Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Poitiers: Ville Fleury

A rather strange story is developing in Poitiers. Benoît Fleury, a 31-yr-old law student, finished first in the agrégation in history of law. Under French university rules, this entitles him to choose the faculty in which he wishes to teach, and he chose the University of Poitiers. But the university is up in arms and has made it known that it does not want him.

Why? Because M. Fleury has an interesting past. From 1995 to 2000 (when he was 18 to 23) he headed an extreme right-wing student group known as Groupe Union Défense. This group has a long history of violent activities and racist and xenophobic statements going back to 1968. In 1999 Fleury gave an interview to the magazine Echo des savanes in which he said:

  • Q : Quels sont vos maîtres à penser ?

R . Le premier, c’est Léon Degrelle (inventeur du rexisme, le national-socialisme version belge, chef de la division wallone durant la guerre, ndlr Des gens comme Nasser, Saddam Hussein, on s’en sent assez proche.

  • Q : Votre slogan favori, "A paris comme à Gaza, intifada ", ça veut dire quoi ?

R : C’est pour désigner l’ennemi, et l’ennemi aujourd’hui en France, c’est le même qu’en Palestine. On est contre l’occupation sioniste, avec un côté antisémite qu’il faut appliquer partout où les juifs peuvent être présents.

  • Q : Vous n’avez pas toujours été antisionistes et pro-arabes...

Avant, l’ennemi des nationalistes, c’était le Rouge. On considérait qu’Israël était une base du Moyen Orient contre l’ennemi rouge. Il y’avait même des juifs qui travaillaient avec le GUD ou Occident.

  • Q : Aujourd’hui, vous soutenez l’Islam et le Hamas...

On se retrouve dans les valeurs de la famille et de la tradition chères à l’Islam. Ce qui est paradoxal, c’est que l’Islam peut à la fois être un allié et un ennemi. Autant la Syrie et l’Irak sont des régimes nationalistes laïques et on les soutient, autant, l’Islam peut être un danger pour la civilisation européenne. Pour le Hamas, c’est le coté combat identitaire qui nous plaît.

Nevertheless, the jurist Philippe Bilger condemns the Poitiers protest in no uncertain terms: rules are rules, he says, in a preciously polished essay that makes a virtue of scrupulous avoidance of any mention of Fleury's past:

Je n'ai pas voulu écrire la phrase qu'on attendait de moi. Pour mon argumentation, j'ai refusé d'évoquer Benoît Fleury, le GUD, l'extrême-droite en les condamnant. Cette solution de facilité, auprès de certains, aurait donné plus de prix à ma dénonciation. A mon sens, c'est le contraire. Abriter le droit, la liberté d'expression sous la morale, c'est les démonétiser, violer leur essence. Ma position n'aurait pas varié d'un pouce si, par extraordinaire, une telle affaire avait concerné un ancien militant de l'extrême-gauche violente. Je préfère le roc des principes aux fluctuations des affinités dans ce domaine fondamental pour la démocratie.

Le roc des principes is of course a fine promontory on which to stand, far above the streets in which the younger Fleury fought his brawls and incurred a prison sentence of 3 months for assaulting other extremist students. At some point, however, his casier judiciaire was wiped clean; otherwise he would not have been permitted to sit for the agrégation.

The history of the GUD is an interesting one. Its former members include at least two men who are prominent political figures today: Claude Goasguen and Gérard Longuet. Of course its political trajectory over the years, like that of many radical student political organizations, by no means followed a straight line.

Douste Blazes a New Path for Himself

To judge by yesterday's news reports, Philippe Douste-Blazy, former minister of this and that, had found a new post for himself at the UN, as number 2 to Ban Ki Moon. It seems that the source of this story was Douste himself and that in fact the post of secrétaire général adjoint is rather less exalted than at first supposed. For one thing, Douste shares it with 80 other officials. Douste has always been a rich source of comic possibilities, as Nicolas Canteloup was the first to recognize. If you watch the clip, the Douste-Blazy segment begins at about 1:30.

Thanks to SM for the tip.

Revolt in Poitou-Charente

Ségolène Royal, presiding over the conseil général of Poitou-Charente, provoked a walkout by Jospinist vice-president Jean-François Fountaine, when she refused to grant him the floor to speak prior to a vote on a new debt issue by the region. Fountaine favored a tax increase to cover rising costs, while Royal ruled this out on the grounds that the purchasing power of the region's citizens had to be defended. You can hear an audio recording of the tumultuous session here.

Latour and Frankenstein at Columbia

The following guest post is from a new contributor to French Politics, Alex Gourevitch, who is a graduate student in political science at Columbia. Alex has his own blog, Gorby's Corner, to which you can find a link in the blogroll to the right. This post is a summary of a lecture by French sociologist Bruno Latour on environmentalism, anti-environmentalism, and Cartesian Reason.

It may be unfair, but when a speaker is introduced as zany and unconventional I steel myself for an unsystematic exploration of incomprehensible thoughts. (It is probably an American prejudice of mine that this is especially the case when the speaker is French.) So it was with special trepidation that I sat down for Bruno Latour's lecture on 'Ecology and Democracy' last night after hearing Michael Taussig introduce Latour as "a zany, a really zany, and original thinker." It was with even greater pleasure, however, that I then sat through one of the best lectures I have heard in a long time. Latour is on to some extremely interesting, absolutely reasonable, but quite original thoughts about the relationship between environmentalism and democracy.

