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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition


Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition

In this issue: Some antipodean reflections on France's springtime orgy of strikes; more on the vexed issue of treatyology and New Zealand history; and what (two) Frogs think of Auckland.

But first...

Upton-on-line has great pleasure in informing readers that, in recognition of his work on the International Whaling Commission, Jim McLay is shortly to be immortalised through the naming of a hitherto un-named glacier in the Churchill Mountains in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. Whaling Commission meetings are no junket given the endless arm-wrestling between those who would save the whales and those who would eat them. Given the important place of whales in the Southern Ocean ecosystem, recognition of Jim McLay's work in this icy way is both imaginative and likely to far outlive other accolades that have come his way. (It would be interesting to know whether this is one of those extremely slow glaciers which means that snow falling in his whaling years will not actually reach the sea for centuries...) Congratulations!

Living and Striking

All societies have their peculiarities, those little customs that appear so quaint to outsiders but so spiritually satisfying to those who have grown up with them. With Americans it seems to be a penchant for guns and litigation - no matter how stupid an individual's action there must always be someone more culpable (someone usually with a deeper pocket) and if you can't sue them you must surely retain the right to shoot them; with the Japanese it is spending every moment of a holiday obscured behind a camera lens so that everything from the Mona Lisa to the Three Gorges can be safely studied behind the gauze curtains of one's own apartment when the holiday is over; with the French it is a recurrent desire to rush into the streets to demonstrate solidarity with other people rushing into the streets.

With this goes a whole culture of strike preparedness. Whole families watch the news and papers to gauge the level of impending paralysis. Grandparents are on call to take children locked out of schools. Domestic workers plan complicated billeting exercises so they can get to work. Commuters expertly weigh up hours lost in traffic jams against hours spent on railway platforms. Businesses open and close at funny hours. Police and city authorities carefully plan the routes of the demonstrations with the organisers. And overseas travellers become intimately acquainted with French air terminals. In short, everyone gets into the sort of frenzied organisational mode that other countries go through in battening down the hatches for approaching tornadoes or disease outbreaks. The French have made political radicalism a rallying point of national consciousness.

Except that French radicalism appears distinctly grey. For much of French history, those mounting the barricades have done so with truly millennial zeal in pursuit of ever more glorious futures. Now, as the population ages, people are rushing into the streets to demonstrate solidarity with an unsustainably comfortable past. In doing so, cultural exceptionalism evaporates in a very familiar sea of inter-generational selfishness. Like every other population in the world, the French don't like being told that facing reality today may be a necessary pre-condition for securing the future. The only difference is that, having believed themselves to be 'exceptional' in so many respects, many French - especially in the public sector - are finding it very hard to live with the prospect that, for the first time, having a political tantrum in the streets and passing the bill on to someone else may not work.

In attempting a potted analysis, upton-on-line has to lodge an ideological disclaimer. As a man of the centre-right, the idea of rushing into the streets rubs up against some fairly deeply-rooted conservative instincts. But as will become clear, there's much more in this than visceral left/right instincts.

What's all the fuss about?

The answer to this is a bit like peeling away the layers of a particularly pungent clove of garlic. Ostensibly the ruckus is about changes to France's pension system. There are many layers to pare back here since reform has been attempted - and retreated from - for an incredible 12 years. Governments have either been forced to retreat or (in the case of Alain Juppé in 1995) been forced out of office. As anyone who has ever debated pensions will know, the devil is in the detail - and there is a devil of a lot of it! Upton-on-line would not pretend to be capable of writing a Michelin guide to this uniquely Gallic terrain. But a crude summary of the battlefield would have to include these elements:

a.. France like all western countries is getting older and the level of contributions currently being paid won't be enough to support the expected demand for pensions; b.. France's age of retirement is one of the lowest in Europe; c.. Employer contributions are already some of the highest in Europe; There are stark inequalities between public and private schemes (the former being more generous) and even starker inequalities between some in the public sector. In simple terms, the more sensitive the occupation (in terms of its ability to bring the country to a standstill - train drivers come to mind) the more generous the deal and the earlier the retirement;

The Government has been blatently pragmatic in deciding to leave all the specially privileged schemes out of the reform and concentrate on trying to gradually put public and private schemes on the same footing without hiking employer costs with the result that by 2020 everyone (except the privileged workers who carry strike veto power) will have to contribute for 42 rather than 40 years to get the full pension.

