Showing posts with label Europe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Europe. Show all posts

Friday, February 19, 2016

All's well that ends well

David Cameron's marathon in Brussels seems to have culminated in a happy ending, enabling him to return to London with sufficient benefits to convince his fellow citizens that the United Kingdom should remain a member of Europe.

But I hope that this is not merely another Antarctic penguins story...

Thursday, February 18, 2016

To be in Europe, or not to be in Europe?

That is the question, concerning Britain's future relationship with Europe, to be handled in Brussels today and tomorrow.

Donald Cameron and the European president Jean-Claude Juncker

The United Kingdom is indeed a member of Europe today, and most Europeans hope sincerely that this will remain the case.

For the moment, Britain is not exactly a typical member of Europe. The UK doesn't use the euro currency, and it is not a signatory to the Schengen Agreement of 1985. Meanwhile, Britain is seeking further special concessions from the European members. And, within the next day or so, we'll probably know whether Britain's demands have been accepted or rejected at Brussels.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Cameron and his team are as wet and warm as a cup of tea

David Cameron has just told his ministers that they're all free, individually, to adopt whatever attitude they like to the forthcoming referendum about whether Britain should or should not remain in Europe. In other words, with respect to this all-important question, Cameron and his team have no common policy. As on a sinking ship, it's every man for himself. What weird behavior for an alleged government! To my mind, with this lukewarm approach to decision-making, the UK is moving closer and closer to Brexit.

Click here for a BBC video : "UK and the EU — How to make a Brexit" which mentions the exit of Greenland after a referendum in 1982. Here is their conclusion : "Divorce can sometimes be painful [...] but it did not have to be messy. The secret to breaking up is the same for states as for people — good planning, good sense and an ability to learn how to live and trade together in a shrinking world."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The day that England thrashed France

In France, it's a fact, rightly or wrongly, that few folk celebrate the Battle of Waterloo, which took place exactly two centuries ago, on 18 June 1815.

My wife and I used to drive to Waterloo often when we were living in Brussels, but it’s an uninteresting place. Funnily enough, I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that the illustrious Napoléon Bonaparte was defeated by a dull Englishman, Wellington, neither in France nor in England… but on the outskirts of the Belgian capital. That has always appeared to me as what the French call une histoire belge (a Belgian tale, which might be translated as a shaggy dog story).

Maybe we should have made an effort for the second centenary of this terrible defeat… but it’s not easy to rouse enthusiasm for this affair. Besides, France has always had an excellent reason for celebrating a quite different event: the BBC radio speech of Charles de Gaulle on June 18, 1940.

Be that as it may, the French newspaper Le Monde has just reacted to this anniversary by the publication of a moving English-language editorial addressed to our British neighbors:

Monday, May 26, 2014

Political catastrophe

The great ship France seems to have collided with something big and nasty. On the radar screen, it looks like this:

Outside, everything appears to be eerily calm, although a thick fog hides the horizon. No shouting. No cries. No panic. Curious leaflets, washed off the vessel in distress, are floating on the still waters.

Suddenly I heard beautiful music wafting across to us. It was slow and solemn, and seemed to last forever.

The captain, appearing briefly on the bow, astonished us all by crying out, as if in a terrible nightmare: “Full steam ahead!”

Commenting upon the short and uninspiring performance of François Hollande at the start of this evening’s TV news, a journalist evoked a leader who has “run out of cartridges”, meaning that the French president has no more solutions to propose to his disillusioned citizens. I’m wondering what kind of ammunition the journalist had in mind when she decided to use this metaphor. Cartridges for an offensive firearm? Or a defensive weapon? Or rather for a harmless gun of the kind that's used to fire smoky distress signals from the deck of a sinking vessel?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Next week: an earth-shaking TV moment

In less than a week, Australia has been invited to perform actively and directly in the Eurovision Song Contest… though not strictly as a contestant. Truly, this is the biggest planetary media happening since the marriage of our queen in 1947. History—as they say—is in the making.

