Eclipsed by the recent tensions between Iran and the US, events in Lebanon have been overlooked. This article overviews the current situation, and what can be expected in the future.
On Sunday 13th October 2019, a series of 100 forest fires broke out in Lebanon, devastating both agricultural and residential communities of the Chouf District and areas of south Beirut. Fortunately, there were few civilian fatalities, however, this would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Cyprian and Greek emergency services. The Lebanese Civil Defence was forced to call upon foreign aid due to the inability of their own services to tame the fires. Their incapacity to independently resolve the blaze is indicative of the country’s failing public service sector and, on a larger-scale symptomatic of their fragile political situation. Tensions have long been brewing in Lebanon owing to persistent problems with governmental policy and on Thursday 17th October 2019, over 100 civilian activists took to the streets of Beirut. A growing dissatisfaction with the government as well as the poor handling of the forest fires and the imposition of new taxes on Tobacco and WhatsApp voice calls became the breaking point. Although the protests subsided over the holidays, this week they took a much more violent turn. Central banks in particular suffered great damage, with some burnt to the ground.
Lebanon’s political configuration is unusual - maintaining a sectarian government. For those unfamiliar with this concept of sectarianism in the political realm, it means that the 18 officially recognised religions in Lebanon must share power and each religion receives a specific number of seats in parliament. At the top of the hierarchy - the President must be a Maronite Christian; the Prime Minister a Sunni and, the speaker of the house a Shia. Whilst at surface-level the mass protests may seem to be about matters such as the WhatsApp tax, objecting sectarianism. This is particularly remarkable as the sectarian democracy has been in place since Lebanese independence in 1943, and the system runs deep in the country’s history.
It is not difficult to see how this sectarian system may prove controversial. Cooperation becomes increasingly difficult in a sectarian government as it entrenches religious differences, and with a two third majority needed for laws and motions to be passed, action becomes near impossible. Case in point - the presidential election took 2 years, and after this a further 3 years until a president could be decided. Public trust in the government has deteriorated exponentially and what is remarkable is that the population is crossing their own sectarian and political divisions in order to unite in the protest for a secular government. Breaking their sects in order to break the government.
Prime Minister Saad Hiriri has already announced his resignation only weeks into the protests. He claims that his resignation serves “the country’s dignity and safety”. However, this has only led to greater fear and uncertainty. If Lebanon does not suffer first from an economic collapse due to its intractable government debt, it will suffocate under the pressure of its environmental crisis. A lack in governmental authority has led to severe ecological issues in Lebanon, and environmental politics have become a national priority. State negligence has caused a complete dysfunction of Lebanon’s waste disposal system, and as journalist Sune Haugbolle writes “the environment has deteriorated apace with public trust in the government and hope for the future”.
There is a desperate need for a stable government who can provide long-term waste-management strategies, as stop-gap measures will no longer suffice. The call for a cleaner Lebanon reflects a call for fundamental human rights, as the gases emitted from landfills have rendered living conditions dire and cases of emphysema, heart conditions and asthma are increasing. Lebanon will remain a country paralysed by political dysfunction if it doesn’t address the certain shortcomings of its sectarian system and despite the obvious progress of the protests, whether they will be able to force a change of government is yet to be seen. One can only hope that change will come before the imminent economic and ecological crises.
By Amana Moore
In English the word “gilet” may bring to mind made-in-Chelsea-esque characters sitting in the Ivy with a Bloody Mary, but this French activist group wear a very different kind of gilet, one which has become the recognised symbol of an anti-government movement who claim to protest for social and economic justice in France. Translated directly, Les Gilets Jaunes means “The Yellow Vests”, referring to the hi-vis vests that French law requires all drivers to keep in their vehicles.
Last month marked one year since around 280,000 people across France turned up to protest taxes introduced by President Emmanuel Macron in the first Gilets Jaunes demonstrations on 13th November 2018. Sparked by a rise in fuel prices which largely affected those living in more rural areas of France, over the subsequent months the movement became more concerned with other issues facing French society. The demands of the group spanned from raising the minimum wage to calling for Macron’s resignation, and its supporters were wide-ranging, both in views and approach. While some protesters insisted on peaceful action, others have turned to violence. Interestingly, their lack of official political orientation has meant their support ranges from the far-left to the far-right, making it difficult for the government to negotiate with them as an entity. Rather than addressing a singular leader, the French government have had to negotiate with a mix of political groups united under a common feeling of discontent, reminiscent of similar populist movements taking place across Europe. With no centralised leadership, their rise to prominence has been attributed to a timely exploitation of pertinent social and economic concerns and a tactical use of social media platforms such as Facebook, through which most of their demonstrations are organised.
