In defence of Charlie Hebdo

There was much wailing on Twitter yesterday after French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo came out with this cover:

“God exists! He drowned all the Texas neo-Nazis!”

The complaints were mostly in the manner of:

1. After this, don’t expect sympathy when your offices are shot up again.

2. How many Texans died saving you from real Nazis?

3. It’s easy for you to mock us when we don’t hit back.

That last one makes the mistake of thinking Charlie Hebdo stopped lampooning Islam after the massacre in their offices in January 2015: they didn’t.

To be fair, I didn’t read anyone saying Charlie Hebdo should be silenced over this – most of the complaints were from the political right, not the infantile left. But they kind of miss the point.

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, and their MO is to publish the most offensive take on whatever the leading story is that week. They do this to shock people into understanding what thoughts might be out there, and remind everyone that people are free to hold them. Anyone who looks at the front cover above and thinks “Oh my God, they think Texans are Nazis and they’re laughing at the dead!” doesn’t understand Charlie Hebdo or satire. Whereas I have no doubt most of those at Charlie Hebdo are politically of the hard-left which dominate institutions in central Paris, you’d be mistaken if you believe their magazine exists to promote their political views. They’re a scattergun, take-no-prisoners outfit proving points which most people would rather shy away from acknowledging.

In the aftermath of the attacks, I never thought Charlie Hebdo was looking for sympathy. Rather, I think they wanted the assurance that what they were doing was perfectly okay and the attack they suffered was in no way justified. Instead they got weasel words, obfuscation, crocodile tears, and people saying perhaps they deserved it. One common opinion was that publications which deliberately go out of their way to offend people ought not to complain when there is a reaction. This misses the point: so long as Charlie Hebdo can continue to do what it does, everyone else is free to speak, write, and draw as they please. Once we enter into the territory of differentiating between deliberate and inadvertent offence, it becomes a negotiation with those who don’t recognise our right to do either and would rather silence us completely.

Charlie Hebdo is on the front-line of free speech, and they set out to prove it week after week. They don’t care about sympathy from Texans, they only want to make the point that if they can publish something as heinous as this then so can you, and if they are thinking such thoughts then so are plenty of others. Unfortunately, Charlie Hebdo is ploughing a lonely furrow. As I said in the aftermath of the attacks on their offices:

Nothing highlights the cultural gap between France and Britain more than the uncomfortable suspicion that Charlie Hebdo would not have lasted more than a year in the UK before being hounded out of business by the state and its backers in one form or another, as this article makes clear.

For all their faults, the French seem to take a more robust view of free speech than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. There is no way Charlie Hebdo could be sold in Australia or Canada, and if the past few years is anything to go by, they’d likely be shut down in the USA too. People like to imagine that the French are thin-skinned, but you don’t see the sort of hand-wringing over offensive speech and ideas here that you do in America and Britain. They prefer to ignore it and focus on more pressing concerns – like which wine to have with tonight’s dinner.

Rather than getting upset about Charlie Hebdo’s puerile and offensive front covers, we should be glad that at least someone is putting them out there. If they weren’t, how could we be sure that speech was still free? And how would we know that what we said was not going to land us in trouble? It’s startling that the French understand this and can answer these questions, but those in the US cannot.

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Crunch time approaches for Macron

News in from France:

When centrist Emmanuel Macron was swept to power in presidential elections last May, his big platform was a reform of France’s rigid labour laws.

Let’s be honest, the adulation received by Macron from politicians and journalists across Europe when he won the presidency was based on his being a nice looking chap who wasn’t that nasty Le Pen woman. Establishment elites aren’t interested in actual policies, save for those which maintain the status quo and their own cushy positions. Note that those who squealed hysterically like teenage girls at a pop concert have gone awfully quiet recently.

But his popularity has since waned, and the measures to be revealed on Thursday will be a big test for his presidency.

He is facing mass protests next month, although one of the biggest unions has decided it will not take part.

Jean-Claude Mailly argued that the Macron team had backed away from “ultraliberal” reforms, justifying his union’s decision not to take part in a day of street demonstrations on 12 September.

What’s French for deja-vu?

Mr Macron wants to free up the French economy by making it easier for employers to hire and fire staff, and negotiate working conditions.

An earlier attempt to modernise France’s labour laws by François Hollande’s Socialist government largely failed in the face of left-wing opposition. However, Mr Macron has already won parliamentary backing to push these reforms through by decree.

