Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Psst...don't say anything, but London and Britain are much loved by the French

A brilliant photo of a boozer just behind Victoria station, taken by yours truly
How times change. Remember the Eighties and Nineties, when Ireland, and the Republic in particular, was all the rage among young French people? Quite the phenomenon it was, what with Irish pubs springing up all over France like four-leaved clovers and Guinness accounting for what must have been the majority of all liquid transported by ships plying the waters between Ireland and France.

Countless thousands of young French people made the almost obligatory pilgrimage to Ireland at that time, with most of them coming back to France carrying green 'Kiss Me I'm Irish' teddy bears and nursing massive hangovers to regale all and sundry with wide-eyed and breathy tales of how wonderful it was and how welcoming the Irish people were. Some of the praise was rather overly-gushing in my view, but I did manage to refrain from bursting their bubble with the rather more prosaic truth about the Irish, which is that, following the age-old principle of 'my enemy's enemies are my friends', the Irish love anyone with whom they can agree that Albion is a perfidious and treacherous kingdom.

All that seems rather quaint and long ago now though, and the number of young people visiting Ireland has withered and shrunk during the last decade, much like the Irish economy. Ireland? That's so passé dahlink, because today's must-visit destination is England, and London in particular.

Britain's appeal began during the monopoly money-driven boom of the Nineties, which saw Britain's economy outstrip that of France. It resembled a race between a rabbit and a snail, with a vibrant Britain creating jobs like there was no tomorrow whereas unemployment rates - particularly youth unemployment rates - soared to new highs in France. Students began to cross the Channel in ever-increasing numbers to find work in bars, hotels and restaurants, and they were welcomed by their British bosses because of their willingness to work hard and their knowledge of these sectors.

Sure, the contracts were (and still are) short term ones in the main, and it is much easier to sack an employee in Britain than in France, but that didn't and still doesn't deter them, seeing as a) it's all very well having solid work contracts in theory, but they mean nothing if there are no jobs to be had and, b), if it is easier to sack people in the UK, it is also easier to change jobs or find another one if laid off.

The Shard: it's big, it's pointy and it's shiny. (My pic)
At the same time French people began to believe that Britain is more dynamic than France. London is a very attractive option for younger people because it is much more exciting than French cities, which are more parochial in style and less exuberant in lifestyle. This is particularly true of Paris vis-à-vis London. Buildings spring up seemingly from one day to the next in British cities and it is by no means rare to find a black glass and steel structure next to, say, a church. France however does not work this way, and getting a permit to build even a garden shed, never mind a new office block, is almost impossible in Paris as well as some other places because of stringent planning laws designed to protect French historical culture and heritage.

One key element of Britain's appeal to French people is its social life, which young French people find to be very much more adapted to having fun and meeting new people than the rather more staid fare on offer in France. British pub and night life is renowned here for its animated and youth-oriented tendencies, which is why it is very favourably compared to the more reserved and restrained offer to be found in France. My French niece has just got back from a year in a college in London and she already misses the vivacity of life in England. She swears that she will go back to London next year to live, and for good. It's the same story for my god daughter, who has visited England twice this year alone and loved every minute of it. They both like the bustling streets, the cosmopolitan feel and, of course, British fashion and...boys.

As time went by word got around in France that Britain was the place to be for motivated young people who wanted to further their careers, and thus it was that the 'brain drain' of talented French traders, marketing personnel and others began, a trend that Nicolas Sarkozy once famously bemoaned as proving that France needed to buck up its economic ideas. It also became apparent that there was less racism in British business culture because of the idea that it isn't one's colour which is important, it's one's ability to do one's job. This explains why many talented people of Maghrebi and Arab origin got the message and left France for London, never to return. Did the economic crisis burst the bubble? No. On the contrary, it increased its size due to a very morose France which could not push home the potential advantage it had gained at the expense of Britain's monopoly-money services disaster after the effects of the sub-prime crisis reached European shores.

