Friday, August 03, 2007

Now With New Material 

While, I've been busy writing on all manner of subjects in recent months, I have lamentably failed to put any articles on my actual website... Here for your benefit or otherwise are thoughts on the following subjects:

Revisiting the Iranian Hostage Crisis - adding some reality to an episode long exploited by the US Republican Party for partisan advantage
The Religious Shouldn't Embrace a Fake Victimhood - looking at a dubious rhetorical technique of fundamentalists of many stripes
France is Rubbish, Says Everybody - France is constantly portrayed as a basket-case in meltdown in the US and British press, but the reality is of a society healthier than theirs in almost every way
Getting Rid of a Dictator - The Old Ways Are Still the Best - the surprising and inspiring revolution that is transforming the West African state of Guinea
The Darker Side of France, the Career of Maurice Papon - an obituary for Papon, and his victims from the Shoah to the Algerian War

You can contact me for whatever reason at respond_alexblog at yahoo dot co dot uk.

Thanks for visiting! Best,
Alex Higgins

Tottenham, London

Revisiting the Iranian Hostage Crisis

This is an article I wrote and posted at www.americanchronicle.com about the US-Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 and the weird myths that have surrounded it ever since, as recently repeated by the sinister ex-Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani...


In recent years Tony Blair has been a man with very few foreign policy successes of any kind. But there was at least one. When British Marines were captured by Iranian forces in disputed waters in March this year, then held as prisoners and used as propaganda tools by the Iranian government, Blair quickly dropped his initial, threatening tone and followed a policy of cautious engagement that helped to diffuse tension and led quickly to their safe release. Perhaps not an outright success - more of a successful exercise in harm reduction.

During the crisis, the Bush administration offered Blair the assistance of US forces and a recommended list of military options which remain unknown to the public. Fortunately Blair declined, and told Washington to shut up, as the 'Guardian' reported:

“In the first few days after the captives were seized and British diplomats were getting no news from Tehran on their whereabouts, Pentagon officials asked their British counterparts: what do you want us to do? They offered a series of military options, a list which remains top secret given the mounting risk of war between the US and Iran. But one of the options was for US combat aircraft to mount aggressive patrols over Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran, to underline the seriousness of the situation.

‘The British declined the offer and said the US could calm the situation by staying out of it. London also asked the US to tone down military exercises that were already under way in the Gulf. … At the request of the British, the two US carrier groups, totaling 40 ships plus aircraft, modified their exercises to make them less confrontational.”

In under two weeks, the affair was resolved without war or deaths. The episode exposed the vulnerability of British forces in southern Iraq, but any observer who has been paying attention knew about that anyway.

Blair’s measured, life-saving approach was denounced by those who regard foreign policy only in terms of domination or submission. In their one-dimensional view of the world outside, they can either exact submission from other states through force or the threat of force, or we ourselves will be engaged in an act of craven submission to them.

In England, Conservative frontbencher Michael Gove counselled that the Iranians had been emboldened to seize the Marines after British troops began a partial withdrawal from Basra, thus displaying weakness. In the U.S., potential Republican presidential candidate and former petty tyrant of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, told an interviewer that the U.S. and Britain should immediately respond by bombing oil refineries and targeting civilian energy systems and transport in Iran. Just imagine where we would be now – and in the future - if this kind of advice were followed through to its logical conclusion. Gove apparently advocates maintaining a collapsing occupation, despised by the local population, indefinitely – because how can it be ended except by showing the weakness of the British position? Gingrich, and so many like him, advocate war – indeed war crimes - quickly and easily, without even the barest consideration of the most likely consequences.

The submission/domination view of foreign policy is sustained through a series of historical myths or, at best, a highly selective examination of the historical record. In Britain, this meme centres around such episodes as Margaret Thatcher’s resolution to defeat vastly weaker opponents at home – the IRA hunger strikers and impoverished miners - and, of course, the Munich Agreement of 1938 with Hitler, which has long since been used as a tortured analogy to justify everything from the refusal to negotiate with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland to the abortive 1956 invasion of Egypt.

In the U.S., the myth-making focuses on such historical low points as Kennedy’s stand-off with Khrushchev, and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy quite consciously worked to create the myth that the Soviets had backed down in the face of his resolution, knowing that his political opponents would jump on him if they learned that he had actually reached a compromise with Moscow to dismantle U.S. missiles in Turkey in return for a removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The facts are well-known by now – but the self-serving legend of results from steely pig-headedness survives because of its recurring political utility.

