Prevent Priest Sex Scandals: End Celibacy

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

The Reverend Hans Küng is a Swiss Catholic priest, although of the renegade sort, who has been expressly forbidden by the Catholic Church to teach its theology. For more than forty years he has been somewhat of an outspoken radical on religious topics, most especially when it comes to the doctrine of papal infallibility, which he has repeatedly written to condemn.

These days, though, the Catholic Church has rather larger problems than the question of whether the Pope is ever able to make a mistake, most especially a raft of priest-pedophile scandals ranging from the USA to Ireland, and now in Germany as well. In an opinion piece appearing now in the authoritative French newspaper Le Monde (translated from German), Küng comes forward with a straightforward solution: To fight the pedophilia, let’s abolish priest celibacy.

Of course, the Roman Catholic establishment will have none of that. In his article, Küng carefully lists – and then controverts – three assertions coming from Rome in reaction to these pedophile scandals: 1) That they are not actually the result of the priestly vow of celibacy; 2) That the scandals represent no sort of truly systemic failure within the Church; and 3) That, in any case, bishops have taken adequate measures in response. America, Ireland (yes, even such a Catholic country of around 18 centuries of Church history as Ireland), now Germany: of course it is a systemic failure! And while, yes, celibacy cannot be the exclusive cause of this behavior on the part of so many priests, it is fairer to say that the twisted and strained Catholic attitude towards human sexuality of which celibacy is but one aspect surely plays a big part. (As for the bishops: their record of rather covering-up than dealing forthrightly with pedophile scandals cropping up under their jurisdictions is clear.)

Küng really goes after the whole concept of enforced celibacy for priests here; he examines both Scripture itself as well as Church history to shoot down the very idea, pointing out that nothing of the sort was actually required of priests until the tenth century, when celibacy was mandated by Pope Gregory VII while influenced by a certain circle of monks (who themselves were celibate, but by their own choice). Plus, even back then, when both the spiritual and temporal power of the Catholic Church had reached its height (and the First Crusade was about to be launched), this new measure still touched off major protests among priests in Italy and in Germany.

I’ve already mentioned the bishops and their “hush up” policies towards the pedophile incidents. But Küng also reminds us that, after a certain point in time, all pedophile cases were referred to the office within the Vatican known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where such centralized handling apparently helped them to be buried all the more effectively. A certain Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in charge of that particular office starting in 1981 – until he was chosen as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005! It turns out that Küng and Ratzinger have something of a common personal history, as they were colleagues for a time back in the early 1960s when they both worked as advisors to the Second Vatican Council. But this latest article – in such a high-profile publication as Le Monde – is certain not to do much to improve their relations, nor to soften Küng’s official treatment from the Vatican.

UPDATE: Küng’s article has now made its way to the blog of The New York Review of Books in a proper English translation.

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The French Cover Obama’s SOTU

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

President Obama faced a hard challenge with his State of the Union address to Congress of yesterday evening, given his recent series of political setbacks. That his speech came off well nonetheless is not just the conclusion picked by post-speech polling, but also one shared by observers from the French press, despite the discourse’s inevitable emphasis on domestic affairs. (This US-focus did not stop the French on-line papers from uniformly offering embedded videos of the entire speech, some even dubbed into French, so their readers could take a look at it themselves.)

Noteworthy reaction flowed promptly in two articles from that pillar of the French journalistic establishment, Le Monde. One of them (Obama’s words: work, economy, and Americans; no byline) literally offers at its head a “word-cloud” of the speech’s most-frequent terms (actually, their French equivalents) and then, by way of analysis, a hyper-short summary of his essential message: “Don’t panic.” Yes, it’s true that the president’s emphasis was much more on the economy and creating jobs, rather than on that health care reform legislation that still sits tantalizingly close to final passage. But what was of far more interest to Le Monde’s writer here was those foreign policy topics to which Obama gave short shrift, as he only briefly discussed Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, skimmed China, Russia, Germany, India, the Koreas, and said nothing at all about Pakistan or the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process! (Nor about France, come to think of it.)

A companion Le Monde article (Obama like in the first days; also no explicit byline) notes how surprisingly sprightly Obama appeared before the assembled Congress (“with a rediscovered insolence and combativeness”), just like in the old days, oh so long ago, when he was eating John McCain’s lunch on the campaign trail. This writer also issues a fitting, if cynical summary of the president’s economic message: focus on jobs this year (an election year); focus on reducing the deficit only the year after that.

For its part, the conservative paper Le Figaro contributes a lengthy review of Obama’s SOTU speech from its Washington correspondent, Laure Mandeville (Employment, Obama’s priority for 2010). I’m pretty sure “Laure” is a French woman’s name, for Ms. Mandeville not only mentions Barack’s feistiness (“more resolute and offensive than ever”) but also gets in a reference to Michelle’s couture (she was wearing a jupe bouffant violine – some sort of fancy skirt). At the same time, she captures well the lecturing, lightly-scolding tone prevalent especially in his speech’s second half, and directed largely at the Republican opposition, reflecting his greater theme of “we [i.e. the country] just can’t go on like this!”

Bonus: The judgment on Obama’s SOTU speech is also out from the foremost Danish expert on American affairs, Prof. Niels Bjerre-Poulsen of the Copenhagen Business School (as reported by Ritzau, so it’s pretty much the representative Danish journalistic view; actually published in this instance in the opinion newspaper Information). With this excellent speech, opines the good professor, Obama once again showed his strong side to the nation: that is, in speech-making, in this case in a tight situation and with many contradictory points to make. But the resulting goodwill will only last so long, and it takes much different political skills to translate such fancy words into concrete results. We still have to see if the president is similarly gifted with those latter.

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The Frozen Why’s and Wherefore’s

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

“Cold enough for you?” I know: a trite thing to say. Everyone knows already that it’s cold: Europe, North America, Asia. Better if someone could tell us why, and what we can do about it!

