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.

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Sarkozy: Presidential Candidate for 2017?

Le Monde reported on Friday that Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President of France, and head of the UMP, is planning a return to politics so that he can enter the race for the UMP presidential candidate in 2017, when the next national elections will take place in France.

Citing several sources close to the former President, it unequivocally states that those who are close to Sarkozy have no doubt that he intends to present himself as a candidate. This conviction is strengthened by the fact that Sarkozy has sanctioned a recent documentary about himself, in which his private life features heavily.  The subject of the documentary is his private life during the last presidential campaign. It’s a soppy documentary, a portrait of an idyllic lifestyle, a happy marriage, and a calm, strong President. Intituled ‘Sarkozy Intime,’ which could be roughly translated as ‘Intimate Sarkozy,’ it is supposed to show Sarkozy in the Gaullist role of a strong executive, never impatient, a loving father and husband, and a capable leader.

The French website Rue 89 published an article on the documentary in which it heavily implies that it was successful (more than 1.5 million viewers), precisely because it evoked or suggested absolutely nothing new. Ironically, seeing as Sarkozy is above all a politician, nothing was said about politics, no analysis was made of the successes and failures of the presidential campaign, or the real political convictions of Nicolas Sarkozy. It played on our modern day tendency to be unable to resist the opportunity to voyeuristically gaze into the intimate life of a couple that we constantly see in the newspapers but actually know nothing about.

It tried to convince us that this political couple had generously opened the doors to its private life, warmly inviting us in, as equals. Yet, being the cunning politician that he is, without doubt Sarkozy calculated that he could use this documentary as one way among many to bring himself back, slowly but surely, into the public eye, without actually revealing anything important about himself (what he really thinks about politics, ideas, government), yet convincing us that we’ve learnt a lot about him, by exploiting our weak curiosity for celebrity culture.

It’s blatantly obvious that the Right-Wing supporters of Sarkozy have used this documentary as an opportunity to nostalgically reminisce about what a great man and leader Sarkozy was, and indeed still is. Some of the quotes from them are almost ridiculous. ‘Un beau moment de vérité,’ (A beautiful moment of truth).  A tweet, from Sebastien Huyghe, an UMP MP; ‘…Un homme d’Etat qui donne tout, grand dans la défaite comme il l’avait été dans la victoire.’ (A statesman who gives everything, as impressive in defeat as previously in victory.)

According to Nicolas Bordas, a former advisor to François Hollande during his presidential campaign, if Hollande were to commission the same type of documentary about his personal life, his popularity levels wouldn’t be so low. Yet this seems to me to be a tricky question. First of all, as Rue 89 points out, Hollande may not be so lucky as to find a sympathetic filmmaker willing to film all the cute and touching moments of his personal life (which is essentially what this documentary on Sarkozy seems to consist of), and also willing not to ask any tricky questions. Secondly, this seems not to be having very high expectations about what the French people ask for from their President.

In the UK, we largely mock David Cameron when he reveals intimate details about his private life. I’m specifically thinking about when Downing Street released pictures of Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama in the Cameron’s flat in number 10, where their impeccably neat and expensive kitchen and living room were revealed to the public. The Daily Mail released an informative article detailing every aspect of the kitchen and revealing the price of every item. And who could forget those cringe making photos of Ed Miliband and his wife, Justine Thornton, at the most recent Labour conference, where Ed looks extremely uncomfortable as his wife leans in to kiss him on the cheek in their hotel room.

Is it not slightly insulting the intelligence of the electorate to assume that a fly on the walls documentary with tender domestic scenes between Francois Hollande and his family and partner would reassure the public as to his capability for office?  Why should it be that when a male politician wants to engage with the public, show he has ‘feelings,’ he inevitably trots out his family because this is meant to reassure us that anyone who has children and a wife is not a ‘bad’ person, and that we should therefore vote for them. Many, many examples have proved this shaky hypothesis wrong.  In both the above cited cases in Britain, the wives of Miliband and Cameron have been put on show as if they were a possession adding to value of these men. This alone is distasteful, regardless of the fact that bringing out the family is a blindingly obvious political technique with which we are familiar.

Moreover, the release of this documentary has surely been carefully timed. Sarkozy, no longer in power or therefore at the mercy of weekly opinion polls, can afford to show off this side of his personality; calm, resolute, yet supposedly tender and loving. He can do this precisely because this is the opposite of Hollande’s public image in France at the moment. He is portrayed in the media as ineffectual, weak, and unable to pass through reforms on which he was elected. This documentary seems to be targeted at contrasting the two men, to the detriment of Hollande. Although we see straight through the documentary, its glossy sheen cannot fail to fascinate, perhaps?

France, Germany, and the NSA: European outrage

In Britain we know the NSA and GCHQ are spying on us, but we take a laissez-faire attitude. The French, and now the Germans, seem to take a much more robust line of response.

