The French Say 'Shove Your Love Locks, Mon Ami'

The French are some of the least sentimental people in the world -- one reason I admire them.

Jim Morrison died in Paris and formerly had a grave plot in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. I'm so old I once visited the cemetery while the grave was still there. Fans from all over the world strode blissfully past the resting places of actual geniuses to try to find Morrison's grave. To help them, despicable hominids had defaced dozens of monuments with scratched arrows pointing the way to 'Jim's Grave'. The headstone of Morrison's grave had been chipped away by souvenir-seeking fans, and the surroundings were littered with beer cans, used condoms, joints, scrawled confessions of eternal adoration for the Doors frontman, and quotations from his regrettable poetry.

Paris eventually had enough, so they dug him up and reburied him in an undisclosed location. I applauded the move.

Now the Parisian authorities are finally taking bold action against the idiotic scourge of love locks, a phenomenon I have deplored in these pixels before:

Any hope that the love locks clinging to Paris' famed Pont des Arts bridge would last forever will be unromantically dashed by the city council's plan to dismantle them Monday — for good.

The padlocks — signed and locked by lovers on the metal grills on the bridge's sides by lovers — are widely regarded as an eyesore on Paris' most picturesque bridge, which overlooks the Eiffel Tower.

Last summer, they also became symbol of danger after a chunk of fencing fell off under their weight.

The city council said this week that the several hundred thousand padlocks in places around Paris cause "long-term heritage degradation and a risk for visitors' security."

Padlock-proof plexiglass panels will soon replace the Pont des Arts bridge's metal grills.

Let's hope all other cities follow suit.

Race Does Not Exist in France, Says the Front National

In a long piece on the National Front, Susan Dominus interviews the mayor of Fréjus, National Front politician David Rachline: 

I recalled a conversation we had earlier in the day in his office, when I asked him to describe the racial makeup of his high school. “I never count French people based on their origins or their religion,” he said. “I always just consider French people as French.”

It was strange to hear this liberal sensitivity from Rachline, of all people. He advocates the death penalty for rapists.

But Rachline’s deflection on the question of race was not at all surprising to Vincent Pons, a French academic I met in Paris the next day. Pons, a campaign expert — a company he founded provides technological support to candidates — reminded me how difficult it is to map basic American assumptions onto the French political landscape. “In France, officially, we don’t have race,” he said; it is illegal, for example, to ask about race or religion on any government form. “We just pretend that race does not matter, but it’s this crazy thing — of course it matters,” he said. “There are no statistics, so you can make no policy around it. But even if you tried, you’d be accused of making too much of race.”

Citizenship in France is supposed to confer complete equality, but the National Front, and many French all over the political spectrum, believe that privilege comes with the expectation of strict assimilation — no head scarves in school, no race-based interest groups, no questioning of the baby Jesus in the galette, no balking at the school’s lunch of roast pork. When it comes to laïcité, the differences between those on the left, the right and the far right are sometimes most apparent in the varying hostility with which they deliver remarkably similar views.

I'm pretty sure this see-no-evil policy on race and religion in France is on its last legs. Just about every non-Frenchman recognizes the absurdity of pretending  race and religion don't matter, and a growing number of the French are seeing it too. The politics are interesting, though: the National Front seizes upon the irrelevance of race to avoid accusations of racism, and the left believes ignoring race serves its interests as well, especially since members of ethnic and religious minorities are almost certainly overrepresented among prison inmates and welfare recipients. But the other side of the coin is that without reliable statistics, there is no way to reliably quantify the level of racial discrimination in French society. So far the left seems to have concluded that framing discussions in non-ethnic terms brings more benefits than drawbacks, but I wonder how long that will hold out, especially as the French left watches the Front National gleefully seize on the see-no-evil policy.