Comes now Pierre Le Hir, writing in Le Monde, with a bit of explanation (Why the Northern Hemisphere suffers under cold waves). According to his account, this winter’s extraordinary cold is the product of one key variable, together with another aggravating factor. That variable is NAO, or North Atlantic oscillation, which is the weather-pattern determined by the intensities of the low-pressure center usually somewhere around Iceland and the high-pressure center usually around the Azores. If NAO is positive, then winds coming into Europe carrying warmth stored by the Atlantic are strong, resulting in a mild winter; if it’s negative, they are weak, resulting in cold.

Naturally, right now NAO is negative. Then there is that aggravating factor, of which you have heard before: El Niño, defined as abnormally-high surface-water temperatures in the Pacific. Starting from last summer the El Niño phenomenon has been elsewhere than where it usually is found (more mid-Pacific than near to the South American coast). This helps to make things yet colder in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in North America. In fact, author Le Hir reports that the weather establishment still does not regard the cold experienced so far this winter in Europe to be particularly outside of the realm of expectation – for all of the deaths (22 in the UK) and various disruptions to transport in France and some other countries that the article goes on to list.

Oh, and as to that second point: We can’t do anything about it.

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Veils To Be Outlawed in France?

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Get ready for more trouble on the European Muslim-relations front: Le Monde reports today that one French legislator, Jean-François Copé, has expressed his intention to introduce legislation forbidding the wearing of a veil in “places open to the public,” to be punished by a hefty €750 fine, also applicable to people “who oblige a women to wear a full veil”. He proposes this in an interview to appear in the issue of the right-wing magazine Le Figaro to be published over the coming weekend; Le Monde has simply managed to blow the whistle early on what is presumably the most news-worthy component of that piece.

This matters because Copé is head of the group of parliamentarians in the French National Assembly that belong to the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) which is also President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party – and because it would seem that the European political scene could use a break from this sort of measure in the wake of the referendum in Switzerland last November that forbade the building of minarets there. Strangely, in his interview Copé also mentions that his proposed law would incorporate “a period for dialogue of six months between the date of application of the law and the date of promulgation to permit a phase for discussion and mediation with the concerned persons.” That seems a strange way to proceed – legislate first, discuss later – and is unlikely to salve the feelings of the Muslim inhabitants of the country against whom this law clearly is aimed.

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Digital Crimes at the Elysée

Monday, October 12th, 2009

One noteworthy French media institution which I don’t deal with at all on this site is the Chained Duck, or Le Canard Enchaîné, a “satirical weekly” newspaper that comes out each Wednesday, and which has a long history going back to 1915. I don’t deal with it partly because its unique brand of journalism – similar to the late-lamented British magazine Punch, but with even more of a political bite – by its very nature is highly idiomatic, but mainly because its website indeed looks much like you would expect a website to have looked like in 1915, if there had been websites then.

To some extent that publication’s non-approachability is a shame, because its reporters do perform some serious journalism (before twisting it up in the house humor-style) and achieve scoops. Fortunately, no less than France’s own “grey lady” of journalism, Le Monde, considered Le Canard’s latest revelation to be worth taking up and passing along on its own pages (When the Elysée practices piracy).

First off, you need to know that the Elysée Palace is where the President of the French Republic lives, so that these days Elysée basically means “Nicolas Sarkozy” the way “White House” means “Barack Obama.” And it does seem that Président Sarkozy has engaging in a bit of piracy lately, or at least his people have. A documentary was shown on French television this past summer about him (actually, the evening before Bastille Day); it was part of a series called À visage découvert, or “With discovered face,” produced by Galaxie Presse. He must have liked it, because his office shortly thereafter asked Galaxie Presse to send along fifty DVD copies of the show for them to distribute further. It turned out, however, that they ended up distributing at least 400, and each such DVD carried the mark not of Galaxie Presse, but rather the seal of the President of the Republic along with the accompanying highly-ironic and minatory text “Audio-visual service of the president of the Republic – All rights reserved (photos and video).”

Further investigation by Canard reporters revealed that the Director of Galaxie Presse, Michel Rager, certainly had never been informed of the Elysée’s intentions to play a bit of a “loafs-and-fishes” game with the original fifty DVDs his company had provided – for free. The real point here, of course, is that France in recent years has taken the lead within Europe in instituting legal penalties against the illegal downloading and copying of digital materials; as the reaction from reader “Pirate” that Le Monde puts off to the right side of this piece points out, the illegal-copying action of the president’s office is supposed to bring criminal penalties of up to three years in jail and a €300,000 fine. The word “hypocrisy” in French, by the way, is easy enough for anyone to remember: hypocrisie.

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Paid Voyeurism, Coming Soon to Voyeur-Land

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

We all know about surveillance cameras (a.k.a. CCTV, or closed-circuit television). They’re supposed to protect us against crime, but they have a big problem: no one is really watching them, most of the time. That means that, at best, such cameras may have value after-the-fact in providing recorded video evidence (for submission to a trial, say), but do little to alert people when a crime is being committed or to send immediate help – or indeed, some reports say, even to deter crime.

All this notwithstanding, the UK is the world’s CCTV paradise, with by some accounts 1.5 million cameras in operation in various public spaces there. The problem remains of monitoring all those cameras sufficiently to be able to fully draw on the technology’s supposed benefits. Doing that with computers is one technique that is coming along, one that supposedly is not the answer yet, although doubtless it will be soon. In the meantime, articles in both Le Monde (Yoyeurism rewarded in Great Britain) and in the Nouvel Observateur (One society proposes to reward informants) have now drawn their respective readerships’ attention to a new private initiative in the UK called Internet Eyes (“Catch a criminal online”; “Become a Viewer for FREE”), where the essential idea is to get volunteers to watch these cameras, through the Internet, in the hopes of spotting crime as it happens and alerting the authorities for a cash reward. Go on and click through to check out the site: just like that girl you see there, you could soon be sitting back in the evening on your coach, relaxing with your laptop as you scan for criminals! Note in particular that, listed just below the heading “Typical event notifications include:” is “Anti social [sic] behavior” – defined by whom?