In the case of the Iranian hostages, this has taken a curious form, combining malice and glurge. The recent debate among Republican presidential candidates in the Ronald Reagan Library was always going to witness obsequious homage to the late president but Rudy Giuliani’s short speech on matters Persian was something else. He described the end of the crisis on Reagan’s inauguration day like this:

“Remember, they looked in Ronald Reagan's eyes, and in two minutes they released the hostages.”

Trying to enter this fantasy takes some mental effort. Picture the Ayatollah Khomeini toying with President Jimmy Carter and laughing at him. Suddenly, newly-elected Reagan comes on the TV screen as the new president. The mocking mullahs wet themselves as they stare into his hard-man eyes and immediately agree to release all hostages, saying they are very sorry and won’t do it again and please be nice to us, Mr. Reagan, sir. That is the image Giuliani was presumably trying to get across. He is apparently quite serious, and no one else at the debate called him on it.

As usual, in the real world, something quite different happened. Giuliani’s fantasies of Oval Office machismo offer the United States no solutions to its security problems – just another round of bloody chaos.

For most of his presidency, Jimmy Carter took what might be called a tough policy on Iran, if you want to call supporting one of the world’s then most repressive dictatorships that. But the Shah and his notorious secret police, the SAVAK, backed to the hilt with US and British weaponry, were unable to retain power through murder and torture in the face of overwhelming popular opposition.

With the Shah overthrown, the most powerful group in the revolutionary coalition – the Shi’ite theocrats – started to manoeuvre and jail their way into controlling the new government. Popular feeling against the U.S. for supporting the Shah was strong, and in November 1979 a group of armed university students took over the US embassy in Tehran and held those inside as hostages. The more radical Islamists in the new regime supported them. The hostage-takers released 13 hostages – women and African-Americans (on the grounds they were an oppressed minority in the USA) while holding the other 52 for the next 444 days.

For Jimmy Carter, presiding over years of recession and high gas prices at home, the hostage crisis, like 9/11 for George W. Bush, came as a great big poll boost, giving him the opportunity to be a popular tough-guy president. But his initial, measured approach did not bring quick results.

Attacked from the Right for his supposed weakness he decided to take a more drastic course. He broke off diplomatic ties, ending direct talks with Iranian foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh - a regime moderate sympathetic to the hostages who pleaded with the White House to keep talking (Ghotbzadeh resigned – two years later, he would be executed). In April 1980, over the objection of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who resigned in protest, Carter approved Operation Eagle Claw, a military raid to rescue the hostages.

Famously, Eagle Claw was a disaster. Equipment failures and sandstorms forced Carter to abort the mission without even engaging Iranian forces. Soon after the President had expressed relief that at least no Americans or Iranians had been killed, he learned that two of the aircraft had crashed with eight deaths. His poll ratings plummeted to an historical low, and the episode cost him the 1980 election. Carter had desperately opted for more machismo in his foreign policy – from huge increases in military spending to cutting off grain shipments to the Soviet Union as a protest against their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and beginning the Second Cold War – all in the vain hope of seeing off the Republican talking point that he was a weak, vacillating president. But it did him no good.

However, Carter continued to work ceaselessly for the release of the hostages. With the military option exhausted he had little choice but to use diplomatic channels, with the Jordanian regime acting as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran. The Iranian regime made a number of demands, ranging from a reasonable insistence on US non-intervention in their country to an unreasonable offer to return the hostages at a price of 24 billion dollars. Recognising the political fallout from paying such a colossal ransom, Carter had to reject demands of that sort, but he did not give up on negotiations, instead choosing to release Iranian assets in the US, billions of dollars of which he had ordered frozen in retaliation for the loss of the US embassy.

In his fine book on the moral disaster that was the Reagan administration, ‘Sleepwalking Through History’, journalist Haynes Johnson wrote of Carter that:

“He had become obsessed with the hostages. He knew each of them by name, studied their careers and family backgrounds, read the personal letters they wrote from captivity, met with their wives and children, visited family members in their homes around the country, and came to hold for them, as he later wrote, ‘deep personal feelings that were almost overwhelming’”.

After losing the election to Reagan, Carter hoped desperately to salvage his reputation by bringing the hostages home before he left the White House. As inauguration day came closer, he became practically an insomniac – the hostages dominated his waking thoughts, and he stayed awake to have them. In the end he was reduced to hoping they might be released in the final minutes of his presidency.

