Strike at Radio France hits its third week

Radio France enters today into its 21st day of consecutive strike action. This is a record length, with no precedent established in Radio France’s 40 year history. The majority of employes on strike are technicians, although some journalists have also chosen to strike.

The French state is the unique shareholder in Radio France, and although it doesn’t officially name its Director General, Radio France is under its ‘tutelle’, which means that Radio France is essentially a ward of the government. Radio France operates seven networks, which, although bastions of French journalism and culture, have steadily been loosing listeners over the years. Radio France also has a large deficit, which could reach up to €50m in 2019, and which the government has ordered it to reduce by 2017. A recent BBC article, written by Hugh Schofield, pointed out that between 2004 to 2013, spending went up by 27.5% at Radio France, even though there was no rise in audience.

This strike by Radio France’s employes is the result of two different controversial issues. The first is the austerity measures recently announced by the Director General, Mathieu Gallet, which include the disbanding of one of the two orchestras housed by Radio France, and about 380 proposed redundancies. The other issue was first reported on by Le Canard Enchainé, which is the French equivalent of Private Eye. Gallet has recently had his office renovated, the cost of which is rumoured to be at €105,000 (which Gallet insists had already been incorporated into last year’s budget), all fronted by the tax payer, and which has suscited fury at Radio France, given that at the sale time he is proposing austerity measures. He is also supposed to have recently hired an image consultant at the cost of €90,000.

The relationship between Gallet, Radio France’s employes, and the unions is currently extremely frosty. The unions have accused Gallet of using Radio France’s audio platforms to publicly address the controversy surrounding his office and the proposed austerity measures, but of refusing to directly engage in negotiations with them.

The unions have asked the Minister for Culture, Fleur Pellerin, to act as a mediator between Gallet and Radio France, but so far, apart from giving her opinion that although it was crucial that Gallet re-establish a dialogue with the unions, she believed him capable of resolving the situation, Pellerin has been reluctant to wade into the debate. According to Le Monde, this is because the government is very wary of being accused of intervening too much into the affairs of what is supposed to be an independent broadcaster (despite the fact that it is wholly owned by the French State).

The Director General of Radio France is appointed by the Conseil Supérieur Audiovisuel,which is a regulatory body that is supposedly independent from the State. The unions have also asked it to intervene, but it has declined to do so, saying that that didn’t fall under its mandate of responsibilities, and pushing the onus onto the government to act as mediator.

Gallet is unusual in many ways as the Director General of Radio France. Firstly, he is only 37 years old, and secondly, he didn’t go to the École Nationale d’Administration, the grande école which produces most of the Director Generals at companies where the State owns or holds most of the shares. Many have said that the shake ups that he is proposing at Radio France are no surprise, as he was employed by the Minister of Culture under Nicolas Sarkozy, that famous hardliner.

The reluctance on the part of the government to get too involved may also stem from the fact that some reforms are, for the most part, probably inevitable. As Hugh Schofield, the BBC’s Paris correspondent put it, the danger of this three week strike is that in an age of 24 hour news channels, listeners may massively defect to Radio France’s private competitors.


Nicolas Sarkozy elected head of the UMP

On Sunday, I went from London to Oxford. The guy who was driving was French, and working in Paris, but mostly living in Oxford, and so regularly made the commute from Paris to Oxford.

I asked him what he thought about the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy, former French President, had recently dramatically made his comeback into French politics by getting himself re-elected head of the UMP party, the leading party on the right in France (for the moment at least, although the Front National is rapidly gaining territory on them – both in terms of votes and in terms of party manifesto). Sarkozy was elected with 64.5% of the vote, ten years after his first election to the head of the UMP. The French guy was unbelieving, shocked at the parlous state of politics in his country. He didn’t really have an answer as to why the members of the UMP would elect somebody who is involved in numerous court cases as their public representative, and possible election candidate.

Sarkozy clearly sees this as his moment to regain control and credibility within French politics. Had Hollande not had so drastically low opinion ratings, Sarkozy would not have been able to shake off the fact that he was one of the few French presidents in recent times not to have won a second term as President (apart from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing).  Today, he described the right as having a ‘boulevard’ open to it, given the lack of credibility of the left. Some might argue that this is quite ironic coming from Sarkozy, who is not exactly the most credible of individuals, given the interest the French justice system has taken in him recently.