Anyway, any of you who are interested can simply head to this piece in the (London) Times to read a more lengthy treatment, in English of course, with many more details (including the assertion in the picture-caption up top that Britain in fact has 4.2 million CCTV cameras operational). The French input to all this is simply that those two publications from the Continent tipped me off to this story to begin with. Indeed, I’m otherwise rather disappointed in them for what is really in both cases a spare, “just the facts” treatment of Internet Eyes – the only hint of opinion comes in each article’s title – when you really would expect more contemplation of what this all means from the mainstream press of such a philosophically-inclined and intellectual land.

(Gee, you’re right: I’m more-or-less guilty of the same offense, including saving my most intense opinionating for this post’s title. I can only respond that I still don’t know what to think about it all. I do really hate the CCTV cameras, but then again, examination of that Wikipedia page about them started me contemplating the 1993 murder of that two-year-old Liverpool boy by two ten-year-olds, a crime that leaned heavily on CCTV footage for its solution.)

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Tide Gradually Turning Against Roman Polanski in France

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

After French/Polish director Roman Polanski’s arrest last Saturday night as he was trying to enter Switzerland to attend the Zurich Film Festival where he would accept an award, the first public reactions from his countries of citizenship expressed outrage. More substantively, both the French and Polish foreign ministers issued a joint appeal to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene, which she declined to do.

Now almost a week after the fact, however, attitudes seem to be changing about the case, to Polanski’s detriment. Jan Cienski of the Global Post has a pretty good summary of how that is occuring in Poland, while Doreen Carvajal and Michael Cieply of the New York Times posit the same development in France. (The NYT editors themselves take up the attitude to the case that seems to prevail throughout the American continent: Polanski must be returned to the US to face justice.)

A trip through the on-line French press does turn up indications that the tide has turned against the Oscar-winning director. (more…)

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French Applause for Obama Missile Non-Deployment

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Readers of this weblog – a smallish, hard-core elite, to be sure, but we’re trying to do something about that – will have known the news already, but last Thursday President Obama came out in public to announce that his administration did not intend to proceed with the planned deployment of anti-ICBM missiles to Poland and supporting radar to the Czech Republic. Reaction to the decision was swift and vociferous, both for and against, domestically and internationally. Presseurop has a good survey of that reaction in the Eastern European press, although I feel that it tends a slight bit too much to the alarmist side. It seems many of those newspaper headline-writers have forgotten how fundamentally unpopular the American deployment was among ordinary Czechs and Poles; in this light, Obama’s cancellation of the program per se is not so regretable, but rather the considerable trouble both governments had to take to gain the political approval for their participation, now all achieved for nothing.

Not to worry, though, because French president Nicolas Sarkozy praised Obama’s move as an “excellent decision,” and the editors at Le Monde make it clear that they agree (Hand extended). Yes, the proposed deployment was going to be expensive, for a weapons system about which there remained significant doubts that it ever would actually be able to do what was designed for. But don’t forget the diplomatic dividends, either, Le Monde reminds us. These mainly involve Iran, which is supposed to start multilateral talks with a range of western countries starting on October 1; Obama’s action sends them a message of “good will and realism.” And Russia? Obama’s gesture was directed there to an even greater extent, but Le Monde’s editors unfortunately do not expect to see any corresponding gesture from the Kremlin anytime soon.

By the way, mention should also be made of the announcement by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, noted in Le Monde’s news coverage of the American announcement, that the “SM-3” missiles which are now to be the replacement anti-missile system will be deployed in turn from 2015 in Poland and the Czech Republic. First of all, that is a bit over-determined: mainstream US news reports put it instead that deployment of those missiles to those countries is but a possibility. And that’s a good thing, too: recall that the original ten defensive rockets that were to be intalled in Poland were designed to counter Iranian missiles of intercontinental range. Poland presumably is a good spot to deploy those – just take a string to your globe to check out the great circle route from Iran to the USA – but that is probably not also the case for defense against the short- and medium-range missiles which are now assumed to be the only Iranian threat for many years to come. In light of this, these suggestions that Warsaw and Prague will eventually get their missiles after all have to be regarded as sheer political bull-headedness – “We won’t let anyone tell us we can’t station missiles in Eastern Europe!” – rather than anything based on considerations of military effectiveness.

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Obama’s Health Care Speech: French Reax (& Preax)

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Obama gave his big Health Care speech to a joint session of the US Congress early this morning (Central European Time). Let’s take a look at some material about that from the national press of France, the country which, it is widely admitted, has much to teach the Americans about how to run a national health care system.

We first need to consult the French paper-of-record, and that is still Le Monde, which provides initial coverage in a piece jointly credited to it, the AFP news agency, and Reuters (Obama’s big oral exam on health) and put on-line only a couple of hours after the event itself. Graphically, the article stands out due to the two YouTube videos embedded within it, which feature no dubbing or subtitles or any other concessions to French-only readers but which of course include that electric passage when the president was loudly heckled (Vous mentez!, he shouted – or would have, in French, if he had had any bit of class) by South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson. The main insights of note here come at the very beginning – Barack Obama joue le tout pour le tout, or “Barack Obama is going all-in,” in poker-speak – and at the end: the piece remarks that Obama knows he needs to achieve something this year, as it will be even harder to do so next year, an election year. (more…)

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Economic Science Discredited: A French View

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

She’s known mainly for being ultra-polite and proper, God bless her, but even Queen Elizabeth II reached the point at the end of last year when she couldn’t restrain herself anymore from asking, while visiting the London School of Economics, “How could no one have foreseen it?” “It,” of course, was the catastrophic banking/financial breakdown that had come to its terrifying climax the previous September – almost one year ago now – and plunged most of the world into grave economic troubles, her own sovereign realm definitely not excepted.

Putting Her Majesty’s query in another form, How did economists get it so wrong? Or, if you like: What were they thinking? Whichever way it is stated, the issue is no doubt a complicated one, not to mention rather embarrassing for that profession of economists from which one might still assume that the best answers might ultimately come. And by now they are coming: the previous two hyper-links, in fact, take you directly to major pieces on the evident failure of modern economics by Paul Krugman (in the New York Times Magazine) and by Francis Fukuyama (together with Seth Colby).