I’m actually hoping he succeeds. Since his election I’ve warmed to Macron, mainly because he pissed off a lot of the wet lefties outside of France by doing things differently, e.g. getting on with Donald Trump and poking Merkel in the eye. He is also upsetting people in the EU, which is always a good thing in my book. But how he will hold up once the protests start and the notoriously fickle French population withdraws its support I don’t know.

President Macron has pledged to reduce unemployment from 9.5% of the workforce now to 7% by 2022. But last week, on a visit to Romania, he complained that France was not a “reformable country… because French men and women hate reform”.

And he was absolutely right. By their own admission the French are very conservative and resistant to any kind of change. Even the ones who know reforms are necessary don’t actually want to see them brought about, and would rather kick the can down the road. When Macron was elected a lot of people said “it’s now or never”, but the thing with France is it’s been like that for quite some time. The French say they want to change, but reject any change that’s proposed.

A separate poll on Wednesday showed that while nine out of 10 French people agreed that their country’s labour code had to be reformed, 60% were worried about the Macron plan.

See what I mean? What odds on Macron succeeding?

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Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

Last Saturday I went with a friend to visit Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 45 mins south of Paris.

Built between 1658-61, it was the first in what became known as the Louis XIV style, which is now arguably the “typical” look of a French chateau.

It was built as the personal home of one Nicolas Fouquet, who became King Louis XIV’s superintendent of finances in 1657. That’s right: the chap in charge of the France’s money built himself that house a year after taking up the position. Audits and oversight might have been a bit more lax in those days.

Setting the standard for what would follow in many French chateaus, M. Fouquet didn’t skimp on the gardens.

Alas, things didn’t work out too well for our intrepid superintendent of finances:

[T]he king had Fouquet arrested shortly after a famous fête that took place on 17 August 1661…The celebration had been too impressive and the superintendent’s home too luxurious.

Building yourself a house like that when you work for King Louis XIV is a bit like Roman Abramovich’s accountant buying a mega-yacht several metres longer than that of his boss. Probably not a good idea if self-preservation is top of your agenda.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert led the king to believe that his minister’s magnificence was funded by the misappropriation of public funds.

Ya think?!

However, Louis XIV was suitably impressed and ordered a similar chateau for himself at Versailles.

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is now privately owned, administered by three brothers, the descendants of those who bought the place in 1875 after it had stood neglected for 30 years. It is open to the public, and you can rent a golf buggy to drive yourself around if you’re bone-idle (we are, so we did).

In the 19th century somebody built a golden statue of Hercules at the far end of the garden.

One of the main attractions of the chateau is the candlelit evenings they put on each Saturday in summer. They lay out a couple of thousand candles around the gardens and chateau and everyone stays until sundown and says “Aaaaaaaah!”

It was worth the wait, although we didn’t hang around for the 11pm firework display. If you can make it one day, it’s worth doing. It is nicer than the Palace of Versailles in my opinion, which I thought was too big, lacking character, and too full of tourists.

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Two Quotes

Two quotes, totally unrelated.

The first from Streetwise Professor on Emmanuel Macron, with which I agree and wish I’d written myself:

I must confess that I may have misjudged M. Macron. I pegged him as a cipher whom Merkel would dominate. But if anything, Macron is proving to lean more towards Napoleonic ambitions, labeling himself “Jupiter” who aims to overawe the petty squabbling political nation.

Macron left some angered, and others nonplused, by his bonhomie with Trump during the president’s visit to France on Bastille Day. This actually makes perfect sense, and is the best demonstration of his intent to be his own man, rather than a Merkel flunky. As Empress Angela’s pretensions continue to swell, Macron knows that he needs a counterweight. He further knows that Merkel disdains Trump, and Trump don’t think much of her either. So the clever thing to do is to build a relationship to Trump. It signals independence. It will aggravate Angela. And it will provide Macron with some muscle in his dealings with Germany, and with the EU.

The second is from the comments at ZMan’s concerning one of Barack Obama’s attempts at appearing cool. I quote this simply because I found it amusing:

My favorite “Race to the bottom” moment with Obama was when he invited a bunch of rappers to the White House for the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which was designed to help keep young black men free from entanglement with the criminal justice system. Obama was giving a speech, when the ankle bracelet of one of the rappers present started beeping. Rick Ross (the rapper in question) had been charged with kidnapping earlier in the year.

Heh!