After weeks of protest in Paris in 2018, Macron confronted this “economic and social emergency” in a special public address in December of that year and proceeded to freeze the price of electricity and gas until May 2019, to implement a €100-a-month increase in the minimum wage from 2019, and other significant changes. This turnaround in policy was delivered with a contrite tone, Macron accepting his “share of responsibility” for the uprisings. Macron then toured the country with a “grand national debate” as a way of enabling French people to express their economic and social views. The impact of the movement also stretched further afield, with other countries staging similar demonstrations in which protesters donned the same yellow vests.
As the government have responded to the anger demonstrated in Autumn 2018 over the last 12 months, popular support for the Gilets Jaunes has arguably dwindled, with a recent poll by Elabe for BFMTV suggesting that over half of the French population want the protests of the Gilets Jaunes to stop. The impact of the Gilets Jaunes movement on French society both emotionally and practically over the past year is undeniable, but the future of this protest group is difficult to gauge. Is it just another demonstration of an infamous determination to protest in a country founded on rebellion? Or perhaps it shows a progressive relationship between people and state? Having successfully reminded Macron (accused of being the ‘president for France’s elite’) that there is a whole population of French people who will not stand for these “inégalités”, perhaps the work of the Gilets Jaunes is complete. In the face of increasingly violent action at the hands of the Gilets Jaunes, many of the group’s more moderate supporters have distanced themselves from the disruption, leaving a determined core who insist that their fight is far from over. The yellow vest has undoubtedly become a symbol for productive activism in France; they protested for change and they got it. However, this image of change does not come without its complications.
The Gilets Jaunes have shown that protest can be productive, and we perhaps have something to learn from the French in this. The impact they created was brought about by a unifying sense of discontent, and now, in the face of Macron’s concessions, the intensity of widespread feeling has faded, if temporarily. Although maybe less well-attended, the protests continue to take place and the yellow gilets have not quite gone out of fashion. The flame, if small, remains, ready to be stoked when the occasion arises.
‘This government was not going to hang around’ and ‘that we would not wait until Brexit day, October 31st, to deliver on the priorities of the British people,’ declared Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on 2nd September over the chants of Westminster protesters. Now nearing a general election on 12th December, with the Brexit deadline in a constant state of postponement, is it wise to take our parliamentary representatives’ words with a pinch of salt, an ounce, or a kilo?
Among the many possible eventualities which could determine the course of Brexit based upon the general election result, the three most probable outcomes are shrouded with delay and uncertainty. For if the Conservatives win a majority, Johnson claims he will back Brexit and ‘get it done’ before 31st January 2020, though this would not necessarily entail a Conservative majority, but a leave majority. If Labour wins the election, Jeremy Corbyn will call for further delay beyond 31st January, promising six months of negotiating the withdrawal agreement again, then putting a referendum back to the people. In the event that the Liberal Democrats win, though this is unlikely, Brexit would be scrapped in true ‘Bullocks to Brexit’ fashion.
Speaking to protesters outside Westminster, many were infuriated and felt cheated by the government and their handling of Brexit. ‘Some may call it a national crisis, what are your views on the uncertainty [surrounding Brexit], is it worrying for the nation?’
‘Well, there’s a very simple way to stop the uncertainty and that’s to revoke article 50,’ claimed Ruth from Canterbury. ‘Why should we respect the result [2016 EU referendum]? You know, which bit should we respect? The inequalities? the lying? the cheating? the foreign money? the Cambridge Analytica adverts? What is there to respect? There is nothing democratic about it at all.’
On Brexit, Sam from South London put his foot down saying that, ‘there are enough people on the leave side — I’d say at least 1.2 million; for them, a no-deal Brexit would be the line that is crossed, therefore as a Democrat I think that if it’s a no-deal that we’re getting we need to either stop that [gestures to protests outside Parliament] by letting Parliament do their job or have a second referendum between remain and no-deal because I think that’s what a democratic mandate would say we needed.’
When questioned which party he would vote for in the general election Sam responded, ‘if Rory Stewart had won the Conservative leadership debate I would be voting for the Conservatives and not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour government.’ He then affirmed that because Johnson leads the party he will vote for the Liberal Democrats.
At what point will the Commons put their ideological differences aside and act in the national interest? Something of a positional issue has now turned into a national crisis and if the tensions facing Parliament were not bad enough, the delay has brought about further grid-lock, throwing days away like pennies down a wishing well. Brexit remains a lingering dread on people’s minds and whether you are remain or leave, the delay brings many people to the same judgement; Brexit must be dealt with now.
“Trafficking”, “immigration”, “refugees”. Whether used as terms for political scaremongering or simply on the front pages, these are three words that we hear all too often. It was only three weeks ago that 39 Vietnamese nationals were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex after attempting to reach the UK through clandestine methods. This is very much not the first case of its kind, and nor will it be the last. Is it not time that we re-think our immigration policies?
