Wednesday, March 07, 2007

News from France

Unlike a number of people on this blog’s forum I happen to like France and can truly say that I have always had a good time there, whether working, visiting or holidaying. There are times, however, when even my francophilia begins to crack.

Two items of interest. One, which, as it happens, says a good deal about official mentality beyond France as well, is an interview with Raymond Barre, the former Prime Minister.

M Barre was the politician who, in his reaction to a Palestinian bombing of a Paris synagogue in 1980 made it quite clear that he did not think that Jews were French.
This appalling attack was intended to hit Jews on their way to the synagogue, it has hit innocent French people who happened to be in the Rue Copernic.
In last week’s interview he explained that he did not really think that French Jews were somehow less French:
“Don’t forget that in the same statement I said that the Jewish community cannot be separated from the French community. When you quote, you must quote in full. And the campaign undertaken by the Jewish lobby with the strongest links on the left came from the fact that we were in an electoral climate and this didn’t impress me and they can continue to repeat it.”

“Those who wanted to get their own back on Jews could have blown up the synagogue and Jews. But not at all, they launched a blind bomb attack and there were three French people, not Jews, that’s a fact, not Jews. And that doesn’t mean that Jews are not French,” Barre said.
A fair muddle it all is. The left may have attacked Raymond Barre but it is many a long year since the left has supported Jews in France. Also, if Jews are French then the killing of non-Jews ought not to be a greater outrage because they are French, which the Jews are not, except that they are. Is this the famous Gallic logic? The “rolling English road” might be preferable.

Anyway, M Barre did not stop there. He has also accused the Jewish lobby for hounding Maurice Papon, the recently deceased Vichy official, responsible for the transportation of hundreds of Jews in the Bordeaux area. It was, as it happens, zeal beyond the call of duty.

M Barre’s explanation of why Papon should have been left alone is interesting. It goes somewhere along the lines of “he was merely obeying orders” except that we all know that he went beyond that.

The point is that Maurice Papon was a talented administrator and civil servant, looking at French national interests above all and “opposing the deportation of Jews had not been a matter of major national interest”.

Possibly not, though that does raise some questions of what exactly are major national interests in a country that prides itself on it historic culture and enlightenment.

M Barre then continued and very interesting this is, too:
When you have essential responsibilities in a department, a region or even more at the national level, you don’t resign. You only resign when it is truly a question of major national interest.

Mr Papon became a scapegoat. I am not passing moral judgment on the attitude that one should have had with regard to the deportation of the Jews or not. But I consider that this country is fundamentally hypocritical in seeking out a few scapegoats.

Don’t forget that all the French personnel who went to manage the part of Germany occupied by France [after the end of WWII] consisted in large part of highly professional civil servants who needed maybe to be eliminated on a national level but were able to continue to serve the country at the international level.
Difficult to disentangle but he has a point. Papon was not, by any means, alone (though, as it happens, he was not put on trial for his activity for a long time after the war). Since the liberation of France there has been a regrettable tendency for scapegoating a few individuals and an equally regrettable tendency not to analyze what really happened under the Nazi occupation.

In the immediate post-war years this was justified by the need to bring the nation together and to heal the psychological wounds of the war, the defeat and the occupation. No country that has not experienced enemy occupation has the right to cast stones at the behaviour of those who has.

However, time has gone on. Just as it is time for Russia to examine the history of the Second World War more closely, so it is time for France to do the same. By his outrageous comments M Barre may well do his countrymen a favour in pushing them towards that examination.

Meanwhile, closer to our own time, the French Constitutional Council has approved a new law that is aimed, according to the government and, in particular, the Interior Minister and would-be President Nicolas Sarkozy, at the disgusting practice of “happy-slapping” may well have the effect of disallowing the filming and broadcasting of police or any other brutality on the internet.

The new law makes the filming and broadcasting of acts of violence by anybody except professional journalists (presumably members of a union) a criminal offence. According to Pascal Cohet, a spokesman for French online civil liberties group Odebi, the new law is drafted much too broadly to be accepted as simply a crack-down on “happy-slapping”. It is aimed at controlling citizen journalism and, eventually the internet.
The government has also proposed a certification system for Web sites, blog hosters, mobile-phone operators and Internet service providers, identifying them as government-approved sources of information if they adhere to certain rules. The journalists' organization Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for a free press, has warned that such a system could lead to excessive self censorship as organizations worried about losing their certification suppress certain stories.
Is there not a French saying: plus ça change, plus ça reste la même? (Yes, indeed, there are other versions of that.)

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