Click here for an exciting article on Australia’s presence at these Olympic Games of song. Above all, there’s a great possibility for the victory of an outsider such as France. This year, for the first time since the Abba epoch, the odds are stacked against all those nasty ex-Communist nations who always get in the way of good music. No doubt for the first time ever, next week, Russia is unlikely to vote massively for Ukraine, and Ukraine is equally unlikely to vote massively for Russia. The world will be turned upside down, and victory in the contest is truly up for grabs.

One point, Australia!

And here, to get you in the right spirit: “Vutta Loe” (as the lovely lady in pink put it).

PS Maybe I’m weird, but whenever I see the tall blonde Agnetha Fältskog prancing around in her shiny blue kitsch costume, she reminds me immediately—at least from the knees down—of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Worse still, I have the disturbing feeling that the lower section of one of her slender silver legs might get disjointed and snap off. And how can I possibly enjoy their award-winning song when crazy thoughts like that are going through my mind?

Shame on me: I almost forgot to sign off with the great old Eurovision theme music from my former employer, ORTF [French Radio-Television Broadcasting System], the Te Deum of Marc-Antoine Charpentier [1643-1704].

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Lesya can take off her bullet-proof vest

[breaking news, Saturday afternoon, February 22, 2014]
I hope my blog title is not naively over-optimistic...

A few weeks ago, I was enchanted by this photo of the 31-year-old Ukrainian pro-European deputy Lesya Orobets wearing a bullet-proof vest during a parliamentary session.

The latest news, this morning, was that the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych had fled to his home territory in the east, while his opponents gathered at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev. A French weekly, this morning, spoke of a "revolutionary wind" that is blowing across this land.

The parliament has apparently voted already for the liberation of the ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko, but she has not yet appeared on the scene in person.

It’s amazing to realize that, for the last few months, Europe has had a bloody uprising on its doorstep, involving a would-be future member of the EU. I hope this great nation soon succeeds in joining Europe.

BREAKING NEWS: The great lady has finally appeared, in a wheelchair.

And she declared immediately that Ukraine must become a member of the European Union.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Longest European train ever

I suggest that you start the following video immediately. 

Like many people, I love to watch trains go past. I hope you share with me this passion. The merit of the above video is that the pleasure of watching this train go by is made to last for over a quarter of an hour. Your first view of the approaching train is a tiny white dot at the far end of the empty line on the left-hand side of the video. It only appears after you're about a minute and 20 seconds into the video. So stay calm, and wait. You'll recognize it as soon as it appears. Then the dot turns into a whitish blob, and the blob starts to get bigger and bigger. It's terribly exciting, but you've got to be patient.

When the train was in full view, I even had time to go downstairs and make myself a coffee… and, when I got back to my computer screen, the train was still going past. It’s the longest train in French railroad history, or something like that. That’s a great kind of a record, n’est-ce pas ?

I bet that strongmen are already contacting the French railway authorities, hoping to get into the famous Guinness book by showing that they can drag this train with their bare hands and arms over a distance of so many metres. That would be another great kind of a record.

Aussies are always going on about the length of their road trains on Outback roads.

But I reckon they wouldn’t get anywhere near the length of the French train.

Now, if ever you were bored, you don’t have to watch the video right up until the end. If you’re thinking of hitting the stop button, I can tell you what happens later on in the video. Nothing at all ! The train simply keeps on moving past.

POST SCRIPTUM: My son François Skyvington phoned to express certain doubts concerning this train video. In particular, he felt that neither the train nor the products being hauled appeared to be French. So, I’m inserting a few items of information that I discovered on the excellent websites of French TV and Challenge Nouvel Observateur.

The train seen in the video was 1.5 kilometres long and it weighed 4000 tons. As such, it was the longest train that has ever existed up until now in Europe. The experimental excursion whose departure is presented in the video took place on January 18, 2014. The departure was Lyon (Rhône) and the destination Nîmes (Gard). The train was composed by linking together two normal trains, each of a length of 750 metres and with its own pair of locomotives. (This kind of linkage is a standard operation in the case of TGV trains.) For the experimental run seen in the video, this linkage was carried out in a railroad freight zone named Sibelin, on the outskirts of Lyon.

