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September 25, 2011

Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders

Chamonix Valley

The European Sociological Conference took me to Geneva, on the week the Swiss central bank, to stop the over-valuation of the Franc, committed itself to a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 CHF per Euro. This made my stay some 8% cheaper, or, better, 8% less horribly dear. Let’s see if the Swiss Central bank has the power to do what nobody apart from the Chinese seem able to: commit to fixed exchange rates in a time of wild international speculative flows.

The price of my stay was slightly moderated by other two things. First, Switzerland entered Schengen two years ago, and the public transport is largely integrated with surrounding France, so one can just take the bus to escape to the Eurozone – the problem is that there isn’t much on the French sides. Secondly, I was staying in the Paquis, the multi-ethnic inner-city cum-red light district stacked in between rail station, UN & international district, and lake. As with many of such inner cities in Central and Northern Europe, it is livelier than the other aseptic neighbourhoods, very practical logistically, and cheaper. Switzerland has the highest share of immigrants in Europe, and it in quite a schizophrenic combination of openness and withdrawal. In successive referenda the Swiss have voted to open the labour market to the Poles (not sure the Brits would have done it, even before the crisis), and to ban minarets (notoriously dangerous weapons of mass destruction). We Italians tend to be hypersensitive of how Italian immigrants used to be treated, but Geneva at least looks to me rather welcoming. As long as you are not too poor: if you dare sleep rough or beg on the streets, Schengen or not Schengen, you are immediately arrested or repatriated.

A side-reflection for the UK: the populist press argues that it cannot enter Schengen or it will be flooded with immigrants from the rest of Europe. Well, look at Switzerland, which is much more attractive to immigrants: higher wages, more jobs (unemployment around 3%), large immigrant communities, and well, just prettier views. No flood has occurred since entering Schengen.

After the conference I was free to flee Geneva for the Mt Blanc. It’s just two hours by French train, which you catch in the extra-territorial SNCF (French railways) station of Genève Eaux Vives. There is no ticket office, nor ticket machine, nor nothing in the boarded station: it was vandalised last year and the French and Swiss cannot agree on who has to pay up, or even on how payments should be treated from a French ticket machine on Swiss soil... oh, financial globalisation can’t cope with such complex issues even in its own cradle.

Mid-September, weekdays, is the best, and nearly only window of opportunity to enjoy the famous high walks of Chamonix Valley. Until early-July there is too much snow, then too many people; and later, it will be too cold and days will be too short. In September weather can be as changeable as ever, and I was very lucky. One big storm the first night, which the my Northern Face tent, with declining waterproofness after surviving mountain storms on three continents, struggled to survive – but four glorious days to follow, with just the condensation clouds from the valley making views more interesting.

Glacier BossonsLac BlancThe Mt Blanc is at the intersection of three countries. I have walked and skied the Italian side many times, but only rarely ventures on the others. There is no doubt that the views are best from the Chamonix side. The summits are closer, and the North side has fourteen glaciers – even if some of them now reduced to little more than ice bucket. The best walks in the Chamonix Valley are those on its North side, i.e. not on the Mt Blanc itself, but in front of it. However, I realised, the French side is also much less natural: too many ski lifts and cableways, too many woods vandalised by ski slopes, water cannons looking at you from all corners. And now, even the little footpaths that avoided the ski slopes are taken over by Mountain bike tracks. In terms of wilderness, then, the Italian side is still a bit better: civilisation is concentrated in Courmayeur, and the ski slopes are bit further away. Under the mountain, the two valleys of Veny and Ferret are still very sparcely populated, and left to walkers and crosscountry skiers. And also, as I am at it, there is more wildlife than on the North side, and the mountain architecture is prettier. Mind you: I like skiing and I appreciate mountain bikes, but there is a limit to everything. In particular, I do not like summits to be violated by cableways. It is always a bit depressing walking and climbing up a mountain (like Mt Brevent, which also involves a small bit of Via Ferrata), just to find a cableway arrival station and a restaurant.