Since Le Monde published Gleen Greenwald’s article (citing information from documents given to him by Edward Snowden), over the weekend, the French government has summoned the US ambassador to France to the Elysée Palace to explain Gleenwald’s claims that the NSA had been spying on French citizens.

When the revelations about the NSA came to light, France and Germany protested, even though they didn’t go as far as the Brazilian president, Dilma Roussef, who cancelled a visit to the United States. Germany was apparently placated by assurances that the NSA would never target normal German citizens in its investigations.  That is, up until very recently, when the news broke that the US may have, in the past, bugged Angela Merkel’s phone. At this, Merkel didn’t hesitate to publicly rebuke Obama and demand, in partnership with France, that the US give a full account of what spying practices it may have undertaken, at the EU summit in Brussels. According to France and Germany, the US has until the end of the year to provide serious answers as to how and on whom it undertakes its spying techniques. Yet when Libération reported this on Friday, it also seemed implied that this may be more of a symbolic demand, not actually expected to change or achieve much.

It took this invasion of the German Chancellor’s privacy for Germany to publicly express more than just discontent.  In France, the US ambassador was summoned over the recent revelation that the US had been bugging French citizen’s telephones. The Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, told the press that it was imperative to receive insurances that these kinds of practices weren’t still being continued. After that, it was revealed that the US had also been spying on French diplomatic manoeuvres.

Le Monde particulary reported that the tapping of phones was likely to have targeted not only suspected terrorists, but also key figures in business and politics.

This week, it reported that Washington had also planted electronic spies in computers in French embassies in Washington, the UN and New York. It suggested that this bugging of embassies had helped the US gather enough information to successfully push through a vote at the UN Security Council in 2010, to impose more sanctions on Iran after it had not respected its international obligations in relation to its nuclear weapons programme. The way in which Washington has been spying on French diplomatic activities varies. They have several different techniques which they use: ‘Highlands;’ which uses remote cookies to gather information, ‘Vagrant;’ which takes a print shot of information from screens, and ‘PBX;’ which somehow manages to garner information from the embassies as if participating in a conference call.

An interesting article in Foreign Policy yesterday pointed out the American’s spying on the French is nothing new. During the Second World War, the US government first spied on Pétain’s Vichy government, and then on De Gaulle’s Free French government, in both cases breaking codes to decipher highly confidential and sensitive messages.

Hollande and Merkel have been united today in their message that this lack of trust that has been clearly demonstrated on the part of American government was counterproductive in the joint fight against terrorism. Merkel evoked the fact that United States and Europe are ‘allies.’ Nevertheless, given the fact that a US official, in a remark widely cited by the press, said a few days ago that the US doesn’t have ‘friends, only targets,’ this attempt at common ground seems largely figurative.  Added to this is the fact that Hollande yesterday explained to the press that he had known, since arriving to power, that the NSA had electronically spied on the activity in the Élysée palace at the time of the electoral contest in 2012. Yet it is only at these last, and more personal, revelations that these two European powerhouses have decided to affirmatively take action.

In Le Monde and Le Figaro yesterday, the Franco-German union was widely discussed, yet in contrast to the UK press, hardly anything was made of the UK position. However, today, Le Monde picked up on the Guardian’s article revealing that GCHQ fears ‘public debate,’ in the UK over its surveillance programmes. The documents that Snowden leaked demonstrated that GCHQ is an important feature of the NSA’s satellite surveillance, being in an ideal position to survey and recount internet and phone traffic in Europe back to the US. What has happened to the freedom of protest in the UK that neither the Conservatives nor the opposition have reacted to this information. We are in too deep. The Germans and the French are in the fortunate position of being able to (rightly) criticize the Americans for their invasive behaviour. We are aware of the hypocrisy, perhaps, of doing such a thing, seeing as we aid and abet the Americans in this vast game of spies and non-truths.

The Tapie affair reveals an ever widening web of accomplices

A relationship reminiscent of that between Rebekah Brookes and David Cameron has come to light between Nicolas Sarkozy and Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister and current head of the IMF. Lagarde, who has been investigated in relation to the Tapie affair, which is gripping France, had her Parisian home searched during the course of the investigation, revealing a note which she wrote to Sarkozy, in the form of a letter of allegiance and loyalty.

The letter goes:

Dear Nicolas, very briefly and respectfully.

1)      I am at your side in order to serve you and your projects for France

2)      I have done my best and this means I have on occasion failed. I ask your forgiveness.

3)      I don’t have any personal political ambitions; neither do I wish to become an ambitious lackey like a number of your entourage whose loyalty is on occasion recent and sometimes short lived.

4)      Use me for as long as you wish and for as long as it suits your actions and your cabinet.