In my title, I've replaced the adjective "French" by "European". The project, named Marathon, is not purely French, but European, guided by the European Commission and involving 16 financial partners. In the experimental train shown in the video, you may have noticed the presence of two French-made Alstom electric locomotives and two German-made Vossloh diesel locomotives. For this first experiment, as my observant son noticed, the rolling stock (wagons and goods) was indeed German, made available by the Kombiverkehr company.

In normal operational circumstances, train-watchers won’t have the luxury of spending a quarter of an hour admiring such a long train, because their cruising speed will be about 100 km/hour. At level crossings, drivers will therefore be held up for an extra 30 seconds. So, make the most of your opportunity to admire the above video. Viewing conditions won’t always be so leisurely once these trains become operational in a few years’ time.

Meanwhile, I thank my son for his keen observations and feedback.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Our third anthem

Once upon a time, in France, we had an extraordinary national anthem—stirring, but not particularly nice—that evoked blood and gore, the smoke of muskets, and images of slain soldiers.

Recently, we've received an anthem of a higher order, intended to evoke culture, history and harmony among the peoples of the Old World.

But there's yet another anthem, designed to remind us that we Europeans have become a continent of dumb TV-viewers, willing to watch almost anything, no matter how stupid it might be.

The grand final of the notorious Eurovision Song Contest will be taking place next Saturday evening in Sweden. If ever you've been out of contact with the planet Earth over the last decade or so, and you need to know what this spectacular happening is all about, just click here to visit their official website.

As usual, we believe that France is a top favorite, and almost certain to win the contest hands down. Unfortunately, the name of our singer escapes me for the moment. I've also forgotten the title of his/her song.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Blog article by Jacques Attali

Yesterday, I came upon an interesting blog article in French by the celebrated writer Jacques Attali. [Use Google to discover the many talents of this eclectic French intellectual.] When I contacted the author, he gave me permission to translate his article and include it in my Antipodes blog. I've since discovered that an English version of Attali's blog already exists here.

The US is bankrupt
Jacques Attali

One day, we'll be obliged to thank English-language media and English-speaking politicians for having talked so much, at the start of this second decade of the 21st century, about the plight of the euro and the predicaments entailed in building Europe. These "Anglo-Saxons" (as the French say) will have made Europeans aware of such problems, and nudged them into looking for solutions.

It's a fact that, over the last three years, the European Union has transformed considerably its administrative institutions. Devices such as the Central Bank's LTRO (long-term refinancing operation), their OMT (outright monetary transactions) and the Luxembourg-based ESM (European stability mechanism) have been installed in order to fend off attacks against the euro. Financial tools have been invented with the aim of stabilizing Europe's banking system. We've witnessed initial attempts at budget convergency and even taxation uniformity. Much remains to be achieved, of course. Eurozone budget potential must become the source of large-scale investments. It must finance job training for the unemployed. It must promote the emergence of a genuine eurozone parliament. All those ambitions will be attained sooner or later. Europeans have finally started to realize that austerity is not an answer. Economic growth is the only acceptable democratic reaction to excessive debt and unemployment.

Meanwhile, the English-speaking world doesn't seem to realize that its bankruptcy is approaching fast. The British like to make fun of the eurozone, at the same time that they tolerate a budget deficit exceeding 8% of their GDP (gross domestic product) combined with uncontrollable public debts. As for Americans, they refuse to admit that, in many domains, their situation is far worse than that of Europeans. Within the eurozone, there is a balance of payments surplus, which is not the case in the US. Unemployment (based upon meaningful figures) is far greater in the US than in Europe, to the same extent as social inequalities and crime. Life expectancy is increasing in Europe, while dropping alarmingly in the US.