On 23rd October, 31 men and 8 women were found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry container in an industrial park in Essex. Since then, the driver of the lorry has been charged with manslaughter and three others have been released on bail on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy of human trafficking. The identities of the victims as well as their cause of death is still under forensic investigation, however, Essex police have termed it the “largest mass fatality victim identification process in their history”. It is reported that some of the victims and their families paid up to £30,000 for what they believed to be a ‘safe route’ to the UK.
What these 39 Vietnamese men and women shared was the promised hope of a better life in the UK. Risking family debt and security, they unknowingly were signing up for a scam; the promises of VIP entry on a business class ticket to the UK, and a more prosperous life upon arrival. However, paradoxically, immigration policies are only getting stricter, which is forcing more and more migrants to take these life-threatening journeys. The Essex lorry deaths are not an isolated incident. Tragically, the 39 Vietnamese nationals make up just 4% of official migrant deaths in the Mediterranean this year. This story was covered in every UK news outlet and made the front pages of every newspaper, yet despite the horrifying realities of human trafficking that it exposed, it failed to precipitate a government-level discussion over immigration policies.
Ultimately, there is no perfect solution on how to police immigration, which is what makes this such a polarizing issue. From one perspective, in a ‘Trump-esque’ fashion, the UK government could resolve to build a more fortified border. Indeed, this was at the forefront of the ‘vote leave’ Brexit campaign in 2016, with many UK citizens advocating stricter immigration policies in order to “keep out foreigners”. However, being an island with an 11,000-mile coastline, it is perhaps ingenuous to believe that this would be an effective or economical approach to the issue. As one iNews reporter sharply suggested “Build bigger walls and determined people will build bigger tunnels or buy longer ladders”.
This apathetic ‘build a wall’ approach gives rise to the question of fundamental human compassion. Shouldn’t we be looking beyond how to best keep a tally of who’s crossing the border and how we can stop them, but rather question why they are crossing the border? Why were 13.6 million people forced to flee their homes in 2018? Why are we still letting human traffickers capitalize on human suffering? Why are we denying access to these desperate people?
When Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee, washed up dead on the Turkish coastline in 2015, this evoked emotion in even the most heartless of the population. What this image also did was educate. It educated us about the reasons that forced this young boy and his family to flee Syria by such desperate measures. Reasons such as; violence, persecution and insecurity. The Essex lorry deaths have played a similar role, laying bare the fragility of life in Vietnam. In addition, it has disclosed the cruel reality of human trafficking. It is estimated the smugglers responsible for the Vietnamese nationals would have made upwards of £500,000, whether the 31 men and 8 women survived, or not. From these instances alone it seems certain that harsher immigration policies in the UK are not the answer.
Ultimately this demonstrates the urgent need for a deeper global awareness of the driving forces and motivators that lead migrants and refugees to flee their homelands under such desperate circumstances. Hopefully then moving forward, immigration policies will be determined in a more informed and compassionate manner. One suggested solution is to increase border regulation rather than fortification of controls – but this puts pressure on a system which is already struggling. Or it is possible that increased support, whether financial or other, to the countries of origin would be effective? Although sadly the Essex lorry deaths may not have been the wake-up call that the UK so desperately needs, what is certain is that they demonstrate why there needs to be a reinvigorated urgency for a change in attitudes amongst UK policy makers and the population alike.
By Tilly Campbell, Current Affairs Editor
Yesterday, Turkey’s electoral board overturned Istanbul’s municipal election results in which Erdogan’s AK party candidate narrowly lost to the CH party’s Ekrem Imamoglu back on March 31st. Erdogan’s Justice and Democratic Party or AKP stated that there were ‘irregularities and corruption’ in the Istanbul election. A re-run of the March election is due to take place on 23 June. In a defiant reaction to the decision to overturn the vote, Istanbul’s residents stormed the streets demanding justice.
Istanbul’s residents appear to be furious about the election overturn and have swarmed the streets en masse shouting anti-government slogans. Turkish contacts have been reluctant to discuss the latest turn of events, but an American resident of Istanbul who witnessed last nights events commented: ‘People are furious and so they should be. Their voices have been silenced.’
The municipal elections in March were seen as a referendum on President Erdogan’s rule. Whilst the AKP-led alliance won 51% of the vote nationwide, the rising secularist CH party claimed victories in Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul. The AKP have so far challenged the results in Istanbul and Ankara, and Turkey’s electoral board have granted a re-run in Istanbul. The AKP have been losing ground in recent months and the election results in Turkey’s largest cities are emblematic of Erdogan’s dwindling popularity in urban areas. Erdogan has previously claimed that ‘whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey’, and his strong-man status has been splintered by recent events.
