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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition: 2nd December 2004


Diaspora Edition

2nd December 2004

In this issue

The coronation of Nicolas Sarkozy; the regulatory wonderland of the French education system; language as a means of cultural transmission; and the use of science in environmental policy making – a report from the NZ Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

But first, for anyone interested in music and/or history travelling to Paris before January 9th…

… there is, at the Cité de la Musique (221, avenue Jean-Jaurès, Paris 75019) an absolutely stunning exhibition entitled The Third Reich & Music. It is a brilliant account of the uses to which the Nazis put music during their eleven year regime. It covers both popular culture and the appropriation (by association) of high culture. An audio guide is, on this occasion, essential. It is the clever juxtaposition of musical extracts with visual exhibits that evokes the atmosphere of the period. The tour de force is thirteen video clips of original film – everything from U-boat crews in the Atlantic listening to popular music to Herbert von Karajan triumphantly conducting Beethoven in occupied Paris. (One wonders if he ever came back post-war.) There is Hitler at Bayreuth, Hitler saluting a statue of Buckner in the shrine at Walhalla, Goebbels shaking the hand of a disdainful and troubled looking Furtwangler, Leni Riefenstahl’s clips of Nuremberg rallies, concerts at the Terezin concentration camp and Hitler Youth singing Christmas carols.

There is nothing didactic or polemical about the exhibition. Its subtlety lies in the way it enfolds the listener in the nobility of music in the presence of such moral corruption – exactly as Goebbels himself had planned. This is still subversive territory over which even a scrupulous museum curator cannot have complete control. Upton-on-line could not help but notice skinheads stalking entranced through the gloom.

Allow at least three hours.

A coronation for the flat screen era

December 4th will be 200 years exactly to the day since Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself before the high altar of Notre Dame in Paris. Was it modesty that caused Nicolas Sarkozy to avoid any tacky parallels by arranging his own triumph in becoming leader of the governing party of France, the UMP a week earlier? If so, it was the only sign of bashfulness in what has to be France’s slickest piece of political showmanship in a long while. In place of Notre Dame we had a cavernous convention centre in Le Bourget (not far from where the Concorde crashed) with 40,000 party faithful in raptures; in place of sycophantic oil paintings depicting the Great Man as a descendant of the gods, a gigantic screen featured the penetrating gaze of the new Party President peering psycho- (or more accurately Sarko-) analytically into the soul of the nation.

This is one of the most extraordinary political coups upton-on-line has ever witnessed. Like a cuckoo in the nest, this brilliant media personality has stolen Chirac’s party from under his nose, all the while protesting loyalty, unity and reconciliation. The UMP was created only two years ago with the express purpose of providing Chirac with a majority in Parliament and a vehicle for either a third stint as President or anointing a successor. Mr Sarkozy has put paid to that.

Chirac’s only leverage was to insist that Sarkozy must choose between the Presidency and his post as Finance Minister. He didn’t hesitate for a moment in calling his adversary’s bluff, throwing away the most powerful cabinet job to advance his political ambitions. (How wise: who wants to be finance minister when the budget deficit is ballooning and the only responsible answer to public demands is ‘No”?) While a Chirac loyalist and former agriculture minister Hervé Gaymard oversees the retreat from France’s fiscal Berezina (the battle that was the beginning of the end of the 1812 campaign), Mr Sarkozy is now happily ensconced commanding a large and rich electoral machine that will almost certainly make him its candidate in the 2007 presidential election.

The sheepish smiles and applause of his former ministerial colleagues said it all. Chirac did not attend but sent his wife, Bernadette, who did a brilliant job looking delighted. Sarkozy was impeccably loyal while paying barely veiled tribute to his own “vitality, effectiveness and engagement”. His ability to formulate perfect verbal truces that silence critics yet leave unlimited room for manoeuvre can only remind a New Zealander of Robert Muldoon’s unflinching loyalty to Jack Marshall in the early 1970s. “We will support the Government,” Sarkozy intoned, “because it will listen to us, and it will listen to us because we will support it.” Got that?

Sarkozy is by far the smartest operator in French public life today. He has the communication skills – and now the institutional base – to transform French politics. We will have to wait two and a half years to see if France is going to allow itself to be wooed by this extraordinary Franco-Hungarian phenomenon.

Spelling it out in detail

A recent edition of upton-on-line drew attention to the care lavished on the gastronomic fate of little tummies in Europe’s foodiest country. The recent arrival of five closely typed pages of rules from the same school where two little Uptons are coming-on-line has provided an equally fascinating insight into how France’s schools are regulated.

Nothing is left chance. Every conceivable detail is covered. The ban on gives a flavour of the approach:

In applying the Evin law [named after its sponsor in the French style], the prohibition on smoking applies in all closed and covered places to which the public has access or which constitute places of work as well as, within the school, in all places not covered that are frequented by children during the entire duration of their presence. The result of this is that it is forbidden to smoke within the confines of the school in covered places as well as non-covered places, and this prohibition is registered through clear signage. Given the configuration of the premises it has been decided, after consultation, that the room adjacent to the staff room is to be placed at the disposition of smokers.

One concludes that parents and pupils alike should be grateful for this simplification of the loi Evin which, one assumes, is too complicated to admit of a simple rule stating that “smoking is banned within the school grounds”.

A mammoth on the loose

Five pages for parents to absorb and sign is, it seems, no more than an amuse-bouche when it comes to the serious rigours of the educational behemoth that resides famously in a beautiful eighteenth century residence in the Rue de Grenelle in Paris’ 7th arrondissement. According to Le Monde, the Ministry of Education (popularly known as the ‘mammoth’) has long been regarded as having only one comparator on the planet – the Red Army. With a budget of €65 billion and a staff of 1 million (900,000 of them teachers), the Ministry tends with republican equality to the educational needs of 14 million pupils and students.

This is the system which, it used to be claimed, enabled the Minister to know at any given hour exactly what children of a given age would be studying everywhere in France. The machine-like qualities of this rare survival from another bureaucratic age must chill the heart of any politician unlucky enough to draw this straw. The current incumbent, François Fillon, has bravely announced that he is going to take an axe to the harcèlement textuel [harassment by directives] that flows mercilessly from the pens of his functionaries. As he mounts the central staircase of the Ministry, one wonders how many pitying smiles can be detected each morning in the portraits of his 172 predecessors.

No detail too small to be overlooked

Directives and guidance designed to speak equally to a school in the industrial suburbs of Paris or the most distant mountain valley in the Pyrénées must inevitably originate from a remote and abstract world. As one senior insider commented the other day: “Children often have difficulty understanding that the authors of books aren’t all dead. It’s a bit like that with the central administration: our people sometimes have difficulty imagining that they are communicating with living beings.”

The flavour of this colourless world is best drawn from the Bulletin Officiel. It can be located at New Zealand readers would have little difficulty recognising the broad lines of their own Educational Gazette (located at It’s just the nature of the guidance that startles. Upton-on-line happened to hit on a recent circular on how swimming should be handled in primary and secondary schools. The complete circular ran to around 4000 words covering everything from the objectives of swimming to the precise numbers of supervisors needed. The best bit concerned water temperature. How’s this for precision:

A – Temperature & comfort

A feeling of thermal comfort for those participating in the learning process is essential for the successful outcome of their instruction. Temperature, ambient humidity and wind will be systematically evaluated to take account of different situations and different groups. For primary school classes this sensation [of ‘confort thermique’] corresponds generally to a water temperature of 27 degrees and an air temperature of between 24 and 27 degrees. For outdoor pools, the water temperature is generally some degrees lower than for covered pools. In no case will the temperature be less than 25 degrees so as better to respect the sensation de confort thermique.

That was on 13th July this year. There must have been an outcry somewhere because on 15th October a fresh circular promulgated a couple of pages of amendments including the removal of the minimum 25 degree temperature. So it seems that young Gauls will be allowed to grow up Spartan and hardy after all!

Of course the real issue is whether this stuff ever gets read let alone enforced. Apparently the Bulletin Officiel runs to some 3000 pages a year. It makes Anglo-Saxon systems look so laissez faire.

In stunning contrast are the rules upton-on-line has just received for Southwell School in Hamilton. They were, it seems, drafted after the Ice Age and intended for simpler minds. Here they are:

1. Be respectful to those in authority.

2. Consider and respect others and their property.

3. Be punctual to school and classes.

4. Move quietly, safely and sensibly in buildings and on hard-surfaced areas.

5. Play/eat in assigned areas.

6. Play safely without harming others.

7. Wear the school uniform correctly.

8. Obey correct safety rules travelling to and from school.

Even parents can understand that!

Language and cultural transmission

A country which is busily defending its language as a global tongue does quite a lot of thinking and theorising about language. With only 170 million French speakers world-wide, there is much theorising to be done. Even within the EU, an influx of Nordic and East European countries has diluted what was once a Frankish stronghold. These pesky Vikings, Balts and Slavs make no bones about speaking English – often by choice between one another given the linguistic distances between, say, Danish, Finnish and Polish.

While many parents clearly want English taught in French schools, the élite still adheres to a view propounded fifty years ago that the Franco-German axis should see German taught as France’s second language. Bright kids are supposed to choose German because English is merely an international service language. That is certainly the way France’s shopkeepers treat it. It is increasingly difficult for foreigners to speak French, especially in Paris, unless they can do it perfectly. No matter what national pride dictates in the classroom, waiters in restaurants and shop assistants drop swiftly into a cutely accented English at the hint of an accent on the part of clients.

The idea that English is ‘merely’ a service language has as its counterpart the idea that mother tongues are languages of cultural transmission. And it is here that, to upton-on-line’s mind, the French have a point of view that New Zealand Maori would have little difficulty with. It was expressed in a recent article by Heinz Wismann and Pierre Judet de la Combe in Le Figaro (18-19 November). They described ‘languages of culture’ as repositories of sense which have been laid down over long histories. To learn such languages, they say, it is necessary to have mastered the culture of one’s own maternal language.

One way for Europeans to do this, they point out, is to study Latin and Ancient Greek. That’s not just because some European languages are directly descended from them. It’s because all European cultures and linguistic groups have grappled with this inheritance and sought to translate it. So the classics become an independent point of cultural reference from which to access other cultures.

