Monday, February 18, 2008

Rundown on Municipals

I can't possibly cover the municipals in all the communes or even all the larger towns of France, but here's a rundown of the current situation in a few notable races.

Veil Rejoins Sarko

Say what you will, the man has a way of getting things moving. Simone Veil, who had said that hearing Sarkozy's words about teaching the Holocaust had made her "blood run cold," today said she would join a group to "reflect on the implementation" of the presidential directive. And who can blame her? However impetuous the president may have been, no one can deny that he laid an important issue on the table: How to transmit the memory of the Holocaust as the last remaining survivors disappear, as living memory of World War II fades, as the shock of discovery declines into the routine of the textbooks. His methods are contestable--and should be contested--but sometimes it's useful to be shameless.

Geographic Shift

In recent weeks there has been a marked geographic shift in visitors to this site. In the past there were roughly twice as many Americans reading as French, with Brits and Canadians following, as you can see here. Over the past month, there have been approximately as many readers located in France as in the United States. In part this is because of Ségolène Royal's visit. Some of my posts were republished in France and brought new readers to the site. Many of them appear to have stayed. There have also been links to the blog from important French sites such as La Vie des Idées,, Le Post, Twenty Minutes, MediaPart, and various blogs.

In any case, I hope that French readers will publicize the site to their friends and acquaintances. If you want to post comments in French, that's fine with me, and I will answer in French, assuming that this doesn't exasperate too many English-only readers (I have no way of determining how many of my readers are comfortable in both languages). At times I've thought that I ought to have started this blog in French. The potential audience would certainly have been larger, but it would have taken me five times as long to write, and I already invest too much time in this activity. Anyway, I'm glad to have a French audience and will switch languages in the comments section as seems warranted.

Thanks as always for your kind words, support, corrections, and criticisms. I'm particularly grateful for corrections of mistranslations--a professionally useful reward.

A Video Document to Savor

Amateurs of political treachery, students of Sarkozyan tics and mannerisms, and adepts of the saga of Neuilly 2008 will savor this document, showing Jean Sarkozy delivering a passionate speech in favor of Arnaud Teullé, the candidate now disavowed by the UMP but briefly its official representative after the resignation of David Martinon. Devedjian chose to go with the formerly dissident list, which is leading in the polls, and Jean Sarkozy has returned to the shadows. Prince Hal's Agincourt has not yet come, and for the time being he can continue his night-prowling by motorscooter with whatever Falstaffs he shares his time.

And by the way, can one imagine two personality types more different--physically and one suspects emotionally, intellectually, and politically--than Jean Sarkozy and Arnaud Teullé?

The Memory Question Revisited

Yesterday I set forth my objections and worries about Sarkozy's proposal to enforce le devoir de mémoire. Today he has already beat a hasty retreat, as I hoped he would. Now the memory of dead children will be entrusted to an entire class, not to individual students. Will this satisfy the critics?

I had said that my wariness had to do with a suspicion of all history teaching that encouraged suspension of the critical faculties and identification with victims. Upon reflection this formula seems a little pat. We are talking, after all, about 10-year-olds, fourth graders. Their emotions are lively, their critical faculties only just emerging. It's hard to draw a hard-and-fast distinction. I think back to my own son's fourth-grade experience. The curriculum touched on American colonial history, and his imaginative teacher reached into that past to propose a novel project: an animated film about slavery and indentured servitude in colonial times. After some research, the children came up with the idea of a film about Molly Bannaky, an Englishwoman sentenced to indentured servitude in the colonies for having spilled her lord's milk. She eventually married a black slave, and one of her grandchildren was Benjamin Banneker, the celebrated astronomer. The children used computerized animation software to make a film about her life, and the film was eventually awarded a prize at an international festival.

Now, this story is illustrative in several ways. First, it highlights the importance of emotional identification in the teaching of young children. The students were certainly moved by the arbitrary injustice of the English courts and of American slavery, but in their research, which exposed them to many examples of both (they read original documents, including slave narratives, made available on line by an agency of the US government, along with diaries of colonial women), they gravitated not toward the most helpless victims but to a woman who demonstrated initiative, agency, and defiance of the conventions of her time. Although the curriculum (colonial history with an emphasis on women and slaves) might be regarded as "politically correct" and "imposed" from above (not by direct fiat, as in France, but by state-mandated exams), it did have the laudable intention of bringing abstract values of justice and equal treatment down to earth by embedding them in narrative. Finally, it "worked" wonderfully: the kids became really engaged, and there was something for everyone. Those whose hearts throbbed to the story of a courageous woman and the slave she freed and then married could concentrate on the narrative, while those relatively indifferent to the morality tale could concentrate on the technical aspects of putting together an animated film (the school hired a technically competent assistant to help with the process). Since it was a collective project, the children could share whatever distress the story may have occasioned in them while learning to work together. And blacks and whites may have learned something about each other's different attitudes toward the past.