There is much more to it than this, but you get the flavour. Super cautious and very tactical. Furthermore, the Government- tacitly acknowledging who runs France - put its plans in front of the unions right at the outset (it has yet to place them before Parliament!). Appropriate concessions were made and two significant unions actually signed up having been bold enough to take the view that after 12 years of drama it was time to seal a deal. Unusually, the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin said that while he was prepared to listen, he would not be blocked: "The Government governs - not the street."

The upshot? Pandemonium from the public sector which took the Prime Minister's firmness as an irresistible challenge to see who would prevail. And all the specially privileged groups not implicated by the reforms went out on strike any way - they weren't going to miss an opportunity like this. And besides, who knows what a future government might do. The rationale is a sort of French domestic version of the Iraq War - a preventive action to knock out weapons of mass social destruction by trigger happy conservatives.

Is that all? Well not quite. Because the Raffarin government was unwise enough to embark on another major reform simultaneously aiming to decentralise a number of functions in what is widely agreed to be Europe's most centralised state. (You have only to look at the way in which motorway and TGV lines run to gauge the truth of this: it is easier to get from Paris to the ski fields of the Alps than it is from numerous locations half the distance away). And included in the transfer of functions to regions were a cadre of teacher aides. Not teachers, mark you: they will continue to be a strictly national service. But the funding for teaching support staff is to be devolved on the radical premise that people closer to the ground may know something about how best to use the resources. (This in France is wildly radical - a bit like suggesting a federal gun register to Texans).

Worse, the Prime Minister was rash enough to insist on the appointment of a real intellectual as Minister of Education - Luc Ferry. Monsieur Ferry is a published philosopher with a big wavy shock of black hair to prove it. M. Raffarin probably thought he was flattering the sector by giving it a real live intellectual who thought big thoughts as only French intellectuals can. Unfortunately, M. Ferry thinks the wrong thoughts. He thinks the revolutionaries of 1968 led the country and academia into an intellectual cul de sac. He is less than impressed with esoteric deconstructionism and more interested in literacy, numeracy and facts. Worse, he was bold enough to write a letter to the profession - (book length, mark you) - putting his convictions on the line.

Upton-on-line has long known that there is only one thing that enrages teachers more than dumb education ministers who disagree with them, and that's intelligent education ministers who disagree with them. M. Ferry is now privy to this information. He has been ruthlessly attacked for being out of touch, remote and intellectual behind his beautiful gilt empire desk in the Rue Grenelle. And as an acknowledgment of the Minister's academic stature, they have responded to his book by hurling copies at his effigy rather than reading it. In addition, French teacher unions have proved to be utterly high-minded and concerned for their students by insisting that striking is the best way they can help them (and in some cases refusing to mark their exams). With decentralisation of some part-time staff, a Minister who has read (and written) the wrong books and pension reform to worry about, how could you possibly concentrate in front of a class?

But surely there's more? Well yes there is. It's got something to do with the fact that the Left lost not just the last presidential election (which it believed it couldn't lose so it fielded no fewer than 8 candidates), but then went into a state of shock and lost the legislative elections. This is where the difference with Anglo-Saxon countries is sharpest. The anglophone world has a painfully goody-two-shoes approach to elections. If you win, you have something called a mandate that (short of complete disaster or corruption) lasts until the next election. The idea of a mandate is viewed very sceptically in France. The elections may be over but the Government can only govern as long as it doesn't upset anyone. So the view from the street is that M. Raffarin's various reforms are a sort of kamikaze attack on the population which has turned decision-making back over to the demonstrators. This is no joke - France is the only major democracy that still has a large, bushy-tailed Trotskyist element intervening in the political debate. Needless to say, these people aren't overly impressed by the machinations of liberal democracy. It's the exercise of raw power that matters, and when they start calling for a general strike (as they have started to do) they mean business.

