Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Obama's Exceptionalism.

"For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom.
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. "
From President Obama's Address to the Nation on Libya, March 28, 2011.

Despite what some conservatives may have said in the past, the fact that President Obama’s remarks on the US intervention in Libya smacks of AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM is no surprise and it has been noted by many commentators, including conservative pundit Billl Kristol (see here and here)

Of course, American Exceptionalism has been one of the tenets of the American national narrative since the Revolution,. It may have taken different forms and shapes from “the shining city on a hill”, to the “Manifest destiny”, the Frontier and the American Dream, but it has always been how the Americans have envisioned their nation.

As many of his predecessors, the president linked might (“the world’s more powerful nation”, “our strength abroad (….) at home”) with right and responsibility (“our responsibilities to our fellow humans”), thus offering a new version of the “white man’s burden”.
History itself seems to dictate action (“with the course of history poses challenges”) but the past not only justifies US action in Libya today but it also serves to limit its role (“we went down that road in Iraq (…)something we can afford to repeat in Libya”).

However, if Obama uses a traditional national rhetoric, his Exceptionalism is different from more conservative presidents in that not only does he emphasize cooperation with other countries, but he also shows a very humble facet of American leadership (“The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change”) and justifies action with defending international institutions (“The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security.”)

In his speech, Obama clearly stated his doctrine for US intervention abroad when the US is not directly threatened:
- humanitarian reasons, (“responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace”)
- regional security,
- maintaining the flow of commerce (something that would not never be used in French presidential discourse)

Interestingly to this blog is that France is the other country in the front seat of the coalition against Gaddafi. The Sarkozy government has pushed for a motion in the Security Council of the United Nations to impose a “no-fly zone” over Libya and French planes have played a crucial role in bombing Gaddafi's forces.

So how do the French see their role in this war? Well, France also justifies its action by its Exceptionalism.
As Steven Erlanger reminded us in the NYTimes:
France had “decided to assume its role, its role before history” in stopping Colonel Qaddafi’s “murderous madness,” Mr. Sarkozy said solemnly on Saturday, standing alone before the television cameras and pleasing those here who still have a strong sense of French Exceptionalism and moral leadership.
And indeed there is a wide consensus in France from the left to the right. Of course one can easily see ulterior political motive for the French president – a foreign military venture may help his popularity and unite the French people behind him.

But if the French should so easily rally round the chief in this war, it is because it has been justified on humanitarian ground precisely because they believe they have a “special role to play”. The French people are proud to have given the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man and their politicians commonly call their nation “the country of human rights” (“le pays des droits de l’homme”).
Like the United States, modern France was born out of a Revolution with universal claims of freedom, and its Exceptionalism is based on the intellectual tradition of French republicanism, and its democratic and egalitarian principles of citizenship.

As The Economist concluded a few years back :
Born of revolutions, America and France each established republics inspired by Enlightenment thinking, and based on freedom and individual rights. Within the same year, 1789, both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Bill of Rights were drafted.
Above all, each nation believed in the universalism of its model—the Americans stressing liberty, the French civilisation—and shared an ambition to spread it abroad. The conviction among the French elite that France represents an alternative to the American way runs deep. It forms part of the national mythology that has helped to shore up French pride. And it explains why the French so readily pick on America at times of self-doubt. (The Economist)

The most virulent supporter of French Exceptionalism in modern French history was no doubt Charles De Gaulle who famously claimed : "Il y a un pacte vingt fois séculaire entre la grandeur de la France et la liberté du monde." (“There exists an immemorial covenant between the grandeur of France and the freedom of the world.”) and very telling these words are inscribed on the base of his statue on the Champs Elysees.

So I would agree very much with what Obama said in 2009 when asked about American Exceptionalism :
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us. (Time)

In other words, a country’s Exceptionalism should not have to be believed at the expense of the uniqueness of other nations – in some ways, the basis of nationalism in ever country is its belief in its unique destiny but what makes France and the U.S. so different is their belief that each is the role model for other nations to follow.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Is Marine Le Pen France's Sarah Palin?

The French far-right National party (le Front National) has dominated the political discussions in France following the first round of local elections after they, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, made historic gains.

Whenever I have to explain to my American friends who Marine Le Pen is, I can't help comparing her to Sarah Palin, but then I wonder.... how relevant is this comparison?

