Latest box scores from France: USA 67 — Islam 19

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Voters were no longer the subjects of politics, democratic citizens deciding the fate of their country. They were objects to be counted, studied, and counted again. The proliferation of polls had allowed almost any newspaper or televisions station in the nation to measure the feelings of any population. Measurement, not democratic debate, was becoming the stuff of American politics.

– E.J. Dionne “The Illusion of Technique” in Media Polls in American Politics (1992)

The wire service AFP reports that a poll published at the end of June finds the French have a pretty high opinion of the United States, but they don’t like immigrants or Islam. The headline in the French daily Midi Libre states: “Sondage : la “famille” plébiscitée, “immigrés” et “islam” massivement rejetés” (Poll: Acclaim for the “Family”, “Immigrants” and “Islam” massively rejected.”

Those cheese eating surrender monkeys really like us, they really like us (to mix Simpsons and Sally Fields metaphors). But how is this news?

A survey carried out in late June by the CSA polling agency for Atlantico (a French news site akin to the Daily Beast or Huffington Post) measured likes and dislikes on a scale of very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative, very negative. Phrases like family, liberty, equality and tradition received high marks while the US was viewed with higher regard than the EU.

Les Etats-Unis évoquent quelque chose de positif pour 67 % des sondés, soit 14 points de plus que l’Union européenne (53 % positif)

Those phrases that registered the highest negative responses were Islam, immigrants, globalization and trade unions. While 67 percent of those surveyed had a positive view of America, only 19 percent had a positive view of Islam. AFP reports that Islam was the sole religion included in the good/bad survey.

Les mots recueillant le plus de désapprobation sont “islam” à 81 % (dont 38 % “assez négatif” et 43 % “très négatif”), “immigrés” à 69 % (41+28) suivis de “mondialisation” à 63 % (44+19) et “syndicats” à 61 % (40+21). Aucune autre religion n’est soumise aux sondés, ni la notion de religion en général.

Which leads to the question, what value does this have as news? What is the value of reporting on polls? And, how do you report on polls?

In the essay cited at the top of this story, the Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne stated it is now common for reporters to question candidates about their poll numbers rather than their policies. Issues do not matter. The race is all important.

Knowledge of popular sentiment is essential for product marketing as well as politics. But without an explanation of the why, the numbers generated in a poll have slight value.

What do the French mean when they say Islam? Is it the religion or the faith’s practitioners that are unpopular? Are immigrants interchangeable with Islam in the French mind? Has this view changed over time? Would a poll that included the Catholic Church generate high negatives if asked at the height of the press frenzy surrounding the clergy abuse scandal? Is the conflict in Syria and the fear of French jihadis returning home spiking the numbers?

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Immigration: Its not just Eric Cantor’s problem anymore

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: Sure, if the other man is an idiot. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a terrorist? Was Bin Laden a freedom fighter?

Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés (2012)

Immigration is the issue of the moment in the United States following Rep. Eric Cantor’s primary defeat this week. But the U.S. is not alone in playing host to illegal immigrants and struggling with sharply divided views over what to do about them.

Yet the coverage of the substance of these issues has been rather thin. The press here and abroad has been resorting to stock phrases and cliches to describe the controversies.

But where would newspapers be without cliches? In trouble most likely — for cliches enable authors to communicate ideological assumptions to their readers thus avoiding having to take the time or space to make an argument. European-style advocacy journalism relies on cliches to set the ideological tone of a story. Stock language lets the initiated know how they should approach an issue before they are presented with the facts.

For the party faithful cliches are a virtue. For the rest of us their use in political and social discourse destroys debate, limiting our autonomy of choice.

The language used by some French papers in their coverage of the trial of Father Gérard Riffard illustrates the methodology of cliche newspaper reporting. The language used at the top of the story sets the moral and ideological tone for the newspapers readers. It saves us the trouble and time of thinking through the issues and coming to our own conclusions.

So who is Riffard and what has he done to merit coverage in all the French dailies? The septuagenarian parish priest is on trial for harboring illegal immigrants (the view from the right) or for sheltering asylum seekers (the view from the left) in his rectory.

The classical liberal school of Anglo-American journalism would lay out his story along these schematic lines.

The opening paragraphs would report the who, what, when, where, why and how — Riffard stood trial last week before a court in Saint-Etienne in the Loire facing charges that he refused to obey the orders of the government ministry charged with overseeing refugees and stateless persons (Ofpra) that he desist from providing accommodation in his rectory and parish hall at the Church of Sainte-Claire in Montreynaud to migrants who had entered France unlawfully or who had overstayed their visas.

