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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

My dear friend Adam Shatz has a post up on the LRB blog (here) on the latest political hysteria in France over Islam and the penchant of a relatively small number of French Muslim women to overtly display their religious identity in public space. The tempest was launched last week by Laurence Rossignol—the Minister for Families, Children, and Women’s rights—in a particularly dimwitted succession of public statements, and with feminist intellectual Elisabeth Badinter—the Joan of Arc of laïcité—upping the ante with her call for a boycott of brands that have invested the lucrative market for Islamic fashion in women’s clothing (e.g. here and here). This is one of those only-in-France polemics, but one on which a large number of Frenchmen and women—indeed a majority—feel strongly about. E.g. the other day a well-known academic warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat unfriended me from Facebook in a fit of pique—and then blocked me for good measure—following a snide comment I made on his timeline about Madame Badinter. People here are so sensitive when it comes to this issue. In any case, Adam nails it in his post. I could have signed it myself. And, as it happens, he mentions me by name. Merci, Adam.

UPDATE: There are several pertinent tribunes on the subject, all dated April 5th: Esther Benbassa, “Le voile, pas plus aliénant que la minijupe,” in Libération; Thomas Guénolé, “Islam, voile et ‘mode islamique’: les 6 erreurs (graves) d’Elisabeth Badinter,” in L’Obs; Anaïs Flores et al, “Islam, voile: Elisabeth Badinter sème la division; elle complique notre rôle d’enseignant,” also in L’Obs; and Saïd Benmouffok and Bérenger Boureille, “‘La crispation sur le voile ne saurait se substituer à une politique d’émancipation universaliste’,” in Le Monde.

2nd UPDATE: Robert Zaretsky, a French history specialist at the University of Houston, has an essay in Foreign Policy (April 7th) on how “French secularism became fundamentalist.” The lede: “A militant form of laïcité has taken hold in France, backed by everyone from intellectuals to government officials. Is this what the republic’s founders envisioned?” With the exception of a couple of small errors regarding the action of the Conseil d’État in the Islamic headscarf affair, I could have, as with Adam’s post, signed the piece myself.

3rd UPDATE: Historian Joan Wallach Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has an essay in Orient XXI (April 27th) on “The veil and the political unconscious of French republicanism.” The lede: “The French obsession with the veil exceeds that of most other countries in the West. Why?” Interesting analysis, though I’m not sure about the way she links attitudes toward veiling with larger contradictions in French republicanism regarding gender equality.

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Photo credit: Peter Dejong/AP

Photo credit: Peter Dejong/AP

That’s the title of an article of mine (here) which was just published in the web magazine South Writ Large: Stories, Arts, and Ideas from the Global South, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The article was commissioned by editor Samia Seragaldin, who asked me to offer my personal sentiments and analysis of France in the aftermath of the November 13th terrorist attacks. The first half of the piece is my blog post of November 14th, written à chaud, which a certain number of people read at the time (it got a lot of hits). The second half is an update—dated January 20th—in which I discuss the reaction of the French government, i.e. of François Hollande and Manual Valls, to November 13th, specifically the état d’urgence and déchéance de nationalité. I will have a longer post on that subject soon.

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The French taxi war

Boulevard Périphérique, Paris, January 26th (photo: AFP)

Boulevard Périphérique, Paris, January 26th (photo: AFP)

I actually have nothing in particular to say about the French taxi strike earlier this week—and which may still be going on for all I know, as I haven’t been following the story too closely. I rarely take taxis and have yet to call an Uber (though have the app on my phone). I’m a public transportation guy—and when I need to go somewhere in a car, I drive mine—so am not personally concerned by this (and as I never take the car to Paris during the week, I wasn’t held up in some traffic jam caused by enraged, striking cab drivers or otherwise put out by their action). My friend Claire Berlinski, who lives in the heart of the city—and likely takes a taxi or Uber on occasion—did, however, comment substantively on the taxi strike in a post on the Ricochet blog, “Live from the Frontlines of the French Taxi War.” Ricochet’s tagline is “Conservative conservation and community” and as Claire is one of its editors, it stands to reason that, politically speaking, she situates herself somewhere to the right of center. She thus writes

But that’s not all! The air traffic controllers went on strike, causing the cancellation of 20 percent of flights in and out of Paris. And somewhere between 10 and 30 percent (depending who’s estimating) of the teachers’, doctors’, hospital workers’, public-sector workers,’ and farmers’ unions went on strike. The farmers yet again blocked roads with their tractors and dumped manure outside the tax offices. It was your totally stereotypical, “What the hell is wrong with the French” kind of day. I wasn’t personally inconvenienced because I was working at home, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you batty if you need to catch a flight. You end up standing in the street (if you’re me) screaming, “Bring me Margaret Thatcher. I don’t care if you’ve got to exhume her, just get her over here.”