So I guess I was somewhat relieved to see that Time Magazine has wondered the same thing and I agree with their conclusion that despite differences, "there are enough similarities between Palin and Le Pen to merit comparison".

First, the obvious - both Marine Le Pen and Sarah Palin have traditional extreme right-wing agendas which include :
- a bunker mentality: seeing outsiders and Otherness as enemies (immigrants, Islam, foreign businesses, international organizations, the U.N., the EU, etc...)
- a return to strict-father traditional values, and a tough-on-crime policy (including capital punishment) by emphasizing law and order and social order.
- the use of populist arguments (claiming to speak for "the true Americans" or "les vrais français" and to fight the 'establishment'(politicians and the left-wing media) and bureaucrats (in Brussels or Washington) associated with moral decay.
- the use nationalist exceptionalism claiming the superiority of the nation over anything else.
Both are women who use their personal appeal to draw attention and both are also extremely good with the media.

Despite the obvious resemblance Marine Le Pen does not really like being compared to Sarah Palin :
“I can not be compared with Madame Palin, and the National Front isn't similar to the Tea Party,” Le Pen told TIME recently, insisting that some of the positions Tea Partiers hold are, well, more extreme than her own, “You have to be honest: we have almost nothing in common with the Tea Party. The two political systems are very different, and (Palin's) positions reflect that.” (Time)

This is where it gets interesting. The differences between Marine Le Pen and Sarah Palin are real but they only reflect the cultural differences between France and the U.S..

Not surprisingly, the most notable difference is the role of government (see precisely our previous post on this very topic) : the European far-right has always been supportive of a strong state (or government) which would defend the interests of the nation (including economic protectionism) whereas the Tea Party movement and Sarah Palin are about the opposite - less government.
Yet one could probably draw a parallel between the hatred of the Federal government and Washington of the Tea Party and the hatred of the European Union and Brussels in the FN.

Another major distinction has to do with religion - and this too reflects cultural differences between religious America and secular France and Marine Le Pen is much less direct about her faith and her support of Christianity; although she - like the FN - have used Christianity to set the "true French" apart from say, the Muslims, talking about "“the values and principles of the French Republic that our rooted in our Christian history”.

And of course, there are other differences that are highly cultural (and I'm not just talking about the make-up). No way Marine Le Pen would pose with guns or use "don't retreat, reload" expressions or emphasize folk-talk to sound more like real people (here). Guns, rugged individualism or going rogue can only appeal to Americans whose national myth has to do with the Frontier. (see our posts here, here and here)

Oh, and Marine Le Pen would not wink either . ast but not least, I think that Marine Le Pen is a much more dangerous politician precisely because she's much more serious and cunning than Sarah Palin, and I agree with Newsweek here :
Perhaps the key difference between the two women is that Marine is a deadly serious politician. The French won't be seeing her in any reality-TV shows. It's impossible to imagine her choosing media stardom over holding high office.
[Marine] Le Pen grew up in a household that was all politics all the time, with her father the object of sometimes violent attacks by competing factions on the right, as well as by the left. (Newsweek)

* *

UPDATE 1: The results of today's second round of regional elections in France will tell us more about the extent to which the far-right appeals to the French voters.
A word of caution though, it seems already that the vote turnout was very low which means that the results of more important national elections might end up being very different.
In any case, no doubt that good results of Marine Le Pen's National Front in the first round has already shaken up the entire French political landscape and will be the center of political concern of candidates in the presidential elections in 2012.
You betcha!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the Nature and Future of Government.

One of the most significant differences between France and the U.S. is the view of GOVERNMENT.

In fact, the difference of meaning of the word 'government' itself is very telling : in French the word "gouvernement" usually refers to the group of ministers and is closer to the American use of the word "administration" (le gouvernement Sarkozy Vs. the Obama administration) whereas the French use "l'état" to refer to the role of the administrative state. (The French usage is actually etymologically closer to the Greek meanig of 'govern': "to steer or pilot a ship, direct".).
But if you want to have any conversation with a French person on the "role of government" this will not suffice. There is the official meaning of the word and then there is its trickier cultural meaning.

The meaning of the word “état” in France is so particular that it doesn’t translate. It defines the country and is at the core of its identity. “L’état” has not only guaranteed stability and common good (a very important concept in France) in the last few centuries in France, but it actually created modern France out of a much divided culture (For instance, the northern langue d'oil was enforced over the langue d'oc by "l'état".)
Most countries favored federalism to accommodate the populations, but the French solution was centralization. It is thus part of the French identity and it is a concept entirely alien to Americans (and to most non-French people).