The decision to request a re-vote was a high-risk strategy for Erdogan and his party. As his support dwindles in urban centres, the decision to challenge the results of the vote may further alienate voters and fan the flames of Imamoglu’s campaign. Imamoglu was formerly a largely unknown CHP candidate and a second election could serve to increase his notoriety. CHP deputy chair Onursal Adiguzel responded to the news by saying that it is ‘illegal to win against the AK Party’. The Washington Post reported that ‘the decision to challenge the results was a high-stakes gamble for Erdogan- forcing a replay of a vote that was largely seen as a referendum on his own leadership.’
Following a devastating currency depreciation and economic recession in recent years, it seems that Turkish voters may be tiring of their long-standing leader and seeking new horizons. Ripples of revolution have surfaced periodically over the past few years and optimistic members of Turkey’s youth-heavy population consider it a matter of time before Erdogan’s 18 year rule ends. The tides may be turning sooner than anticipated, as the previously fractured opposition have united and are presenting a largely-sectarian alternative to the AKP’s long-standing stagnant rule.
Clorrie Yeomans, Third Year MLAC Student, College of Saint Hild and Saint Bede
The Run-Up to the Abortion Debate
The abortion debate in Argentina is an earthquake that splits the land in two. The ground shudders during five months of campaigning in the streets filled with crowds of campaigners wearing emerald bandanas and make-up to symbolise the pro-choice movement. Their principal argument is that criminalising the issue of abortion does not make it go away. In fact, the issue is far from being unimportant, considering that up to an estimated 500,000 clandestine abortions are performed every year in Argentina. Women are criminalised for taking ‘misoprostol’: a drug originally intended to treat stomach ulcers. However, the metal coat hangers in the activists’ hands are a sickly reminder of the even more traumatic alternative for many women, mainly living in rural or deprived areas. Unsurprisingly, these dangerous illegal abortions are the country’s leading cause of maternal deaths. The pro-lifers are also chanting in the streets; dressed in blue. Their fundamental pillar of support is the Catholic Church; whose power has been reinforced since the beginning of the Argentine Pope Francis’ papacy in 2013.
The entire nation waits in suspense on 8th August 2018, as the Senate deliberates for over 16 hours. This would be the final hurdle for abortion to be legalised after it had already been passed by the Chamber of Deputies, the Argentinean equivalent of the House of Commons. The proposed bill would endow every woman with the choice as to whether to continue or terminate her pregnancy during the first 14 weeks. This is a substantial improvement in comparison to the current law which only allows terminations in cases of rape or when the expectant mother’s physical health is at risk. This would be a historic moment for Argentina and for Latin America, where over 97% of women live under restrictive abortion laws. Then, the wave hits and the ground shudders: the Senate rejects the abortion bill by 38 votes to 31. In the streets, there are endless tears of disappointment and anger, as well as happiness and relief.
Natalie Cave, a Third Year Spanish student who was in Buenos Aires on her Year Abroad, reflects on the historic event:
Being right in the centre of an Argentine protest was quite the experience. I didn’t really know what to expect as I’ve never been involved in a protest in England before, let alone in Latin America where protests are known to be violent. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the abortion protests. The streets were full of singing, dancing, food stalls and music. Everywhere around me I could see both men and women chanting and waving green bandanas (a symbol for pro-choice supporters) in the air. What really stood out was their passion and solidarity in their protest.
The Wider Causes and Effects
Reflecting on Natalie’s response, it is clear that the abortion debate stood for so much more than just a change to the law. The campaign was undoubtedly intertwined with the revitalisation of the feminist movement in Argentina, as well as throughout the continent. It could be said that the abortion debate triggered the feminist movement to become more concrete. At the vanguard of the debate, the ‘#NiUnaMenos’ (‘Not one [woman] less’) campaign surged over social media in response to a series of femicides, including that of 14 year-old Chiara Páez who was beaten to death by her 16-year-old boyfriend when she was
8-weeks pregnant. This triggered women to bring their issues out of the home and into the streets with their heads held high. A space has been forged in which to confront male chauvinism; one of the underlying causes of femicides, violence against women, and poverty throughout the continent. From this point forward, politicians in Argentina and beyond can no longer bury their heads in the sand when confronted with women’s issues. It is true that the abortion debate is not an isolated issue and it has continued to have an amplified ongoing impact, despite the law being rejected. The debate must be situated within a wider dialogue which The New York Times refers to as a ‘broader cultural struggle’. Curious as to what this means, I began to contact members of both sides of the debate, starting with a Skype interview with 24-year-old Franco Teves from Mendoza (the fourth largest city in Argentina):
Hello, Franco, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Could you briefly introduce yourself to our readers, please?
