Monday, February 25, 2013

Tire-d of Clichés? A French-American Spat that Will not Be.

Franco-American relationships took a blow this week, thanks to American CEO of tire maker Maurice Taylor. Mr Taylor did not only dismiss the French government invitation to invest in a struggling tire factory in northern France, he did so by writing a letter that has shocked la France entière, in which he claimed that the country's “so-called” workers put in “three hours a day” with the rest spent eating and talking. (see NYTimes article for details)

The French government, naturally upset, responded by saying that the letter was "extremist and insulting" and displayed "a perfect ignorance of what our country is about", ending with a warning note of potential retaliation "Be assured that you can count on me to inspect your tire imports with a redoubled zeal"

Mr Taylor is also a right-wing Republican who made a try in the presidential primaries in 1996, à la Ross-Perot, who "promised to balance the federal budget in 18 months, mainly by cutting about one-third of all the bureaucrats." and co-authored a book called " Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government." Now of course, one can only imagine that his visit to a French factory and talks to French unions must have been like two worlds colliding.

Mr Taylor also added what looks more like old clichés than anything else:
"France does have beautiful women and great wine. PS: My grandmother named my father after French entertainer Maurice Chevalier, and I inherited the name."
In a final flourish, he said: “I have visited Normandy with my wife. I know what we did for France.” (Telegraph)

This comes in a context when the French are indeed rather sensitive to "le French bashing", as the Telegraph rightfully observed:
They think nobody loves them. They are inclined to see signs of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy involving credit rating agencies (why did they downgrade France but not, until Friday night, the UK?), the British press (led by The Economist), prime minister David Cameron with his proffered red carpet for exiled entrepreneurs, and now multinationals such as Titan and ArcelorMittal.
Clearly, this is clearly noticeable in the way the media reacted to the story:
The French daily le Parisien actually sounded hurt Feb. 21 when it ran a front-page headline declaring, “No, the French Aren’t Lazy!” Reports elsewhere revealed that Goodyear employees working reduced hours in Amiens do so at management’s requests in response to slumping activity. Harder-hitting French commentators took aim at the avowedly right-wing Taylor, and poking fun at his ferocity-inspired nickname, “the Grizz”—a bearish association he shares with Sarah Palin. True to that company, left-leaning daily Libération described Taylor as “an extremist used to provocations.” In other words, exactly the kind of American businessperson France and most Europe wants nothing to do with. (Time)
Granted there may be some need for self-criticism on the part of the French, especially regarding the communist-backed CGT union who is radical and uncompromising. Besides, the It remains that the charges that the French workers are lazy do not stand when faced with statistics. Even the Financial Times agrees.
Here's what Time Magazine concludes:
Statistics compiled by international organizations routinely find French workers among the most productive in the world in terms of GDP per hours worked. Numbers from 2011 rank, French employees seventh globally in per hour productivity—three places (but less than 3% behind) the U.S. workforce. French labor productivity per hour actually exceeds that of Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. when calculated in adjusted euro figures. That reputation-defying efficiency has also helped make France the ninth-largest recipient of foreign direct investment in 2011 with $40.9 billion—third among European Union members. Not bad for a place where everybody supposedly takes lunch breaks and talks all day.
So could this French bashing lead to American bashing in return? I doubt it. This is most likely of little consequence in the long term as Mr Taylor has been seen as a nutjob rather than a representative of anything more than himself.
This little incident got the U.S. State Department's attention though:
Earlier, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland played down the cross-Atlantic spat as a "private matter" and not a concern between the United States and its "oldest ally" France.
"We have deep and broad relations, including many successful American businesses operating in France, many successful French businesses operating in the United States," she added. (Telegraph)
One of the most damaging consequences is probably that this diverts the attention from some of the true problems France faces, by victimizing a whole nation. Making outrageous statements does not help, especially when you point out the wrong problems.
As much as I disagree with the solutions The Economist usually offers, I agree with their conclusion on this matter:
At a time when the country has lost competitiveness to Germany, the economy is sliding into recession, taxes are at a record high, and the government has conceded that it will miss its deficit-reduction target for 2013, genuine concerns about the prospects of turning things around are wide-spread. Clara Gaymard, the French head of GE, an American conglomerate which successfully manufactures high-tech industrial stuff in France, put it well in her response to Mr Taylor’s letter. Yes, she said, “France’s image abroad is poor”. But “we are both a wonderful country and a very irritating one. (The Economist)
In the end, this spat between an American Republican businessman and the French government may not even be worth the time I spent writing this post.