On Inauguration Day itself, at 6:35 in the morning, Carter’s chief negotiator, Warren Christopher, rang him from Algiers to say that a deal with the Iranians had been concluded, with Iran being granted none of its major demands. The 52 remaining hostages were coming home.

This was all happening before the Iranians had a chance to be scared of Ronald Reagan in that two-minute window Giuliani told us about. Come to think of it - where was Ronald Reagan when the deal was struck? At 7:00am, Carter put a call through to Reagan to get him ready for the moment of their release. Carter was called back by an aide who said that the president-elect:

“Had had a long night, was sleeping, and was not to be disturbed.”

“You’re kidding,” Carter replied.

“No, sir, I’m not,” the aide said.

Carter said he would call back. Reagan returned his call an hour and a half later.

Reagan joined Carter as he travelled from the White House to the Capitol. Carter was still on the phone, taking only calls about the hostages. Johnson describes the scene:

“Carter thought Reagan affable but oddly incurious as the limousine bore them along Pennsylvania Avenue. Reagan cracked a few jokes but asked no questions about the hostages. There was nothing Reagan could do about them then anyway; they were still Carter’s problem, and Carter was still obviously dealing with it.”

Carter was informed that the hostages still had not taken off from Iran as the inauguration ceremonies began. His hopes of announcing their freedom as his last act as president were gone. Instead, they were finally released into US custody minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president. The Iranian regime had long decided to release the hostages but vindictively chose to humiliate Carter first.

But the deal to release the hostages was not concluded in those minutes after Carter's presidency – it was the result of months of intense efforts by his administration, and the damage done to Iran’s international reputation through its conduct. Carter tried the sorts of measures insisted on by his opportunistic Republican opponents and the only result was death and catastrophe. But patient brokering between diplomats finally did the job. At the crucial moment the deal was struck, the Iranian government was not staring fearfully into Reagan’s eyes – those eyes were shut tight as the new president slept off the previous night, refusing to be woken for the issue that won him the election.


‘Americans offered “aggressive patrols” in Iranian airspace’, Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Michael Howard and John Hooper, the Guardian, April 7th, 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/iran/story/0,,2051971,00.html

For a perfect example of the domination/submission worldview at its silliest:
Ayn Rand Institute Press Release: Hostages of Iran, March 30, 2007

‘If Only Newt Gingrich Were President’, Glenn Greenwald, Salon.com, April 4th, 2007

California Republican Debate Transcript, MSNBC.com, May 3rd, 2007

‘The Desert One Debacle’, Mark Bowden, ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, May 2006, p62-77

‘Sleepwalking Trough History – America in the Reagan Years’, Haynes Johnson, pp24-40

The religious shouldn’t embrace a fake victimhood

Sunday, May 13

Victimhood is a difficult topic. Often it’s not recognised it when it should be. People who find themselves blamelessly in hard times are frequently upbraided by others in positions of privilege and comfort for claiming a certain victim status – ethnic minorities, welfare recipients, even refugees from natural disasters, as we saw when New Orleans was destroyed.

But victimhood is also a favoured refuge of scoundrels who protect their raging egos from an acknowledgment of the hurt they do to others, instead seeing their downfall as a plot against them by their inferiors (a category which tends to incorporate a very large section of the human race). Witness the unrepentant self-pity of Richard Nixon, (Lord) Conrad Black, George Tenet, Margaret Thatcher, General Pinochet, Duke Cunningham, Slobodan Milosevic or Alistair Campbell as they scan(ned) for blame far and wide, anywhere other than themselves.

And to make it even trickier, victims can become victimisers - from the broken working man who returns home and takes out his rage on the rest of his family, to the Chechen woman made a widow by the Russian Army who has her bloody revenge as a human bomb in a street in Moscow.

In today’s Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ section, the Catholic commentator Christina Odone misuses the idea:

“In secular Britain, faith-bashing carries far more resonance and risks causing far greater damage. In this country, belief is a minority practice and believers a persecuted lot.”


Religious believers are persecuted in Britain, and “their chief persecutor” is Oxford’s Professor Richard Dawkins, with whom she has just had a debate on ethics. This has serious consequences, she argues, since:

"The rabid attacks by Dawkins and his camp-followers spur even the most mild-mannered Christian, Muslim or Jew into a hard-line position."

