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Entries in France (28)


Paris in the winter


Am I Charlie?

6 weeks ago the horrifying murders at Charlie Hebdo took place, a mass murder on a continent synonymous with civilisation and peace. The largest solidarity marches in history swept across Europe, with 3.7 million marching in France alone, many holding up signs "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie").

I am still not sure whether or not I would say "I am Charlie", though. The murder was horrific, 11 people killed for exercising their freedom of speech. There was, and could be, no justification for those murders. I remember back when the Danish cartoons were published, I had a long discussion with my brother Russell about whether they should have been allowed - I took the hard line that there should never be any bans on offending people. 

In America there is a robust voice that Charlie Hebdo crossed a line. This voice contains some from the right, who believe that religion has a special status and should be protected from insult, and some from the left, who claim that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were racist or that Islam should be respected. I disagree that Charlie Hebdo crossed a line, indeed, I disagree that a line even exists. Religion gets no exemption from mockery; indeed, as a source of the ludicrous it should attract more. I am strongly against the "blasphemy laws" (eg, the 2009 Irish law) that rear their ugly head when religious people want to protect themselves from criticism. I'm also not convinced that the cartoons are racist, I have seen a few examples that at face value look racist, but context is missing and satirical humour is very hard to translate across cultural boundaries. I personally don't find the cartoons funny, but then I don't even find American political cartoons funny, despite loving Australian political cartoons and being intimately familiar with the American context. And insulting someone's religion is very difficult from insulting a person, even if it may feel the same to the recipient. No, in every way, shape and form, I have no reservation in affirming the right of Charlie Hebdo in drawing the cartoons, and, indeed, even commend them for tackling a taboo subject.

So why, then, do I hesitate in tacking up the banner "Je Suis Charlie"? One problem is that I am not Charlie. I'm not a political cartoonist, I didn't read Charlie Hebdo, I wasn't killed for my beliefs. The millions who did say "Je Suis Charlie" also don't fit these criteria, so what exactly do they mean when they say "I am Charlie"? I'm not sure, which is my second problem with tacking up the banner. Some (hopefully most) simply mean "I believe in freedom of speech and secular values". Almost certainly, though, others are standing for something that combines this solidarity with an anti-Islam agenda. My thoughts on Islam are rather complex. Yes, it is a religion, and in dogma and in practice it stifles scientific and progressive thoughts. On the other hand, in this it is not notably different from Christianity or Judaism, so I strongly disagree when Islam (rather than religion more generally) is targeted for reproach. Most of the anti-Islamic movements in the western world reek of bigotry, lack a sophisticated understanding of Islam or the intersection of religion and culture, and push regressive, rather than progressive, positions. In short, while being anti-religion, I tend to find myself defending Islam more often than not, as it gets attacked disproportionately and often from the wrong angles.

The leader of Pegida strongly denies any racist undertonesOne question that keeps on rolling around my head is why there were no international marches saying "I am the Norwegian left". The Kouachi brothers killed 11 left-wing journalists, justifying the murders as an extreme right-wing defence of Islam. Breivik killed 77 left-wing politicians, justifying the murders as an extreme right-wing defence of Christianity. I understand both Paris and Oslo having enormous marches (1.6 million and 200,000 is roughly proportional to population size), but the Oslo killings didn't spark the personal intensity of international solidarity of the Paris killings, or even check the growth of the far-right politics that spawned it. Is part of the "Je Suis Charlie" call co-opted by the likes of Pegida, the anti-Islam movement in Germany?

Perhaps, rather than embrace a slogan that I am not quite sure I want to be associated with, I'll just express my anger at the murders in my own words. I embrace free speech. I encourage blasphemy and despise violence. The victims of violence have my sympathy, as do those brainwashed into committing it. Long may France, and Europe, practice what others only preach - an assertive secularism and a refusal to cower in the face of aggression. We won't sacrifice our lifestyle in a misguided attempt to find security under the blanket of cowardice. We grieve, but we also understand that life cannot be ruled by fear.