UPDATE: The latest "twist" to this ridiculous story is a letter sent by Coca Cola to the French government in which the soft drink company says it “was happy to invest in France, for over 90 years" (....) and "hopes to more actively promote the attractiveness of the French territory to foreign companies,”.
(Source: Le Monde)

Ordinary Heroes in SOTU Addresses.

Heroes have always played a central role in American culture, starting with the pioneer, or the cowboy of the Frontier, extending to national political heroic figures like the Founding Fathers, George Washington (like in this statue of Washington as Zeus in the National Museum of American History) or Abraham Lincoln.
If the Greek hero was a demigod with both extraordinary powers and human flaws (think of Hercules, Perseus, or Achilles), a bit like today's fictitious Superheroes, the American hero is typically an ordinary person who distinguishes himself or herself not by his powers but by his or her character.
One of the roles of national leaders is to honor national heroes, and this is not specifically American. Plato and Thomas Hobbes already noted that one of the functions of republics was to reward those who serve them and are conductive to good citizenship.
American presidents have thus always referred to heroes from the nation's past, including their predecessors. U.S. presidents have also liked to project themselves as "hero-presidents", from Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and G. W Bush (as when he landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln aboard an S-3B Viking jet, emerged from the aircraft in full flight gear before announcing "Mission Accomplished)... to name the most obvious ones.

But not everyone can be a George Washington, an Abraham Lincoln a Martin Luther King, or even a George W Bush. This is something that Ronald Reagan understood well when he broke the tradition of just naming heroes of the past and started introducing ordinary citizens in his speeches to Congress.
This began in his State of the Union address in 1982, when he named, Lenny Skulnik, a Federal Government employee who dove into the icy Potomac River after the crash of a plane to save a woman. According to Reagan, this ordinary citizen embodied "the spirit of American heroism at its finest." One of the goals was to democratize heroes, and the president made it very clear:
We don't have to turn to our history books for heroes. They're all around us. 
It was such a defining moment that every other president has continued and extended this tradition ever since, and the term "Lenny Skutniks" has been used to refer to individuals invited to sit in the gallery, and often cited by the President, during the speech

Barack Obama's state of the Union two weeks ago was no exception. In fact, it may have been the only rhetorically and emotionally powerful bit of his speech, in what was otherwise a more substantive than poetic address. At this point, two questions may arise: What sort of heroes do these citizens represent? And, if we assume that the mention of individuals serves a rhetorical and political function what political role do they play?

Initially, when Reagan cited Skutnik, there did not seem to be much more political meaning other emphasizing individual moral responsibility. Skunik belongs to the "rescuer" type of heroes, if we consider Professor of Political Science Gerald Pomper's typology of heroes (in Ordinary Heroes and American Democracy).
This citation is meant to be uplifting by associating ordinary citizens (and thus the entire nation) to extraordinary deeds as well as giving a role model of good citizenship. As a result, even the most common person in menial occupations can become heroes.
This is what Reagan said in his 1984 SOTU:
 And then there are unsung heroes: single parents, couples, church and civic volunteers. Their hearts carry without complaint the pains of family and community problems. They soothe our sorrow, heal our wounds, calm our fears, and share our joy.
Eventually, Reagan's heroes evolved into other types, such as the 'champions over adversity', especially the "entrepreneurs who had pulled themselves up through their own enterprise or who carried out projects on behalf of the poor or downtrodden that governments might otherwise have to shoulder."
(See Vile, John; Presidents as Commenders in Chief- Recognitions of Citizen Heroes from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush, Congress & the Presidency, Vol. 34, N°1, spring 2007), who are also the champions over adversity types.