This may partly explain why government spending is such a delicate topic in France and why the French are very depressed about the current climate which calls for a diminishing role of government because of financial pressure. They feel that it is not just their way of life that's under attack but their very identity
This may also partly explain why government spending has also been constantly a greater percentage of the GDP in France than in most other nations, and definitely more than in the United-States :

On the other hand, if you look at government spending PER PERSON, you get a different picture :
This week's Economist has a special reports called "Taming Leviathan" - a metaphor that would hardly be used in a French magazine. Their main argument is that the "monstrous" state must and can be made more efficient. The problem with of a "debate about the nature of government" is that it is culturally biased - whether you are French, Chinese or American, your view will be tainted by your cultural and social-economic background.

As always with The Economist, they have some excellent points - one of which is that "the state’s growth has been encouraged by the right as well as the left, by favour-seeking companies as well as public-sector unions, by voters as well as bureaucrats.".
I would ad that despite right-wing propaganda, the increase in government spending is the result of leftist politicians - "in America a Republican, George Bush, pushed up spending more than any president since Lyndon Johnson". Where was the Tea Party then?
[Interesting point as well about the Tea-Party is that despite their radical rhetoric, "their first budget proposal did not touch defence or the [even] three great entitlement programmes, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security".]

The same is true in Europe - those on the left want more spending for health and safety, while those on the right want more spending for the war on drugs, crime and closed-circuit cameras. So the "monster' is really a creature of both the right and the left, and of popular demand:

Globalisation, for instance, has increased many people’s reliance on the state: greater job insecurity among the middle classes has increased the calls for bigger safety nets, and the greater inequality that comes with bigger markets has made voters keener on redistribution. Or look at the threat of terrorism, to which the knee-jerk response on America’s right was to build up the government in Washington.

On of my disagreements with their analysis is their assumption that "with a few small exceptions, government [productivity] lags behind the private sector". This may be true, but hard to prove because there is no way to precisely measure productivity.
How do you measure the productivity of nurse, a cop or a teacher? Good luck with that.
(Education being what I know best, I have written a few posts on the topic)

Another way to look at it, is to see well the social transfers work. For instance, the cost of social transfers in France is 19% of GDP and 16% of GDP in the U.S. yet The Economist fails to look at the "efficiency" of those social transfers.
One indication is INCOME INEQUALITY and a comparison between France and the U.S. can be useful.

OECD Source here and here.
- The average income of the richest 10% is the highest level in the OECD whereas the poorest 10% of the US citizens have an income about 20% lower than the average for OECD countries.

- The richest 10% of the French population has an income about the same as the OECD average. Similarly, the middle class have an income level similar to the OECD average whereas the poorest 10% of the French population have an income about 25% higher than the average for OECD countries.

To be fair, there are signs that things may be changing for the worse in France; Particularly worrisome is the increased inequality in French education (see here for instance).

This being said, I agree that government spending cannot increase especially under the pressure of abysmal deficits. (Look at Greece for a scary illustration!)

The Economist ends its reports on possible solutions that may be interesting for further debate :
  • improving management by using technology (the Internet can a great tool that works well for the administrative processes)
  • making government accountable at the local level (and yes, public services may work better at city level)
  • simplifying the tax code. (Good luck with that one!)
  • less power for vested interests (what the French call "privileges" of particular groups)
  • redirecting social programs at the truly needy.
  • too many regulations (maybe so when it comes to, say, European chesses, but not necessarily true when it comes to the banking industry)
  • getting rid of some industrial and agricultural subsidies.(I would partly agree - I would add that the role of government should be more focused the essential functions of government such as education, defense, police, justice, health...)
  • and I would add one more thing - stopping the tax-cuts for the richest in America (the Bush tax-cuts are "the single largest cause of America's structural deficit", but surprisingly -or conveniently- The Economist seems to forget about it.)
What is certain is that people want to have their cake and eat it too - thanks to its ballot initiative, California is the closest thing to direct democracy and the result is that "they have made government worse, protecting bits of spending yet refusing to pay for it." (see article here). Unfortunately I am afraid this may be a universal truth and that deep down WE MAY ALL BE CALIFORNIAN.
In this respect it would be nice to have some good political leadership for a change with politicians with guts and with voters willing to hear the truth.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International School Performance (PISA 2009) United States and France on a Par.