But all of that is in English and so readily accessible. (Well, you’re going to have to subscribe to The American Interest if you want to read all of the Fukuyama/Colby piece, but the Krugman is all there and is really a “must-read.”) For our EuroSavant purposes, let’s consider instead an analysis piece just out in the French newspaper-of-record Le Monde by editor-in-chief Frédéric Lemaître: The crisis puts back into question economists’ knowledge and status. (more…)

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Flu Preparations: The Good, The Bad, The Pig-Ugly

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

mexicaan_griep_jpg_255361dSwine flu is coming soon to hit us again, almost anywhere on Earth we might find ourselves. We know that; indeed, some of us possibly intend to seek out one of those swine flu parties to go to, about which I wrote previously in this space, in order to try to gain immunity against the autumn’s follow-up virus.

Of course, normal social intercourse under the shadow of a communicable disease rather demands that individuals take whatever prophylactic measures are necessary to avoid spreading the virus to others, if one has it, or catching it from others if one does not. That’s why illustrations accompanying swine flu news-reports usually show people wearing medical face-masks. Unfortunately, word has now come from the respected Dutch daily Trouw: Face-masks are not the solution.

Says who? Says Louise Knegtel of the BCM Academy (a.k.a. the Business Continuity & Crisis Management Institute), who these days is going around frenetically conducting three or four workshops per day about the “Mexican” (i.e. swine) flu and how businesses should prepare for it. She notes that face-masks will probably be useless because they only work if they are consistently worn, i.e. by everyone and at all times, and humans are simply not made that way. Sure, you can get all draconian and insist upon and enforce the wearing of face-masks by everyone in your firm, but then what about your suppliers? Your customers who come for a consultation/business meeting?

It probably won’t work (and, believe me, that’s not really the Dutch management style in any case). Better to go with other measures like repeatedly cleaning telephones and doorknobs, using the stairs instead of the elevator, and “limiting social contact” within your company, i.e. letting people work from home, holding teleconferences rather than in-person get-togethers, etc. Even this is not enough to make your firm ready for what Ms. Knegtel forecasts could be 50% employee absence if the new flu outbreak gets serious. (Note that a lot of this will likely be the result, not of sick employees per se, but people needing to go home to take care of children whose schools have closed against the illness.) Way before the flu strikes a firm needs to prepare carefully, designating key activities and key personnel, planning how to keep them going even when people go missing, maybe pre-designating a “crisis manager” (presumably one assumed to be least at risk of getting the flu him/herself) to take charge when the problems start.

Whoa, then: all talk of “Kiss me, you swine!” aside, it looks like experts are taking the prospect of a serious swine/Mexican flu epidemic in the fall quite seriously. This point is reinforced by an article in Le Monde of a couple of days ago, Europe: Authorities prepare to confront the virus, a brief, collective effort by Le Monde’s correspondents in the major European capitals (including Paris, bien sûr) to summarize preparations country-by-country. The common pattern emerges of governments having placed huge orders with the relevant pharmacy companies (Sanofi, GSK, Novartis) for flu vaccines and established plans for prioritized vaccinations for if/when the more serious H1N1 flu comes. That is, as large as the orders have been, there is still not enough vaccine for everyone, so public workers, people already in vulnerable states of health, etc. get it first. (Also interesting is that the French name for this disease seems to be “the flu A(H1N1)”; we may need to compile a lexicon if different countries/languages persist in using their own, idiosyncratic swine-flu names like this.)

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Man-On-The-Moon Envy

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Happy fortieth Man-on-the-Moon anniversary! Did you celebrate yesterday, maybe take your very own “one small step for man”? Let me tell you, the Europeans are still jealous! Why else would an editorial appear in Le Monde, that pillar of the French media establishment, whose very title declares Forty years after Armstrong, Europe should affirm its space ambition?

As the article’s author reminds us straight off the bat, using the words of John F. Kennedy, “It’s not just one man who will go to the Moon, it’s the entire country. Because each of us must mobilize to send him there.” Still, although they have yet sent no one there yet, Europe has been fairly active in space for quite a while. By now they have the powerful Ariane 5 rocket to their credit, which at the beginning of this month launched into orbit the world’s largest commercial satellite, a communications satellite weighing more than 7 tons. The European Space Agency has also made certain major contributions to the International Space Station, including delivering to it last year the first Automated Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned craft designed for resupply trips back-and-forth. Oh, and Europe’s space effort definitely means jobs, as this writer shrewdly points out: 40,000 directly employed in 2008, with around 250,000 further secondary jobs. (more…)

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Pirates Reborn

Friday, July 10th, 2009

If you’re into peer-to-peer downloading of large files (e.g. movies, music) from the Internet, you know already know all about it; if you’re not, here’s a quick summary. The most popular program for doing so is called BitTorrent, and for quite some time The Pirate Bay, a site based in Sweden, was the most popular place to go to get the files you might be interested in (you know, like Hollywood movies still in general public release – or even yet to embark upon public release). Naturally, The Pirate Bay came under some considerable legal pressure for its activities, until this past spring the main personnel behind it were sentenced to jail and to the payment of a hefty SEK 30 million fine. (They are appealing the verdict.) In the meantime, the Swedish advertising company Global Gaming Factory X AB has announced its intention to buy The Pirate Bay next month and give it a “new business model” that makes the site’s activities strictly legal. In the meantime, though, some of the people behind The Pirate Bay have formed The Pirate Party – with chapters not just in Sweden but other countries as well – to advance their free-file-sharing political views, which already won one seat in the European Parliament in the early-June elections.

The (eventual) metamorphosis of The Pirate Bay to legality is especially good news for the French government, which has been busy since the beginning of the year trying to come up with legal measures to pass to outlaw the sort of free downloading of copyrighted commercial material that The Pirate Bay did so much to facilitate. After modifying their legislation to meet the objections from France’s Constitutional Court, which had first thrown it out, the French Senate has recently passed it, so that it is close to becoming law. It would empower a state agency – called Hadopi – to detect this sort of activity and, if two warnings to desist are ignored, pass on to French judges information about the offense for them to assign penalties, including fines, jail, and disconnection from the Net.