So what should happen from here? If things run to form, anger in the street should spill over into bigger and bigger strikes, growing paralysis and the eventual resignation of part or all of the government accompanied by humiliating concessions. The President in his semi-telon-coated office would then be left to pick up the pieces. It is no mere idle curiosity that is leading newspapers to give detailed historical comparisons between the numbers observed in the streets in comparison with previous showdowns. Whereas most democracies give pre-eminent attention to voting figures, the French seem to make their judgements on the number of people marching underneath their windows. Even more incredible is the fact that the media makes no attempt to judge the numbers itself. Police and union estimates (the latter generally two to four times larger than the former) are printed side by side without comment. How could one possibly prefer one figure over another. On the tally to date, it has been widely noted that no government in recent times has survived demonstrations on this scale. So M. Raffarin is racing for the record books.

So it's all over bar the shouting? Well there will certainly be a lot more shouting. But there is reason to believe the outcome may not be so predetermined. In the first place the union movement itself is divided. Not only have two unions backed the reform. Other significant groups are resisting the call for an all-out strike. There is a real fear that the tide of public opinion might go the wrong way. At the moment it is drowning in a contradictory blend of resignation and nostalgia. A majority supports the case for pension reform. A majority is also sympathetic to the foot soldiers in the streets. (Television vox pops keep turning up battle-hardened and deeply inconvenienced mothers expressing their 'solidarity and compréhension' with striking train drivers who are unaffected by the reforms and whose special deals they can never hope to aspire to.)

To this must be added total disarray on the parliamentary left. While the newly confirmed successor to the ill-fated Jospin, François Holland, has quickly sided with the militants, a succession of socialist predecessors in office who have previously had to look reality in the face have been providing almost daily reminders that if the road back to government goes by way of policy oblivion, then it could be a nasty experience if they ever get there. Most unhelpful has been a former socialist Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, who has said that "in the current conditions, I can't see how you could come up with a less painful formula". Backed by other key figures like Jacques Delors and Bernard Kouchner, Rocard knows that however much the left may dislike it, it's better to get the other side to do the essential dirty work rather than confront an even worse problem in the future.

And problems in the future there are. For at the very heart of the garlic clove there are some uncomfortable truths for French society. To date it has been rich enough to ignore the costs of many of its political adventures. They have been passed either to future workers and taxpayers, or exported to other European citizens through playing hard ball in the EU, or to the rest of the world through protectionist trade policies. But the cost of such a strategy is starting to accrue. One outspoken writer, Nicolas Baverez has reminded his fellow countrymen of some of the unpalatable facts:

a.. In the 1970s French GDP was 25% higher than Britain's. Today it is 9% lower; b.. Growth today is near zero while unemployment stands at 9.3% and rising. Furthermore, it hasn't dropped below 9% on a sustained basis in 25 years; c.. Average public sector pay is €22,188 as against a private sector average of just €16,520; d.. Public debt has broached 62% of GDP and rising; the fiscal deficit is set to break the Eurozone limit of 3% of GDP; While all these pressures mount, France has been busily awarding itself big lifestyle bonuses. Only 37% of French citizens work beyond the age of 55 and large numbers now only work 35 hours a week. All of which just goes to confirm what has long been known: that the richer you are, the more rope you have to hang yourself with.

It would be foolhardy to write France out of any future economic leadership role in Europe (its global eclipse happened long ago). Its human and physical capital endowment is pretty fabulous. It is a society that, despite its whackier post-modern theorists, is deeply attached to scientific rigour and technical expertise. It is also in some ways a very disciplined society. Its current grumpiness has a lot to do with a bruised national psyche - coming to grips with France's fall from being a world power and from being able to achieve effortless rises in living standards can't be easy. But there are enough voices on both sides of the mainstream political spectrum to suggest that the present turbulence is more than just another round in the national game of government/union brinkmanship. A change in national expectations may be in the offing.