Franco: Hi, it’s a pleasure. My name is Franco Teves and I am a political researcher in the Senate of Mendoza, Argentina. As part of my work, I was involved in the pro-choice campaign.
So, what were the main arguments of the pro-choice campaign?
Franco: We believe that universal access to safe and legal abortion is necessary because the contraceptive pill is not 100% effective and many people are allergic to condoms. It is hard to say that bringing a new life into the world is something negative but this kind of mistake can really destroy your future. In Latin America, this is a reality because it is the woman who takes care of the child. When young women get pregnant in Latin America, they are often still in education. They are marginalised from society as they can never return to school and if they lack support from their families, they will forever struggle financially. Also, as a matter of fact, many women die from unsafe illegal abortions. Normal terminations are not 100% safe but women would feel a lot more at ease if they had access to a regulated service with specially trained doctors. It is important that we make people aware of this; we must take care of these young girls.
So, what was your personal involvement in the campaign?
Franco: I went to schools, along with other campaigners, to discuss the need for the law…
… But isn’t it wrong to influence school children politically?
Franco: We don’t say that this is a political motive: this is a human need.
President Mauricio Macri’s decision to not veto a law to allow more open abortion, despite being a pro-life advocate himself, has been interpreted by many sceptics as a premeditated way of distracting Argentinians from the country’s ongoing economic problems. What do you think about this?
Franco: This is definitely not true as the abortion campaign began many years prior to the economic deterioration. This year seemed to be the perfect time to vote because the country had become more open and it was more likely to be successful.
What would have been the secondary effects of the law?
Franco: The legalisation of abortion would have led to a more open society with better sex education which would prevent abortion from being needed in the first place.
So, is abortion really the solution to the issue, or what Argentina really needs is better sex education?
Franco: I don’t believe that abortion is the absolute solution to the root cause of the issue. However, by introducing it, people will become more open-minded and will feel more comfortable about speaking out about the issues of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe sex in public. This would lead to sex education being more widely taught in schools.
Would you consider Argentina to be a ‘developed’, ‘forward-thinking’ country then?
Franco: Argentina is a very open-minded and developed country. In fact, in some aspects, we are similar to countries which are considered to be developed. Many advances have taken place in London before coming to Buenos Aires only a few years later. There is a broad acceptance of gay rights and women’s rights and after the next elections, 50% of the Parliament will be made up of women. However, we cannot be an open-minded country until the abortion bill is passed.
Thank you very much, Franco, for taking the time to speak to me today.
Questioning Western Media Coverage
Charles Camosy, Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University, has conducted a plethora of thought-provoking research into the abortion debate including his book Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation. His article, The abortion debate in Argentina vs. Ireland: what made the difference? compares Argentina to Ireland, where abortion was legalised in 2018. The article primarily critiques Western media coverage of national abortion debates. For instance, Camosy argues that the case of Chiara Páez, the pregnant teen who was tragically killed, was skewed in order to support the pro-choice campaign. Páez’s pregnancy might have triggered her partner’s violence but his temperament would have possibly manifested itself anyway in an alternative situation further down the line. Legal abortion could have maybe prevented this isolated case of violence. However, it would not have attacked the root cause, or rather the misogyny which is notoriously perpetuated in Latin American culture. All women are threatened by this, and particularly young pregnant women who fall into a downward spiral of dependency and vulnerability. The Western media coverage which I came across tended to oversimplify the debate by inferring that Argentine women, except for those who were deeply religious, universally supported abortion. On the contrary, Camosy observes that a considerable number of female Senators opposed the bill. For example, Senator Silvina Garcia Larraburu considered the abortion debate as a smoke-screen for the country’s economic problems and as an insufficient measure to resolve the wider issue of gender crime.
The conclusion to Camosy’s argument is that the largely generalised and biased Western media coverage in support of the pro-choice campaign in Argentina represents ‘a classic example of neocolonial imperialism into a culture with a very different understanding of the good’. After reading this nuanced conclusion, I decided to personally contact Professor Charles Camosy to ask him to further elaborate on this argument:
Do you believe that western media coverage has used the abortion debate as a way of demonstrating neo-imperialist attitudes? Has western media depicted Argentina as a backwards country?
