Saturday, February 23, 2008

"The French Chernobyl"

While France congratulates itself on the success of the Environmental Grenelle and the banning of genetically modified corn in the name of the precautionary principle, the Rhône is so badly contaminated with PCB from industrial waste that consumption of fish from the river has had to be banned.

A Few More Thoughts on Religion

The subject of laïcité sparked a lively thread. Many different issues have been raised, and I can't respond to them all, but it might be useful to collect here a few random thoughts stimulated by one or another of the commenters.

The first thing that strikes me is that several commenters are able to discern a clearer pattern in Sarkozy's interventions in this realm, both before and after his election, than I can. Is he trying to respond to "numerous social indicators?" Is he attempting to arouse hostility against a minority in order to appeal to a segment of the electorate? Is he developing an alibi for the failure to integrate a minority economically and socially? Is he responding to a "crisis of individualism"? Is he attempting to allay fears of loss of national identity? Is he cynically reactivating a settled issue in order to put himself at the center of controversy and divert attention from his diminishing popularity? Is he expressing a deeply held conviction about moral decay and social degeneration? Is he a Machiavellian master of inflammatory rhetoric or a rather clumsy politician who has blundered in ways that threaten established republican principles? Do his three divorces mean that his professed attachment to religious values is patently insincere? These remarks do not begin to exhaust the implications of the many comments.

Because there is no satisfactory way of answering these questions, I think that there is little point in pursuing the question of what Sarkozy's "true intentions" are. As Christine says, this can only yield un procès d'intention. To be sure, it is hard to avoid this habitual vice of political commentary altogether, and much of the art of politics consists in accurately gauging the intentions of rivals and adversaries. I would be less reluctant to speculate about Sarkozy's intention in, say, detaxing overtime or overhauling the special retirement regimes than I am to speculate about the intention of his pronouncements in the religious realm, in part because he is more explicit about his economic goals and in part because the aims of economic policy are more clearly delimited than the aims of symbolic interventions.

So when I look at symbolic pronouncements, I am interested mainly in their value as an index to latent cultural tensions. Of course Sarkozy's diagnosis of those tensions may be inaccurate. His choice to emphasize one thing rather than another may itself distort the phenomenon to which it is supposed to be an index. Intense debate may erupt at points selected for emphasis by the president, whereas other simmering tensions may in fact be more significant. If I were not writing a blog on French politics, responding to events day by day, my focal points would surely be different (though perhaps no more accurate a gauge to "social reality" than the quotidian barometer, since my attention would then be guided by intellectual fashion, the academic and literary marketplace, and personal idiosyncrasy).

Some commenters seem to feel that any attention paid to the cultural rather than the economic realm is a diversion from the real. Without denying the extreme importance of economic exclusion, discrimination, and exploitation, I resist the hard and fast distinction. Ethnic markers are at the very least a "signal" in the labor market, so controversy over symbols may have economic consequences by changing the nature of the information conveyed--or at any rate presumed by prospective employers to be conveyed--by those symbols. John Bowen, for example, describes the perception by some of his respondents that headscarves worn in private workplaces, where they are not forbidden by law, are a mark of "aggression" or an expression of "superiority." It is no great leap to hypothesize that such perceptions, if widespread, may well influence hiring decisions.

Some commenters remarked on generational variations in outward religious expression and suggested that this might have something to do with outside influences. Yes, perhaps, but it might also reflect a heightened consciousness of difference in response to laws intended to suppress a difference that was previously assumed rather than expressed. African-Americans adopted the hyphenated designation, donned African dress, and changed the way they wore their hair even as barriers to the full expression of their citizenship were lowered. Assimilation and differentiation are not opposed processes; in some circumstances they may be complementary.

I'll leave it there for now.

At the Salon de l'Agriculture

For Jacques Chirac, the annual Salon de l'Agriculture was always a highlight of the presidential year, an opportunity to pat rumps, part cowlips, caress muzzles, and mingle with the salt of the earth. Sarkozy, who never had a constituency to cultivate in Corrèze, is generally thought to be less fond of la crotte and le purin. But he did make an obligatory appearance at the Salon today and in his own way offered a paean to the world of agriculture: it was the basis, he said, of French gastronomic superiority: "We have the best gastronomy in the world," he asserted with characteristic pugnacity, and "we want it to be recognized as part of the world's patrimony." It was a clever way for the "bling-bling president" to domesticate the barnyard, as it were, and bring le boeuf, le porc, et la poule back to the more familiar turf of top-drawer Parisian eateries. It wasn't immediately clear whether the world's patrimony was to be enriched only by the highest refinements of French cuisine or to include such humbler offerings as Henri IV's poule au pot and Mama Sarkozy's boeuf au gros sel.

Of course French gastronomy has many challengers these days, and many foodies I know would be prepared to challenge the president's confident assertion of superiority. I had a dessert last night in a Cambridge hotel, for instance, that rivaled anything I've ever eaten under the benediction of Michelin's three stars--a blessing I may never again enjoy if the euro remains as high as it is. If Sarko wants the world to enjoy its patrimony, let him manage the economy so that those of us in the dollar zone are not priced out of the market and deprived of our heritage.