Adventures in Disneyland Paris

We just spent a week in Disneyland Paris "for Hayden". He certainly took to the lifestyle very easily, meeting all of the characters he knew so well (he loved Jake doing the Hotdog dance, in a special MickeyMouse Clubhouse / Jake and the Neverland Pirates crossover), and feasting on gold doubloons at every chance. We were surprised at how well he took to the rides ("just pretend scary"); he even loved the Tower of Terror! When it was finally time to go home, he needed clarification: "our Disneyland home? or our other home with Pepper and Mint".


Finding a suitable vehicle for protest

This is an interesting article about the recent win of the anti-EU party UKIP in England. UKIP voters are described as being part of the anti-politics movement:

They want to protest about the economy, about immigration, about the effects of globalisation, about the detachment of ordinary communities from frontline politics.

They can and should be able to do that. The responsibility lies in their choice of vehicle for that protest. 

This is a wonderful articulation of my feelings about not only UKIP but also parties such as N-VA and Front National. These parties do tap into a deep feeling of digust at the traditional parties, blaming the major parties for not addressing major issues. To at least some degree that digust has a legitimate basis (although in a democracy the fault ultimately lies in the voters). It is not an unreasonable stance to want vote against all the traditional parties of power. It is not unreasonable to feel angry about injustices. It is not unreasonable to protest vote. But UKIP is not a suitable vehicle for a reasonable protest. N-VA is not a suitable vehicle for a reasonable protest. Front National is not a suitable vehicle for a reasonable protest. When you vote for these parties you are not just registering a protest, you are not just voting for the anti-politics aspect of those parties, you are also endorsing their xenophobic roots. 

A protest vote is fine, even to be encouraged, but the vehicle of your protest still needs to be worthy of your vote.


Ile de Re, where the donkeys wear pants


European election results - there was no "European earthquake"

Last weekend the EU had its election - the second largest democratic election in the world (after that of India). The results tend to be rather difficult to interpret, especially as the reporting focuses on the most sensational outcomes. So let's start by looking at the broad trends:

Conservative & economic liberal parties: These parties, on the centre-right of European politics, were the biggest losers of the EU election, dropping down from 414 seats to 338 seats. This is a nasty swing, moving from ~55% of parliament to ~45% of parliament, but overall they still constitute the largest political grouping, and will continue to have the largest say in the new EU parliament.

Socialist & green progressive parties: These parties, on the centre-left of European politics, were the unsung winners of the EU elections. They rose from 285 seats to 316 seats, an increase from 37% to 42% of parliament. This more than eliminates the losses they were inflicted at the last EU election (which were considered a disaster at the time). Of course, not losing as badly is not the same as winning, but there was a clear gain, and the progressives will likely be more influential in the new parliament, especially if the centre-right wants to distance itself from the far right.

Far-right crazies: These were the talk of the election, and if the media was to be believed Europe was going to experience a far-right tide (in relative terms, of course, most of these nutters would feel at home in the Republican party in America). The far-right did indeed steal votes from the centre-right, and increased from 67 seats to 97 seats (from 9% to 13% of parliament). But to put the EU results in a bit of perspective, the entire far-right surge in seats was due to only two parties - UKIP in the UK (up 12 seats) and the Front National in France (up 21 seats), and both of these were due to the losses on the right. Despite the large gains, expect the far-right to be ignored in the next parliament - their politicans don't have the skill to work behind the scenes and they don't have any incentive to actually get anything done. These parties only survive in opposition, so they will continue to act like it.

Ignoring the hype, what is the actual outcome of the EU election?