FYI, Claire is the author of an admiring biography of Margaret Thatcher, so it was perhaps inevitable that she would invoke the Iron Lady when weighing in on a strike. I had a few things to say about her post, which I wrote in a private email. But instead of sending it, I decided what the hell, as it’s political and not personal, I’ll post it on AWAV instead. So voilà, here is what I wrote to dear Claire:

(a) On your question “Is it true that the French are always on strike?” The answer: No, contrary to popular belief outside France (and for some inside). It’s been several years since I’ve seen current data on annual work days lost to strikes but can assure you that it has plummeted over the past four decades. Strikes here have become infrequent; they’re less than the 1990s and there is no comparison with the 1970s. And strikes are even more infrequent in the private sector, happening mainly in the fonction publique and public services. And because they tend to happen in the latter—public services—one notices them (more than if just a private enterprise were affected).

(b) Public sector strikes in France are invariably of short duration: one day, maybe two or three, and tend to be localized. They don’t last. It’s been over twenty years since the last long strike movement (3½ weeks) that was national and really paralyzed the country (the grèves of November-December 1995). And there has been nothing in a very long time that can hold a candle to the 1984-85 British miners strike, in duration or scale. In this respect, strikes in France almost never entirely shut down an enterprise or public service, as the decision to participate in a strike is an individual one of the employee (as is joining a union and paying dues). No employee in France—private sector or public—can be compelled to go on strike or prevented from working if a strike has been called by one or more unions. Not even members of unions are obliged to participate in strikes called by their union if they don’t feel like it.

(c) Strikes in public services may seriously inconvenience the public and tourists, particularly in anything connected with transportation, but what tends to create problems is not the strikes themselves but the public actions of strikers that disrupt public order, e.g. taxi drivers or farmers blocking traffic, or striking students erecting barricades in front of universities and shutting them down. A lot of these actions are illegal, though with the police often doing nothing about it (at least not right away). One may express exasperation at the government for its pusillanimity but sometimes it gives the order not to crack down—or to wait a while before doing so—so as not to cause a tense situation from degenerating further (and, above all, not to kill someone, which is every government’s dread fear). And if a situation degenerates following a show of force by the police, this could—no, it definitely would—deepen the movement, with unions across the board calling for sympathy strikes. Because here’s the thing in France: unions can call a strike on short notice (five days in advance in the public sector) and for pretty much any reason they like (there is some encadrement, usually honored in the breach), and stay on strike for as long as they please. A certain number of strikes in France would be illegal in the US and most European countries. Mais voilà, c’est la France.

(d) So, one may say, what this country needs is a Margaret Thatcher, a nerves-of-steel ball crusher who will bust the unions, ram through reforms, and generally kick ass. This has been a mantra of The Economist magazine and others outre-Manche for the past three decades. But what, precisely, would a French Margaret Thatcher do? I have yet to see an answer from those who say that France needs an ass kicker as she was seen to be. Also, when it came to strikes and unions, what precisely did Thatcher do when she was in power? In point of fact, she stood down exactly one big strike, which was that of the miners. As mentioned above, that one was of an entirely different nature than anything France could possibly experience nowadays. And Thatcher had a dream adversary, the Stalinist dinosaur Scargill, and with a weak, divided political opposition (the Labour party having suffered one of its worst defeats ever in the 1983 election). As for the labor reforms Thatcher enacted— banning closed shops and secondary strikes, etc—these brought British legislation into line with what had been the status quo in the US since the late 1940s (Taft-Hartley), as well as numerous European countries. In this respect, Thatcher has been oversold. And when she overreached (on the poll tax), her party dumped her. Also, French presidents and PMs have indeed pulled a Thatcher over the years in conflicts with public sector unions, deciding that they’re not going to back down or compromise in any significant way, e.g. Jean-Pierre Raffarin in 2003 (Loi Fillon) and Sarkozy in 2010 (réforme des retraites).