Rampons and axe needed!This is also the case of Aiguille de Midi (3842m) and its spectacular cableway. It originally arrived to the avant-cime (lower summit), but recently an internal lift allows to reach the real summit, just some 30mt above. A good way to make money, sure (the lift cost 3 Euro per person, and on the top there is a restaurant), but the views are exactly the same as from the lower balconies. And more, major building works are ongoing at all cable stations... I refused to take that lift, but for the first time, profiting of a cloud-free day, I splashed out (98€!) for the whole cableway crossing from Chamonix to Italy, and returned by bus. It is the most spectacular cableway in the world, made of three main segments: Chamonix-Aiguille de Midi; crossing over the glaciers to Punta Helbronner (Italian border); and on the Italian side Punta Helbronner – La Palud, with intermediate stops at two refugi. It was build just after the war, by an Italian-French consortium. No use of helicopter at that time: the cables were carried and unrolled by climbers. Which is striking not only physically but also politically: only few years earlier, winter 1944-45, the Mt Blanc was the site of the highest-level battle of World War II (a small one, but with its life toll nonetheless). The most interesting part is the middle one, the only way you will be on a glacier without needing rampons, while if (unlike me) have no reason to over to Italy for a couple of years, the descent on the Italian side is not that interesting: it is cheaper and nicer to just return from Punta Helbronner to Chamonix with a cableway return ticket.

TFlowers under the Mt Blanche Mt Blanc summit has been long disputed between French and Italians (compare Italian and French maps and the border is not in the same place!) but the whole cableway remains an interesting case of Italian-French collaboration. Nonetheless I could not miss that instructions and exhibition information are bilingual (Italian and French) on the Italian side, but in French only on the other... which is only partly justified by the fact that the Valle d’Aosta region on the Italian side is an autonomous, bilingual one. The Savoy region on the French side is also historically peculiar, annexed to France only in 1860 and with a more Catholic presence (in Chamonix even a huge statue of Christ King – the least républicain monument you can imagine), but it does not enjoy any administrative autonomy.

cableway allowed going from Chamonix to Courmayeur at a time when the road tunnel still did not yet exist. Although there have been accident at the cableway, the 11km tunnel built in 1965 has a worse history. In 1999, a lorry took fire causing the death of 39 people: the temperature reached 1000C and cars melt into the asphalt. The tunnel was then closed for three years for works. I remember visiting Courmayeur at that time and finding the whole valley magical: it was silent. The continuous river of lorries on the motorway, filling the valley with smog that can’t blow away, wasn’t there. Locals hoped the tunnel would never open again... The transport issue on the Alps is a very sensitive one, with currently mass violent protest against the high-speed train through Val Susa between Turin and Lyon. But surely road transport is the worse one, even if trains could well slow down over here.

Mt Blanc at sunset


September 18, 2011

Catalan pride

While in my recent three months of study in Spain I did not have one single day of holiday, I now finally had almost two weeks of free browsing, with H, through Catalan natural, cultural and gastronomic heritage. All while the deepening economic crisis forced Spain to a rushed constitutional reform, in a few days and without any real debate, to appease the European Central Bank and the market: the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had only been amended once before, in 1992 to implement the Maastricht Treaty, and whenever Catalans asked for amendments it was replied that it was too important to be touched without years of deliberations...

Drawing on a pinch of ancient Roman and even ancient Greek legacies, Romanesque art, now so well displayed in the re-opened wing of the MNAC, is the first ground of pride for Cataluña. In the booming first Century Catalunya was arguably the most advanced place in Europe. I like Romanesque even more than Gothic, as it actually combined with classic architectural heritage well before the Renaissance, and it merged Eastern and Western influences: it is less pretentious, but more universal and certainly more spiritually Christian than Gothic. And so is the Romanesque heritage of Catalunya, dispersed from the coast to the green Pyrenees valleys. Catalan tourist promotions tend to say that Catalan medieval villages and towns are like Tuscany, but I’d even say that this is an understatement. Many of them are even better, and while equally well-kept and somehow exclusive, they are not as posh, nor as flooded with tourists as their Tuscan counterparts, whose heyday, by the way, came a little later. The setting is also more spectacular in Catalunya, whether on the coast (the St Pere de Rodes monastery on Cap de Creu) or in the mountains. Besalu