As for public debt—an Anglo-Saxon theme song whenever they start preaching to eurozone members—the US is in a state of crisis. Indeed, it's hardly an exaggeration to speak of bankruptcy. The level of US public debt has soared to 16,000 billions of dollars, which represents 100% of their GDP. Needless to say, this is far beyond the ceiling that Congress and the president had once set themselves. Recent calculations based upon data from the US Office of Budget indicate that the public deficit will be some 800 billions of dollars in 2014. Wishful thinking places the figure at 590 billions of dollars in 2018, provided that intended spending cuts are respected and that growth beyond 2015 remains superior to 4%, but these hypotheses are improbable. It's more likely that the deficit will stagnate, year in, year out, between 800 and a thousand billions of dollars. In other words, the best possible hypotheses would place the US public debt in the vicinity of 20 thousand billions of dollars in 2018, maybe even  22 thousand billions of dollars.

This public debt will be financed more and more in the only possible way, by the US Federal Reserve System. In other words, the US will persist in financing their defense system, their health services and their administration by means of new banknotes! And this paper will have no greater real value than the goodwill and trust of friends who need the presence and assistance of the United States of America...

What's more, the US balance of payments has had a yearly deficit, over the last decade, of some 500 billions of dollars.

Clearly, the US is in a far worse state than the EU as a whole. Their situation is even worse than that of the most debt-ridden nations in Europe.

One might imagine a day when China is suddenly alarmed by an anti-Japanese syndrome (capable of evolving through alliances into frank anti-Americanism), or a moment when the Gulf States (under the influence of Islamic fundamentalists) decide to invest in another currency and to cease quoting oil prices in dollars. A scenario of that kind would entail the fall of the US superpower, or its decision to use warfare in a vain last-minute fling aimed at resolving the nation's contradictions.

That kind of future would be repugnant to everybody concerned. We Europeans must offer Americans the same kind of sound advice that we have recently received from them. We must shout out to them, on the rooftops, that they're about to go bankrupt... so that they'll take steps immediately—if there's still some time left—to avoid such a fate. They have the necessary means to save themselves, provided that they realize that this salvation will not arise automatically and spontaneously, as something the world would owe them.

When great empires start to see themselves as immortal, they're inevitably on the edge of a fall.

 [translation by William Skyvington, submitted to Jacques Attali for approval]

Saturday, May 26, 2012

France, one point

Let me get this out of my system right away, so that I'll feel less guilty this evening. I intend to watch the Eurovision song contest... for as long as I can, courageously, at the risk of getting nauseated. OK, now that I've made my EVCO (Eurovision Coming Out), I feel much better, and I think I can even put forward a few reasons why I intend to watch this kitsch stuff.

First, for anybody with tired neurons (like me, with all the anguish brought about by the ongoing critical state of my dear Sophia), watching the Eurovision song contest is a tremendously relaxing way to spend an evening. Not only are you not obliged to think; you're actually encouraged not to think about anything you see or hear, because it's all happening in a make-believe place called EuroFairyland, and the whole thing has almost nothing to do with the talents of the performers or the musical qualities of their songs.

Second, as a typical French chauvinist, I want to see and hear the stunning creature Anggun, representing the French Republic.

Third, I'm curious about the colorful group of Russian oldies. I'm convinced that, at the end of their performance, they're no doubt capable of disappearing into one another in the style of wooden dolls.

Fourth, for the first time in my life (and maybe the last), I wish to see and sit through a performance by the British gentleman named Engelbert Humperdinck. I've disregarded him impolitely for so long that I must give him all my attention this evening.

Fifth, there are those Irish Jedward twins, who look like they've just stepped out of a pop remake of Star Wars. After all the years I've been devoting to the research of my Irish ancestry (which might well be less ubiquitous than I had once imagined), I owe it to Erin to be brave, and bear stoically the spectacle of these prancing plastic lads.

Finally, above all, we're all aware that Azerbaijan is a nasty dictatorship. And it's unwise, indeed dangerous, to simply disregard dictators. Hopefully, sooner or later, that silly old-fashioned stuff named democracy must end up prevailing in Azerbaijan, inevitably. So, watching the dictator's super-show this evening amounts to keeping an eye on him... and maybe even getting a feeling for the most effective approach towards toppling him.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Nice couples, nice tax

These days, people who hear of the Sarkozy couple would have normally imagined this duo:

There's an offspring. The extreme right-wing politician Marine Le Pen was offended by the fact that the given name of Sarko's child, Giulia, is not pure dyed-in-the-wool French. But this will surely not give rise to a revolution.