He has a reputation as a fighter, and a hardliner, casting back partially to his time as Interior Minister where he took a controversially tough stance against the 2005 French riots. He isn’t afraid of taking decisions; he intervened in Libya in 2011, and passed a law banning the wearing of the burqa in public spaces. Words like ‘energy’ and ‘dynamism’ are often used when describing Sarkozy, and the lack of a formal leader of the UMP following Jean-François Copé’s resignation could not have benefitted him more. It was his time to leap in and literally seize back power. The fact that Copé resigned following a scandal in which Sarkozy is rumoured to be involved in doesn’t seem to have held him back. In a context where both the right and the left had been stronger, he may not have been able to claw back power. The UMP is significantly weakened and demoralized; Sarkozy is the turnaround guy hired to shake it all up.

However, Sarkozy seems to be trying to soften his image. He has reimbursed the costs of his campaign to the UMP. He is accused of having charged all the costs of his campaign to the party. The rules stipulate that reimbursement is only effective up to a certain amount, Sarkozy went over this and is said to have still charged the total cost to UMP. He has also been forced to appoint a close ally of Bruno Le Maire, Thierry Solère, as the head of an internal committee that is preparing for the election. This committee will be in charge of making sure that all party movements up to the election are transparent. This conciliatory move demonstrates that he is perhaps no longer the demagogue that he may once have been within the party. What is more, several key party figures such as Alain Juppé, François Fillon and Xavier Bertrand, all of whom have announced their intention to run for President, have publicly said that all public strategy running up to the election is for them a casus belli.

Le Monde reported this week that out of the 189 UMP députés, between 60 to 70 of them had supported Bruno Le Maire and Hervé Mariton, two of the other front runners for the presidency of the UMP. Another 50 had remained neutral. This does not suggest high levels of internal support for Sarkozy. What is more, the level of voter participation was miserly; 58.1%.

It can’t have been pleasant for Sarkozy to note that Le Maire is reported as having more credibility within the UMP than Sarkozy. Le Monde described Le Maire as being the ‘star’ of the UMP, with 29% of the vote. He robbed Sarkozy of a similar win to that which he had ten years ago, when he was voted president of the UMP with 85.9% of the vote (and he was the ‘star’ of the then newly created UMP). Some might say that the most important thing is to be elected, but none can deny that the second result is much less impressive than the first. People are cynical, having experienced Sarkozy’s particular style of leadership in the past. Le Monde congratulated Le Maire on having subtly led a campaign that never openly criticised Sarkozy, but returned to the fundamental principle of being proud to vote on the right, and promising a real engagement to restore the credibility of his party in the eyes of the electorate. This is a marked contrast with Sarkozy who mocked the ‘German speaking’ énarque.

The fact is, Sarkozy still has a long way to go until he can call himself President again. Once the race for the UMP candidate comes along, he will find himself pitted against some real heavy weights; Alain Juppé, François Fillon, Xavier Bertrand, and now Bruno Le Maire. It will be very interesting to see if his credibility stretches to a successful election campaign.

The Quenelle

Up until recently, the ‘quenelle’ was a gesture little known in the UK. That is, until Nicolas Anelka used it a celebratory gesture following his goal scored last weekend. This event pushed the quenelle into the public eye, given the immediate reaction and ensuing frenzied media coverage. The French minister for Sport, Valérie Fourneyron, immediately reacted on Twitter, by calling it a ‘shocking and sickening provocation.’ It was equally condemned by her right-wing counterpart, Chantal Jouanno, who demanded sanctions be put in place against the man who invented and popularized the gesture; Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.


Dieudonné M’bala M’bala

Dieudonné’s image has changed radically over the years. He started his career as part of a double act with the Jewish comedian Élie Semoun and was initially active on the far-left. His rhetoric has become increasingly right-wing over the years and now it is rumoured that Jean-Marie Le Pen is the godfather to one of his children. He openly declared his support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is the director of Les Ogres website, which denies the official version of the events on 9/11. In 2009, he ran in the European Parliamentary Elections, as one of the candidates for the Île de France region. He described his party as ‘anti-communitarist and anti-Zionist.’ He scored 1.30% of the vote. Jean-Yves Camus, a French academic who specializes in the French far right, told The Independent that the quenelle has become the symbol of a movement headed by Dieudonné which is convinced that the world is run by Washington and Tel-Aviv.