Ah, but can anyone ever stop truly determined Internet “pirates”? Le Monde reporter Maël Inizan now reports on another site now arising like a phoenix from The Pirate Bay’s ashes to save the cause of free downloading (Illegal downloading: a new site takes up the torch of The Pirate Bay). (more…)

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Hot Pang of Alarm

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Pangnirtung: ever heard of it? The Wikipedia article claims it is known as the “Switzerland of the Arctic”; its mayor goes by the marvelous name of “Mosesee Qappik.” For our purposes here, though, all we need to know – besides the comforting fact that it’s OK just to call it “Pang” – is that it’s an Inuit town located on the Arctic Circle, on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut – and one that finds itself on the front line of world climate change. Le Monde correspondent Martine Jacot recently paid a visit to Pang to write about what is going on there (In the Arctic, the Inuits dread the network-effects of climate change); as world leaders haggle at the G8 in Italy over ceilings for temperature-rises and quotas for greenhouse gas emissions, it might be handy to consider for a bit what these people are going through already.

“Here as elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic,” states Ron Mongeau, a local government administrator, “climatic warming is not an illusion or a threat. Every day, it affects those who live there, who are dependent on hunting and fishing.” The average temperature there has indeed gone up by 1.4 degrees (that must be ºC) since the nineties, and the summer temperature has exceeded what used to be the hottest measurement on record (22ºC) five years in a row now.

OK OK, but what does that really mean on the ground – where the caribou’s hoof hits the road, so to speak? Well, speaking of, the caribou are all messed up about what is happening: during their autumn migrations they now find too many rivers not yet frozen-over, as they expect them to be from the past, and so have had to take wide detours. As for the humans living in the area (keep in mind, though, that they’re certainly outnumbered by the caribou), it seems everything they thought they knew about how their weather was supposed to be, year-round, has gone out the window. This past winter was somehow the coldest that anyone could remember; spring of 2008, however, was much warmer than usual, something that resulted in a “wall of water” flood hitting the town in June, after which the inhabitants had to live for months with potable water only available from trucks. Instances have now multiplied of snowmobiles traversing areas of snow and ice that turn out to be much softer than expected, so that both machine and rider get entrapped and have to be rescued, and everyone is afraid that the warmed-up soil will weaken the foundations of their buildings.

On the bright side, at least the Pangnirtung Fjord upon which the town is situated is now always ice-free in the summer, so that cruise ships have now made the place a regular stop on their itinerary. Many of those rich tourists like to visit in the first place to fish for the Arctic char (related to the salmon, and whose red/pink flesh is a rare delicacy), but the char population has noticeably thinned out lately because the warmer waters are no longer so suitable for the Arctic shrimp upon which they feed.

UPDATE: Here’s a related piece in English, about how they’re already having to cope with global warming in Greenland, from Yahoo! News (h/t to Some Assembly Required).

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Lula: G8 An Idea Whose Time Is Past

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

President Obama heads today to L’Aquila, Italy, for the three-day Group of 8 (G8) summit, and the New York Times has little hope anything useful will come out of it, due to “inexcusably lax planning by the host government, Italy, and the political weakness of many of the leaders attending.” Oh, and there’s also the slight possibility that another earthquake might hit the place just at the wrong time and trigger an evacuation plan to quickly fly the world’s seven top leaders somewhere else. (China’s Hu Jintao has already broken off his attendance there to fly back because of the continuing civil unrest in Xinjiang.)

Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (usually known just as “Lula”) is also in Italy, although Brazil is not one of the countries making up the G8. That’s apparently because national leaders of other big and/or important countries which don’t quite qualify for the G8 are nonetheless often summoned to show up for token appearances as well. In an exclusive interview with Le Monde, though, Lula makes it known that he is not particularly grateful for the invitation: as one might expect, what you could call the “off-G8” leaders are mainly there, as he puts it, “to have some coffee – the most expensive coffee in the world! – and for photos.”

As much as I might be enamored of that “off-G8” neologism of mine just above (you know, like “off-Broadway”?), I’m afraid there’s a better, already-existing term we could use for those other countries like Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa, namely the G20, after the somewhat-larger international summit of world leaders that had its first occasion last November in Washington, its second last April in London, and is scheduled to have its third next September in Pittsburgh. And indeed, in this interview Lula essentially calls for scrapping the G8 structure for yearly international summits in favor of the G20: “The G20 is more important than the G8, more representative, therefore closer to the realities of the crisis we are now going through.” He fears that the only reason the world’s richest countries allowed the G20 forum to get started at all was because they felt it was necessary for dealing with the world economic crisis (indeed, the G20’s short history does suggest that). Instead, though, he advocates not only abolition of the G8 but also an expansion of the G20 structure, to the point where it starts to look a bit like the way the European Union functions, in that regular G20 meetings would also be scheduled for officials below the head-of-government level as well, e.g. meetings of G20 finance ministers, of agricultural ministers, etc.

It’s a relatively short interview (just four questions), but Lula is a practiced politician and so manages to get in plugs for his other pet causes as well, like ratification of the Doha world trade round; a general dismantlement of the trade barriers keeping developing countries from selling their agricultural produce to developed countries; and, if governments think ethanol is a valid alternative energy source, then for the use of sugar cane to make it (like they do in Brazil, quite successfully) rather than corn (like they do in the US, quite unsuccessfully so far). He has also come up with an inside-the-G8 insurgent ally to help put additional pressure on that organization; it should come as no surprise that that is French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who together with Lula (as reported in yet another Le Monde article) is calling for the establishment of a world-wide “Alliance for Change” to “devote priority attention to the social dimension of globalization,” i.e. outside of the G8 structure because, according to those leaders, the G8 has shown itself as unwilling ever to address that subject on its own.