(e) But, one may ask, why don’t French governments, even of the right, enact laws that would prevent unions from striking whenever they please and for any damned reason, i.e. to bring France into line with the rest of the advanced capitalist world on this score? (personally speaking, I’m all for strong unions—which are necessary for the health of a democracy, not to mention for the workers themselves—but would eagerly support such a law). Governments would no doubt like to do such a thing but don’t and for at least three reasons. First, it’s not worth the aggravation. The mere proposition of such a projet de loi would be greeted with strikes and demos and protests of all sorts. From the standpoint of a prime minister, it would be a pain in the ass and with little payoff, so who needs it? Second, strikes in public services generally don’t involve all unions. Unions in France are fragmented and with several present in a workplace (and which are in competition with one another as much as in cooperation, one effect of which is surenchères). Some unions are militant and maximalist (e.g. FO, CGT, SUD), others are reformist and inclined toward cooperation with management (CFDT, CFTC, CGC…). When governments embark on reform legislation that directly affects the unions, they (the governments) invariably find unions who will cooperate with them. E.g. the 1995 Plan Juppé and which led to the big grèves that fall: the CGT and FO were hostile to the Plan and demanded its withdrawal, whereas the CFDT supported Juppé and did not participate in the strike movement. It’s almost always thus. A proposed law seen as a frontal attack on union rights across the board would end the cooperation that does, in fact, exist. Thirdly, governments have decided to take an incremental approach in lieu of the Thatcherite one, of enacting laws gradually rather than doing so in a big bang, e.g. the 2007 law on the service minimum in public transport, which has all but ended the prospect that the RATP could be entirely shut down again in the way it was in 1995. To try to maintain peace and dialogue with important social actors does seem preferable to confrontation and conflict, no?

(f) Re my above bit about strong unions being necessary for the health of a democracy, I just processed a review—in my capacity as book review editor of The Journal of North African Studies—of a new book on the role played by Tunisia’s trade union federation, the UGTT, in the political transition there since the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship five years ago. Without the existence of robust, independent trade unions—a cornerstone of civil society—so the author of the book argues, Tunisia’s transition to democracy would have likely ended in failure, i.e. with the Islamists assuming a monopoly of power. Just saying.

End of email. Claire, who posts on Ricochet almost daily, often writes stuff I find provocative—or that provokes me—e.g. one from earlier this month on “The Huguenots and the Second Amendment.” I have a lot to say on this one. Plus tard.

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Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia
(Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The headline story in last Friday’s Le Monde, which I am looking at on my desk as I write, is entitled “Après les attentats, Europe se referme” (After the attacks, Europe is closing the door), and with a big photo of refugees, presumably Syrian, in a dingy off the coast of Lesbos. The accompanying article, on “the return of fortress Europe,” quotes PM Manuel Valls—a member of the Socialist party and formally a man of the left (albeit its most rightist flank)—saying that Europe must make it clear that it cannot welcome as many migrants as it has up to now. And on the France 2 news yesterday evening was a report from Slovenia, which is putting up a barbed wire fence on its border with Croatia to keep migrants out, taking after Hungary, Slovakia, and other EU member countries sure to follow.

On some level I can comprehend the reflex of Slovenia et al (though not Manuel Valls; I don’t care if he’s prime minister but it is simply not acceptable for a leading personality of the French PS to talk the way he does on this issue). European states are indeed not prepared to confront the torrent of refugees and migrants flowing into the continent—even though Europe has successfully dealt with refugee/migrant flows of equal, indeed greater, importance in the recent past (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), not to mention after WWII. Hopefully the EU-Turkey agreement that’s being hammered out, which will presumably allow for an orderly processing of asylum requests of the refugees in Turkey, will work.

As for the bottom line—and there is no getting around this—the majority of Syrian refugees will eventually have to be settled in third countries, mostly in the West. The war in Syria will not end anytime soon and when/if it does, there will be nothing for Syrians who have left the country to go back to. Syria has been destroyed and is not likely to be rebuilt, at least not in the foreseeable future (e.g. see this report from Kobane). The destruction of Syria is not only physical—of cities (Aleppo, Homs) and towns—but also societal. Wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that have generated large cross border refugee flows have mainly involved rural people, who await the war’s end so they can return to their villages and farms and try to resume their lives. The great majority of Syrian refugees are urban and educated. Their livelihoods and social networks—not to mention extended families—are gone. And they can’t sit around in refugee camps in Lebanon, or live on handouts in Turkey, for years on end. They need to be able to work, continue with their education if they’re of that age, and rebuild their lives. Now. A few will be able to do so in the MENA region but the only part of the world where this can happen for most is the West (including Russia).