St Pancras welcomes me. Oh, and the rest of the world too
Then came the respective Olympics bids by Paris and London, and the whole process was a disaster for the image of France among its young people. Whereas Britain's campaign centered upon colour, energy, the future, youth and vitality, France's effort was more like a faded and almost sepia-coloured dusty old homage to past French glories and the Republic than anything else. This disastrous PR failure was largely relayed in the press, and many began to consider that France had now become passéist and 'vieux jeu' - old fashioned.

Finally, the last few years have seen a massive uptick in the numbers of French people buying houses and apartments in England, and more and more businesses are either domiciling themselves in the UK or basing their senior staff there, where salaries are appreciably higher.

The result is that the number of French people who have registered themselves with the French embassy in London and the many consulates in other cities has doubled since 2007, and London, with its 400,000-strong French population, is now the sixth-biggest city of France in terms of population. And there's even a cherry on the cake. French savoir-faire and expertise in sectors such as design, video, creative IT and many others are much sought-after, as is the appeal of the many French-style shops selling everything from croissants and baguettes made by French bakers to authentic-looking cafés, many of which have French owners.

Back here in France there are many blogs and articles in praise of what is being seen as British dynamism and its forward-looking approach, both of which are considered to be a welcome antithesis to a France which, by its own admission, seems to be afraid of the future and is tending towards an inward-looking mindset.

But it isn't all one-way traffic. So popular has Britain become with France's young that it is no longer possible to walk for 10 minutes in a city centre here without seeing at least a couple of examples of the Union Jack flag. Highly distinctive and brightly-coloured, it is to be seen on everything from T-shirts to jeans, earrings to handbags, mobile phone covers to diaries and everything in between. My local shopping centre recently organised what it called a 'British week', with a 'so British' slogan and British products were be seen everywhere. Food, clothes, accessories, you name it, if it's British it can be bought in France.

So there it is. The Brits are just as bad as the French when it comes to moaning about the state of their country, but the fact is that, for now at least, Britain has many fans here in France, and it can be safely assumed that after Bradley 'le gentleman' Wiggins' Tour de France win coupled with the successful London Olympics (that even the French press found praise for), their numbers shall increase and more shall cross the Channel.

This trend is to be encouraged in my view, if only because it means that I no longer have to ask friends and family to send me good old British bangers and quality cheddar by post. All I have to do these days is ask some French person I know to bring them back with them when they come home for their sun-drenched holidays in the sun, the one thing that Britain cannot offer them...

Friday, 24 August 2012

Armstrong's decision means it's make or break time for the Tour and professional cycling

Nice bike, shame about the drugs?
So that's that then. After years of guerilla warfare against those organisations and individuals who have accused him of doping his way to seven Tour de France wins Lance Armstrong has finally thrown in the towel and decided not to contest the doping charges laid against him. His decision is tantamount to an admission that he is a 'drug cheat' according to the majority of the public as well as those in the cycling world, and he is to be stripped of all 7 of his Tour titles and banned from competitive cycling.

So much for Armstrong's fate, but what of that of the Tour and professional cycling in general? After all, Armstrong has just single-handedly annihilated seven years of Tour history. They no longer exist because there is no credible winner to any of them. Armstrong's name will be erased from the records but it's not as if the man who came second each year can credibly inherit the title either.

Alex Zülle was second in 1999 but he had already been involved in a doping scandal and Jan Ullrich's second places in 2000, 2001 and 3003 would be worth nothing to him either as he was involved in more doping scandals than amost any other cyclist. Joseba Beloki, second in 2002? The answer is no again as he too was involved in a doping scandal. It's the same story for Andreas Klöden (2004) and Ivan Basso (2005.) And it's no use looking to those placed third either because many of them were involved in doping too.

In other words, it appears that all those long afternoons and hundreds of hours I spent drinking bottles of Heineken and eating peanuts whilst watching each and every one of Armstrong's wins were for nothing as those Tours have to all intents and purposes disappeared from the Tour's official records. And it's not as if Armstrong was the only winner to have had his title(s) taken away from him in recent Tour history. Floyd Landis won in 2006 but he was found guilty of doping soon afterwards and thus lost his title, and Alberto Contador lost his 2010 title for doping too. Dozens of other runners have also been found guilty of doping in the 2000s.