Now, myself, I am inclined to defend religious ideas and religious belief in general from Richard Dawkins’ intemperate and often seriously misguided critique. But that’s quite another thing from arguing that Dawkins is a persecutor of religion or that the religious themselves are under some kind of attack in contemporary Britain (with the somewhat sinister corollary that the “mild-mannered” Christians, Muslims and Jews should be moving to a “a hard-line position” –like what?).

The religious are an odd kind of persecuted minority in Britain. The Church of England is the official religion of the state, and is led by the Head of State, the monarch. Bishops are allowed to sit in the unelected House of Lords and vote on legislation – and there are suggestions to broaden the variety of clergy by including those from other religious denominations. This country retains a blasphemy law, long since abolished by most other Western states. Government money funds religious schools, and the number and variety of these has substantially increased in recent years. Middle-class parents are busy pretending to be religious on Sundays in order to get their children into their school of choice. The Blair government recently passed a law on religious hatred that could be used to make many criticisms of religion a criminal offence. The Prime Minister himself, his most likely successor and the Leader of the Opposition are all regular church attenders.

For defenders of religion – and that includes me – to not recognise the many privileges, and in some cases unfair privileges, enjoyed by religion in Britain, while claiming to be groaning under the secular jackboot, seems a tad churlish.

Perhaps all the more so given the numerous recent cases where religious fundamentalists (I’m using that term quite broadly) have gone out of their way to victimise others.

The Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti had to go into hiding in December 2004 after angry Sikh men took violent exception to her play ‘Bezhti’ at the Birmingham Rep theatre about a murder and a rape that takes place in a Gurdwara (Sikh temple). The theatre had gone out of its way to invite local Sikh clerics to discuss the implications of 'Bezhti', in an effort to promote a common understanding. But the exercise in dialogue merely encouraged those consulted to organise a boycott that ended up inciting a riot in which the theatre was attacked.

The British evangelical group Christian Voice went after the charity Maggie’s Centres, which provides counselling and other services to those diagnosed with cancer, for accepting money from the makers of the 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'. The charity feared for the impact of pickets outside their centres for those they treated and so returned the donation, which Christian Voice did not offer to replace.

Then of course, we had the Danish cartoon competition, when the right-wing Danish paper Jyllands-Posten invited cartoonists to submit work on the subject of the Prophet Mohammed.

Now Muslims are genuinely on the receiving end of vicious racism in Europe, as well as a spate of recent wars of aggression and massacre waged by Russia, Israel, Serbia, India, the US and Britain. Jyllands-Posten had chosen not to submit images offensive to Christians shortly before the Mohammed competition, and the exercise contained an element of bigotry, as did some of the entries.

But none of that justifies threats to murder either the cartoonists or Danish embassy staff around the world, as the blood-thirsty slogans of Islamic fundamentalists who took to the streets demanded. Indeed, imams in Denmark distributed the cartoons widely, including images they themselves had fabricated in an effort to create the maximum impact. Some of the entries to the competition were in no way hurtful – one cartoon ironically attacked Jyllands-Posten for a provocative and bigoted stunt. But irony is rarely appreciated by fundamentalists, and all cartoonists alike went into hiding.

It might be recalled that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s declaration in 1989 of both a heavenly reward, and an earthly financial one, for the person who murdered Salman Rushdie or anyone connected to the publication of his book, ‘The Satanic Verses’, culminated in the murders of the Norwegian and Japanese translators.

Perhaps not wanting to be left out of this cross-denominational exercise, an organisation called the Hindu Human Rights Group declared in May last year that an exhibition of Indian goddesses in Asia House by the Muslim artist Maqbool Fida Husain was obscene and demanded an apology. Asia House recognised the direction this was going and swiftly closed the exhibition.

In each of these cases, religious organisations declared themselves to be the victims of offense and persecution and then proceeded to “take a hard-line” and victimise others without scruple.

Christina writes approvingly of the United States where criticism of religion “is only a faint note of discord, overwhelmed by the church choir”. But despite their relative strength, American fundamentalists use much the same rhetorical trick, only with vastly greater hypocrisy. They consistently declare themselves to be the victims of secular liberals and a persecuted majority, despite exercising enormous influence over the White House, over nominations to the Supreme Court and other judicial positions throughout the country.

Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish fundamentalists are all united in, and only in, their declarations of victimhood while simultaneously seeking power over others. Sometimes, their claims that those they seek to represent are mistreated are fully justified. But it is notable that whenever they arrive in a position of political power themselves, they invariably become ruthless and enthusiastic wielders of state coercion and violence, usually in the most pitiless and sadistic fashion possible.

