks in Russia, including that on the Moscow metro in 2010, which killed forty people, and the 2011 bombing at Domodedovo airport, which resulted in thirty-seven deaths.

The full report was translated into English on Boris Nemtsov’s website (here, scroll down).

For those who know French, Envoyé Spécial had a half-hour reportage last September 12th on “Sotchi: les jeux à tout prix,” that is well worth watching.

À suivre.

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Learning French

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The linguist John McWhorter thinks it’s a waste of time, so he informed the readers of TNR the other day in a piece entitled “Let’s stop pretending that French is an important language.” Now I’ve read numerous articles by McWhorter over the years—on language, race, ethnicity, and other topics he writes about—and have generally found them interesting, thoughtful, and well-considered. He’s a rare conservative intellectual (which is becoming an oxymoron outre-Atlantique). But this piece is not thoughtful or well-considered. It is stupid and inane. Rubbish tout court.

McWhorter was prompted to write it after reading the report in the NYT last week on the popularity of French/English dual-language programs in New York City public schools (and which was, BTW, the NYT’s most emailed article over two days). He found this “surprising,” as French, so he informed the reader, has ceased to be a “useful” language. And if a language is not “useful”—and one does not issue from an immigrant community that speaks it, so no identity issues are involved—what’s the point in learning it?

A few points and observations here. First, on usefulness. What makes a foreign language “useful”? Two things: If learning to speak a particular language will (a) help one get ahead in life, and (b) enable one to communicate with people with whom one may want or need to communicate on an ongoing basis. On getting ahead in life, this, of course, mainly means the job market, i.e. if one’s employment prospects will be considerably enhanced if one has a functional knowledge of a foreign language, and, conversely, hindered if one does not have this. One can know if this is the case simply by looking at job announcements and descriptions (one doesn’t need to go this far, in fact: if knowledge of a particular language is a major asset in the job market, this will be well-known to all, including youngsters in school). On communicating with people, this mainly involves those who live in multinational states—where there is more than one recognized linguistic group of native-born citizens—or who spend a lot of time in a foreign country where another language is spoken.

In France, where I live, only one foreign language is objectively “useful,” which is, of course, English. If a Frenchman or woman wants any kind of job or career that will take him/her outside of France and/or that involves regular interaction with non-French people who don’t actually live in France (business associates/clients, fellow professionals, tourists, and the like), then s/he needs to have a functional command of English. Period. Most jobs don’t require this—e.g. the clerks at the post office, the cashiers at Monoprix, the men who pruned the trees in my résidence this week, even doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, don’t need to speak a word of English—but enough do, and particularly in the globalized sector of the economy. Even in the 1980s almost all the job announcements in the then-weekly economics/business supplement of Le Monde stipulated fluency in English. Back then—don’t even talk about now—I observed that a significant percentage of the books being checked out of the library at Sciences Po Paris—a major establishment of higher education for the future ruling elite—were in English.

One hardly needs to be reminded about the status of English; everyone in France knows it, it’s a fact and with the educational system having adapted to the reality three or four decades ago. In the first year of middle school (6th grade) all students must choose their first foreign language (langue vivante 1, LV1) and which they take until finishing high school. Some 93% opt for English, with almost all the rest German. A few linguists (e.g. Claude Hagège) and other francophonie ideologues may rail on against the dominance of English as LV1 but they’re shouting at the moon. No one is paying attention. And in the 8th grade, when choosing the obligatory second foreign language (LV2), all the LV1 German students have to go for English. When making the pitch for LV1 German to entering 6th graders—i.e. to their parents—, German teachers assure that learning German will in no way set the children back when they start English two years later (I first read this and then heard it with my own ears, at a parents-students-teachers meeting when my daughter started collège). So by the end of high school, almost all French students have taken English for at least five years, and most for seven (whether or not they have actually mastered it is another matter). In France, English is objectively useful. It’s the globalized economy, stupid.