The implications for the future are of course serious, but they are even more serious if one takes into account the century-long history of doping in cyclism and the failure of most of the efforts which have been deployed to combat it. The Seventies and Eighties saw the ascension of cortisones and amphetamines, the Nineties were characterised by EPO, and subsequent years saw the rise and rise of sophisticated blood transfusions.

Many of those found to have illegal substances in their bodies invented and successfully submitted some ludicrous explanations to explain how they came to have ingested these substances, including spiked drinks at parties, impure food and many others. But the grand master was surely Armstrong, who used an armada of lawyers to defend himself, and this partially explains why he was never caught red-handed or successfully charged with doping even though, with well over 500 drug tests, he is the most dope-tested man in sporting history.

The Armstrong affair may be the straw which broke the camel's back and the Tour is now faced with some daunting and pressing issues to resolve. The cycling world is very much aware of that moreover, as the muted and carefully-worded comments of both cyclists and staffers shows. Doping is obviously the most important issue of all and the sport is going to have to be seen to crack down on cheats as of now if it is to live. There will also have to be a complete overhaul of the testing system in order to prevent a repeat of the connivance of testing bodies with riders, teams and others during the days of EPO in order to cover up doping scandals. And there is also a need for more proactive research and investigation to be able to predict which drugs and techniques for taking them are in the pipeline.

'Living', for the Tour de France, means having the fans on its side, but their patience is now wearing thin, and it also means having sponsors. There is sure to be a backlash from both existing and potential sponsors, whose money is the lifeblood of cycling, and the Tour is going to have its work cut out to persuade them that investing in it is not going to cost them their reputations. The opening shot in the sponsors' backlash has already been fired in fact, with Le Figaro reporting that Armstrong sponsors such as RadioShack, Nike, Coca-Cola and Subaru are considering a bid to force Armstrong to pay back the money they poured into his efforts. This has deep implications for the future because sponsors may include even more pay-back-in-case-of-cheating clauses into riders' and teams' contracts than they do already. But this could be a boon for the sport because it may make some runners think twice before doping.

Then there's TV. The Tour gets massive amounts of revenue from national TV stations all over the world but how long are they and their viewers prepared to put up with investing substantial amounts of taxpayers' money into Tour coverage given that of the 14 Tours that have been covered since the end of the Nineties, nine, yes, nine, of them have produced winners who were stripped of their titles. It is high time that TV began to give priority to sporting ethics, morals and taxpayers' interests instead of being happy to close its eyes to the abuse and rake in advertising profit. TV channels should start insisting on seeing real progress in the war against doping by using a refusal to cover the Tour as the stick. This would represent a crucial step towards reducing doping were it to happen and it would be in TV's own best interests in the long run.

All of these questions must be tackled urgently and doing so is going to take courage, not a little humble pie, a lot of self-questioning and even more resolve. It's a massive undertaking, it won't be easy, and there will be glitches along the way. But it must be done and the effort must start now and be seen to start now.

Because if it isn't, and if next year's Tour de France produces yet more dope-using riders on the podium and the usual slew of exclusions, the public, sponsors, national TV (certainly in France) and all those who have supported and been patient with cycling for so long may finally call it a day and start turning off the money taps, condemning the Tour de France and professional cycling in general to slowly wither away into relative obscurity......


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

It's time for Hollande to bite the bullet

Frankie takes a(nother) break from talking
The crushing heatwave that France is experiencing at the moment isn't the only thing which is making people grumpy. It is estimated that around 45% of the population couldn't afford a decent holiday this year and they were surely miffed to see their president get off his holiday train in Paris smiling away without a care in the world and sporting an almost indecently deep suntan after two weeks spent doing...nothing, or almost.

A president is just as entitled to a holiday as anyone else of course, but after Hollande's first '100 days' in power the French, including members of his own Parti Socialiste, are becoming increasingly uneasy at what is perceived to be a lack of presidential and governmental action on the pressing issues of the day.

These misgivings were forcefully put into words a few days ago by failed Front de Gauche parliamentary candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon when he said that "the left is back in power after 10 years and all it can think of to do urgently is amend an existing budget and introduce a law on sexual harassment" and his verdict on the first 100 days of Hollande's reign was a stinging "100 days for almost nothing."

Despite the fact that Mélenchon had omitted to mention a few other, although equally minor, measures that the government has already introduced it's hard to argue with him and indeed few have, with government ministers being content to rally round their president with reminders that the presidency still has almost five years to run. That is true of course but it does not fully address Mélenchon's remarks.

The fact that the country is becoming increasingly worried about Hollande's performance can be imputed to his relative lack of action on his central campaign themes up to now.

Perhaps the most spectacular of those promises was to introduce a 75% tax on all earnings over one million Euros. This measure is still far from being adopted or even decided upon in preparatory discussions. Budget minister Jérome Cahuzac has already expressed his wish to see sporting personalities and showbiz stars exempted from the proposed law, and the government is now coming to terms with the fact that it will need to adjust its plans in order to avoid constitutional objections to them based on existing laws which are designed to prevent the spoliation of specific groups of people. It is probably safe to say that if ever this measure is introduced (and that is by no means certain) it will be heavily watered down.

Concerning Hollande's vow to overturn the EU fiscal pact, his efforts floundered on the rocks of Angela Merkel's resistance to them and all he got out of his corollary demand for a growth package was an insignificant measurette which implicates just a tiny percentage of European economic activity. Hollande now seems resigned to following Merkel's lead to the point where, in total contradiction to what he said before being elected, he recently announced that Greece must stick to its obligations regarding the draconian European bailout which will savage the Greek economy for years to come.

The 60,000 teaching jobs he promised? They are nowhere in sight, and, worse, the prospects for employment in general now look very grim indeed seeing as his pledge to penalise stock market-quoted companies which lay off hundreds or thousands of workers has been put back to 2013 due to what the government calls 'negotiations with the concerned parties.' A staffer at the Ministry of Work and Employment put it this way - "Negotiation is necessary in order to keep our engagements", along with the ominous caution that "the future shall tell us if these engagements can be kept." It is thus not surprising that several major companies, including Peugeot-Citroen, have announced plans to lay off thousands of workers since Hollande came to power. After all, who can stop them given the lack of concrete legislation to counter their intentions?

And what about his more global and seemingly contradictory promise to increase growth whilst simultaneously cutting France's budget deficit to 3% of GDP in one year? France's revenue authorities have already reminded him that reducing public spending means reducing salary costs in the public service, but how can he do that whilst at the same time creating the 60,000 teaching jobs plus 10,000 more in the justice system and the police? The same kind of problem awaits him in the national health service and social security.

Hollande met Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault yesterday in order to try and thrash out ways of slashing public spending by almost €35bn for the 2013 budget to get the deficit back down to 3%. This will not be easy because whereas the government has based its plans on a projected figure of 1.2% growth many economists and analysts predict that the French economy may not even reach 0.7%. If that happens he will be faced with the 'devil and the deep blue sea' choice of either failing to deliver on France's promise to the EU to reach 3% on time or cutting costs even more deeply.

It is of course true that rushed legislation is often botched legislation, and the socialists were quite right to criticise Nicolas Sarkozy's whirlwind flurries of legislative activity which led to several of the major laws he passed being thrown out of the Senate and back into his arms in order that he modify offending passages. Also, there are some minor new bits of legislation in view, such as a "modest" and "temporary" lowering of state tax on petrol in order to help household budgets, but measures like this are far from being enough to affect the economy in any meaningful way.

Hollande is going to have to bite the bullet sooner or later and tackle some of the major structural flaws in the French economy and labour market now that the traditional 'honeymoon period' for new presidents is over for him. France badly needs to develop a global strategy on both of these issues as well as others, and it's time Hollande got on with it.

But as things stand, François Hollande looks more like a frightened rabbit caught in the glaring headlights of the serious issues facing him than a president in active office, and that is the last thing that France or any other country needs during a period of crisis.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Why does France have such high suicide rates?

I read a few hours back that a policeman has committed suicide in his police station near Paris. It is thought that personal problems may have been a contributing factor. Reading that story reminded me of another one I read, only yesterday, which reported that a 50-year-old man had died from the burns he suffered after he doused himself with an inflammable liquid and set himself alight. This took place in the social security offices he had gone to in order to discuss his benefit problems. And just the day before that came the news that a man had killed his wife, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, with a shotgun before committing suicide with it.

The high suicide rate amongst older people in France has reached such alarming proportions that Michèle Delaunay, the minister in charge of issues related to older people, recently declared that she has put it at the top of her priority list and will work hard to find ways of identifying those who may be considering suicide in order to try and reduce the risk of them actually doing so.

But suicide doesn't only concern older people, and a look at the statistics reveals that suicide rates in France are extremely high compared to those in most other western countries.

The 2011 WHO suicide rates by country list contains data on 107 countries and it puts France in 21st position, making it one of the most highly placed of all the major western countries. Curiously enough, two other French-speaking countries - Switzerland and Belgium - also have very high rates. By way of comparison, the USA is 41st, Great Britain is 61st, and many other western countries are situated in between or close to them.

The situation looks even grimmer in the context of the WHO's list for the 34 OECD countries, with the Belgium/Switzerland/France trio in 7th, 8th and 9th positions respectively. They are the most highly placed of all the richer nations with the exception of Finland and Japan. Looked at another way, Wikipedia points out that the suicide rate in France is "twice the rate [of that] in Britain and a 40% higher rate than Germany and the US."

The French are semi-obsessed by suicide and their press regularly highlight spates of suicide in specific population groups. One of the better known of these stories involved the string of suicides at France Télécom in which over 60 of the company's employees committed suicide between 2008 and 2011. Oddly enough though, although that rate was not much higher than the national average in statistical terms it still caused a lot of concern and led to countless press articles. Another long-running story has been that of suicide within the police and gendarmerie, which seems to be relatively common, and I remember reading a few months ago that 3 policemen had killed themselves in less than a week in Paris alone. The teaching profession has also been a recurrent source of suicide stories.

So why are the French so relatively prone to suicide? That question has been addressed countless times by academics, psychologists, epidemiologists and many others, and here are a few examples of their theories, some of which I think may contain an element of pertinence.

The Economist asked itself that exact question and came up with the theory that it could be to do with the fact that the French take more anti-depressants than is the case elsewhere. France's "existential angst" as they put it, may be imputable to various factors, such as the harsh reality of the evolution of France's employment and unemployment practices. This theory is also cited by others and the France Télécom suicides are often used to support it. My personal feeling on that however is that it cannot in itself be responsible given that the world of work has changed in a similar fashion in other countries without the same phenomenon being observed.

Dutch news site NRC also discussed the Télécom suicides in this article, adding that the French sometimes use suicide as a form of protest against perceived injustice. There is surely some truth in that, and many of those who self-immolate do so as a protest, often against state institutions which deal with issues such as benefits, housing and health care.

But there are more fundamental factors at play too, and American emeritus psychology professor Maurice L. Farber PhD addresses them in a book in which he offers some hypotheses on suicide and life-threatening behaviour in France. The book is not available for free consultation, but the abstract of its content on Wiley's online library offers a lot of well-informed pointers to his thinking;

The relatively high suicide rate in France is investigated and a number of influences are hypothesized as causative. These include, on a societal and demographic level, a history of high immigration, low emigration, a high proportion of old people, high urbanization, extraordinarily high alcoholism, and the extreme gap in income between upper and lower classes. The rigid bureaucracy of the state can leave the individual feeling infuriated and defeated. The legal system produces many injustices, such as long imprisonment without charges. The Church is liberal and supplies little prophylaxis against suicide. Overall, social integration must be judged to be low. Culturally, French values include an underlying pessimism, no strong fear of death, strong pressures to behave correctly and much malice toward neighbors. The modal personality structure contains defensive, constricted elements producing a vulnerable pseudo-autonomy. French child-rearing practices are effective in producing such personalities.

Much of what he writes rings true for me even though I am not an expert. French society is not a happy one and many people adopt a defensive stance when in public. In fact my sister, who was visiting me here in Lyon during what was her first-ever visit to France, asked me the following question after only 2 days - "is France in a period of national mourning?" When I asked why she had asked that question she replied that "people rarely speak to each other and they look glum and depressed. It's not like that in Britain that's for sure." She was perfectly right.

I believe that another reason may find its roots in the way France educates its children. The French education system does not encourage creativity and children are often told by teachers that they are "nul" ('useless') if they make mistakes. The inevitable result is that many suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Indeed, being judged to be overly-confident is a 'minus point' and so is self-congratulation and being different to others. I remember pumping my fist in the air with a resounding "yes!" at work once in the days when I worked for other people because I was particularly pleased at how my hard work had obtained good results under difficult circumstances. Whereupon my boss promptly intervened to inform me that being self-congratulatory was akin to crowing and as such it was "unseemly behaviour." His reaction was, I believe, a direct result of his education in a system which discourages being happy with one's work and is quick to criticise.

All of which explans why many people are wary of the reactions of others, and it is also why many French people are relatively isolated on a psychological level. This lack of self-esteem is often cited by French researchers and others who have been racking their brains for years to try and understand why the French are, according to studies, one of the most unhappy populations in the world. In fact one recent OECD study actually found that the French are even more pessimistic about their future than are the inhabitants of Afghanistan and Iraq!

Still, whatever the reasons for France's high suicide rates, one may be certain that unless and until some of the more rigid and alienating aspects of France's societal structures are addressed and improved upon, the French media will continue to publish its daily litany of depressing and vaguely absent-minded four-line articles which relate the sad details of yet more suicides.....

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

France looks set to win Olympic gold for bad losers

The British are a bunch of cheating bastards!!
'It's not about winning, it's about taking part.' That old adage is well-adapted to the Olympic spirit but I am beginning to suspect that an excessive intake of spirits on the ferry over to Dover from Boulogne may be the reason why French sportsmen and women seem to have left it on the boat upon disembarking.

It is surprising how quickly fortunes can change. A week after the games began France was third in the medals table with Britain languishing somewhere down in the twenties. Those were heady moments indeed and even François Hollande couldn't resist a jibe at our slow start.

That all seems so long ago now though, and Britain is in third place today with a large lead over the French. And it is precisely that which seems to have ulcerated the French press and social media to the point where subtly-worded allegations of cheating by British athletes are now as common as white on rice.

The first sign that something was amiss came when I noticed that Figaro's live news feed (I follow it because it is quicker than the others to post new news) had suddenly stopped posting flashes of  British athletes winning medals. It had posted them up until then up until then so why did they stop? It was because it was on that day that we surged ahead of France, and some of the medals which made the difference happened to have been won in cyclism, a discipline which France holds dear.

Then came 'Super Saturday', August 4th, when Britain picked up more medals in one day than it had for over 100 years, and there wasn't a word about it on most French papers, with the admirable exception of Le Monde which posted a magnanimous article with the headline 'Athletics: the British are the kings of the stadium.' 

It was at about that time that the cheating allegations began to seep into the papers. One of the first I saw was, ironically enough, in Le Monde's Olympics section. The article printed some of the earlier tweets in what was to become a major twitter campaign. 'Britain's basketball opponents won't have the right to enter the British half of the court' quipped one, whilst another chirped the news that 'Murray will be able to get Federer to re-serve his aces by saying he wasn't ready.' This was in reference to the restart that a British rowing team demanded, and got, before going on to win silver in the lightweight double sculls. One of those tweets - 'Bolt applies for British nationality in order to get away with false starts' was used as the article's headline.