It was certainly not the case that the children could "not handle" the story, although, to be sure, it did not involve death (although they also learned about beatings, whippings, lynchings, and the rest of America's history with slavery). To some extent they were indoctrinated with the "official narrative," but in many ways their creative instincts were freed to develop their own interpretation of Bannaky's story and how it related to the present.

So this kind of teaching can work, and it might be made to work in France. But notice what did not exist in the American version: bitter antagonism between the teacher and the imposing "authority." To be sure, the teacher in question was a sharp critic of the state-mandated testing system, but she had ample freedom to "embellish" that curriculum in a creative way. The mandate was not "personalized": it was not directly imposed by a controversial figure with a suspect agenda but was rather the result of a long evolutionary and consultative process in which many different political forces came into play. In the end, a controversial subject was treated in a mature and enlightening way that engaged the children and brought new skills to the teacher as well (she had never used film as a teaching medium before).

Could it work that way in France? I suppose so, but perhaps commenters with more direct experience of the French schools will have something to say about it.

Not Your Father's Ancien Régime

The other day I criticized overzealous republicans for likening Sarkozy to a monarch. Today I will criticize The New York Times for committing another misplaced analogy, comparing today's French elite to the Ancien Régime.

The fallacy is exposed in the article itself, but the writers are too pleased with themselves to notice. They point out that the elite, though cemented by personal bonds and prepared by just a few schools (they concentrate exclusively on X and ENA), is much more meritocratic than the comparable American elite. This is an aristocracy only in the etymological sense: rule by excellence (narrowly measured), not by hereditary transmission (except to the extent that excellence can be passed on by cultural, non-genetic means, and this is an important caveat, since many elite recruits are the children of teachers and professors). Numerous graduates of these and other top schools (and of the Club des Cent, which serves the writers as a convenient architectural metaphor, rather like the Palace of Versailles, enclosing everyone who counts within a hall of mirrors) come from relatively "humble" backgrounds (though not as humble as the writers imply: they might have profited by reading any of the many studies of mobility in France, which consistently show that the recruitment pool is not uniform and that some elements of the French population are all but excluded from hopes of meritocratic advancement).

The journalists limit their attention to the top 40 French companies, more than half of which are run, they say, by graduates of these two schools. What is noteworthy is that top French firms select their top executives for the kinds of skill, savoir-faire, and breeding transmitted by these schools, not the fact that elite schools feed the elite. Elite schools in the US also feed various elites: ask, for instance, how many partners of Goldmann Sachs attended Ivy League schools. But other companies recruit elsewhere, especially manufacturing companies, and American executives are therefore more likely to have risen through competition within the world of business.

The entire article seems to have been prompted by the fact that Daniel Bouton, graduate of X and member of the Club des Cent, remains in his position at the head of SocGen, despite the scandal. Yes, this probably would not be the case in the US, but did we really need to hear yet again from Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Times' universal expert on all things French (the Times really needs to expand its Rolodex on French subjects)? One would still like to know how much this has to do with old school ties and how much with French corporate governance and ownership structures, or with the nature of investment banking and especially the mathematically-oriented derivatives trade? Alain Minc is also a product of elite schools (Mines and ENA), but he is out at Le Monde. And Bouton may not remain much longer at SocGen, as additional information emerges from the investigation (today it was revealed that there were warnings about Kerviel's trades as early as September of last year).

It is good to see the Times at last devote a lengthy article to France; it is unfortunate that the article remains wholly on the surface and cannot get over its lead analogy or its obsession with certain nationally "marked" traits of culture, such as the gastronomic proclivities of the Club des Cent. If our newspapers tell us that the American elite consumes greasy chicken wings in its skyboxes high above vast football stadiums while the French elite sniffs Nuits-Saint-Georges and nibbles at salade de foie gras at Taillevent, do we learn what we need to know about either?

D-Day for the Suburbs

The "Marshall Plan for the Suburbs" seems to have turned into "D-Day at Villiers-le-Bel," which was invaded this morning by a force of 1,000 police. When Pres. Sarkozy announced the plan for the suburbs alongside Fadela Amara a short time ago, he emphasized muscular measures, leaving the "soft power" methods of education and transport to Mme Amara. And of course police methods yield quick "results"--33 arrested so far--whereas educational progress is measured in decades, which might as well be eons when set against the scale of un quinquennat. To be sure, it was in Villiers that police were fired upon last fall after a traffic accident there claimed the lives of two teens, and a crackdown had been promised at the time. The promise has now been kept. Il fait ce qu'il dit. This should always be borne in mind, especially as the pace and unpredictability of presidential utterance pick up again after an extended honeymoon lull.

For a wry comment on the "mediatization" of the invasion, see this cartoon (thnaks Polly!).