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Doubled Donkeypower

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Back at the Tour de France, the “team time trial” that constitutes Stage 4 yesterday resulted in a strong victory for Lance Armstrong’s Astana team that put him up to second place, just two-tenths of a second behind the current leader, Fabian Cancellara. “Astana cruised so fast along 24.2 miles . . . of narrow and snaking roads,” wrote New York Times reporter Juliet Macur, “that the pack looked like a giant blur of blue and yellow.”

That’s all fine; but we also have, observing from the sidelines, one Antoine Vayer, once a trainer of the Festina bicycle-racing team, but who for ten years now has instead studied athletic physiology intensively, to the point that he is currently Professor of Physical Education at a French university. More to the point, however, is the research organization he has founded, called “AlternatiV,” devoted to the problem of bicycle-race doping. Because now Antoine Vayer has the sort of implacable hostility to that practice that can only come from those who used to be knee-deep in sin themselves.

Along the way, Vayer has also grabbed a cushy summer gig for himself as expert commentator covering each July’s Tour de France for a newspaper, first for Le Monde back in 1999, now for Libération. And it’s in a recent article there (entitled Loaded down like mules) that he puts forward the new approach for detecting doping that he has worked out. (Vayer sets the right tone at the very beginning of his piece with an apt derivative of an ancient saying: Male sanus in corpore inhumano, or “Unsound spirit in an inhuman body” – it’s supposed to be “Sound mind in a healthy body” – but I frankly found the exposition of his ideas to be clearer in a an article appearing somewhat later in Le Monde, Tour of Fraud: from “miraculous” to “mutant” doping, by the writer “E.M.,” which is also what alerted me to this issue in the first place.) (more…)

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One French Hand Clapping for Waxman-Markey

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

. . . er, yes, I know that Michael Jackson died, I’m just trying to see whether I can hold off having to write about that. Though if I get any more e-mail requests, I guess my hand will be forced.

For now, though, I’d rather discuss the Clean Energy and Security Act, otherwise known as the Waxman-Markey bill after its leading Congressional sponsors, that was passed in the US House of Representatives yesterday by a narrow 219-212 vote. This is the legislation that would move the US towards a “cap and trade” approach to regulating greenhouse-gas emissions. One key to understanding the push for such a law is clearly the issue’s whole international aspect: the rest of the world rather expects the United States to embark on something of this sort, whether it is Europe that already is further ahead in its environmental legislation or it is China and India who are definitely behind, but looking on to see whether there will ultimately be American inaction that can justify their own.

That’s why it is good to see an article in the authoritative French newspaper Le Monde such as the one just written by Corine Lesnes. Obama launches his green revolution, she proclaims in the piece’s very title, which features at the top an oddly hagiographic photo of Obama standing in front of what seems to be an early-American wilderness mural, perhaps during a visit to the Department of the Interior. (more…)

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Disney Recycled

Monday, April 13th, 2009

The leading French daily Le Monde has a weblog on its website that I’ve just discovered, called V Pour Vidéo. The tagline it uses to describe itself translates as “Video-essentials in a blog with real pieces of video inside” – language I imagine that you’d rather expect to see on a cereal-box! In any case, it does seem to be a weblog based around video, in a loose sense at least, with at least one video embedded in each blogpost.

Also, the blog-author’s name is Karim El Hadj – that’s something that should cause a double-take, when you realize that this is an affiliated product of the renowned Le Monde! I’m not saying that it’s surprising that someone who is clearly originally of Arab origin can come up with high-quality weblog content; I’m saying I’m surprised that such a person is, in effect, sponsored by such a pillar of the French media establishment as Le Monde.

For his blogpost for today it seems that El Hadj has been inspecting various Disney animation-films rather closely and has come up with something rather interesting. I’ll pass the word directly on to him here:

Like many animation-lovers, while watching Disney animated cartoons you have also felt a certain déjà vu. Here’s the explanation of this phenomenon. For many years the Disney enterprise has continued to duplicate animation segments from one cartoon to another. Creativity and industry don’t necessarily always go together.

Here’s the video that proves his point, from DailyMotion.com:


In the comments following the post you have contributions from various readers offering their own judgments as to whether this is really such a bad thing. Comment #3, from “Matthieu,” does cut Disney some slack, reminding us that back when these films were made there were no computers to assist so that everything had to be drawn by hand, and maybe in view of this the duplication made some sense in order to “gain time” and not have to re-do everything all the time. But El Hadj remains hard-core, sticking in his own blog-author’s comment-to-the-commend (Message du blogueur) saying, in effect, yeah they gain time, and so they gain more money, and where’s the innovation?

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Ex-Soviet Club Presidents’ Summit Shows Russia’s Increasing Clout

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Just as the Obama administration is getting prepared to ramp up US military strength in Afghanistan by about another 30,000 troops, a very real problem has arisen as to how to keep supplied the NATO troops already on the ground there, much less bring in brand new forces. The land supply-route from Pakistan via the Khyber Pass has lately become somewhat insecure and unreliable, but now the air route threatens to become much longer and more difficult due to the announced closure to NATO use, within six months, of the Manas airbase near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. The Washington Independent’s ace (US) national security reporter, Spencer Ackerman, now considers the Manas closing as inevitable, while Scott Horton over at Harper’s enlightens us as to the corrupt and high-handed (even deadly) American behavior there that caused relations with the Kyrgyz to sour to bring us to this point.

The world-renowned French daily Le Monde provides yet more context for that Kyrgyz government decision (Five countries of the ex-USSR create a fund for dealing with the crisis). Those five countries are Russia herself, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and, yes, Kyrgyzstan, and the article shows clearly how Russia has succeeded in re-extending it’s influence over the Central Asian countries both financially and militarily. Sure, there is that $2 billion loan and $150 million in an outright grant reported by the New York Times that Russia has offered to Kyrgyzstan. But that august newspaper failed to report that Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev travelled to Moscow in the first place to take part in a summit with Russian president Medvedev and the presidents of five other ex-Soviet states. It was there that the subset named above established a collective $10 billion fund (with a disproportionate Russian contribution, one would expect) as an emergency and stabilization reserve for confronting the worldwide financial crisis.