In the US, where students take only one foreign language in high school—and usually as an elective—, it is entirely normal, given America’s geographic location, that the most popular one by far will be Spanish. But, objectively speaking, Spanish is not “useful” for the majority of those who take it. Apart from those who live in Miami, south Texas, and Mexican border towns, Americans do not need to know Spanish. Jobs in major American cities—not to mention the heartland—do not require it (except for those involving contact with recent Latino migrants; when McWhorter says that he has “seen medical professionals just miss getting plum jobs in New York because a competitor happened to speak Spanish,” he’s recounting an anecdote; the great majority of medical professionals in New York City do not need to speak Spanish—and most likely do not). A quick perusal of job announcements in any American city—Miami, El Paso, and a few others excepted—will demonstrate this. As for communicating with the sizable number of Latinos/Hispanics in America, any member of this population that a non-Latino/Hispanic American would ever possibly meet and want to strike up a conversation with already speaks English. The upper class in southern California may find Spanish useful to communicate with their gardeners and cleaning women but the huge majority of Americans just don’t need to speak it in their daily or working lives. Ever. Spanish, for the vast majority of Americans, is, objectively speaking, no more “useful” than any other language.

As for Chinese, a language that has McWhorter’s favors, the utilitarian arguments for learning it do not hold water. If people want to learn Chinese, all power to them, but they should not do so on account of its purported usefulness. The fact is, Chinese is only useful if one is going to live in China or do a lot of business there (a future eventuality that American schoolchildren cannot possibly anticipate). Outside of China and for those who don’t regularly deal with Chinese businessmen or tourists, the Chinese language will get one nowhere. It is of no utility whatever. And the rise of China will not change this. In 2050 Chinese will still be pretty much useless in the rest of the world (if anyone would like me to defend this assertion in detail, I will happily do so). A fact: with the exception of English, languages are only useful in the countries in which they are spoken or are widespread as a secondary language. Spanish is spoken only in Latin America (minus Brazil) and Spain. Apart from Mexico and maybe the Dominican Republic, the number of Americans who travel to Latin America is rather less than those who visit France and other Francophone countries. In Europe outside Spain, Africa (except Equatorial Guinea, if one ends up there), and all of Asia, Spanish has little to no utility.

French, by contrast, is incontestably more useful on this level. In addition to France, French-speaking Belgium and Switzerland, and Quebec (which borders the US and where the French language can be most useful), there are all the former French colonies: in the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) and Francophone Africa, where French is even more useful than in France itself, as English is far more understood in the latter than the former. French has pretty much disappeared in Indochina but is widely spoken in Lebanon and Israel (though admittedly less than English) and persists as a second (or third) language among portions of the elites in a number of countries in the Middle East and Latin America (e.g. earlier this week I attended a talk on Turkey by two academics from Istanbul, who spoke in fluent French). So when it comes to utility, French is, outside the Western hemisphere, far more “useful” than Spanish. And it is a hundred times more useful than Chinese.

So—and this is the second point—for an American middle/high school student (outside the aforementioned parts of the country) who is deciding what language to take—or a French 8th grader choosing an LV2—, considerations of utility should absolutely not enter into the equation. Whether or not a language is “useful” should not be a consideration. Any language is as good as the other. For many students, their parents will be implicated in the decision on this, or the decision will be driven by family history or predilection. Young people with immigrant origins or sub-cultural identities will often want to learn their heritage language, which is entirely legitimate. If the language in question is not offered by the school and there is sufficient demand for it (and with qualified teachers available), then that demand should be satisfied. E.g. in my suburban Chicago high school four decades back, one of the most popular foreign languages was Hebrew. A third of the student body was Jewish and enough of them clearly wanted to learn Hebrew (and as they were presumably motivated, they likely mastered the language more than did those who took Spanish or French by default). In American cities with a critical mass of immigrants from China, Chinese is presumably offered as a foreign language in public schools, and with the Chinese-American kids presumably taking it in large numbers. That’s excellent for them and their families. And also for America, as the more Chinese speakers America has, the better.

When it comes to French, McWhorter sniffs that “in educated America [it] is now a class marker, originating from that distant day when French was Europe’s international language.” Insofar as this may be the case, so what? If people want to learn French—or have their children learn it—because it has a certain cachet or snob value for them, that’s their business, and neither John McWhorter nor anyone else has anything to say about it (as for McWhorter’s facetious throwaway line on how “[i]t’s swell that knowing French allows you to ignore subtitles in the occasional art house film”: what a hackneyed cliché from another era; McWhorter clearly does not frequent “art houses,” where most foreign-language films these days do not come from France). A personal anecdote: when my daughter entered the 8th grade in our Paris banlieue and had to choose an LV2, both my wife and I encouraged her to take Italian, which was offered in her collège. Why? Because Italian is a beautiful language, Italy is a country we love (does anyone not?), has a great civilization, a great cuisine, and all the rest (she was game but finally didn’t do it, as Italian was not offered in the lycée she wanted to go to two years later; I pushed her to take German instead but she didn’t want to, opting for Spanish for her LV2, as do the vast majority of French middle school students nowadays, who think that the langue de Cervantes is easier and cooler than the langue de Goethe; dommage…).