All that was harmless enough at first, but the trickle of articles turned into a stream when, as well as the twitter fun, the French press posted articles by journalists who voiced their own suspicions. British cycling medallist Philip Hindes became the target of several papers for his tumble during a race which led, as the rules dictate, to a restart. He was suspected of falling deliberately. Figaro front-paged a piece which discussed not only Hindes, but incidents in rowing and cycling as well as the twitter campaign, which was by now picking up speed (was it doped?!)

Things took a turn for the worse when French athletes and officials began to come up with their own thinly-veiled allegations. Libération led the way with a piece about the suspicions of French cycling boss Isabelle Gautheron, who declared herself to be "perplexed" at the high level of British cyclists' performances, adding that "they haven't dominated everyone this last four years, although they were among the best along with Australia, Germany and France. Now though, they are wiping the floor with everyone. Their women are four seconds faster than the others." She stopped short of openly accusing the British of cheating, but in doing so she was obliged to contradict everything she had said before with a lame "No, people shouldn't express doubts when there are good performances."

The allegations had now reached national TV, and things were getting so heated that Nouvelobs cycling lover Valentin Jaquemet felt the need to call a halt to the excesses of rumour. "Us French must stop being permantly suspicious when we are beaten, and it's worse when we're beaten by the English. [...] Why can't it be because the British are quite simply better than we are?" He goes on to argue that major investment in British cycling means that it has reached a level of professionalism that the French have yet to match. Le Monde (again!) also showed a bit of common sense with an article which exhorts French citizens to "Stop your rosbif bashing." It castigates French "chauvinism" and reminds readers that the British, just like other nations, have had several athletes disqualified so far.

That didn't stop Rue89 keeping the pressure on however, and they posted a harsh article on British cyclists with the full-of-inference headline 'What is the magic recipe with which the British crush the French in track cycling?' Like other articles it stops short of open accusations, but reports suspicions that the British are cheating by illegally customisig bike tyres and, hilariously, one observer even goes so far as to consider that maybe "there is a cog system or a mechanism which supplies inertia to gain or maintain speed..." You couldn't make it up. To be fair though, Rue89 also points out weaknesses in French cycling, such as insufficient funding and bad management of their cyclists' time and training methods.

Mind you, it's not as if the French don't already have a reputation for accusing others of cheating. Ask Rafa Nadal, who was the victim of totally unfounded allegations of doping to the point of becoming the main character of French comedy sketches which implicitly suggested that he used illegal substances. The Spanish are a regular target of French ire, from cyclists to footballers (Barcelona FC) to tennis players and others. And who could ever forget Alain Prost? Although he was a brilliant Formula 1 driver, he too had a nasty habit of accusing others of cheating....but only when he lost.

Ah? I mentioned at the beginning of this entry that Britain had its best Olympic day for over 100 years on Saturday, but a quick look at the news tells me that we did even better today.

So, my French friends, you may suspect us Brits of not being 'fair play', but the unsubstantiated rumour mill you have set in motion is not exactly fair play either, now is it. Not only that, but as I write this we have consolidated our third place, we have almost three times as many golds as you do, and you lot have slipped down to sixth.

It is not to late for you to give us a good run for our money, or even overtake us, but until you start performing instead of moaning you haven't got a cat in hell's chance.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Brussels, sexual harrassment, and the 'R' word

The Belgian press has been feverishly analysing the content and wider implications of a video which shows a young woman with a hidden camera walking through the streets of Anneessens, a well known quarter of Brussels. She is filming and recording the number of men who sexually harrass her or who 'offer' to take her to their homes or hotels. It makes for rather depressing watching.

"Bitch", "slag", "nice little ass that", "Wanna have a drink with me? Hotel, bed, you know, let's get straight down to it." She says she has to listen to this kind of thing 5-10 times in an afternoon, which is what she did in the film, called 'Femme de la Rue.'