But that same summit had an important military dimension as well. All seven of the presidents in attendance (i.e. the five listed above plus those of Armenia and Uzbekistan) agreed to create “collective armed forces” for responding to common external threats. And it was actually in connection with this summit meeting that Kyrgyz president Bakiev made his announcement that the Manas airbase would shortly be closed to the Americans.

Although it is true that “collective armed forces” is a vague phrase, and that one should wait and see what comes of it in operational practice (if anything – it’s highly unlikely to mean a fusion of all those nations’ armies, for example), it is nonetheless clear that Russia’s influence in Central Asia is waxing. But it’s also probably useful to remember that American access to airbases in the region, starting in 2001 (i.e. less than ten years after these states had gained a sort of “independence” from Soviet Russia) was extraordinary to begin with, and really only due to the world political climate in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, which among other effects brought about toleration for this extraordinary concept from the Russian government. If that attitude cooled soon thereafter, it did so somewhat less quickly in the states actually hosting American bases, namely Uzbekistan (with an airbase made available until 2005) and Kyrgyzstan, giving them for a while at least a veneer of policy “independence” from Moscow. The impending loss of the Manas base, however – although considerably helped along by American behavior, as Scott Horton reminds us – was in this geopolitical context something inevitable, so that one would rather hope and expect that contingency plans for what to do next are already in place at the Pentagon.

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“Remove My Grandfather’s Name from Yad Vashem!”

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

The leading French daily Le Monde today has a striking editorial, in the form of an open letter to Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, from the French writer Jean-Moïse Braitberg. That double first-name amounts to what in English would be “John-Moses,” so this is someone of the Jewish faith, in fact someone whose grandfather died in the gas chambers of Treblinka and of whom other relatives also perished during World War II in various other Nazi camps. The name of his late grandfather, Moshe Brajtberg, is even enshrined at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, but now M. Braitberg is publicly writing the Israeli president to have it removed. “I ask you to accede to my request, Mr. President, because what has happened in Gaza, and more generally the fate given to the Arab people of Palestine for sixty years, disqualifies Israel in my eyes as a center for the memory of the evil done to Jews and thereby to all of humanity.”

He goes on:

You see, since my childhood I have lived within an entourage of survivors from the death-camps. . . . It was necessary, they taught me, that these crimes never resume again; that never again could a man, due to his belonging to an ethnic group or religion despised by others, be scoffed at while trying to assert the most elementary rights such as a dignified life in safety, without being shackled but with the light, however distant, of a future of serenity and prosperity.

Nonetheless, all that M. Braitberg writes that he has seen from Israel over decades towards the Palestinians has been “violence, spilled blood, confinement, incessant controls, colonization, [and] despoiling.” But what about the rockets that Hamas incessantly launches at Israel? What about the suicide bombers? “What I will say to you is that my feelings of humanity do not vary according to the citizenship of the victims.”

Then further:

On the contrary, Mr. President, you guide the destinies of a country that claims not only to represent Jews collectively, but also the memory of those who were victims of Naziism. It’s that which concerns me, and which I find intolerable. By preserving at the memorial of Yad Vashem, at the heart of the Jewish State, the name of my nearest relatives, your State keeps my family-memory a prisoner behind the barbed-wire of Zionism to make it a hostage of a self-proclaimed moral authority that each day commits the abomination that is the denial of justice.

So he wants his grandfather’s name removed. It’s all fairly powerfully – and, of course, publicly – expressed, not that Israeli officials will bother to take any notice. Still, together with the new accusatory Internet meme – “The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors from World War II are doing to the Palestinians exactly what was done to them by Nazi Germany” – it is clear that Israel is harvesting the whirlwind that she sowed with her December attacks into Gaza.

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Troubled OPEC Seeks Expansion

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Russia as a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC): how does that idea sound to you? What with the low oil price prevailing nowadays (lately just below $45 for a barrel of Brent crude), that seems just the ticket to Shakib Khelil, Algerian Minister for Energy and acting OPEC President, who recently declared that “Russia will provide a particular importance to OPEC if she re-joins it, that will augment OPEC’s power to control production, which would be around 50% instead of [the present] 40% of global production.” This was according to an article in the French daily Le Monde: Russia invited to rejoin OPEC. (more…)

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Giving the Cowboy the Boot

Monday, December 15th, 2008

You’ve heard by now of the remarkable welcome President Bush received at a press conference during his surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday, yes? Arab journalists may still be in the early stages of adjusting to the freer media environment in Iraq, but at least they don’t settle for flip-flops. No, what George W. Bush instead twice found coming in on a bee-line to his head were the formal dress-shoes of a certain Muntadar al-Zeidi, correspondent for the Cairo-based TV network “Al-Baghdadiya.”

Which of the many available European lenses to take up for review of this incident? Obviously it should be from a culture with a certain shoe-expertise; the Italian press thereby suggests itself, but long-time readers (Hi Mom!) will realize that Italian coverage is here on €S an exception rather than a rule, due mainly to considerations of linguistic familiarity. The French should be a perfectly-suitable substitute. (more…)

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Detroit Auto Execs Lay An Egg

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

The CEOs of Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) made their pilgrimage to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, to make a plea for their own bailout from the federal government. You’d have to say that their show was a flop; media coverage afterwards included accusations of “tone deafness”, together with particular scorn for the fact that the execs had each traveled to Washington to beg for public money on their company private jets.

The foreign press was watching this performance, too, and from the pages of France’s leading newspaper Le Monde, Dominique Dhombres did not even need any mention of the private jets to quite effectively skewer the auto-bosses with an article entitled Ask for pardon? Out of the question! (more…)

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Asif Zardari and the American Anti-Taliban Raids

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

On this seventh anniversary-day of the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the top news-story is probably the joint appearance at Ground Zero by the two main US presidential candidates. In addition to whatever they may have to say, the occasion will be worth savoring for the all-too-temporary respite it should provide in the ugly partisanship that has prevailed as of late (e.g. the utterly-contrived “lipstick-on-a-pig” contretemps). I hope to be able to cover foreign observations of and reactions to that Ground Zero ceremony in this space sometime in the coming days.