Charles: 'Indeed I do. Such media, not least because of its partisan bent, simply assumes that abortion rights should be accepted by all societies which care about human rights--and then uses that assumption to describe a country like Argentina (which advocates for the human rights of both the mother and the child) as regressive, based and beholden to religious authority given their refusal to yield to the orthodoxy of the developed West. But that neocolonial posture is not only morally wrong--it is, frankly, silly given, for instance, Argentina's clear progressive history with LGBT rights. There is nothing progressive about appealing to Western-style individual autonomy in ways which make the unwanted vulnerable invisible. Argentina is rightly wrestling with the complex legal and social situation in which both mother and prenatal child are treated as the people they are. Countries like Chile and Ireland--which have had far better health outcomes for women than their abortion-friendly neighbours--prove that a morally serious country need not choose between the vulnerable pregnant woman and the vulnerable prenatal child. Argentina is to be lauded for having a more expansive view of human rights--especially when compared to developed Western countries which proceed as if the massive and horrific violence faced by prenatal children ought to be ignored.'
Reflecting on the Western media coverage to which I had already been exposed, I personally found Camosy’s argument very convincing. For example, the ‘Dispatches’ video by the New York Times describes Argentina as ‘overwhelmingly catholic and conservative’ and infers that the Catholic Church continues to be the puppeteer commanding society and the government in Argentina. The video focuses on the fact that the colour of the pro-life movement is blue; the same as the national flag. This polarizes the ‘Argentinean’ pro-lifers in blue and the green pro-choice activists who are supposedly importing a movement from the outside world: feminism (of which the West likes to try to take ownership).
Camosy’s observation that the debate was a key moment for Argentina in asserting and projecting her own national identity is very convincing. Despite being known as one of the most European nations in Latin America, Argentina is also starkly different to European countries, as the abortion debate has proven. Indeed, for us outsiders in the West, it is incomprehensible how extensive gay rights coexist alongside strict abortion laws in one, united country. That is to say that Argentina refuses to force herself to fit into the mould of Western dichotomies, favouring instead a rich and multifaceted national identity.
To conclude, the purpose of this article was not to convince you to support either side of the abortion debate. Instead, I hope to have led you to consider if it is a good idea to continue to universally implement Western ideologies of feminism and human rights in other nations, without adapting them to their own culture and economy. In a country apparently offering limited sex education, would abortion replace contraception? Does Argentina have sufficient revenue to set up safe abortion clinics for all? Does one have to support abortion in order to be feminist and progressive?
Most importantly, should the West be allowed to dictate what is morally right and wrong throughout the world?
The Definite Article would like to thank Natalie Cave, Franco Teves and Professor Charles Camosy for contributing to the article.
La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, has a beautiful melody, but violent and bloody lyrics. Bastille Day, the French national day, is a symbol of freedom as it marks the release of political prisoners from the Bastille. However, it also signifies the start of an extremely bloody revolution.
When singing God Save The Queen, it is improbable that English people sincerely believe and mean what they are singing, and it is unlikely that they consider what the words of the anthem represent every time. It is purely a force of habit. The same is likely true for the French. But the words of an anthem do have meaning and are embedded into national culture and identity, revealing the foundations upon which a nation was built. When I first researched what the words of La Marseillaise meant, I was shocked, but also intrigued and taken in. Other anthems, such as Italy’s Il Canto degli Italiani, also feature violent lyrics, but, for me, no other anthem I have ever heard could match the sheer passion and emotion of La Marseillaise belted out inside the Stade de France. It casts a spell in a way and, through it, it brings people together. However, the lyrics include a literal call to arms (‘aux armes citoyens’), and was first used in 1792, after almost three years of a revolution which killed hundreds of thousands. La Marseillaise celebrated and encouraged violence even after all of the bloodshed.
In the US, the 4th of July marks the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to sign what they had spent over a month writing. Although this event happened during the War of Independence, the day celebrates breaking free from the oppressive rule of the British. Americans celebrate the signing of a document; a provocative act but not a violent one. Bastille day, likewise, celebrates breaking free from oppressive rule. However, in this case the French celebrate an act of violence. They killed the governor of the Bastille and paraded his head around Paris on a pike. There is no doubt that both days symbolise freedom, but there is a profound difference in the acts being celebrated.
Historians have suggested that the violence which characterised the French Revolution was initially used reluctantly, but once it began it was clearly widely supported. The gilets jaunes have protested angrily and sometimes violently over recent weeks against President Macron’s diesel taxes and other policies. The protests quickly gained widespread support. A poll in December suggested that the protestors had the support of roughly 80% of the public. Even when they turned violent, support for the protests didn’t waver. The way the French revolt is substantially different than how the British revolt, however. Looking at the history of British rioting, civic unrest and violence in the UK generally happens on a smaller scale, is less calculated, and is less well supported.
That is not to say that French people are inherently violent. Ask any French person whether they like violence, and they would almost certainly say ‘no’. But when violence is used to push back against the establishment as it so often has been, it often finds wide support. As Charlotte Hughes-Morgan mentioned in her recent article, her French colleague shrugged off the violence of the gilets jaunes, saying simply ‘en France, on aime la Revolution’. Pushback against authority is a general theme throughout French history, ranging from the original French Revolution to May ’68, from the Communards to what we are seeing today.