Cataluña was also strong in Gothic times, and the churches of Girona and Barcelona are impressive. But by then the centred of European art had moved north and east. This is particularly evident in the fresco painting by Ferrer Bassa in the St Michael Chapel of the Pedralbes Monastery in Barcelona: fascinating, but a long shot from the Giotto’s ones they wanted to imitate.Sant Pere de Rodes

Then Catalan power declined, with Aragon and Castilla taking over, and Columbus’ discovery of America, together with many other disgraces, brought about the decline of Barcelona, relegated into the backwaters of trade. But I’d say that the dark periods of Catalan history help highlighting the glorious periods. Industrialisation in the XIX Century is the other one, with economic, social and political turmoil, modernist architecture and an orgy of artistic experiments. The rest is too well-known: civil war, Franco’s oppression, revival.

The economic success of Catalunya is very visible along the Costa Brava and inlands, but it becomes clearest when you cross the border into France – or what the Catalans call ‘Catalunya Norte’. While we are used to consider France richer than Spain, the French side of Catalunya (for the French, Roussillon) is actually poorer: while the Spanish side was the driving region of industrialisation, and produced a very rich bourgeoisie, the French one is just a rural peripheral region. Add to this the EU cohesion funds for Spain, but not for France, and possibly a better self-government in Catalunya (Sur) than the centralised French administration of Roussillom, and it becomes clear why as soon as you cross the border northwards the roads are worse, more houses are empty or run down, there is less economic activity and overall you feel going back in time. Take Prats de Melló, a pretty medieval village once linked to Melló on the South Catalan side: there are Catalan flags here too, but there is no press in Catalan language, and despite good wine and local produce, there is little of the pulsating innovation of (South) Catalan cuisine (I will get back to this in another blog). In a way, Prats is more atmospheric, exactly because not as neat and revamped as the (South) Catalan villages. But when you drive back South, admiration strikes you again.Prats de Mello

Maybe the best proof of Catalan civilisation is not even the heritage itself. It is how accessible the heritage is made. All is explained in at least three, often four languages. Even more, nearly all of the many Barcelona’s museums are accessible to disabled, including the blind, and in many cases those with learning disability. Having spent some time, long ago, accompanying learning disabled through Milan’s museums, I remember how great experiences they may be, but how little support there was – now this is starting to be available, for the benefit also of an emerging category of visitors, people with Alzheimer.

Then there’s the language. For me, fighting to get my Spanish to acceptable standards, Catalan is a bit of a turn off: written, it is perfectly intelligible, but the sound is not to my liking, although it makes a good ingredient to chansons, also thanks to its similarity to French. Still, I admire its centenary resilience and its respectable production: Jaume Cabré’s Jo Confesso is the book event of the year in Spain. His previous Les Veus de Panamo got eleven translations and sold millions across the globe, this one should also get an English one and reach the depressingly insular British bookshops.

The Catalan language, right in the days I was there, was however the target of a ruling by the Catalan High Court, deciding that Castellano should also be offered as medium language in Catalan schools. Imagine a Belgian court imposing French in Flemish schools or a Canadian one imposing English in the ones of Québec, and you can guess the uproar. All Catalan parties protested, with only the rightwing Partido Popular welcoming the ruling, which in turns threatens the Catalan ruling coalition between them and the Catalan nationalists (CiU). The Catalan government has appealed the decision and refuses to move an inch, saying that there already three hours of Castellano per week, and that anyway Catalan children already get better exam results in that language than those of many Spanish-only regions. Not only: education in Catalan is indispensible for social cohesion and to avoid the segregation of immigrants in second-class Castellano ghettoes. Castellano defenders reply that it is actually Catalan teaching that marginalises Castellan speakers, whose educational attainment in Catalunya is much lower than for Catalan native speakers. I’d say that social cohesion is more important than attainment, and long live linguistic variety. Even when it means defending the language I don’t speak.


May 16, 2011

On DSK – USA vs France?

