The highest administration French court (Conseil d’Etat) today overturned the ban imposed on some French beaches and swimming areas of women wearing a “burkini”, a swimming suit that covers the body and includes a hood. The ban has led to the strange scene in the photo above, of four policemen at a beach in Nice forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing. The ban follows other measures in France that have sought to use the tradition of laïcité, the strict separation of church and state, to prevent the wearing of head scarves in schools or the burka when driving. The measures have been widely seen as discriminatory, as they target Muslim women. If integration of immigrants is socially desirable, forcing Muslims either to reject traditions and religious beliefs or to stay away from public spaces does not seem to be an effective strategy.
There has been discussion recently in Germany as well of passing regulations aimed at how Muslim women dress, with suggestions from the state interior ministers representing the conservative CDU to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab in public places including schools, government offices, court rooms and in traffic. A recent poll in Germany found that 81% of respondents favored simply banning the burka in Germany. It was exactly a year ago that Chancellor Merkel at a press conference famously commented “Wir schaffen das” (We will get it done) in the context of integration of the flood of refugees coming to Germany. At the time, she received considerable praise for her welcoming attitude, both within and outside of Germany. That positive assessment has changed considerably in recent months, following the attacks on women by foreigners New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, and especially by a series of small-scale terrorist attacks in several German cities this July. It may even be that Merkel will be in trouble in the national election a year from now.
In a report from NPR today, the changing attitude in Germany was discussed in the context of a small town in Germany (population 280) struggling to integrate over 80 immigrants. The story illustrates that the difficulties of integration go well beyond appearance and language. Some of the immigrants took swimming lessons, but the locals were upset that they didn’t stay in their lanes – public behavior in Germany insists on Ordnung (order), meaning in a pool context, you stay in your lane. The rumor mill soon turned that behavior into intentional harassment of the Germans by the immigrants – it was not possible for the locals to accept that others would not have the same appreciation of what they likely saw as a universal human value, expressed through the proverb Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).
An op-ed piece in the NY Times today discusses the gesture invented by French comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, popularly known simply as Dieudonné. It’s a strange gesture, holding out the arm stiff, as in the Nazi salute, but pointing it down, and folding the other arm across the chest. Dieudonné has named it the quenelle, the French name of a large meat dumpling. It’s widely recognized as an anti-Semitic gesture, with its obvious echo of Nazism, although according to Dieudonné it’s just meant to be anti-system. That however stands in the face of Dieudonné’s public anti-Jewish statements and positions in the past. Dieudonné’s fans have recognized the true meaning of the gesture, using it in front of synagogues, the Berlin holocaust memorial, or as pictured here in front of an Anne Frank poster. Due to it being illegal in France to “incite racial hatred”, Dieudonné’s shows have been banned in France, creating quite an uproar.
The author of the op-ed, Sylvain Cypel, sees the quenelle as pointing to something troubling in French society: “The Dieudonné affair is symptomatic of an insidious slide toward intolerance, but anti-Semitism is the least of it; racism and xenophobia manifest themselves more often as anti-Arab, anti-Muslim or anti-black.” She cites such examples as the black minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, being called a “monkey” or swastikas being spray-painted on the headstones of French Muslim soldiers. Not all intolerance is so blatant or ugly, the coded racism of the Front National now has a friendly face with Maxime Le Pen but the essential positions remain the same. One shouldn’t just point the finger at France. Unfortunately, the intolerance to Others (especially the Others having darker skin and a different religion) is wide-spread in Europe these days with far right, nationalistic political parties having significant popular support in a number of European countries. Those parties tend to also be opposed to the European Union. Let’s hope that, as has historically been the case, that this kind of far-right populism is tied to the bad economy and that once the European economy recovers, the political situation will change.
Sorry, there isn’t one. François Hollande, her counterpart across the Rhein? Sure, he’s French. The stories in the news recently from France and Germany make it hard to imagine that the two cultures have Charlemagne (Karl der Große) as a common ancestor, or that they share much at all in terms of values and way of life. It’s nothing surprising or shocking in France that a politician would have a maîtresse, even a politician as uncharismatic and down-to-earth as François Hollande. Just because they are elected to public office, French politicians aren’t expected to stop being human or men or French.
In Germany one expects politicians to be serious, that is to say, to focus on their responsibilities and to do their duty. Such extra-curricular activities are verboten as an unnecessary and unwanted distraction. How do German leaders break the public trust? If they plagiarize on their university theses, as has caused the downfall of several ministers in the last few years (dishonesty). Or they fall behind schedule on a building project, such as the debacle over the years late new Berlin airport (incompetence). Or they spend an inordinate amount of public money (in this case from Church tax paying German Catholics) on luxury for themselves (extravagance), as did the “bling bishop” (Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg).
The big news in Germany in recent days has nothing to do with lovers or sex, but instead with something much closer to the hearts of many Germans: their automobiles. The scandal in the news is the sudden loss of trust in an organization Germans depend on and see as the ideal complement to their cars, namely their automobile association, the ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club). The ADAC has served as the trusted advisor to German car owners and prospective car buyers since 1903. The most widely published periodical in Germany is not Der Spiegel or Die Zeit, it is the ADAC Motorwelt (motor world). Now it turns out that data supplied by the ADAC (for example on the number of votes for car of the year) has in some cases been either manipulated or invented, possibly in order to inflate the importance of the organization in order to gain more members. This is not just dishonesty, incompetence and greed – it’s all three combined to swindle Germans in relation to their prize possession, the symbol of German economic power and engineering prowess. Mein Gott, o Gott!
Unlike their preferences in cars, Germans don’t like flashy leaders. What they do value in leaders and cars is dependability and familiarity – just the qualities the reliable and consistent Mutti Merkel provides. Mutti take a lover? No way.