The young film-maker is Belgian cinema student Sophie Peeters, and she decided to make the film, which is to be screened in Belgian cinemas this evening, after having been disgreeably surprised by the number of times she has been propositioned or insulted in public since moving to Brussels. She also discovered that there are several women's associations in Brussels which are fighting to get the problem recognised by the authorities and dealt with.

But there's a problem, because Anneessens happens to have a dense population of immigrant origin, and this is plain to see when identifying who is harrassing her. So why did she film there? Didn't she know it may lead to a scandal? She answers those questions in an interview in which she says that she filmed there quite simply because that is where she lives, and was conscious of the fact that she had to tread a fine line between documenting facts and implying a racial connotation. Although Peeters readily declares that about 90% of those who harrass her are of foreign origin, she insists that they are just a tiny minority of the immigrant population in Anneessens, but she adds that, "I'd like women to realise if that happens to them, they are not alone. I also want to open this debate up because a lot of people are frightened to talk about it for fear of being labelled as 'racists'."

Support for her film has not been lacking in Belgium, and nor has criticism, and it was only inevitable that the French press would quickly become interested in the story. The first article I read in the French press included the astounding tweet statement by French Media journalist Mathieu Géniole in which he declared that "It must be said concerning the Belgian girl insulted in the street that I have never seen a woman complaining about the same kind of treatment in France."

Needless to say he quite deservedly received hundreds of furious tweets from French women who just couldn't believe their eyes. He wrote an article to try and explain himself, but she shouldn't have bothered because it's a mealy-mouthed effort which, if it proves anything, proves that he seems never to have set foot in a street in France in his life. Or maybe it's because he is blind and he wears an i-Pod permanently. His ingenious spiel is that "I am only just now discovering the existence of this kind of aggression."

I have witnessed hundreds of examples of this kind of behaviour in France over the years and I see more every day if I find myself in some particular parts of town or in large shopping centres, where it is common. Also, the vast majority of French women I have met complain about it more or less, depending on how much time they spend outside or in bars, where single women are often the victims of harrassment to a greater or lesser degree.

And they majoritarily allege that the majority of the harrassers are of foreign origin. A particularly frightening variation involves young men in cars driving around late at night and following women drivers. A friend of mine tells me that the only way she got one car off her tail was by stopping at a police station.

French feminist group Osez le Féminisme unsurprisingly agrees that the phenomenon exists, and that it is widespread in France, although they are more ready to help calm things down than are their Belgian counterparts by correctly pointing out that not all propositions constitute harrassment.

One theme I have often heard from women here is that although harrassment in the street is a majoritarily immigrant 'speciality', it's another story when it comes to the workplace, where many of those in higher positions are of what could be loosely-termed as white French origin. Sexual harrassment in that context is said to be a mainly white French affair, and I have rarely heard of men of immigrant origin harrassing women at work.

Why is that? And why can't these issues be discussed openly? And what exactly could be done about them, if anything? What constitues harrassment and what is 'socially acceptable' behavior when it comes to the age-old art of trying to seduce women? There are so many questions which need to be addressed, but it's as if the majority of French society, from politicians to the police and including many ordinary people, are desperately trying to avoid having to tackle delicate subjects such as this one, whose existence is undeniably real.

This film is more than welcome because it shines a spotlight upon one of France's best-known dirty little secrets, that of the extent of the systematic sexual harrassment of women in public, whoever is responsible for it. Will it lead to change? Should it be treated as a general phenomena or are the characteristics of harrassment in the street and in the workplace different enough to warrant them being studied as phenomena in their own right? But don't hold you're breath whilst waiting for answers, because it isn't going to happen in official French circles and government, where draconian secular principles often exclude dealing with specific phenomena involving specific racial-ethnic-religious groups of the population, particularly if they are of a sensitive nature.

What's that expression about brushes, sweeping and the underneath of carpets?