France has an alternative to Hollande-ism, but are the French ready for it?

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Eddie Reeves

Anyone noticed how svelte Jean-François Copé is looking?

Sporting the silhouette élancée of a slippery French centre in a Six Nations nailbiter, the UMP Leader and Mayor of Meaux looks remarkably en forme for a 49 year-old father-of-four from the town better known for its Brie.

For those who don’t follow every shrug, drame and crise of Gallic politics, there was an important election across La Manche (that’s The English - definitely English - Channel) this time last year.  

The election (cue, Napoleonic drumroll…)? The ‘Who Wants To Be Interim Leader of The Opposition After Ten Years in Government?’ election. A cul-de-sac politique you might think for a baldy ambitious ex-Minister looking to run for the top job in 2017. 

That’s what I thought, a year ago. So too the 50.03% (yes, .03) of partisans who preferred him to outgoing Prime Minister François Fillon: elect a pro-Sarko figure to prepare for the grand retour in 2016 and, failing that, a proper party-wide Presidential contest.

Well, apparently no-one told M. Copé. Far from cutting the traditional consensus figure of the popular French Right, the UMP chef du parti has busily set about making his already dismally low approval ratings a virtue on media outlets across the land. 

A suicidal tack against a Socialist incumbent less popular than a Brie and grape baguette in a Cheddar Gorge tearoom? Perhaps. But if the greatest of virtues in religion is love, the greatest in politics is consistency. And so on M. Copé goes. 

His message? A clarion call to private enterprise and public thrift. After the hard rhetoric of Sarkozy candidat in 2007, it remains to be seen whether France will be ready for it again in 2017. Francophile Tories hope she will be.

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Politicians throw around the word ‘terrorism’ too lightly, putting us at risk

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Ben Anstey

Recent events in Kenya and Nigeria appear to support the view that terrorism remains as dangerous and prevalent as it seemed after 9/11. Yet this perception relies upon some quite rash assumptions. For example, what is terrorism, actually? If you give this question some serious thought, it becomes apparent that the term is full of confusion. Politicians perpetuate – and exploit – this ambiguity; causing greater harm by diverting attention away from issues which really do need to be addressed.

When people talk of ‘terrorism’ now, they are typically describing non-state subversive groups using violence to spread fear and achieve a specific political aim. That has not always been the case.

The term ‘terrorism’ was (probably) first used on a large scale to refer to actions of the state itself – specifically the Jacobin government of post-revolutionary France. In mid-nineteenth century Europe, it was used to refer to targeted political assassinations. These were far from universally condemned and the label ‘terrorist’ was often worn with pride. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the term really acquired its modern meaning.

Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram would seem to fit the ‘modern’ concept of terrorism. The attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi callously used innocent shoppers as instruments in communicating a message about hostilities in neighbouring Somalia. It was chosen as a venue because it was popular with foreign expats and likely to therefore attract the attention of the international media. Similarly, the recent attacks in Nigeria (including the killing of 50 at an agricultural college in Yobe State) were all the more shocking for their choice of targets – defenceless students and children.

The fact that these militants have grossly miscalculated in their choice of methods is clear from the results which have actually come about. Kenya’s government has not announced any plans to withdraw from Somalia. And the Nigerian government is not to be found cowering under desks and inviting Boko Haram to come in and introduce a national Islamist curriculum. Rather, they have responded by bombing Boko Haram camps and making arrests. This demonstrates not just the futility of the actions of the ‘terrorists’, but also a depressing truth about the inevitable response. Violence will be met with further violence.

Responsibility for the ensuing cycle of violence lies not only with the ‘terrorists’, however. A more or less deliberate trend has been the politicians’ lazy use of the word ‘terrorist’ to describe people and phenomena that we all ought to be afraid of – without really understanding who they are or what they might do (let alone why). Groups as dissimilar as the African National Congress, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the IRA, Basque separatists, and the pathetic Angry Brigade (a small British anarchist group in the 1970s) all get thrown into the same category.

The coalition government perpetuates the confusion over ‘terrorism’, sometimes for political ends. A couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary Theresa May warned that an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than if it remained in the United Kingdom.

The real evil here is that this over-simplification and vagueness rules out any chance of constructive dialogue and an examination of underlying grievances – if any. It is Us vs. Them. As Tony Blair put it in 2006: “This is not a clash between civilizations. It is a clash about civilization…a struggle between democracy and violence.”

Some prominent academics suggest that ‘terrorism’ should be abandoned in its entirety. This will not happen in practice, but what would be welcome is a more careful and contextualised approach.