Hot debates today on the first day of the US Supreme Court’s arguments over same sex marriage. It doesn’t seem likely that the gay marriage ban in California will be overturned – I suspect the Court will throw out the case on technical grounds without making a decision. It’s not just the Supreme Court that’s having trouble “going into uncharted waters” (as one Justice put it today) but also American politicians. In recent days, a parade of Republican and (less surprisingly) Democratic politicians have pronounced themselves in favor of same-sex marriage. This of course comes after President Obama last year famously announced that his views are no longer “evolving” but that he is now in favor of marriage not just civil unions for gays and lesbians. It seems this is a moment when the tide has turned in the US on the issue, as is evident in recent surveys. The pattern seems to be similar in terms of immigration reform, with US politicians following popular sentiment that there should be a road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The movement towards inclusion and away from exclusion seems slow but relentless. Not everyone is on board at this point but the momentum seems clearly established. Of course it is that fact that is bringing politicians around — they tend to like winning elections — rather than any new insights into social justice and equality.
It’s not just the US that has been debating same-sex marriage. Two days ago hundreds of thousands protested in Paris against the proposed law legalizing same-sex marriage in France. Recent surveys indicate that the protesters are trying to swim upstream, as the majority indicate support for the new law, although there are reservations about adoption by same-sex couples. In France too the momentum has been helped by the support of President François Hollande. The importance of leadership in this area points to how vital it is for future leaders to learn the lessons of open-mindedness towards difference that intercultural communication theory strives to impart.
Is it a provocation or an incitement to terrorism to name your son “Jihad”? How about if you send your son, Jihad, to school wearing a t-shirt stating “Je suis une bombe” (I am a bomb)? This actual case is being tried currently in France, with a judgment expected next month. The boy in question was born Sept 11, 2009 and was given the name Jihad by his parents. Last fall his uncle gave him a t-shirt with the bomb quote on the front and on the back, “Jihad, né le 11 septembre” (Jihad, born September 11th), which he wore one day to nursery school. Bouchra Bagour, the mother, was reported to police by the teacher and charged with “glorifying crime”. She and the uncle now face a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a 45,000 Euros fine. They say the shirt was supposed to be a joke and highlight the boy’s birthday.
In fact, the actual meaning of “Je suis une bombe” is something like I’m fantastic (like English ‘da bomb’). Jihad is a first name that has been used for a long time. The case has created much discussion in France. Here’s one comment from a reader forum for the French daily Le Parisien:
“Je m appelle Jihad , j’ai fait des études et je n’ai aucun problème dans ma vie. Jihad n’est pas un prénom né le 11 septembre , vous êtes au courant ? Il est donné depuis des millénaires. Le mot jihad à la base veut dire lutte contre ses péchés.” (My name is Jihad, I’m a university graduate and have never had any problems [with my name]. Jihad is not a name created by September 11th, did you know that? It’s been used for millennia. The word jihad means to fight to overcome one’s sins.).
It’s not just in France that the word Jihad arouses controversy. Last fall conservative blogger Pamela Gellar’s American Freedom Defense Initiative ran a series of ads on buses which stated, “”In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man…Support Israel, Defeat Jihad.” In response, the the Council on American-Islamic Relations has begun a campaign to educate Americans both about the traditional meaning of jihad and the real nature of Muslims. The “My Jihad” campaign is running ads on public buses, featuring Muslim Americans talked about the struggles they have confronted (i.e., their “jihads”).
Story today on NPR about the song “Gottingen” from French singer Barbara. A beautiful song, beautifully sung, on an unlikely subject for a popular French song – French-German friendship. This was even the more the case at the time when the song was written, in 1964, when the memories of WW II were fresh. More surprising is the fact that the woman who wrote and performed the song, whose real name was Monique Andrée Serf, was a French Jew, who had a traumatic childhood, hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. She had been invited to come to Göttingen, a small university town in central Germany. She categorically declined the offer, but eventually was persuaded to come for just one concert, but then ended up staying for a week, having been overwhelmed by the positive reception and the friendliness of the people.
At the end of the week, she wrote the moving tribute to the city, in which she dares to compare the sleepy German town to Paris. She celebrates “les enfants blonds de Göttingen” (the blond children), the Grimm fairy tales (Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were professors there), and the dark soul of the Germans (“Eux, c’est la mélancolie même” – with them it’s melancholy itself). The images strike us today as stereotypes, but they are positive – not like the negative images prevalent at the time in France. The song had an impact on the relations between the two countries and has been referenced by politicians from both Germany (Gerhard Schröder) and France (François Mitterand).
Interesting article in the New York Times on efforts by a weight-loss company (Jenny Craig) to see their products and services in France, a cuture not big on pre-packaged cooked foods, especially if they come from a company associated with the home of the Big Mac: “Selling an American-style weight-loss program to France would seem an absurd business proposition: from a French point of view, Americans might appear better equipped to give pointers on how to gain weight than how to lose it. The obesity rate in the United States is around 35 percent, compared with 14.5 percent in France.” But the obesity rate has been rising in France lately as well, although not nearly at the rate of the US.
The article points out that the many people in France believe that the traditional French food and eating culture is the answer to obesity. Valérie Bignon, the director of corporate communications for Nestlé France comments: “The solution to America’s weight problem lies in what I call the French food model, a model that is very social, as opposed to the individualist approach of the Americans.” She points to the importance of placing high value on everyone getting together at the same time, eating the same thing, and making meals into a social event, thus discouraging between-meal snacking. She is down not only on American fast food but also on self-serve restaurants (le Self) – which move away from the “French food model”. I have to admit that when I was a student in France, I often ate at self-serve restaurants – they were cheap.