This enabled Reagan to recognize successful minorities and immigrants, while illustrating the great opportunities of American capitalism, making government help seem unnecessary.

The practice of naming ordinary Americans in state of the Union addresses continued with G. H Bush and began to include war heroes that fit the category of "martyrs", giving a moral and emotional accent to the rational of the wars in Panama and Iraq.
In 1993 for instance, G. H Bush quoted the widow of a war heroes who died in Iraq, as saying that she would one day be able to tell her children "that their father went away to war because it was the right thing to do."
But it is Bill Clinton who used this rhetorical device the most. He cited more ordinary Americans in his speeches than any other president and went even further than his predecessors in making direct connection between them and his policies - particularly his welfare reforms ("the real heroes of the welfare revolution") or gun control bills.
In 1996, president Clinton mentioned a federal worker, Richard Dean, who had saved people after the Oklahoma City bombing, but had been subsequently forced out of his office when the Government shut down, as a way to blame the Republicans:
On behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Let's never, ever shut the Federal Government down again. (Bill Clinton, SOTU, 1996)
The mention of a number of minorities may have helped him with the Hispanic or Asian communities but it also put a human face to a number of reforms. What better face than Rosa Parks, the "perfect activist" in Clinton's own words to get support for his "Employment Non-Discrimination Act" and his "Hate Crimes Prevention Act,”?

Just like some of Clinton, G W Bush used ordinary Americans to illustrate his political agenda, starting with his tax-cuts or faith-based initiatives. But following 9/11, and the subsequent wars, G. W Bush mentioned more war heroes and martyrs than other presidents. Like all national war heroes those martyrs illustrated "the honor of serving and dying for (their) country", thus giving legitimacy to the war, but their sacrifice took more universal significance, as they died for freedom itself:
Ladies and gentlemen, with grateful hearts, we honor freedom's defenders, and our military families, represented here this evening by Sgt. Norwood's mom and dad, Janet and Bill Norwood. (G.W Bush, 2005).
Similarly, Barack Obama linked his 'heroes' to his policies regarding the economy, green energy, healthcare, or more recently, to voting reform and gun control. He also chose heroes who emphasize his narrative on the American Dream, especially in the context of the economic crisis. Somewhat unexpectedly for a Democrat, the true hero of the story can be the business itself:
a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie's tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant."
In this case, the "single mom" is a "champion over adversity" but the company (Siemens) is also heroic as it is the actual rescuer. In a similar fashion, a private company is literally the true hero of this story:
Center Rock manufactured the drill bits and other equipment used to find and rescue 33 trapped Chilean miners in October 2010. (Obama, SOTU, 2011)
The only major differences between democratic and republican presidents - for as much as our 30-year sample is of any significance - stems from their political agenda and their view of government, with greater emphasis of Clinton and Obama on the positive role of government and on communities, whereas Bush I & II were more strictly interested in individual successes, with more mention of war heroes in the case of G. W Bush, linked to the war on terror.

By looking at the different types of heroes cited in State of the Union addresses in the last 30 years, we can make a few other observations:

  • Citing an ordinary American as a role model for his or her action, or his moral qualities has been on the increase, with a peak in the Clinton years, and has become a requirement.
  • These heroes are carefully chosen to illustrate a policy and are highly dependent on the political context. 
  • They serve different functions: 
    • they put a human face on policies that may be complicated to explain,
    • they reinforce the belief in the exceptionalism of the nation, 
    • they make citizens feel good about themselves by proxy and association, 
    • they legitimate the actions of the president, 
    • they make heroism more democratic, including minorities that were not part of the classical all-male, all-white pantheon of American heroes. 
On the other hand, flattering "the people", and using basic emotions instead of relational arguments seem more like populism. Another potential problem is that the very mention of too many heroic figures linked to policies may be counterproductive by making them look banal or insincere. If anyone can be a hero, then heroes lose their meaning. If the ordinary citizens-as-heroes are to be credible, they will have to be farther and fewer between, and their link to policies will have to be more subtle.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Same Sex Marriage Debate(s)?