Terrorism should be understood as a tactic – available to any actor – and one or even several acts of terrorism should not necessarily result in attachment of the label ‘terrorist’ and all that that entails. For example, there is much support for the claim that the carpet bombing of Dresden was an act of terrorism, but few would seriously claim that Britain and the United States are ‘terrorist’ states. Where acts of ‘terrorism’ are identified, these should then be examined in their specific contexts – religious, psychological, cultural, political, strategic – and properly and systematically addressed as such, rather than taking the glib approach that all ‘terrorists’ and acts of ‘terrorism’ are the same.

It may be that, in many cases, underlying causes are irrational and cannot be addressed, but the damaging and lazy use of the ‘T’ word ensures that opportunities to prevent further innocent deaths are missed as a result. The distressing and depressing cycle of violence will not be broken in this way.

This article represents the author’s own views and not necessarily those of any organisation with which he is affiliated.

The Camino de Santiago offers an insight into the European debate

Matthew Plummer

The Camino de Santiago is the historic pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and as a cultural melting pot it had the misfortune of being dramatised as a ghastly film, packed with characters you’d normally walk a long way to escape.

Fortunately the reality is much better, and when I walked the 650 miles from Lourdes to Finisterre this summer the sole person I consciously avoided was an American college kid who sauntered along singing at the top of his voice while emitting a powerful body odour. That he was dressed only in boxer shorts with feathers in his dreadlocks didn’t help matters.

Nonetheless it’s the people who make the Camino a lifetime experience, and offering some wonderful insights into the differences in mentalities across Europe and further afield. I spent the first week plodding across the Pyrenean foothills in endless rain, without seeing a single soul walking west. Company came in the form of random encounters with the locals, particularly around meals. A priest from India at the Bétharram Monastery wanted to talk about the great batsmen his country had produced as we drank broth while sat on the long benches of the refectory, with the other monks completely confused until we moved on rugby. And the waiter at one of the bistros who resignedly acknowledged that the French way of life was doomed, which seemed pretty reasonable given that most shops seemed only to be open for a couple of hours in the morning, and with local farms still almost pre-industrial in their miniature form.

On the morning of my third day the butcher in Arundy attached a large scallop shell (the traditional symbol of pilgrims en route to Santiago) to my pack, and from then onwards every boulangerie was a chance to warm up and talk to the intrigued locals – although saying I was walking to Santiago felt fraudulent given that Galicia was still a fair few mountain ranges – and 1000km – away.

So making it to the popular starting point of St. Jean Pied-de-Port after a week on the road was a bit of a relief. Passing through the town’s fortified Porte St. Jacques I was met by a cacophony of languages, frenzied unwrapping of new equipment and nervous anticipation of the first major challenge of the main Camino – following Napoleon’s steep route over the Pyrenees. The sharp early morning climb wasn’t brutal enough to stop the wild hand gestures and emotional outpourings of the girl from California. Nor did it stifle conversation with the chain smoking chap from Stuttgart, who didn’t understand that a ‘C’ in GCSE German meant my grasp of his language was limited to menus and the occasional war film, and constructing sentences with ‘potato salad’ and ‘hands up’ didn’t seem conducive to the spirit of the walk, or European harmony.

The route itself is inherently cultural rather than deeply scenic, but that’s part of the joy of traversing a large country – you take the rough with the smooth. The back streets of Spain’s isolated villages revealed some of the Iberian Peninsula’s desperate poverty, interspersed with stonkingly beautiful towns – medieval Viana, where Cesare Borgia is buried, was particularly pretty. Dormitories ranged from charmless municipal accommodation to the isolated medieval pilgrims’ hostels where Mass was celebrated by candlelight. And of course the mountains of Galicia were spectacular, more than making up for the afternoon spent walking past Burgos airport and countless hours of trudging along roadside footpaths.

Hours of conversation with my fellow pilgrims (very few of them British) as we passed though countless settlements also hammered home some important cultural differences. Dutch incredulity at Spain’s lavish yet half-built motorways that intersected our route. The abundance of hairdressers in the smallest of French villages, and American bewilderment at poor European service. The spectacular mountain settlement of La Faba was run by a German confraternity, and for the first time in weeks I enjoyed a clean shower that worked, with immaculate bunks and a laundry service, my thanks for which were met with a blank “What else did you expect? We are German!”