As for American kids scoring lower than other countries, here's a good myth for us to debunk. At the risk of shocking many French people, American students not only score average but even slightly higher than their French counterparts.

According to PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) results in 2009 , basically France and the United States score close to the OECD mean.




Score points + rank out of 65 countries


496 points (ranks 22)

498 points (ranks 27)

497 points (ranks 22)

The US

500 points - (ranks 17)

502 points (ranks 23)

487 points (ranks 31)


493 points

501 points

496 points

What is not such good news is the decline in student performance in mathematics in France and in reading in both the U.S. and France between 2000 and 2009.
Both countries have remarkable similar results when it comes to the strength of the relationship between students' socio-economic background and reading performance at 16.7 for France and 16.8 for the U.S. (above the OECD average of 14.0)
But forget about égalité : the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged is more than 50 points in France - one of the highest in the OECD along with New Zealand, while it is 'only' 42 in the United-States.

See America, your students don't have it so bad after all.

One last note: Stewart's guess, Diane Ravitch, has written a book in which she accuses the U.S. educational system of having become "testing factories". This is all the more interesting that France is reforming its system to do just that... asking teachers to test at every level all the time.

Watch and enjoy:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Class-Size-does-not-matter and other myths about education in France and the U.S.

The other day, as I was having breakfast, I almost choked hearing Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, on NBC evening news :

"Class size … is virtually meaningless," Daniels said. "Put a great teacher in front of a large class, and you can expect good results. Put a poor teacher in front of a small class; do not expect the kids to learn. In those Asian countries I mentioned, classrooms of 35 students are common, and they're beating our socks off." (

As a language teacher myself, I know from experience that you cannot teach a language to students in a c ass of 36 kids as well as to those in a class of 25 kids. It is just common sense.

Here are research results that debunk the myth that class size does not matter. Yes, Asian countries have larger class sizes but there may be cultural differences that cannot apply to western students - better discipline, peer mentality, strong family and community ties, social pressure to succeed, etc...

In fact, even more tellingly, a class of 36 kids in an affluent neighborhood will result in better scores than 25 students in a poor neighborhood. Class size does matter because you need smaller classes in underprivileged areas where discipline is harder and attention span much smaller.

What is implied by Mitch Daniels in his comment is even more important than what is said. If you can expect good results from a good teacher, it means that (the bad) teachers are to be blamed for the results of their students. My experience tells me that good students also make good teachers. In fact, the social economic background is a more important factor that will determines a student's performance than the teacher.

But even if in Asia, class size does not matter as much, a study shows that student’s individual and family background is a key determinant of educational performance.

Class size may not be the only factor that determines student performance but it is certainly one of them in our western world anyway. Of course, there is budget pressure and teachers have been feeling it both in France and (in a more dramatic fashion) in the United-States.

In both our countries the deficit has been excuse to put forward some right-wing anti-teacher agenda - the ideology that teachers have it easy with their vacationq and short school days with the underlying idea that they do not really even deserve what they make. at the taxpayer's expense. This of course always comes from people who do not teach and have idea what teaching really is.

This week, Jon Stewart once again outdid himself by ridiculing the hypocrisy of those right-wingers attacking public school teachers while defending Wall Street people and bankers in the same breath.

The other interesting part is that very similar arguments can be heard over here in France as well - things like :
- Teachers know the money is coming anyway so they don't have the incentive to do a good job/ How hard would you work if you couldn't get fired
=> This implies that teachers are only in for the money, which would really be stupid on their part - it also shows a very material view of human beings whose only incentive is money)
- It's a part-time job, they're done at 2:30 in the afternoon and they don't work summers.
=> Except if you consider grading and preps.... and yes, they get summers off so what?
- They don't get as much as people on Wall Street because "they don't work as much". The hedge-fund manager does not get paid by the state.
What about bailouts? Stewart then shows how those same people are against the government limiting salary of CEO at bailed-out by public money firms.

Why? Because that could create a "talent exodus" and it is "not a good way of attracting talent".... So what about paying teachers better to attract talent? It may not be their greatest incentive but it would certainly make them more respected in our material world if they got paid better.

The defense of the Wall Street people and bankers is that "they create jobs". Really? That remains to be proven.
What is certain though is that it is the Wall Street guys and the bankers that cause the financial metldown and the economic crisis, NOT the teachers.