As I see it, France’s history of political instability and violence can be, in part, attributed to its glorification of the French Revolution. It has helped engrain into French culture a mistrust of any kind of political elite and given rise to the danger that anger might spill over into political violence.
Red wine and baguette by the Seine; buttery croissants on the Champs-Élysées; enraged strikers in high-vis jackets throwing paving stones at the police. Just another day in the city of love.
When expressing my disbelief at the extent of the recent riots in Paris to a French colleague, he shrugged it away with ‘En France, on aime la Revolution’ (“In France, we love the Revolution”). He has a point. Looking back at the recent (and not so recent) history of France, one can observe that fighting back against the establishment is an integral part of the French Psyche. From THE Revolution of 1789, a well-loved cornerstone of the A level history syllabus, to the student riots of May 1968 and the hugely destructive riots of 2005 in the suburbs of Paris, the list of instances of civil unrest in France is impressively long.
Whilst it is easy to titter at the infamous French revolutionary spirit, over the last few weeks the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (‘The yellow vests’) movement has brought some of the worst violence seen in France in decades, with 4 deaths and thousands of arrests throughout the country, and nearly 90,000 police and military personnel deployed to quash it.
Just what is going on in France at the moment? The foreign press has inevitably focused upon the most violent aspects of the movement over the last few weekends, plastering across front pages images of armoured tanks, anti-government graffiti on the Arc de Triumph and violent hooligans shrouded in tear gas. However, over an extraordinarily short period of time, the movement of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ morphed into a monster of many heads. On a fundamental level, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ started as a group of individuals protesting against a planned rise in fuel tax (the fluorescent vest is an appropriate symbol in light of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ required by law to be carried in all cars in France). Their frustration stemmed from the fact that they cannot do without their cars to get to work and therefore will be the ones most hit by the rise in fuel prices. In their eyes, the Parisians and other urban dwellers have the advantage of public transport whilst those out in the sticks do not.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Any protest movement, and especially one that has gained so much ground so quickly, is a complex structure. The fuel tax is merely the icing on a multi-layered cake of dissatisfaction with Macron and rising living costs. The reasons for the violence are many and varied, and attempting to untangle one group of protestors from another is an arduous task.
There are of course, the original ‘Gilets Jaunes’, widespread groups of individuals from provincial France who started by expressing their anger at the fuel tax through social media groups and organized themselves rapidly in protest movements on the side of France’s roads and in smaller cities before finally moving to demonstrate in Paris.
In addition to this wide-ranging group, there are ‘Les casseurs’ (the thugs/hooligans). This is not an official name, but one heard quite a lot in a French office (often muttered with a shake of the head over an espresso in the canteen). These are the groups primarily thought to be responsible for smashed shop windows and explosions in the streets of Lyon, Paris, and Grenoble amongst others. Most alarmingly, these include a number of extreme left and right groups in France, jumping on the bandwagon of aggression and popular discontent. The French Interior Minister Christophe Castanar has accused far-left and far-right groups of simply exploiting an opportunity for violent protest, a viewpoint which seems more viable now given the continuation of the protests even after the controversial fuel tax had been suppressed. However, the continuation of the protest highlights the great discontent of the French towards Macron’s presidency on issues that lie beyond fuel tax.
Finally there are the students, some as young as 15, protesting against the recent changes to the University admissions system, which many feel goes against the French principle of equality of opportunity in French education. Again, there is a feeling of bandwagons being jumped upon in some of these cases, the changes to the French university system, whilst controversial, are arguably a different set of problems.
With so many different strands of French society running through the protest movement and no obvious leader, it is perhaps more telling to look at those who are NOT protesting. Looking around my prosperous Parisian office I think I’ve found the answer. Funnily enough, none of my colleagues are about to don their fluorescent jackets and risk tear gas for reasons worthy or otherwise. Whilst Macron’s current unpopularity seems fairly unilateral, the feeling of abandonment from the government without a doubt comes from areas outside of the biggest French cities.
The discontent was undoubtedly triggered by the rise in fuel tax but underlying problems have accumulated over time to provoke the biggest crisis of Macron’s presidency. Macron was elected on a platform of economic reform and yet, since his election, lower and middle income families have seen a drop in household income, whilst the scrapping of the wealth tax has been seen to benefit only the richest in society.
Geography seems to be playing an increasingly large part in social and economic difficulties, not just in France but throughout Europe and the world. It is tempting to draw comparisons between the violence of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ and the growth of populist movements throughout Europe, not to mention the geographical split between London and the rest of England revealed by - dare I say it - Brexit. However, this is not a new problem. The gap between the urban and the rural, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless is the source of many cases of revolutionary fervour. However, in France, the country where ‘Liberté, Egalité Fraternité’ is still written proudly across the entrance of nursery schools, such a feeling won’t be let to lie.