Meanwhile, the major couple in the news is the Merkozy duo:

And a little bit of the Obamazy duo:

The couple strolled together in the rain, at Cannes, in front of musicians of the French Foreign Legion.

Then, on the Friday evening TV news, Obama heaped praise upon the French president for his rôle in the current Greek crisis.

I've never been a fan of Nicolas Sarkozy, but I've admired his tenacity in dealing with this affair… even though nobody is convinced yet that all the basic problems have been solved.

Governments of progressive societies need lots of finance to improve the situation of their citizens, and it's obtained through taxation. To my mind, Sarkozy is on the right track when he advocates a Tobin tax on financial transactions. I would imagine that François Hollande, our likely next president, would also strive to install this good tax.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

European dignitaries

Herman Who? Baroness What?

Herman Van Rompuy, that's who: the 62-year-old prime minister of a charming land named Belgium, with two coexisting cultures, Flemish and Walloon (mainly French-speaking, but with a distinct German-speaking fringe). And the 53-year-old English lady Catherine Margaret Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, that's what. So, stop acting like Henry Kissinger when he used to complain that it was all very well trying to establish contacts with Europe; he said he simply didn't have the precise name and phone number of a chief who could speak unequivocally on behalf of Europe. From now on, if you want to contact Europe, simply call either Herman or Kate.

Herman might look like an absent-minded professor. And his lady has the allure of the strict mistress of a finishing school for daughters of the aristocracy. But, believe me, he and the baroness of Upholland (up what ? you might be wondering) are surely capable of painting the town red... whatever that might mean in the case of a vast entity such as Europe.

One would expect that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known in the revolutionary France of May 1968 as Danny the Red, would like that idea. But his current color in European politics is strictly green. In any case, Cohn-Bendit has expressed total disenchantment concerning the election of the Herman + Catherine couple. Danny used an ugly French adjective to designate Rompuy-Dompty. He described him as falot (rhymes with shallow), which is akin to our English word fellow. In English, you might say that falot could be translated as "a dull fellow".

As a cross between a native Aussie bloke and an adoptive French mec (translatable as guy, or maybe dude), I've always been intrigued by the terms used to designate males. Long ago, when I was working with IBM in Wigmore Street, London, my Liverpudlian colleague Larry Doyle gave me a precious linguistic lesson concerning an attractive female secretary named Sarah, who had surely been causing sparks of lust (or whatever else you might like to call it) to illuminate my Antipodean eyes. "What you've got to understand, Bill, is that Sarah is not the kind of English girl who's looking for a man. She's out to conquer a chap. As an Aussie, you might not necessarily be familiar with English chaps, and English girls who've set their eyes upon this domain." With Larry's help, I soon became quite proficient at recognizing both chaps and female chap-huntresses... but it wasn't a subject that interested me greatly. At that time, I was starting to become infatuated by another exotic female category that Larry designated as birds... but that's a long and complicated story.

Monday, November 9, 2009

When a wall gets knocked down

On the evening of 9 November 1989, we were seated in front of the TV at Christine's place in the rue Rambuteau, watching the momentous events that were unfolding in Berlin. Christine's brother Lan had dropped in. Emmanuelle, 23, and François, 20, were also concerned by what was happening in Germany. Suddenly Lan took a few banknotes out of his wallet, turned to his nephew and said: "François, you shouldn't miss out on this. Here's some cash. Jump on a train to Berlin and join in the fun." My son didn't need any further coaxing. The following day, he was in Berlin, participating in the joyous wall-demolition party. His uncle's suggestion had given François an opportunity of sensing at close range the gusts of the great wind of change that had started to blow across Europe.

I follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change

In Berlin, a few days ago, a symbolic wall composed of a thousand polytstyrene dominos was erected. This evening, Lech Walesa will initiate its fall by toppling the first domino.

Today, twenty years after the fall of the so-called Wall of Shame, it's funny to find that, while many former agents of Erich Honeker's grim Communist fortress are earning a living by selling their filmed comments to the media, other nostalgics—some 12% of the folk in the so-called "democratic republic"—consider that a replacement wall should be rebuilt.