There were – of course – frequent sightings of flagpoles flying the gold stars of the European Union. I pointed out to my Spanish companion that this enthusiasm would be unthinkable in England, much to his surprise. “Really? Surely we’re all brothers?” he asked. “Aren’t you proud of Europe in the UK?” I felt awful breaking it to him that back in Blighty the EU is seen as a cousin at best – the sort you hear very little from during the year, before agonising about deleting from the family Christmas card list.

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De Gaulle was right to veto Britain’s EEC membership

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Thomas Kingston

On 14th January 1963, President Charles de Gaulle of held a press conference in Paris and for the first time said “Non!”to Britain’s accession to the EEC.

De Gaulle is a much maligned figure on this side of the Channel. The British side of my family spoke of him as quite ungrateful; repaying the crucial political and military support this country gave him in the Second World War by repeatedly vetoing our EEC membership applications. For the French side, however, he was a patriot, and his vetoes were done for the good of France. Having come to admire De Gaulle and his politics, it’s my belief that he might have been doing what was actually best for Britain.

The EEC then consisted of only six countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherland – all of which had been savaged by the Second World War. We had rejected the offer to join its predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, several years before, but now Prime Minister Harold Macmillan saw membership as vital to our future position in the world.

At the press conference, De Gaulle was asked by a journalist to explain France’s position towards Britain’s entry and “the political evolution of Europe.” The president recognised that the British would be reluctant to lose some of its preferences regarding trade with the Commonwealth and this would not only pose problem for the United Kingdom, but also for other Member States:

England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.

Though seemingly just describing our national character, De Gaulle also explained his opposition to our entry: If the British economy depended on the Commonwealth and the United States for much of its trade, what benefits would be gained for the EEC if the United Kingdom was admitted? It would be impossible for Member States to rival Commonwealth prices, never mind provide the range of products it offered. 

De Gaulle hit the proverbial nail on the head a few seconds later:

[T]he question…[is] whether Great Britain can now place herself like the Continent and with it inside a tariff which is genuinely common, to renounce all Commonwealth preferences, to cease any pretence that her agriculture be privileged, and, more than that, to treat her engagements with other countries of the free trade area as null and void — that question is the whole question.

This is important to the current European debate, for although the Commonwealth preferences are gone, and our agriculture integrated with the CAP, and our trade with non-members conducted through the European Union, all of this was given begrudgingly. Right from the start, we were set to have an unpleasant time in Europe.

It’s been suggested that Germany only ever agreed to partner with France because of war guilt; in my opinion, it’s more likely that Britain was only admitted to the EEC because of other member’s guilt rather than a genuine belief that the country would seamlessly become part of the Common Market. After De Gaulle’s fall from power in 1969, our path was no longer blocked by that behemoth of reality and pragmatism, and thus Edward Heath was free to lead us with romantic idealism into membership in 1973. In the referendum that followed two years later, the pro-Europeans were convinced that it could only be won if loss of sovereignty was played down – a worrying avoidance of reality that has no doubt contributed to the awkward situation in which we find ourselves today.  

Europhobes blame the EU for everything that is wrong with country, arguing that somehow we were lured by promises of free trade and then – SNAP! – we were caught in the trap of tariff-free, cross-border happiness. Obviously this wasn’t the case. The idea of a federal Europe was there all along, but it was downplayed because it clashed with the insular nature of the British people – a fact that De Gaulle recognised. The EU is criticised for being anti-British, when in fact they have simply been putting forward policies and legislation that suits the majority of the Member States, all of which share a continental mindset. We have not taken well to this and have been struggling as a result – another issue foreseen by De Gaulle.

I don’t believe the situation was ever fully explained to the British people; I don’t believe enough reforms were enacted to ensure compatibility with Europe (if compatibility was even possible in the first place). We need to stop blaming the EU for everything and recognise that radical changes will be needed on both sides of the Channel if our relationship is to work.

And we should also probably apologise to Charles de Gaulle…

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It’s not unpatriotic to point out the NHS’ failings; it’s a moral duty

Ryan Gray

A year on from London 2012, I wonder if director Danny Boyle is feeling a bit silly after his Olympic opening ceremony heaped praise on the NHS. I love our healthcare system and wouldn’t argue we remove it. But surely after recent revelations we can finally accept that the NHS is not perfect?

The argument that if you criticise the NHS, you must want it eradicated is absurd, but for too long this rhetoric has dominated the healthcare debate in Britain. Attacks on the likes of Julie Bailey, who helped expose the Mid Staffordshire atrocities and paved the way to recent investigations, is horrifying. She should be praised for her bravery, not have her mother’s gave desecrated.