The United States could easily absorb a large number of Syrians—say, one hundred thousand, even more (why not?)—but obviously won’t in view of the current political climate. The post-Paris hysteria in the Republican party—leaders and base—over taking in any refugees leaves one speechless. As WaPo’s Alexandra Petri put it a couple of weeks ago, the reaction of Republicans is “past the point of parody.” The fear of Americans—mostly on the right—that even a tiny number of potential terrorists could be embedded in a refugee population is particularly puzzling in a country where just about anyone can legally constitute an arsenal of assault weapons and then carry out a massacre—in a movie theater, elementary school, college campus, family planning clinic, social services center, you name it—and with no reaction whatever from the political system—and precisely because those Americans who fear potential refugee terrorists are also the kind who are all for the unlimited right to acquire assault weapons and will vote against any candidate to elective office who thinks otherwise. Fearing jihadi terrorism in a country with practically no jihadis but where mass shootings happen every day of the week—and to which politicians respond with prayers and thoughts and that’s it—is, objectively speaking, irrational.

Continuing to speak objectively, Syrian refugees are “not the problem,” as Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch asserted in a piece in Foreign Policy. Americans who do think that refugees are a problem tend, however, not to look at websites like Foreign Policy. Addressing Americans on that side of the political spectrum, my friend Claire Berlinski, who blogs at Ricochet—the tagline of which is “Conservative conversation and community”—has a good, well-argued post, dated November 24th, “What’s in it for us? Why we should accept Syrian refugees.” Glancing at the comments thread, it doesn’t look like she convinced too many of her numerous refugee-skeptical readers.

One group that has been excellent on the refugee question is the libertarians, with whom I otherwise disagree 100% on a whole range of issues (notably the economy and social policy). E.g. Dave Bier, the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center in D.C.—a new libertarian think tank—has a fine piece (November 16th) on the “Six reasons to welcome Syrian refugees after Paris.” See as well the analysis (November 18th) by the Cato Institute’s immigration specialist Alex Nowrasteh, “Syrian refugees don’t pose a serious security threat.”

If one needs further convincing on the question, don’t miss historian Josh Zeitz’s explanation in Politico Magazine (November 22nd), “Yes, it’s fair to compare the plight of the Syrians to the plight of the Jews [and] here’s why.” Voilà.

UPDATE: Regarding my comment above on “mass shootings” in the US, Mother Jones’s Mark Follman has an important clarification in the NYT op-ed page, “How many mass shootings are there, really?”

2nd UPDATE: Comedian and TV host Samantha Bee had a humorous but informative two-part report on Syrian refugees and the American reaction on her show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Here’s part 1 and part 2. (February 24, 2016)

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Capture-decran-2015-11-20-a-16

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Yesterday I had a brief post on the victims of the November 13th attacks. Today it’s on the perpetrators. If one hasn’t seen it, Olivier Roy has the best analysis so far of the terrorists, in a full-page tribune in Le Monde dated November 25th, “Le djihadisme est une révolte générationnelle et nihiliste” (also here). In reading Roy’s essay in hard copy, I underlined noteworthy passages to quote. But as almost the entire thing got underlined, I’ll just let you, the reader, read it in its entirety. If the essay is eventually published in English, I’ll link to it.

One key line by Roy: What we’re facing here is not a radicalization of Islam but rather an Islamization of radicalism.

Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, who has spent much of the past two decades living in Iraq and Syria, weighs in on the Paris terrorists in a must-read post, dated November 26th, in Orient XXI, “Tuer les autres, se tuer soi-même.” Again, if this one is published in English—which, in view of Harling’s bilingualism, is possible—I’ll link to it in an update.

The excellent Farhad Khosrokhavar, who knows more about jihadism in Europe than any other social scientist, is interviewed in L’Obs (November 26th) on the question post-Paris, “Moins ils connaissent l’islam, plus ils sont attirés par le djihad.” Translation: the less they know about Islam, the more they are attracted by jihad.