Which leads to the third point, which is that if one is going to master a foreign language, there has to be some pleasure in the process and interest in the cultures where the language is spoken. And France and French culture remain the nec plus ultra for many Americans. The aura of Paris for millions of American tourists is intact. In learning French, Americans gain access to one of the richest cultural heritages in the history of the world (and yes, France continues to make movies worth seeing and not all of which make it to the US, so don’t have English subtitles), not to mention the satisfaction in being able to communicate with people in the most beautiful country in Europe and that millions love. If McWhorter has little interest in France, that’s his business. And if he considers French culture to be has-been, that’s his personal opinion. But it’s not that of many others. As for China, this is incontestably a great civilization—and with a cuisine that I will personally rank above French—but it is inaccessible to most Americans and of less overall interest to them than France. And China is a harder country to visit, get around, and spend time in. America is a Western culture and an extension of European civilization—and which France was long its highest expression—, so Americans in their majority are necessarily going to feel a greater affinity with Europe than with Asia. And will always visit it in far greater numbers. This is not a value judgment, it’s a fact.

Fourth point. French is an easy language to learn for native English speakers. A piece of cake. It is considerably easier than any other non-Romance language (with the possible exception of Dutch). A few years of serious study in middle and high school followed by several months of immersion in France and voilà, one will be fluent or nearly so. One can, in fact, achieve fluency in French without ever living in a Francophone country. If a native English speaker who has learned French doesn’t use it for a lengthy stretch of time, it will get rusty but s/he’ll recover it quickly if need be. Not so with Chinese or other objectively difficult languages (Arabic, Japanese…). These take many more years of study (as McWhorter acknowledges) and one really does need to live for a time in the country where they’re spoken. And they have to be maintained. If the difficult language falls into disuse, recovering it will take longer (and trying to recollect all those forgotten Chinese characters would be a tall order indeed). So from the mere standpoint of investment of one’s time and then payoff, if one has to choose between French and Chinese, opting for French goes without saying. It’s a no brainer.

A note on learning Arabic, a language McWhorter correctly says is “achingly needed on the geopolitical scene.” It would be nice if more American schoolchildren studied this. If Arabic had been offered as an LV2 in my daughter’s middle school, we would have pushed her to take it—for reasons having to do with my and my wife’s personal histories—and she would have readily agreed (but few schools in France offer Arabic, which is both incomprehensible and, given France’s national interests and sizable population of Maghreb origin, a bit of a scandal). There are, however, some particular challenges in learning Arabic and which make it unlikely that it will ever take off as a foreign language in American schools. First, one needs to study Arabic for many more years than a Romance or Germanic language to achieve a functional command of it. Second, Arabic is a diglossic language, i.e. it exists on two levels: modern standard (the written language, spoken on formal occasions but never in daily life) and dialects (which vary considerably across the Arab world). To say that one knows Arabic, one has to know both the standard language (fusha) and a dialect (darija), the latter of which is quite different from the former. But to learn a dialect one has to live in the country where it’s spoken (as well as to really master fusha). It is not possible otherwise. The most popular and logical country for American students to do this has always been Egypt. But if my 20-year-old daughter were to propose spending a year in Cairo nowadays, we would veto it. Period. Damascus was a great city in which to spend a year or two studying Arabic—and was popular with French students—but it would not be advisable to go there today. So that leaves precisely three countries where an American or any other Western student can go for a séjour linguistique: Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco (Lebanon, for a variety of reasons, is not a good place for this). If one wants to go to Jordan, fine, but it’s boring (personal opinion). Tunisia (which means Tunis) and Morocco are great places but French is widespread in both and their dialects—and particularly Moroccan—are incomprehensible in the rest of the Arab world.

So voilà my advice to an American middle/high school student who’s not interested in taking Spanish: go for French. You won’t regret it.

On the subject of learning foreign languages, writer Mary Hawthorne had a fine piece on the The New Yorker website, dated August 13 2012, “Language is music,” and with contributions by David Bellos, Arthur Goldhammer, and Lydia Davis. It’s well worth the read.