Christina Odone is not one of these people, being a fairly compassionate Catholic, so she and others should avoid borrowing the kind of manipulative rhetoric used by those who really are persecutors. And Richard Dawkins can be pretty provocative, but he is not some kind of tyrant, and the religious should not be incapable of a coherent and reasoned response to his challenge to their ideas.

Religious people in Britain and Ireland are sometimes victimized, usually in the form of racist discrimination or attacks, particularly working-class Asians in northern England and Catholics in Northern Ireland. But there is no general persecution of religion here, and those of us who are religious shouldn’t be making out that there is. Better instead to try and be generous persuaders.

France is Rubbish, Something We Can All Agree On

(This piece was written before, alas, Sarkozy's electoral victory. It did however, receive a surprising plaudit from the French government agency, Invest in France)

If you’ve never read an article in the US or British press about the state of the French economy, society and body politic, you should read one. And only one. Because when you’ve read one, you have pretty much read them all.

In fact, to do you a favour, one sentence just about covers it. Charles Trueheart, writing for the US current affairs and literary journal, ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, begins an article on French Socialist candidate Segolene Royal like this:

“France is mired in an antiquated economic and social system, overtaxed and overregulated, underemployed, congenitally immobile when not sporadically violent.”

There you have it. You can read all day about France without ever coming across a different perspective.

France has high unemployment, which has remained at a steady 8% for more than a decade. For young people it is even worse, with a 22% youth unemployment rate. Its economic growth rates are lower than most of its neighbours, and the national debt higher. France’s ethnic minorities are in large part marginalised and subject to discrimination in employment and poor social conditions, a major factor in the countrywide riots of the autumn of 2005.

These factors combine to create both a sense that France is in trouble and that major changes in social and economic policy are required - a sense of unease that all the major presidential candidates have made a part of their rhetoric.

In London, Washington and New York, the analysis of France is simple and unchanging. France suffers because it has failed to make its economy more like those of the USA and Britain. This failure is the result both of the French public who suffer from the “delusion” (to quote the ‘Economist’) that their distinctive social policies aren’t rubbish, and from the cowardice of their political class too gutless to lay out to the French public just how deluded they are. The ‘Economist’ concludes, more in sorrow than in anger:

“The choice belongs to France. A bold effort at renewal that could unleash the best in the French? Or a stubborn defence of the existing order that will keep France a middling world power in economic decline? The latter would inspire neither admiration, nor terror, nor hatred, nor indifference, just pity.”

That was written this time last year, but this year’s analysis hasn’t changed. Newsweek’s Rana Foroohar diagnosed the French disease thus:

“The causes are well known: An artificially high minimum wage, which discourages companies from creating new jobs. A two-tiered labor system in which its nearly impossible for younger, less-qualified workers to find secure employment. High payroll taxes and regulatory red tape that make it extremely difficult to start and run new businesses.”

These things continue because of “a magical thinking” and “an article of faith” among Europeans in general and the French in particular. Foroohar continued, “the statistics speak for themselves…” which may be true, but not leaving anything to chance, she chose her statistics from a narrow range of topics.

The US and British press are sometimes a little circumspect about the kind of change and reform they are always urging, but what they mean is France needs a government that will dismantle workers’ rights legislation, hammer the unions, slash the welfare budget, give tax breaks to foreign companies and extend the working day. Occasionally, it is acknowledged that such changes will be “painful”, but necessary. They are usually very vague about who these measures will actually cause pain to, and who they will help, for good reason.

If a tree falls down in France, the demands for such a neoliberal economic transformation are heard immediately. During the riots of 2005, Newsweek declared on its cover, with burning Parisian streets in the background: “Memo to Europe: Ready to Change Now?”

Needless to say, few mainstream US commentators appreciate such patronising gloating when directed at the US by the European media. Inside, Newsweek recommended in three separate articles changes in employment laws and a shift towards the US economic model. There was no disagreement or expression of any alternative views. Quite how or why US-style employment laws would prevent riots is left to the imagination.

Forward a couple of years and TIME magazine has a cover story on why so many young French people are leaving the country for places like London. The reason of course, is that France is so awful.

That might be something of an unfair simplification of their argument – but not nearly as unfair as their constant, one-note denigration and caricature of France.