The article would have a lede sentence that would give the author’s editorial view of the matter, but then lead into the facts. Quotes from the trial would follow — the prosecutor’s denunciation of Riffard followed by the priest’s statement that he would not comply with the law. The potential penalties should he be found guilty would be presented — fines of almost $2000 a day for each day he is in contempt — followed by third-party commentary. Context would be provided that would ask whether the priest’s actions were representative of the views of the Catholic Church and his reasons and motivation would be spelled out. If space was available, the article would close with statements about immigration issues in France.

How have the French papers responded?

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Schiavo redux

A French court has ordered a Reims hospital to provide nutrition and hydration to 38-year old quadriplegic Vincent Lambert, who has been in a state of minimal consciousness (en état de conscience minimale) for five years following a motorcycle accident.

Last Thursday a tribunal administratif overruled the wishes of the hospital, Lambert’s wife and some of his siblings who wanted to cut off intravenous feeding. The court sided with his parents and his other siblings, who as observant Catholics, objected to euthanizing him. Le Monde reports the Lambert case will reopen the contentious debate about euthanasia, the value of life and human dignity in France.

Have we not heard this before?

The Lambert case has a number of parallels with Terri Schiavo saga in America: a spouse ready to move on vs. Catholic parents not ready to let go; no clear statement of the patient’s wishes, conflicting medical terminology of persistent vegetative state v. minimal consciousness; political intervention by Congress and partisan debates in the French parliament; and a high profile role played by Catholic bishops. While it is early days yet, the most striking difference is the different decisions reached by the courts.

In Florida the courts came down on the side of death, even though the presumption of the law is in favor of life, while in France they have chosen life, even though euthanasia is legal.
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As on a darkling plain – Prozac and France

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, stanza 3, (1867)

More bad news for France.

The lede in the back cover story (page 22) in the Nov 26, 2013 issue of Le Monde reports: « La France a perdu un record. Mais personne ne s’en plaindra. » (France has lost a record, but no one will be complaining.)

The article entitled « La France n’est plus leader dans la consommation d’antidépresseurs » reports La belle France has lost its coveted status as Europe’s number one country for pill-popping.

Parmi les champions d’Europe de la consommation d’antidépresseurs en tout genre, le pays est maintenant largement distancé dans sa fringale de psychotropes. Selon le rapport 2013 de l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE) sur la santé (« Health at a Glance 2013 ») publié le 21 novembre, l’Hexagone se situe même sous la moyenne des 23 pays du classement, ex aequo avec l’Allemagne ! Une prouesse au pays de la « sinistrose ».

Once among the European champions in the consumption of antidepressants, the country has lost ground in its consumption of psychotropic munchies. According to the 2013 report “Health at a Glance” from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published on Nov 21, l’Hexagone (France) is even below average of the 23 countries ranked, and is tied with the land of gloom, Germany. Quite an accomplishment!

The article reports that France is tied with Germany and Slovenia in 15th place in consuming 50 doses per 1000 people per day, while Iceland reigns supreme with 106 doses per day. The French are now less depressed than the Danes (4), Swedes (5), Portuguese (6), British (7), Belgians (9),  Spanish (10), Norwegians (11),  and Luxembourgers (12).

Greece did not turn in any data, the article adds, but notes the number of suicides in that country has risen 45 per cent from 2007 to 2011.

It is in its discussion of the “why” — why the increase in the use of antidepressants that this piece strays into Get Religion land.  Quoting Gaétan Lafortune, the coordinator of the report, Le Monde writes:

La crise? « l’idée que la récession, le chômage ont plongé certains individus dans une profonde détres se », note M. Lafortune.

The crisis? “We can not rule out the idea that the recession and unemployment has plunged individuals into deep depression,” notes Mr. Lafortune.

However, he adds that in Germany where there is “almost full employment” the use of “antidepressants increased by 46 per cent between 2007 and 2011″, while the “lucky country” of Australia is second on the list of antidepressant consumers. Le Monde further muses on the apparent lack of correlation between economic well-being and consumption of antidepressants, finally coming to the conclusion the increase is due to the lack of stigma surrounding mental illness and over prescription of pills by physicians.

Perhaps, but is there not a religion ghost here as well? Could, or should, Le Monde have addressed the question whether the decline of religious faith, the moral ennui and entropy that has taken hold of Europe been considered? Would the discussion of the “why” been improved by a question or comment or two from psychologists or religious leaders addressing the issue of the meaning of life?

France is after all the land of Sartre, Camus and existentialism. Whether it was couched in faith, philosophy or psychology this story would have been stronger with a discussion of the “why” that moved beyond materialism.

“[F]or the world, which seems,” Matthew Arnold wrote in stanza four of Dover Beach,

To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

Pod people: Are Christians crazy, or just stupid?

There is little new under the sun when it comes to anti-theistic arguments. Whether it be high minded philosophical critique or rabble rousing anti-clericalism, what was old is now new.