  • There is no "European earthquake". The left-right balance more or less reverted from the shift to the right in the last election. The vote turnout more or less stayed the same. There is an ongoing process of the major parties losing votes to smaller parties, but this is fractioning the existing ideological make-up, rather than representing a profound shift within Europe. The composition of the parliament that will actually work together is fairly similar to the last parliament, and even the one before that.
  • The centre-right is reaping what it sowed. For the past decade, the centre-right in certain European countries (UK, France, Italy) has played up populist racist messages in order to beat the centre-left. This was a successful short-term strategy, but it is now backfiring, as the hatred stirred up in voters has boiled over to the point where the far-right is now cannibalising off the centre-right (similar to the Tea Party in the US). In volatile Italy and Portugal, this exploded in the last EU election and has reverted to normal in this one. Hopefully we see the same in France, and the Front National becomes a one election wonder. The opposite of Italy is the situation in Poland and Hungary, which slid to the radical right last election and have stayed there. Unfortunately, I doubt we will see any centre-right wing parties learn from this lesson, and if anything I expect them to lean even more to the far-right.
  • Someone needs to make the case for Europe in the UK. In the UK, the last ten years have seen UKIP rise from nothing to being the largest British party in the EU parliament. Notably, the British only vote for UKIP in EU elections, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing, because the British public clearly understand that UKIP are a bunch of incompetent crazies, good as a protest vote but not the type of people you'd put in charge of anything that mattered. Which brings us to the bad - the UK treats the EU elections as an appropriate venue for a meaningless protest vote. "Why" is an interesting question. I think part of this might be that the "European party" in the UK (the Lib Dems) is led by the least popular British politican, who is synonomous with selling out his party. More long-term, I think it is because being in opposition is easy, so governments like to pretend that the EU is the opposition and blame the EU for things that the government voted for. Someone more competent than Clegg needs to make the (very strong) case for Europe in the UK.
  • Czechs and Slovaks just don't care. In both countries, the turnout was below 20%. Overall the turnout in Europe rose slightly (43%), but in several Eastern European countries turnout was shockingly poor. If these countries want to have any say about the Europe they are part of, they should look into their electoral systems and consider making substantial changes. 



France joins the equality club

Today France voted to recognise love. Finally same-sex couples will be able to have their love for each other recognised in exactly the same way as opposite-sex couples - through marriage if they chose, through adoption if they chose, or not - if they chose. For anyone who is LGBTQ or a supporter, this is a huge step forward for equality. For everyone else - it doesn't affect you in the slightest. 

And yet. The same old gang of reactionaries have came out to voice their hatred: the Catholic church, Muslim groups, evangelical Christians and right-wing conservatives. What makes someone so virulent that they will spend so much energy in order to ensure that other people don't gain equal rights? The massive anti-gay protests have even turned violent, and hate-crimes have been committed against LGBTQ people. Not hard to predict considering the violent language spouted by the leaders (Frigide Barjot: "Hollande wants blood, and he will get it"; Hervé Mariton: "This is an incitement to civil war"). Nasty regressive thugs, nothing more. 

Fortunately, the tide has turned against these regressives. It is only April, and this is already the best year in history for marriage equality - three more countries have approved same-sex marriage (Uruguay, New Zealand and France, plus four more Brazilian states) and another 100+ million people have been granted to right to have their love recognised by the state, regardless of sex or sexuality. The Christian and Muslim Churches are showing once again that preventing equality is far more important to them than any other topic, and political parties like the UMP will be tarred for decades by their embrace of open homophobia in an era where attitudes towards sexuality are inexorably turning progressive.


Pants for Parisian women, just don't dress gay in Antwerp

In a long-delayed advance for women's equality, women in Paris now have the right to wear pants. The law from 1800 had previously been updated in 1909 to allow women to wear pantaloons when riding a bike or horse, but now it has finally been repealed. 

Meanwhile, in Antwerp, the mayor has decided that civil servants are not allowed to dress in a manner that identified them as openly gay. The example used was a rainbow shirt, but the concept was explained such that a civil servant cannot dress in a way that "makes clear that he or she adheres to this obedience". By all means, Mr Mayor, please give us the official homosexual dress code so that styles that are too obviously gay can be banned. Also, to achieve your desired neutrality, please ban all dress styles that are too openly heterosexual. 


Fortifications of Vauban 


At Mont Saint-Michel

Lydia's favourite part of Mont Saint-Michel was finding that the fortifications included a cat door, for easy access by the Mont's many kittens:

Hayden's favourite part of Mont Saint-Michel was eating the end of my icecream cone: