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mardi 29 mai 2012

What Hollande means for France, through the New Yorker's eyes

Sometimes your blogger finds it useful, and less depressing, to take a different spin on world events. And so, to look over what Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker thinks of France's new president, François Hollande. Since so much of the coverage of the elections in the American press focused on the mistaken idea that Hollande's mild manner somehow meant he was inexperienced, Gopnik's more nuanced view-point was a pleasant surprise.

He made several points, worth considering:
  • Hollande is a sort of anti-Sarkozy. While Americans might be comfortable with Sarkozy, may French people are less so. “Sarkozy seemed merely showy, and his energy, over time, merely antic and self-pleasing.”
Elections are decided not only on the merits of the candidates' programs, but also on how they are perceived. While Sarkozy promised changes, French voters were not pleased by his period in office and also important, were not pleased by the image he gave of their country.
  • “Professional worriers worry about the prominence of the political extremes in France—and it’s hard not to worry when their parties take a third of the vote—but that vote wasn’t quite as large, or as big a deal, as it might seem.” Gopnik considers Le Pen and Mélenchon, and their seemingly extreme ideas.
Part of how Americans see politics in other countries is influenced by their familiarity with the two-party system and the fact that it seems to be the “normal” and others are an aberration. Now, there is no reason that everyone needs to have a two-party system, and as various pundits mention regularly in the New York Times, having such a system leads to polarization and makes compromise more difficult. As much as some of Le Pen's public statements may be incendiary or racist, the presence of extremes in the French electoral field is only important if their agenda is implemented, an issue of concern in Sarkozy's politics, particularly towards immigrants.
  • Then Gopnik raises a good point: “What would an actual, honest-to-God Socialist President do in office? Probably not anything particularly socialist—nationalizing the means of production or the like—but, rather, something more along the lines of striking a protective stance.”
Thirty years ago, Mitterrand assumed office and nationalized some industries, but it's hard to imagine that happening today. Other changes might seem slightly more possible; during Mitterrand's term, there was an opening towards diversity, with campaigns like the anti-racist Marche des Beurs in 1983 or “Touche pas à mon pôte.” Since issues concerning the presence of immigrants (or people perceived as immigrants) continues to be a hot-button issue and the Right have played into it, perhaps the election of a Socialist heralds an easing of racial and communitarian tension.
  • Then Gopnik plunges into an examination of American schadenfreude at the problems Europe grapples with during the current economic crisis :
    “A continent torn by the two most horrible wars in history achieved a remarkable half century of peace and prosperity, based on a marriage of liberalism properly so called (individual freedoms, including the entrepreneurial kind) and socialism rightly so ordered (as an equitable care for the common good). Any pleasure taken in the failure of Europe to expunge all its demons threatens to become one more way of not having to examine our own. A mild-mannered, European-minded citizen king is, at least, better than a passionately convinced exceptionalist. France, and Europe, learned that lesson the hard way.” 
Hollande has only just taken office and so this blogger will give him the customary hundred days before making any pronouncements on the direction his government is taking. However, of great interest will be how a Socialist-led France deals with the crises of international affairs, and with former colonies and protectorates in particular.

vendredi 25 mai 2012

More elections, this time in Egypt

Here are some quick thoughts on the Egyptian election.

1. So people are electing a president whose powers are not defined. They will be defined later in the Constitution, once it gets written. Maybe this is putting the cart before the horse, but if all anyone focuses on is that the foundation is not fully laid, nothing will be built.

2. Many of the reports feature quotes where people say that for the first time they feel as though their vote counts and their voice is being heard. This is immeasurably important. In a dictatorship, the choices are be trampled on or join forces with the dictator. Neither one is a very good choice. The possibility of making one's voice heard without abetting a dictatorship is liberating. Once people feel that they can affect what happens to them and believe that there will be dividends to planning for the future, other aspects can take off; business, education, social entrepreneurship. Investing in something for future gains can only happen when people believe that those gains will not be taken away from them. Otherwise, people only focus on the here and now, which is admittedly a Herculean task for the many Egyptians mired in poverty.

3. Some of the reporting focuses on Copts, and their voting to exclude an Islamist candidate. That's an understandable strategy. Clearly, they are worried, and they have reason to be. How popularly elected regimes in Muslim countries deal with religious minorities is an open question. And the answer is often not well, as this op-ed about Indonesia demonstrates.

However, and this is a big however, majority Muslim countries need to come to terms with how they choose to reconcile religion and government. For that reason, the participation of Islamist parties and candidates is key. Religion plays a very important role in Egyptians' lives.  In fact, religion plays an important role in many people's lives, the world over. It's an issue with which we continue to struggle here in the United States, and the way religion and politics intersect evolves and develops with time.

Here are two larger points, about Islamists and elections:

Whether or not third parties are comfortable with Islamists, they represent a political current in Muslim majority states. Since people support them, it is necessary for observers to take them seriously and deal with them, not some imaginary, wish-fulfillment character. And not some telegenic, charismatic, English-speaker. If a candidate or party is trying too hard to win over outsiders, why should Egyptian (or other) voters trust that this person has their interests in mind? Of course, maybe observers should consider the reasons why Islamist parties and candidates garner support. There are a couple reasons. First, people are seeking an alternative to their present leaders, who serve their interests poorly. Second, many people believe that Islamist parties and candidates are more moral and less corrupt. If your country is plagued by corruption and graft, it is rational to seek an alternative. Finally, many workaday people are proud of their religion and heritage and would like to be able to express those feelings openly, which has not been possible under a significant number of dictatorships. Remember that people were arrested in Tunisia just for attending dawn prayers too often before rolling one's eyes and exclaiming "why do they care so much?"

Now, some of the appeal is also based on what Islamist parties claim they will do. And there, as with all such claims, what they say must be taken with a grain of salt. That said, while Islamists are outside of power, they can claim whatever they want, and their claims are not tested. Once they are tested in government, with competing interests and the balancing and compromise that entails, their claims may seem unrealistic. That's not a bad thing; in fact, it's a necessary step to creating a functioning democracy.

Let's develop this idea further. When people vote, they vote for whichever candidate represents what they want or need. Then, if they are happy with that person or party, they can vote for them again. If they are not happy, they can vote for someone else. Different voting schemes allow for different methods of picking candidates. Thus, two rounds, as in Egypt, allows for a fuller field of candidates, to represent a wider variety of opinions, and then the run-off affords citizens the opportunity to fine-tune and recalibrate their expectations. Thus, a person could have entirely different, but equally legitimate reasons for first and second round picks. While this may seem strange from a U.S. two-party viewpoint, it probably actually allows for more viewpoints and possibility of compromise. It's a mistake to look at elections either as an end in themselves or as a finished product. Legitimate government is only possible with long-term, sustained participation by electors, with regular elections to act as a regulating mechanism.

It looks as though the front-runners are Shafik and Morsi. Your blogger would have preferred Aboul Foutoh, since his break with the Muslim Brotherhood represents a crack in the fortress of their monopoly on Islamist politics and a welcome step toward pluralism. Whatever happens in the second round, it will certainly be interesting.

Finally, Egyptians are approaching the elections with humor, which is a nice change of pace from either overly optimistic or non-stop doom and gloom reporting.

dimanche 6 mai 2012

Un petit mot par rapport à l'éléction présidentielle

Un collectif des français d’origine étrangère a publié au Monde une lettre très intéressante, dénonçant le discours xénophobe de la campagne présidentielle. Partout dans la presse, à la fois française et étrangère, l’on voit des analyses de l’effet LePen sur le discours de Sarkozy. La lettre déplore les attaques sur les personnes ayant une origine étrangère, surtout sur la porte-parole de Monsieur Hollande, qui prétende que ses orignie marocaines l’empêche d’être loyale à sa partie.

Ils s’expliquent:
“Ce ‘trop de monde’, c'est nous. Depuis cinq ans, nous, Français d'origine étrangère, subissons les attaques répétées de la majorité qui remet de plus en plus brutalement en cause notre appartenance à la France.”
Et puis ils en énumèrent:
“Le ‘débat’ sur l'identité nationale qui ne questionnait en réalité que l'identité de certains Français trop bronzés pour être honnêtes, les incessants débats sur la laïcité plaçant dans le viseur celles et ceux d'entre nous qui avaient le malheur d'être musulmans, le discours de Grenoble prononcé par Nicolas Sarkozy dans l'optique de dépouiller certains Français de leur nationalité - comme si celle-ci était une option -, les difficultés et humiliations que nous avons rencontrées pour renouveler une simple carte d'identité dès lors qu'un de nos aïeux était lié à un pays étrangers... Ces agressions répétées nous ont placés dans la plus grande insécurité identitaire.”
Moi, comme étrangère travaillant en France (et en banlieue dificile!) a bien connu ce genre d’humiliation…mais ce n’était pas moi qui l’a subi. Petite, blonde aux yeux bleues, j’étais systématiquement la seule à ne pas être contrôller dans le RER, à ne pas avoir besoin de montrer ma carte d’identité même pour le trucs les plus banales, à avoir la porte tenue pour moi lorsque c’était claquée dans le nez de celle qui passait avant ou après moi. Et pourtant, moi je n’étais ni résidente ni citoyenne, je n’avais pris aucun engagement envers la France, sauf mon contract de travail.
Soyons francs. Moi, je passais deux beaux séjours en France, comme étudiante et après comme employée. J’ai goûté aux plaisirs qui font de la France une si belle déstination. Mais j’étais bien consciente que ces plaisirs n’étaient pas offerts à tous et chacun. Il s’agit d’une discrimination flagrante, ce qui empêche les français, toutes sortes confondues, de viser et achever des buts communs.
Être citoyen c’est un pacte, oui, mais c’est un pacte qui va dans les deux sens. Ce n’est pas normal que l’on demande aux français d’origine étrangère d’avoir à chaque moment de la journée de se montrer plus français que les franco-français. Ni que l’on fasse d’eux le bouc émissaire de tous les maux de la France.
Au cours du débat, les candidats ont évoqué les préstations sociales et l’idée que “les étrangers” en abusent. S’il existe vraiment des problèmes à la CAF, essayons de les réussir. S’il existent des problèmes sécuritaires, abordez-les. Mais, en stigmatisant une certaine partie de la population, l’on a tendance, non seulement ne pas résoudre les problèmes réelles, mais d’aggraver la fracture et de faire monter les tensions, là où il serait mieux de les apaiser.