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Upton-on-line: Diaspora Edition

Upton-on-line: Diaspora Edition

Special Issue on Culture & Conflict

By Simon Upton

In this issue: Preserving French cultural exceptionalism in the new European Constitution; cancelling arts festivals as an exceptional new way of promoting culture; re-opening the Hundred Years' War 550 years down the line; challenges to the French Republic by Islamic fundamentalists and Corsican nationalists - and some relections on what lessons each may hold for New Zealand; and finally, a change of heart by the City of Paris on the cultural merit of its €200,000 parrot.

A very exceptional culture

Upton-on-line has tried over the last two and a half years to deliver a series of oblique aperçus on the strange quantum universe that sustains French culture and institutions. Teams of French social scientists devote their lives to understanding such phenomenological exotica as the strong and weak bureaucratic forces, Steady State versus Big Bang explanations of social progress and the French cosmological constant (otherwise known as the grève or strike). But to date this newsletter has tried to avoid the holy grail of Gallic social physics - the underlying force that some unified cultural field theory would reveal, namely, "French cultural exceptionalism" (FCE). Like gravity, this force cannot be described but is everywhere manifest be it in the humble baguette, the most mystical Monet or the unique length of time required to unload baggage from Air France flights.

However, discussing the indefinable has become unavoidable since nothing less than the European Constitution has been hit by an FCE lightning strike. Perhaps it was inevitable given the fact that the Convention charged with drawing it up was presided over by one of the most eminent living Frenchman, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (VGE as he is more or less affectionately known).

The whole affair was brought to a head by the vexed issue of what policies should, in future, be require the unanimous support of member states as against some sort of qualified majority vote. Unanimous voting rules, as everyone knows, have a habit of handing vetos to those who hold out longest - something France is very good at! So it was made clear long ago that when it came to the signing of any international trade agreements affecting the core of French identity (otherwise known as its film and recording industries), France could not permit the rest of Europe to impose an agreement on her. A French veto was non-negotiable since, the French representative opined, there simply wouldn't be a majority in France that would ratify such a constitution.

Needless to say this caused an uproar amongst other countries. VGE, in keeping with his career-long hallmark, remained aloof. Raised in the grand tradition of French exceptionalism, the former President found himself facing the inescapable logic that a Europe governed by vetoes is a Europe that can never take a clear decision. More commendably, the European Commission's excellent (French) trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy made no secret of his disapproval. The man who must defend the inexplicable when it comes to things like Europe's towering agricultural subsidies didn't need an even more mystical shroud hanging over his trade negotiations. As he put it in a letter to France's Minister for Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, "In a Union of 25 countries, a unanimity rule is quite simple an instrument of paralysis ... it will always be possible to find a single member country that will block consensus ... a majority permits, unanimity denies."

But Europe being Europe, accommodations had to be made. After all, had the proposed Constitution not spoken of the need to respect cultural and lingusitic richness and diversity? How could this possibly mean anything other than affording Europe's most exceptionally rich and diverse culture (self proclaimed, mark you) special protections? In the time-honoured tradition of EU diplomacy the issue could only be resolved through exhaustion at five minutes to midnight on the last day. This is commonly known as wearing everyone down. And that's exactly what happened. The Convention agreed that when it comes to international trade negotiations a unanimous vote is, exceptionally, needed when "the cultural diversity of the European Union is placed at risk".

What does this mean?

No-one knows - or even dares to hazard a guess. History suggests that it will be whenever France feels that FCE is in danger (which seems to be on just about everything). Technically, the matter will probably be decided (if anyone wants to challenge it) by the European Court of Justice. At which point, another aspect of FCE will come to the rescue - the French text of the Convention. The Convention must, of course, be translated into all the languages of the Union but VGE, in the spirit of FCE, was not prepared to leave his creation to any old Brussels translator. On the contrary, such a sacred document on which he had expended so much of his distinguished self, could only be captured by the guardian angels of FCE itself, the Academie Française.

The membership of this august institution comes as close as any mortal group ever has to piercing the veil of FCE. So who better to render Europe's constitution into the exceptional tongue than the Academy itself? Even if the 900 amendments did often only amount to the odd comma here or there, the European Court of Justice will have the finest possible text available should it ever have to pronounce on just what it means to put cultural diversity at risk. Upton-on-line can already see an argument emerging that this can only be understood from within the culture that is threatened - in which case, only a French judge aided by the French text could possibly dare to express a view!