Richard Ostling observed in his Get Religion post “Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?” the content of the criticism remains the same, but the tone has changed. The new atheism has taken a:

[A] tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush.

In this week’s Crossroads, aGet Religion podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I discussed two posts that touched on anti-theism — but approached the subject from different perspectives: French media disdain for religious believers and a “heretical” Episcopal bishop.

While there have been other non-theistic Episcopal bishops, Jack  Spong of Newark was the media  darling of the ’90s. A fixture on talk shows and op-ed pages in his day, Bishop Spong was the subject of a profile written by the Religion News Service that was released in advance of his next book.

Pressed by Todd whether my dislike of the story was motivated more by my theological disagreements with Bishop Spong than journalistic concerns, I responded that I had no quarrel with Bishop Spong being Bishop Spong. What stoked my ire was the the lack of balance, hard questions of context in the RNS piece. It was more of a People magazine puff piece than journalism.

The second half of the story was a review of my criticism of two different accounts of the trial of four French West Indian immigrants in Paris, accused with kidnapping and torturing a fellow immigrant. They have denied the charge, and in their defense have claimed they were exorcising demons from their victim. The journalistic issue I saw was the discrepancy between AFP’s English and French language stories — released at the same time. The English language version noted the defendants said they were motivated to act by the tenets of their Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. But it included the information the four had been expelled from the church some time ago — and that their actions were contrary to that church’s doctrine and discipline.

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Catho-style

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Let me draw your attention to this fascinating article in the Parisian weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur about the new generation of Catholics arising in France.

The article « Plongée dans la galaxie “catho-réac-décomplexée” » in Le Nouvel Obs (with a circulation of over 500,000 it is France’s most widely read general information weekly) asks the question who is leading the charge against the Socialist government’s gay marriage agenda — and finds that it is the “cathos 2.0″ generation. The 20-25 year old:

Enfants de Jean-Paul II et de Benoît XVI, … une nouvelle génération catho à la tête haute, grisée par la découverte de la militance, est née, très éloignée de la pudique discrétion de ses aînés.

Children of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, … a new generation of Catholic has arisen, intoxicated by their discovery of militancy that is  far different from the modest discretion of their elders.

Deconstructing this article has proven to be a hard task. On the surface the story of the Cathos 2.0 generation is so strong that it cannot be killed by a skeptical or hostile presentation. It is a French man bites dog story — student revolutionaries in Paris as ultramontane Catholics.

On the surface Le Nouvel Obs seems to have framed the story against the interest of the subject. While it allows the young Catholics to tell their own story, the analysis and commentary is drawn from the left — academics and liberal Catholics who bemoan the conservative political and doctrinal views of Cathos 2.0. Nor do we hear from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in France. This packaging should have made the issues unattractive and painted the subjects in an unsympathetic light. But  by the end of the story these young people come off well. You like them.

The article starts off in a critical yet cinematographic mode – – were this a film the opening paragraph would be accompanied by an accordion and perhaps Edith Piaf.

Trois garçons arrivent à Vespa. Un jeune couple veste treillis-capuche-fourrure traverse la place depuis le Café de Flore, situé juste en face. Une grappe de caqueteuses s’approche joyeusement de l’entrée tout en échangeant bises et potins. Une retardataire en talons hauts et breloques diamantées aux oreilles les rejoint en trottinant. Un concert ou un spectacle ? Pas du tout. Comme tous les dimanches soir, la jeunesse chic et branchée de la rive gauche a rendez-vous avec… Jésus ! Le clocher bat le rappel, c’est l’heure de la messe à Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Dans une église bondée, les jeunes gens, moyenne d’âge 20-25 ans, s’agenouillent devant le saint sacrement comme les bigotes d’autrefois. L’encens brouille la vue, et le choeur entonne un chant latin repris par une assemblée sagement recueillie. Non, nous ne sommes pas chez les traditionalistes de la Fraternité Saint-Pie-X, mais à l’une des cérémonies dominicales destinées à la jeunesse francilienne.

Three boys arrive on a Vespa. A young couple wearing hooded fur jackets crosses the square from the Café de Flore, located just opposite. A cluster of prattling girls happily approaching the entrance while exchanging kisses and gossip. A latecomer in high heels and diamond earrings hurries in. A concert or a show? No. Every Sunday night the chic and trendy youth of the left bank have an appointment with … Jesus! The bell sounds. It is time for Mass at Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

In a crowded church, young people, 20-25 years of age, kneel before the Blessed Sacrament like the bigots of the past. Incense blurs vision and the choir sings a Latin chant taken up by a by the congregation.No, we are not in the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, but one of the Sunday ceremonies for Catholic youth.

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Gay marriage and golf

Little news of the gay marriage debate in the French National Assembly has made its way across the Atlantic into the American press. The lack of news coverage could be due to the perception that the outcome is not in doubt. The governing Socialist Party and their allies on the left hold a majority and have directed their members to vote in favor. Or France, being a very foreign country, the goings on way over there are of little concern to the American newspaper audience.