Latour's premise is that awarding Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is proof positive that environmental ideas are mainstream. The question to be asking is not "whether environmental concern" but "how and what environmental concern." Using the "Death of Environmentalism" book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger as a springboard, Latour spent the hour giving an unconventional answer to the question. The puzzle, for Latour, is that there is a contradiction between the hopeful, future-oriented, emancipatory thrust of democratic politics and the doomsday, philosophy of limits, pessimistic cast of environmentalism. The rhetorical means by which environmentalism has won the day has undermined its ability to generate a democratic attitude towards nature. "It is strange," said Latour "that just at the point when we are about to achieve our dream [control of nature] we should be afraid of it."

Although these opening thoughts seemed exactly the right question, none of it sounded that original at first. Where Latour really shined was his refusal to propose a simple synthesis between environmentalism and democracy. Instead he wove a complex argument about the problem both with environmentalism and its critics. It went something like this: Nordhaus and Shellenberger have rightly identified a deep flaw in the pessimistic attitude towards technology that plagues environmentalism. However, the problem goes deeper. For Latour, environmentalism has introduced some very important ideas about the way in which we can have a democratic relationship with nature. Through the idea of the precautionary principle, environmentalists have introduced the idea that political decisions about new technology cannot be grounded on scientific guarantees of certainty. This explodes, for Latour, the specially French idea that Reason, in the form of science, can provide us with absolute guarantees of the rightness or wrongness of a policy. For Latour, the classic French attitude towards science is undemocratic; not only does it remove real choice from politics, and reduce disagreements over value to scientific questions of facts, it also deludes itself into thinking we do not need to confront the uncertain character of human action.

What the precautionary principle does, according to Latour, is reintroduce politics into our relationship with nature, because it makes uncertainty, rather than certainty, the defining issue. It demands, as Latour put it, that "we follow through our actions through all its consequences." (Latour made the interesting claim that it is only in France, where the religion of reason is so developed, that the counter-reaction has also been so developed – hence the adoption of the precautionary principle into the French Constitution.) However, the environmental right hand taketh away what the environmental left hand giveth. Environmentalists have also championed the idea that there are "natural limits" to what we can get from nature, that we have caused endless suffering in our quest for dominion over nature, and that the lesson of the past is that if we continue in this way we walk straight into catastrophe. Here is where Latour really got interesting.

First, he pointed out that this reintroduced the idea that science and nature impose limits on us – the very error of Reason turned on its head. Questions of value and possibility are transformed into the ineluctable fact of catastrophe. This is why, according to Latour, the precautionary principle is misinterpreted as an inescapably environmentalist tool for restraining technology, and never intervening in nature. Second, and even more interesting, Latour thought the proper position is not simply to reject his as unfounded pessimism, but rather to embrace the unknown: "we must bring emancipation and catastrophe together." Environmentalists have learned the wrong lesson from Frankenstein. In Latour's telling, the story of Frankenstein is not of creation gone wrong, but rather that Dr. Frankenstein repented for a sin he did not commit and failed to repent for the sin he actually committed. It was not creation that was the sin, but that he abandoned his creation: "why, why father have you abandoned me?" This, according to Latour, is what is wrong with the current environmentalist attitude. At the very moment when we have brought into view the unintended consequences of our intervention in nature; once we have become aware that our freedom entails not absolute, certain mastery, but a messy, risk-laden process of intervention and experimentation, we have suddenly run screaming from our powers of creation. In doing this, we simply run from ourselves, from our own freedom, and from democracy.

I took Latour's argument to be for a democratic appropriation of the precautionary principle. Instead of allowing decisions about science and technology to be decided either by technocrats or misanthropes, we should embrace risk and uncertainty, and see it as an opportunity rather than a danger. There was much more to Latour's presentation, and I will admit to not understanding all of it. But as far as I know, nobody has put the argument quite this way. It is, of course, indeterminate. Does this mean we should embrace stem-cell research and not worry so much about climate change? I don't know, and I don't think it was Latour's intention to give us anything so concrete. Instead, he performed a much more important service: navigating the Scylla of technocracy and the Charybdis of environmentalism in the name of democracy itself.

-- Alex Gourevitch

Hogs and Ham

"I see that food prices have gone up," says the president. "I don't understand. The price that breeders receive for hogs is going down, but the price of ham is skyrocketing. But it seems to me that there's a connection between hogs and ham. I may not be a country boy, but somehow that information has made it to my brain."

One doesn't have to be a country boy to learn a little more economics than the presidential brain seems to have absorbed. If hogs walked from their pens into grocery stores, he might have a point. But when they have to be transported using fuel whose price has risen sharply; when they have to be slaughtered, dressed, packaged, shipped, and retailed by enterprises using a variety of inputs whose prices have nothing to do with the price of hogs; then the matter of a "just price" for ham becomes a little more complicated than Sarko lets on.

Nevertheless, the threat to crack down on price gougers is always popular, so we have Fillon announcing une opération coup de poing and various advisors suggesting new labeling schemes that will require sellers to label goods with information about recent price variations in addition to the current price. Improved information always greases the cogs of the market machinery, but information about grocery prices, for instance, is useless if there is only one low-cost retail outlet in an area, as is the case in many parts of France owing to legal restrictions on market entry for grandes surfaces. Information is also useless if consumers don't believe it, and it is well-documented that consumer perceptions of inflation in France are at odds with official measures. Finally, information about recent price rises for a particular product won't convey any information about changes in the overall price and wage levels, nor will it take account of different consumption patterns by people of different income levels. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sarkozy and the government are trying to do something, anything, simply in order to meet the public clamor for action on the purchasing power front, when they know perfectly well that what they're doing is useless. Indeed, worse than useless, since it conveys disinformation about where the real problems are.