The exception takes to the streets

It is only a month since the French Government faced down opposition to its reform of the French pension system. In formulating the previously unheard-off declaration that the Government rather than the Street governs in France, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin committed an exceptional act of cultural terrorism. Excluded from the streets, FCE broke out behind the curtain - specifically behind the curtains of the many summer arts festivals for which France is rightly famous.

It all goes back to the employment of casual labour (les intermittents) by arts, theatrical and media companies and attempts at reforming all sort of the rorts that have led to spiralling unemployment benefits. The details of this are too complex to be explained - indeed, they are apparently so complex that, like FCE itself, they are indescribable. The national media has barely tried to explain the intricacies. Everyone just knows that where intermittents are involved there are rorts; and that when anyone in France tries to unwind a rort there will be an exceptional outcry.

Such has been the case with the summer arts festivals which, one by one, are being cancelled as strikes and threatened disruption take their toll. The most famous casualty so far is the international festival in Avignon, nearly fifty years old. FCE apparently requires that in the interests of culture one must, from time to time, forgo even one's opera, jazz and theatre in the interests of another part of the great cultural exception - a labour market that is designed to discourage employment and ensure that over 10% of the workforce is permanently on the dole.

Upton-on-line has had two near-festival-death experiences himself. The first occured on the Champs de Mars with tens of thousand of others on Bastille Day night. The traditional fireworks display was delayed an hour (until 11.30 p.m.) while les intermittents argued behind the scenes. After a seemingly interminable delay the official sound system was taken over by militants who announced that they had graciously decided not to cancel the show but instead give us an ideological lecture before we could watch the fireworks.) The second was the very next night when an e-mail alert popped onto u-o-l's screen announcing that that evening's Verdi at the Paris Opéra would only be able proceed as a concert performance owing to a random stoppage by stage-hands. (Refunds were offered to those whose artistic sensibilities would be affronted by this truncated experience. U-o-l grabbed the refund and took refuge from 37 degree heat in an air-conditioned restaurant).

There is just one delicious irony in all this throwing down of artistic rattles. It appears that the national television channels rely on the festivals for large chunks of programming. The collapse of a slew of festivals means, all of a sudden, gaping wholes in future programming. Rumour has it that, as a result of special rules negotiated between the parties, the gaps will probably have to be filled by American sit-coms. All of which will make for a very culturally exceptional summer!

Another sort of risk

Having one's airwaves clogged with unexceptional garbage is bad enough. But an even worse fate awaits many parts of France - an invasion of Brits. For, according to Le Monde, the French countryside is being fast colonised by Brits escaping indifferent cooking, over-crowded motorways and a broken-down railway system.

It is estimated the British now own about 3% of the rural land area of France thanks in no small part to excellent French investments in their brilliant rail and motorway networks to which have recently been added cheap flights to regional airports. From the beachheads of favoured British haunts such as the Dordogne, anglophones are now fanning out through the countryside like some new invasion of foreign beetles. The French are of two minds about it all. On the one hand there is a welcome economic boost. Underpopulated and over-housed (if you count all those 'charming' run-down ruins), rural France is brimming with Brits busily restoring their little corner of paradise. Bergerac alone estimates that the annual windfall is worth about €60 million per annum. In some small communes, Brits can number as many as 20% of the inhabitants. Locals bemoan the fact that on market days English is the only language spoken. And, needless to say, one property owner's windfall is a young home-buyer's nightmare as property prices rise inexorably.

Upton-on-line has always been amused by the way the French understand their own history. The fact that it was the Normans who conquered England and injected a huge burst of Gallic culture and law, not to mention civilisation) into the Anglo-Saxon world seems to have passsed them by. The Angevin Empire which united Britain and half of France in the Middle Ages is regarded as an 'English' tyranny (never mind the fact that all the monarchs crowned in Westminster Abbey spoke French and spent half their time campaigning around France). So, 550 years on, the Hundred Years' War continues to surface in everyday conversation. "What they couldn't take by arms they're taking with cash" notes an old resident of a newly colonised village! As the tide of puchasers fans out from the old English homelands of the Aquitaine (the last bit to have remained under the English Crown), French property experts describe the expanding line of British home buying as "going north in the steps of Richard the Lionheart.