The meaning of the word quenelle has been distorted. It was originally known as denoting a creamed fish or chicken dumpling, specific to the Lyon and Nantuan regions of France.


Traditional quenelles

Now Dieudonné describes it as a gesture of ‘popular emancipation,’  of ‘defiance,’ a quick and precise way to show that you are ‘anti-system,’ but, given his history of anti-Semitic comments and slurs, many believe it represents a reverse ‘Heil Hitler,’ a scarcely disguised anti-Jewish hate gesture.


Two unknown French soldiers performing the quenelle gesture as popularized by Dieudonné.

Dieudonné has been repeatedly fined large sums of money by the French authorities over previous statements he has made regarding Judaism.  In 2006, he was fined 4,500 euros for referring to a Jewish television presenter as ‘a secret donor of the child-murdering Israeli army.’ In 2008, he was fined 7,000 euros for characterizing the Holocaust commemorations as ‘memorial pornography.’ In 2010, he was fined 10,000 euros for defamation of the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, for describing them as a ‘mafia-like organization that organizes censorship.’

While it is only Anelka’s use of the gesture which raised awareness of it in Britain, in France, Dieudonné, and the quenelle are becoming very well-known. The French authorities are currently investigating him once again over anti-Semitic comments. Whilst talking about the journalist Patrick Cohen, who works for France Inter, he said; ‘Quand je l’entends parler, Patrick Cohen, je me dis, tu vois, les chambres à gaz…dommage.’ (When I hear him speak, Patrick Cohen, I think to myself, you see, gaz chambers…what a shame (that they no longer exist)).

It was this incident that was supposedly the last straw for the Interior Minister, Manuel  Vals, who has announced he will try and ban Dieudonné from performing in public, on the basis that his shows would be a threat to public order. In the past few days, he has depicted Dieudonné as ‘possessed by the hatred of the Jew,’ and a Holocaust denier. He is being supported by François Hollande in his actions.

Yet, tickets for Dieudonné’s shows regularly are priced above 40 euros, and are often sold out. When he goes on tour, he does it the biggest theatres in France. An article in Le Monde (31.12.13) pointed out that; ‘Si on veut transformer le paria en héros, le victimiser, en faire une sorte de martyr, il faut interdire les spectacles de M.M’bala M’bala.’ (If we want to turn the pariah into a hero, victimise him, make him into a kind of martyr, we should ban Mr. M’bala M’bala’s shows.’)

Why is Dieudonné popular? In a France that currently suffers, that has little confidence in its executive, Dieudonné may appear to some as a man of conviction, strong views, and clear responses. An illuminating article on the French website Rue 89 ( interviews Nabil, a disaffected young man, formerly a child worker who was fired late last year after he posted a picture to his Facebook account of him posing with young children doing a quenelle. He says;

‘J’ai ouvert les yeux, avant j’étais un mouton. J’ai voté Mélenchon au premier tour parce que je trouvais ça bien que les riches paient pour les pauvres. Et Hollande au second parce que depuis tout petit, on me répète que les socialistes aident les jeunes des quartiers, mais c’était n’importe quoi.’

(‘My eyes have been opened, before I was a sheep. I voted for Mélenchon in the first round because I thought it was a good idea that the rich pay for the poor. And for Hollande in the second round because since I was very small, it’s been repeated to me that the Socialists help the youth, but that’s ridiculous.’)

This discontentment with the system is what many young see the quenelle as representing. Now, Nabil is considering voting for the far right at the next elections.  He identifies strongly with Dieudonné’s supposedly anti-system message, employing his phrase ‘la graduation des souffrances,’ (the graduation of suffering) when recalling his recent experiences. He dismisses those who have been captured on camera making the quenelle gesture in front of Auschwitz and Anne Frank’s memorial as people who haven’t understood Dieudonné’s agenda. Above all, he saw the quenelle as a joke.