It might be said that walls of all kinds (to keep some people in, and others out) are a sad symbol of humanity. One of the first walls in recorded history surrounded Jericho. Today, that same land is crossed by a new wall, which is bigger, longer and more ugly. We humans are essentially wall builders. So, it's a nice interlude when, at a rare moment in time, a wall gets knocked down.

WALL-BREAKING NEWS: Move aside, Gorbachev! Get back to your shipyard, Walesa! Cut your speech-making, Reagan! Return to your family, Bush Senior! Put your cello back in its case, Rostropovich! Make room for another illustrious wallbuster!

This amazing photographic evidence has just come to light revealing that France's Super Sarko played an instrumental role, twenty years ago, in breaking down the wall in Berlin. Let's face it, our dynamic and ubiquitous president has been almost everywhere and done nearly everything. If ever he were no longer there—constantly solving problems, taking care of humanity, and even wielding a hammer and chisel if the need arises—then the globe would surely grind to a halt.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ireland wants to stay aboard

It's tremendously encouraging to see that a popular vote in Ireland has confirmed the nation's desire to accept the Lisbon treaty and stay aboard the boat of Europe.

The central issue was, of course, economic. Were Ireland's political leaders simply telling lies and trying to scare the people when they suggested that the almost bankrupt nation would be in dire straits if ever it rejected the treaty a second time? Many shortsighted citizens believed this persistent rumor.

Let's see now how Poland and the Czech Republic react to Ireland's yes.

BREAKING NEWS: Allow me to get a kick out of translating from French into English the words of our most European president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom this Irish vote was a major milestone:

This vote—which crowns the efforts made in particular by the French presidence [of the European Union] in order to answer preoccupations expressed by the Irish—is a great satisfaction for all Europeans. It will allow us to take a decisive step towards the actualization of the Lisbon treaty. France hopes that states that have not yet done so [proclaimed their allegiance to the Lisbon treaty] will accomplish as soon as possible their ratification so that the Lisbon treaty can become operational before the end of the year, which is the engagement of the 27 [nations that have already ratified the treaty].

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

French presidents are funny fellows

Instead of "funny", I was about to write "horny". Thinking of male political candidates eager to win (girl)friends and influence people, Confucious might have said: Every election is an erection. But it would be a mistake to highlight the purely sexual aspects of what I have to say. In French presidential funniness, horniness is no doubt a significant element, but it's not the sole driving force.

You can never predict what a French president (or ex-president) might do next. Look at Nicholas Sarkozy, for example. Who would have imagined that, shortly after his election, when his legally-wedded first lady walked out on him, he would promptly get himself linked, for the better or for the worse, with a young Italian pop singer? Today, he's involved in a different kettle of fish: the Clearstream affair.

Using all his presidential might, the French president is currently pursuing, in the law courts, a former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. In a nutshell, Sarkozy claims that somebody tried to frame him, with electoral ambitions in mind, in the context of a Swiss-based banking scandal. So, there'll be lots of legal fun and games in France (for TV audiences) over the next month.

Concerning Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, I can't figure out yet whether the funniness is basically primitive horniness, or whether there might have been (past tense) something far worse at stake, such as a fuzzy desire to be accepted as a vigorous potential pretender to the British throne. For me personally, if were called upon to choose between Prince Charles (accompanied by Camilla) and Giscard (accompanied by Anne-Aymone), I would hesitate for a long moment. All these people have the stuff of monarchy... but there's an obvious passport obstacle in the case of Giscard. Maybe he was trying to solve this problem by means of a union with Lady Diana. I haven't had time to examine all the details of the situation, but I would imagine that the following scenario could have been enacted at that epoch:

Phase 1: Giscard, having seduced Diana, obtains a divorce from Anne-Aymone. The president can therefore marry his English princess, and they have a splendid son, say Nicholas Dominique d'Estaing. Automatically, at the desire of Diana, Giscard and their baby are naturalized as British citizens.