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France as a balance between order and chaos

One of the biggest attractions of France for me is that it sits on a nice balance-point between the ordered Anglo-Saxon/Germanic northern Europe and the chaotic Latin south. I have often said I find the UK sterile and over-regulated, and recently complained about the Germans micro-managing people’s lives. On the other hand, I don’t miss the utter chaos of Africa much, nor the lesser-chaos of Russia and Asia. I’ve never lived in Italy, Portugal, or Spain but from what I’ve heard and seen on visits the laid-back Latin culture can be infuriating at times, especially to those from northern Europe. I still remember the remarks of my German mate when he attempted to hire a car in Italy on his honeymoon: he wasn’t impressed.

Of course, the balance point between order and chaos depends very much on where you’re from originally. I have a Venezuelan mate who thinks the Barcelona-Taragona region of Spain is about as ordered as he wants it, whereas a Norwegian might find it bordering on anarchy. For this Brit, France is right in the middle, and indeed the European transition from order to chaos appears to happen across France. Lille is more Belgian than French, and people from there think Marseilles might as well be in Africa. In France you can keep heading south until you find the mix of order and chaos that is perfect for you.

Paris is Paris and hardly representative of France, but it still holds a nice balance. That said, when you need to deal with the local prefecture you dearly wish the Germans or Dutch were in charge because it feels like you’re in southern Italy. Even the French complain bitterly about the levels of service they receive in a prefecture. I’ve not spent much time in the south of France, but I’d probably find the Mediterranean way of life annoying after a while, despite the weather. Annecy seems to hold a very attractive mix of Swiss efficiency with a large dollop of French creativity thrown in, making it highly liveable but not as dull as Geneva (is anywhere?). A Swiss standard of living with French restaurants is pretty good on most measures, but people from southern Europe might find it too boring.

France’s diverse geography is probably its biggest asset, but the cultural change as you go from north to south is another. It’s often overlooked amid talk of weather, wine, and food but it probably explains why France is so highly regarded as a place to live and visit: village by village you can fine tune your preferences until you find somewhere you like.

Note that I said live and visit, not work. Working in France is another matter entirely, one which falls quite some way from any balance-point that a Brit would find desirable. On this I shall make no remarks.

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A warning from Air France-KLM

Sometimes blog posts just write themselves:

A clash of national cultures and an inability to understand each other’s languages threatens to make the merged Air France-KLM group of airlines unmanageable, according to a leaked internal company report.

Surely not!

“The French have the impression that the Dutch think only of money and are always ready to fight for profit. They are not afraid of anything,” the researchers reported.

“The Dutch think that the French are attached to a hierarchy and political interests which are not necessarily the same as the interests of the company … The extent to which employees are disillusioned is shocking. People are pessimistic, frustrated and burnt out because they feel that this is not listened to.”

But this is consistent with crude national stereotypes! How can it be true?

Okay, a little more serious now:

Air France managers are also said to feel that they look more at what is best for the whole company, while KLM managers only worry about what is good for KLM.

Hmmm.

KLM managers, on the other hand, think that their French colleagues only worry about keeping jobs at Air France.

So each party thinks the other is looking out for themselves? It being a near-certainty that this is the case, my only questions are how many top managers are surprised by this and when are they being fired?

Among the petty grievances, there is irritation that a KLM employee working in Paris is charged €10 for lunch in the canteen, while an Air France colleague pays only €4.

The reason for this is French companies are obliged to provide their employees with a subsidised canteen (or lunch vouchers), but secondees and visitors don’t get the subsidy and have to pay full price. We have the same issue in my office when people are seconded from outside, and it’s actually more serious than it sounds.

Some years ago I had an Australian boss who was a very smart chap, particularly so considering he was a Queenslander (I think he might read this blog occasionally). He was also a very good boss, partly because having come up through the ranks himself, he knew that small niggles can have a detrimental effect on an employee’s happiness way out of proportion to the actual problem. If left unchecked, seemingly minor issues cause all sorts of discontent in a department which results in a bad atmosphere and reduced productivity. If your staff are spending half the day bitching about free coffee being stopped, you’re better off just reinstating it.

A decent manager like this Aussie would have spotted immediately that the unequal canteen charges would create a rift in the organisation which would cost the company a lot more than €30 per person per week. He would have been on the phone sharpish to get approval to reimburse the Dutch, and if that were refused he’d run a little wheeze to do so anyway. Managers like this are like hen’s teeth in a modern corporation, and seemingly absent altogether from Air France-KLM.