Needless to say, large-scale violent protest has not worked wonders for the French economy, and shops and restaurants staying closed and boarded up in central areas meant losing out on business during one of the biggest shopping weekends before Christmas. Many of the shops surrounding the building where our central offices are located still have smashed windows, graffiti plasters the walls of restaurants and street corners and my local Starbucks looked almost apocalyptic the Monday after the biggest protest. Tourists have been put off, monuments closed, and repairing the damage with (ironically) French tax-payers’ money will be no mean feat. However, it is the longer term effects of the movement that will be the most revealing. In short, have the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ got what they came for?
In response to the latest and most violent wave of protests in the capital, Macron’s government has agreed to scrap the planned increases in fuel tax and most ground-breaking of all, in his long-awaited address to the nation on December 10th, Macron agreed to raise the SMIC (The French minimum wage) by €100 per month, a measure which will affect 2.6 million of the lowest-paid people in French society. All this, from a president who, a mere few weeks previously, had promised zero cooperation with violent protestors.
The impact of the 'Gilets Jaunes' movement will be an interesting one to follow. Many things about it are unprecedented, not least of which is the scale and extent of the violence: The role of social media in streamlining localised protests, the mutual exclusivity of a comprehensive environmental policy and an acceptable social policy, and the extent of the government concessions in the face of violence. Whilst the protestors seem pacified by Macron’s new promises, the price of their disillusionment has been a high one to pay.
Gone are the days when France’s leaders disappeared to Versailles and hoped people got bored of giving up their weekends to protest. Clearly, the demands have become impossible to ignore.
Race has no scientific foundation, as proved by the emergence of Social Darwinism and the existence of later theories in 1911. However, despite the challenges that science imposed to the subjective belief in the plurality of races existent in mankind, heinous racial discourse, activity and genocidal regimes such as that of Nazi Germany, continued to prevail. Is history repeating itself? It might be worth looking into the dubious case of Treasure Richards, an 16 year old African American teenager who identifies herself as Caucasian and white, ‘with a body like Kim Kardashian’.
Poising on the chair on Dr. Phil’s studio, Treasure becomes the performative object of ridicule and comedic entertainment. Her views are underscored by the media, characterising her as a racist villain who does not deserve a supporting and loving family. Ultimately, her racist identity has created her into a problem for society, but also a necessary form of entertainment for the public.
Personally, I condone this treatment towards her. It is understandable, on the one hand, that there would be a profound expression of disgust in her public reception. On the other hand, however, not a ‘racist sympathiser’ myself, it is important to delve into the potential sociological and environmental implications that this case inaugurates.
Her mother told her she was not an African American, something that was criticized in a show hosted by an African American psychologist. This is not the pinnacle of the blame that should prevail, however, it does create a veritable confusion in one’s identity as well as a discursive confirmation of a desirable self-identification. I am not going to make assumptions about this individual and insist she has some sort of mental disorder, but objectively speaking, how far should we go about shaming her views in public on a global spectacle?
It is, without doubt, important to prevent the spread of extremist ideas and to show one that it is wrong. However, the extent to which this girl has been publicly shamed for her factual distortion within her self-identification could be considered counterproductive. We could make the argument that it gives her, in a way, more agency to inflate her egotistical form of expressing her outlandish ideas, or if we make presumptions about her emotional hidden state, it may reinforce her ‘self-hating’ if this is the case already. It is important to consider where these ideas came from since the renowned scholar who wrote the Oxford very short introduction on race, Ali Rattansi, considers racist beliefs not to be ‘natural’ as such. So where did these emerge from?
Without pointing the finger at solely one factor i.e. her mother’s role in reinforcing the distortion of her daughter’s self-perception, it is important to bear on the wider contexts of racism and self-identification, as well as the legitimacy of discursive agency in order to understand where these heinous-sounding ideas originate from. In other words, it is crucial to understand what constitutes our understanding of difference, why this girl views African-Americanism as a platform of difference and to what extent she truly self-identifies as Caucasian. It is thus necessary to delve deeper into these issues of self-identification and fear of difference by trying to perceive what shapes her view of difference, what role society plays in her apparent distortion or why she is afraid of being ‘different’, if profound studies show that to be the case. It is crucial to examine her true intentions through survey and academic study, instead of public shaming and to test environmental theories before publicising such statements and assumptions in the media.
Of course, it is not an immediate instinct to view this from an academic lens, because it is categorised as a form of entertainment and perhaps what we would call ‘television trash’. However, it is important to take a sociological standpoint on the issue which may help us to decipher the origins of extremism in groups such as the
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