Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Best Defense Is ...

Judah Grunstein reviews France's livre blanc on defense.

Sometimes You Have to Be There

I try to follow the French news closely, but I'm not sure I would have noticed the strike of ambulance drivers had it not been for Polly-Vous Français. Polly, who is in Paris while I must follow the news via the Internet, stumbled on the 500 ambulances, many unoccupied but with their sirens blaring. The drivers are protesting the rise in fuel prices, which damages their livelihood. We feel their pain, as they, in better times, minister to ours.

Someone should write a book about the highly variegated French style of protest. The symbolic massing of tools of a particular trade--ambulances, in this case--in some highly visible location is one. I recall once stumbling upon a demonstration of sheep raisers on the Champ de Mars, which was filled for the occasion with bleating sheep. I don't think I would have known about it if I hadn't happened to be there. The papers barely mentioned it. Another time there was a strike of interns. I encountered hundreds of them in white jackets with stethoscopes around their necks, somewhere in the vicinity of the Ecole Militaire.

There is often something festive about these strikes. American picketers, by contrast, frequently seem bored, marching up and down with their signs proclaiming unfairness. Even when protesting there is a manifest need to "get the job done," even if the job for the moment is to close down the plant. French strikers need to be noticed, and first of all by le pouvoir, hence the frequent choice of Paris as stage. And often their need to express is directed, after the government, at the public at large, as though nothing good can come of private protest unless it is taken up by la volonté générale, the sole legitimating force. Even if the harangue is in the form of wailing sirens, it is le peuple that is exhorted to make the protesters' cause their own. The problem, of course, is that the sympathies of le peuple are fickle, easily bestowed and easily forgotten. It is almost as if the theatrical pleasures of French protest were intended to be their own reward. Often they have to be, since practical results do not follow.

Open Enrollment

La suppression de la carte scolaire is the rather inelegant French phrase for what Americans usually call "open enrollment": children are not required to attend the nearest public school but are permitted to enroll in any school in the city. Sarkozy campaigned for (conditional) open enrollment in his run for the presidency, and now he is making good on his promise. Le Monde today reports that two school inspectors prepared an internal report for the ministry showing that the effect is a reduction of mixité. France being France, there is a certain coyness about what is no longer being mixed: although the word once referred to the mixing of genders, now it refers to the mixing of classes, nationalities, ethnic groups, races. The coyness is compounded by the lack of precise statistics. The bureaucratic language of the report deplores the fact that "the objective of social diversity has generally not received priority attention." There is discussion of a "reinforcement of the logic of ethnic concentration."

Education minister Xavier Darcos has allegedly prevented publication of this report since October 2007. The issues it raises are nevertheless important. Open enrollment is a double-edged sword. It can be used to break down "ethnic concentration," especially where residential patterns tend to create segregation in neighborhood schools. It can also be used to promote separation, especially by social class. The government's intentions are therefore at issue. A policy may be well-intentioned but have perverse effects. Or it may be ill-intentioned. The report might help to clarify which is the case. Its suppression raises the suspicion that the government is unwilling to allow its true intentions to be scrutinized. A government that is deliberately promoting social, ethnic, and racial segregation is pursuing a policy that will come back to haunt the country in the long run. Darcos should make the report public so that people can assess what the actual effects of his policy are.