Letter Published in London Review of Books

In the July 17th London Review of Books, Judith Butler reviewed Jacques Derrida's On the Death Penalty, Vol. 1. She noted Derrida's reliance on a key passage in Freud's Civilization and its Discontents:

A brief passage in [Freud's] book proves quite important for Derrida’s argument. Freud is writing about the death penalty: ‘One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.’ (I take it that this is the 1790s.) ‘A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent!”’ It is as if the call to let the assassins begin their work is of a part with the passions aroused by abolitionist discourse itself. Are abolitionists like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of the porn they would get rid of? Abolitionism has a different problem, since here it isn’t so much desire but the death drive that cloaks itself in moral opposition to its own expressions. Does Derrida’s reading suggest that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness?

I hadn't read Freud's book in quite a while, and had forgotten that he had discussed the death penalty in it. In any case, I was quite sure Freud's interpretation of this quotation was seriously wrong, since I had encountered the phrase several times in research for my death penalty book. I did a bit of research, and located the quotation. The London Review of Books just published my letter correcting Butler, Derrida, and most importantly Freud, who started the whole journey into erroneousness. Here it is, along with another letter which might be of interest to German readers: 

The Death Penalty

Judith Butler repeats a mistake first made by Freud about the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent’ (LRB, 17 July). It was not ‘called out’ during a debate in the ‘French Chamber’ in the 1790s in response to arguments against capital punishment. In fact, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase in an 1849 issue of his serial Les Guêpes. Further, the phrase was hardly intended as a cry of encouragement to murderers. The full passage (my translation) reads: ‘The law of the land kills those who have killed. If one wishes to abolish the death penalty in such cases, let the murderers begin – if they do not kill, we will not kill them.’ In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud reproduces only the five-word exhortation. He seems to interpret it as a frenzied expression of bloodlust, and follows it with meditations on the violence inherent in human nature. In context, of course, it’s just a snappy retort to death-penalty abolitionists – and sometimes a retort is just a retort.

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf

Both in Nietzsche Zur Genealogie der Moral and in the translation of Derrida quoted by Judith Butler, the text reads ‘der kategorische Imperativ riecht nach Grausamkeit,’ not ‘reicht von’. ‘Riecht nach’ means ‘reeks of’; ‘reicht von’ means ‘ranges from’. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale, as well as the 1994 Cambridge translation by Carol Diethe, give ‘smells of cruelty’, but (as Peggy Kamuf, the translator of The Death Penalty, notes) in the French original Derrida actually uses the English word ‘stinks’ – neither ‘reeks’ nor ‘smells’ – to translate the German.

Michael Robertson


National Scorpions in a European Bottle

The Washington Post examines the chances of a right-wing block in the European Parliament and uncovers a few interesting cross-currents among European Euroskeptic parties:

With France’s National Front the likely anchor of any nationalist coalition, it has been up to Le Pen to try to forge a legislative bloc. Success would mean winning at least 25 seats from seven countries. Though almost assured of enough seats, Le Pen appears to be at least one nation shy of the country threshold.

Meanwhile, one nationalist group, the United Kingdom Independence Party, has refused to work with her. Like Le Pen, UKIP chief Nigel Farage has sought to position his party as sane moderates who happen to have an anti-E.U., anti-immigration bent. While he touts his party as mainstream, Le Pen’s National Front, he insists, is just faking it.

“Our view is that whatever Marine Le Pen is trying to do with the Front National, anti-Semitism is still imbedded in that party, and we’re not going to work with them now or at any point in the future,” Farage told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

But even her critics concede that Le Pen has determinedly sought to distance herself from her controversial father and has made strides toward steering the party away from explicit racism. In October, the National Front ejected a mayoral candidate, Anne-Sophie Leclere, after she publicly compared France’s French Guiana-born justice minister, Christiane Taubira, to a monkey.

In fact, Le Pen is portraying the party as the best ally French Jews could have against a common enemy.

“Not only am I not anti-Semitic, but I have explained to my Jewish compatriots that the movement most able to protect them is the Front National,” she said. “For the greatest danger today is the rise of an anti-Semitism in the suburbs, stemming from Muslim fundamentalists.”

It seems to me the European nationalist right can be traced to two factors, the first being the economic distress in many southern and Eastern European countries. But that doesn't explain the rise of the right in Scandinavia or Britain.

What we're seeing, I think, is proof of the uncomfortable fact that as Robert Putnam reluctantly concluded, "[i]n the short to medium run, … immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital." It appears impossible to induce ethnically homogeneous societies like those in Europe to harmoniously integrate people from radically different cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds. The best we can hope for is a largely peaceful but not static-free co-existence. 

Another factor is the often-feckless response of the pro-diversity crowd. No matter how much outrage or sarcasm you direct at the latest racist comment from a Front National member, their message will still resound with millions of people. And this is where many European social democrats turn to counterproctive responses:

  1. lecturing voters who keep stubbornly voting for the "wrong" parties;
  2. even more patronizingly, searching for the 'real' reasons behind anti-immigrant sentiment; and/or
  3. blaming the 'rat-catchers' and 'demagogues' and 'populists' for 'fanning the flames' of anti-immigrant sentiment (as if were somehow dishonest to address your clientele's genuine concerns).

The approaches seem to posit that there might still be a way to 're-educate' ordinary Europeans to embrace diversity. If only we could get rid of the demagogues! If only we could find the perfect way to showcase the benefits of diversity! But I suspect lots of European voters say they don't like foreigners because they don't like foreigners. And they never will, no matter how often you remind them that they really, really should

I'm not sure this particular problem has a solution. But as long as anti-immigrant parties are in the minority, it probably doesn't need one. The vast majority of Europeans, whether they're uncomfortable with immigrants or not, are still unwilling to vote for parties whose main focus is immigrant-bashing. Preserving that status quo is probably the best Europe can do.

The Kevins are Failing in France

A French sociologist has released a study showing that French students with English names get worse scores on the bac: 

What jumps out is the high frequency of English language names on the left hand side of the picture. People named Kevin, Anthony, Jordan, Cindy, or Dylan were much less likely to receive high scores. Although there is some evidence that names can affect how children perform in school, this more likely reflects naming preferences: parents in lower social classes are more likely to name their kids after characters from American tv shows or music groups than parents from higher social classes.


The Charlemagne Division

The last troops to fight for Germany during World War II weren't German:

The 33. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Charlemagne (französische Nr. 1) and Charlemagne Regiment are collective names used for units of French volunteers in the Wehrmacht and later Waffen-SS during World War II. From 7,340 at its peak in 1944, the strength of the division fell to just sixty men in May 1945.

They were arguably the last German unit to see action in a pitched battle during World War II, where they held central Berlin and the Führerbunker against the onslaught of Soviet infantry.


Tapez 3615 pour des Entretiens Lubricieuses

This week's German Rule of the Week is French. Matthew Fraser, proud 'Anglo-Saxon' he, splutters at the recent decision of the French broadcast regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, to ban the mention of Facebook or Twitter on French radio and television:

Anglo-Saxons who live in France, as I do, constantly struggle with the puzzling paradox in a society universally admired for its splendid “joie de vivre” — yet infamous for its oppressive bureaucratic culture of legalistic codes and decrees. The term “French bureaucracy” is shorthand for the worst imaginable Kafkaesque nightmare.

In France you cannot put up awnings in your own home without first obtaining permission from some government department, which will officiously stipulate what colours are allowed. One could easily draw up a list of French micro-regulations that, to the Anglo-Saxon disposition, seem utterly absurd, if not totally objectionable.

The latest one doubtless would rank high on that list. This week we learned that France’s broadcasting regulator had just issued another decree: henceforth, hosts of television and radio programmes must refrain from uttering the words “Facebook” and “Twitter” on the air.

If this had happened in any self-respecting Anglo-Saxon country, Fraser states, it would be met with disbelief and mockery, and quickly reversed, but

in France, after the sages inside the CSA bureaucratic bunker handed down their ruling, there was scarcely any reaction at all in the French media. Some newspapers published fairly straightforward news articles on the decision, a couple provided more detailed analysis. Coverage on websites was somewhat more probing, and French bloggers questioned the decision. But the story came and went. No stupefaction, no outrage, no fulminating columns in the mainstream press. Business as usual. 

French regulators, needless to say, were armed with a rationale for their meddling. The CSA maintained that any on-air mention of a programme’s Facebook page or Twitter feed constitutes ”clandestine advertising” for these social networks because they are commercial operations. In a word, French television and radio programmes cannot be seen to be promoting Facebook and Twitter as commercial brands. 

Fraser then argues that anti-Anglo-Saxon bias was probably another driving factor for the decision. And then he provides a delightful historical interlude:

A relevant historical comparison makes my point. Before the explosion of the Internet in the 1990s, the French were infatuated with their leading-edge electronic information system called Minitel. During the 1980s, when I first moved to France, the Minitel was the object of tremendous national pride. Nearly everyone in this country had a Minitel terminal in their home. The plastic terminals were easy to procure because the Minitel was a state-backed technology made available through the state-owned telephone company, France Telecom. I picked up my Minitel terminal (see image below), free of charge at my local Post Office. 

In those days, you couldn’t watch a television programme in France without the host urging you to “tapez 3615” on your Minitel to connect and get more information or express your opinion. The numbers “3615”, for reasons I never understood, were the standard code to access the Minitel system. The French government made billions on the Minitel because time spent logged on was tariffed by state-owned France Telecom. The Minitel’s dirty secret was that text-based porn services like “Ulla” — famous for its lascivious poster adverts on the back of Parisian buses — were by far the most profitable. Through “Minitel Rose”, the French government was in the porn business.

Now, I couldn't let this go without trying to locate one of those famously 'lascivious' ads. Here is one, found in this delightful blog post (f) about advertisements for defunct technologies:


My God, what I would give for just one transcription of an Ulla service chat from, say, 1983. If only there was a serious, respectable Histoire de la pornographie francaise that could help me satisfy my lust for knowledge.

To end this rambling post, I can only ask the question that is on every reader's mind: why has the nation which has given us, for instance, Emmanuelle Béart, given its national text-porn service a German woman's name and a Teutonic-looking avatar?

Early Email in Europe

A highly-placed source relates this anecdote about the puzzlement caused at the French Finance Ministry when email was finally introduced there in August of 2009*:

They were all puzzled about whether ministry staff could send an email to their own superiors, and if they did, whether that superior could answer by email or would they have to answer by letter? Also, to communicate with a staffer in another agency, normally you'd escalate the letter within your agency, and it would be signed by a chain going upward, then laterally move to the other agency, and downward again to the right person -- how do you do that over email? If you get an email from the general public -- do you answer by letter? He told me they used to do a lot of printing out of emails, and faxing them around. :) Ahhh... good old French bureaucracy.

* Sorry, couldn't help myself.

The French Correction

Tyler Cowen, a center-right American economist, is asked why the French seem to weather most economic crises without too much stress. In response, he -- of all people -- issues this paean to the French, which I endorse, and would also say is largely applicable to Germans:

1. The French elite work very hard and are educated very well.

2. Contrary to stereotype, France has arguably the strongest work ethic in the world.  Given the rates of taxation, and the difficulty of being fired, most people still do a fair amount of work and they do it fairly well.  If that's not a work ethic, what is?

3. Esteem and approbation are especially important in France, as incentives.  This is one reason, not always voiced as such, why immigration in such an issue there.  It breaks down prevailing forms of status competition.

4. France has been well-positioned to benefit from the growth and economic integration of Europe.  The more open the economy, the less domestic economic policy matters.

5. The French are very smart and able, and have been so for a long time.  You'll note that a wide variety of French companies, whether Dannon or Carrefour, do well around the world.  The French are preeminent globalizers.

6. The foreigners' view of France, and its charm, would be very different if all of the country's buildings dated from after World War II.

7. The French are the very best, and wisest, consumers in the entire world, whether it be for clothing, music, food, or for that matter Hollywood movies and American blues and jazz.  The French government tries to influence this activity, or put up some nominal protectionist measures, but for the most part this French specialty and strength remains unregulated.  It helps account for the very high living standard there.

8. If you see a "World Music" recording from a French record label, buy it.

Personally, what I find most distressing about France is the limited number of dimensions for status competition.  Very often there is one right way to do things, to dress, and so on.  But that's also part of what makes the place work.