Phase 2: The English-speaking people of the planet (even in faraway outposts of the ancient empire such as my native land) are so overcome by the sheer beauty of this new entente cordiale between England and France that they launch a plebiscite aimed at replacing Charles by this glorious dauphin named Nicholas Dominique d'Estaing.

Phase 3: In fuzzy circumstances coordinated by the efforts of the European community in Brussels, with a little help from George Bush (who never really understood the possible consequences of what he was doing), Elizabeth accepts the idea that the next king of England should be Nicholas I.

Ah, if only events had happened like that! The world at large would have had fabulous reality resources for TV, and idiots like me would have been able to talk at length about these celebrities on the Internet.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sarko-slanted persuasion

The French government has the right, indeed the duty, to persuade citizens that they should take the trouble to visit the polling booths on June 7 for the European elections. And it's normal that they use a video clip to get their persuasive message across. Naturally, any evocation of Europe is going to allude to a long list of legendary political figures who have played a major role in the building of Europe: Robert Schuman, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Georges Pompidou, Simone Veil, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Jacques Delors, Jacques Chirac...

At the end of the video clip, the briefest glimpse of a certain French would-be Euro-historical personage appears to be premature...

The Socialists Harlem Désir and Benoît Hamon have asked France's Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel (Audiovisual High Council) to suspend the broadcasting of this video clip, which they see as blatant publicity for candidates from the political party of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is there such a thing as French blood?

The question in my title is deliberately rhetorical and provocative, merely to draw attention. It's like a newspaper heading such as: Must man who bit dog wear muzzle? A more rigorous down-to-earth title for the present post would have been: Are there correlations between DNA and the geographical origins of Europeans? It would appear that the answer to that intriguing question is yes. In any case, what I want to do in this post is to summarize what I've understood—if anything at all—about this question, and about the answers provided by research assisted by the GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company. Maybe readers who are better versed in genetics than me might correct possible blunders in what I have to say... or they might consider that this subject is so fuzzy that it's better not to say anything at all.

Let's start at the beginning. We all know that the basic stuff of life, DNA, can be imagined as a lengthy "word" written by means of only four "letters". In the following fragment of DNA, I've represented the four "letters" by arbitrary colors:

Now, let me drop the inverted commas around "letter": a metaphor for nucleotide. From one human being to another, throughout the planet, 99% of DNA sequences are identical. But every now and again, for such-and-such a fragment of DNA, one of the letters might be different, as illustrated here:

As you can see, in the normal fragment of DNA, the third letter is green, whereas in the case of the individual we've just encountered, the third letter is red. If this kind of variation occurs for at least one in every hundred new individuals they examine, geneticists refer to the changed letter as an SNP, pronounced "snip". In the case of humans, potential snips are commonplace. They probably number around 3 million. But, as I said, for any particular snip, only a small proportion of humans will possess the changed letter. Concerning the vast majority of snips, geneticists have no idea whatsoever of the consequences upon an individual, if any, of the changed letter. On the other hand, certain snips have been identified as sources of possible health problems, meaning that they can be used as medical indicators... which is why snips are of interest to pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline.

Let's get back to the question of European geography. The research project was headed by Manfred Kayser, a geneticist at Erasmus University at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Researchers were able to use a vast collection of European DNA samples that had been obtained by GlaxoSmithKline in the context of their constant hunt for genes responsible for side effects brought about by certain pharmaceutical products. Within the DNA sample for each European studied by Kayser's teams (including researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles), half a million snips were examined. When I say "examined", that merely means that the researchers noted whether each snip letter, for that individual, was normal or anomalous. The result of this analysis was a huge collection of yes/no snip data for each person being studied. Using conventional number-crunching methods, all this data was reduced in such a way that the individual's snip profile could be represented as a point on a two-dimensional graph. And the researchers added an elementary item of information to each point: namely, the place where that individual happened to be born.

Well, the results were astounding. All the points corresponding to individuals born in France formed a cluster, which was located alongside another cluster of the points corresponding to individuals born in Italy, and so on... In other words, the geneticists' graph of snip profiles was equivalent to a geographical map of Europe! Consequently, it's a fact that, if a new human candidate were to be examined, and his snip profile happened to fall inside the French cluster, there's a good chance that he's a Frenchman.