The Dutch managers don’t trust the French economy, and see Air France as a “time bomb”.

“One questions whether the alliance can survive given the long-standing mutual incomprehension between the Dutch and French camps within the group,” one researcher was quoted as writing.

If two airlines cannot merge without divisions opening up along national lines amid a clash of cultures and widespread mistrust, one wonders how much truth there is in the EU’s claim that all 27 members unanimously agreed on the Brexit negotiation strategy in under 15 minutes. I think the whole Brexit negotiation process will put the unity between the member states under considerable strain, and I’m expecting to see plenty of leaked memos full of similar sentiments to those in the Air France-KLM report.

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A Trip to Nantes

The city of Nantes in the Pays de Loire region consistently ranks highly in the lists of best places to live in France, probably because it is big enough to have all the amenities of a city, yet it is surrounded by countryside and only 2 1/2 hours from Paris by train. Possibly the biggest attraction is that you have a dozen or more beaches and seaside towns within an hour’s drive, making the place great in summer.

The town itself is nice enough and reminded me a lot of Bordeaux: lots of little side streets, cafes, bars, and students. There were also a lot of unwashed hippy-types sitting about in bare feet holding pieces of string with a dog on the end. I’d not seen many of them in France before, but Nantes had plenty. Probably the best thing to do when arriving in Nantes is to walk around the outside of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany and then find something to eat and drink: being a former port town whose shipyards closed long ago, Nantes is nice but not beautiful.

The mirror above was pretty neat. In front was a football pitch laid out in a curve such that the mirror would reflect it as a perfect rectangle.

One of the main attractions of Nantes is Les Machines de l’île, a permanent exhibition of animatronic animals built in the steampunk genre in an area of reclaimed dockyards near the city centre. The most famous of the exhibits is a giant mechanical elephant which carries passengers on a journey of a few hundred metres every hour or so.

It’s both a fantastic work of art and feat of mechanical engineering. Driven on wheels by electric motors, hydraulics make the legs move giving the impression it’s walking. A combination of pneumatics and hydraulics make the head, ears, and trunk move. Were this in Australia the people following would be stood two hundred metres away behind barriers, but in France people are still allowed to have fun so everyone walks alongside or in front, with the kids getting sprayed with water from the trunk. A security guard sort of ushers people out of the way, but otherwise you can get pretty close. To be fair, the thing moves pretty slowly and you’d have to be trying pretty hard to get hurt.

Inside there were some smaller animals, including a mechanical ant which I’d seen a year before at the Paris Maker Faire.

There was also a caterpillar, a heron, and a giant spider each of which could carry a handful of passengers who, by pulling various levers, could make the animals’ appendages move in a realistic fashion. The whole exhibition was an excellent combination of aesthetically pleasing arts and complex engineering, something which is never easy to pull off.

Afterwards I went for a short walk along the slipways of the old docks, where the city has adopted and preserved an old crane as a reminder of its industrial heritage (If you look carefully you can see the elephant on the left).

That evening I watched footage of the flypast in Paris and Trump causing lefty heads to explode by complimenting Macron’s wife on her figure. I was hoping he’d rumble down the Champs Élysées in an Abrams tank, crushing a few vehicles on the way, but instead he turned up in a limo. Back in Nantes, the municipality laid on a firework display in the castle for the Bastille Day celebrations. Judging by the crowd, the entire city turned up to watch them.

The next day I headed to the harbour town of Pornic, which sounds a bit like an app connecting amateur pornstars with budding directors in your area. Naturally, the first thing to do was eat some oysters at the grand price of 6 for 10 euro.

France is probably the only place I’d eat oysters, and the Atlantic coast is the only place I’d make a point of eating them. Meaty, cheap, and delicious they were. As I found with other small coastal towns in France, the visitors are almost exclusively French so you can safely eat in a restaurant which looks “touristy”. You’d not want to do that in one of the more famous towns like Etretat or Le Mont Saint Michel, where the menu will be laminated and in sixteen languages with Russian and Chinese near the top.

Pornic was a nice place, even with the tide out.

On the way back to Nantes I stopped at the Réserve Naturelle de Grand-Lieu, which is basically a lake.

It was nice enough, but what I most enjoyed was coming across a field of mowed hay and taking in the smell of it. Then a tractor pulled up with a hay-turner and I stared long enough for the driver to hop out and ask me if I was wanting anything in particular. I explained that I’d grown up around farm machinery and, living in Paris, I missed it. He sympathised, but not enough to immediately put the thing into action for my entertainment. On the drive back I passed a dozen or so fields of wheat being harvested, dust flying everywhere.

Just for fun, here’s a pic of me with the elephant.

(The rest of my photos from this trip can be seen here.)

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Why do Blairites hate Corbyn so much?

I confess, I’m at a complete loss to understand why so many of the middle-aged middle classes are aghast at the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, his grip on the Labour party, and the support he receives from the younger generation.

Let us not forget that an awful lot of people now squealing about Corbyn turned out in their droves to vote for Tony Blair. Indeed, some of them still wipe away a tear when they remember those days, and wish another just like him would return. “Oh, but Blair was different!” I hear you say. Was he? Perhaps. But I remember New Labour being all about style over substance, the trashing of institutions and traditions, broken promises, the ballooning of the state in both in size and scope, thousands of petty criminal offences added to the statute books, endless tinkering, meddling and busy-bodying with little purpose and no regard for the side-effects, and an overall dumbing down of politics to the level of reality television.

Note that I didn’t mention the Iraq War: this would account for most of Blair’s unpopularity among the left, otherwise they’d be calling for him to replace Nelson in Trafalgar Square. Nothing in his approach to domestic matters met with the opposition he faced over Iraq, and even today this issue dominates his (poor) reputation. Personally, I’d rather give him a pass over thrashing Saddam Hussein and his army and hang him for everything else, but that’s just me: on domestic matters, most of the middle-aged middle classes think he did a fine job.

Perhaps Tony Blair and chums were better than Jeremy Corbyn and his lot, but one very much prepared the ground for the other. True, we had Cameron in the middle but he did nothing to undo the damage and plenty to make it permanent. It was New Labour’s policies that allowed hard leftists seeped in identity politics and cultural Marxism to infiltrate and take over swathes of the media, education system, councils, charitable sector, and other institutions which now form the basis of Corbyn’s support. How anyone who worshipped at the altar of New Labour can now complain about Corbyn’s insincere opportunism and lack of principles is beyond me: Blair practically wrote the book on it.

You often hear New Labour purists whine that Corbyn is incompatible with the party’s traditions and values, as if their hero Blair didn’t make himself just that to win office – which included abandoning the British working class. Then again, these are people who think Trump is too stupid to understand how the US government works but adored a man who casually abolished the 1,000 year old position of Lord Chancellor without having a clue what the effects would be. In their sorrow many Blairites are looking across the channel to find a new Messiah to deify: France’s Emmanuel Macron. On that subject:

It is a long-standing tradition that the president will be interviewed by the press during the day, but it seems Mr Macron has other ideas.

Le Monde quotes the source as saying that the president did not “baulk” at speaking to the media.

However, “his ‘complex thought process’ lends itself badly to the game of question-and-answer with journalists”, the paper notes.

It is not clear exactly on which subjects Mr Macron felt his thoughts might bamboozle journalists.

A president elected on woolly policies with scant detail decides the plebs are too thick to appreciate his brilliance; little wonder Blair’s disciples adore him. It is why they hate Corbyn so much that remains a mystery to me.

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American v British Left

This is a good paragraph from the Zman on the differences between the American and British political Left:

The quest for spiritual egalitarianism in America is a very different thing than the material egalitarianism of Europe. A Jeremy Corbyn has to kit himself out in the garb of the working man in order to be authentically Left. In America, a rich white woman like Elizabeth Warren can lecture us about the poor, from the steps of her mansion, as she is decked out in a designer outfit. The reason is she cares more for the spiritual well-being of the poor than their material condition. She fears the poor are being excluded.

It’s true that the Left in the UK have to conceal their wealth while weeping crocodile tears for the poor, whereas in the US they don’t even bother. France is a curious mix of the two, where multi-millionaire socialists express concerns about material inequality in society.

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Blaircron

It’s no wonder the Blairites love Macron:

President Emmanuel Macron’s government wants to end a 14-month ‘state of emergency’ in France, but at the same time integrate several of its exceptional anti-terrorism powers into common law, alarming judges and civil liberty groups.

Warrant-less property searches and house arrests, two controversial measures currently used by French security officials under special state of emergency powers, could become ordinary policing practices under a new bill being sponsored by the country’s new government.

This is right out of Blair’s authoritarian, snooping, meddling handbook. If he starts going on about military action in Syria, look out.

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