Retelling our national [hi]story Diasporan readers in particular will be interested to learn that tucked away in the last New Zealand budget was a decision to spend $6.5 million over three years helping to educate New Zealanders about the Treaty of Waitangi. The Government has announced that the funding will cover the development of new resources for distribution to educational institutions, libraries, community centres and other interested groups. The Minister of Maori Affairs, Mr Parekura Horomia, described the decision in the following terms:

"Labour recognises the Treaty of Waitangi is this country's founding document, providing a basis from which strong and mutually respectful relationships can be developed and strengthened. The key point of the education programme is to make factual information available, such as the text of the Treaty itself, historical information on the drafting and signing of the Treaty, and the principles of the Treaty as determined by the courts."

Significantly, responsibility for the programme rests with Education Minister, Trevor Mallard - unquestionably one of the Government's toughest-minded and most determined operators. Placing such a programme under the oversight of such a senior Minister underscores the seriousness with which the programme is being viewed.

From upton-on-line's point of view, this is a brave - and high risk - strategy. This newsletter has repeatedly opposed the escapist view that history can safely be ignored - that facing contemporary political realities can be conducted in a history free zone that asks everyone to forget the events that shaped the way in which the nation has come to look and feel the way it does. Historical amnesia, in short, is not a viable policy.

On the other hand, history provides no truths which determine the future like some sort of fundamental physical law. No amount of fossicking will reveal tablets of stone that point the way to the promised land. And no conclusions that may be drawn about past intentionality will be free of contemporary bias. When the Government states (as did the previous Government) that the Treaty is the country's founding document, it states a fact that is both important and banal. It's the force that you want to accord a founding document that matters - and on that there is a wide range of views.

The mercifully brief nature of the Treaty means that it can, if we want it to, provide a basis for strong and mutually respectful relationships. Again that's unremarkable. The real question is what form - constitutional or otherwise - those relationships should take. Again, the range of views is enormous. Which leads upton-on-line to note that this is truly risky terrain. Of course we should all be better informed. But governments have to be extremely careful that information leaves the judgements for citizens to make. And it has to accept, in starting down this road, that a better informed public is not necessarily a happier public. History is not some redemptive bath from which bathers emerge healed of all rancour like some Parsifalian legend.

The startling leap in the Minister's statement from the signing of the Treaty to the principles of the Treaty as determined by the courts is of particular concern since it suggests some seamless and uncontroversial continuity over the intervening 200 years. The fact is that judicially crafted statements from the 1980s and 1990s reflect values and judgements that may or may not be transportable. It has at least to be a possibility that some of what was in the minds of the signatories was simply not workable - as indeed the collapse of the Treaty world under the pressure of immigration and war suggests. When as distinguished and careful a lawyer as Professor Brookfield has interpreted the actions of the settler government during the 1860s and 1870s as being essentially revolutionary in nature, while others have posited the possible existence of untainted and enduring aboriginal title, one can only reflect on how contentious historical discourse can be.

One can only hope that before too much of the $6.5 million is spent, careful attention is paid to Histories, Power & Loss, reviewed in these pages earlier this year [see www.arcadia.co.nz/uptononline/2003/5_February_2003.htm ]. The fairly significant endictment of the Waitangi Tribunal's approach to history by Bill Oliver underlines how little terra firma there may be in the single biggest investment yet made by New Zealand taxpayers in 'getting to the bottom of the facts'.

This is not to say the initiative is not worthwhile. It depends how it is done. If a public education programme could leave significant numbers of people understanding why our history casts a shadow over us and why it can provide no easy answers, we might as a nation be usefully empowered to face the fact that we have only ourselves to look to in building a nation we can all live with. If on the other hand it asserts an account of history that is in some way pre-emptive of the future and invites either allegiance or rejection it could be seriously divisive.

Mr Mallard has been awarded the most difficult and important Ministerial task for some years. It should also be the most intellectually challenging and rewarding. He needs to master the material himself and quietly build a broad spectrum of consensus about what can and cannot be achieved. He should be fiercely sceptical of easily received wisdom. And he should be in no doubts about the limited extent to which appeals to history can validate contemporary policy.

The stern fact remains that the countries that can invest most confidently in shoring up their national stories are those that, for better or worse, have come through fire, partition, revolution or schism and forged an agreed constitutional basis for nation-building that ordinary people believe deep in their bones. When countries like the USA invest - as they do liberally - in their national story (by means of all sorts of monuments, museums and education programmes) they do so because they have functioning histories that support the fabric of the society citizens want to believe in. Such histories have been lived, fought and died for. They aren't the creations of official or academic committees crafting verbal compromises. As long as this truth is internalised, the exercise could do some good.