In fact, there's very little genetic diversity within Europe, because people have remained largely within their territorial borders. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the greatest diversity existed in Mediterranean Europe, whereas Scandinavian, British and Irish data was more uniform. Noah Rosenberg, a geneticist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, concluded: "A pattern in which genes mirror geography is essentially what you would expect from a history in which people moved slowly and mated mainly with their close neighbors."

It's important to understand that this research has little to do with chromosomes, genes and inheritance. It's simply a matter of the statistical analysis of snip data, correlated with geography. It would be crazy to imagine that the researchers are suggesting, for example, that there's a "French gene" that might be injected into an Englishman (Heaven forbid!) to transform him into a Parisian. That would be just as crazy as the idea of a "lipstick gene" for pigs.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Blue, blues

My second-favorite computing company has made a graphic effort to remind us that today is the 14th of July, Bastille Day.

Symbolically, this year's celebrations are dominated by the color blue. For the first time, soldiers of the UN Blue Beret peacekeeping force will be marching in this morning's military parade in the City of Light.

As the defense minister Bernard Kouchner just remarked, today's 14th of July will be considered exceptionally, in the future, as "the day after the 13th of July 2008". What he's saying, jokingly, is that statesmen were preoccupied yesterday by the summit meeting to promulgate the concept of the Union for the Mediterranean.

Finally, there's the blue of the flag of the European Union, of which France has just been assigned the presidency.

Alongside all this bright blue, however, there's a wave of military blues in France today. To call a spade a spade, between Nicolas Sarkozy and the French armies, the current relationship is as cold as an unfired cannon. Something seems to have gone tremendously wrong between the supreme commander and his troops. For many reasons (which are too detailed to be examined here, even if I were capable of doing so... which I'm not), the French armies seem to have lost confidence in their chief, and he in turn no longer knows how to charm his soldiers. This distrust came to a head in the context of the shooting drama of 29 June 2008 at Carcassonne, when a soldier accidentally fired real bullets into a crowd at a military festival, wounding seventeen innocent spectators. Many military representatives consider that Nicolas Sarkozy failed to handle the aftermath of that tragic affair in a just manner. A journalist claimed that feelings between the president and military personnel have sunken to the lowest level since the notorious putsch of French generals in Algeria against Charles de Gaulle on 21 April 1961. To put it mildly, on this Bastille Day, that's a sobering observation.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Limits of democracy

Often, in the wake of a revolution, or maybe after a mere political victory, males like to hoist a waving female into the air, as a kind of victory symbol.

I've often felt that this symbolism is inspired, at least in France, by the famous painting by Eugène Delacroix showing a bare-breasted Marianne on the barricades of Paris after the revolution of 1830.

The Irish girl in the referendum photo is hardly a match for Marianne. Her breasts are securely buttoned down, and the object she's waving in her right hand (an Irish flag?) is too small to be identified. And I can't help wondering if she really understood what she had voted against...

To a large extent, the success of the Irish no was based upon ignorance concerning the detailed content of the treaty proposal. There was a referendum slogan: If you don't know, vote no! Well, that's fair enough. If voters are unable to understand what they're supposed to be voting for (or against), this means that the politicians and communications specialists who organized the referendum didn't do a good didactic job. But this observation leads in turn to a more fundamental interrogation: Is it really possible, in the case of such a complex entity as Europe, to expect ordinary folk to master all the issues at stake? My gut feeling is no. There are limits to the familiar democratic process founded upon voting by the people. It's like organizing a referendum to decide, say, what kind of nuclear reactors should be built in France for future energy supplies. As somebody might have said: You can question some citizens all of the time, and all citizens some of the time, but... there are many highly technical questions that cannot possibly be answered intelligently by a referendum. My conclusion on this affair is that the Irish government was naive [like the French government, a few years ago] in imagining that you can ask the people to decide upon the technicalities of our future Europe. So, Ireland has the responsibility of mending this error.