UPDATE: The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie has released a slick 24-page executive summary in English of a 576-page book published by Éditions Nathan in 2014, “The French language worldwide.”

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La France moisie

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Jean Quatremer, l’excellent correspondent de Libération à Bruxelles, a posté, sur sa page Facebook, cet extrait d’une tribune de Philippe Sollers, publiée dans Le Monde le 28 janvier 1999, et qui a été très remarquée à l’époque—et qui a mécontenté plus d’un, à gauche comme à droite. Elle garde sa pertinence.

Elle était là, elle est toujours là ; on la sent, peu à peu, remonter en surface : la France moisie est de retour. Elle vient de loin, elle n’a rien compris ni rien appris, son obstination résiste à toutes les leçons de l’Histoire, elle est assise une fois pour toutes dans ses préjugés viscéraux. Elle a son corps, ses mots de passe, ses habitudes, ses réflexes. Elle parle bas dans les salons, les ministères, les commissariats, les usines, à la campagne comme dans les bureaux. Elle a son catalogue de clichés qui finissent par sortir en plein jour, sa voix caractéristique. Des petites phrases arrivent, bien rancies, bien médiocres, des formules de rentier peureux se tenant au chaud d’un ressentiment borné. Il y a une bêtise française sans équivalent, laquelle, on le sait, fascinait Flaubert. L’intelligence, en France, est d’autant plus forte qu’elle est exceptionnelle.

La France moisie a toujours détesté, pêle-mêle, les Allemands, les Anglais, les Juifs, les Arabes, les étrangers en général, l’art moderne, les intellectuels coupeurs de cheveux en quatre, les femmes trop indépendantes ou qui pensent, les ouvriers non encadrés, et, finalement, la liberté sous toutes.

La France moisie, rappelez-vous, c’est la force tranquille des villages, la torpeur des provinces, la terre qui, elle, ne ment pas, le mariage conflictuel, mais nécessaire, du clocher et de l’école républicaine. C’est le national social ou le social national. Il y a eu la version familiale Vichy, la cellule Moscou-sur-Seine. On ne s’aime pas, mais on est ensemble. On est avare, soupçonneux, grincheux, mais, de temps en temps, La Marseillaise prend à la gorge, on agite le drapeau tricolore. On déteste son voisin comme soi-même, mais on le retrouve volontiers en masse pour des explosions unanimes sans lendemain. L’Etat ? Chacun est contre, tout en attendant qu’il vous assiste. L’argent ? Evidemment, pourvu que les choses se passent en silence, en coulisse. Un référendum sur l’Europe ? Vous n’y pensez pas : ce serait non, alors que le désir est oui. Faites vos affaires sans nous, parlons d’autre chose. Laissez-nous à notre bonne vieille routine endormie.

La France moisie a bien aimé le XIXe siècle, sauf 1848 et la Commune de Paris. Cela fait longtemps que le XXe lui fait horreur, boucherie de 14 et humiliation de 40. Elle a eu un bref espoir pendant quatre ans, mais supporte très difficilement qu’on lui rappelle l’abjection de la Collaboration.

Pendant quatre-vingts ans, d’autre part, une de ses composantes importante et très influente a systématiquement menti sur l’est de l’Europe, ce qui a eu comme résultat de renforcer le sommeil hexagonal. New York ? Connais pas. Moscou ? Il paraît que c’est globalement positif, malgré quelques vipères lubriques.

Oui, finalement, ce XXe siècle a été très décevant, on a envie de l’oublier, d’en faire table rase. Pourquoi ne pas repartir des cathédrales, de Jeanne d’Arc, ou, à défaut, d’avant 1914, de Péguy? A quoi bon les penseurs et les artistes qui ont tout compliqué comme à plaisir, Heidegger, Sartre, Joyce, Picasso, Stravinski, Genet, Giacometti, Céline ? La plupart se sont d’ailleurs honteusement trompés ou ont fait des oeuvres incompréhensibles, tandis que nous, les moisis, sans bruit, nous avons toujours eu raison sur le fond, c’est-à-dire la nature humaine. Il y a eu trop de bizarreries, de désordres intimes, de singularités. Revenons au bon sens, à la morale élémentaire, à la société policée, à la charité bien ordonnée commençant par soi-même. Serrons les rangs, le pays est en danger.

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