There are many reasons for the recent failures in the NHS. For example, the fact that little of its huge budget was spent on front-live services, but on exhorbitant wages instead.

For too long, fanatics have claimed the NHS is the envy of the world, but the reality is not even close.

In 2000, Britain’s healthcare system was ranked by the World Health Organisation as 15th in Europe and 18th in the world - figures which are unlikely to improve in their next publication with over a dozen NHS trusts failing. In 2005, a Citizens Advice Burea report stated that ‘lessons are not learned, much needed changes are not put in place’, which pretty much sums up the problem today.

Worshippers may ignore Liverpool Pathway, where food and water was denied to patients, but the world will not and nor should we. We need to look at what we can borrow from countries like France and Germany. Free healthcare in Britain will not survive until the end of this decade let alone live to celebrate a hundred years if changes are not made. The brutal truth is that it is a 20th Century institution in a 21st Century world.

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Is our fear of dirty bombs leading us to disaster in Mali?

Alexander Pannett 11.50am image

The crisis in Mali has reached new heights with the announcement that the UK will be sending 350 troops to the region.

The task of the soldiers is to train the Malian army and their deployment is seen as signaling a more long-term commitment to the region by the UK.

The use of soldiers is an escalation of the UK’s support for France, which had previously been solely logistical with the provision of two RAF transport planes. It inevitably raises fears of mission creep at a time of severe cutbacks to the UK defence budget.

However, there is a contradiction between the direct intervention in Mali and the less overt anti-terrorist approach taken in Yemen and Somalia. Why the sudden urgency and build up of Western troops?

The main issue which has not been widely reported in the Western press is the uranium mining area of north Niger, which borders Mali.

According to a 2008 report by a French parliamentary committee, about 18 per cent of the raw material used to power France’s 58 nuclear reactors came from Niger in 2008.

If the uranium mines fell under the control of Islamic fundamentalists then nuclear dirty bombs could become a real terrorist threat to Europe. This is especially worrying considering the relative ease of smuggling illicit goods into Europe from the North African coast.

The mines are also located in an area controlled by the Tauregs, a nomadic tribe that spreads across south-west Sahara and whose alliance with Islamic extremists has formed the backbone of the Malian rebels.  The Tauregs have been fighting for autonomy against a Malian army that has been accused of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses against Taureg civilians by Amnesty International.

The Algerian hostage crisis underlined the threat of Islamic extremism in the Saharan region.  It is important to the security and peaceful development of the world that any extremism is countered and exposed for the narrow and cruel bigotry that it is.

However, too often the West has papered over complex local economic and cultural issues with its simple response to extremist views.

The Tauregs appear to be fighting against an unjust Malian government that arose to power after an army coup in 2012. The Tauregs crave self-determination much as Americans, Irish, Polish and other Western peoples have in the past. To ignore their plight is immoral and short-sighted. It could lead to a calamitous strategic blunder as the Malian campaign descends into bitter guerrilla warfare against impoverished but tenacious people fighting for their freedom.

It would be folly to let the ideological fight against religious extremism force the West against uprisings that cloak their vocabulary with Sharia law but are nationalistic in their ambitions not religious. The analogy of Vietnam is disturbing.

After Afghanistan and Iraq, the West should be careful that it is not entering a hornet’s nest of complex secular and tribal divisions.  Whilst concern over the security of uranium mines in the region is rational, Britain and France should not predicate such concern with the vicarious brutalization of persecuted peoples to further the distasteful ends of corrupt and illegitimate regimes.

In a campaign that lacks specific goals, ensuring autonomy for the Tauregs would do more to bring peace and stability to the region than the re-conquest of isolated desert towns. A political and cultural solution is preferable to a military reaction.

Follow Alex on Twitter @alpannett

 

A little solution to the EU’s big Nobel Peace Prize balls-up

Richard Ellis 10.29am

I can’t stand the French. Their accent irritates me. As does their arrogance, their dishonesty, their laziness and their ingratitude.

The idea that their cooking is better than ours is nonsensical (how would you rather start your day - a full English breakfast or a croissant?).

And the suggestion that they have a nobler sense of chivalry is a joke (no Englishman worthy of the name has even seen those pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge; the French published them).

I don’t care much for the Germans either, though deep down I imagine that our Teutonic cousins would be almost as civilised as us if they didn’t share a land border with France.