Follow-up to Madrid celebrates San Isidro from Around Europe 2010-12

The San Isidro day, even in Madrid, despite the fest and the sunny day, despite a demonstration against youth unemployment (at last!), despite the heat of the local elections campaign (next week), and despite Contador taking the lead in the Giro on the spectacular Etna stage, has been dominated by the news from New York - as even in my comments on yesterday's blog. By the way, the Spaniards, on the brink of sinking as they are, are scared by anything that can shake the market and make waves.

Comparing US and French media reports, I am impressed by some deep divides on this.

(1) On the 'présomption d'innocence' which is invoked in France, and the guilotine attitude in the US. Remembering that DSK has already been the object of heavy charges, later proved unfounded, three times, on this I side with France.

(2) On sexual harassment. US and France being rather extreme opposites (puritan repression vs male-chauvinist je-m'en-foutisme), the choice between the two is tough, but in doubt, I prefer to side with who has less power, i.e. the victims, so I am with the US. In particular because the French (and their other Latin cousins) are excessively tolerant of affairs involving abuse of hierarchical power. DSK has a bad record on this and whatever happens to the Sofitel case, his career is over - and rightly so. I also remember that on this, societies themselves shift and swing over time, so let's hope it is a good development for France... 

(3)... which leads to the third point: DSK is not charged of sexual harassment, but of rape, a very different magnitude of crime in most legal systems (including the US, which actually has a particularly technical definition of rape, different from most European ones). Yesterday I tended, like the French, to be innocentist: come on, someone focussed on winning presidential elections just does not hang around naked jumping on cleaning ladies - not even Bill Clinton, not even Berlusconi behave like that (as far as we know).

Today more details emerge that suggest culpability, though, so I suspend any judgment. Even the French websites, tonight, are suddenly less indignant about US persecution. On rape, I would hope, there should be no French/US difference, and tolerance should be nil. But I am obviously wrong, as proved by the similar French-US confrontation on Polanski. And even today, the French are appalled by the 70-year jail sentence the Americans are threatening. I can't side with the French if they show any tolerance of rape, while still siding with them on legal culture (point 1). So today I prefer the more aware US. The only point the French have, remembering what said above (that countries change over time), is that you can't ahistorically backtrack and apply the puritan morality of the 2000s to the liberal 1970s. But Polanski was guilty - the issue is just whether he has already paid enough or not -, and if DSK is guilty, he should pay a big deal - whether 70 years or not. [I declare an interest: I am a fan of Polanski's first Polish film, Nóz w wodzie, and very much like The Pianist. But artists do not have a licence to commit crimes.]

(4) Finally, there is the economy, stupid. Even without believing conspiracy theories that are popular with the French, DSK was (simple past tense) the best IMF Director ever. On the crisis, the banks and the bail-outs of indebted countries, the IMF proved to have more of a social conscience than the EU - a reversal of roles since twenty years ago, when the IMF followed the neoliberal 'Washington consensus' and the EU was led by Jacques Delors - another French socialist and the father of DSK friend/enemy Martine Aubry.

Only a couple of days ago I admired DSK's performance in the movie Inside Job, by Charles Ferguson, a much better attempt than Micheal Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story at putting the financial crisis on the big screen. Well, on this, between the French and the US, even between Sarkozy's Finance Minister and Obama's, not to speak of between French economic thought and US economists (and business schools), I still side with the French.

To conclude, there are still some things I like of France, even if they should learn a few others from the Americans. To paraphrase François I, rien n'est perdu, fors l'honneur.


September 23, 2010

Touche pas à mon pote

ParisParis is the one city in Europe I return to most happily since the time I was a poor student there in 1994-95, if for no other reason that I had accumulated a long list of things I could not afford but I promised myself for the future. And in recent times I was lucky to be able to stay in the empty flat of S, which in the middle of the VI district and in front of the Palais du Luxembourg is the optimal base for catching up with the most plaisant side of the city (the picture, from the living room´s window, is from last December, not from this week, as the Christmas tree betrays).

But this is not the time to write about vin, chocolat, haute cuisine, marchés, théatre, arts, livres, cafés, musique, and not even of lively things such as le vélib, les mouvements de grève, les "affaires", voire la fusion des Verts avec Europe-Ecologie. I do have to write about the expulsions of the Roma.