France’s new bill on Prostitution passes through the Assemblée Nationale

Recently, France has made a move to change its laws on prostitution. From now on, those who are caught paying for sex will be subject to a fine, of around 1,500 euros.  If you are caught re-offending, the fine will be even larger. France is the fifth country in the world to adopt such a law.

The bill was passed through the Assemblée Nationale, but before being officially adopted by the State, it will also be discussed in the Sénat, which won’t happen until June.

Many commentators in France have chosen to analyse this as a change in the way that the State looks at prostitutes. This law changes their status to victims, and those who pay for sex will from now on be seen as criminals. The French organization Osez le féminisme! called it a historic vote but underlined that it will continue to fight so that foreign prostitutes receive the right to stay in the country – thereby allowing them to work legally. It has also been said that this law will help to avoid the construction of mafia networks exploiting vulnerable members of society who turn to prostitution in order to earn a living.  Many other organizations such as school associations and high-profile politicians have approved the notion of a law against paying for sex as it reinforces the notion that the human body is not for sale.

A December article in The Economist pointed out that in France around 90% of sex workers are of a foreign origin, in comparison with around 20% in 1990. There are also cases of women being trafficked from China, Romania, Bulgaria and Nigeria in order to then work as prostitutes. The minister at the head of this new bill, Najet Vallaud-Belkacem argues that the extremely unsavoury aspect of today’s prostitution rings calls for a much tougher stance from the State and a protection from psychological and physical abuse; as a result soliciting has been decriminalized.

This is a change from the 2003 law (called the ‘Sarkozy Law,) which Nicolas Sarkozy passed through when he was Interior Minister. This law prohibited what is known as ‘Passive Solicitation;’ being present in revealing clothes at places where prostitutes are known to work. When this law was still in place, 39.5% of those charged with passive solicitation between March 2003 and July 2004 were from Romania, Bulgaria or Albania, and 34.5% were from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Cameroon. Only 15% were French. Between January 2003 and January 2004, 90% of Romanian women deported admitted to working as prostitutes. Therefore this law, by treating prostitution as an issue of public disorder, mostly caught in its web those who could not afford not to work on the streets – in a maison close, and those who were victims of international sex trafficking.

The overturning of this law in March of this year was, according to the French government, one of the first steps to decriminalizing the prostitute, and criminalizing the buyer. However, France remains an ‘abolitionist’ country; that is to say a country that aims at eradicating the practice of prostitution entirely.

Nevertheless, there has not been unanimous approval for the bill. Opponents have highlighted the hypocrisy of decriminalizing solicitation, yet penalising those who accept approaches from prostitutes.

The organization Aides, which fights against the spread of HIV AIDS was quoted in Libération as saying that the bill was ’inapplicable et dangereux,’ (inapplicable and dangerous) (Libération 4.12.13). One can assume that this is because criminalising buying sex will make it more of an underground activity than it already is, and won’t help to encourage safe measures whilst engaging in sexual activities. Jean-François Corty, director of Médicins du Monde, has also gone on record as saying that this bill will have a ‘counter-productive effect,’ (Libération 4.12.13) because it will make prostitution an even more clandestine activity, meaning that the work that they carry out with prostitutes will become more difficult. Some members of the UMP have also criticized the fact that the bill also proposes that those who wish to stop working in the sex industry be given temporary financial aid and permission to stay in France for six months, claiming that this will open the door to a mass of illegal immigration for those who see this social aid as an attractive prospect.

It is not only aid and charity workers that have opposed or criticized the bill. There have been sex workers demonstrating in Paris against the bill and what they see as an attempt to criminalize their profession and compromise their ability to earn a living. A powerful slogan that was brandished at a demonstration outside the Assemblée Nationale was ‘You sleep with us, you vote against us!’


(Picture appeared in The Economist, 7.12.13. The slogan says ‘Whores without clients are looking for a governmental position.’)

The fact that there were demonstrations in Paris against the new bill encourages us to look at the history of prostitution in France. One only has to visit a museum to trace the cultural representation of prostitution throughout the ages. Brassaï, amongst others (Ingres, Manet, Degas, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec) have represented Prostitution in their art. In the Impressionist era, it formed part of their desire to represent life truthfully as they saw it, to glorify the banal aspects of everyday life, prostitution therefore playing an important part.