Nevertheless, even I can acknowledge that the people of France and Germany have demonstrated a remarkable greatness of spirit in the years since 1945. Three bloody wars in seventy years left deep scars and painful resentments.

During the mid-1960s, my father spent a few months living in Paris. One evening he had plans to meet some friends in a bar and invited a (French) colleague. He explained that there would be some French people there but also some Dutch and probably a German. Once apprised of the guest list the colleague lost interest: “I would rather stick my hand in a bucket of s**t than shake hands with a German.” And that was some while after the end of the Second World War.

The statesmen and peoples of France and Germany have put these antipathies behind them and forged a deep alliance. That is both a remarkable transformation and a tremendous achievement - and it played a major (though not an exclusive) role in securing peace for Europe. If anyone has earned a Nobel Peace Prize it is the French and the Germans.

The European Union certainly has not. The EU was not even around when the Franco-German rapprochement took place. Nor, with its north and south at diplomatic loggerheads, is the EU a matchless example of how to run a peaceful body politic.

It is too late for the prize to be re-awarded but perhaps a compromise could be reached. Brussels could offer to hold the prize on behalf of the French and the Germans. In fact, now I think of it, that would be even better than giving it to the French and Germans outright. After all, a joint award would bring questions of who should have actual possession of the medal and when.

The French would be bound to hold onto the medal for longer than their turn, which would irk the Germans, who would certainly retaliate - and that could leave us all right back at square one.

Richard Ellis is a solicitor and former parliamentary researcher

Arab politicians continue to use distant British history as an excuse for their own mistakes

Aaron Ellis 2.31pm

For many in the Arab world, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is what the Yalta conference was for many conservatives in the United States during the Cold War. It is a betrayal of people seeking freedom; a damning indictment of Great Power politics; and the source of all problems in the Middle East.

As with Yalta, all kinds of things are attributed to Sykes-Picot years after the event. For instance, the veteran Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt has said the Syria crisis is “unravelling” a deal that created the countries of the region. This lazy understanding was reinforced by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov writing that the Agreement was adopted by Britain and France in 1919, not 1916

The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the Middle East between the two Great Powers and the Arabs; it did not create the nation states we know today.

France got modern Lebanon and southern Turkey, as well as a sphere of influence over an Arab kingdom in Syria. Britain acquired most of Mesopotamia and exercised influence over a Y-shaped Arab kingdom that stretched from the Egyptian border to northern Iraq and down into the Arabian Peninsula. Though the post-war carve-up vaguely resembled the deal, it actually began to unravel almost as soon as it had been negotiated by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.

British officials in Cairo hated the Agreement and worked to undermine it: they wanted Syria to be part of a Greater Egyptian viceroyalty that would rival the Indian Raj.

"I am afraid that swine Monsieur P[icot] has let M. S. badly down," wrote the Tory politician and diplomat Aubrey Herbert, an intelligence officer in Cairo. “This is what comes of disregarding the ABC of Diplomacy and letting Amateurs have a shy at delicate and important negotiations.”

In 1917, the deal unravelled further when the Bolsheviks leaked its details to embarrass the Allies, prompting a fierce reaction to what was viewed as outdated imperialist thinking, especially in the United States. The Russian Revolution had also removed Britain’s geopolitical reasoning for giving the French such a huge chunk of the Middle East: creating a buffer zone between them and the Russian Empire, which had been promised land in Turkey. Sykes wrote that the sooner the Agreement was scrapped the better, as the world had “marched so far” since it had been negotiated a year before and it could “now only be considered as a reactionary measure”.

His about-turn coincided with one higher up in government when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in December 1917. Lloyd George wanted to increase Britain’s sphere of influence beyond that which Sykes had negotiated just a few years before. In his book A Line in the Sand, James Baar reports a conversation between Lloyd George and French premiere Georges Clemenceau in which the latter conceded to British demands. “Tell me what you want,” Clemenceau is supposed to have asked him.

“I want Mosul.”

“You shall have it. Anything else?”

“Yes, I want Jerusalem too.”

“You shall have it,” said Clemenceau. These concessions were recognised in the many peace conferences after the First World War, thus by 1922 the Sykes-Picot Agreement had completely unravelled.

The Middle Eastern order that people like Mr Jumblatt fear is disintegrating was created long after this much-maligned deal was a dead letter, and centuries-old problems in the region cannot be blamed on what was even then considered to be old-fashioned thinking about Great Power politics.

Britain can be rightly blamed for many things, but too often Arab politicians use our decades-old faults as an excuse for their own mistakes.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis