Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In which the CAP does good things for good people, and for partridges too

I think it’s probably not too controversial to say that the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy doesn’t have a good reputation, especially in the UK. The average UK voter doesn’t really know all that much about what the EU actually does and doesn’t really want to either. Instead, a lot of facile clichés and myths are served up as facts and are peddled by lazy journalists and editors. Amongst these are the famous stories about how the EU specifies the acceptable curvature of bananas and wants to ban the Traditional British Banger. But one of the more legitimate concerns of voters throughout Europe is amount of money that the EU spends on agriculture through the CAP. By the end of 2005, the EU will have spent 46% of its budget, €49 billion, mainly on guaranteeing minimum prices and export subsidies. Indeed, until 1992, that is all that the CAP’s budget paid for, meaning that all subsidies were directly linked to production. Within Europe, this system meant that overproduction was endemic, as was the environmental damage linked to intensive agricultural production. Although there have been reforms to decouple production from subsidies, by and large the same problems still persist. Approximately 80% of the CAP’s budget goes to only 20% of EU farmers, while 40% of small farmers receive only 8% of the available subsidies.

To summarise, the productivist model of the CAP work like this. The more a farm produces, the more it receives in subsidies. The more farmers produce, the less agricultural commodities are worth. The less they’re worth, the more the EU has to compensate the farmers. As too much has been produced for the EU’s needs, it has to be exported. As it’s too expensive due to guaranteed prices, the EU has to subsidise exports so that European producers can undercut others. As a result, Third World producers especially can’t compete and go bankrupt. But it’s not only sugar cane growers in Jamaica who suffer. If you run a large farming concern in the EU, it’s all gravy. You can benefit from economies of scale to produce as much as possible, and you’re rewarded for it. This encourages you to use pesticides and artificial fertilisers liberally. There’s no incentive at all to stop hammering your environment and producing commodities that are of no use to anyone. But if you’re a small family farm, you can’t produce enough volume to make it worth your while, you can’t increase your yields because agricultural chemicals and especially machinery is unaffordable and won’t pay for itself on your small acreage. So you build up hopeless amounts of debt to stay in the game and end up selling up to the local barley baron to compensate for having a worthless pension. You can’t easily convert to another crop or diversify because you’re working to pay off your debts and can’t afford the initial investment or the risk. In fact, small farmers caught in the CAP productivist system are in a situation that is familiar to their aforementioned Jamaican counterparts.

So you’ll be glad to read that the Militant Pine Marten brings you agricultural tidings of great joy, having just witnessed the beneficial effects of the CAP reforms that were made in 2003. Briefly, in 2003 the EU decided to decouple subsidies from production gradually and instead to link direct single payments to environmental practices, animal welfare and food safety. In the UK, this mostly comes in the form of Defra’s various Stewardship schemes. The Militant Pine Marten was visiting a small family farm of the sort that was at the receiving end of the previous productivist model. This farm hadn’t really made any money for a decade or so. Suddenly, the kitchen has been redecorated, the tractors are looking in far better repair. Oh, you may not care very much, but you’ll probably be more impressed by the environmental benefits: people like that generally. The environmental benefits come in the form of an explosion on the local population of grey partridges (English partridges if you’re English, Hungarian ones if you’re from North America). Populations of grey partridges throughout the EU collapsed as intensive farming practices were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s especially. The thing is that young partridges live on insects in grass and fields. However the use of vast amounts of pesticides, the destruction of grass banks and hedgerows to rationalise fields weren’t conducive to vast insect populations. The grey partridge is as good an indicator of environmentally friendly agricultural practices as you could want. I am glad to report that the partridges are back, in high densities, to the extent that three of them will grace my table later this week.
The CAP has been a bad thing. It’s still far from ideal. It needs to stop doing things like making Tate & Lyle the single largest recipient of subsidies in the UK (to the tune of £127 million last year, for Christ’s sake). The shameful export subsidies need to be scrapped, although Peter Mandelson doesn’t seem to be doing too well on that front. But other stated aims of the CAP such as “to ensure fair living standards for the agricultural community” and now to improve and protect the environment, landscape, wildlife are being met, and as more reforms in this vein are introduced, the situation will improve. So you see, it’s not all lazy French farmers stealing money from hardworking British management consultants! Give the EU a chance. It stumbles around like a drunk a fair amount, but it will find the way home eventually.

UPDATE: Today the EU announced that in accordance with a WTO ruling, it was abandoning the insane sugar subsidies. This was by a long way the worst example of ill-considered agricultural policy. Well done the Council of Ministers! You see? I told you they were sorting themselves out.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

“Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of black and Arab friends, but…”

In the wake of the recent rioting in France, every French politician is trying to demonstrate that he or she is in touch with the deep problems that have been made so painfully apparent, in a manner not identical, but in terms of generalised psychological impact comparable, to the New Orleans catastrophe. A worrying number of MPs from Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party have crawled out the woodwork to reveal that in a low-key sort of way, they think that the problem could probably be solved by, if not sending people back to where they came from, at least making sure that it’s going to be damned hard for any more to join. This includes plans to limit the reunification of families (wives and children coming to join fathers working in France), the obtention by married partners of French nationality. Then of course there’s a fair amount of support for the repressive approach favoured by the Interior Minister. Jean-Marie Le Pen (who has been having a whale of a time grandstanding on Russian television this week) has been having a marvellous time watching the UMP tentatively reaching for National Front policies. There has also been a somewhat strange surfacing of a theory whereby much of the recent trouble was caused by widespread polygamy amongst black and North African citizens. And that last piece of hysterical nonsense is in fact a admission of unthinking prejudice.

In a remarkable article today, the Moroccan-born philosopher Alain Badiou relates how his 16 year old adopted son Gérard has been arrested six times since March 31st 2004 and today, for no particular reason apart from the fact that they’re teenagers, and some of them are black, others are from North Africa, some Turkish, and that in the manner of teenagers, sometimes they stand around having a chat. They are regularly arrested, asked for their papers, harassed, insulted, and then released sometimes after up to two days. The police then apologise to the parents. Now Alain Badiou doesn’t live in a sink estate, he lives in a rather more affluent area of Paris, so imagine the sort of police harassment that young inhabitants of Clichy-Sous-Bois are subjected to. Badiou speculates that the police there may not apologise quite so readily.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the French police is institutionally racist. Everyone in France knows this, but they don’t like it, they’re in denial about it, it doesn’t fit with their ”certaine idée de la France” as De Gaulle called it. But more disturbingly, the police reflect and amplify the poisonous low-level ambient racism that permeates much of French society. Casual prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities is acceptable in conversations in France to a degree that is no longer easily thinkable in the UK for instance. The following translated email conversation is I think an entertaining yet pertinent illustration of this. The names of the participants have been changed, but their ethnic origins have been retained through the use of ironically stereotypical names. I must stress that they are what may be termed pinko fruitloops to a man (and a woman), and that the shocking ethnic stereotyping and discriminatory language is in fact SATIRE, all in the poorest possible taste. The point of this is that the participants were able to easily riff off on this in these terms because they are regularly exposed to people who speak like this with no qualms whatsoever. They’re not happy about this. So they deal with it with gallows humour, a reaction more usually associated with the Brits, to their credit.

Nigel Dupont _ This article is well worth reading, but it’s not pleasant. [Refers to the aforementioned article]
Sandra Dupont _ Yes. But the problem is that no one will admit it. No one. And the worst thing is that most people who won’t admit it do so because they don’t really believe it.
Nigel Dupont _ Personally, I’m not a racist, however…
Gérard Bové _ Well exactly. Don’t get me wrong. I have lots of black and Arab friends, but…
Nigel Dupont _ You idiot, you don’t say “black”, you say “renoi”! [”Noir” in Verlan, a slang device whereby the syllables of a word are reversed].
Sandra Dupont _ Rubbish. You say “un black”. It’s more “roots”.
Nigel Dupont _ Does anyone know what’s the current favourite slang term for an Oriental is?
Sandra Dupont _ “Niaque” I think, at least that’s what they said in “Taxi 2”.
Isaac Levi _ No, it’s “Bougnoule”, I should know, I’m… Oh hang on.
Nigel Dupont _ Don’t you start piping up, Yid Boy.
Isaac Levi _ I have a Kabylian friend who came out top of his class at college, so he’s not exactly a crack dealer. He is regularly harassed by the rozzers for no reason. He was even beaten up by the police once. It’s all pretty ugly. But you want to know what the worst thing is? I’ve been beaten up because they thought I was an Arab! And that’s just inadmissible!
Gérard Bové _ Hey, be a bit careful when talking about crack dealers! There are some perfectly decent crack dealers. I have plenty of friends who are crack dealers. It’s sweeping generalisations like that that spread the problem.

Once again, I must stress that this not exactly random selection of the French electorate, and that they are in fact mimicking the sorts of comments that they hear every day. They’re really nice people, just with a twisted sense of humour.

The Militant Pine Marten has a suggestion to start dealing with this, because we’re not going to solve France’s current problems unless we change people’s unthinking attitudes. If the police is the worst example of widespread racism, then Nicolas Sarkozy could start by stamping ruthlessly on the sort of abuse mentioned above. He likes to talk and act tough I believe. Well here’s a perfect place to apply that. Investigate all claims of abuse. Make examples of police officers that participate. Show the citizens of France, both native and immigrants or their descendants, that the French Republic doesn’t tolerate discrimination by the organs of state against any particular group. That’s after all the great underlying fundamental idea isn’t it? Well do it! Go on Sarkozy, if you want to be the man of the hour, if you really believe what you say, start making the ”Egalité” a reality by punishing those who undermine the idea with the apparent tacit agreement of the State. No more blind eyes, no more heads in the sand. You’re always saying that the French should face facts and deal with them. Well show them how!

And if you won’t do that, then at least have the decency to stop pretending that you care about anything but power.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

France is under threat from reactionary far-right opportunists – amongst other problems

On the sidelines of the turmoil that France is currently engulfed in, a despicable attempt at making political capital is going on. Yesterday evening, two MPs from the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the majority centre-right party of which Nicolas Sarkozy is the leader, tabled the French legal equivalent of a white paper. Doing this is always a great opportunity for political immortality as a law that is passed successfully bears the name of the MP who first suggested it, but that’s just run-of-the-mill political vanity. The ideas put forward by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Georges Fenech are a pretty spectacular brand of irresponsible political posturing.

Dupont-Aignan and Fenech want a tightening of existing anti-rioting legislation. Specifically, as reported in Le Monde, he suggests that “from now on, the simple act of not spontaneously leaving a gathering susceptible of causing a breach of the peace from the first instruction to disperse should constitute an offence”. In addition, they propose want to “authorise the police top use their weapons when their physical persons or those of people” and places under their protection “are endangered”, but also “when they have no available alternatives to stop or prevent the flight of individuals who refuse to obey a reiterated order to stop”.

The first part of this is quite simply the denial of freedom of assembly, guaranteed by article 12 of European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. Well, not the entire denial of course. They wouldn’t dream of that. It’s just subject to the police being happy with the crowd’s presence, and being satisfied that they don’t want to cause any trouble, so in other words it would be a crime not to go home if the police suspect that your intentions are objectionable. It’s denial of the right to protest. The second part is even more fundamentally repellent: in the event that people don’t go home when asked to, or don’t submit to arrest once the police have decided that they should, the police can shoot them if they see fit.

What in the Republic’s name are these two thinking of? It is patently obvious that the current situation on the streets has nothing at all to do with inadequate legislation, and it certainly hasn’t come about because of an insufficient level of state-sanctioned violence! These are not only revolting suggestions, they are deeply irresponsible. If it wasn’t already bad enough to have Sarkozy fanning the flames with his inflammatory language, his colleagues think that what France really needs now is for a truck full of kerosene to crash into the conflagration.

Who exactly are Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Georges Fenech anyway? A little research reveals them to be unremarkable reactionary right-wingers, with far-right leanings and delusions of grandeur. Undistinguished versions of Sarkozy if you will, but without the brains. Dupont-Aignan is the founder of “Debout la République” (“Republic, stand up”), a sovereignist association within the ruling UMP. Most of its members were also part of the electoral list lead by Charles Pasqua and Philippe de Villiers for the 1999 European elections. De Villiers is essentially the upper class, traditionalist Catholic version of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who needs no introduction. Suffice to say that he’s pretty damned right wing in a really nasty way, which fits in quite neatly with Dupont-Aignan’s ideas. Dupont-Aignan has twice stood for the UMP party leadership, in 2002 and 2004, soundly beaten by Sarkozy in the latest election. He is also a candidate for the 2007 presidential elections. To use my tried and tested Iznogoud metaphor, he wants to be Caliph instead of the Caliph, except that he’s only the Grand Vizier’s recalcitrant lackey. As for Georges Fenech, he is amongst other claims to fame the author of a report entitled “Placement under mobile electronic surveillance”. Amusingly, this was sent to Dominique de Villepin. The cover letter contains the sentence ”I have decided to entrust you with a mission of reflection on the subject of mobile electronic surveillance”. I’m sure that Dominique felt honoured that the eminent author of ”Tolérance Zéro” should have felt that he had the intellectual calibre to engage with the topic. I think that these facts give a good idea of these men’s political leanings. They’re Far-right Lite. Crypto-Fascists for ordinary decent folk. And of course frustrated, narcissistic fabulists.

State-sanctioned violence against crowds, ignoring what they have to say, denying them any real voice through legitimate channels is what has lead to the appalling events of the past twelve days. Sarkozy’s brutal rhetoric and police brutality against a section of society that feels – and is – victimised by the police turned another suburban riot into an insurrection. Because let’s be clear about this: twelve days of rioting across the entire country is an insurrection. That’s what we’re talking about here. In one sense at least, the young second generation immigrants have perfectly absorbed French Republican values. Every single significant social and political shake-up in France since 1789 has been the result of the disaffected, the poor, the powerless taking to the streets and waking up successive sclerosed governments through violence. In 1789, it was the starving Third Estate. In 1830, Louis XVIIIth’s attempted return to the Ancien Régime brought about another popular uprising. Napoléon III’s self-indulgent warmongering and subsequent abandonment of Paris to Prussian troops lead about the Paris Commune, ending in a massacre of the insurgents and ultimately the beginning of the 3rd Republic. Repeated rioting and fighting in the streets between far-right leagues, trade unions and left-wing organisations brought to power the Front Populaire and the beginnings of the welfare state. The stifling social conservatism of the political establishment brought the young to the street in 1968, demanding emancipation. Like all of these events, the current insurrection is the result of a social and economic cauldron boiling over after simmering for many years as the political establishment and a large section of French society ignored it.

It is a sad truth that meaningful change in France always appears to be catalysed by violence. Let’s hope that De Villepin and Chirac resist the temptation to fight fire with fire and to cave in to the more unsavoury current of their party.

”_ Mais, c’est une révolte?
_ Non Sire, c’est une révolution!”

The Duke of Liancourt to Louis XVIth following the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789

Thursday, November 03, 2005

It’s a trying week for authoritarian, arrogant home secretaries

This week is turning out to be rather an interesting one politically on both sides of the Channel. Yesterday evening, the Blair government came within one vote of being defeated in the House of Commons over its proposal to criminalise the “glorification of terrorism”. Until now, Tony Blair has been able to assume that his majority would make sure that any motion that he tabled in the Commons would be successful, however this latest vote suggests that many Labour MPs voted against the government. I’ll just point out that of all the people who didn’t vote at all, I wouldn’t have expected George Galloway not to bother to be there. I hope he has a good reason like Vince Cable (Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham), who ironically was prevented from voting on a security matter because of security procedures. On a separate matter, the question of whether or not the period during which terrorism suspects can be held without charge for up to 90 days instead of the current 14, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke was forced to postpone a vote to avoid possible defeat. These are both important matters, particularly for those with an interest in preserving civil liberties, but of course what has really taken up column centimetres this week has been the second resignation of David Blunkett in twelve months.

Strictly speaking, David Blunkett is an authoritarian, arrogant former home secretary, rather than a serving one, but Charles Clarke has only ever been a pseudo-Blunkett, who can be relied on to carry on with the previous agenda without doing too much, or indeed any, thinking about it. Anyway, it looks like David Blunkett’s chronic arrogance problem is what brought him down. Once again, he just didn’t really believe that the rules applied to him, because he’s somehow special. Which is of course just good old-fashioned Xerxes-style hubris. To use a contrived classical metaphor, David Blunkett flogged the Hellespont once too often and the sea decided to scatter his ships.

Meanwhile, over in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy, the third arrogant, authoritarian home secretary, has been having a bad week also. To a great extent it’s his own fault: his troubles were predictably brought about by being arrogant and authoritarian. An inquiry is underway into exactly what happened in Clichy-Sous-Bois last Thursday night, but what is certain is that three teenagers of North African extraction thought that they were being pursued by the police, took refuge in an electrical substation, where two of them were fatally electrocuted. Word quickly went round that they were victims of police brutality, and soon enough a riot was underway. Law and order, specifically taking a tough uncompromising line on law and order, are Sarkozy’s favourite areas, so I suspect that he was delighted at the opportunity to take centre stage. Unfortunately earlier in the week, he had referred very publicly to disaffected youths in sink estates as "scum". Also, in the summer, following similar incidents, he had vowed to clean up another estate "with a high-pressure hose" suggesting that the inhabitants were muck. So he was going to come up with some pretty conciliatory words to calm down the situation. But instead on Sunday he said that he would take a "zero tolerance" approach, that he didn’t want do any ordinary policing but wanted to make arrests. Then he sent an additional seventeen companies of CRS (riot police) and seven squadrons of gendarmes to Clichy-Sous-Bois to make sure that some proper repression took place. And so the problem escalated, and the violence continues and spreads a week later.

Politically, Sarkozy has jumped on the highest law and order horse he could find, and succeeded only in worsening the problem. His tough rhetoric and muscular reaction plays well to many members of his rightwing UMP party, but on the ground, it’s a disaster. He’s been severely criticised within the government, although the Prime Minister and the President have been trying to keep that quiet for the sake of appearances. But Sarkozy may well have severly damaged his credibility, having failed in the one area that many assume is naturally his greatest strength.

Clarke, Blair, Blunkett and Sarkozy all have in common a stunning degree of arrogance, the conviction that they don’t need to listen to anyone else because they’re always right, the accompanying inability to admit to mistakes, the belief that the rules don’t apply to them because they are above everyone else. They are wrong. And they will eventually all learn this the unpleasant way. This pine marten can’t wait.

I wish you all a merry Jerusalem Artichoke Day!

You may not be aware of this, but according to the French Republican calendar, today, Tridi 13th Brumaire of the Year 214 of the Social, Universal and Indivisible Republic, is Jerusalem Artichoke Day. Accordingly, the Militant Pine Marten would like to congratulate all Jerusalem artichokes, and wish everyone else a very happy Jerusalem Artichoke Day.

The French Republican calendar is an interesting one, having been officially introduced on 6th October 1793, or in Republican parlance Vendémiaire 15th, Year II of the Social, Universal and Indivisible Republic. The idea behind the Republican calendar was to do away with the religious connotations of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII to replace the less accurate Julian calendar. The Julian calendar had been introduced by none other than Caius Julius Caesar in 45 BC, however as the Julian year was about 11 minutes longer than the actual time between two consecutive Spring equinoxes. Therefore by 1582, the measurement of time was somewhat out of kilter, so on the 4th October of that year, the Pope announced that actually it was October 15th, and eleven days of everyone’s lives were wiped off the slate. General levels of numeracy and literacy weren’t great back then, and a lot of people resented the fact that their lives had been shortened in this way. But there was nothing for it: Gregory had taken the eleven days, he wasn’t going to give them back, and we still use his calendar today.

Except, that is, for France and its dominions between 6th October 1793 and September 9th 1805, or Fructidor 22nd Year XIII if you prefer. The Republican Calendar is not in fact physically very different from the Gregorian calendar, since it is also a solar calendar, however it differs in the ideas behind it. Essentially these are that it should be divided into nice, orderly units in base 10, and that all religious connotations should be replaced with proper reasonable Republican ones. In practice, it works like this. The year is 365 or 366 days long if it’s a leap year. This is divided into 12 months (a slight slip-up with respect to the base 10 agenda) of thirty days each exactly. No more of this messy, illogical 30, 31, 28 and 29 days every leap year malarkey! In the same way, the silly seven day weeks are replaced with three ten-day decades in every month. Days have ten hours, each hour being further subdivided into one hundred minutes, comprising one hundred seconds. That last bit never caught on and was quickly abandoned. You’ll notice that this adds up to only 360 days, so to make up for it there are five or six complementary days at the end of each year known as sansculottides in honour of the revolutionaries amongst the common people who didn’t wear culottes or pantaloons, and wore trousers instead. Apart from the Republican clock aspect, which is frankly taking a decent idea just a little too far down the path of decimal militancy, it’s a perfectly serviceable calendar.

More importantly, it is a fun calendar. The names of all the months were devised by the (bad) poet Fabre d’Eglantine, whose only lasting legacy is the lacklustre French folk song ”Il pleut, il pleut, bergère”. However on this occasion he surpassed himself, and the months are named after changes on the natural world associated with the time of year. The year starts on the Autumn equinox (mostly the 22nd September but variable, something of a shortcoming), on Vendémiaire 1st, which is the month of the grape harvest, the vendanges. This is followed by Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivôse, Pluviôse, Ventôse, Germinal (yes, like the film with Gérard Depardieu and the novel by Emile Zola), Floréal, Prairial, Messidor, Thermidor and Fructidor. The days of the ten-day week however have pretty uninspired, arid names: Primidi, Duodi, Tridi and so on up to Decadi. You can spot the influence of the base 10 zealots there. Instead of all those backward Monarchist saints, the days are devoted to animals, plants and agricultural implements, hence today being Jerusalem artichoke day. Finally, the year ends with the five or six complementary days, which are the Festivals of Virtue*, Genius, Labour, Opinion (good inclusion, that one), Rewards and finally of the Revolution.

Assuming you’re still reading, you may be wondering what the point of all this is. The answer is simply that I think it was a fun calendar, and that in a way it’s a shame that Napoleon abolished it because he found it inconvenient and annoying. I’d like it if some enterprising printer decided to produce some up to date Republican calendars (it was New Year’s just over a month ago). And of course I wanted to celebrate the Jerusalem artichoke, a vegetable that doesn’t enjoy the spotlight very often, and that deserves more recognition.

If you’d like to experiment with the Republican calendar, or just have a bit of fun in your lost moments, you can download a free Gregorian/Republican converter by clicking here.

*The Festival of Virtue just happens to be the Militant Pine Marten’s birthday.