It is quite rare that similar legislation are debated at about the same time on either side of the Channel, but this month, both the U.K. and France are about to make same-sex marriage legal.
On Feb. 12, the French National Assembly is expected to pass a measure legalizing same-sex marriage. Although the bill still needs to win the approval of the French Senate and be signed by the president, it is expected to become law as soon as May 2013.
On Feb. 5, the British House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favor of a same-sex marriage measure. Another vote in the House of Commons and a vote in the House of Lords are still to come, but the bill is expected to pass and become law in summer 2013. (Pew Forum)
In both countries, the legislation has large public support (here and here).

Nationwide, there is a now majority of public opinion in favor of it. But, as always with the U.S., most laws are defined by the states, rather than the federal government. So far, 9 states have legalized same-sex marriage - 3 of which through popular vote - but 30 states prohibit it in their constitutions.
At the federal level, The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996, prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and allows each state to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states (Wikipedia).
Since then, a lot has happened: both Bill Clinton changed and Barrack Obama changed their minds a (here and here), and Obama became the first sitting president to endorse marriage rights for same-sex couples. As with other politicians, it seems that this change of mind can be attributed to personal ties, and to having gay people leading comfortably conventional lives in their worlds. Exposure is definitely a key factor in how people respond.
As often the case in major legal issues in the United States, it is now up to the Supreme Court to weigh in, notably about the constitutionality of DOMA. (NYTimes). It remains to be seen whether the justices have also had similar exposure as other politicians have. Their decision is expected in June.

In the meantime, it may be interesting to hear what happens elsewhere. As you can see in Jon Stewart's funny report here below, the debate and vote in the U.K. was relatively uncontroversial and swift (only 6 hours),  ending in a 400–175 vote in favor, including almost half of the the Tories (conservative).

This is definitely not something you'll see in France and probably not in the U.S. either. Despite public support in these countries, the topic is also clearly more controversial and divisive for American and French politicians alike.
You may be surprised of the similarities of the arguments used by the most extreme conservatives in both France and the United States. As in the video above, similar outrageous homophobic have floated around linking homosexuality to polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and even zoophilia (The Guardian)

In a measure of the bitterness of the public debate, Serge Dassault, CEO of the Dassault industrial group and a conservative politician, predicted in November that gay marriage would lead to the decline of the French nation, like the peoples of ancient Greece.
"We'll have a country of gays and in 10 years there'll be nobody left - that's stupid," the senator for the centre-right UMP party said.
In September, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Lyon, argued that plans to redefine the concept of marriage would open the door to incest and polygamy. (BBC)

Most surprisingly, in a country with such strict separation between church and state, religious leaders have been deeply involved and unanimously against the bill, even though the new law would only affect civil marriage, which are strictly distinct from religious ones. (In France, people who want to marry in the church have two ceremonies - one for the Republic, and one with a priest).
Yet, almost half of practicing catholics are in favor of it and even the right-wing Catholic review Temoignage Chretien (Christian Testimony) has endorsed this bill in an editorial, (published in Le Monde).:
The impact of its statement is even more interesting in that it comes from a religious publication:
"Homosexuality has been persecuted or oppressed for many centuries. However, it is a sexual orientation as legitimate and worthy as heterosexuality. Marriage is a contract chosen by people more freely and willingly today than ever. … Denying homosexuals that contract would add yet another layer of discrimination on those who have been too often subjected to such indignities. That's why we believe it is fair to open marriage to those who want to give a legal framework to strengthen their union.” (Translation here)
As in the U.S. this new bill was also a political opportunity for the conservative opposition to the government to rally its radical wing, especially after the deep division over the leadership of the party.
The French right (....) has attempted to draw out the proceedings for as long as possible. More than 5,300 amendments have been tabled by the opposition, some of which were absurdist, such as the demand that polygamous and incestuous marriages be legalised in the name of equal rights.
Several rightwing MPs warned of an influx of gay foreigners wanting to marry in France. With about 3,000 amendments still to be dealt with in at least another week of debate, the spats are continuing, with the speaker of parliament often urging both sides to calm down. (The Guardian)
Since the law would also allow gay couples to adopt, the conservatives have strategically focus the debate on "children", but not the children of the gay couples that exist, but of the potential children that might exist and be raised by gay families, claiming the "children need both a father and a mother", conveniently forgetting that single people have had the legal right to adopt since 1966. This was as smart as the support for adoption by gay couples barely reaches 50%.

That being said, there was there more to it than mere political expediency as for a lot of people who demonstrated against the bill, it was more about what it means to be a parent than about marriage. Then there is a fear for some people that it might lead to legalizing artificially induced pregnancies for gay couples, and surrogate motherhood which is seen by many in France as exploitation of poor working women by the rich (NYTimes) - something that goes against the founding myths of France.

Because this is France, philosophy and intellectual debates play a greater role in shaping public opinion than in any other country.
In a brilliant Op-Ed in the International Herald Tribune, Robert Zaresky considers that at the heart of the matter is the meaning of the trio of revolutionary values — liberty, equality and fraternity — that France has made its own since 1789, illustrating the  question by the debate between two of France’s most influential intellectuals: Elisabeth Badinter and Sylviane Agacinski, who a fierce debate with similar argument about a law imposing sexual parity in political office.
At heart of it, is a disagreement  about attributing rights based on difference instead of sameness.
Basically, Badinter rejected political "parité" for the same reasons she favors same-sex marriage - the idea that revolutionary France’s liberating credo is based on the universal character of human rights, and the no one should be treated different based on race or gender.
Attributing rights based on difference instead of sameness would reduce the nation to a motley collection of tribes, each pursuing its own instead of the nation’s interest. France would become little better than America, where the range of hyphenated citizens would be as varied as the coffees at Starbucks.
For Agacinski, life’s fundamental dichotomy is the biological difference between a man and a woman, and the difference needs to be recognized so inequality can be remedied. This view also leads her to believe that "the family is yoked to biological filiation", which has been the argument of those opposing the bill.
The problem is that both claim their respective positions have universal foundations which may explain in part the radicalization of the debate.
Where Agacinski glimpses the end of civilization as we know it, Badinter sees civilization as we should know it. 
It seems to me that this EITHER/OR is a false dichotomy. There is room in the French republic for those who claim the "right to be different" (a popular motto of the 60s and 70s) and those who claim "the right to be the same".
There is more danger in denying differences; as Badinter does, because it threatens individual liberties to which all humans aspire.
That being said, I also fail to see the logical link between the fundamental different between a man and a woman, and biological filiation that Agacinski  makes. Research has shown that sexual identity is not synonymous with gender, and a child can develop his sexual identity, even when raised by same-sex parents. (notwithstanding that role models other than just the parents exist in any family).
In this respect, I agree with Badinter that desire, not biology, is essential. It is interesting that heterosexual desire for children tends to be praised, when the desires for homosexuals to have children is often seen as selfish. This reeks of homophobia.
The family, Badinter contends, is the “convergence of individual liberty and shared goals.” It is immaterial whether a couple’s child issues directly from the couple or a surrogate mother. If anything is sacred, it is not the womb, but a couple’s desire, whether they are infertile or gay, to raise a child.

I would like to end this on a note of irony in the words of Frederic Martel in another article by the NYTimes:
Now we’re at a moment when we are all a bit hysterical about marriage — gay marriage. But this is really a conservative movement, about stability in society and being good parents and protecting children and becoming rather ordinary.” (NYTimes)