For today, though, I think that it would be suitable to turn our attention to the supposed ultimate source of that al-Qaeda attack, and also the first target for retribution by US forces in its aftermath. That is of course Afghanistan, or specifically al-Qaeda as embedded within a Taliban host environment. Actually, putting it that way shifts the proper focus a slight bit from Afghani territory per se to the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan lying along the Afghani border. These are hardly “federally administered,” they are in fact a region completely out of the control of the Pakistani government, where various varieties of “neo-Taliban” and Muslim fundamentalist forces are based (including, it is thought, what is left of al-Qaeda), and from which these forces sally forth to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan.
(more…)

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John McCain’s Wunderwaffe

Monday, September 8th, 2008

His “wonder-weapon”: that would be Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, whose personality dominated the Republican National Convention last week, and who apparently has much to do with the McCain campaign lately coming up neck-and-neck in the opinion polls with Obama.

That’s at least how Marc Pitzke, New York correspondent for Germany’s Der Spiegel, assesses the situation (Palin-effect turns forecasts on their head). He even maintains that the Obama campaign is now in Alarmstimmung – i.e. in a state of alarm – as the final, and toughest, 58-day period of electioneering up to November 4 gets underway. (First, however, there will be a brief non-partisan interlulde as both candidates appear on Thursday at New York City’s “Ground Zero” for a 9/11 anniversary commemoration.) (more…)

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Meet Cindy, the Boss

Friday, September 5th, 2008

In the midst of all the fierce “anti-Eastern-elite” rhetoric issuing forth from this past week’s Republican National Convention, there she stood: Cindy McCain, wife of the Republican presidential candidate, in a series of designer-name outfits with matching bejeweled accessories, part of her recent fashion move to “crisper, more contemporary dresses with richer colors.”

The irony there was unmistakable, and I’m hardly the first or the only one to comment on it. But I’d prefer to bring up the more impartial judgment of Le Monde writer Corine Lesnes (that’s a woman’s name) and her article At the McCain’s, she’s the boss. (more…)

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The Speech: From Berlin to Denver

Friday, August 29th, 2008

He came out to the podium, he gazed out upon the 80,000 upturned faces aglow – and then last night Senator Barack Obama laid out his vision for his presidential campaign and for the presidency presumably to follow.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying here to push any Republican-inspired “Messiah” or “Moses-parting-the-seas” irony to cast last evening’s events in a disparaging light. Indeed, it was an impressive spectacle – complete with letter-perfect weather! – that itself rightly dominated the news-cycle and to which reactions still dominate that news-cycle this morning.

The same is not quite true in Europe, which has plenty else to talk about today, but Barack Obama’s speech has still gotten plenty of attention even now (i.e. as your EuroSavant writes this), less than 12 hours after it was delivered. Let’s again start with reactions from those who were vouchsafed their own up-close look at the Senator’s speechifying, last July in Berlin, namely the Germans. (more…)

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The Klaus Anti-EU Constitution Pamphlet

Saturday, April 9th, 2005

As with most other weblogs, EuroSavant has had in the past certain topics to which it regularly returns. I’d like to keep that up, even though at least one of these, the “Poles In Iraq” series (last entry here, which deals appropriately enough with the prospect of withdrawal of Polish troops) has pretty much expired. But there remains the still-riveting tale of the EU Constitutional Treaty, now about to embark on the phase during which it is supposed to be ratified by all 25 EU member-states.

The key work to understanding what this “constitution” is all about, and so to make up my own mind whether I’m for it or not, is I think Peter Norman’s The Accidental Constitution: The Story of the European Convention, from EuroComment, which I previewed here. (Then I had long-running problems getting ahold of it, but those are finally solved.) I hope to report to you about this book shortly. In the meantime, though, the only EU head of state who has made it clear that he is against ratification – Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic, of course – recently turned up the volume on his anti-constitution agitation, as the French leading daily Le Monde reports (The Czech President, the Ultraliberal Václav Klaus, Campaigns for a “No”). (more…)

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Iraqi Elections: First French Take

Monday, January 31st, 2005

Time for a quick “day-after” survey of French press coverage of the Iraqi elections.

As usual, “day-after” is sometimes too early when it comes to significant, multi-dimensioned world events, as journalists and editors get all caught up with the reporting and don’t yet have time to sit back and think about what it all really meant. If you want an example of what I’m talking about here, and can read French yourself, I refer you to Le Monde’s editorial this morning, The Iraqi Wager. Spotlight on young French-Iraqi student; for her and her mother, being able to vote for the first time is truly a moving experience. (And this in what Le Monde explicitly labels its “editorial,” written collectively by the editors.) Yes yes, and you know, Iraq has truly never had elections. These first were admittedly imperfect: Sunni underrepresentation, the threat of violence. Still, they were at least a relative success, and hopefully Iraqis can look forward to much less imperfect elections next December. Right, moving on . . .

Libération is a bit better in analyzing what author Jean-Pierre Perrin terms in his piece’s title The Lessons of a Confessionalized Election. (more…)

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Immigration Quotas Gaining Ground in France

Wednesday, January 19th, 2005

I’ve been away for a little while, lacking access to a reliable computer, and while I wasn’t looking it looks like the debate on immigration in France has taken an interesting new turn with the injection of the heavily-loaded word “quotas.” That happened last week Thursday, in a statement from the prominent French politician (and presumed future presidential candidate of the Right) Nicolas Sarkozy. But for all his presence in the current French political scene, these days Sarkozy has no policy-making role (he is instead president of the governing right-wing party, the UMP). When someone who does have such a role takes up the same chant, that’s when you know things are starting to get serious – especially when that someone is none other than the Interior Minister, and Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin let a meeting of legislators from the UMP party know earlier this week that his ministry has started work on a legislative proposal along the lines that Sarkozy had previously discussed, as reported in Le Monde (Dominique de Villepin Comes to Terms With the Idea of Quotas). The next element in this time-line looks to be a report his ministry will submit at the end of next month “containing its propositions on how to determine France’s needs for foreign workers.” (more…)

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