5)      If you use me, I need you as a guide and also for support: without a guide, I risk being inefficient, without support, I risk being non credible.

With my immense admiration, Christine L.

This seemingly close relationship fuels rumours that Lagarde’s actions in 2007, when she intervened in the long running dispute between Credit Lyonnais and Bernard Tapie over the sale of Adidas in 1993, were at the command of the Elysée. Tapie was the former head of the Adidas, and claimed he had been cheated of millions by the sale, managed by Credit Lynonnais. Lagarde ordered a special panel of judges to arbitrate the argument, and they eventually ruled that Tapie was owed about 285 million euros in damages.

This out-of-court conclusion drew outrage from many sections of French society. Many looked on in disbelief as the state used the tax payer’s money to pay off a private beneficiary. Lagarde was especially criticised by the Socialist party, but she pithily reminded them that the whole affair had begun under Mitterrand’s presidency. Lagarde, when convoked to appear before court, seemed outwardly serene, telling Le Figaro that she was as calm as ever, confident that she had only ever acted in ‘the public interest.’ As yet she has not been charged, but instead has been named as a witness.

It seems that Lagarde’s testimony, given in May of this year, may have led to Stéphane Richard, CEO of the global telecoms group Orange, being added to the ever-growing melee of names associated with the affair. He led her ministry during her time in office, before joining Orange. Consequently, it was he who first brought to Lagarde’s attention, according to her testimony, the possible solution of a private arbitrage to end the affair, and to which he appeared ‘very favourable.’ Even more incriminating for Richard, the fact that Lagarde denies actually signing a letter which appears to have her signature on it, in which instructions are given as to how an eventual arbitrage should be carried out. Yet the letter was signed during her absence from Paris, at the same time as the annual meeting of the FMI, to which she participated in her role as French finance minister.  Lagarde speculates that the letter was signed unbeknownst to her, with the use of a signature stamp, which can only be used with express permission. This she denies giving, making Richard’s defence against accusations of frauds seem weak at best, especially given as he was her second-in-command. However, news broke only a few hours ago that despite the fact that he is under investigation, Orange’s board of directors have given him their full vote of confidence, and he will remain on as CEO. This is after François Hollande clearly signed his support for Richard. Notably Orange was acquired by France Telecom in 2000, of which the State holds a 13.5% share.

Nevertheless, more and more rumours have emerged about the friendship between Sarkozy and Tapie. Recently, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, MEP for the environmentalist party in France, Europe Ecologie Les Verts, affirmed his belief that Lagarde’s decision was effectively taken by Sarkozy, the very same year that he came to power. This claim was repeated by Segolène Royal.  Currently in France the headlines are being dominated by interrogations as to whether the supposedly neutral and unbiased arbitrage of the affair was in fact not partisan, leading to Tapie’s enormous payout, and, it must be speculated, close alliance with the UMP. He had, after all, undergone a political volte-face, known in the nineties for being a sympathiser of the left.

Along with the on-going Bettancourt affair, the new evidence brought to light during the course of the investigation implicate Sarkozy deeper and deeper into affairs of political corruption and fraud. While President, diplomatic immunity meant he could not be prosecuted, but whether he actually could undertake a return to politics once these investigations have come to an end remains to be seen.

France and Germany: a cooling of relations?

Claude Bartolone, the Socialist President of the National Assembly recently made an incendiary comment in which he voiced his belief that France should engage in ‘confrontation’ with Germany over the tight austerity measures it is favor of.  This remark seems to have also been supported by some of the left wing of the Socialist Party.

The Socialist party released a document on Europe on Friday which was highly critical of Merkel, citing her ‘selfish inflexibility,’ and branding her as the ‘Chancellor of Austerity.’ There were instantly attempts of appeasement from others on the left, as these remarks seemed to go far beyond the ‘friendly tension’ that Hollande had talked about at the end of March.  Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, instantly tweeted (in French and in German) platitudes about the warm relationship that France has with Germany. An Elysée spokesperson said on Friday that France had no ambitions to become the ‘ambassador’ of the Southern European countries currently struggling, as there wasn’t much future in the role. Nevertheless, this couldn’t help but make clear the resentment felt at the policies being dictated from Berlin, the only remaining power house in the Eurozone. Interestingly, there is an echo of this in Germany, as Liberation reports that the head of the German Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, recently lambasted Merkel’s economic policy, claiming that she was leading Europe towards ‘anorexia.’

In the context of soaring unemployment rates and the government’s failure to reach its target of reducing its public deficit to 3% of France’s GDP, Bartolone’s remarks instantly sparked debate as the relationship between France and Germany, the two largest economies in the Eurozone, is seen as a crucial factor in an eventual economic recovery. One of the most senior figures on the French right, Alain Juppé, gave an interview to Le Monde this weekend in which he stated his belief that the trust between France and Germany was broken, and that any estrangement with Germany would put France in ‘mortal peril,’ given that if France doesn’t make a conscious effort to reduce its deficit, interest levels will rise and any possibility of being able to politically manoeuvre within the Eurozone in relation to economic measures will be lost. He added that Hollande was making Germany the ‘scapegoat’ for his own political and economic failures. All the while Hollande continues to argue that the only way to regain political credibility is to balance the books.