At the EU level, the Commission has started a hard game by announancing an infraction procedure and with the strong-worded criticism by Commissioner Reding (a European Commissioner trying to display moral outrage by raising her voice and hitting the table is a very weird sight). The backlash from the big capitals has been immediate: the French commissioner will vote no to the procedure, Berlusconi has reiterated his proposal that nobody, except his friend Barroso, should be allowed to speak officially for the Commission. Among the things that unite Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi, is the annoyance with any public interference from the Commission, which for them only exxists as scapegoat for the policies they want to implement, but do not want to be seen as responsible for (for Cameron it is different: it is not that he likes the Commission to speak, but more simply that he does not care for what it says anyway). With the pressure from the European capitals mounting on the Commission, but little space for a shameful withdrawal after such a public statement, it is not clear where the Commission will find the political power to push anything against France further.

But this is not just an intra-EU issue. The main problematic aspect with the expulsion of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma is not, in my view, that it is of EU citizens. Unfortunately, the concept of EU citizenship, unlike what is being often argued, does not include a right of residence anywhere in the country. It is a concept of economic citizenship, not of social citizenship. We can move and stay in another member state for 3 months, but after then we must demonstrate to be "active", whether at work or through study or at least as consumers of accumulated money (the Nordic pensioners in Spain). In addition, the Romanians and Bulgarians have also their right to work abroad strictly limited until 2014. (I recommend the critique of the economically instrumental EU conception of free movement developed by Giovanni Orlandini and Stefano Giubboni in "La libera circolazione dei lavoratori nell´Unione Europea", Il Mulino 2007). So EU Roma do not have an unlimited right to stay. Interestingly, the Romanian government (let's not forget the anti-Roma feelings within Romania) has not protested, limiting itself to ask the French to "try to stop" the epulsions. The Italian and Czech governments are with Sarkozy, having themselves repatriated EU Roma.

The problem with France is that neither has the French government the right to expel whoever they like after 3 months of stay. Each case, according to the 2004 Directive on free movement, has to be valued individually, each EU citizen must be informed in writing, and have a month time to appeal. And above all repatriation, as an extreme remedy, must be proportional to the damage caused by the individual EU citizen, not by his/her ethnic group. That's what France has not done in its decree of the 5th of August, and the fact that the majority Roma have been paid to go home "voluntarily"changes nothing: it was still an ethnic targeting with insufficient attention to the individual cases.

But if this is the main problem, then EU citizenship becomes rather secondary, because such safeguards as considering individual cases and allowing the time for appeal should apply to any foreigner, from the EU or from without. Many more EU countries than just France and Italy repatriate non-EU Roma, and the legality, let alone humanity, of such procedure is disputable. Fortunately, Germany, where I have just arrived from Paris, is abandoning the repatriations of Roma refugees to Kosovo it had started earlier in the year, as if Kosovo were now a safe state for everybody. And in France the "Touche pas à mon pote" mouvement is vocal (in direct continuity with that against Pasqua when I was a student 16 years ago).

So the issue is eminently political, ethical, cultural - not just legal. The point is whether or not Europe wants to know something about the Roma (a starting point is the participant picture of Central and Eastern European Romas in Isabel Fonseca´s "Bury Me Standing", 1996). Or whether it wants to subscribe to an inhumane false sociology that, in perfect Front National style, draws from some spurious data the conclusion that all members of certain migrants are dangerous. The alleged link migration-crime is actually dismantled in the UK by B. Bell et al ("Crime and Immigration: Evidence from Large Immigrant Waves", IZA Discussion Paper 4996, 2010), and in France by D. Fougère et al. ("Youth Unemployment and Crime in France", Journal of the European Economic Association, sept 2009).

And on this political issue the mainstream Left is not clear. It was nice to listen to PS-leader Martine Aubry (in an inspired way so different from Commissioner Vivien Reding's) remind that "les Roms, en France, ils sont chez eux!", but that was counterblanced by her predecessor François Hollande playing the game of the Right by ambigously blaming the French rightwing governments for having accepted Romania into the EU in 2007 - as if suggesting that the Left would have kept them out...


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