(Toulouse-Lautrec, At Rue des Moulins, 1894)

A popular refrain associates French culture with liberal cultural morals, and the religiously influenced notion that prostitutes were victims who required salvation. In the late 19th century, William Acton, a student of prostitution who campaigned for its regulation in London, published a survey of prostitution and compared it to systems elsewhere, including in Paris. He produced a comprehensive description of the regulation of prostitution in Paris, elucidating how, once attempts had been made to dissuade women from prostitution, various laws were enforced to ensure discretion. They had to dress discreetly, could only work between certain hours, could only work in certain areas of Paris, and were not allowed to practice their profession if found to be ‘diseased.’ This meant that registered prostitutes were subject to regular medical examinations. Acton finishes his analysis by lamenting the fact that despite the fact that there are ‘clandestine prostitutes,’ prostitution is not ‘thrown on people,’ as is the case in London.

Back to the modern day, and a recent article in The Guardian wonders whether Britain risks becoming a haven for sex workers and those who pay money for sex because its laws are becoming more and more out of step with those in the rest of Europe. If France adopts this bill, it will be conforming to the ‘Nordic method,’ where the State protects the sex worker, not the purchaser. In the UK, buying sex is not illegal, but soliciting and running a brothel, for example, are. What is more, the government does not intend to review the laws on prostitution at any near time in the future. However, despite this, Najat Vallaud Belkacem is rumoured to be meeting with Theresa May in the near future to discuss the law, citing the work of the English 19th century feminist Josephine Butler (who campaigned internationally for an improvement of the welfare of prostitutes – including in France), as an example in which the countries can cooperate.

This article originally appeared on Just A Platform:

France considers changing the law on assisted suicide

France is currently questioning itself over its stance on assisted suicide. The current law, introduced in 2005, allows patients to ask for very heavy medical treatment to be stopped, in certain cases. It highlights the need for palliative care for terminally ill patients, in order to preserve their dignity as much as possible. It was developed in order to avoid, as much as possible, Euthanasia being practiced. It does, nevertheless, allow patients to ask that in specific circumstances, heavy medical treatment to be stopped.

This law is currently being reviewed. François Hollande recently commissioned ‘une conférence de citoyens,’ (roughly translated, a citizen’s jury). This consists of twenty people, chosen from IFOP surveys, and supposedly representative of the diversity of French society. This was organized by the National Ethics Comity, and took place over a month. Each weekend, the members of the jury interviewed a selection of people, firstly chosen by the National Ethics Comity, and others chosen by them-selves.

Yesterday, they delivered their conclusion. They had decided, together, that they were in favour of assisted suicide being legalized, saying that it would be impossible to enforce an universal end to life, because there are many ways for lives to end. They did not pronounce themselves in favour of Euthanasia, saying that it was too complex an issue for them to recommend a stance on.

What becomes clear from reading the articles on the jury’s report is that they recommend a change from it being fundamentally the doctor who decides on the patient’s treatment – its strength and duration – to it being the decision of the patient. ‘La possibilité de se suicider par assistance médicale constitue un droit légitime du patient en fin de vie ou souffrant d’une pathologie irréversible.’ (Le Figaro, 16.12.13) (The right to commit suicide is a legitimate right for a patient nearing the end of their life, or suffering from a terminal illness.)

At the moment, one can still be brought to trial for assisted suicide, prosecuted for non assistance to a person in danger, but, in France, several testimonies published recently in newspapers have shown that this doesn’t necessarily stop people from helping others put an end to their life. Many of the testimonies have been anonymous, except notably that of Sandrine Rousseau, an MP for Europe Écologie Les Verts, who publicly denounced the ‘indigne’ death of her mother, who was suffering from cancer. Her mother took an overdose of pills, which took nine hours to take their effect. Nine hours of suffering, where finally an ambulance was called, and her mother died on the way to hospital. Rousseau makes the point strongly that her mother committed suicide because she had no confidence in the palliative care that was on offer, and feared a slow and painful decline.

The jury’s report correspondingly advised that a much bigger integration of palliative care was needed, as only 20% of those who were eligible to benefit from it were currently doing so. It also stated that there were heavy regional inequalities in terms of the quality of palliative care on offer. It said; ‘C’est le parent pauvre du système.’(It is the poor relation of the system.)(Libération 17.12.13) It suggested as a resolution to this problem that teaching the skills needed for palliative care be integrated at all levels of medical education.