Whatever the reason, the lack of interest is a shame as the debate has been informative, lively and fun to watch. And, some of the arguments being proffered have not been laid before the American public. Let me digress for a moment and bring you up to speed as to where things stand as of this post’s publication.

The story so far — Following last year’s general election victory by the Socialist Party (PS) and its presidential candidate, François Hollande (I have shortened this from François Gérard Georges Nicolas Hollande), the party and its allies on the Left — the Radicals, Communists, etc., began the legislative implementation of their campaign promise to legalize gay marriage and permit gay couples to adopt children. The right has fought the move while social conservative groups — led by the Catholic Church — have mounted a vigorous public protest campaign, culminating in the largest public demonstrations last month in France in the last 30 years.

In the National Assembly, the right, led by the UMP party, proposed 4999 amendments to the bill. After 24 marathon sessions spread over ten days, with many sittings lasting until the small hours of the morning, the National Assembly concluded debate on Friday and a formal vote is scheduled for Tuesday, 12 Feb 2013.  The Senate will then take up the bill on 18 March.

Back to GetReligion — When I say the debate has been fun, I mean that it has been vigorous and pointed to a degree seldom seen in the U.S. Americans fed upon the pap of MSNBC or Fox commentators might find the French political debate indigestible — too spicy, too rich. Part of this lies in the stark polarization of French public life. In European eyes there is very little difference between the American Democrat and Republican Parties. While such an observation would baffle most Americans, from a French perspective the difference between the two American parties is miniscule compared to the spread of ideas between the Communists and the extreme Right in France.

And the place of religion in politics is very different in France — some right-wing French groups are ultra-montane Catholics while others are atheists — and there are Catholic Socialists on left (though no Catholic Communists I have found, though friends tell me a few of their seminary professors might qualify).

The right-wing news blog, 24 heures actu, which the Atlantico says

est un média impertinent de droite, radical (sans être extrême), et dans une France bâillonnée par le discours convenu de certaines élites, ça fait du bien !

is an impertinent radical right (though not extreme) publication, and with France gagged by the conventional chatter of its elites, its impertinence is a good thing.

has attacked gay marriage as racist.

Le mariage pour tous serait-il, à l’image du golf, un loisir réservé aux blancs et aux bourgeois ?

Will “marriage for all”, like golf, be a hobby reserved for whites and the bourgeoise?

N.b., “Marriage for all” or “mariage pour tous” is the French equivalent of America’s “marriage equality” — a slogan of the left that seeks to drive the direction of the debate through packaging. But again I digress.

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Anti-gay marriage protests prompt ire of the BBC

The BBC has an extraordinary report on its website detailing Sunday’s march in the French capital by opponents of a government bill to create same-sex marriages. Fact free, disdainful of opponents of gay marriage, incurious as to the intellectual and moral issues at play, lacking in balance, padded out with the author’s opinions and non sequiturs — this report entitled “Mass rally against gay marriage in France” is a poor outing for the corporation. It has the feel of a rush job written in the back of a cab on the way to the airport — or at the hotel bar.

Written in the one sentence paragraph style favored by British tabloids, the article opens with the news of the protest, where it took place and why:

But the demonstrators, backed by the Catholic Church and the right-wing opposition, argue it would undermine an essential building block of society.

The BBC then plays the Million Man March game. (For those unfamiliar with this sport, the Million Man March game is one way a news outlet telegraphs its opinions. If it favors the event it accepts the numbers given by the organizers. If opposed, it plays up the numbers offered by the police.)

The organisers put the number of marchers at 800,000, with demonstrators pouring into Paris by train and bus, carrying placards that read, “We don’t want your law, Francois” and “Don’t touch my civil code”.

Police said the figure was closer to 340,000 and one government minister said the turnout was lower than the organisers had predicted. A similar march in November attracted around 100,000 people.

Where the reader in any doubt as to where this was going, the sentence structure should clear that up. The BBC offers the organizers’ numbers first, but undercuts them with police numbers and the claim of an unnamed government minister who poo-poos the turnout. Absent from this is the news that this is the biggest mass protest in France since 1984 or that the organizers were hoping to have at least 100,000 people in the streets. That is called context and that is missing.

We then move to ridicule, or in modern parlance “snark.”

The “Demo for all” event was being led by a charismatic comedian known as Frigide Barjot, who tweeted that the “crowd is immense” and told French TV that gay marriage “makes no sense” because a child should be born to a man and woman.

A charismatic comedienne shall lead them, the BBC reports — even though the story opens with the news that the march is backed by French religious leaders and the opposition (the right wing opposition the BBC reminds us).

Hiss and boo here.

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