Also interviewed on the Paris attacks (November 26h) is the well-known Islamologist Gilles Kepel, in the Lausanne daily Le Temps, “Le 13 novembre? Le résultat d’une faillite des élites politiques françaises.” Kepel—who unhabitually lets loose in the interview—has some interesting observations on, entre autres, Saudi Arabia, as well as on the Al-Qaida/IS grand penseur Abu Musab al-Suri. (BTW, on al-Suri see Adam Shatz’s 2008 review essay in the LRB, “Laptop jihadi“).

EHESS doctoral candidate Adam Baczko has a tribune (November 26th) in Libération, “L’objectif de l’Etat islamique est de provoquer une politique de réaction identitaire.”

À suivre, évidemment.

UPDATE: Olivier Roy, at a conference in Germany on international terrorism ten days ago, gave a speech entitled “What is the driving force behind jihadist terrorism? – A scientific perspective on the causes/circumstances of joining the scene,” which is pretty much an English version of his Le Monde essay. It is linked to in PDF in the first comment below (thanks to Rich Kaplan—crack sociologist and personal friend—for finding it).

2nd UPDATE: If one didn’t see it, French journalist Nicolas Hénin has an op-ed in The Guardian (November 16th), “I was held hostage by Isis [for ten months in 2013-14]. They fear our unity more than our airstrikes.” The lede: “In Syria I learned that Islamic State longs to provoke retaliation. We should not fall into the trap.” Pour l’info, Hénin has a book out, Jihad Academy, published by Fayard this past February.

Omer Aziz, a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School who recently worked for the UN Special Envoy to Syria, has a piece in TNR (November 17th), “The soul of a jihadist: The radical evil behind the terrorist attacks on Paris.”

And ICYMI, the NYR Daily has two posts dated November 16th: “Paris: The war ISIS wants,” by Franco-American anthropologist Scott Atran—who has written extensively on radical Islamism—and UCL doctoral student Nafees Hamid; and “From Mumbai to Paris,” by the well-known Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

3rd UPDATE: The Swiss RTS had a twenty-minute interview with Olivier Roy on November 27th (listen here), in which he said, entre autres, that trying to deradicalize jihadists is “absurd.”

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The Paris attacks: the victims

Credit: Aufeminin

Credit: Aufeminin

The national hommage to the victims of the November 13th attacks, at Les Invalides, is underway as I write. Numerous portraits of the victims have been published in the press and online—here’s one in English—which I can’t look at without tears in my eyes. This is all very close to home. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

UPDATE: Watch the great rendition of La Marseillaise (here) at the Invalides ceremony.

2nd UPDATE: Le Monde is publishing, in each issue from November 27th on, biographical portraits of all the victims (here and here). As LM’s Aline Leclerc and Sylvie Kauffmann observe in the introduction to the memorial (my translation): “What these portraits reveal is the extent to which the terrorists, in their choice of targets that evening, were aiming at youth, intelligence, culture, education, and tolerance. The story of these 130 lives reads like that of the fine flower of a society confident in the success that knowledge, science, and an openness of mind can give. Frenchmen and women, and foreigners who had come to France precisely for that, they were, this November 13th, the symbol of a Paris of Enlightenment in the 21st century. This memorial has but one wish: that they remain.”

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[update below]

It’s been a week since my reflections à chaud on the attacks. Like quite a few other people, I’ve been talking, reading, and thinking about little else since then. In the torrent of commentaries and analyses that have been posted online, some have been very good (I linked to a few in the previous post). But now my dear friend Adam Shatz has written the best so far, “Magical thinking about Isis,” in the London Review of Books. Adam and I had lengthy Skype discussions and email exchanges while he was writing the piece, during which he read me parts of it, so I knew what he was going to say. Having now read the published version I can report that it is even better than I expected (and I naturally knew it would be tops, as Adam’s writings invariably are). I have much to say on the subject myself, which I will do in due course. In the meantime, read Adam.

ADDENDUM: The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud—whom Adam profiled in the NYT Magazine last April—has an op-ed in the NYT (dated November 20th), “Saudi Arabia, an ISIS that has made it.” Pour l’info, Daoud is presently in the US and Canada on a book tour, speaking in New York City this past Monday to a packed house. The event, which Adam moderated, was a smashing success, so I heard.

UPDATE: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi—an Iraqi national, Oxford University graduate, Middle East Forum research fellow, and all-around smart person—has a must-read analysis (November 20th) in The Huffington Post, “The Paris attacks reflect intelligence failure — not a change in ISIS strategy.”

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