With historical memories like this, upton-on-line would be inclined to keep his cross-bow under his bed. It's as well for the British that the fudge in the European Constitution is about risks to European diversity. Otherwise, they could find their penchant for buying "places in the country" in front of the European Court of Justice. Or perhaps they still could. Because if the Hundred Years' War is still a living bone of contention, perhaps one could argue that the British aren't European. After all, they haven't adopted the Euro, they backed America in Iraq and their trains don't run on time. Perhaps allowing British settlement could indeed place at risk European diversity - and it's exceptional French version!

Culture, minorities, tolerance and the durability of a civilized society

France is sinking further and further into a state of perplexity about the entire basis of the Republic. And it is a debate filled with significance for a country like New Zealand that is wondering how to come to some peaceful accommodation with bi-culturalism whilst holding the nation state together. This edition of upton-on-line looks at two current preoccupations in France - Islamism and Corsican nationalism - and then asks whether there are any broader lessons to be taken to heart in New Zealand.

The quagmires of tolerance In 2005, France will celebrate the legislative centenary of the separation of Church and State. It was in 1905 that the Concordat between Napoleon and the Vatican was dissolved. From thenceforward, schools became secular organs of a State which neither recognised nor subsidised any sect at the same time guaranteeing freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. As that centenary approaches, France finds itself wracked with dissension over the perceived challenge to the Etat laique by religious fundamentalism. The fact that it comes not from some culturally familiar soil such as Catholicism but from first and second generation French Islamists makes it all the more explosive.

The challenges are both symbolic and substantive. The most publicised has been the increasing appearance of female students wearing the foulard or veil. A 1989 ruling by the country's constitutional court, the Conseil d'Etat, found that the wearing of the veil was not a fatal challenge to the secular nature of education but outlawed its "ostentatious and provocative" use. A subsequent refinement of the position in 1994 held that a blanket ban on the veil without good reason could be illegal by undermining the principle of freedom of expression. A nice compromise - and one that is wearing thin with many increasingly concerned French people who see the entire Republic relying for its future resilience on the state, secular education system.

Veils are one thing. Students interrupting lectures at the National Institute for Oriental languages and demanding that passages from the Koran should not be read by female lecturers - and getting their way - is another. Pressure to clarify the law is coming from all sorts of quarters, not always for the same reasons. And opponents of any tightening also form strange coalitions. Le Figaro has reported cases of young orthodox Jews defending the Islamic veil on the basis that the kippa is an equally valid statement of allegiance. (A more nuanced position upton-on-line has read is that the kippa is less 'ostentatious' than the veil. He'd like to see that distinction enshrined in legislation!)

All of this raises the sticky question of just how tolerant a tolerant society has to be faced with the outward manifestations of belief systems that are anything but tolerant. As a number of feminist commentators have pointed out, an increasing number of women in some neighbourhoods are wearing the veil as a means of fending off attack by hard line Islamic males on the rampage. The tone of the debate - and the level of anguish - can be sensed in these extracts from an article by Jean Daniel, manager of the New Observer, writing in Le Figaro:

"Laicitie [the separation of the State from matters religious] isn't about tolerance. The former is active, the latter passive. The former is foundationally important, the latter is no such thing ... To tolerate is to accept something almost with a sense of resignation. The Muslims 'tolerate' the people of the Book (Jews and Christians) to whom they are prepared to extend the right to co-exist. Tolerance accepts accepts the outwards signs of all religions, private or public while laicité finds a place for God in the home, but a place for the citizen in the school. Above all, the French conception of laicitié defends the individual against his group of origin, defends a woman against an oppressive father and guarantees the right to change one's religion or declare oneself a non-believer.

"All of a sudden it is being realised in high places that, after all these years, you don't build a nation on tolerance, you just create communities. No-one defends values, people simply resign themselves to their co-existence. And then, suddenly, people begin to discover simple things that some of us have taken to be self-evident for a long time. One of those things is that the right to citizenship that runs with the soil - in other words, the possibility of being French as a result of the accident of birth being born somewhere in France - doesn't automatically lead to the transmission of a desire to share in the memories, projects, trials and hopes, the civilisation and struggles of the country in which one is born - and born by chance."