Apparently, much of the US and British press are just incapable of acknowledging the existence of any other perspective on the French economy exceptmaybe to deplore their delusions and Gallic pride. But as many serious problems as the country has, the image of a France in crisis and a superior US-British model is the result of a very partial selection of economic and social data.

Virtually all indicators of living standards put France ahead of Britain and the US. Infant mortality in France is 4.26 per 1,000 live births (compared to 5.16 in the UK – greater than the EU average of 5.1 and 6.5 in the USA). Life expectancy in France is 79.6 years – compared with 78.38 for the British and 77.71 for the US. In UNICEF’s assessment of the well-being of children and young people in developed countries, France did not fare especially well – but by some considerable margin, Britain ranked rock bottom, just below, of course, the United States.

Poverty in France has fallen by 60% in the last thirty years – a staggering contrast with the US and Britain, where it has risen substantially since the 1970s, with limited periods of decline during the Clinton administration and Blair governments. 6.1% of the French population lived in poverty in 2001 – in the US it is rarely less than twice that, and usually more. That is without considering the fact that France has a stricter definition of poverty than the US.

The US has the worst level of hardship for its poorest of any developed country. Except Britain, where poverty exceeds that of its former colony, Ireland, and where the child poverty beats the competition. The dynamic economy of the city of London, so celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic and by TIME’s French entrepreneurs has a majority of its minors living below the poverty line:

“Forty-one per cent of children in Greater London are in poverty, compared with 31% nationally and 37% in the north-east. This is largely due to unparalleled levels of poverty in inner London: 53% of children in inner London are living in income poverty.”

French babies survive more often than ours, they go on to live longer lives, with greater happiness and freedom from material hardship. Is this worth a mention, at least somewhere in any of the coverage of France in the Anglo-American press? The fact that these figures are almost always ignored says a lot about the priorities of those who stand in judgement of France and indeed say they pity it.

How about instead of mocking France from across the Channel and the Atlantic, we take time to consider those abysmal social stats of ours? Instead of laughing at the French, we might just feel a twinge of embarrassment and shame. We might also spot a few answers to our pundits’ eternal conundrum of why the French population doesn’t want the changes we recommend.

Famously, French workers do a 35-hour week which remains popular because it gives workers the chance to spend time with their families and generally enjoy life outside of the workplace. Newsweek’s International Editor Fareed Zakaria describes “the dreary work environment in French companies” while an Economist editorial sees “a chilling lack of ambition” in the fact that most young people in France want a secure job for life. Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but another view of what makes life dreary for American and British workers, and has a chilling effect on their families, is the fact that they work more hours than all their counterparts in the developed world. Zakaria wrote:

“The average Frenchman works 24 percent fewer hours than in 1970. The average American, by contrast, works 20 percent more.”

Excellent point, except Zakaria thinks it’s a good thing that American workers have had more of their time taken away from them (and for lower wages).

Take even the riots. The widespread destruction of cars and property by the young men of the banlieus that rocked France for two weeks in 2005 did reveal an ongoing legacy of unemployment, poverty and racism. But they also had a combined death toll of zero. Compare that with, say, the riots in LA in 1992, in which 54 people were killed by looters, rioters and the police.

Did the US political class courageously take on the issues brought to the surface by this outburst of destruction and violence? Not unless you count President George Bush I’s visit where he made a speech of official resolution, as his son would in New Orleans 14 years later, before disappearing back to the life to which they are accustomed.

And to continue on the subject of the “sporadically violent” French. Out of every 100,000 people, in the last year of available figures, an average of 1.64 French people were victims of murder – in Britain the number was 2.03. In the USA, it was 5.9 - still at the level of a humanitarian disaster, after a decade of falling crime rates and despite a voracious penal system that has consumed over 2 million Americans. Gun massacres are weak social indicators, but it is topical and perhaps worth noting in passing the fact that events like the Hungerford, Dunblane, Wichita, Columbine, Red Lake High School, Goleta Postal, Capitol Hill, Nickel Mines, Trolley Square and Virginia Tech massacres do not have any French equivalents.

French social life may be less dysfunctional, and French capitalism isn’t really gagging either. France is criticised for its lack of entrepreneurship and social mobility – Rana Foroohar actually wrote that social mobility in Europe “had stalled”. This is pretty staggering given that social mobility in Britain and the US is significantly more frozen than in Western Europe. Researchers at the London School of Economics found that:

“social mobility in Britain is much lower than in other advanced countries and that it is declining” and “put the UK and the US at the bottom of a social mobility league table of eight European and North American countries“.