Juppé belives that Hollande has completely isolated France, and, worse, put himself in the position of having to reduce the public deficit without much prospect of growth. For him, the only solution is the reduction of public spending. In other words, austerity, a word Hollande has scrupulously avoided up until now.

***Interestingly, Le Monde later on today has reported an interview that Benoit Hamon, minister of social and consumer affairs, gave to the Guardian on Friday. So while the Guardian reported tensions within the French government on Friday, Le Monde had been focusing up until now on the comments found within the Socialist Party document, not on comments made abroad. Hamon clearly linked the high levels of unemployment and failing economy to the austerity politics dictated from Berlin, and stated his belief that France needed to bite the bullet and separate itself from Germany in order to start on the path to economic recovery. Why were these comments given to a foreign newspaper, instead of a national one?

Thatcher’s legacy – is it still relevant?

Despite the fact I’m obviously not French, I couldn’t resist the temptation to vote in Le Figaro’s online poll asking whether or not a Margaret Thatcher like leader would be desirable for France.

I didn’t put a huge amount of thought into my response (perfectly demonstrating why we should never trust the supposed ‘authority’ of political polls), but I voted with the legacy of Thatcher that I’ve had inculcated into me. I was never taught to think of Thatcher as a great leader. I was taught to respect her achievements,but to err on the side of caution when praising her; to think about what she did to the welfare state and how she crushed the trade unions, and made the lives of miners miserable.

In short, I voted no. When it came to seeing the results I was stunned to see that 69% of participants had voted yes, versus 30% who had voted no.

Ok, Le Figaro is a right wing newspaper. But it was an interesting demonstration of the current state of affairs in France. When Cameron introduced his intention to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU by 2017 if he wins the next general election in 2015, the French press widely seemed to be of the opinion that it was a catastrophically unwise move on his part, and a clear attempt to protect the City’s interests and appease Euro-sceptic members of his party. Many of the comments on the articles online were along the lines of ‘Can the British just get stuffed, and stop bossing everyone about.’ Historically, France has a pro-European political policy – it was one of the founding members of the European Economic Committee in 1957, and Thatcher was famously Euro-sceptic and pro national, rather than European interest. Many think her economic policy pre-figured the City as it is today, and in my last blog post I talked about one of the views from France of the City.

So why today do 69% of Le Figaro readers think a Margaret Thatcher figure would be a good thing for France? In times of crisis, we look to a strong leader.  The French have a history of doing so – during the 1958 crisis during the Algerian war of independence, de Gaulle was voted back into power after having retired from politics. He was the epitome of monarchical figure, an undisputed leader, a reformer, and very pro-dirigiste. He took France’s suffering economy and, rebuilt it through state directed capitalism. Under de Gaulle, France enjoyed Les Trente Glorieuses¸ 30 years of economic growth, where the French GDP overtook that of the UK’s until the early 90s.

Today, many feel that Hollande is not a strong leader, and that France is losing it way politically, as well as stumbling economically. His current approval ratings are on 27%, which is the lowest any President has ever had under the 5th Republic.

This poll should obviously be taken with a liberal pinch of salt, but the fact remains that a year after electing a Socialist President, the massive coverage of Thatcher’s death in the French press suggests more than just a passing interest in her policies and her legacy.  Thatcher once said that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ At a time when France is vulnerable, economically and politically, it’s interesting that that Thatcher should hold allure. She didn’t unite, she divided. Some flourished under her, some really suffered. True, she was omni-present, seemingly omnipotent, in a de Gaulle like fashion, but then that’s also the kind of leadership that Marine Le Pen espouses, and she got 17,90% in the last French election.

Hollande is trying to emit authority and capability. Part of his reaction to the Cahuzac scandal has been to introduce new laws stripping anyone suspected of or actually having committed tax evasion from public office. He has also asked all MPs to make public the details of their ‘patrimoine,’ that is to say, their personal estate. But this move has been quickly dismissed by the right as an attempt to ease the blame on the left by making the whole of the political system seem guilty.

Yesterday, Hollande blandly acknowledged that Thatcher profoundly marked British history.  Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French prime-minister’s response was more unfettered, making reference to the economic and social damage that she inflicted. Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted: ‘Margaret Thatcher will discover in hell what it is she did to the miners.’ (No mincing of words there then).  There are no overt demonstrations of emotion from the left, but all the same, perhaps they should be wary of her legacy when it comes to creating their own.