A bit abstruse? Maybe. But upton-on-line (who himself did battle unsatisfactorily with both ancient languages) thinks they have a point. That’s a cultural bridge available within Europe at least. Whether it is available to the descendants of Europeans outside of Europe depends, on this reasoning, whether or not they’re speaking a ‘cultural’ or a service version of their tongue. And here a bit of a worry must surely arise for English speaking New Zealanders. Because one wonders whether – at least in schools – there is any cultural coherence to the English that is taught. As a marvellous mixture of romance and northern European linguistic stocks, it should be fabulous source of cultural riches which Latin and Greek could easily bring to the surface.

But if English is taken for granted as a ‘lucky’ inheritance in terms of ‘easy’ global communication, with no need to delve into the cultural inheritance lurking within it, then these doors stay closed. A brave new world approach would have it that English is all you need – and that in any case, because New Zealanders are half a world away from their linguistic cultural roots, they don’t need to worry about them. But if you even half like the idea that to understand other cultures you have to understand your own, then getting inside English and using Latin and Greek as reference points becomes attractive.

Upton-on-line has previously wondered whether the eclectic “choose your module” approach to teaching young New Zealanders about their history runs the risk (at least for Pakeha) of rearing an historically illiterate lost tribe. The same sort of concern arising from a failure to take language seriously – including the root stocks of ‘cultural’ as distinct from ‘service’ English - raises the prospect of a culturally lost tribe.

Trying to fashion a sense of nationhood out of the thin gruel of just 165 years of national history using a language shorn of its cultural roots seems a brave project. Maori who are aware of the cultural embedded-ness of their own language must sometimes wonder just who they’re dealing with.

Missing the links or the chain?

Established readers of upton-on-line may recall a less than ebullient review of a publication entitled Creating our Future: sustainable development for New Zealand published by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (2002). Two years have elapsed and we now have (September 2004) Missing Links: Connecting science with environmental policy from the same source. It is a much more focused document aimed at a sub-species of Homo bureaucratensis called “environmental policy makers”. Upton-on-line respectfully commends it to a wider audience.

This publication is not the place to attempt a full summary of the arguments some of which are not without contention. But in a world in which an increasing number of interest groups – be they from industry or NGOs – work on the basis that you choose your science to fit your argument, the PCE’s contribution is a welcome antidote. The report is authored by Bruce Taylor, Wren Green and Hilary Phipps. They have covered difficult ground in a commendably accessible way which should provide at the very least a reference point for debate.

Of particular value is the authors’ assertion that “policy makers run risks if they rely on occasional ‘snapshots’ of the conventional wisdom within rapidly changing scientific disciplines.” This supports their conclusion that “science needs to be able to integrate ‘the dynamics of change’ across broader scales of time and space and to also integrate across disciplines.” When one considers the fact that New Zealand has only ever produced a single state of the environment report in its entire history, the question arises of whether the report should have been entitled Finding the rest of the chain.

The principal thrust of the report’s advocacy is the processes whereby scientific information informs decision-making. Some will feel uncomfortable with the formulation that

science be produced in collaboration with a wide variety of stakeholders, in order to construct a body of knowledge that will reflect the context of the decision, while continuing to maintain the rigor [sic] and accountability expected of scientific research. The goal is to build common ground among competing beliefs and values through participatory, democratic processes.

But given the audience for the report – policy makers caught up in political processes – it is hard to refute their conclusion that deus ex machina pronouncements from science on complex issues shrouded inevitably in uncertainty will make little impact. Deciding how to proceed in the face of uncertainty is the key question and the report is surely right in proposing that “the disputing parties should agree on the agenda of questions to be answered before moving any further into the technical process of devising the experiments” (here they are referring to large scale field experiments as part of adaptive management processes).

Asking useful questions - questions that sceptics of all colours agree would be a useful way forward - is an obvious stratagem. The fact that it doesn’t issue naturally from bureaucratic and regulatory processes says something about the compartmentalised knowledge and agenda-protection that seems to have long been a characteristic of many political decision-making systems.

It is also an essential approach given another phenomenon the report remarks upon – the paradox that “science has led to an exponential increase in knowledge but at the same time contributed to our relative ignorance.” If that is a reality for scientists constantly made aware of ever-increasing complexity as bounded certainties melt away, it applies with nobs on in a media-driven lay community that has never been so superficially informed about so many things simultaneously. Assuming that the questions are obvious and understood is one of the greatest errors policy makers can make.

Upton-on-line wonders how many of the policy makers to whom the report is addressed will read it. (It would be interesting to know how this could be objectively determined). In the meantime, it is to be hoped that a key audience not mentioned by the report – the PCE’s own employers, i.e. Members of Parliament – will take the necessary hour or two out of their busy schedules to read it. Any honest assessment of the legislative and regulatory disagreements into which they ritually fall, would have to admit that little effort is often expended on defining the questions that would (if answered) enable a consensus to emerge; and even less thought given to purchasing the time series data that, even if the right questions were asked, could give better than snapshot answers.


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