Perhaps such off-base criticism of the French model is the origin of the urban legend in which George Bush declares that “the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur”. Bush didn’t really say that, but US media pundits have come close. Meanwhile, as the New Statesman notes this week, “the companies on the French CAC 40 stock-market index have pulled in record profits.”

There is plenty that is wrong with France, but it’s highly questionable whether France is in a worse state than its leading detractors in the developed world. The constant barrage of clichés in press coverage of French politics here and in the US is a lazy act of groupthink on the part of our hacks at best, and at worst a mendacious and determined pursuit of a very particular and rightly unpopular economic agenda rather blatantly reflecting the class interests of the authors.

The changes in France they want won’t be painful for them, but they will be painful for the poorest, just as they were in Michigan and Yorkshire.

Statistics are from the CIA World Factbook, figures for 2005, and the French INSEE.


Getting rid of a dictator - the old ways are still the best

Saturday, March 24

Almost unnoticed over here in Britain, including to people like me incidentally, who imagine that they follow news developments more closely than others, the people of Guinea in West Africa overthrew their government in February this year.

Guinea, in the fifty years since independence from its French colonial rulers, has had only two presidents, Ahmed Sekou Toure, followed by his Chief of Staff of the Army, the recently deposed General Lansana Conte.

Toure's rule ended when he died in 1984. Conte's began less than ten days later when he took control of the state in a military coup from an interim government. Conte denounced the crimes of Toure and then set about replicating them.

In 1993, in those first years of the post-Cold War era when military dictatorship was no longer so popular internationally, Conte moved towards the preferred method of contemporary Third World autocracy, which is to allow a civilian government that does what it's told and bludgeon through any elections that have to be held with a mixture of violence and fraud.

For many years, the poverty of the population has deepened, while the government has not fared so badly, joining western companies in taking its cut of the revenue of the nation's bauxite reserves.

But the long night of one-man, strongman rule in Guinea has been rudely interrupted by none other than those dinosaur throwbacks to the '70s - the trade unions, the number one force for participatory democracy in the world.

In 2006, Guinea's unions started organising major strikes in protest at low wages and the unaffordability of rice and fuel. As BBC Focus on Africa reports:

"...the stoppages gained momentum and became increasingly political, because the people were ready for change."

The strikes were followed by massive demonstrations. When Conte released a couple of his mates from jail after they were imprisoned for fraud, the insult to the injury proved too great.

A general strike was called, and government troops gunned down 59 people in their effort to put it to a stop.

Conte was forced to back down in the face of the workers' strength (this is starting to sound like some sort of socialist fantasy now... :o) but it's true, so there). He offered to appoint a new prime minister that the unions and demonstrators would find acceptable.

As all organisers of strikes should know and repeat to themselves often - just because the boss makes you an offer during a moment of weakness, does not mean he has any intention of sticking to it. Sure enough, the new Prime Minister was a Conte loyalist.

So the strikes and protests continued, and the army ramped up the violence, killing more than a hundred demonstrators. But striking miners cost the government its major source of revenue. And as February ended, the Guinean parliament, for the first time ever, blocked a presidential decree to extend martial law (effective military rule). The strikers still did not give way, maintaining their defiance.

Conte finally agreed to let the unions and civil society groups choose their own Prime Minister on February 25th.

Conte is losing his grip over a country he has ruled since 1984, not because some mighty foreign army came crashing into the place, nor from violence of any kind, but because democratic organisations of ordinary people made a stand together and refused to back down even when they were beaten, shot at and thrown in jail.

They were also helped by the lack of a major ethnic divide in Guinea - sadly unlike much of West Africa - so instead of people seeing each other as part of different groups, they were able to work together to solve a common problem.

There are a couple of popular myths-of-the-moment neatly undercut by this episode.

The first is the notion that countries will languish in dictatorship forever unless generous foreign powers - which is how the inhabitants of rich countries often like to imagine themselves - invade them; that if you are serious about opposing a dictatorhip in say Iran, then you will want to advocate some kind of attack on that country. (A similar myth sometimes found on the left is that the state can only be challenged successfully by force, as in guys with guns and bombs.)

The second is the cynical demonstrably false notion, wrongly dressed up as realism, that us regular folks have no chance of changing what they don't like in the world around them, because the powers-that-be are too powerful, and most people don't care about politics.