Daniel goes on to lament the fact that in France, citizens and the notion of citizenship is something that is instilled - or not. And where it isn't, the road leads to delinquancy and fanaticism - a judgement he is quick to associate with moderate Muslim intellectuals and leaders. It is allowing intolerant, exclusionary views in the name of tolerance that he is aiming for.

"The proliferation of mosques doesn't only change the landscape, but the heritage of a country as well. That's no big deal. We will get used to that. On the other hand, all discussion on the compatibiltiy of the Koran and the European Constitution is of the utmost importance being, as we say these days, a matter of identity. France relies on the principle of laicité, Europe on a constitution that is on the way to being finalised. I don't believe talk of so-called 'tolerance' is proper in a situation such as this. The great British philosopher, John Locke published his Letter on Tolerance well before Voltaire ... "The papists must not enjoy any of the benefits of tolerance because, when they hold power they believe themselves obliged to withold it [tolerance] to others ...As long as the papists are papists neither indulgence nor severity will make them friends of your government for they are its enemies both on principle and as a matter of interest." All we need to do is replace 'papists' with 'fundamentalists': those who fail to separate religion and politics, faith from the exercise of power."

One of the great strengths of France is the amount of high quality commentary - and sometimes trenchant deabte - expended on these issues by the national press. Perhaps in this respect at least, and in the face of the lamentable fate of the British national papers, France remains truly, culturally exceptional.

The quagmires of nationalist separatism

The other great cause for soul-searching is Corsica where for more than 20 years nationalists have been involved in low-level insurgency that has involved killings and bombings as part of a campaign for secession. This from the island that bore France's greatest son (depending on your sympathies) - Napoleon. This is no Palestine. An extraordinarily beautiful place, it is a holiday destination for hoardes of mainland French citizens. When upton-on-line has cross-examined French friends about whether they feel any anxiety about going there he has been struck by the complete lack of concern. The Corsican issue (at least from the point of view of Parisian holidaymakers) is regarded as an internal matter driven by a mafioso mob who are taking it out on one another and are either too lazy to attack French tourists - or too venal because they want the tourist income.

Whatever the case, France could not help but be stunned by the assassination in 1998 of the most senior official French representative on the island, the Préfet - Claude Erignac for, according to those responsible, "symbolic reasons". And such was Corsican clanishness that five years on, despite a raft of arrests, the key assassin remained at large. Against the background of this rising insurgency various proposals were made to grant Corsica a degree of autonomy. The prospect of ceding anything at all to these ratbags was too much for the most stalwart sovereigntist republicans - both on the island and in Paris. Lionel Jospin lost an interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, over proposals to grant a measure of autonomy much to the glee of right wing opponents who were unflinching defenders of the Republic from the opposition benches.

As soon at they were in government they became swift converts to autonomy as a way of defusing the pressures (much to the dismay of many loyal French residents of the island). Dressed up as the first step of a Republic-wide decentralisation push and led by the otherwise switheringly republican new Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, the reforms were put to the ballot two weeks ago. And, like a rabbit pulled from a magician's hat, M. Sarkozy just managed to announce the capture of the Préfet's killer, Yvan Colonna, the night before the vote. Talk about stage management! This was supposed to deal the dream hand to Corsican voters. The State's authority as the guarantor of law and order restored with one hand, a magnanimous offer of devolved power made with the other.

Unfortunately for M. Sarkozy it was a case of just too many magic rabbits all at once. The island (with over a third abstaining) voted the reform down 51-49%. Now the French state faces the task of convicting the assassin and being forced to govern with the iron hand it had hoped to sheath in devolved velvet. Needless to say, the only happy people are die-hard French sovereigntists on the island (whom the Government had been hoping to sideline) and die-hard Corsican nationalists who will accept no compromise short of complete independence and can now revel in their subjection, undiluted by any wishy-washy devolution dreamed up in Paris. Everyone is waiting for a fresh round of bombings.

Lessons to be learned

The twin dilemmas of fudamentalist Islamism and Corsican nationalism (the latter being replicated to varying degrees in places as diverse as the Basque country, Brittany and Catalogne) raise fundamental issues for politicians and citizens facing fractures in the edifice we know and depend on as the nation state. This is so in New Zealand every bit a much as is the case in France. Without being in any way exhaustive, upton-on-line respectfully suggests there are at least three lessons to be learned from all of this.