Frogs in Auckland

New Zealanders are always fascinated to know what people from other countries think of them - some would say a tad too fascinated. Available since last September (but reviewed here for the first time) is the ultimate frogs guide to Auckland - literally. Guides des Frogs - Auckland et sa région is the publishing upshot of a froggy love affair with New Zealand on the part of Sébastien Michel and his partner Claire. Travelling around New Zealand in 2001, they set up a web-site - www.frogs-in-nz.com - on which they recounted their adventures. The launch of the site captivated the interest of a net-surfing frog, Sandrine Dizerens. Sébastien (who describes himself as rather more passionate about the great kiwi outdoors than Vegemite or fish and chips) teamed up with Sandrine and produced the first contemporary French guide to Auckland and its surrounding region.

The style targets a French tourist market familiar with the perky informality of the Guides Routard in which breezy directions and judgements are mixed with wodges of information (the French take factual information commendably seriously). Unlike most French tourist guides, the book is super internet-literate, a relief after Michelin and others who are stuck in the age of faxes and telephones. It is all crisp, clean and very slick.

The authors have taken cool, contemporary New Zealand at its word and discovered a fully post-colonial society that is vibrantly bi-cultural- a Maori one and a contemporary global consumer one. European cultural heritage is apparently invisible. Their take on the inhabitants is charming enough: " ... calm and courteous. Don't freak out if a complete stranger smiles at you in the street and says hello. Everyone does it. In the same way, you won't ever be lost for long: kiwis will come up spontaneously and offer their assistance. Kiwis are simple people (in the best sense of the word). Dress code is the last thing they're worried about. You'll see adults and kids walking around bare foot even in winter." [U-o-l can confirm that Orcland is known for that sort of thing...]

These same friendly folk do, however, seem to have guarded a few memories about the Rainbow Warrior affair. The drama is told in impeccably mea culpa-ish terms. Gallic travellers are warned that they won't stay clear of the saga and that they should be prepared to encounter "all sorts of more or less romanticised versions".

The authors have got Queen Street down to a tee. Upton-on-line has always thought it is only saved from its ghastliness by its forgetableness and in listing its attractions - banks, fast food outlets etc etc - the Frogs do a good job at turning people off in their droves. But notwithstanding that a visit is recommended to witness traffic lights turning red and intersections being swamped with predestrians crossing in all directions! It's funny how the little things in life capture the imagination. Upton-on-line can, in return, recommend that kiwis stand alongside any Paris traffic light, wait for it to turn red, and watch pedestrians take their lives in their hands as Parisian drivers continue to exercise their rights. But in one respect, Paris and Auckland are identical. The frogs warn against the names of streets "hidden or non-existent". Snap.

Inevitably, the special vocabularly section will be of greatest interest to New Zealanders, since it is in a nation's language that the true splendours of a people's culture is revealed. And so we find the inevitable (bach, bush, dairy, bro); the patriotic (Godzone, Rheiney, Steinie); the cultural (boozer, Dorklander, mate, Hokey Pokey); and the acronymic (ANZAC, CBD, BYO and EFTPOS). This last is completely beyond the French imagination which is stuck with the infinitely less poetic "système de règlement par carte bancaire". There are also useful pieces of politesse such as "good on ya mate" (inexplicably rendered as the never heard "good on you, mate"); "right as rain" (generally used when people have just been pulled out of car accidents, collapsed rugby scrums or 10 hours' surgery); and "sweet as" (which the authors helpfully suggest "suite à une réponse négative"). All in all, not a bad start, although upton-on-line suggests for the 2nd edition other vital but incomprehensible noises such as "gizza", "woodja" and "tunza".

At NZ $34.95 this is not cheap for a slender back pocket volume. And if the authors are planning coverage of the entire country à la Michelin, it will be an expensive commentary. But there is no doubting the quality of the conception nor the up-to-date way it is all presented. The only mystery (from a kiwi point of view) is why they should have chosen Auckland on which to lavish their attention.

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