The brave people of Guinea just offered another historical example of how wrong that is. Hopefully the idea will catch on very shortly elsewhere. Like Zimbabwe.

The darker side of France, the career of Maurice Papon

Monday, Feb 19

"It is unimaginable that men who for four years have fought in silence... will agree to see the forces of resignation and injustice return in any form whatsoever. We cannot live forever by murder and violence. Happiness, tenderness will have their day."

Albert Camus wrote that as an editorial for Combat de la Resistance, one of the underground papers of the French Resistance during the German occupation. Written just as Paris was liberated, it expressed a widespread hope in occupied Europe that the end of the Third Reich would not simply be followed up by a return of the old political classes but a different, freer and more democratic society.

Today the papers announce the death of Maurice Papon in Paris, aged 96. Papon is a significant figure in French history for two main reasons, both very unpleasant.

Papon's career in the civil service began in the 1930s, where he served the centre-left Popular Front government, among others. But he had no real party commitments and happily adapted to the changing times. When the Germans occupied the country in 1940, Papon went directly to the aide of the Nazis and its collaborator regime in Vichy, led by Marshal Petain.

As Secretary-General of Gironde, he served under prefect Maurice Sabatier and was given the job of "requisitioning refugees and Jews." In his obituary for the Independent, Nicholas Atkin explains that Papon:

"...oversaw the rounding up of some 1,600 Jews in the Bordeaux district, among them 223 children. These unfortunates were shipped to the transit camp at Drancy, a half-completed Parisian housing estate which served as the 'antechamber of Auschwitz'."

The fate of these people is not entirely clear, but only 2% of deported French Jews survived.

The Independent's John Lichfield notes that Papon was not motivated by a hatred of Jews.

Probably not. It was just a job - arresting Jewish children and sending them to their deaths is something in the in-tray like ordering paperclips.

In 1944, as it became clear that the Nazis were going to lose the war, Papon switched again and joined De Gaulle's side. It was not until 1981 that his work for the Nazis was uncovered, and not until 1997 that he finally stood trial for crimes against humanity.

In the meantime, Papon had more work to do. He became an administrator in the fourth French Republic in Corsica, then Morocco, and then Algeria.

After the Second World War, like Britain, Holland, Portugal (and the US and Russia), France had some work to do in re-establishing control over its old (or new) empire. In 1946, French troops crushed a rebellion in Madagascar with ferocious brutality. They also went to war in Vietnam against the Viet Minh rebels but were sent crashing out the country in 1956 after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Americans tried to take up where the French left off (you probably know how that story ends...)

In Algeria, officially part of France and home to over a million French settlers who wished to keep it that way, the Empire faced a further anti-colonial struggle. A chance for Papon (winner of the Legion d'honneur in 1958) to work his magic, and he set about rounding up Algerian villagers and interning them in barbed wire camps.

He was then made a prefect of police in Paris. On October 17th, 1961, 40,000 Algerians living in France marched for Algerian independence and the police responded with one of the worst massacres in post-WWII Europe. The official death toll was 2 Algerians and one Frenchman.

The likely actual toll was around 250 Algerians. Their bodies floated down the river Seine for days afterwards.

Papon may or may not have ordered all this. But he did offer the police cover for anything they wanted to do, and tried to conceal what had happened afterwards.

Papon was elected a Gaullist MP in 1968 and may have had designs on the presidency when his role during the occupation was first exposed. But legal proceedings were blocked for years by the Socialist President, Francois Mitterand. Mitterand himself had a past in the Vichy government he didn't really want looking into, and he was no stranger to state-sponsored murder either:


Only when Mitterand died in 1997 did Papon finally impunity come to an end. The details of his treatment of French Jews and Algerians came out in the 1998 trial, though in the end he was only convicted of the illegal arrest of 37 Jews, and the deportation of 57 others. He served four years of his sentence before being released in 2002 on grounds of ill health.

He never expressed any remorse for any of his victims.

Maurice Papon is the personification of the "forces of resignation and injustice" Camus wrote of, who returned to power in much of Europe after the war, having happily served the other side during it. Meanwhile, the forces of hope and justice got shunted aside.

As the journalist who uncovered Papon's crimes, Michel Slitinsky, writes, Papon's death is, "first and foremost, a moment to remember his victims." Slitinsky served in the Resistance during the occupation. His family was deported. In his own way, Slitinsky, remained a force for hope and justice. That, at least, is encouraging.

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