1. There is nothing to be gained from hiding behind concepts such as 'tolerance' in place of prosecuting a frank and open debate about the limits of what may or may not be acceptable. That is not to say that solutions can be 'intolerantly' imposed on the basis of some pre-determined view of what is 'right'. Reaching a compromise or settlement will often be necessary. But it will be much harder to reach a durable solution if debates have been muffled under layers of respectful euphemisms. The longer they have been used, the harder it is to broach the subject without being seriously (or willfully) misunderstood. In this respect, a tradition of fearless debate in which all players start from the premise that 'sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me' is priceless. The day that ideas and practices become undebateable and undescribable is the day people will start to look around for sticks and stones. This must surely apply to the notion of 'partnership'. Like tolerance, who can quarrel with it? But just what it means in practice is widely debated - and must be if it is to be a term with which we can be comfortable.

2. The second lesson is that governments can't easily buy their way out of fundamental debates - and that political elites have a vested interest in keeping the gravy train going. One of the fascinating things to come to light in the wake of the Corsican ballot is the extent to which a deeply rooted clan system in Corsica may, despite its emotional support for independence, have opposed autonomy on the grounds that the existing system had lined many a pocket very nicely. It is surely no accient that there are twice as many elected officers in the two Corsican départments per inhabitant than the average in France? 360 local communes (town councils), two départments (a bit like a territorial district authority in NZ) and one regional authority - all for 360,000 people. Mixed with a closely-knit clan system, the whole political structure has become a machine for manufacturing jobs for the extended clan system. Clientelism reigns hand in hand with economic under-development. But despite the largesse, no reduction in separatist feeling has been purchased. For many, autonomy fell short of the imagined nirvana of independence while threatening a very cosy system that people had learned to hate with some real affection. The moral is simple: constitutional settlements can't be bought.

3. Finally, where a separatist nationalism gnaws away, resort to half-way houses will never satisfy true believers. There is nothing easy about drawing this conclusion because it suggests an all-or-nothing approach - a pretty sterile way way of reaching consensus. But upton-on-line wonders whether debates like the Corsican one can be properly resolved when some options are simply left off the table for being too radial when in reality they are genuinely held by some people. Is it sensible to propose a middle way without equally canvassing the realities of what full independence would look like? If those who oppose Corsican independence are so convinced it would be a disaster, surely the logic of their case would become clear in any calm exploration of the issues - and vice versa?

This, it seems to upton-on-line, is something New Zealand needs to reflect on. There is no question that a full scale, but undeclared, constitutional debate is rumbling away in New Zealand - on a terrain that is vastly more complex than Corsica. The debate is occupied by reasonable, well-intentioned, moderate citizens who assume that the two extremes of "let's consign the Treaty to history" versus full constitutional power-sharing between Treaty 'partners' (or even outright secession by Maori sovereigntists) are beyond the pale. The trouble is, people are thinking these thoughts. Lots are in the first camp, not many in the second. But any future settlement has to be one that can survive the depradations of both groups. The question is whether avoiding the radical propositions rather than debating them doesn't, at some point, become the more risky course.

Footnote on the parrot

Upton-on-line readers may recall in an earlier issue, the remarkable story of the acquisition for €200,00 by the City of Paris of a parrot, a cage in which to house it and a tape-recorder which kept playing back the words "Moi, je dis..." This surreal purchase (whose critics were silenced with the chilling rebuke that they were phillistines or censors) was proof again that there is something exceptional at the heart of French culture. But only up to a point. Because some iconoclasts with an exceptional sense of humour decided to launch a new bulletin - Le Perroquet enchaîné, a take-off of the long-established weekly satirical rag Le Canard enchaîné. These cultural spoilers had the bad grace to remind the city administration how many additional creche places could be purchased in place of the tape-recorder assisted parrot. Finally, Figaro reports, City Hall has caved in and rescinded the purchase. Le Perroquet enchaîné has been exultantly renamed Le Perroquet libéré. And no-one can find anyone who will admit to having voted for the original purchase.

© Scoop Media

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