France is therefore still some way off legalizing Euthanasia, but the jury’s response in favour of assisted suicide (after at least two doctors have agreed on it) may pave the way for a new bill making it a lawful process.

PISA Rankings: A brief comparison of France and the UK

Yesterday, the PISA (Programme for International Assessment) OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) rankings came out, and the comparison of the results in France and the UK is an interesting one to make.

The ranking was covered extensively in both the British and French press. France is currently in 25th place, with the UK in 26th place. This puts both countries firmly in the middle of the tables.

An article covering the issue in Libération yesterday stated that French children are generally within the national average, but that inequality between students was on the rise. That is to say, that students coming from a background of immigration were at least ten times more likely to have problems in school. This has worsened in relation to the situation in 2003. An article in The Guardian yesterday reported that the UK has relatively good results in terms of the attainment of immigrants, and a smaller gender gap then in many other countries.

In an interview yesterday with Le Monde, Maryline Baumard, head of the Education Service at Le Monde, analysed the French results and especially highlighted the slight lowering in French teenagers’ performance in Maths; France’s score went from 498 to 495. (The UK’s score is 494, ranking 26th). Baumard highlighted the fact that in France, ability in Maths is seen more as a way of separating the most gifted students from the rest, then as an actual talent in its-self. As, therefore, it is very important to perform well in Maths, it is pertinent to note that 65% of French teenagers declared themselves to be interested in what they are currently studying in Maths, in comparison to an overall average of 53% in the OECD report. Baumard also continued to say that the French system is effectively penalised by PISA for its ‘elitist’ system. That is to say, a system which divides students into ‘performers,’ or ‘non-performers,’ and leaves little space for those in the middle. She stated that the non-performing students in France were on the same level as Romania, or Cyprus, but that the best were on the level of Taiwan or Hong Kong. In the UK, the PISA report showed that the while the UK pumps a lot of money into education, the high proportion of under-achieving students stopped it from rising in the rankings. The average UK student is now three years behind those in Shanghai in Maths.

In terms of literacy, France is above the average of 496 points, with 505 points, but the UK only just tops the average, with 499 points, ranking 23rd. Nevertheless, this is up from in 2009, where the UK scored 494 points.  Another interesting point to note in France was that there was a forty-four point difference gap in the scores between boys and girls in literacy, with girls generally scoring higher, and therefore bringing the French average up.

Rosie Millard expressed the view in The Independent yesterday that the disappointing statistics for the UK aren’t very surprising, given that 9% of the population, thanks to their parents income, receive what she refers to as ‘The Rolls-Royce’ treatment, whereas the remaining 91% are left to fend for themselves in state schools. Yet, when presenting the PISA results in London, Andreas Schleicher, the co-ordinator of the PISA programme, said that; ‘Much of the advantage that comes from private schooling is confirmed by the social-economic context, not in value added.’ (  Millard attacks the UK schooling system as failing to inculcate into school children a sense of their own potential, which leads them to underachieve.

So, are teachers to blame? Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of Sutton Trust, was quoted in The Guardian yesterday about his views that the way for the UK’s rankings to improve was effectively to make the standard of the quality of teaching available much higher. He used the example of research carried out by Sutton Trust that showed that within the next 10 years, the UK could become one of the top five educations providers in the world, if teachers were brought up to the national average. In the same interview quoted above in Le Monde, Maryline Baumard said that in France, the two requirements for becoming a teacher were to excel in the subject being taught, and also be skilled in pedagogy. She believes that in France, recently, less emphasis has been put on the second requirement when recruiting teachers.

In the French press, much was made of the ‘failure’ of the French Republican school system, taken ‘hostage’ by Trade Unions. Le Figaro in particular was alarmist about the lowering of the Maths ranking. Yet in the UK, articles abounded in the Press filled with scepticism about the meaningfulness of PISA and whether or not we should be flagellating ourselves over these results.

In both France and the UK, recent reforms have been introduced by Micheal Gove and Vincent Peillon (French Minister for Education) respectively. In this PISA report, it is too early to see the results. Both countries will have to wait until 2015 to see what changes, or improvements these new reforms may bring.